Buy Links – Print Book
Chapters 1 & 2
“Chief, locate for CAS.” The shout was passed down the line, barely audible over the gunfire, and into Chief Petty Officer Joseph Kinnon's ear. The lieutenant was situated higher up the steep incline, pinned in that position. He was held down by the whine and thud of AK47 bullets that ripped and spat through the rocks of the mountain, but his message was loud and clear. They were trapped, and only close air support was going to solve this clusterfuck.
Joseph was by far the closest to the onslaught of Taliban forces and crawled on his belly to the viewpoint, only inches below an outcrop of rock and far too exposed for his liking. Gauging distance, he scrambled back to pass the intel.
“Danger close, five hundred,” he reported succinctly, and slid sideways as some random shot snagged the rock to his left and gouged a path in the blackness.
Information passed upwards was fast, and the decision passed back just as quick. Despite the team locked down this close to the target, there wasn't another way out of this position. They had to call in close air support and chance getting decimated by friendly fire or killed by the large group of Taliban closing in. Joseph sent up a silent plea the pilot of the F-16 in this airspace was one hundred percent accurate. Bad timing had led a group of Taliban to the same path they traveled, and the small SEAL team was paying the price. No way back up the mountain, and no way forward, the journalist they were here to extract had pasted himself flat against the wall with horror across his face; they were stuck. One well-placed missile into the middle of the Taliban forces and it would be enough for the team of six and the journalist to make it the extraction point.
The terminal controller exchanged brief glances with Joseph. Dexter was his best friend, and their relationship went way back before SEAL training, commonly called BUD/s. Joseph nodded. He knew exactly what was going through his friend's mind as he called in the ten-digit grid reference to command. Joseph lip read as Dexter added detail to the “danger close”, forces-speak for telling the F-16 pilot there was the potential to kill the good guys too. Dexter ducked as the Taliban concentrated their fire on the cluster of rocks behind him. They couldn't know exactly where he was, but even random firing was sending bullets too close for comfort. Joseph rolled to his side and focused his fire on the flashes from the forces below them. He just hoped it was enough to give Dexter the space to complete the message on the UHF radio.
Finally Dexter passed a message up and down the team, the LT nodded and indicated heads down. The missile would be there in three. Joseph didn't let up on his targeted shooting, and for a few minutes until “missile on target”, he and the rest of the team would be ensuring focus was on them.
Then the shit hit the fan. With nothing more than bad timing, suddenly the team was pinned down by the sheer number of freaking Taliban coming at them with the barrage of small arms fire. They were fucked. Dexter signaled a “one” to Joseph and the others. This was it. This was win or fail spectacularly; what a way to go out. Fuentes sat on the journalist, their faces to the wall, hunkered down in a natural ditch formed by a crack in the earth between rocks. Dexter rolled and sheltered amongst the boulders strewn on the pathway. The LT and the rest of the team kept up fire until, one by one, they too took cover. There was no sense in letting the Taliban get any idea things were going down by giving out a ceasefire, and finally, it was only Joseph firing into the darkness in a random pattern. He glanced at Dexter, who held up a fist and then a five. Joseph counted down, and at one, he took final cover, curled in on himself with his head tucked low, every part of him sheltered by Afghan rock.
No noise indicated the targeting of a five-hundred-pound bomb, but when it hit the Taliban, it was deadly and quick. The pressure waves pressed Joseph's eardrums, and he involuntary closed his eyes. The air rent about them, and the sound of violent roaring thunder shook the earth. As it threw debris high into the air, the low-end noise of the pressure wave rolled over the SEAL team, but there was no time to sit and wait to see if the hit had found target. Joseph was first, closest to the insurgents, and weapon high, he slid down the crumbling mountainside. The missile had done its work, but Joseph didn't look for that. He wanted an all clear, and with only a few on target shots, he indicated back that the team could follow. There was still some small arms fire from the few remaining Taliban, but it was nothing the SEALs couldn't handle, dodging forces and jogging with the journalist at the center. Dexter called in final extraction, and when Joseph slumped into the CH-47 Chinook, he closed his eyes. It would be days before his ears were back to normal. The helicopter dipped then took a wide low path over the Afghanistan flatlands.
“So,” Dexter started on a shout that broke through his team's fractured hearing, “I'm thinking of asking Emily to marry me.”
And there it was. Normality after facing chaos and death. It was what SEALs did. They fought, they extracted, and they were the best. But, at the end of the day, they had survived and were alive. Listening as his best friend received advice from the team on how to propose, Joseph felt a twinge of something inside. The adrenaline inside him was trickling away and the reality of his life was replacing it in every single cell he had.
An empty apartment and a month of sleep. The sleep sounded good, but the empty part? That felt like shit.
* * * *
The deck of the C-17 was freaking freezing, and not for the first time in eight hours of hell, Joseph wished he had two sleeping pads under him and not just one. Ramstein Air Base might be five hours in the past, but that meant at least another two or three until landing at Oceana Naval Air Station on the east coast. He was supposed to still be sleeping—that was the only way this enforced downtime worked for him. The Ambien had apparently long since lost its ability to send him back to sleep, and he was now way past wide awake. Everyone wanted to go home, but it was at moments like this, he wished for some magic way to blink and suddenly be in his own bed. The imposed cramped space was necessary if he wanted to get home, but he was a man of action, and all the clichés applied to him in spades. He wasn't the man who sat still; he was the one who paced. He never walked; he always ran. Sucking it up until they landed was his only option. Still, he was tired enough to allow a small amount of self-indulgent misery at the cold and the smell and the aches that filtered through his determination to not complain.
His hip ached from lying on his right side as they crossed the ocean away from Basram to Germany and, with only a few hours break, onto the continental US. He was a SEAL, and his body had been through one hell of a lot, certainly more than the discomforts of sleeping in a C-17 cargo plane. The thought of what he normally put his body through and how much pain he could handle never failed to amuse him when all he could think of now was how freaking sore he felt all over. Thank goodness for small mercies that the vibration of the plane had lessened as soon as they hit cruising altitude. He hated the way the throbbing of the huge engines coursed through his body and rattled his bones. Twenty-six years old and his body felt like he was forty.
Cursing his inability to sleep, he half rolled to take the pressure off his hip and stopped only when he felt one of his team behind him. He couldn't even recall who had grabbed the space there, but by the snoring, he assumed it was Dexter. His best friend was always watching his six and had done until they passed out the same week in BUD/s. Gritting his teeth, and with the comfort of his best friend's breathing so obvious behind him, Joseph relaxed each muscle, resolutely ignoring the belt on his multi-cams digging into skin. He finally found the place inside him that allowed him to sleep perched on rocks or in caves with aerial assaults streaking the sky. He moved to that single and vital place where fighters in combat zones found themselves in, where they hoped they would be safe.
The changing quality of the engine noise was the first indication they were stateside, and he woke to a crouch in instant awareness. Clearly he had managed another few hours of shuteye, much to his shock. Expectation shot through him at the thought of standing on US soil again, and he stretched tall to work out some of the kinks. To sleep in a bed, eat food that wasn't out of plastic, and to catch a breath was what the next thirty days were about. Lonely or not.
“N'thuck.” The words were mumbled in half sleep, and that was the first sign Dexter had pulled himself out of an Ambien and painkiller haze. Joseph moved as best he could to face his friend and blurted out a laugh at the sight before him. Dexter had taken a hit to the face by flying rocks, and the bruising was bad. The area around his friend's nose was swollen so badly his eyes were squinting and only half open.
“You look worse than shit,” Joseph commented dryly.
“Thuck you,” Dexter replied.
“Emily's gonna take one look at you and decide to marry me instead.”
“Not your gay ass,” Dexter countered.
Joseph laughed. His whole team knew about his preferences. It wasn't that he was out to everyone in the service, but SEALs had trust. Your team was your life and held your life. Not one person in the team judged him for anything less than his skills or the SEAL acceptance that one day they might die for each other. Around him the rest of the team started pulling together sleeping bags and packs, and Joseph cast a brief look over at Adams, who remained in the green stage of post alcohol/Ambien mixing but who somehow managed to sport a broad and blinding grin. As the C-17 banked for final approach, Joseph took his seat. The landing was smooth, the rocking motion as the brakes engaged jarring, but the actual stopping itself was heaven. The plane rolled to journey's end at just before zero one hundred, and then the small band of SEALs trudged tiredly from the plane.
When it came to disembarking, Joseph had never felt happier the SEALs never had to share a plane with anything other than a few combat support guys. Six guys getting off one plane made life a lot easier than a plane full of troops. As soon as his booted feet hit the blacktop, Joseph inhaled deeply of the fresh Virginia air. Everyone stood absolutely still for a few seconds, and Joseph glanced critically at each man. Apart from Dexter and his nose, the team of six men, by some luck and more than a little skill, had made it back largely unscathed. The way every man stood so utterly still meant he wasn't the only one to be glad they'd made it back alive.
The team's reactions to coming home varied from excited to resigned to way-too-exhausted-to-register. The night of landings was always the same. With unspoken agreement, the small group started the walk back to the main hanger where there would be some way of getting back to wherever the hell they all needed to go. Some, like him and Dexter, had apartments nearby; others had rooms in larger houses. All had to be within the one-hour recall when not on leave. He and Dexter walked side by side as the SEALs made their way from the immediate area to the regroup point.
“Fuck. Commander's here.” The curse from Fuentes stopped him in his tracks.
Joseph startled at the pronouncement that spilled from the team's newest recruit's mouth. The words were tinged with newbie awe that the commanding officer was in attendance to their arrival home. Joseph was instantly watchful and tried to make out who the CO was looking at. The team usually had time to breathe before the official crap started, but the CO being here, standing silently and waiting for them to arrive, could mean only one thing. For one of the six in the team, there was bad news.
Something had happened while they were deployed, and for one of them, life had somehow changed when they were out of reach.
“Shit.” Even with the broken nose, Dexter uttered that single word very clearly and with an edge of fear. Dexter not only had the long-term girlfriend but two living parents and five siblings with associated partners and children. Jeez. Not Dexter.
The lieutenant held up a hand to stop his team and then walked swiftly ahead to stand toe-to-toe with the CO. They talked briefly, and the lieutenant turned to face his men with a look of resignation on his face.
“Chief Kinnon,” he started firmly. “Go with the CO.”
The entire bottom fell out of Joseph's world, and he reached blindly to grip Dexter's arm. Dexter took a step forward to go with Joseph, but he pulled him to a stop.
“It's okay,” he reassured Dexter, and tugged his arm free. It wasn't okay. It was far from being okay. He only had a few people outside his team that meant anything to him. Something had happened to his mom? It was the only thing he could think of, the only family he had, and that his CO was standing there waiting to tell him bad news was wrong.
He took the few short steps to the CO, a tall imposing man with a face carved from stone. Commander Finch hadn't gotten to be a CO of elite SEAL teams by being the nice guy. He was tension and passion and loyalty all wrapped up in one commanding presence.
“Walk with me, son.”
Only training and blind obedience kept Joseph from freezing in the middle of the freaking airfield refusing to move and demanding answers right the fuck now. They reached a door and passed through it into the shaded corner of a huge hangar. Dim lighting was enough to see compassion on the CO's face.
“I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, Joseph. While you were off radar, your stepsister passed away.”
Of course Elisabeth. He had only one stepsister. When his mom had remarried two years before, he had inherited both her and a stepdad, Harvey Costain. He didn't know them very well. He was never stateside long enough to form a real bond, but, jeez, his mom and Harvey must be devastated.
“You have my condolences.”
“What the fu—hell happened? Sir.” He added the belated sir on the end as his training kicking in with a vengeance.
“The police are conducting a murder investigation.”
“Murder?” Joseph dropped his pack to the floor as any energy he had slid straight out of him. ” How? Who?”
“If it's any consolation, it was quick, and she wasn't… harmed in any other way.”
Consolation? Quick wasn't a consolation to any family. One day it might be. But now? Nothing made this easier to hear.
“She was coming to stay—we weren't close—but she wanted to spend time with me…” He was rambling. Why the hell was he telling all this to a man who didn't need to hear it? He could hear himself talking, but the shock weighed heavy on him, and suddenly the words just stopped. Emotion choked his throat. This leave was supposed to be him finally finding his role as a big brother, maybe even giving definition to his life. And from what she'd said, to Elisabeth's life as well. She had called him and left messages when he'd come back last time, said she needed a friend, a brother, said it had been too long since their parents married for them to connect. His CO was still talking in that tone only reserved for those who had to dispatch bad news on a regular basis. Soft and low and so damn understanding.
“Is there someone who can help you? I can assign someone from the family liaison—”
“No,” Joseph said quickly. This was his family, and he didn't need liaison or support or any of that official shit. His shoulders were plenty broad enough to handle what life threw at him. This would be no different. Priorities. It was all about priorities to make sense of the buzzing in his head. Intel was first. A SEAL was nothing without the intelligence gathering to back up a mission. Phone his mom to find out when it had happened and why it had happened. Pushing back the flood of sudden grief that forced its way forward, he fell back on his training.
“Can you make sure Dexter sees a medic, sir? And tell the lieutenant I'll be back in the normal thirty days.”
“I will. And Joseph? Between you and me, if you plan on—” He paused. “—doing anything then just be careful. Good luck, son.”
It was a four-mile run to his apartment in Virginia Beach. Less than twenty minutes and he would be in his place. An hour and he could have showered Afghanistan from his skin, shaved his thick facial hair and packed. Three and he would be heading to Albany to find answers.
* * * *
His apartment was just as he had left it—empty and clean. In a daze he went through the motions of finding the man under the layers of grime. Shaving the beard that protected his skin beneath removed the persona of soldier a scrape at a time, and the shower water was cold before he exited the stall. This was ritual; this was normal, and for a few minutes, he found solace in the repetition of actions that grounded him to the here and now. He heard his cell but didn't answer it, just left it on charge as it was flat from its disuse and only showed one bar of charge. He knew Dexter was trying to contact him, but until he had his bags packed and he was on the road, he wasn't ready to answer questions. Dexter stopped calling; instead he texted a simple call me, which Joseph knew was his friend's way of offering unconditional support and showing he would back off and wait for Joseph to make the first move.
Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and grabbing a jacket from his closet, he checked he had wallet, keys, and his bag. Locking the door and crossing to his old Jeep, he hoped to God the damn thing started after sitting for so long. The heap started on the third turn just as Joseph thought his luck might well have run out. Three thirty-five in the morning, and he was heading north on highway 13.
Shock was something he knew one hell of a lot about. The dead and dying and the ones who watched… He had seen the horror of it all, and as detached as he had to be, he could categorize every single nuance of disbelief and grief. None of what he knew was even halfway real when he remembered his stepsister. He pulled off at a gas stop for fuel and grabbed a protein bar and a bottle of water. He couldn't delay the inevitable any longer, and with a heavy heart, he dialed the number he knew by heart. His mom answered on the third ring. Proof that it didn't matter what time of day he called; she would have a phone close by.
“Joseph,” she said calmly. “Did they tell you?”
“I'm so sorry, Mom. How is Harvey?” Joseph was a master at changing the subject, and his mom didn't call him on it.
“Devastated. Totally heartbroken. We've had newspapers calling for interviews and people stalking us, taking photos. It's only died down in the last month.” The last month? Why the hell had it garnered so much attention? “We tried to let you know. Passed it on to the right people. They said they would let you know when you were back in the US.”
That sounded about right. Joseph and the rest of the team were very often off radar and out of reach. It was standard procedure to make contact when it didn't jeopardize what the SEALs were doing.
“Will you tell him I am so sorry for his loss?” Joseph offered gently. He had a lot of respect for Harvey and felt grief for what the other man had gone through.
“I will… wait—”
Joseph heard the phone being passed to another; he assumed it was Harvey.
“I am so sorry for your loss.” It felt wrong to say our loss. Harvey had lost a child, his daughter, and it must feel like nearing the end of times. Joseph had simply lost someone he'd begun to be friends with. It was a different world of pain.
“Where are you, son?” Harvey sounded exhausted, and Joseph didn't bristle at the term “son”. He never had. When his mom had met Harvey, it was almost as if Joseph could finally let himself relax about who was looking after his mom. It felt real. Like a family. He had even received a readymade sister. Harvey had been more of a husband to his mom in two short years than Joseph's real father had been. He'd been nothing more than a sperm donor when his mom was sixteen. Should he lie? Tell Harvey he was on base or due to ship out? Would the man stop him from what he wanted to do if he actually admitted he was planning on looking into this murder? Harvey could well have already resolved his emotions about losing his daughter, probably in an arena that didn't include throwing himself in the middle of a murder investigation, as it did for Joseph.
“On my way to Albany on the 13,” he finally admitted.
“What are you going to do?” There was tension in Harvey's voice, but no accusation or words to put Joseph's intended actions on hold. The line went quiet, and he wished he could see Harvey's expression. Had he put two and two together? Was the gentle man horrified or relieved Joseph was going to the place his daughter had been killed? Harvey and his mom living in Florida had never made Miami seem farther away.
“I'm going to find out why my stepsister died, sir,” he said very simply.
Harvey exhaled noisily, and his mom was back on the phone in seconds. She had watched Joseph go into the Navy, become a SEAL, get ordered overseas. Every single time she had waved him off with a smile and a promise she would be there when he came back. She knew it was what he was trained for, and he was well aware this time would be no different.
“What are you doing, Joseph?”
“Going to find out who killed Elisabeth and why.” He didn't expect her to stop him from taking this path, but he was aware she would have something to say on the matter.
“Please, Joseph… stay safe. This is a very different kind of evil than what you are used to.”
“I'm always safe, Mom.” He was good at reassuring.
“How can we help?” Trust his mom to cut to the chase. He wanted to ask more about the case itself.
“If it's not too hard, can you tell me what happened?”
“We don't know much more than what was in the papers. Elisabeth was murdered in an alley at the back of a hotel near her home, and the shooter was a lifetime cop with a family. No one knows why she was there at that time or why she was shot. The case has been closed because the cop… Gareth Headley… admitted what he had done and is now serving time for his actions. Harvey wanted to stay in Albany and find out why the cop risked everything he had to kill someone, but his heart…” His mom had met Harvey volunteering in the heart unit at the local hospital. He might have been only in his early fifties, but, as he put it himself, he was on enough medication to rouse the dead.
“It's enough for me to start.”
“Will you call us when you have anything?”
“I will, Mom.”
The call ended with the usual goodbyes. Whatever had happened to Elisabeth, he had thirty days to find the answer. Whoever had hurt his stepsister—killed her—wasn't going to get away with this. Justice would be done. That much he was sure of.