It was a hell of a thing, watching a brother being lowered into the ground.
Gabriel Michaels stood rock-still, his face displaying none of the emotions churning deep in his gut. The dark graphite of the clouds overhead reflected his mood, as did the sudden chill in the air that had nothing to do with the approaching storm.
Joe “Homer” Simpson had seen a lot of action in his lifetime, much of it at Gabe’s side. As Navy SEALs, they’d been to hell more times than Gabe could count, but they’d always come back.
Not this time, though.
Death in the line of duty was a price they were willing to pay. Every SEAL understood the risks of what he did, but forged ahead anyway. That was part of what made them SEALs; they were wired differently than most.
That didn’t make dealing with death any easier; it was just less of a surprise when it happened. Except, of course, when the guy who died had been happily enjoying his retirement on American soil.
That was the story, anyway.
Actual details were sketchy, the story warranting only a few lines in the obscure small town where Homer had chosen to park his ass after leaving the teams. The cause of death hadn’t been given. Gabe had read the obit, but SEALs didn’t just die for no apparent reason, unless it was at their own hand. God knew, the suicide rate among veterans was too fucking high. If that was the case—and Gabe had his doubts that it was—it was the worst kind of irony.
Someone approached from the left, angling toward the spot where Gabe had chosen to stand, on the fringe and back behind the small crowd of mourners. Gabe kept his eyes forward, tracking the movement in his peripheral vision. The man moved carefully, slowly, as if he understood the peril of sneaking up on someone like him.
Dark suit, short hair. Gabe pegged him as a Fed, lending some credence to his theory that Homer hadn’t been as retired as he’d claimed to be. Retired from active duty, maybe, but he hadn’t taken himself out of the action entirely.
The newcomer paused as the clergyman concluded the brief service with a prayer. He waited for those gathered to disburse before closing the remaining distance between them.
Gabe blinked and turned toward the smooth, deep voice. No one had called him that in years, the nickname tolerated from only a select and privileged few. Another blast from the past, this one very much alive, stood beside him, eyes forward and locked on the hole in front of them. Years had gone by since they’d last seen one another, but Gabe would have recognized the former SEAL Lieutenant Commander anywhere.
“Crash. Been a while, man. What are you doing here?”
They shook hands, their grips firm and confident. A simple gesture between men, but one seemingly lost to the new generation who preferred a head bob to physical contact.
“Same as you. Paying my respects to a good man.”
The hair on the back of Gabe’s neck prickled, another sign that things weren’t as they seemed. Silas Branson wore the same stoic mask they’d all perfected, but his eyes gave him away. The current Assistant Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s presence at Joe’s funeral was about more than honoring a fallen friend; it was business.
“I thought Homer retired.”
“He did, officially.”
Silas’s answer confirmed Gabe’s suspicions: that Joe had been working off the books, and that his sudden and unexpected death hadn’t been an accident. Fifty-year-old SEALs didn’t just drop dead of natural causes.
Especially not Joe, who’d been healthy as a horse only six months earlier when he’d shown up at Gabe’s mountain sanctuary. Unexpected visits by former teammates weren’t unusual. They all had open invitations and sometimes they’d just appear out of the blue, hang out for a few days, then disappear again.
He and Joe had fished, tossed back a few, and reminisced, understanding each other the way only fellow SEALs could. Gabe had sensed a restlessness in him then, the same feeling he got sometimes when things were too quiet, too peaceful. Unlike Joe, however, Gabe had no intentions of doing anything about it.
“So it’s like that, huh?” Gabe asked quietly. “Tell me you got the fucker.”
Silas said nothing and in doing so, told Gabe everything he needed to know. Familiar emotions roiled in his gut — rage, grief, the thirst for vengeance — but Gabe kept it all neatly tucked away, allowing none of it to show. That part of his life was over. Had been for a while.
“No,” Gabe said firmly, answering Silas’s unspoken question.
“I haven’t asked you anything.”
“Not yet, but you will.”
The corner of Silas’s mouth quirked. “Did the Zen of living with nature make you prescient or something?”
It didn’t surprise Gabe that Silas knew all about his pristine lakefront parcel in the mountains, far away from civilization. The fucker made it his business to know everything about everyone, always had. That was one of the things that made him an outstanding leader. To strategize, you had to understand what you were dealing with — on the team and off.
“No, but I’m not one of those suit-wearing, hive-minded sycophants you’re surrounding yourself with these days. I can actually think for myself.”
The quirk grew into an almost-grin. “You haven’t changed at all.”
On the contrary, Gabe had changed a great deal. Violence, beyond that of the natural cycle of things, was no longer a part of his daily life. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the killing he did these days wound up on his dinner plate, and a solid one hundred percent of the orders he followed were the ones he gave himself.
“If you believe that, then your spies aren’t as good as you think they are.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Silas commented smoothly, his eyes once again scanning the perimeter before settling back on him. “Where are you staying?”
“Nowhere. I’m heading back tonight.”
Silas looked at the darkening skies doubtfully. “That’s a long drive and a storm is brewing. Might be safer to wait until morning.”
“You have gone soft. Since when did a little water ever stop a SEAL?”
“Stick around. We could have a few beers, catch up.”
“Now I know you’re up to something. You never bought a round in your life, you cheap bastard.”
Silas chuckled, his eyes both amused and calculating. “Meet me and find out.”
It was a challenge, one meant to appeal to Gabe’s innate curiosity. It did, but not enough to change his mind.
“No thanks,” Gabe said, though he took the card Silas held out to him. Matte black, it held an unfamiliar logo and a number etched in silver. Whatever it signified, Gabe sensed having it might come in handy someday.
“I’ll be expecting your call.”
Gabe shook his head. Another thing about Silas Branson: he was an arrogant son of a bitch. “See you around, Crash.”
Gabe turned and began the slow walk back to his truck. Fred, his loyal Black and Tan Coonhound, bayed out a joyful welcome, immediately easing some of the tension that had taken up in his neck and shoulders. It was true what they said: a dog really was a man’s best friend, and Fred was his. Unconditionally loyal, Fred never wanted anything more than Gabe could give.
“What do you say, boy? Burgers or Chinese?”
Gabe slid onto the big bench seat, reached out and scratched Fred’s big, floppy, Bloodhound-like ears, receiving a deep doggy purr in response.
“Hell, no, we’re not getting Mexican. We’ve got a long ride home and by the looks of those clouds, we won’t be driving with the windows open.”
A tilt of the head, a plea from soulful hazel eyes.
Fred turned away, choosing to stick his nose out the open passenger window instead.
Gabe angled the truck toward the town limits, hitting a fast food drive-through on the way. He bought two burgers with everything for himself and two without onions for Fred. They’d split the large fries.
The clouds continued to darken, going from steely gray to an ominous charcoal. Only an hour into the twelve-hour drive home, he pulled off into a rest stop to let Fred stretch his legs and do his business. They’d no sooner gotten back into the truck when the skies opened up and dime-sized hail pelted the windshield. Fred, who didn’t like storms, tried to shove his nose between Gabe’s back and the seat.
“Relax, buddy,” Gabe told him, offering a comforting pat on the dog’s rump. “It’s just a storm. We got this.”
Gabe groaned a short while later when he saw the flashing lights and barricades stretching across the road, forcing him to a full stop. The pouring rain and near Stygian darkness made it impossible to evaluate the situation, but the strobe-like bursts of red, blue, and yellow lights up ahead couldn’t mean anything good.
Fred continued to tremble, half his beefy body in the passenger seat, the other half now in Gabe’s lap. Gabe gently pried him off and, promising to be right back, grabbed his baseball cap and went to investigate. He almost wished he hadn’t. The scene was a grisly one, made all that more macabre by the flashing lights. Twisted pieces of metal littered the road; it was impossible to say for certain just how many vehicles had been involved.
“Need a hand?” Gabe asked one of the state policemen charged with securing the scene.
The kid, who looked like he was barely out of the academy, shook his head somberly. Rain poured down over the wide brim of his hat. “Not unless you’re the coroner. Or a priest.”
Gabe went back to his truck and pulled out his phone. The GPS app confirmed what he already knew: the closed road was the only east-west route for miles. He could drive fifty miles out of their way along back country roads to get to the next semi-major road, or he could head back the way they came, wait out the storm, and get a fresh start in the morning.
Cold rain continued to pound against the truck. He was tired, wet, and the thought of spending the next several hours navigating his way out of this Godforsaken place didn’t appeal. It had absolutely nothing to do with the bait Silas had dangled in front of his nose, and everything to do with a warm, dry bed, cold beer, and cable.
With a heavy sigh, Gabe made his decision and turned the vehicle around.
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