To my father. For teaching me how to cast bullets, reload ammo, sight in a rifle, and clean a deer. For educating me how to arrange decoys so geese land near our blind. How to lead a duck, dress for cold, and stave off hypothermia after capsizing in the creek. For warning me with a grin that a .44 Magnum kicks like a mule…after I’d already pulled the trigger. How to bait a hook, cast a line, and fish. Well, sort of. I still can’t keep straight what months to go to all those spots in the creek and which species are going to be there. And frankly, I never gave a crap. I simply enjoyed the time with you.
Thank you for cultivating creativity in our home, supporting your kids in their latest whims, and being genuinely excited when I started writing. Though you never saw my books in print, they are now. And they’re damn good because, like it or not, experiences with you are stitched into each. Thank you.
Frederick Johnson squinted through a scope mounted atop a Remington 783. The crosshairs wavered over a red-bearded man throttling a black Ford Explorer toward him on a dirt driveway wild as a cat escaping a bath. Out here in farm country with no other cars in view, a man could drive that way, Frederick supposed. A quarter mile of lush soybeans stretched between him and Red Man. A mist hovered a few feet above the leafy green carpet, the fog uncommon in June. The low angle of the early morning sun blazed it with gilded brilliance.
He shrugged off a cold shiver that crept up his neck. Sweat beaded on the bald spot atop his head and trickled down unshaven cheeks, dripping onto his blue jeans. Ever since he’d turned forty, he’d sweat just reading the paper.
The vehicle sped toward the end of the long driveway. “Brake…brake,” Frederick whispered as the Explorer jerked to either side of the path, dodging potholes. A dust trail rose behind it and melded with the fog. The way this guy drove, the only chance he’d have of a clear shot would be when the vehicle stopped at the end of the lane.
“Five hundred meters,” his spotter murmured. “This guy drives like a maniac.” Wendy was crouched beside him in the hunting hide, shrouding her eyes behind rangefinder binoculars. Shiny, jet-black hair hung in a ponytail. Her bare arms were skinny as hell. Not the anorexic, lingerie model brand. More like the steel cable, personal trainer, trying to prove women-can-do-anything-a-man-can-do-but-better kind of thin. Yet she’d been a quick study, even for a girl. And could think on her feet. On a prior
2 • David McCaleb
job they’d been trailing their mark on foot when he’d made an unexpected turn. She’d choked him out with bare hands. Maybe he’d have to change his attitude about hit men being an all-male club. Hit person? Nah. “Three hundred fifty,” she murmured.
Frederick kept the crosshairs over Red Man, then reached long fingers and twisted the elevation knob two clicks, zeroing the scope at two hundred meters, the end of the drive. The Remington was chambered in .243, a hyperfast, flat-firing round. He’d chosen ammo with heavier 115-grain bullets since the projectile would pass through windshield glass. The weightier shot would decrease deflection.
A wisp of haze, a specter’s arm, reached from the foggy floor and floated across the scope’s field of view. Red Man twisted the wheel, and the vehicle veered almost completely off the drive. Frederick chased him with the crosshairs. The Explorer wasn’t slowing. “Brake, damn it!” At the end of the drive the SUV slid and accelerated onto the main road with a chirp of rubber. The speeding engine sang over the field, and a flock of crows exploded into the air from beneath the fog blanket.
“Shit!” he huffed, raising his head from the rifle as the vehicle raced away.
“Why didn’t you take the shot?”
He lifted the bolt handle and yanked it back. The ejected round flew toward Wendy’s head, and she snatched it from the air like a striking cobra. “No clear chance. I’m good, but no sniper. Even the best would have a hard time hitting a moving target like that. Plus, his wife wasn’t with him.”
She dropped the rangefinder so that it hung from her neck, resting between undersized breasts. “Worth the risk, though.”
How much should he tell her? This was only their third job together. Still, tell her too little and it could bite him in the ass if she made a stupid move. “Red Man, and even his wife, isn’t a target you take a risk on. They’ve been contracted before. Didn’t turn out so well for those guys.”
Wendy crossed her arms and leaned back, sitting atop an overturned five-gallon bucket against the plywood wall.
OK. Should have told her. He gripped the rifle barrel and lowered the stock to the floor. “Yeah, we’re getting a huge payout for this. But I got no idea from who. Never do. But the instructions were written in broken English. Meaning it could be from an international business, or some government that can’t reach here. This could be our break into the big leagues. But that means big risk. Every kill needs to be a sure thing. Double so on this guy. We wound him, and all the sudden we’re the ones with a target on our backs. I don’t know the whole story, but we ain’t the first team that’s tried to take him. And we only get paid if both are dead.” He
Recon • 3
pressed the magazine latch, and it dropped into his glove. “And watching him these last few days…the bulge under the shoulder of whatever he wears. The way he drives five different routes to work. The way he cuts his eyes. Hell, just the way he carries himself. This guy’s a predator. He ain’t prey.” Which troubled him. Frederick had skills, but he was no heavy hitter. Not yet. Why’d he been contracted? Was his team the only one working this job? Should he be looking over his own shoulder?
Wendy crossed her legs. Her tan calves were knotted rope. “Typical alpha male. I’ve taken his type before.”
Frederick blew a breath. “Maybe. But if you want to stay alive, never take potshots.”
“What’re our options, then?”
Heat radiated from the wall behind her. Six o’clock in the morning and the rising sun was already warming the cramped space. The humid fragrance of decomposing timber filled the hut. They needed to get out of the field before anyone spied them. Deer season was long past. But still, no one raised an eyebrow at a man with a bolt action in rural Virginia, no matter what time of year. Likely just a farmer with a kill permit protecting his crop. And when they’d spy Wendy next to him, all suspicions would vanish. Only a guy teaching his girlfriend how to shoot. How quaint. That’s why he’d chosen her. Couples were invisible.
“We could plant a bomb at the end of his driveway. But I don’t know how to make an IED. There’s a guy who can, but I don’t want him involved on this one. And we can’t get to Red Man at home. Too risky.” They’d driven by his long driveway several times. Vehicle sensors flanked it, which meant more security up the way. A $250 frequency identifier showed surveillance system emissions from the house at 433MHz all the way up to 5GHz, plus some lower-frequency stuff on military bands. “And we can’t get him at work. It’s Langley. Plus, he drives as if he knows someone’s after him. She’s almost as bad.”
Wendy squeezed her elbows and rolled her neck. “Options?”
He stood and ducked his head to keep from smacking pine branches stretched across the close box as a ceiling. His tall frame towered over the tiny woman. He pulled a worn Baltimore Ravens ball cap over thin brown hair. Lifting an olive drab cloth that covered a narrow exit, he stepped down atop a wooden ladder rung and stopped. “We wait till he’s out of his routine. Away from here.”
“How long’s that going to take?”
4 • David McCaleb
How much to tell her? Two can keep a secret only if one of them is dead. Nah. She knew enough at this point. He managed a smile. “I know a way to speed things up.”
* * * *
“So, you shot your wife?” the therapist asked, as if still confused who had actually been killed.
Tony “Red” Harmon leaned back in a low, hard, black vinyl chair. He’d explained it to the woman three times already. It wasn’t that difficult to understand. Didn’t she have five college degrees? He scratched his tight, curly copper beard. “I didn’t shoot my wife. I only thought it was her.” Which was the truth. And he’d done it trying to save the woman’s life. “So, that’s not the problem. Let’s get past your maybe-he’s-an-ax-murderer theory and get on with the session.” There. Easy to understand.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Christian Sato, settled atop a high-backed wooden stool behind a vintage green enameled steel desk. The shrink needed the tall chair just to see over it. Red was short by most men’s standards, but this woman of Japanese descent made him feel like a basketball player. Old government was the motif of her office. Red would go nuts if he had to work at a desk. Gray metal file cabinets covered one wall. The kind that would tear off fingers if slammed in the door, or crush small animals if tipped over. The corners of manila envelopes stuck out from the front of several in an effort to escape. Ancient, nicotine-stained vertical blinds hung in a window like prison bars.
As a military operator assigned to the Det, a fusion cell of three-letter government agencies and the Department of Defense, Red was required to undergo periodic psychological evaluations. The Det was short for Detachment Five, of Joint Special Operations Command. At most of these sessions he’d handled it a bit like an interrogation. Quick replies, not offering any additional information. But Sato was one of the good shrinks, meaning she never asked how long he wet his bed or whether his mother breast-fed him. He’d been endeared by her sick, sarcastic humor and direct, no-frills approach.
As commander of the Det, he’d requested she limit her inquiries to the task of ensuring his group of professional killers didn’t have too many loose screws. A good operator was never entirely sane, and Sato seemed to recognize that. But today’s session was on Red’s dime and at his request. He’d woken up last week with a distinct understanding that, despite his
Recon • 5
best efforts, something was broken in his head that he couldn’t fix. Sato being the only shrink he knew, he’d made the call.
His wife, Lori, sat up in an identical seat next to him. “It took a while, but we’ve gotten past that issue. A big mix-up. He thought he’d seen me die, and he’d contributed. But it’s behind us. Tony’s a good man. A great father.”
At least Lori acknowledged he was trying. A half foot taller than Red, she somehow made sitting in a child-sized chair appear natural. She reached behind her head and pulled her mane of long, dirty-blond hair to one side. He leaned closer, and the scent of Extatic captured his attention. Her eyes were bright, but rimmed in pink. Taking time away from work for this session, she was dressed in office attire, a black skirt that hiked up to midthigh when she sat. She crossed long, slender legs that just last night had been wrapped around him for over an hour. On her calf, a round dot the size of a nickel marked where a 5.7-millimeter bullet from an assassin’s P90 had passed through. An awesome wife, mother, and an absolute rock.
She lifted a finger. “But he’s never present, mentally. At least not with me. He’s great with the kids. I’m jealous of them. Other than sex, there’s zero connection anymore. I’m an island.”
All truth, though not for lack of effort. He’d date her, take her to dinner, even spend all Saturday with her at antique stores staring at furniture in various states of disrepair. Yes dear, that chair is a great-looking piece of crap. It’s a lot like the ten other pieces of partially dismantled crap we’ve got in the garage from our last visit. Let’s bring this one home so we can shatter its dreams as well. But those musings were unfair. They’d actually refinished an antique folding side table. He’d taken it completely apart and sanded everything down. She’d stained it and brushed on a polyurethane topcoat.
“It’s not the table,” she’d told him. “It’s taking something broken and making it better.”
Why couldn’t he do the same with this problem?
Like the numbness of his thumb past a three-inch scar courtesy of an Ethiopian hunting knife, he no longer sensed a deep connection with her. His closest friends anymore were other operators.
A vacuum hummed outside the office door. Window glass rattled as the janitor smacked the machine against the wall. Sato placed her pen atop the desk and leaned forward on her elbows. “How long have we known each other, Red?”
Maybe he shouldn’t have called this woman. This was going nowhere. “About a year, I suppose.”
6 • David McCaleb
“And in that time, you’ve progressed from being an operator to commander of your organization.”
Red grunted at her labeling the Det an “organization.” As a fusion cell, it was moderately controlled chaos at best. A football field where threeletter offices and the military huddled together and cooperated for each one’s gain, sharing intelligence, expertise, and most importantly, assets.
“How many operations have you executed during that time?”
A whack from the hallway, followed by tinkling of broken glass. “Fifteen major ones probably. Then there’s training.”
Sato scribbled something on a yellow-sheeted pad. At a $150 an hour, she probably had to have something to show for it. “And how long does it take,” she continued, “from planning to execution to debrief?”
Lori leaned forward. “Two weeks at best. When he’s planning an op, I never see the man. Then he’s off to a place where the locals are trying to kill him. He comes home and we get the scraps. By then, he’s an empty hulk.”
Sato waved. “Red needs to answer the questions.” Her eyes studied him now. Mascara was caked into her crow’s-feet like black veins. She hopped down from the stool and waddled around the edge of the desk. He didn’t have to look up to her, despite the fact he was sitting. She stood with her nose almost touching his. Her family must have had a much smaller concept of personal space. Her voice was grave. Breath of garlic. “You don’t need me to diagnose your problem. Don’t be an idiot. You thought you witnessed the death of your wife, just to discover it wasn’t her. On top of that, you make your living in the profession of arms. You’re the walking wounded. All your men sing your praises. But you’re not invincible. Your symptoms are classic post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.”
He leaned away from the garlic stench. “But I don’t drink too much.”
Sato’s cheeks rose, and she cackled a laugh. “Not everyone with PTSD is an alcoholic.”
Fine. Whatever. “So how do I fix it?”
A black cat jumped upon the windowsill outside. The angle of the sun cast its shadow as large as a mountain lion upon the carpet. Sato stepped behind the desk again. She stood on the stool’s footrest and leaned onto the desk, arms braced as if doing a push-up. “You’re not a machine. There isn’t a quick fix. No magic solution. It’s different for everyone. But for you the first step is time off. A vacation. And I don’t mean Disneyland. You need time to be bored. To watch the sun go down. Time for your head to process what’s transpired, instead of being constantly distracted.”
Red raised a hand. “Now’s not a good time. We’ve got—”
Recon • 7
“For me, either,” Lori jumped in. “We’ve lost ground at work. Maybe in a few months we could do it.”
The shadow of the cat’s tail swished like a whip crack across Sato’s desk; then it leaped from the frame, as if to an adjoining office’s balcony. The psych’s eyes were slits. “Major, here’s the sitrep. You’ve started to exhibit signs of PTSD. The path to recovery can be long, but if you don’t start on it now, it just gets longer. Most operators, unless they take action, are in divorce court in six months. Within a year I have to declare many unfit for duty.”
Wow. Maybe he didn’t like her direct approach after all.
She flexed a pencil between thumbs. It snapped. “Funny, don’t you think, how soldiers can be so dogmatically decisive when bullets are flying, but can’t bring t hemselves to make basic life changes like the one before you now?” She pointed the splintered instrument at him as if it were a pistol. “Get away together. Don’t take your work phone. Don’t check email. Don’t even tell anyone where you’re going.” She patted her chest. “Doctor’s orders.”
Just then, country rap music blared from Lori’s black Coach purse. Ho ya baby! You drive me crazy! “What the—” she snapped, then yanked the bag off the floor, pulled out a phone, and lifted it to her ear. She plugged the other with a finger. “We’ll be right there. Thank you,” she said, then tapped the red button on the screen. Her mouth hung open. “Penny just slapped Jenny at school.”
That made no sense. Penny was as gentle and tolerant as a kitten. And Jenny was her best friend.
“Teacher said she’d pulled out a chunk of Jenny’s hair by the time they were separated.”
Sato scribbled a note with the short pencil. “Has Penny done this before?”
Lori frowned, then stood and slung the bag over a shoulder. She grabbed Red’s wrist. “Let’s go. We’ll finish this later.”
Sato knelt on her stool, as if trying to appear taller. “You need time off. Both of you. Then we can talk about what’s next. Make a decision. Now.”
Red stood. Lori stepped past him toward the door, but he pulled her to a halt. “School’s out in two weeks.”
The edges of her eyes glowed red. “No time right now.”
“No shit. Me, either. But, if this is step one, let’s do it.”
Lori gripped the doorknob. Her fingers trembled. “OK. In two weeks, once school is out, we’ll get away. Now, come on!”
8 • David McCaleb
* * * *
Martina Banderas wheeled a gray plastic trash cart down a narrow hall of Westwood Psychiatry. The carpet had recently been replaced. The playdough scent of vinyl adhesive still hung heavy in the air. She’d vacuumed earlier and the pile still looked new as— Oh, Saint Zita! Dark coffee had stained the rug outside an office. She bent and rubbed at the spot with bare fingers. Still moist. Good. She could spray it with cold water and dab the blemish up.
She straightened, then did a double take when she spotted the name etched into the door’s glass. DR. CHRISTIAN SATO. A chill shivered her neck, just like the ones she used to get whenever she heard the voice of her manipulative aunt Florencia. Each time the janitor saw Sato’s name, she heard it as if spoken in the annoying high-pitched voice of her dead aunt. The doctor spoke praises like honeysuckle to clients but flashed scorn to the help.
A dim light shone from behind the pane. Better knock to let the doctor know Martina needed to run the carpet cleaner. A tirade came any time Sato was working late and Martina made too much noise. She always had to bite her cheek to keep from laughing out loud at the Japanese lady.
She rapped on the glass timidly. No answer. She tried again, this time harder, the pane rattling in the frame. Still nothing. She cracked the door. “Señorita Doctor Sato?” The light on the baby-puke-colored metal desk cast a warm glow over a broken pencil and pad of paper.
Her heart quickened. This would mean an extra hundred dollars!
“It’s just a way to get a message to a good friend without his wife knowing,” Sato had told her three years earlier, blinking both eyes, as if attempting to wink but unsure how it was done.
Martina stalked inside, fearing Sato might actually not yet be gone. Another peek around, then to the desk. On the pad was written a number 3. Nice! Two months had passed since Sato had last requested a delivery, but location number three was Martina’s favorite. She was to get a French manicure from the Vietnamese nail place next to Kroger supermarket, then “pay” with only a sticky note Sato would leave in the trash can.
She snatched up the wastebasket, lifted out a crisply folded pink square, and slipped it into her cleaning apron’s chest pocket. She stepped over the coffee stain and dumped the rest of the contents into the cart.
Martina had tried to figure out which of the nail stylists Sato was seeing. But all the men there seemed so young.… She’d always been careful not to
Recon • 9
pry, but—really? That old lady and one of those Asian hunks? Her fingers drummed against the empty can. She reached in her pocket, pulled out the note, and unfolded it.
Package headed out in two weeks. Pick up. Discard both.