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Harsh Justice

HARSH JUSTICE

CLAY KEELEY: VOLUME ONE

By Tyler Egan

Copyright 2016 Tyler Egan

 

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

BUD/S TRAINING: GUT-CHECK

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

BUD/S TRAINING: HELL WEEK

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

BUD/S TRAINING: DIVE PHASE

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

BUD/S TRAINING:THE HOME STRETCH

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

BUD/S TRAINING: GRADUATION

EPILOGUE

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

It started off as just another Tuesday in paradise.

After a three-mile run along the beach and a forty-five minute strength workout, I met my wife of four years, Gina, for our weekly lunch at Kansas City Barbeque, without question the best rib joint in San Diego. We were sitting on the outside patio, enjoying yet another in a seemingly endless series of sunny, 70 degree days in America’s Finest City. Nothing was left on either of our plates but scraps of meat and BBQ sauce.

On the surface, Gina and I were as opposite as a couple could get. She was drinking a beer. I was drinking water. She was dressed in a business suit that accentuated every curve of her body. I was dressed in jeans and a baggy black sweatshirt that revealed nothing of mine. She was a book-smart lawyer from a well-to-do family who had graduated from law school fourth in her class. I was a street-smart ex-Navy Seal from a working-class family who had barely graduated from college.

You know when you see a smoking hot chick with some random guy and wonder how the hell he’d ended up with her? I was that guy. My friends constantly always asked how I had scored Gina, and I always gave some smart-ass response meant to simply garner a laugh. Truth was, I often asked myself the same exact thing.

Asked, but didn’t question. At least not too hard. Some things you didn’t think about too deeply for fear that you might learn the answer.

“Almost as good as sex,” Gina said as she leaned back in her chair and drank from her bottle of beer.

“Almost? Hell, I thought it was better.”

She cocked her head, gave me the evil eye.

“Better than sex with myself, at least,” I said, stifling a smile.

“Keep it up and that’s all you’ll be getting for the next month.”

My smile broke wide open and I started with another quip when I saw our regular waitress, Carrie, on her way over. I decided, for once, to hold my tongue before it got me into more trouble.

“Anything else I can get for you?” Carrie asked.

“Just the check,” I said.

She ripped the top page off her pad and dropped it on the table in front of me. I immediately picked it up and handed it to Gina. Carrie started walking away.

“Hang on a sec, Carrie.”

She stopped, turned towards me. “Yeah?”

“You mind if I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“We eat here all the time, right?”

Carrie nodded. “Every Tuesday at noon, like clockwork.”

“Hell, you bring us our drinks before we even order them,” I said.

“That’s right. So what?”

“So, surely you’ve noticed that every time you give me the check I just give it to my wife, right?”

“Of course I noticed.”

“So why keep on giving it to me? Does it really look like I wear the pants in this family?” 

“Of course not, hon,” Carrie said. “I just didn’t want to trample on your ego by handing it straight to your wife. I know how frail you men can be.”

“Very funny,” I said. “But do me a favor and next Tuesday, just skip worrying about my feelings and hand it to her. Can you do that?”

Carrie thought about it for a second then shook her head. “Nah, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because that wouldn’t be any fun.”

I sighed and shook my head. Gina barked out a laugh. Carrie flashed her a smile and headed towards one of her other tables.

“Now that was funny,” Gina said after Carrie was out of earshot.

“Hilarious,” I said, my tone flat. “I tell you what, Gina, sometimes I just don’t get women.”

She gave me a curious look. “Sometimes?”

“Hey, that’s not fair. I get you, don’t I?”

“Yeah, but I’m not a typical woman.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Good thing too, otherwise I never would have married you.”

“You married me? I always thought it was the other way around.”

I couldn’t help but smile. She was right of course. Not only was she the one that instigated our relationship, she was the one that decided to take it to the next level, and she was the one that had broached this whole idea of marriage. I had just been along for the ride. If it had been up to me I could have never pulled the trigger; the mere thought of popping the question gave me buck fever.

Sometimes things just worked out perfectly.

“So what’s this good news you told me about on the phone?” I said.

Gina’s face brightened. “You remember that case I was telling you about last night? The kid I’m defending on that possession with intent to sell indictment?”

I remembered; it had been a point of contention with us for a couple weeks now. I hated when she took on drug cases, but I knew as a young lawyer trying to make a go of it on her own, she had to take whatever cases she could get, and this close to the so-called border, nearly two out of every three cases were drug-related. So yeah, I remembered. But that didn’t mean I liked it.

“What about him?” I asked.

“Well, I talked to him this morning, and he decided to cut a deal,” Gina said. “He’s going to give up the guy that owns the warehouse where he works.”

“Wow,” I said in a voice utterly devoid of inflection. “That’s great.”

“Damn right it is,” Gina said, deliberately ignoring my sarcasm. “And this case is going to be huge. When it goes public, my name will be all over the news. It’ll jumpstart my career.”

“Or get you killed.”

She just glared at me.

“Sorry,” I said. “But hey, on the bright side, if this case works out we’ll have scumbags from all over Southern California begging you represent them.”

Gina patted my hand. “Aaahh, don’t be jealous, honey. You’re the only scumbag for me.”

“Hey, thanks,” I said, flashing her a condescending smile.

Gina picked up her beer and averted her eyes. She didn’t say anything but she didn’t need to. I had taken things too far; my petty grievances were starting to annoy her, which was the last thing I wanted. So I decided to bite down on my displeasure and make nice before it was too late.

“So when’s your meeting with the district attorney?” I asked.

“Tomorrow at eleven.”

“Are we going to wait until this weekend to celebrate your good fortune?”

She turned back towards me, a little smile playing on her lips. “Hell no,” she said. “We’re going out tonight. I’m thinking  steaks at The Palm, some Cask 23, maybe even a room at the Hyatt . . . and then if you’re lucky, the real fun will begin.”

“Oh, you call that fun, huh?”

“It’s fun for me, at least. That’s all I’m concerned with.”

“Is that right?”

“Of course,” she said. “I thought you’d figured that out by now. You know, considering how you ‘get me’ and all.”

I laughed and shook my head in mock consternation. I started to say something but thought better of it and again clamped down on my tongue before anything came out.

“What? No pithy comeback? That’s not like you.”

“I’m afraid to open my mouth again,” I said. “Especially now that I’m finally back in your good graces.”

“You’re smarter than you look,” she said. “And who knows, if you continue to be a good boy, maybe I’ll take care of you too tonight instead of just taking care of myself. But right now, I’ve got to get back to the office. I have a meeting in twenty minutes.”

“From sex to work in less than two seconds,” I said. “That’s my wife.”

“You know you love it.”

Of course I did. How could I not?

She stood up, leaned over the table, gave me a kiss, then walked past me towards the street.

I turned to watch her leave, mesmerized, as always, by her every movement. Even though we’d been married for almost four years, I still couldn’t take my eyes off her. Ever. If Gina was in sight, I’d stare at her until she disappeared. Every time. I just couldn’t help myself. Nor did I particularly want to. The view was too nice.

So, due to this borderline unhealthy obsession with my wife, I was watching her as she waited for the WALK sign to turn green. I was watching her as she stepped off the curb. I was watching her as she started walking across the street. And I was watching her as a Black Hummer pulled out of a nearby parking spot, accelerated far too quickly, and bee-lined straight towards her.

Gina never had a chance.

She had barely turned her head towards the oncoming vehicle when it struck her head on and sped away without so much as slowing down.

I immediately leaped from my chair, shoved the wrought iron table out of my way as though it was made of plastic, jumped over the small fence separating the patio from the sidewalk and raced across the street, heedless of any oncoming vehicles.

A crowd had already started to gather around Gina by the time I got there. Some were screaming, some were pulling out their cell phones, some were sobbing, some were just staring silently, their faces frozen in disbelief.

I pushed my way through the growing throng and dropped to my knees beside my wife.

Gina’s twisted body was slumped against the wheel-well of a nearby car. Her chest was barely moving, her eyes were vacant, her mouth opened slightly. Her neck was sitting at a jarringly crooked angle and her breath sounded like butcher paper rustling in the wind. A reservoir of blood was growing beneath her.

Careful not to move her torso, I took her wrist and checked her pulse. It was virtually non-existent. I snuck in closer and put my arms around her and began to caress her as gently as my shaking hands would allow.

“It’s all right, baby,” I said, the words ringing hollow in my ears even as I uttered them. “Just hold on for a couple more minutes. Help will be here soon. Just hold on and everything will be all right.”

Gina’s eyes lolled towards the sound of my voice. She opened her mouth but no words came out. Just more blood.

“Ssshhh,” I said. “Don’t talk. Save your energy, baby. Just relax. Help will be here soon. Everything will be fine. I promise.”

Somewhere in the distance came the urgent wailing of a siren, but it was already too late. Despite my words of encouragement, I knew the score. I’d seen enough death in my time to know that every second we had left was a bonus. And I wanted to make all of them count.  

 Fighting back tears, I said, “I love you, baby. I love you so much.”

But Gina’s eyes were already closed. She was gone.

And now, so was I.

 

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CHAPTER TWO

 

A few hours later I was sitting alone at my dining room table with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels. The cap and plastic seal that I’d broken less than forty-five minutes earlier were still lying on the table in front of me.

Nothing was on; no lights, no television, no stereo, nothing. My only company was the constant hum of the refrigerator and the occasional and fleeting rattle of a passing car. I was wallowing in the silence, using the alcohol to drown out my thoughts, trying desperately to get this day over with in the false hope that the next one wouldn’t hurt quite so much.

I took a lengthy plug straight from the bottle of Jack and managed to get less than half the amount into my mouth. The rest spilled on my chest. I idly wiped the whiskey off my shirt and my hand came away smeared in red. It took me a moment to realize that it was Gina’s blood. I hadn’t bothered changing my clothes since she’d died in my arms.

I sat there, staring at her blood on my hand and thinking about how far I’d come in the past few years—from an angry, ultra-intense, hardcore Navy SEAL with a severe attitude problem to a love-struck sap who couldn’t stop smiling and laughing—all because of Gina. It was a transformation that neither I nor anyone that had ever known me would have ever imagined possible.

Before Gina, my worldview had been as pessimistic as it got. I’d kept my sanity mainly by treating everything and everyone I brushed up against with casual indifference layered with a heavy dose of sarcasm. She had tempered me with her optimism, helped me to enjoy life, taught me to focus on the good things and let everything else slough off my back like water on a turtle’s shell. I loved her for that. Loved her more than anything in the world. And now she was gone.

Some time later I realized someone was knocking at the front door. The bottle was still in my hand. I took another drink and stood up and walked over and opened the door.

Standing on the porch was my one and only true friend, Dave Willis.

Willis was an enormous man, standing 6’5” and sporting 250 pounds packed on a lean frame with long, powerful muscles. His hair was cut tight against his skull, his face clean shaven, his jaw carved from granite. As always, he was stuffed into a shirt that was at least two sizes too small, accentuating his massive upper body even further.

We had known each other since our freshman year in college. We spent four years playing baseball together at the University of San Diego, the last three as roommates. After graduating, we went our separate ways; me into the Navy and Willis into professional baseball.

Willis played in the minor leagues for a couple years before a series of injuries prematurely ended his career. He came back home and opened a Security and Investigations Company with the help of his father, a retired LAPD detective. I occasionally did some work for them on the side, when the need for my singular skills came up.

“How are you holding up?” Willis said.

“I’m still pretty much numb.” I held the bottle up. “And trying to stay that way, as you can see.”

“I thought you were supposed to lay off the heavy stuff since the accident?”

“I am. And I hadn’t had a drop until today. But I figure I get a free pass this one time.”

“Makes sense.”

“I thought so too. Well, come on in.”

Willis walked past me, stopped, and waited uneasily. Normally he was the ultimate alpha male, immediately dominating every room he walked into, unafraid to say anything to anyone at anytime. But on this night he was visibly uncomfortable. He didn’t know what to do with his hands and he kept on shifting his weight from one leg to the other. Under normal circumstances it would have amusing, but right now, amusement was the last thing on my mind. I simply closed the door behind him, walked over to the couch, and sat down. Willis settled into the recliner next to me.

“What did you find out?” I asked.

“I talked to my contact in the department,” Willis said. “The cops found the car that hit Gina. It was abandoned in the zoo’s parking lot.”

“Did they get anything off it?” I asked, even though I was certain I already knew the answer.

“No. The vehicle had been wiped clean of prints.”

“Figures.”

“But they were able to track the car back to the owner.”

“Let me guess. It was a dead end.”

Willis tilted his head slightly. “It was reported stolen an hour before the accident. How’d you know?”

I shrugged.

“Don’t give me that shit,” Willis said. “What’s going on here, Keeley? What haven’t you told me?”

I took another pull from the bottle of Jack and thought about how to approach things. I decided on the direct route.

“Gina’s so-called ‘hit-and-run’ wasn’t an accident,” I said. “Somebody had her killed.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. I saw the whole thing go down. Trust me, it was deliberate as hell.”

Willis pondered this for a moment. “I assume you didn’t say anything about it to the cops?”

“Hell no. I didn’t tell them shit. I’ll handle it myself.”

“That’s what I figured,” Willis said. “Do you have any idea who was behind it?”

“Actually, I do.”

“Hang on,” Willis said. He pulled a small notebook and a pen from his pocket. “Alright, talk to me.”

“The man behind it is David Russo,” I said. “He owns an import/export company down in Chula Vista.”

“I’ve never heard of him,” Willis said. “What’s the name of the company?”

“Russo and Sons.”

Willis jotted this down. “What makes you think this Russo guy was behind it?”

“Gina was defending some kid who worked for him on a drug arrest,” I said. “Apparently, Russo owns a warehouse that’s the back end of a cross-border tunnel from Mexico. The kid was going to cut a deal and turn in Russo in exchange for leniency.”

“And you think Russo had Gina killed so the case against him wouldn’t move forward?”

I nodded.

“But why kill Gina?” Willis said. “The kid she was defending still knows what he knows. He’ll just get another lawyer and start the whole process over again.”

“No he won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he was found dead in his cell earlier today, hanging from the bars with a shoelace around his neck.”

“He killed himself?”

“That’s what they claim,” I said. “But after what happened to Gina, I’m not buying the suicide angle.”

Willis looked up from his notes and leveled his gaze at me. “So you think Russo had them both killed?”

“Yes.”

Willis pursed his lips and nodded absently, pretty much dismissing my theory with his demeanor.

“You think I’m grabbing at straws, don’t you?” I said.

Willis shrugged. “I don’t have enough information to know anything with any certainty, but your theory does seem a bit far-fetched.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, suppose you’re right about the first part, that Russo was responsible for the death of Gina’s client. Why then would he still go after Gina?”

“Because she’s the only other person that knew what her client knew.”

“I understand your reasoning,” Willis said. “But with the client dead, Russo’s case goes away. There’s nothing Gina could do with the information. Russo isn’t in any jeopardy. Therefore, he’d have no reason to kill her.”

“Maybe Russo didn’t know that,” I said. “Or maybe he just didn’t want to take any chances.” I took another drink from the Jack, wiped my mouth with my sleeve. “Or maybe there’s a piece of the puzzle that I’m missing.”

“Or maybe you’re jumping to conclusions to try and make sense of your wife’s death,” Willis said.

My head snapped up. I caught Willis’s eyes and held them with a steady gaze.

He met my stare without flinching. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Gina wasn’t murdered. And I’m not saying Russo wasn’t behind it. But you don’t know anything for sure.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t know for sure. Yet. But I do know Gina is dead. And I do know her client’s dead. And I do know that they were both killed under mysterious circumstances shortly before they were going to make a deal with the District Attorney that would have implicated Russo on some extremely serious charges.”

“But that’s all you know,” Willis said. “And you need to remember that. If you go into this thing confused between what you know and what you think you know, then what’s really going on might slip right past you unnoticed.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Willis was right. If I was going to have any chance of seeing this thing through, I needed to be open to all possibilities, not locked into one.

“I guess I am overreacting a bit,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

“You don’t have anything to apologize for,” Willis said. “And trust me, we’re going to find out what happened to Gina. I promise you that. I’m just trying to make sure you approach the situation with the right mindset.”

“I know. And I’m sure I’ll appreciate it later, but right now, it’s kind of hard to see things rationally.”

“That’s completely understandable,” Willis said. “But you have to get your mind straight before you go any further with this.”

“I know,” I said. “And I will.”

“All right. Then on to business. What do you need from me?”

“A full work-up on Russo,” I said. “Anything and everything you can get a hold of, no matter how small it may seem.”

“I’ll start on it tonight,” Willis said. “What else do you need? A clean weapon? A new set of wheels? A fresh cell? A place to hole up for a while?”

“You think all that’s necessary?”

“If you’re going to do this thing, you might as well do it right. You have no idea where it’s going to lead. Might as well prepare for the worst case scenario right from the beginning so you’re not scrambling later.”

He had a point.

“I tell you what,” I said. “Just set me up the same way you’d set yourself up for a job. Do whatever you’d normally do.”

“Sounds good,” Willis said. “How soon are you looking to get started?”

“A few days,” I said. “I want to begin as soon as the funeral’s over.”

“You sure you don’t want to take a little time to grieve? Get the emotions out of your system?”

“That’s what the next few days are for,” I said. “After that, I’m not going to shed another goddamn tear until whoever’s responsible for her death is in the ground too.”

 

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BUD/S TRAINING: GUT-CHECK

 

It starts at just after three in the morning. One hundred and fourteen prospective SEALs, varying in ages from 18-29, out in the courtyard, bustling around in the dark, trying to line up in formation, instructors screaming the entire time, trying to invoke confusion. Eventually we arrive in the correct positions.

It begins with pushups. Fifty of them. With water being sprayed in your face. And an instructor yelling at you to do them correctly. Back straight. Arms locked. Up. Down. Up. Down. All the while reminding you that this is only the beginning. That there is no success like failure, and that failure is no success at all.

Next come sit-ups. One hundred. Then pull-ups. Twenty. Instructors screaming more insults. More water, sprayed onto your chest, your legs, your head, into your face. Then squats. Then duckwalks. Then frog steps. Then back to pushups as the cycle begins anew.

Two hours straight of this and your muscles are nearly spent. Exhaustion sets in and your mind starts whispering at you to quit, just give it up. And this is just the beginning of the first day. Things haven’t even begun to get difficult yet.

Finally the morning sun starts to peek out from behind the haze. You head to the next evolution. A 1000 yard-long obstacle course nicknamed The Grinder. With a 75 foot-high net wall and a climbing apparatus twice as tall. Two hours of running, jumping, crawling, climbing, swinging. Constant motion. There is no let-up, no breaks. Again instructors barking, telling you to go faster, get up that ladder, you’re too slow, too weak, too pathetic to continue on. Just give up now. Save yourself the pain. Ten minutes later, you’ve finished the course. A 30-second breather and then you get to start right back at it. After two hours, your forearms are burning, your fingers are numb, your legs are wet noodles. And then you’re done with this evolution. On to the next one. On to the beach.

Once there, you get to run four miles. On dry, loose sand. In combat boots and fatigues. Soaking wet. In under 32 minutes.

Nobody makes it. More insults. It’s only going to get worse, the instructors say. Just quit now. You can’t hack it. Failure equals pain. Put out or get out.

And then you make a mistake. Leave before you’ve been dismissed. Or talk out of turn. Or don’t answer a question promptly. Or just plain look at an instructor wrong. You’re told to get wet and sandy.

You run down to the 56 degree water, get soaked, then roll in the sand until you’re covered from head to toe. Top of the head. Behind the ears. Eyelids even. A human sandcastle. And if you’re not sandy enough, more pushups. Twenty. And then you get wet and sandy again. God help you if you aren’t sandy enough the second time.

The next evolution is surf passage. Six man teams, paddling out on their inflatable boats, into twelve-foot waves, getting flipped over once, twice, three times before making it past the surf break. And once you get past, it’s time to turn around and paddle back in. Getting flipped again. Head over heels. Sucking in cold, salty saltwater. Coughing it out. Nose burning. Foam spraying in your face. Stinging your eyes, forcing them closed, confusing you even further. And then you find the ocean floor. You plant your feet and push off, praying you break the surface of the water before your lungs run out of air. Finally you reach the surface. Fresh air. You gasp, catch your breath. Then you need to regroup. Find your paddle. Flip the raft back over. Climb in. Paddle back to the shore, hoping not to get flipped again. You reach the sand, climb out, lift the raft over your heads. Arms on fire and legs filled with cement, you carry the three-hundred pound raft back to the instructors. You line up in formation.

The winners get commended. Everyone else gets berated. More pushups for all but the winners, this time with feet perched on the boat. Thirty seconds to catch your breath, and then it’s back into the freezing water. Out, back, out, back, out, back, out and back again. Ten times. Twenty times. Building teamwork. Suffering together. Learning to be a SEAL.

Next comes elephant walks. Carrying the raft at your side. One-mile race. Winners get a thirty-second rest. Losers get wet and sandy and do more pushups. Then the rafts go above your head. You race again. This time two miles. More pushups for the losers. Plus wet and sandy again. The instructors yell at you that winning is a conscious decision. That you are only losing because you don’t want to win badly enough. And there’s no room in SEALs for losers.

Then the boats are at your side again. More races. Above your head again. More races. Five miles total.

Finally the last evolution of the day arrives. Log PT. The same six-man boat teams. A 150 pound telephone pole for each team. Start with log presses. Lift. Right shoulder. Over the head. Left shoulder. Back over the head. Right shoulder again. Set down. Repeat twenty times.

Running up and down the twenty-foot high sand hills, carrying the logs over your heads. Up, down, up, down. Thirty times, maybe more. Then log pushups. Fifty of them. Then log races. Winners get a break. Losers head over to Ol’ Misery for punishment. Four-hundred and fifty pounds worth of telephone pole. Ten log presses to warm up. Then the instructor cuts you a break, tells you in order to get back to your little log, you just have to extend Ol’ Misery over your heads for 45 seconds. You get it up, barely, and hold it there. Shoulders burning, arms quivering, wrists screaming. Every second seems like an hour, a day, a week, a year, but you’re almost done. Just five seconds left. Then one man gives out and the log slips down. The instructor shakes his head and mockingly tells you how close you were. Back to the beginning. You repeat the log presses. Five more. Then another attempt at 45 seconds. This time you make it. Head back to your own log. More presses, more races, more yelling, more punishment, more pain. Always more pain. No way to prepare. Like a kick in the balls, you just have to suck it up. Put out for just one more second. Continually.

Finally the day is over. It’s 2PM. Eleven hours of constant exertion and  your body is screaming in pain. Legs chaffed. Skin burned. Hands bleeding, torn raw. Muscles jell-o. Lower back knotted and barking. You want to just curl into a ball, sleep for a week. And then the instructor reminds you that this is only  the first day. You still have five months, three weeks, and four days until graduation. And no day is going to be as easy as this one just was. But you can’t think about that. You have to take it one day, one evolution, one minute, one second at a time. It’s the only way to survive. You can do it. You will do it. You live for this shit. Bring on tomorrow. You can’t wait.

Welcome to BUD/S. Hooyah.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Almost exactly 72 hours after my wife was murdered, I found myself sitting alone in front of the eight-foot long, four-foot wide, six-foot deep, still-uncovered rectangular hole that held Gina’s coffin, and inside that, her body.

Every waking minute since Gina’s death had been hell, but the previous two hours I felt like I’d been residing in the ninth circle. Wave after unending wave of anonymous faces offering up hollow words of regret, apparently oblivious to the uselessness of their words.

Neither the speakers nor the words uttered to me mattered in the least, but I nodded my thanks to every concerned individual, going through the motions of courtesy that were expected of a grieving husband, the whole time wishing I’d had the balls to not even show up. It’s not like Gina would have cared. She knew how much I loved her; hell, chances are she wouldn’t even have wanted me to come watch her suffer the indignity of being put under the ground forever.

But come I did, and suffer through the process I had, sitting in my little plastic chair while everyone around me pretended like they shared my pain.

I knew better.

Nobody here shared my pain.

They might tell me that they were sorry, that they felt terrible, or that it was such a horrible accident, but what they were really thinking was, ‘Thank God it wasn’t my spouse.’ I could see it in their eyes, plain as day, when they didn’t know I was looking. I could hear it in their voices, loud and clear, even though they did their best to hide it.

But that was all right. I didn’t blame them for thinking these things; in fact, if the situation was reversed, I’d be thinking them myself. It was just human nature.

The important thing was that the whole process was now over, which meant I could go to work on hunting down the men responsible for her murder without any further distractions.

I looked up and saw Willis standing a few feet to my right, waiting silently, his huge frame towering over me. He had a briefcase in his right hand. I waved him over.

He set his briefcase on the ground and sat down next to me, the cheap plastic chair groaning and bowing under his weight. For a moment, I thought the damn thing was going to break. But it held. For the time being, at least.

“You sure you’re ready for this?” Willis said.

“Positive.”

“All right. Well, unfortunately, everything I found about Mr. Russo points to him being a decent, upstanding member of society who runs a completely legitimate business.”

“No scrutiny at all from the law?”

“Not even a blip,” Willis said. “Hell, even word on the street is non-existent when it comes to this guy. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not dirty, it just means he’s good at hiding it if he is. So then the question becomes; is he hiding something?”

“And the answer?”

“Without a doubt.”

“Based on what?”

“Based on every single aspect of Russo’s operation being absolutely perfect,” Willis said. “Everything from his books to his bank accounts to his tax records are completely spotless. There’s not one thing that’s even slightly out of place.”

“That doesn’t sound very incriminating to me.”

“Oh, but it is,” Willis said. “Nobody keeps their books that clean unless they’re trying to hide something.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re telling me that Russo’s so clean, he has to be dirty?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” Willis said.

My face must have reflected my disbelief, as Willis began to elaborate without being prompted.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve investigated thousands of guys like Russo over the years and even ones that turn out to be legitimate almost always have something going on somewhere that’s not on point. A typo here, a little mistake there, something. But this Russo guy has nothing out of place, absolutely nothing.”

“And you think that means he’s trying to hide something,” I said.

“I don’t think he’s trying to hide something,” Willis said. “I know he is. And not only that, but whatever he’s into, I guarantee he’s not going at it alone.”

“How can you be certain?”

“Killing that kid in his own jail cell and making it look like a suicide? That takes some serious juice. If Russo had that kind of pull, I would have heard about it during my investigation.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “So who do you think he’s working with?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Willis said. “But based on everything we know, my guess is a Mexican drug cartel, maybe some high-level human traffickers, someone like that. But whoever it is, they’re no doubt some heavy hitters, so be sure to step lightly.”

“Come on Willis, give me a little credit. I can step lightly when I need to.”

Willis laughed and clapped me on the back of the shoulder, practically dislocating it. “I know,” he said. “I’m just making sure your head’s in the right place.”

“Always, my friend. Always.”

“Then on that note, take a look at this.” Willis pulled a manila folder file out of his briefcase and put it in my lap.

“What’s in here?” I said.

“A bunch of info on Russo. I figured even though I didn’t find anything concrete, you’d still want to have a little talk with him, so I went ahead and got some personal information on the man. A couple of recent pictures, home address, business address, make and license of his vehicles, plus a couple of other nuggets I thought might be helpful.”

Willis grabbed the file, flipped through the pages. He pulled one out and handed it to me. “Like this one, for example.”

I read over it. It was a summary of the specs on Russo’s house. He lived in an 1800 square-foot, one-story house with four bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, an attached garage and a wine cellar. Hardwood floors. Master Lock deadbolts throughout. And most importantly for my purposes:

“No alarm system,” I said.

“Nope,” Willis said. “Apparently, Mr. Russo feels like his gated community offers him enough protection.”

I laughed. Willis joined me.

“I guess my master criminal theory just took another hit,” I said.

“Just a little one,” Willis said. “And on top of everything else, Russo lives alone.”

“No family at all?”

Willis shook his head. “His kids are all grown up and his wife divorced him four years ago. He doesn’t even have any pets.”

“What about a girlfriend?” I asked, half-joking.

“He’s got a little something on the side, but nothing serious,” Willis said, taking the question at face value, oblivious to my lack of sincerity. “He always meets her somewhere else. Not once has she ever come back to his place.”

I chuckled softly, impressed as usual. It was impossible to overestimate Willis, he was that good.

“How did you get all this stuff?”

Mimicking my earlier tone perfectly, he said, “Come on, man, give me a little credit. I’m an investigator. I can find stuff when I need to.”

“You’re hilarious,” I said. “But I’m serious. The level of detail is insane.”

Willis shrugged. “What can I say? I’m damn good at what I do.”

“You can say that again.”

He opened his mouth to do so but I gave him a look and shook my head. He smiled and shut his mouth without repeating the comment. I laughed under my breath and dove into the folder he’d given me.

I took a couple minutes to flip through the rest of the pages. There was lots of good stuff in there, too much to take it all in right now. I closed the folder, left it sitting on my lap. “What about the other parts of the equation?”

“All taken care of,” Willis said. “The rest of the items you’ll need are waiting at your crash pad, along with your new car. We’ll head over there right now.”

“Let’s go.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

We made our way through the streets of downtown San Diego and into the warehouse district just east of the home of the San Diego Padres, Petco Park.

The state-of-the-art ballpark was the jewel of the recently renovated downtown San Diego, and once completed it had drastically raised the prices of the surrounding area, especially in the warehouse district.

I knew that Willis had owned a number of the buildings prior to Petco being built, but I’d always assumed he’d sold them all for a healthy profit after the ballpark was completed.

Apparently not.

We turned into an alley at the end of one of the streets and stopped behind one of the few warehouses that hadn’t been renovated into a newer-looking building. We climbed out of the car and headed towards a door in the side of the building. Willis unlocked the door and we stepped into complete darkness.

He flipped on the lights, revealing a large, surprisingly well-maintained warehouse, nearly empty, save for a few stacks of boxes piled up in the far corner of the building.

The walls were brick all the way to the ceiling. There wasn’t a single window. Or a piece of furniture. Or anything else that led me to believe that I could actually live here for any extended period of time.

“You expect me to crash here?”

Willis sized me up. “Where did you think I was going to set you up? A high-rise apartment with a view of the harbor? Maybe a maid service and a personal chef?”

“Of course not,” I said. “But I was expecting something a little bit . . .”

“Nicer?”

I shrugged. “Not necessarily nicer. Just more conventional, I guess. Someplace with some actual furniture, or, you know, maybe a bed.”

“Listen to you, all domesticated and shit. Less than three years removed from the SEALs and you’ve already gone all soft on me. What the hell happened to you, Keeley? You used to be the man.”

My anger spiked. I turned my head, gave him a glare.

Willis laughed and wrapped a massive arm around me, engulfing me in a bear hug. “I had you going there for a second, didn’t I?”

“More than a second,” I said, struggling to dissolve my anger. “I was about to go toe-to-toe with you.”

“That was the whole idea; I was trying to get your blood flowing. You seem a bit out of it. And I know you’ve been through a lifetime worth of bullshit over the past couple of days, but if you’re intent on going after these guys starting tonight, you’ve got to be running on all cylinders. Otherwise they’ll turn you into dog meat.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I’m just saving up my rage for a more useful time.”

“As long as you got it wired, that’s all that matters.”

“I do.”

“Then follow me, my friend. I’ll take you to the living quarters.”

We made our way to the far corner of the warehouse, where, strategically hidden behind a maze of stacked boxes, was a sturdy-looking door with an old-fashioned combination lock built in.

“Steel reinforced,” Willis said. He gave it a rap. It sounded solid. “Used to be on a bank vault. Combination is 88-44-22-11. Give it a whirl.”

“Which way first?” I asked.

“Left. Always left.”

I spun the lock to the proper numbers. There was an audible click, then I pulled the door outward and we walked in.

“Now this is what I’m talking about,” I said upon entering.

The space was about 800 square feet and set up like a studio apartment, complete with a bathroom, bed, desk, refrigerator, stove, big-screen plasma TV, Blu-Ray player, stereo system, laptop, and fully-stocked walk-in pantry.

Willis was smiling proudly. “Pretty sweet set-up, ain’t it?”

“Hell yeah,” I said. “I’m just pissed you never told me about it before. And here I thought we were friends.”

“What can I say? Every man’s got to have a place to get away to. Even a bachelor like me. Anyway, it’s got running water and electricity plus a backup generator if someone cuts the power. But what it doesn’t have is access to the outside world. No cable, no phone line, no internet, nothing that can be tapped into.”

“Then what’s the laptop for?”

“Security,” Willis said. “Here, let me show you.”

They walked over to the desk. Willis flipped open the laptop and hit a few keys. The screen split up into four quarters.

“It’s a closed-circuit system,” Willis said. “Four cameras. Two outside, covering the entryways. Two inside, one an overhead of the main floor, the other watching the door to the living quarters. They switch to night-vision once the light gets below a certain level. Plus the system is equipped with an attention alarm that trips whenever something larger than a dog moves into the frame.”

“What’s the alarm like?”

Grinning like a school-boy playing a prank on his teacher, Willis clicked on a lightning bolt icon in the corner of the screen. An incredibly loud, high-pitched, ingratiating screech filled the room. It sounded like a million owls on steroids, all shrieking simultaneously.

My hands flew to my head on their own accord, but even with my ears covered, the sound pierced my mind like an ice pick through the skull.

It stopped abruptly.

I pulled my hands away but my ears were still buzzing so I stuck the tips of my pinkies in there and wiggled them around but it didn’t seem to help.

“How did you turn it off?” I said, not sure if I was shouting.

“It shuts itself off after three seconds,” Willis said. “Just long enough to let you know something is going on out there.”

“Or bring you back from the dead,” I said. “Damn that thing is loud.”

“That’s the whole point.”

I looked around a final time and nodded my head in admiration. “It’s a sweet setup, I must admit.”

“And I haven’t even showed you the best part yet,” Willis said. “Come here. Check this out.”

I followed him into the walk-in pantry and watched him from the door as he made his way into the far corner. He knelt down, grabbed a piece of fishing line from the floor, and pulled sharply.

A square portion of the floor lifted, revealing a four-foot hole with a ladder descending down one side into the darkness below.

I started laughing; I couldn’t help myself. “Oh man, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“Hell yeah.”

“You never know when you’re going to need to make a hasty exit,” Willis said. “The ladder leads to a rainwater storm drain. Once you reach the bottom, cross to the other side until you hit the wall, then turn to your right. About fifty feet down is another ladder. That one leads to an old automotive garage on the next street over, two buildings down.”

“And I suppose you own that building too?”

“Of course,” Willis said. “And inside the building is a 2000 Ford Taurus with the keys in the glove compartment. It looks like crap on the outside but its got a brand new heavy-duty Twin cab engine under the hood. That baby can move.”

I laughed under my breath. “You’re a slick little bastard, aren’t you?”

The corner of Willis’s mouth turned up briefly in what he considered a smile. Then he closed the trap door and we exited the pantry.

Once back in the main room I noticed a black duffel bag sitting on the floor by the bed. “Is that the rest of the stuff?”

Willis nodded.

I picked up the bag, set it on the bed, opened it. Inside was a MK23 MOD 0 .45-caliber handgun. Next to it was a Gemtech Blackslide sound suppressor.

“That was your service pistol, right?” Willis asked.

“It sure as hell was,” I said. I again marveled at how adept he was at obtaining information but this time I was smart enough not to mention it, lest it be considered an insult.

I picked up the handgun, screwed the suppressor onto the end of the barrel, and aimed it at the wall. Even with the silencer, it was as perfectly balanced as I’d remembered. I’d shot thousands of rounds through one just like it while training and even though it had been a couple years since I’d used one, it still felt perfectly natural in my hand, like an extension of my arm.

“So what are you planning on doing next?” Willis said.

“I figure I’ll take Russo at his house sometime tonight, ask him a few questions, find out how much he knows about the situation.”

“You think he’ll talk?”

“Oh, he’ll talk.” I looked down the barrel at the wall beyond and slowly squeezed the trigger, testing the pull weight. There was a loud click as the weapon dry-fired. It had a hair-trigger. Half a pound at the most. Just like I liked it. “They all talk eventually.”

Willis chuckled under his breath and shook his head. “Listen to you, going all Dirty Harry and shit.”

Smiling, I unscrewed the silencer from the barrel and set them both down on the bed. Looking into the duffel bag, I saw eight boxes of .45 caliber hollow-point match-grade ammo, 400 rounds in all. More than enough. There were also two different styles of holsters and a fanny pack that could double as an ammo dump and another place to store the pistol in a pinch.

“So how much do I owe you for all this?” I asked.

“Save your money,” Willis said. “You never know when you’re going to need it. We’ll settle up after this thing is over.”

“Assuming I make it through alive, of course.”

“That’s a good point,” Willis said. “You know what? Maybe you should pay me now.”

#####

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

David Russo lived in a single-story, ranch-style home set amongst the rolling hills of East San Diego County, within a gated golf course community called Southern Ranch. His house was backed up to the fourteenth hole, which sat near the outskirts of the community. It was serviced by only a single road and the nearest neighbor was more than 300 yards away. The houses were set up so that nobody had a clear view of their neighbor, a fact which served me perfectly on this night.

I had taken the long way in, bypassing the ten-foot high wall that blocked off the community by following a little-used hiking trail up into the brushy hills above the golf course that snaked its way through the houses. I was wearing blue jeans and a black sweatshirt and carrying a backpack, looking every bit the part of a man just out for a hike in the late afternoon.

After twenty minutes of scoping out the area, I found a spot above the fourteenth hole that had a perfect view of Russo’s house. I sat down on the ground behind a scraggly bush, pulled a set of mini-binoculars from the backpack and waited out the afternoon.

I watched his house until the sun had fallen three-quarters of the way below the purple mountains to the west, then pulled a tin of black grease paint from the backpack. With the help of a small folding mirror, I carefully applied the grease paint to my face, covering it completely. Then I slipped out of my blue jeans—the full length wetsuit beneath my clothes showing momentarily—and swapped them out with a pair of black cotton sweatpants from the daypack, making me all but invisible to the naked eye.

Once it was completely dark, I pulled the hood of my black sweatshirt over my head and started carefully picking my way down the hill and across the fourteenth hole.

A couple minutes later I eased into position alongside Russo’s house, lying on my stomach in the sagebrush less than fifteen feet from the front entrance of his garage. 

I had been in position for a little less than two hours when I saw headlights appear at the far end of the road. A few seconds later, a black Lincoln Navigator came into view, heading towards me. It slowed down and turned into Russo’s driveway, giving me an excellent sidelong view of the driver.

It was Russo. He was alone.

There were a couple of different things I could do, depending on where he parked his car. But once I heard the sound of the garage door opening, my course was set.

I waited until the front half of the large SUV passed out of sight and into the garage. After glancing once more at the street to make sure it was still clear, I stood up and started walking quickly but unhurriedly towards the garage.

A few seconds later, I was standing with my back against the stucco wall of the garage, H&K in hand, my heart pounding, my breath quick and ragged, my muscles tensing up. It had been years since I’d done anything like this, and my body was reacting poorly. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to relax, but it only helped a little. Three years of inactivity suddenly felt like a very long time.

Despite being completely exposed were a car to come down the street, I forced myself to wait until the garage door started to close before making my move. Going in too early would create too many uncontrollable variables.

From my position I could hear everything going on in the garage. The brakes being engaged. The car coming to a stop. The engine shutting off. The driver’s door being opened then shut. And finally the familiar whine of the garage door engine being engaged.

I took a final deep breath, then turned the corner and stepped into the garage, careful to step over the ground sensor.

Russo had just stepped out of the car and was turning towards the door leading to the house when he saw me come around the corner. He stopped abruptly. His face went pale, his eyes widened, his mouth opened slightly as if to cry out. 

I raised the gun and pointed it at his face. “Don’t make a fucking sound.”

Behind me, the garage door finished closing, effectively cutting us off from the outside world.

Russo’s arms were hanging down by his side. His keys were in his right hand and a black leather briefcase was in his left. He was shaking so badly that the keys were rattling.

I moved forward, narrowing the distance between us but making sure to stay out of Russo’s reach, just in case. There was nothing to indicate that the smaller man would pose even the hint of a problem, but it was best not to get into bad habits.

“Drop your stuff,” I said.

Russo’s keys and briefcase fell to the ground with a clatter.

“Now turn around.”

“Why?” Russo said. “So you can shoot me in the back?” He shook his head. “No way, man. No way.”

“Listen shithead. If I was going to kill you I’d have done it already. Now shut the fuck up and turn around or I’ll put a bullet in your kneecap.”

He paused for a moment before turning around but only after the tears started to flow. To me, this meant two things.

One: My theory of him being behind the murders was clearly out the window now. He was obviously not capable. Russo was nothing more than a middle man, if not just an outright pawn in this situation.

Two: Getting information from him was going to be easier than I had thought. There was no reason to get violent unless absolutely necessary; in fact, the soft approach would likely be more effective than the hard one in this case. Pain would undoubtedly just make him start blubbering. And that was the last thing I wanted.

“Listen,” I said, softening my tone considerably to reflect my new direction. “I just want to talk. So if you do exactly what I tell you, when I tell you, then we should be able to get through this without any real discomfort, okay?”

“O . . . Okay,” he said, confusion writ large over his face.

I dipped into my fanny pack and traded the gun for a pair of zip-ties that had been looped together to form temporary handcuffs.  

“Put your hands behind your back. Slowly.”

Russo did as he was told.

“Good,” I said. “Now, I’m going to come over and secure your arms together at the wrists. If you don’t tense up, it won’t be uncomfortable.”

I stepped forward and bound Russo’s hands together with a zip-tie. He didn’t so much as flinch.

“Now we’re going to go inside your house and have a little talk,” I said. “Stay cool and everything will be fine.”

Russo nodded, as passive as a newborn puppy. I led him to the door to the house with a gentle prod.

“Is it unlocked?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I grabbed the handle and turned, confident that my gloves would protect me from leaving any fingerprints. The door opened and we walked into the house. A light in the kitchen was on, providing more than enough illumination to negotiate the room without difficulty.

“Do you have a basement?” I asked, fully aware of the answer but trying to make him feel like he had some control over the situation.

He hesitated a moment before answering. “Yes. Well, sort of. It’s a wine cellar, not a basement.”

“Take me there,” I said.

He led me towards a door on the far side of the room. I opened the door and we walked into the darkness.

#####

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

“So what’s this all about?” Russo said.

We were seated across from each other in the middle of his wine cellar, each on metal-folding chairs that I’d found stored in the corner. His hands were still zip-tied behind his back, but there was nothing else restraining him. The gun was still in my fanny pack, not visible but easily within reach.

Russo was clearly more relaxed than before, which was exactly what I wanted. But I didn’t want him too confident, so I had to set some ground rules before we started this interrogation in earnest.

“We’ll get to that in a minute,” I said. “But first I want you to understand something. So far, I’ve shown you respect because you’ve shown me respect. But this is no game, Russo. If you start fucking with me, I will fuck with you. And you won’t like it when I fuck with you. At all. Understand?”

His face paled slightly and he nodded.

“Good. Now tell me about Jason Leonard.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Why you had him killed.”

Russo’s throat made a clicking sound. He opened his mouth but shut it before anything came out.

“Is it going to start already?” I said. “I thought I made myself clear about what would happen if you tried to fuck with me.”

He shook his head quickly. “No,” he said. “No, it’s not that. It’s just . . . I didn’t know . . . I thought . . .”

“Calm down,” I said. “Don’t try to talk, just take deep breaths. Get yourself under control.”

Eventually he did.

“Now let’s try this again,” I said. “Why did you have Jason Leonard killed.” Of course, by now, I knew that he wasn’t behind the murders, but he didn’t know that.

“I didn’t,” Russo said. “I swear.”

I just stared at him, waited for him to keep talking, to fill in the silence. Classic interrogation technique.

“I’m serious,” he continued, “Why would I do something like that?”

“Because Jason had been arrested, and he didn’t want to do any time, so he was going to tell the DA all about your little tunneling operation in exchange for freedom.”

Russo started to protest but I continued on, not letting him get a word in edgewise.

“So you had him killed,” I said. “That much I know. But what I still don’t understand is why you had to kill her too.”

“Her? Who are you talking about?”

“Jason’s lawyer.” I had to fight to keep my voice steady. I was only moderately successful. “A woman named Josephine Keeley.”

Russo shifted in his chair. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t have anyone killed. Not Jason and not any female lawyer.”

I stared at him. He stared back without flinching.

“Have you ever been shot before?” I asked.

Russo shook his head jerkily from side to side.

“It hurts like a bitch,” I said. “Especially if it’s someplace without much muscle. Like an elbow, for instance, or a foot, or a kneecap.”

Russo opened his mouth but I held up my hand and shook my head.

“Just hang for a second,” I said. “Let me finish, and then you can tell me whatever you want. Okay?”

Russo swallowed heavily and nodded.

“Where was I? Oh yeah, getting shot. Now, don’t get me wrong, it hurts like hell no matter where the bullet catches you, but the kneecap, now that’s an exquisite pain. And I know what you’re thinking: Pain? I can handle pain. But you can’t. Not this kind of pain. If you want, we can do a little experiment, see how long you can last before you pass out in agony. I’m guessing 30 seconds, but who knows, maybe you could surprise me. Should we give it a shot? No pun intended, of course.”

Russo’s face was pale and the sweat covering it made him look like a wax figure, or a cadaver. He swallowed and his throat made a clicking noise from the lack of saliva. Eventually, he said, “no,” in a voice not much more than a whisper.

“Really?” I said. “You sure about that?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

“Well, then I guess you better tell me why you had those two people killed. And the truth, this time. I’m not sure I’ll be able to maintain my sunny disposition if you continue to lie to me.”

“I didn’t have anyone killed,” Russo said. “I swear I didn’t. Please don’t shoot me. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I swear. I didn’t.”

He seemed again to be on the verge of tears. It was pathetic, really, and I almost felt a little sorry for him. But I shoved the sentiment aside and pressed on.

“But you did know it was going to happen, right?”

“No.”

“Come on,” I said. “Are you telling me you had no idea they were going to kill Jason? Even after you heard that he’d got arrested?”

“I didn’t really think about it,” he said. “I guess, deep down, I suspected something like this would happen to him. But I didn’t want to think about it.”

“Because you knew the same thing could happen to you,” I said.

He nodded.

“What about the lawyer?” I said.

“I didn’t even know he’d talked to one.”

“So you didn’t know that she was a target also?”

“No idea,” Russo said. “None at all.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

“Look at me and tell me you didn’t know she was a target,” I said.

Russo looked up, met my gaze head on. His eyes were steady. “I didn’t know she was a target.”  

I held his gaze for a couple more seconds then nodded my head. “You know what? I think I believe you.”

He was visibly relieved.

“But I notice you didn’t deny being involved in a tunneling operation.”

He narrowed his eyes, caught off-guard by the question. Which was exactly the point. He seemed to realize this too, as he dropped his head and mumbled, “I can’t.”

“You can’t what?”

“I can’t talk about it.”

“Why not?”

Still looking at his feet, Russo said, “Because they were very specific in telling me what would happen to me if I ever did.”

I took a deep breath, considered how to proceed. Eventually I decided to continue with the soft path, at least for now. I still didn’t want to hurt him unless it was absolutely necessary. It usually just made it more difficult to tell the truth from the lies.

“Look at me,” I said.

He lifted his head and I latched onto his eyes with my own. Speaking slowly, enunciating every word as though I was a patient father explaining something to his five-year-son, I said:

“You need to stop worrying about these other people. You need to be worried about me. Only me. About what I’m going to do to you if you don’t start talking. Because while I’m inclined to believe that you were not directly involved in the deaths of those two people, if you can’t give me more specific information on who is responsible, then I’m just going to have to hold you accountable. And you know what that means, don’t you?”

Russo shook his head.

I pulled out the silencer-equipped H&K and set it on my right thigh, the extended barrel pointing in his direction.

Russo’s eyes widened. They were locked on the H&K.

“Look at me,” I said. “Not the gun.”

He dragged his eyes upward until they met mine.

“Now, if you talk to me, the people that you’re in bed with might find out, and they might catch up with you, and they might do some terrible things to you. I understand that. But let me make something very clear. If you don’t give me some information that I can use, I’ll kill you. Right here. Right now. And it won’t be quick.”

Russo’s bottom lip started to quiver. “How do I know you won’t just kill me after I tell you?”

“You don’t,” I said. “Not for sure. But you’re going to have to trust me. You don’t have any other choice.”

He closed his eyes and nodded and said, “Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“I’ll talk.”

“Good. Now let’s try this again. You own a warehouse that is the back-end of a tunnel that crosses underneath the Mexican border, right?”

“Yes.”

“And who operates it?”

“I don’t know,” Russo said.

I shook my head, expressing my disappointment.

“I’m telling you the truth,” Russo said, panic creeping into his voice. “I really don’t know who they are.”

“Then how did you get into business with them?”

“A few years ago, I was approached by a man who said he represented a group that owned property in Mexico, directly across the border from one of my warehouses. He said this group was willing to pay me ten thousand dollars a month if they could use one of my warehouses.”

“Did he tell you why?”

“No,” Russo said. “But he didn’t have to. It was obvious what they were going to use it for.”

“And so you took their money, just like that, no questions asked.”

“I needed it,” Russo said. “I had just gotten divorced and I was in debt up to my nose. I was about to lose my business, my house, my car, everything. I had no choice.”

“Didn’t you ever bother to think about what these guys were bringing into the country?”

“Sure, I thought about it, but I figured the stuff was going to get over the border somehow anyway. It’s not like me saying no would have stopped them from getting it into the country.”

The SEAL in me flashed in disgust at Russo’s complete and utter apathy. “So you don’t give a fuck if they bring in drugs, slaves, weapons, or a fucking nuke or whatever, as long as you get your goddamn money.”

Russo had enough sense not to answer.

I took a deep breath—in through the nose, out through the mouth—to help me regain my composure. This was no time to allow my personal feelings into play, especially if they were unrelated to Gina’s death. I had a tenuous enough grasp on my psyche as it was. No need to fray the leash further.

Eventually, I was able to get my emotions under control enough to steer the conversation back in the proper direction. But I was getting tired, so I decided to stop dancing around and push hard towards the end.

“Tell me about this man that contacted you,” I said.

“There’s not much to tell,” Russo said. “He was a small man, maybe five-eight, one-fifty. Hispanic. A little older than me with black hair and glasses. He was wearing an expensive suit.” 

“I don’t suppose he told you his name?”

Russo shook his head.

“Have you talked to him since that first time?”

“Yes,” Russo said. “A couple times.”

“How did you get in touch with him?”

“I didn’t. He contacted me.”

“How?”

“By phone.”

“You’ve never called him?”

Russo shook his head.

“Do you have a number for him? Some way to contact him in case of an emergency?”

A brief pause as Russo thought about lying to me, but then he thought better of it and said, “Yes. But I’ve never called it.”

“What’s the number?”

“2-45-666-4242.”

“You know it by heart?”

“He insisted I memorize it,” Russo said. “He told me it was a direct line and he didn’t want it written down anywhere.”

I paused for a moment to affix the numbers in my head before moving on. “Did he give you any special instructions if you were to call?”

“No.”

“Something specific to say when he answered, or a fake name to identify yourself with?”

“No.”

“A phrase to prove that you weren’t being coerced into calling him? Anything at all unusual?”

“No,” Russo said. “Nothing like that. He just said to call if anything important came up that he should know about.”

“But you never did.”

“Nothing ever came up,” Russo said.

“And what was the number again?”

Without hesitating for a moment, Russo said, “2-45-666-4242.”

By now, I was fully convinced Russo was telling the truth. He didn’t have the balls to do anything different. He was a pawn, a weakling, an amateur, and obviously way out of his league. I leaned back in my chair and considered my next move.

Still considering, I grabbed the gun with my right hand, stood up, and gave him a pat on the shoulder with my left.

“You’ve done good Russo,” I said as I moved around the back of his chair.

He turned his head to follow me. “Does that mean we’re finished?”

“That depends,” I said, now standing directly behind him. I still hadn’t decided on a course of action.

“On what?”

“On you.”

Russo started to shift his body to get a better look at me but I stuck the barrel of the H&K against the back of his neck, right at the base of his skull. My finger was still resting on the trigger guard. For now.

Russo stiffened. The stench of urine filled the cellar. He started to turn his head.

“Keep facing forward,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, his voice on the verge of cracking. “Okay. Just . . . just take . . . take it easy. Why . . . why are you doing this? I answered all your questions. I did everything you asked.”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you,” I said.

“Because I don’t deserve to die!”

“Neither did my wife,” I said. “But that didn’t save her, now did it?”

There was a pause as this rattled around in Russo’s mind. Then he got it. “She . . . she was Jason’s lawyer?”

“That’s right.”

“Oh God,” Russo said. “I’m sorry. I truly am. But I had no idea what was going to happen. I really didn’t.”

“I know that now. But it doesn’t really matter anyway. What does matter is this: If you would have known what was going to happen, would you have done anything about it? Or would you have been too scared to open your mouth.”

Russo didn’t answer.

“That’s what I thought.”

A few seconds of silence, then Russo said, “Look, I understand you’re upset—”

I pressed the business end of the barrel deeper into his skin. “You don’t understand shit. So just keep your mouth shut unless I ask you a direct question.”

“Okay,” Russo said. “Okay. Whatever you say.” He began to mewl like a newborn kitten. The stench of shit overrode the lingering smell of urine as he vacated his bowels.

I adjusted the grip on my gun, carefully slipping my finger inside the trigger guard and letting it rest on the trigger itself but applying no pressure.

I emptied my mind of thought and started to squeeze the trigger, putting enough pressure on it to move it backwards just a hair, applying about half the necessary weight to complete the action.

It was time to decide, one way or the other.

Kill him, or don’t.

I relaxed my hand and removed my finger from the trigger and let the gun fall to my side. I was still staring at the back of Russo’s head. The pressure from the tip of the barrel left a little white O on the flesh of his neck.

Russo exhaled audibly, nearly falling forward out of his chair. His breath came in shuddering waves.

“You’re one lucky son of a bitch,” I said. “But since I can’t have you making any noise for a while—”

I struck him in the side of his head with the butt of my handgun. He fell to the floor in a heap. I checked his pulse; weak but steady. He would wake up with one hell of a headache but without permanent damage.

I took a minute to look around and make sure I hadn’t left anything behind, then headed up the stairs. I left the house and made my way back to the car following the same path I’d used to arrive.

Thirty minutes later I was sitting in my car, mulling over my decision to let Russo live. I still didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but since there wasn’t much I could do to change my course, I decided to just move on and hope Russo didn’t come back to haunt me.

I pulled my cell from the center console and dialed Willis’s number.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“Not much. I just finished up with our friend.”

“Oh yeah? How did it go?”

“Pretty well,” I said. “He was quite helpful.”

“That’s good to hear,” Willis said. “You want to meet up, tell me what you got from him?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Where are you?”

“The Body Shop,” Willis said. “Where else?”

I laughed under my breath. Willis was a simple man in many ways. Give him a high-powered rifle in one hand and a stripper in the other and he’d be happy for the rest of his life.

“How long have you been there?” I said.

“Oh, I don’t know. An hour or two. Maybe five. Probably more like eight though.”

“Jesus, man. You just can’t get enough of that place, can you?”

“What can I say? It’s my home away from home.”

“Hell,” I said. “Sounds like it is your home.”

“One can wish,” Willis said wistfully. “Anyway, that’s where I am. Get over here when you can.”

“See you in 30,” I said.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The Body Shop was a run-down strip club off Midway Boulevard near the San Diego Sports Arena that catered to college students and military personnel. It didn’t have the hottest women around, but even the second-rate girls of San Diego were far superior to the top-shelf girls pretty much anywhere else in the country. It didn’t do much for me, but to each his own.

The doorman was a full-blown cliché, a 6’3”, bald, goateed white dude with a holier-than-thou smirk, tattooed arms and a steroid-enhanced body. He was a little too presumptuous with his frisk, but that was all right, as I was clean, having left my weapon under the front seat of my car.

“Keep your hands to yourself, pal,” he said as I entered. “You look like the touchy type.”

He was staring down at me, his massive arms crossed at his chest in a look that was meant to terrify but only served to display his clueless arrogance. His smirk had blossomed into a full-blown grin.

I stared back, my face impassive.

“You got a problem?” he said.

I was itching to teach him a lesson but it wasn’t worth my time. I had more important things to deal with. I shifted my gaze and moved on without a word.

His laughing was quickly drowned out by the basic yet catchy rock sounds of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me” blasting over the speaker system.

I saw Willis sitting in front of one of the side stages. He was drinking a beer and watching a platinum-haired Barbie doll with fake tits the size of my head and a waist the size of my thigh gyrate her privates a couple inches from his face. 

I came up from behind and tapped him on the shoulder. His grin faltered quickly once he saw I wasn’t another one of the strippers.

“Oh, hey Keeley,” he said.

“Hoping to see someone prettier?”

“Nah, man,” Willis said, his smile reappearing. “Not for a while, at least. You got something for me, huh?”

“That I do,” I said.

“Well then, come on back to my office and fill me in.”

I followed him past the stage, towards a bar on the opposite side of the club, around a corner. Here, the music was muffled slightly, meaning we didn’t have to shout to hear each other.

The bartender was in his early 20’s and thin as a rail. He had a bona-fide mullet and scraggly, partially-filled in goatee. He was standing at the far end of the bar, talking to one of the girls. He looked over and saw Willis and his face erupted in a goofy smile. He quickly dismissed the girl and jogged over to us. He moved like a tweeker, all jittery, as though his extremities were hooked up to electrical wires.

“Willis, my man,” the kid said, not even casting a glance in my direction. “How’s it hanging? Having a good time?”

“As always,” Willis said.

“Cool, cool. What can I get for you on this fine evening? Wait, don’t tell me. Coors Lite, right?”

Willis nodded.

“What about your friend?”

“Just ice water,” I said.

He gave me a funny look, as though I’d asked for a glass of wine at a rodeo.

“He’s serious,” Willis said.

“Whatever floats your boat, my friend. All we got is tap water. That okay?”

“Fine with me.”

The kid poured our drinks. Willis handed him a 50 dollar bill and told him to keep the change and give us some space and keep the other customers away from us. The kid went back to the other side of the bar with a big smile on his face.

“So what did you get?” Willis said.

“A telephone number for you to run down.”

“What else?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

“Hell, Keeley, I thought you said the meeting went well?”

“It did.”

“Sure doesn’t sound like it to me.”

I laughed. “Listen to you, all bitter because you have to do a little work. What did you want, the whole organizational structure in one shot?”

“That would have been nice,” Willis said. “Oh well, go ahead and give me what you got.”

I told him the number.

“That’s a Mexican number.”

“Yeah, I noticed that too,” I said. “Makes sense, considering the situation.”

“Yeah,” Willis said. “I guess it does. All right then, give me a day or two. I’ll get back to you when I got something worthwhile.”

“Sounds good.” I stood up, started to leave.

“Wait a minute,” Willis said. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, playing dumb.

“I mean, you didn’t tell me what you ended up doing with Russo.”

Dammit. Even though I should have known better, I was starting to think I was going to get out of there without talking about this part of the operation. I already knew how Willis was going to feel about my choice, but there was no skating around this conversation. As badly as I wanted to.

“What about him?” I said, putting on an innocent face.

“Come on,” Willis said. “Don’t give me that shit. You know what I’m talking about.”

I decided to take my medicine and tell him the truth. But before I could, a shrill female voice called out Willis’s name.

I turned towards the voice and saw the girl who had been dancing on stage in front of him when I walked in. She was wearing high heels and a dental-floss bikini bottom with no top. She was smiling profusely, her teeth bright enough to actually take my attention off of her impossibly perfect, completely fake breasts. For a second or two, at least.

“Hey Willis,” she said, ignoring me completely, just as the bartender had. She brushed up against his leg like a cat looking for a petting. “You ready for some VIP treatment?”

“In a little while,” Willis said. “I’ve got some business to finish up first. I’ll come find you in a few minutes.”

“All right, baby, you do that. I’ll be getting warmed up in the green room.”

Willis smiled and watched her intently as she strutted away, her six-inch heels clicking on the concrete floor.

“Who the hell was that?” I asked.

“Her name’s Misty. She’s a real piece of ass, huh?”

“Is she a girlfriend or something?”

“Depends on how you define girlfriend,” Willis said. “But she’s a regular, that’s for sure. Been seeing her for about six months now.”

“Seeing her?” I asked. “Or banging her?”

Willis flashed a half-smile. “Is there any difference?” 

I stifled a laugh, shook my head. “You and strippers. When are you going to have a real relationship?”

“I do have real relationships,” he said. “They just happen to be with different women every night.”

This time I couldn’t hold my laugh in. “It never ceases to amaze me.”

“What’s that?”

“How a dude as ugly as you can pull wool whenever he damn well pleases.”

“It’s all in the attitude, my friend.”

“Well, you’ve got plenty of that,” I said.

Willis flexed one of his massive arms, pointed at the bicep. “Of course, the guns don’t hurt either.”

This just made me laugh harder. The combination of half-naked girls all around and Willis cracking one-liners had me feeling pretty good. For a second, I could almost remember what it felt like before Gina had been killed. Almost.

Then reality reasserted itself and my grin started to fade. I took another drink of water to help ease the transition.

Willis sensed the sobering of my mood and brought it down a level. “So what did you end up doing with Russo?”

“I left him lying in the wine cellar.”

“Alive?”

I nodded.

“Are you sure that was the wisest choice?”

“Not necessarily. But it’s the one I made, so there’s no use worrying about it now.”

“What if he wakes up and tells the people that he’s in bed with what happened?”

“He won’t,” I said, trying to sound more certain of that fact than I actually was.

“How can you be sure?”

“Because he’d be signing his own death warrant if he told them what happened. They would kill him without hesitation if they knew he’d given out any information.”

“We know that. But does he?”

“He knows,” I said. “He was so scared of them he almost didn’t tell me anything, even when I was pointing my gun at his face. He knows his only hope of getting out of this thing alive is to keep quiet and pretend like nothing happened.”

“I hope for your sake you’re right.”

I shrugged. “Even if I’m not, what’s he going to tell them? That someone is coming after them? Hell, they’re going to know that soon enough anyway. And it’s not going to take them long to figure out who I am, even if Russo doesn’t say anything to them.”

“All that may be true,” Willis said. “But there would be a hell of a lot less to worry about if Russo couldn’t talk.”

“I know. But this was a man tied up to a chair in the wine cellar of his own home, unarmed, incapable of defending himself. It was murder. Plain and simple. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

Willis opened his mouth to comment but I pressed on.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I’ve got no problem killing the people responsible for Gina’s death. I just didn’t realize how difficult it would be to draw the line of responsibility.”

“That’s understandable,” Willis said. “But you better watch yourself. You’re walking a tightrope here, Keeley. You lose your balance even just a bit and you could tumble into the abyss.”

“I know,” I said. And I did. I truly did. But I was also just as worried about the abyss I might tumble into if I became too much like the guys I was chasing. 

I drained the rest of my water but continued to hold the empty glass up around my face, looking at the world through the distorted lens of the ice cubes at the bottom.

“You okay?” Willis said.

I nodded.

“All right then. Holler at me if you need anything else before tomorrow.”

“I will.”

 

#####

 

BUD/S TRAINING: HELL WEEK

 

The first two weeks of BUD/S training is just the appetizer. The main course starts the third week. Hell Week. Or “the long day” as it is not-so-affectionately known. Everything that has come before it—the pain, the suffering, the doubts about continuing on—are magnified tenfold. Hell Week is where the SEALs are separated from the mere mortals. It is a singular experience.

The first evolution of Hell Week is called breakout. It starts at 6PM on Sunday night. Explosions. Gunfire. Smoke bombs. Running around in the dark, trying to find your way to the beach. Instructors yelling, spraying you with water, giving conflicting directions, trying to disrupt class cohesion. It’s meant as an introduction to combat stress, a shock to the system. It works perfectly.

Twenty minutes later, 57 of the original 114 of us who haven’t yet quit are collected on the beach, in our boat crews. But we were too slow, too unorganized. We’re sent to the ocean for surf torture.

Next thing you know you’re lying on the beach, arm-in-arm, your body immersed in the 58 degree water, wearing only a T-shirt and fatigues. Cold, wet sand against your back. Feet towards the ocean. Each wave that rolls onshore sends water up your nose, into your mouth, covering your face, freezing you further. Your teeth are chattering, your body is shivering uncontrollably. Fifteen minutes later, you’re done. On to rock portage.

The night is pitch black. The moon hiding behind the clouds. The only illumination is one hand-held flashlight and glow sticks tied to your hat. The waves are huge. Ten feet. At least. You are on a bank of rocks, trying to get your boat and crew into the water. A wave comes, crashes into your boat, sending you slamming against the rocks. Instructors screaming to not let your body get in between the rafts and the rocks. As if that’s possible. Finally we’re all in the raft. We paddle out, desperate to not get turned over by the waves. We succeed. But on the way back in we get flipped. We come in last place. More surf torture. Then rock portage again.

The next evolution is a four-mile timed run. In 32 minutes. Nobody makes it. More surf torture.

Then comes raft races. One mile. Winners get a 30 second break with the raft held above their head. Everyone else gets 50 pushups and wet and sandy. On to another race. More pain. More punishment. Then another race. Two hours later and you’re done with this evolution.

It’s now 6AM. You’ve been at it for twelve hours straight. Eight men have already quit this morning. It is only the beginning.

Next comes an ocean swim. One mile long. In 57 degree water. Without wetsuits. Your limbs are frozen, barely moveable. But you press on and finish the swim.

After an hour break for a shower, medical evaluation, and a meal of cold field rations and water, it’s almost noon. Time to go back to work.

Log PT. Two hours.

Surf passage. Two hours.

The grinder. One hour.

Raft races. Two hours.

The sun goes down. Seven more guys quit. The only thing that sucks more than being soaked and freezing and miserable is being soaked and freezing and miserable in the dark. Another rationed meal and it’s back to the ocean.

Rock portage.

Surf torture.

Raft races.

Log PT.

It is now 2AM. Time for something different. You are told to take off your boots and get into the 54 degree ocean water barefoot. You wade out until the ocean floor is well beneath your feet. Then you tread water for twenty minutes. Out of the water to do more physical activity: push ups, pull ups, sit ups. Then back to the water. This time stripped down to your underwear. Twenty minutes in. Twenty minutes out. Over and over. Each time in the water weighs on your mind more than the last. The pain is nearly unbearable, but you press on. At this point, it’s all mental. Your body can take it. Your mind just needs to learn how to push past the barriers it thinks exist.

Thirty-eight hours after breakout, you get your first hot meal and 30 minutes to eat. You spend it trying not to think about what’s to come. Live in the moment. It’s the only way to survive. You still haven’t slept since Hell Week has started. Thirty-five men have quit. Only 22 remain.

After the meal, it’s back to the beach.

More of the same evolutions. All night long. And then all day. Non-stop. Fifty-two hours in and the evolutions become more simple, but no less intense.

At midnight on Wednesday, 78 hours into Hell Week, we get to play in the mud. Two hours of rolling around in mudflats, following the instructors directions. Feet. Back. Stomach. Face in the mud. Back. Stomach. Somersaults. Face in the mud.

A couple minutes by the fire, and then it’s on to the obstacle course. Then leap frogs and barrel races. Anything to keep you moving, to keep you awake. At noon comes hydro recon. Waist-deep in water for thirty minutes. Then more pushups. Sit-ups. Surf torture. Raft races.

Finally, Thursday afternoon at 2:30PM, we get to sleep. A four-hour nap. After being awake for nearly 96 hours straight.

We’re woken up by a police siren. Getting out of the cot is hard, but knowing we’re more than halfway through Hell week makes it easier.

First evolution after sleep is surf torture. A shock to the system, but by now you’re numb to the pain. You begin to react without thinking, to ignore the meager distractions of pain and discomfort and exhaustion. Some element of weakness has left your body.

The evolutions continue for another 36 hours. The grinder. Surf torture. Half-mile swims. Log PT. Surf passage. You’re cold and exhausted and sleepy but you press on without thinking. Time passes strangely; the seconds drag on forever but the hours fly. Before you realize it, Friday night is upon you. Which means you get two hours of sleep on the beach under the raft. Pure bliss.

You’re woken up by the pounding on the bottom of the rafts with a paddle and the harsh screech of whistles. You immediately start on the next set of evolutions. The usual suspects. Raft races. Push ups. Sit ups. Surf torture. four-mile runs. Surf passage. The grinder. It’s become routine by now. You’re on autopilot.

And then, just like that, you’re finished. 120 hours of constant activity interrupted by a mere six hours of sleep and Hell Week is over. Only 24 more weeks to go until you’re officially a SEAL.

Welcome to BUD/S. Hooyah.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

I woke up at noon the next day to the sound of my cell phone chirping. I’d been in bed for the past fifteen hours, trying to build up my sleep reserves, figuring I might not have another opportunity to catch any shuteye over the course of the next couple of days.

I looked at the readout, saw it was Willis, flipped open the phone.

“What’s up?”

“Not much,” Willis said. “Except, of course, I’ve got some information that you’d probably be interested to see.”

I sat up in bed. “Where are you right now?”

“Dick’s Last Resort.”

I stifled a groan.

Dick’s Last Resort was a restaurant and bar in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. It was a unique place, where the waiters and waitresses didn’t bother with niceties such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and sometimes even avoided greeting you altogether. They simply barked at you until you told them what you wanted, after which they grudgingly brought you the food and then proceeded to ignore you unless you grabbed their arm as they walked by.

Dick’s was loud, obnoxious, and bursting at the seams from the minute they opened their doors until they kicked everyone out at the end of the night. It was all part of the charm, or so they claimed.

I didn’t buy it. I hated the damn place; just thinking about going there gave me a headache. But Willis couldn’t get enough of it. And since this was his gig, I told him I’d meet him there in half an hour.

Forty-five minutes and three pre-emptive ibuprofen later, I found myself at the front door of Dick’s Last Resort, preparing myself for the onslaught. I took a deep breath to steel myself and walked in.

I immediately saw Willis sitting alone at a booth in the far corner of the restaurant and made my way over, fighting the urge to plow through the 50 or so people crowded around the bar, each and every one seemingly yelling at the top of their lungs.

“What took you so long?” Willis said as soon as I was within earshot. He had to yell to be heard, yet another one of Dick’s charms.

“It’s good to see you too,” I said.

I sat down opposite Willis just as a tall, skinny waiter with black plastic-rimmed glasses, a shaved head and tattoos covering every exposed centimeter of his body walked by.

“Hey,” Willis barked at the waiter. “We need help.”

The waiter glanced at Willis, looked as though he was going to continue on, then apparently thought better of it and stopped at our table.

“You guys know what you want?”

“We wouldn’t have stopped you if we didn’t,” Willis said.

“Then are you going to tell me, or do you expect me to read your puny little meathead minds?”

Willis laughed. His smile was wide and absolutely genuine. He loved this shit. “I will take a pint of Coors Lite.”

“Obviously a connoisseur of fine beers,” the waiter said. He raised his eyebrows and slowly turned his head until he was looking in my general direction. “And for you?”

“Just ice water,” I said.

“Water? Are you freaking serious?”

Biting down on the urge to break his nose, I simply looked at him and nodded.

“If you get any balls later on today, let me know,” the waiter said. “What about food?”

“Nothing for right now,” Willis said.

“You’re joking right?”

“Does it look like I’m joking?”

The waiter dropped his arms to his side. “So you’re telling me that you two goons are gonna take up one of my prime tables during the busiest time of the day and just get one single pint of domestic beer between the two of you?”

“And a glass of ice water,” Willis said. “Don’t forget the ice water.”

The waiter rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Just shut your pie-hole and bring the goddamned beer,” Willis said, the tone of his voice contradicting the harshness of his words.

The waiter mumbled something under his breath, then turned and headed towards the bar.

By now Willis’s smile was threatening to split his face in half. He smacked his hands face down on the table, practically breaking it in half. “I love this fucking place! It’s not so much being treated like shit as it is the opportunity to treat someone else like shit.”

“Plus you get to pay them twice as much as a normal restaurant for the pleasure,” I said.

“Yeah, but it’s worth every penny.”

The waiter brought Willis’s beer over and dropped it on the table and hurried away. Not surprisingly, he didn’t even bother bringing my glass of water.

“If you want anything else, please hesitate to ask,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away.

I shook my head, chuckled under my breath. I truly didn’t understand why people came to this place.

“So where were we?” Willis said.

“We hadn’t even started yet.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Willis pulled out his notebook and flipped through it until he came to the right page. “Well, it was a byzantine path, but the number you gave me eventually tracked back to a man named Carlos Alvarez. Forty-eight years old. Born in Tijuana, went to school at San Diego State and law school at Loyola. After graduating in the top ten of his class, he headed back to Mexico, where he opened a private practice. Spent a couple of years down there, where his practice took off amidst allegations of connections to—”

“Get the point,” I said. “I’m not interested in his life story.”

“Actually, you are,” Willis said. “You just don’t know it yet.”

“Why? Who is he?”

“I’ll get to it, just hold on.”

“I’m not in the mood for a freaking book,” I said. “Just give me the cliff notes version.”

“All right, all right,” Willis said, clearly disappointed. “Long story short, he’s the brother-in-law of a certain Ferdinand Montoya.”

“And who’s that?”

“The man who was in charge of the Ciudad De Tijuana drug cartel.”

I frowned. “I thought I read that the CDT got shut down last year?”

“You did and they did,” Willis said. “Hence the use of the past tense. But even though most of the top-ranking members are now in prison, Montoya was able to use his connections to avoid extradition. And from what I can gather, he’s trying to lift his organization back up from the depths.”

“And the brother-in-law?”

“Carlos Alvarez was never even brought up on charges. There was no evidence to tie him to the activities of the cartel. In fact, right before the CDT got shut down, Alvarez came back to the States and opened up a new practice in La Jolla.”

“So he’s legit?”

“On paper, he is,” Willis said. “But get this; through a source I have down in Mexico, I was able to get a list of Alvarez’s land holdings down there. In addition to a house in Baja, he owns a number of properties in Mexico, one of which happens to be an unoccupied warehouse near the Tijuana airport, located less than three hundred yards south of the border.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “His warehouse is directly south of Russo’s.”

“It’s practically a straight line,” Willis said. “If they weren’t in different countries, they’d be neighbors. The only thing separating them is that flimsy little border fence.”

I scoffed and shook my head. “Un-freaking-believable.”

“Tell me about it.”

“What about Alvarez’s property on the American side of the border? Were you able to get anything on him?”

Willis opened his arms and gave me a look of mock disappointment. “Come on, Keeley. What do you think?”

“I think you wouldn’t have called me if you hadn’t,” I said. “Sorry to doubt you, my friend. I should know better by now.”

“Damn right you should,” Willis said. “And I’ll forgive you this one last time. But don’t let it happen again, or else I’ll have to fuck you up big time, widower or not.”

I laughed. It was good to have Willis back in full swing, talking shit despite my situation. All the sympathy I’d received over the past few days was making me sick. I wasn’t big on being treated with kid gloves in the best of times, and in times like this, the last thing I wanted was Willis joining in on the act.

“Oh, is that right?” I said, offering him a little smile.

He nodded vigorously, his smile cutting his face in half.

“Then come on and try it, big man.”

“Oh, you don’t want that,” he said. “Remember the last time we scrapped?”

Of course I remembered. We were freshman in college, just starting to get to know each other. We were both drunker than shit, and I was trying to see (as always back then) how far I could push things. I found out the hard way, to the tune of two cracked ribs and a bruised kidney. I had pissed blood for a week.

“I don’t remember a thing about that night,” I said. “I think it’s been permanently blocked from my memory banks.”

“Yeah right,” Willis said. “You just wish you’d forgotten about it.”

“That I do,” I said. “That I do indeed.”

Willis laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s good to have you back, my friend.”

“It’s good to be back,” I said, even though I knew I wasn’t truly all the way back. And wasn’t sure I’d ever be. But I was definitely doing better. Action tends to do that for me, even something as simple as breaking in to Russo’s house the night before.   

“So what did you find on our friend Alvarez?” I asked, getting back to the business at hand.

“Well, let’s just say that he is far more cognizant of his security than Russo was. He won’t be nearly as easy to get to.”

This didn’t surprise me in the least. I knew it was going to get progressively harder from here on out. The only question was whether or not it was doable at all. “How bad is it?”

“Pretty fucking bad,” Willis said. “His home has a twelve-foot high security fence around it, four German Shepherds, a top-of-the-line alarm system, plus he’s never alone. Not only is he married with six kids, but there are three ‘servants’ that live at the home.”

“Let me guess. Bodyguards?”

Willis nodded. “At least one at all times, but usually two or three, depending on the situation.”

“What about his work?”

“Not quite as secure as the house but not easy to infiltrate by any stretch of the imagination.”

“How difficult are we talking about?”

“His office is on the twelfth floor of a downtown high-rise with 24-hour security, private parking, a metal detector and four guards at the door,” Willis said. “And even if you can somehow get up to his office, he has ten other people in there with him, any number of which could be there at any time.”

I stared at Willis’s beer, suddenly wishing I had one in front of me right now. “Not exactly what I was hoping to hear.” I uttered a humorless laugh. I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached across the table and snagged Willis’s beer, threw down half of it in one drink.

“Feeling better?” Willis said.

“Not at all,” I said. “So basically I’m fucked.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Willis said. “I mean, if you just wanted to kill him, that wouldn’t be too difficult. But capture and question him? That’s no cake walk by any stretch. About the only thing you can do is follow him around for a couple of weeks, try to find a weakness in his routine, a tiny window of opportunity where you can snatch him and run like hell and hope you can get back to the warehouse without getting gunned down.”

“You know how much I hate tailing people.”

“Yeah, I know. But I don’t see many other choices right now. At least, not sane ones.”

I sighed and shook my head. “Then I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.”

“I could put someone on it if you want.”

“No, it’s all right. I’ll give it a shot.”

“You sure?” Willis said. “I’ve got a couple of quality guys on the payroll who could use the work.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m going to try and take care of it myself. The fewer people involved in this thing, the better it is for everyone.”

“I hear you,” Willis said. He finished off the last remnants of his beer. “So what are you going to do with the rest of your day?”

“I figure I’ll go hang out downtown, try to get a bead on Alvarez on his way home from work.”

“Sounds like a plan. Call me tonight, let me know how it went.”

I nodded and started to stand.

“Oh, and Keeley?”

“Yeah?”

“Do me a favor and don’t do anything crazy.”

“Come on, Willis. You know me.”

“All too well,” he said. “Which is why I’ll say it again: Don’t do anything crazy.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

I had been sitting in my car for almost two hours when I spotted a Cadillac Escalade with familiar plates leaving the parking garage adjacent to Alvarez’s office building. The driver was a big, burly, bald guy wearing dark sunglasses, most likely one of Alvarez’s bodyguards. The back seat of the vehicle was heavily tinted, precluding me from seeing if there was another bodyguard in the back seat, but I assumed there was.

The driveway leading from the building exited onto a one-way street, allowing me the luxury of not having to figure out which way the car was going to turn after leaving the parking structure. I was parked on the near side of the street, just behind the driveway, and easily slipped in behind Alvarez’s Cadillac as it turned in front of me.

I hadn’t tailed anyone in more than a year, ever since I’d screwed up a job I was doing for Willis by getting in  a minor traffic accident with the guy I was supposed to be tailing. But even before that, I had always hated working a tail, and it didn’t take long for me to be reminded why.

Everything went smoothly at first. It was early enough in the afternoon that the downtown streets weren’t too crowded, and I was able to keep one eye on the Alvarez’s Cadillac and the other on the road without too much effort. I was five cars behind the Cadillac and one lane to the right, and having no problems staying in position for the first three blocks.

On the fourth block, however, the next streetlight up turned yellow just before Alvarez got to the intersection. The driver sped up and got through the intersection just as the light switched over to red.

I wasn’t so lucky. I was stuck two cars back from the line, sitting there watching as the Cadillac continued ahead.

I tapped the steering wheel and waited impatiently, my heart rate and frustration levels rising incrementally with every passing second. I glanced back and forth between the red light in front of me and the green one the next intersection up, hoping that I wouldn’t lose sight of Alvarez’s Cadillac.

 Fortunately, the light at the next street turned red before Alvarez got through it, allowing me to catch up without difficulty.

My good fortune was short-lived however, as two blocks later, edgy as ever with my recent near-failure still in the forefront of my mind, I was so focused on keeping an eye on the Cadillac and the pattern of the lights ahead that I failed to see a Honda Civic in front of me slowing down to make a right turn into a parking garage until it was almost too late.

I slammed on the brakes and swerved into the next lane, narrowly avoiding the Civic and earning a flurry of honks from drivers in the adjacent lanes. I glanced back to make sure that I hadn’t started a chain-reaction accident of my own, and by the time I looked back at the road ahead, Alvarez’s Cadillac had disappeared.

I looked left, right, and left again. My heart-rate spiked and I slammed my fist down on the steering wheel and cursed aloud. It was impossible to overestimate how much I hated this part of the job.

Then I saw the Cadillac half a block ahead, making a left turn onto Market Street. I barked out a relieved laugh, glanced in my rearview, saw a little opening, and cut across two lanes of traffic to continue the tail.

Luckily the 163 freeway was less than two blocks ahead. Alvarez’s Cadillac merged onto it and I followed. Exhaling audibly, I allowed myself to relax a bit. Even I could manage a decent tail on the freeway, especially during rush hour. 

I followed them all the way to Alvarez’s house; despite the internal security measures, it was not located in a gated neighborhood.

The Cadillac pulled into the driveway of an immaculately adorned but subtle mansion. It proceeded through the front gates of the property and towards the house beyond.

I drove past without slowing down or casting a glance in the direction of the house.

I continued down the street until I came to the next intersection. I made a left, then a right at the next street, then two more rights, until I was back on Alvarez’s street but the next block down. I made my way to the correct block and parked as far down the street as I could while still being able to see the front gate. I shut off the engine, threw WAVERING RADIANT by ISIS into the CD player, and settled into my seat.

I had been waiting for about an hour when I noticed the front gate opening. One of Alvarez’s other cars—a Jaguar XJ8—exited, and much to my chagrin, turned right, towards my parking spot.

I cursed under my breath and leaned over the center console, pretending to search for something in the passenger’s footwell. After counting to ten—figuring that was more than enough time for Alvarez’s car to pass me at the speed it was traveling, but not too much time that I’d miss which way it turned at the intersection—I lifted my head back up to see the Jaguar stopped in the middle of the street, directly to my right.

The driver had turned his head and was staring right at me, his face impassive yet somehow condescending at the same time. He gave me a long look, then returned his gaze to the road ahead and took off down the street.

Fuck me. I had been made. Whether it had happened while I was tailing Alvarez home or while I was sitting outside the house, I had no idea. But it didn’t matter. There would be no more following Alvarez on this afternoon, or ever again in this car.

It was just as well, anyway. As I had proven on the way over here, I was horrible at tailing, and I probably would have just ended up in a situation worse than this if I had tried to do it for any extended period of time.

It was time to come up with a new plan.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

I briefly considered calling it a day after the Alvarez tailing debacle, but I knew I was still way too wound up to go back to the warehouse. The last thing I wanted to do was sit around and stare at the ceiling, alone with my thoughts. I had no doubt they would eventually turn to Gina, and I couldn’t deal with that right now, especially after what I’d just done—or, more accurately, had miserably failed to do.

My first thought was to find a bar and start drinking heavily; the idea being that the only way I was going to be able to sleep would be to pass out. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how bad an idea that would  be.

I knew that right now my head wasn’t in a good place, and if I started drinking (especially without Willis around to keep me in check) I would eventually find someone to get in a scrap with. It’s not like I’d start something, but there was no doubt in my mind that I’d eventually find myself in a position where something would get started, and then I’d have no choice but to finish it.

And I didn’t want that.

Not only could it curtail me in the search for Gina’s killer were something to go wrong, but hurting someone else wouldn’t make me feel better. To be sure, it might do something for my ego, right there, right then, but tomorrow I’d wake up and deeply regret what I’d done.

I’d been there before, back in my pre-Gina days, and it always ended the same way. I wasn’t going to revert back to it now that she was gone.

So I decided on a different route and pulled into the first place I saw on the way home, Gracie’s 24-hour diner. I walked in and headed towards a booth near the back exit, just in case. I had my choice of seats; there wasn’t another customer in the place.

An extremely young, extremely pregnant waitress came out from the kitchen and headed towards me, shuffling along like she was sixty years old. The tops of her shoes were scuffed, her hair was dirty and her nametag was blank but she was putting on a good face for the customers.

“What can I get for ya?” she said in a mock-enthusiastic voice.

“Give me your Farmer’s Breakfast,” I said. “With two large orange juices.”

She nodded her head and wrote on her little pad.

“Plus an order of hash browns, a large stack of pancakes and a piece of cherry pie ala mode.”

She looked at me with raised eyebrows and her head tilted slightly. “You trying to eat yourself to death?”

“Nope, just into a coma. I figure it’s the only way I’m going to get any sleep tonight.”

“Oh yeah? Things are that bad huh?”

“Not really,” I said, not wanting the poor girl to feel sorry for me. She obviously had enough problems of her own. “I’m just wound up, that’s all.”

“I hear you,” the waitress said. “Although getting to sleep isn’t much of a problem for me these days. It’s waking up that’s hard. Know what I mean?”

“That I do.”

Her gaze lingered for a moment and she nodded her head absently. I could practically feel the exhaustion radiating off her body.

“Well, I’ll get this in for you,” she said suddenly, as if awakening from a light doze, then turned and headed for the kitchen.

I felt a wave of despair as she waddled away. Poor girl had to work the worst shift at a 24-hour diner just to make ends meet while assholes like Russo lived the high life by selling their country out to the first scumbag that came along with some cash. All of a sudden I wished I had just killed the son of a bitch. 

I shook my head and forced myself not to think about it. Worrying about things that I had no control over was only going to dispirit me further. I had more than enough on my plate without outside assistance. Instead I started thinking of a way to go after Alvarez that didn’t include me following him in a car.

The food came out a short time later. It wasn’t great but it was good enough that I cleaned all three of my plates. The waitress brought me the cherry pie just as I finished up with the breakfast and I gobbled that up too. She came around again with the check right about the same time I put the last of the pie in my mouth. She knew her job. 

“How was it?” she asked. Despite the weariness in her voice, it seemed as though she was genuinely concerned about the quality of the food.

“It was perfect,” I said. “Although I can feel my body shutting down already. At least I won’t have to worry about falling asleep anymore.”

“But you do have to worry about making it out the door without your heart giving out,” she said with a smile that lit up her face. For a moment, I could see the cute young girl buried beneath. My heart went out to her.

“Very true,” I said, matching her smile with one of my own. I looked around, saw nobody else in the diner, and gestured towards the seat opposite me. “Why don’t you give your feet a little rest?”

She looked towards the kitchen, then back at me. “Sure, why not. I deserve a break.”

“Hell, you deserve more than that,” I said. I held my hand out across the table. “My name’s Scott. But everyone just calls me Keeley.”

“I’m Jenny,” she said, grasping my hand and giving it a firm shake. “But everyone just calls me Jenny.”

We both laughed heartily, the sound echoing about in the empty diner. The bald, sweaty head of a forty-year old man poked out from the opening to the kitchen to see what the ruckus was all about, looked around, saw us, flashed a scowl in our direction, then ducked away.

“How far along are you?” I asked. “Seven months?”

“Almost eight,” Jenny said. 

I whistled through my teeth. “What’s a girl in your condition doing working a job like this?”

“Oh, you know, the typical bullshit. My boyfriend got me pregnant, then panicked and left, then one thing led to another, and next thing I know I was taking whatever gig I could get.”

“That’s horrible. I’m sorry.”

“What can you do?” Jenny said. “Sometimes, life just sucks.”

“Yeah, I know. But it shouldn’t.”

She held my gaze. I could see her trying to work out what I was all about. Good luck with that. I didn’t even know myself. 

The bell on the front door jingled and in walked four stern-looking, well-groomed men wearing pretty nice suits. Two of them took seats at the table closest to the front door. The other two sat down a couple tables to our right. I cast a glance at the rear exit and wasn’t at all surprised to see two more similar-looking men parking themselves just inside the back door.

 Jenny started to stand. “Looks like it’s back to work for me. I’ll catch you later.”

“I don’t think these guys are going to want anything,” I said.

She narrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”

“I think they’re here to talk to me.”

“Talk to you? Why?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” she said.

“It sure looks like it.”

“What did you do?”

“Beats the hell out of me.”

The door chimed again and another man walked in. He was older than the others, had less hair, and wore a much more expensive suit but was otherwise of the same breed. He headed towards my table.

“What should I do?” Jenny said.

“Just leave the check and go stand behind the counter,” I said. “If anything happens, call the cops.”

Her breath quickened. “Do you think anything will?”

“No, but better safe than sorry.”

She rifled through her note pad, tore off my check, dropped it on the table, and walked quickly away, leaving just as the older man arrived. He didn’t sit down and I didn’t invite him to.

Without bothering to look up at him, I said, “And who might you be?”

Instead of replying, he produced a badge from his pocket and held it in front of my face. I looked down and read it aloud, keeping my tone flat.

“Special agent Derek Holland of the Department of Homeland Security.” I looked up at him, my face expressionless. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”

He pulled the badge back and returned it to his pocket. “You’re supposed to be concerned.”

“About what?”

“About why I want to talk to you,” he said.

“Well I’m not.”

“I can see that,” Holland said. “If you prefer, I can make things more uncomfortable for you. Would you be impressed then?”

“Probably not,” I said. “But why find out? You say you just want to talk?”

“That’s right.”

“About what?”

“We’ll get to that eventually.”

“Let’s get to it now.”

“Not here,” Holland said. “In the car.”

“Oh, so now you want me to take a ride with you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? You could have made this a whole lot easier.”

“How so?”

“Because I would have told you to fuck off right away instead of making you wait around to hear it.”

Holland’s face reddened and a muscle underneath his left eye twitched. He was clearly not used to being talked to this way.

“Does that mean you’re refusing the ride?” he said.

I looked at the six other DHS goons in the restaurant. I could take a few of them but probably not all six. Besides, what was the point? It wasn’t like I was going to accomplish anything by butting heads with these guys out in the open. And hell, by talking to them, I might even learn something. Time to bite my pride and stop being such an asshole.

“I guess not,” I said. “Just let me just pay the check and we can go.”

Holland stood aside and let me pass.

I walked over to Jenny, handed her everything I had in my wallet, a little over $250.

“I can’t take this,” she said, holding the bills out towards me. “This is way too much.”

I reached out and closed her hand around the money. “No, it’s not,” I said. “If anything it’s not enough. Take care of yourself, all right? And the little one too, when it pops out.”

“I will,” she said.

“And don’t worry about me. Everything’s fine.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

A couple minutes later we were driving along the San Diego Harbor in a black Crown Victoria. I was in the back seat, squished between two of the goons from the restaurant. Another one of the goons was driving. Special Agent Holland was in the passenger’s seat. Nobody had said a word the entire time.

The silence was starting to make me a little anxious. What if these guys weren’t who they claimed to be? What if Russo had talked to the people he was in bed with? Or what if Alvarez had called his brother after he’d spotted me tailing him? And here I was, stuck in a car with four strangers without my gun.

I was starting to feel very foolish about trusting this self-proclaimed “DHS Special Agent Holland” simply because he showed me a badge, especially considering I didn’t even know what a DHS badge looked like. But at this point there wasn’t much I could do except ride it out and hope for the best.

My relief was palpable as we turned into a parking lot near the Convention Center. The car came to a stop. Holland stepped out, along with the goon to my right. Holland motioned for me to follow. I did.

“Shall we walk?” Holland said.

“Sure.”

We walked along the path adjacent to the Harbor, the cool breeze blowing the smell of salt water and dead fish into our faces. Coronado and North Island shimmered to the west.

We shared the path with a smattering of couples, most of whom were walking in the opposite direction. Two of the goons followed twenty paces behind us. 

“So are you going to tell me what’s going on here?” I said.

“That’s funny, Mr. Keeley. I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“How the hell should I know? You’re the one that initiated this conversation, not me.”

“And what reason could I possibly have for doing such a thing?”

“I thought I explained that to you already,” I said. “I have no fucking clue.”

Holland eyed me, his face a curious mixture of disgust and admiration. “You don’t have any idea who you’re talking to, do you?”

“Oh, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea,” I said. “But to be perfectly honest, I just don’t fucking care.”

Holland laughed softly, shook his head. “You SEALs sure are a tough lot, I’ll give you that. Never back down, never give in, all that shit.”

“Hooyah,” I said, echoing the SEAL war cry. “Although I have to admit, I’m impressed that you know so much about me already.”

“I make it a habit to get to know the people that are getting in my way.”

“Getting in your way? How so?”

“Come on,” Holland said. “Don’t give me that shit. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

I shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t.”

Holland glared at me. “Do not mistake my cordiality for a lack of resolution, Mr. Keeley. There are two ways we can proceed here. Either we can have a nice, friendly conversation out here in the open, under the high sky and this wonderful night air, or I can stick you in a stuffy, smelly, tiny unmarked cell until you decide to be more cooperative. The choice is yours.”

I cast my glance out over the Harbor. I figured I’d pushed Holland’s buttons enough for him to know that I wasn’t going to hop, skip and jump just because he said to. It was time to come clean, act like a reasonable person. I turned back towards him, caught his gaze.

“If these talks remain cordial, are you going to tell me anything? Or are you just going to shine me on?”

“That depends on what you want to know,” Holland said. “But if you’re honest with me then I’ll be as honest as I can with you.”

I thought about it for a couple seconds and figured it was as good as I was going to get. “That sounds fair. Let’s talk.”

“That’s the spirit,” he said.

“Let’s go have a seat at the end,” Holland said. “Give ourselves a little bit of privacy.”

We made our way to the end of the 42nd street pier and sat next to each other on a concrete bench facing the Harbor. The sound of the water slapping against the pier was soft enough for us to speak normally but loud enough to not have to worry about being overheard. Something told me that Special Agent Holland had chosen this exact spot for talks of this sort before.

“So,” Holland said, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re so interested in Carlos Alvarez?”

“Because he had something to do with my wife’s death,” I said.

Holland narrowed his brow. “I was under the impression that your wife was killed in a hit and run accident.” 

“It wasn’t an accident.”

“The San Diego Police Department seemed to think it was.”

“They’re wrong.”

“Are they now?”

I nodded.

“You seem pretty sure.”

“I’m more than pretty sure,” I said.

“What makes you say that?”

“I have my reasons.”

“Care to articulate them?”

“Not particularly.”

Holland took this in with a slight nod of his head and didn’t press the issue. “Well, despite what you think, I can guarantee you Mr. Alvarez was not involved in your wife’s death in any way.”

“Yeah, well I’m sure you won’t mind if I don’t just take your word for it,” I said.

“Actually,” Holland said. “I mind quite a bit.”

“Do you, now?”

“Damn right I do.”

“And why is that?”

“Because Mr. Alvarez is involved in an ongoing operation and I will not allow him to be compromised. For any reason.”

“What kind of an operation are we talking about here?” I said.

“I can’t divulge the details,” Holland said. “But I assure you it’s a major one. With national security implications. We’ve been working it for more than eighteen months.”

“That long, huh?”

Holland nodded. “Which is why you can understand my agitation when I found out someone had come out of nowhere and started tailing—badly, I might add—one of the key components of my case, putting the whole operation—not to mention my career—in dire jeopardy.”

“It was that bad, huh?”

“It was pathetic,” Holland said.

I laughed softly and tried to decide how I was going to play the situation. But Holland didn’t give me a chance to play it at all.

“This is not open for debate,” he said. “We are going to have eyes on you, and if one of my agents so much as sees you within a mile of Alvarez, you will be in an unmarked cell in the basement of some unmarked building so fast your head will spin. Do you understand?”

I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. I cast my eyes down at the waves slapping against the pier. Their restlessness reflected my own. Eventually I lifted my eyes, looked at Holland. “Yeah. I understand.”

“Good,” Holland said, slipping into a relieved smile. “That’s good. Now I’m sorry your wife is dead, I truly am. And I understand your need to find out what happened to her. But National Security must take precedence over your quest for closure. As a former SEAL, I’m sure you can understand that, even if, as a former husband, you can’t.”

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “Can’t say that I like it, but I get it.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to like it,” Holland said. “And don’t get me wrong, as a human being, I admire your course of action. In fact, I would undoubtedly be doing the same thing if I was in your shoes.”

“But as a federal agent, you have to shut me down,” I said.

Holland patted me on the knee as though I was a child. I stifled the urge to break his nose.

“I knew you’d understand,” he said.

I nodded but didn’t say anything further on the subject. I just wanted the conversation to be over. I couldn’t take any more of his pandering.

“So are we done?” I asked.

Holland nodded. I stood up. But before I’d taken a step, he said, “You mind if I ask you a question about being a SEAL?”

“Shoot,” I said, knowing full well what the question would be. What it always was when someone said they wanted to ask me something about being a SEAL.

“Is BUD/S training as difficult as they say it is?”

Bingo. Every time.

I broke out my stock answer, which was mostly the truth, just toned down a bit for public consumption.

“Worse,” I said. “Far worse, actually. It’s impossible to put into words how difficult it was. Makes the rest of your life seem like a cakewalk. Well, until now, at least.”

“But you were a SEAL for only a couple months, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Why’d you leave?” Holland said. “You seem like you were made for the job.”

“I thought you already knew everything about me?”

Holland shook his head. “We only had time to get the basics.”

I filed this away for further consideration. “I didn’t leave,” I said. “I was forced out.”

“Let me guess,” Holland said. “Insubordination?”

“Nah. I wasn’t this ornery back then.”

“Then what?”

I un-tucked my shirt and lifted it, revealing the nasty pink scar that covered the lower half of my torso on my left side. I turned, giving him the full view. The scar took up half of my back, from about the seventh vertebrae down.

“Damn, that’s one hell of a scar.”

“It goes all the way down to my knee,” I said. “A full three square feet of tissue.”

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Necrotizing fasciitis.”

He gave me a confused look, just like everyone else did when I used the official term for my condition.

“A flesh-eating virus,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

I nodded.

“In combat?”

“No,” I said, my mouth turned up in a bitter smile. “Just a standard pre-deployment training exercise. Right here in Coronado Bay.”

“That sucks.”

“Yep.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Like hell.”

“I can imagine.”

I shook my head. “No. You can’t.”

He laughed softly. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. So I take it you’re in the clear now?”

“I’ll never be in the clear,” I said. “The only thing keeping my organs inside my body is an artificial layer of mesh with pig’s skin grafted on top of it. If any part of the graft gets infected, I’ll be dead before they get me to the hospital.”

“And there’s nothing the doctors can do to fix it?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“That’s a shame.”

I just looked at him. I didn’t need his sympathy, or anyone else’s. I never had. And I never would. Not on this matter or any other.

Holland met my glare head-on, looking at me as though he was working something out in his head. Then he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a blank card and a pen. He wrote a number on the card and handed it to me.

“What’s this?” I said.

“My personal cell number,” Holland said. “Call me if you ever get into something you can’t get out of. Sort of like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Good for one use only. Think of it as a token of my appreciation for your assistance on this matter.”

I was skeptical but I took the card.

“Well, I guess that’s it, then,” Holland said. “If you want, we can give you a ride back to your car.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll walk.”

The first thing I did after leaving the pier was call Willis from my cell.

“What do you need now?” he said upon answering the phone. Always the smartass.

“We need to get together, discuss a few things,” I said. “Consider another course of action.”

“It went that bad today, huh?” Willis said, presumably talking about my tail job.

“It didn’t go well, that’s for sure.”

He laughed. “You should have let me put someone on it for you. I could have saved you a lot of trouble.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I said. “So what are you up to tonight?”

“I got nothing planned. Why?”

“The Padres are still in town, right?”

“Yeah,” Willis said. “They’re playing the Brewers tonight. First pitch is at 7:05.”

“You want to check it out, for old times sake? We can have our palaver in the stands.”

“Sounds good.”

“Cool. I’ll grab a couple of tickets and meet you at the Tony Gwynn statue at 6:45.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Willis arrived right around game time. I gave him his ticket and we walked into the park. It was the bottom of the first and the crowd was buzzing. Kids running around with their brand-new hats on, gloves on one hand and sodas in the other, smiles huge and glorious. The smell of popcorn and spilt beer and peanuts and hot dogs permeated my skin, soaked into my body, immediately thrusting me back to my college glory days. And reminding me of the first thing in my life that had been taken from me, my dreams of playing major league baseball.

“Brings up some potent memories, doesn’t it?” Willis said.

“Hell yeah,” I said. “Kind of painful, to be honest.”

“I hear you there,” Willis said.

That was an understatement. Although it hurt us both to be reminded of our shattered hopes and dreams, it was far worse for him. He should have made it to the big leagues; he had the size, the ability, and most importantly, the internal drive necessary for all successful professional athletes. The only thing that had stopped him was the one thing he had no control over. Injuries. First his shoulder, then his elbow, and finally his back. The back injury had required surgery, and it had put him on the shelf for good. He had been tearing it up in Double-A at the time, and on the verge of a call up to the show. Painful stuff indeed.

We made our way to our seats in silence, taking in the atmosphere and jettisoning our demons. By the time we sat down, it was time for business.

We were in the upper level of the stadium, halfway up the section, almost even with first base. The park was about 75% full, but most of the empty seats were up in this part of the stadium. The three rows in front of us were vacant, as were the four behind. Nobody was close enough to hear our conversation, which is precisely why I had chosen these particular seats. To make it seem like I thought we had some privacy.

“So are you going to tell me what’s going on, or what?” Willis said.

“I’m just trying to figure out where to start.”

“That crazy, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

I then went on to tell Willis about my day, starting with tailing Alvarez from his work and finishing with Holland giving me his personal cell number. I left out nothing of importance.

“Holy shit,” Willis said after I’d fallen silent a full two innings later. “Homeland Security, huh?”

“That’s what his badge said.”

“And he wouldn’t tell you any details about their operation?”

I shook my head.

“Not surprising,” Willis said. “I can try to find out what’s going on, but they’ve got some serious protocols over there. It may take a while before I can get any details for you.”

“Don’t even bother,” I said.

Willis turned towards me. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like. I’m done with this thing.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

I shook my head.

Willis stared at me. Through me, actually. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.

I averted my gaze, watched the game. “I told you what Agent Holland said. If I stick my nose in their business again, they’ll shut me down for good. Leave me to rot in some unmarked cell for as long as they want.”

“Don’t believe their bullshit,” Willis said. “They’re just trying to scare you.”

“Well they did a damn good job of it,” I said. “Besides, what choice do I have? Alvarez is my only lead and he was damn near untouchable, even without the feds watching me around the clock. With them on my ass too he might as well be the freaking Pope. Screw it. Let the feds have Alvarez and Montoya. I don’t want anything to do with them anymore. I’m done.”

Willis continued to stare at me, sizing me up. He didn’t bother to hide his disgust. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to this,” he said. “I never thought I’d hear those words come out of your mouth. Ever. Especially not on this. She was your wife, man. Your wife.”

“I know, Willis. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision. But I don’t have any other choice. I simply don’t have the firepower to move forward with this thing. Not under the current circumstances.”

“So you’re just going to act like a little bitch and let them run you off?”

I shrugged and looked down at my feet.

“You’re better than this, Keeley.”

“Apparently not,” I said.

Willis stared out into center field for a couple of pitches, then shook his head and stood up. “You know what? I’m gonna take off.”

“You don’t want to stay for the rest of the game?”

“Nah. I need to get some work done.”

“I hear you,” I said, standing up along with him. I held out my right hand. Willis looked at it for a moment, then reached out and grabbed it. As we shook, I pressed a folded napkin into his hand. Question marks flashed in his eyes but he knew better than to say anything. We released hands and Willis turned and started down the aisle.

“I’ll give you a ring in a couple of days,” I said as he walked away. “We can square up then.”

“Whatever,” he said without glancing back.

I watched him disappear down the stairs then sat down and turned my attention back to the game.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

I stayed until the end of the ball game, which the Padres won 2-1 on a two-run, ninth inning home run into the left-center field bleachers by Chase Headley.

I filtered out of the stadium with the rest of the buzzing crowd and headed towards the parking lot, moving at a leisurely pace. I drove home much the same way, slowly and methodically, purposefully keeping my eyes off of the rear-view mirror. Even though I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like a federal agent since my meeting with Holland, I was certain there was someone back there, following me, and I wanted to make them feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible.

I arrived at my house at 10:45 PM, parked in the driveway, and made my way through the front door. It was weird entering this house again, having not been back in the couple of days since the funeral. It smelled different, it looked different, it even felt different. Empty, somehow. More like a morgue than a home. Or a black hole. But I was here for a specific purpose so I pushed the feeling aside and did what I had to do.

I flipped on the living room lights, headed into the kitchen, fixed myself a turkey and cheese sandwich with mustard and mayo, grabbed a can of Mountain Dew from the fridge, and sat down to watch Baseball Tonight on ESPN. I was going through my normal pre-bedtime routine, putting on a show in case someone was watching.

Fifteen minutes later, I stuck the dirty dishes in the sink, turned off the TV and the living room light and went into the bedroom. I grabbed a full-length bathrobe and a pair of rubber-soled moccasins from the closet and carried them into the bathroom.

I closed the door behind me,  brushed and flossed my teeth, then put the robe on over my clothes and slid into the moccasins.

I turned the bathroom light off and walked over to the nightstand. I set the alarm for 7:00 AM but didn’t turn it on. I flipped off the bedroom lights, slid out of the moccasins—leaving them at the foot of the bed—and climbed under the sheets. The house was completely dark, save for the bright red numbers of the alarm clock next to the bed that read 11:15 PM.

I laid under the covers and stared towards the ceiling, not even remotely approaching sleep, until ten minutes before midnight. Then, making as little noise as possible, I slipped out of the robe, carefully climbed out of bed, put the pair of moccasins back on, and made my way out of the house by way of the sliding door that led from the master bedroom to the back patio.

After exiting the bedroom, I stood on the back porch and counted to 100, listening for sounds of human activity coming from the area in front of the house.

Nothing.

Fully confident that whomever was monitoring my whereabouts was unaware that I had left the house, I walked across the lawn towards the rear of the yard, climbed the brown wooden fence that separated my property from the canyon behind the house and began my trek towards the basketball courts at Legends Park, a little more than two miles away.

I made my way through the canyon using a familiar jogging trail, negotiating it with ease even though the moon stayed mostly hidden behind clouds. It felt good, actually, to be out this late, running around in the middle of the night. It reminded me of my SEAL days, when we regularly trained at midnight or later, doing our jobs while the normal world slept, unaware. 

A short time later I arrived at the rendezvous point and took up a position behind the bathroom adjacent to the basketball court. It was 12:20 AM.

At precisely 12:30, Willis’s Ford Ranger pulled into the empty lot in front of the court and parked in one of the spots. He flashed the high-beams three times, signaling that the coast was clear.

I walked over to his truck and climbed in the passenger’s side.

“Did you make sure you weren’t followed?” I said as we pulled out of the lot.

Willis nodded. “I’m clean. Are you?”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

Willis shook his head, started laughing. “Damn, Keeley. You sure had me fooled there at the Pads game. Right up until you handed me that little note, I really thought you were going to give up on this thing.”

“That was the whole point,” I said. “Hopefully it fooled whoever was watching me, too.”

“Oh, I’m sure it did,” Willis said. “It was quite an acting job. So where to now? The warehouse?”

“Yeah.”

“You think it’s still safe with all that’s been going on”

“It should be,” I said. “As far as I can tell, I just popped onto Homeland Security’s radar this afternoon, after they saw me following Alvarez home from work. They don’t know about anything that happened before today.”

“Good,” Willis said. “So have you thought about how you’re going to go after Alvarez now that the feds are onto you?”

“Not really,” I said. “Why? Have you?”

“A little bit.”

“Somehow, I’m not surprised. So what did you come up with?”

“Something a little crazy.”

“You? Come up with a crazy plan? I don’t believe it. Shocked, I tell you. Shocked.”

Willis offered a little smile. “And not only that, but risky too.”

“What isn’t at this point?”

“True enough,” Willis said. “But this one will get you into some real deep shit if it doesn’t work out. And maybe even if it does.”

“Sounds intriguing,” I said. “Tell me about it.”

“It’s pretty simple, actually. You can use the number you got from Russo to contact Alvarez. Set up a meeting with him, face-to-face.”

“You don’t really think there’s any way that would work, do you?”

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“Because there’s no way in hell Alvarez would take the bait.”

“He might if you told him the truth.”

“What truth is that?” I said. “That I’m hunting him down because I think he had something to do with my wife’s murder?”

Willis shook his head. “Not that truth. The other one.”

“What other one? That he’s the focus of a federal operation and that The Department of Homeland Security has been following him around 24/7 for eighteen months now?”

Willis nodded.

I stared at him for a moment, then started laughing.

Willis stared back, his eyebrows raised but not joining in on the merriment.

I stopped laughing. “Holy shit. You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely.”

“That’s not crazy. That’s fucking insane.”

“No more insane than you continuing your hunt after Homeland Security ordered you to shut it down,” Willis said. “It’s not like you’re going to get yourself in more trouble for doing this as opposed to doing something else.”

“I don’t know. I think your plan might get me into a little more trouble.”

“Not really,” Willis said. “Think of it this way. No matter how you decide to go after Alvarez, one of two things is going to happen after you’re done with him. Either the feds catch up with you, and they put your balls in a vise for a very long time, or they don’t catch up with you, and you have to run from them for the rest of your life. If you cross them, these are the only two possible outcomes, regardless of the method you use to go after Alvarez. So I figure you might as well do what gives you the best chance to actually get to him.”

I thought about this for a moment and had to admit, Willis had a point. If I continued down this path, I was going to be in deep shit, no matter how it turned out. But still, it was one thing to go behind the backs of the feds, but quite another to deliberately fuck with their operation. Quite another indeed.

“I agree with you on one thing,” I said. “I need to do what gives me the best chance to get to Alvarez. But the real question is; does telling him the feds are after him do that?”

“Right now it looks like the only chance you have.”

“Right now, you might be right,” I said. “But it still seems a little too crazy, even for me. It would be a tough sell even without the feds already involved, but with them listening and watching both of our every moves? I just don’t see it happening.”

Willis shrugged. “Do you have any better ideas?”

“Not yet,” I said.

“Then I think you should at least consider it.”

“Oh, I’ll consider it. And it might just be insane enough to work. But it also might just be insane. Right now, I’m too tired to know for sure.”

“It’ll work,” Willis said. “We can make it work.”

“Then figure out the details. I’ll look for something on my end, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

We arrived at the warehouse right around 1:00 AM. After thanking Willis again, I stepped out of his truck and entered the building. I made my way to the living quarters and immediately started looking over Alvarez’s files.

Two hours later, after poring over every last detail for the third time that night, I was ready to give up. There was nothing I’d missed, no detail that was going to come out of the woodwork to give me any sudden insight into how I was going to get my hands on Alvarez. No smoking gun.

Perhaps Willis’s idea was the best way. Certainly he was better at planning operations than I was; he had always excelled at that type of thing. My SEAL training had done an incredible job preparing me for action but that was about it. I was an attack dog. Wind me up, point me in the right direction and set me loose and I’ll have no problem. Figuring out a plan of attack? Not my strongest suit.

I decided the best way to approach the situation was to get some sleep and deal with it in the morning.

I was out before my head hit the pillow.

 

#####

 

BUD/S TRAINING: DIVE PHASE

 

The next training phase takes place almost entirely in the water. Eight hours a day, every day, spent either in the pool or the ocean, learning the mechanics of combat diving. For some, this poses no problem. For others, it wreaks havoc.

The first two weeks are spent mostly in the classroom, learning the basics of diving. Learning the gear. The medicine. The physics. And most importantly the decompression tables. How painful it can be if you don’t follow the rules explicitly. How decompression can kill, even in as little as nine feet of water. Once everyone passes the written test, it’s over to the dive tower.

The next few days are spent here, in a 50-foot cylinder, practicing what is called free swimming ascent. You breathe air at 25 feet, and head up to the surface, exhaling continuously, never moving faster than your bubbles. Then 50 feet. Then back to 25. Up to 50. Practicing proper surfacing techniques.

Near the end of the first week is a 50 meter underwater swim. You jump in the pool feet first, turn, and start for the other end. Once there, you push off the wall and swim back. Only half the class makes it on the first try. One man has to be dragged up from the depths of the pool by the instructor swimming above them as he passes out from the lack of oxygen. He is pulled out of the water and dragged to the cement next to the pool. CPR is administered. One of the instructors tells the unconscious man to go towards the light. Or away from the light. He’s not sure which. The same instructor turns to us and tells us not to worry; our fellow student hasn’t breathed in 45 seconds, but it takes upwards of 120 seconds before there is any chance of brain damage. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t make us feel any better.

And then he’s breathing again. He is told to thank the instructor that saved his life. He does so. Five minutes later, he is back in the pool, trying again to pass the swim. This time he makes it.

Two other men pass out. The same protocols are followed. They too pass the test on the second try. The instructors gather us together, tell us congratulations, you just passed a threshold that your body thought you couldn’t. Get used to it. This is only the beginning. We cheer, yell out hooyah. Then it’s back in the pool.

The next evolution is treading water. With full gear on. For thirty minutes. While keeping your hands above the surface. Then you go underwater with your partner, learn to share mouthpieces, sucking air from the scuba tanks. For twenty minutes. Then you and your partner exchange scuba gear. Underwater. Which is harder than it sounds. Then back to treading water as the cycle restarts. You quickly learn how little you like water.

A couple weeks in and you’re ready for the first of two major tests for Dive Phase. Pool competency.

First you get fully loaded in your scuba gear. Then you jump into the water. You sink to the bottom. Down on two knees. Here comes the instructor from behind. He grabs onto you, shakes you, flips you head over heels three times. Then he rips off your straps. Removes your regulator. Tears your mask off. You have to put yourself back together. Without coming up for air.

You succeed. He harasses you again. This time he turns your air off. Ties a knot in your hose. Forcibly removes your mouthpiece. Spins you around.

You put yourself together again. Once fixed, the instructor starts in on you for the third time. The process is repeated. Four, sometimes five times. Around twenty minutes in all.

Finally you’re done. You pass. You come up for air, report to one of the other instructors. Only twenty percent of the class passes on the first try. They will get up to six tries before being rolled back to the next class or dropped for performance. If you don’t pass pool competency, you don’t move on.

The next six weeks are spent mostly in Coronado Bay, learning how to navigate underwater, use heavy machinery underwater, where to plant explosives to do maximum damage to a ship and other fun stuff. Like open circuit ocean dives. And then closed circuit ocean dives. And more dives. Always more dives, more practice, more training. It never seems to end.

But then it does. You come to the final evolution of the nine-week Dive Phase. The Final Training Exercise. You take everything that you’ve learned over the past nine weeks and put it to use. It’s as close to a combat dive as you’ll experience short of an actual SEAL operation.

The FTX isn’t difficult, but it demands an extremely high level of precision. You and your partner enter the water half a mile away. You navigate the area, locate your target, set the explosives, then swim to the extraction point, arriving safely and on time. And that’s it.

Hooyah. On to the final phase.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

I awoke to the brain-piercing screech of the attention alarm. I jumped out of bed and ran over to the laptop.

The top two sections of the split screen immediately caught my attention. In each screen was a three-man team of heavily-armed soldiers, one team at each of the doors leading into the warehouse. Two of the soldiers in each group were lined up right behind the other, in classic narrow-entry formation. At the front of each line was a man on a knee, affixing something to the door, undoubtedly a shape charge to blow it in.

I’d been in their position enough times to know what was coming next.

Cursing under my breath, I grabbed the backpack from the floor, shoved into it the handgun, suppressor, two boxes of ammo, both holsters and Alvarez’s folder then zipped it shut. I slipped it over my back and ran into the walk-in pantry.

I had just yanked on the fishing line that raised the trapdoor when I heard a pair of muffled explosions rack the warehouse. Moving methodically despite my body screaming at me to hurry, I made sure the door was set in place, then grabbed the flashlight off the shelf, turned it on, and stuck it in my mouth to keep my hands free for climbing down the ladder.

I stepped into the hole, descending two rungs, reached up, closed the door above me, and finished my descent into the drain tunnel below.

After reaching the concrete floor, I pulled the flashlight from my mouth and scanned the area. I immediately saw the ladder against the opposite wall and jogged towards it, jumping over the tiny stream of water running through the center of the drain. The tunnel was designed to transport tons of water under the city to the ocean beyond, giving me plenty of room to move unhindered.

I came to the base of the ladder and shined the flashlight to see where it led. At the top was a not-too-sturdy-looking door made of rotting wood. I again stuck the flashlight in my mouth and started up the rungs.

I climbed until my head brushed up against the door, then reached up with my right hand and gave it a push.

Nothing happened. Not even the slightest bit of give in the door.

I pushed again, harder this time. Still nothing.

Voices echoed about the chamber. I whipped my head around towards the other ladder. A narrow shaft of light was shining down from above it, through the open trapdoor. As I watched, a concussion grenade—better known as a flashbang—fell through the hole and clattered against the concrete. The door closed.

Still holding the ladder with only my left hand, I turned my head away from the flashbang, closed my eyes, and covered my face as best I could with the crook of my right elbow.

The explosion was incredibly loud in the narrow confines of the tunnel, but was more bark than bite. It was too far away to do any damage, especially with me shielding my face from the effects.

Next time I wouldn’t be so lucky.

Knowing my time to work was extremely limited, I again reached up with my right hand and started banging on the door with as much force as I could muster, one, two, three times.

It didn’t budge one bit.

I looked back again. The shaft of light had reappeared, but this time it was accompanied by the head of one of the soldiers. He was upside-down, looking through the trapdoor, the night-vision goggles over his face providing a clear view in the dark tunnel. He turned towards me, stopped, then disappeared quickly back up the hole.

The shouting came shortly after.

“Drop your weapon and come down off the ladder! Now!”

Instead of complying, I spit the flashlight out of my mouth, put both hands on the ladder, bowed my head and neck, and stepped up another two rungs. Bending my knees under me, I climbed up, the back of my head and lower neck pressing tighter against the door with every step.

“You have three seconds to comply!” shouted the voice. “If you resist, we will open fire!”

I heard the clatter of at least three more flashbangs behind and below me, undoubtedly closer to my location this time around now that they knew where I was. I only had a few more seconds to get out of their blast radius, and there was only one direction to go.

I bent my knees as much as possible, creating a little bit of space between my back and the door above, then propelled my body upward with every fiber of my being.

A lightning bolt of pain shot through my back and neck upon impact, but the door relented with a sharp crack.

I fought through the pain and I climbed up and out of the ragged hole and into the open space above just as the flashbangs exploded, their effects minimized by the distance.

I slammed the trapdoor shut.

Scrambling on my hands and knees, still a little woozy and in a lot of pain from breaking open the trapdoor, I found a heavy, metal table to my right, flipped it over, and slid it atop the hole. It wouldn’t hold them for long, but it would hopefully give me enough time to get out of the garage. I took a moment to catch my breath, then stood and started towards the car parked in the middle of the garage.

I hadn’t taken two steps when lights suddenly flooded the inside of the building. I started for my gun but froze before grabbing it.

Two men dressed in all-black military attire were spread out in front of me. Each man was holding a rifle. Both rifles were pointed at my chest.

“Please be smart and keep your hands well away from your weapon,” said a voice from somewhere behind the armed men. “And no quick movements either, please. I do not want this to get messy.”

Following the voice with my eyes, I saw an older, bespectacled, thoroughly unassuming man dressed in an expensive suit standing in the shadows near the back wall.

“Are you sure about that?” I said.

“Absolutely,” came the reply.

“Then what do you want?”

“Just to have a friendly conversation.”

More talking. I supposed I should be glad that’s all they were here for, but I was getting sick of all the talking.

“Just a conversation, huh?” I said.

“That’s right.”

“You sure have a rather extreme way of going about securing it.”

“It may seem that way from your vantage point, but after what you went through yesterday, I figured you wouldn’t be too eager to cooperate this time around. So we decided on a more circuitous, if not exactly subtle, route.”

“And who are you, exactly?”

“You can call me Danville.”

“I didn’t ask what your name was. I asked who you were.”

“We’ll get to that part in a little bit,” Danville said. “But first we have some business to take care of.”

From behind me came a loud crash, as the men who had chased me through the tunnel flipped the table off the trapdoor.

“Now, just stay calm,” Danville said. “One of the men is going to relieve you of your weapons and your backpack, and then we’ll be able to move on with confidence.”

I looked back and saw one of the men heading towards me. His gun was no longer visible. “Slowly put your hands on your head,” he said.

I did as I was told.

A pair of hands deftly removed the firearm from its holster, then both my fanny pack and backpack from my person.

“Do you want me to cuff him?” asked the man who had just disarmed me.

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Danville said. “Will it, Mr. Keeley?”

“No.”

The operative retreated and I let my arms drop to my side. I felt naked without a weapon but I was just going to have to deal with it. I figured if they wanted me dead, I’d be dead by now, so losing the gun wasn’t really that big of a deal. At least that’s what I told myself.

“See?” Danville said. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”

“Depends on your perspective, I guess.”

Danville laughed but didn’t reply.

“So what happens now?” I said.

“Now you and I are going to go for a little drive,” he said. “And then we are going to have that friendly conversation I spoke of earlier.”

I stared at him for a few moments, trying to get a feel for what he was thinking. It was like trying to read a marble statue.

“Do I have any choice in the matter?” I finally said.

“Of course,” Danville said. “There are always choices. But I can assure you none of them are as pleasant as the one I’m offering now.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Let’s go.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon as we passed the Coronado Bridge toll plaza and arrived on Coronado Island. I knew the island well, having spent the first stage of BUD/S training on its beaches. Danville was in the passenger seat and an unfamiliar man who wasn’t in on the initial raid was driving. I had the back seat to myself. 

Coronado was a peculiar place, full of contradictions, with half the area taken up by multi-million dollar homes and the other half with stark, basic houses for retired military personnel. It had one of the best beaches in the world, which hosted the pampered upper-class guests of the ultra luxurious Hotel Del Coronado on one end and a full retinue of prospective Navy SEALs being put through the meat grinder of BUD/S on the other.

Danville shifted in his seat so he was facing me. “That was quite a nifty series of maneuvers you pulled off since you were dropped off last night,” he said.

 “Obviously not nifty enough, considering I’m right back in your custody.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, Mr. Keeley. It was inevitable, really. Even for someone with your impressive skill set.”

“Maybe,” Keeley said. “But I figured I’d at least make it through a couple of days before you guys rounded me up again.”

“And what were you planning on doing with those couple of days?” Danville said. “Take another shot at Alvarez?”

“Who’s that now?”

“You don’t have to continue on with your charade, Mr. Keeley. We know you were still planning on going after Carlos Alvarez. In fact, that’s why we picked you up so quickly. We didn’t want to give you a chance to do something stupid.”

He was right. There was no use pretending. They had me dead to rights and we both knew it. My gaze wandered towards the side window to catch a glimpse of the black water of the mighty Pacific stretching on for thousands of miles. I wanted to gaze upon nature while I still had a chance.

“So what happens now?” I said. “Are you going to lock me up in some unmarked cell and throw away the key? Send me to South America? Antarctica? ”

“Not quite.”

“Then what?”

“I’m going to make you a proposition,” Danville said.

“I didn’t know Homeland Security made propositions to civilians.”

“They don’t,” Danville said. “But I never said I was with the DHS, now did I?”

I shifted in my seat. “You’re not with DHS?”

Danville shook his head.

“Then who are you with?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me.”

“Unfortunately, there isn’t too much I can tell you.”

“Then tell me what you can,” I said.

He shrugged, then said, “I am a member of an organization that was created in the aftermath of 9/11, when certain high-ranking members of our society decided that they had their own ideas about what actions are necessary in this brave new world of ours. We are not officially a part of the government, but we are still accountable to certain high-ranking government officials. We are independently financed, privy to all the information gathered by the American intelligence community, and very, very serious about our purpose.”

“Which is what, exactly?”

“Our organization specializes in finding ways to work around the red-tape that plagues the current international political climate,” Danville said.

“Which is just a fancy way of saying you guys take care of tricky situations without concerning yourself with the law.”

“You say it as though it disgusts you. Does it?”

“A little.”

“Come on now, Mr. Keeley, certainly you see the hypocrisy in this, no? I mean, you didn’t seem too concerned with the law when you decided to acquire an unlicensed firearm 72 hours ago. Or when you conspired to disobey a direct order given to you by an agent with the Department of Homeland Security. Or when you broke into David Russo’s house and elicited information from him.”

The smug bastard had a point but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of hearing it come from me. But I wasn’t going to take their side either, so I just stared at Danville and waited for him to continue. And tried not to think about how disturbing it was that they knew exactly what I’d been up to for the last two days. Since the beginning of my little operation. Before I’d had any inkling of anyone being on to me.

“I didn’t think so,” Danville said. “Besides, in this particular case, our method of operation works in your favor. You see, because of who we are, and more importantly, who we aren’t, we are able to offer you a unique opportunity.”

“Which is what?”

“The chance to kill the man responsible for your wife’s death.”

A surge of conflicting emotions bubbled up but I pushed them aside. Right now I needed a clear, unfettered mind.

“You know who killed my wife?”

Danville nodded.

“It was Ferdinand Montoya, right?”

“We’ll get to that in a little while.”

I leaned forward, my eyes still locked with Danville’s. “Let’s get to it now.”

Danville held my stare for a moment, then gave a little nod of his head and said, “Yes. Ferdinand Montoya was responsible for the death of your wife.”

I opened my mouth, but before I could say anything else, Danville held up his hand and said, “Just hang on to that thought for a second, Mr. Keeley. Before we discuss any more specific pieces of information, we need to make sure you understand the situation you are getting yourself into should you choose to accept our assistance.”

“Then start talking,” I said.

“First of all, this meeting never happened. Whatever you learn here today, you found out on your own. You had no assistance from any outside source. You must never mention me, nor our little talk here tonight, even after the operation is complete. In addition, you must understand that if anything should happen to you during or after this operation, you are completely and utterly on your own. The organization that I am a part of does not officially exist, therefore, we cannot help you.”

“Sounds reasonable enough,” I said. “Is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“Then let’s stop wasting time and get on with the important stuff.”

“If you insist,” Danville said. “What do you want first, the good news or the bad news?”

“The bad,” I said.

“The bad news is that Ferdinand Montoya is extremely well-guarded; he lives in a heavily fortified ranch in a relatively isolated area of Mexico. There are more than twenty armed guards on the ranch grounds and fifty more within shouting distance. In addition, Montoya has a full retinue of bodyguards with him at all times. He is never alone. Not even when he sleeps.”

I shrugged. It sounded pretty much like what I expected. “And the good news?”

“We know how to get you close to the target with relative ease,” Danville said. “So killing him won’t be all that difficult.”

“But getting out will be, I assume?”

“It will take some work on your part to get out of his compound,” Danville said. “But if you can manage to do so, it will be clear sailing to the border. Of course, after you’re back on American soil, you’ll be on your own, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. If everything goes according to plan—and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t—you’ll be able to resume your life without anybody having any clue about your role in Montoya’s death.”

“Except for Agent Holland,” I said.

“He may have his suspicions,” Danville said. “But there will be no evidence to back them up. Unless, of course, you decide to leave some at the scene. But with your background, I don’t foresee that being an issue.”

I laughed under my breath. “Sounds like you guys have this thing planned out pretty well.”

“Well, as you can imagine, this isn’t the first time we’ve done something like this.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” I said.

I looked out the window at the enormous, obscenely expensive houses lining every street on this side of the island. It was strange to think that less than a mile away, the next generation of SEALs were on the beach, wet and exhausted and sandy and praying for the night to be over so they could retire to their walk-in closet sized living quarters and get an hour of sleep on their rock-hard beds before getting up and going through another tortuous fourteen-hour day.

“Are you all right back there?” Danville said.

“Fine,” I replied.

“So what do you think? Do you want to take a shot at Montoya?”

“Hell yes,” I said. “But before I commit fully, tell me one thing: Why do you guys want him dead?”

The corners of Danville’s mouth turned up in what could be considered a smile. “I was wondering when you’d get around to asking that question. But before we get into it, tell me how much you know about Ferdinand Montoya.”

“Just the basics,” I said. “I know he was the head honcho of the Cuidad De Tijuana Cartel, and that he was somehow able to avoid extradition to the states after the CDT got shut down, but besides that, not much.”

“Not only did Ferdinand Montoya run the CDT,” Danville said, “He essentially was the CDT. He made all the major decisions, from negotiating prices to acquiring product to mapping out the smuggling routes. But what he loved most was the killing. Competitors, employees who stole from him, government officials who refused to take his money; anyone that stood up to him or spoke out against him in any way, he’d have them murdered. He was directly responsible for the deaths of literally thousands of people, and he even did the deed himself when the occasion called for a personal touch.”

“So Montoya’s a murderer,” I said. “Big deal. All the drug lords down there are. It still doesn’t explain why you guys want him dead.”

“Not only is Montoya a murderer, he’s a complete and utter sociopath,” Danville said. “And he loved what he did; he lived for running the CDT. So much so that he is willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to get the cartel back on its feet. No matter how many people may get killed in the process.”

Finally, after all the yapping, we were getting to the crux of the matter.

“What kind of lengths are we talking about here?” I said.

Danville put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “We are talking about Montoya negotiating a deal with an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell that would allow them to smuggle a nuclear device into the United States using his drug transit routes.”

I whistled through my teeth.

“Our thoughts exactly,” Danville said.

“How did you guys find out about this?”

“The NSA intercepted a series of phone calls between Montoya and a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda,” Danville said. “They passed a transcript of the conversation on to the White House and they passed it on to us.”

“What about Homeland Security?”

“What about them?”

“Aren’t they onto this too?” I said. “I was told they had a major ongoing operation with Montoya as the main player.”

Danville shook his head. “The DHS operation is a completely separate deal. They are after Montoya for his previous role as leader of the CDT. They were not made aware of this particular subset of Montoya’s activities.”

“Why not?”

I wasn’t really sure why I was questioning a process that was presenting me with such a gift-wrapped opportunity at revenge, but the question came out before I had a chance to analyze my reasons behind asking it.

“Because they already had their shot at him,” Danville said. “And they fucked it up. Sure, they shut down his organization, but they failed in their attempt to bring him to the States. And the administration is fed up. So they funneled the information directly to us, so that we could take care of the situation. The right way. After all, this is what our organization was created for.”

I offered a casual nod and said, “Fair enough,” in an attempt to sound as though Danville’s explanations had made perfect sense. But deep down, a polyp of discomfort was forming in response to the methods of his organization. Sure they were working outside the law, but it’s not like I had any special affinity for the law; everything I’d done to this point in the search for Gina’s killer had been explicitly illegal, and it hadn’t bothered me in the least.

No, it was something else, something that on the surface sounded hypocritical, but it really wasn’t. It came down to the idea that my methods were predicated on the ethics of personal revenge, but Danville’s were sanctioned by the government. It shouldn’t have mattered—it could be considered a justifiable response either way—but it did; at least on some level. For some reason it just seemed wrong.

So what if it was? said my inner-SEAL. Don’t worry about their methods. Don’t worry about why they want Montoya dead. Don’t worry about the larger implications of what they’re doing. Just take the information they’re giving you and use it for your own purposes. Use it to kill the man that killed your wife.

My inner-SEAL was right. The larger picture wasn’t my concern. Getting justice for Gina was.

“Fuck it,” I said. “Let’s do it.”    

 

#####

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Willis lived in Point Loma, an older suburb of San Diego located about eight miles west of downtown. Like much of older San Diego, it had started out as a military community. To this day, it still retained a good portion of its quaintness. Mostly residential, with narrow, tree-lined streets, houses with character, and lots of quiet, it seemed to be a relic from the 1950’s stuck next to the Pacific Ocean.

Willis’s house was a well-maintained but unassuming two-story of moderate size on a cul-de-sac set deep into a residential community. The lawn was immaculate and a little garden was tucked away in the far corner of the front yard. A white picket fence ran along the outside of the property. Looking at the set-up from the outside, it would have been impossible to tell that a thirty-year old, single, private investigator with a propensity for guns, strippers, and working in the shady area of the law lived there. Which was precisely the point.

The early morning air was damp and salt-tinged as I made my way onto his front porch and rang the doorbell four times in quick succession. Knowing full well that he rarely got up before noon, I counted to ten, then rang it four more times. I was just about to press the button for the third series of rings when I heard Willis bellowing from inside the house.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he said.

Laughing, I rang the bell one last time, just for the hell of it.

“Cut it out, dammit,” Willis said as he disengaged the deadbolt and opened the door. He was wearing boxers, a T-shirt and a pair of socks. His hair was a mess, he was unshaven, and his eyes were bloodshot.

“Awake already?” I said.

“Very fucking funny.”

Willis stood aside and I stepped into the house. He closed the door behind me and said, “This better be good, Keeley. I just got to sleep a couple hours ago.”

“Oh, it’s good,” I said as I dropped the nylon bag I was holding onto his dining room table.

“What’s in there?” Willis said.

“A little over fifty thousand dollars.”

Willis walked over, stuck his hand in the bag, and pulled out a tightly packed bundle of hundred dollar bills. He ran his finger along the top of the stack, fluttering the bills. “Jesus. Where did you get all this cash?”

“I emptied one of my bank accounts this morning before I stopped by.”

Willis dropped the stack back into the bag, pulled a chair out and sat down. “I didn’t know you had that kind of money.”

“The Navy compensated me well for my little accident,” I said.

“It sure looks like it,” he said. “What’s it all for?”

“You. As payment.”

“Hell, this is way too much for what I’ve done for you.”

“It’s not only for what you’ve done, but for what you’re still going to do.”

“And what, exactly, is that?”

“Get me a new identity,” I said. “A good one. Driver’s License, Passport, Birth Certificate, all that jazz. And fast.”

“How fast?”

“By midnight tonight.”

Willis whistled softly.

I was nodding my head in agreement with his succinct assessment. “Can you get it done?”

“With this much money? No problem. But why the rush job?”

“I’m going down to Mexico to take care of some business, and when I get back, it won’t be safe to be myself anymore.”

Willis crossed his arms, gave me a knowing look. “You got a bead on Ferdinand Montoya, didn’t you?”

I put on an innocent face. “What makes you say that?

“Very fucking funny,” he said. “Who hooked you up? His brother?”

“Nope.”

“Then who?”

“I just stumbled on to it.”

“Don’t give me that shit, Keeley. Where did you get the info from?”

“I came into contact with the right people, and their wants coincided with mine,” I said. “So now I’m on my way to Mexico with all the information I need to take the motherfucker out.”

“What kind of people are we talking about here?” Willis said.

“People who don’t like to give out much information about themselves.”

“You mean like government-supported-but-not-explicitly-acknowledged type shit?”

“That sums it up pretty accurately,” I said.

Willis smiled. “That’s pretty fucking cool.”

“Yeah, I thought so too.”

“How did they get their hands on you?” he asked.

“They picked me up at your warehouse.”

“They knew you were there?”

I nodded. “They’d been following me for a while, even before Homeland Security picked up my scent. They learned about Gina shortly after she’d been killed and stumbled onto me during their investigation into her death. They figured we might be able to help each other. Apparently they’d been looking to get after Montoya for a little while, and I provided them with the perfect opportunity to green-light their plans.”

“So these guys give you the information you need to kill Montoya, and you give them the plausible deniability for Montoya’s death.”

“That’s right.”

“Seems like a pretty fair trade to me,” Willis said.

“Yeah, it sounded good to me too.”

“Did they tell you why they wanted Montoya dead?”

I tried to maintain a neutral expression. “They didn’t say.”

“Bullshit,” Willis said immediately. “They told you. I can see it on your face.”

“Sorry man, I’m sworn to secrecy. I’ll give you the scoop after it’s all over.”

“Fuck that,” Willis said. “You want me to help you out, you better tell me what Montoya’s up to. And don’t make me beat it out of you, because you know I will if I have to.”

Obviously it wasn’t a true threat, but I acquiesced anyway. I was dying to talk about it, actually, despite the warning Danville had given me about keeping my mouth shut. And there was no way I was going to leave Willis in the dark. Not after all he had done for me already. So I told him.

“Montoya is negotiating a deal with an Al-Qaeda splinter cell that would allow them to use his tunnel to bring a WMD into the country.”

“Holy Shit! Are you serious?”

I nodded. “Apparently, he’s trying to get back into the drug business and this is the quickest way to get a big lump of cash.”

“So he had Gina and her client killed to make sure nobody knew about the tunnel,” Willis said. It wasn’t a question.

“Exactly. From what they told me, it’s pretty much his only remaining asset. If it gets compromised, he’s fucked.”

“And all this is real, verifiable information?”

“They’ve got NSA transcripts of the conversation and everything,” I said.

“Then why don’t they go after him legally?”

“They can’t,” I said. “According to what I was told, Montoya’s got connections in the highest levels of the Mexican government. He’s essentially untouchable, at least by legal means.”

“So they decided to turn to you.”

I nodded.

“Sounds like a perfect solution for everyone involved,” Willis said.

“I thought so.”

“So when are you heading down south?”

“As soon as we’re done here.”

“Are you sure you want to go at this alone? I’ve got nothing better to do today. I could keep an eye on you from afar, make sure everything goes according to plan.”

“Thanks for the offer,” I said. “But this is my deal. Besides, you can help me out more by staying here. If things go to hell down there, I’m fucked anyway. With you here, if I can make it back across the border, I may just have a chance.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

It was nearly noon when I parked my car in a long-term lot adjacent to Interstate 5 and walked into Mexico via the San Ysidro border crossing.

I was chosen for a random search, and after telling the border guards that I was coming down to spend the night partying in Tijuana, they walked me through a metal detector then let me pass without further hassle. Besides the clothes on my back, I had brought only money with me; six hundred dollars in my front right pocket and two thousand more in each of my shoes, just in case I ran into trouble.

The first thing I noticed whenever I crossed the border was the smell. It wasn’t horrible but it was definitely different; a little more ripe and slightly less refined. I always found it interesting that the air itself served as a constant reminder that you were no longer in the United States.

I walked through Revolucion Square—avoiding the swarming crowds of kids selling chicle and various other trinkets as though they carried the plague—and headed over to the first street vendor I saw.

I bought a local phone cards from the small, smiling vendor, then crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River. From there I found a pay phone and dialed the number of my contact.

The line rang three times before it was picked up. A computer-generated voice prompt instructed me to enter a six-digit code to access a mailbox. I did so.

There was a series of three short beeps, then a female voice said: “You are already checked into the Hotel Real Del Mar under the name Philip Crawford. Your key is waiting for you at the desk. You will be contacted exactly three hours after you make this phone call.”

There was a click and the line went dead.

Laughing at what I considered to be unnecessary spy shit, I hung up the phone, climbed into the nearest cab, and told the driver to take me to the Hotel Real Del Mar. 

Thirty minutes later, we came to a stop. I stepped out of the cab, paid the driver, and walked towards the front entrance of the hotel.

In all the numerous times I’d been to Tijuana, I’d never ventured very far beyond the bars on Avenida Revolucion. I’d always just figured that the whole city mirrored that peculiar strip of neon and grime. Now I knew otherwise.

Although it was technically still part of Tijuana, the Hotel Real Del Mar was the exact opposite of Avenida Revolucion, the equivalent of Hollywood Hills compared to the Sunset Strip. Contrary to my expectations, it was a quaint, beautiful little hotel set above a golf course in the rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The air was clear, the lobby was spotless, and the employees were constantly smiling. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

I approached the check-in desk with a smile, only slightly concerned with my lack of identification bearing the name Philip Crawford. I figured the situation must have been taken care of already, otherwise why would they have set it up this way in the first place?

“Hello,” said the young woman behind the front desk. “How may I help you?”

As I came closer, I saw that her nametag read CARMEN and below that, ASSISTANT MANAGER. Her smile was wide and genuine, her brilliant white teeth contrasting with her light brown skin. She appeared to be a Mexican national but her voice held only a slight trace of an accent. From the look of the lobby, it was apparent that the hotel catered to Americans.

“I’m here to pick up a key,” I said. “My name is Philip Crawford.”

Carmen looked down at her screen and hit the keys with practiced rapidity. “Ah, yes,” she said after a pause just long enough to give my heart a chance to start racing. “Here you are. The room is already paid in full. Did you want to use the credit card we have on file to take care of any incidentals?”

“That would be great.”

Carmen plucked an envelope out of a file organizer next to the keyboard and handed it to me. Still smiling, she said, “Your room number is 1408. It’s on the first floor, on the east end of the hotel, right next to the east exit. Just go through the doors behind you and take a right at the hallway. Follow it all the way down. Your room is at the end.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“De nada,” she replied with a smile.

I grabbed the key, turned and started down the hall.

It wasn’t until I actually walked into my room that I realized how exhausted I was.

I’d been asleep for less than an hour when Danville’s men had rousted me back at the warehouse earlier that morning, and I’d been running on anticipation and adrenaline ever since. But now that I was situated in Mexico, with all my preparations taken care of and knowing that I still had another couple of hours before my contact was going to get in touch with me, the anticipation and adrenaline melted away and I was ready to sleep.

I ambled over to the bed and climbed on top with all my clothes still on, not even bothering to get under the covers. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

 

#####

 

BUD/S TRAINING: THE HOME STRETCH

 

The third and final phase of BUD/S is the most dangerous of all the training phases. Tons of live ammunition. Live explosives. Live fire exercises. As close to real warfare as humanly possible.

The first few weeks are spent firing thousands of rounds. From all types of weapons. M-4’s. M203/M60 grenade launchers. Handguns. Shooting, shooting, and more shooting. Timed weapons assembly test. Accuracy tests. Speed tests. Combined tests. Standing position. Prone position. Kneeling position. From varying distances. Twenty-five yards. Fifty yards. One hundred. Three hundred. With all the different weapons.

The standards are stringent; you must become a great shooter if you wish to continue on. Most men do. A couple don’t. They are rolled back to try again in the next class.

Next we move on to Close Quarter Defense training. As the name implies, CQD is a series of tactics on how to react to threats within a limited space. How to portray strength using a loud voice, deliberate movements, and other various subtle and unsubtle methods. Using wax bullets, you practice different situations over and over, taking on one, two, three hostiles at a time. Simulating firefights. Learning to identify threat levels and apply the necessary amount of force. Being trained to pull the trigger first if it’s a shooting threat.

The training is intense and draining, the pace relentless. To simulate combat conditions, you train seven days a week, upwards of eighteen hours a day. You sleep whenever you can; five minutes here, thirty minutes there, an hour or two at night if you’re lucky.

Lack of sleep clouds your brain, makes decision-making extremely difficult. But this is no excuse. Mistakes are punished mercilessly. Minor ones earn you a run up Frog Hill. Maybe a couple hundred pushups. Serious ones earn you a couple of nights at Camp Stupid, a tent near the beach. Repeated mistakes result in the lugging around of fifty pounds of sand on your back for a day. Or two days. Or three. There are complaints, but the instructors have none of it. They are constantly reminding you that this is just training. War is exponentially more stressful. A mistake in training results in some extra pain. A mistake in war results in death. For you or one of your brothers. Suck it up and deal with it, or go back home. The choice is yours.

Once a week you embark on a ruck-sack hump, consisting of a ten-mile run while lugging around forty pounds of sand on your back and taking turns pretending to be wounded and carried by your classmates. At the end, there is a good-faith test, where your pack is weighed. God help you if it comes in under the 40-pound minimum.

In between the running and firing of weapons, there is demolition work. Simulated UDT beach clearings, using almost 1000 pounds of C4. Packing it in. Setting the timers. Sneaking back out. Watching from a safe distance as the explosives go off, rocking the beach, sending water upwards of 200 feet.

Towards the end of the nine-week period, you prepare for the Live Fire IAD. It consists of rehearsed movements meant to prepare you for an extended firefight.

You go to the range, line up side-by-side with your fellow classmates, and prepare yourself to fire live rounds from your M4. On the instructor’s prompts, you stand, walk, drop to the ground, and empty your clip. Stand, turn, walk, turn downrange, drop to the ground, fire. Repeat. Again. And again. And again. Until your body responds automatically to the prompts. After six weeks of irregular and erratic sleep, your mind is mush, but you push on, fighting through the exhaustion, knowing that a mistake could get you bumped from BUD/S with the finish line in sight.

The training starts off sloppy, but after ten straight hours of practice, you and your classmates finally have it down. The instructors are pleased. The next morning you pass the test with flying colors.

Three more weeks of running, shooting, blowing things up, running, shooting, CQD training, running, shooting, navigating the land, running, shooting some more and occasionally getting some sleep, and then the end of BUD/S is less than a week away. Only one hurdle remains; a nighttime, live-fire, full mission profile attack against a simulated enemy base.

The final training mission begins at midnight. With only the full moon above to guide your way, you and your fellow SEAL/s converge upon a group of buildings standing in as a communications center that needs to be infiltrated and secured. You situate yourselves into the proper cross-fire position and commence firing.

Thousands of rounds are released; the night sky is riddled with red streaks from the tracer ammo. After a full two minutes of nonstop shooting, the cease-fire is given. You and your team infiltrate the buildings, search the buildings and seize any important materials, then set explosive charges, and withdraw to the extraction point. Once gathered there, you watch as the ensuing explosion destroys the buildings. You let out a collective cheer and retire for the night.

Hooyah. BUD/S training is officially over.     

 

#####

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

I was jerked out of sleep by the three-shot burst of a machine gun. My head snapped up. After a moment of dislocation, I remembered where I was. Mexico. On the hunt for my wife’s killer. The machine gun I’d heard was nothing more than someone knocking on the door.

I looked at the clock next to the bed. Precisely three hours had elapsed since I’d called my contact. That must be him.

Stifling a yawn, I climbed out of bed and went to the door. I took a look through the peephole but couldn’t see anyone.

What the hell?

There was another knock, coming from the other side of the room. I turned towards the sound and saw the door that connected my room with the next room over.

I laughed under my breath, shook my head. More spy shit. I walked over to the door and opened it.

Standing there was a tall, lanky female dressed in a business suit. Her dark hair was cut short and a two-inch scar ran down the side of her harsh yet not unattractive face, from temple to jaw. She was holding a briefcase in her right hand.

“Glad to see you made it,” she said. The voice matched the one on the recording I’d called earlier.

“Glad to be here,” I said. “I assume you’re my contact?”

“Yes I am. Why? Surprised I’m a woman?”

“A little,” I said. “But it doesn’t make any difference to me what sex you are.”

“You sure about that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

She shrugged. “Some people don’t deal with it very well.”

“Well, I’m not one of those people.”

“That’s good to know.”

“So, do you have a name?” I said. “Or should I just call you ma’am.”

“You can call me Chris,” she said. “Of course, Chris is no more my real name than Philip Crawford is yours, but it will serve its purpose.”

“Then Chris it is.”

We stood there for another couple seconds, me waiting for her to take the lead.

“So are you going to invite me in or just leave me standing here in limbo?” she said.

I stood aside and held my hand out, ever the gentlemen. She sat down on the bed, opened the briefcase, pulled out a laptop and turned it on.

I hesitated for a moment. Although I knew it was stupid and irrational, I felt uncomfortable sharing a bed with another woman so soon after becoming a widower, so I pulled a chair over and sat down next to the bed.

She considered me with a half-smile. “Afraid I’ll bite?”

“Nope. I’m just a bit shy with the ladies, that’s all.”

“Somehow, I doubt that.”

I didn’t know how to respond, feeling some bewilderment about how unconcerned the world was about my recent loss. She acted as if nothing had happened. And, of course, as far as she was concerned, what had happened, hadn’t.

Luckily she didn’t press the issue. She simply turned her attention to the laptop, tapped away on the keyboard for a couple of seconds then spun it so I could see it more easily. On the screen was a crystal clear overhead view of a large house and the area immediately surrounding it.

“This is some pretty damn good quality stuff,” I said. “What are these? Spy satellite photos or some shit like that?”

Chris smiled but didn’t answer.

I took the hint and squashed my curiosity. On to business.

“I assume this is Montoya’s ranch?” I said.

“That’s right.”

I studied the picture. Three sides of the ranch were surrounded by bare land, while the fourth was nestled up against the ocean. Chris pressed a button and the screen shifted to another picture, this one from a different angle. I studied it. She showed me yet another angle, and another, and another.

We went through about 30 pictures before we were finished, giving me a pretty good idea of what I had to work with. I figured from the general layout that I’d be starting my approach from the sea, but decided to wait and see what Chris’s plan of attack was.  

 “What the pictures don’t tell you is that the house sits on top of a softly-graded hill,” she said. “The land around the property is completely bare for nearly a mile in all directions, and cleared out every couple of months. No cover whatsoever. And there are guards at every corner of the property, whose only job is to watch the landscape.”

“What about physical deterrents?”

“There’s a ten-foot tall electrified fence surrounding the perimeter of the yard,” Chris said. “And motion detectors set into the earth every couple hundred yards as far as the property stretches.”

“So sneaking up under the cover of darkness isn’t an option.”

She shook her head. “Not unless you’re looking to get caught before you get there.”

“What about the ocean?” I said. “How far is it from the house?”

“Half a mile,” she said. “With the area in-between just as bare as the other three directions.”

“So what you’re telling me is there’s no way in.”

“Not through the front door.”

“But since you said you could get me close to Montoya, I’m guessing there’s another option.”

Chris flashed me a predatory smile. “Indeed there is,” she said.

“Tell me.”

Chris started talking.

Ten minutes later she was done.

After she fell quiet, I took about the same amount of time thinking about what I’d just been told, searching for any obvious flaws. I couldn’t find a single one.

“Any questions?” she asked.

“Only one,” I said. “How do I get out?”

“Same way you go in, just reverse it. Take the boat back to the launching point and drive out the same way we go in.”

“What about getting back to the States?”

“Just go back over at San Ysidro like you were coming back home after a long night in TJ.”

“They won’t shut the border down or something?”

Chris laughed. “Because of a murder in Mexico? Not a chance. It’s a daily occurrence down here. Nobody will bat an eye.”

“Even if it’s the head of a drug cartel?”

“Don’t get me wrong, there will be heat, but they won’t be looking at the border for the killer; they’ll figure it was a rival cartel that carried out the hit. They’ll never suspect an American citizen came down from the US and murdered their leader. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen. Besides, unless you completely fuck things up, they won’t have a description to go by, so even if they do turn up security at the border, you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know . . .”

“Trust me,” Chris said. “Getting yourself back over the border is the least of your worries. If you can get yourself out of Montoya’s compound alive, the rest is a piece of cake.”

I still wasn’t completely convinced, but I was just going to have to trust her. It wasn’t like I had any good alternatives, except bailing out of the operation completely. And there was no way in hell I was going to do that. So I let it go and moved on to more important things.

“What kind of hardware do you have for me?” I said.

“Two 10mm Glock 29 handguns, a H&K MP5/10 with a retractable stock, six pounds of C4 molded into two separate charges, each with an electronic timer, a breaching-charge and detonator, six extra 10-round clips for the Glock and six extra 30-round clips for the MP5/10. In addition to the weapons, I’ve six lancets full of a powerful tranquilizer, a dozen zip-ties, a pair of night-vision goggles, a full-body wetsuit, a diving watch with nylon face cover, and a waterproof backpack to carry everything while you’re in the water. All the items were purchased separately—either legitimately or through the black market—so they can’t be tracked, and they’re all in a duffel bag in the trunk of my car, ready to go.”      

“Then what are we waiting for?”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

An hour later we were driving on a single-lane road along the coast, a hundred miles south of the border. I’d spent the entire drive locked up in my own head, trying to get my tired mind around the idea that this whole ordeal was about to come to a close, one way or another.

“Are you all right?” Chris said.

“I think so.”

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Nothing serious,” I said. “It just seems so easy, that’s all.”

“These things usually are,” Chris said. “At least, when they allow us professionals to do the work.”

“Then why doesn’t it happen all the time?”

“Who says it doesn’t?”

I turned towards her. Her lips were turned up in a little mischievous grin. For a second I thought she was messing with me but then I realized what it signified. Pride.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely.”

“How often are we talking about here?”

“I can’t get into specifics.”

“Then speak in generalities.”

Chris offered a half-hearted shrug. “You ever read something in the paper or see something in the news and think to yourself, ‘something just doesn’t feel right with that story?’”

“Yeah,” I said. “All the time.”

“Well, chances are, we were behind it.”

I let my gaze linger on her for another moment. Again, I wasn’t sure if she was just messing with me, but I figured why bother worrying about it. Finally I decided it didn’t really matter much in the long-run anyway. Might as well stick with stuff that had some direct impact on the upcoming operation.

“You mind if I ask you something?” I said.

“Not at all,” Chris said.

“How do you know so much about Montoya’s evacuation procedures?”

“He thinks I work for him.”

“No shit?” I said. “In what capacity?”

“Low-level security. Counter-intelligence, mostly. I’m in just deep enough to find out what I need to know if I’m real careful.”

“How’d you score that position?”

“It was easy, actually,” she said. “I just told Montoya who I used to work for.”

“And who was that?”

“The FBI.”

“And that worked?”

Chris laughed. “Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But these cartels are always looking to add ex-federal agents to their payroll.”

“Seriously?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Chris said. “It’s how they stay ahead of the curve. They throw tons of money at former intelligence guys—four, five times what they made with whatever government agency they used to work for—to get them to come over to the dark side. It works more often than you can imagine.”

“Un-fucking-believable.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty screwed up.”

“But aren’t the cartels worried about someone turning on them? Or acting as a mole?”

“Not in the least,” Chris said. “They let you know up front what will happen if you fuck with them in any way. You’ll be tortured and killed in the most heinous manner possible, along with whatever members of your family they can get their hands on. And with the sources they have—in both the Mexican and American governments—more often than not they know when someone is playing for the other side. It’s just not worth the risk for most people.”

“But it is for you,” I said.

She nodded.

“Why?”

“I have my reasons,” she said. “Personal ones.”

“Care to articulate them?” I said.

“Not really,” she said.

I waited a few seconds to see if she was going to continue on but she kept her eyes on the road so I changed the subject.

“Is this the sort of stuff you did with the FBI? Undercover work?”

“For the most part,” Chris said. “I bumped around a bit, ran point on a few operations, but mostly worked the drug beat down here in Mexico.” 

“How long were you with them?”

“I put in ten years of dutiful service fighting the so-called war on drugs before I got sick of the political bullshit and bailed,” Chris said.

“And what about the guys you work for now? How’d you hook up with them?”

She shrugged. “I just sort of fell into it, actually. After I left the Bureau, I did some freelance work for a couple different private corporations—intelligence-gathering, mostly. Then the Towers fell, and a short time later, one of the guys I’d previously done a job for came to me with an offer. After he spelled out what his organization did, I jumped at the chance. And now, here I am, seven years later, still going strong.”

“I take it you like what you do now?”

“I fucking love it,” Chris said. “I finally feel like I’m making a difference, instead of just padding some government agency’s statistics so some damn politician can use them to get re-elected.”

“It really was that bad, huh?”

“It was a fucking joke. Just like all the rest of the official intelligence agencies nowadays, it’s become a bureaucracy, too politicized to get anything meaningful done.” She barked out a humorless laugh. “Listen to me, yapping away on my soapbox. Pardon me while I step off.”

“No worries,” I said. “I’m the one that brought it up.”

The car fell silent. It was starting to get a little stuffy, so I rolled down the window. The smell of the ocean wafted in, transporting me back home, which got me wondering if I’d ever see home again. I immediately rolled the window back up.

“What about you?” Chris said. “You used to be a Navy SEAL, right?”

I nodded and prepared my stock answer for the inevitable question about BUD/S training. But Chris caught me off-guard.

“What compelled you to be a SEAL in the first place?” she said.

I had no stock answer for that question. In fact, I hadn’t ever talked about my reasons for becoming a SEAL with anyone except for Gina and I wasn’t certain I wanted to get into it now. Trying to buy myself a little time to think, I glanced out the side window and caught a glimpse of the moon reflecting off the ocean before disappearing behind a bank of fast-moving clouds.

After a few seconds of silent contemplation, I couldn’t come up with a compelling reason not to talk about it, so I dove in with both feet.

“I decided to become a SEAL after 9/11,” I said. “I’d graduated from college in June of ’01 with a business degree and was working for a tech company down in San Diego. But after the Towers fell, trying to come up with a new set of features for the next-generation cell phone seemed a bit pointless.”

“So you just quit your job and joined the Navy?”

“Not quite,” I said. “I didn’t decide to enlist until a couple days later, after the details of United Flight 93 came out.”

Chris gave me a crooked look but didn’t say anything.

“I knew someone on that flight,” I said, my voice trailing off slightly. 

“Really?”

I nodded, stared blindly into the night beyond. “He was a friend of my wife’s from back home. They went to high school together. I hung out with him a couple times a year. He was a real cool guy, heavy into sports, just like me. When I found out he was on that plane, it really hit home. It was crushing. I mean, it’s one thing to know that a couple of thousand people died on that day, but for some reason, it hurts a hell of a lot more when you knew one of them.”

“I know how you feel,” Chris said. “I knew quite a few people working out of the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Three of them didn’t make it. It’s one of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to work for these guys; to make sure something like that never happens again.”

We hit a patch of traffic and slowed down to a crawl. A couple minutes later we passed an accident that was blocking the right lane and the traffic broke up.

“It’s kind of fucked up, if you think about it,” I said once we’d gotten back up to speed.

“What’s that?”

“Just the idea that in order to take action, we have to experience something personally. I mean, if I wouldn’t have known anyone that was killed on 9/11, would I have joined the Navy and became a SEAL? No way. The thought would have never even entered my mind. But as soon as I found out that someone I actually knew died I was down at the recruiting office within hours.”

It was awkward opening myself up to what amounted to a complete stranger, but now that I’d started talking, I felt the sudden urge to keep going, to get it all off my chest, once and for all, everything that I’d kept bottled up over the last week. Maybe part of me realized that it might be my last opportunity to do so.  

“It’s the same thing with my wife’s death,” I continued. “If I had been watching the news and heard about someone that was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and there was a good chance that there was foul play involved, would I have done anything about it? Of course not. I just would have felt bad for a couple of minutes, then gotten on with my life.”

“It’s a survival mechanism,” Chris said. “Thousands of people are killed every day. If you tried to do something about everything that happened, it would drive you crazy. So you set up a circle of influence, and you tell yourself that as long as something doesn’t happen to one of the people within that circle, you’ll just let it go. It’s the only way to remain sane.”

“Still, it makes me wonder what kind of a person I am that I’m only willing to take action after something affects me personally.”

“A better person than most,” Chris said. “There are very few people that would take action, even in your circumstances. You’re being way too hard on yourself, beating yourself up because you only decided to join the Navy after you found out someone you knew was killed on 9/11. Well, think about the millions of other people out there who knew someone that was killed during 9/11. How many of them did anything after finding out?”

“Not many.”

“You’re right,” Chris said. “Not many at all. And this situation with your wife? How many people would have taken action knowing what you knew? True action; not just telling the cops what you knew and then sitting back while they whittled away on the case, hoping for a break that would allow them to maybe arrest someone and maybe put them in jail for a few years if everything broke perfectly. Again, not many. Too many people in this world want something but are afraid to do anything about it. They just sit around and hope and wish and pray instead of going out and making it happen.”

“I guess.”

“I’m serious,” Chris said. “The last thing you should be doing is doubting yourself. You’re doing a great thing right now. A necessary thing. You’re making the world a better place, one scumbag at a time.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

We drove down the coast for another thirty miles or so then turned onto an unmarked dirt road. Another few minutes of bumpy traveling brought us to a squat, dumpy old building—nothing more than a shack, really—within shouting distance of the shore. Parked alongside the shack was an old Toyota pickup truck with California plates. Chris stopped alongside the truck, shut off the engine and pushed a button on the console, releasing the trunk latch.

“Grab the duffel bag,” Chris said as she climbed out of the car. “I’m going to do a quick check of the premises.”

I climbed out, walked to the back of the car and opened the trunk. I lifted the false bottom and grabbed the duffel bag that held all my gear. It was a large bag, and heavy enough that I had to carry it with two hands.

“Everything looks good,” Chris said. “Let’s head on in.”

I followed her to a door on the east side of the building, opposite the ocean. Chris opened the door and I led the way in. The room was dark. I flipped the light switch near the door but nothing happened.

“Yeah, those don’t work,” Chris said. “But there’s a battery-powered lantern in the duffel bag that does.”

I opened the bag and pulled out the lantern and turned it on, bathing the room in soft light.

The inside was littered with food wrappers and empty soda cans, the wood floor was moldy and torn up, and the smell of dead animals hung heavy. I set the lantern on a table to my right.

“Not exactly the Ritz Carlton,” Chris said. “But it’ll serve its purpose.”

“That it will,” I said. “How far away from the edge of Montoya’s property are we?”

Chris nodded. “About five miles.”

“How am I going to get there?”

“There’s a small boat tied to the dock on the other side of the building,” Chris said. “The frame is pretty old but it’s got a good engine that’s covered in sound-absorbent housing and a specially rigged anchor that you can release from in about two seconds. Hop in the boat and head south. About four and half miles out, you’ll see a lighthouse on the top of a bluff. It marks the northern edge of the cove that shields Montoya’s little personal bay. You can anchor the boat on the north side of the rocks without worrying about it being seen by Montoya’s guards. From there you can swim the rest of the way in to the dock without a problem. And the rest is up to you.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Anything else?” Chris said.

I shook my head.

“Then I’ll leave you alone to do your thing,” Chris said. She pulled a set of keys from her pocket, slid one off the ring, and handed it to me. “This is for the car we came in. I’ll take the truck out of here.”

I grabbed the key.

Chris wished me luck and started for the door. But she stopped before she got there.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

She nodded, then turned towards me. Her entire demeanor had changed. Gone was the ram-rod straight, tough, no-nonsense, ex-FBI agent I’d been dealing with for the last four hours. Her posture was softer, more vulnerable.

A seed of apprehension blossomed in my stomach.

“Remember earlier, when you asked me why the risk of being found out by the cartels was worth it to me?” she said.

“Of course I remember.”

“I risk it because I owe them,” she said.

“Owe them for what?”

“For killing my husband.”

I waited for her to continue, knowing that if she wanted to talk more about it, she would do so without my prompting. The silence was short-lived.

“He was a DEA agent working deep undercover with the Medellin Cartel, back in the late nineties, when Columbia was still the center of the drug world,” she said. “Somehow they got wind of his real identity. They picked him up off the street and took him to a shack in the middle of the jungle and tortured him for three days before cutting off his head and hands and leaving the rest of his body to rot in the streets.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry,” I said, the words sounding as hollow coming out of my mouth as they had sounded when directed towards me. But still, I felt the need to say something.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” she said. “Not after what you’ve been through. Your actions here tonight speak far louder than words ever could.”

I took a moment to let her know I appreciated the comment, then said, “Did they at least get the assholes who did it?”

“Yeah, they got them,” she said, her voice laced with venom. “And then they let them go.”

“Are you serious?”

She nodded.

“What happened?”

“A colossal clusterfuck is what happened,” she said. “The government was afraid of stepping on toes in Columbia, plus the individuals involved were a part of a larger operation, and all other sorts of bullshit excuses.”

“So they didn’t do anything to the men responsible?”

“Nothing at all,” Chris said. “Our government let three confessed murderers walk free without so much as a slap on the wrist. Three men who spent 48 hours torturing my husband; electrocuting him, burning him with a blowtorch, pulling out his fingernails, cutting off his eyelids—”

She closed her eyes and dropped her head. Her body start to shake and I could hear her fighting back tears.

Without thinking I walked over and embraced her. This time I realized how useless words were and didn’t say anything. I just held her. She didn’t fight it.

She eventually pulled away from my embrace. She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist and tried to smile. “Sorry about that.”

“Nothing to be sorry for.”

“Yeah, well just don’t mention this to anyone, all right? I don’t want the news of my breakdown leaving this room. It wouldn’t go over well with my superiors.”

“It never happened.”

This time her smile was genuine. “Thanks,” she said.

“My pleasure.”

“And just remember, what you’re doing here tonight isn’t just for you,” she said. “It’s for everyone else who’s ever been in your situation, too. All those people who don’t possess the means or the ability to take action. You are their voice. Speak for them. And speak loudly.”

“I will.”

She leaned forward, planted a kiss on my cheek, then turned and walked out of the building. I waited until the taillights of the truck had disappeared into the night, then opened the duffel bag and started putting myself together.

Thirty minutes later I was dressed in a black wetsuit, with grease-paint covering my face, a diving mask around my neck, and a waterproof backpack filled with every piece of hardware necessary for the job on my back. The duffel bag was on the floor at my feet, holding my old clothes and the key to the car. It would stay here and await my return.

I shut the lantern off and walked out the door into the night beyond.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

The lighthouse was located at the edge of a natural jetty, on a bluff overlooking the ocean. It was over a hundred feet high, and emitted a series of four white flashes at twenty-second intervals. Needless to say I had no trouble spotting it.

I cut the motor well ahead of my destination, scanning the shore beyond as I drifted in. All was clear. I dropped anchor near the rocks, double-checked the backpack to make sure it was still snug around my waist and chest, then slipped into the water.

According to Chris, it was a little less than a half-mile swim from the tip of the jetty to Montoya’s private beach.

Piece of cake.

During BUD/S training, I’d routinely swam two miles at a time in much colder water, usually without a wetsuit. And even though I wasn’t in nearly the same shape I’d been in back then, I knew from experience that the activity was more mental than physical.

I ducked under the water and started to swim.

My feet touched the sandy bottom of the shore a little more than twenty minutes later. I crept forward slowly, crouching lower the further inland I went, keeping only my head above the water. I wasn’t worried about being seen; between the hood on the wetsuit and the black grease-paint covering my face, I would be all but invisible to anyone onshore.

Everything looked exactly as it did in the surveillance photos; two large boats tied on opposite sides of a fifty-foot long dock that led to a well-lit boathouse set thirty feet back from the shoreline. Inside the boathouse two guards sat across from each other at a table perched directly in front of a large window. They were playing cards, seemingly relaxed, their voices carrying over the soft rustle of the benign ocean, fragmented phrases in Spanish that were not quite loud enough for me to make out completely.

I watched them play cards for almost a full minute before I was convinced everything was as it seemed. I ducked underwater and started to swim beneath the surface towards the dock.

I resurfaced at the rear of the yacht tied off on the north side of the dock, the considerable size of the craft easily blocking me from view of the two guards in the boathouse. I used the hull to push myself towards the ladder, then quietly started to climb towards the bottom deck.

Once aboard, I slipped out of the backpack and set it down. Working quietly but efficiently, I opened the pack and pulled out one of the two six-pound blocks of C4. After  setting the timer attached to the explosive to twenty minutes, I slid the face-cover off my diving watch, set it’s timer to twenty minutes, and started them both simultaneously. I then slid the C4 into a small space between two storage containers to hide it from view.

One boat down, one to go.

I resealed the backpack, carefully climbed back down the ladder, and slipped back into the water.

I drifted until I was able to catch another glance at the two guards—they were still playing cards, completely unaware of what was going on just a couple hundred yards from where they sat—then continued over towards the speedboat tied to the other side of the dock.

After successfully planting the second C4 charge on the speedboat and setting the timer to go off a mere fifteen seconds after the first, I slipped back into the water and headed towards the shore.

I emerged from the ocean a couple hundred yards to the south of the boathouse, at an angle making me all but invisible to the guards sitting near the front window.

After clearing the waves completely, I knelt down, set the backpack on the sand, and opened it. The first thing I pulled out was a tactical vest with multiple pockets, which carried the flashbangs, the extra magazines of ammunition, the zip-ties and the single-use lancets. I put on the vest and dove into the pack again. This time, I extracted the MP5/10 (already locked and loaded) and slid into the straps so that the firearm was hanging in front of my chest. The MP5/10 was more weapon than I needed to take care of the two guards, but my goal was to subdue them without firing a round, and I figured the machine pistol would serve as a better deterrent than one of the handguns. Finally, I pulled a black baklava from the pack and slipped it over my head, concealing my face.

Leaving the rest of the supplies inside, I closed the backpack and slipped it back over my shoulders. I rose into a semi-crouch and started towards the boathouse, moving quickly but unhurriedly, the rust I’d accrued over the years of relative inactivity wearing off with every step. My water socks barely left an impression in the wet sand.

I nestled up against the side of the boathouse less than a minute later. I took a moment to do nothing but listen to the guards. One of them cursed the other, apparently upset over losing a hand. The other one laughed. Someone started shuffling the cards. All was well.

Time to formulate a plan of action. 

A few paces to my right were three steps that led to a wooden deck. Just past the top of the stairs and to the left, the side door of the boathouse was open. I figured it would take me about three seconds to get up the steps and into the building from my current position. From what I had observed earlier, I knew that the card table was set up along the front window, so that both the guards could see out, which meant that the guard nearest to me would have his back to the open door, and the one at the far end of the table would be facing it. The guard with his back to the door was approximately twenty feet inside the building, a space that could be covered in about a second and a half.

I calculated it would take me no more than four seconds total from the time I started moving until I could incapacitate the first guard. Far too little time for the other guard to pose a threat, no matter how quickly he reacted.

Confident my plan was sound, I made my final preparations. I pulled one of the lancets from my vest, prepped it, and gripped it in my left hand, the needle sticking down. With my right hand, I flipped the safety off the MP5/10 and brought it up into a firing position, resting the butt of the weapon into the hollow of my right shoulder.

Inside the boathouse the two guards continued to play cards, oblivious to the heavily-armed, black-clad engine of retribution standing just outside the door.

I exhaled quickly three times, then turned and bound up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. I pivoted at the door and rushed into the building.

The guard facing me looked up and dropped the cards on the table. His mouth was open but he was too shocked to utter a sound.

The guard with his back to the door had just started to turn around when I stuck the lancet into the left side of his neck, near the shoulder. His body jerked violently and he tried to stand, but his legs gave out from under him and he slid back into the chair and then to the ground.

I swung the barrel of the MP5/10 towards the other guard, who was still in his chair, his eyes wide and his mouth still open.

Now was the crucial part. I spoke some rudimentary Spanish, but I didn’t want to say anything, knowing that my accent would give away my true ethnicity. Nor did I want to kill the guard unless it was absolutely necessary, because the lack of a sound suppressor on my weapon could possibly alert another guard that something was awry. So I simply brought the index finger of my left hand to my mouth in a universal sign for silence.

The guard nodded.

I glanced down at the guard I’d stuck with the lancet. He wasn’t moving at all, so I turned my attention back to the seated guard. Using the HP5/10 I motioned for him to stand up.

The guard put his hands in the air.

I again motioned, and this time the guard stood up, sneaking a glance over towards his own weapon as he did so.

I shook my head slowly from side-to-side. With my index and middle fingers extended, I pointed to my eyes, then towards him, then back to my eyes, as if to say, look at me only.

The guard nodded again, more grudgingly this time, and I knew I had to get this show on the road before the guard decided to make a break for it.

I made a circling motion with my left hand.

The guard just stood there, staring at me.

I made the circling motion again, more adamantly this time.

The guard still didn’t move, but his shoulders tightened slightly and his jaw started to tense.

I took a step forward and prepared to squeeze the trigger, fully expecting the guard to make some kind of a move.

The guard seemed to sense my intent. He took a deep breath, then relaxed his shoulders and slowly turned around.

I waited until the guard’s back was to me, then quickly stepped forward, pulled another lancet from the vest, and stuck it the guard’s neck.

The man twitched once, then his knees gave out and he started to slip to the ground. I caught him on the way down and laid him down softly.

After dragging both of the unconscious men to the back corner of the boathouse and covering their bodies with a blue tarp from a supply closet, I again raided my backpack, this time strapping a .40 caliber Glock to my thigh and putting a pair of night-vision goggles on my forehead.

I checked my watch. Six minutes and 37 seconds until the first batch of C4 exploded. Ahead of schedule, just like back in the day.

The easy part of the operation was over. It was time for phase two.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

Montoya’s defenses were set up so he could escape given the unlikely scenario that his contacts in the Mexican government were not able to warn him of an impending raid of his premises. Or an attack from a rival drug cartel. Or a full-scale military operation. They were not designed with the purpose of keeping a single, highly-motivated, well-informed assassin from penetrating into the heart of his ranch. It was, quite simply, something that he did not consider to be a serious threat.

That was about to change.

The drug lord’s security plan was elegant in its simplicity; if there was any evidence of trouble on the outskirts of his property, he and two of his most trusted bodyguards would immediately head towards an underground bunker thirty feet below the foundation of the house. Inside the bunker was a security center, which would allow Montoya to pinpoint the source of the trouble and decide how it should be handled. If the threat was serious enough, Montoya could use one of the two tunnels that branched off from the basement to make his escape from the property.

One of the tunnels led to a retractable helicopter pad located on the outskirts of Montoya’s ranch. The other led to his boats.

The exit to this second tunnel was hidden in plain view just north of the boathouse, disguised as an oversized water runoff pipe, complete with water dripping from its end. The “pipe” ended forty feet from the shoreline, where the dirt ended and the sand began.

It was through this second tunnel that I would gain entrance to his house. I was going through the out door.

I had to crouch to get through the first portion of the pipe. The tunnel was pitch black, but there was enough ambient light for my night-vision goggles to give me a clear, if greenish gray view of the path ahead.

The pipe went on for about forty yards before taking a sharp left turn into the tunnel proper.

Here the tunnel was larger, allowing me to walk upright. The walls were lined with concrete and electrical wires ran along the ceiling, feeding light boxes that were set at twenty-foot intervals but were as of now unlit.

I made my way through the dusty tunnel relatively quickly, unafraid of being detected. The tunnel was supposed to be a closely-held secret, so there were no electronic surveillance devices installed except for a camera at each exit. These cameras fed only the security center in the underground bunker, and were used simply to determine which exit provided the safest escape and would only be turned on after Montoya had retreated to the bunker. As long as I was in the correct position before the C4 went off, my presence would go undetected.

I nestled up next to the door to Montoya’s bunker with two minutes and 45 seconds to go until detonation of the C4.

After taking a moment to catch my breath, I again raided my backpack. Besides the second Glock and two spare clips, three items were left inside; a small flashlight, a portable breaching charge, and a detonator. I pulled these last three items out. I turned the flashlight on and stuck the butt end into my mouth so I could see the door directly in front of me, then started to unfold the breaching charge.

After carefully attaching the breaching charge to the door, I turned the flashlight off and placed it in one of the empty pockets on my vest. Gripping the detonator in my left hand, I moved ten paces to the left and set my back against the wall of the tunnel on the same side as the door.

Everything was set.

Now it was just a matter of time until I would finally have a chance to kill the motherfucker responsible for the murder of my wife.

Gina.

I’d had been so focused on the task at hand that I hadn’t really thought about her in days. But now, as I counted down the final seconds until I could avenge her death, I could think of nothing else.

I said her name aloud and something blossomed in my chest. A slow, steady wave of warmth started to spread throughout my body. It was a familiar sensation.

Pure, unadulterated rage.

I’d been letting it pool in an isolated reservoir deep in my psyche since the moment she’d died in my arms, keeping it separate from my actions, far away from conscious thought. But now I let the rage course through my body, making no attempt to stem its flow. I would allow it to flood my system, to the point of nearly overwhelming me, then channel it, use it as fuel during this final stage of my vengeance.

With every living cell of my body quivering in anticipation, I opened my eyes, looked down at the watch.

Three seconds until detonation.

Two seconds.

One.

It was time.

The first C4 charge detonated precisely on schedule, shattering the quiet night with its heavy blast. Even though I was at least 400 yards away from the dock, the blast was incredibly loud; because the purpose of the explosion was to shock Montoya into action, I’d used three times the amount of C4 needed to destroy each boat.

On the drive over, Chris had laid out Montoya’s crisis plan in intricate detail, which now allowed me to visualize the scene as it played out in the house above.

Seconds after the blast, the two main bodyguards rush into Montoya’s bedroom. They rouse him and toss him a bullet-resistant vest and some slip-on hard-sole shoes. With their weapons drawn, usher him towards the  door, moving quickly but under control. They will have just reached the bedroom door when—

Boom! The second batch of C4 detonated, destroying the second boat.

One guard peeks into the hall, sees that it is clear, and leads the way towards the bedroom three doors down from Montoya’s. In the back of a walk-in closet of this bedroom is the elevator leading to the bunker.

With one guard in front of Montoya and the other behind him, they move quickly, their bodies pressed tightly together. Shouting is audible throughout the house, but these three men are silent. They are concerned with nothing other than getting to the safety of the bunker. Once there, they will wait for enforcements, re-evaluate the situation and decide on a course of action.

They reach the elevator. The lead guard punches in the six-digit number to unlock it while the other trains his weapon towards the room outside. There is a hiss, then a click, and the doors open. The lead guard enters, followed by Montoya, then the second guard. The lead guard presses a button and the doors close. They begin to descend.

I could feel the urgency running rampant through my system, threatening to cloud my actions, pushing me to detonate the breaching charge right now. But I held back.

The charge was designed to incapacitate the inhabitants of the room it was breaching—much like a stun grenade—which would give me a few precious seconds to engage the enemy before they had shaken off the effects of the blast. The last thing I wanted to do was detonate before anyone was in the room. It would be giving away a valuable advantage, and being outnumbered at least three to one, I needed every advantage I could get.

I glanced at the watch. Forty-five seconds had passed since the first batch of C4 had detonated. According to Chris, the average time it took Montoya to reach the bunker from his room was 35 seconds, and it never took more than a minute.

Because of this time frame, we had decided to wait until 75 seconds had passed before detonating the breaching charge. There wasn’t much to lose by being a few seconds late, but being early could cost me my life.

To help keep myself occupied, I ran through a final check of the MP5/10, making sure the magazine was locked and loaded, the safety off, the trigger group set to three-round bursts.

Everything was perfect.

I looked at the watch again.

Seventy-five seconds since the first blast.

I brought the MP5/10 into firing position, took a final deep breath, counted to three, and detonated the breaching charge.

The force of the explosion shook the tunnel. Dirt fell from the ceiling, creating a tiny dust cloud. Some landed on my head. I shook it out. The smell of cordite hung heavy in the damp air. I stepped forward, pivoted, and climbed through the large, ragged hole in the door, my weapon in firing position.

The breaching charge had done its job perfectly. The room was a mess; papers everywhere, tables overturned, lights flickering. Most importantly, it had left all three men sprawled on the ground.

The closest one was ten feet to my right. It was a bodyguard. He was on one knee. His left hand was on the ground, providing support. In his right hand was an Uzi, which was pointed at the ground. He turned his head and looked at me, his eyes glazed over but still functioning properly.

“Don’t do it,” I said, even though he was most likely deaf from the breaching charge.

The guard stared at me for another heartbeat, then started to swing the Uzi upwards. I leaned forward slightly and shot him in the face with a three-round burst from the MP5/10. His head snapped back and then he fell, the Uzi clattering on the concrete next to him.

The other guard was on the opposite side of the room, sitting on the ground with his back against the wall. He was yelling something in Spanish and holding his face in his hands. His Uzi was lying on the ground next to him. I walked over, kicked the firearm away, pulled one of the lancets from my vest and stuck it into the guard’s shoulder.

The large man didn’t even seem to notice. He continued to sit there and scream with his hands over his face for another three seconds before slumping forward.

The room now clear of threats, I turned my attention to a small man dressed in pajamas lying motionlessly on his chest a few feet away. I knelt down beside him and gave him a quick pat-down. After finding no weapons, I grabbed his arms at the wrists, wrenched them back and zip-tied them together. I then flipped the man over.

It was Montoya. His eyes were closed and his body was slack. I felt for a pulse. It was there but very weak. Apparently, the door breach had done too good of a job on Montoya; it had knocked him unconscious.

I stood up and spun the straps of MP5/10 around so the weapon was against my back, then pulled the Glock from the thigh holster and pointed it at Montoya’s face.

I debated whether or not to kill him immediately, but eventually decided to wait as long as possible before squeezing the trigger. I wanted Montoya to see my face, to understand who had come to kill him.

Five seconds passed, then ten, and still Montoya remained unconscious.

I couldn’t hear any signs of activity from the house above, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until more reinforcements made their way down to the bunker. Another ten seconds—fifteen at the most—and I’d have to kill Montoya, whether he was awake or not.

Ten seconds later I was about to squeeze the trigger when Montoya’s eyes flickered to life. He blinked a couple of times more and then they stayed open. They were bloodshot and vacant. His face shone with confusion, most likely due to a severe concussion caused by the breaching charge.

“Do you know who I am?” I said, my voice flat.

Montoya stared at me, his mouth slightly open, his eyes still not showing recognition. I couldn’t tell if he even understood what I was saying.

“You killed my wife,” I said. “Her name was Gina Keeley. I’m here to return the favor.”

Montoya opened his mouth but no sound issued forth. He started to shake his head but quickly stopped, closed his eyes, turned his head to the side, and vomited. I had no idea whether his actions were the result of fear or were simply an after-effect of the concussion, but at this point, it didn’t really matter. I knew instinctively that time was running out. If more of Montoya’s men weren’t already on their way down the elevator, they would be within moments. There was no more time to waste.

I squeezed the trigger.

The Glock roared, drowning out the sound of the bullet blowing through the back of Montoya’s skull.

I stood over Montoya as the blood pooled around his head. I continued to stand there, staring at his face as the final vestiges of life drained from his eyes. The Glock was still in my hand, my finger still on the trigger.

I was waiting for catharsis, but it quickly became apparent that none was forthcoming.

I realized I felt nothing at all, no emotion whatsoever. No satisfaction at having killed the man responsible for my wife’s murder. Not even the more mundane sense of accomplishment at having successfully completed an operation.

In fact, now that Montoya was dead, I felt Gina’s absence weighing me down even further, like a concrete slab hooked around my neck.

She had been the blood that pumped through my veins. Without her, I was empty, lifeless, a living, breathing corpse. The only thing that had kept me going after she’d been murdered was the idea that I would find the man responsible for her death and kill him. And now that I’d accomplished that, I couldn’t think of a reason to continue on.

Figure it out later, said my inner-SEAL. Right now you have other business to take care of.

My stupor was broken by a rumbling sound coming from behind me. The world quickly swam back into focus as I turned towards the sound, saw that it was coming from the elevator that served the bunker.

More of Montoya’s guards, no doubt.

I put the Glock back in the thigh holster, spun the MP5/10 around, lifted it into firing position, pointed it at the elevator, and started walking backwards, towards the door I had breached to enter the bunker. With my right hand keeping the weapon steady, I reached into the vest with my left and extracted a flashbang from one of the pockets.

The rumbling stopped as soon as I reached the hole in the bunker. The elevator had arrived.

I pulled the pin on the flashbang and tossed it towards the elevator doors just as they were starting to open. I then stepped through the breached door and into the tunnel, turned quickly and put my back against the wall.  I heard yelling from the area near the elevator, but it was cut off abruptly by the loud detonation of the flashbang.

I peeked around the corner and saw three men standing near the elevator. All were brandishing weapons. All were disoriented from the flashbang. None were wearing body armor. 

I had spared the lives of the guards back at the boathouse, but I no longer had the luxury of surprise. The four men in the elevator threatened my survival. They had to be neutralized. 

I dropped each one with a three shot burst from the MP5/10. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. All three were down within seconds.

I slipped the night-vision goggles back over my eyes and started back through the tunnel towards the shore.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

Knowing every wasted second would make my escape exponentially more difficult, I ran the length of the tunnel, slowing to a walk only once I’d reached the smaller drainage pipe that led to the beach.

Once the exit was in view, I dropped to my belly and started crawling towards it, my body tense with the expectation of taking on fire.

This was where I was most vulnerable. The destruction of the two boats was sure to have attracted some of Montoya’s guards to the area, but I was counting on them still being in the dark about what had happened in the bunker. If they were abreast of the entire situation, then they would be aware of someone trying to escape the premises, which meant that the tunnel exit would already be heavily covered.

If that was the case, I was fucked. The guards could simply wait for me to show up, then concentrate their fire into the mouth of the drain pipe. They would turn me into Swiss cheese.

However, if they were unaware of what had happened in the bunker, their attention would still be focused on the wreckage of the boats themselves, which would give me a good chance of making it out alive.

I stopped five feet from the edge of the exit to survey the situation, the still-raging fire from the boats eliminating the need for the night-vision goggles.

The area was crawling with guards, but their attention wasn’t yet focused inward. Three men were at the end of the dock, near what was left of the two boats. One of the men was wearing body armor and carrying an Uzi; I pegged him as being in charge. The other two had AK-47’s but no armor. The entrance to the dock was guarded by a different pair of men—also with AK-47’s and without body-armor—one whose attention was fixed down the shore to the left, the other focused on the right.

Five armed men between me and the ocean.

No problem.

I quickly mapped out a plan of action.

The four guards without armor wouldn’t be a problem. From this range, center mass hits were a piece of cake. I’d be able to take all four of them out before they knew what was happening. The guard with the body armor, however, would take a little more effort. The .10mm rounds in the machine pistol wouldn’t penetrate body armor, meaning I’d have to take him out with a head shot. From this distance—a little over 50 yards—it wasn’t too difficult a shot, and back in my SEAL days I’d have had no problem making it. But now, three years removed from shooting on a daily basis, it would take all my concentration to pull it off.

I was in the process of pulling the retractable stock from the MP5/10 to help steady my aim when the ringing of a cell phone cut into the quiet night. My body went cold as I watched the guard with the body armor pause in his inspection of the boats, pull a phone from his pocket and bring it to his ear.

Two seconds later, he was yelling at the other guards and pointing at the drainpipe.

Totally calm and completely under control, I climbed to one knee, brought the MP5/10 to firing position, took aim at the guard standing watch on the shore and squeezed the trigger.

The three-round burst struck the guard in the center of the chest, dropping him almost instantly. Still in a half-crouch, I sighted again, squeezed the trigger, and sent another three-round burst through his partner.

I stepped out of the pipe and onto the sand. I made two immediate right turns—putting the drainpipe between myself and the remaining guards—and started running towards the boathouse.

Bullets whizzed in my general direction, but the guards were firing blindly and missing badly.

I made it to the boathouse unscathed. Clinging to the outer wall, I passed around the rear of the building, turned the corner and started creeping up the far side, towards the water.

The gunfire stopped. At first, I figured the guards had run through their clips and the lull would be brief. But even after they would have replaced their clips with fresh ones, the beach remained silent.

Something was up. Perhaps they were waiting for reinforcements before coming after me. Or maybe they were stalking me silently, hoping to catch me off-guard.

I decided to find out.

Set head-high into the side wall of the boathouse ten yards in front of me was a window. I crept up to it, lifted my head and had a look.

Through the still-open door on the other side of the building I could see the two remaining body armor-less guards coming around the front of the drainpipe. It was obvious they were poorly trained; they moved in jerky spurts, their heads swiveled continuously, their steps were too long and their legs unsteady.

The one on the left whispered something to the one on the right and then they split up, one angling towards the front of the boathouse while the other moved towards the back. The guard with the body armor was nowhere to be seen. He was probably hiding somewhere, having sent out the other two guards to keep me occupied until reinforcements arrived.

I ducked back down and quickly started moving along the side wall towards the rear of the boathouse. Once at the corner, I dropped to a knee and slipped out of the straps holding the MP5/10 to my body. I shifted the weapon to a left-handed grip, and brought the stock to my left shoulder. Leading with the barrel of the firearm, I peered around the corner.

Two seconds later, I saw the tip of the barrel of an AK-47. I snapped my head back, pulled my weapon out of view.

Figuring that the guard would continue along the back of the building once he saw it was clear, I stood up, counted to three, and leaned around the corner.

The guard was fifteen feet away.

Before he could react, I squeezed the trigger, sending a three-shot burst towards him.

The rounds caught the guard in the shoulder, altering the barrel angle of his AK-47 to the right just as it started expending bullets.

I corrected my aim and fired again. One of the rounds from the second burst caught the guard in the base of the throat. He sprawled backwards and to the ground, blood gushing from the wound.

I had just finished switching the MP5/10 to my more accurate, right-handed grip when the other guard came flying around the front corner, moving far too quickly to keep his body under control.

I brought the stock to my right shoulder and fired, dropping him with yet another three-shot burst to the chest.

Two more guards down. One to go.

The question now became: what next? Make a break for it or take care of the final guard.

Part of me was tempted to leave him be and try to sneak back into the ocean without being seen, but the risks were high. If he did see me go into the water, I’d have no chance to make it all the way out to my escape boat without being gunned down when reinforcements arrived.

On the other hand, if I tried to hunt him down, it might give the reinforcements time to get here before I had a chance to finish the job. And then I’m be similarly fucked.

Two choices, neither ideal. But whatever my choice was, I needed to make it quickly. Taking time to think about it was the worst thing I could do.

Fuck it. I’d go after him. And if reinforcements arrived before I killed him, then I’d just have to take them out too. Killing people is what I was trained to do.

I quickly made my way around the back of the boathouse, picking up the AK-47 that had belonged to the dead man as I passed. Unlike the 10mm bullets fired by the MP5/10, the 7.63×39 rounds in the AK-47 would have no problem penetrating the body armor worn by the last remaining guard.

With the AK-47 in firing position, I peered around the corner of the boathouse and scanned the shore.

Nothing.

I took a deep breath, then crouched down and ran from the cover of the boathouse to the edge of the drainpipe. Keeping my body lower than the top of the drainpipe, I made my way down towards the shore, stopping three feet from the edge of the pipe.

I wasn’t sure exactly where the last remaining guard was hiding, but based on the last few minutes of action, I assumed he was somewhere on the other side of the pipe.

What I needed to do was figure out a way to flush him out if he was there, but not give my own position away if he wasn’t.

After a moment of thought, inspiration struck, in the form of a trick one of our Commanding Officers had played on us during BUD/S.

I reached into my vest and pulled the last flashbang from one of the pockets, but instead of activating it, I tossed it over the top of the drainpipe without pulling the pin.

The ruse worked perfectly.

I heard a muffled curse in Spanish, followed by the sound of someone moving quickly. Stifling the urge to smile, I stepped around the front of the pipe and saw the last remaining guard running in the opposite direction, no more than ten yards away.

I sighted the AK-47 and squeezed the trigger, sending a flurry of bullets into the back of the fleeing guard. The man stumbled to the ground, dropping the Uzi as he fell.

I slung the rifle across my shoulder and started walking towards him, pulling the Glock from my thigh holster as I moved forward. Although the bullets from the AK-47 had penetrated the body armor, the guard wasn’t dead yet. He was trying to crawl forward, moaning and coughing with every movement.

It took me three seconds to catch up with the fallen guard. Without saying a word, I pointed the Glock at the back of his head and fired, putting him out of his misery.

By now, I could hear the sounds of vehicles and panicked shouting coming from the direction of Montoya’s house. I still had enough time to get to the ocean without being seen, but I had to start moving right now.

I turned, ran to the end of the dock, and dove into the water.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

My swim out to the boat was without confrontation, as the reinforcements were busy trying to get a handle on the situation. More likely than not, the idea that the escape was already underway had not yet occurred to them. By the time they did turn their flashlights to the ocean, I was well beyond the reach of their meager illumination.

I ditched all my weapons and the goggles shortly after hitting the water. They had been exposed when I jumped off the pier, and would no longer be operable after being submerged in the salt water. I had also slipped out of the combat vest to make the swim back to the boat easier, leaving me with only the Glock and the two extra clips in the waterproof backpack to defend myself if things got rough.

I didn’t foresee that happening though. So far, the activity on the shore appeared to be confined to the immediate vicinity of Montoya’s property, and by the time it ventured beyond that, I would hopefully be long gone.

I reached the end of the jetty where the lighthouse sat, swam around it, and climbed into the boat. I took one last look around but didn’t see any activity on the shore this side of the jetty, nor any boats on the open water, nor helicopters overhead.

Leaving my backpack still on in case I needed to abandon ship quickly, I started the motor, released the anchor, and headed north.

I was about halfway back to the building that had served as the launching point for the operation when I saw a gaggle of four-wheel-drive vehicles speeding down a road that ran parallel to the shore a couple hundred yards inland. I prepared to take the boat further out to sea if they turned towards the shore, but their destination appeared to be Montoya’s ranch, and they passed my position without so much as a pause.

A short time later I heard a helicopter somewhere behind me. Looking back, I saw it in the sky near Montoya’s ranch, which was now nearly five miles away. By the time the chopper made its way this far north—if it did at all—I would be out of the water.

I returned my gaze forward and saw the outline of my destination about five hundred yards away. A sense of relief surged through me but I pushed it away. This was no time to relax. An operation wasn’t over until you were safe at home in your own bed—and in this case, it wasn’t even truly over then. I needed to be on high-alert not only until I got back to the states, but for the rest of my life. I figured I might as well start now.

With this in mind, I kept my eyes locked on the dilapidated building as I approached. Everything appeared to be just as I’d left it, but I decided not to take any chances. I killed the engine about one hundred yards away from the shore to take a closer look, more to start practicing good habits than anything else.

With the boat riding the swell of the ever-growing waves, I concentrated on individual sections of the building, studying each corner, the roof, the door, the entire perimeter, and finally the immediate area. I then de-focused my gaze, taking in the area as a whole, searching for anything out of the ordinary.

Nothing was out of place.

Satisfied that everything was kosher, I leaned back and reached for the button that would re-start the engine.

Luckily my eyes were still on the shack when the spurt of flame appeared in the window.

The loud crack came a moment later as the sound of the rifle shot reached me.

I fell back into the water as though I’d been hit.

I paused for a moment in the water to gather myself, then took a deep breath, ducked under the surface and started swimming furiously towards open water. Approximately 30 seconds later, I came up for a breath of air, then dropped beneath the water and again swam away from the shore. Two more times I did this, putting as much distance between myself and the land as possible.

I gave myself a few seconds to recover after coming up for air the fourth time. Careful to keep only my head above the water, I took a series of deep breaths and tried to convince myself that I could make it to the shore without being spotted.

I knew my odds weren’t great, but I simply didn’t have any other options at this point. In order to have any chance of getting over the border, I needed a car. And the only one I knew of in the area was parked behind the shack. And as much as I’d like to try and wait out my attackers, the longer I took getting out of the area, the better chance there was of them—and the car—being gone by the time I got to the shack. Or of having some of Montoya’s men making their way this far north. Or a million others things, none of which were good. Time was definitely not on my side.

So I had to hurry to the shore but not move so quickly that I made myself visible, then sneak up on the building without being seen, and finally get the drop on whomever was inside the building before they lit out for the territories.

“Piece of cake,” I said aloud, but this time I wasn’t able to fool myself. To get out of this alive, I would need more than a bit of luck.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

I accomplished my first goal simply by making it to the shore without getting shot at again.

I had no idea if my attacker was still watching the water for me, but I decided to take no chances and assume that they were. With this in mind, I figured my best chance of making it safely to land was to swim past the building before turning towards the shore.

It took me a little more than three minutes of hard swimming to pass the building, each minute made exponentially longer by the expectation of receiving a bullet in the brain every time I surfaced for air. But eventually I made it, coming to ground about seventy-five yards north of the building.

Moving as slowly as possible, I slithered up the rocks, hoping beyond hope that the shooter was still fixated on the ocean, or perhaps even considered me dead and was no longer watching for me.

After clearing the water without any issues, I pulled the Glock and the two remaining clips from the backpack. I carefully slid one of the clips into the butt of the handgun, flipped the safety off and quietly racked the slide. The other clip I put in my free hand and made a fist; it wasn’t the ideal way to carry the clip, but I had ditched all my accessories and had to make do.

After starting the night with a backpack full of weapons, I was down to one Glock and 32 rounds of .40 caliber ammunition. It would have to be enough.

This side of the shack had no windows, which gave me a tiny measure of comfort. If they didn’t already have a bead on me, they’d be unlikely to pick me up now. Of course, they could be tracking me right now, waiting for me to get closer before lighting me up, so as not to make the same mistake they made while I was still on the boat. If this was the case, I was already dead, I just didn’t know it yet.

But I shrugged off that scenario; it did no good to dwell on the negative. If my attackers were onto me, there was nothing I could do about it now. All I could do was finish out my plan and hope for the best.

I started creeping along the sand towards the abandoned building, moving slowly at first but picking up speed as I went along; every uncontested step I took filled me with more confidence.

And then I was alongside the building.

I took a few seconds to get my breathing under control, then moved around until I was alongside the back door.

From here, the wind blowing from offshore was muted by the building. And with the walls being so thin, I could hear muffled voices from inside.

Check that, one voice. A female voice. Chris’s voice.

My stomach sank.

At this point I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out she was involved. And I wasn’t, not really. But I still felt betrayed. During our conversation on the ride over, I’d felt like we had some kind of bond. Which was exactly the point, now that I thought about it. Just another layer of intimacy to keep me from seeing this coming.

Chris said a couple words I couldn’t quite make out, then paused, then a couple more words. It sounded like she was on a cell. Perhaps calling in the situation? Telling her superiors that her job was done? That I was dead?

I could only hope.

And then the call was over. I heard the cell phone snap shut and then she clearly said, “Let’s get out of here.”

So there were two people inside.

That was all right; it didn’t change a thing. Just one more problem to take care of. No big deal.

I positioned myself in front of the door, took a deep breath, and kicked it in. I stepped forward. Chris was on the left. An unfamiliar man was on her right. He was holding a rifle. He was turning towards me. I shifted my aim and shot him twice in the face.

I had my weapon trained on Chris before the other person had even hit the ground. We were a little less than fifteen feet from each other.

“Don’t fucking move,” I said.

Chris’s hands were empty, hanging down by her side. No weapons were visible but I figured she had to be armed. Perhaps a handgun in a holster against the small of her back. Her mouth was teased up in a little smile but her eyes were humorless. I knew exactly what she was thinking.

“Don’t do it,” I said.

“Do what?” Chris said.

“You know.”

Chris’s smile widened and she said, “You mean this?” and thrust her right arm behind her back.

My instincts took over and I fired three times, hitting her square in the chest.

Chris dropped the binoculars and took a couple of shuffle steps backward. No longer smiling, she fell down in a slumped position, her legs out in front of her upper body, which was being supported by the flimsy wall of the building.

I walked over to her, knelt down, and frisked her for weapons. She was unarmed.

“What were you reaching for?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m not packing.”

“Then why reach?”

“So you’d have to shoot me.”

I stood up and shook my head. She’d played me good. So now there I was, a hundred questions on the tip of my brain, and no time to ask them. She’d made sure of that.

Chris started to cough, a hollow, vacant sound, punctuated with a small stream of blood leaking out of her mouth. “Damn that hurts.”

I just stared at her.

“You look pissed,” she said.

“You’re damn right I am,” I said. “All that shit you spewed out of your mouth on the drive over here, all that talk about honor and courage, and the whole time you knew the evening was supposed to end with you putting a bullet in my head. That’s fucked up.”

“Hey, no offense, huh?” Chris said. “It was nothing personal. You were a loose end. I was just—” she coughed again, spitting up more blood this time. “I was just doing what I was told.”

“By who? Danville?”

“Who’s that?”

“You know who I’m talking about,” I said.

“Can’t say that I do.”

“Come on, don’t give me that shit. Is Danville the one that gives the orders? Or is it someone else? Someone above him?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“You can do whatever you want,” I said. “You don’t owe anyone anything.”

“Yeah, I suppose—” Chris’s chest bucked and she coughed and more blood spewed from her mouth. “I suppose I could tell you. But I won’t. I can’t. They’ve done too much for me to rat them out now.”

“I could force you to talk,” I said.

“Nah . . . you don’t . . . have time,” Chris said. Her eyes were starting to glaze over and her head lolled to the side. Her voice had been reduced to barely above a whisper. “I’ll be gone . . . in a couple minutes.”

She was right. I had no doubts she could hold out until she was dead, no matter what I might do to her. Besides, I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach to torture her. The events of the evening had burned most of the rage from my system, and without it, there just seemed no point.

“You’ll be gone sooner than that,” I said. I raised the gun and pointed it at Chris’s forehead but lowered it almost immediately.

“Just get it over with,” Chris said.

“One more question, then I will.”

“Fire away.” She barked out a soft laugh. “No pun intended.”

“Your little story about losing a husband to the cartels, was that real?”

“Nope. It was completely made up.”

“Why? What purpose did it serve?”

“Just another layer of incentive, in case you lost your nerve.”

“Was that really necessary?”

“I let the others decide what’s necessary,” she said. “I’m like you, Keeley. A soldier. I just do what I’m told.”

“I’m not a soldier. I’m a SEAL. And I don’t do what I’m told. I do what’s right.”

“Then you’re better than me,” Chris said. By now her voice was barely audible. “But for whatever it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

The final, lingering vestiges of rage rushed from my body, leaving nothing but disgust. This revenge shit was a tired, nasty business. I just wanted to be done with it. I raised the pistol and shot Chris in the forehead. 

Once she had stopped breathing, I went over to the table and turned on the lantern that was left over from earlier in the evening.

I made my way back to Chris, grabbed her flaccid body and rolled it over.

I proceeded to check her pockets, coming away with a cell phone and a set of car keys. I took the battery out of the phone so its location couldn’t be tracked by GPS and stuck both it and the keys in my pocket. I then went over to the other man.

Careful not to step in the ever-growing puddle of blood, I went through his pockets also, just to be thorough. He had nothing on him. No identification, no keys, no wallet, nothing.

I stepped away from the bodies, picked up the change of clothes that I’d left in the building at the beginning of the night, and changed out of the wetsuit. Leaving the two bodies sprawled on the floor of the shack, I walked out into the cold night air, got into Chris’s car, and drove north.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

Chris had said that I’d be able to cross the border at San Ysidro without any problems, but with everything that had happened, there was no way in hell I could trust the original plan. For all I knew, Danville had men posted at the border, waiting for me to try and cross.

And even if none of Danville’s men were there, I would still have to go through the border checkpoint, which would be crawling with Homeland Security agents. And I wanted no part of them right now either.

And even if I somehow managed to get myself over the border without incident, there was no way I’d be able to get my gun over with me. And there was no way in hell I was going to walk around unarmed right now.

So the choice was clear; no border crossing for me. At least, not a legal one.

Luckily I was standing at the most porous portion of the border in the country, crossed by a few thousand illegal immigrants a month. Getting over shouldn’t be a problem.

Although the past few years had seen a rise in the amount of fencing constructed along the border, I knew the measures were sporadic and inconsistent. Some areas had triple fencing, dead zones, stadium lighting and motion detectors, while others still just had one fence and no technological deterrents. The key was to figure out where the resistance was the lightest.

To do this I walked into a run-down bar outside the Tijuana city limits aptly named THE BORDER CROSSING. After I told the bartender what I was looking for and gave him a $100 dollar bill, he made a phone call. Ten minutes later an older, unassuming Mexican man walked in and sat down next to me. A ten-minute conversation with this man and another $500 and I had all the information I needed. It was an amazingly easy process.

The spot the man had guided me toward was on a street called Cam Al Aeropuerto, a few miles east of the airport. I parked my car in the shadows of one of the many warehouses that lined the border on the Mexican side, buildings that nestled up to within ten feet of the fence.

For almost a full hour, I sat in the car, waiting and watching the occasional Border Patrol SUV driving in the hills on the American side, keeping an eye out. Their rounds were fairly regular, driving by every twelve minutes or so, stopping in about the same spot, pausing for 30 seconds, then moving on a couple hundred feet and repeating the process. It seemed to be a show of force more than a real deterrent.

And more importantly, easy to avoid.

It was a little after midnight when I saw a group of twenty people moving between the warehouses towards the fence. It was a motley group, mostly younger males but littered with a handful of females and even a couple of children. A few individuals were carrying plastic bags and a couple had old, ratty backpacks on, but most of them were empty-handed. I was slightly annoyed at their intent, but considering I’d already killed a dozen people that night and was also preparing to illegally cross the border I reserved judgment on their plight and concentrated on the logistics of getting into America.

I didn’t want to join their group, but I did want to take advantage of any distraction they might potentially offer, so I waited until the first of them started scaling the fence to climb out of the car and make my own way towards the fence, a good three hundred yards east of their crossing point.

Shortly after reaching the fence, I realized that they had mistimed their approach. By my calculations, the Border Patrol vehicle was due back in the area in the next two minutes, and only half of them were over. There was no way they would all make it over in time.

I gripped the fence with my hands and prepared for the ascent. The fence was made of corrugated metal; difficult to climb but not impossible. But it was solid, meaning I couldn’t see what was going on just on the other side of it. I had to rely on my ears to tell me what I needed to know.

I stood there, my body tense with anticipation, waiting for the inevitable confrontation. With any luck, there would be more than enough of a diversion for me to sneak over the fence and into the hills beyond while the Border Patrol rounded up the group. I hated relying on luck to help me out, but at this point, I had no choice.

A few seconds later I heard the sounds of a vehicle skidding to a stop. A car door slamming. Shouting. Orders barked in English, answered in Spanish. Sounds of a struggle. More yelling. Then the sound of another vehicle, coming in to help out. More shouting. Some grunting. Chaos. I debated whether or not to actually go through with my plan, but I quickly concluded there was no other choice. I had to get over the border quickly, and this was going to be my best chance.

I exhaled three times then scrambled up the fence, my hands and feet finding little nooks in it, pushing upwards, until my head was near the top. I peeked over the edge and saw three Border Patrol agents still in the process of rounding up and subduing the illegals. I hooked one leg over the fence, then the other, hung from the top and dropped to the ground.

Without hesitation, I started for the shrubbery hills, running in a low-crouch, moving quickly but smoothly, my adrenaline spiking, hoping that the agents didn’t spot me, more for their own sake than mine.

And then I reached the cover of the bushes.

I immediately dropped to the ground, turned, and scoped out the situation. The Border Patrol agents had collected all their quarry and were in the process of herding them into the back of their vehicles. They appeared to have no awareness of my presence. Another hurdle cleared. But I wasn’t completely out of the woods yet. I still had at least a mile of mostly open ground to negotiate before I came to civilization, and there were sure to be more agents out there, scanning the area, looking for people acting like me. But at this point, I was confident I would make it through unscathed. The hard part was done. All that remained was a game of hide and seek, I had lots of practice at that particular game.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

It went pretty-much as I’d expected. A couple of tense near-confrontations with Border Patrol vehicles, but nothing that caused any real problems. Like I’d suspected earlier, the rounds seemed to be more for show than functional.

And so, fifteen minutes after I’d hopped the fence, I emerged from a ravine in a residential neighborhood somewhere outside Otay Mesa. Now pushing 1:30AM, the vast majority of the houses were dark. Parked cars lined the street.

I headed towards the row of cars and started checking doors. The fourth one I came to was unlocked. It was a beaten-down black Jeep Wrangler that looked to be at least fifteen years old. Perfect.

I slipped into the vehicle, hotwired the engine, and took off down the street.

A short time later I parked the Jeep outside a 24-hour mini-mart, where I used some of my remaining cash to purchase a pre-paid cell phone. From there, I started walking. I eventually came upon a hole-in-the-wall bar named Rocky’s. I spotted a cab in the parking lot and approached the driver, who was sitting in the vehicle with the window rolled down, smoking a cigarette.

“Need a ride?” asked the cabbie.

“Yeah, but I need to make a phone call first,” I said. “Can you wait here for a couple minutes?”

“No problem. I have to run the meter though.”

“That’s fine. Just make sure you don’t take any other calls.”

“No problem, pal. As long as the meter’s running, you can take all night.”

I nodded and walked towards the back of the building, near the dumpster. The smell was horrendous but that was fine. Good actually. It would virtually guarantee nobody would come close enough to hear my conversation.

I opened the cell and called the number Holland had given me back on the pier. He picked it up halfway through the second ring.

“Agent Holland here.”

“It’s Keeley,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“That’s funny,” Holland said. “I was just thinking the same thing. Tell me where you are and we’ll get together, have ourselves a little parlay.”

“I don’t think so. We can talk on the phone.”

“If you wish.”

“But I want you to know one thing up front,” I said. “If I get even a whiff of your guys trying to track my location through my phone, this call is over. And you won’t hear from me again.”

“We’re not tracking you,” Holland said. “This is my personal line, I told you that when I gave it to you.”

“Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you want,” Holland said. “But this is just me and you talking. Nobody else is listening in. Nobody else even knows we’re having a conversation.”

“Well, I’ll keep this short anyway, just to be sure.”

“Whatever makes you happy,” Holland said. “But before you get started, we need to get some things straight, right up front. I’m not exactly sure what you thought you were going to accomplish with this conversation, but you need to know that I am fully aware of the situation you’ve gotten yourself into.”

“And what situation would that be?” I said.

“Come on now, Mr. Keeley. We both know you killed Ferdinand Montoya sometime within the last few hours.”

I had figured Holland would already know about Montoya—was counting on it, really—but I was surprised to hear him blurt it out so suddenly. I thought I’d have to draw it out of the agent; if he could get it out at all. Still, I couldn’t let him have the upper hand so easily. I didn’t want him taking charge of the conversation.

“Who’s that now?” I said.

“Don’t play dumb,” Holland said. “It doesn’t become you.”

I laughed under my breath. “Suppose I did kill Montoya. How the hell did you find out so quickly?”

“It wasn’t difficult to put together,” Holland said. “Your interest in his brother-in-law, combined with you slipping our tail, added to the fact that you crossed over the border at San Ysidro a few hours before Montoya ended up dead under mysterious circumstances paints a pretty vivid picture. What was confusing, however, was trying to figure out how you learned so much about Montoya in such a short period of time. I mean, here you went from poorly tailing Montoya’s brother-in-law to expertly infiltrating his highly-secure ranch and security systems in less than 24 hours. Quite an impressive feat, if I may say so.”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Really?” I said. “And what do you think, Special Agent Holland?”

“I think you had outside help,” Holland said. “In fact, I’m convinced of it. It’s the only thing that makes any sense, really.”

“And what if I did have help?”

“Then I implore you to tell me everything you know about these people so we can hold them, instead of you, responsible for Montoya’s murder.”

“Are you saying I can walk if I help you out?”

“If the information is helpful enough? Absolutely.”

I looked at my watch. I’d been on the phone for about 30 seconds. If they were tracking me through the phone—and despite Holland’s pleas to the contrary, I had to act as though they were—they would probably be able to get a pretty decent estimate of my location within the next couple of minutes, if not sooner. I needed to wrap this call up.

“Why would you do something like that?” I asked. “No offense, but I get the impression that you don’t normally go out of your way to help someone wiggle out of a murder rap.”

“Let’s just say that Ferdinand Montoya was very important to us,” Holland said. “And to me, personally.”

“How important?”

“Important enough that I’m willing to make you a sweet deal for information on who helped you kill him. That’s all you need to know.”

“Not good enough,” I said. “I need details.”

“I can’t give them to you,” Holland said. “Not over the phone.”

“Screw that. Tell me or we’re done talking. You can solve this riddle on your own.”

The line was silent.

“Five more seconds,” I said. “Then I hang up for good. Five. Four. Three.”

“Montoya was working for us,” Holland said.

I laughed. “Bullshit.”

“I assure you that it is not.”

“You don’t really expect me to believe that you turned the leader of a major drug cartel into a stoolie, do you? That’s ridiculous.”

“You can believe whatever you want,” Holland said. “But you asked why Montoya was so important to us and I told you. It’s up to you what you do with the information.”

I had no reason to believe it was the truth, but it certainly changed the nature of the game if it was. I decided to probe him a little further, see if I could get a better feeling for the veracity of Holland’s claim.

“What was he doing for you guys?” I asked.

“Sorry, but I’ve already said more than I should have over the phone,” Holland said. “If you want more details, we’ll need to speak in person. Nothing official, just a feeling-out session, so to speak. We can each put some specifics on the table, decide if we want to take this thing to the next level. You can even choose the place if it makes you feel better.”

“I need some time to think about it,” I said. “I’ll call you back at this number tomorrow morning to let you know what I’ve decided.”

I closed the phone before he could reply, tossed it into the dumpster, and headed back to the cab.

“Where to, my friend?” the cabbie asked once I’d climbed in.

“The Body Shop in Mission Valley.”

He turned to look at me, his face scrunched up in an exaggerated manner. “That’s like thirty miles away.”

“Whatever. Just take me there.”

“Are you sure? Cuz if it’s titties you want to see, there’s quite a few places closer than that. I know one right down the street, they—”

“Just shut up and drive,” I said, my tone more harsh than I’d intended. But the last thing I needed right now was a cabby giving me crap.

“All right man, chill out. It’s your dime.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

I had the cab driver drop me off a couple blocks away from The Body Shop, just to be safe. I gave him a generous tip to make up for snapping at him earlier and sent him away. He implored me to call him personally if I ever needed a cab again and then drove off.

It was just after 2AM when I walked up to the front entrance. The bouncer from the last time I was here was manning the door.

He was standing in the exact same position—arms crossed at his chest and a stupid little grin on his face—as though he hadn’t moved in the last week. He reminded me of a modern-day cigar store Indian.

Not surprisingly, his frisk was just as intrusive as it was my previous visit.

“Twenty dollar cover and two-drink minimum,” he said.   

I pulled a twenty from my pocket, handed it to him. “Is Misty here tonight?”

He glared at me. “Do I got a sign on my chest that says information?”

I stared back at him, projecting complete indifference. He held my eyes for a couple of seconds before becoming skittish and turning his gaze towards the street. Turns out he wasn’t as stupid as he looked. 

“I think she’s still here,” he said, his voice stripped of all his prior machismo. “Ask Mike, behind the bar next to the DJ. He’ll know for sure.”

I kept my gaze focused on the much bigger man for another beat, then turned and headed towards the bar without saying another word.

I walked through the mostly empty club without looking at either the girls onstage or the men watching them. Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns ‘n’ Roses was blaring on the sound system, and the music combined with the smell of spilled beer and old sweat exacerbated my surly mood even further. I arrived at the bar next to the DJ and sat down, unable to imagine being less aroused.

“What can I get ya, friend-o?” the bartender said, yelling to be heard over the din. He was older, pushing fifty, with longish, gray hair and scraggly beard.

“Are you Mike?” I said.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Because I need to know if Misty’s still here.”

“And who are you, exactly?” Mike said, his voice more amused than indignant.

“An old friend.”

Mike gave me a look that said he’d heard this song and dance a million times before. “Is she expecting you?”

“No.”

“Sorry, pal, but we don’t play that sort of game around here. If she’s not expecting you, I can’t—”

“Just go back there and tell her a friend of Dave Willis is here to see her, okay?”

His demeanor changed immediately. “You’re friends with Willis?”

“That’s right.”

“Hell, why didn’t you say so in the first place? Hold on. I’ll be right back.”

Misty came out a couple minutes later with Mike by her side. She had a bounce in her step and a large smile on her face that I was pretty certain was real, unlike her breasts. Her scant outfit of lacy bra and dental floss panties showed off her incredible body, which, combined with a cute, surprisingly soft face, should have placed her far out of Willis’s league. 

I chuckled to myself, once again marveling at Willis’s effect on women. I just didn’t get it.

“Well, here she is, in all her splendor,” Mike said, displaying her as though she was a prize on a game show.

Misty smiled and struck a pose, playing her role to the tilt.

I couldn’t help but laugh. I nodded my thanks to Mike but he didn’t move. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to him.

“My pleasure, sir,” he said before taking off.

“Do you remember me?” I asked her.

“Not really,” Misty said. “Mike told me you’re friends with Willis?”

“Yeah, I was in here with him a couple nights ago. We were drinking at the bar when you came up to him.”

She tilted her head slightly then her face lit up. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Are you looking to score with me or something? I don’t think Willis would be too keen on that.”

“Actually, I’m just looking to make you a deal,” I said. “You mind if we sit down?”

“As long as you’re buying.”

“Sure. What’ll you have?”

“Red wine,” she said.

“Any particular brand?”

“Nah, Mike knows what I like.”

I fetched the drink for her and brought it back to the table she’d chosen. It was in the corner of the room, away from the rest of the patrons. A perfect spot to talk.

“You feel like making five hundred bucks?” I said after she’d taken a sip of her wine.

“Depends on what I have to do for it,” she said without so much as a pause.

“Just spend the night with Willis at a hotel of your choosing. On me.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” I said. “You just need to call him and talk him into showing up once we get there. He can’t know I’m involved.”

“Why not?”

“Does it matter?”

“Hell yes,” she said. “If you’re looking to jump him or something, I don’t want any part of it.”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I promise. I just need him to help get me out of some trouble.”

She considered this for a moment, then said, “All right, why not? Hell, throw in a couple bottles of wine at the hotel, and I’ll do it for free.”

“Quit playing around,” I said.

“I’m not,” she said. “I’m totally serious. I’m a stripper, not a whore. Besides, there’s no need to pay me for getting a piece of Willis. I’ll take some of him however I can get it.”

I shook my head and laughed softly. Killing a drug lord and getting betrayed by the same people that had asked me to do it was one thing; it came with the territory. But a stripper turning down money? Now that was some crazy shit.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

An hour later, Misty was sitting on the couch with yet another glass of red wine in her hand and her breasts pushing the limits of her shirt. We were watching TV in a suite at the W Hotel near the Gaslamp Quarter, within view of Petco Park. I was sitting on a lounge chair in the corner of the room, away from the window, trying in vain to keep my eyes off her chest.

She had called Willis from the room shortly after we arrived, and she barely had a chance to describe the situation before he said he’d be right over. Luckily for me, he was so predictable about some things it was pathetic.

“So how do you know Willis?” Misty asked.

“We played baseball in college together,” I said.

“That’s cool.”

“What about you?”

“I met him at the club about six months ago,” she said. “It was my first day. As soon as he saw me, he walked right up and asked me if I wanted to fuck him after my shift. I said no, but he kept asking and eventually I gave in. To tell you the truth, it didn’t take much convincing, really. I just didn’t want to make it too easy for him.”

I laughed.

“What?” she said.

“I just don’t get it. I never have.”

“Get what?”

“How he scores with all the ladies,” I said. “I mean, look at you. You’re a good-looking girl, to put it mildly. I’m guessing you can have basically any guy you want, right?”

She shrugged. “Pretty much.”

“So why Willis?”

“It’s just something about him,” Misty said. She finished off her glass of wine and poured herself another one. “He’s cocky, but in a good way. There’s just something attractive about the idea that you’re going to do whatever he wants you to, simply because he tells you to. Like that first night. Plus he’s not an asshole, unlike most of the other guys that come in. Deep down, he’s a good guy, even though he tries to hide it most of the time.”

“I guess,” I said. But I didn’t really understand. Not at all. It must be a girl thing.

“It’s hard to explain the attraction,” Misty said. “But some guys have it and some guys don’t.” She took another drink of wine. “Actually, most guys don’t.”

She set her wine glass down and I realized she was looking at me differently than she had been earlier. More intently. Actually seeing me for the first time all night.

“What?” I said, weary of the attention.

She smiled. “You have it too, you know.”

“Yeah, right,” I said, laughing off my embarrassment.

“I’m serious,” Misty said. “It’s not as obvious as it is with Willis, but it’s definitely there.” She ran her finger along the rim of the wineglass. “In fact, I’ve got a couple of friends I could call if you want to turn this into a real party.”

Ignoring the rustle in my groin, I said, “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got other things to take care of tonight.”

She shrugged. “Your loss. But the offer’s always there. You know, in case you change your mind someday.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said, my discomfort growing exponentially with every passing second. I wasn’t sure where to steer the conversation next. Luckily I was saved by a knock on the door.

Still smiling, Misty stood up and crossed the room. “Who is it?” she called out in a crooning voice as she approached.

“Prince Charming,” Willis said from the other side of the closed door.

She laughed and turned the handle and swung the door open to reveal Willis standing in the doorway.

“Prince Charming my ass,” I said as he stepped in the room. “More like Prince Asshole.”

Willis scoffed and walked towards me. He was shaking his head slowly from side to side in mock consternation. “I should have known this was too good to be true.”

“What?” I said. “You aren’t happy to see me?”

“Considering what I thought I was coming here for, not really,” he said.

Misty was watching us with an amused look on her face. It was obvious she knew she was the third wheel in this situation. Irony at its most delicious.

“Well, I guess I’ll leave you guys to your little lovefest,” she said. Then, shifting her gaze to Willis, “When you’re done with your boyfriend, here, I’ll be in the bedroom. Getting myself warmed up.”

She turned and walked into the bedroom, swaying her hips even more than usual. Willis waited until she disappeared behind the closed door to turn his attention back to me.

“You mind if we make this quick?” he said. “I’ve got business to attend to.”

“Fuck you,” I said, smiling broadly.

He laughed. “Just kidding, man. So how’d your night go?”

“The first half went according to plan, but the second half, not so much.”

“What happened? Bad intelligence?”

I shook my head. “No. The intel was flawless. It allowed me to take care of Montoya without any problems. It was after I killed him that things went to hell.”

“How?”

“The group that set the whole thing up ambushed me, tried to take me out for good.”

“No shit? What did you do to piss them off?”

“I just wasn’t in their long-term plans, I guess.”

Willis laughed. “I assume you took care of them instead?”

“Hell yeah,” I said. “With extreme prejudice.”

“Stupid fucks,” Willis said. “They should have known better than to mess with you.”

“Damn right.”

“Did you happen to keep any of them alive long enough to get any information?”

“Unfortunately, no. I barely made it out myself.”

“So you don’t know why they wanted you dead?”

“No,” I said. “But it’s easy enough to figure out.”

“Oh yeah?” Willis said. “You think you got it wired?”

It was obvious from his tone that he did too. Probably had from the moment I told him what had happened. Hell, on some level, he probably knew what they were going to do from the moment I first explained the situation to him.

But I decided to humor him anyway so I nodded.

He held out his hands. “You’ve got the floor, Einstein. Enlighten me.”

“It’s pretty simple, really. I figure they wanted me dead so when the evidence pointed to a case of simple revenge, there would be nobody around to dispute it. That way, even if Homeland Security thought something wasn’t kosher, there wouldn’t be anything they could do about it. Of course, there would have been a couple of inconsistencies, but the evidence against me would have been overwhelming.”

“The best kind of conspiracy is one that leaves no witnesses,” Willis said.

“Plausible deniability taken to its inevitable extreme,” I added.

“Exactly,” Willis said. His lips were pursed and he was nodding his head. “Not bad my friend. Keep it up and people might start mistaking you for a thinker instead of just a grunt.”

“God forbid.”

Willis smiled. “So what’s the plan now?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “I figure I’ll set up a meeting with Agent Holland, tell him what I know. Let Homeland Security go after Danville.”

“You don’t want to take your own shot at him?”

“Honestly? I’m done with this revenge shit. And even if I wanted to go to war with Danville’s organization, I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t know a damn thing about him; where he came from, how to contact him, or even what his real name is. Hell, he might as well be a figment of my imagination for as little as I know about the guy.”

“True.”

“Besides, Holland offered me full immunity for any information I could give him on the people who helped me go after Montoya.”

“Wait a minute,” Willis said. “You’ve already talked to Holland?”

I nodded. “I called him before I hooked up with you.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I didn’t have to. He already had everything figured out. He even pegged me as having outside help, due to my quick turnaround time.”

“So he knew you killed Montoya and he still offered you full immunity?”

“That’s what he said.”

“Why would he do something like that?” Willis said.

“Because he wanted the guys who helped me more than he wanted me. Or so he said.”

“Did he tell you why?”

“Because Montoya was working for Homeland Security.”

“He told you that?”

I nodded.

“And you believed him?”

“I’m not sure what I believe at this point,” I said. “But I’m willing to keep an open mind on the matter. Why? Do you think he was lying to me?”

“I certainly wouldn’t put it past him,” Willis said.

“But why? For what purpose?”

Willis shrugged. “Could be any number of reasons. Maybe he’s playing you, just telling you whatever it takes to get you to come in so he can arrest you for Montoya’s murder, or conspiracy to commit murder, I’m no lawyer. Or maybe he’s got some other thing going. The point is, we have no idea what he’s up to.”

“I guess it’s a possibility,” I said. “But it’s a risk I’m just going to have to take. I simply don’t have any other options at this point.”

“You could just let it go.”

“I could, but I don’t really like the idea of keeping my eye out for Homeland Security for the rest of my life. I just want to be free and clear of this thing, especially now that—”

I stopped once I realized Willis wasn’t even listening. He was staring over my shoulder, his eyes vacant. I recognized the look. I’d seen it quite a few times before. He was working something out in his head. And then he laughed under his breath. “Oh man.”

“What?” I said.

“Just something that crossed my mind,” Willis said. “It’s a long shot, but I think we have to consider it.”

He turned towards me. His eyes were again fully focused and he had a tiny grin on his face. I realized he was enjoying himself. Immensely. He lived for this type of stuff.

“Now, I don’t know if they have the stones for this,” he said. “But if they do . . . man, that would be impressive.”

“Jesus, spit it out already,” I said. “You’re killing me, man.”

“All right,” he said. “Get this. Have you considered the possibility that Holland isn’t really Homeland Security? That he’s part of Danville’s group? That he was part of the setup from the very beginning?”

My body went cold and my stomach sank into my testicles.

“From the look on your face, I’m going to guess no,” Willis said.

“No,” I managed to say. “I hadn’t.”

“Well, think about it now,” he said.

And so I did. Or I tried to, at least. But my mind was racing and the threads of the situation were ricocheting around my head and I couldn’t put any of them together.

“Walk me through it,” I said.

“Okay. Now think about your first meeting with Holland,” Willis said. “What made you think he was with Homeland Security?”

“He told me he was,” I said.

“And then he showed you a badge, right?”

I nodded.

“But do you even know what a DHS badge looks like?” Willis asked.

I shook my head. “I’d never even seen one before that day.”

“So you can’t even be sure it was a real badge.”

“Nope.”

“And then, when you two had your little heart-to-heart, he didn’t take you to a federal building or anyplace official, right?”

Again I shook my head, more vigorously this time. “We just talked in the car and then at the pier.”

“Plus, I was never able to get any confirmation on Holland being with Homeland Security, one way or the other, or any pending case with Montoya or Alvarez involved,” Willis said.

“And it would also go a long way toward explaining why Holland was so cordial with me.”

“Like this business about him giving you his personal cell number, just in case?”

“Exactly,” I said. “I remember thinking how strange that was at the time.”

“Yeah, me too,” Willis said. “To be honest, this Holland guy hasn’t really acted like an agent any step of the way. At least, not like any agents I know.”

I took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then exhaled. I thought about the implications of everything Willis had said. It still hadn’t come fully together for me, but it was quickly getting there. I was becoming convinced.

“So you think that first meeting was all bullshit, just part of the setup?” I said.

Willis shrugged. “I don’t know anything, but it’s certainly a distinct possibility.”

“But again, why?” I said. “What purpose would it serve?”

“It would help butter you up for Danville’s proposal,” Willis said. “Make the whole thing seem more legitimate. From what you’ve told me about their methods so far, it’s not that farfetched, really.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Plus it could have been designed with a secondary purpose in mind,” Willis said. “It could serve as a contingency plan. If things went to hell, and they weren’t able to neutralize you after you took out Montoya—”

“They knew I’d have nowhere to go except straight to Holland,” I said. It was all starting to crystallize now.

“Plus it would help explain why Holland seemed so willing to give you immunity,” Willis said.

“And why he would know that Montoya was dead almost immediately,” I added. “Because it was all bullshit, just designed to get me out into the open so they can take another shot at me.”

“Exactly,” Willis said.

“Jesus. It’s not proof, by any means—”

“But it’s pretty damn suspicious.”

“I’ll say.” 

I started to pace around the room. I ran through everything a couple more times and couldn’t find any flaws in the logic.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“They certainly tried to.”

“And I almost walked right into it,” I said.

“Good thing you have me around to set you straight,” Willis said.

“Damn right,” I said. I took another deep breath, tried to get my thoughts in order.

“Of course, we can’t be certain of it either way,” Willis said. “This could just be another one of my crazy theories. For all we know, Holland really is with Homeland Security. And he really is willing to offer you immunity in exchange for information on who helped you out.”

“That’s true. Like you said at the beginning of this thing; we don’t know shit about what’s really going on.”

“We rarely do,” Willis said.

“But what do you think is going on?”

Willis shrugged. “Honestly? It could go either way. There’s really no way to be sure.”

“Unless we find out the hard way,” I said. “So then all that really matters is: Does any of this conjecture change my approach?”

“That’s the million dollar question.”

I thought about it for a minute and realized that in the end, it didn’t really matter what the truth was. I really only had one course of action.

“I don’t think it does,” I said. “I’m still going to have to meet with Holland. It’s pretty much the only play I have left.”

“I agree,” Willis said. “But it’s a pretty big risk to take.”

“What isn’t at this point?” I said. “If I want to continue on with this, I’m going to have to take some chances.”

 “And if this whole thing is just a ruse to get you to show your face in public so they can kill you on the spot?”

The corners of my mouth turned up of their own accord. “Then we’ll just have to make sure that they don’t succeed.”

 

#####

 

CHAPTER THIRTY

 

The next morning I found a payphone and gave Holland a call.

“I’m glad you called back,” he said after picking up the phone.

“What? You didn’t think I was going to?”

“Actually, I wasn’t sure either way. I thought you might just blow me off, decide to light out for the territories.”

“And have Homeland Security looking for me for the rest of my life?” I said. “No thanks. That’s what I’m trying to avoid here.”

“A wise decision,” Holland said. “So, did you consider my offer?”

“I did. And I’m willing to cooperate if immunity is still on the table.”

“It absolutely is,” Holland said. “Where do you want to meet.”

“Horton Plaza,” I said. “Just outside the main entrance to the mall, next to the fountain.”

“When?”

“As soon as you can get here.”

“You’re there now?”

“Come on,” I said. “Don’t give me that crap. You know where I am.”

“I told you last night that I wasn’t going to track your calls. I wasn’t then and I’m not now.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Just come over here. And I know you won’t come alone, but leave the rest of your guys on the street. They can keep an eye on the proceedings but I don’t want them getting too close.”

“What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

Holland laughed under his breath. “I guess you just did.”

Thirty minutes later, I was watching the fountain from the second floor of the multi-tiered, outdoor mall when I saw Holland walk up and sit down on the short wall surrounding the water. He appeared to be alone, but I knew he had to have support somewhere; a couple of his accomplices were no doubt mingling in the area, disguised as businessmen or other shoppers. But that was to be expected, and I had already planned for it.

Before arriving, I’d bought two pay-by-the-minute cell phones from a liquor store over on K St. I pulled one out of my pocket and dialed the number of its twin.

The other line rang and was quickly answered.

A young man’s voice said, “Is he here?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s sitting at the fountain, wearing a dark blue business suit and facing you. He’s got short black hair and a cop mustache.”

“I see him,” said the voice. “I’m heading towards him now.”

I watched from above as one of the valets from the mall’s parking service walked across the lawn and held the phone out towards Holland. The line was still open, allowing me to listen as the situation unfolded.

“What the hell is this?” Holland said.

“Some dude paid me 50 bucks to give this to you,” the valet said, still holding out the phone.

Holland gave a quick glance at the surrounding area then took the phone from the valet’s hand. After dismissing the young man, Holland brought the phone to his face and said, “Is this you, Keeley?”

“Yes, Agent Holland. It’s me.”

“What is this crap? I thought you were going to meet me out here.”

I turned and started heading towards the center of the mall. “I’m just making sure I get you to myself. I don’t want to get blindsided by one of your friends in the middle of our conversation.”

“There’s no other agent within 200 yards of my position,” Holland said.

“Well, just to be sure, I’m going to ask you to take a little walk before we meet.”

“I’m not going anywhere. You said we were going to meet at Horton Plaza and—”

“No need to get testy,” I said. “It’s not a long walk. I’m in the mall. Sitting at a table in the food court on the fourth level. Waiting for you.”

Holland paused for a moment, then said, “All right. I’ll be right up.”

“And keep the phone to your ear as you go,” I said. “I’m going to give you specific directions on how to get here. Follow them exactly and I’ll still be here when you arrive.”

Holland took a deep breath and seemed on the verge of getting angry, but simply said, “Okay,” then turned and started towards the mall.

Speaking into the phone, I said, “There is a bank of escalators in front of you, on the right. Take them to the fourth floor.”

I watched as Holland rode the escalator to the second floor. He got off, walked to the next bank of escalators, and climbed on.

I stepped on right behind him, one stair down, and said, “Hello, Agent Holland.”

Startled, Holland started to turn towards me.

“Just keep facing forward,” I said.

I was less than a foot away from him, wearing a baggy sweatsuit, a wide-brimmed floppy hat and a pair of sunglasses. My hands were tucked away in the front pocket of the sweatshirt, out of sight.

“You can hang up the phone now,” I said, a little grin tugging at the corner of my lips.

Holland closed the phone. “What’s with all these bullshit games, Keeley? I didn’t peg you for this kind of crap.”

“I already told you,” I said. “My trust level is at an all time low right now, so I’m being ultra cautious.”

Holland considered this for a moment, then said, “So where are we going to talk?”

“The next floor. Get off the escalator, turn right, walk five steps, go to the rail on your left, and stop.”

He nodded. We came to the third floor and he did exactly what I had told him to do.

“I assume you’re armed,” I said, speaking loud enough for Holland to hear me over the din of the shopping crowd but not loud enough to be overheard. “But I am too, so don’t try anything cute.”

“I won’t if you don’t.”

“Fair enough.”

Holland dropped his arms to his side.

“Hands on the railing, please,” I said.

Holland glared at me but put his hands on the railing. “What about your hands?”

“They aren’t going anywhere,” I said. “You may have plenty of friends around, but I’m alone out here.”

“I sincerely doubt that.”

“Doubt it all you want,” I said. “But my hands stay right where they are.”

“All right,” Holland said. “But don’t make any sudden moves. I don’t want this thing to get messy.”

“Neither do I.”

Holland looked out over the mall. “So are you ready to get down to business?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Where do you want to start?”

“What’s the deal with Montoya?” I said, wasting no time getting to the heart of the matter. I didn’t want to be exposed any longer than necessary. “How and when did you turn him?”

“Right after we shut down the CDT,” Holland said. “His brother-in-law, Alvarez, brokered the deal.”

“What was he doing for you guys?” I asked. “Giving you information on the other cartels?”

“More than that,” Holland said. “He was using his connections to get us hard evidence on the members of the Mexican government who are on the cartel’s payroll. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a volatile situation down there. The cartels are getting more and more brazen every day. They’re pushing 3000 murders already and it’s only July. Plus things are starting to spill over the border more and more frequently. We’re trying to clean things up before it starts getting too out of hand.”

“So that’s how he was able to beat extradition,” I said. “By hooking up with you guys.”

“That’s right. We picked him up, worked out a deal, then cut him loose. We’re using him as bait to go after the major players in this war.”

“I thought he was a major player?”

“He is, on the operational side,” Holland said. “But just like everything else, it’s the men behind the scenes that are the real forces at play here. The politicians, the elected officials that pave the way for the psychopaths to do their thing. If we can’t get rid of the whole rotten infrastructure we may not be able to keep Mexico from becoming a failed state. And then the shit will really hit the fan. That’s what made Montoya so important. He was our first real link to the big boys.”

“And now he’s dead,” I said.

“And all our work is wasted.”

I took a deep breath. Holland certainly was persuasive. If he was simply playing a part, he was turning in an award-worthy performance. But I still wasn’t completely convinced, so I pressed him for more information, probing for cracks in his story, trying to read his reactions.

“So if Montoya was working for you, I’m guessing he wasn’t really negotiating with an Al-Qaeda splinter cell to help them smuggle a WMD into the country?” I said.

Holland’s eyes widened. “Is that what you were told?”

I nodded. “They said they had NSA transcripts of the conversations and everything,” I said. “They sold it well, told me that’s why my wife was killed, to protect the integrity of one of his cross-border tunnels. They said Montoya was trying to bring the CDT back from the dead by taking the biggest money deal he could find. And I bought it; hook, line and sinker, like a fucking blowfish.”

Holland sighed. “Don’t beat yourself up too bad about it,” he said. “Obviously whomever set you up knew what they were doing. My guess is they’ve had lots of practice. All we can do now is try and figure out who they are, and why they wanted Montoya dead. What did they tell you about themselves?”

“That they were an ultra-covert organization created after 9/11 to go after guys like Montoya.”

“And you believed that crap?”

I shrugged sheepishly.

Holland shook his head. “Now that you should feel bad about. You know better than to buy into that shit. Groups like that are an illusion; television creations, no more real than CSI supercops or investigators with ESP.”

“Yeah, I know. Although to be perfectly honest, deep down I had a feeling it was all bullshit, but I didn’t really care who they were, as long as they were going to help me get the person responsible for Gina’s death. I was blinded by rage at the time.”

“But not anymore?” Holland said.

“No,” I said. “Now I pretty much just feel sick to my stomach for allowing myself to get played like that. But I’m over the whole revenge thing, that’s for sure. It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“I tried to warn you about that.”

“You sure did. And I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”

“Don’t fret it,” Holland said. “I knew from that first meeting that you were someone that needed to learn things the hard way. I only wish I’d done more to keep you from doing what you did.”

“I do too,” I said. I took a deep breath, exhaled audibly. “So who do you think these guys really are?”

Holland shrugged. “It impossible to know for sure at this point, but the way you described their methods my guess is they’re some old CIA operators, either working as straight-up mercenaries or maybe for a rival cartel. But the important question isn’t who are they, it’s who were they working for. And how did their employers find out we’d flipped Montoya? That’s what we really need to find out. And we will, especially if you’re still willing to help.”

“More than ever,” I said.

“That’s what I like to hear. What kind of information do you have on them?”

“Locations of our meetings, physical descriptions of at least three people, names they used, those sort of things.”

“Anything tangible?” Holland said. “Pictures? Recordings? Anything?”

“No, they were too careful for anything like that,” I said. “But there are a couple of bodies down in Mexico that you can probably still get your hands on, plus I’ve got a cell phone that one of them used.”

“We might be able to get something useful off the cell. Do you have the phone on you?”

“No. I left it in a safe place. But I can get it for you.”

“And I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me where I could find these bodies?”

“Right now? No. But set up a meeting at the federal building and show me the paperwork proving that you won’t charge me in Montoya’s death, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Holland flashed me a bemused look. “You still don’t trust me, huh?”

“Not completely,” I said. “But I’m slowly getting there.”

“What do you think I’m going to do? Use the information you gave me and then turn around and charge you with Montoya’s murder anyway?”

“Actually, I was thinking you might be part of Danville’s group, trying to figure out exactly how much information I have before you decide whether or not to just knock me off.”

Holland chuckled, shook his head. “You really are one paranoid son of a bitch.”

“After the last couple of days? You’re damn right I am.”

“I can understand why,” Holland said. “But personally, I think you’re giving these guys too much credit. Sure, they got you good once, but that’s because they had time to plan the whole thing out. Now that you got them on their heels, my guess is they’ll panic and go into hiding. In fact—”

I nodded but I wasn’t really listening. I was conditioning myself to the idea that I wouldn’t be going after Danville personally, that I’d handed over responsibility to someone else. It bothered me a little, but for the most part I was just glad to be through with the whole mess.

There was something else bothering me too, a little nugget of information I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was something that arose out of the fact Montoya actually was working for the feds, a detail that went to the heart of the whole situation. I started thinking about how the whole thing had begun, how I’d gotten involved in this mess in the first place, back to Gina’s murder—

I was so lost in my own head that I almost didn’t see the suspicious-looking man in the cheap suit until he was halfway up the escalator. His right hand was under his left armpit, grabbing something beneath his unbuttoned sport coat. He was staring directly at me. 

A sickening feeling gathered in my bowels. I cast my eyes up, towards the escalator on the other side, and saw another, similarly dressed man coming down. His hand was in a similar spot, just a little lower on his hip, no doubt preparing to pull his own weapon from his holster. He too was staring at me.

Shit. This whole thing was a setup after all. The only question left was; who was behind it? Homeland Security or Danville’s group, whoever the fuck they really were.

Only one way to find out.

I reached out and grabbed Holland around the neck, spun him around, and pulled him close. I pulled the Glock from the pouch of the sweatshirt and jammed it into the small of his back and together we started moving backwards, away from the escalators. 

“What the hell is going on?” Holland said, panic clear in his voice.

“I fucking knew it,” I said.

“You knew what?”

“That you’re one of them,” I said.

“One of who? What are you talking about?”

“Shut up,” I said. “Just shut the fuck up.”

The first man was now three-quarters of the way to the third floor. His right hand appeared to be gripping the butt of his weapon but it wasn’t yet visible. The second man was just now climbing off the escalator but hadn’t started moving towards us. Like his partner, he also appeared to be holding a weapon beneath his coat.

“Tell them to back off,” I said calmly. “Do it now.”

“Tell who to back off?” Holland said, his voice rising in intensity with every word. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”

Both men were now on our level and walking towards us. Their weapons were still not visible, and so far, none of the mall customers had any idea what was going on.

I thought about shooting both men right there, but I still didn’t know if they were federal agents or part of Danville’s group. For now, I figured keeping my gun trained on Holland gave me the best chance of getting out of here alive.

I raised the Glock, stuck it against the back of Holland’s head and continued backing away. Speaking more urgently now, I said, “Last chance, Holland. Tell them to back the fuck off, right now, or I put one in your head.”

By now, Holland had shifted into full-tilt panic mode. “I’M TELLING YOU, I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!”

The gunmen simultaneously pulled Uzi’s from their coats, making it blatantly obvious they weren’t with Homeland Security. Now the only questions were whether or not Holland was with them, and if not, whether they’d shoot through Holland to get to me.

The answer came almost immediately.

Holland was still yelling something but his voice was drowned out by the explosion of gunfire. His body shook violently. The force of the bullets striking his flesh shoved me backwards, but I maintained my grip, holding Holland tight, using his body as a human shield.

I stumbled, nearly fell, then caught my balance and turned my gun towards the man on the right. I fired three times in rapid succession, hitting the man once in the chest and once in the throat.

He took two steps backward and fell to the ground, his finger still on the trigger as he dropped. Bullets whizzed everywhere.

The mall exploded into chaos—people screaming, running into stores, vacating the immediate area—but I kept my eyes trained on the other man.

He was walking towards us, still firing, the bullets striking Holland’s now flaccid body, knocking me further off balance, not allowing me to fire back with any accuracy. I started to lose my grip on Holland and stumbled backwards, trying desperately to hold onto the agent until the gunman’s clip ran dry.

Three agonizing seconds later, it did.

He released the empty clip but before he had a chance to reload, I’d lifted my gun, taken aim, and fired.

The bullet entered his forehead and exploded out the back. He dropped to the ground.

More gunfire erupted behind me.

I dropped to the floor and turned and rolled into firing position, using Holland as a combination shield and shooting platform. I had just started scanning the area for the other shooter when the unmistakable CRACK! of a high-powered rifle reverberated throughout the open-air mall.

Seventy-five feet away, a man wearing a bright blue nylon running suit fell like a ragdoll, his spine blown out by a .308 caliber bullet traveling at the speed of sound. His Uzi skittered away on the heavily-polished marble floor.

My chest shuddered as the breath rushed from my lungs. In the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten all about Willis having taken a position on the mall’s roof, just in case everything went to hell. Thank God we’d planned ahead.

I took a deep breath, stood up and scanned the area.

To my left, three men dressed in various outfits were rushing towards me. On my right were two more. All the men were armed with handguns. The closest man was still a good 200 feet away but I could clearly hear all their shouts.

“STAND STILL!”

“DON’T MOVE!”

“PUT YOUR HANDS UP!”

Words before gunfire. Now these guys were definitely Homeland Security.

I quickly assessed the situation. I’d chosen this spot for the talk with Holland for a specific reason; the only question now was whether or not I took the opportunity to escape.

For a moment, I considered just letting Homeland Security take me in, but with Holland dead, it was impossible to know where I stood with them. I had no idea how much he’d told his superiors, or if he’d even talked to anyone at all about what he knew. For all I knew, this whole thing—Montoya’s death and this mall debacle—could end up squarely on my shoulders.

Besides, I’d already tried it their way, the legal way, and it had almost gotten me killed. It was time to finish this the way I’d started it. My way. Hooyah.

I spun on my heel, ran towards the four-foot high railing, put my hand on top of it, and launched myself over the edge.

I landed on one of the second level walkways that criss-crossed the mall. My right knee buckled upon impact, spilling me to the ground. I gingerly climbed to my feet, testing my knee. A bolt of sharp pain shot through it, but there didn’t seem to be any significant damage. Which was important, considering how I was planning on getting away from the scene.

The shouts above me grew ever more insistent. I sucked up the pain and turned and ran for the double doors between storefronts, limping slightly, my shoulders tense in anticipation of gunfire.

None came.

I slammed through the doors. They opened into a narrow hallway with payphones and drinking fountains set on opposite sides. At the end of the hall on the right were the bathrooms. I took the door to the left, the one marked MALL EMPLOYEES ONLY.

Through this door was a stairwell. I descended the stairs, my footsteps echoing like gunshots in the narrow space.

Once at the bottom, I came to another door. Keeping it closed for the time being, I quickly stripped out of my sunglasses, hat, sweatshirt and sweatpants and stuffed them under the metal stairs.

Then I opened the door, walked outside, and crossed the street, my collared shirt and khaki pants blending in perfectly with the rest of the working class stiffs on the prowl for lunch at noon on a weekday in the city.

Seconds after I inserted myself into the crowd, a black SUV came skidding around the corner and slammed to a stop. Three heavily armed men wearing black DHS windbreakers jumped out and busted through the door.

I took a deep breath and walked steadily away from the scene, forcing myself not to limp. Wary of the fate of Lot’s wife, I resisted the urge to look back.

 

#####

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

 

The trek out of the city was a relative smooth one. Twice I was forced to duck into buildings to avoid walking directly past some of San Diego’s Finest—making my route far more circuitous than I had planned—but for the most part, I hit no serious snags.

And so, almost thirty minutes after leaving the mall, I came to a see-through plastic door that led to a private dock just south of the Seaport Village. I punched a four-digit code into the electronic keypad attached to the handle of the door and there was a click and I opened the door and walked out onto the dock.

Tied off to the fifth slip was a 40-foot fishing boat named WILMA. I climbed aboard and walked into the cabin.

Willis was sitting on the couch, drinking a beer. A disassembled sniper rifle was sitting in an open case on the coffee table.

“What took you so long?” Willis said. “I was starting to get worried.”

“I waited around for a bit to make sure you didn’t need help getting out.”

Willis laughed. “Funny, last time I checked, I was the one saving your ass.”

“And a hell of a shot it was,” I said.

“No worries. I only wish I could have helped out more. But I didn’t have an angle on the first two guys.”

“You helped out plenty.”

He shrugged. “So it appears that Holland was a Homeland Security Agent after all.”

“It sure looks like it.”

“Which means that the guys who tried to kill you were linked to Danville.”

“Seems like a reasonable guess.”

“I guess Danville wasn’t too keen on you ratting him out to the feds.”

“Apparently not,” I said.

“But taking out an agent with Homeland Security?” Willis said. “Danville must have some serious chops if he thinks he can get away with something like that.”

“Oh, I’m sure they set it up so that it’ll be spun into a nice, tight solution. Just like Montoya’s murder. Setting me up by killing my wife knowing I’d go and do their dirty work and then killing me to close the loop.”

Willis set his beer down. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, you think they were behind Gina’s death too?”

“They had to be,” I said. “After you accept the fact that Montoya was in bed with Homeland Security, Danville’s whole story about Gina’s murder breaks down. If Montoya was working for the feds, he wasn’t negotiating with terrorists to bring a WMD into the country via his tunnels, therefore he had no reason to kill Gina.”

“Shit. I hadn’t thought about that. So this whole thing was a setup? Starting with Gina’s death?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Willis thought about it for a moment, then laughed under his breath. “You’re right. It all fits perfectly. These guys are even better than I thought. We’re talking some serious planning here. Old-school CIA-type stuff.”

“That’s what Holland said too. He seemed to think they were mercs, working for hire for someone that wanted Montoya dead.”

“Makes sense. But who were they working for? And why did they want Montoya dead?”

“Your guess is as good as mine at this point,” I said. “Holland told me only a few, hand-selected people knew about the operation. I figure one of them was in danger of being ratted out once Montoya started taking Homeland Security up the food chain.”

“Could be,” Willis said. “Half the DEA guys I know swear that the top-level CIA guys have been in bed with drug cartels since before Vietnam. I never really bought into it, but there’s certainly smoke there.”

“And you know what they say: Where there’s smoke—”

“There’s usually a cigarette,” Willis said. “Or something to that effect.” He picked up his beer, finished the rest of it in one long pull, set the empty bottle back on the table. He laughed and shook his head. “Fuck me.”

“Exactly,” I said. “But you know what? At this point, I don’t give a fuck who was behind it. Obviously someone out there knew Montoya was working for the feds and wanted him dead. End of story. Right now, the only thing I’m concerned about is getting my life back.”

“And how do you plan on doing that?”

“I’m going to have a little talk with Danville, see if we can’t hammer something out.”

“Wait a minute,” Willis said. “Did I miss something? This is the same guy you were just complaining about, right? Moaning about how little you knew about him, about how he might as well be a ghost.”

“That’s right.”

“Has something changed?”

I shook my head. “I still don’t know shit about the guy.”

“Then how are you planning on getting in touch with him?”

“I figured after what happened at the mall today, he’ll want to get ahold of me as soon as possible, if only to keep me from going to someone else with what I know.”

“That’s all well and good, but how is he going to get in contact with you? ESP?”

I pulled Chris’s cell phone from one pocket and the battery for it from the other. I opened up the back of the phone, stuck the battery in, and showed it to Willis as though it was a prize on a game show.

“Oh, I get it,” Willis said. “A magic phone. Why didn’t you say so? Let me guess, you think of a person’s name and the phone automatically dials the right number?”

“Not quite,” I said, stifling a smile. “I got it from the girl that tried to kill me down in Mexico. I was planning on giving it to Holland as evidence, but now I’m going to use it to attract Danville’s attention.”

“You’re pretty clever for a grunt,” Willis said. “You think your little plan will actually work?”

The phone started to ring. I smiled and gave Willis a wink.

“Well I guess that answers my question,” he said.

I flipped the cell open and brought it to my ear. “Are you ready to end this thing?”

“I guess that depends on what you had in mind for the final act,” Danville said.

“Meet me face-to-face and find out.”

“So you can kill me?” Danville said. “I think I’ll pass. Thanks though.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” I said. “I’m going to make you a proposition.”

 “You? Cut a deal? After all that’s gone down? For some crazy reason I just don’t buy it.”

“Fine. Then I’ll just hang up. But the first call I make after that will be to the Department of Homeland Security to set up another meeting with them, but this time, I’ll tell them straight off where I hid the bodies of your operatives down in Mexico. You know, the nice-looking cunt and her partner that tried to kill me after I finished off Montoya. And I’ll make sure they get this phone in their hands too. Then I’ll call every news outlet I can get ahold of, spill my story to them. And then the television stations. And radio. And bloggers. And newspapers. I won’t discriminate; I’ll talk to whomever will listen.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Danville? You there?”

“I’m here.”

“Just making sure,” I said. “So what do you say? Do you think you want to take the chance that whomever you’re working for will start to see that you’re just as much of a liability as I am? You being the only one I can actually identify and all.”

More silence.

“I didn’t think so,” I said. “So here’s what going to happen. I’m going to be at the statue plaza at Cabrillo National Monument. At sundown, you’re going to drive up and park and get out and meet with me face-to-face and we’re going to have ourselves a little meeting.”

“Why wait so long?” Danville said. “Don’t you want to get this over with?”

“Sunset is peak time at Cabrillo,” I said. “It’ll be full of couples watching the sunset. And I want as many spectators as possible. Although you’ve already proven that big crowds won’t stop you from doing what needs to be done.”

“Nor will they stop you,” Danville said. “But are you sure you don’t just need time to set up? To have your friend in a good spot to shoot from?”

“That’s part of the reason too,” I said. “I know you’ll have some people there, so I need a little protection. But hopefully he won’t have to take a shot. Because if he does, then that means we’re both dead men. And there’s no angle in that. So what do you say, Danville? Shall we finish this thing?”

“Sure,” he said. “Why the hell not.”

“That’s the spirit. I’ll see you at sundown.”

I walked out of the cabin, flipped the phone shut, and flung it into the ocean. Willis was shaking his head when I walked back in.

“Not your brightest idea ever,” he said.

“What?” I said. “Tossing the phone?”

“No, dumbass, setting up the meeting at Cabrillo. It’s a dead end. One way in and one way out. Not to mention a heavy military presence all throughout the area.”

I smiled, chuckled under my breath. “I know what you meant. And you’re right, Cabrillo is a dead end. Everyone knows that. Including Danville. Which should keep him from doing something stupid.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then at least I’ll go out looking at one hell of a view.”

#####

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

 

I stood at the edge of the Cabrillo statue plaza in the orange light of the fading sun, taking in the incredible panoramic view of San Diego laid out before me, my eyes tracking from the skyscrapers to thousands of boats in the harbor to the Coronado bridge , the beach of Silver Strand, and finally to the vast Pacific Ocean stretching eternally, wondering if this was to be my last day on earth.

If so, I was fine with it. With Gina gone, there wasn’t much to live for anyway, especially once I took care of this final piece of business with Danville.

Not like I was itching to die, but some things simply couldn’t be avoided. If it was my time, it was my time. Or, as some of my fellow SEALS were fond of saying: Let the cosmos decide.

I heard a car pull into the gravel lot behind me. I turned and saw Danville climb out of the back seat of a large SUV. He saw me and nodded, but waited by the car as it emptied. Three of his goons joined him and together they walked out towards me. I had no doubt there were more in the area. Which was fine by me. The safer Danville felt, the better.

I met him at the statue. His goons had spread about the area. All were watching us intently, not even pretending to mix in with the fifteen or so locals who had chosen this evening to visit the Memorial.

“Only three men?” I said. “I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed.”

Danville gave me a look that said he knew exactly what I was trying to do. “You know I’ve got more around, so why pretend?”

I laughed softly, trying to look relaxed. It wasn’t easy, considering I didn’t trust Danville in the least. This could go any number of ways, and only a couple of them were good. But the fact that Danville had actually showed up was a good first step.

“You do understand our situation, right? Any move made towards me, and my friend blows out your spine, just like he did to your man back at the mall.”

“Mutually assured destruction,” Danville said. “Yeah, I’m familiar with it.”

“I’m sure you are,” I said. “And you also should know that it won’t do you any good to kill me. I’ve already made plans to get my information out if I don’t make contact with a specific person in two hours.”

“Oh, I have no doubt you’ve made arrangements,” Danville said. “Just as you know we have our own. But I assure you that no harm will come to you, unless, of course, you bring it on yourself.”

“Well, considering the assurances you’ve given me up to this point, don’t expect me to buy anything that you’re selling me. You’ve been spouting lies like you were a politician.”

I was just trying to get a reaction out of Danville, but he didn’t take the bait. He seemed completely relaxed. Which was good. Or so I hoped.

 “What’s done is done, Keeley. Obviously you believe we can still negotiate in good faith, otherwise you wouldn’t have set up this meeting. So let’s dispense with the verbal calisthenics and get to the heart of the matter.”

“Fair enough.” I turned, giving him my back, just to see if someone would make a move. Nobody did. Confident now that there was at least a chance this meeting would go as planned, I walked over to the two-foot-high wall that separated the plaza from the hillside and sat down. Danville joined me, leaving the rest of his men behind.

“You said on the phone you had a proposition for us,” he said.

“I do. And it’s a relatively simple one, as far as these things go.”

“By all means, let’s hear it.”

“All you have to do is live up to your original bargain,” I said. “You leave me alone, let me get on with my life, and I’ll do the same. I’ll keep my mouth shut about the circumstances surrounding Montoya’s death, I’ll keep the location of the bodies of your people to myself, hell, I’ll disappear completely if that’s what it takes.”

Danville seemed to consider this for a few seconds, then said, “And suppose we agree to this arrangement. Why should we trust you to keep your mouth shut?”

“Because it’s in my best interests to do so,” I said. “If I talk, you’ll come after me with everything you got. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid.”

“Aren’t you worried about the feds?” Danville said. “They’re going to be coming after you pretty hard after what went down at Horton Plaza earlier today.”

I dismissed him with a wave of my hand. “I can deal with scrutiny from the feds, no problem. They have laws they have to obey, which makes them nothing more than a nuisance. You guys, on the other hand, well, you can do whatever you want. That concerns me.”

“If you weren’t concerned with the feds, then why set up the meeting with Holland in the first place?” Danville said.

“Because at the time, I thought it was my only play. If I believed I could have contacted you directly without putting my life in danger, I would have.”

“I don’t know, Keeley. After all that’s happened, I find it pretty difficult to believe you’re just going to let your wife’s murder go unpunished. After all, that’s why we pegged you for this operation in the first place, precisely because we knew you couldn’t let something like that go.”

Afraid my face would betray my true feelings, I stood up, turned away from Danville and cast my gaze once again over the vast ocean below. The sun had nearly disappeared, leaving in its wake a burnt orange glare that reflected off the surface of the water, blurring the horizon line.

“I’m not going to lie,” I said. “Once I figured out you were behind Gina’s death, I wanted blood. I was prepared to die in order to get revenge. But the more I thought about it, I began to realize that killing you wouldn’t solve a damn thing.”

I turned and stared at Danville.

“You see, I learned something after I killed Montoya. I learned that revenge isn’t worth shit. I stood over his dead body and expected to feel something—joy, relief, satisfaction, justification—anything, really. But there was nothing at all. I was empty.”

Danville continued to watch me, revealing nothing. I pressed on.

“And then last night, as I was trying to figure out how to get back at you, it came to me,” I said. “I realized that no matter what I did, Gina wasn’t coming back. Everything I’d done since she died was just an exercise in futility, a misguided attempt to regain something that was lost forever. And no matter what happens from now on, no matter how many people I kill, she’s never coming back. So what’s the point? I just want to get on with my life. And you can make that happen.”

Danville studied me for another few seconds, then said, “I must admit, you make quite a compelling argument. But I don’t know. It’s a pretty big risk to take, leaving you alive at this point.”

“It may be,” I said. “But it’s a risk you’re going to have to take. Unless, of course, you’d rather I just put a bullet in your head right now.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “You wouldn’t dare do that.”

“Oh?” I said. “And why not?”

“Because you wouldn’t make it two steps before my men cut you down.”

I shrugged. “Maybe I would and maybe I wouldn’t. Either way it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to you.”

My voice was calm, measured. It wasn’t a threat. It was the truth. I knew this. But I needed Danville to know it too. Beyond the shadow of a doubt. So I held his gaze, my face slack, my eyes dead, radiating my determination.

After a full five seconds of staring each other down, he gave me a little nod. He understood.

I smiled, breaking the tension. “But there’s no reason  to go down that path,” I said. “So tell me what I want to hear and we’ll both walk out of here fully intact. But make your decision. Because I’m real sick of this bullshit. One way or another, this thing is going to get resolved. Right here. Right now.”

Danville took a deep breath, exhaled audibly. Then he nodded and said, “All right.”

“All right, what?”

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” he said. “You can have your life back.”

I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until it came out in a rush. “Just like that?”

“Sure,” Danville said. “Why, were you expecting it to get drawn out? To be more cinematic? Going down in a blaze of glory, something like that?”

I shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t really know what I expected. But I know it wasn’t that.”

“It’s the right business decision, nothing else,” Danville said. “That’s what guys like you never understand. You always want to make everything so personal. It’s never personal. Just business.”

My anger flared but I shoved it back down. I knew he was trying to piss me off, trying to draw out my real feelings, trying to figure out if what I’d said about being over Gina’s murder was the truth. I knew because I had tried to do the same thing to him. He had convinced me he was on the level, and now I had to convince him I was too.

I forced myself to smile. “Hey man, I get it. We all have jobs to do.”

Danville nodded. “Yes we do. Now, if there’s nothing else, I have other matters to attend to.”

“Actually, there is one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“A question, actually.”

He sighed. “Listen, this isn’t some James Bond movie. If you expect me to spell out every tiny little detail, you’re sadly mistaken. I’m sure you and your private eye friend can figure out the hows and whens of the last couple of weeks. Once you understand the basic framework—which you obviously do—it’s all relatively simple.”

“Actually, at this point, I don’t give a fuck about the mechanics of the operation. I’m more interested in the why.”

“Let me guess,” Danville said. “You wanted to know why we chose you.”

I nodded.

“I can tell you if you want, but you need to ask yourself this: Why do you want to know? If you think it’s going to make you feel better, then I’d suggest you unask the question. Because it won’t. Not in the least.”

“Just tell me,” I said.

He shrugged. “You were the best man for the job, plain and simple. Your background, your private eye friend, your wife’s occupation, it all fit perfectly into what we needed done. We built the specific situation around you and set you on your course, knowing exactly where you would end up.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“So if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else just like me.”

Danville nodded.

“That’s pretty much what I figured.”

“I told you it wouldn’t make you feel any better,” Danville said.

“You were right,” I said.

And he was. It didn’t help. Not one bit. But I knew something that would. All in good time, I told myself. All in good time.

“So is that everything?” Danville said.

“That’s it.”

“Then I wish you a fond farewell,” he said. But do me a favor and make sure that you live up to your end of the bargain. Because despite what you may think, we can hurt you a hell of a lot more than you can hurt us.”

“I’m sure you can,” I said.

“And although you probably don’t believe me, I actually admire what you’ve done over the past week.”

I wasn’t sure how to reply to this so I just gave him a little smile and a quick nod that was meant to portray my appreciation at the comment even though appreciation was the furthest thing from my mind right now.

Danville seemed to buy it though, as he turned and headed back towards his car without another word. I watched him climb in and drive off before starting down the crooked path that lead to shore four hundred yards below, where Willis’s boat was tied off.

 

#####

 

BUD/S TRAINING: GRADUATION

 

You sit in a plastic folding chair, next to your fellow classmates, trying to keep the excitement level to a bare minimum. The Commanding Officer is up at the podium, telling the gathered friends and family how difficult the task was we had accomplished, about how we were now more than men, about how this was just the end of the beginning, how being a Navy SEAL was a way of life; the same things you had heard hundreds of times during the past 27 weeks. But now, somehow, they hit home with far more force.

Then the CO calls your name and you go up and accept your trident that specifies you as a BUD/S graduate. You shake the hand of every single instructor, their smiles wider than yours, and then you sit back down.

It is a small, relaxed ceremony, almost no pomp and circumstance, which is just how you like it. The last 27 weeks has burned many things out of you, one of which being the desire to draw attention to yourself. You just want to get the ceremony over so you can get to the next training phase.

Twenty-seven weeks of the most brutal, painful, singular experience of your life is over. BUD/S is complete. What has come before—while easily the most difficult thing you’ve ever experienced—is nothing compared to what still is to come. The real work has not even started yet. Things are only going to get harder. Which is fine by you. You can’t wait. You love it. You will stop at nothing. You will see every job all the way to the end, no matter what. You will never give up, never give in, never back down from anyone or anything. Ever.

You are a Navy SEAL. Hooyah.

 

#####

 

EPILOGUE

 

Thirteen months.

That’s how long it took me to find the man I knew as Jack Danville.

Armed only with pictures taken by Willis during our meeting at Cabrillo National Monument, I’d lived the last year of my life on the road, never staying in one place for more than a week, slowly cultivating information and hints about Danville’s true identity, not in any hurry, safety and anonymity my only concern.

There had been a couple of close calls along the way, but nothing I couldn’t handle without too much of an issue. No more bodies, at least. That was the key. I was sick of the collateral damage. There was only one man in my sights now.

And in my sights, he was. Literally.

His real name was Stephen Simmons, and the organization he worked for was surprisingly very much like what he had originally claimed. Except for their age. They  were known within certain circles as the National Defense Commission and had not been created, as he had told me, after 9/11, but had been around since the early years of the Cold War. Planning their operations behind the scenes, away from the public spotlight, doing what they believed needed to be done, regardless of the consequences to the very people they were supposed to be serving.

Here he was, this man who had torn my life apart—although I knew his real name, in my mind, he was still Danville—sitting by himself, eating lunch outside on the patio of a Mexican restaurant, within walking distance from his work. The symmetry was undeniable, and it helped reiterate that this was the right thing to do.

Even after I’d taken the pains to learn his true identity and his real employers, I was still torn as to what route to take. There were many nights where I had convinced myself to simply let it go, but I could never stay away for more than a couple days at a time before I came slouching back to continue my surveillance. The need for justice was simply too great. It consumed my soul.

And that’s what this was about. Justice. Not revenge. I’d come to realize that. This wasn’t only about me and Gina, it was about something bigger, a covenant shared by a government and its people, a pact that had been shattered by the actions of this man, and the nameless masters he did the bidding of.

Not that I was so naïve as to believe I’d be changing anything with my actions. But it was necessary to stand up to these faceless monsters, show them that they couldn’t act with impunity. And if nobody got the message? That was all right too. Justice has no need for witnesses. It is an end unto itself.

And so, here I sat, in this stolen car, parked along the sidewalk a couple hundred feet from the crosswalk that Danville was now getting ready to cross on his way back to his office.

The WALK sign lit up. I started the car. Danville stepped into the street. I put my left foot on the brake, shifted into drive, then pressed the accelerator with my right foot. The engine whined. Danville crossed the center line. I glanced to my left, then my right. There was a break in traffic. Just as I’d known there would be. I lifted my foot from the brake. The car lurched forward, speeding ahead, flying through the intersection. Danville turned, saw me. His eyes widened in recognition or terror or perhaps both. I stared at him, expressionless, my face betraying no joy, my heart feeling none either.

There was a thump, and then it was done.

Justice.

 

#####


Harsh Justice

When a near-fatal injury ended Clay Keeley's career as a Navy SEAL, he was beyond devastated. He'd dedicated his whole life to his craft and now he had nothing. Then he met Gina. She brought him back from the brink of desperation and helped turn him into a civilized man. Life was good. Until Gina is killed right in front of his eyes. The cops call it an accident but Keeley knows better. It was a hit, plain and simple. And he's determined to find the men responsible, no matter who they might be. From the sun-drenched beaches of San Diego to the crime-ridden streets of Tijuana, The Crooked Path To Justice combines a hard-boiled, neo-noir, first-person POV with modern thriller elements and a dash of real-life SEAL training to create a twisting novel that explores the darkness within us all, the lengths one man will go to avenge his lost love, and the very nature of justice itself.

  • ISBN: 9781370048847
  • Author: AE Publications
  • Published: 2016-12-22 11:05:23
  • Words: 60415
Harsh Justice Harsh Justice