God help him if he didn’t make it to the airport by seven.
Bryson Van Amee checked his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes and frowned. Armando, his usual driver, was as prompt and reliable as the sunrise, and just as cheerful, which was why Bryson—who was not a morning person—always requested him.
Of all the days for him to be late.
Bryson tamped down a hot surge of fear-laced irritation. He had to meet his incoming cargo in Barranquilla and make a three p.m. appointment in Cartagena, and he did not want to piss off this particular client. Just thinking about it made him sweat. Yes, he should have known better than to dip his toes into the murky pool of the gray market, but with that first not-quite-legal gun shipment, he had jumped in with both feet. Now, as he sank into the deep abyss of the black market, where all manner of nasty predators lurked, he couldn’t find a life vest. No wonder his heart had been acting up over the past several months.
He tapped his foot, checked his watch again, checked the street. A skinny tabby cat perched on the edge of a dumpster in the alley behind him, but there was no other soul around. Even the vendor that sold handmade knickknacks, who always set up his rollaway shop on the low stone wall across the street, hadn’t made it out yet.
Bryson normally enjoyed that Colombian attitude of I’ll get there when I get there. No mad dashes through morning traffic with a Starbucks cup sloshing mocha frappe crap all over his Porsche. For a man used to the impatient get-up-and-go of American cities, visiting the laid-back country of Colombia was always a nice change of pace.
Except when his driver was running late.
Another quick check of the watch, street, watch. Twenty minutes late. Damn, he should have bought Armando a cell phone last time he was in town. At least then, he would have been able to call and find out what the holdup was.
He reached into his pocket for his own phone. He hated to report Armando to the limo company when the man had been so good to him, but he needed another car. Now.
Just as he swiped away the photo of his wife and kids on the iPhone’s screen, the phone rang and his sister’s grinning face popped up on the display. Audrey.
He considered ignoring her call—but, God, what if she’d gotten herself into a mess again? He thumbed the answer button and her face filled the screen. Make-up free, her golden brown hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, she looked so much younger than her twenty-seven years.
“Hi, Brys,” she said with a bright smile. She’d always been a disgustingly chipper morning person, even as a baby.
“Something wrong, sweetie?” he asked. “Are you okay? Do you need more money?”
“I’m fine.” She rolled her eyes and raised a coffee mug to her mouth.
God, coffee. He’d forgotten to grab a cup in his rush to get out the door and his mouth watered for a taste.
“And I’ve told you a thousand times,” Audrey added after taking a sip, “I don’t need or want your money.”
The hell she didn’t need it. “You can’t tell me you’re making enough doing caricature sketches for tourists.”
“Uh, well, no. I’m not doing caricatures anymore.”
Bryson suppressed the groan rumbling inside his chest, took off his square-framed glasses, and rubbed his eyes. He loved his baby sister, he truly did, but dealing with her was tiring and not what he needed this early in the morning when he was stressing out about the missing–
Ah, there it is.
The shiny black limo rounded the corner at the top of the street and cruised to a stop in front of his apartment complex. Instead of short, balding Armando, a tall dark-haired man got out of the driver’s seat.
“Señor Van Amee?”
“Just a minute, Audrey,” he said before addressing the driver in Spanish, “What happened to Armando?”
“His son is very sick and had to go to the hospital. I apologize for the delay. It took some time to find a replacement,” the driver answered, hustled around the car, and opened the back door. He wasn’t dressed in a suit, but Armando didn’t always wear one either. “I am Jacinto. I’ll get you to the airport in no time.”
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He’d used this limo company for years now and had never seen Jacinto before. “Are you new?”
“Just started, Señor.”
Bryson shifted on his feet, checked his watch again. The idea of using a driver he hadn’t screened made him itch but, dammit, what other choice did he have? Barring any morning traffic or an incident at the airport, he should still make both his appointments on time if he left right this very second.
He climbed into the limo.
“Audrey, you still there?” Bryson asked as the driver slid behind the wheel and put up the privacy partition. A moment later, the limo started with a purr and pulled away from the curb.
So maybe Jacinto would do just fine as a replacement. Professional, friendly, and discreet—all excellent qualities in a driver. If his background check came up clean, it wouldn’t hurt to keep him in mind for the future in case another emergency cropped up with Armando’s family.
Bryson made a mental note to find out which hospital Armando’s son was at and send a get well gift. Or money if the family needed it.
“I’m here,” Audrey said and reappeared on the screen. “Ran for a coffee refill. Are you busy?”
“On my way to a meeting.”
“I won’t keep you then. I just wanted to make sure you remembered my opening next weekend at Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. You said you’d come.”
Uh-oh. Her art show in San José, Costa Rica. He’d forgotten all about it. He checked the schedule on his phone. Could possibly move a couple meetings around, but that would take a lot of shuffling just to indulge her and her silly hobbies. “I’m sorry, Audrey, but—”
She set her coffee mug on the table in front of her with a hard thunk. “Brys, you promised!”
“Sweetie, I have some very important business deals happening that weekend, none of which I can shove back, and I have to be in L.A. on Sunday morning for…” He shook his head as his train of thought slid away. What was he saying?
Audrey. Paintings. Work.
It was an old argument, one he could have while gagged and blindfolded, and he settled on one of his pat responses since his mind was suddenly, strangely blurry. “If you want to stay in that condo, I need to work and that means meetings.”
“Well, guess what?”
No, he really didn’t want to guess. She had that petulant look on her face—drawn brows, a poked out lower lip. The same look that had gotten her anything she wanted as a child. The one that told him he would not like the next words out of her mouth.
“I don’t live in the condo. Never did. I sold it the week after you left and gave the money to a charity. I gave your accountant the receipt for your taxes.”
“You what?” Oh God, then where was she living? Hopefully not in another beach shack with no indoor plumbing. His parents would roll over in their graves if they knew their precious baby girl enjoyed living one minuscule step up above a homeless person.
“I told you I didn’t want it in the first place,” she continued. “I was happy in Quepos. I was happy in my little hut. Don’t you get that?”
“No, I—” His vision blurred. He blinked a couple times and when that didn’t clear away the fuzziness, he pressed his fingers into his eyelids. Boy, was he tired. All of his time zone hopping was catching up to him. Maybe he should ask Jacinto to stop somewhere for a cup of hot, bold Colombian coffee.
On second thought, if he drank some, he wouldn’t be able to sleep on the short plane ride to Barranquilla. A nap hadn’t been in his original plan—he intended to review contracts on the plane like he always did—but with the way he felt now, a nap was probably the best idea. Last thing he needed was to be sluggish around the people he was meeting this afternoon.
“Are you even listening to me?” Audrey said, and he blinked her blurry face into focus. Had—had she been talking? He opened his mouth to answer, but his tongue wouldn’t wrap itself around her name.
Something was wrong. He tried again and only managed to croak out, “Aw-ree.”
“Bryson?” Her tone sharpened with worry, but he could no longer make out her features on the little screen. “Are you okay?”
No. No, he was not okay, but when he tried to tell her, the words slurred off his lips and barely made sense to his own ears. Was he having a stroke? He was only forty-three, but it wasn’t unheard of. Or an aneurysm? His head pounded and the inside of the limo spun around him. He’d had that scare last summer, a mini heart attack, and his doctors had warned him to slow it down a little. They said if a clot broke off, it could travel to his brain and–
“Aw-ree,” he gasped and fumbled the phone in hands that felt as clumsy as catchers’ mitts. It landed hard on the floor. He scrambled after it, clutched it like a lifeline. “Eh nee…elp.”
Jacinto. He had to get the driver’s attention.
Gasping, dizzy, Bryson crawled across the soft leather seat and pounded a weak fist on the partition. The tinted window slid down, and at first, he thought he was hallucinating. Huge bug eyes stared back at him. Some sort of insect now drove the car and—no, not an insect. Jacinto was wearing a gas mask.
He collapsed face-first on the seat and turned his head to the side, staring through hazy eyes at the mini fridge across the car. He reached out a hand. Maybe there was something in there… Something he could use to break out the window… Something…
“Tranquilo,” Jacinto said, his voice warped by the mask, but still as friendly as ever. Like he was talking about a fútbol game. Or the traffic. Or the weather. “Let it happen, Señor Van Amee. Go to sleep now. I won’t hurt you. You’re worth too much money.”
DOMINICAL, COSTA RICA
Audrey watched her computer screen in horror as her brother’s face went slack and his eyelids fluttered closed. The phone slipped out of his hand and sent her on a jarring ride to the floor of a limo. Or what she assumed to be a limo. She leaned closer to the screen, saw a curved ceiling, part of a black seat, and the toe of Bryson’s Italian loafer.
Scrambling. A thump. The picture wobbled and she caught disjoined glimpses of his face, a mini-fridge, the seat, his face again.
“Aw-ree, eh nee…elp”
Her heart thundered blood through her ears and she barely heard his mumbled whisper. She leaned closer. “What? What’s wrong?”
His face slipped away and the picture tumbled into another jerky freefall. White shirt sleeve. Gold watch. White shirt sleeve. He must be crawling across the seat, still hanging onto the phone. And then–
Audrey leapt to her feet, her coffee splashing out of its mug, her chair crashing backward. Vaguely, she registered it knocking into her easel across the kitchen, heard the half-finished painting she’d been working on last night crash to the floor. But she didn’t give a damn. Her whole world centered on the computer screen, where a tinted partition slid down and a man in a gas mask told her brother that he was worth too much money.
The screen blanked.
No. Audrey shook her head in denial and turned around in a slow circle. Her kitchen, with its eclectic mix of art and cooking supplies, looked exactly the same as it had when she woke up an hour ago. The coffee pot hissed as the last of the new pot brewed. Her dolphin-shaped cookie jar, which chirped like the dolphins that hung out by her dock when opened, grinned at her from the countertop. Sheet-wrapped paintings waited propped against the wall for their upcoming trip to San José.
All the same. And yet, she must have just stepped into a Twilight Zone episode.
She refocused on the computer screen. Skype had ended the call and now rested on her homepage with her list of contacts. Bryson’s name sat at the top of the list.
She straightened her chair, sat down, and tried to call him. The ringtone buzzed. And buzzed. And buzzed.
No answer. Would she like to retry the call?
She blinked back the tears burning her eyes and jabbed yes.
Gabe Bristow never thought he’d live to see his own retirement party. Never thought he’d have a retirement party if he did live that long, but this black tie soiree was so typical of his mother. If Catherine Bristow couldn’t find an excuse to entertain, she made one up. Wedding? Throw a party. Funeral? Throw a party. Global disaster? Throw a party in the bomb shelter. Personal disaster? Throw a party and invite the who’s who of D.C. politics.
This forced medical retirement definitely qualified as a personal disaster in Gabe’s book, so of course, every Tom, Dick, and Jane on Capitol Hill were arriving downstairs in their best monkey suits and gowns.
Standing in front of a mirror in his boyhood bedroom, Gabe straightened his cuffs and then just stared at his reflection. Man, he always figured the next time he wore all of his medals, he’d be in a casket wrapped in an American flag. He’d have preferred it that way. This whole retirement thing felt wrong on so many different levels.
“Oooh, bro, lookin’ good. I do love a man in uniform.”
Gabe lifted his gaze to see Rafael, his youngest brother, propped in the doorway, wearing a hot pink vest over a black shirt, black trousers with a pink satin stripe down the outer seams, and a pink and white striped tie. He carried a black wool jacket over his shoulder and wore a pair of dark shades against the afternoon sunshine. One bright pink highlight streaked his dark hair over his left eye.
Their parents would have a conniption when they saw Raffi today. God love him.
“You’re trying to give the Admiral a heart attack, aren’t you?”
Raffi waggled his brows. “That’s the idea. Why else do you think I act so fabulouswhen he’s around?” He stepped into the room and performed a quick turn, topped off with a fanciful flourish of his arms. “Like?”
“No, it looks ridiculous. And you’re not doing yourself any favors by perpetuating this”—Gabe waved a hand to indicate the pink monstrosity of a tux—“stereotype whenever you come home.”
“But it’s so much fun to see that vein throb next to Dad’s eye.”
“Raf, c’mon, man. Drop the act. I know exactly how much his prejudice hurts you, and beating him over the head with a rainbow stick every time you see him won’t make it any easier for him to accept you.”
“I don’t want that man’s acceptance.” His tone said he’d rather lick a platoon of combat boots clean than admit he needed anything from the Admiral. He pointed an accusing finger. “And neither should you.”
“Stubborn,” Gabe muttered.
“Hard ass.” Raffi plopped down on the edge of the bed with a long-suffering sigh. “Dad raised his little sailor so well. It’s sad.”
“Hey, I like—” No. Past tense. He had to use past tense now. Gabe paused, drew a breath, and corrected himself, “Liked being on the teams.”
“Okay, you liked it. Though God knows why anyone would like being a SEAL.” Raffi propped his chin in his hand and lifted his brows in question. “So…you’re going into private soldiering, then?”
“Soldiering? Are you trying to insult me?”
“Soldiering, or sailor…ing?” He waved a hand. “You know what I mean. Are you going into the private sector?”
Gabe stifled a groan. This again. He’d already told his best friend and former SEAL teammate, Travis Quinn, that he was not going merc. Several times. In fact, just about every day since the car accident that ended both of their careers last year. “Lemme guess. Quinn talked to you.”
“Mm-hmm. A minute ago, downstairs. And let me just say, it’s a damn shame that guy’s straight.”
This time Gabe did groan. “Raffi, man, I love you, but please don’t talk about my friends like that. It puts pictures in my head and weirds me out.”
“That’s why I do it.” He grinned. “Anyway, for some reason, Quinn thought I’d be able to talk some sense into you. As if anyone can talk ol’ Stonewall Bristow into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”
If anyone could, it would be Raffi. Gabe respected his youngest brother more than any other man on the planet, and Quinn knew it. That sly bastard.
“For the record,” Raffi added and rested his chin on his laced fingers, “I think it’s a great idea. Way better than Dad’s plans for you.”
True. The job the Admiral had lined up for him at the Pentagon was—God, he didn’t even know what to call it. “Boring” came to mind. So did “mindless.”
“Gabe, can I ask you something?” Raffi said after a moment of silence.
“No, but that’s never stopped you before.” Resigned to the lecture he knew he was about to get, Gabe limped over to where his jacket lay on the bed, light glinting off his rows of medals. It always surprised him how many he had. He just did his job and never much cared about the number before—but, man, now he’d never get another one. And how fucking depressing was that?
“Well, I’m curious,” Raffi said. “Did you turn Quinn down because you really don’t want to go private, or because it would put you on level with Darth Vader in Dad’s eyes?”
Inwardly, Gabe faltered, his heart doing a little two-step even though his hands stayed calm, his face schooled into an expressionless mask. “I don’t see why it matters. I’m not going into the private sector. End of story.”
“It does matter. Big time.” Raffi watched him with a rare serious look in his eyes. “That’s it, isn’t it? Look, Gabe, if you’re holding yourself back because of the Admiral’s narrow-minded views—well, we both know how I feel about that. Tell him to go fuck himself sideways with a spoon, then do what makes you happy. And you, brother dear, are only happy if you’re out in some godforsaken wasteland of a country, risking life and limb, saving the world. Go work with Quinn.”
“At least think about it? For me?”
“Fine.” He was so going to find Quinn and throttle him for dragging Raffi into this. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
It took several hours of elbow rubbing with political so-and-sos before Gabe finally tracked Quinn down in the crowd. He stood in the most shadowed corner of the room, naturally, stiff in his dress whites, eyeing the horde of D.C.’s most powerful as if he expected an attack at any moment.
Not a surprise.
Quinn had earned the nickname “Achilles” during BUD/S training. A warrior to his marrow, all but indestructible since nobody had found his heel yet. His only concession that this was a party and not an op was the slender flute of champagne he held.
Gabe stalked toward him.
“This place is a terrorist attack waiting to happen,” Quinn muttered and lifted his glass in a salute to the room.
Yeah, it was, and securing the damn mansion had been a nightmare, but that was beside the point. “Seriously, Q, you’re a rank bastard for siccing Raffi on me.”
His lips twitched. “Did it work?”
Gabe thought about the glittering crowd he’d been forced to schmooze with all afternoon and held back a wince. Did he really want the rest of his life to consist of politics and state dinners? Because if he lived in D.C. fulltime, the Admiral would guilt-trip him into attending. More importantly, did he really want to live under his father’s thumb again? Oh no. Make that, oh hell no.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “It worked.”
“But answer me something first. Why don’t you want to command this private team by yourself?”
“You know me.” He took a long swallow of champagne. “Would rather take orders than issue them.”
“Since always. You have command in your blood. Me, I’m just one of the rank and file.”
“Incoming.” Quinn eyed the Admiral, who had spotted them and was making a beeline for their position. For some reason, the Admiral had never liked Quinn, pictured him as a bad influence even though he was the most squared-away guy Gabe knew.
“Better get back to the party before Admiral Stick-up-the-Ass blows a gasket,” Quinn said. “Meet me outside in twenty. If you’re serious, there’s someone here I want you to meet. Oh, and you can remember to thank me for saving your sorry ass from a desk job anytime now.”
He wasn’t joking.
Gabe snorted in response. “You really are a bastard.” He waited until Quinn lifted his glass to his lips before adding, “But Raffi thinks you’re hot.”
As he walked away, he had the great pleasure of watching the unflappable Achilles choke on his champagne.
Gabe slipped outside twenty minutes later, found Quinn and another tuxedo-clad man on the terrace overlooking the garden. Well, if it wasn’t Tucker Quentin. A businessman with sights on a senate seat, Gabe recognized Tucker from other political shindigs around Washington, but had never spoken to him before.
“Ah, the man of the hour. Lieutenant Commander Bristow,” Tucker said as Gabe hobbled toward them. His foot hurt like hell, but he’d left his damn cane inside somewhere.
“Gabe,” he corrected. “I’m not in the Navy anymore.”
“Don’t give me that load.” Tucker flashed a smile worthy of his Hollywood roots. “We get out, but we never leave. I’ve been gone from the Rangers for ten years, but my men still call me L.T.” He held out a hand. “Tuc Quentin.”
Gabe ignored it. “I know. So you’re the guy that put the idea of a private hostage rescue team in Quinn’s head.”
“No,” Quinn said. “I heard Tuc was thinking of putting one together and approached him about funding us.”
Tuc nodded. “On paper, you’ll be employees of Quentin Enterprises, specifically HumInt Consulting, Inc., but save for a quarterly expense report and the occasional contract I’ll throw your way, I plan to have nothing more to do with your team. If you come to me for advice, of course I’ll be glad to give it, but otherwise it’s yours to run as you see fit.”
“Why?” Gabe asked.
“I already have several teams working for HumInt, plus a multi-billion dollar empire to run.” His lips twisted. “I think I’m quite busy enough.”
“No, I mean why are you doing this? People don’t hand out free money and expect nothing in return.” Especially not savvy businessmen, but Gabe couldn’t figure out Tucker Quentin’s angle.
Tuc leaned his forearms on the balustrade and studied the garden in the courtyard. “That garden’s amazing.”
“What are you getting out of this?” Gabe repeated.
“Quinn’s right. You’re tenacious as hell. Perfect for this job.”
Yeah, right. Gabe bit back the automatic response. If that were true, if he was perfect for any command position, the Navy wouldn’t have tossed him and his bum foot to the curb. He shifted his weight, suddenly very aware of the pain.
“Why?” Gabe asked again. Meaning, why me? But he’d be damned before putting a voice to that insecurity.
Tuc twirled the stem of his champagne glass between his fingers. “The brother of one of my men was taken hostage recently and we were unprepared to handle it. I don’t want that happening again. I’m a big believer in being prepared, and you have an admirable reputation in the spec ops community. I only ask that if I contract you for a job, it’s given top priority. You of all people must understand how important my men are to me. They’re family.”
Gabe briefly met Quinn’s stare and then nodded once. He understood, all right, and his respect for Tuc ratcheted up a notch. “Should the occasion call for it, you and your men will have top priority.”
“Thank you. So.” Tuc finished his champagne in one swallow and pushed away from the balustrade. “Quinn tells me you have a team lined up from the dossiers I gave him.”
Gabe honestly didn’t know and looked at Quinn, who nodded and said, “We had six men submit resumes.”
“Their qualifications?” Gabe asked.
“Couple ex-CIA spooks, an FBI negotiator, a Delta Force medic, an explosives tech…” His eyes slid away for the barest instant before he continued. “And a Marine sniper. They’re all experts in their fields—”
“Whoa, wait.” Gabe held up a hand. “What sniper?” He got nothing but a whole lot of stubborn silence in response and shook his head in disbelief. “Goddamn. You’re talking about Seth Harlan, aren’t you? The same Seth Harlan that—”
“I recommended him for a position. He’s an excellent sniper,” Quinn said with an expression on his face that dared Gabe to argue. Well, he’d take that dare.
“Q, are you out of your fucking mind? Harlan’s unstable.”
“He’s better now.”
“Good for him.” When Quinn just gave him a long stare, the kind that always made him feel like a complete ass, he added, “Listen, I give the kid credit for surviving what he did, I do. And I know you have a soft spot for him, but he’s traumatized. Who wouldn’t be? I don’t want that kind of baggage weighing down my team. Think about it. What if he has a psychotic break in the middle of an op?”
Quinn held his gaze a moment longer, then swore softly. “Yeah, you’re right. I know you’re right, but—shit. All right. Harlan’s out.” He turned back to Tuc. “The only man I haven’t been able to reach yet is the linguist, Jean-Luc Cavalier. Apparently he lives in the middle of the bayou and has spotty cell service.”
“If you want him, you’d better find a way to get in touch,” Tuc said. “Because I already have a job for you. I was recently contacted by Zoeller and Zoeller Insurance Company, on behalf of Bryson Van Amee. Have you heard of him?”
Gabe had. “He’s in imports and exports and does a lot of subcontracting for the military.”
“That’s right. Bryson was taken hostage this morning in Bogotá during a business trip. The FBI fears one of the guerilla groups may be responsible.”
Gabe nodded. Wealthy American businessman plus Colombian paramilitary—yeah, the math added up, and the sum didn’t look good for Bryson Van Amee.
“The FBI is working with his wife, Chloe,” Tuc continued, “but Zoeller and Zoeller wants to free him before a ransom is paid, or else they’ll be liable for a hefty kidnap and ransom insurance payout.”
“Does the FBI know what Zoeller’s doing?” Gabe asked.
Tuc gave a thin smile. “What do you think?”
That’d be a big negative. Okay, he wasn’t all that crazy about working against the FBI—well, maybe “against” was too harsh a word, since they all wanted the same results. Still. It somehow seemed a betrayal of his former career.
“I understand your hesitation,” Tuc said after the silence stretched too long on his end. “Believe me, I do. I had some bad moments when I went private. But I’d also like to point out that the FBI hasn’t sent a team in after him and isn’t planning to. They’re hoping to simply talk his abductors down or, if all else fails, pay the ransom. He’s not important enough to them. Even with his government contracts, he’s a small fish in the grand scheme of things, and Uncle Sam could care less about what happens to him. But that man’s damn important to his wife and kids, his sister, his company—and you’re his best chance at survival.”
Gabe considered it. He had two choices. Go wheels up, sneak in under the FBI’s nose, and bring Bryson Van Amee home to his family, or gimp back to his boring new job at the Pentagon, where he would forever be under the Admiral’s thumb. Yeah. When put that way, there was really only one choice.
“Q, we have to get mobilization orders to the men,” Gabe said, his mind already working through the logistics. He checked his watch. “Tell them to be ready at—wait, do you have a plane for us?” he asked Tuc.
“Fueled and ready to go. You’ll also have helos and a HumInt pilot at your disposal here and in-country.”
“Perfect. We’ll need one to dig Cavalier out of his hole in the bayou.”
Tuc snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“Tell the men to be at their local airport for a 0400 pickup,” Gabe said to Quinn. “I’ll swing by Louisiana and grab Cavalier, then meet you at…” He trailed off.
“I have a private airstrip about forty miles outside New Orleans,” Tuc suggested. “My pilots all know where it is.”
“That works. Thanks. We’ll come up with a plan of attack once everyone is together and we have more intel, but we need to get moving.”
“On it,” Quinn said, already dialing. He tucked the cell phone between his shoulder and ear as he strode toward the relative privacy at the other side of the balcony. “Hey, Marcus, it’s Quinn…”
Tuc turned toward Gabe and held out a hand. “I’ll have all the information you need before you leave. Welcome to HumInt Consulting, Bristow.”
Gabe shook the offered hand. And tried to tell himself he hadn’t made a pact with the devil.
NEW ORLEANS, LA
Jean-Luc Cavalier was drunk.
And naked, buried underneath a pile of equally drunk and naked women. Three women to be exact.
None of them moved when Gabe knocked on the wood doorframe of Cavalier’s shack, so he let himself in through the screen door.
“Cavalier.” Gabe nudged the guy’s head with his boot.
Jean-Luc mumbled something in French and palmed one woman’s ass, gave it a squeeze, then drifted back to sleep with a smile.
Jesus Christ. This is what his life had come to? Scraping a drunk linguist off the floor so that he had enough men for an op? He never would have found one of his SEAL teammates like this if they were waiting for a call to go wheels up.
Gabe sighed, picked a half-empty bottle of wine off the end table, and dumped the contents over Jean-Luc’s face.
“Huh? Wha—?” Jean-Luc sputtered and blinked up at Gabe. “Merde!” He scrambled to his feet and cussed in a lively string of Cajun French. His shoulder-length blond hair looked as if someone had styled it with a handheld mixer. “I didn’t know she was married. I swear. She didn’t have a ring.”
“Which one?” Gabe asked, eyeing the women as they stirred to life. Girls Gone Wild, the morning after. Not pretty.
“Any of them!”
Gabe had to clear his throat to hide a laugh. “I’m nobody’s husband. I’m your new boss, Gabe Bristow.”
“Oh.” He looked confused at that and ran a hand over his face. Then, “Ohh. HORNET.”
“I thought all you military types like acronyms.” He rooted around through a heap of discarded clothing, tossed some to the women, and pulled on a pair of khaki shorts. “HumInt Inc.’s Hostage Rescue and Negotiation Team is a mouthful, so I shortened it. HORNET.”
Leave it to the linguist to come up with something like that. “We have a job in Colombia. That is, if you’re still interested.”
“Fuck, yeah. I’ve been bored mindless.”
“Looks it,” Gabe said.
The plane arrived at the private airfield fifteen minutes past 0800. Thank God. If Gabe had to listen to another of Jean-Luc’s tone-deaf renditions of whatever song came over the radio, he might just draw his firearm and shoot the man.
It was a big plane. Bigger than Gabe had expected, and each of the five men already aboard had claimed a row of the plush seats for himself. The former FBI agent, Marcus Deangelo, dozed in the second row, a plaid fedora pulled down over his face, his legs crossed at the ankle, blocking the aisle. Jean-Luc reached over the seat and flipped the fedora off his head.
“Hey!” Marcus snatched his fedora back, blinking against the light. “Asshole. I should—whoa, it’s the Ragin’ Cajun.” He laughed as he sat up and slapped Jean-Luc a high five. “Dude, you smell like a wine cellar.”
“Better than a Calvin Klein cologne ad.” Jean-Luc grinned and plopped into an empty seat in the fourth row beside Eric Physick. “Harvard! Where y’at? How’s post-Company life treatin’ ya?”
Former CIA analyst Eric “Harvard” Physick chuckled and set aside the crossword puzzle he’d been working on. “I should have figured you’d sign on for this. I’m fine. How about you? Learn any new languages lately?”
Jean-Luc answered in a musical string of words. Harvard tilted his head to one side, listening. “Is that… Yucatec Maya?”
“That it is. I said ‘you bet your ass, I have.’”
“Fluent?” Harvard asked.
“Pretty damn close.”
“That’s what, thirteen now? You’ve been busy.”
“You have no idea. Let me tell y’all about the night I had.”
Within minutes, Jean-Luc had everyone on the plane laughing at his night of adventure with the three women. The jet coasted toward the runway and the seatbelt light came on with a ding.
Gabe sat next to Quinn in the front row. “So, what do you think?”
Laughter exploded behind them. Quinn shook his head, but didn’t look up from reading the file on his lap. “It’s going to be interesting. To say the least.”
“That the intel Tuc sent?”
“Yes.” He handed it over as the plane picked up speed and pushed them back in their seats. “Bryson Van Amee is worth around a quarter of a billion dollars.”
“Has a ransom demand been issued yet?” Gabe asked.
“About an hour ago, according to Tuc’s sources. Sixty-two point five million.”
“That’s pretty damn high for one guy.”
“No. What it is, is damn specific. In fact…” Quinn slid a calculator from the bag at his feet and punched in some numbers. “It’s exactly a quarter of Van Amee’s worth.”
And, Gabe noted, the maximum amount Van Amee’s kidnap and ransom insurance would cover. “That can’t be a coincidence.”
“So what are we dealing with?” Quinn asked. “Tangos who do their homework?”
“Too soon to tell.” The plane leveled out and a moment later, the seatbelt light went off. “Suppose it’s time to brief the troops.”
Quinn grunted. “If you can call them that.”
Gabe stood and braced his hands on the backs of the seats on either side of the aisle. Pain spiked through his foot, but he’d be damned if he relied on his cane. Last thing he needed was to show any sign of weakness in front of this ragtag group.
He waited a moment. When nobody quieted down, he put his fingers to his mouth and gave a sharp whistle that echoed around the plane’s interior in the silent aftermath.
“Gentlemen, listen up. I’d like to introduce myself before we get started. My name’s Gabe Bristow. You’ve all been dealing with Quinn, my XO, but from now on, you’ll answer to me.”
“Do you expect us to salute?” Ian Reinhardt asked. His motorcycle jacket creaked as he raised an arm and gave a cheeky two-finger salute. “Sir.”
So this was the explosive ordnance expert. After reading everyone’s dossiers on the way to New Orleans, he’d known Ian might be a problem. The guy was bad attitude personified. “No, I don’t expect that. However, showing some respect for a fellow teammate wouldn’t hurt.”
“Bite me,” Ian said.
Oh, yeah. This was going to be fun. “Do I look like a fucking vampire, Reinhardt? And if you have a problem with my leadership…” He turned, walked to a closet at the front of the plane, grabbed one of the parachutes he’d asked Quinn to pack, and tossed it to Ian. “Strap in. The door’s right there. Go find yourself a new job.”
Ian caught the chute and his dark eyes locked on Gabe’s in a game of chicken for a long moment. Then he flashed a smile that held just an edge of malice and tossed the chute back. “Nah, I don’t have a problem with you, Bristow. I like your style. We’ll get along fine.”
“Let’s hope, because I have no use for disrespectful assholes on my team. Those guys get their teammates killed, and I want everyone here to go home to their families when this is over. You clear on that?”
Ian grunted something that may have been an agreement. Or, more likely, a fuck you.
Gabe decided he’d have to chat with Reinhardt about his attitude at some point in the next few hours.
He took a moment to replace the parachute in the closet, then returned to his spot in front of his men.
“Our objective is to find and rescue this man, Bryson Van Amee, before any ransom money is paid.” He opened the folder Quinn handed him and held up the businessman’s photo. “He’s forty-three years old, five-eleven, one-eighty, with thinning brown hair, brown eyes. He co-founded The Bryda Corporation twelve years ago with his college roommate, has been married to his wife, Chloe, for five years, and is the father of two young boys, Ashton, five, and Grayson, three. His parents are deceased, so he also provides for his younger sister, Audrey, twenty-seven, a struggling artist.”
“In an ideal situation,” Quinn said and passed around copies of the file, “we’d have trained together for a couple months before taking on our first mission, but we don’t have that luxury. Most of you have been on this type of op before, so we’re confident we can pull together and bring Bryson home to his wife and kids.”
“This is truly a trial-by-fire, gentlemen,” Gabe agreed. “We fail and this man will at best live the next few years of his life in some Colombian jungle shithole. At worst, he dies. Neither of those outcomes is acceptable.” He gave them a moment, letting the grim reality of this mission settle into their minds. The lighthearted mood dissipated as everyone got their game faces on. “I expect you to know the information in this file inside and out by the time we land.”
“Has there been a ransom demand yet?” Marcus Deangelo asked.
“Sixty million and some change,” Quinn said. “It’s all there in the file.”
“Who’s taking responsibility?” Harvard asked.
“A new terrorist faction calling themselves Ejército del Pueblo de Colombia, the People’s Army of Colombia, or EPC,” Gabe said. “All we know about them is that they broke off from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia about six months ago and have been on a terror campaign ever since.
“That’s where Harvard comes in.” He turned toward Eric Physick, who had a rep as one of the best analysts ever to work for the CIA. A genius with more brain than brawn—something Gabe would have to fix if the kid wanted a chance of staying on this team. “We need you to gather as much intel as possible on the EPC. Who, what, where, how—get me everything available. We’re working against the clock. The FBI will only be able to stall the ransom drop for so long and I don’t want to go up against these guys blind.”
Harvard nodded, picked up his laptop case, and unzipped it. “You’ll know the basics by the time we get to Colombia. The rest will take me a little longer.”
“Thanks.” Gabe refocused on the rest of the men. “Okay, so here’s how the team’s going to work. Harvard will control base camp and all the comms, including all contact with the hostage takers, should it come to that. Harvard, make a list of everything you might need and you’ll have it when we land.”
The kid nodded, but didn’t look up from his computer.
“Jesse Warrick will function as our medic. Anyone gets hurt, we defer to him. If you need anything, Jesse, let either Quinn or me know and we’ll get it for you.”
Jesse tipped the brim of his Stetson back with one knuckle and patted the bulging bag on the seat next to him. “I travel with my own supplies, thanks,” he drawled. “But I do want access to medical records and everyone needs to have a physical exam in the next twenty-four hours so I have a baseline reading should one of ya get hurt.”
“Done.” Gabe studied the group. “We’ll rely on Jean-Luc as our translator. Anyone else fluent in Spanish?”
“Mine’s passable,” Jesse answered.
“All I remember from Spanish class is un burro sabe mas que tu,” Marcus said and Jean-Luc snorted a laugh.
“‘A donkey knows more than you?’ Nice, Marcus. If we need to insult the EPC into submission, we’ll know who to call.”
“All right, gentlemen,” Gabe said. “Enough joking around. We have a little over four hours until we land. Read up and catch whatever sleep you can, because once we’re on the ground, we’re on the move.”