“Fifteen minutes to the drop zone.” Lt. Slade Donovan, code name Shadow, spoke into his throat mic, giving the members of his Delta Force team, code name Sierra, a head’s-up.
They were flying through the night in a Boeing MH/AH-6M Little Bird helicopter flown by a Special Operations Aviation Regiment pilot. SOAR provided aviation support for Special Forces and had been dialed up to fly this mission. Coincidentally, the pilot, Lt. John Wannamaker, had flown this team on other assignments before, which gave everyone a secure feeling. ‘Nothing like knowing your team,’ Slade always told them.
Trey McIntyre, code name Storm, leaned back against the inner hull of the chopper, closed his eyes and began the process of centering himself. Next to him and across from him, other members of Team Sierra were doing the same thing. This included the newest additions, Brock Sullivan and Axel Weber. The whole team had just completed six grueling weeks of training to make sure the newbies fit into the team. Being able to trust that each person knew what he was doing was just as important as the tasks themselves.
Under normal circumstances, they would not be deploying so soon after finishing their last op, but just as they’d wrapped up the training session, word had come down from the brass that Dana Roberts, a journalist, had been kidnapped by the Lopez Garcia cartel she was investigating, and Sierra Team was tasked with retrieving her. This was not their first adventure with narcotrafficantes. Sierra Team had been deployed before as part of larger missions to work in concert with the Mexican military when an especially vicious cartel situation had arisen.
Trey had wondered why the cartel hadn’t killed the woman, since journalists who wrote unfavorably about cartels were not too popular. This year alone three had been beheaded and placed in a public square for people to see, although not by this cartel. Then he’d learned that the cartel had contacted the media conglomerate she worked for and asked for twenty million in United States dollars or they’d send her home in pieces. Cartels were never about to pass up an opportunity for a big payday.
Of course, the briefing made them aware that Lopez Garcia’s style was a little different from the other cartel leaders’. They called him El Lobo. The wolf. Wolves, Trey knew, were among the world’s smartest, most perceptive animals—and also one of the most vicious and bloodthirsty. The word was Lopez Garcia ran his cartel like an alpha wolf ran his pack, with prescribed, ritualistic behavior and a defined pecking order. Everyone acknowledged that this kidnapping was abnormal behavior for him and his cartel… If someone had gone off the reservation and done this on their own, there could be a lot of bloodshed over it.
This team was due some leave time after three back-to-back missions and had been on the verge of getting to it, but when the call had come to gear up, they’d killed that idea. Each of them was aware that the primary focus of all units of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta—was counterterrorism and hostage rescue, so today’s mission was one they’d rehearsed for many times. They had been in situations that were far worse than this and succeeded. Trey knew each man on the team was mentally and physically ready to get this job done.
Now they were in the darkened cabin of the helo, flying into the night over Quintana Roo, a state in Mexico that was a combination of thick jungle and tourist hotspots. Like him, each man was going over in his head what they knew. Hector Lopez Garcia, leader of the cartel, owned a massive finca—country estate—deep in the heart of the Quintana Roo jungle. A helo with very sophisticated equipment had done a previous flyover and reported that it was protected by heavily armed manpower and surrounded by thick stands of trees and other jungle growth.
‘No external electronic security,’ the pilot had reported. ‘Nothing showed up on our instruments and they’re ninety-nine-point-nine percent accurate.’
‘I’m surprised,’ Slade had commented.
‘They don’t need it. The cartel owns three hundred acres of pure, overgrown jungle with the main building itself square in the middle. By the time a person reached the house, everyone would hear them coming.’ Then he’d grinned. ‘Except you guys, of course. I think you invented the word stealth.’
Trey knew that their training would definitely come in handy today. Intel had reported there were at least twenty heavily armed guards—sicarios—at the finca. Their orders were to get in, take out as many of them as they had to, grab the hostage and get the hell out of there. He was sure the cartel was egotistical enough to be confident no one could breach their security and make off with their prize. Trey grinned in the darkness. They hadn’t met the men of Delta Force yet. And after tonight, they’d probably hope never to meet them again—at least any who were still alive.
When Slade signaled five minutes to drop, each of them went over their gear again, double-checking both their rifles and handguns. Then they were hovering just at the tops of the trees, at the spot that had been selected as the best for insertion. Someone tossed a rope from the cabin and one by one they rappelled down, fast and neat just as they’d done so many times. The moment the last man was standing and the rope pulled up, Slade signaled the helo to get gone. It banked and lifted away, off to where it would wait for the signal to return and retrieve them.
Once on the ground, they made their way as quickly and quietly as possible through the thick stands of palm, poinciana and Caribbean pine trees, as well as a wide variety of dense flowering shrubs. Dressed all in black, hands and faces also blackened, and with the stealth for which they were famous, they made their way through the jungle to the main house. Here was where it would get dicey, but they had gone over the plan so many times Trey knew they could all recite it from memory.
At the edge of the clearing, Slade held up a hand for them to stop and Trey pulled the thermal imager from a side pocket in his pants. It didn’t take long for them to determine which rooms had people in them. Knowing Dana Roberts was a small woman and that there was only one other female in the house, they quickly pinpointed her in one of two locations.
“I count twenty bodies in the house,” Trey whispered. “Not counting our target. How copy?”
“Good copy,” came back all the whispered responses.
They had no intel on whether Hector Lopez Garcia himself was at this location or not, but the prevailing theory was no. In a way, they were glad. Retrieving the hostage was their primary mission. They didn’t need any distractions. Capturing Lopez Garcia could be on someone else’s menu.
Trey noted exterior lights on the corners of the roof, throwing circles of light onto the grass. Slade pointed and gestured for them to stay beyond the perimeters of the lights. Then he whispered into his mic.
“Sierra Team, move out.”
Trey clicked his mic to show he understood, knowing the other team members were doing the same. Then, like a choreographed dance group that had performed a routine multiple times, they moved slowly toward the house itself, alert for any guards sure to be patrolling outside. Even as isolated as the house was, it was a given that the cartel leader would not leave the exterior unprotected.
Their orders were to pull out all the stops for the mission to succeed. If that meant eliminating every one of Lopez Garcia’s men, they were prepared to do that. No one would be shedding any tears over the vicious cartel members.
They had barely moved into the clearing towards the house when two guards came into sight, one from each side of the building. They spotted the team and lifted their weapons to fire, but before they could shoot or give any kind of warning, Slade’s gun spoke twice, followed by two rounds from Axel, who was next to him. The shots were so close together it seemed as if they’d all come from the same weapon.
“Two tangoes down,” Slade whispered into his mic.
Stepping over the bodies, the team moved toward the house. At a signal from Slade, they broke through two large sliding glass doors, startling the people inside. Marc and Brock tossed smoke grenades into the room and as the men in there reached for their weapons, even as they were coughing and choking, the team disposed of them before the tangoes could get a shot off.
“Eight more down,” Slade informed them.
The team spread out, moving from room to room, with Slade and Trey heading for the first of two rooms where they believed the hostage was being held.
“Sierra Team, this is Sierra One,” Slade whispered. “Remember, we want Lopez Garcia, too, if he’s here. Keep an eye out for where he might be hiding.”
“This is Sierra Four. So far no trace of him.”
“Damn fucker,” Marc Blanchard, Sierra Three, growled. “I’d like to kill that motherfucker myself.”
Everyone on the team knew that Marc had a hard-on for anything to do with drugs. They had destroyed his first marriage before it had even got started. And though he was very happily married now, he still hadn’t forgotten the devastating effects drugs could have on people. He’d kill everyone in the cartel given the opportunity.
“We’ll get our chance,” Slade told him. “Meanwhile, let’s find the package and get the fuck out of here.”
They moved through the house, the team clearing it room by room, the sound of a gun battle as cartel members confronted them a continuous barrage of noise. Reports of tangoes down sounded in their headphones as they reached each room.
Trey’s assignment was to cover Slade’s six as they headed for the two rooms identified as probable locations for the hostage. It was a stroke of luck that when they burst into the first one they hit pay dirt, but what they saw pulled them up short. Dana was there, disheveled and with a bruise on one cheek, but doing her best not to look terrified. Trey was seized with a desire to kick the shit out of whoever had laid hands on her—most likely the man dressed in black pants and shirt who stood behind her, one arm around her throat, his other hand holding a gun to her head.
“Don’t worry, Dana.” Slade spoke to the frightened woman in a calm voice. “Everything’s gonna be just fine. Trey, let the team know what’s happening and get someone up here to cover the rest of the upstairs.”
Trey clicked his mic. “Sierra team, we have located the package but need assistance. How copy?”
“Good copy,” came back from everyone.
“Sierra Five on the way up,” Axel added, followed by Brock, and Trey repeated the messages to Slade.
“Put down your gun,” the man growled, “or I shoot her then you and your men. Do it now.”
At his words, Trey shifted his position ever so slightly so he could cover the room. Axel and Brock had just reached the hallway behind him and stood with their guns ready.
“I think you might want to reconsider that.” Slade spoke in his low, deceptive Texas drawl, one that often lulled people into a false belief that he wasn’t so sharp or so aware of things. “I promise you I’m better at this than you are and, if I miss, the other members of my team won’t. Unless you want to bleed out here on this nice carpet, drop the gun and let the lady walk over here.”
The man snorted. “You do the walking, right out of this room, or she is a dead woman. Get out of here now. All of you.”
“Now, see? I just can’t do that.”
The rest happened so fast Trey hardly saw Slade’s finger tighten on the trigger. The man moved his arm slightly and the crack! of a shot and the collapse of the man’s body happened in a nanosecond. Slade reached for Dana as the thug fell, and pulled her to him.
“Oh, my god!” She leaned against Slade, who put an arm around her to steady her.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I will be when we get out of here. We will, right?” She was pale and shaking, doing her best to hold it together, but when she looked at Slade, fear was still evident in her eyes.
“Count on it,” he assured her. Then he clicked his mic. “This is Sierra One. Any sign of Lopez Garcia?”
All the responses came back negative.
“He’s probably a hundred miles away. Forget him for now and let’s get the fuck out of here.”
At that moment they heard more shots, these coming from the stairs and the hallway. Trey turned to see Axel with a body at his feet.
“Nice going,” he told the man.
“Need help in there?” He nodded toward the room.
Trey shook his head.
Just then two more men sprinted up the staircase. Axel and Brock turned, their Colt M4 Carbines spat bullets and two bodies fell backwards down the stairs, blood pouring from multiple wounds.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Slade growled again. “I don’t know how many more tangoes are still here, but we need to haul ass. If any of them try to stop us, eliminate them.”
On the move now, he held Dana close to him with one hand while he grabbed his radio with the other to signal the chopper. “This is Sierra One. Need exfil now. Hustle it. How copy?”
“Good copy,” came back the answer. “On my way.”
They raced from the house, aware that more men were running into it from wherever they’d been. With the rest of the team laying down covering fire, they hustled into the back yard, Slade in the lead with Dana hugged close to him.
“I don’t know how many idiots are still alive, maybe out at the front of the house, but you can bet they’ll be after us any minute now,” he told the team. “Let’s take advantage of the little lead we’ve got on them.”
They made their way quickly through the jungle growth the same way they had reached the finca. In moments they heard shouts coming from inside the casa, the sound of their pursuers evident in the screech of birds as their nesting places were disrupted.
“How many of those fuckers were there, anyway?” Marc snarled.
“More than we were led to believe.” Slade scowled. “Let’s move it.”
Then they were back to the tiny clearing spot where they’d landed, the chopper hovering overhead, two men crouched in the doorway. One of them dropped the rope with a harness attached, and Slade made quick work of fastening Dana into it. A second rope was dropped at the same time and the team climbed as fast as they could. Slade was the last to ascend, and was halfway up the ladder when they heard shouting below and shots fired.
The team in the helo riding the opening fired back, but Slade signaled for the chopper to lift away with him still clinging to the rope.
“Haul ass,” Slade shouted, when he was finally pulled in.
With everyone inside and in one piece, the helo banked away and rose into the night.
Trey leaned back against the helo wall and glanced over at Dana Roberts. He had to give her high marks. She hadn’t freaked, hadn’t screamed when the asshole had held a gun to her head or bullets had been flying all around her. Even now, seated on the floor of the cabin, surrounded by men in black clothing with black grease on their faces, lethal weapons strapped to their chests, she managed to hold it together.
She was almost but not quite his type. A little short, a little thin and maybe even a little young for his taste. But damn brave.
For fuck’s sake, McIntyre. She’s not here for you to ask out on a date.
Still, it bothered him that she seemed so familiar. An image danced just at the edge of his consciousness, but he somehow couldn’t manage to pull it into focus. Later, he told himself, and focused on the here and now.
“I—I want to thank you all,” she shouted over the noise of the rotors, her arms wrapped around herself.
Slade grinned at her, teeth white against his darkened skin. “All in a day’s work.”
Her laugh still had an edge of nerves to it. “I hardly think so. But in any event, I am eternally grateful to you. I wasn’t sure I’d get out of there alive. I heard they asked my bosses for twenty million.” She snorted. “I’m not sure they think I’m worth that much.”
“They thought you were valuable enough to pull strings and get Delta Force involved,” Slade told her.
“I’m sure they were concerned about the headlines if I got killed.” She brushed a hand, still trembling slightly, over her face. “Anyway, thank you all so much. I will be forever grateful.”
“We’re just glad we could bring you back in one piece.” Slade shook his head. “It’s just too bad Lopez Garcia wasn’t on the premises.”
“The man is a ghost,” she spat. “He has to be stopped, if that’s even possible. And I’m still going to follow the story. The cartels have their hands in everything, everywhere. The Lopez Garcia cartel is nearly as big as Sinaloa, and once they get a toehold, you can’t dislodge them.” She tightened her hands into fists. “I’ve seen what they can do, how bloodthirsty they are, the control they can exert when they manage to insert themselves into businesses.”
“Just make sure you get a good bodyguard,” he suggested.
Trey studied her face in the shadow of the cabin. She looked so familiar to him, but he had no idea why. He knew he’d never met her before. It was possible she just looked like someone he’d met once upon a time. Maybe it would come to him after a while. Problem was, he was so footloose and fancy-free where women were concerned, determined not to put down roots of any kind. The number of women who had passed through his life could probably fill a catalog. Sometimes he felt a little guilty about it, but he was so not ready to settle down yet, despite the fact that in the past year three of his teammates had.
For a moment, he thought of the woman he’d met at the party the Huttons had thrown, one that they’d all attended. She’d dumped a plate of food on him, helped him clean up, fetched him a beer and they’d spent two hot and heavy days and nights together. He’d been with a lot of women—not something he bragged about—but they all paled in comparison to this one. The electricity between them could have lit up all of San Antonio, and the sex had just blown his mind. And unlike a lot of the women with whom he’d enjoyed recreational sex, Kenzi had been smart and funny and easy to be with. If he ever had the urge to settle down, this would be the kind of woman he wanted.
Because settling down was the furthest thing from his mind. Delta Force was his significant other right now. When he was done here, there’d be plenty of time to explore more options.
So when their interlude—their very hot interlude—was over, he’d followed his usual pattern. Thanked her for a great time, told her how much he’d enjoyed himself and gotten the hell out of there. He hadn’t even asked for her last name or her phone number, because that implied continuity.
But then, to his shock and dismay, it had taken him a long time to get her out of his mind. He still hadn’t been able to fully, much to his irritation. Dana Roberts in some way reminded him of Kenzi and that was the trigger for this unwanted trip down Memory Lane. He wondered if they’d ever cross paths again. Should he have Slade ask the Huttons about her?
No. Big no. He didn’t do anything more than long weekends. A week was stretching it.
At least until now, a little voice whispered.
How was it that damn woman had taken up space in his brain and refused to move out? He always walked away. Always. It was tacitly understood from the beginning. So why the hell was this one hanging around? He needed to do something about that.
They were going to San Antonio after this, with an open invitation to stay at Slade’s ranch. But their lieutenant was still a newlywed, with limited home time. Those without women waiting for them would go into San Antonio and scare up some kind of action. And that was fine with him. He liked the city. There was always action someplace, and that was just what he needed now.
Before long they descended and were landing at Fort Hood. The men all waited while Slade helped Dana Roberts off the chopper and delivered her to the group of people waiting on the tarmac. He watched as a tall, older man pulled her into a hard hug, and he assumed it was her father. He could only imagine the relief he and the others waiting were feeling.
Trey deplaned with the rest of the team and spent the next forty-five minutes in a debrief. A driver from the base’s transportation unit waited with a van to deliver the entire team to a nearby private airfield, where Teobaldo ‘Teo’ Rivera, Slade’s ranch manager, was waiting with Slade’s personal helo to ferry them to the ranch.
“We’ve got ten days,” Slade told the team, “and a promise that it won’t be interrupted this time.”
“Yeah,” Beau, code name Surfer, laughed. “We know how that goes.”
“No, this time is for real. If we don’t get a break, we won’t be any good on the next mission.”
Beau and Marc would be taking off to be with their women, and Slade’s wife, Kari, would be waiting for him on the ranch. The three of them—Trey, Axel and Brock—planned to head to San Antonio, check into a hotel downtown in the city and see what they wanted to do from there.
The sun was up by the time they were in their rooms and the only thing they wanted at that moment was a shower and some sleep.
“Whoever wakes up first, text the others,” he told the other two. “Slade scored tickets for the Spurs game tonight, if you guys are interested. Good game tonight with the Golden State Warriors.”
Brock lifted an eyebrow. “How the hell did he get those? I’m a basketball junkie and those are two of the hottest teams in the NBA.”
“Beau’s lady is a sportswriter, but the two of them weren’t interested in using the tickets.” He grinned. “I do believe they had other things to do. Anyway, three is an odd number to get but she took them because she figured us poor single idiots might want to go.”
“Hell, yeah.” Brock looked at Axel. “What about you?”
The other man shrugged. “I’m okay with it. I’m not in the mood to troll the bars tonight anyway.”
They agreed to meet in the lobby at seven, drive to the AT&T Center where the Spurs played and grab some food when they got there.
In his room, Trey stripped out of his clothes and stepped into the shower, letting the hot water wash away the dirt and grime of the mission and ease the tension in his muscles. Then he crawled into bed and set his mental clock for eight hours.
As he was falling asleep, the image of Dana Roberts flashed into his mind. Only this one was an older Dana, and there was a familiarity about it he couldn’t put his finger on. His last thought was to wonder what the hell that was all about.