The phone buzzed, and Nick King grimaced as Vicky sighed. It wasn’t an angry sigh. While she looked like a supermodel, and could sometimes sound about as vapid—though Nick was pretty well convinced that those instances were her version of sarcasm—she had made it clear that she knew what she was getting into, and while she might not like sharing Nick with the job, she was more willing to do that than not have any of him at all.
For Nick’s part, he was still desperately holding off on thinking through her hints that he needed to meet her dad.
It’s not that I’m scared. I’m just wondering just how fast this is really going. After all, they’d only been dating for a couple weeks. She seemed to have plans, and he was still figuring out just where he stood.
After all, he’d seen some pretty horrific drama over women in his day, and he was wondering where the catch was.
He grabbed the phone. “Sorry, babe.” He almost flinched at using that term, but Vicky just rubbed his arm with a smile. She liked it when he called her that.
His eyebrow went up as he looked at the screen and saw that it was Matt Patric. He and Matt had been partners when he’d first started with Pallas Group Solutions, just after the hit on their first client in Atlanta. Matt had been shot up badly during the fight for the Bowman Ranch in New Mexico and had been on the bench because of it for months. Last Nick had heard, Matt was about ready to come back, but that didn’t explain why he was calling now.
Levering himself up off the couch, Nick brought the phone to his ear. “What’s up, man?”
“Hey, Nick, are you at home right now?” The two of them lived less than fifty miles apart, Nick in the small town of Lyons, and Matt in Fort Collins.
Nick’s frown got deeper as he went completely still for a moment. Something about Matt’s tone was off. Something was wrong.
“Yeah. What’s up?”
Matt sighed. “It might be nothing. A guy I know from way back reached out to me yesterday. Started asking some very pointed questions about the company.”
Nick felt his blood run cold. Matt was right. It might be nothing. It might also be a fishing expedition by one of several enemies they’d made over the last year or so.
“Now, from what I’ve been able to find out, he retired a few years ago, and he’s been doing some off-and-on contract work. It might just be that he’s interested in joining up. Might.” Nick could almost hear his friend shake his head. “Something doesn’t feel right, though.”
“You think somebody’s digging.” It wasn’t really a question.
“I think it’s entirely possible. Especially after that intel brief we got.”
Nick grimaced, already heading for his back room where his go bag was waiting. Vicky was watching him from the couch, with concern written all over her features. She wasn’t asking questions or hounding him, though. She just waited.
That was slightly unnerving all by itself.
“Does he know where you live? Do you need me to come over?”
Matt hesitated. Nick could imagine what his friend was thinking. He’d probably be in the same spot. None of them wanted to be wrong. None of them wanted to be easily stampeded. If it was nothing, Matt was afraid that he’d never live it down. The job required a certain amount of paranoia, but that wasn’t the same thing as jumping at shadows.
“I mean… Yeah. He knows where I live. I had him over a few years ago, before he retired out of Group.” Matt got hesitant again. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a threat, though. Not yet. He was just asking questions, and he lives quite a ways away. Last I heard, he was moving out of Colorado Springs and heading to Florida.”
Nick stopped, standing over his go bag, staring at the far wall with narrowed eyes as he thought it through. Matt didn’t want to panic or get the rest of the company stirred up for nothing. If it was nothing. “Okay, bud. Just let me know.”
“Thanks, man. Just thought I should pass the word that somebody was asking around. I know Goblin hasn’t exactly advertised.” Matt sounded a little relieved. He was concerned, but without a smoking gun, he didn’t want to go overboard. “See ya at work in a week.”
“Yeah, man. See you soon.” But as he took the phone away from his ear, Nick remembered the brief that Matt had mentioned. He’d been a little involved with securing a chemical plant down in Honduras at the time, but a few guys from the A Team had infiltrated a network of special operations trained hitmen, coordinated through the dark web, and had gotten fairly deep until they’d had to break their cover to stop the same network from kidnapping or killing their principal.
Somehow, he doubted that the sudden interest in PGS after that was coincidental.
He was still standing there, his phone in his hand, thinking, as Vicky came to the door behind him. “What’s wrong, baby?”
“I don’t know.” He looked down at the phone and the go bag at his feet.
“Is somebody in trouble?” She was leaning against the doorjamb, her voice quiet.
“Maybe.” He sighed and looked down at the phone again. “I’m sorry, babe. I’ve got to look into this.”
“It’s okay. I’ve got the week off.” He could hear the warm smile in her voice, and he almost didn’t make the next call. “I’ll be here, waiting.”
With an enormous effort, Nick kept his eyes on the phone and called Doug.
“You know it’s our time off, right, Nick?” Doug Chen wasn’t what Nick would have ever considered lazy. He was a former Delta operator, though Nick had no idea just how long he’d been in The Unit. Judging by his performance under fire, Nick was guessing he’d been there for a long time.
He was, however, old enough and wise enough not to want to borrow trouble, and he’d made it clear more than once that time off was time off. Not because he was difficult about it, but simply because he recognized, from long years of experience, the risks that burnout presented to men in this profession.
“I know, and I wouldn’t call, but I heard from Matt. Seems that somebody he knows from way back contacted him and was asking a lot of questions about the company.” He hadn’t kept his profession from Vicky, but he also hadn’t gone into a lot of detail with her, either.
That got Doug’s attention. “Was he, now?” He sounded pensive. “You’re in Colorado, right?”
“Yeah.” Nick felt his game face coming over him. He wasn’t crazy; Doug thought this was a threat, too.
“Shit. I can’t get there in any less than forty-eight hours. Hold on.” The phone went quiet, though the call was still open.
Nick dropped into a crouch to double-check his go bag, mainly just for something to do while he waited on Doug. He knew that everything was there, but if he was busy, Vicky wouldn’t be asking him questions he wasn’t sure he could answer.
“Okay. I’ve got a buddy out that way. He’s in Colorado Springs, so it’s gonna be a minute. Can you get over to Matt’s place?”
“Yeah.” It would mean going alone, because if there really was a threat, he didn’t think he could wait until a former Special Mission Unit operator got all the way up from Colorado Springs. That would take at least two hours. If this guy knew where Matt lived, and his questions were meant to gather intel for a hit, then things could get real, fast. “I’m on my way now.”
“Watch your back, Nick.”
Matt Patric’s house wasn’t all that fancy. One story, brick, with an attached garage, it looked more like a middle-class factory worker’s house than a GWOT contractor’s house, but that was probably why Matt still had it. The good money in the contracting world hadn’t lasted forever, and as the pay had steadily dwindled—along with some of the jobs—those who had lived high on the hog, playing at being “contractor rich,” had often found things tightening. Matt had been careful with his money, and so he was better off than some guys Nick knew.
He stopped his old Bronco just down the street and sat behind the wheel, just observing the neighborhood. It wasn’t the sort of place that anyone would usually expect terrible violence to happen, in contrast to some of the gang-riddled barrios where they’d worked recently, especially in Mexico and Honduras. He’d been at this long enough, though, that he could sort of see through the illusion. The manicured lawns, the neatly trimmed trees, the well-kept-up houses, and the nice, clean vehicles on the street and in the driveways weren’t an impenetrable shield toward the forces of crime and violence.
Especially if those forces had the sort of funding, training, and political backing that some of the people PGS had found themselves up against did.
Nothing jumped out at him. He checked every vehicle and nook and cranny he could see, but if there were real pros involved, he knew that nothing might stand out. There were no out-of-place vehicles in front of Matt’s house. No one loitering on the street who didn’t belong there. Everything was quiet.
Something didn’t feel right, though.
He pulled across the street and parked in front of Matt’s place. Maybe he’d gotten there in time. But something was telling him that something was wrong.
He wasn’t carrying his PGS Glock; he was off work and so he was still carrying his own personal carry handgun, a P365. He made sure that it was still concealed but easy to reach, and got out of the vehicle, starting toward the door. The fact that he was circling around toward the garage and staying out of direct line of sight from the door and the windows was mostly unconscious at that point.
He took one more glance around at the quiet neighborhood. No sirens, no surreptitious faces in windows. There was no outward sign that anything was wrong. But he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck going up.
Only a carefully considered, professional caution kept his handgun in its holster as he moved to the door, reached out, and knocked, still not quite standing in front of it.
The door swung partway inward at the impact. It hadn’t been latched.
He thought he heard a faint noise from inside, but his pistol was immediately in his hands as he pushed through the door. Maybe the “right” answer would have been to back off and call 911, but that was Matt and his family in there.
He cleared the door quickly, sweeping the living room over his pistol’s sights. There wasn’t a lot out of place, but there was one overturned chair.
More sounds came from the back bedroom. Almost like a faint scuffle, and then he heard a low voice. “Shut the fuck up.”
Every impulse told him to drive straight to that room, but he knew that he needed to be really careful, since he was on his own. Single-man CQB is a nightmare by any metric. The average man only has about a hundred twenty degrees of peripheral vision, and three hundred sixty degrees of security are needed in a combat situation, especially in a close-quarters fight. CQB is a game of angles, and with only one set of eyes and one gun to cover every angle, it gets complicated, fast.
Keeping his back to the wall as much as possible, avoiding full exposure to the next door, he moved to cover the kitchen first, seeing no movement there, though there was enough wreckage in there to suggest a struggle. He saw some red spatter on the counter and his blood would have run cold, if he hadn’t already been deep in the zone.
He noted it and moved on, his muzzle moving to the next danger area.
The kitchen was set toward the back of the house, just across from the short hallway between the garage and the two bedrooms. Nick paused at the corner, taking a deep breath as he brought his pistol back to his chest, the muzzle pointed at the opening next to him, then pivoted around the corner, punching the weapon out as he searched for targets.
One bedroom door was closed. The other was open, and he saw movement, quickly shifting toward it even as someone hissed an epithet.
Common sense might suggest that this was the time to take it slowly and carefully, pieing off the door and engaging targets as they were exposed. That was leaving aside two details, though. The first, and most obvious, being that his friend and that friend’s family were currently being held hostage, and if these bad guys smoked either Matt or Linda, Nick knew that he’d never be able to live with himself. The first tenet of hostage rescue is that the hostage is worth more than the rescuer’s life.
The other factor was that most American interior walls will not stop bullets. They’ll barely slow them down.
So, as soon as he saw the man pointing a gun at Linda, almost out of sight through the narrow bit of doorway he could see through, he shot the man through the cheekbone and plunged into the room, pivoting toward the corner, his finger still on the trigger.
The man he’d shot was already falling as he cleared the threshold. Even as his eye and muzzle tracked toward it, there was an explosion of movement, the thud of a body hitting the wall, a curse, and then the bed was knocked almost a foot to one side, almost taking Nick’s knee with it. He shifted quickly, bringing his SIG to bear, but he didn’t have a shot.
Matt Patric was on the floor, fighting with another man in a balaclava for control of what looked like a CZ P10. Nick didn’t dare shoot for fear of hitting Matt, so he quickly grabbed Linda and got her down on the floor, even as he briefly checked the man he’d shot on the way through the door. That guy was down, hard, but Nick snatched the pistol out of his limp hand and pressed it into Linda’s palm before he turned to where Matt was wrestling with his assailant.
The P10 fell to the floor with a thump as the gunman stifled a scream, Matt now in full control of his wrist and torquing it, hard. In the next moment, Matt threw himself onto his back on the floor, kicking one leg up and over the gunman’s neck and putting him into an armbar. The man did cry out then, because Matt wasn’t going for submission. He was trying to do damage.
The gunman’s arm broke with a nauseating crunch, and then, even as the man let out a muffled scream, Matt twisted again, putting him into a scissor choke and bearing down.
He held the choke as the gunman frantically tapped. Nick hesitated, then accepted that Matt seemed to have things under control, so he pivoted back toward the hallway. That other bedroom and the garage still needed to be cleared.
That took seconds. When he came back, Linda was on her feet, the dead man’s gun in her hands, and Matt was getting up, having scooped up the other gunman’s weapon. That guy was limp on the floor, though after a moment, Nick could see he was still breathing.
“Call 911, honey.” Matt’s voice was a rasp, though it seemed more from exertion than any injury. He looked up at Nick. “Thanks, brother. Didn’t think anybody was going to get here in time.” He coughed. “Hell, I didn’t think I was going to need you, until I did.”
Nick holstered his pistol. “How much do we need to worry about the Fort Collins cops?”
“Some, but not too much.” Matt was already reaching for his own phone. “I’ll call the office and get some lawyers moving.” He shook his head. “Good thing Goblin keeps the ones on retainer that he does.”
“Good thing,” Nick agreed, even as he looked down at the two gunmen, one incapacitated, one dead. They probably weren’t going to get a chance to interrogate the one, but it was abundantly clear to him that they were going to need to take steps.
That network that Chris and Phil had infiltrated might have disappeared after they’d blown their cover to protect Gage Romero, but that obviously didn’t mean they’d gone away.
And Pallas Group Solutions was, apparently, squarely in their crosshairs. Nick didn’t believe for a moment that this had just been a burglary, and he suspected that, if they were to remove the balaclavas, they might well find that one of the two hitters on the floor was Matt’s old acquaintance.
He pulled his own phone out and called Doug. Even if he and Matt got wrapped up dealing with the Fort Collins PD, the word needed to get out to the rest of the company, and fast.