Authors: Susan May Warren
Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor
The Ranger creed, the one he'd memorized before becoming a Green Beret, thundered through Will's brain as he lay in the forest, peering through his night-vision goggles at the Hayata compound. Lone survivor. That never felt more painfully accurate than it did tonight, with the moon slicing through the canopy overhead, the rush of wind under his black BDUs, the feeling of greasepaint filling his pores. The trees creaked, and he used the sound to rustle forward. He'd seen a guard dressed in a pair of green fatigues and a wool hat patrolling some thirty yards ahead of him and knew the sentry would swing by for another pass soon.
With Simon packed into the cooler in the local ME's office, Will had no choice but to devise a way to recover the package himself. He hoped to gather enough intel to formulate a plan, return in twenty-four hours, and snatch whatever package their Hayata insider had planned to pass to Simon/Hafiz. Will knew the package included intel regarding a certain highranking general in the Hayata hierarchy, but Homeland Security often operated under a need-to-know basis. They hadn't included Will in that category.
But if he recovered the package, he might be privy to the larger plan, move into a position of influence. Maybe he'd eventually be a point man who took down the organization that stole his friend Lew Strong from his family three years ago. The organization that obliterated the lives of thousands of patriots and notched another victory for the bad guys.
Maybe he'd even help turn this war on domestic terrorism into a victory.
The Hayata compound had quieted over the last hour. Will had watched from his perch on a knoll overlooking the yard as a late-model pickup pulled up and three Hayata members emerged. Two men and a woman. No, a girl, and she'd been afraid, evident by her faltering steps as she followed the men into the house.
Another recruit? Hayata operated under the mistaken belief that Homeland Security was blind to their devices, but their practice of importing teenagers and using them to smuggle goods across the country hadn't escaped Homeland Security's scrutiny. Two years ago, Will had helped HS apprehend an Hayata cell that profited from transporting cigarettes from North Carolina to Detroit, where they sold them at a higher rate and pocketed the change. The operation netted the terrorist cell millions before HS operatives had trailed their ring of teenagers and shut it down.
Besides money laundering, Hayata ran a number of lucrative businesses in the flesh-for-sale category and imported Middle Eastern opium and ephedra with a brazenness that felt like flaunting. Will had no doubt this new recruit would be masquerading as an American teenager, complete with dyed hair, earrings, and tattoos while still secretly tethered to her Hayata keepers. The thought made his stomach clench.
Will stilled, his breathing shallow as the sentry passed. Even camouflaged with his smeared-on war paint and brush cover attached to his back, a wrong breath could annihilate his mission and everything he and Simon had worked for over the past year.
The sentry stopped, stared into the woods, as if reading Will's thoughts.
Will quelled the insane urge to jump the guard who held an AK-47. Will's brain felt too tired to figure out where Hayata had obtained Russian hardware. How they'd smuggled them into the country was an easier puzzle to solveâthe border between Minnesota and Canada often seemed no more than a fuzzy line drawn on a map. Between miles of border lakes and thick pine forests, Hayata could practically drive a battalion of tanks through, and the border guards, despite their efforts, would be hard-pressed to corral them. Hence the need for men like Will to watchdog the pockets where Hayata set up shop.
The sentry stood so close scanning the forest that Will could have drawn a detailed caricature of his thin beard, dark eyes, and scar down his cheek. Will tightened his grip on his Beretta M9 pistol and prayed for invisibility. He may have had a few iffy moments, including his lie-by-omission to Dannette, but he had to believe that God was on his side.
Wanted to believe it. Despite his mistakes, his failures.
In fact, Will hoped the Almighty might, in fact, give him another chance to make amends with Dani. The look of betrayal on the K-9 handler's face embedded itself in Will's brain, and he couldn't deny the pinch in his chest that felt like regret. Something about herâher smile or the way she let him in under her defenses to see her fatigue or even the nickname Cowboy on her lipsâhad churned up a desire that felt foreign, even impossible.
Except it hadn't ended well. He had as much chance to make friends with Dani Lundeen as he did with a Turkish blunt-nosed viper.
The guard gave one last look, then continued slowly along the perimeter.
Will released his full breath in a long, unheard stream. He needed to get closer if he hoped to sketch the layout of the compound in his mind. From this position, he outlined two buildingsâa house and a garage, obviously not used for cars. Probably weapons. Or communications. Behind the garage, a twelve-foot satellite dish aimed for the Southern Hemisphere.
The sentry finished his stroll around the perimeter and sat on the steps. Will watched as he lit a cigarette, the faint ash glowing green in Will's night-vision goggles.
The wind rustled the branches, the quiet of the forest settling over Will, filling his pores. He had always enjoyed surveillance. The quiet of aloneness, the focus of analyzing details, of formulating hypotheses, the insight that came when watching the enemy on their private, safe turf. People became comfortable in the known, in their own territory. They dropped their defenses, allowed the enemy to penetrate, learn, possess. He'd seen too many blindsided because they thought the perimeter was safe. Maybe that's what made Will a good soldierâhe had learned, via the life lessons of his father's fists, never to let his guard down, never to let a soul past the defenses that kept him sharp.
He'd feared the comfort of being known by someone and had instead substituted it with the pleasure of knowing.
No wonder he'd ended up aloneâand empty. He wasn't a fool. He knew that Lew had a love with Bonnie that came only from letting a woman inside a man's heart and letting her love all the blemishes and scars.
But he wasn't that type of guy. And now, especially since he'd given his life to God, hoping to do things God's way, he had little hope that he'd ever find a woman like Bonnie. Not in the scarce time he had between missions.
Guys like him lived for the moment, hoping to snatch a morsel of that true love. Only morsels weren't in God's plan.
Which meant, neither was any hope of true love.
Will swallowed a sudden lump of regret. If he'd done it God's way from the beginning, he might have a woman like Bonnie right now, giving him a reason to be out in the woods, wet and a little cold, spying on the bad guys in the wee hours of the morning.
He'd have a reason to want to stay alive. To come home in one piece. And a reason to leave in the first place.
The guard stood, snuffed out his cigarette, began his perimeter round. Will tracked him past the garage and toward the end of the driveway.
Movement in the far corner of his lens caught Will's attention. He focused on a form climbing out of a window. He sharpened the focus and recognized the young lady who'd arrived earlier.
What was she doing?
He found himself holding his breath as she reached the ground and hiked a backpack over her shoulder, then shot off toward the woods on the far side of the yard.
One of the Hayata operatives is escaping
That thought pierced his brain, ignited his heartbeat. He should help her. Maybe she knew where the package was, could help him infiltrate the compound.
He scanned back to the guard and nearly choked on his frustration. The sentry was twenty yards away and closing fast.
Will searched for the escapee. He found her crouched against the garage, and as she turned to search for the guard, he caught a glimpse of her faceâheart-shaped, young, with wide eyes and more than a touch of fear. But it was the hard-edged determination in her expression that buzzed under his skin. He frowned.
The thump of boots arrested his attention. He lowered the glasses, ducked his head. Lightened his breath.
The guard sauntered past him, his arm resting on his AK-47 like a sling.
Will couldn't help but smile. He put the glasses back to his eyes, scanned the compound.
The girl was gone.
Dannette slammed the door to her pickup, making sure the window was cracked open for air. Missy pushed her nose to the window, leaving a wet mark.
“Stay,” Dannette said. “I'll be right back.”
The fragrance of a new day rubbed off the lingering fatigue as Dannette crossed the parking lot and entered the Java Moose. The smell of coffee extended welcoming fingers and dug out the hunger in Dannette's stomach.
“Good morning,” said David, the coffee shop's owner. He stood behind the counter, a flannel shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his elbows, revealing lumberjack arms. His wide smile had been one of Dannette's first welcomes in Moose Bend and had become a fixture in her day.
“Good morning, Dave,” she said. “I'll take a chaiâ”
“With skim milk.” David smirked. “You know we have other drinks. Even
Dannette shrugged but let the tease bathe the still-wounded areas of her heart. Friends. Although she hadn't known David long, at least he was authentic. He made coffee or chai and didn't pretend to be anything but what he wasâ Mocha Man.
Unlike someone else she knew â¦ or didn't know, come to think of it.
She paid David, took the chai over to a corner, and picked up the local
Moose Bend Journal
. The front-page article of the weekly covered the latest road improvements and rules for the fishing season. She had no doubt that this week's issue would be a blow-by-blow account of the search for June Hanson, complete with pictures and astute analysis of the K-9 handler with the big mouth. She wanted to set the paper down in disgust, but a sudden urge to confirm Nancy's words about Will's professionâor maybe the errant hope that Nancy had been mistakenâmade her thumb through the ten-page paper.
Her heart fell slightly when she found Will Masterson covering the police beat on the third page.
She folded the paper, turned, and stared out into the sunshine. Java Moose looked out over an inlet of Lake Superior. Morning light gilded the ripples of the water, and a slight breeze tousled wispy clouds in an otherwise clear sky.
She knew it would be a glorious day when she'd caught the rose-and-gold sunrise around 5 a.m. Restless, she'd risen early, taken Missy out for a stroll, then returned, showered, and listened to the morning news report before facing the events of last night. She spent the morning at her laptop, rehashing the search, outlining in detail the reactions of her K-9 and decisions she had made. More than a few times her reports had been used to fortify SAR operational defense or occasionally as evidence in a homicide case. She never enjoyed testifying, and writing a thorough report whittled down that possibility.
She sipped her chai, letting it fortify her for her next stopâthe sheriff 's department. She hoped to print her report, file it, and escape without a verbal tar and feathering from Fadden.
And without seeing Will.
She heard the shop bell jangle and turned to look at the patron.
Speak of the devil. Her heart actually jammed in her throat for a full ten seconds as she watched Will Masterson stride across the floor. He looked particularly rumpled this morning. Although dressed respectably in blue jeans and a brown corduroy shirt under his leather jacket, he had the strung-out look of a guy going on no sleep. Lines around his eyes, a take-no-prisoners step to his demeanor. If she didn't know better, she'd recognize her friend Jim Micah in his bearing. A soldier.
Except Will Masterson was no soldier. Unless she counted the assault on her heart, one that left her feeling more wounded than it should have.
While he was ordering at the counter, she rushed out of the coffee shop before he could stop her and inflict round two.
The sheriff 's office was located at the top of the hill, overlooking Moose Bend.
The king overseeing his kingdom,
Dannette thought as she parked near the door.
The office hummed with activity. Dannette strode through the lobby, nodded to the receptionist, who buzzed her into the back. She didn't slow as she passed Fadden's office but felt a gust of relief when she noted it was empty.
Or that could mean Fadden was prowling the building, looking for prey.
She cut into the office workroom and pulled out her laptop from her backpack. Connecting the laser printer to her USB port, she found the printer in her settings and sent it to print.