chapter one —
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.
chapter two —
The Compass Bar was a perfect square. At the center of the space, there was a circular bar and along each of the walls were booth seats. No freestanding tables or chairs. On nights when it was busy, customers either crowded up to the bar, made friends and shared one of the booths, or gathered in the open spaces and stood. Tonight was not a busy night, but there were way too many people given the situation that was unfolding.
The two young women sitting in a booth on the left caught Seth’s attention as he scanned the first quadrant of the bar. A girls’ night out gone horribly wrong.
Sitting in the corner booth was a retired Secret Service agent. He and Seth had had several conversations over the past year, and familiarity told him that the man wasn’t carrying a weapon. That didn’t, however, mean he couldn’t be helpful should Seth find himself in need.
On the right side of the bar there was a group of three college-aged young men, one of them wearing a green t-shirt with white Greek letters announcing his fraternity affiliation. Frat boys. Depending upon how much they had had to drink, they could turn into a wildcard he didn’t need.
Nearest him, also on the right side of the bar, sat a young man who Seth was sure wasn’t even close to the drinking age. More likely, he had just gotten his driver’s license. The waitress, Danielle, was standing at his table, hands empty. Seth wondered if she was the reason the teenager was there.
Jules stood in the center of the bar, and when Seth looked at her, he saw the fear that burned away her usual snarky attitude. She didn’t take shit from anyone, and no matter what the patrons of the bar threw her way, she handled it with the same effort it would have taken her to polish her fingernails while watching her favorite television show—Justified—for the dozenth time. The defiant rebel she presented to the world was muted, hiding until it knew it was safe to come out again. She stood next to the bar, her hands at her sides and within full view of the man that had come into her place of business and threatened her and her customers.
Everyone’s attention centered on the man standing on the bar. He had a Beretta 92FS in his left hand, and the barrel was pointed at Jules’ forehead.
“I’m here,” Seth said. “What is it you want?”
“Direct and to the point. In a hurry? Got somewhere else you need to be?” said the man, swiveling his head on his neck before meeting Seth’s gaze.
Seth didn’t respond to the taunting questions. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited, his feet in a wide-legged stance, his weight evenly distributed and his body ready to react. “Since you insist on pointing your gun at someone, turn it on me and then tell me what it is you want.”
The man pivoted on his feet and stepped along the bar until he was as close as he could be to Seth without losing the advantage of his elevated position. “What makes you think you’re in any position to give orders?”
“Because you requested an audience with me,” Seth answered. “You have my attention, but not indefinitely. Stop wasting my time.”
He tilted his head to one side and sneered down at Seth. “You’ve misinterpreted the situation. You are not the one who’s in control here.”
Not yet, but I will be, he thought silently. He wouldn’t ask again for the man to tell him what he wanted. When it was required of him, Seth possessed infinite patience. As long as the others in the bar were not under imminent threat, he could wait this man out for as long as necessary.
“What is your name?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not in the least,” Seth returned. “Tell me about that tattoo on your hand.”
The man’s gaze went to the back of his hand for an instant before he looked back at Seth. “You don’t recognize it?”
“He said you would,” the man replied.
His face twisted into a sadistic smile, and sinister light burned in his eyes. “He’s been watching you. For months now. Haven’t you felt the cold weight of his stare? Hasn’t the sixth sense you government spooks develop been tingling?”
Seth didn’t have a photographic memory, but it was damn good, and he didn’t remember ever seeing this man or the tattoo on his hand. And yet it was clear that this man knew him and something about his past life. “What does this have to do with him?”
The man paced to his left and then his right before halting and returning his focus to Seth. “You could say he’s my benefactor and my mentor.”
“In what way?”
Waving his gun hand to indicate the room and the moment, he answered, “He made all of this possible, and then he pointed me in your direction. He told me you’re the man capable of giving me what I want.”
“Which is what?” he asked, reassessing the man in front of him. He wasn’t just someone with a gun and this wasn’t a random act of violence. What was happening had been premeditated, and whoever this “he” was that the man was referring to, it was clear to Seth that he was the true architect of this scenario. This man was playing his part, but it would be dangerous to underestimate him.
“Give her to me,” he said.
“Not going to happen,” Seth declared.
The man let his gaze travel over every single individual in the bar before it returned to Seth. “You see, I know that you come here to do your drinking when you want to a drink. I know that this woman is someone that you count as a friend. I know that the waitress knows you by name, that you tip well when you’re here, and that you and the old man sitting in the corner over there chat from time to time. He told me that you wouldn’t stand by and let innocent people die. Not if there was something you could do to stop it. He says you’re noble or honorable or some shit like that. All that means to me is that you’re not going to let me pull the trigger and end someone’s life tonight. Not when it’s within your power to give me what I want and make me go away.”
“He obviously doesn’t know me all that well,” Seth countered. “If he did, he’d know I would never make this devil’s bargain.”
“You’re a man that has something to lose, which means you should never say never,” he said, jumping down from the bar and landing agilely on his feet. From his back pocket he withdrew a silencer and screwed it onto the barrel of the gun. “I have twenty bullets. How many do you think it will take to make you change your mind?”
He didn’t wait for Seth to respond. Instead, he aimed and fired the first shot.
Want to know what happens next? Click here to read Chapters 3 and 4.