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Discarded Heroes #4
By Ronie Kendig
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Ronie Kendig
All rights reserved.
The Shack Four Years Later
It's sad, really." Marshall "the Kid" Vaughn trudged away from the thumping rotors of the helo that had deposited them back at the Shack, his pack almost dragging on the ground. "Ya don't realize how much a person adds until he's gone."
"Legend's not gone." Max "Frogman" Jacobs hoisted his rucksack into a better group, his mind locked on Sydney and their two sons waiting for him at home. Poor woman had to be going out of her mind with two of his Mini-Me's running around.
"Yeah." John "Squirt" Dighton hit the light breaker, then waited for the six-man team to clear the door. "He's just temporarily detained."
Lights sizzled and popped to life. Groaning bounced off the grimy windows as he hauled the door closed, locked it, then started toward the showers.
The Kid grunted. "Forty-years-to-life temporary."
In the locker room, a depressive gloom hung over the team. They'd been on countless missions, hit just about every terrain and environment imaginable, but none had taken the toll the last couple had. And there was one reason—they were down a man. Griffin "Legend" Riddell. If Max could write the playbook, they wouldn't do another mission without the guy. But with the man in federal prison for murdering a congressman, it'd be a long wait.
It was quiet. Too quiet. Max looked around the Spartan room. Walls of lockers, most unused. A few benches. A giant once-white bin for dirty duds. And the team. Six men now. All very skilled. Good men. Even the one missing. Every man here knew Legend had been set up—he didn't murder that congressman. But nobody could prove it. The evidence was damning. Justice—injustice was more like it—came swiftly. Lambert, ever the puppeteer, couldn't pull the right strings to get Legend off.
"I'm heading up to visit him tomorrow. Anyone game?" Colton "Cowboy" Neeley slumped on a bench and ran a hand over his short dark hair. His blue eyes probed the group.
"Nah man. I've got a date," the Kid said.
Squirt beaned him with a towel. "What girl would go out with you, mate?"
The Kid snapped the terry cloth back at the former Navy SEAL. "Your sister."
Squirt froze. His jaw went slack. Then his eyes darkened.
Laughing, Canyon "Midas" Metcalfe rose to his feet from the corner. "You just proved his point by thinking your sister would actually go out with him."
Squirt swallowed, his face drained of color. "I introduced them at a New Year's party."
Midas laughed harder. "Your mistake, mate."
Shuffling closer, Squirt pointed a finger at the Kid. "I swear, you touch her, I'll shove a fistful of witchety grubs down your gullet."
"Give me credit, dude." The Kid raised his hands. "I'm a gentleman."
Max grunted. "Right." As he strode around the lockers to the shower well, he heard more threats and much more laughter from the Kid. Max shook his head. Would the Kid ever grow up, learn when to leave things alone?
As he tossed his oily, grimy duds on the bench, Max paused, thinking maybe he should send his report to Lambert now so he wouldn't have to mess with it tomorrow. The mission had been simple enough, a snatch-n-grab of an Iranian doctor. It'd been nice and clean, in and out. The report wouldn't take long. Then he could shower, bug out, and know he had the whole weekend with Syd and the boys.
Max jogged up the iron stairs, which creaked and groaned beneath his weight. Down the hall to the right. He punched in the code and entered the secure hub, the door hissing shut behind him. The most high-tech part of this dump of a warehouse.
Shouts drew his attention to the blinds. He jabbed two fingers between a couple and spread them to peek down into the main area. Squirt and the Kid raced into the bay and back the way they came. Squirt looked ready to kill. The Kid's face revealed his fear. Max shook his head again. Man, he wanted Griffin back. The guy seemed to bring balance to the team. Badly needed balance.
Max powered up the computer. Hand propped on the warped wood, he waited for the system to boot.
More shouts. Loud thuds.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. Would they never—?
Instinct drove Max to his knee at the sound of gunfire. He scrambled to the window. Through the slanted blinds, he peered down into the slab of cement. His brain wouldn't assemble what he saw. Gunmen. A dozen or more. Rushing into the Shack from the parking bay. Moving swiftly, as if ...
They know the layout.
Max darted to the door and jerked it open. He sprinted down the hall toward the stairs. As his boot hit steel, he froze. A shadow emerged. Floated into the hall.
Max jerked back. Pressed his spine against the wall.
By the showers, the Kid looked up. Max signaled to him. Then he made his best and loudest Nightshade whistle, hoping it would penetrate the building, give the men warning to take cover.
The Kid threw himself back into the locker room.
Men swarmed the corner. One looked to his left, one right. His weapon slowly rose as he traced the stairs with his M16.
Max leaped backward into the darkness of the office. He closed the door. As the lock clicked, darkness dropped like an anchor over the entire building. Behind him, a glow screamed his location. The monitor!
Max spun. Lunged across the desk. Stabbed the power button. And paused with his hand still near the monitor. If someone was coming after them ... accessing this computer ...
On his knees, Max yanked the cords free. With the box, he moved to the window and reassessed the parking bay. Another van with a half dozen men with AK-47s. They streamed into the warehouse.
Max's gut wound into a dozen knots. They were screwed.
Think! Hand on the door, he considered going back downstairs. But that would get him captured. Killed. Yet he'd rather be with his guys than running like a chicken.
No, not running. Considering options, gaining the advantage. Planning. The invasion force was armed to the teeth. They knew who they were coming after. They'd brought weapons. And those guys moved with precision. Swift, deadly precision.
Though Nightshade had a stellar ops record, perhaps they had finally met their match. Still ... two to one? Nightshade had faced worse.
A large black Suburban screeched to a halt in the middle of the parking bay. Two men emerged, both wearing trench coats.
Max cursed his luck to be up here, away from his gear, his weapons. Up here without firepower. Thus, powerless.
Okay, enough. He was going down there. He eased the door open and slid across the hall. Bathed in darkness, he crouched at the edge of the landing, using the wall for cover. A dozen men so far, rushing here and there. Quick, quiet chatter between the men.
A smirk slid into Max's face. His team had taken cover, and these goons couldn't find them. If he could just get a weapon ...
"Can't find them."
"They're here. I saw them go in," the man nearest the SUV shouted. "Find them! Lights!"
Light rushed through the building as headlamps from the vehicles stabbed the dusty, damp building. Max yanked back, out of sight. He needed to get down there, defend his men. His boot hit the landing.
Shouts erupted. A shot bounced off the steel rafters, taunting as it echoed through the Shack. Stilled, Max waited. More shouts. The sound of a scuffle. The half dozen men waiting by the SUV lifted their weapons to the ready.
The locker room door swung open. A man walked backward, his AK-47 aimed at a large form filling the doorway. Cowboy. Arms raised, dressed only in his jeans, he stalked forward. Someone shoved him from behind, which barely moved the big lug.
Spine pressed against the wood, Max peered down into the bay.
"You move one wrong muscle," the one in front of Cowboy growled, "and so help me God, I'll kill you."
"No you won't." Cowboy lowered his hands. "If you wanted me dead, I wouldn't be out here."
Ride 'em, Cowboy.
From the side entrance to the showers, three men dragged a shouting, cursing Kid into the bay. Max smirked that it took three tangos to wrangle the Kid.
Hand clenched, Max's mind went into overdrive. What could he do? God ... I need ... something. What could he pray for? Intercepting the team was impossible. Twelve, fifteen armed tangos against one unarmed man?
He latched on to the hope that they'd only found Cowboy and the Kid. No Midas, Squirt, or Aladdin. Good. Maybe they could regroup and—
A man flew through the bay door from the showers and landed with a thud a yard from the others. Midas flipped over, scissored his legs, and swept the thug off his feet. The Kid seized the confusion to attack the men guarding him. And impressively. With a hard right, he dropped the first and used that weapon to disable the second.
Cowboy took a step back and rammed his elbow into the gut of the nearest guard. The gunman bent forward—straight into Cowboy's meaty fist. The big guy pivoted, slapped the interior of the gunman's wrist, effectively seizing the weapon and flipping the muzzle around. He fired at the guy.
In the split second it took for Max to realize the sonic boom that rent the air wasn't the report of Cowboy's .45 MEU but of a rifle, Max saw the man in the black trench coat drop to the ground. A circle spread out like a dark halo.
"Sniper!" someone shouted.
The dead guy had fallen backward. Most likely shot from the front. Which meant ... Max's gaze rose to the rafters. With no light, it'd be the perfect hiding spot. But ... who? Squirt? Aladdin?
The man guarding Colton stumbled forward, then went to his knees before hitting the cement.
The man in the black trench coat nearest the SUV dropped. A pool of blood spilled out.
"There!" One guard swung and fired his fully automatic at the ceiling. Four others followed suit, firing at the bank of grimy windows on the southeast wall of the building. Aladdin!
Max followed their direction and watched. Waited, his breath caught at the back of his throat. Cracks and shattering glass blended with the staccato punches of the guns to create a wild cacophony of noise. Max tuned it out, praying whoever—Aladdin or Squirt—wouldn't be hit.
But then he saw it. A shift of a shadow. Like someone rolling ...
The gunfire petered out as a body plummeted the eight feet to the ground. Aladdin!
The thud seemed to have supernatural powers as it pounded Max's chest and pushed him back. Away from the window but not far enough that he lost line of sight.
Silence dropped on the Shack.
"Where's Max Jacobs?"
As the question streaked through the warehouse, Max registered a red glow in the far corner. Even as he noticed it, he heard a beep. Another. His gaze darted to the source of the noise. Two men were walking the perimeter, their M16s dangling as they raised their arms and pressed something against the supports. Arms lowered and the men stepped back revealing gray bricks with wires.
Gotta stop this. Do something. His gaze collided with Cowboy's. The big lug gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
Max's nostrils flared as he wrestled with what to do.
How do they know our names?
"Dead," someone answered.
Pulled back into the shadows, Max clenched his eyes and bit down on his tongue. Dighton was dead. What about Aladdin—had he survived the fall?
Sirens wailed in the distance.
"Load 'em up."
"What about Jacobs?"
"Outta time." The leader left as the gunmen dragged the team out of the building.
Stealthily, Max held on to the box and sprinted the length of the hall to the side of the Shack. In the conference room, he plunged toward the window. Craned his neck to peek out. Three vehicles—twin white vans and a black town car.
The guys were loaded into the van and one into the car.
The leader shifted, held something out, then it wavered.
Max spun around, searching for an out. Doors. Only one way down—the stairs. But they led to the bay, which would be engulfed.
Windows. Overlooked the dock. The canal. It was January. The water would be brutally cold. His split-second assessment told him no matter what route he took, it'd be deadly. Despite his training, if he didn't find shelter out of the water once he broke surface, he'd die an ice cube. If he stayed, he'd die a fireball.
Good thing SEALs are insulated against cold water.
Max vaulted toward the window, hurtling the computer through the window. The glass shattered as a violent force blasted through the air. It lifted him. Up ... up ... Flipped him. Searing pain sliced through his arm. Heat stroked his back and legs. Fire chased him out of the building. Into the night.
Another wave slammed into him. Threw him backward. Toward the water.
Something punched his gut. Knocked the breath from his lungs.
Bright white lit the night. Blinded him. Then—almost instantaneously—black. Pure black. And he was falling ... down ... down....CHAPTER 2
Shanganagh Cemetery Shankill, Dublin Ireland
Life and death had much in common with the clump of dirt in her hand: They were cold and hard. What difference did it make to be alive? Other than the fact one could sense the hurt, the pain that infected this world. On the other side—if one believed that sort of thing—you didn't care about those toiling through time. Pain was abandoned. Hardships forgotten. People loved a distant memory. Sorrow gone. Respite found.
You lucked out this time, Tina.
Squatting beside the mound of dirt, Kazi Faron rubbed the earthen material between her fingers. The pieces fell from her palm and were carried away by the wind. Just like life. Rubbed the wrong way, it vanished.
She stared down at the narrow angular box. A bitter wind swirled and nipped at her cheeks as she lingered, ignoring the shovel-wielding men huddled against the frigid weather, waiting to fill in the hole.
Waiting to fill the hole.
One that would never be filled.
Her breath puffed. Snowflakes danced and fluttered, a final peaceful adieu to the woman who would never draw another breath. Never feel the cold air. Never give another caustic laugh. Never ... nothing.
Kazi closed her eyes and let out an agonizing breath. It should have been me. Molars clamped, she shoved down the torrent of emotions ready to regurgitate her fury. Her throat burned. Tears stung her eyes.
A blast of icy air whipped at her. Poking her, pointing out her guilt. White flakes, fat and plentiful, freezing her heart. Her soul.
A strange peace encompassed her, steeling her with purpose.
Another gust of wind, pushed up off the coast, whipped at the land on the other side of the tall hedgerow on the far end of the cemetery, hitting her. And with it came a laugh. Kazi blinked and looked around the rows of headstones, pulse hopscotching at the sound. "Tina?" The name was out before the idiocy of saying it registered.
The dead don't talk.
But memories lived forever. And Tina's laugh ... Annoying and infectious, it'd rippled through the club on their first meeting, drawing Kazi to her. It'd been her luck to have to rout her accomplice from a steampunk club in the middle of London.
"And who are you to be tellin' me what I'd be doing? The Queen Mum?" The girl's shrill voice carried easily over the throbbing music. She leaned across a beefy man and grabbed a glass of white foam-topped black liquid and took a gulp.
"Shut up and move" had been the reply quickest on Kazi's tongue. But she thought better of it, spotting the bulge under the arm of the oaf. A weapon.
"Her first cousin, twice removed, then added again." Kazi had never taken cheek from anyone. She wouldn't from this wiry girl with nose and eyebrow piercings. But she needed her for the gig. Carrick had insisted on them pairing to finish the job. "Her paramour, Lord Carrick himself, says we need to talk."
Slowly as the girl's gaze roamed Kazi's conservative black jeans, black jacket, and cross-trainers, the smile and amusement drifted away on the thumping bass that vibrated the cement floor. Even amid the raucous noise of the nightlife, the sound of the girl's glass slamming against the table drew the gazes of those around them. She pushed to her feet, albeit wobbly.
Great, a drunk.
Excerpted from Firethorn by Ronie Kendig. Copyright © 2011 Ronie Kendig. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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