Four years ago off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii
Hunter Wesley Thornton-Payne III didn’t believe in premonitions of doom, but now might be an optimum time to reevaluate those beliefs. That last bone-jarring shudder of the thirty-year-old fishing trawler beneath him qualified as a preemptive warning.
Salt water sprayed across the deck from each side of the wheelhouse where he stood. Wearing a wetsuit didn’t mean he wanted to be blasted with water every thirty seconds. For the past forty-five minutes this floating hazard had plowed south through the Pacific Ocean toward tonight’s black-ops objective.
Failure would trigger hideous deaths for unsuspecting CIA agents over the next twenty-four hours.
A simple mission… on paper.
Scaling a sheer rock cliff rising two thousand feet out of windswept waves, and on a moonless night, might give him pause if not for his partner Eliot Sawyer. Having him on this mission should quiet any concerns.
But a dark shadow continued to hover over Hunter’s psyche, a sixth sense he trusted almost as much as he trusted Eliot.
A ferocious wave broke across the starboard side, the tip of its watery tail lashing his face with cool spray. The faded teakwood deck quaked beneath his feet.
“This piece of shit better hold together long enough to get us into position.” Hunter wiped water from his eyes again. “You can bet that sack-a-shit Retter is riding around out here in something that can do more than ten knots. I should be hauling his
ass up that cliff since this was his idea.”
Eliot laughed. The bastard laughed more than any other human Hunter had ever known. Even in college, humor had balanced out his mammoth size. “Thought you agreed this was the only way to slip inside Brugmann’s compound.”
Hunter hitched a shoulder in a don’t-remind-me response. He’d come to the same conclusion as Retter—BAD’s top gun and the lead on this operation—that approaching from the north under the guise of a decrepit fishing boat offered the optimum insertion point. Ehrlich Brugmann’s private residence perched on a cliff above a vertical wall of volcanic rock overlooking the northern coast of Kauai.
Brugmann had traveled alone to Hawaii this trip. Had he thought the United States wouldn’t notice him selling out the CIA and national security if he didn’t do it in DC at his primary residence?
Hunter suffered another whiff of fishy stench permeating the wood. He stared out over the starboard side at the last shred of light as the sun sank closer to the ocean. Twilight silhouetted a pair of fifty-footers bucking waves a mile off.
Two more boats held together with hope and slime.
Retter’s doing as well.
Boats were okay in Hunter’s book—the sleek half-million-dollar ocean racers he’d once piloted to trophy finishes.
But he hated the kind that tended to sink without notice.
Aging joints creaked in complaint when the deck pitched again. Hunter’s grumble ended in a vicious curse.
“Good night for a swim, eh?” Even Eliot had to grab a handhold or bust his silly ass. Pale lights mounted to the wheelhouse cast a sallow glow over his wide body outfitted in an identical black wetsuit, and lit his crooked-tooth grin.
The same grin Hunter had run up against the night he bumped into Eliot while breaking into the dean’s office at Harvard. Eliot had already disarmed the alarms when Hunter appeared beside him. Surprisingly, he and Eliot had broken in for the same reason—to correct the grades of a female student who had spurned the advances of a tenured professor and stood to lose her scholarship. Eliot had laughed in the dark and told Hunter to cover their butts, which he did. And was still doing.
Nothing bothered Eliot.
Not even the time the yacht they’d been on had stopped floating in the middle of the night. An explosion in the engine room had been at fault, but the reason really didn’t matter when you had to tread water for the next nine hours.
“Not worried about tonight, are ya?” Eliot pushed and prodded until he got what he wanted, a part of his personality that could be annoying as hell at times.
“Worried? Be serious.” Hunter ran over the mission again in his mind. His brain assured him everything was a go. His gut argued but failed to produce concrete evidence of a problem. Didn’t matter either way. He and Eliot were going in. They thought as one mind and had faced missions more dangerous than this one. With an unmatched ability to breach any security and expert climbing skills, Eliot was the perfect partner.
But the deciding factor had come down to a matter of trust.
Hunter trusted no one, or at least he hadn’t until Eliot took him rock climbing back in college. By the end of that first day, Hunter’s life had been in Eliot’s hands more times than he’d wanted to count. After that, he knew without question that Eliot had his back in any situation.
And he had Eliot’s.
Of course, Eliot’s heart was his greatest weakness.
“What about the CIA?” Eliot was back on track with the mission. “If they find out you’ve been here or seen their list of agents—”
“They won’t. We’re in. We’re out. No one’ll know. He’s got two rent-a-guards. Stop worrying like an old woman. I got this,” Hunter added, using their “end of discussion” phrase. With no choice but to insert, he wanted Eliot thinking only about breaching that security system. He gripped the vertical aluminum rail bolted to the wheelhouse and changed the subject. “Speaking of women, you still seeing that professor?”
“I am.” Eliot’s grin curved up, widened. Beamed.Ah, hell. That silly look can’t mean what I think.
“Was going to tell you this later, but…”No, Eliot, we had a deal.
What happened to the “no ties, no commitments, no baggage” rule they’d shaken hands on in college?
“I never could keep a secret from ya for long. Cynthia and I got married.” Eliot shrugged. “I would have included ya in the wedding, but we did a quick trip to Vegas.”
Married. Of all the stupid things to do. Hunter licked saltwater from his dry lips. Open mouth and say something, dammit. This is my best friend.
“Congratulations. I guess?” Hunter scratched his chin. One thing was for sure, he’d never complicate his
life that way. Not for a woman. They all came with agendas. Like his mother, for one. “Wasn’t a shotgun two-step to the altar, right?”
“No way. I’m crazy about Cynthia.”
“What about what we do for BAD?” Hunter had joined the Bureau of American Defense after leaving the CIA. BAD operated as a covert agency that protected national security. They had no boundaries, no red tape, and no support if they got in trouble since their secret existence wouldn’t be acknowledged. “Cynthia’s another person an enemy could use against you if they found out about her.”
Eliot stopped smiling and swallowed so hard his Adam’s apple pulsed. “My family’s never met her, doesn’t know she exists. You’re the only one who knows about her and I trust you with my life, so she’s safe.”
What could he say to that? Hunter felt the weight of Eliot’s confidence press down on his shoulders, but Eliot was right. Hunter would protect his friend—and any other BAD agent—with his life. “Have you told her what you do?”
“I told her I do investigative work for INTERPOL and that she can’t say anything about my job without putting us both in danger. She’s solid as a rock.”
“And what about the risks we take?” With anyone else Hunter would have let it go and wished the poor sucker good luck. But he’d been friends with Eliot too long to give him the patent superficial garbage Hunter’s family considered the foundation of all relationships. Showing a sincere interest in someone’s personal life was paramount to asking how much a luxury car cost. Wasn’t done in his family.
Eliot swayed with the rocking boat, moved his feet for balance, and wiped water that dribbled from his buzz-cut head off his face. “She thinks I’m teamed up with a guy named Leroy, which would be you. I told her you handle all the dangerous work. I’m just the on-site geek.”
Like any good lie, that had a trace of truth. Eliot really had contracted to INTERPOL after
a stint with the CIA, where he’d been trained along with Hunter. They were both proficient in electronic invasion, but in spite of looking like the bigger physical threat Eliot’s natural gift was cracking a safe or violating security systems, which left Hunter to neutralize opposition. Not a problem.
Hunter didn’t mind getting his hands dirty on an op.
But he had no patience for bullshit, which had gotten him in deep trouble with the CIA on one particular job.
If the director of BAD hadn’t intervened, Hunter would have disappeared like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.
The CIA had allowed him to walk away—alive—as long as he stayed clear of any agency operations. They’d never know he was at the Brugmann compound tonight… unless something went wrong.
The FBI thought their people were coordinating with a covert CIA team. No one knew BAD existed, except the U.S. executive branch, and no one there would admit such. Plus the CIA wouldn’t confess to having a team on U.S. soil, which made it easy to step in when ...