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Dylan Hart sat in the deepening gloom of his thirteenth-floor penthouse at 738 Steele Street, his gaze fixed on the large, dark painting hanging high up in the pipes and rafters criss-crossing the vaulted space of his ceiling.
He'd hung it there years ago, all twelve by eight feet of it, so he would never forget the price some men paid. The price they'd all paid. Now he had to wonder for what: freedom? justice?
A few times over the last fourteen years he'd believed in justice, maybe a few more times in freedom, but overall, he'd never been that naive, not even in the beginning of his military career, when Special Defense Force, SDF, had first been created. The world revolved on power and the ties that bound men together, and Dylan was bound to the man in the painting: J. T. Chronopolous, The Guardian, wielding a broadsword in his hands, dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt with his dark wings spread out on either side of his body, the feathers dragging the ground, an angel god of retribution without mercy.
MercilessGod knew the world was that and worse . . . far worse.
A heavy sigh escaped him, and he slid deeper into one of the overstuffed leather chairs in his living room, slid deeper into the ocean of guilt waiting to drown him.
Jesus, sweet Jesus, what have I done?
His throat was tight.
To die was one thing. Everyone in Special Defense Force, a black ops team run out of the underbelly of the United States Department of Defense, his team, knew their life was on the line for the job, and they'd all signed on willingly. Hell, they'd signed on eagerly, then trained their guts out, through blood and sweat and the crucible of their own experience to keep death at bay. They won their fights. They'd always wonexcept once.
He lifted his hand to his face and covered his eyes, let his palm rest there, a shield against the hard truth scrolling down the screen of his computer, the results of an eight-month investigation.
"This is ugly, Dylan, and it's only going to get uglier," said the woman who'd spent the day decrypting the files he'd brought with him from Washington, D.C. She was sitting across from him, blond and beautiful, dressed in a pair of bad-girl high heels and a simple, incredibly expensive gray dress that fit her like a glove. "Randolph Lancaster needs to have an accident, a very bad accident. Gillian and I can get on a plane to Washington tonight. No one else ever needs to know. We can survive this."
Assassination of a top-level U.S. government official, that's what she was proposing; that she and Gillian Pentycote, an SDF operator known as Red Dog, go to Washington, D.C., and rig Randolph Lancaster's car to fail, or arrange for him to go swimming one night in his pool stone-cold drunk, with too much precisely administered alcohol in his blood, and drown. Or maybe one of the girls would take him out on his sailboat and drop him over the side, while the other shadowed them in a getaway speedboat.
Either of those plans was a better death than Lancaster deserved.
Through his own auspices at State, and through his "foreign policy adjustments" using a legion of pawns put at his disposal by the various intelligence agencies of the U.S. government, most notably the CIA, Randolph Lancaster had accumulated millions of dollars selling American soldiers through a company called LeedTech.
Lost boysand none more lost than J.T., because of a LeedTech contract with a Southeast Asian company called Atlas Exports.
Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, a quarter of a million, the price of a man's lifethe computer had over a hundred invoices for the sale and delivery of over a hundred extremely skilled, superlatively fit soldiers to Atlas for "enhancement and experimental use," each invoice tagged with a coded Department of Defense Special Operations Forces (SOF) identification number.
Dylan's team in Denver, Colorado, comprised eleven elite SOF soldiers, and six years ago one team member's coded ID number had been duly printed on an Atlas Exports invoiceJ.T.'s number. He'd been sold by Lancaster as military chattel, set up to disappear during a sanctioned mission in Colombia and be sent to Southeast Asia.
He'd been sold out while under Dylan's commandand then everything had gone even more horrendously, sickeningly wrong.
Dylan slid his hand down to cover his mouth for a moment and lifted his gaze to the woman across from him. She was right. Lancaster needed to be brought down.
Geezus. The depth of the betrayal was numbing.
Randolph Lancaster had been a friend.
Enhancement and experimental usehe knew exactly what the words meant. On the computer screen, on an Atlas Exports invoice dated three years ago, he'd seen his own coded SOF ID number typed across the top of a page.
Sometimes, at night, the bite of the needle would come to him again, waking him with a scream lodged in his throat, his body drenched in sweat. More pain than what he'd been subjected to was literally beyond his imagination. Yet he knew J.T. had suffered much more, torture beyond bearing, transformation beyond reversal. J.T. had been changed into someone else, something else, a half-man/half-genetically altered beast going by the name Conroy Farrel, and that creature was on the loose, out there somewhere in the world and closing in on Denver. Dylan knew it down to his bones. He'd been the one to bait the trap, and "the bait" was showing all the signs of impending escapeheightened alertness, hours spent either pacing or standing stock-still, looking out toward the windows, refusing to speak. Somehow, somewhere, even with her locked deep inside Steele Street, incarcerated on the tenth floor, Conroy Farrel had communicated with Scout Leesom. The message would have been simple: "I'm coming to get you."
"We need to bring J.T. in first, secure him," he said to the blonde. "Then we'll go after Lancaster."
"No." She was adamant, her arms crossing over her chest, her chin firming up, her gaze meeting his with mutinous intensity. Her name was Skeeter Bang-Hart, and out of all the bad girls in the world, she was his. "We go after Lancaster now, take this party to him, give him something to worry about besides trying to kill J.T., and you, and probably the rest of us while he's at it. He needs to go down, Dylan. He needs to go down as hard and as fast as we can make it happen, and SDF can make it happen pretty damn hard and fast."
She wanted blood. She'd wanted it since she'd found the invoices deep-sixed in the no-access files he'd hijacked off an ultra-secure computer in Washington, D.C., but Dylan wasn't going to let her have it, not yet.
He shook his head. "This party started eight weeks ago in Paraguay, in Conroy Farrel's compound on the Tambo River, and it's going to end here, at Steele Street, when we have him back. Then we'll take Lancaster out."
She crossed her legs, tightened her arms, and looked at him long and hard. "You lost him in Paraguay, Dylan, you and Hawkins and Creed and Zach, all four of you, even after Creed hit him with a tranquilizer dart damn near big enough to drop an elephant. The girl was a secondary target at best, and if he doesn't want her back, we've got nothing."
Count on Skeeter to lay the failure of their last mission on the line, but she was wrong about the girl.
"He wants her." Guaranteed. "You saw her. She's not worried. She hasn't been worried from the beginning. Angry, yes, but not scared. She knows he's coming for her, and she doesn't think we have a chance in hell of stopping him. That he might fail hasn't crossed her mind, and four days ago, she started actively looking for him, actively preparing for her escape. He's here now, Skeet, and I need you here, too, you and Gillian. This isn't the time to be splitting the team up. We need everybody on board, everybody in place. How's Cherie doing with the changes on the security system?" Cherie Hacker, a world-class computer nerd and electronic security expert for Steele Street, had been fine-tuning the building ever since they'd brought Scout Leesom to Denver.
J.T. was going to be thinking about how to get inside, and Dylan had decided to make damn sure he could, almost at will. When he hadn't shown up in the first four weeks after the botched mission in Paraguay, Dylan had decided to loosen the security here and there and tighten it in other places, hoping to lure him into making his move. In effect, Dylan had left half the building unlocked. There was risk in the plan, but if he'd thought it would bring J.T. in, he'd have laid a trail of bread crumbs from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, straight to Steele Street's front door.
"She's got all the outside doors wired into one set of controls, including most of the garage doors, and she's almost finished wiring the elevators," Skeeter said. "We should get down to the office. Cherie's got another shakedown planned in an hour."
He checked his watch. "What about her Quick Mart runshow are those going?"
"Right on schedule, every day," Skeeter assured him.
The Quick Mart runs were a long shot, sending Cherie out for coffee, making it look like the building was wide open for people to just come and go as they pleased. It was more bait, a low-percentage shot compared to the high-priced piece on the tenth floor, but Dylan was putting everything he had into play. If he didn't get to J.T. first, Lancaster would, and that was a possibility he wasn't willing to accept.
"Who's on the street with her today?"
"Zach," she said.
Zachary Prade was one of the original chop shop boys. An ex-CIA agent, he'd been so deeply undercover in the drug trade at one point that Dylan had lost track of him for years. Zach had "been there, done that" in dozens of hellholes around the world. He could more than handle Cherie's coffee run.
Dylan stood up and offered Skeeter his hand, and after a moment of meeting his gaze, she took it and let him pull her to her feet.
He held her there for a moment, then cupped the side of her face with his palm and leaned down to take her mouth with his. The bad girl was all his, and she proved it with her kiss, melting into his arms, holding him close as he slid his hand down her neck and over her breasts, before letting it come to rest low on her belly. Yes, this girl was his, for now and forever.
Deep down, he knew she was scared for all of them, for what their investigation had uncovered and what it could mean for their future, but she would obey. He didn't have a doubt. There'd be no takedown of Randolph Lancaster until he gave the order, and he would when the time was right. Chances were, the team would survive Lancaster's betrayal despite the damage he'd done.
Conroy Farrel was a different matter. The chances of all of them surviving a live capture of the beastly creature J.T. had become were far, far slimmer. He was a warrior at heart and a monster by designand there wasn't an operator at Steele Street who didn't know it.
Ketamine hydrochloride. Special K. Monkey Morphine delivered in an automatic syringe shot out of a .22-caliber rimfire rifle. He knew the drill.
Conroy Farrel rubbed the side of his neck where he'd been darted two months ago in Paraguay. With all the cutting-edge psychopharmaceuticals pumping through his bloodstream, he would have thought he could handle a few cc's of the date-rape drug.
Think again, Con, old boy.
The ketamine, a hallucinogenic animal tranquilizer, had damn near twisted him up and tranquilized him into the fifth dimension for weeks, and the guys who had doped him lived across the street from where he was standing in a Denver, Colorado, alley. Worse, far worse than the doping, they'd stolen his girl.
He'd come six thousand miles to get her back.
Con let his gaze slide up the length of the wildest, most contraption-like freight elevator he'd ever seen. It crawled up the side of the building at 738 Steele Street, all iron and steel, looking like a gothic suspension bridge set on end and, somehow, oddly, familiardamned familiar. Shrouded in the shadows cast by the setting sun, all he could think was that the elevator reminded him of the bridge that spanned the Kwai River just outside Kanchanaburi in western Thailandnot that he liked to think about Thailand too often. Bangkok had been nothing short of brutal on him, half a breath away from the deep sleep. Or maybe less than half a breath. Resurrection, he was sure, was the only thing standing between him and eternity.
And the only thing standing between him and his girl was the building across the street. If she was in there, he was going to get her, and if she wasn't in there, he was going to get whoever was and ask them once where they'd taken heronly once. Scout was tough, as tough as she'd needed to be to survive alone in Southeast Asia, before he'd finally tracked her down on the streets of Bangkok. They'd celebrated her eighteenth birthday in Rangoon, her nineteenth in Vientiane, her twentieth in Phnom Penh, her twenty-first in Da Nang, and her twenty-second in Amsterdama promise he'd made her father, Garrett Leesom, a soldier like him, one of the world's warriors whose last breath had been wrung out of him in the same hellhole that had all but killed Con.
Yeah, Scout was tough, like her father. These thugs on Steele Street wouldn't have what it took to break her. But he had what it took to break them, and it would all come to bear on every single one of them, starting with a guy named Dylan Hart, until he had Garrett's daughter back.
He reached into his pocket, felt the business card there, but didn't pull it out. He didn't need to pull it out. The words on the card had been burned into his memory the instant he'd seen them: Dylan Hart, Uptown Autos, We Only Sell the Best, 738 Steele Street, Denver, Colorado. He'd found the card on his kitchen table in Paraguay the day they'd taken Scout.
These boys knew he was coming. Hell, they'd left him an engraved invitationand they weren't car salesmen. He didn't give a damn what the card said.