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Black Brick - Chapters 1-16

Text Copyright © 2015 Dan Decker

All rights reserved.

Published by Xander Revolutions LC

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

For my family.

Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

Author’s Note

Books by Dan Decker

About the Author

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1

I couldn’t silence the alarm bells ringing in my head as Bruce Andrews and his date walked out of the restaurant. They were heading to the ballet but weren’t going to make it.

With a glance towards my partner Shannon, I dropped enough cash on the table to cover the bill.

Shannon was staring after Andrews, and I almost reminded her to not break cover, but I thought better of it when I saw the silent snarl on her lips. I headed towards the door instead.

I was nervous now that Andrews was out of our sight. He had just made a lewd comment to his date, and she had giggled. Shannon growled, and I shook my head.

Our surveillance team had planted a bug on Andrews earlier in the day and I was beginning to wish that they hadn’t. Ignorance would have been useful. We couldn’t be expected to stop something if we didn’t know about it. When Andrews made his next comment, I almost removed my Bluetooth ear bud altogether.

“I’m gonna let her kill him,” Shannon said as she darted past me and waited for me to open the restaurant door, I zipped up my coat before grabbing it. “I swear I will. I don’t care if he thinks she’s an escort, nobody should have to put up with that kind of abuse. I hope she tortures him too. I’m gonna watch and enjoy every minute. This smelly city will be better without a scumbag like him.”

Shannon had a point, but I almost shushed her until I saw that nobody was close enough to overhear.

The blonde woman couldn’t have been okay with the way Andrews had been treating her during dinner, though by her laughter you would have thought he had her enthralled. No woman would appreciate being compared to differing varieties of dogs. It was an act, it had to be.

This was the reason I wasn’t sticking around to finish my caramel-covered brownie and ice cream. Instead, I now stood out in the cold keeping tabs on a detestable man.

Andrews should have figured out his date had hidden motives, but he was as dumb as he was crude. We would have to break our cover to keep him from getting killed because protecting him had been part of our orders as well.

“Instead of letting her kill him,” I said, “we could leak his actions to the media. The blogosphere will ransack him, and Diggon will be forced to do something about it. Give it a week, and he’ll be gone.” My arm brushed against the bulge of my pistol as I spotted them half a block away. I hadn’t planned on using it tonight, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“We should have requested a closer table,” Shannon said. “I could have recorded them on video and posted it to YouTube.”

“We could have live streamed the whole thing,” I said. I’d wanted to use the hidden camera on my ballpoint pen for months. Anytime I needed to make a video I usually went for my phone because I forgot about that feature.

“Getting him fired won’t be enough,” Shannon said. “We’ll make sure everybody he knows gets a copy of the surveillance tape in their inbox.”

When Andrews had explained what he wanted to do after the ballet, all the while referring to his date as his little mutt, Shannon had turned red, and I had been forced to grab her hand because I didn’t like the way she’d been holding the knife. I had never known Shannon to stand by while someone disrespected a woman. She also didn’t break out of cover too often. Either way, I hadn’t wanted to take the chance. 

“How about this?” Shannon asked. “We’ll shoot him in the knee and bring her in. If she knows what we need, good. If not, no harm done.”

I shook my head. “Not worth the risk. What if Diggon is on to him and she’s here on their behalf?”

“She’s the buyer.”

“Yeah, I’m not going to trust your instincts on this one. We’ll play this straight and follow our orders exactly.”

There were a lot of unknowns at the moment that were making me uncomfortable. I’d forgotten how many months we had been keeping tabs on Andrews, but today was the first time this woman had surfaced, and the timing was too convenient.

Our analysts had just found evidence that Andrews had been stealing money from Diggon in addition to selling information.

If we knew, chances were good that Diggon top executives had learned of it too. A company with that many government contracts had to be spying on their employees as well.

The street was well lit, and despite the low temperature, there were a surprising number of people about. I took Shannon’s hand as I glanced around. We were supposed to be a young couple out for a pleasant, though chilly, spring evening on the town. I hoped we were pulling it off, but I was far too tense to expect that we did.

“Jake!” Shannon said in a whisper while squeezing my hand. I felt her breath quicken as she wrapped her arm around mine. “She’s not alone.”

A tall, broad shouldered man crossed the street in front of us and followed after Andrews and his date, the tall man’s eyes were glued onto them in a way that caused my hackles to go up. I hadn’t been able to spot an obvious weapon hidden beneath his thick coat, but the way he walked and the alert expression on his face was enough to mark him as a threat.

I walked to the curb and pretended to be waiting for the crosswalk light while Shannon turned sideways and used me as cover while she kept on eye on them.

“Another has joined up with that big guy.” Shannon leaned in close as she whispered, her blonde hair swaying in front of me. I could feel the warmth of her breath on my ear and tried to not let it distract me, but it was hard. I hated that we had to hide the true nature of our relationship when we weren’t on assignment.

Hoping to clear my head, I went through a mental checklist. My compact pistol in my shoulder holster already had a round chambered. Steeling myself against the cold, I unzipped my coat so I would have easier access to it. An extra ammo magazine was in my right pocket, and a spare subcompact pistol was in the left.  I also kept another subcompact pistol in an ankle holster that wasn’t company issue.

I took pains to keep other team members—including Shannon—from knowing about it. It wasn’t that I had any reason to suspect my teammates, trust just didn’t come naturally to me.

There hadn’t been much expectation of any gun play tonight, so I’d grabbed my standard issue Glock 23. I preferred weapons with a bit more firepower than the silenced Sig Sauer Mosquito I carried when I knew I would need to keep things quiet. The Sig Sauer was a .22 caliber, and the Glock was a .40 caliber. The subcompact pistols in my pocket and on my ankle were .40 calibers as well, the Glock 27.

Shannon hadn’t brought a silenced weapon either, so if it came to a gunfight, we’d have to get out quick.

I tried to tune out the feed from Andrews’ bug to focus on our surroundings but was sucked back in when Andrews said something coarse. I hoped he would see through her ruse. It would be much easier if he came to his senses and ran. I hated saving such a revolting man.

“They’re turning down an alley,” Shannon said. “The two men followed.”

I cursed.

We approached the alley as quick as we could without running and stopped at the entrance to listen. Andrews was close enough that I didn’t need the earpiece to hear him pleading for his life. He offered money and said he’d give them anything they wanted.

A man laughed while the woman cursed, calling Andrews a name that I couldn’t quite make out. There was a thwack and Andrews screamed.

“I go left,” I whispered to Shannon, “you go right.”

“You’ll back me up if I take Andrews out, right? You know, fog of war and all that.”

I snorted, but Shannon’s smile sent a chill down my spine. “Don’t you go vigilante on me. Stick to the mission.”

“We’re protecting a dirtbag.”

“We usually are,” I said, pulling out my pistol and wishing for a silenced weapon.

I should have waited another couple of seconds. A man was passing by that I hadn’t noticed, when he saw my pistol, he lifted his hands above his head.

Growling, I motioned for him to continue on his way. Once he had gone, Shannon turned to hide what she was doing and pulled out her pistol.

“Whose trigger happy now?” she asked.

I shrugged. Things like this happened when I became too focused.

I didn’t like the thought of the scare I’d given that man, but there was little I could do about it now.

I took a breath and put him from my mind, stamping down the guilt I felt at the alarm I had caused him. Several deep breaths later, my focus returned, and I was ready to go around the corner.

I had a bad feeling that when we did, people would die. I tried to ignore it but the face of a man that I’d killed several months ago came to mind. He sometimes kept me awake at night as I played the event over and again, analyzing what I could have done differently. I shook my head. It hadn’t been my fault, but even though I knew it, my subconscious had not yet accepted it.

I made eye contact with Shannon and we turned the corner.

2

A single bulb lit the alley. It was enough to see but left everything in shadows. Garbage cans littered either side, and there was a wide half-frozen puddle right in front of us.

Andrews was crumpled in a heap on the other side of the icy water with his date standing over him, the eager to please smile replaced with a snarl.

The broad shouldered man was on the left, he was pointing a gun at Andrews. We had the element of surprise, and our surveillance target was in danger so our training kicked in.

I shot the big man as Shannon fired at the other. The twin explosions in the confined area made my ears ring. Luckily, the one with the hidden earbud wasn’t affected as badly.

I thought about the surveillance team listening in and wondered how long it would take for backup to get here. Protocol dictated that they call the gunshots into Black Brick, our base.

They wouldn’t provide much help, though. When backup arrived, they would be careful before getting involved. While we worked for the government, we didn’t advertise our presence when local cops showed up.

Our operation ran in a dark gray area, and it was best to keep out of an entanglement with law enforcement.

Andrews screamed again, the ringing in my ears made his voice sound far away. I could also barely make out commotion from the street behind us as people responded to our gunfire.

The woman raised her hands as I walked forward through the puddle. The man that I shot wasn’t breathing, and the one Shannon had taken out was moaning. A roll of duct tape had fallen out of the pocket of his coat and was rolling away.

What kind of man had the big guy had been? Did he have a family? Children?

I looked away from the men and focused on the woman.

“I don’t blame you for wanting to kill Andrews,” I said. “My partner would help you if she could, but we need him alive.”

The woman straightened. “Just get it over with. Make it a clean shot to the head.”

“Hopefully we can avoid that. We just have a few questions. Tell us what we need to know, we may let you go.” I might as well have not said the last part because I could tell she didn’t believe me. “Who do you work for?”

She didn’t reply. Despite her predicament, the woman was resolute and alert, almost as if she were in control of the situation. She stepped away from Andrews, keeping eye contact with me as she did.

“Stop,” I said as the woman reached into her purse. Andrews crawled to his feet. There was blood on his face, and he was wet. When he moved to leave, I jabbed my pistol into his back. I couldn’t help but think that was less than he deserved. “Freeze, if you know what’s good for you.” Now that we’d broken cover, we’d bring him in for questioning too. Either these two would make a deal, or we’d turn them over to law enforcement.

“Advice for the future,” Shannon said to Andrews. “Any woman that lets you talk to her like that has an agenda. Also, I’m gonna find you and kill you myself once this is all over.” She motioned to the woman. “Down on your knees.”

“Shannon,” the woman said. “This isn’t how this is going to go. You can have Andrews, but I’m walking away.”

I tried my best to not let my surprise show. Shannon took a step towards the woman, a snarl on her lips. “Down on the ground!”

“Careful,” I said to Shannon. I’d almost missed it. A small smile had flitted across the woman’s face when Shannon had stepped forward. “She’s gonna jump you.”

“Shut up,” Shannon said to me while motioning with her pistol to the woman. “On your knees. Now.”

The woman sighed in resignation, bent as if to kneel, and then lunged toward Shannon. She locked arms with Shannon and pushed the gun up into the air just as Shannon pulled the trigger.

“I’d rather not shoot you too,” I said to Andrews while looking for an opening to take down the woman. From my peripheral vision, I’d notice him looking toward the street. “But don’t make the mistake of thinking that we’re here to rescue you. I just need you alive. There was nothing in my orders about you needing to have functioning knees.”

I lined my pistol up several times, hoping for a shot, but each time things shifted and my bullet would have hit Shannon as well.

There was a sound overhead, and I saw a man peeking off one of the roofs from three stories above. I frowned. Had we attracted the person’s attention with the shooting or had they been there before?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman grab Shannon’s pistol. I cursed and almost fired on instinct but was glad I didn’t. The next moment Shannon was in the way and would have taken a hit to the chest. She wore a bulletproof vest, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

There was the whispered cough of a silenced weapon from overhead and blood spurted down the woman’s throat.

She dropped Shannon’s pistol and clutched at her neck, trying to speak, but only a gurgling sound came out. I already had my pistol pointed up, but I could no longer see the man. I could sense that he was still there and kept looking.

Andrews broke into a run, and I stuck out a foot and tripped him. He hadn’t even landed before the hidden shooter took him out with a shot in the back. As Andrews fell, something skidded out of his pocket and hit the wall, but I didn’t look to see what it was.

By that time, I’d moved up against the wall of the building where the shooter was located and was in a kneeling position. Landing in the puddle, I aimed my gun up towards the roof, prepared to shoot at anything that moved. Everything was still except for the man Shannon had wounded, he was moaning softly.

The seconds ticked by as I scanned the area while water seeped into my pants.

“Shannon, get under cover.” She hadn’t moved since the woman had been shot. I wasn’t even sure if she noticed that Andrews had gone down as well. When she didn’t respond, I repeated myself.

She looked over at me. The light cast much of her face in shadow, but I could see the whites of her eyes. Her mouth hung open, and blood splatter from the woman covered her gray coat.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been shot at during an operation, but it was the closest Shannon had ever come to flying bullets.

“See the shooter?” Shannon asked, shaking off the stupor and retrieving her pistol from the dead woman before ducking up against the same wall I had.

“Briefly, just before he started.”

“Why didn’t you take him out?”

“Made a mistake.” He hadn’t looked like a threat at the time, but now that I had a chance to think about it, I knew I’d read the situation wrong. A sane person wouldn’t have been curious about an alley full of gunfire; no, they’d have gone for cover.

My eyes focused on the object that had fallen from Andrews’ pocket. A cell phone. I didn’t dwell on it because his phone had been bugged for months and we had a copy of everything on it. The street we’d come from moments before was deserted.

My eyes returned to the phone.

That wasn’t Andrews’ phone, he had a smart phone. With a look back at the roof—still no shooter—I scooted over to the device and picked it up. It was cheap, like the kind of phone you could buy, make a few calls, and then throw away. Chances were Andrews’ surveillance team knew about this other phone as well, but I put it into my pocket just in case.

A car screeched to a halt on the street. Flashing red and blue lights reflected off the alley wall.

I swore under my breath and began to move in the other direction, keeping to the shadows.

“Beltran is gonna be mad,” Shannon said, “he’ll make us pay for this.” She was referring to our boss, Jeff Beltran.

“Probably,” I said, not relishing the idea of showing up at Black Brick with this to report.

“Kill me,” begged the wounded man. His gun lay several feet away, but it wasn’t within his line of sight. We should have disarmed him earlier. In the heat of the moment, neither of us had thought about it.

I kicked the gun further away. If he had a chance at living, I wasn’t going to take it away. I’d seen enough death for one day.

As Shannon followed me down the alley, I kept a close eye on the roof and heaved a sigh of relief when we ran out the other side.

3

The sun peeked out of the clouds as Shannon and I walked onto Kingstone Campus; it was nice to have a brief moment of heat to temper the cold of the early spring. As the sun disappeared again, I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my coat and tried to clear my head from the morning’s research. Everything I’d read was starting to jumble together, and I was glad for the exercise.

“Why can’t the news sites get anything right?” Shannon asked as she walked with her phone in hand, eyes glued to the screen while she flipped through stories. “Here’s one that claims you and I were Latino men. I just finished another that said it was a fight between three rival gangs.” 

I was glad the media didn’t have their facts straight. It made it harder for the incident to be linked back to us.

“Any word on the ID of the victims?” I asked, wishing that we would have had time to snap a few photos of Andrews’ assailants. At least then we would have had something more to look into.

Shannon shook her head without looking up. I took her arm and guided her to one side of the sidewalk so that a cluster of approaching girls could pass on the other side.

Jeff Beltran’s contact with the police hadn’t got back to him yet, so we didn’t know what evidence they’d been able to collect. Depending on what came back, Beltran might use his connections to obfuscate anything that led to us.

We’d turned in the guns we’d fired and taken new ones. Our old pistols would be destroyed. The last thing we wanted was somebody connecting our missions together through ballistics.

When I had produced Andrews’ throwaway cell phone, the people on our surveillance team had become excited. The information on the phone was being analyzed, and we might have the results before we were done with class. 

I hated waiting. I needed something to do.

“Why didn’t the sniper kill us too?” Shannon asked for the twentieth time, putting away her phone and pulling several strands of hair out of her eyes as she put on her sunglasses.

She was wearing a thick purple coat that complimented her figure nicely. I didn’t tell her she looked good, for some reason she didn’t enjoy those types of compliments even though she went to a lot of effort to keep her clothing trendy. The only time I got away with that type of thing was when she was in the right kind of mood.

I shrugged in response to her question and pushed away thoughts of the man I’d killed. I hadn’t slept much the night before, the shooting continuing to play in my mind. Shannon had wounded her guy, why couldn’t I have done the same with mine? At least then I wouldn’t have another death on my shoulders.

I took a deep breath and let it out.

“I mean, it makes sense for the sniper to kill Andrews and the woman. He saw we had her and wanted to keep her from talking.”

“You got it wrong,” I said. “Vargo figured out that Andrews was selling company secrets.” I was referring to Lane Vargo, the CEO of Diggon. “The woman was the buyer, that’s why he killed her too.”

“No, the shooter and woman were working together.”

“If they were, it would have made more sense for him to take out you and me.”

She frowned. “Hmm. You have a point there. Ok, so the sniper probably wasn’t with the woman.”

“And who else would have an interest other than Diggon?”

Shannon nodded her head. “Assuming that’s true, why would the Diggon sniper leave us alone?”

I smiled, a thought occurring to me, I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before. “He knew we were government and was worried that killing us would result in a drawn out investigation.”

The thought that Vargo might know about us made me uncomfortable. Diggon had been the target of numerous investigations over the course of the last two years. We didn’t have anything definitive on the company, but as a whole, it smelled. I’m sure it wasn’t the only defense contractor that got its hands dirty, but it was one of the largest.

I suppressed a groan as I thought about going to class when we’d just made a breakthrough. I’d been in the middle of reviewing the surveillance logs we had on Andrews, wondering if additional evidence of the woman he’d been with last night would turn up when Beltran had stopped by our desks and reminded us of it. Attending class was a distraction we didn’t need, but Beltran had been insistent that we keep our cover intact.

“We must work for the only federal agency that requires their agents to masquerade as students,” I said.

“You need to learn how to whisper,” Shannon said in a hushed voice that was almost as loud as mine. 

I looked around, there wasn’t anybody within earshot. “Nobody heard me.”

“You of all people should know better.” 

I shook my head, she was right. We walked in silence the rest of the way to class. Several minutes later, when we passed a group of girls, I wondered what it would have been like to be a real student here. Even if I graduated, the degree would never do me any good because it was attached to a fake identity. And honestly, what good was a history degree anyway?

We approached the George Washington building, an impressive old four-story stone structure that housed the social science schools. We found our classroom on the second floor and took our seats at the back. The lecture hall was arranged with stadium seating, and a podium was located in front.

Professor Peck stood at the lectern, waiting for class to start. He was a tall man with black hair that was beginning to turn gray on the sides. Rumor had it that he was wealthy and taught for free because it was his passion. I had meant to look into Peck because of this peculiar story but hadn’t found the time.

Somebody nodded at me from the front row, and I made eye contact with Thor. I nodded back, doing my best to hide my dislike for the man. On one of those rare times when I’d paid attention, Peck had been drilling him. For some reason I couldn’t remember, I’d read the assignment and after it was obvious Peck wasn’t going to let up on the poor kid, I’d jumped in and directed away Peck’s attention. I’d regretted it ever since because Thor hadn’t left me alone.

Having outside connections wasn’t a good idea for my line of work. Friends were a luxury that I couldn’t afford. I’m sure Beltran would have wanted me to be nicer for the sake of my cover, but I didn’t see the need. It wasn’t worth the effort.

While pulling out my tablet, I saw that the dark haired girl from several rows up was trying to make eye contact with me again. She’d been eyeing me since the beginning of the semester.

I looked away with a tight smile and hoped that Shannon hadn’t noticed. Sure enough, a message popped up on my tablet from Shannon a moment later.

I didn’t respond as I shifted, trying to find a comfortable position. These chairs weren’t made for somebody with long legs like mine. That, combined with the body armor I wore, always made attending class a chore. We were also required to wear thin invisible latex covers that hid our fingerprints that made it harder to use the tablet. I’d long since gotten used to those, but I doubted I’d ever be comfortable with the armor.

When I brought up the news, I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t checking out of guilt, but knew that it was a lie. A few minutes later I found a follow-up to an initial news story about Bruce Andrews’ murder. They’d identified the woman Shannon had fought. Gina Townsend. I read on until the article identified the man I’d killed.

Terrence Morrison. The name seemed to burn into by brain, and I knew I’d never forget it. I scanned the rest of the article hoping for additional information about the victims but was disappointed. 

Still, the names would be a good starting point. I forwarded the news link to Shannon and then elbowed her.

“You check the woman, I’ll research the men?”

She scowled, wondering what I meant until I pointed at the message that had just popped up on her screen. Sighing, she nodded.

Toward the end of class, I hadn’t managed to learn anything useful about Terrence and was becoming convinced that Terrence Morrison wasn’t the man’s real name. I didn’t have access to all the tools the research team did back at Black Brick, but I should have been able to learn something about him. 

Shannon nudged me, and I looked in the direction she indicated. Peck was picking on a student in the row in front of us, and the dark haired girl was staring at me. I gave her a small smile. She returned it with a wide-mouthed grin. My face turned red, and I avoided making eye contact after that but could feel her eyes burning into me.

Did she have no shame? Shannon was sitting right beside me. Part of our cover was that we were dating. We acted the part when on campus in a way we never did at Black Brick. Well, at least not when others were watching.

“Stop leading her on,” Shannon said.

“You baited me.”

“You know, there’s something odd about this. You’re ugly, cute in a blockhead sort of way, but still ugly. Think she’s onto us?”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re paranoid.”

Shannon scowled. “She’s way out of your league.”

“Thanks for thinking so highly of me. She’s not a problem.” My tablet vibrated, and I turned the screen back on, Beltran had just sent an email. The results from Andrews’ phone were back. I smiled. The information gave us a new lead and Beltran had included a mission assignment. Shannon and I had less than two hours to catch a plane to San Diego. We needed to investigate a hacker named Jason Kurt.

Bruce Andrews had called Jason Kurt seven times in the last two weeks. The surveillance team was going to be furious that they missed this. I didn’t want to be around when Beltran chewed them out for their mistake.

How had Andrews kept the calls off the radars? We had his home, office, car, phone, tablets, and computer bugged. 

I was busy reading through the report when Peck called my name.

“Mr. Chever, what’s your take on Executive Order 11905?” I didn’t recognize the name until Shannon kicked my foot. I looked up, already halfway through Beltran’s email. The classroom discussion was the furthest thing from my mind.

“Mr. Chever,” Mr. Peck said. “What’s more important than this class?”

My feeling of elation evaporated as I looked up into the cold eyes of Peck and my mind went blank. I used my Sam Chever alias on campus, and I was embarrassed I hadn’t recognized it.

“Executive Order 11905?” prompted Peck. 

“Not sure I’m familiar with it,” I said.

“Skipped your reading, I see. I’m referring to our government’s ban on assassination.” Peck folded his arms and glared. The man should have been a judge, I felt condemned and guilty. “Your thoughts?”

I nearly choked.

Terrence Morrison’s face came to mind unbidden. It was followed by the other man I had killed. Sure, I hadn’t assassinated any of my victims, but that sort of activity fit within my job description. “Uh… It’s important to make sure that other leaders feel reassured that we won’t target them. It would change the dynamics if we had an open policy of assassination.”

“Open policy? Do you suggest that there should be a secret policy?”

I cursed. I shouldn’t have answered that way. I wished Peck would leave me alone. “Why not? Why should soldiers sacrifice their lives because of disagreements among idiot politicians?”

This wasn’t going well. Shannon was looking away, but I could tell she thought I was being reckless.

“So. Mr. Chever, you have no qualms about our government planning cold-blooded murder?” Shannon placed her hand on my leg, her nails dug into my thigh.

“I didn’t say that.” I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. “I’m just saying war is costly. We should make the leaders duke it out in the ring instead.” It was a lame attempt at a joke, but nobody laughed.

“We’d stop electing old white men to the Presidency,” Peck said. He smiled at the smattering of laughter he received. The pressure from Shannon’s nails was going to tear through my jeans if she pressed any harder.

“Mr. Chever, please be sure to read the assignment for our next class. I’ll send you some extra reading, be prepared.” Peck dismissed us.

“Skirting the line, Sam,” Shannon whispered as we packed up our things. I followed her eyes to the dark haired woman.

“It’s going to take us forty minutes to get to the airport,” I said. We still had to get back to Black Brick and collect our luggage. We always left it packed so that we were ready to go at a moment’s notice.

I grimaced when I noticed Thor approaching, a wide grin on his goofy face. He was a short man and kept his hair cropped close to his head.

“We need to go,” I said, but it was too late. Thor was already here.

“Peck was tough, but you held your own.” Thor grinned and alternated between me and Shannon hoping for an introduction. I wasn’t going to give it. 

“That wasn’t bad. I was just having some fun. Good seeing you.” I slung my pack over my shoulder and headed for the door, leaving Shannon to catch up.

4

The frothy water reached out to lick the tip of my shoe, but my foot wasn’t down on the sand long enough for it to matter. The pounding of my legs on the beach seemed to be in harmony with those of Bill Martinez and Tom Vandyke who ran to the side of me. The crashing waves kept time with our gait and the sunny day was a welcome change to the cold back home.

When we’d arrived at the airport the previous day, I’d been surprised to see Martinez, Tom, and Cherry Mann waiting for us. Beltran’s email hadn’t mentioned anything about them. Like Shannon and I, Cherry and Tom were still on temporary status.

Martinez wasn’t part of our usual team, but I’d worked with him in the past. I wasn’t happy to have him along because I didn’t like the way that he operated. The last time we’d been on an assignment together, he had broken a man’s kneecap to get him to talk. I could still hear the man’s screams whenever Martinez was nearby.

The flight had been uneventful, and we’d spent the evening before doing surveillance and research on our target, Jason Kurt. This morning, Kurt was still sleeping, and we’d all agreed that we could afford some time at the beach before he woke up.

I allowed myself to relax so that I could take it all in and was glad I didn’t have to attend class today. A run on the beach was a much better substitute.

The breeze was slight, the air warm, and the sun was out. It had been months since I’d experienced pleasant weather. 

One day I wanted to retire and live in a place like this. I took a deep breath and let it out.

I closed my eyes and was a kid again, running through the desert sun of Texas, the beating sun cleansing my soul. That brought with it the disapproving face of Sister Bautista. I pushed it away and allowed my focus to return.

Beside me, there was a swift movement as Tom kicked out and connected with my shin. I shifted my weight to compensate and was barely able to keep from toppling into the surf and got my foot wet in the process. So much for dry feet.

“Still two to one,” I said, smiling when Tom didn’t answer.

“Break a leg or sprain an ankle,” Martinez said. “I’m not helping either of you.” 

We fell silent, and I pushed ahead while keeping a wary eye on Tom, he matched my speed and took a slight lead. I didn’t make a move to get ahead because I was better able to keep an eye on him now.

“A little help?” A woman waved to get our attention and pointed at a volleyball that had landed just ahead of us. I was surprised to see a group of people out this time of the morning. It wasn’t even ten yet. They looked like college students. Weren’t they supposed to be sleeping till noon?

The jagged cliffs towered several hundred feet behind the woman, and she was standing in front of a pile of a bulbous ocean plant that I had no name for. Despite my concentration, I noticed that her bright red swimsuit made a nice contrast to the rest of her.

Like a distant gust of wind in a storm, I didn’t allow this thought to touch me and was surprised when I realized I was darting ahead.

“Sure thing.” I scooped up the ball and tossed it to her before either of the others responded. It was, of course, no surprise that Martinez hadn’t made an effort and Tom appeared to not have noticed the woman.

If Tom hadn’t been good with a rifle at a thousand yards and deft with a computer, he would have long since been washed off the team because of his habit of zoning out.

“Join us?” The woman smiled, motioning back at the game. That small part of me that I never let take control was tempted. It looked fun, but we didn’t have long before we needed to return to Shannon and Cherry, who’d opted out of the morning run to tan instead. Tom, who’d just noticed the woman, looked ready to stop, but Martinez didn’t slow or even glance at her.

“Thanks. Next time.” I felt a twinge of regret. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to relax, and if I was honest with myself, I wanted nothing more than to join the game.

I got lost in the run again as the sun washed over me. The warm breeze from the ocean felt good, and both were a perfect help to maintaining my focus.

Before long, we ran out of time. When the others turned back, I hesitated and wished that I could continue.

The cliffs ended just ahead, and I could make out a greater expanse of beach. I’d run forever if given a chance. For a fleeting moment, I thought of fleeing my problems, but slowed and chased after the others.

True to habit, they were running faster now.

One of these days, I would just keep running, but that couldn’t be today. I still needed the structured life that Black Brick provided. Without it, I doubted that I would have made it past the deaths of my parents.

Even with our faster speed, Tom would still have attempted to trip me up, and I wasn’t in the mood for the game any longer. I kept Martinez in between us. If Tom tried it with Martinez, he’d end up with a broken neck.

I was taken out of my trance when we passed the volleyball game, and the woman waved, flashing a toothy smile. I nodded and put her from my thoughts. I had Shannon waiting for me.

Twenty minutes later, when we came around the bend and could make out Cherry and Shannon absorbing the sun, we ran faster. The ground disappeared beneath us, and our gait tightened up until we were in sync with each other.

This lasted for several heartbeats. Tom was the first to fall behind. I noticed that Shannon was looking our way and adrenaline shot through me, bringing out a final reserve of energy. I overtook Martinez and felt a small thrill rush through me.

It wasn’t long though before my chest burned, my eyes watered, and then Martinez was at my side, keeping pace while I gasped. The sound of Tom calling from behind reached my ears, but I couldn’t make out the words. Then it was over, and I could go no further, I slowed to a stop, wheezing for breath as Martinez rushed ahead.

At first, I thought it was just my imagination that a man was taking pictures of us with his phone. But when I looked at him, he stopped and turned away. He was a hundred feet off and was wearing a wide brimmed hat that did a good job of obscuring the rest of his face. 

“You almost had Bill!” Shannon called out.

My heart skipped, and I hoped I didn’t show my surprise. I’d been so focused on the man that I hadn’t noticed Shannon approaching. If she realized she’d startled me, I’d never hear the end of it. The breeze twisted her blonde hair around her neck, and her smile made me forget the woman at the volleyball game.

If only I saw Shannon smile more often.

Tall for a woman, Shannon was still several inches shorter than me. She was wearing sunglasses and had a yellow sundress pulled on over her swimsuit. It was hard not so stare.

“Did you twist an ankle?” she asked. “I warned you about running on the sand. Just be glad you lost to Bill, Tom wouldn’t ever let you live it down.”

I looked back at the man in the wide-brimmed hat, but he was already walking away. Maybe he had just been taking pictures of the ocean.

“How’s your future case of melanoma coming?” I was still out of breath, and my voice sounded off. I scanned the beach and noticed that Cherry and Martinez were standing a little too close. If they weren’t more careful, Beltran would find out about them. 

“How’s your future case of a broken nose coming?”

“Try it, and you’ll pull back a bloody stump.” I took a deep breath. “Did you see him? The man taking pictures.”

Shannon looked around and focused on the man who was now a good distance away. “Stop being paranoid. Nobody knows we’re here.”

“You forgetting about Jackson?” I studied her face. She really did think I was worrying over nothing. She grimaced when she heard the name Jackson.

On a mission a few months back, I’d begun to suspect that a man named Frank Jackson knew we were playing him. I’d expressed my concerns to Shannon, but she’d thought I was worried about nothing. I’d allowed her to allay my fears. That had been a mistake. Jackson had ended up leading us into a trap. Even though we had managed to escape, Jackson was still out there, and we might have to deal with him again one day. 

“You ever going to let that go?” Shannon asked.

“Not until you admit you were wrong,” I said, glancing at my watch. We didn’t have long before we needed to get into place around Jason Kurt’s home. He should be waking up soon.

“Stop being petty. You’re too paranoid, even for a spy.”

I scowled. “We need to go.”

5

I was waiting for Jason Kurt’s last computer to power down when there was a sound at the doorway to Kurt’s bedroom. I turned from the bank of computer screens expecting to find Shannon but instead recognized Lisa, Jason Kurt’s younger sister. Somehow we’d missed the fact she was still here when we’d broken into the home.

“Hey mister,” Lisa said in a small voice. “Whatcha doing?”

The little girl stood in the doorway, her hair in pigtails and a smudge of something on her cheek. Grape jelly? She wore a shirt that sported cartoon characters I didn’t recognize and clutched an ugly orange stuffed animal that looked like the progeny of a horse and a dolphin.

I covered up my surprise. Shannon and I had already been in the home for half an hour and had gone through every room. How had we missed her?

Cherry and Tom must have assumed Lisa had left with Kurt’s mother. I should have confirmed that they’d seen Lisa leave as well.

“Oh, I’m just helping your brother out with a few things.” I smiled at the girl, wondering why she wasn’t afraid of me. Lisa twisted around and disappeared into a room down the hall. I thought about pulling the plug on our mission as I watched her go.

She didn’t appear bothered by our presence, but I was uncomfortable having her here. Innocents were supposed to be left out of things like this. Shannon would have overheard the exchange through the earpieces that both of us wore. Her silence was telling. That meant she’d found Lisa and hadn’t told me.

I had already removed several cameras that Kurt had set up in his bedroom and Lisa had seen us. If we didn’t snag the hard drives now, we might not get a second chance. Things would be okay, Lisa was too young to give a reliable description of us, and we’d be gone soon.

I looked back at the computer monitor; I still had a few minutes before it shut down. I shifted, brushing more garbage from the desk onto the floor. How could somebody live like this? Candy wrappers and empty soda cans littered the desk and a nearby bookcase. The floor was barely visible and covered with clothes, books, a half-eaten bag of chips, and loose paper. How could Kurt’s parents tolerate an adult child who chose to live in squalor?

My mother would never have put up with this, I was sure. Unbidden, my focus shattered and the memories came rushing back. I could see every event vividly as if watching a movie, but more real. The smell of fresh vomit, the feel of my father’s cold, stiff body when I tripped and fell on top of him, the shrill screams of my mother, the loud explosion of the revolver and the acrid smell of gunpowder. The man’s laugh still echoed in my mind.

My ear bud cackled. I made myself focus on the present. I was stealing the hard drives of a hacker and needed to complete my mission.

“What are you doing on Jason’s computer?” Lisa asked, bouncing back into the room. “He never lets anybody touch it.” I looked at the small girl. “Jason doesn’t like it when other people touch his things. I know, because he yells at me when he catches me in here. That doesn’t mean I stop, though.” The girl shook her head as she giggled, causing her pigtails to flick into her face. “If he catches you in here when he comes home from school, he’ll be real unhappy.”

I forced a smile and chuckled. “Well, I’ll just have to see he doesn’t catch me.” I didn’t blame Kurt for not wanting Lisa in his room. It wasn’t a place for an unattended child.

In addition to the two widescreen computer monitors that sat on Jason’s cluttered desk, two additional monitors were fastened to the wall. A large flat screen television hung off a swivel stand on the other side of the bedroom, muted and tuned to a news network.

Cords peeked out from underneath the clothes that were strewn across the floor. Posters of women covered the window. I recognized one as an actor, but I didn’t know any of the others. The most recognizable feature of the room was the pungent smell of sweat, rot, and dirty clothes.

“He’ll know,” Lisa said in a high pitched voice, “he always does!”

I thought of the cameras we’d removed and grunted. “It’s okay, I won’t let him catch me, and I won’t tell on you. We’ll just keep this our little secret.” I patted the girl on the head. I never spent much time around children, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do, I stopped though when Lisa frowned.

“Okay,” Lisa said running out of the room dragging the stuffed toy behind her. I smiled as I watched her go, hardly a care in the world. Had I ever been like that?

“I almost shot her,” Shannon said stepping into the room. Her nose scrunched up as the smell hit her. “Thought she was the dog.” I unplugged the computer I’d just powered down and pulled it out from under the desk. It was the first of four.

“Yeah, her pink ribbons are really confusing. Thanks for the warning, by the way.”

“Hey, Tom’s the one that missed her,” Shannon said. “She won’t be left alone for long.”

I didn’t comment on Shannon’s obvious assessment and opened the computer case, removed the hard drive, wrapped it in plastic, and placed it into my briefcase. The silenced Sig Sauer Mosquito in the breast pocket of my suit coat bumped against my chest when I stood, reminding me why I’d considered pulling the plug. This wasn’t a game, people sometimes got hurt.

“You find anything else?”

Shannon shook her head. “Nope. This smelly hole is the only place of interest.”

“What’s the update on Kurt?” I asked.

“Just got out of class,” Shannon said. “Bill says Kurt has a thing for his professor and is hanging around bugging her.” Martinez had followed Kurt to class while we’d stayed behind to nab the drives.

I didn’t bother to put the computer back together because Jason would know we’d been here regardless, and that was kind of the point that Beltran had wanted us to communicate when he sent us to track Kurt down. Beltran had called it an intimidation tactic, but I thought it was more likely to just piss Kurt off.

I turned to the other computers and removed those hard drives as well. Rummaging around the room, Shannon managed to find an old laptop underneath the bed and a tablet computer that Kurt apparently slept with, both went into her briefcase. Afterward, once Shannon had taken pictures using her cell phone, we placed bugs around the room. One in a vent, another under the bed, we even pulled up part of the carpet in the corner and placed one underneath.

As I replaced the carpet, I noticed white dust beside a small bookcase that stood against the wall beside the bed.

“Drugs?” I asked as I examined the white powder wishing there had been time for a full surveillance workup. Beltran had been adamant that our raid take place as soon as possible. I rubbed some of the powder between my finger and thumb and was surprised that it felt familiar.

“Let’s go,” Shannon said. “Drugs are the least of his issues.” She looked at her watch and muttered something that I didn’t hear.

It took me a moment to place it. The last time I’d seen this white dust was when I’d helped Sister Bautista hang sheet rock at the Boone Ranch for Boys. It had been an ambitious project for an older woman with a handful of boys under ten.

I pulled back the bookcase expecting to find a hole, but instead, I found the wall undamaged. There was more dust on the floor, so I ran my hand along the wall just above it and felt several ridges.

Kurt’s sloppiness had given him away. He’d done a good job of patching up the wall, but he should have cleaned up afterward. Ignoring Shannon’s look of impatience, I pulled a flashlight from my briefcase and became certain that the wall had been disturbed. I could see the variations in the paint. Following along the edges, I cut a square of the wall away using my pocketknife and found a paper bag inside.

“Let the cops handle this,” Shannon said, “let’s go.”

“This isn’t drugs.” I opened the bag and pulled out a stack of photos. The picture on top had three people, two women and a man. They were in a conference room. The second and the third were of the same people. I stopped on the fourth. It was the woman from several nights ago. It took me a moment to remember her name. Gina Townsend. She was talking to another man that I recognized but couldn’t put a name too.

I showed the picture to Shannon. “Know him?”

She shook her head.

I wondered if Kurt had left behind the powdered sheetrock, hoping an intruder would find the hidden compartment in his wall and stop there. It was a paranoid thought, but I couldn’t help it. I inspected the other walls by running my hands along them. When Shannon saw what I was doing, she sighed. 

“I think we got everything,” she said. Her phone beeped with a text message. “Kurt’s on his way.”

Hoping there wasn’t something else hidden away, I put the pictures in my briefcase.

My phone vibrated. It was a news alert—I’d lost count of how many I set up—with an update on the Andrews murder investigation. I was about to put my phone away, thinking it could wait until I saw the headline. They had a lead on the suspects in the investigation. I clicked on the alert to read the story.

“Find the remote to that TV,” I said to Shannon. “They found footage of the suspects from the Andrews murder.”

I paused. “They have us on video.” 

When she wasn’t able to find the remote, I started switching channels on Kurt’s television by hand. Unfortunately, the story wasn’t big enough to interrupt the national news cycle. Andrews was an executive for a large corporation, but he’d been a minor player in the company.

I growled.

Shannon had her phone out by then and was searching for additional information. 

“We don’t have to destroy his room as well,” Shannon muttered, glancing up. With a start, I realized I had grabbed onto the television with one hand and was in danger of pulling the swivel stand off the wall. I released my hold.

I felt numb. It was the first one of our missions that had been brought back to our doorstep. I’d killed a man and the man Shannon shot had died as well.

If the video led to us, Beltran might have no other choice but to cut his losses and let us take the fall. That was the risk we took in this line of work.

My phone vibrated again. I pulled it out, expecting another update to the story, this time, one that included our pictures.

It was a text from Cherry asking why we hadn’t left yet. I remembered what Shannon had said, just before the alert had come in. Kurt was on his way back. 

I took Shannon by the arm and pulled her out of Kurt’s bedroom. That earned me a glare, but she came along, phone clutched in hand.

When we got to the car, I took the driver seat while Shannon called into Black Brick. 

6

I remained in my seat on the airplane when the seat belt sign turned off and the pilot announced we could get up.

Those around us stood and began to remove luggage from overhead bins. Beside me, Shannon was flipping through emails. She hadn’t waited for the plane to stop moving before she had turned on her phone.

I checked my watch, it was almost seven in the evening, it had been an eventful day and we’d still need to brief Beltran once we returned to Black Brick.

We’d waited for clearance from Black Brick before heading to the airport. It turned out that the video that we’d been panicking about had been too grainy to give the cops anything useful. I hadn’t seen it yet, but it showed us approaching the alley, taking out our weapons and then heading in.

Despite the assurances from Black Brick that we were safe to return, I was a little nervous that we’d find police waiting for us at the airport.

“I’m starved,” Shannon said. “Think we have time to grab a bite before heading back to Black Brick?” As she spoke, her phone rang. She listened for a moment and answered affirmatively before hanging up. “Beltran wants us back immediately. He just learned that we took a later flight. Apparently, we’re late for a meeting.” Shannon stood and pushed past me, almost running over an elderly man in the process.

I apologized to the man before following Shannon off the plane and into the airport. When Shannon decided on a course of action, heaven help anybody who stood in her way, even an old man with a cane.

At the end of the exit ramp, I looked around, in what I hoped was a casual manner, and didn’t see any police. Even though it was a clear spring evening, I expected that it would be cold outside, in contrast to the pleasant warm weather of southern California. I was glad for the suit and wondered if I might want my overcoat that was packed away in my luggage.

I examined the crowd waiting at the baggage claim, looking to see if anybody was paying too much attention to us. I half expected to see the man that had been taking pictures of us at the beach, but I didn’t. A family of four waited nearby. The mother was trying to calm her crying baby without success, while the father was looking for their baggage, eager to be on his way. He was gripping a toddler by the arm that was doing her best to escape. I took out my phone, pretending to check email while I continued to scan. I didn’t expect to find anything but looked anyway.

Even though it had been a short trip, we’d still taken a full complement of luggage according to standard operating procedure. We never knew when an overnight mission could turn into several weeks.

“It’s kind of sweet that you were so worried about Kurt’s sister,” Shannon said. After we’d left, I’d listened in on the bugs to make sure that Kurt hadn’t gone into a rage and done anything to his sister because of what we’d taken.

I couldn’t tell if she was mocking me. Her arms were folded, and she was looking away while she spoke. She’d put on sunglasses shortly after getting off the plane. Combined with her dark suit, she was looking too official.

“You never know what a man is capable of.” I spotted our luggage and began pulling it off.

Shannon gave an exaggerated sigh. “Beware the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. Women never cause so much trouble.”

I grunted. “Yeah, they never cause problems.”

Shannon’s glare was playful, mostly. “Think things will be less hectic once Beltran gives us our final test and our status changes to active?” Shannon asked as we left the airport. The temperature was indeed brisk, but I was comfortable with just the suit coat. The musky stink of the Philly air was almost a welcoming smell. It always felt good to come home.

“I doubt we’ll remember what sleep was like,” I said.

We passed Kingstone campus half an hour later. The tall clock tower overshadowed the rest of the buildings. I could barely hear it ringing in the hour. If today had been a normal day, I would have attended class.

I sometimes wished that my life had turned out differently. That instead of chasing down terrorists, I was actually attending a university. College was supposed to be a defining life experience, and I was doing it as a cover.

We came to the end of the campus and turned towards Black Brick. Despite its name, there wasn’t a single black brick in the modern ten-story office building.

I parked in the underground parking garage, and we took the stairs to the main floor. The most notable feature of the lobby was the large thin televisions in the entryway; they rotated through promotional information for Zerutas Ventures, Inc. The company was our cover and did a little business to keep away suspicion.

The plush couches, handmade solid wood furniture, and elegant art had been designed to give the impression that Zerutas was prospering, but wasn’t raking in money. A handful of guards were located inconspicuously throughout the floor and could easily be missed by a casual observer. Various weapons were hidden around the lobby in addition to those the guards had secreted away on their persons.

In the middle of it all, stood a large reception desk that reminded me more of a fortress than a place to greet visitors. Instead of hiring receptionists to operate the desk, Beltran assigned analysts to a four-hour rotation. I greeted Dolores and received a warm smile in return. I’d often wondered what a woman like Dolores was doing working for Beltran. She shouldn’t be stuck in the office all day slogging through reports.

Dolores had a new hair cut that was barely longer than mine. It was a rare woman that was able to pull off hair that short, but she managed to do it. I noticed Shannon frowning at me as we headed to the elevator. What was she unhappy about now? 

The tint of the windows in the conference room on the fourth floor had been darkened to provide contrast with the large touch screen at the front of the room where Gus Capps, the head of research and intelligence, was touching the monitor to zoom in on a picture of several people that I didn’t recognize. Beltran turned when we entered and motioned for us to take a seat. He was a short man, but solid.

The conference room table was long and narrow with twenty seats around the outside. Cherry, Tom, and Martinez were already seated at the far end of the table. They had returned on a flight earlier in the afternoon, bringing with them several hard drives, the pictures I had found in the wall, and Kurt’s laptop. Martinez nodded to me, and I hesitated before returning the gesture.

Martinez leaned over and whispered something in Cherry’s ear. She smiled, covering her mouth with a hand as a lock of brunette hair fell into her face. I was surprised to see such an overt demonstration right under the nose of Beltran. Shannon was staring their way. By her expression, I could tell that she knew about them as well or at least had her suspicions.

“Continue Gus,” Beltran said, oblivious to Cherry and Martinez.

“We’ve identified a man with Gina Townsend in the photos you found,” Gus said motioning with his scrawny, pale arm that looked like it had never seen the sunlight. Rumor had it that Gus hadn’t left Black Brick for several years. While I didn’t quite believe it, I had to admit that Gus was more disheveled and pale than normal.

He clicked the remote in his hand, and the picture of Gina and the man I had recognized showed on the large television screen that hung at the front of the room. “I believe this is Brian Payne.”

I was taken aback. Payne was an elusive man. Nobody had a picture of him. Where had Jason Kurt come by it? Why did he look familiar to me?

Upon closer reflection, Payne did look a little like a movie star, but I wasn’t familiar enough with those things to know who.

“Kurt was stealing money from Diggon and transferring most of it to Payne,” Gus said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Cherry said, tightening her lips. “Why would Andrews hire Kurt to steal from Diggon only to give it to somebody else?”

I frowned, wondering what I missed. It would have been nice if they’d waited for us to start the briefing.

“Isn’t it obvious,” Tom swiveled to look at her. There was a flash of something in his eyes when he looked at Cherry that I wasn’t able to interpret. “If it comes out, Diggon wants deniability.”

Diggon had hired Kurt and Payne? I wondered what else I had missed.

“Agreed,” Gus said. “Kurt siphoned off close to one million for himself in addition to the couple million he transferred to Payne and was covering his tracks well. Andrews probably didn’t know how much Kurt took, though I assume part of their arrangement was that he’d pocket—” A ringing phone interrupted Gus.

“Is anybody going to shut that off?” Beltran asked before it got to the second ring. I checked my phone, I wasn’t the culprit. The others were doing the same when it stopped. Beltran nodded to Gus who opened his mouth when it started up again.

Shannon nudged me and motioned to my briefcase. I could feel Beltran’s eyes boring into me as I set my bag on the table and removed Kurt’s tablet. It was flashing a notification of an incoming video call. Ordinarily, Shannon and I would have stopped and left the tablet and the hard drives on the third floor with the tech team, but there hadn’t been time.

“It’s Kurt,” I said, “calling his tablet.”

“Well shut it off,” Martinez said.

“Hold on,” Beltran said. “I’m curious.”

I shrugged and answered.

Kurt appeared on the screen. His face was scarred with acne and black wavy hair framed his chubby face. I recognized Kurt’s room in the background and wondered if the bugs we’d hid had picked up any useful information yet.

“You shouldn’t have answered man,” Kurt said. His lips were turned up in a snarl, and he looked ready to attack, bits of food were stuck on his unshaven face. Cheetos? “I’ll find you guys! Ya, hear? Prepare for the world to come crashing down on you.” Kurt worked his keyboard.

“Nice place you have,” I said. “How many years did it take to cultivate the smell?”

“I’m taking you guys down!” Kurt held up a picture of Shannon and I leaving Kurt’s bedroom. I swore. I’d looked through the room and removed several cameras, I must have missed one. I smiled, hoping I’d covered my shock, but it was too late because a grin split Kurt’s face.

“Now that I’ve got your attention.” Kurt held up another picture, this one showed me walking into a store. “Not incriminating in itself, but later that day you were seen murdering a man.” He held up another photo that featured me with a mask-wearing the same clothes, Shannon was visible in the background of both. “Put the two together, and that’s some powerful evidence.” The photos were convincing; he was a good artist.

Shannon muttered something I didn’t catch.

“Return what you’ve taken,” Kurt said. “Or you’ll be the most wanted man in America. I’ll plant more photos of you doing other questionable activities. By the time I’m done your own mother will hate you. How would you like the police to come knocking at your door?”

“Yes, well, I’ll be waiting,” I said. “In the meantime, you might want to run as well. I have proof of the money you stole from Diggon. What do you bet they handle it internally? You were supposed to take some, I’m sure, but I bet they didn’t plan on you stealing a million.”

Kurt paled.

“Oh, it seems I have a card to play too.”

“Perhaps we can reach an agreement.”

“No,” I said. “There’s nothing to—” I stopped when I heard screams come from the tinny tablet speakers. A chill ran through my heart as I recognized the high pitched scream of a child.

Lisa.

The next moment Kurt was engulfed in flames and the video feed ended.

“Bomb,” I said, looking around my room. Shannon had a look of horror on her face. Cherry was tearing up. Gus looked like he was going to get sick and even Martinez who was normally stoic was trying to regain his composure. Of the people in the room, only Beltran didn’t seem bothered. 

I pulled out my phone. There may still be time. Perhaps the kid would be okay. I hadn’t dialed more than the first number before Beltran grabbed my arm.

“Think about this. What good will an emergency call from here do? Kurt’s in San Diego. You won’t even get the right operator, we don’t need the attention.” Beltran turned to Gus. “Have one of your tech guys make an anonymous call that looks like it’s coming from nearby Kurt’s place.” They waited in silence while Gus made a call and relayed Beltran’s instructions.

“Good work Jake,” Beltran said. “We confirmed that Kurt was working for Diggon as well as robbing them. Gus, continue.” I watched as the others turned back to the briefing. I was surprised by Martinez’s reaction, he had a faraway look on his face. Sadness or disappointment? I couldn’t tell.

Maybe I was wrong about Martinez; maybe he didn’t lack normal human empathy. I just couldn’t get past Martinez slamming a man’s hand into a car door and then shattering his kneecap with a baseball bat. The man had refused to give up the information we’d wanted, but we could have got him to speak another way.

Shannon looked at me, concern showing on her face. It was the first unguarded emotion I’d seen from her in a while. When she touched my hand, I realized I’d been on the verge of snapping the tablet in two. I dropped it to the table.

“People just got hurt,” I said, interrupting Gus. “A criminal, yes, but his innocent little sister was in the house as well.”

“Truly regrettable,” Beltran said. “But there’s nothing more we can do but to soldier on and get to the bottom of this so we can stop it.”

“We’re supposed to protect people,” I said, “not get them killed.”

“Your anger is understandable,” Beltran said, “if you want to take some time off, fine. Otherwise, sit down. We have work to do.”

I hadn’t even realized that I’d stood. I shook my head as I sat, trying to clear it of an image of Lisa burning to death.

Shannon nudged me. “You okay? Let’s take some time off. I could use a day by the pool.”

I shook my head. The cold hard truth was that Beltran’s words made sense. There wasn’t anything we could do other than continue on our path. I tried to concentrate during the rest of the meeting but kept hearing Lisa’s screams.

“Good work with Kurt,” Beltran said to us once the briefing was over. “The op went well. Before you know it, you’ll all be active.” While the others exchanged smiles, I just bared my teeth, if Beltran noticed, he didn’t say anything.

“Ordinarily, I’d like to give you guys a chance to rest, more especially so given the events of this evening, but I don’t have the time. I have a list of about a hundred things to do. Martinez, a man fitting Payne’s description was seen downtown earlier today, find him. I’ll email you what we know.”

“Jake and Shannon, shadow Lane Vargo. I want you on him in case the sniper from the other night is targeting Diggon’s executive team. I’ll have mission briefs in tactical by the time you’re ready. Get going.” He looked at Cherry and Tom. “I need you to help out the analysts. You’re going to review the files we have on Ronan Wright and Lauren Griffith.”

Black Brick had been keeping watch on Bruce Andrews, Lane Vargo, Ronan Wright, and Lauren Griffith for the better part of a year. Wright was a Senior Vice President, and Griffith was Vargo’s personal assistant but did far more than that. I don’t know what Beltran had been hoping to find on Vargo, Wright, or Griffith, but so far we hadn’t turned up anything that was actionable.

“Have you thought this through?” I asked. “Shannon and I were left alive by Andrews’ murderer for a reason. If Vargo was behind that, he might recognize us.”

Beltran frowned. “Unlikely. Bruce Andrews was Vargo’s liaison with Kurt. Get going.”

First, Andrews was stealing from the company. Now, it sounded like he’d been doing it under orders from the CEO. What was going on? What had we missed? When had Beltran learned this and why did he wait until now to tell us?

Shaking my head but deciding against further voicing my doubts, I left with Shannon in tow. If the information was true, that blew apart our theory that the shooter from the other night was working for Diggon.

“Quite the show in there,” Shannon said once we were out of the room. “Next time you’re going to explode like that, let me know? I’ll bring popcorn and a coke.”

I didn’t respond and tried to forget what had happened, but knew I never would. The thought of Lisa’s curious, bright face being torched with flame would plague me for a long time.

7

It took considerable control to not wolf down my food when our orders arrived. I was famished and bit into the hamburger, swallowed, and took another bite. This was the first chance to eat since some stale peanuts I’d had on the plane.

There hadn’t been time for a meal after my run on the beach with Tom and Martinez earlier that morning. As soon as we finished cleaning up, we had left for Kurt’s house. I’d downed a Gatorade and eaten a Cliff bar on our way.

After our work there, I’d been too distracted by my worry about what police had on us to think about eating. When we’d gotten off the plane, Beltran’s order to return had stopped us from getting dinner.

I ripped off another bite and looked around the restaurant, trying to appear like a casual observer. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy my meal properly. We’d had to scramble after our briefing with Beltran and the others to get here before Vargo. It was loud and hard to hear. The stale smell of fries and onion hung in the air.

My eyes glossed over Vargo and the woman he was with, Janessa Carlton. They were several tables over, and their conversation was being relayed to us from the surveillance van several blocks away. A member of the surveillance team had been able to slip a bug onto Janessa before they’d entered the restaurant.

Vargo was paranoid and had his office, his person, and everything else around him swept for bugs on a regular basis. It was lucky our team had been able to get to Janessa as they entered the restaurant; otherwise, Shannon and I would have been sitting here in the dark.

That wouldn’t have been so bad, it had been weeks since the last time we’d managed to slip out of work and enjoy ourselves.

I was only giving casual attention to Vargo’s conversation over my ear bud. Based on what I’d heard already, Vargo didn’t seem likely to discuss Diggon’s covert activities with Janessa. At the moment, they were discussing an employee that was giving Vargo a headache.

Janessa was a human resource consultant to Diggon and Vargo regularly sought her services. According to our surveillance team, it wasn’t uncommon for them to meet for lunch or dinner and discuss various problems. When somebody needed to be fired, she handled everything. She also did recruiting as well. 

Shannon twirled her fork in her pasta and raised some to her mouth. She had a direct view of Vargo, but I could tell she too was bored.

I couldn’t decide if Beltran was paranoid or if he had information that he wasn’t sharing. If my theory was correct and the sniper that took out Andrews was from Diggon, Vargo wouldn’t be in danger.

And even if Vargo wasn’t safe, what did we care? We’d been trying to nail him to the criminal activity of his company for the better part of two years.

I suppose that as a government agent I should have subscribed more to the innocent until proven guilty philosophy of our justice system, but I didn’t like spending my evening playing babysitter. It had already been a long day and I needed time to process everything that had happened.

The quick glance I had caught when we were seated was enough for me to know that Janessa was a fastidious dresser, but that she paled in comparison to Shannon. Well, at least when Shannon bothered to smile. The red evening gown Shannon wore suited her, if not the restaurant.

When we’d left Black Brick, the surveillance team had told us that Vargo was wearing a tuxedo and had purchased tickets to the opera. Halfway there, we’d received a call that Vargo had changed directions. Our team knew enough about Vargo’s habits that they’d given us instructions to come here.

This is why I’d started off wearing a bow tie, but had ditched it and swapped out the suit jacket for a leather coat that happened to be in the company car we’d taken. I wasn’t sure who it belonged to, but I was glad to make use of it. It was a bit small but passable at a glance. Shannon hadn’t been as lucky because her formal gown wasn’t as easily dressed down. 

If I was taking out a woman like the one who now accompanied Vargo, even if it were just business, I would have chosen a classier restaurant. A restaurant with televisions hanging on the walls tuned to basketball games wasn’t my idea of a good date. Vargo was a wealthy executive, and he’d chosen to take his attractive consultant to a hole-in-the-wall hamburger joint? Seemed strange to me, but maybe the man liked his hamburgers.

I leaned towards Shannon. “How long have you known about Cherry and Martinez?”

She hadn’t looked surprised to see the flirty exchange between the two of them during the briefing earlier. I still couldn’t believe that Beltran had ignored it. There was no way he hadn’t noticed. Perhaps Martinez had done it on purpose to try and get a rise out of Beltran. That was something he sometimes did.

“What do you mean?” Shannon took a sip of her water and studied me with a slight frown and a considering look.

I took another bite. The burger wasn’t particularly good, but it was big and required two hands. Ketchup and mustard along with some grease dripped onto my chin, and I grabbed a napkin while precariously holding the burger with the other.

“Why do you always call him Martinez?” Shannon asked. “He prefers Bill.”

“Sure, Bill and Cherry.” That took me by surprise. In my dislike for my Martinez, I hadn’t realized that I’d been calling him by his last name. I hoped my distaste for him wasn’t obvious. Martinez’s brutal techniques weren’t common knowledge.

Shannon was no longer paying attention to me and didn’t hear my last statement, I nudged her. She gave me an annoyed look and shook her head. She started to raise her hand and then stopped, looking like she’d wanted to point to her ear.

I turned my attention back to the ear bud. 

“—your plan depended on a weak link,” Janessa said. “It was too much of a risk.”

“It got the job done, didn’t it?” Vargo said, by the tone of his voice, I could tell he was giving her an annoying grin.

“But we have a mess now. Are you behind it? I have a hard enough time fighting fires for you internally. If you are and this becomes public, it will be outside of my skill set to handle it for you.”

There was a pause in the conversation, and I got the impression that Vargo was taking the time to make eye contact so he could send his point home. 

“Janessa,” he said, “I didn’t have anything to do with this.”

There was a lengthy pause. “I’ve been calling in favors from my oldest friends to get you the best. Employees like Lauren Griffith are hard to find and harder to keep. I’d be very disappointed to learn that I’m putting them into a toxic situation.”

“Lauren is working out great. You were right about me trusting her.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “If I find out you had something to do with this thing, I’ll terminate my contract and pilfer those I’ve brought to you for my other clients.”

The way Janessa was talking, it sounded like Griffith would be more loyal to Janessa than Vargo. I made a mental note to mention this to Beltran. He likely already knew of this dynamic, but it wouldn’t hurt to make sure.

“You’ve nothing to worry about,” Vargo said, “I promise.”

Apparently, that satisfied her because they moved onto other things. Their conversation had been innocuous enough that it could have been about anything, but with the weak link reference, my mind jumped to Jason Kurt.

If Beltran was correct about the relationship between Vargo and Kurt by using Andrews as an intermediary, then Vargo had known Kurt was a weak link. He probably expected Kurt to steal from them as he siphoned money over to Payne.

Was that the job that Vargo had been referring to? Could the mess be the explosion at the Kurt home? Had Vargo been working late because he’d been coordinating the attack?

I looked at Shannon and could tell that she was jumping to the same conclusions. All small talk between us ceased as we spent the rest of the evening listening to every word they said, even though they never returned to the topic. 

Once they finished their meal, we followed them as Vargo had his driver drop Janessa off before taking him home.

After that, the surveillance team told us we could go home because Vargo’s place was too secure and there was nothing more we could do.

On the drive back to Black Brick, I promised myself that if I ever learned for a fact that Vargo had been behind the deaths of Jason Kurt and his sister, I would make sure that Vargo didn’t get away with it.

8

The city passed by as I looked out the train window and tried to relax. The morning news coming out of San Diego said the explosion at the Kurt home was a gas leak, but I knew better.  Four people had died. In addition to Jason and his sister, their parents had been home as well.

Vargo would have a lot to answer for once I could prove he was behind it.

I yawned and tried to clear my mind. The train was slowing down, and I could make out the stop ahead when I leaned in closer to the glass. It had been a low key day, but I was afraid that wouldn’t last for long. The morning had been spent in a biology class.

After that, Shannon and I had met up with Cherry and Tom, and we began to make plans to apprehend Lauren Griffith. It turned out that Beltran had already known of her connection to Janessa and wanted to exploit the division in her loyalty.

I’d been a little surprised when we’d followed Lauren onto the train. When she and her bodyguard had taken the seats at the back, Shannon and I had opted for seats just behind the doors at the center of the train car. Cherry and Tom were several rows behind us.

We believed that Griffith sometimes acted as a courier for Vargo by moving information and items that were too sensitive to be trusted to the normal ways of communication and transportation. At some point in the day, she was going to make a pickup. After that, we were supposed to bring her into Black Brick.

I was surprised at the boldness of our orders but couldn’t help but wonder if Beltran had leverage on her or Janessa. We didn’t bring somebody in unless we had evidence that they were involved in something serious. As far as I knew, we didn’t have anything like that on either of them.

It made me curious about what Griffith was picking up. If the pickup was supposed to happen on the train, we wouldn’t notice from our vantage point. But we didn’t have any other option.

“If it looks like she’s heading back to work after this,” I said, “we’ll have to move in.”

Shannon rolled her eyes but didn’t respond. I supposed that it was an obvious next move, but I’d wanted to make sure that we were both on the same page. Given her response, I decided to not say anything to Cherry and Tom.

“Let’s take a break,” Shannon said, leaning in and setting her hand on my leg. “We get so little time together as it is.” Today she was wearing a green coat with a white blouse and black pants. We didn’t know where Lauren would take us so I was stuck in a suit.

Shannon had pulled her hair back. When we’d attended class earlier, she’d been wearing high heels that matched her coat but switched them for a pair of running shoes. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. Whenever she went out wearing heels, it was a good bet that she was carrying a better pair of shoes in her purse in case she needed them. 

I didn’t respond. Her lips barely touched my ear and sent a chill down my spine. Her smile reminded me of a stolen moment we had last night in the car before returning to Black Brick. I lived for the moments we were able to share, though they were few. Beltran might blow a gasket if he found out about us, but he didn’t seem bothered by Martinez and Cherry.

What did he expect? After learning to depend on one another under extreme circumstances, could he really be surprised when his agents became involved?

I wasn’t worried. The risk was worth it in my estimation. I just didn’t want Cherry and Tom to learn about our relationship.

“Come now,” Shannon said, looking bothered that I was ignoring her. I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder at the others and hoped they hadn’t heard.

I half expected a kiss when she leaned in again, but she kept that boundary, for now. She always seemed to get flirtier when there was a chance that somebody from Black Brick might catch us. I think she got a thrill from it. It just made me uncomfortable. Even though I thought our relationship was worth the risk, I didn’t feel a need to increase our odds of getting caught. 

“Don’t flatter yourself,” I whispered, checking my watch as I threw her a smile to make sure she knew I was teasing. We still had a few minutes before the next stop.

“For good luck?” she asked. When I didn’t lean in she looked disappointed. We’d both agreed to keep it quiet. She chuckled.

I gave in and checked on the others. Cherry was absorbed in a magazine. It was surprising that an editor thought the woman on the cover was attractive enough to sell copies, perhaps she was the daughter of somebody famous. Tom was beside her and playing a game on his cell phone. Neither of them was looking our way. 

“You don’t think this is [_the _]test, do you?” Shannon asked in a more normal voice.

“No,” I said. “It isn’t dangerous or complicated enough.” If the rumors were true, you either ended up dead or ready to quit. I didn’t see that happening today. “I overheard Martinez and Scott Henry talking about their final test and didn’t get the impression that they’d known about it beforehand or that it had been easy.” Martinez had stopped midsentence when he noticed me. I didn’t bother to ask for more information because Martinez wouldn’t give it. I was glad Martinez wasn’t on assignment with us today. I needed to find a way to get him booted from our organization.

“Ready to quit or dead.” Shannon frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

I shrugged and pulled out my phone to reread the email from Beltran about today’s assignment, looking for anything I might have missed. At the top was a color photograph of Griffith.

“We’re flying blind,” I said. “This feels rushed.” For an operation like this, we should have spent the last week keeping close tabs on Griffith. A month would have been better. The email we’d received from Beltran this morning was short and lacked information and the briefing with Beltran a few hours ago had been quick as well. He had been in a hurry and didn’t have time for questions before leaving the room.

“That’s why it could be our final test,” Shannon said. “Beltran is testing how we handle pressure and uncertainty.”

I shook my head. “Unlikely, the final test will be more challenging than what we’re facing today.”

Suppressing the butterflies in my stomach, I began a silent meditation. When we’d first come to Black Brick, many of our missions had been fakes. They’d been set up to look like the real thing but had been fashioned to be a learning experience. As time continued, some of the operations turned out to be real, where lives were at stake. Eventually, the fake missions had been phased out.

When I realized that I was fiddling with one of the .40 caliber subcompact Glocks that rested in the pocket of my coat, I stopped. Small enough to hide in my pocket, but carrying a large enough round to rip a hole the size of volleyball into a man’s chest. I’d have preferred my compact, but that wasn’t as easily hid. Subcompacts took more skill and concentration because the smaller pistol had enough recoil to jump out of your hands if you weren’t careful.

The train slowed to a stop, and I kept an eye on the exit to make sure Lauren didn’t get off the train.

I examined the people that boarded, wondering if one of them would make the drop. Several old women, a mother with a young son, a couple of men and women in business attire, and a man wearing a jogging suit were among those that got on. None of them looked like a fit, and most of them sat forward of us. As they sat, I noticed a man in a baseball cap up front, who had been reading a paper and looked back at the new passengers. I caught a partial glimpse of his face and made a connection.

“Payne is here,” I said.

“What?” Shannon asked. “Where?”

“Man in the ball cap near the front.”

Shannon groaned. “I think you’re right.”

Biting off a curse, I used the front facing camera of my phone to keep an eye on what was happening behind us. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. I fired off a text to Cherry and Tom, letting them know about Payne.

Griffith looked bored, but her guard was alert and paying attention.

As the train started to move again, Payne stood up at the front of the car, brandishing a pistol with a thirty round magazine extending out the bottom.

My training kicked in and before I realized what I was doing I had my hand on my pistol and was about to draw when five other armed men stood. Two were right beside Payne at the front; the other three were several rows in front of us. I lowered my hand. The men were wound up enough that none of them had noticed me.

“Nobody has to die, but I might kill a few to keep the rest of you quiet.” Payne pushed his sunglasses up the tip of his nose and pointed his pistol at the back of the train. He smiled. That chin was unmistakable. I felt like an idiot for missing his team of men. Everything we knew about Payne said that he liked to work alone, so instead of trying to assess whether he had a team with him or not, I’d just assumed that we had one problem, not six. 

Shannon swore softly. 

Payne’s three closest men moved to the rear of the car, and I chanced a look back. Griffith’s guard hadn’t moved, and he eyed the gunmen as they approached.

When I saw Payne take a step forward and look down at a man, I hesitated, unsure what to do.

“What’s this?” Payne asked. I couldn’t tell what the man was doing to provoke Payne, but it looked like he had his phone out. Payne shot him before I could react. The gunfire in the enclosed space sounded like a bomb. A child near the front started crying. The mother put her arms around him in a comforting and protective fashion.

“No phones,” Payne said.

I gripped one of the pistols in my pocket while folding my other hand over the top. I didn’t see a way to intervene without getting shot, but holding my pistol grip, helped me to remain calm.

Payne motioned to Griffith. “Come here.”

Everybody’s eyes focused on Griffith as she stood and stepped into the aisle. I felt bad for her. Griffith’s bodyguard looked furious, and I wondered if he would do something stupid. The man had to know that there wasn’t anything that he could do with six armed gunmen staring his way.

The child started wailing again as the gunman nearest Griffith grabbed her and pulled her forward. They were right in front of me when Payne spoke. 

“I’ll throw that child off the train if he doesn’t shut up.” His voice was matter of fact and calm, leaving no doubt that he would. Our briefing on Payne had said that he could be cold, but I was taken aback by the threat and tightened my grip on my pistol.

The mother clasped the head of her boy close, whispering into his ear. The boy had quieted by the time the train started slowing for the next stop.

“We’re getting off, everybody else stays here.” Payne pulled a bag out from under his seat. “If we’re not followed, there’s a fifty percent chance of this blowing up. If we are, it becomes a hundred percent—”

He was interrupted by a gunshot. The man that had latched onto Griffith fell, blood spilling out of his chest. For a moment I wondered if Tom had done something stupid, but it was Griffith’s guard that had fired the shot. He had stood, pistol in hand. Foolish idiot, he was going to get other people killed. Reaching across Shannon, I pulled Griffith into our row as her guard dove behind a seat.

There was a brief silence before the cacophony of gunfire filled the train. It stopped several minutes later once the guard was dead. During that time Shannon and I kept our heads down and I expected that Cherry and Tom were doing the same. We knew a no-win situation when we saw one.

That didn’t mean I liked it. It also didn’t mean that the guilt I’d feel about how this day had gone down would ever go away.

It took me several heartbeats to realize that the gunfire had stopped. The sound was still echoing in my head. The small confines of the train car made the gunshots seem five times as loud.

The people in the rows around me started lifting their heads up, fear at war with curiosity. The guard’s body lay halfway into the aisle, and it looked like he’d been shot more than ten times. Payne still stood where he’d been when the firefight had started. If anything, his face registered annoyance at the interruption. 

“There’s now a seventy-five percent chance the bomb goes off,” Payne said. “Any more heroes?” Nobody moved.

One of the gunmen pulled Griffith out of our aisle as the train came to a stop. When the doors opened, he pushed her out and followed after her. The others weren’t far behind.

Payne placed the bag on the floor and stepped over it. As he walked to the door, it looked like he wasn’t concerned about being the last of his men on the train. In fact, if I had to guess, his mind was now on to other things. We were beneath his notice. He’d said his piece and was now making other plans. 

Once he left the train, I ran up to Payne’s bag. The people around me were shying away. I noticed the woman with the child had pressed her son against the wall.

“We have no time,” Shannon called after me, but I didn’t stop until I had the bag in hand. When I turned around, she was waiting at the door for me, her hand on the door trying to keep it open. As I ran towards her, I saw we weren’t going to make it. The door wasn’t stopping for her hand.

“Get off the train,” I yelled, but she didn’t budge. I swore and yelled again, but it did little good. The door was already almost closed. I considered trying to toss the bomb to her so she could chuck it off the train but thought better of it. I doubted that Payne would have taken any precautions with it.

The door was closed, and the train was moving again when I reached it. Tom and Cherry were on the other side, chasing after Payne. In my hurry to get to the bag, I hadn’t noticed them getting off the train. Shannon and I tried to pry the door open, but it wouldn’t budge. Shannon gave me a look that didn’t need an explanation. She was pissed at me for going after the bag. I was surprised she was still here. She’d had ample opportunity to get off.

“I had to make sure somebody kept you from getting killed,” Shannon said, when I pointed that out, “because you sure aren’t doing the job. You’re supposed to run away from the bombs, not towards them.”

I didn’t respond as I examined the bag and wondered how long we had.

9

The black bag had a large zipper at the top for the main compartment. There were several pockets on the side. After I checked the outside pockets and found them empty, I eased back the large zipper, wondering if it had been booby trapped. Once it was open half an inch, I put my index finger into the bag and felt the zipper as far as my finger could stretch. I felt nothing but the zipper teeth. Odds were it would be safe for me to open the bag but I would still have to be careful.

There was a disturbance behind me. I turned as a large African American man pushed to the front of the crowd that had gathered several feet away from Shannon and me. He had a good couple of inches on me in height and was broader as well. His suit hung off his frame in a way that underscored the fact that he was in good shape. As he pointed a hand at us, I could see his bicep threatening to burst open the sleeve of his jacket.

“What are you idiots doing?” he asked. “You’re gonna get us killed.”

I shook my head. “The man that left this won’t hesitate to blow us up.”

The black man took another step forward.

“Stay back,” I said. He looked like he’d be able to handle himself in a fight but I didn’t have time to duke it out with him. I needed to take care of the bomb.

As I sized up the man, I wondered how he would respond if I escalated the situation. Would he back off? There was little chance that he was armed. Knowing that Shannon would chastise me later, I took out my pistol but kept it pointed at the ground. We needed to get this bomb off the train or disarm it, and we needed to do it now. I couldn’t afford to let this man become a distraction.

“He has a gun,” yelled a woman. She continued to yell, but I couldn’t make out what she said because she was drowned out by screams from other passengers. I didn’t take my eyes off the man in front of me as I waited for him to respond. His eyes went to my pistol. The lack of alarm on his face made me wonder what he did for work. Had I guessed incorrectly? I felt a stab of panic and hoped that he didn’t have a gun. Was he a federal agent? A detective?

“Well, that didn’t help,” Shannon muttered. “I’d put away your pistol before somebody decides to be a hero. That black guy looks like he could break you in half.”

“Get yours out. He’s more likely to leave us alone if he sees we’re both armed.”

“You’re a belligerent fool, you know that?” Shannon didn’t make a move for her pistol. “What are you going to do, wave it in the air and fire off a shot? Do you think that will calm him down?”

I saw her point but wasn’t about to put it away. The man was continuing to eye my pistol and even though he hadn’t been alarmed, it had given him pause. He was getting pushed back into the aisle by the people moving away from us. I stared at him, hoping he’d stay where he was. How much time had I lost already?

“I’ll take a look at the bomb to see if there is anything I can do,” I said. “Get the door open or do something to stop the train.”

Shannon glared at me but turned to the exit.

I looked at the people around us. Pulling out my gun had the intended effect. There was now a wide berth between us and everybody else. The closest person to me was the black man who hadn’t moved once the crowd had pushed beyond him.

Several people were on their cell phones, but I doubted that anybody would be heard over this madness. I was surprised the train was still moving and wondered how the firefight hadn’t come to the attention of the train operator yet.

Hopefully, the people on their phones would be able to get through to somebody who could stop the train. I kept my eyes on the man as I knelt. Once I had, I turned my attention back to the bag.

I had just pulled back the zipper to the point I’d explored with my finger earlier and was probing further down the length of it when the black man approached again. He had his hands out in a placating gesture and was struggling to keep his face calm. There was a small tremor in his hands. Considering the situation, I was impressed at how well he was able to hold things together. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he dealt with high levels of stress on a regular basis. I was just able to make out his words over the din.

“Don’t you be messing with that! You’re going to set it off for sure.”

I pointed my pistol at the man. “You want to get shot? Stay back!”

“You’re not going to shoot me,” he said.

I let go of the bag and held my pistol with both hands. “You’re wrong. I will shoot you, especially if you’re stupid enough to try and keep me from getting a look at what’s in the bag.” There was a thumping coming from behind me, but I didn’t turn to see what it was. I assumed that it was Shannon working on the door.

“Relax. We’re both on the same team. Just put the pistol down.”

I stood, took a step back, and motioned with my pistol, pointing to the bag. “Unzip it.” I had been able to feel half the length of the zipper. I was reasonably certain that it wasn’t booby trapped.

“Are you serious? I’m not going to be your guinea pig.”

“Then stay out of my way!”

When he didn’t back down, I leveled my pistol and began to depress the trigger. The man wasn’t in any real danger, I knew the tension of my trigger pull intimately, and I still had a long way to go. My actions had the intended effect. I regretted that I had to resort to this, but he just wouldn’t leave me alone. There was a part of me that recognized he was just trying to do what he thought was best, but the other much larger part knew I had to take care of the bomb. Every second he interfered with that kept me from doing it. 

“Stop,” yelled the man as he moved back. I had finally got the reaction I’d wanted in the first place. Unfortunately, it had taken a more overt threat than most normal people would have required. Perhaps he’d been operating under the assumption that I wouldn’t harm him. I didn’t want to, but if I had to put a bullet in his leg so I could examine the bomb, I would.

“Don’t shoot,” yelled the man. “You’re crazy! You know that?”

“A slight twitch is all it takes, understand?” I asked, keeping the gun pointing at him with one hand, but easing my finger off the trigger.

The man nodded. I returned my attention to the bag and tugged on the zipper with other until I was beyond the halfway point. I put my hand through and felt the rest of the way down the zipper. It was clear, so I unzipped it.

“Look, I can see you’re careful, but do you want to take this chance? There are children on this train.”

I looked up at the large man; he was standing several feet away from me again. In my concentration, I hadn’t noticed him moving closer. Despite my annoyance with him, I respected his stubbornness. It was a bad situation all the way around. People had just been murdered. From his perspective, I was the idiot that had picked up the bomb and was trying to figure out how to disarm it. Even though I could see his side, I couldn’t afford to take the time to try to talk things through with him while I held a bomb that might explode at any time.

Actually, I corrected myself. It would go off; there was no way that Payne wouldn’t set it off. He liked the chaos.

“I need to know what we’re dealing with,” I said to the man. “I may be able to disarm it.”

“That’s not good enough, either you know or you don’t. This is no time to be a hero.”

“You have a name?” I asked.

“Sure, Malcolm.”

“Malcolm,” I said trying to sound calm. “This will be a lot easier if you shut up and I don’t have to keep my gun on you. As you said before, we’re on the same side. We have a hundred percent chance of this going off unless we do something because those fools chased after the gunmen. I think it’s worth the risk of having me take a look. Don’t you?” I left out the part where I would have been one those fools too if I’d been given a chance. “Can I trust you enough to put my gun away?”

“You government? Let me see a badge.”

“I’m a concerned citizen.”

“Why you got a gun? You’re either government or a criminal. Your friends made it off, and you almost did too.”

I didn’t like his implication that a law abiding citizen couldn’t own a gun, but I didn’t go there. “Well, I didn’t, and now I’m here. The zipper isn’t wired, and we can open it. If you don’t believe me, take a look yourself.” I stepped back as Malcolm approached and peered at the zipper.

“You’d better be right.” He motioned me back towards the bag, indicating that he wouldn’t interfere with me trying to open it.

I looked into the man’s face, I wanted to believe him. I put my pistol away. There was a pause where Malcolm appeared to be considering a move, but it passed.

“You want to help?” I asked. “Try to get the bloody train operator on the phone. Tell him to stop the train.” I opened the bag the rest of the way and found myself staring down at several bricks of C-4. They were surrounded by a mess of wires. I stifled a groan. It was a rat nest.

“You got this?” Malcolm asked as he took out his phone. I didn’t have any idea how he’d be able to get to the appropriate person, but it was more than just an effort to get him out of my hair. This train needed to stop, preferably in a place to minimize the damage if the bomb did end up detonating. I tried not to think what would happen if I was still on the train when it did.

In answer to Malcolm’s question, I shook my head. Payne had done a bad job of building this. There were several places where duct tape held things together. What a mess.

“No,” I said, “it will take hours to untangle, and that’s if I hurry. We have to get it off the train now.”

Malcolm had directed his attention to his phone and hadn’t heard me. He must have found the number to dial or he’d just given up and called the police. Either way, he had the phone to his ear, and it looked like he was waiting for somebody to answer.

I looked towards the exit to see how Shannon was doing, hesitant about turning my back to Malcolm. I wouldn’t put it past him to tackle me if the opportunity presented itself, but I needed to know if she was making any progress on the door. Since disarming the bomb wasn’t an option, we’d have to get it off the train.

Shannon was kneeling by the door with a knife in her hand. She’d managed to spring a panel off the wall. At the moment, she wasn’t moving and was staring at the wires behind the panel. Her lips were pursed. She shifted, trying to get a better angle, and blocked my view of what she was doing. I decided that she was cutting a wire because of the way her knife hand yanked up.

The door opened.

I don’t know how she had known what to do, but I gave her my best smile and received one in return. It was too bad that I didn’t have time to stop and take a picture. It was rare to see a genuine smile from Shannon. As the door opened, the wind rushed by, pulling at her hair and twisting it around her face. 

Malcolm said something, but I didn’t catch it. That was when I noticed that the passengers had moved even further away from us. Before, there had been a fair amount of space, but many of the people were still in their seats. Now, most of the passengers were packed into either side of the car, as far away from us as they could get. I felt their eyes on me. Some held hope, others fear, but most were like Malcolm and were distrustful of what we were doing.

There was an older man that hadn’t moved from his seat, even though he was only several rows away from us. His face was pale and his round eyes were glued to me, taking in every move I made as if trying to capture it all to memory.

He probably was. I could just see the man giving every last detail to the police of what Shannon and I looked like. I had started to wonder why he hadn’t moved when I noticed the top of some crutches. I felt sorry for the man but couldn’t do anything other than what I already was doing. I noticed several phones that were pointed our direction and looked away. The police wouldn’t need to ask the crippled man what we looked like. My whole exchange with Malcolm had probably been recorded. I made a mental note to mention this to Beltran. He was sometimes able to keep videos like that from going public.

Doing my best to hope that the agitated passengers weren’t going to rush us, I picked up the bomb and turned to the open door.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Shannon said at the same moment I realized we had a problem. When Shannon had started working on getting the door open, the train had been running through a commercial warehouse district where there had been plenty of open space to toss the bomb. That was mostly gone and had been replaced by residential buildings. While there was a short distance between the tracks and the city, it wouldn’t be enough.

I racked my brain, trying to remember if the train either crossed over or ran parallel to a river, but my mind came up blank. Careful to keep my balance, I leaned my head out the window but couldn’t see anything up ahead on this side that would be a better place. It wouldn’t matter where I tossed off the bomb, people would probably die either way. 

As I looked back into the train car, I could see the eyes of some of the passengers willing me to throw it from the train. Some started to yell, wanting to know why I hadn’t chucked it yet.

Ignoring them, I looked at the other side of the train car. Malcolm had taken a seat and was covering one ear with his hand, his phone pressed to the other. Through the window, I could see a large vacant field. This looked better but not ideal. I’d have to hurry to get it off in time.

I looked back over my shoulder; an apartment building was passing by on the other side. I suffered a moment of indecision. I might be able to lower the bomb through the open door and drop it to the ground and hope that the fall wouldn’t set it off so that the train could pass. The problem was that I didn’t know how big the blast would be. I didn’t dare poke around in the wires to see how much C-4 was in the bag.

All options sucked. It wasn’t a solution but more of a choice between evils.

I made my decision and raised my gun, preparing to fire at the window. Malcolm, seeing me, stopped mid-sentence. I wasn’t able to make out what he was saying, but I assumed that he’d been able to get some sort of emergency response team on the phone.

I yelled at him to tell them to shut down the other trains. If I was successful at getting the bomb off, the other trains needed to be stopped until the situation had been resolved.

“You sure about this?” Shannon asked, appearing at my side. I’d almost forgotten she was with me. I’d been so focused on the bomb and situation with Malcolm that she’d almost disappeared from my consciousness. 

“Do you see another way?” I looked around the train. “We’ll all die if we don’t do something.”

She didn’t answer.

I fired a shot at a window, half expecting the glass to be bullet proof. It wasn’t and shattered.

Using the top of my gun to break out enough glass for me to fit through, I ignored the renewed screaming and sounds of panic coming from the other passengers as I risked putting my head out the broken window to determine if another train was coming on the parallel track.

I couldn’t tell. I looked at my watch. It had been five minutes since Payne and the others had left.

Was that all?

It felt like it had been a lifetime. To be honest, I was surprised that the bomb hadn’t gone off already, I thought about Payne with the detonator in hand. Five minutes was a long time in the mind of a madman.  Malcolm was beside me when I took my head out of the broken window.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.” He still held his phone to his ear. “I’ve talked to the police. They’re going to get in contact with the train operator. We can wait this out.”

The bomb started to make a beeping sound.

“No, we can’t,” I said. “Grab on to something and tell others to do the same.” 

I could see fear on his face. I couldn’t blame him; the beeping was the most disconcerting sound I’d ever heard. He shook his head and told me I’d better be right about this before putting his phone back to his ear and grabbing on to a seat. He shouted into his phone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear him say that there was a crazy man on the train trying to play hero. 

The beeping got louder.

I said a prayer as I grabbed the top of the window with one hand while preparing to toss it with the other. Taking a deep breath, I flung the bag out of the train car. Just after I released it, I realized that it was headed straight towards a pole that I hadn’t noticed.

It hit the pole and then bounced onto the other track. Cursing, I yelled out to Malcolm intending to tell him what had happened so he could pass it on to whoever was on the other end of his phone, but my voice was drowned out by the noise from the screaming passengers.

In all the confusion it took me a moment to realize that the sound of their hysteria was covering up the noise of an oncoming train.

My next thought was for Shannon. She was over by the exit again; I could tell that she’d been trying to determine whether she’d be able to survive a jump. We made eye contact, she said something I couldn’t hear, but it looked like her lips had formed the words “You idiot.” She leaped over the row in front of her and lay down between the seats.

I dove to the floor and grabbed onto the bottom of the nearest bench. The train on the other track had met up with us and was now passing by on the other side. I held my breath, hoping for a miracle. It didn’t come.

The explosion came several heartbeats later.

Our train lurched. There was a brief second when I thought that we were going to be all right, and then we rolled.

10

I opened my eyes with a start. The heavy smell of smoke, burning rubber, and blood filled the air. The train car had been cast in gloom, but there was light overhead. From my vantage point, I couldn’t determine the exact source of the light, but I could at least tell that some of it was coming from a fire. Alarmed, I looked around and was relieved that I couldn’t see flames.

How long had I been out? I looked at my watch, but I couldn’t remember what time it had been when the bomb had gone off. My best guess was that I’d been unconscious for only a few minutes. I hoped it hadn’t been longer. The emergency response crews would be on the scene shortly, Shannon and I needed to be gone before that happened.

I tried to stand but slipped and fell, knocking my head against an armrest. The floor was wrong.  I looked up and saw rows of seats on the wall. I felt foolish for not remembering that the train car had been knocked over by the blast.

Once I was on my feet again, I could see that the light was coming through the broken windows that were now overhead. My original assessment that the reflected firelight had been coming from outside was correct. I could just see the tips of flames dancing out there.

When I took a step, shards of glass crunched underneath my foot. I paused and tried to listen for the emergency response vehicles over the sounds of the nearby burning fire and the cries of injured passengers. It was made doubly hard because there was a ringing in my ears as well.

Nothing.

A wave of guilt hit me when I heard a long groan.

I had done this. I’d thrown the bomb out the window.

Taking a deep breath, I released it and closed my eyes. I hadn’t been responsible for this, and I knew it. I tried to put the matter from my mind; this was something to deal with later.

“Shannon?” my voice came out unsteady and cracked. It sounded far away. There was a dull ringing in my ears. I licked my lips and tasted blood. I tried a bit louder. “Shannon.”

“Nice job dummy,” Shannon said. She was about six feet away in the middle of a heap of passengers. I rushed to her, taking care not to step on anybody else. Many of the people around her were starting to sit up. A few were making sounds of pain.

The dark made it hard for me to tell if anybody was in need of serious medical attention. I hoped they weren’t, partially for selfish reasons. If they were, I didn’t think I’d be able to leave until proper medical help arrived or I was certain they would survive.

I knelt beside Shannon and put a hand on her head as she tried to get up. Her forehead felt cool and was slippery. I held my hand up to the light and saw that it was covered in blood. Glad that my slacks were black today, I wiped it onto my thigh.

“Wait,” I said, to keep her from moving. I kneeled beside her and did my best to examine her in the low level of light. There was blood on her face and arms as well, but nothing looked broken. She was cast in shadow, so I was unable to tell if her pupils were dilated. “Do you feel pain?” She looked like she had a concussion. I probably did too for that matter, my head felt awful.

“Of course I feel pain, everywhere hurts!”

“Anything broken?”

“No!” she snapped as I remembered that I could use my phone as a flashlight. “Get off me! I should have taken the bomb. A child would have done better than you. Throwing a bomb onto the train tracks? Did somebody replace your brains with jello?”

“I didn’t hear you offering to take it.” I pulled out my phone and tried to examine her using the flashlight app, but Shannon pushed me out of the way.

“That’s because I took the door, which I got open didn’t I? It’s your fault now that we can’t use it.” I released my hold on her and recognized that she was correct; the door was on the side facing the ground. Her snarky attitude set my mind at ease about her well being, but I could feel my conscience pricking up in the back of my mind again.

Once my panic for Shannon was gone, I turned my attentions to those around me and considered making a call to the authorities, but hesitated because I wanted to make sure that Shannon and I had enough time to disappear.

Malcolm had been on the phone when the bomb had gone off. I seemed to remember him saying that he’d been talking to the police, but he might have been trying to get through to the train operator like I’d asked him to do. I couldn’t remember, my mind was foggy. When I overheard a woman on her phone reporting what happened, that solved my dilemma. Good enough, help would soon be on the way. We still needed to get out of here and catch up to Cherry and Tom.

Using my phone as a light, I did a quick circuit checking for serious injuries. I was relieved that I didn’t see anybody that required immediate attention. The only dead I found were those who’d died earlier in the gunfight. This didn’t alleviate any of my guilt, though. Our train car had been further on before the explosion, others wouldn’t be so lucky. People had undoubtedly died.

When I was satisfied that I could leave the train car without feeling like I was abandoning somebody in serious need of help, I returned to Shannon. She was standing and holding a handkerchief to the side of her head. Presuming that this was the cause of the blood, I asked to see it. I was relieved to see that it wasn’t bad.

“Time to get out of here,” Shannon said.

“You sure you can make it?” I asked.

She just glared at me in response, daring me to question her health again. It was a legitimate question, but I let it go. 

Using a seat as a foothold, I grabbed onto the lip a broken window. I couldn’t tell if this was the window I’d cleared out earlier because every other window had broken during the wreck.

As I scrambled through to the top of the overturned car, several shards of glass ripped my suit jacket on the way out. One even drew a little blood from my side. Once I was on top, I surveyed the mess, squinting while my eyes adjusted to the direct sunlight and tried to make sense of the damage the explosion had caused. The oncoming train that had hit the bomb was off the track, collapsed, the cars folded into each other and burning. The flames reached about thirty feet into the air; it was no wonder that I had seen them from inside.

Many of the cars from our train were overturned. I tried again to stuff my guilt away to deal with it later. None of this was my fault.

I just wish I would have noticed the pole.

I wasn’t sure what I would have done if I’d seen the other train. The beeping had been getting louder just before I threw it. If I’d have known about the second train, I would have hesitated, and we’d be dead right now.

There was a voice inside my head that said it was better that other people had died rather than us, but I shut it out. I couldn’t afford to think like that. Making those kinds of judgments wasn’t something I should be doing. 

There was a sound coming from below me. When I looked, Shannon was coming through the window I’d used. I reached my hand down to her, but she pushed it away. I wasn’t surprised, but I would have thought that if ever there were a situation where she’d be glad for a helping hand, this would have been it.

“We don’t have time for you to admire your handiwork,” Shannon said as she surveyed the scene, “we need to get going.”

The comment made me clench my fists. Couldn’t she lay off? I’d only been trying to do what I could to help. Sure, it hadn’t worked out, but I hadn’t heard her volunteering to handle the bomb. She’d been only too glad to focus on the door and leave it to me.

I’d taken on the no-win situation and done the best I could, especially because Malcolm had been hovering over me every step of the way, making it difficult to work.

Another head appeared in the window while I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. Speak of the devil.

I offered Malcolm a hand, despite the fact that I was still frustrated with his earlier actions. He took it and was bleeding in several new places once he was up. He looked like he survived the wreck well enough.

When I glanced back at Shannon, her face reflected her true emotions about the situation. Despite her words laying the blame on me, she was feeling guilt for not getting the bomb off the train in time to save lives. I could understand that, and I could even understand her need to pin the blame on me. That helped me put things into perspective.

I hadn’t built the bomb or left it on the train. This was Payne’s fault, and I needed to get that through my thick head.

“Help the others,” I said to Malcolm and walked to the side of the overturned car, looking for a way down. Shannon was already there doing the same thing. 

“You can’t leave,” Malcolm said when he saw what we were doing.

I didn’t turn back. I felt bad not staying to help, but there was little we could do. The police and emergency response teams would be here soon, and they were trained to handle situations like this.

There was a loud crack, and I looked over to one of the burning cars. There was another that coincided with a burst pushing the flames even higher; it was followed by several more. I hoped the emergency teams were close.

It took some finagling, but we used the bottom of the train car to climb down. Once we had, I took a deep breath. The anger and frustration I’d been feeling towards Shannon and Malcolm had dissipated. My attention was now focusing on Payne. There hadn’t been a good reason for him to do what he did. The people on the train hadn’t been a threat to him.

I didn’t need to ask Shannon what she wanted to do next because she was already on her phone trying to get a hold of Cherry so we could catch up to the others. I was glad that she wanted to continue our mission as well because I wasn’t about to turn back to Black Brick and hadn’t wanted to leave her behind.

Shannon was a mess, though. The cut on her head had stopped bleeding, but we’d have to stop to clean the blood off her face and out of her hair. Luckily, her coat had taken the worst of the blood, and once we ditched it, she’d look presentable. 

I had a sudden thought and checked my pocket. The pistol I’d used to shoot out the window was missing. I tried to remember what I’d done with it after I’d used it last. I was drawing a blank. Had I set it down on one of the seats or had it come out of my pocket during the explosion?

I berated myself for not thinking about it until now and turned back to the car as the sound of sirens filled the air. There wasn’t time to go back. That was one unnecessary piece of evidence that shouldn’t have been left behind.

I still had another pistol on me, in addition to the backup I kept on my ankle, but Beltran wouldn’t be happy. He hated to get his hands involved in other agencies to clean up a mess.

11

As I stepped into the high-rise office building, I resisted shaking my head to get the ringing out of my ears. From what I could tell, my hearing was normal, even though it felt like there was cotton in them. It had been close to an hour since we’d left the site of the train bombing and I hoped that the ringing would soon go away. It was making my headache worse. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Shannon and I had popped into the bathroom of a gas station and done our best to clean up. I had smoothed out my hair and done what I could to make my coat presentable. I was lucky that I was wearing a black shirt as well as a black suit, the blood stains that I was sure were there weren’t showing.

There were several minor tears in the fabric of my suit jacket, but nothing that would cause the casual passerby to take special note of me. If anyone looked too closely, they might wonder, but I doubted that anybody would suspect that I’d survived an explosion.

Despite our better judgment, we’d also taken a moment to call Black Brick to give an update on what happened. Beltran’s voice was calm, but I could tell he was struggling to keep it that way. Initially, he’d ordered us back to Black Brick. I had pointed out that Cherry and Tom were chasing a mad man with a team of thugs by themselves so unless he was willing to call them back as well, we needed to catch up. There had been a long pause before he’d spoken.

“Find Lauren Griffith and Payne, kill Payne if you have too. Then get back here. It won’t be long before the police are looking for you. In all that confusion somebody took pictures of you two, guarantee it.”

Shannon had entered the building ahead of me. She’d done a better job at cleaning up, after she ditched her coat she almost looked normal. She’d let her hair down, and it did a good job of covering up the cut on the side of her head. There was also a wound on her hand that still had a raw look to it, but it had stopped bleeding.

While I’d waited for Shannon at the gas station earlier, I’d used my phone to check the news. I’d been surprised that the media hadn’t yet picked up on the fact that it had been a bomb. The accident was being explained as a collision between the two trains. That wouldn’t last for much longer, but for the moment it meant that other than official personnel, the average person wouldn’t have any clue that something more sinister had happened. It would provide us with a time buffer in which to apprehend Payne and Griffith.

The lobby of the office building was spacious with a marble floor, plush couches, and expensive chandeliers. There were several televisions that were tuned to the news. They were featuring footage of the train wreck from helicopters.

“Do you see him?” Shannon asked me.

I shook my head.

We were looking for Tom. Shannon’s call to Cherry earlier had gone to voicemail, so she’d left a brief message and then tried Tom. He’d picked up on the first ring.

After telling us the address of a building Payne had disappeared into and complaining that he couldn’t find Cherry, he’d hung up. Shannon, who had recognized the address Tom provided, had been asking what floor they were on when he’d disconnected. She had tried calling him back, but he didn’t answer.

When I had suggested that she send a text, she had rolled her eyes as she begun to type. That had been over fifty minutes ago, and he still hadn’t texted back.

When she noticed me looking, Shannon checked her phone again and shook her head.

I surveyed the lobby trying to decide what to do next. The office building had a parking garage that was several levels deep so we wouldn’t be able to observe all of the exit points of the building from here. There was a coffee shop nearby with tables that spilled out into the open area, and there wasn’t an empty table to be found. The other side of the lobby had vendors selling newspapers, magazines, and bagels.

I was trying to decide what to do next when Shannon spotted Tom walking purposefully toward us and elbowed me in the side. I refrained from flinching in pain; she hadn’t been very gentle about it. I didn’t know if she hadn’t been paying attention to what she was doing or if she was still trying to displace her guilt as anger towards me. Tom shook our hands with a warm smile on his face as if he was greeting clients. He pointed out a stairwell, and we followed him towards it.

“Couldn’t come a little faster?” Tom asked looking at me when he was sure that there wasn’t anybody within earshot of us. “I’ll hold you responsible if anything happens to Cherry. Lucky for you, we were able to track down a keycard before we became separated.”

“Turns out your past comes in useful, eh?” I said, assuming he’d stolen it. “You didn’t have to come for us. You let us slow you down.”

Like everybody else, Tom didn’t talk about his life before he’d joined Beltran’s little organization, but I’d gathered enough to know that he was an experienced thief, which was surprising considering he’d been recruited as a kid. I’d wondered what set of circumstances had pushed him to the wrong side of the law so early in life but hadn’t tried to dig into it. There was an unspoken expectation that we didn’t share much about our past lives. We certainly didn’t ask questions about others.

Tom didn’t answer as he unlocked the door and let us in, still playing the part of a professional with his clientele.

“What is it with you two?” Shannon said once the door to the stairwell was shut behind us. “You remind me of brothers.”

“You don’t have to like somebody to respect them enough to work with them,” Tom said.

“You think I respect you?” I countered showing more hostility than I wanted to. I was irritated that he decided on his own to meet us and then griped about having to wait.

Shannon’s comment reminded me of something Cherry had said on our flight to San Diego when we’d had a few minutes alone at the airport. Tom and I had been snapping at each other again. “The problem between you and Tom has more to do with Shannon than either of you would care to admit.”

I hadn’t responded because I wasn’t going to let Cherry fish any details out of me. I didn’t know what Shannon or I had done to make her suspect something, but I wouldn’t do anything to confirm it. I’d even considered making a comment about her and Martinez, but I’d let it pass.

Was Shannon the reason that Tom had come to meet us in the lobby? Was he interested in making sure that she had an extra person to protect her? If that were his reasoning, it would be on him if anything happened to Cherry. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I was right.

“Quit it you two,” Shannon said, breaking into my thoughts. “I won’t put up with this for much longer and may have to shoot one of you.”

“Hey, I was polite,” Tom said, flashing an ingratiating but annoying smile.

I didn’t reply as I went up the stairs, two at a time. I was sweating a bit by the time we reached the ninth floor but wasn’t breathing heavily. Being in shape had its benefits. Shannon was covered in a sheen of sweat that made her more attractive; Tom was panting, but I decided not to point it out.

“Cherry was on the tenth floor when I last heard from her.”

“I’ll open the door,” Shannon said, snatching the keycard away from Tom before he could react. He made a face which he quickly shifted into a smile.

I chuckled, pulling out my pistol. “I’ll go first.” I maneuvered the slide back to load a round and held it as it returned, keeping the whole process as quiet as possible. I received a curious look from Shannon; she’d seen me fire my gun earlier. I should have already had a round chambered. She didn’t comment, though. I wasn’t looking forward to telling Beltran that I’d lost a pistol.

“How about a few less explosions?” Tom whispered. Shannon had filled Tom in about the train on the way up. She’d done a decent job of telling the story evenhandedly. Unfortunately, even I couldn’t deny that it sounded like I’d miscalculated. I hadn’t bothered to interject any of the details that she either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought important enough to include because I didn’t care what Tom thought.

Shannon stifled a laugh but couldn’t quite hide her smile.

Not only was the joke in poor taste, but what had happened to stop fighting? I focused on the target we used at the shooting range—a silhouette with a red circle on the chest—and imagined it with Tom’s face plastered at the top.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We went up the next flight of stairs, and Shannon slid the keycard and opened the door. I crouched down and peeked to either side. A woman was disappearing around a corner on the right. I only saw her from behind, but it was enough to know that it wasn’t Cherry or Lauren Griffith. Holding my hand out to the others to keep them back, I waited for several counts before entering the hallway. I kept my pistol at my side to keep it hidden.

I’d been expecting a lobby when I opened the door, but instead, I was facing a glass wall that gave a view of the city. I could see a trail of smoke to the south that I attributed to the train bombing and wondered how Malcolm was doing.

My next thought was of him sitting down with a detective and giving up every last detail. I hoped that he at least tried to be accurate in his rendition of the facts.

Beltran was going to be upset if pictures of us surfaced and it might help if we came off as heroes instead of villains. Even if that did happen, though, it wouldn’t matter. 

I would have to start wearing makeup, and my Sam Chever identity would be useless. At least then, maybe I could stop attending class. I repressed a snort, that wasn’t likely to happen. Beltran might force us to undergo plastic surgery, but we’d still have to go to class. 

There was a small table with a vase that had fresh flowers. I’d been hoping that we’d be entering a workspace that had little happening. The flowers dashed my hopes. The carpet was brown and flat, the type of carpet that is used in high traffic areas.

“A woman just disappeared down the hall.” I pointed. “It wasn’t Cherry or Griffith. Any idea how many people are on this floor?”

Tom shook his head. “I hadn’t made it very far before I had to come get you guys. Cherry’s last text said that she’d followed them to a large conference room. Shouldn’t be too hard to find. You guys want the left or the right?”

“We’ll go right,” Shannon said. I didn’t have any objections. If that woman I saw earlier turned out to be a threat, it made more sense for both of us to go in her direction, rather than to send Tom alone.

Tom went left but not before he gave a smile to Shannon. There was something about that guy that got under my skin, and I didn’t think it had as much to do with Shannon as Cherry believed.

“You know he’s already lost, right?” Shannon said once he was out of earshot. I tried to keep my face free of emotion, not wanting to let on to the fact that she’d come close to reading my mind. Her sly smile told me that I’d failed. She held her pistol by her side and winked at me. “Now the only thing you’ve got to do is not mess it up.”

Despite my focus, my heartbeat quickened. Part of me hated the effect that she had on me, and of course, the other part loved it.

“Start planning on the mess-ups now. It might help to forgive me ahead of time.”

“Sorry, no pre-forgiveness for you.”

All my instincts told me not to do it. We’d just survived an explosion, the enemy could be anywhere, Tom was just down the hall, but one of us might not make it out of this building alive.

I pulled her in and kissed her. And why not? Death was always close by anyway.

“Well, look who’s decided he’s willing to kiss me in public,” Shannon said, her smile showed all of her teeth. Two smiles in one day, that had to be some kind of record. “Are you sure you didn’t suffer some brain damage? Tom could look back at any moment.”

In answer, I kissed her again, trying to hide my annoyance with her last comment. The thought of sneaking around under the nose of our other team members excited her more than I liked.

I didn’t know what to make of it but couldn’t stop from looking over her shoulder towards Tom. It didn’t appear that he’d seen us and I was mostly glad that he hadn’t. I was surprised that there was a part of me that wished he had. I’d thought I was above petty jealousy like that.

“Let’s find the conference room.” I tried to suppress my worry that somebody was going to find out about us. It would be nice when we passed our final test and could move out of Black Brick. I hated knowing that a camera was always watching my every move when I was in my one room apartment there.

We cleared the hallway without incident for the first few doors. Making me wonder if the floor was deserted. All of the doors we’d tried so far had been unlocked and empty. I was expecting to find the typical office furnishings, but the rooms were bare. I wondered how many unused offices were on this floor. Perhaps this was why Payne had come here. It might make a good place to stash Griffith.

Even though I was glad we were working on a floor that appeared empty, I was careful to not let down my guard. There was a reason why there had been fresh flowers. As we moved down the hall, I could feel the worry seeping into my bones. When we did find somebody else, I’d have to make a split-second decision on whether or not they posed a threat.

Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me but the death count for the day was already too high. I wanted to avoid any more civilian deaths. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this was why we wore body armor. We had time to assess the situation.

We were working on the fifth door of a connecting hallway when we came across somebody else. I was on one side of the doorway, and Shannon had grabbed the handle and was about to push the door in when I heard a door open behind me. I turned in time to see a woman step into the hall. She saw my gun and disappeared back into her office.

Cursing, I chased her. When I got to her door, the woman was standing at her desk with the receiver of her office phone to her ear, frantically dialing numbers.  I moved to the desk and disconnected the call.

“First off,” I told her. “We’re—”

The woman interrupted me. “Don’t kill me! I won’t tell anybody what your face looks like. I have a bad memory.” She still held the receiver in one hand, and she was shaking. I felt bad. It hadn’t been my intention to scare her, but the last thing we needed were the police showing up. I used my free hand to take the receiver and place it in the cradle of the phone. She took a step back and held up her hands. 

“It might help if you got the gun out of her face,” Shannon said, as she came into the office. She took up a position at the side of the door where she could look out into the hallway.

I smiled, feeling a little awkward as I lowered my gun. In the confusion, I hadn’t noticed that I was pointing it at her.

“Becca,” I said, reading the name plaque on the woman’s desk. “We’re not going to hurt you, but I can’t let you call for help. At least, not yet.”

We heard voices from the hallway and Shannon closed the door.

“For the last time, who are you with?”

It was Payne.

There was a pause. “I’m not with anybody,” Cherry said, her voice a small squeak.

12

Shannon grimaced when she heard Cherry’s voice and her demeanor changed. Before, Shannon had been alert and ready for anything. Now, her face tightened, and she twisted her neck to either side. I hoped she wouldn’t do anything stupid. If she did, I’d have no choice but to back her up.

Of the four of us, Cherry was the most cautious and the least likely to do something that would get her caught, but I wasn’t surprised that she was nervous.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable or a good shot—she was calmer in stressful situations than Tom—but I’d always seen her as the weakest among us. I wasn’t the only one. Shannon and Tom were protective of her too, which isn’t a good sign if you’re a spy.

The conversation continued, but I wasn’t paying attention to the words. I listened for the sound of her voice, willing away my desire to rush blindly to her aid. I grabbed Shannon’s arm as she made a move for the door. She glared at me and held up her pistol. She didn’t aim it at me, but her message was clear. Get out of the way.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered why Payne hadn’t just shot Cherry outright. He wasn’t one to have a conversation when a bullet could do his talking. I pushed the question away with relief that he seemed content to banter with Cherry, whatever his reason. 

I pointed to Becca. “We can’t let her get hurt.” Becca had become pale and was cowering in her chair. Her arms were folded as if she was trying to hug herself.

I whispered an instruction to Becca to get under the desk while keeping my eyes on Shannon, I expected her to bolt towards the door.

I tried to think of a way to keep Shannon from barging out, but by the time Becca had crawled under her desk I hadn’t been able to come up with anything. I couldn’t let Shannon go alone, but I also wanted to live through the day.

“Tell me how many more there are,” Payne said, “and it will go better for you.”

Cherry snorted, but it was cut off with a shriek.

“Wait to see if they walk past our door,” I whispered. “We’ll take them from behind.”

“Payne’s going to kill her.”

“Can we help if we’re filled with holes?”

“Get outta my way.”

I doubted Payne would kill Cherry in the middle of the hallway because Becca couldn’t be the only witness on the floor.

There were several thuds and Cherry groaned.

Shannon pushed me out of the way.

I growled under my breath, that woman was going to get me killed. I readied my pistol and tried to visualize what was happening in the hall. I imagined a picture of six men and planned on shooting four in rapid succession while keeping my aim away from Cherry.

“I’m going. Come if you want.” Shannon reached for the door.

“I go left, you go right.”

Shannon nodded and burst into the hallway with me close on her heels.

From the start, even though there were fewer than I expected, I knew we were in trouble and that our reckless attack had been stupid. I should have wrestled Shannon to the floor to keep her from leaving.

The men were looking our direction when we entered the hallway and already had guns drawn. I fired at the first man on the left, my first two shots going into him as he started to raise his pistol. Too late, I realized I was aiming at the same man as Shannon. Cursing, I turned to the next man in time to see the barrel of a pistol explode in my direction.

Everything seemed to slow down. The flash from the muzzle of the gun seared into my brain, and I could have sworn I saw the bullet coming at me. It took me in the chest and knocked me back into the door jam.

I gulped for breath, afraid that the round had pierced my armored vest. All other thoughts fled from me. I couldn’t breathe. It was funny how something I’d always taken for granted became the only thing that I could think about. There were more shots all around me, and somebody else fell to the ground. I thought somebody was calling my name, but it sounded so far away.

Breathe. I needed to breathe.

My mouth hung open, and my arms flailed about as I worked on my lungs. When I was able to choke out a cough, I inhaled. It was shallow, but it was air. I gulped another breath.

I heard Shannon calling to me. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I felt my chest and was relieved that my hand didn’t come away sticky with blood.

“Jake, are you all right?” Shannon asked kneeling beside me. My head spun, and I saw her in double.

“Cherry?” I asked.

“I’m here Jake.”

I pushed myself up on one arm. Another man lay dead beside the one that Shannon and I had killed. Payne was gone.

“Where’s Payne?”

“He got away,” Shannon said. “Can you walk?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I said, my tongue felt heavy and thick. I coughed. “Beltran won’t be pleased if we don’t get Payne. I can see Beltran now. ‘Getting shot is no excuse for letting Payne get away.’” I pushed to my knees, felt a little lightheaded, took a breath, and then stood up. My chest felt like a wrecking ball had just hit it, and I was sure I’d be sporting a bruise, if not cracked ribs for some time.

“What happened to Griffith?” I asked.

“Payne killed her,” Cherry said. “I’m glad you guys came along when you did, he was going to kill me too.”

That would have normally been the place where Shannon would have thrown in an “I told you so,” but she kept silent. I noticed that she was staring at the tear in my shirt where the bullet had hit. I could only hope she was regretting her rash action. It was too late now, but maybe she’d be more careful next time.

“Where’s Tom?” Cherry asked.

“It shouldn’t take him long to find us,” I said. “The shooting will get his attention.” I noticed that Shannon was bleeding. I reached out to her arm. “What happened?”

“I snagged it somewhere.”

I pulled up the sleeve of her shirt against her protests. “Snagged on a bullet you mean.”

“It can wait.” Ah, there was the Shannon that I knew.

“We can’t wait for Tom,” Cherry said. “Even if Payne weren’t getting away, who else heard the gunfight?” I remembered Becca and went back into the office. She was still hiding underneath her desk, trembling.

“Becca,” I said, “you know that call you were making earlier? Give us about ten minutes and then finish it.” I didn’t wait for a response as we headed for the stairs. The elevator might be faster, considering my condition, but I wasn’t about to be shut up in a box that could become a cage with the push of a button. The others were of the same opinion.

We entered the stairs, expecting an ambush. Shannon led the way with Cherry close behind. I wondered if the growing bruise on my chest was going to affect my ability to keep up. My whole chest burned.

When they reached the main floor, Shannon and Cherry burst into the lobby without waiting for me. I was a flight behind them. By the time I was outside the building, they were already halfway down the block.

There was a hint of smoke in the air, and the sun was partially obscured. Whether it was cloud cover, smog, or smoke from the train explosions, I couldn’t tell. I gasped for breath, clutching my chest, and coughed. Pain racked my body. Steeling myself, I dashed after them as best I could, expecting not to be able to keep up, but they stopped soon after they started.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next.

Bill Martinez had Payne at gunpoint and was ordering him into a black suburban, the door of which was being held open by a man that I didn’t recognize.

What was Martinez doing here? He was supposed to have left last night on an assignment in D.C.

A question reoccurred to me and even though I didn’t like the answer that came to mind, something seemed to make sense. Why hadn’t Payne killed Cherry? Martinez might be here to help us out, or he could be rescuing Payne for his own reasons. If there was a connection between Payne and Martinez, Payne would have gone out of his way to keep from harming Cherry.

The thought bounced around my head as I took in the scene. Something wasn’t right. I aimed my pistol at Martinez. I didn’t have a strong explanation for my actions, but any trust I had for him had evaporated long ago.

There may have been a logical reason as to why he was here or why Payne hadn’t harmed Cherry, but I wasn’t willing to take the chance.

“What are you doing Jake?” Martinez asked. “Stop fooling around.”

“You’re not supposed to be here Bill,” I said.

“Are you out of your mind?” Martinez asked. “I’m here on Beltran’s orders. He sent me to help after your little stunt on the train. I’m sick and supposed to be resting, but I was called in to save your sorry team. Now put away your gun and stand down!”

I supposed it was possible that Martinez could have aborted his trip to D.C. for being sick but that didn’t sound like him, and he looked fine. It would take a lot more than the flu or a cold to bench him on the sidelines. No, something was wrong.

“Why don’t I recognize your men? Shannon, take Payne.” I wasn’t able to see Shannon and was unwilling to take my eyes off Martinez.

“You haven’t met half of the people that we work with,” Martinez said. “Put your gun down, and we’ll forget this happened. Look, I get it. You don’t want me to take credit for Payne’s capture, that’s fine. You guys did all the hard work. I’ll make sure Beltran knows. Stand down.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Jake, come on,” Shannon said. “We need to get going. We’ll sort this all out back at Black Brick. Okay?”

Cherry was on my other side, she put her hand on my arm. “You’re not thinking clearly. You’ve been shot.”

I lowered my pistol. This was wrong, I was certain. I had been shot in the chest, not the head. But now that my pistol was down, Cherry and Shannon both latched onto me and pulled me away.

Martinez smiled as he got into the vehicle. “I’ll see you guys at Black Brick.”

As the suburban peeled away, I stared after them, positive I’d seek a smirk on Payne’s face as the car disappeared.

“Wasn’t that Payne?” Tom asked running up. “Why did you let Martinez take him?”

I turned away from the road and studied Tom. He was out of breath, and his face was flush with sweat.

“We’re fools,” I said. “Martinez isn’t going back to Black Brick.”

Shannon shook her head but remained silent. I got the impression that she didn’t want to rip into me so soon after being shot.

“Where have you been?” Cherry asked.

“Looking for you. I found Lauren Griffith’s body surrounded by a bunch of men in suits. They’re on my tail—”

The sound of approaching sirens reached our ears, and I noticed that there were way too many people looking at us. I shoved my pistol into my pocket.

“See you guys back at Black Brick,” Tom said, taking off at a run. Cherry ran in a different direction.

“Are you okay?” Shannon asked, nervously looking around. “We can go together if you want.” It would have been against protocol for us to stay together in a situation like this. Beltran already had enough to be unhappy about; it didn’t seem worth it to push it much further.

“Take care of yourself,” I said and jogged away. I struggled to breathe, and my chest hurt, but I didn’t slow down.

The others weren’t convinced, but I knew the truth. Martinez had just betrayed us. I tried to run faster, but I was rewarded with a coughing fit that forced me to slow until I could catch my breath.

13

The conference room at Black Brick smelled like sweat, and I wasn’t the only with a ring of perspiration around my neck. We’d all made it back within a few minutes of each other and were waiting for Beltran to join us. It wasn’t going to be a pleasant meeting. I took a sip of coke and stifled a groan as pain shot up my chest.

I’d spoken with Dolores, who had been manning the reception desk in the lobby again, and learned that my instincts about Martinez had been correct.

He had in fact betrayed us. After taking Payne, Martinez had called Beltran. Dolores hadn’t known what the conversation had been about, but Beltran had ordered Black Brick into lockdown and restricted Martinez’s access to our base and internal systems. 

I leaned back in my chair, trying to find a more comfortable position, immediately wished that I hadn’t, and sat up again. In addition to my chest screaming with every move, my lower back also hurt. I must have done something to it when I fell after getting shot. It was a miracle I’d been able to run as far as I had on the way back here.

The painkillers I’d taken hadn’t kicked in yet. I took another swig of Coke, wishing I’d thought to bring in another can or two because I was afraid this was going to be a long meeting.

When Beltran entered the room, the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. His face was a cold mask, but the anger danced in his eyes as he struggled to retain his composure. Beltran would sometimes fly off the handle, and all we could do was wait until he was done shouting.

I took another sip of my drink as Beltran set a folder he was carrying onto the table. He leaned down, putting his hands on the top and scourged us with his eyes.

“Why did you let Martinez take Payne?” Beltran demanded. “I wouldn’t have assigned your mission to another team without telling you. You know that.” 

Shannon was staring out one of the windows, fiddling with a pen. Cherry didn’t appear to be listening. Tom was handling Beltran the best of any of us because he hadn’t been there for the Martinez part of it all.

I wasn’t in the mood to say “I told you so” or give the others a knowing glance. Meet back at Black Brick to sort this all out, indeed!

This failure was as much mine as theirs, if not more mine since I’d realized something was off. Beltran was angry, but not as furious as I was expecting. The betrayal of one of his most trusted agents should have been accompanied by a tirade of swear words and yelling.

There was something about all this that bothered me.

“How long have you known Martinez was a traitor?” I asked.

Beltran looked shocked, and I could see him trying to come up with a convincing lie, but it wasn’t going to work.

“Martinez was being managed,” Beltran finally admitted.

Managed? What did that mean? Why would Beltran leave a traitor in the ranks?

“You had information that would have been key to a successful resolution of the mission,” I said, “and withheld it from us. This is as much your fault as ours. If we can’t trust a team member, who can we trust?”

“That’s the motto,” Tom said, “trust your team.”

Shannon looked up. “How many times have you told us?”

“You’ve got to trust your instincts as well,” Beltran said. “Jake was the only one to recognize something was wrong.” He looked right at me. “You should have done everything in your power to keep Martinez from taking Payne, shooting them both if you had to. I’d much rather be cleaning up bodies now then guessing what Martinez is going to do next.”

I tightened my jaw. I’d just been shot, if that wasn’t a good excuse for a lapse in judgment, I didn’t know what was.

“Payne is dangerous.” Beltran looked at Cherry. “And I’m afraid Martinez is every bit as dangerous in his own way.”

Was this why Beltran hadn’t been bothered by Cherry’s relationship with Martinez? Beltran had bigger things to be concerned about. During the meeting, it had taken a real effort on my part to avoid staring at Cherry to monitor her reaction to all of this. Out of respect for her, I’d kept my eyes away. If she was crying, it was best that I didn’t notice.

“Yeah,” Tom said. “We know. We’ll keep our guard up. Blah, blah, blah.”

An idea occurred to me. There might be a good reason why Beltran had left Martinez where he was. 

“This was our test,” I said. “We were supposed to discover that Martinez was a traitor. This whole time, I just thought you were being lax on the rules, but you wanted us to figure this out.”

“That is correct. You failed.” As Beltran let that sink in. “Every one of you had an opportunity to put this together. You all knew things he was doing wrong but did nothing. You should have trusted each other with what you knew.

“Jake, you watched him torture a man. Cherry, you knew he was embezzling from Black Brick. Tom, you knew he was taking calls on a cell phone that wasn’t one of ours but didn’t report them.” He looked at Shannon. “You caught him on my computer. Now, because you failed, Martinez has the resources Kurt transferred to Payne, and we have a much bigger problem on our hands.”

We all looked at each other, except for Cherry, who kept her eyes down. Beltran was right; we’d have known something was wrong if we’d been talking to each other.

“It is you that failed,” I said. “Sure, we didn’t pick up on your little exam, but you should have had a failsafe. It should have been impossible for Martinez to pull what he did because you already knew what he was.”

Beltran glared at me. “Forgive me for my misplaced faith in all of you.”

“So are we out now?” Shannon asked.

“Everybody fails their test the first time.” Beltran looked at us each in turn. “The next test will be much harder.”

Beltran’s revelations weren’t sitting right with me. “If you knew that we weren’t putting things together, you should have stepped up to do something about it, especially if you thought Martinez was going to team up with Payne. You knew that Payne would come after Lauren Griffith, didn’t you?”

Beltran didn’t need to answer the question, his face was enough.

“Jake’s right,” Tom said, although it looked painful for him to admit it. “How can you expect us to do our job when you keep back important information?”

“Did you know that Payne and Martinez were connected before today?” I asked, thinking back to our briefing the day the Kurt house had exploded. Martinez had been in the room when we’d been talking about Payne, and he must have been laughing at us. When Beltran had assigned him to locate Payne, Martinez must have also been amused by that.

I remembered the look of shock on Martinez’s face when the explosion had happened. Had Kurt been working for Martinez as well or had it been an act? I recalled everything I could, but couldn’t decide. If my guess was correct that Vargo and Diggon had been behind the explosion, Martinez would have been surprised.

No, that felt wrong.

Martinez was a better actor than I gave him credit for. If Martinez had recruited Jason Kurt as well, he had the most to lose if we brought in Kurt.

I thumped my fist on the conference room table. “Martinez killed Kurt and his family because he was afraid that after we’d learned Payne was connected to Kurt, we’d bring in Kurt and pump him for information. It was in Martinez’s best interest that didn’t happen.”

“That’s how Gina Townsend knew my name,” Shannon said. “She was working for Martinez. He was behind this all along.”

“Kurt’s family is dead because you didn’t do anything,” I said to Beltran.

Beltran bit off a growl. “Tone it down a notch or two. I knew nothing of the sort, but I did have my suspicions. That being said, I didn’t know enough to operate on. Anytime I send a team on a mission, I expect things will not go according to plan. So should you.”

“That’s a fancy way of saying you’re going to continue to withhold vital information from us.” Shannon was leaning forward, perched to attack. She’d never looked more beautiful. “People have died today. We could have saved lives if you had been more forthcoming.”

“I will do as I see fit!” Beltran snapped, raising his voice for the first time. “This is bordering on insubordination. You’ve blown off your steam. Now it’s time to get back to business.”

“Oh, it is, huh?” Cherry demanded. We all looked at her; it was the first she’d spoken. As I had suspected, there were tear stains on her face. “You should have told us Martinez was a traitor.”

“No,” Beltran said firmly, though his tone was softer. “There will always be information that you won’t have. Get some rest. We need to figure out what Martinez and Payne will do next and stop them.”

14

It was the first warm day in months, and the students of Kingstone campus were taking advantage of it. A group of people on the grass in front of the Lincoln library were tossing around a Frisbee, and there were even a few ambitious girls sunbathing. It was warm, but it wasn’t warm enough for that.

Several women who walked by chatted animatedly. In the brief snippets of the conversation I overheard, it sounded like they were discussing a celebrity, but I didn’t hear enough to overhear who. Not that it would have mattered if I did, I didn’t know much about those sorts of things.

I marveled at their energy. To me, they looked like kids, but I knew they were the same age as me, if not older. How was it possible for me to feel like an old man when I was barely old enough to be in college? What would I have become if I hadn’t been raised by the government?

I headed into the library. I wasn’t sure if I intended to get anything done, but I had to get out of Black Brick. It had been two days since the train incident, and I was going stir crazy. Beltran hadn’t even made us attend class, which I’d been thankful for until I felt the walls start to close in.

When I passed the lobby, I noticed Thor sitting at a table near the librarian’s desk and decided to go to the second floor. I didn’t feel up to dealing with the man. 

I found an empty table in a corner and pulled out my tablet computer and set it down without turning it on. It had been a long couple of days and I still couldn’t tell up from down. The last week had been intense. Explosions left and right, people connected to Diggon dropping like flies, and hidden agendas everywhere I turned.

Beltran could call it a test if he wanted, but that didn’t make it any better. When we’d been told that there would be a final test to become active, I’d expected a hard mission that tested my personal abilities and limits.

What Beltran was doing tested my faith in him and our organization. What else would Beltran be willing to do as a test? How far was he willing to go? Would he let people die? 

I was certain about only one thing. Payne and Martinez needed to be brought to justice.

Turning on my tablet, I avoided the temptation to check the news because it would be focused on the train wreck. More than twenty-five people had died so far, with more deaths expected. My subconscious had somehow been able to accept the fact that the situation hadn’t been of my own making and that I’d done my best. This kept the guilt from overwhelming me.

Yawning, I looked around the library and saw I was alone. Shelves of books towered all around me, providing me with the refuge and solace I sought. Shifting, so that my back was facing a wall, I decided it was safe to open work related information and review it. I needed to do something to keep my mind off the madness. The only way out was through. 

As a team, we had expressed interest in helping chase down Martinez and Payne. Beltran had refused our offer but given us Martinez’s file to review. 

“Make no mistake, you’re not on this case,” Beltran had said, “But Martinez knows enough about us that it would be best if everybody kept an eye out for his meddling.”

I opened the Martinez file and began to sift through it. Snorting, I realized that much of the information had been redacted or password protected. Later, if I had time, I’d try to get around the encryption on the documents. For now, I sifted through what was available.

Martinez had been recruited when he was twelve after his mother had died in a car accident. That wasn’t a surprise; all of us came from similar backgrounds. We’d all lost parents at a young age and never been adopted afterward.

I guess Beltran had adopted us all.

Did that make him our father? The thought made me shift in my seat. I hoped Beltran didn’t think of me as his son, I would never think of him in that way.

I noticed a file called activity logs and tried to access it, but found that it too was password protected. I’d been hoping to learn what Martinez had been doing the night that Andrews was killed. If he’d been using Payne and Kurt to get at Diggon, that made him our best suspect for the Andrews murder. Had he killed Gina to keep her from ratting him out? He could have killed us, but that might have drawn too much attention from Beltran.

“You made a mistake with Peck the other day, you know that, right?”

The statement broke into my thoughts like a cannonball diver at the deep end of a pool.

I looked up into the face of the dark haired girl that had been staring at me all semester. The tight pink sweater and jeans complimented her dark hair and it was an effort for me to remember that I was already spoken for.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

The woman smiled and shifted her head to the side. She was holding several books which she set down on my table. Without asking, she slid out a chair and took a seat.

“Peck’s going to call on you more frequently, just to see if you’ve done your reading.” She smiled, her white teeth stood out against her brown complexion. “Should I just call you Mr. Chever or do you have a first name?”

I was uncertain what to do and hoped that Shannon didn’t decide to come looking for me. I’d left without telling her where I was going, but she knew that when I went for a walk, I often ended up in the library. I wasn’t sure that Shannon would be the jealous type, but it was always wise to be careful with a woman who made a habit of being armed.

“Sam,” I hesitated. It was only polite to ask her, but I didn’t want this to go on too long and let her get the wrong idea. “You?”

“Kris Lee.” She slung her bag off her shoulder, set it on the floor, and leaned forward. “So you’re a history major, you going to teach?”

I hesitated. Was she stalking me? I was about to ask how she knew when I remembered that it had come up in class one day.

“No. Just thought it’d be nice to know something more about the world. You?”

She smirked. “I’m getting a real degree. Marketing with a sales emphasis.”

“You call that real?” I asked, smiling.

Kris returned it. “I liked your suggestion about having politicians fight it out in a ring.” The playful look on her face didn’t quite match the tone of her words, and she seemed nervous. I remembered what Shannon had said to me about this girl being out of my league. Well, Shannon was too. Kris was comparable to Shannon, at least on looks.

“Why should our soldiers die to settle disagreements between government leaders?” I asked.

“Politics becomes the ultimate reality TV show. Presidents aren’t elected but instead fight their way to the top.” Kris hesitated. “Wanna go grab a coffee?”

I bit my lip; it was hard to reject a woman with a smile like that. Shannon had a nice smile too. I just wished I got to see it more often.

“Look, Kris, you seem like a nice woman, but I’m seeing someone.”

“Oh! You think I’m asking you out.” I couldn’t decide if it was my imagination or not, but I thought she had turned a little bit red in the face. “I didn’t mean it like that. I have a boyfriend, but he hates talking politics. I was just hoping to chat.”

“Ah, sorry. How about a rain check? I’m working on a project right now.” My phone vibrated. It was Shannon. “Nice talking to you but I need to take this call.”

I was glad for the interruption because I didn’t know how to handle this situation. I almost would have preferred that Kris had come at me with a gun, if she had, I would have known how to respond.

“Have a good night.” Kris stood. “See you in class.”

I answered my phone and watched her leave. It had been a puzzling encounter, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it.

“Where are you?” Shannon demanded.

“Why?”

“Your fingerprints turned up on the train. Your pistol?”

I swore. In everything that had gone on, I’d forgotten to tell Beltran that I’d lost a pistol. “Impossible. I had latex covering my prints.”

“What about the last time you cleaned it?”

“Please, I follow the rules. Is my face all over the news?”

“No, Beltran caught wind of this before it got too far. He’s also managed to suppress a video or two from the phones of bystanders. We both owe him big time. Come quickly, he’s changed his mind about having us work the Martinez case.” Shannon hung up.

So much for a quiet evening of reflection.

There was no way that I’d left a fingerprint. I’d worn gloves the last time I cleaned it, I always did. I didn’t realize that I was sweating until I wiped my brow and pulled away a moist hand. Growling, I stood up.

Martinez could have lifted my fingerprints before defecting; he probably had the fingerprints of all of us. Payne could have planted a gun on the train that led back to me. I threw my tablet in my bag and left the library.

As I walked back to Black Brick, I tried to imagine going to a study group or having the option of getting mixed up with a girl like Kris. It might be nice to date somebody who wasn’t able to kill me with her bare hands.

Try as I might, I couldn’t picture that kind of life. 

15

Steeling myself for what lay on the other side, I opened the door to the conference room and entered. Shannon, Cherry, and Tom were already sitting around the table. Beltran was pacing.

My eyes locked onto Shannon first, and she gave me a small frown.

“You didn’t think it was important to mention that you lost a pistol?” Beltran snarled.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, the pain flared in my back as I sat down and my chest felt like I had large leaden weights fastened to my ribs. “I always wear the latex covers.” That had been one of the principal rules from the very beginning, and I’d never broken it. I always wore gloves when cleaning my guns and was religious about changing the latex fingerprint covers that I wore on my fingers. Every morning I’d peel off the set I’d worn the previous day and put on new ones. “This is a setup. In the report, did it mention two pistols found in the train car?”

“When we screw up, we admit it,” Beltran grimaced, dodging my question, I could tell that I’d scored a point. There had been two pistols.

“I lost a pistol, but it shouldn’t matter, it didn’t have my prints. Martinez gave Payne a pistol to plant.”

My words hung in the air. Usually, I would have apologized by now, because that’s what Beltran was looking for, but I’d been given enough trouble for how the train incident had gone down, that I just couldn’t bring myself to utter the words.

“You should never lose a pistol,” Beltran said, much of his anger dissipating. He picked up a remote and pressed a button. When the screen came on, it showed a picture of Martinez with an older man. “We have an emergency, and unfortunately, you’re the only team I have available. This picture was taken earlier this morning. We caught this by accident, neither Martinez nor the old man was the subject of the surveillance.”

“Who was?” I asked.

“Somebody else.” Beltran pointed to the man beside Martinez. “This man has access to the old Diggon headquarters. The problem ladies and gentlemen is that Martinez knows about an operative I have at that location. Nothing has happened to her yet, but she’s close enough to finishing her mission that we are going to complete it tonight. Hopefully, whatever Martinez has planned won’t go down before that. We can’t allow Martinez to compromise this mission.”

Beltran met my gaze. “This cannot go down like the train.”

I growled, both because of the guilt and all the condemning looks I was receiving from the others on my team. I was grateful that Shannon was staring at the table instead of at me.

The death count was up to twenty-seven. I’d given in and checked the news on my way back to Black Brick. Several drawings had been made of Shannon and me, but they were nondescript enough to not be alarming. I was relieved that Beltran had been able to keep some of the videos and pictures from coming out, but I was afraid it was just a matter of time before others did.

The conflicting accounts of the survivors alleviated some of the worry I felt, but none of the guilt.

“This is a very simple mission.” Beltran’s eyes bored into me; it made me want to punch him. “Protect agent Lisa Hooper as she copies files from the Diggon data center. Nobody knows we’re coming and passing security will be a breeze. Zero body count. Can I be clearer?”

Tom smirked. “Careful, Jake may take that as a personal challenge.”

“What aren’t you telling us?” Cherry asked.

Beltran looked at Cherry, cracks appearing in his forced calm demeanor. “You’re reaching the end of your slack. Push me further. See what happens.” His voice held no emotion, and he spoke quietly, but the words hung in the air, the latent threat all but spoken.

“Who’s Lisa?” Tom asked.

“She’s a professional, and you’ll all obey her as you obey me.”

“At last an order I understand,” Tom said with a mock salute.

“Shannon and Lisa go in,” Beltran said. “The rest of you wait as lookout and backup.”

The instructions bothered me. Cherry was right, there was something that Beltran wasn’t telling us. If it was a simple pickup mission, why did he want three of us sitting in the car twiddling our thumbs instead of providing backup onsite?

“I don’t like being partnered with someone I don’t know,” Shannon said.

“It’s bad enough we have Jake,” Tom said, “who has a tendency to leave things in flames, but at least I know what to expect. Lisa’s unknown, she could do anything.”

“Cherry and Tom,” Beltran said, through clenched teeth. “You are dismissed.” Surprise at the dismissal registered on Cherry’s face, she blinked, her face frozen. Tom took it better, but not by much. They stood, took their things, and left without another word. 

“I wish that I could keep Cherry out of this,” Beltran said once they were gone, rubbing the sides of his head with his hands. His eyes gave away the lie.

That was it. This is what was bothering me. Our mission wasn’t about helping Lisa. No, this whole thing was about Cherry. Beltran wanted Martinez to think that we were there for Lisa, but in reality, he was counting on Martinez taking advantage of the opportunity to grab Cherry.

My bet was that Beltran had reason to believe Martinez was going to be there tonight and wanted to dangle a carrot in front of him.

“You’re using her as bait,” I said.

“Just take care of her.”

“If anything happens to Cherry….” Shannon pushed her lips together and narrowed her eyes, but didn’t finish her sentence.

I thought back to how Shannon had rushed headlong into Payne and his men to protect Cherry. I hoped that Shannon had learned her lesson, but I doubted it. The next time Cherry was in danger, Shannon would act rashly to protect her. The bruise on my chest was a good reminder. If I took too deep of a breath, my chest filled with pain. I wouldn’t forget that lesson anytime soon.

Beltran’s words were forced. “We have a job to do. I don’t have time to worry about Cherry. Or either of you. Get it done and get back here.”

16

Before the last light of day was gone, I checked my phone for any new email or text messages and put it away. The windows of our black Chevy Suburban were tinted, but I didn’t want to take the chance that the light from the screen would draw attention to our vehicle. There was a small chance of that happening because we were parked on a busy street outside of the building that used to be Diggon’s headquarters, but it was best to be cautious.

The new Diggon headquarters was several miles away and had just been completed. I hadn’t been into the building, but there had been a lot of publicity associated with its completion. Not only did it tower above all the other buildings in the city, but it also had a fully fledged zoo and aquarium on the premises.

The old building in front of us was still being used by Diggon but it was slowly getting phased out.

I thought about reaching out to Vargo’s surveillance team to see if Vargo was in the area but decided against it. They wouldn’t appreciate me bothering them while they were on the job. With the events of the last couple of days, I’d been too busy to keep tabs on the information they’d been gathering about him. I made a mental note to review the logs when we returned to Black Brick later tonight.

I mulled over Vargo’s strange words the night that the Kurt family had been killed. They made more sense now that we knew Martinez was behind things. Vargo’s denial of involvement to Janessa may have been genuine.

I wish we knew what Vargo and Andrews had hired Payne to do because it might help us understand why Martinez had recruited Payne out from underneath them. We couldn’t find any evidence from the files we’d taken from Kurt’s home. 

Tom and Cherry sat in front, she was monitoring the radio, and he was on lookout. It had been a quiet couple of hours, but we hadn’t gotten out to stretch. My legs were in danger of falling asleep, so I shifted. A moment later I could feel the blood running back into my feet, but my legs still ached.

I hadn’t mentioned my concerns to Tom or Cherry. I didn’t trust them to keep my theory to themselves. Beltran was dangerous enough that I needed proof that he was using Cherry as bait before I spread it around.

If I were to tell them, I’d be running the risk of learning what Beltran was like when he really got angry. It was bad enough that I’d said some of the things I had. If I started trying to poison his subordinates against him, I might not be able to come back from that. 

Despite our vigilance, the evening had been uneventful, and it had been over two hours since Shannon and Lisa had disappeared into the building.

“They should finish any minute now,” Cherry said looking at her watch. We’d had an update fifteen minutes ago that they were almost done.

“About time,” Tom said, “my back is starting to hurt.”

If Martinez were going to make a move on Cherry, he would have done it by now. I looked out the back window, shifted and brought my legs up onto the bench seat. That was better. Laying my head back against the window, I took a deep breath, ignoring the pain in my chest and back, and let it out slowly.

I was bothered that my fingerprints had turned up on the train, what did Martinez have to gain by planting evidence of my involvement? Beltran had made it clear that he thought Martinez was in this for Payne’s Diggon money, but what if he was wrong? What if Martinez was trying to destroy and discredit our organization as well? He could just pick us off one at a time.

The thought stopped me cold.

If that was Martinez’s game, the person that would be in danger here would be the only person by herself.

Shannon.

Lisa wasn’t a tactical specialist and wouldn’t be any help if they got into trouble. If I were Martinez, I wouldn’t come after the three of us as we sat armed to the teeth waiting for him to show. No, I’d go after Shannon.

I pulled out my phone and dialed. They were on the twenty-fifth floor, if something were to happen to them, we wouldn’t be able to get there in time. A moment later, I was relieved to hear Shannon’s voice on the other end.

“Idiot,” she said. “Communication is supposed to go over the radio.”

“Anything unusual happening up there?” I asked, Cherry and Tom looked back at me, but I didn’t heed the questioning looks on their faces. When she didn’t answer, I continued. “I was wrong. Martinez is going to come after you.” I noticed a startled look on Cherry’s face as she realized what I meant. She’d probably been worried she was bait but hadn’t been willing to speak it aloud. 

“You’re worried about nothing, we’re—” Shannon stopped, and I could hear her phone clattering to the ground and her pistol being pulled from her holster. “Lisa, behind you!”

Gunshots came out of the tinny speaker of my phone. There was screaming, but I couldn’t tell from who. Probably Lisa, Shannon was too busy firing her gun. After that, there were voices, but I couldn’t make out what was being said.

I covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Gunfire.”

Tom was already opening his door, and I was trying to make out what was happening. I didn’t want the sound from outside to drown out what I could hear so I hit the front seat and motioned for Tom to shut his door and pointed to my ear. He did.

Cursing, I had to suppress the same instinct as Tom to rush up there. There wasn’t much that we could have accomplished, we were too far away.

The gunshots had stopped, but there was still yelling. I thought one of the voices belonged to Shannon, but I couldn’t tell for certain. When I recognized Martinez, I gripped the phone tighter. 

I could make out other muffled voices, but that was the extent of it. At one point, I could have sworn that I’d heard Lisa say that Martinez had taken long enough. I gripped my phone tight, wondering if I’d misheard.

Her voice had been calm and collected. Hadn’t she been screaming moments before? Had it been an act to distract Shannon so Martinez had the opportunity to take her out?

There was a pause in the conversation, and I wondered if somebody had noticed Shannon’s phone lying on the ground.

There were scraping sounds as it was picked up and heavy breathing came through the phone.

Closing my eyes, I focused, trying to make out every last whisper that I could. An image of Shannon, lying in her blood came to mind. Taking a deep breath, I pushed away the thought and refrained from speaking.

“Follow us and she dies,” Payne said. The line went dead.

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Books by Dan Decker

Science Fiction & Fantasy

War of the Fathers Universe

[_Prequel: Blood of the Redd Guard _]

Volume One: War of the Fathers

Volume Two: Lord of the Inferno

Other Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Containment Team

Thrillers

[+Jake Ramsey Thrillers +]

Black Brick

[+Dark Spectrum +]

Blood Games (Coming Soon)

About the Author

Dan Decker lives in Utah with his family. He has a law degree and spends as much time as he can outdoors. You can learn more about upcoming novels at dandeckerbooks.com.


Black Brick - Chapters 1-16

Jake Ramsey watched his parents get murdered when he was a boy. Shortly afterward he was recruited to work for Black Brick, a covert government organization. After Jake survives a shootout while protecting the corrupt executive of a powerful and well connected government contractor, his suspicions grow that the covert government organization he works for has been subverted by somebody who doesn’t have the country’s best interest at heart. The deeper he digs the more he fears he has been lied to about everything, including the details around the deaths of his parents. Jake doesn't know who to believe as he searches for answers, dodges bullets, and is framed for a train bombing. He soon finds himself fighting against the very organization he believed to be on the right side of the law. If you enjoy thrillers with twists and turns, this book is for you. This sample includes the first 16 chapters. Pick up your copy today!

  • Author: Dan Decker
  • Published: 2017-01-14 00:20:20
  • Words: 32729
Black Brick - Chapters 1-16 Black Brick - Chapters 1-16