Where Death Meets the Devil
Jack Reardon, former SAS soldier and current Australian Meta-State asset, has seen some messy battles. But “messy” takes on a whole new meaning when he finds himself tied to a chair in a torture shack, his cover blown wide open, all thanks to notorious killer-for-hire Ethan Blade.
Blade is everything Jack doesn’t believe in: remorseless, detached, lawless. Yet, Jack’s only chance to survive is to strike a bargain with the devil and join forces with Blade. As they trek across a hostile desert, Jack learns that Blade is much more than a dead-eyed killer—and harder to resist than he should be.
A year later, Jack is home and finally getting his life on track. Then Ethan Blade reappears and throws it all into chaos once more. It’s impossible to trust the assassin, especially when his presence casts doubts on Jack’s loyalty to his country, but Jack cannot ignore what Blade’s return means: the mess that brought them together is far from over, and Ethan might just bring back the piece of Jack’s soul he thought he’d lost forever.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. This wasn't how a guy was supposed to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday. He was supposed to be in a pub, listening to a drunken rendition of "Happy Birthday," or at a BBQ being introduced to so-and-so's cousin with the great personality, or out to dinner with a slice of wheat-free, dairy-free, taste-free cake. Hell, anywhere but here.
Here was a twelve by twelve of raw cinder block, roofed in rusted, corrugated tin and in the middle of God-knew-where. The only furniture was the folding chair in the centre of the room, bolted to the cement floor. The chair Jack was tied to by wrists, ankles, thighs, and chest. They hadn't gagged him, which meant there was no one to hear him scream; hadn't blindfolded him, which meant what he saw wouldn't matter.
It was cold, but not as cold as it got closer to dawn, so only a couple of hours had passed since he'd been jumped, at least. The shivers running along his spine aggravated the shallow knife wound under his left kidney, to say nothing of the potentially broken ribs creaking each time he moved. His right wrist was either badly sprained or fractured; the plastic restraint was biting into the swollen tissue. All of it hurt enough to make his teeth ache. Or maybe that was from the repeated blows to his jaw.
"Hey!" Jack couldn't help but try. "What's going on? I didn't do anything. Come on, what's the deal?"
Like before, no response.
The icteric light of a dozen fluorescent glow-tubes hanging overhead gave everything a sickly yellow tinge. Behind him, the wall with the door. To his left, a wall with a set of shackles. It was easy to imagine himself strung up, hanging there defenceless, while the tools on the wall to his right were taken down and used. Knives, pliers, straight razor, a shock-stick, what was possibly a cat-o'-nine-tails. All of them were hung on a backboard, the type with an outline of each tool so you knew where to put them. Someone had made sure each tail of the whip hung in its precise place.
Still, it was a nicer scene than that on the wall in front of him.
A poster stuck up with aged, yellowed tape. An expanse of turquoise water, a curve of golden sand, a row of perfect palm trees, a peerless blue sky arcing over it. On the beach, four young ladies in bikinis played volleyball.
It had a caption: Wish you were here.
The truly disturbing thing, though, the one thing in the entire room that really concerned him, was that someone had used what was probably blood to smear a question mark at the end of it. That one, perhaps joking, addition did what nothing else in the room could.
It made Jack think he wasn't going to get out of here alive.
He really didn't want to die here. Not in this goddamned place, not for this bloody job.
Jack closed his eyes. The darkness he found there suited the cold, but it didn't stay dark for long. It rarely did these days. Something always lurked behind his eyelids, waiting to pounce.
Tonight's bad memory was the compound. Walking from the barracks to the Big House, where Mr. Valadian stayed when he was in residence, he'd kept his hands stuffed in the front pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched against the chill of the desert night. Thankfully, his jeans and wool-lined bomber jacket, collar turned up around his neck, had been enough barrier against the cold.
Jack had barely got one foot on the bottom step before Jimmy was there. Thinking it had been a routine summons, Jack hadn't been prepared, a telling fact of how bad things had become. Jimmy had locked his free arm around Jack's neck, pushing a knife up under his jacket, the point keen against his skin.
Then Robbo had appeared and things had gone from confusing to screwed very quickly.
Jack banished the new bad memory to the files in the back of his head, then slammed the drawer shut on his own foolish mistakes. Too cocky, too complacent. Too bloody tired of the job as a whole. God. He just wanted to go home and forget any of this existed.
He might as well be wishing for the moon, because he was stuck here, surrounded by nothing but extremely hostile, empty desert in all directions. The Great Sandy Desert was too hot, too dry, or for pitifully few days a year, too wet. Those brave enough to endure it were small, scattered Aboriginal communities and a couple of mining companies who poured money on the inherent problems — and organised-crime bosses with big secrets to hide. With no water, no weapons, and no friends for hundreds of kilometres, Jack had about as slim a chance on his own as he did right here.
Then he heard a deep humming sound. It Dopplered around the hut, growing louder as its source prepared to land. The double-thumping of the helicopter's two contra-rotating rotors pounded against the shack, making the tools clatter against their backboard, jerking them out of their neatly aligned positions. Chains rattled and the roof crackled under the new pressures.
Well, that was one thing confirmed. It was Mr. Valadian who'd ordered his capture. He was the only obscenely rich megalomaniac in Australia who had a Russian Kamov Ka-52 Hokum-B attack chopper. Which meant Jack probably wasn't getting out of this with his skin intact, let alone alive.
The bird eased down, and a moment later, the engines cut off. In the sudden silence, Jack heard voices.
There was the stately drawl of The Man himself asking a question. Robbo's glacially paced tone answered him. The Man again, then the eager-to-please nasal twang of Jimmy. The nasal twang was fresh that night, courtesy of the punch Jack had landed on the prick's nose.
The Ka-52 was a two-man aircraft, three if two of the people were willing to get pretty well acquainted. As none of these three could pilot the thing, Jimmy and Robbo had probably been outside all the while, hopefully freezing their pathetically small nuts off.
The door opened, and Jimmy's greasy, "This way, Mr. Valadian," was followed by a soft snort from The Man as he stepped into the hut.
"Watch the door," Mr. Valadian said, no particular command in his tone, just an air of expecting to be obeyed.
"Of course, sir," Jimmy gushed as the door shut firmly on his sycophancy.
"Turd of a man."
Jack almost laughed. Mr. Valadian was one of those charming psychos, sophisticated and polite, and supremely capable of cutting a person to the bone with a blunt summation of their flaws.
"I hope you haven't been waiting long," Mr. Valadian said as he strode into view. "I was delayed by business."
The Man was not tall, not short, not ugly, not handsome. Brown hair, brown eyes. Unremarkable. Unmemorable. Evolutionarily perfected for vanishing in a crowd or sliding right off the end of a lineup. He had a sheet of charges as long as Jack's leg — possession of illegal firearms; possession of stolen property; financial fraud; even one for supplying underaged prostitutes to a redacted third party. A few had stuck, resulting in a couple of short-term "holidays" in minimum security, but most had slipped right off The Man's well-dressed back with barely a hitch.
That wasn't why Jack was here, though.
"No problem, boss," Jack said, trying for cool nonchalance. "Gave me a chance to tidy the old torture shack up some. I'd offer you a seat, but…."
Mr. Valadian smiled. It was the tolerant one The Man turned on business rivals, usually ten seconds before they were taken out of the running for good. As if he were at one of those "business" meetings right now, he wore a tailored suit in rich, dark blue, an ultra-fine wool overcoat hanging to his knees, and leather dress shoes dusty from the ground disturbed by the landing chopper.
"Come now, Mr. Reed," The Man said. "We both know why we're here. Just as we both know you don't want to make this hard for yourself."
"Sorry, boss, I must be a bit slow tonight. I really don't know why I'm here. If I've done something to disappoint you, I'm sorry."
How far could he push it? Jack had certainly felt like he was in favour lately, being called out on several high-level meetings with Mr. Valadian, his opinion of this or that person's motives requested. He'd felt like he was trusted. Finally. And now this.
The Man considered him, eyes hooded. "Are you? I would like to think you really were, Mr. Reed. The worst part of it is I liked you. Smart, fast, perceptive." He snorted. "Trustworthy. But I suppose that was the job, wasn't it."
Then he lifted his gaze and nodded fractionally.
Another person moved into Jack's line of sight, startling him so the chair creaked sharply. He hadn't even suspected there was someone else in the small space. None of his senses had picked up the footsteps, the heat, the sounds of another's breaths.
It was a man, which wasn't surprising. Mr. Valadian had very antiquated views on the sexes. Women had their place, and it wasn't in his business, be it in the glittering towers of glass and steel in the cities or in secret, paramilitary compounds in the middle of God-didn't-give-a-shit-where. This guy was no taller than The Man, but built lean, moving with the light, gliding steps of a person confident in their strength and skills. He wore, oddly, dark sunglasses and a suit of deep charcoal, fitted but cut to conceal weapons, which he was unashamed to show off. Pushing back the side of his own long woollen coat, the newcomer flashed a compact webbing under his suit jacket and the butts of two large handguns. From an inner pocket, he took a small grey box and handed it to Mr. Valadian. Returning his hands to his sides, he backed into a corner. Under a shock of dark hair, the skin of his face was pale and smooth, closely shaven.
This man was a complete unknown. And that meant an unclassified danger. Jack's stomach clenched in anxiety, but he didn't let it show on his face.
"What's going on, boss?" He used what he hoped was the perfect amount of confusion. "Who's the pretty boy?"
Ignoring the second question, Mr. Valadian said, "What's going on is that I've been made aware of a spy within the compound. Care to tell me anything about that, Jaidev?"
Jack forced a startled laugh. "A spy? Shit, and you think it's me? Oh, come on, boss. I've been with you for how long now? Fifteen months. Why would you think — "
"Tell me your real name, Jaidev."
"Real…. It's Jaidev Reed. Named for my grandfather. He was Indian." Jack let a touch of frustration into his tone.
"I'm sure he was," Mr. Valadian said. "His name may have even been Jaidev, but I sincerely doubt yours is. If you won't tell me your name, perhaps you'd like to tell me who you're working for."
"I work for you. I'm not a spy!"
"Are you from the military? ASIO perhaps? Maybe even the Meta-State?"
Jack frowned. "Meta-State? What in hell is that?"
The Man regarded him for a moment. "The Meta-State is a highly guarded secret agreement between Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, and various other Southeast Asian countries to share intelligence and resources regarding terrorism and international threats. Rumours say the Meta-State controls a hidden anti-terrorism operation spanning not just the members of the Meta-State, but several other, potentially volatile nations as well."
"Wow," Jack said. "That sounds cool, if a bit far-fetched."
"Trust me, Mr. Reed, it is real." Mr. Valadian held up the small box. "Do you know what this is? It's a signal jammer. It'll block my phone and the comms on the chopper, but it'll also screw with neural implants." Not waiting for Jack to pretend ignorance this time, he said, "Yes, another secret the government would prefer we know nothing about. They've been trialling neural implants in the military's elite forces for some time now. Given your age, if you were military, I'd say you have one, Mr. Reed." Mr. Valadian gave him a patient look. "Tell me, Jaidev, who are you working for and what interest do they have in me?"
Shit. Fifteen months. So close to getting everything he needed — proof of Mr. Valadian's association with terror groups in Russia, Egypt, and Argentina; development of smuggling routes into and out of the Australasian region; the reason for the secret paramilitary compound housing a small army and enough weapons to pose a serious threat to the security of the Meta-State — and it was all about to end in spectacular pain and disaster.
Jack tried one last time. "Got me, boss. I don't know anything about it."
"Hm. Wrong answer." The Man's thumb moved over the button.
Fuck fuck fuck.