Catch a Ghost (Hell or High Water, #1)
This title is #1 of the Hell or High Water series.
This title is part of the Extreme Escapes, Ltd. universe.
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Everyone knows that Prophet—former Navy SEAL, former CIA spook, full-time pain in the ass—works alone. But his boss at Extreme Escapes, Ltd. has just assigned Proph a new partner and a case haunted by ghosts from Proph’s past. Suddenly, he has to confront both head-on.
Tom Boudreaux—failed FBI agent, failed sheriff, full-time believer in bad luck—is wondering why the head of a private contracting firm has hunted him down to offer him a job. Still, he’s determined to succeed this time, despite being partnered with Prophet, EE’s most successful, lethal, and annoying operative, on a case that resurrects his own painful past.
Together, Prophet and Tom must find a way to take down killers in the dangerous world of underground cage matches while fighting their own dangerous attraction. When they find themselves caught in the crossfire, these two loners must trust each other and work together to escape their ghosts . . . or pay the price.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The encrypted email had been sent to Tom Boudreaux’s private email address. He couldn’t trace its origins, but after watching the video attachment, he was betting it hadn’t come from either of the men who held the starring roles.
The footage was dated a decade ago. The quality was grainy and slightly dark, but steady, most likely shot from a mounted camera fixed at a slightly downward angle to capture what appeared to be an interrogation of a military prisoner.
The opening shot showed a small room, cut in half by a table. Two men sat across from one another. The first man’s face was shadowed—purposely so, perhaps—and he was dressed in battle fatigues. Directly across from him sat a younger man, his face in plain view, his wrists handcuffed, the chain passed through a metal ring attached to the table in front of him.
His hair was blond and spiked with sweat and blood. His nose looked broken; his eyes were already bruised underneath. His chest was bare except for his dog tags and some tape wrapped around his ribs. There were enough bruises on his body to fell most men.
But not this one.
He didn’t shift in his seat or look uncomfortable or scared. Instead, he listened to the interrogator’s questions silently, with what might’ve actually been a trace of amusement.
“Why were you on the border?”
“Who sent you?”
“Are you a spy?”
At some point, the prisoner began a continuous sort of half humming, half singing under his breath, words to a tune that Tom couldn’t quite place.
Interrogation was all about the mindfuck. But this guy—who looked maybe nineteen if he was a day—was better doing the fucking than being fucked, and that made the interrogator angry. He banged the table, repeating the questions, and the young guy kept his singing/humming routine going. This time, Tom caught a few of the words—world and alive—and realized that both men were American.
Maybe this is just a training session? Tom knew they could get brutal, especially for Special Forces operators.
The interrogator spoke, a low, short burst—Tom couldn’t catch it no matter how closely he listened, no matter how many times he rewound—before he reached across the table and ripped the tags off the young man, hard enough to jerk his body forward before the chain broke.
“We know you killed an innocent man. No one’s coming to help you.”
The interrogator threw the tags across the room. Tom couldn’t see where they landed, but he heard the ominous clank when they did.
Tom’s blood ran cold as something in the young man’s eyes changed. It had nothing to do with the interrogator’s words. No, it happened when the tags were thrown away.
The next moves took mere moments. The young man managed to pick the table up with his wrists still chained to it, knocked his interrogator to the ground, and pinned him there by his neck with a table leg. The camera was blocked for a few seconds as other men rushed into the room, all yelling.
When the men cleared the camera space, Tom saw the young man refusing to move, even with guns pointed at his head. His knees were on the table, and he was balanced just well enough so the interrogator could breathe. But if he leaned forward, even a little . . .
None of the men were rushing him, probably afraid he’d move and break the interrogator’s neck. The young man turned his head toward the camera, teeth bared in a feral snarl, and then the video cut off abruptly.
One month later
Prophet didn’t like sitting still, found it nearly impossible to do so unless it was a life-or-death situation—and that had to be literally life or death and not some bullshit sit still or I’ll kill you type of non-threat.
Right now, he was supposed to be playing good little office boy. Doing paperwork, which sucked anyway, but more so because he was wearing not one, but two casts. Goddamn it. He looked mutinously down at the blue encasements that covered his hands and forearms to just below his elbows, and fought the urge to slam them against the desk. He’d done that once before—it’d cracked in half, but it’d been a different kind of cast. These he could fucking take a grenade to and they wouldn’t open, thanks to Doc’s tricks.
There were a few marks on one from where he’d tried to saw it with his KA-BAR, but that had just made the ends a little sharper and the whole thing more annoying than it had been, which was already pretty damned annoying. Although still not as annoying as the paperwork.
He planned on rectifying that situation as soon as the office emptied out a little—with a match, a garbage can, and a disabled smoke alarm—
The phone rang. He stared at it like that would make it stop. Desk duty wasn’t his forte, and this was some serious desk duty. It was partially because of his injuries—although he’d played hurt before—but mainly because of what he considered a minor infraction on his last trip out.
Obviously, his boss disagreed that storming a building protected by twenty guards and a state-of-the-art alarm system, without waiting for backup, and with a thief who hadn’t technically, as of that mission, been an Extreme Escapes employee, was a minor infraction (although he’d like to point out that all the good guys had lived, thank you very much), but hell, Phil Butler had known him long enough to realize that nothing with him ever went by the book.
Since the damned phone wouldn’t shut up, he finally answered with, “Yeah,” and then someone was yelling in his ear. Oh, hell no, he didn’t do that. He hung up and it started to ring again almost immediately. He muted the volume and began to draw on his cast, highlighting the number he’d gotten at the bar last night, before Phil walked into Prophet’s office—unannounced and without knocking—and slammed files down on his desk.
“Ah, come on, man.” Prophet flipped through them. “I finished these.”
“I thought the benefit of working here was not having to do this shit,” he groused, but Phil just smiled. Because Phil was grooming him, he knew, to take over EE. But the old man wasn’t all that old, and he wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
Plus, Prophet guessed he should be grateful he could still do shit like paperwork.
“Finish it and I’ll buy you lunch,” Phil said.
Prophet started to nod, then pushed back in his chair, which went flying, stopped only by the wall. “What do you want?”
“You’re all so suspicious.”
Prophet pointed a finger at him. “Because you only buy lunch when you’re up to shit. Dinner’s reserved for someone who’s dying.”
Phil pressed his lips together, pinched a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose—the classic I’m trying to hold it together so I don’t kill Prophet signal—and said, “You’re getting a partner.”
Phil spoke louder. “You’re getting a—”
“I heard you. It’s the eyes, not the ears.”
“Hey, you made a joke.”
Prophet couldn’t even begin to curse the man for that. He was too distraught over the partner thing. “Why now? It’s been a year.”
“I know. You’re not the easiest man to partner up.”
“So why try?” Prophet ground out.
“Because these are my rules.”
“You own this place—you can change the rules anytime you want.”
“True.” Phil rubbed his chin with two fingers as he contemplated Prophet’s words, then smiled. “Try this new rule on for size—you can’t order office supplies.”
“This isn’t going to work.”
“It has to.”
“This isn’t another one of your jail charity cases, is it?” he asked, and Phil shrugged. “Ah, come on. Who is he? Some prick fresh from Special Forces, thinking he’s the shit?”
“And that would differentiate him from you, how?”
Prophet pointed at him. “Nice one, Phil. Come on, answer the damned question.”
Phil conceded, leaning a hip on desk as he said, “Most recently, he was a deputy in one of the parishes of New Orleans. He’s former FBI, too.”
Prophet groaned, put his forehead on the desk and slammed it lightly several times. “I don’t know which is worse—the Cajun part or the Fed part. Don’t we have anyone applying here who’s a career criminal? I could at least learn something useful.”
“Just Blue—and he’s already partnered up,” Phil pointed out. “And we’re being a bit dramatic, no?”
“No,” Prophet deadpanned. “Look, I’ll do a job with him, but this permanent partner thing . . .”
“You know why I’m doing it.”
Prophet straightened. “So what? This guy’s going to be like my Seeing Eye dog? Because I could just get a real dog, you know. Would save everyone a lot of time and money.”
“Yes, that would work out so well jumping out of planes.”
“I’m fine for now, Phil. I wouldn’t be accepting missions if I wasn’t.”
“I know. I get your doctor reports.”
“And when I’m not—”
“I prepare for any and all eventualities,” Phil said, echoing what Prophet told him on a daily basis. “And I’m not losing you. This partner thing is final.”
Prophet knew better than to continue arguing. He rubbed his cheeks with his fingertips, realized he needed a shave badly. He looked down at the sweats and ripped T-shirt he wore because he’d come here straight from training, without bothering with things like a shower. Or shoes. “Fine,” he mumbled. “But don’t expect me to like him.”
Phil handed him another file he’d had tucked under his arm. “New mission intel. And I never know what the hell to expect from you anyway. He’ll be here soon.”
“Soon, like soon?”
Again, Phil did the nose pinching thing and walked away, cursing to himself under his breath. Prophet had that effect on everyone, he supposed.
No time to shower or change. But hell, he wasn’t looking to impress. Maybe the guy would think he looked like a crazy homeless person and demand another partner.
He gave his most put-upon sigh and left his office with the new op file to go raid the supply closet in the common area looking for his favorite pencils. Because when he was forced to ride a desk, he wanted his favorite supplies. Was keeping them in stock too much to ask?
Apparently so. And now he couldn’t even order them.
He grabbed a box of paper clips instead so he could try to fix the communal copy machine. He pulled open one of the panels that held the ink supply, brushed the hair out of his eyes impatiently. Too long for most jobs, maybe even longer than he really liked it, but he wore it this way because he could. A daily reminder of his freedom from the bullshit bureaucracy that had hampered him in the past. But the thing of it was, he couldn’t escape the future hurtling toward him like a meteor delivering a death blow.
Going blind doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
For him, he wondered if it would be.
No one knew, except Phil. Prophet had told him in the hopes that Phil wouldn’t want him for EE, that he’d stop courting him and just go away.
That hadn’t happened, obviously. Phil had made sure that no one else at EE knew, except for Doc, and he’d made sure Prophet’s insurance at EE covered the specialist he now saw.
It would be up to Prophet when and if to tell anyone else at EE, and he wouldn’t ever do it. Didn’t need anyone treating him differently. Especially a new partner.
He thought about heading out to lunch, but he wanted to see if the guy was punctual. If he wasn’t, Prophet would yell at him. And if he was, it’d prove that he was some kind of kiss-ass to Phil.
A sense of dull foreboding overtook him and he tried to shake it, but couldn’t. Another glance at the clock, and he looked down in time to see Phil usher a man into his corner office.
Right on time.
To distract himself, he leaned against the copy machine and paged through the new mission file Phil had given him. He and his new, annoying partner were set to fly to Eritrea. EE kept a second base of operations there. Most of the time, it was strictly recon, which meant you’d wait for something to happen, check in twice a day, and then maybe, if you were lucky—or unlucky—be sent out to do something.
Still, Prophet always managed to find some trouble there. It was hot. Corrupt. And he’d need plenty of weapons and cash for payoffs. T-shirts and candy for the kids. And knives. Maybe another machete because last time he was in-country, he’d broken his. A hell of a trip, his souvenir was an elbow that ached when it rained, and a scar on the back of his neck from the guy who had tried to cut his head off.
With Prophet’s own machete. So maybe scratch the machete.
Elliot was in the Eritrea office, had been for the past three months while he’d healed from a bullet wound. Prophet assumed he was being sent there to heal as well, and probably to bond with his new partner.
Son of a bitch.
He glanced up at the man who walked out of Phil’s office. The guy was almost as tall as Doc, which put him in the six-foot-five range. And he was broad, with dark hair, but man, the chip on his shoulder was visible from the fucking moon.
Prophet stared down at his casts and sighed. Picked at the edges of them. Wondered if he went into an ER and complained about pain whether they’d take them off for him, then remembered he was banned from the two closest ERs. He pulled his phone from his pocket and Googled ERs over twenty miles away, flagging a few viable options, until a shadow fell across him.
No doubt the gargantuan man. He took his time looking up, and when he did, he stuck out one of his casted hands. “I’m Prophet.”
“Why? What’s your name? Jesus?”
The guy didn’t crack a smile. One of his eyes was green, the other mostly brown, and it gave him a slightly unbalanced look, like a German shorthaired pointer Prophet’d once owned. But man, could that dog track.
“I’m Tom Boudreaux.” He ignored the casted hand, and Prophet pulled it back. Saw Phil hovering a few feet away. What did Phil think he’d do, punch him out in the middle of the office?
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” he said, smiling, and the guy rolled his eyes at him and wasn’t this going to be fun? Prophet rubbed his fingers along the back of his neck. Getting his head cut off with a machete would be more fun than this, but he forced himself to be semi-human. “What’s your background?”
“I don’t tell people things like that unless they buy me dinner first.” The drawl sounded deep Cajun. The drawn-out words and the lilting, easy roll of his voice made Prophet want to throw a chair at him, mainly because it had always been an accent he’d found irresistible. On anyone but this guy.
Okay, a little on this guy. Fucking bayou asshole.
But I’ll bet he can definitely track.
“Dude, what’s your area of expertise?” Prophet tried again.
“Look, I’m not getting into a pissing contest with you.”
Tommy narrowed his eyes at him. “Didn’t want a partner?”
“Awesome. Glad we got that out of the way. Because neither did I.”
“Got it, Tommy.”
“Tom,” the man said evenly.
“What I said.”
“This is going to go well,” Phil said, more to himself than to them. “Look, assholes, everyone here works with a partner. Don’t fuck this up or I will fuck you up. Both of you.”
Prophet didn’t doubt it—the former Marine wasn’t even six feet, but he was stout and muscled. And Prophet had learned a long time ago that bigger didn’t always equal winning, which was good for him.
Not that he was small, but six foot two was a midget among this land of six foot four–plus giants.
“I’ve got shit to do,” he told Tommy, turned away from him and toward the copy machine. The paper tray wouldn’t even open, so he banged his casts on it a few times, and the damned thing started working for the first time in days. “I should get some kind of bonus for that,” he told Phil.
“I’ve got a bonus for you, all right,” Phil shot back.
“You’re not talking about him, right?” Prophet pointed at Tommy. “Because no.”
Meeting the man from the video shouldn’t have been so goddamned unexpected.
You’ve really lost your touch, Boudreaux. You’re off your game.
Tom hoped he’d get it all back soon. Like riding a bike. Although he felt more like he’d just fallen off one and gotten run over in the process.
Why the hell someone had sent him that video of his new partner—how anyone knew Prophet would be his new partner a month ago—was the most pressing question.
Not telling Prophet about it at all was the best course of action until he discovered the answer. He already had the proof that Prophet was a maniac—a lethal one, both things perhaps born from necessity.
Or maybe he was just born that way.
He was a couple of inches shorter than Tom, and lankier. And there was no mistaking the fact that the man had war in his eyes. Tom didn’t know if the general population could see it, or if they’d stop at the rugged handsomeness, the way he looked as though he’d just literally rolled out of bed . . . and hadn’t been sleeping.
But if you watched closely, you’d see that his gaze swallowed whole areas, that he stalked as opposed to simply moved. That he missed nothing.
The man was trouble. Those eyes had him locked and loaded, and Tom would’ve felt less conspicuous naked on a float in the middle of Mardi Gras. He didn’t scare easily, but this could easily become the most trouble he’d had in his life, and that was saying something.
As he watched Prophet walk away, Tom rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, then cursed because he was mirroring the man.
“That went well,” Phil said as he escorted Tom into a large office across from his.
“Is this the part where you tell me he’ll come around?”
At least Phil Butler was an honest man. Five minutes before he’d met Prophet, Phil had told him, “We’re more of a discover-on-your-own type of company. I don’t have time to hand-hold you through a partner or a mission.”
All Tom had been able to get out of Phil was his partner’s age—thirty-one to Tom’s thirty-six—and the fact that Prophet was probably one of the best operatives Phil had ever seen, hands down. He’d used words like highly skilled, capable, and lots of field experience.
EE had a reputation for providing their operatives with everything they needed, including what Phil liked to call creative freedom. They’d also given him a lot of training the past month. He’d had his ass kicked by several operatives to get him up to speed on everything from new techniques in hand-to-hand and weaponry, to demolitions and explosives. It was a crash course, one Phil told him would continue in between his missions.
“What else do I need to know about Prophet?” Tom asked him now. “Real name, maybe?”
But Phil ignored his question, telling him instead, “You can work here or at home. Most operatives rarely come in unless there’s a meeting. Just know your intel for your first mission. Details are in your secured email.” Phil pointed to the laptop on an empty desk before he left the room.
Email. Right. He opened the brand new computer and found that his first name popped up, along with a list of passwords for him to reset. He did so quickly, anxious to check that he could get his secured emails, knowing he’d read them when he was out of this place and away from the maniac. He’d figured if he could deal with the Cajuns, he could deal with anything. He might’ve been seriously wrong.
Someone knocked briefly on the still-open door. He turned to see the woman he’d met earlier—Natasha, from support systems—and motioned for her to come in. She was tall and slim, and he had a feeling her body type belied her capabilities. Phil had told him that even the support staff knew how to kick ass.
Natasha would run the computers when they were on missions. Get them supplies. And right now, she might be his best friend here, because she asked, “What do you want to know?” with a small smile playing on her lips.
She looked behind her and moved closer, rather than shutting the door. Whispered conspiratorially, “He’s been working here for years. I think he was Phil’s very first recruit when he started EE, but his file’s nowhere to be found. New partners always ask for it. He’s also former Special Forces—SEALs, I think.”
“Right. And I think he was in the CIA, too.”
Worse. So much worse. He wanted to bang his head against the desk, and she seemed to sense that. “He’s really not that bad, Tom.”
Yeah, okay. “What’s his real name?”
Natasha smiled broadly this time. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Because I don’t really care. “I will.” He paused. “Wait—you don’t know yourself, right?”
Natasha shrugged. “I’ve given you more than you’ll get from him in a year.”
It still didn’t stop him from asking the question he of all people had no right to ask. “Why can’t he keep a partner?”
“If it helps, they all want to keep him. He’s the one who disengages.”
Now that was interesting. “He’d kill you for giving this away.”
“I know. But he messed up my supply order twice. I warned him.”
Tom couldn’t help but laugh as she slipped out the door. Maybe there was hope for this place yet.
It was only when he went to shut the door that he realized that the thing on the other side of the fairly large room was a desk. Covered with a tarp of some sort.
Prophet kicked the door open seconds later, which explained the black scuff marks on both sides. He was carrying a can of Coke and a box of donuts balanced precariously on files. All of it got dumped on Tom’s desk.
“We’re sharing an office?”
“Technically, you’re sharing my office,” Prophet pointed out.
“Are you going to be a dick the entire time we’re working together?”
Prophet smirked. “I’m what they label ‘not good with authority,’ Tommy.”
“Great. And it’s Tom.”
“But you’re not an authority figure, so as long as you don’t act like a dick, we shouldn’t have a problem, right?”
“Seriously, I’m going to kill you,” Tom told him, then muttered, “If I can’t hide the body well enough, it will be so worth it going to jail.”
“I heard that,” Prophet called over his shoulder as he left the room with the donuts.
“I meant you to.”
So he was stuck with an asshole who happened to be former Special Forces—and a possible POW, according to the mystery video—and CIA to crazy-assed mercenary who’d been allowed to roam the earth shooting things and amassing destruction in his wake.
And he rescues people too. Helps those who can’t help themselves, Tom reminded himself. Because this job paid well, sure, but the missions weren’t frivolous, and they were never against the interests of the United States.
Yeah, so the bastard is a walking paradox.
He’d partner with the guy for this job, prove himself to Butler, and then he’d ask to work with someone new. For all he knew, Prophet the Great would do the same thing.
How bad could it possibly be?
He opened the one email he found and stared at the ticket that popped up, revealing his first trip.
In a small office.
For three months.
So yeah, it was bad. Really, really goddamned, motherfucking horribly bad.
Then he saw the actual email, which started, “Prophet will share the mission plans with you.”
Because Prophet, of course, was nowhere to be found.
There was nothing else of any help to him but a “what to pack for the extended trip” missive and a “don’t bring your own weapons” clause. He slammed down the lid of the computer, grabbed the cord, and walked out of the EE offices to his Harley. Maybe a long-assed ride would make everything better.
He had to move forward, because there was nothing to go back to. Sometimes, having no choice made every decision, no matter how bad it seemed, easier.
No weapons his ass. Prophet never went on a trip without a little something of his own, didn’t give a shit that the Eritrea office had enough C-4 to blow up the country and then some. He liked something on his own person at all times, and the ceramic knife would pass muster easily enough. His go bag was always packed, one at home and one here at the office. Now he locked away some of the weapons he wouldn’t risk, and prepared to do nothing but prep until takeoff. Which should’ve been tonight, as far as he was concerned, but there were always reasons.
His new partner had gone home. Emailed him and said he’d meet him on the plane, as if Prophet gave a shit. Asked for the mission plans, which Prophet reluctantly had Natasha deliver to him. They didn’t send shit by email when they didn’t have to, no matter how secure. Messenger and then burning the evidence was the way Phil had learned to do things, and it was still the man’s preference.
It was also his preference to have EE tucked away from the busier cities. That’s why EE’s main office was a large house located several hours outside of Manhattan. Moderate weather for a good portion of the year, easy access to both the small local airports and the major international ones too. Ten support staff worked the day shift on a rotating basis—same with the night staff—and on any given day there were a couple of operatives wandering through the halls. And, he supposed, Phil Butler was ever present.
The office also had a twenty-four-hour on-call support staff in case they needed backup. EE was a twenty-four-seven job, and everyone who worked here treated it as seriously as if they were an operative in the field. Because the operatives in the field depended on those men and women behind the desks.
Phil had a real hard-on about the buddy system lately. Yeah, it was safer for most, but Prophet had left that team shit behind. Didn’t mind being anyone’s backup on and off, but he’d be damned if he’d rely on someone like that.
Have to start relying on someone soon enough, as Phil liked to remind him.
Instead of going home, he hung out in one of the bedrooms on the upper floors of the office building. He’d gone over the file four times. Didn’t need the map to tell him shit about the area, not like the fucking new guy, and as much as Prophet wanted back in the field, he could think of a zillion other places he’d rather go.
He paced the floor like an angry lion, tugging alternately at the casts. Felt like they each weighed a thousand pounds, and Doc had refused to take them off for the mission.
“You can shoot with casts—use both hands. Or use a knife. Or let your partner cover you,” was all Doc had said. And dammit all to hell, he knew Prophet didn’t need a partner, could do a proper job of hand-to-hand and wetwork with the casts by himself, a skill learned by necessity. And when Prophet had told him so in his most disgruntled tone, Doc had responded easily, “So you don’t really need the casts off, do you?”
“So what, this is like a life lesson? Because I don’t like those,” Prophet had told him, and Doc’d merely grunted.
Around one in the morning, he showered with plastic bags on his hands and arms, which was a pain in the ass for washing anything, grabbed the well-worn Shogun paperback from his desk to tuck into his bag along with his computer, thought about going out for a drink, and decided on the diner for food instead. Ordered enough to put him into a comfortable food coma, and flirted with the waitress who was forty years older and kept squeezing his cheek.
He opened his laptop, logged in using his phone’s secure Wi-Fi, and then entered the surveillance code into the private program that allowed him to check on his apartment. It had been wired six months earlier so he could monitor it without ever having to set foot in there. His was a second-floor walk-up with open loft space. It had once been an industrial building, and he’d bought the top two floors. The bottom two belonged to an international financier, which Prophet assumed meant spy. And Prophet assumed the guy, named Cillian—and yeah, he’d made fun of his name already—knew what he was too. They looked out for one another and the building, but they’d never actually met face to face.
He hadn’t even known Cillian had wired the damned place until he got the guy’s IM late one night.
Hope you don’t mind, but I took several security measures you hadn’t considered. Here’s the link to your alarms and cams.
Usually, you ask if someone would mind before you do shit like that, he’d IM’d back.
Better to ask forgiveness than permission. I’ve heard that’s your motto.
It’s a good motto when I’m the one doing things I’m not supposed to. Good alarms, though, Prophet had conceded.
From there, they’d checked in often enough. Flirted, really. Prophet had even considered IM sex once, when he’d been bored out of his mind in Eritrea, but there had been a bombing outside his door just when things had gotten hot. Kind of ruined the whole moment.
This time, Cillian had been gone a week, according to his last message. There was nothing out of place except he’d stolen his lamp back.
Prophet had never actually seen Cillian without his buttoned-up businessman disguise. Knew the guy was dark haired and clean-cut. Former SAS, judging by the way he carried himself.
It was a very distinctive stance.
He typed, You took the lamp.
After a few seconds, Cillian IM’d back, I imagine you sound indignant as you’re saying that.
You broke into my place.
Several times. And are we having a bit of selective memory that you broke into my place to steal it first?
Life runs more smoothly on selective memory. He decided against telling Cillian that the couch would be his next acquisition. I’m leaving for a while.
New case. New partner. Why he’d typed that, he didn’t know.
Cillian was too sharp to let it pass. You’ve never mentioned a partner before.
I’ve had several.
Work partners, Cill. Mind out of the gutter.
It’s more fun there. You and I both know it.
Prophet grinned at the truth in that.
So, you’ve had several partners but never mentioned any of them before. What is it about him?
Fuck, he’d gone this far. Might be a permanent pairing. That’s what’s being threatened anyway.
And how is he?
Pain in the ass.
Can’t imagine he’s not saying the same thing about you. There was a long pause and then, Must run. Someone just tried to kill me.
Can’t imagine why.
Prophet clicked off to have the last word and continued eating.
His cell rang a little after two. He juggled three phones: EE’s, a private one Phil didn’t know about and therefore couldn’t trace, and a third that only one other person in the entire world had the number to. A person who tied Prophet to his past so thoroughly that the yoke could choke him if he thought about it hard enough.
But tonight Prophet noted that it was quiet on that front. As it should be. As it needed to be. He didn’t want any ghosts coming out of the woodwork.
This was the EE phone, the ring set specifically for Butler—Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog—and he picked it up on the first ring.
Phil paused. “I didn’t want to tell you over the phone, but I’m on my way cross-country and didn’t want to sit on this. I’ve got some bad news. It’s about Christopher Morse.”
“Is he hurt?”
“He’s dead, Proph.” Prophet closed his eyes as Phil’s words hit him like a physical punch. As if Phil knew, he paused momentarily before continuing. “The police found his body in a dumpster a few days ago, but there was no ID. They had to use dental records, so he’s already been autopsied.”
If he’d been autopsied, they suspected foul play. “How was he killed?”
“You’ll have to get that intel from the coroner’s report. He’s rushing it for me now that he’s got a positive ID.”
Fuck. Prophet fisted his hands, as best he could, on the diner’s table and thought about the old scars under his casts, made with barbed wire wrapped around his arms and hands, ankles and feet, scars that always reminded him of what—who—got left behind.
Not your fault, Proph, his team had said. But he’d never believe it.
Phil cleared his throat. “You do want to check this out, right? Or should I send someone else?”
“I’ll go,” Prophet said, well aware of how hollow his voice sounded.
“I can do this one alone.”
“You shouldn’t have to. Do whatever you needs to be done to give Christopher’s parents some peace. I’ll give Mick the other case. Natasha will drop the file to you any minute. She knows where to find you.”
Because Phil insisted on GPS chips in all their phones and other devices. And Phil could turn them on remotely if an operative decided to turn them off. “Okay.”
“Keep those fucking casts on.”
Phil hung up, but Prophet cursed him up and down under his breath anyway. Five minutes later, he had the file from Natasha, along with new plane tickets for five that morning.
He thought seriously about not calling his new partner and just going alone, but he didn’t need to hear Phil’s shit about it. Besides, once Tommy fucked up, Prophet would have the excuse to get rid of him.
The phone rang in the middle of Tom’s dream about a phone call and Prophet. He grabbed for his cell as he checked the time.
Three in the morning.
“Forget the file.” Prophet’s voice, rough but not from sleep. How Tom knew the difference—from watching the video about thirty times since this afternoon—and why he cared was another matter entirely. “We’ve been reassigned. Coming to get you in twenty.”
He hung up. Tom didn’t question how the man knew where he lived or his private cell number. With Prophet as a partner, he supposed privacy was a thing of the past.
With that in mind, he made sure his computer password was set, and he locked it down tight.
He was already packed, so he used his precious time to set coffee to brew, and then jumped in the shower with mostly cold water to keep him awake. Sleep had been interrupted by his inability to shake the video images of Prophet from his mind.
As an agent, he used to get mysterious, often classified intel on a regular basis. But that was years ago. Before getting the video of Prophet, the most important email he’d gotten was an invite to the firemen’s annual gumbo cook-off.
He’d saved a copy of the video file on a thumb drive, and hid the original among his computer files, along with the original email. Maybe EE had ways to trace it that he didn’t know about. A lot had changed in the five years he’d been out of the FBI. At first he’d attempted to stay up to speed, but trying to keep a hand in the world he was trying to quit hadn’t worked. He’d eventually broken ties completely and gone back to his old ways, which included more backdoor hacking and do-it-yourself fixes than protocol had ever allowed.
The FBI didn’t want him back. The parish didn’t want him as their sheriff.
But Phil Butler had come in and offered him a chance. A chance with a fucking maniac for a partner. Prophet was impulsive. Reckless. Lethal. And sure, in the video he’d been under what might’ve been POW circumstances, but having met him in a non-life-threatening situation hadn’t changed Tom’s opinion. The guy could pull Tom into trouble far too easily, or at least not be able to pull Tom back from his own special brand of impulsiveness.
Tom knew he had to be on his best goddamned behavior, whether Phil came out and said so or not. Phil was testing him, and rightly so. But more than that, this was also about him and his own personal demons, and his ability to conquer them. If he was really going to get back in, he had to hold himself tight and not get lulled by a partner whose style included building a bomb in his office.
What had Phil been thinking with this match?
When Tom finished with his shower, he toweled off as he walked into the kitchen. Poured his coffee. Stilled with the cup halfway to his mouth, and said, “I still have twelve minutes.”
“Twenty was the cap,” Prophet offered.
Tom turned toward the dark living room and saw his new partner sitting in the room’s single chair, one leg swung over the side. He wore a green bandana wrapped around his head, covering his hair completely, and jeans that looked like they’d seen better days. “How did you bypass the alarm?”
“Not telling my secrets. Why do you live like a transient?”
His apartment was half of an old Victorian. An elderly woman owned the house and lived on the other side. She had round-the-clock aides, and her estate took care of the rentals. Phil had set it up, and Tom had been grateful. The place was old but spotless. Heat. A/C. A working kitchen, and wired for cable. A garage for his motorcycle now, and for the car he’d buy when they returned for the winter months in upstate New York.
He had two suitcases, ten boxes, and his Harley. That was his life.
“Where’s the rest of your shit?”
“Trying to minimize my carbon footprint.”
Prophet rolled his eyes. “Cajun hippie.”
“And I just got here.”
“Been two weeks.”
How did Prophet know that? And what else did he know?
You asked about him—what makes you think he didn’t do the same?
Tom refused to show weakness. A man like Prophet could sense it. “Why do you have such a hard-on for me?” he demanded.
“It’s my job. What’s yours?”
“Being your partner.”
“That all, Cajun? Because I’m thinking starting out lying to me is a bad thing.”
It probably was, and he was pissed at Phil for putting him in the middle. “I was told to keep you safe.”
Prophet nodded slowly in the dark. “I knew Phil would feed you some bullshit like that. You were told to keep me out of trouble—there’s a big difference between trouble and safe.”
“With you, I doubt it.”
Tom didn’t know why he’d said that, like he already had some sort of familiarity with the man. Prophet caught it too, stilled. But all he said was, “You don’t know a damned thing about me. You gonna haul ass or what?”
Tom knew several damned things, some just from pure observation—like the fact that Prophet could have a career as a thief and that he was a general, all-purpose pain in the ass—but he shrugged and drank his coffee on the way to his bedroom to dress. It was odd to no longer have a uniform of any kind. He supposed dressing like a civilian was a uniform in and of itself, since he was officially undercover.
If Phil told you to keep Prophet out of trouble, what did he tell Prophet about you?
He didn’t think he wanted to know. Instead of focusing on it, he grabbed his gear, but stopped cold when he heard Prophet doing that singing/humming thing. The same tune from the video—it was so clear he couldn’t have mistaken it. He listened for a few minutes. Thought about telling the man what he’d been sent.
Then he dumped his coffee instead, flicked the machine off, and followed Prophet, who offered to do the alarm.
Tom let him.
Prophet drove an older-model Blazer that rode like it had something extra under the hood. The interior was fastidiously maintained—the only things out of place were the dog tags on the floor under Prophet’s feet. There were two cups of to-go coffee in the cup holders, plus a bag of fast food crap that Tom wasn’t above eating to wake himself up.
“Where are we going?”
“We had to get up at 3 a.m. and pack to do that?” Tom asked around a mouthful of breakfast sandwich as Prophet tore along the highway.
“You know how long of a drive that is?”
Prophet sighed. “We’re taking a plane. You can read the files on the flight.”
Tom finished the sandwich and crumpled the wrapper as he eyed the speedometer. “Does this happen often—the case changing?”
Prophet turned to face him with a smile. “And here I thought you’d be able to roll with anything, Cajun.”
Never, he wanted to say. But instead, he pointed to Prophet’s casts. “What happened there? Did you punch your last partner?”
Prophet had turned his attention back to the road. “Funny, Cajun.”
“So why does Butler have a hard-on for partners?” he asked, because the hating partners thing—along with hating each other—was something they actually had in common.
Prophet sighed, like Tom was the most annoying person on the planet. “He thinks that EE should be like other agencies in that regard, that partnering keeps operatives from going over the edge, going rogue, going crazy. That kind of shit.” He waved a casted arm for emphasis, barely hanging onto the wheel with the fingers on his other hand as the Blazer edged toward 90 mph. “EE doesn’t have the same rules as the CIA or the FBI or even the military, which I’m sure you already know, but Phil’s a stickler for this partner shit. No getting around it. Not for long, anyway.”
Tom wasn’t sure why he’d asked about partners. He definitely didn’t want to talk about his past partners in particular. That subject always made his gut ache, so he nodded and dropped it.
He’d agreed to work at EE, Ltd. because he’d assumed that a private contracting company would want people who were independent. Able and willing to work solo. He’d been wrong about that, but he’d also been immediately impressed with Phil Butler. And he was willing to do anything to get back into the game.
“What exactly do you do?” Prophet glanced over at him, his gray eyes the color of an impending storm. “I can’t partner with someone unless I know their deal. We have to be able to work together effectively.”
“You don’t even want a partner, so who are you kidding?”
“We’re stuck with one another. You have my life in your hands. And vice versa. It’s time for cooperation.”
Tom knew this would be a one-way street, but it didn’t matter—he wouldn’t have Prophet’s life on his conscience. “I left the FBI five years ago. I was a field agent, not a desk jockey.”
But Prophet only focused on one thing. “Left?”
“Was asked to take leave. A big fuck-up on a case. I resigned instead.”
“Let me guess—it was all a mistake. Not your fault.”
“It was all my fault.”
Prophet looked at him with something akin to respect. If admitting failure was all it took, well, hell, Tom had a chance.
Whenever there was a ruckus at security, it was usually Prophet’s fault, so it was odd to see one already in progress as he walked toward the area with a soda as big as his head. And he was going through with the damned drink. Somehow.
“What’s going on?” he asked the TSA agent, who shrugged, checked his ID, and let him through. It was an odd time for a flight, so the airport terminal was quiet. Except for Tom, who waved his arms as he talked to security.
Prophet heard Tom’s choice curses in what Prophet assumed was Cajun French, and walked over to rescue his partner.
Who was actually supposed to be keeping Prophet out of trouble.
He wanted to video this and send it to Phil. Better yet, put it up on YouTube. But by the time he’d gotten close—because he’d argued about keeping the soda with the second agent, telling her about hypoglycemia and the fact that it was only three ounces of soda and a lot of ice, and lost, and goddammit, someone owed him—Tom had disappeared.
He pulled the Air Marshal badge he’d gotten for emergencies like this one—and also because he was more than qualified to help out if there was any trouble on a flight—and asked the female guard, “That guy’s with me. What’s the problem?”
“He was randomly chosen for a pat-down. We found his piercings, and now he’s putting himself through the X-ray machine,” she said wearily, like she’d seen it all before. And Prophet could only shrug in sympathy as they watched Tom climbing onto the conveyor belt and lying down flat on his back.
She motioned for Prophet to follow her. As Tom’s X-ray came through the machine, Prophet almost bit off his tongue. Clear nipple piercings and slightly more blurry cock piercings. Jesus, he hadn’t expected that.
He swallowed hard, and a second agent sputtered, “Holy shit.” And then Tom was out, smirking at Prophet and the agents.
“I told you they’re attached,” Tom said, starting to unzip his jeans. “Want me to show you?”
Prophet wasn’t sure which one of them he was talking to, but he assumed it was security. To her credit, the female guard merely said, “Actually, yes, sir. I won’t be the lucky one today, but you’re still going to need a full body search.”
Tom rolled his eyes, said, “Of course I am,” under his breath.
“The ladies like that?” a male agent asked Tommy.
“Men like it more,” Tom told him, which confirmed to Prophet that the physical yank he’d felt toward the man hadn’t been his imagination. Fucking accent.
“To each his own,” the male agent said, while Prophet ground through his teeth, “Why didn’t you just take the damned things out?”
“Why don’t you just fuck off?” Tom bit out, and oh yeah, this was going well and they weren’t even on the plane yet. As Prophet put his bag through security and walked through the metal detector, Tom went into a private room with two male guards and came out five minutes later, the men shaking their heads and Tommy still angry at the world.
“You with him?” one of them asked, and Prophet nodded. “Good luck with that.”
One of the female TSA agents slid something into Tommy’s back jeans pocket, despite Tom’s earlier statement. And then she smiled.
Ignoring Tom and his bitching, Prophet led the way across the airport and onto the plane that was nearly finished boarding. It was still coach, which always sucked. But Texas coach was way better than Africa coach.
“Sweetheart, please, some caffeine,” Prophet said to one of the flight attendants as he passed the small room that housed the beverage carts. “Coke would be fine. Several of them. Full cans, not the bullshit little glasses.”
He was handed two full cans as soon as he sat. He downed one immediately and opened the other. Found Tommy staring at him. “Guess you’re not a morning person.”
“I don’t count four in the morning as morning,” Tom said crankily, and stretched his long body as much as he could so his shirt came up a little. He hadn’t bothered to tuck anything in after the strip search, and he looked disheveled and way different than he had at the office yesterday afternoon. And cramped in the small space. “I’m going to sleep.”
Maybe Tom wanted to, but the guy was way too twitchy for that. Not angry any longer. More like distracted. “Scared of flying?” Prophet asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Tom said, barely listening to him as he plugged in headphones. Prophet shrugged and gave up.
The flight was pretty crowded, but their middle seat person didn’t show. Once the doors closed and the plane was moving toward the runway, Prophet took the opportunity to stretch his legs across the space. Tom was shifting in his seat, unable to settle in. He had his eyes closed and Bose noise-canceling headphones on, probably hoping they could cancel out his partner.
Good luck with that. Phil always said Prophet could push Mother Teresa to her limits. “I’d take it as a personal challenge,” Prophet had told him, and Phil had done the pinching the bridge of his nose while muttering thing.
The announcement from the captain broke into his thoughts. Delay on the tarmac . . . back-up on the runway, third in line, or some shit like that. Other people groaned and the plane powered down a bit, even as the pilot reassured them that it wouldn’t be long.
He thought about heading to the cockpit to check things out—half the time, he ended up knowing the pilot or found out they had someone in common—but decided against it. Mainly because he was still playing Air Marshal, but also because Tommy was still decidedly nervous.
He prepared to relax, maybe grab some sleep, when his internal warning radar went off. He’d always had more situational awareness than most, but the training he’d received brought it to levels that sometimes drove him nuts.
He was turning in his seat casually, trying to assess what the hell was happening, when Tom opened his eyes, took off the headphones and said, “Something’s wrong.”
This was one of the best series openers that I’ve ever read.
I am anxious for the next book.
[I] think I may have a new favorite series . . . I am marking the calendar for book 2, I just hope time flies!
[A]mazing and realistic.
SE Jakes gave me everything I loved and more.