Key West, Florida
Someone was in his house.
Seth dropped his bag just inside the door and the thunk of the duffel hitting tile echoed through the room. A fresh surge of adrenaline jolted him out of the zombielike daze he’d been functioning in since the training mission ended. The team had made it out of the swamp just as darkness fell and then it had been another hour’s drive to the hotel in Miami where everyone was staying. He could have gotten a room for the night instead of making the three-hour drive home to Key West—but no. He’d wanted to be home, had needed the comfort of his own space.
Except someone was in his house. How was that possible? In deference to his constant state of paranoia, he’d bought the best home security equipment on the market, and the panel on the wall beside the door was lit up green. All systems go.
He scanned the interior, picking out the familiar dark shapes of the dining table, couch, chairs, TV, piano…
A shadow blotted out the square of pale light thrown across the floor from the patio doors. Not inside the house, then. Out by the pool.
Seth crouched and found his weapon in his bag, never taking his eyes off the shadow. His heart hammered, but his hand stayed steady as he edged across the living room toward the sliding glass doors. The shadow passed by again and he made out the silhouette of a man pacing across the patio.
He lifted his weapon and yanked open the door, setting off the alarm he’d reset upon entering the house. “Get the fuck out of here or I will shoot you.”
The man paused, then slowly lifted his hands, locked his fingers behind his head, and turned around. Greer Wilde, his best friend Jude’s oldest brother, met his gaze evenly with bloodshot eyes. “I’m unarmed.”
“Holy fuck, Greer.” Exhaling hard, he lowered his weapon. “I thought you had more sense than to sneak into a psychotic man’s house.”
“You’re not any more psychotic than I am,” Greer said, dropping his hands to his sides.
Seth grunted and strode inside to turn off the wailing alarm.
Having lived with PTSD for two years, he’d spotted the signs of it in Greer at Jude’s wedding two weeks ago. He’d offered to be the guy’s sounding board should he need to vent—no judgment, no questions asked. Greer had since called him only once after a particularly bad nightmare, but had clammed up as soon as he’d calmed down enough to think straight. Honestly, Seth hadn’t expected to hear from the former Army Ranger again after that last call.
Seth motioned him inside and went to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. “I doubt you came all the way to Key West to talk about a nightmare.”
“No,” Greer said. “No more nightmares. I’m good now.”
“Bullshit. You look like hell. When was the last time you slept?”
Greer release a long breath and rubbed a hand over his face. “Going on thirty-six hours now.”
“Jesus Christ.” Seth had been reaching for a set of mugs in the cupboard by the fridge, but stopped short and went for the cell phone in his pocket instead. “That’s it. I’m calling Jude and telling him what’s going on with you. Your brothers will get you the help you need since you’re too stubborn to get it yourself.”
“No. Fuck, don’t do that,” Greer said. “I swear I haven’t had any more nightmares. I’ve just been too busy to sleep.”
“Busy doing what?”
Greer said nothing more for a solid five seconds. Then, with an exhausted curse, he muttered, “You have no idea how many laws I’m breaking right now. I’m here because I need you to put me in touch with Gabe Bristow. I know he’s somewhere in Florida and I need to speak to him. Tonight.”
“Isn’t your brother friends with him? Why not just get his number from—”
“Because Vaughn’s in the hospital and even if he wasn’t, I couldn’t talk to him about this. I shouldn’t be talking to you about this, but I need HORNET’s help. One of my men is in trouble and the government’s not doing a damn thing to help him. It was a fully deniable op.”
A black op.
Seth groaned. “Do your brothers know you’re still active duty?”
“No, they don’t, and they don’t need to.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to be around when they find out.” The shit was really going to hit the fan when Greer’s brothers discovered he was still drawing paychecks from Uncle Sam, and Seth sure as hell did not want to get in the middle of that brewing Wilde family feud. “I don’t get it. Why lie to them?”
Greer’s jaw tightened. “Can you put me in touch with Bristow or not?”
“Yeah, I can. Hang on.” He scrolled through his contacts until he found Gabe’s number, then passed the phone over the counter.
Greer punched the number into his own cell and without another word, he left, ghosting across the patio and vaulting over the six-foot fence surrounding the backyard.
Seth stared after him.
Damn fence was too easily breached. Why hadn’t he considered that before?
Motion sensors, he decided. He’d top the fence with motion sensors at his first opportunity.
The coffeemaker beeped as it finished brewing, reminding him he’d started a pot. He fixed himself a mug heavy on the sugar for that extra jolt of stay-awake. Hell, might as well pour a 5-hour Energy shot in there, too. He sipped, testing the concoction. It kind of tasted like super-sweet grape-flavored day-old coffee sludge, but it worked. He’d rather be a jittery mess than risk closing his eyes.
Yeah, he’d called Greer out on not sleeping. Didn’t mean he had to take his own advice.
He grabbed his laptop from where he’d left it plugged in on the kitchen counter, and carried it and his cup to the patio because he sure as fuck wasn’t going to feel safe inside the house when he knew the backyard was open to attack. In the moonless night, the water in his pool was as dark and uninviting as the swamp had been. Somewhere nearby, a guitar strummed out a lively song.
He chose one of the poolside loungers and fired up his laptop, settling in for his nightly routine of taking other insomniacs to the cleaners playing poker. Countless sleepless nights had morphed the man who’d never gambled in his life into a poker shark, and he fell easily into the rhythms of the game. Time passed. He lost himself in the cards on the screen until his cell phone rang, startling him into knocking his mug over. The cold dregs of coffee spilled across the table and he swore as he mopped it up with a towel left from his last swim, the closest thing handy.
But hey, he had to give himself credit for not jumping out of his skin at the unexpected sound.
Another ring. He tossed the now-wet towel in the outdoor hamper on his way inside, then eyed the phone as it jittered across the kitchen counter. His father used to say nothing good ever came from a phone call after midnight, which was why his curfew growing up had been 11:55 p.m. and not a second later. His father never wanted to get an after-midnight call.
Dad had gotten one, though. An after-midnight call that happened to come in the middle of the day, in the form of a visit by uniformed Marines, telling him his only son was a prisoner of war.
Nope. Seth shut down that thought almost before it completely formed. Not going there. Not thinking of the fear and pain he’d caused. Not thinking of the fear and pain he’d endured. Nope. Nope. Nope. He was past all that now. Progress, remember?
Because of the whole after-midnight thing, he considered ignoring the phone. But he wasn’t his father with children to worry about, and he wasn’t a coward who hid from bad news. A neurotic, traumatized mess? All right, he’d cop to that. Coward? No fucking way.
Gabe’s name showed on the caller ID. He thumbed the answer button.
“Hello?” Shit, he really needed to start talking more often, even if it was just to himself. His voice sounded like he’d swallowed a box of nails and washed it down with a glass of sand.
“Harlan,” Gabe said—no, more like demanded. The tone reminded Seth of a drill sergeant, took him back to the good old days in basic training. Jesus, he’d been such an idealistic, arrogant sucker back then, with no inkling of how fucked up his life was about to become.
How he wished he could go back.
He sucked in a breath. “Yeah, I’m here.” So this was it, the ax falling on his fledgling career as a private military contractor. Except…why did Gabe wait until almost 3:00 a.m. to call? Didn’t make sense unless he was about to get chewed out for giving away Gabe’s private cell phone number.
“I’m sending a helo to you. Get on it and get your ass back to Miami a-sap.”
Wait. What? This didn’t sound like a firing. “Sir?”
“We have an op.”
Holy shit. They weren’t sending his ass packing? “Uh, thank you, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir,” Gabe said for what had to be the thousandth time during their short acquaintance. “And if you thank anyone, it should be Quinn. He went to bat for you—again. You’re still on probation as far as I’m concerned and I still have doubts about your ability to function in combat, especially now.”
While that wasn’t a ringing endorsement, it was better than he’d expected, and he swallowed the urge to thank Gabe again. “Does this have something to do with Greer Wilde?”
“Yeah.” He paused and in that heavy moment of silence, it seemed the world held its breath. Seth sure as hell did. He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what was coming next. Gabe wasn’t usually the hesitating type, and when he spoke again, his tone was as gentle as Seth had ever heard it. “We’re going to Afghanistan.”
Oh, fuck no.
The words plowed into him like a high-speed train and the phone nearly fell from his numb fingers. He shook his head even though Gabe couldn’t see him. Probably a good thing Gabe couldn’t see him, because he wasn’t holding it together. A lump the size of a tank swelled in his throat, solid and choking, as a tremble worked down his back, the icy claws of real fear digging into his spine. You can’t fucking ask this of me, he wanted to scream.
Instead, the only sound that came from his throat was a croaked, “Afghanistan?” It was the first time he’d spoken the country’s name aloud in two years, and it scraped across his vocal cords.
“I know the enormity of what I’m asking you,” Gabe said softly, all but reading his mind. “And under any other circumstances, I’d be the first to say hell no. But these aren’t normal circumstances and this isn’t a mission I’m willing to refuse. So are you up for this?” he asked after a long stretch of silence. “Tell me right now if you’re not.”
Seth swallowed. He was not broken. He could do this. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be ready.”
The team wasn’t happy to see him. Nobody said so out loud, but the good-natured ribbing and off-color jokes he could hear from where he stood in the hallway stopped when Seth finally entered the hotel conference room. Not that he blamed them. After the botched training mission, he wouldn’t be happy to see himself either if he were in their shoes. The silence in the room fit like a too-tight boot.
Finally, the door opened and Gabe strode in with Quinn, and Greer Wilde.
Greer looked no better than he had last night. If anything, the bags around his dark eyes were more pronounced, the lines etched into his forehead speaking of massive amounts of stress.
“All right, gentlemen, let’s get started.” Gabe produced a folder from his pack and opened it on the table, then motioned to Greer with his chin. “Most of you probably already know him, but for those who don’t, this is Greer Wilde. He’ll be in charge of this briefing. Greer?”
Greer nodded. As he came forward, Jesse Warrick leaned back in his seat and tipped his cowboy hat in greeting. “Thought you left this kinda work, Wilde.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Greer muttered. “How are you, Jesse?”
“Better than you from the looks of it.”
“Been a bad week.” Greer stopped at the front of the room and stared down the length of the table, his eyes landing briefly on Seth before he picked up a photo from the open folder. The picture showed an unsmiling man in a turban with dark, unreadable eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “This man is Zakir Rossoul.” He produced another photo and held the two up side by side. The second showed the same man, beardless and grinning, wearing the tan beret of an Army Ranger on his close-cropped hair. “Also known as Sergeant Zakir ‘Zak’ Hendricks. He’s a second-generation Afghan-American, decorated former Army Ranger, and—” Greer paused and cleared his throat before continuing. “For the past eighteen months, Zak has been working deep undercover in Afghanistan. He was supposed to stay there until April, but two weeks ago we received a call from him via sat phone.” He withdrew a small recorder from his pocket and hit play. Static filled the room, broken intermittently by a deep, unaccented voice.
“I repeat, this is Sergeant Zak Hendricks. I’ve been made. Get me the fuck outta here.”
“This is the last contact we received from him,” Greer said and spread a map across the table. “He tried to give us his coordinates, but the call failed. Best we can figure, his last position was here.” He fingered a spot high in the mountains near the Pakistan border, then looked up at the team. “We want him back and we tried to find him, but since it was a fully deniable mission, our government is doing fuck-all to help bring him home. It’s not acceptable.”
Several of the guys murmured agreement.
“What was his mission?” someone asked.
Greer hesitated, obviously weighing his next words, considering how much to divulge. “In five months, Afghanistan will be electing a new president. What happens during that election will affect the timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. Now as much as we’d like to see all of our guys come home, we don’t want to leave the country in the hands of an extremist leader with a hard-on for the U.S. And unfortunately, several of the candidates for presidency are exactly that. Most don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning, but there is one man who has Washington worried. His name is Jahangir Abdul Rab Siddiqui. He’s Pashtun, and popular with religious conservatives. He already has the ear of the current administration and has spent the last several years stacking the Supreme Court and National Assembly with his buddies. There are rumors of his Taliban sympathies and suspicion he’s behind several suicide bombs that have killed foreign peacekeepers and anti-Taliban leaders. Zak’s mission was to get in close to Siddiqui and dig up all the dirt he could. His secondary mission, in case Siddiqui did get elected, was to make sure the man never made it into office, but something went wrong. We don’t know what or how. All we know is what you heard on that recording. Zak called for an exfil, but by the time we got men in the area there was no sign of him.”
As Greer spoke, the pictures of Zak Hendricks circled the table, both finally landing in front of Seth. He stared down at the grinning man, his stomach churning. “How do we know he’s not already dead?”
“We don’t,” Greer admitted. “But I seem to remember another situation not all that long ago, where a team of SEALs went into the mountains on questionable intel, all to rescue a lost Marine…”
Every eye in the room swung in Seth’s direction. He set his jaw. “That was low, Greer.”
“Yeah, but I’m not playing fair. I’m already breaking all kinds of laws by bringing HORNET into this, but fuck it. Zak is one of my best friends and I can’t leave him there.”
Gabe Bristow stood and clapped Greer on the shoulder. “You’d better head back to DC before anyone notices you’re gone. We’ve got this. We’ll bring Zak home.”
“Thank you,” Greer said tightly and headed out. He paused beside Seth’s chair. “I’m sorry for bringing up your situation, but you have to see the similarities.”
Seth did, but resentment still burned inside his chest and he couldn’t give any more response than a curt nod. If Greer Wilde was looking for forgiveness, he’d have to keep searching.
Gabe waited to continue the briefing until after the door shut behind Greer, then he passed a thin stack of papers around the table.
“This is all the information we have on the key players right now,” he said. “Granted, it’s not actionable intel—yet—but we’ll have a better chance at getting something of use in-country. Once we’re airborne, Harvard will gather what information he can on Sergeant Hendricks and Siddiqui and prepare an in-depth report I expect you all to read and know by heart.” He glanced to Harvard for confirmation.
The ex-CIA analyst and all-around computer genius nodded. “Got it.”
Gabe continued. “Jean-Luc, when we land, you’ll take Seth to make contact with HumInt’s local asset, a man by the name of Hamid Fahim.”
“Wait,” Jean-Luc said. “Why Seth?” Then he winced and tilted his head in semi-apology. “No offense, Seth, but I’d rather have one of the guys I know at my back in case things go fubar.”
“Too bad,” Gabe said. “Seth is just as much a member of this team as the rest of you. He’s to be treated as such. We’re not frat boys and there will be no hazing of every new guy I bring on. I won’t put up with that shit. Am I understood, gentlemen?”
“Yes, sir,” everyone answered, albeit halfheartedly.
Gabe gave them a moment to let that decree sink in. “After Jean-Luc and Seth have secured supplies and a safe house from Fahim, we’ll set up a forward operating base with internet access so Harvard can continue working. From there, our first course of action will be locate and plant a GPS tracker on Jahangir Siddiqui’s vehicle. He’s the key to the actionable intel we need. Any questions?”
Some of the guys tossed out questions, but they were working off limited information and Gabe admitted he didn’t have the answers.
Marcus Deangelo, a former FBI agent, drummed his fingers on the table. “You know, I hate to be Debbie Downer here, but I’m not real comfortable with stepping on the military’s toes. The FBI in Colombia was one thing,” he said, referring to the team’s first mission together, which Seth hadn’t been a part of. “They were in the wrong. Hell, even my ex-partner thought so, which is why he risked his career to help us.”
“Yeah, when is Giancarelli gonna give up the Bureau and come over to the dark side?” Jean-Luc asked.
Marcus snorted. “He’s considered it, but it’s not happening unless his wife says it’s okay. And she won’t.”
Jean-Luc made a tsk tsk tsk sound. “Man’s pussy-whipped.”
“Can you blame him?” Marcus asked. “You have seen his wife, right?”
“Good point. If I had a woman as gorgeous as Leah Giancarelli in my bed every night—”
“You’d ask her sister to join you for a threesome,” Quinn said, deadpan.
Jean-Luc grinned. “Fuck yeah. Common sense, mon ami. Common sense.”
Even Quinn cracked a smile at that.
Seth stayed silent through it all and flipped through the handouts. Zak Hendricks’s stats, service record, family history… Nothing that would help them find the man.
He closed the folder and pushed it away. “The military won’t do anything until Sergeant Hendricks shows up bleeding on an Al Jazeera news feed. And if it was a black op, probably not even then.”
“That’s the general consensus, yes,” Gabe agreed after a beat of silence, then looked at Marcus. “Which is why I’m not all that concerned about stepping on the military’s toes here. If Sergeant Hendricks was captured by Siddiqui’s Taliban buddies, they plan to make a very public, very graphic example of him. They don’t take prisoners. To date, there are only two known POWs in A-stan. One soldier has been held captive since 2009 and is being used as a bargaining chip for the release of Taliban prisoners. And one Marine—” He broke off abruptly. Clothing rustled and the seats creaked as everyone shifted to look at Seth.
All seven stares crawled over Seth’s skin like needle-legged spiders, and a bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He hated it, hated being the center of attention, hated that Gabe had just boiled his life down to nothing more than an example in a briefing. But he wasn’t a coward and if they wanted to use him as an example, then so be it.
He gulped down the rising panic, shoved up out of his seat, and very deliberately lowered the hood of his sweatshirt. Then he jerked the thing off over his head, tossed it on the table, and held out his arms. He always wore long sleeves in public, but if they wanted to stare, they might as well get the whole fucking picture, right? Scars and all.
He met each of their gazes with a challenge in his own.
Harvard visibly swallowed and looked away first, adjusting his glasses and taking a great interest in his laptop screen. Marcus looked at him with pity, Jesse with the assessing eye of a medical professional. Jean-Luc shifted uncomfortably and for a moment, Seth almost took pity on him. The Ragin’ Cajun didn’t do well with heavy stuff and right now, a thousand-pound elephant sat in the middle of the table. Quinn nodded once in his direction, a gesture of respect. Gabe stood at the front of the table, silent and stone-faced. Ian, one arm draped over the back of the chair beside him, rolled his eyes.
Seth dropped his arms, but didn’t reach for his sweatshirt. “I know how these militants work. If they haven’t already cut off Sergeant Hendricks’s head and they haven’t yet issued a ransom demand, then they’re torturing him.” He couldn’t help the crack in his voice on those last two words, but plowed onward, determined to be of some use to the team. “Maybe they’re trying to get info out of him, maybe not. Either way, Gabe’s right. They’re making an example of him—‘Look at the infidel, so weak, so broken. These are the men who want our country, who want to corrupt our women and our culture. See? We can beat them easily. We are powerful. Allah is on our side’…and so on. Even better if they can keep him alive and make a hundred examples out of him, day after day after day.”
Seth grabbed his sweatshirt from the table, but paused before pulling it on. “Honestly, for Sergeant Hendricks’s sake, I hope we’re going in after a body. I hope it was a quick and easy death because I wouldn’t wish this”—he motioned to his chest—“on anyone except the assholes who did it to me.”
The bazaar was a vibrant place, full of movement and color that put Seth’s teeth on edge. Vendors who could afford tables stood under bright umbrellas, shaded from the sun and wind. Those who couldn’t just spread their wares out on blankets on the ground or in rusted wheelbarrows, selling everything from sheep heads to dried fruit, fabric, and even toys.
The sounds were just as much an assault on Seth’s overwhelmed senses as the sights. Vendors called out in rapid-fire Pashto or Dari. Or, occasionally, even broken English when they spotted a Westerner. A lot of chatter, haggling. Laughter. Yelling. Honking from the crowded street as cars weaved around pedestrians. The putter of motorbikes zipping through stagnant traffic. Traditional music filled the air, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
It all combined into a quagmire in Seth’s mind that had him about ready to jump out of his skin. He couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder every time someone pressed in too close behind him. Couldn’t control the jitter that made him tense up at every contact or loud noise.
Fuck, he had to get over this. Kabul was a relatively safe place—or at least as safe as any city in this godforsaken country could get. Logic dictated he had nothing to fear here. These were just everyday, average people going about their lives. Just like citizens in America, some of these people had no interest in politics and only wanted the endless warring to end. Not everybody had a political agenda. Or even a religious one.
They weren’t all the enemy.
This was another test, he reminded himself, and sucked in a calming breath through his nose, inhaling the scents of people, spice, smoke, garbage, and exhaust. Of all the men Gabe could have sent to the market to meet Fahim, he’d selected Seth to go with Jean-Luc, even though several of the guys had done tours in Afghanistan and they all had at least a basic understanding of Pashto. Certainly enough to go to the market and meet with an asset who supposedly spoke perfect English.
So of course this was a test. With good reason, Gabe wanted to see if he could handle being back here, and he’d be damned before he failed.
Had to pull it together. Stay alert. Stay focused.
And most of all, stay fucking calm.
As they weaved their way through the market, Jean-Luc was his usual cheerful self, just as comfortable halfway across the world as he was in his beloved New Orleans. Laughing, joking, conversing with the locals in flawless Dari. At the moment, he carried on a spirited debate with a teenage boy over the price of a scarf.
Seth kind of hated him for his blasé attitude.
“Little thief,” Jean-Luc said good-naturedly and returned to Seth’s side with his hard-won scarf.
“You paid too much for it.”
“I know. Like I said, kid’s a little thief.” But he smiled as he looped the scarf around his neck. “Gotta admire him for it. Besides, what am I goin’ to do with a handful of afghani bills if we end up running around in the mountains? Up there, it’s only good for toilet paper. But a scarf? Now, mon ami, that’s useful.”
“Good point.” So there was a method to Jean-Luc’s madness after all. Because of his propensity to joke around more than anyone on the team, it was sometimes hard to remember he housed genius-level intellect behind that mischievous grin.
But still, these little shopping excursions were taking too much time. And Seth got twitchier with each passing second. Time to get their job done and get the fuck out of here. “Now let’s find Fahim and—”
“Ooh. Shiny.” Jean-Luc strayed from the path to another vendor’s blanket of goods.
Seth stopped walking and heaved a sigh. “You’re as bad as a crow feathering its nest.”
A sudden memory of Emma bobbed to the surface of his mind. She’d oohed and ahhed over the sparkly shit when they’d picked out an engagement ring before his deployment. Actually, kinda the same way Jean-Luc was now.
“Scratch that,” Seth said. “You’re more like an engaged woman in a jewelry store.”
Jean-Luc held up a hand, his knuckles adorned with different rings of varying sizes. “Aw, see, you have much to learn, grasshopper. Women adore sparkles. I adore women. Therefore, I buy sparkles to give to women and I get laid.”
“Jesus Christ. Does your every thought revolve around getting laid?”
“Pretty much. Doesn’t everyone’s?”
“No.” He hadn’t thought about sex since…well, since that night after he bought Emma her ring. And in all honesty, the idea of getting naked and sweaty with anyone ever again had bile surging into his throat. Hell to the no.
“See, that’s what’s wrong with the world today,” Jean-Luc said. “Everyone’s so…repressed. Politically, religiously, emotionally, sexually. Everyone needs to say fuck it, let it all go, have some fun, and just live.”
“Yeah, sure. That’s the problem with—” Paranoia crawled up the back of Seth’s neck and he turned to scan the marketplace. Was it him, or had the crowd thickened? He glanced from face to face, looking for the slightest hint of malicious intent. Save for one woman who seemed to be staring at him—it was hard to tell for sure through the veil of her traditional blue chadari—nobody paid any undue attention to him. So maybe it was nothing. Hell, with his track record for paranoid outbursts, it probably was nothing. But he swore he’d felt unfriendly eyes on his back moments ago and he wasn’t going to ignore his gut instinct again. Not after the way Ian had gotten the drop on him in the swamp back in Florida.
He tapped Jean-Luc’s arm. “We need to go.”
“Yeah?” The Ragin’ Cajun’s easy smile faded, but unless you were up close and personal with him, nobody else would have noticed the slight shift in his demeanor. He continued to examine the ring selection like everything was still hunky-dory. “What did you see?”
“Nothing.” And didn’t that make him feel stupid? “Just…gut feeling.”
“You don’t have the best track record with gut feelings, you know.”
“Yeah, but—” Seth cut himself off, spotting a man standing off to the side of the crowd, a cell phone raised to his ear. He carried on a very intense conversation with someone on the other end of the line and kept glancing in their direction.
All kinds of alarm bells sounded in Seth’s head. It was more than a gut feeling now. It was a goddamn fact and a strange sense of calm settled over him, the likes of which he hadn’t felt in years. “Hang on. Something’s going down at your eight. We need to find cover. Now.”
“Roger that.” Jean-Luc didn’t argue and dropped the rings, much to the vendor’s disappointment. He nodded to the indoor portion of the bazaar and, without another word, they made a beeline toward the awnings spread out like colorful fans from the side of the mud building. The man with the cell phone’s curse carried over the ambient noise and he tried to follow them, shoving his way through the crowd.
“You see him?” Seth asked.
“Yeah, good catch. Guess being a paranoid bastard has its uses.” They found cover behind an empty vendor booth just inside the building and waited, backs pressed against the wall.
The man jogged past, now shouting into the cell phone. His voice faded as he disappeared into the crowd.
“Merde.” Jean-Luc reached into his pack for the sat phone he’d gotten from Harvard before leaving the plane. “We don’t have long before they figure out we’re still inside. I’m gonna give Gabe a heads-up. Something about this whole sitch is fucked. Nobody should know who we are or why we’re here. Keep an eye out, grasshopper.”
As Jean-Luc tried to reach their commander, Seth edged out of the booth far enough to see what was going on around them. He kept his eyes moving like he’d been trained, always scanning, watching, assessing. He saw the woman in the blue veil again—at least he thought it was the same woman—but he didn’t see the guy with the cell phone. Still, that didn’t mean they were free and clear. Obviously their number one fan had buddies willing to join the party.
Whatever the party was.
Jean-Luc hung up the phone. “Piece of shit. I got nothing. We’re outta here. The only person who knew we would be here was Fahim, so either someone got to him or he was never on our side to begin with.”
“Damn. We need supplies.” Since it was usually much easier to secure supplies in-country than go through the international hassle of bringing their own, Fahim had been the mission’s lifeline. “Going up into the mountains, we’ll be wading deep into enemy shit. Without weapons, it’s suicide. And I’ve been there, done that, got the fucking bloodstained T-shirt, and I’m not up for a repeat, thanks.”
“We’ll find another supplier,” Jean-Luc said without much concern. “Trust me. Gabe’s backup plans have backup plans and if there’s one thing this team’s good at, it’s improvisation. Are we clear?”
Seth checked the area. There was the woman again. Was she…following him? “Clear.”
“All right.” Jean-Luc dusted his hands together. “So what do you say to some escape and evasion?”
Something niggled at the back of his mind. Most likely paranoia again, but he had to be sure. “No, not yet. Wait here a sec.”
Jean-Luc snorted. “Fuck that. You ever see a horror movie? The pretty one always dies first when they split up and I’m too young to bite it. We’re sticking together.”
Seth rolled his eyes and ducked into the crowd.
Jean-Luc was right on his heels. “Whoa. If I didn’t know you any better, I’d think you just smiled. Did it hurt?”
He flipped off the Ragin’ Cajun over his shoulder. But, yeah, he was smiling. It felt really damn good to be part of a team again.
It couldn’t be him.
Phoebe shook her head and stared down at the eggplant she was holding. What the hell? She didn’t need eggplant. She set it back on the table and, distracted, she continued past several other vendors offering different kinds of veggies.
Could it be him?
She glanced up at the same moment the man in the hooded sweatshirt looked in her direction and for a breathless heartbeat, she thought their gazes locked. Of course, that was silly. Her face was covered by the chadari and although she could see out, he couldn’t possibly see in. Still, his blue eyes stayed on her for a beat longer than necessary before he continued his scan of the crowd.
Dammit, she just couldn’t tell with that hood up over his head. It looked like him, but why would he be back in Afghanistan? No doubt this was the last place on earth he’d visit.
Her mind had to be playing tricks on her. It wasn’t the first time she thought she’d seen Seth Harlan in a crowd, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Guilt was nasty like that.
The man and his blond friend disappeared indoors, where bread and dried fruit were sold. She didn’t need either, but…
Because if it was him, she could finally—do what? Apologize? Yes, that’d go over well. Hi, Seth. You don’t know me, but I wrote some really horrible things about you two years ago and I just wanted to say I’m so sorry for ruining your credibility…
It most likely wasn’t him anyway, but at least now she had a distraction from the frustration roiling under her skin. She’d taken her photos of Tehani—face blurred to preserve the girl’s identity, of course—and the bomb vest to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and had gotten nowhere. It was like nobody cared that Tehani’s husband, obviously a man of power, was using his young wives as suicide bombers when he tired of them.
She just didn’t get it. What was the point of having a Ministry of Women’s Affairs if she couldn’t even get past the front desk to talk to the minister? She’d just have to try again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that. All else failed, she’d take it public herself. If there was one thing she could do well, it was creating a media firestorm.
Which, of course, brought her mind back to Seth Harlan.
Pausing just inside the door, Phoebe searched for the man in the hooded sweatshirt. The two men should be easy enough to spot. Blonds like his friend tended to stick out here in a land full of people with brown skin and dark hair. For that matter, so did men with blue eyes.
Except she couldn’t find them. A lot of people wandered up and down the aisle, but none were the blue-eyed man or his companion.
She frowned. Now hold on a second. They couldn’t have vanished.
Unless her mind really was playing tricks.
She wandered back outside and looked around. Nope. Whoever he was, he’d given her the slip. Sighing at herself, she decided she was too tired and frustrated to continue shopping and cut through the market with the intention of returning to the shelter.
Crossing streets in Kabul was a bit like a real-life version of Frogger. One wrong move and splat! Game over. Getting to the other side in one piece always took patience and no small amount of skill. Unlike natives who darted out no matter what was barreling their way, Phoebe preferred to play it safe and wait for a break in the traffic. Sometimes it took a while, but waiting was better than ending up a road pancake.
As she stood on the curb, she sensed a presence looming too close behind her. Alarm crawled up her spine and she toyed nervously with the strap of the bag on her shoulder. She usually didn’t have problems going out alone in Kabul—as long as she wore the chadari, men saw her as a modest Muslim woman and left her alone. It was when she wore only a head scarf that she ran into trouble. Her light-copper hair and pale skin stuck out in a crowd, so as much as she hated thechadari as a symbol of oppression, it also provided a modicum of safety. She understood why many women feared to give it up even after the Taliban regime fell.
Finally, there was a lull in traffic and she nipped between a lumbering bus and a taxi. Whoever was behind her stayed on her butt and his shadow fell over hers as the sun sank to their backs.
Probably just someone going in the same direction as her. Nothing to get worked up about. And yet she couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes locked on the back of her head. Her heart kicked into a panicked gallop and sweat trickled into her eyes under her veil.
Oh crap. If she was being followed, she couldn’t lead this person to the shelter.
Making a split-second decision, she darted back across the road, barely avoiding a motorbike that jumped onto the sidewalk to get around the stalled traffic. With a squeak of surprise, she dropped her basket and stumbled backward.
An arm clamped around her waist from behind and jerked her against a lean, hard body as a big hand clamped over her mouth.