Last month I shared with you the first chapter in my #backlist title Perfect Stranger, BUT the first chapter in Perfect Stranger isn't where this story began for alpha hero Jericho Eden. Not by a long shot. So here is the where the story begins for Jericho. You know, that point where everything fell apart and went to hell.
0200 hours, 12 hours earlier, Thursday
Outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
"Break Contact!" Special Forces Master Sergeant Jericho Eden shouted.
Flashes of the explosion seared into his mind forever in that moment, just before the blackness of night surrounded him again.
Rounds pounded the dirt at his feet as he ran. The missed shots became heavy thunks penetrating into the ground, sending sprays of soil upward around his footfalls.
Maloney was dead. Dead! He couldn’t believe it. The visual of his fellow soldier—his friend!—diving over the grenade ripped through him. He wanted to let loose all his anger, but could not. He alone was responsible for getting the rest of them back, and he wouldn’t let Maloney's sacrifice be for nothing.
A sacrifice that should have been his own, had he been closer.
Regret swelled in Jericho, and he pushed himself through the jungle, his remaining men following behind him.
The ambush had come from out of nowhere. None of them had expected a damn thing, only reacted, putting to use the years of training they had committed to.
Maloney was dead, and MacKall MIA. The hostiles had probably captured his fellow team member.
Flashes of gunfire surrounded from all directions as they made the road where one of the trucks waited, camouflaged and at the ready. The smell of gunpowder from the many explosions hung heavy in the laden air, so strong that the acrid taste lingered on Jericho's tongue.
At least his team hadn’t left without doing damage. However, he needed more men, and he needed them now, before the hostiles quickly disappeared, alerted to their presence. Already they should have had a team on the ground canvassing the area for those fleeing a scene that should not have happened, but as challenged as their mission was, only one team—his team—had been sent to the area. They needed more men to come back to extract MacKall and… Jericho swallowed hard as he ran, thinking of Maloney's young wife. The couple hadn't been married a year.
Determination flared, charging his blood with the need for retribution.
He would see Maloney's body returned home.
They left no one behind.
Jericho broke into the little clearing, his men hot on his heels, and grabbed the side of the camo net and pulled the cover to the ground as he rounded the truck. He slung the leafy mesh away and threw open the door, taking the driver's seat. The truck bounced with the weight of his other two team members as they jumped in. Gunner took shotgun while Butler threw himself into the bed of the truck, snapping a new magazine into his SCAR, or Special Forces Combat Assault Rifle.
"Goin' hot," Butler yelled, returning fire from the back as they spun out, dust kicking up on the unpaved road.
Too soon did a strangled yell come from the bed of the truck. "I've been hit," Butler called to Jericho and Gunner.
"Thirty-minutes ETA to safe house," Gunner said from the passenger seat, tossing the navigational device aside to take up an RPG from he backseat. "Can you make it?" he asked as he swung himself halfway out the window to take aim at the jeep trailing them much too closely for anyone's liking. Their follower bounced along on the dirt road behind them, fishtailing in the soft sand. One of their men got off a few more shots.
"Hooah," Butler called. "You're clear," he said.
"Rocket out!" Gunner braced himself as he fired, stalling to watch as his target exploded and the jeep flipped end over end.
"They're down!" Butler shouted with a whoop.
A faint relief raced down Jericho's spine. This night wasn't over yet—they had only just begun.
"We'll grab gear and head back out," he said to the remainder of his five-man team as they sped from the dense jungle. The only other thing he had to do was transmit the location of the compound back to Central and request reinforcement. "We have a man down and one taken by hostiles. They won't be left behind."
The other men gave a loud, heart-felt “hooah” in unison.
Exactly thirty minutes later they rolled into the small shed they used as a garage to the side of the safe house. Jericho killed the engine as they all hopped out to shut the shed doors so the truck wouldn't be seen.
Not one of them wasn’t looking over his shoulder as they started across the small yard. However, as they all noticed the two birds in an empty adjacent lot to the side, a deeper concern flickered through the group. The black sides of the identical helicopters were glossed to perfection, and a pair of pilots remained behind, though they pretended to ignore Jericho and his two men.
As Gunner and Butler bemoaned what, or rather who, might be awaiting them inside, Jericho felt pretty certain he knew exactly who waited on them—and his timing couldn’t be worse. He shook his head in annoyance, and with a heavy stride, he stalked up onto the small porch.
Gunner sighed hard, coming up the steps behind Jericho. "There's trouble."
"Well, shit," Butler said under his breath.
Jericho threw open the door, and froze.
Their small house had been, in a word, ransacked—though by clean-cut bureaucrats, steadily filing nearly everything except magazines, rounds, and MREs into one box or another. He gaped at them a moment, on the edge of rage.
Jericho scowled, stepping further into the safe house, followed by his team members. His gaze landed on a familiar profile across the room. "What the hell are you doing here?" he asked.
Agent Conyers didn't belong in this area, and the handler for the Southwest Asia Theater wasn't at all whom he had expected. Where was Weston? He'd expected to be brought to heel by the CIA director for this blotch in their mission. But Conyers? The only reason he knew the man from Adam was from when they were briefed for the mission back at Bragg. Conyers had been brought in to enlighten them on possible Al-Qaida groups responsible. At the time, the man had been less than helpful.
So, what was he doing here now?
Jericho narrowed his gaze on the swarming room.
His other men were behind him still, and they panted shallowly from their exertions in the field, but moved efficiently to gather more gear and magazines, all the while muttering curses. Jericho glanced over his shoulder a few minutes later as he heard a hiss. Gunner poked gauze over Butler's wound.
Gunner ticked his head toward Jericho. "Bullet went in and out clean, just a scratch." Gunner, their medic, slapped Butler on the shoulder, causing the other man to grit his teeth.
Jericho nodded, and as he turned his attention back to the room, he balled his fists as he studied the handler's back from under a mask of dark camouflaged face paint. Slanting his gaze, he swept the room once more. He didn't like being ignored.
His jaw ticked. "I said, what are you doing here, Agent Conyers?" Jericho raised his voice, interrupting Conyers and the other agent he spoke with quietly.
Conyers cut his eyes at Jericho over his shoulder, clearly annoyed, breaking away from his discussion. "I'm cleaning up your mess, it would seem." Agent John Conyers removed his hands from his suit pockets to turn on Jericho, stalking across the room with a swaggering gait belying his apparent thirty-seven or so years.
When he stopped a few feet from them, he crossed his arms and glared hard on Jericho and his team. Conyers's jaw worked slowly on gum. "Weston sent me. Now, where's the rest of them?" he asked, perturbed, coolly flicking a finger amongst Jericho and the others in search of the two missing soldiers.
Jericho's back stiffened. "What is that supposed to mean? What the hell is going on?" he all but shouted.
"You have a leak, Sergeant." Conyers took another step closer. A look of animosity flashed in his stare. "Weston assigned me to take care of the problem. One of your own has been transmitting vital information on your mission and locations to the hostiles."
"Like hell," Jericho said.
The agent's eyes narrowed. "I can make this hell if you don’t cooperate."
Jericho's face contorted in a snarl, but he held himself in check. He wasn’t sure just what part of his job this asshole thought wasn’t hell already. "This is bullshit! We lost men out there while finding that damn compound, which by the way, we did find. And we come back to this?" He threw his arms wide. He was livid at Conyers's suggestion.
The agent squinted at Jericho. "Bad timing? Or are you trying to cover for something?" he asked, chewing his gum a little harder.
Jericho slowly shook his head. "I have nothing to cover, nor do any of my men. You should know that."
Conyers gave a short bark of laughter. "You're just another government employee, son, even if a soldier. We all have something to cover at one point or another."
Anger suffused Jericho. "I demand an explanation, sir."
"I don’t have to give you any damn thing. I have a job to do here, Master Sergeant," Conyers shouted.
"And I have men out there," Jericho yelled back, thrusting a finger behind him toward the door. "One KIA, one MIA, taken by hostiles."
"And, I would assume you can thank the one captured for the demise of the other, and for almost costing the rest of you your lives. I'll guarantee he's the leak."
Red flashed behind Jericho's eyes. "That's a rather impulsive assumption." Jericho planted his fists on his hips before one contacted with Conyers's face. "You're making a mistake. I need reinforcements on the ground before this becomes an even bigger disaster for the U.S. Our man needs our help, and I will not leave here without him if you think you're removing me from my post."
"Sir," a female agent called, stepping around Jericho to address Conyers. She handed the agent a slip of paper. "We have something," she said tightly.
"That’s impossible," Jericho said vehemently.
"MacKall was the one captured, hmm?" Conyers asked, wagging the paper in the air. He looked Jericho in the eye, daring him to deny the truth.
Jericho's spine stiffened, and his breath caught.
What in the hell is going on? The question flashed through his mind again.
Conyers handed the paper back to the female, who quickly reached over and shredded the note in a portable machine.
"Son, you have a new assignment—"
Jericho tore his focus from the woman back to Conyers. "No, this isn’t—"
"—get back out there and bring in MacKall." The agent raised his voice. "And then you are done here," he said with venom.
Conyers raked Jericho with a scathing gaze, but somewhere in the man's near-impenetrable eyes, there was a hint of humor dancing. As Jericho caught this brief insight into Conyers, his interest perked.
Just how much of a snake is this handler? he wondered.
Jericho's face twitched in a snarl. Conyers had been against his mission from the start, and now he dared tread too far by accusing MacKall of treason. Jericho wanted to beat the agent to a pulp.
"I have to transmit the location of the compound before I go," Jericho said, taking a step around Conyers.
The agent moved to him. "I'll take care of that, don’t you worry." Conyers coolly chewed his damn gum, that smug humor turning into contempt. "You'll be debriefed when you get back to Bragg. Take the extra bird and pilot for your use as far as getting to the compound, but you get your man and then get the hell out of that area. The bird will drop you, but you’re gonna have to hump it back here." He pointed to the floor. "I'll be waiting for you. We've already got men on the way to take over as far as any remaining hostiles are concerned." He picked up a loaded magazine from the table and tossed the mag in Jericho's direction. "Think you can handle that, Sergeant?"
Jericho snatched the mag out of the air. "Roger," he said through his teeth, eyes narrowed.
Just as quickly, Conyers dismissed them all, turning to follow the female agent into another room, talking quietly with her.
"I hate that man," Butler said, leaning over Jericho's shoulder.
"Likewise." His jaw ticked as he turned to face the two men, readied with assault packs in hand. Damn, they were seriously undermanned for any mission, especially for what they were taking on. But what choice did they have? He looked to the others. "We ready?"
"Hooah!" they chorused.
Gunner tossed him a readied pack. "Then what the hell are we waiting for?" Jericho asked as he caught it. He slipped the magazine Conyers had tossed into a tactical pocket on his pants and shrugged the pack over his shoulder.
0300 hours, 11 hours earlier, Thursday
Outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Jericho Eden hung over the side of the bird, fast-rope in hand. Nestled deep in the thick jungle, the roof of the building came into plain sight through his NODS. No chance his team wouldn’t see an attack coming this time.
At this point, he didn’t doubt one bit that he and his team, minus the other two, were being used as a scapegoat by the CIA, just in case unnecessary attention were provoked or U.S. presence became known. His orders had clearly conveyed the importance of their discretion on this recon mission. Tonight, they had been forced to disregard those instructions in order to survive.
They were in Brazil for reconnaissance work on a suspected terrorist ring that had been leaking their ilk in and out of the U.S. after taking on Brazilian identities. Only after his team had begun making progress did the Southwest Asia Theater handler Conyers really take interest. In fact, the man had opposed the mission, calling any interest in a Brazilian Terrorist compound farfetched and a waste of manpower and taxpayer money. Repeatedly the agent had gone to Weston requesting the team be removed.
Why had Weston suddenly given in?
Jericho hadn’t seen anything suspicious from any team member, nor had Conyers offered any supporting evidence on his claim. That wasn’t anything new though, but if MacKall was the traitor he had been made out to be, then Jericho needed to hear it from the man himself. And if he were not … Jericho wasn’t sure what to do then.
With all they had seen, how could any one of them turn on their country? He refused to believe the accusation.
Tonight might be their only possible chance for redemption, and given the circumstances, he would rather be the one to bring his brother back. No matter the charges held against him, Connar MacKall was his brother-in-arms.
As the bird steadied over the rooftop of the compound, his team waited behind him, ready to fast-rope onto the roof. Jericho still wasn’t sure why Conyers had allowed them to go back out. If he had such evidence, they should have been quarantined for interrogation, not sent on a mission to capture the suspected traitor. He supposed, with the lack of force in place, they were Conyers’s only chance to bring in his man, one the CIA handler would surely reap rewards for the capture of. Rewards that would gain him a boost of prestige.
That tore at Jericho's gut more than anything. They were being used to capture one of their own so Conyers could advance himself. However, if they failed to bring MacKall in, Weston would be forced to brand them as traitors to the United States, too, if not for outright treason, then for direct insubordination.
If anything, MacKall deserved to defend himself as they all did.
Regardless of the charges against him or the flawed mission, Jericho wouldn't leave his brother in the hands of hostiles.
He wouldn't leave Brazil without him, nor without Maloney.
"Ready for this?" he shouted into his mic, looking back over his shoulder. He received a nod from each man as a go sign. "In and out quick," he said. Jericho took one last look out the opened door and pushed the rope out. It hit the roof, and he quickly motioned to his team, each slipping down and blending into the darkened night. Jericho followed.
As soon as his feet hit the rooftop, the ropes were cut from above and dropped behind him as the bird faded away. He went for cover and lifted his SCAR to fire if necessary.
Then the worst thing happened.
The butt of a weapon cracked down on Jericho's skull.
Everything went black.
©2013 Kerri M. Patterson