Seth pressed his hand against the scanner and looked up at the penny-sized camera lens installed above his front door. In a few seconds, the heavy steel door whispered open, and once the sensors in the floor registered that he had crossed the threshold, the door swiftly closed behind him. He climbed a single flight of metal stairs without making a sound and then pressed a twenty-four character sequence into the alphanumeric keypad on the wall to the right of the door. It was also without a doorknob, and it opened as silently as the one below. Seth stepped through the opening, and though he tossed his car keys onto the table in the entryway, something he did every time he returned home, he didn’t relax. Instead he moved through his living space, confirming that everything was as it should be and that he was alone. He had removed every single wall and kept only the load bearing I-beams. The only section that was walled off was the bathroom. For that area, he had selected glass, translucent bricks to enclose the area, foregoing a door altogether.
Once his inspection was complete, his muscles loosened and his body dropped down from the highest state of innate, hyper-vigilance in which he lived most of his life. The vigilance and constant awareness of his surroundings never disappeared completely, but at least when he was within the walls of his own home, he could let some of it go.
The release brought with it an acknowledgement of his exhaustion. When had he last slept? The couple of hours he’d gotten in the leisure room at the office barely counted and it had been more than twenty-four hours since then. All he wanted right now was a hot shower and eight uninterrupted hours of sleep. Hell, he’d settle for six. Anything that would give his mind time to shut off and reset.
Seth stripped out of his shirt as he walked toward the bathroom, and his hands were loosening his belt buckle when his phone rang. In his mind he cursed a blue streak even as he slid his phone out of his back pocket and looked at the display.
“Dammit,” he muttered. “Yeah?”
“I need you to get here as soon as you can.”
Seth closed his eyes and exhaled heavily. This was not what he wanted or needed right now but he reached for his shirt anyway. “What’s going on?” he asked, pulling the shirt over his head as he listened to the frantic voice on the other end of the line.
“There’s a man here waving a gun and threatening to shoot people unless you get down here,” Jules said. “Matter of fact, he’s got his gun pointed at my forehead right now.”
He froze in place as her words sunk into his brain. A dozen questions raced through his mind, but now was not the time to ask them. “Just one man?”
Jules had owned and operated the Compass Bar for the past twelve years, and not once in all that time had he ever heard stress or strain in her voice. She was struggling to maintain her composure and prevent whoever was holding her at gunpoint from seeing that she was rattled, but her tone betrayed her panic and his feet were in motion before his mind could catch up to what his body was doing.
“I’m on my way, Jules,” he said. “What is his name?”
“Wouldn’t give it,” she told him.
Figures. Seth glanced at his watch as the door closed behind him and started back down the flight of stairs. It was after eleven on a Thursday night, but Jules stayed open until two in the morning six nights a week. “How many customers?”
Fumbling and scratching came over the line. “Get here or someone dies.”
The line went dead before he could hear anything else. As he made his way out of the building, he found the emergency phone number in his contacts list and dialed it.
“I’m headed to the Compass Bar. Something bad is going down, at least one hostile, but I don’t know more than that. Get the twins on checking surveillance cameras in the area,” he said to Allie, the emergency line’s night operator. She was The Praetorian Group’s version of air traffic control, monitoring everyone’s whereabouts, anticipating problems and heading them off when possible, mobilizing reinforcements when needed, and reacting when everything went fubar. Allie was without a doubt the calmest woman he’d ever known, and she handled crises the same way that other people handled getting dressed everyday. Hearing her voice, knowing that she was there and had a life preserver ready should he need it, was one of the things he’d grown to appreciate most about working for The Praetorian Group and made his current life so much different from his previous one.
In that life, there had been no life preserver.
Allie said, “I’ll inform Josh and Vaughan as well. Do you have your earpiece?”
He hadn’t had enough time at home to pull the piece out of the pocket of his jeans to save it from the washing machine. Drawing it from his pocket, he slid it into his left ear and confirmed, “Yeah, I’ve got it.”
“What’s the code word?”
“Amazon,” he answered. Each day an encrypted email went out to each of Joshua Cannon’s praetorians, and within the email was a cypher that had to be decrypted in order to obtain the day’s code word. It was partially an exercise for all of his employees to either learn how to break codes or keep their skills sharp, but it was also a survival skill. If Allie or Jin, their daytime emergency operator, heard the distress word, help would be on its way in ten minutes or less.
“Good luck, Seth. I’m here if you need me,” she replied.
“Thanks, Allie.” Seth ended the call and slid his phone into his pocket. The Compass Bar was within walking distance, but that wasn’t the reason he had chosen it as his watering hole. Five minutes on foot and he’d be there.
He didn’t know who was there waiting for him, though, or how that person had known that he would respond to Jules’ call for help. For months he had had the sense that he was being watched, but when no threat had presented itself and he’d been unable to uncover the source of the feeling, he had nearly convinced himself he was allowing the job hazard of paranoia get to him. He cursed himself for not trusting his instincts.
Seth got into the SUV Josh had insisted he drive if he was going to work for The Praetorian Group. Starting the engine, he drove for ten minutes in meandering circles, giving himself time to plan for what would happen when he got to the bar.
Who was the man on the other end of the line, and what did he want?
“Only one way to find out,” he murmured to himself. He pulled into the bar’s tiny, not very well-lit parking lot and surveyed the area. As usual it was quiet, with no pedestrians streaming by on the sidewalk outside. Whatever trouble there was, it was waiting for him inside.
Seth got out of his car and walked in a straight line to the front door. Without hesitating, he pulled it open and stepped inside.
Read Chapter Two