When Taskforce operator Knuckles brings his old friend Decoy, a former teammate from the Navy SEALs, to Lima, Peru, he wonders if he’s made a mistake. Knuckles’ only objective is to assess Decoy’s covert surveillance skills on an orientation deployment, the final step before any recruit is accepted into the extralegal counterterrorist organization known as the Taskforce.
Just when Decoy’s wild side threatens to expose their cover as technicians working for the embassy—and derail his chances of becoming a full member of the Taskforce—the two uncover an unexpected piece of intelligence involving the terrorist group, the Shining Path, that causes their mission to go from evaluation to operational. With no backup and a flimsy cover story, Knuckles and Decoy find themselves in murky territory, relying on the help of an untried asset to prevent a devastating attack on countless innocents.
Includes an excerpt of the Pike Logan novel, The Forgotten Soldier.
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I’m often contacted about some of the secondary characters in the Taskforce series, so I thought I’d develop a short story around two of them: Knuckles and Decoy. Yes, for Decoy it’s a little bit of a tribute after his trials in Days of Rage. The timing is roughly between One Rough Man and All Necessary Force, with Decoy having just completed Taskforce Assessment and Selection, and Knuckles taking him on his first deployment—an operational training event in a live theater.
The morning drizzle caused a single bead of water to track down the windowpane, slicing a trail through the droplets clinging to the glass. Sitting up in bed, the light of false dawn growing in the room, the man watched the drip, thinking of operations past. Of being on the outside, in the wet, the rising sun aggravating the grit in his eyes from nights of sleeplessness.
This job sure has better perks.
He was brought out of his thoughts by a leg rubbing against him, his companion beginning to stir. Oh, yeah, much better perks.
The woman sat up, and he had a moment of panic because he couldn’t remember her name. Cathy? Carolyn? Cindy?
It was something with a C, of that he was sure. And might have a Y in it. Not that that tidbit would get him anywhere. He’d been in this situation plenty of times, and when confronted with the inevitable rage at his lack of memory, he’d found that saying, “Hey, I know how it begins,” was never a winner. Because of it, he’d perfected the art of talking without using names—at least until he could steal a look at a bill or driver’s license.
She sat up, a tangle of red hair and a cherub nose that he found excruciatingly sexy. But then again, he found just about anything of the female persuasion sexy.
She pulled the sheet up against her breasts, an odd show of modesty, and said, “We still on for the tour today?”
He had a split second of confusion, then his words from the night before came tumbling back. I’m new here. Yes, I’d love to see the town. No, I’m not busy. Why, that sounds like fun. And now he would have to pop that bubble. Without even knowing her name.
Her face showed a nonchalant confidence, but a little slice of apprehension trickled out, wondering if he’d simply lied to get her into bed. The last thing he wanted.
Shit. Why did I do this?
The truth was that he could no more go on a tour with her than he could travel down a Lima boulevard with a rocket-propelled grenade. It just couldn’t happen, and he had known that the night before when his team leader had left him, saying, “Don’t get in trouble. . . .”
And now he was. In trouble, that is.
He broke into a smile that he hoped was sincere and said, “I honestly can’t do that today. I probably should have left last night.”
He saw the twinge of rejection flit across her face, and felt like a shit. He had no desire to hurt her, and wanted to treat her with the same respect she had shown him. But, damn it, he didn’t even know her name.
She wrapped the sheet tightly around her body and said, “I get it. Whatever. You should probably go.”
He said, “No, no, it’s not like that. I mean it. I just have stuff to get done today. I’m only here for a couple of days, and I have to map the entire cellular infrastructure for the embassy. I have a job to do. To make sure folks like you are secure in the event of a disaster. I’m not making that up.”
Inwardly, he felt pride at using his cover story to extricate himself from the problem. One of the very reasons he was in-country, and something that should give him credence on his probation status. After all, there was no better example of living your cover than doing it in a bed with a woman. Right?
She leaned back and said, “What’s my name?”
Buying a scant second, he said, “Huh?”
She glared at him and said, “What is my damn name?”
He saw his phone on the nightstand light up, and knew who it was. Understanding that his world of shit had just grown worse. He said, “Hold that thought,” and snatched up the handset.
He put it to his ear and heard nothing, then realized he still had it in radio mode, requiring his Bluetooth earpiece.
Jesus Christ. One fuckup after another.
He began scrambling through his clothes on the floor, searching for the small Bluetooth receiver he’d used on the operation last night. Wondering what the hell he’d done with it while flinging his shirt off in his haste to get into bed.
He heard his date stomp into the bathroom and breathed a sigh of relief, still digging.
He found the earpiece and jammed it home, saying, “Knuckles, this is Decoy. I’m here.”
He heard nothing for a second, and repeated, “Knuckles, Decoy?”
Knuckles came back, cold venom coming through. “What the fuck is your phone doing in radio mode after the operation? You put that thing into OEM cellular mode as soon as we’re done. Like you were taught. Has it been that way all night?”
Decoy felt a little sweat break on his brow. “Yeah, yeah, it was, but I just forgot.”
He looked at the bathroom, making sure the door was still closed, then whispered, “Hey, it’s not that big of a deal. Nobody’s seen it.”
“Nobody’s seen it? Nobody’s seen it? How would you know? I’ve been trying to call you for a half hour and finally guessed that you’d screwed up and the phone was still in radio mode. Where are you? I woke up this morning and your room was empty.”
“I’m coming now. No big deal. Nothing happened since you left last night.”
“How the hell would you know? The beacon’s on the move, and I’m the one tracking it. Don’t make me prove everyone right. Don’t make me be the one who jerks your ticket. Where the hell are you?”
Decoy heard the disappointment coming through the phone and finally realized how much was riding on this deployment. After Assessment and Selection, he’d figured he was good to go, and that this trip was just a block check, but now it had turned into his entire world.
“I’m just down the road. I’m moving now.”
The bathroom door opened, and C with a Y walked out. She saw him still in her apartment, still undressed, and swung back to enter the bathroom again. He said, “Hey, wait.”
She turned, and he heard, “Wait on what, you shit?”
Jesus. No way to win.
He held his hand in the air to her and said, “Knuckles, I’m coming now.”
He heard, “You better get your ass here in the next five minutes, because if I have to build your report, you’ll be back to swimming with the big Navy. You hear me?”
He said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m moving.”
He ripped the earpiece out, shut down the phone, and said, “Hey, I have to go. I really have to go. It has nothing to do with you.”
Squinting a little bit, a scowl on her face, she said, “So you have something incredibly important today, but last night you had no idea? I thought you were here doing a cellular survey? What’s time-sensitive about that? Are they moving the towers today or something?”
On wobbly ground, knowing he should just own up to being a man-whore, saving everyone from the repercussions by fleeing the room, he said, “No, no. It’s my boss. My first trip. He’s making it hell. Punishing me.”
The worst answer, because it gave her hope, but he just couldn’t bring himself to shatter her psyche by running out. They’d had a great night, and he wouldn’t leave it with his bedding her. It wasn’t fair. Because he wasn’t a man-whore, no matter what the teams said. A mistake, given the stakes involved, but he had his own code.
He started scrambling on the floor, pulling on his pants and shoving things into his pockets in haste. She said, “So I’ll see you again?”
Throwing on his shirt, he said, “I don’t know. I might be busy.”
She nodded, as if she didn’t care, but he could see the hurt behind her eyes.
He continued dressing, thinking fast, an idea springing into his head. He said, “Hey, you know that big shindig at the Bolivian embassy tomorrow night?”
“Yeah? What about it? It’s high-ranking diplomats only.”
He jumped up and down, putting on a cowboy boot, saying, “Yeah, but my company is working for the ambassador. I have a couple of tickets. Want to go?”
She leaned back, clearly flattered. “You mean you can get in and you want to take me?”
He got his other boot on, swept up his remaining items, and said, “Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
“They won’t let me in. I’m just a flunky. A diplomatic nobody.”
He leaned in and kissed her. “I have tickets. You could be homeless and they’d let you in. You want to go?”
Now smiling, she nodded.
He said, “It’s a date.”
He ran to the door and opened it. He was halfway through when he heard her shout, “What’s my damn name?”
He slammed the door and kept going.
Knuckles sat on his bed, fuming. Wondering if he’d made a mistake bringing Decoy into the Taskforce.
The guy had been unflappable last night, emplacing a beacon on a cargo truck in the Villa El Salvador district of Lima, Peru, the worst part of town imaginable. He’d shown real skill and a calm head, skills Knuckles already knew he possessed, but this unit took more than talent on the X. It wasn’t like a hit in Somalia or Afghanistan, with the mission ending as soon as you reached the boat or the FOB. This mission was 24/7, and the operator had to be switched on at all times. Something Decoy was showing he might be lacking.
As a whole, Navy SEALs had a pretty good history of breaking things and bringing doom, the very reason they were created, but that skill also followed on to the after-operation. Namely, that they were good at breaking things and bringing doom wherever they were, wartime or otherwise, and that was exactly the wrong mind-set for the unit Knuckles belonged to. Nuance was the name of the game, and not everyone was suited for it.
A counterterrorist organization completely off the books, it couldn’t afford any cowboys who went off the reservation. Even if off the reservation was a bar and a few drinks too many. The Secret Service had learned that lesson well in Colombia when they’d had a huge scandal involving agents and hookers, but even then, the greatest punishment was simply to the men who had transgressed. With Knuckles’s organization, it would be worse, because they didn’t even officially exist, and such a thing would mean exposure and a political firestorm. Forget about individual punishment. The repercussions would extend right to the heart of the presidency.
Because of it, each man was hand-selected, and carefully vetted. Decoy had a little bit of a wild side, but Knuckles believed in him, having conducted operations together in the SEAL teams in a previous life. He’d brought Decoy in after a little begging to the commander, putting his own reputation on the line.
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