Mission objective: Project Hope
If there were any muscles in his body that weren’t sore, Julien couldn’t feel them. Even the ones that moved his eyeballs around in his head moaned in pain every morning he opened his eyes. It had been months since the incident at the market. Months since the last time he’d had a chance to sit down, rest, eat a warm meal, take a warm shower. Since then, it had been mission after mission after mission. And each time a new one was coming, they had to endure what felt like lighting in their veins coming through the little colored darts in their bodies.
Either the mission came by courier or another, more interesting route. His “favorite” so far had been one where they’d learned that a bomb had been planted in an Israeli preschool in Jerusalem, but they’d had to first defuse another bomb outside a hospital in the Gaza strip to find out which school was the target. The school had been an entire fifty miles away, and Julien was surprised his sweat hadn’t triggered the whole fucking thing, blown up their team.
Then, of course, the only message left in the bomb had been the name of the school. They’d had to locate said school, find a way to travel to said school, and find out where in the fucking school the bomb had been planted while trying not freak everyone out, and ignoring the adorable students’ faces so as not to be distracted to the point of having them lose their short lives.
To say he was over it was an understatement. It had been nearly a year of this. Through the grapevine, he’d heard some men had gone crazy. Some had taken their lives. There was no exit strategy never mind that none of them had even signed up for it in the first place. Just cherry picked for no other reason than to see who could survive walking through all the circles of Dante’s Hell.
The other four guys, albeit slower, were also deteriorating. But they were used to conditions —somewhat—like the ones they’d gone through since the market incident. Him, not so much. He would even take the ratty motel from Mississippi over this shit.
Now, they were outside. The last major city they’d hit was Cairo. It was also the last time they’d had a drink of water. They’d trekked for miles until collapse in the open desert that would now serve as their sleeping accommodations. Either he was going crazy or the sand beneath his back felt like a pillow-top mattress.
“You okay over there, rookie?” Dez called.
Julien glanced to his right. Dez’s head was on his pack, his back on the ground. His eyes were closed. His skin was dirtied and bloodied. Julien didn’t know why he even tried to get sleep. For the last several months, they’d averaged about two to three hours per night. And that was counting the interruptions.
“Yep,” Julien said, his tone tight.
“That was real convincing,” Curtis teased.
“Cut him some slack,” Gage growled. “Even we weren’t built for this shit, and we have experience.”
There was still five of them—him, Dez, Curtis Savea, Gage Wolfe, Michael Huang, and the mercenary, Giorgio Pozza. His name, they’d learned after someone on Gezira Island recognized the big man and they’d all had to jump in to stop him from killing whoever the person had been.
Pozza was the least affected by everything going on with Dez coming in second. Dez had escaped foster care and grew up on the streets, which made sense. Curtis had also been in foster care, but was later adopted by his father’s family after they learned of his existence. Gage had both parents and a set of younger, twin brothers. Huang’s parents were also still alive and lived in a small city in China with his older sister. The mercenary, for all they knew, had been deposited on earth by a stork that had flown in from Saturn on Santa’s shoulder.
“I’m just making sure he still has his head on straight,” Dez added. “Wouldn’t want you doing something stupid.”
Julien scoffed. “Right now, blowing my own fucking head off doesn’t seem like the dumbest thing I could do.”
One of Dez’s lids lifted. He looked over. “Don’t talk like that. Words come first before action, you know.”
Julien sighed. His hair had grown out long, brushing past his shoulders and crowding his eyes. However, it was so sticky and weighted by grunge, it no longer moved when the wind blew. “I know.”
“Plus, your mother would not like that,” Huang chimed in. “Mine would kill me if I ever took my own life.”
The men laughed. Well, all except Pozza. But somehow, they knew he was listening. They’d gotten used to him and he didn’t have to make a sound for them to feel like he was part of the group, of the conversation.
“Wish it was more than just my mother,” Julien revealed. “Would be nice to, when all of this is over, go home and slide up inside something warm.”
“You can still do that,” Gage said.
“Warm and familiar,” Julien clarified. “But none of us have anything like that.”
“Speak for yourself,” Curtis chimed.
“Fuck off,” Gage teased.
“When this is done, and it will be done,” Curtis emphasized, “I’m going back to Hawaii to see my Ayesha, and I don’t plan on missing the birth of our first baby.”
“And then we’re gonna get married and live happily ever after,” Dez said, lifting his bass to a falsetto. “Oh, look at me, I’m in love.”
Curtis tossed sand at him. “You fuck off. Tease all you want. At least I won’t have to jack my dick to pictures of Farrah Fawcett.”
Dez rose up off his pack. “Farrah Fawcett? Fuck, how old are you, man?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Julien said. “Halle Berry, Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Regina King, Rihanna, Bey-goddamn-oncé…and I could go on.”
“All of them are sexy too,” Curtis defended. “But Farrah is a classic beauty.”
“Bet you can’t wait to get home and watch Knight Rider,” Dez teased.
“And Baywatch,” Julien added.
“Only the new episodes, though,” Huang rounded out.
The rest of the men laughed. Curtis waved them off, a grin on his face.
Dez was the first one to notice the sound coming from far off. Dez was generally the first one to notice a lot of things, and Julien couldn’t tell if it was an amazing attention to detail skill or something more “psychic” like an innate sixth sense.
He pushed off his pack. They all scrambled for their weapons. What looked like a black helicopter body broke the perimeter, heading straight toward them. Julien tried to swallow, but his body had no moisture to spare. He felt death, smelled death coming, and looked to Dez out of instinct to see if his expression revealed he sensed the same thing.
Dez’s expression revealed nothing.
“It’s not a helicopter,” Dez yelled. “It’s a gunship. Bug out!”
They moved in sync to find cover. It was amazing how, over time, very little was needed for them to communicate. Julien figured that, if he ever had a moment’s reprieve ever again in his life, he would wonder if the teams had been vetted and put together based on their expected viability.
Every man had his own skill or natural talent. Gage was their team lead—a title he refused to accept—but he had the leadership skills that made it come naturally. He could shoot the wing off a fly from one hundred yards away. Curtis was a master strategist. Dez could sense, hear, and see anything coming before the average person. Huang moved like a shadow. And Giorgio, they were pretty sure was some kind of high-functioning psychopath.
All of them had an amazing will to live, excellent combat skills, and natural strength.
He’d known his role upon first meeting them, but over time, they’d helped him develop the combat skills and the strength. He was still dappling with the will to live.
The gunship drew closer, an AC-130 he could now see. It was the first indication of any nationality having a hand in this sordid training as the AC-130 was a US-based gunship and had never been sold outside the US, to his knowledge.
The gunship landed easily on the grainy terrain. The wind from the propellers was enough to toss his hair about. Gage stepped out from his spot, only slightly enough for them to see him. Julien was about to do the same when his arm seized. Acid tore through his veins. His vision blurred and he fell to his knees.
“Guys,” he called. It had been his fourth time receiving the notification. “It’s an op.”
A man in a black suit stepped from the gunship, a bullhorn in his right hand. “Project Hope.”
It was all he said. They’d had instructions that were shorter, including the bomb in the preschool in Jerusalem. They’d also learned that hesitating was not an option as Giorgio had narrowly missed a bullet when he’d waited too long to react to a set of instructions. Julien suspected they were testing their natural discernment capabilities, not wanting to give them too much time to think about whether or not they could trust what was being thrown at them.
All of them grabbed their packs and headed toward the gunship. When they climbed on, they all but collapsed into the provided seating. It was essentially the equivalent to a patio chair, but even that was still heavenly.
Above the seats were the flags of their respective countries, but they sat anywhere they wished. This was now a brotherhood. Flags no longer meant separation.
The man in the suit had disappeared. Julien studied the door behind which the cockpit was located and could tell someone had recently gone through it.
“Hey, look.” Huang pointed beneath Gage’s seat. “There’s something under there.”
Gage looked below his seat and pulled out a device.
Julien’s eyes went wide when he saw it. “Do you know what that is?” he asked.
Gage flipped it around and studied the logo. “A big-ass iPhone?”
“It’s called an iPad. I’ve been hearing about that thing for years. It hasn’t even been released yet in any country. Can I see it?”
“You have one too,” Huang pointed out. “All of us do. Well, except you, big man.”
Giorgio’s head was leaned back against the plane’s interior, his eyes closed.
They exchanged iPads, powered them on. Julien didn’t have to look for the button. He’d been researching the reveal of the device since the first time the names iSlate and iTablet were whispered. From what he knew, they were at least a year from the device going mainstream.
When it was powered on, the first thing he saw was a picture of his mother. His body immediately went on alert. Was this some kind of threat? Would the next op involve her in some way?
But then, he realized it was a video:
“Hola, Julien! The nice men here let me know how good of a job you’re doing in your military training and wanted me to leave you a nice message for when your spirits get low. I love you, bambi. You will feel my wrath when you get back because you could have at least told your mother you were doing this, but you have always had a way about you. I know you are doing it because you want to keep me safe. Stay strong and I will see you soon.”
She’d given the entire message in Spanish.
“I thought you were South African,” Huang said.
“I am. I’m adopted, remember? My mom’s from Puerto Rico.” He looked around the aircraft. “You guys got something similar?”
“My parents and sister,” Huang answered.
“Who’s that girl—”
“None of your business,” he cut off Curtis.
“Fine.” Curtis held up his tablet. “You guys wanna see my baby, Ayesha?”
Julien whistled when the rest of the men did. The woman was a hazel-eyed cinnamon stick wrapped in dark hair and a beautiful smile. He swiped and the next picture was her sitting cross-legged on a bed, her hands resting on a round stomach.
“I don’t even know what we’re having,” Curtis said, voice thick. “She was three weeks pregnant when I was taken. Until now, I assumed she was going crazy, thinking I was dead.” He touched the iPad’s surface with a fingertip.
They turned to Gage when he laughed. He turned his iPad to face them. “My brothers, remember them? Goddamn sequoias. I really need to get back home, man.”
“To the Outback,” Dez teased, finding his best Australian accent. “Why don’t you go back?”
Gage shrugged. “They come to me, when they can. I haven’t been there since I was…fuck…eighteen, mate. That’s almost a whole decade. I’ll go back, though.” He swiped the screen. “I still have friends and—”
“Ari.” Julien felt his heart stop. He moved closer to the tablet and pretended to study the photo as if uncertain, but he’d known the minute he saw it.
“Yeah, Ari,” Gage said. “And Mo.”
Julien finally pieced together why Gage had looked familiar when they’d first met. He was the man who’d been with Ari and Mo at the airport. The man Ari had kissed. It was on the cheek and a lot more chaste than they had done in her suite, but it had been a kiss nonetheless.
“You know them?” Gage asked.
Her hair was longer. Still curly, but longer. She’d cut bangs and the curls looked like they tickled her lashes when she blinked. “Uh…yeah? No? Maybe?”
“You sound real sure,” Huang said, his attention still on his screen.
“We’ve met,” Julien clarified. “Once.”
“You met them once and you remembered their names?” Gage then seemed to think better of the question. “Then again you would, Good Will Hunting.”
“How do you know her?” Julien questioned.
“I’ve known them for a long time. Essentially, my whole life.”
Gage grabbed Julien’s shoulder and shook it. It was the first time Julien realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off the photo. This was it. He’d officially gone crazy. This was how people ended up on crime shows. This was how obsessions began.
He leaned back and cleared his throat as though it would be enough to contain him. “Oh, your whole life, huh?”
Gage grinned. “Yeah. Our fathers are professors at the same uni. Mo dated the same guy for most of her teenage years until they broke up when she and Ari went abroad. Me and Ari, though, we kept our relationship strong from a distance.”
Julien felt like he was being choked. “Relationship.”
“Yeah.” Gage turned the tablet around, stared longingly at the screen. “She’s the only thing that keeps me going. My North Star. The handle of my Big Dipper.”
Dez, Curtis, and Huang groaned.
“Nobody wants to hear about your big dipper,” Curtis said.
Julien leaned back in his seat, stoic. He wanted to say something trite like “small world” but couldn’t bring himself to. But, it was a small world. A small, faithless, soul-crushing world.
“You know I’m fucking with you eh, mate?”
Julien didn’t seem to hear.
“Ay, Dougie Howser.”
He turned his head.
“Calm down,” Gage said. “Ari is like a baby sister to me.”
For some reason, the words were slow to penetrate. “Baby…sister?”
“Yeah. I was messin’ with you. The minute her picture showed up, you looked like a dog in heat. If I didn’t know you, I would have to kill you. Ari’s a good girl. Mo can usually handle herself, but not Ari. I’ve had to handle some pricks who thought they could get away with breaking her heart.” He handed the tablet to Julien. “Where did you meet her?”
Julien enhanced the picture. The woman had such a beautiful smile, it was crazy. It was like sunlight.
“A fundraiser in Johannesburg,” he answered.
Julien moved milliseconds before Gage’s fist connected with the side of his face.
“What the fuck, man?”
“You the bloke who had sex with her and left her sleeping alone?”
“Uh…well…not exactly. Wait, how did you—”
He narrowly dodged another fist. Had they not been so tired, both would have connected.
“Mo told me,” Gage said.
“I don’t have the energy to stop you two this time,” Dez cut in. “So…stop.”
“W-what did Mo say?” Julien asked.
“That some bloke named William had sex with her and left before she woke up.”
“That’s not what happened.”
“So, it was you?”
“Then why the fuck does she think your name’s William Talvio?”
Julien held up his hand. “Wait. Just…wait. I can explain.” He released a breath. “I was doing some covert, hacker-type work. I saw her at the fundraiser and I don’t know, something happened. We started talking and drinking wine and one thing led to another and suddenly, we’re up in her suite, my face between her legs.”
He licked his lips absently, recalling the moment. The taste of her. The soft pressure of her thighs against the side of his face.
Gage’s nose wrinkled. “Nah, not little Ari.”
“Yeah, little Ari. She grabbed my dick in the elevator and told me she wanted it.”
“Because she was drunk.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“So, you took advantage of her because she was shitfaced.”
“No.” Julien was starting to feel actual fear from the big man, which was odd because it was also laced in respect. “No. She told me she was fine, but after I, well, after she was ‘done,’ she stumbled to the kitchen to get cleaner to wipe off the table.”
“You had her on the kitchen table?” Dez held out his hand for a palm slap. “I didn’t know you had it in you, rookie.”
Julien glanced at the palm, at Gage, back at Dez and then shook his head. Dez shrugged and took it back.
“I told her I wouldn’t take advantage of her,” he admitted. “So, we just slept together in her bed. Literally, slept. That’s it. I kissed her on the forehead and left her a note before I left and didn’t see her again until the airport. She blew me a kiss.” He smiled. “I honestly don’t know what happened, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her.”
“Awww,” Curtis and Dez crooned in unison.
“Oh, fuck off,” Julien snapped.
“That was over a year ago, rookie,” Gage said.
“I know.” Julien scraped his hands through his disgusting hair. “I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it. Maybe the truth should have been that you two were lovers. It would help me get over whatever this is.”
Gage eyed him for a few moments and then leaned back in his chair. “Well, I knew that.”
Julien’s eyes bugged. “You knew what?”
“That you didn’t sleep together.”
“But you said Mo said—”
“Mo exaggerated it. To make Ari blush. Ari told me what really happened.”
Julien released another breath, this one of relief. “Did she…happen to mention…me? At all?”
Gage grunted a laugh. “Sure you’re not sixteen?”
“Me and you, we’re only four years apart,” Julien reminded.
“She mentioned you, William,” Gage taunted. “After you fell off the face of the earth, tech-millionaire mogul you were, she figured it wasn’t your real name.”
Julien hit his head against the back of his seat. “And she hates me, doesn’t she?”
“No. You must have done something to her too. She actually hopes that one day you two will see each other again.”
Julien had no time to respond as the gunship jerked into a landing. Alarms went off and they scrambled to grab their packs, tossing the tablets inside. They exited through the back of the ship into biting cold weather on a private airstrip and were directed immediately into a black SUV.
The SUV had been reconfigured like a limo. The seats in the back faced each other and a partition separated them from the driver’s side.
“Back on US soil,” Dez said as they climbed in. “I’d know the smell of DC anywhere.”
In the stuffy, congested, and cramped back quarters, they realized just how badly they all needed showers.
The SUV stopped in front of the entrance to the Grand Hyatt. Room keys were pushed through a slot in the partition with their corresponding room numbers written on the packets they were enclosed in.
The rooms were luxury connecting suites. Gage, Giorgio and Julien had been placed in one with Dez and Curtis in the other. Gage damn near had to beat Julien off with a bat to get the first round in the shower, but when Julien finally got his turn, the warm water pouring down over his head nearly brought tears to his eyes. They’d made it. This was the end. They’d been put up in one of the most luxurious hotels in DC because, the next day, they would be instructed to go to some sort of ceremony. He’d seen the tuxes in the closet.
And, to top it all off, Ari didn’t hate him. Well, she didn’t back then. For all he knew, she could be off in another relationship by now, but he didn’t care. Whoever the guy was would have to fuck off. He was going to find her, tell her who he really was. Make something real with her. Finish what they’d started in the suite.
Sleep that night didn’t come easy for any of them. They’d opened the doors that joined the suites out of sheer uneasiness. Comfort was a luxury that hadn’t been afforded them for a while and it felt reckless now to trust it. Stupid to indulge in it.
But, eventually, Julien’s eyes closed. Opened. Closed. He slept and then dreamed he was still in the middle of an op and woke up. He would then fall asleep again only to be woken up by the vision of a bullet coming his way.
“What the fuck is up with this?” Gage groaned in the dark. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
Just as he said so, they heard Dez cry out, fall to the floor, and knew that sound. The TV screen in his, Giorgio’s, and Gage’s room lit up and two pictures appeared: Capitol Hill and what they all now recognized was some sort of explosive device. Another bomb to defuse. This one was on US soil. Julien could only imagine the target. They were in DC after all. The political epicenter.
Suddenly, it dawned on him just where they were.
“What day is it?” he asked. “What year?”
They’d been gone so long, it was virtually impossible to tell.
“The big-ass iPhones,” Curtis said. Grabbing one, he powered it up. “Says here it’s January 19, 2009.”
Dez, finally stable, appeared. “They brought us here one day before the presidential inauguration. A historic presidential inauguration.”
Julien nodded. “I think I know what our next op is.”
The final picture popped up. There was a man with caramel skin smiling with one hand on the Bible and the other raised. Next to him, his wife stood in green, her expression the epitome of pride. Two little girls, adorable and innocent in blue and pink stood with them. Then, the image flashed off. It was replaced by a timer…that immediately started counting down.
Julien’s jaw clenched. He felt his stomach fall downward. The respective groans around the room indicated the rest of the men shared in the gaping maw of fear that rushed through him. He stared at the time, anticipation like acid in his veins.
“Let’s go,” Gage said. “They need us.”
* * *
Julien’s lungs burned, but he didn’t give in. His shoes pounded on the treadmill with enough force to break it. Music blasted into his ears via wireless headphones. The blood hadn’t belonged to Thandie. In fact, it hadn’t been blood at all. It was costume blood. Fake. Someone was playing with him, with his daughter, and he was about tired of the games.
All they had to do was let him know what they wanted. Even if they wanted to put a bullet in his skull, he would let them as long as Thandie was returned unharmed. Didn’t they know that? That he would give his life for his kid? His wife? That, if they gave him the opportunity to repay them for all the hell they were causing his family, the only reprieve they would see was death?
For God’s sakes, just for her to sleep, he’d had to drug Ari. Dr. Rothmann had given him sedatives and asked him to try to convince Ari to take them. Ari needed to rest, to sleep. He knew Ari would pitch a fit if he asked…so he didn’t. Luckily, they’d dissolved in the tea without leaving an aftertaste.
After a half hour, she’d conked out. He’d lain awake, of course. They both couldn’t be under the influence of any kind of substance. Plus, he was wired a little differently than Ari. He’d been trained to undergo excessive amounts of stress. And it was his job to protect her. He couldn’t do that and allow her to dwindle into nothing before his eyes at the same time.
The door to their home gym pushed in. A groggy Ari appeared. He wanted to cry. Legitimately cry. If they didn’t bring Thandie home soon, Ari wouldn’t live to see her return.
She waved at him. He paused the music but kept running.
“I need to talk to you,” she said.
He made a gesture with his hands. “Talk.”
She walked up to the treadmill and pressed the button to slow the pace all the way down to a walk.
“Ari, what the hell?”
“Did you give me something?”
Julien swiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play with me, Hunter. Did you put something in my tea?”
“Why would you even sug—”
“You really don’t think I don’t know what a sedative feels like?”
He stepped off the treadmill. Usually, whenever he worked out this hard and she stepped into the gym, she wouldn’t be able to stop her eyes from falling south. It was why they never worked out together. A glistening Ari meant a back-against-the-wall, cock buried deep in her, Ari. When he glistened, it meant him on his back on the gym floor while she did squats on his dick. Now, she was boring a hole into his soul through his pupils.
“You needed to sleep,” he admitted.
“And you thought drugging me was the best way to go about doing that?” she demanded. “You couldn’t simply ask me if I wanted to take a sedative?”
“What would you have said?”
“Exactly my point.”
“I can’t sleep, Julien. My baby isn’t home.”
“She’ll need you when she does come home.”
Her brow wrinkled. “What does that even mean?”
He grabbed her shoulders and turned her to the wall of mirrors in the gym. “It means, I’m worried. You don’t look like you’re going to…you know.”
She stared at her figure. “Going to…what?”
“Live much longer,” he forced out, and it was like a hammer and chisel against his sternum. “Ari, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” He pulled her backwards into his arms and rested his chin atop her head. “But I still meant it.”
Tears filled her eyes but didn’t fall. As if her body couldn’t spare the moisture.
“I knew I looked bad, but…” She tugged on the dress that had become too large in such a short amount of time. “I didn’t realize it was this bad.”
“I can’t live without you either, Arihi.”
A ghost of a smile pulled gently at the corner of her mouth. “I know.”
“I’m sorry I drugged you. I should’ve asked…and then still drugged you.”
She hiccupped a laugh and turned around into his arms. He smoothed her hair and kissed the top of her head, but the feeling against his lips was too smooth. When he looked at where his hand had just smoothed, he saw scalp. Entirely too much scalp. Wrapped around his fingers were tendrils of hair. This was not stress. Couldn’t be.
His throat squeezed. “Baby,” he asked. What’s going on?”
“Ari! Julien!” Mo came bursting into the gym. “There’s a request. The Feds are here. The abductors are asking for money.”
“Money?” Julien recalled what Rashida had said about the kidnapping not being about money. “Why, all of a sudden?”
Mo shrugged. “I don’t know, but you guys have to come upstairs. They’re requesting money from all the parents, but the caveat is that you and Ari have to make the drop.”
Julien and Ari followed her upstairs and into the living room where a plan was already being mapped out. Everyone was there, including Rashida, with whom Julien avoided eye contact. Upon a quick glance, he noticed for the first time that Larke looked barely better than Ari did. Something was affecting them both. In his house.
“Ari, how are you feeling?” Agent Edwards was the first one to speak, walking toward Ari like Julien was going to allow him to get even two feet near her.
“She’s fine,” Julien said. “What’s this about a ransom?”
Agent Edwards’ eyes darted to Ari before they settled on Julien. “We got a phone call at the Bureau, but it wasn’t long enough to trace it. It’s like they were timing it. The instructions were to bring a half million dollars to a drop point and the rest of the children would be released.”
The sound of it didn’t sit well with Julien.
“All of a sudden, they want money?” Gage asked. Apparently, it didn’t sit well with him either. “That doesn’t make sense. You drug and poison kids, but then all of a sudden, it’s about money?”
“But we have to go with what we have,” said another agent.
“What are the logistics of the drop?” Joel asked.
“It’s a little out of our way,” Agent Edwards answered. “They want to make the drop in Tommyville.”
“Where?” Julien asked. “Is that still in the area?”
“About an hour out.” Joel pointed to a spot on the map. “East.”
That was the second thing that didn’t sit well with Julien. Tommyville was completely outside any perimeter that had been set. If they were traveling east, where exactly were they headed with the kids?
A black bag sat on the coffee table.
“How much is in there?” Julien asked.
“Fifteen grand,” Edwards answered.
“You want to play around with the kids’ lives with not even a tenth of what’s being requested?”
Edwards tapped his chest. “We’re in control here, not them.”
They hashed out the rest of the plan. The captors wanted to meet in the unincorporated community of Tommyville. The drop was to happen in a residential area. The Feds had their own concerns about it, considering innocent lives could be lost, but it wasn’t as though they had a say in much of what was happening. The first call had basically said what they wanted, how they wanted the money to be delivered, and when they would be calling again. They’d called again only to verify the location, citing that if their demands weren’t met, children would start dying.
Julien and Ari were to come to the location holding, specifically, a black duffel bag with the money. At exactly five past three the next afternoon, someone would go out to meet them. Julien was instructed to demand proof of the children before the exchange was made. It was also requested, by the FBI, that he instruct his guys not to come…but he wouldn’t do that.
After the money was exchanged, a tracking device having been placed with the bills, the Feds would take over. And though Julien knew it would not happen that simply, if by any stroke of luck he got his daughter back in his arms in under twenty-four hours, the FBI could handle the entire thing from that point on. He would welcome it.
With the plan solidified, the agents left to prep for the drop the next day. Ari went to the bedroom to pace. Julien and the guys convened in the living room, a large tablet in front of them on the coffee table with an interactive map on its display.
“We should set up here, here, and here,” Gage instructed. “Huang’s scouting the area now for vehicles. He said he’ll have something set up before the end of the night.”
“Hey, fellas.” Rashida stood at the base of the steps. “What’s going on?”
Gage cut her a look. “Why are you still here again?”
Julien rose. “Let me handle this.”
He walked over to her, grabbed her by the wrist, and pulled her until they were secured downstairs in the command center. She looked around in awe, but he didn’t give her much time to take everything in.
“Shida, you have to leave,” he instructed.
She moved close to him, leaving almost no room. “Did your eyes get bluer?”
“Look, I appreciate you wanting to help. I do. I just…don’t need it right now.”
“Julien,” her fists clenched, “I’m trying to atone for my mistake. Let me do that, at least.”
He put space between their bodies. “And what mistake is that?”
“Letting you go.”
He released a haggard breath. “Do you know how long ago that was?”
“Not long enough.”
“Do you remember why we never had a thing?”
“Because you loved me…and I lied about not loving you.”
Julien turned away.
“It’s true,” she pleaded. “Julien, you meant everything to me. I pushed you away because in our world, romances didn’t make sense.”
“Okay, Rashida,” he said. “I forgive you.”
“It’s not that simple.” She closed the gap again. “I didn’t know what I’d lost until your precious Ari came into the picture. And, it was like she put a spell on you. I half believed she slipped a little blood into your spaghetti sauce.”
Rashida laughed. Julien didn’t.
“I miss you.”
“I’ve been married for some time now,” he reminded. “Happily married. I love my wife. I’d die for my wife. I don’t know what you’re expecting to happen here.”
“Julien, I still love you. Don’t you have feelings for me, even a tiny bit somewhere?”
“No, I d—”
“Then why have you been tracking me?”
He’d known the question was coming, but with everything else going on, there really hadn’t been time to prepare for it. “I can’t answer that for you, but it’s not why you think.”
“How is it possible to love somebody that much?” She gestured toward the staircase. “How is it possible for her to just erase the feelings you had for me?”
“You’re getting hysterical.”
“What if I,” her gaze lowered, “refresh your memory about how good I was at certain things?”
He scoffed. “Are you really offering to suck my dick when my wife’s sick and my daughter’s missing? Rashida—”
Julien looked up, saw the expression on Ari’s face, and wished for death. Rashida spun around.
“Are you really offering to go anywhere near my husband’s dick right now?” Ari demanded. “My dick?”
“I’m going to give you ten seconds to get the hell out of my house before I call Gage. And trust me, if I had the energy, I wouldn’t need him to do to you what I want to do to you.”
Julien remained quiet watching Rashida leave, knowing he was next on his wife’s warpath. Once Rashida was gone—being generously escorted out upstairs by Tayler from what he heard before the door closed—Ari’s eyes fell on him. She didn’t speak, just waited.
“I know,” Julien said.
“Exactly. It shouldn’t have even gotten that far.”
“She wanted to help.”
She looked him up and down. “And how exactly was she going to do that? On her knees down here with her head in your lap? How was that going to help you other than get you killed? By me.”
“Honestly, Ari, I wasn’t even thinking about her.”
“I know you weren’t. You are my husband. My lover. My rock. You show your love for me every day, and you are so good at being my husband, my lover, my rock, and my child’s father that I don’t even give a second thought to your fidelity. But that doesn’t give you immunity from making dumb-ass decisions.”
He couldn’t disagree with that, so he didn’t.
“I’ll chalk this up to you being so under the influence of stress, you didn’t know what you were doing,” she said. “Now, come to bed.”
The next day, Julien felt calmer than he’d anticipated. He and Ari were in the back of a blacked-out SUV heading toward Tommyville. She was holding the bag of money. They were being briefed over and over about how the drop was supposed to go, the dos and don’ts in order to make the exchange as successful as possible. The captors hadn’t called back to confirm the drop, so at this point, they were riding out on hope.
Gage, Dez, and Giorgio had gone ahead of the federal convoy. Huang had put everything in motion the night before. Joel was in the car behind them. Mo rode with Giorgio. Getting him to leave her side was more than once was even rarer than seeing a blue moon in the sky.
They pulled up to the drop point with only ten minutes to spare. There were no other vehicles in the area, from what Julien could see. Residential there was a little different from what they were used to. There were about three houses, creepy looking Victorians with dark porches and peeling wood that would be defined among the antique aesthetic. The only other building looked to be a mid-sized beverage distributor warehouse that had been abandoned for at least a decade. The building had, once upon a time, been bright white, its roof decorated to look like turrets.
Ari had dressed for the plan B the federal agents knew nothing about in leggings, a loose checkered shirt, a soft camisole underneath, and flat boots. Julien wore a T-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers. The bag was steady in her lap. Her chest rose and fell in an even cadence. During the ride, every few minutes or so, their gazes bumped. Now, they didn’t look at each other, just stared ahead at the location where they would be standing in the next few minutes.
“You guys ready?” the agent next to them asked. Edwards had tried to finagle his way into the vehicle, but Julien had cut off all his attempts.
“Yep,” he and Ari answered in unison.
The agent said something into his earpiece, rolled down the window, and made some hand motions. Julien wasn’t sure what kind of forces they had in place, but he had two snipers, two men on the ground, and one in the air.
“It’s time,” the agent announced.
Julien stepped out of the SUV and then helped his wife. As they walked to the pickup point, he made sure to keep Ari between his body and the agents behind them at all times. In case anyone decided to shoot.
When they reached the spot, they stopped and looked around. A man suddenly appeared from the rundown beverage warehouse in a camouflage sweatshirt and matching bottoms. Julien gave him exactly one half of his attention. The other half went to the tick noises being made against the virtually invisible speaker reverberating off his eardrum. It was Dez. Gage saw something.
* * *
Gage moved his scope away from the man walking out of the abandoned warehouse to one of the Victorian’s windows, confirming the gleam he’d seen. Through the lacy curtains, he saw a nozzle aimed in Ari and Julien’s direction.
“Dez, we have a guest,” he said into his mic. “Oh-three hundred.”
“All right, I’ve got full eyes on the couple,” Dez said. “I’ll deliver your message.”
The person’s head rose to just beneath the window, but all Gage could make out was a black cap.
He could feel their heart beating. Their movements were unsteady, nervous. This wasn’t someone who’d been sent to make sure the drop happened. They’d been sent to make sure Julien and Ari were killed after the drop occurred.
Assholes. There was no way they had the children.
“Abort,” was the only word Gage spoke as he pulled back on the trigger of his M40 rifle.
* * *
The man walking toward them suddenly slowed his gait. It was almost imperceptible, but being a man waiting to see his child run into his arms, Julien picked up on it. The entire surface of his skin was currently made of vibrations.
“Ari, back up,” he instructed.
She stepped back. “What’s going on?”
The sound was as innocuous as a mosquito whizzing by his ear. Someone had shot at them and missed, likely because Gage had gotten to them first.
A second shot rang out. The man in front of them went down.
“It’s a set-up,” he told Ari. “Run back to the truck.”
There was no time. A late-model Land Rover Defender came bursting down the road full speed toward them. Julien whipped out his SIG and stood directly in the Defender’s path, firing shots at the windshield. The shot simply ricocheted without making a scratch in the vehicle’s armor.
At the last moment, he jumped out of the way and caught a glimpse of the driver—white male, mid to late thirties, brown hair, medium build. A chorus of bullets erupted from the federal agents behind them, but the Defender had been bulletproofed.
The driver made a sharp turn, a half arc that drummed dust into the air. Something was tossed through the roof of the four-wheel drive and a bullet planted into it. Green smoke suffused the area. Julien quickly made his way to Ari before he lost her in the mist.
The engine turned over again. The Defender was going to take another run at him and Ari, but without the ability to see exactly where it was coming from, Julien didn’t know which way to push his wife to ensure she wouldn’t get hurt.
His eyes stung. His chest burned. He cradled Ari in his arms. “Stay with me, okay?”
She nodded against his chest.
Tires turned in the dirt. The Defender accelerated. At the last moment, the hood broke through the haze right in front of them. Seconds before it collided, it was pushed off course. Another vehicle had crashed into the driver’s side door. It was unmanned, having been controlled remotely by Huang.
Julien helped Ari up off the ground. “Let’s go.”
They hopped into the vehicle—a black, armored Jeep Wrangler. Ari slipped behind the wheel, easily because she’d dressed for plan B, while Julien took the passenger side. The Defender, realizing he and Ari were no longer ground bait, took off in the direction it had appeared from, down the road. Ari spun the Wrangler around and followed. Julien leaned over the seat, opened the metal box behind it, and pulled out a semi-automatic.
The Defender pulled onto the nearest highway, a two-lane road that wasn’t nearly as empty as Julien would have hoped. But, it didn’t matter. The bastards had his daughter. If this little stunt finally landed him in prison, it would be after he got his Thandie back.
He leaned his head out the window and quickly pulled it back in when a bullet whizzed by. There was more than one person in the vehicle, two more whose silhouettes he could see in the back seat and the driver’s companion—another white male, auburn hair, slim build, early twenties. Accurate with a gun.
Julien landed two slugs in the Defender’s back window, stirring up a hairline crack, before pulling back into the Wrangler. A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed Gage’s motorcycle and Giorgio and Dez in the Audi behind him. Red and blue flashing lights were a few yards farther back.
“Can you tell how dense that glass is from here?” Dez asked into his mic.
Julien leaned out, fired a few more rounds. “No, but a glock sure as hell won’t get through. Not quick enough.”
Gage pulled past the Wrangler and merged between it and the Defender. Dez and Julien offered cover fire. One of the rear windows came down and a second shooter joined the mix, this one a dark-haired female.
The Defender turned off onto a side street. This set-up was much better. No cars could be seen coming or going.
Gage reached into a compartment in his bike and brandished a .44 Magnum. The first shot into the glass created a hairline crack. The Defender swerved slightly.
“Give ‘em two more,” Julien said, studying the first bullet’s impact.
Gage fired two more slugs into the back window. The second one caused a spider web of damage. The last one shattered the back window entirely.
He slowed on the motorcycle and pulled out from his position between the Wrangler and the Defender, going on one wheel in the process.
“Show-off,” Dez teased.
Julien reached next for Old School—a Beretta handgun he’d had since his first days as a Tribu member. It had been his “grandfather’s” gun and handed down to his mother.
“You doing okay there, mama?” he called to Ari.
“Doing just fine, babe,” she answered.
Their first date, he’d taken her to a private track, prepared to show off his drifting skills. He’d been hell bent on shaking the clean-cut William Talvio image and showing her how much he’d changed and matured since they’d met. It had started with him showing her his ability to handle a vehicle at high speeds, and then it had transgressed into her wanting to learn. He’d enjoyed showing her, assuming one day he would be the first to do what Dez had done—go against rules and take her with him on a mission. Only, Dez had been thinking with the wrong head when he’d made the decision.
Behind them, with his right hand on the wheel and the left hand out the window, Giorgio took advantage of the Defender’s open back window and knocked out one of the members in the back. Dez took out the other. Julien aimed for the passenger, but the Defender suddenly veered from the street, darting through the trees, off-road.
The ground was dense and jagged, the roots too thick for either the Audi or Gage to follow. Gage let Julien know they would go around the woods to head them off while he and Ari remained on the Wrangler’s six through the dense brush.
Ari extended her foot, pushing the pedal as far down as it could go, shifting effortlessly on the gearstick between. Julien timed the rhythm of the passenger’s shots, and right before the passenger readied himself to let off another round, he picked him off with the SIG. The man had leaned too far out the window, so after taking the bullet, he fell out and onto the ground.
They continued on, weaving through threes. It was dangerous. Visibility was low. They didn’t know where they were and had no idea if the man in the Defender knew where they were, which would give the man the upper hand. Plus, Julien didn’t want to shoot to kill. It was possible, even though the plan had been to kill him and Ari all along, the man still had information about where the kids were. Information Julien would enjoy pulling out of him.
The Defender made a right turn onto a path. Ari groaned and after making the turn, sped up until the Wrangler’s front bumper hit the Defender’s back bumper.
“One more!” Julien instructed.
She rammed again. This time, the driver lost control. The Defender swerved into a spin and then flipped, but it wasn’t until the vehicle’s body spun out of the Wrangler’s way that Julien saw what was coming.
“Brake!” He reached across, grabbed the steering wheel. “Ari, I said put your foot on the fucking brake!”
Ari was already smashing down, but he’d calculated their speed. He’d calculated their distance, the trajectory. They were heading right for the cliff. The Wrangler was now spinning, and he knew it wouldn’t make a full rotation before it went over the edge of the rocks. On the driver’s side.
For the first time in his life, Julien didn’t think. He opened the door, reached for his wife. He still had time to jump, but she wouldn’t. Not unless he grabbed her, pulled her with him. Scratches and bruises would be nothing compared to a gruesome death.
But, as he reached for Ari, he felt a shove in his side. A shove from hands he’d first felt at a fundraiser in South Africa, hands that made him feel like a superhero whenever their fingertips trailed along the ridges of his body, hands he’d held as he’d gotten down on one knee and proposed, held as he’d said “I do,” and hands he’d held as she’d brought his daughter into the world after twenty-eight hours of labor.
The force of her shove caused him to slide along the leather seat and out the open door. And, after he fell onto the dirt, after he grated his arms, his face, and his stomach on rocks and debris, he looked up to see the Wrangler’s thick metal body careen over the edge of the cliff.
* * *
Rashida’s chest moved like a bicycle pump was inflating her lungs. She touched her shoulder, hissed, and then let her head fall back against the wall. With a curse, she kicked the rifle away. She didn’t know how he’d spotted her. She hadn’t been visible in the window. And not only had he spotted her, his damn .308 caliber had clipped her trapezius muscle. Had she risen even an inch higher, her entire shoulder would no longer exist.
The phone in her pocket vibrated. Her throat burned as much as her shoulder did. “Hello?”
Rashida sighed. “I missed. He had eyes. A pro. I thought you said they called off his hounds.”
“Were you aiming for him or his wife?” the person asked.
“Him, I swear,” Rashida responded. She couldn’t believe she’d let emotions play a role in a mission. Julien was the target. He’d been the target ever since he was an infant. But she’d aimed for Ari. Purposely. The woman had forced her to live with a mistake she should have never made, and that made her worthy of being turned into a rotting corpse six feet under.
The deep voice softened, sobered. “Were you hit?”
“Is it bad?”
“I’ll live. But it hurts like a son of a bitch.”
“Come get patched up. Viper got hit. He’s on his way in.”
* * *
“You hit me!”
Thandie held her cheek, tears in her eyes. She’d gotten pow-pows before when she was being bad. Like on her hand or her butt-butt. But her Mommy and Daddy never hit her in her face. And they never looked like this woman, mad and ugly and scary when they did it.
“We’re going to walk out of this bathroom, and you’re going to be quiet,” the woman warned. “You’re going to stop all that whining shit.”
Thandie’s lip trembled. “Swear jar.”
“I said shut up!”
The woman dragged her by the hand out of the bathroom and back into the store with the too-bright lights. They went to where they were before, looking at the clear bottles filled with what looked like water.
Her Daddy had taught her to read a little bit: A-L-C-O-H-O-L. She sounded it out in her head, also like he had taught her.
No, that didn’t sound right.
Yes, that was it. And she knew what it was! It was what the nurses used on her arm right before they gave her a shot. To clean her skin, her Mommy had said.
This was the first time they’d left the house. It wasn’t a bad house, not really, but she didn’t want to be there. She wanted to be at home in her room. She wanted her teddy bears and Mommy’s singing and Daddy chasing her around her house. Back at the woman’s house, a man had walked in with blood on his neck. It was why they had to go to the store, to get something to put on his cut. She didn’t want to go with the woman to the store, but the woman said she didn’t trust her alone at the house. That she was smart just like her grandpa.
A tall boy passed behind them. Thandie looked up at him. He reminded her of Auntie Larke’s brother, Jay-Jay. Well, his name was Jay, but she liked calling him Jay-Jay. They had the same skin and hair.
The boy smiled down at her. She smiled up at him.
He walked over to where the makeup was and started taking things out of a box. Thandie looked at where she was forced to hold the woman’s hand. Then, she looked back at the boy.
She missed her Mommy and Daddy. She missed Auntie Larke, Auntie Mo, Auntie Tayler, and Auntie Sydney. All of her aunties and uncles. She wanted to go home and she would never ever be mean to Daddy again or say bad things to Mommy.
Thandie pulled her and the woman’s clasped hands to her mouth. Then, she bit down. Hard.
The woman yelped and let go of her hand. Thandie took off running toward the boy.
“Help me!” She straightened her hands at her sides to cut through the wind. It would help her go faster. “Help me! She’s not my Mommy! She took me from my Mommy and Daddy. Help me!”
“She’s just kidding,” the woman said, walking over.
“No, I’m not. She ki’napped me!”
“Thandie, come to Mommy…”
“You’re not my Mommy! You’re a wicked witch!”
The boy lifted a walkie-talkie from his pocket and put it to his mouth, his hand on Thandie’s shoulder, stopping the woman from coming closer. “Manager Kevon, can you come back to HBA please?” he said.
The woman tossed up her hands. “You can’t be serious.”
The boy looked down at Thandie. His face went from angry to soft when he looked at her hair, her skin.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re all over Twitter. You’re one of those missing kids.”
Thandie hugged his leg. He squatted and lifted her into his arms. Another man joined them, this one with skin more like her daddy but with less hair.
“Manager Kevon,” the boy said, “this woman—”
When they turned around, the woman was gone.
* * *
“Any word from them?” Gage pulled his motorcycle to a stop next to the Audi and tugged off his helmet. Neither the Wrangler nor the Defender had come through the wooded area on the other side.
Dez tried Julien again. “Still nothing.”
Gage’s ear buzzed. “What’s up, Joel?” he answered. “Okay…yeah. No, we haven’t heard from him or Ari. We’ll keep trying.”
He ended the call. “They found the rest of the kids.”
“Little Thandie,” Giorgio said.
“She wasn’t with them.”
“Were they hurt?” Dez asked.
“No, they were in the beverage—”
A crash that sounded like a small explosion boomed through the air. From about one level up, they saw the Wrangler go over the edge of a cliff, breaking apart on its descent among the jagged rock and stone. If Ari and Julien were still inside, there was no way they’d survived that fall.
“Fuck.” Gage slid his helmet over his head, revved up his engine, and took off. The Audi followed close behind.