Crazy lights swirled against the evening sky. Day morphed into the merriment of night. Cotton candy and hot dogs. Teens decked out in goth gear contrasted sharply with young couples dragged from ride to ride by squealing offspring. White smeared over a man’s face as red encircled his mouth. Like a giant maraschino cherry, his nose squawked when a child squeezed it. He threw his head back and laughed. The little boy stood perplexed, as if uncertain whether to laugh or break into tears.
Olin Lambert shifted on the park bench as a parade of kids trailed the balloon-toting clown through the park. He glanced at his watch. His contact was la—
The boards under his legs creaked. A man dressed in a navy jogging suit joined him.
“You almost missed the fun.” Olin tossed a few kernels of popcorn into his mouth.
Rolling his shoulders, the man darted his gaze around the carnival insanity. “You know how dangerous this is? What it took for me to get out here without being seen?”
The danger and risk to his contact were no greater than what was stacked up against Olin. They both had a lot to lose—careers, reputations, families. . . . “We could leave now.”
“You know this has to happen.”
After a sip of his diet cola, Olin stuffed the half-full bag of popcorn on top of the overflowing trash bin. He wiped his hands and turned back to the man. “So, the body count’s finally high enough?”
Blue eyes narrowed. “I’m here. That should tell you something.”
“Indeed.” Olin waited as the ice cream vendor wheeled his musical cart past. “I need full autonomy for me and my team.”
Music burst forth as swings whirled occupants in a monotonous circle. A performer tossed flaming sticks and maneuvered one down his throat, swallowing the flames. Ohs wafted on the noisy, hot wind from the audience gathered around him. A scream pierced the night—a woman startled by another clown.
“Okay, fine. Just get on with this. I’m a sitting duck out here.” He rubbed his hands and glanced around.
Olin swiped his tongue along his teeth, took a draught of his soda, then slumped back against the slats. “I want it in writing. Two copies. Mine. Yours.”
The man shook his head. “No trails.”
The corner of Olin’s mouth quirked up. “You’ve already got one.” He nodded to the ice cream vendor, who reached over the register and tapped a sign with a hole in the center where a camera hid.
A curse hissed through the night. “You’d bleed me out if you could.”
“Whatever it takes to protect these men.”
Eyeing him, the man hesitated. “The men? Or you?”
“One and the same. If they’re protected, I’m protected. Whatever happens out there, we’re not going to take the fall for it.”
“If it goes bad, someone will get blamed.”
Olin pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side. “More dust enough? How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice?”
On his feet, Olin tugged up the hood of his jacket. “Then we’re through.”
The man caught his elbow. “Sit down.”
Teeth clamped, Olin returned to the bench. He bent forward and rubbed his hands together, more than ready to forget he’d ever tried to deal with this man, the only man with enough power on the Hill and the right connections to both fund and authorize black-ops missions. Missions nobody wanted to acknowledge.
The din of merriment swallowed the silence between them. A beat cop worked the scene, glancing their way as he walked, no doubt making a mental note to watch them.
“Get me their names. I’ll write a carte blanche.”
Olin’s gut twisted. “Not happening.” If he revealed the names of his elite, he would essentially place them on individual crosses to be crucified by some politician who got wind of this or by someone far more dangerous—media—if something went south. “Project Overlook happens under my guidance with all the freedom and resources I need, or it doesn’t happen and you have one heckuva mess to clean up.”
“If I do this, I could get put away for a long time, Lambert.” “And a million people will die if you don’t.”
“We should sit back and let Congress grant the authorization to go in there.”
A deep-chested laugh wormed through Olin. “You’ve been around too long to believe that. Thick bellies and big heads crowd the halls of the Hill. They want the power and none of the responsibility.” Had he been wrong in talking to the man next to him? What if he went to the Hill and spilled the news about Project Overlook? They’d be dead before the elite soldiers he had in mind could get their feet wet.
He let out a long exhale. “If you aren’t going to pony up, this has been swept under the proverbial Capitol Hill carpet than anyone will ever admit. You have to decide: Is the cost high conversation is over. You contacted me because you knew I could take care of this little snafu. So let us go in and quell this before it destroys more and the body count rivals 9/11.”
He eyed Olin, a slow grin cracking his lips. “You’ve always impressed me, Lambert, even though you’re Army.”
“Navy lost the last game, Admiral.” Olin let his gaze rake the scene around him. “These men are fully capable, and the situation can be tamed before anyone is the wiser. We don’t have time to wrangle the pundits. Let’s get it done, Mr. Chairman, sir.”
Chairman Orr stood and zipped his jacket. “You’ll have it by morning.”
Cracking open the throttle ignited a wild explosion of power and speed. Zero to sixty in less than three seconds left Max Jacobs breathless. Gut pressed to the spine of his Hayabusa, he bore down the mountainous two-lane road away from civilization, away from. . .everything. Here only pine trees, concrete, and speed were his friends.
His bike screamed as it ate up the road. The thrill burst through him. He needed the rush. Craved it. Stop running, Max. Her words stabbed his conscience. Made him mad.
Rounding a bend, he slowed and sighted the drop-off in the road—remembered a full 10 percent grade, straight down. His gaze bounced between the speedometer and the cement. Common sense told him to decelerate. The boiling in his veins said otherwise.
He twisted the throttle.
Max leaned into the bike and felt the surge.
He sucked in a breath as he sped toward the break.
The road dropped off. The Hayabusa roared as the wheels sailed out. He tried to grip the handlebars tighter as nothing but tingling Virginia oxygen enveloped him. Silence gaped.
This could be it. This could end it all. No more pain. No more life without Syd...
Take me. Just take me.
The Hayabusa plummeted.
Straight down. Concrete. Like a meteor slamming to earth. The back tire hit. A jolt shot through the bike. Then the front tire bounced. Rattling carried through the handlebars and into his shoulders. He grabbed the brake—
Stupid! The brake locked. Rear tire went right. He tried to steer into the skid but momentum flipped him up. Over. Pops snapped through his back as he spiraled through the air. In the chaos his bike gave chase, kicking and screaming as it tore after him.
Crack! Pop! The sound of his crashing bike reverberated through the lonely country lane.
Scenery whirled. Pine trees whipped into a Christmas-color frosting. Tree bark blurred into a menagerie of browns, drawing closer and closer.
Thud! His head bounced off the cement. He flipped again.
Finally. It’d be over. He closed his eyes. No more—
Thud! “Oof.” The breath knocked from his lungs. Pain spiked his shoulders and spine. Fire lit across his limbs and back as he slid from one lane to another. Down the road, spinning. Straight toward the trees.
He winced, arched his back. Kicking, he tried to gain traction. If he wasn’t going to die, he didn’t want to end up paralyzed. Just like you not to think it through.
He dumped into a ditch.
Everything went black.
He blinked. Pain shrieked through his body, his thighs and shoulders burning. “Argh!”
Max pried himself onto all fours, hanging his head. A crack rent the face shield. A wicked throb pulsed through his temples and . . . everywhere. He fought with the helmet. Growled as he freed the straps. He pawed it off, cursing at the thing for saving his life. Those head whacks as he somersaulted through the air should’ve punched a hole in his skull. Warmth dribbled down his brow. He pressed a palm against his forehead. Sticky and warm. Blood. He grunted and strained to look across the road. Mangled. Twisted. His bike. Him.
Why couldn’t God just let him die? Humanity would be one up, and he wouldn’t have to face his consummate failures in life. “Just let me go!” he growled and pounded a fist against the pavement. He’d do anything to go back to the Middle East, pump some radicals full of lead, and unleash the demon inside. Anything that told him he still had purpose in life.
But that wasn’t an option anymore. Another bad choice. Could he get anything right? Maybe his father had been right to up and leave them. Just like his mother.
A glimmer of light snagged his attention. Less than a mile down the road, a black SUV barreled up the road from town. Max tensed. He’d seen a vehicle like that three times in the last week. But out here? In the middle of nowhere, invading his self-inflicted punishment? This wasn’t a coincidence. And he didn’t like being hunted.
Max dragged himself into the trees, wincing. Using his forearm, he wiped the blood from his face. Why? Why couldn’t he just die? Nothing here for him. No reason.
Sydney. . .
He banged the back of his head against the tree. Pain drove through him like an iron rod. Good. It felt good to hurt. A relief to the agony inside.
Glass popping and crunching snapped his attention to the road. The SUV sat like a giant spider. He wondered who was in the vehicle as he eased farther into the foliage. A carpet of pine needles concealed his steps. He glanced back to the intruder.
The SUV shifted as a man climbed out. Large, African American, and an expression that said he didn’t mess around. Whatever the guy wanted, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. At least not easily.
Even from ten yards away, Max could see the muscle twitching in the man’s jaw. He swallowed and licked his lips, readying himself for a confrontation. He swung back and gazed up at the canopy of leaves. Could he hoof it back to his apartment? Gathering his strength, he shrugged out of the shredded leather jacket, wincing and grunting as it pulled against raw flesh.
“You through? Or you want another go at it?”
What? Max peered around the trunk, surprised to find the man at the edge of the road, hands on his hips as he stared into the trees.
“We took you for stronger.” The man glanced back at the bike. “But maybe you’re nothing but broke and no use to no one.”
Heart thumping, Max jerked back and clenched his teeth. Who was this joker?
“So, what’s it going to be, Jacobs? You ready to face a little reality?”
How does he know my name? “Who are you?” Max hissed as the tree rubbed his raw shoulder. “What do you want?”
Max drew the SOG knife from his pocket and opened it. Holding it down, he pushed into the open, making sure his injuries didn’t show him weak. “What’s the game?”
The man’s eyebrow arched. He angled his left shoulder forward, tugged up his sweater’s sleeve, and flexed his oversized bicep. A tattoo expanded across his muscle. Marine. MARSOC, if Max made out the symbol correctly. Marine Recon Special Operations—impressive.
An ally? As he struggled out of the ditch and back onto the road, Max collapsed the blade. Heat rose from the cement, aggravating the exposed flesh on his back and legs.
“Navy and Marines, you and me. Almost brothers. It’s the Rangers I don’t like. So, I forgive you for coming at me with a blade. This time.”
Max stared. Confusion—and pain—wrapped a tight vise around his skull.
“What’s it going to be, squid?” The guy pointed to the wreck of a bike on the road. “You don’t have a ride back to town. So why don’t you climb in and listen to what I have to say?”
Might ignore the nickname jab, but the guy assumed too much. “You flash a tattoo and think I’ll just bend my knee? I don’t think so.” A silent brotherhood had closed Max’s knife. But he didn’t want company. The oaf’s or anyone else’s. But how else would he get home?
“What? You think you’re going home? To your can opener and mattress?”
Mr. Recon had a point. Still, he knew too much, and that made Max stiffen—fiery shards prickling his back.
“No obligation. Show me a little respect, and just hear me out.” At least, as the man had said, he’d have a ride. Eyes on the large man, Max pocketed the knife as he trudged to the other side of the SUV and opened the door.
He paused at the plastic covering the seat. He jerked his gaze to the driver.
Mr. Force Recon grinned. “You’re predictable, Jacobs.”
Max lowered himself onto the seat, cringing as new fire crawled over his back and legs. He buckled in, the irony of the seat belt crossing his mind. “So what’s this about? Why have you been following me?”
A crisp cologne swirled in the air-conditioned interior as Mr. Recon folded himself behind the steering wheel. “You’ve been recruited, Lieutenant Jacobs.”
Max snorted. “Already did my time. I’m out.” He gulped against the flurry of emotions within.
“Yeah? How’s that working out for you?”
Glaring, Max resisted the urge to thrust his SOG into the guy’s gut. He’d left the service for Sydney. Only it’d been too late. And in one fell swoop, he lost everything. “Why don’t you tell me? You seem to know everything.”
Mr. Recon pursed his lips and nodded. “Okay.” He rubbed his jaw. “You were discharged ninety days ago. In that time, you’ve been arrested twice, once for fighting. The second time—less than three days ago—for assault against your now-estranged wife.”
The words cut deeper and stung worse than his now-oozing flesh. Max looked at his hand and flexed his fingers.
“Yesterday you were hit with a permanent protective order by said wife. She filed for separation.” He leaned on the console and again arched that eyebrow. “How am I doing?”
“If you knew anything about me, you’d dull your edge.”
Wrist hooked over the steering wheel, Mr. Recon continued unfazed. “The military discharged you. Honorably. A veteran of two wars. Untold combat situations and medals. They tried to put you out medically two years ago, but you fought it.”
“Yessir.” The man nodded for several seconds. “So, why now? Why’d you let them put you out this time?”
Max shoved his gaze to the heavily tinted windows. That was a story nobody needed to hear. Bury it six feet under and walk away.
“You’re a discarded hero, Lieutenant Jacobs.”
Head whipped back to the driver, Max fought the urge to light into the guy. But something in the amused eyes betrayed a camaraderie. An understanding. Acceptance.
“Who are you? What’s your story?”
“Name’s Griffin.” He bobbed his head as they pulled onto the highway, driving east toward the Potomac. “My story. . . ?” A toothy grin. “Let’s just say I got smart.”
The sound of crinkling and rustling plastic pervaded the cabin as Max shifted to alleviate a pinprick fire shooting down his leg. He hissed and clamped a hand over his thigh. “So, what’s the gig?”
“The gig is whatever nobody else will do. What you should ask about is our group—and I do mean our group, Lieutenant. Because you are fully a part of this. Are you ready to step out of the medical trappings of your discharge, of the devastation that has become your life since you’ve returned from your last tour?” Max grunted. “Yesterday.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Tires thumped over docks as Griffin steered into a warehouse. “Then this is where it starts.”