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There was no one on this island of partying rich kids and vagabonds who cared about the washed-up sniper taking practice shots at the buoy eleven hundred meters offshore. Most mornings, John hit his target without fail. Not today. The wind was all wrong, which should have been John's first clue that his exile in the Virgin Islands had gotten too comfortable. One shift of the wind and he didn't instinctually adjust.
It was about time. He'd been waiting to exercise this particular mental muscle. The one that guarded against complacencythe false sense of confidence in himself, in his environment and in the people surrounding himwhich had been the root cause of the implosion of his former life.
The problem with confidence was that it led to trust. And trust led to assumptions like there's no way a blood brother who he went to war with would betray him. Or that loving a woman with every cell of his being would earn her loyalty, if nothing else. Dangerously naive assumptions like those were why John Witterformer Green Beret sniper, former ICE black ops agent, former somebodyhad spent the past twenty months waiting for complacency to set in so he could kick his own ass back into fighting shape.
It was a far cry from a do-over, but earning the status of persona non grata with the U.S. government and its world allies didn't leave him a whole lot of viable options.
He lifted away from the rifle and peered through his scope at the buoy swaying in the waves and wind. He should have this shot. He'd adjusted for elevation given the tide, he'd lain in the exact same position he always did, with only a plain cotton T-shirt between his shoulder and the rifle butt, with a wad of gum sandwiched between his left-side molars. All the lame superstitions and habits he'd long ago forgiven himself for. Every sniper he'd trained with seemed to have them, or even nuttier ones than John, as symbols of control and consistency.
Ah. That was the problem, right there. All the things he always did. Control and consistencythe most dangerous illusions of a complacent mind.
He spit the gum into the sand, then shifted from his belly into an awkward hunching seated position. Then he did the most uncomfortable, distracting thing possiblehe thought about Alicia. He thought about her the second to last time they were together, about her lying on her stomach and the path of water left by the ice cube he'd trailed along her spineone of the many memories of her that hurt in a physical, permanent way.
He could still hear the hiss of protest she'd given when the ice cube had first touched her skin, followed by a giggle that had quickly turned into a purr. He'd loved the sounds she'd made in bed. Sweet, vulnerable, girlie sounds that were totally incongruous to the Alicia the rest of the world knewthe soldier, the computer genius, the femme fatale. His secret Alicia. His Phoenix.
At the next knife of pain to his heart, he steadied his gaze through the mounted scope. He thought about the wind and the rate of the incoming tide. He studied the buoy's pattern of movement, then set his finger on the trigger. Breathe inAlicia's hair fanning over her smiling cheek. Breathe outher hand finding his and holding tight. A squeeze of the trigger. The buoy bell gonged with the hit.
He loaded another round and repeated the process, twice as fast this time. Gong. Maybe that was why he wasn't entirely sure, at first, that he'd heard the chirp of the alarm from his computer alert system. He stood and shook out his legs, then dusted the sand from his shirt.
The computer chimed again. Sometimes it was easy to forget that life in the real world had gone on without him. He went weeks now without tuning in to world news or checking his email accounts. A long time ago, he stopped caring about war or what his old friends were up to. But guarding himself, resisting complacency, meant keeping tabs on the two people who'd destroyed him. The email alert meant that Logan McCaffrey, his one friend left in the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcementbetter known as ICEwas contacting him with news about either Alicia or Rory.
Maybe Rory had been moved to a new wing of the prison. Or Alicia had decided to rejoin ICE. Most likely, the news was something benign, but still beneficial for John to be aware of. Someday, he planned to reenter the world and it'd be good to know exactly where his enemies were and what they were up to.
He propped his rifle against the wall just inside the cabin door, then unloaded the spare ammo from his pocket to the shelf next to it. From the fridge, he grabbed a bottle of cola, then crossed the wooden floorboards to the communication console he'd set up on the far side of the room. An email window had popped up.
John dipped his head to read it without sitting.
Rory escaped at 0700 hours. Alicia is missing.
He paused with his hand around the cola's twist-off bottle cap and read the message again. Stunned into numbness, he drew a slow, lung-filling breath through his nose, set the unopened bottle down and braced his hands on the table. Then he read the message one more time.
On this last reading, two thoughts burst through his shock. One, Alicia wasn't missing. People with her particular skill set never went missing; rather, they chose not to be visible anymore. And two, Rory was a dead manunless John got to him first.
Not that John cared if Rory died, but he was the only man who knew the truth about John's innocence. John had made peace with the reality that he'd never have the chance to press Rory into coming clean about the lies he'd gone on record with about John, locked away as he was in the ultramax prisonthe one that didn't officially existinside Fort Buchanan, the U.S. airbase on Puerto Rico.
Seven hundred hours was only thirty minutes ago and Puerto Rico was only one hundred and twenty miles northwest. How far could Rory have gotten? Fort Buchanan was solid, security-wise. A man imprisoned there didn't simply hide in a laundry cart and steal away under everyone's noses. With the full press of the U.S. military, ICE and whatever other federal agencies the government sent looking for him, it wasn't likely that Rory had gotten very far at all.
What if John got to him first, before the government or Alicia did? The idea sent a thrill coursing through him. This might be John's one chance to clear his name. It was the opportunity he never knew he'd been waiting for. Talk about a shock out of complacency.
He looked northwest across the Caribbean, the vibrant blue sea that had acted as his buffer against reality since Rory, John's closest friend and sniper partner for a decade, self-destructed and tried to take John down with him.
Like being startled awake after a long, deep sleep, John's heart beat loud and fast, pumping adrenaline-laced blood through his body. He pivoted and grabbed a hammer from his tool chest. Normally, he pried off the boards from the wall behind his sitting area, but the clock was ticking, so he wound back and smashed the planks to get at the metal locker.
Into a black canvas bag, he stuffed all the gear, cash and weaponry he could fit, reserving a brick of C4 explosives for his immediate use. He set the C4 on the table next to his computer. Whatever happened with Rory, whatever came next, John wouldn't be back to this place. Not that he had anything to hide, necessarily, but it was bad form in the black ops world to leave a trail.
He unwound the cable from the C4 to the door, then grabbed the key to his boat and the plastic package of a new, untraceable cell phone, slung the bag and his rifle over his shoulder and stuffed the extra ammo in his jeans pocket. He took one last look around, then stepped into the morning sunshine. Trailing the C4 cable behind him, he followed the path downhill toward the water until he was far enough away to be safe from the blast. He'd wait to call Logan for more details once he was on the water.
No time for ceremony, he flipped the switch to initiate the reaction, then set the detonator box on the ground and broke into a jog to his boat as an explosion ripped through the air behind him.
It was a good soundloud and angry and full of force. Like John. It was a sound that said, "Goodbye, exile. Hello, last chance."
Ninety percent of murders were committed by men. The Department of Justice statistic made sense to Alicia. Most men she knew weren't exactly creative thinkers. Of the 10 percent of murders committed by women, Alicia bet the vast majority of them were crimes of passion against boyfriends or husbands. Again, not a surprise.
Alicia, for one, had debated long and hard about whether she'd kill her ex-lover. She still wasn't sure she'd made the right call to focus her revenge solely on Rory and leave John unharmed. After all, what kind of world was it when a man conspired to kill one of the most lethal women on the planet and lived to tell about it? Even now, twenty months later, his betrayal burned like acid in her heart.
Swallowing back the hurt, she adjusted the gun hidden in the concealed holder between her breasts and fixed her eyes on the nasty trail of water and sewage trickling from the drainage pipe through the sand and into the surf. Disgusting. This was one section of beach St. Thomas wasn't going to put on its tourism brochures.
She'd been here for two days, putting the final pieces of her plan in place. Everything was going according to script, except that she hadn't anticipated that every step closer she took toward executing her plan evoked a fresh surge of memoryabout the ICE black ops team she'd been part of and about the day her teammate Rory tried to kill her. About John.
Annoyed that her thoughts had slipped so easily to him again, she stared past the sewage to the pristine water of St. Thomas Harbor and counted the cruise liners. Three had pulled into the harbor so far today, unleashing thousands of tourists onto the four-by-thirteen-mile island. The ferry from Puerto Rico had landed on this less-scenic end of the harbor an hour earlier, along with an attempted murderer stowaway in a crate of cheap Puerto Rican rum bound for one of the waterfront hotels that fed into this drain pipe. Unless he did something stupid and impetuous, Rory would be emerging from the pipe any minute.
Alicia was ready for him. Even if she weren't a virtual ghost, the Department of Justice didn't keep homicide statistics about women like her, who'd devoted more than a year to plotting cold-blooded revenge, not against a lover, but the man who'd shot her and left her for dead.
The idea of coming face-to-face with Rory for the first time since that fateful day made her anxious. Not scared or intimidated, per se, but filled with disquiet over the memory of what it had felt like to be weak. To hand her power over to a man.
Never again. Killing Rory was the first step in rebuilding her reputation, but it was about so much more than an encore. It was the start of a new career. A fresh beginning. A plan not undertaken to help her make a debut splash as a black ops mercenary, but to blow the water out of the pond. Or out of the Caribbean Sea, as it were.
Any minute now, a dangerous criminal would be released into the world. Lucky for the masses, Alicia would be there waiting with the kill shot.
Laughter and a child's squeal forced her attention away from her duty. Three children were frolicking in the water nearby, amid the concrete storm wall and shallow beach. Her heart sank. This was not the place for them, nor the time. If Rory showed up now
The children were a motley bunch, with rags for clothes and dirty faces, wild hair. Every one of them thin and undernourished. Perhaps their parents worked in the hotels' kitchens or factories pushing so-called "island handicrafts" on tourists. Alicia's least favorite part of living in the shadows was that the poor lived there, too. Not because she was a snob, but because nothing made her heart ache like children in the kind of desperate poverty she'd seen the world over. It never got easier to accept.
She hated even needing to shoo these children away. Adults probably shooed them away all the time, treating them no better than stray dogs. She'd watched it happen too many times to count. And who was she to interrupt their fun? She was the intruder in their happy day, the morally corrupt American about to commit an act of violence in their communityin public, in broad daylight.
Fishing money out of her pocket, quarters and dollars, she walked their way, waving it to show them she meant no harm. They skipped to her, hands out, smiling eagerly. She filled their hands with the money and they thanked her in Spanish. She pointed up the road toward the cruise terminals where the food vendors were, telling them in their language to go buy sweets and food for their family. One of them hugged her.
With a glance at the drain pipe, she hugged back, trying not to be impatient. Finally, they hurried off, chattering about what they'd buy and how to divide the money. Alicia was free to turn her attention back to the pipe. The only thing worse than children witnessing what she was about to do was her being caught off guard or Rory slipping by while she was distracted.
She heard a splash before she saw a swish of movement in the shadows. She gripped her gun and pulled it from between her breasts. It was about time, toothe silencer was digging into her middle. She flattened against the storm surge wall adjacent to the pipe, her finger on the trigger.
Rory's arm appeared first, then his face and body.
He high-stepped through the water in relative silence, dressed in tourist clothesa Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts and sandals. That was a surprise. She hoped whoever he stole the clothes from was still alive, but there was nothing she could do about it now.
She had a clear shot and could've pulled the trigger already, but the cruel streak in her wanted to make sure he knew who was ending his life.
She pivoted away from the wall, gun first. "Hello, Rory."
He froze in midstride, then turned in her direction. "So it was you. I thought that might be the case, but I had to give it my best try, anyway." His expression was stoic, like a man resigned to his fate.
She walked closer, until she stood at the entrance to the pipe. "I was counting on that. Though I would've preferred it if you'd been a bit more surprised, perhaps begged me to live."
He sneered. "And I'd really like a steak dinner before I die, but we don't always get what we want, do we?"
She aimed at his heart, her own heart pounding madly. It was supposed to feel better than this. She'd counted on it being a relief to her broken spirit to have achieved revenge, but it was harder than she'd expected. Conjuring the way she'd felt when their positions had been reversed, when he'd stood before herher teammate, her lover's best friendand looked her in the eye as he pulled the trigger of his Kimber 45.
Yeah, Rory Alderman deserved this. He knew it; she knew it. Karma knew it.