This was a great story. I kept turning pages and couldn’t put it down. When I first started reading, the prologue left me confused and frustrated and as the first chapter started I wasn’t certain I was going to like the main character, but two pages in I was hooked and couldn’t stop reading. If you want an “edge of your seat” read, I highly recommend Nightshade, by Ronie Kendig.
It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Barbour Books; Discarded Heroes edition (July 1, 2010)
***Special thanks to Camy Tang and Ronie Kendig for sending me a review copy.***
Ronie Kendig grew up an Army brat, married a veteran, and they now have four children and a Golden Retriever. She has a BS in Psychology, speaks to various groups, volunteers with the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and mentors new writers.
Visit the author’s website and her book website,.
List Price: $12.99
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Barbour Books; Discarded Heroes edition (July 1, 2010)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Crazy lights swirled against the evening sky. Day morphed into the merriment of night. Cotton candy and hot dogs. Teens decked out in Goth gear contrasted sharply with young couples dragged from ride to ride by squealing offspring. White smeared over a manâ€™s face as red encircled his mouth. Like a giant maraschino cherry, his nose squawked when a child squeezed it. He threw his head back and laughed. The little boy stood perplexed, as if uncertain whether to laugh or break into tears.
Olin Lambert shifted on the park bench as a parade of kids trailed the balloon-toting clown through the park. He glanced at his watch. His contact was laâ€”
The boards under his legs creaked. A man dressed in a navy jogging suit joined him.
â€œYou almost missed the fun.â€ Olin tossed a few kernels of popcorn into his mouth.
Rolling his shoulders, the man darted his gaze around the carnival insanity. â€œYou know how dangerous this is? What it took for me to get out here without being seen?â€
The danger and risk to his contact were no greater than what was stacked up against Olin. They both had a lot to loseâ€”careers, reputations, families. . . . â€œWe could leave now.â€
â€œYou know this has to happen.â€
After a sip of his diet cola, Olin stuffed the half-full bag of popcorn on top of the overflowing trash bin. He wiped his hands and turned back to the man. â€œSo, the body countâ€™s finally high enough?â€
Blue eyes narrowed. â€œIâ€™m here. That should tell you something.â€
â€œIndeed.â€ Olin waited as the ice cream vendor wheeled his musical cart past. â€œI need full autonomy for me and my team.â€
Music burst forth as swings whirled occupants in a monotonous circle. A performer tossed flaming sticks and maneuvered one down his throat, swallowing the flames. Ohs wafted on the noisy, hot wind from the audience gathered around him. A scream pierced the nightâ€”a woman startled by another clown.
â€œOkay, fine. Just get on with this. Iâ€™m a sitting duck out here.â€ He rubbed his hands and glanced around.
Olin swiped his tongue along his teeth, took a draught of his soda, then slumped back against the slats. â€œI want it in writing. Two copies. Mine. Yours.â€
The man shook his head. â€œNo trails.â€
The corner of Olinâ€™s mouth quirked up. â€œYouâ€™ve already got one.â€ He nodded to the ice cream vendor, who reached over the register and tapped a sign with a hole in the center where a camera hid.
A curse hissed through the night. â€œYouâ€™d bleed me out if you could.â€
â€œWhatever it takes to protect these men.â€
Eyeing him, the man hesitated. â€œThe men? Or you?â€
â€œOne and the same. If theyâ€™re protected, Iâ€™m protected. Whatever happens out there, weâ€™re not going to take the fall for it.â€
â€œIf it goes bad, someone will get blamed.â€
Olin pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side. â€œMore dust has been swept under the proverbial Capitol Hill carpet than anyone will ever admit. You have to decide: Is the cost high enough? How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice?â€
On his feet, Olin tugged up the hood of his jacket. â€œThen weâ€™re through.â€
The man caught his elbow. â€œSit down.â€
Teeth clamped, Olin returned to the bench. He bent forward and rubbed his hands together, more than ready to forget heâ€™d ever tried to deal with this man, the only man with enough power on the Hill and the right connections to both fund and authorize deep-six missions. Missions nobody wanted to acknowledge.
The din of merriment swallowed the silence between them. A beat cop worked the scene, glancing their way as he walked, no doubt making a mental note to watch them.
â€œGet me their names. Iâ€™ll write a carte blanche.â€
Olinâ€™s gut twisted. â€œNot happening.â€ If he revealed the names of his elite, he would essentially place them on individual crosses to be crucified by some politician who got wind of this or by someone far more dangerousâ€”mediaâ€”if something went south. â€œProject Overlook happens under my guidance with all the freedom and resources I need, or it doesnâ€™t happen and you have one heckuva mess to clean up.â€
â€œIf I do this, I could get put away for a long time, Lambert.â€
â€œAnd a million people will die if you donâ€™t.â€
â€œWe should sit back and let Congress grant the authorization to go in there.â€
A deep-chested laugh wormed through Olin. â€œYouâ€™ve been around too long to believe that. Thick bellies and big heads crowd the halls of the Hill. They want the power and none of the responsibility.â€ Had he been wrong in talking to the man next to him? What if he went to the Hill and spilled the news about Project Overlook? Theyâ€™d be dead before the elite soldiers he had in mind could get their feet wet.
He let out a long exhale. â€œIf you arenâ€™t going to pony up, this conversation is over. You contacted me because you knew I could take care of this little snafu. So let us go in and quell this before it destroys more and the body count rivals 9/11.â€
He eyed Olin, a slow grin cracking his lips. â€œYouâ€™ve always impressed me, Lambert, even though youâ€™re Army.â€
â€œNavy lost the last game, Admiral.â€ Olin let his gaze rake the scene around him. â€œThese men are fully capable, and the situation can be tamed before anyone is the wiser. We donâ€™t have time to wrangle the pundits. Letâ€™s get it done, Mr. Chairman, sir.â€
Chairman Orr stood and zipped his jacket. â€œYouâ€™ll have it by morning.â€
Cracking open the throttle ignited a wild explosion of power and speed. Zero to sixty in less than three seconds left Max Jacobs breathless. Gut pressed to the spine of his Hayabusa, he bore down the mountainous two-lane road away from civilization, away from . . . everything. Here only pine trees, concrete and speed were his friends.
His bike screamed as it ate up the road. The thrill burst through him. He needed the rush. Craved it. Stop running, Max. Her words stabbed his conscience. Made him mad.
Rounding a bend, he slowed and sighted the drop-off in the roadâ€”remembered a full 10% grade, straight down. His gaze bounced between the speedometer and the cement. Common sense told him to decelerate. The boiling in his veins said otherwise.
He twisted the throttle.
Max leaned into the bike and felt the surge.
He sucked in a breath as he sped toward the break.
The road dropped off. The Hayabusa roared as the wheels sailed out. He tried to grip the handlebars tighter as nothing but tingling Virginia oxygen enveloped him. Silence gaped.
This could be it. This could end it all. No more pain. No more life without Syd . . .
Take me. Just take me.
The Hayabusa plummeted.
Straight down. Concrete. Like a meteor slamming to earth.
The back tire hit. A jolt shot through the bike. Then the front tire bounced. Rattling carried through the handlebars and into his shoulders. He grabbed the brakeâ€”
Stupid! The brake locked. Rear tire went right. He tried to steer into the skid but momentum flipped him up. Over. Pops snapped through his back as he spiraled through the air. In the chaos his bike gave chase, kicking and screaming as it tore after him.
Crack! Pop! The sound of his crashing bike reverberated through the lonely country lane. Scenery whirled. Pine trees whipped into a Christmas-color frosting. Tree bark blurred into a menagerie of browns, drawing closer and closer.
Thud! His head bounced off the cement. He flipped again.
Finally. Itâ€™d be over. He closed his eyes. No moreâ€”
THUD! â€œOof.â€ The breath knocked from his lungs. Pain spiked his shoulders and spine. Fire lit across his limbs and back as he slid from one lane to another. Down the road, spinning. Straight toward the trees.
He winced, arched his back. Kicking, he tried to gain traction. If he wasnâ€™t going to die, he didnâ€™t want to end up paralyzed. Just like you not to think it through.
He dumped into a ditch.
Everything went black.
He blinked. Pain shrieked through his body, his thighs and shoulders burning. â€œArgh!â€
Max pried himself onto all fours, hanging his head. A crack rent the face shield. A wicked throb pulsed through his temples and . . . everywhere. He fought with the helmet. Growled as he freed the straps. He pawed it off, cursing at the thing for saving his life. Those head whacks as he somersaulted through the air shouldâ€™ve punched a hole in his skull. Warmth dribbled down his brow. He pressed a palm against his forehead. Sticky and warm. Blood. He grunted and strained to look across the road. Mangled. Twisted. His bike. Him.
Why couldnâ€™t God just let him die? Humanity would be one up, and he wouldnâ€™t have to face his consummate failures in life. â€œJust let me go!â€ he growled and pounded a fist against the pavement. Heâ€™d do anything to go back to the Middle East, pump some radicals full of lead, and unleash the demon inside. Anything that told him he still had purpose in life.
But that wasnâ€™t an option anymore. Another bad choice. Could he get anything right? Maybe his father had been right to up and leave them. Just like his mother.
A glimmer of light snagged his attention. Less than a mile down the road, a black SUV barreled up the road from town. Max tensed. Heâ€™d seen a vehicle like that three times in the last week. But out here? In the middle of nowhere, invading his self-inflicted punishment? This wasnâ€™t a coincidence. And he didnâ€™t like being hunted.
Max dragged himself into the trees, wincing. Using his forearm, he wiped the blood from his face. Why? Why couldnâ€™t he just die? Nothing here for him. No reason.
Sydney. . .
He banged the back of his head against the tree. Pain drove through him like an iron rod. Good. It felt good to hurt. A relief to the agony inside.
Glass popping and crunching snapped his attention to the road. The SUV sat like a giant spider. He wondered who was in the vehicle as he eased farther into the foliage. A carpet of pine needles concealed his steps. He glanced back to the intruder.
The SUV shifted as a man climbed out. Large, African American, and an expression that said he didnâ€™t mess around. Whatever the guy wanted, he wouldnâ€™t take no for an answer. At least not easily.
Even from ten yards away, Max could see the muscle twitching in the manâ€™s jaw. He swallowed and licked his lips, readying himself for a confrontation. He swung back and gazed up at the canopy of leaves. Could he hoof it back to his apartment? Gathering his strength, he shrugged out of the shredded leather jacket, wincing and grunting as it pulled against raw flesh.
â€œYou through? Or you want another go at it?â€
What? Max peered around the trunk, surprised to find the man at the edge of the road, hands on his hips as he stared into the trees.
â€œWe took you for stronger.â€ The man glanced back at the bike. â€œBut maybe youâ€™re nothing but broke and no use to no one.â€
Heart thumping, Max jerked back and clenched his teeth. Who was this joker?
â€œSo, whatâ€™s it going to be, Jacobs? You ready to face a little reality?â€
How does he know my name? â€œWho are you?â€ Max hissed as the tree rubbed his raw shoulder. â€œWhat do you want?â€
Max drew the SOG knife from his pocket and opened it. Holding it down, he pushed into the open, making sure his injuries didnâ€™t show him weak. â€œWhatâ€™s the game?â€
The manâ€™s eyebrow arched. He angled his left shoulder forward, tugged up his sweaterâ€™s sleeve, and flexed his oversized bicep. A tattoo expanded across his muscle. Marine. Force Recon, if Max made out the symbol correctly.
An ally? As he struggled out of the ditch and back onto the road, Max collapsed the blade. Heat rose from the cement, aggravating the exposed flesh on his back and legs.
â€œNavy and Marines, you and me. Almost brothers. Itâ€™s the Rangers I donâ€™t like. So, I forgive you for coming at me with a blade. This time.â€
Max stared. Confusionâ€”and painâ€”wrapped a tight vise around his skull.
â€œWhatâ€™s it going to be, squid?â€ The guy pointed to the wreck of a bike on the road. â€œYou donâ€™t have a ride back to town. So why donâ€™t you climb in and listen to what I have to say?â€
Might ignore the nickname jab, but the guy assumed too much. â€œYou flash a tattoo and think Iâ€™ll just bend my knee? I donâ€™t think so.â€ A silent brotherhood had closed Maxâ€™s knife. But he didnâ€™t want company. The oafâ€™s or anyone elseâ€™s. But how else would he get home?
â€œWhat? You think youâ€™re going home? To your can opener and mattress?â€
Mr. Recon had a point. Still, he knew too much, and that made Max stiffenâ€”fiery shards prickling his back.
â€œNo obligation. Show me a little respect, and just hear me out.â€
At least, as the man had said, heâ€™d have a ride. Eyes on the large man, Max pocketed the knife as he trudged to the other side of the SUV and opened the door.
He paused at the plastic covering the seat. He jerked his gaze to the driver.
Mr. Force Recon grinned. â€œYouâ€™re predictable, Jacobs.â€
Max lowered himself onto the seat, cringing as new fire crawled over his back and legs. He buckled in, the irony of the seat belt crossing his mind. â€œSo whatâ€™s this about? Why have you been following me?â€
A crisp cologne swirled in the air-conditioned interior as Mr. Recon folded himself behind the steering wheel. â€œYouâ€™ve been recruited, Lieutenant Jacobs.â€
Max snorted. â€œAlready did my time. Iâ€™m out.â€ He gulped against the flurry of emotions within.
â€œYeah? Howâ€™s that working out for you?â€
Glaring, Max resisted the urge to thrust his SOG into the guyâ€™s gut. Heâ€™d left the service for Sydney. Only itâ€™d been too late. And in one fell swoop, he lost everything. â€œWhy donâ€™t you tell me? You seem to know everything.â€
Mr. Recon pursed his lips and nodded. â€œOkay.â€ He rubbed his jaw. â€œYou were discharged ninety days ago. In that time, youâ€™ve been arrested twice, once for fighting. The second timeâ€”less than three days agoâ€”for assault against your now-estranged wife.â€
The words cut deeper and stung worse than his now-oozing flesh. Max looked at his hand and flexed his fingers.
â€œYesterday you were hit with a permanent protective order by said wife. She filed for separation.â€ He leaned on the console and again arched that eyebrow. â€œHow am I doing?â€
â€œIf you knew anything about me, youâ€™d dull your edge.â€
Wrist hooked over the steering wheel, Mr. Recon continued unfazed. â€œThe military discharged you. Honorably. A veteran of two wars. Untold combat situations and medals. They tried to put you out medically two years ago, but you fought it.â€
â€œYessir.â€ The man nodded for several seconds. â€œSo, why now? Whyâ€™d you let them put you out this time?â€
Max shoved his gaze to the heavily tinted windows. That was a story nobody needed to hear. Bury it six feet under and walk away.
â€œYouâ€™re a discarded hero, Lieutenant Jacobs.â€
Head whipped back to the driver, Max fought the urge to light into the guy. But something in the amused eyes betrayed a camaraderie. An understanding. Acceptance.
â€œWho are you? Whatâ€™s your story?â€
â€œNameâ€™s Griffin.â€ He bobbed his head as they pulled onto the highway, driving east toward the Potomac. â€œMy story. . . ?â€ A toothy grin. â€œLetâ€™s just say I got smart.â€
The sound of crinkling and rustling plastic pervaded the cabin as Max shifted to alleviate a pinprick fire shooting down his leg. He hissed and clamped a hand over his thigh. â€œSo, whatâ€™s the gig?â€
â€œThe gig is whatever nobody else will do. What you should ask about is our groupâ€”and I do mean our group, Lieutenant. Because you are fully a part of this. Are you ready to step out of the medical trappings of your discharge, of the devastation that has become your life since youâ€™ve returned from your last tour?â€
Max grunted. â€œYesterday.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what I like to hear.â€ Tires thumped over docks as Griffin steered into a warehouse. â€œThen this is where it starts.â€
Elite soldiers stood in a semicircle, waiting. For what, Max wasnâ€™t sure. And he wouldnâ€™t ask. If his guess was right, then time would tellâ€”because Griffin seemed to be the guy in the know, and his relaxed posture against the SUV said things were going according to plan.
â€œHey, dude, want me to look those over?â€ A blond guy dressed in khaki shorts, a faded tank, and a pair of flip-flops motioned to Maxâ€™s scrapes and lacerations.
Right. Beach bum wanted to play nurse. â€œIâ€™m good.â€
â€œAbout as good as a dog in a meat grinder,â€ the guy replied.
Max clenched his teeth. Whatever kind of circus Griffin was running. . .
A diesel engine growled, the sound reverberating off the aluminum in the cavernous space, preempting the shiny blue dualie truck pulling into the dank building. The engine cut. A guy stepped out and donned a black cowboy hat that added about five inches to his six-foot-two frame.
Griffinâ€™s laugh rumbled as he pushed off his SUV. â€œColton.â€
A broad grin spilled under the rim of the manâ€™s Stetson. â€œHey.â€ The two clasped hands and patted backs. â€œHowâ€™s Dante?â€
A quiet dialogue carried between the two for several minutes that effectively cut out the rest of those gathered. Yeah, they had a friendship, one that said they trusted each other with more than superficial things. Something about the tight bond rankled Max. Hit deep.
â€œWhy are we here?â€
Maxâ€™s gaze bounced to the shortest and youngest of the six men in the building. The Kid had read his thoughts. A warehouse full of warriors? This setup smelled rotten.
â€œIf youâ€™ll be patientâ€”â€ Griffin paused and glanced behind him. â€œI think itâ€™s time.â€
A black Chrysler 300 glided into the middle of the grouping. The hollow clunk of an opening door echoed off the steel rafters and grime-laden windows. A man emerged. White hair feathered back. A sun-bronzed nose sported dark-tinted sunglasses. The thud of the door almost swallowed the crunching of his squeaky shoes. New, expensive shoes. Maybe even tailor-made. He gripped the rim of his glasses and drew them off.
Was the old man supposed to mean something? Be someone who mattered? Irritation skittered along Maxâ€™s shoulders as the old man shook hands with Riddell and the cowboy.
â€œWhoâ€™s the hoo-hah?â€ Max mumbled to himself.
â€œYou kidding me, man?â€ The blond look at him and smirked. â€œThatâ€™sâ€”â€
â€œFor those not enlightened,â€ an authoritative voice cut through the surferâ€™s explanation, â€œmy name is General Olin Lambert. I am a member of the Joint Chiefs. But among the seven of us, I am merely a citizen of the United States just like you.â€ Blue eyes probed each man.
Right into Maxâ€™s soul.
â€œWith Mr. Riddellâ€™s help, Iâ€™ve hand-chosen each and every one of you for a very specific purpose. There isnâ€™t anything about you or your lives that I donâ€™t know.â€ Lambert paused, as if to let his words sink in, but Max just wished heâ€™d get on with it. Scabs were forming on his scrapes.
â€œChosen us for what, ese?â€ asked the Hispanic man.
â€œA black ops team.â€
And that meant two things: military and that this meeting was over. Max turned and started walking.
â€œItâ€™s not military, Mr. Jacobs.â€
Hesitation held him at the large, garage-style door heâ€™d entered. â€œHow can you do black ops without military aid, intelligence, and backup?â€ He turned around, ignoring what felt like glass stuck to his calves and thighs.
â€œI didnâ€™t say we wouldnâ€™t have aid or intelligence.â€ Creases pinched Lambertâ€™s eyes at the corners. â€œI said itâ€™s not military.â€
â€œCome again?â€ the beach bum asked, disbelief coloring his words.
â€œLet the general explain.â€ Griffin leaned back against the truck with his cowboy buddy.
â€œThank you, Mr. Riddell.â€ Lambert tucked his sunglasses in his left breast pocket, then threaded his fingers in front of him. Impressive and commanding. â€œEach of you has returned from combat changed, affected.â€
Nervous glances skidded from man to man. Max glued his attention to the general, refusing to acknowledge the truth of Lambertâ€™s words.
â€œYouâ€™re what Iâ€™ve dubbed discarded heroes.â€
Grunts of approval rang through the building, and the group seemed to tighten in around the old man. Being a general, he knew what it was like to have slanted glances of pity from those who knew where youâ€™d been, what youâ€™d probably done, and what it was like to go against a politically correct ideology and fight for freedom on foreign soil. Or to have some tree hugger spit in your face and call you a murderer.
â€œYou served your time, saw and experienced things no normal person would be expected to deal with. Sure, you were trained. Taught to expect evil. Demanded success. However, when confronted with the true terrors of war, no human mind can dissolve the images embedded in memory for all time.
â€œThen itâ€™s time to get out. They yank you back here, give you a once-over, and toss you out with a â€˜thank you very much and have a good life.â€™ So you go home, try to reintegrate into society, andâ€”â€
â€œItâ€™s screwed up,â€ the Kid said. He shrugged when the others scowled at him. â€œWell? Iâ€™m right, arenâ€™t I? From what I heard you saying earlier,â€ he pointed to the beach bum, â€œyouâ€™ve spent time in Afghanistanâ€”a lot.â€ Then to the Latino, â€œYou probably did your tours of duty in Panama or the like.â€ His gaze came to Max.
â€œDonâ€™t.â€ Fists balled, Max willed his feet to remain in place. He didnâ€™t want anyone digging in his brain.
â€œMr. Vaughn is correct,â€ Lambert said. â€œYouâ€™ve all seen combat. Youâ€™ve all been trained to kill; then you come back, and what do you do with those skills but go out of your mind?â€
Max shifted. Was it over yet? He eyed the wide-open berth to freedom behind the blue dualie.
Hearing his name felt like a detonation that blasted his attention back to the general.
â€œYou served eight years with the SEALs. Your experience in command and combat no doubt left indelible scars. Watched your best friend toss himself on a grenade to save the team.â€
Bile pooled at the back of Maxâ€™s throat as the memory surged. He flared his nostrils, pushing the images back into the pit from which theyâ€™d been drawn.
Lambert stalked the inner perimeter, as if prepping troops for war with a pep talk. â€œLieutenant Jacobs is the man Iâ€™ve chosen as team leader, but his position is no more valuable than anyone elseâ€™s. Youâ€™ve all seen war. In this building are years of tactical experience. Incredible wisdom. And one element that makes each of you vital for this to work.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ Cowboy asked, his arms folded over his thick chest.
â€œLoyalty, Mr. Neeley. Your duty with the Marine Special Operations Team is bloated with exemplary conduct, commendation after commendation.â€ He waved his hand around the cozy circle. â€œIâ€™ve reviewed all of your files and found the same thing in every one.â€
Awkward silence cooled some of the tension in the room, and once again Max eyed the exit.
â€œMr. Reyes, your career as a pararescue jumper, specifically your medic skills, saved dozens of lives.â€
â€œPair oâ€™ what?â€ Cowboy taunted.
â€œHey,â€ Reyes grinned. â€œYouâ€™re just jealous. Iâ€™m a PJ. Why you think they call me Fix?â€
â€œBecause you put everyone in one?â€ Griffin chuckled, eliciting more laughter.
â€œNah, man. Itâ€™s â€™cause of this,â€ he said as he drew out a crucifix from his shirt and kissed it. â€œMy crucifix. They called me Cru at first, then since Iâ€™m a medic, they started calling me Fix.â€
Swallowing his groan, Max ran a hand through his short crop. Religion and military. This was starting to feel worse than an AA meeting. And there wasnâ€™t a point. â€œThis is a lot of flowery, moving discourse, but what do you want from us?â€ Max mentally shook off the way the others looked at him. Was he the only one who was still waiting for the boom to lower?
â€œMr. Riddell, if you please.â€ Lambert pointed to the black SUV as Griffin opened the tailgate. â€œGive each man one.â€
Griffin handed out small black packs that bore a lone symbol. A strange star backed by a sword and wings. The Kid, the Beach Bum, and the Latino dug into the packs, almost excited. In seconds, a black phone, keys, a watch, and a set of duds spilled across the gray cement floor in front of them.
Max remained in place, his pack dangling from his clenched fist. He didnâ€™t like being played. And this definitely felt like a setup.
General Lambert faced him. â€œIs there a problem, Mr. Jacobs?â€
He dropped his pack onto the floor. â€œNot seeing the point.â€
Behind the general, Griffin seemed to grow several inches as he towered over the aged officer. â€œWhat?â€ he growled. â€œYou want to take another nose-dive off that hill? Hope this time thereâ€™s only enough of you left to fill a baggie? Want to make that estranged wife of yours a widow before you can be called a failure?â€
Hands coiled, Max drew up his shoulders. Saw red. No. No. He wouldnâ€™t give in to the goading. He dragged his attention back to the general.
â€œEase up, Legend,â€ Cowboy said, patting Griffinâ€™s chest. â€œGive the guy a chance.â€ Lambert remained unwavering. â€œThe point, Lieutenant, is to establish a team that can penetrate hostile situations without any entanglements, without any blame on the good olâ€™ US-of-A or any other entity or government. You returned from two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and a covert mission nobody in this room will ever know about. You were the best, a natural, your CO said. But you were so volatile after those experiences took their toll they tried to discharge you, and your compatriots nicknamed you after a volatile chemical. Somehow you held it together. Then jumped ship out of the blue.â€ More than recitation of information lurked behind the generalâ€™s blue eyes. A knowingâ€”no, an understanding, quiet and unnerving. â€œTell me, Mr. Jacobs, what are you doing with your life now?â€
â€œMinding my own business,â€ Max answered through tight lips.
Lambert laughed. â€œAnd thatâ€™s exactly what youâ€™ll be doing as part of my team. Funding isnâ€™t a problem. Youâ€™ll have unlimited resources.â€
â€œThatâ€™d be a change,â€ the Kid grumbled.
â€œTo go where?â€ the Beach Bum asked.
â€œDoesnâ€™t matter,â€ the Kid interrupted. â€œMan, how is this any different than military? Igot out for a reason.â€
â€œYouâ€™ll go wherever needed.â€ The general turned toward the younger man. â€œYes, Mr. Vaughn, you did get out for a reason. Tell me, did abandoning the one thing you loved the most give you the love of your father after all?â€
The Kid paled.
â€œWhy?â€ Max couldnâ€™t stand it anymore. â€œWhy are you doing this? Whatâ€™s this thing to you?â€
Lambert lowered his head then looked back at Max. â€œI am. . .discarded just like you.â€
â€œBull.â€ Max tucked his hands under his arms. â€œYou sit in a cushy chair in a carpeted office. Youâ€™re paid, youâ€™re connectedâ€”â€
â€œI know what you guys have been through.â€ The general tapped his temple. â€œMAC-V SOG in Nam. Two tours.â€
Maxâ€™s eyebrows shot up. That meant the man before him had likely seen more carnage than the rest of them put together.
â€œHeard the phrase â€˜peace with honorâ€™?â€
Max shrugged. â€œYeah, sure. Who hasnâ€™t?â€
â€œIt was a platitude.â€ Lambertâ€™s eyes flamed under his passion. â€œThe armchair generals lost the war, not the grunts on the ground. We won every battle they let us win. But that doesnâ€™t make it any easier when youâ€™re the only guy who comes home from your unit with all his parts and pieces still connected where God put â€™em.
â€œI may not be young, I may not have done combat tours in Iraq like you, Lieutenant, but I was tossed aside, too. For years I languished.â€ The general pushed to his feet, his voice thick and his eyes weighted by the story. â€œBut I slowly remembered that Iâ€™d joined the military for a reasonâ€”I wanted to be a man. A real man willing to defend my country with life and limb. I knew then I could screw up my career or I could do my best to make a difference in the lives of those who came after.â€
Silence hung rank and thick in the abandoned warehouse. Something akin to admiration leaked past Maxâ€™s barriers as he watched the indignant rise and fall of the old manâ€™s chest. A smile threatened his resolve as the old man glared at the hulking men around him.
Lambertâ€™s lips tightened over a clean-shaven jaw. â€œWhatâ€™s it going to be, gentlemen? Do you have what it takes to finish the fight with the gift God gave you? Or are you going to turn tail, accept what the government stamped on your papers, and leaveâ€”go quietly into the night?â€
â€œWhoa-hoa!â€ Laughing, Beach Bum stepped forward. â€œOld Manâ€™s got some fire under that shiny dome.â€
Lambert spun toward the bum. â€œWhatâ€™s it going to be, Sergeant Metcalfe?â€
The blond pursed his lips, considered Lambert, then nodded. â€œIâ€™m in.â€
The bright blue eyes shifted to the Latino.
â€œYou need some CPR, ese? You look worked up.â€
A half smile slid into Lambertâ€™s face. â€œA little passion never hurt, eh, Mr. Reyes?â€
â€œYou all right, old man.â€ He hooked Lambertâ€™s hand and patted his back. â€œYou all right.â€ Reyes leaned in toward the generalâ€™s shoulders and looked at the Kid. â€œBut I donâ€™t know about this kid. He donâ€™t look like heâ€™s out of diapers yet.â€
â€œThatâ€™s wrong. Thatâ€™s just wrong.â€ The Kidâ€™s face flushed. â€œI spent six years in the Rangers. I have enoughâ€”â€
â€œRangers.â€ Max couldnâ€™t help but grunt his disapproval. â€œThat explains a lot.â€
The Kidâ€™s chin jerked up in defiance. â€œIâ€™m in.â€
It seemed Lambert grew with each affirmation. He shifted to the cowboy. â€œMr. Neeley?â€
Cowboy gave a slow, firm nod, his hat shading his eyes. â€œIâ€™m ready.â€
Lambert smiled. â€œGood. Good.â€
They were all crazy. Joining a group like this meant more problems. â€œWhat if we get in trouble out there?â€
â€œThen get out of trouble,â€ Lambert said. â€œUnderstand that this team does not exist. If anyone comes looking, there will be nothing to find. Only one man besides those of us in this facility knows it exists, and heâ€™ll pay the highest cost if that confidence is broken. No oneâ€”and I mean no oneâ€”will know your names.â€
â€œSo our orders are coming from on high?â€ Metcalfe asked.
A twinkle brightened Lambertâ€™s eyes and gave silent assent to the question, although he gave no answer. Instead, he continued. â€œAny mission, any activity will be utterly and completely disavowed by the United States. You will be disavowed. If you get into trouble, Mr. Jacobs, count on your ingenuity to get out. If you are killed, no one will know.â€
â€œOr care.â€ The Kid shrugged, a sick smirk in his face.
Max wanted to punch him.
â€œOr maybe thatâ€™s where Sergeant Metcalfe, call sign Midas, will come in with his golden touch.â€ Lambert ambled toward him.
The beach bum made a tss noise and shook his head. â€œNothing golden, just hard work.â€
The generalâ€™s smile disappeared behind a stern facade. â€œWhat is your answer, Lieutenant Jacobs?â€
â€œThis is crazy.â€ What else could he do? Flip burgers at the nearest fast food? What was worth staying here for? No wife. No family. â€œFine.â€ The separation papers told him he had nothing left here anyway. â€œIâ€™m in.â€
â€œGood.â€ General Lambertâ€™s smile softened his commando persona. â€œLook around. The men here are your new brothers, your family. Only they will understand when the horrors of war invade your sleep. Only they will be there when youâ€™re pinned down and need an extraction.
Arms wide, Lambert smiled like a proud father. â€œGentlemen, welcome to Nightshade.â€