Avengers heat, p.27
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       Avenger's Heat, p.27
 

         Part #4 of Moon Shifter series by Katie Reus
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  “I know.” He said it with an air of absolute certainty, making Ned glad he’d told the truth.

  Ned swallowed again. “You do?”

  “Your silly human news stations do have some purposes.” He laughed, the harsh sound grating against Ned’s entire body.

  The way the man with no name said “human” freaked him out, but he managed not to move a muscle. Ned wanted to remain as still as possible. Some small part of his brain hoped it would make the guy forget he was here. Right. Like that was possible. “Then you know it wasn’t intentional.”

  “I know no such thing. Why did your bus blow up and who did it?”

  Here came the tricky part. Ned felt like he was tap-dancing on a high beam a thousand yards up in the air with no safety net. He should be so lucky. A fall like that would just kill him. This guy . . . he fought off a shudder. “Jayce Kazan was sniffing around my trailer and bus. He’d heard from someone that I was selling vamp blood and wanted to know why.”

  A sharp intake of breath. “What did you tell him?”

  “I didn’t tell him shit. I did the only thing I could. I tossed a grenade into the bus and hauled ass. I don’t know if he survived or not but—”

  The man laughed again and this time it sounded real. “Of course he survived, you fool. Sometimes I wonder if even taking off that shifter’s head would kill him. That’s beside the point. You ran and you didn’t reach out to me.”

  There he went again, sounding like he wanted to flay him alive. “I didn’t know what else to do. I thought about coming to Winston-Salem but I worried I’d lead someone back to you.” There, that actually sounded like a good reason.

  The eerie silence that descended on the cave cut through Ned bone deep. He wasn’t taking vampire blood anymore so he didn’t have that extra dose of strength he’d grown accustomed to. Of course, something told him that no matter how much vamp blood he took, nothing would matter against this guy.

  “Jayce Kazan knowing your identity is a problem I cannot overlook.” Hoodie still pulled down over his face, the man stepped a few feet closer, though he was still several yards away. The flames in the fire danced so high they almost licked the ceiling of the cave.

  Fuck.

  Ned’s hand tightened around his gun, though he had no control over it. Blinking, he looked away from the horrible flames and watched as his own hand brought the gun up. What the hell was going on? He tried to stop himself, but his body wouldn’t listen to him. Panic punched through him, sweat pouring off his face in waves.

  Suddenly the barrel was in his mouth. Ned wanted to scream, but the sound stuck in his throat. No, no, no, he silently shouted.

  Then he pulled the trigger.

  Don’t miss the first novel in the exciting

  Deadly Ops series by Katie Reus,

  Available now from Headline Eternal

  Prologue

  Marine Corps Scout Sniper motto: one shot, one kill.

  Sam Kelly could see his GP tent fifty yards away. He was practically salivating at the thought of a shower and a clean bed. But he’d settle for the fucking bed at this point. He didn’t even care that he was sharing that tent with twenty other men. Showers were almost pointless at this dusty military base in hellish sub-Saharan Africa anyway. By the time he got back to his tent from the showers, he’d be covered in a film of grime again.

  Four weeks behind enemy lines with limited supplies and he was also starving. Even an MRE sounded good about now. As he trekked across the dry, cracked ground, he crossed his fingers that the beef jerky he’d stashed in his locker was still there, but he doubted it. His bunkmate had likely gotten to it weeks ago. Greedy fucker.

  “There a reason you haven’t shaved, Marine?”

  Sam paused and turned at the sound of the condescending, unfamiliar voice. An officer—a lieutenant—he didn’t recognize stood a few feet away, his pale face flushed and his skin already burning under the hot sun. With one look Sam knew he was new incountry. Why the hell wasn’t the idiot wearing a boonie hat to protect his face? Hell, it had to be a hundred and thirty degrees right now. Yeah, this dick was definitely new. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be hassling Sam.

  Sam gave him a blank stare and kept his stance relaxed. “Yes, sir, there is. Relaxed grooming standards.” Dumbass.

  The blond man’s head tilted to the side just a fraction, as if he didn’t understand the concept. God, could this guy be any greener? The man opened his mouth again and Sam could practically hear the stupid shit he was about to spout off by the arrogant look on his face.

  “Lieutenant! There a reason you’re bothering my boy?” Colonel Seamus Myers was barreling toward them, dust kicking up under his feet with each step.

  The man reminded Sam of an angry bull, and when he got pissed, everyone suffered. He was a good battalion commander, though. Right now Sam was just happy the colonel wasn’t directing that rage at him. Guy could be a scary fucker when he wanted.

  “No, sir. I was just inquiring about his lack of grooming.” The officer’s face flushed even darker under his spreading sunburn. Yeah, that was going to itch something fierce when it started peeling. Sam smiled inwardly at the thought.

  “You’re here one week and you think you know more than me?”

  “N-no, sir! Of course not, sir.”

  The colonel leaned closer and spoke so low that Sam couldn’t hear him. But he could guess what he was saying because he’d heard it before. Stay the fuck away from Sam Kelly and the rest of my snipers or I’ll send you home. Rank definitely mattered, but to the colonel, his few snipers were his boys, and the man had been in more wars than Sam ever wanted to think about. Sam had seen and caused enough death himself to want to get out when his enlistment was up. That wasn’t too far off either. He’d been to Iraq, Afghanistan, a few places in South America that weren’t even on his official record, and now he was stationed in Djibouti, Africa. Or hell, as he liked to think of it. He loved his job and he loved his country, but enough was enough. Sam just wished he could figure out what the hell he wanted to do if he got out of the military.

  He watched as the colonel started talking—loudly—to the new guy. Getting right in his face as only a pissed-off Marine could. Sam almost felt sorry for the guy, but what kind of stupid fucker didn’t know that since the environment here was so dirty that staph infections were rampant, grooming standards were different? That was one of the reasons he and a thousand other guys his age had relaxed grooming standards in the bowels of this hellish place. But they also cut him slack because he was a sniper. Sometimes he had to blend in with the populace, among other things. He might be stationed in Africa, but he’d just gotten back from—where else?—Afghanistan. He’d stayed holed up for days in that dank cave just waiting—

  “Sergeant, in my tent. Now.”

  Sam blinked and realized Colonel Myers was talking to him. He nodded. “Yes, sir.”

  The colonel was still reaming out whoever the newbie was, but Sam always followed orders. Looked as though that shower was going to wait. The walk to the big tent in the middle of the base was short.

  As he drew the flap back and stepped into the colonel’s tent, he stilled when he spotted a dark-haired man leaning against a table with maps on it. He looked as if he thought he had every right to be there too. Interesting. A fly landed on Sam’s face, but he didn’t move. Just watched the man, ready to go for one of his weapons if need be. He didn’t recognize him and he wasn’t wearing a uniform.

  Just simple fatigues and a T-shirt that stretched across a clearly fit body even though the guy had to be pushing fifty. There was something about the man that put Sam on edge. He was like a tiger, coiled and waiting to rip your head off. The man’s eyes weren’t cold, exactly, but they were calculating.

  Carefully the man reached for a manila folder next to him and flipped it open. He glanced down at it. “Sam Kelly. Originally from Miami, Florida. Grew up in foster care. No known family. One of the best damn snipers Myers has ever seen. Sniper school h
onor grad, aptitude for languages, takes orders well, possibly a lifer.” He glanced up then, his green eyes focusing on Sam like a laser. “But I don’t think you’re a lifer. You want a change, don’t you?” The man’s gaze was shrewd, assessing. Sam didn’t like being analyzed, especially by a stranger. And the guy didn’t even have an accent, so he couldn’t place where he might be from. Nothing in his speech stood out.

  Who the hell was this guy? And how the fuck did he know Sam wanted a change? It wasn’t as if he’d told anyone. Sam ran through the list of possibilities. He’d been on different operations before, sometimes working for the CIA for solo things, and he’d been attached to various SEAL teams for larger-scale missions, but he’d never worked with this guy before. He did have Sam’s file, though—or Sam guessed that was his file in the man’s hand. He could just be bluffing. But what would the point of that be? He dropped all semblance of protocol since this guy clearly wasn’t a Marine. “Who are you and what do you want?”

  “You did some good work in Cartagena a few years ago.” He snapped the file shut and set it back on the table.

  Sam just stared at him. His statement said a lot all by itself. That mission wasn’t in his official jacket, so this guy knew classified shit and was letting Sam know it. But since he hadn’t asked a question or introduced himself, Sam wasn’t inclined to respond.

  The man’s lips quirked up a fraction. As they did, the tent flap opened and the colonel strode in. He glared at the man, cursed, then looked at Sam, his expression almost speculative. He jerked a thumb at the stranger. “Whatever this guy tells you is the truth and he’s got top secret clearance.” He snorted, as if something was funny about that, then sobered. “And whatever you decide . . . Hell, I know what you’ll decide. Good luck, son. I’ll miss you.” He shook Sam’s hand, then strode out of the tent.

  Miss him? What the hell was he talking about? Sam glared at the man in front of him. “I asked you once who you were. Answer or I’m out of here.”

  The stranger crossed the short distance and held out his hand.

  Sam ignored it.

  The man cleared his throat and looked as if he was fighting a smile, which just pissed Sam off. “I’m Lieutenant General Wesley Burkhart, head of—”

  “The NSA. I know the name.” Sam didn’t react outwardly, but the gears in his head were turning. “What do you want with me? I thought you guys were into cryptography and cyber stuff.”

  “We are, but I’m putting together a team of men and women with a different skill set. Black ops stuff, similar to the CIA, but with less . . . rules. I want to offer you a job, but before I go any further, you need to know that if you come to work for me, Sam Kelly will cease to exist. You will leave your past and everything in it behind.”

  Sam stared at the man, overwhelmed by too many feelings. Relief being one of them. Leaving his identity behind didn’t seem like such a bad thing at all. Finishing the rest of his enlistment in shitholes like this wasn’t something he looked forward to. He’d seen and caused so much death that sometimes he wondered if God would ever forgive him. The idea of wiping his record clean was so damn appealing. Maybe this was the fresh start he’d been looking for. Except . . . he touched the hog’s tooth hanging from his neck. He’d bled, sweated, and starved for this thing. For what it represented. It was part of him now. “I’m not taking this off. Ever.”

  The other man’s eyes flicked to the bullet around his neck, and the corners of his mouth pulled up slightly. “Unless the op calls for it, I wouldn’t expect you to.”

  Okay, then. Heart thudding, Sam dropped his rucksack to the ground. “Tell me everything I need to know.”

  Chapter 1

  Black Death 9 Agent: member of an elite group of men and women employed by the NSA for covert, off-the-books operations. A member’s purpose is to gain the trust of targeted individuals in order to gather information or evidence by any means necessary.

  Five years later

  Jack Stone opened and quietly shut the door behind him as he slipped into the conference room. A few analysts and field agents were already seated around the long rectangular table. One empty chair remained.

  A few of the new guys looked up as he entered, but the NSA’s security was tighter than Langley’s. Since he was the only one missing from this meeting, the senior members pored over the briefs in front of them without even giving him a cursory glance.

  Wesley Burkhart, his boss, handler, and recruiter all rolled into one, stuck his head in the room just as Jack started to sit. “Jack, my office. Now.”

  He inwardly cringed because he knew that tone well. At least his bags were still packed. Once he was out in the hall, heading toward Wesley’s office, his boss briefly clapped him on the back. “Sorry to drag you out of there, but I’ve got something bigger for you. Have you had a chance to relax since you’ve been back?”

  Jack shrugged, knowing his boss didn’t expect an answer. After working two years undercover to bring down a human trafficking ring that had also been linked to a terrorist group in Southern California, he was still decompressing. He’d been back only a week and the majority of his time had been spent debriefing. It would take longer than a few days to wash the grime and memories off him. If he ever did. “You’ve got another mission for me already?”

  Wesley nodded as he opened the door to his office. “I hate sending you back into the field so soon, but once you read the report, you’ll understand why I don’t want anyone else.”

  As the door closed behind them, Jack took a seat in front of his boss’s oversized solid oak desk. “Lay it on me.”

  “Two of our senior analysts have been hearing a lot chatter lately linking the Vargas cartel and Abu al-Ramaan’s terrorist faction. At this point, the only solid connection we have is South Beach Medical Supply.”

  “SBMS is involved?” The medical company delivered supplies and much-needed drugs to third-world countries across the globe. Ronald Weller, the owner, was such a straight arrow it didn’t seem possible.

  “Looks that way.” His boss handed him an inch-thick manila folder.

  Jack picked up the packet and looked over the first document. As he skimmed the report, his chest tightened painfully as long-buried memories clawed at him with razor-sharp talons. After reading the key sections, he looked up. “Is there a chance Sophie is involved?” Her name rolled off his tongue so naturally, as if he’d spoken to her yesterday and not thirteen years ago. As if saying it was no big deal. As if he didn’t dream about her all the damn time.

  Wesley shook his head. “We don’t know. Personally, I don’t think so, but it looks like her boss is.”

  “Ronald Weller? Where are you getting this information?” Jack had been on the West Coast for the last two years, dealing with his own bullshit. A lot could have changed in that time, but SBMS involved with terrorists—he didn’t buy it.

  “Multiple sources have confirmed his involvement, including Paul Keane, the owner of Keane Flight. We’ve got Mr. Keane on charges of treason, among other things. He rolled over on SBMS without too much persuasion, but we still need actual proof that SBMS is involved, not just a traitor’s word.”

  “How is Keane Flight involved?”

  “Instead of just flying medical supplies, they’ve been picking up extra cargo.”

  Jack’s mind immediately went to the human trafficking he’d recently dealt with, and he gritted his teeth. “Cargo?”

  “Drugs, guns . . . possibly biological weapons.”

  The first two were typical cargo of most smugglers, but biological shit put Keane right on the NSA’s hit list. “What do you want from me?”

  His boss rubbed a hand over his face. “I’ve already built a cover for you. You’re a silent partner with Keane Flight. Now that Paul Keane is incapacitated, you’ll be taking over the reins for a while, giving you full access to all his dealings.”

  “Incapacitated, huh?”

  The corners of Wesley’s mouth pulled up slightly. “He was in a car ac
cident. Bad one.”

  “Right.” Jack flipped through the pages of information. “Where’s Keane really at right now?”

  “In federal protection until we can bring this whole operation down, but publicly he’s in a coma after a serious accident—one that left him scarred beyond recognition and the top half of his body in bandages.”

  Jack didn’t even want to know where they’d gotten the body. Probably a John Doe no one would miss. “So what’s the deal with my role?”

  “Paul Keane has already made contact with Weller about you—days before his accident. Told him he was taking a vacation and you’d be helping out until he got back. Weller was cautious on the phone, careful not to give up anything. Now that Keane is ‘injured,’ no one can ask him any questions. Keane’s assistant is completely in the dark about everything and thinks you’re really a silent partner. You’ve been e-mailing with her the past week to strengthen your cover, but you won’t need to meet her in person. You’re supposed to meet with Weller in two days. We want you to completely infiltrate the day-to-day workings of SBMS. We need to know if Weller is working with anyone else, if he has more contacts we’re not privy to. Everything.”

  “Why can’t you tap his phone?” That should be child’s play for the NSA.

  His boss’s expression darkened. “So far we’ve been unable to hack his line. I’ve got two of my top analysts, Thomas Chadwick and Steven Williams—I don’t think you’ve met either of them.” When Jack shook his head, Wesley continued. “The fact that’s he’s got a filter that we can’t bust through on his phone means he’s probably into some dirty stuff.”

  Maybe. Or maybe the guy was just paranoid. Jack glanced at the report again, but didn’t get that same rush he’d always gotten from his work. The last two years he’d seen mothers and fathers sell their children into slavery for less than a hundred dollars. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. In the past he hadn’t been on a job for more than six months at a time and he’d never been tasked with anything so brutal before, but in addition to human trafficking, they’d been selling people to scientists—under the direction of Albanian terrorists—who had loved having an endless supply of illegals to experiment on. He rolled his shoulders and shoved those thoughts out of his head. “What am I meeting him about?” And how the hell will I handle seeing Sophie? he thought.

 
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