In his last mission, Conor Maguire was called back into action by his handler, Ricardo, to go after a man who helped facilitate the terror attacks that devastated America. The intelligence garnered in that operation exposed a network of traitors within the American government—officials who had advance warning of the attacks and did nothing to alert the American people. Worse yet, they sought to take advantage of the situation, seeing it as an opportunity to further their own vision of government.
When Ricardo next pays Conor a visit, it's at the behest of a shadowy collective of patriots determined to purge the government of those who sold out the nation. It should have been a simple mission, a short trip to "punch tickets" in the way that Conor had successfully done hundreds of times around the world.
But nothing in this mission will be simple. Conor and his team find themselves thwarted or compromised at every turn. They're pushed to the edge physically and emotionally. When the dust finally settles, their world will be entirely different, the path ahead more uncertain than ever.
Release date: March 4, 2021
Print pages: 356
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Punching Tickets: Book Five in The Mad Mick Series
Jewell Ridge, Virginia
"What the hell are you making?" Barb asked, crinkling her nose as she walked into the kitchen.
She'd just ridden in from the valley below, from where she was staying with Johnny Jacks' family. Her horse was settled into the barn and Conor hoped she'd stay for the night. It had been a few weeks since they'd stayed together under the same roof, a family again.
He raised an eyebrow at his daughter. "What's the matter? Never seen meatloaf before?"
"Of course I've seen a meatloaf before, but what meat is that?"
Conor grinned proudly. "Goat! This is the newest addition to my selection of goat dishes."
Barb looked doubtful. "So that's goatloaf?"
"Yep and it's going in the smoker. It'll cook all night and I might even have me some for breakfast."
"‘Cause why the hell not, right? Only thing better than goatloaf would be smoked goatloaf for breakfast."
"Now you're following me, Barb. I'm certain smoked goatloaf will be a culinary delight. If someone ever puts together a cookbook of the collapse this should be in there."
Barb shook her head as if trying to erase the image from her head and the smell from her nostrils.
"I'm simply trying to keep the menu fresh, daughter. Don't knock it until you've tried it."
"No way am I trying that. You know I hate goat—living or dead, loafed or smoked."
"One of the world's most popular meats, goat is. Think of it as a small, friendly cow with cooler horns and the devil's own eyes." Conor finished patting out the loaf and snapped off the latex gloves he'd been wearing. He dropped the gloves in the burn barrel, then refilled his Coffee Makes Me Poop mug with fresh coffee.
"You know, those bloody goats follow you around like you're the Pied Piper," Barb said. "Have they not figured out you're the very reason their horned little brethren keep turning up missing? Do they not know you're the one slitting goat throats and grinding their little bodies into goatloaf?"
Conor considered this. "Not yet they don't, and you'd never convince them of it, Barb. Like most folks, my goats find me to be quite charming."
That comment provoked an eye roll. "Yeah, whatever. When is Ricardo coming?"
Conor glanced out the window to check the status of the sunset. It had dipped below the horizon and the world outside his warm kitchen was fading to gray. "Should be any time. He said it was safer to fly after dark and it's getting dark out there now."
"Safer for him and us both. No one taking potshots at the chopper and no one trying to figure out where he landed. Has he ever been to our little slice of heaven before?"
"Oh, many times," Conor said. He grabbed some spices from a cabinet and began sprinkling them on the goatloaf with the precision of a machinist. When he was done, he took up a stainless steel mixing bowl containing some thick brown concoction and slathered it onto the goatloaf with a wooden spoon. When he'd finished adding everything he imagined a good goatloaf would require, he stared at it in satisfaction and declared, "That is one fine goatloaf."
"One day I hope to have a man who stares at me the way you stare at a goatloaf," Barb mused.
Conor ignored her, disappearing out the door to slide the goatloaf into a homemade smoker, fabricated from an old air compressor tank. The woods around the compound had a nice selection of shagbark hickories and tall oaks so there was no shortage of wood for smoking food. After latching the smoker tight against raccoons, Conor adjusted the vents and headed back into the living quarters.
"You wouldn't remember Ricardo coming to the compound because it usually happened when you were in school. I'd get a phone call that he was coming and he'd show up in a chopper or some long black SUV packed with private security."
"Why did he even bothering coming here? You guys had encrypted phones and secure email."
Conor gave her a patient smile. "Yes, dear, but Ricardo is old-school like me. Deals are made in person. People communicate differently over the phone and through email. Nuance is lost and there can be misunderstandings. When your business involves the taking of lives there's no room for misunderstanding. The terms must be crystal clear. You should remember that, daughter. If a man wants you to kill someone, he should have to look you in the eyes when he's asking."
"I'll remember that. So, you sending Ricardo home with any of that goatloaf? He getting some 'goat to go'?"
Conor grinned. "Don't get your hopes up. It won't be done in time."
The living room door opened and the rest of the odd little family rolled in—Ragus, Shannon, and Doc Marty. Barb had already spoken to them outside when she was settling her horse into the shed. The new arrivals doffed their layers, cheeks flushed from the cold.
"You guys done?" Conor asked.
"Everything with an engine was started and allowed to run for a little while," Shannon replied.
"Wood is split," said Ragus, warming his backside against the stove.
"And wheelbarrows of wood have been delivered to every structure with a stove," Doc Marty reported.
"Excellent," Conor said.
Besides Conor's living quarters, there were wood stoves inside Doc Marty and Shannon's quarters, the infirmary, Conor's shop, and a few other places. Some of the fires were only lit when the buildings were occupied, but others, like the shack that housed all the solar equipment, had a low fire going all winter. They also had to start all of the engines on a regular basis, including the old multi-fuel military truck Conor had taken from The Bond group. He also had two generators and several welders that ran off diesel. The gasoline vehicles he owned were getting a little finicky, despite stabilized fuel. He was afraid there would soon be a day when they'd no longer start, but he expected his diesel vehicles would be fine for a while.
The containers full of supplies he'd gotten from Ricardo included some fuel, but running vehicles were of limited value. They drew too much attention when you were the only people with working vehicles and many of the roads were barely fit for traffic anymore. Over a long, wet winter trees fell across them. There had been mudslides that either blocked the road or eroded large sections of them. It was normal life in the Appalachian Mountains, but in better times the highway department would have made an effort to keep things open. Now everyone was on their own.
Ragus stoked the fire. What little heat the sun had produced was long gone. The night would drop into the twenties. Not bitter cold but enough to warrant a hot fire and a thick blanket. He paused in his actions and cocked his head. "I hear it."
"Me too," said Barb.
It was always one of the younger ones picking up the sound of the arriving chopper these days. Conor's shot-out ears were paying the price for a career that involved gunfire and explosions, much of it without hearing protection. He had to stick his head outside into the night air before he could confirm what the others heard. "You're right."
Barb looked at the others in the room and shook her head at her father's insistence on verifying it himself. Of course they were right. They knew a chopper when they heard one. This wasn't their first rodeo.
Conor threw on his coat, grabbed his rifle off a hook, and stepped out the door. He clicked on his headlamp as he jogged the familiar path toward the panel that controlled his solar landing lights. He threw the heavy lever on a rusty electrical disconnect and his chopper pad was illuminated, the bright LED lights stark in the cold darkness.
From the corner of his eye, Conor saw the rest of his group standing by, weapons at the ready as they watched the dark chopper approach, barely visible against the night sky. The thrum in Conor's chest grew as the bird closed in on them, dropping skillfully into the circle of lights. Conor immediately dropped the lever on the circuit disconnect, cutting the power to the lights. As they faded, the pilot cut the engines and the rotors began to wind down.
Conor turned on his headlamp and directed it toward the chopper, giving Ricardo a little light with which to orient himself. The rear door slid open and Ricardo climbed down from the deck of the chopper in his knee-length wool coat, a dapper scarf wrapped around his neck. Conor had to smile. Whether it was a war zone or apocalyptic Appalachia, only Ricardo could drop out of a chopper looking like he was out on the town for a night of dinner and the theatre in Manhattan.
Conor strode toward the chopper. "Greetings, old friend!"
Ricardo threw a friendly wave and turned back to the chopper. He had two bodyguards with him, men Conor hadn't seen before. One stood in the open door, scanning the area with a handheld thermal monocular. The other was sliding Hardigg cases, heavy-duty military storage boxes, toward the open door. Ricardo sorted through them as if looking for one in particular.
"Need a hand?" Conor asked, slapping Ricardo on the back.
"Maybe with one of these. The others contain supplies I thought you might need. Stuff I came across. You know, stuff that fell off a truck somewhere."
Conor laughed. He'd grown up with gifts that 'fell off a truck'. "We can always use more supplies. Do I get a hint?"
"There's ammo in 5.56, 9mm, .300 Blackout, and 7.62x51. Figured that was something you could always use."
"Oh, we can definitely use those flavors," Conor replied. He turned back to his group and waved them over to help. "Anything else interesting?"
"Found a couple of older PVS-14s. They're not nearly as good as those ENVG devices you used up north but they might help you out. There's a few grenades, a few cases of MREs."
Conor grinned. "It's like feckin' Christmas and you're old Saint Nick."
"Well, I didn't see you at Christmas, old friend. Consider these late gifts." Ricardo pointed to one particular case. "Help me with that one. Let's get it up to your place."
Conor slung his rifle over his back and hefted the heavy case out of the chopper. "Damn!"
"Be easy with that one, Conor. It's special."
"What's in it?"
"You'll see in a minute."
The rest of Conor's team arrived and with the help of Ricardo's bodyguards, they hauled all the heavy cases to Conor's living quarters, dropping them off in the kitchen. The special case, the one Conor carried, went into the living room.
"Your security detail is welcome to stay and warm themselves by the fire," Conor offered.
"I appreciate the offer but the subject matter is classified,” said Ricardo. “I was hoping that I could speak with you, Barb, and Doc Marty in private."
Conor glanced at Ragus and Shannon. "You guys good to hang out at the Doc's place until we come get you?"
They looked at each other and shrugged. "Sure," Shannon replied.
"And no kissing," Barb teased.
Shannon frowned but Ragus turned bright red. Doc looked uncomfortable with the comment. Conor grinned, enjoying everyone's discomfort. Some days Barb was clearly his daughter.
Ragus headed toward the door, stopping to shake hands with Ricardo as he passed. "Nice to meet you." He snatched his coat in one hand, his rifle in the other, and headed out the door.
Shannon did the same, also introducing herself before grabbing her gear and leaving.
"So what's in this case?" Conor asked, pointing to the footlocker-sized Hardigg at his feet.
Ricardo crouched and laid the case flat, then flipped the latches. "Hey, I know you don't really drink much but I came across something special I wanted to give you. It's a taste of home." He opened the lid and the inside was lined with carefully packed bottles.
Ricardo stepped to the side and gestured to the case. Conor extracted a bottle, pulling off a sleeve of bubble wrap and reading the label.
"Oh my God. It's poitin. Can't tell you the last time I had a sip of that."
"What is it?" Barb asked. "Never heard of it."
Conor looked away, searching for the words. "Kind of like Irish moonshine. Used to be illegal, made in pot stills in basements."
"There's also mead," said Ricardo, holding up a second bottle. "Bunratty mead."
"Am I to assume this fell off a truck too?" Conor asked. "Like the ammo?"
Ricardo shook his head. "Not exactly. Got it in a trade with a shady trigger man I know. He brought me an entire semi-trailer of premium liquors. Kept a few for myself. The rest I've been distributing to friends."
"Let's have a seat," Conor offered, gesturing to the furniture arrayed around the sparse room. Everyone took a seat except for Conor. "I'm not exactly against drinking. It's more that I chose a career path where it's important to be cautious and keep your wits about you. That tends to rule out pouring a heavy cup."
"Well, a sip every once in a while is practically medicinal," Doc interjected. "Especially with the anxiety we're all under now. That's my professional medical opinion."
"As a dentist, your drinking advice is probably more sound than your medical advice," Conor quipped.
Ricardo was in agreement. "It's the same for me. It's a weird kind of stress. Long periods of quiet and boredom broken by extreme violence and sheer terror. Kind of like a warzone but different."
"Well, I'm going to fetch some cups so we can sample these goodies. Then I'm anxious to hear why you came all this way, Ricardo."
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