Shell Game : Excerpt
Prologue: Somewhere near the Afghan border
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot—WTF. From his rooftop perch Luke “Brooklyn” Chapman had a clear shot at the last barrier between his team and the American journalist they'd been assigned to bring home. Only two things stood in his way. Enough C4 to blow not only the entire compound but also every member of his SEAL team and Nick Harper's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team to kingdom come. And the woman wearing the damn explosives.
Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Shit.
Intel had screwed with them again. Brooklyn had gotten wind on his own of possible mines and other booby traps along the target compound that official channels had discarded as unreliable. That was why Brooklyn was once again working with EOD. He'd requested Nick's team for this mission, and, pissed as hell with the increased stream of failed missions, his CO had approved it. Nick and his team were good. Damn good. And Brooklyn trusted them as much as his own men. Which was something rare for a frogger to admit.
"Team Bravo reporting, target spotted. We have confirmation on explosives. C4. Over."
"Can you take him out? Over."
"Her," Brooklyn corrected.
"Shit," Nick mumbled on the other side.
Tell me about it. Protecting women and children was etched in bold caps on the unwritten list of what military men were fighting for—right above Mom's apple pie and just under the American Way. Over time Brooklyn had grown used to dealing with hostiles of varied ages and sizes—but he'd never get used to fighting women. And the key question at hand was whether or not this particular female was in harm's way of her own free will or by order of some male family member.
Too often there was not enough time to determine if the explosive-wearing fashionistas were the former or the latter. In this case, Brent Callahan, one of the EOD team, was on the surveillance systems. Thanks to his Persian heritage on his mother's side and having spent over a year at the Defense Language Institute, Brent could eavesdrop in five languages spoken within a one-mile radius. If the female in question would only say something in the next few seconds allotted to determine friendly or enemy, Brooklyn's last kill for Uncle Sam's Navy might not have to be a woman.
Across the way on Team Alpha, Billy “King Kona” Everrett and Doug Hamilton, rappelled down the south wall. Nick and Kenny Yates, Team Charlie, were nowhere to be seen. Which meant the hostiles couldn't see them either. The difference being Brooklyn knew his buddies were positioned to have Team Alpha's six.
Damn, he wished Brent would speak up. In about fifteen seconds Billy would be in place, and Brooklyn would have to take the woman out. Ten. . . . Five.
"Hold your fire," Brent said in Brooklyn's earpiece. "Make that two hostages."
Whoever the woman was, Brent must have heard enough to know wearing this season's dynamite trend was not her idea. Brooklyn spoke into his mic. "Affirmative."
"Copy," Nick replied, followed by Billy's echo of the confirmation.
This unlucky woman would live to see another day. All the team had to do was diffuse the jacket, subdue the enemy and haul everyone's ass out of hell.
* * *
"Nice place you got here." Brooklyn filed in last and dropped his gear beside the other duffels on the living room floor of EOD team member Billy Everrett's Kona, Hawaii, home. After getting everyone's ass out of the Afghan compound and safely returning to base with both hostages—the American journalist and the now bomb-free woman—Brooklyn was damn glad the timing had worked out for him to join some of the guys on leave here on the Big Island. A last chance to be among his Navy brothers that he didn't want to miss.
"The house is still a work in progress, but it's home." Billy pointed down the hall. "You've got four bedrooms to choose from. Mom always comes by to clean up the place for me when I'm back in Kona on leave. She texted that she changed the sheets for you guys, and I'm guessing there'll be a fridge full of food."
Nick, the EOD team leader, grabbed his bag to claim his room, then flashed his pearly whites. "And beer?"
"I said my mother." Billy rolled his eyes. "This isn't Australia. No locals leaving beer for sailors on this pier."
Kenny Yates, one of Brooklyn's SEAL team members, hefted his duffel and headed down the hallway. "How about women?"
Two steps behind him Brooklyn reached forward and slapped Kenny on the back. "Doubt his mom put those in the fridge either."
"Comedian." Kenny, originally from the Northeast, hip-checked Brooklyn as he walked by. In a blink, duffels were dropped, and the two men were on the ground.
"I swear, Brooklyn." Making his way across the room and down the hall in a heartbeat, Billy towered over the two tussling men. "One dent in my new walls and I'll have both your asses on a platter."
"Sorry, man," Kenny mumbled, catching Brooklyn's eye as he pushed to his feet. Having been on the same SEAL team for the last few years, words weren't required for communication. A turn, a lunge and a tackle later, all three were on the ground.
Nick emerged from the front bedroom and nearly got pulled into the fray. "I can think of better ways to work up a sweat, guys."
"He's right." Kenny eased back, and Billy took advantage of the shift in leverage to dump both SEALs on their sixes.
"Never mess with King Kona." Brushing his hands together, Billy spun about. "Clean up, and we'll hit the strip. It's no Gauntlet, but even you ugly frogs should be able to find a girl to take pity on you."
Showered, shaved and once again looking like a clean-cut sailor instead of a rebel insurgent, Brooklyn and his buddies walked into one of Billy's favorite local haunts. A splattering of pretty tourists decorated the place. Not near as many options as Honolulu and nothing at all like walking the famed foreign street known to sailors worldwide as The Gauntlet. But then again, few places were.
Brooklyn's introduction to The Gauntlet hadn't been long after earning his Trident and graduating from Coronado. The memory was still vivid. His team had gone in country on a reconnaissance mission and caught a ride offshore back to base on a Fast-Attack submarine. A fortuitous choice for transportation. En route, the sub had port call, and Brooklyn was introduced to The Gauntlet's hairpin strip of clubs and bars.
There, women of all shapes and sizes spilled onto the streets vying for their shot at an American sailor. Every few yards one of his group would be yanked aside and disappear into the open bars. A few would survive the barrage of women pawing and kissing to make it to the next one, usually sans a shirt, belt or some other article of clothing, and always bathed in lipstick and perfume.
Down to only a handful of men still walking, Brooklyn spotted a tall, lanky gal with long auburn hair. "I think I might be in the mood for a redhead."
One of the senior team members glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "Well, you'd better keep walking because that guy is probably a brunette."
"Hey." Kenny waved his hand in front of Brooklyn's face snapping him back to the present. "Where the hell did you go?"
Holding back a grin, he shrugged a shoulder. "Window-shopping."
All three friends cut him a curious glance before turning their attention back to a particularly interesting table of young ladies old enough to legally drink and young enough to make these sailor's night—and maybe morning.
Across the room a few guys walked in the front door. One guy wore a Don't Tread on Me T-shirt, another sported an American flag tattoo and all had the regulation haircuts that screamed US Navy. Probably stationed at Pearl. And like Brooklyn and his buddies, creatures of habit. Give a sailor a day off, and he goes looking for beer and girls. Not a bad way to live.
"You're starting to worry me, Brooklyn." Billy pointed the neck of his beer bottle at him. "Wipe that crazy grin off your face."
"Aye, Chief." Brooklyn gave a weak salute. His last one. From now on he belonged to The Company. Six months ago he'd seen a damn fine squadron of SEALs give up their lives due to bad intel. Intel provided by the CIA and their network of informants. So Brooklyn had requested separation from the US Navy and aligned himself with the very people who had gotten too many good men killed with planted information.
Next time Kenny and the rest of his former team members got intel through the CIA, Brooklyn would do his damnedest to make sure the info wouldn't get anyone killed. Or he'd die trying.
Two years later
The black-and-white from Miami PD pulled into Sharla Kramer's driveway.
Tyler Hawk, former partner of her late husband, Danny, eased out of the driver seat. His expression blank, he opened the back door and out popped Sophia Garibaldi.
Not that Sharla had expected to see anyone else. At all of five foot two and a hundred pounds soaking wet, her grandmother still managed to cause more trouble than a rabbit in a lettuce patch. "Nana. Not again."
"Don't fuss. Tyler offered me a ride."
Sharla's gaze met Tyler's. Lips pressed tightly together, the six-foot-four policeman ran his hand across the back of his neck before speaking. "We picked her up at the mall."
"Nana," Sharla whined. "You promised."
"I didn't do anything." The older woman straightened her proud shoulders and lifted her stubborn chin. "That daft head of security called the police over a little misunderstanding."
Ever since Nana had retired to Florida to live with Sharla, "a little misunderstanding" had become the three most unsettling words in the English language.
"A shopper at the discount shoe store insisted your grandmother tried to pick her pocket. Said she saw Sophia's hand coming out of her purse just as the woman was about to pay for her purchases."
Sharla turned to her grandmother. "You had her wallet?"
"No," Tyler answered. "But the woman insisted she'd merely foiled your grandmother's attempt to steal it."
"Poppycock." Nana huffed. "If I'd wanted—"
"Yes, Nana, we know." Sharla cut off her grandmother before she could incriminate herself. Not that Tyler wasn't fully aware of the family history. He'd already been partnered with Danny when he had started dating Sharla and had witnessed firsthand the antics of her crazy family as they, one by one, retired—supposedly—to Florida. It was almost enough to make her want to move to Alaska. Or anyplace no one would be tempted to follow her.
Tyler waited until Sophia had crossed the doorway into the kitchen. "We've got lots of new rookies on board since . . . well, new guys who didn't know Danny."
Sharla bobbed her head. Tyler didn't have to say anything else. "I understand. Thanks for bringing her home. I'll go to the mall tomorrow after my shift at the hospital and have another talk with Mr. Delvecchio."
"You okay otherwise?"
Tyler flashed his trademark killer smile that would make most women weak in the knees. Especially if they were gazing into his crystal-blue eyes. A light, almost-gray shade of blue, they always twinkled with a little mischief no matter how serious the situation. But it had been Danny's reserved smile and warm chocolate eyes that had stolen her heart the first time he'd arrived at her apartment door with her great-aunts Alicia and Leticia in tow. "I'm fine. Thanks."
After Danny's funeral, Tyler had kept frequent tabs on her. At first she was glad for the company. Someone to talk to who knew Danny almost as well as she did. As the months passed by, she realized she couldn't keep living her life with Danny through shared memories. Eventually Tyler's calls and visits came less often. And now, three years later, she mostly only saw Tyler when he'd swoop in to rescue one of the great-aunts or, like tonight, her grandmother.
"You'll let me know if—"
"I need anything," Sharla finished for him with a smile. "Thanks again, Ty."
Front door latched shut, Sharla spun about and leaned back. What was she going to do with her nimble-fingered relatives? At least starting in a few days the next month would be surprise-free. While Great-Aunt Alicia visited her daughter in California for the summer, Nana and Great-Aunt Leticia were going on another Caribbean cruise and then planned to visit old friends in New York for a couple of weeks. As long as Nana and her former cohorts had an audience to entertain with their old stories, Sharla could rest assured they would stay out of trouble.
She hadn't heard the phone ring, but Nana's voice carried from the kitchen, "Oh my. Really?"
Upon closer observation, Sharla was not happy with the look on her grandmother's face.
"No, Ticia. Maybe I should—"
Sharla walked closer and leaned into her grandmother's side in an effort to eavesdrop on the phone conversation, but Nana wished her sister well and hung up. "What's the matter? Is there a problem with Nelda?"
"Not exactly. The baby decided to turn at the last minute. Doctors did a C-section. Ticia wants to stay and help while Nelda recovers."
The news wasn't as bad as Sharla had feared. Until it hit her why her grandmother's forehead was crinkled with concern. The cruise left on Thursday. No way Nelda would be a 100 percent by then for Leticia to go as planned.
In a snap Nana's expression cleared, a bright smile taking over her face. "Didn't your boss just say you had too many vacation days accumulated and you needed to take time off while he had the staff to cover for you?"
Actually, yes. She'd already penciled in two weeks while Nana was away. The perfect time to get in a little sun and tinker with some long-neglected household proj . . . "Oh, no."
"Of course. The cruise company said we could add passengers up to twenty-four hours before departure. You can have Leticia's place. Like the old days when your parents would be off on some adventure and the two of us would spend time on the Jersey shore."
"No, Nana." Absolutely not. No how. No way. Sharla was not spending two weeks trapped on a floating hotel in the middle of the ocean. "So not happening, Nana. There is nothing you can say to get me on that boat with you."
"Maybe Magda would like to join me."
Except that. The last thing Sharla needed was for her grandmother to reconnect with her old partner in crime. Heaven help her, it looked like she and Nana were going on a cruise.
* * *
Ignoring the burn still present in his side, Luke “Brooklyn” Chapman tried to relax into the stiff guest chair and propped his ankle across his thigh. The thick leather belt he'd worn that day when all hell had broken loose had slowed the knife enough to prevent any serious damage, especially since the damn thing had been dipped in poison. Two years of deep undercover work had finally paid off. A little field needlework, some antidotal treatment and he was good to go.
Too bad the doc hadn't agreed.
"Thirty days. That's an order."
Disregarding the tug from the medic's stitches, Brooklyn shifted in place and flashed a cocky grin at his supervisor. "You can't give me an order. I'm not in the navy anymore."
"You won't be with anybody anymore if you don't take some downtime. I don't care how invincible you damn SEALs think you are. You are made of flesh and blood like everyone else. You cut. You bleed. You die. I don't want to see your face or hear your name for thirty days."
In the navy, as SEALs on standby, Brooklyn and his men were limited to two beers a day and an hour-long leash, never allowed to be more than sixty minutes away from base. A few days of true R & R when they would be free to indulge in all the booze and women they could handle was always embraced with much anticipation. But usually after only a few days of rest and recreation, he'd been ready to go back to work. And not just busy work or physical training. Something worthy of his time and all that constant PT. "I'll take a couple of days."
"Listen, Brooklyn." Phil Conway leaned forward on his desk. "I know you want to see all these bastards fry as much as any of us."
More. Under the umbrella of the CIA, in a joint task force with the navy commanded by Admiral Cartwright, Brooklyn, along with a former ranger and another spook, had infiltrated the terrorist cell believed to have been behind the faulty intel that had gotten a squadron of SEALs killed almost three years ago.
The recent firefight that had left Brooklyn with a knife in his gut had also taken out the SOBs responsible for the death of his fellow SEALs. But there was always another terrorist waiting to step up and annihilate “the American infidels.” When the terrorists took R & R, then so would he.
"You are running on caffeine and adrenaline," Conway continued. "Something's got to give sooner or later, and it's not going to be on my watch."
For a spook Conway was a decent guy, but he didn't get it. Brooklyn could remind his boss from now till the next millennium what every SEAL endured for months of basic training. Constant harassing by professional warriors with one objective: eliminate the weak. Only the strongest and smartest survived Hell Week and BUD/S. Long torturous runs in the soft sand. Midnight swims in the cold Pacific. Arduous obstacle courses. Never-ending calisthenics. Days without sleep. Always being cold, wet and miserable.
And the training didn't stop there. The training never stopped. In the real world, lack of sleep and physical endurance was a way of life. SEALs thrived on stress and chaos. He didn't need thirty days with nothing to do.
"Got anyplace you've always wanted to go?" Conway asked. "Family you haven't seen for a while?"
Some downtime home in New York with the family would be good. Even with his mother hovering over him, it would be great to see his sisters and nieces and nephews. And it had been a while since he'd had a decent lasagna. But thirty days?
He could always throw a dart at a map and see where it landed. There were plenty of possible destinations where people weren't trying to kill each other. King Kona's family owned a dive shop on the Big Island. Going there for a few days could be a nice break. Billy always bragged about the weather, the diving, and how great his family was. Of course his sisters would be off-limits. A guy didn't hook up with a buddy's sister; that was an unbreakable code. But Brooklyn couldn't wrap his mind around the idea of lying under a palm tree and watching the coconuts fall.
Conway sat back and steepled his fingers under his chin. "My wife and I are booked on a cruise, but her mother has decided now would be a good time to have the knee replacement surgery she's been putting off for two years. Martha won't leave her mother. We're supposed to sail Thursday afternoon. Thirteen nights. Too late for a refund. You'd have the cabin to yourself."
"You'd be doing me a favor. If you take my place, I can pass the bill on to accounting. Otherwise I have to eat the cost."
Thirteen days of poolside lounging. The Hawaiian coconuts were looking more appealing. Except . . . ship pools had babes in bikinis. After two years in another world, he wouldn't object to skipping Rest and going directly for Recreation. "Okay. I'll do it. But you'll owe me."
Conway's lips tipped up in a much-too-satisfied grin.
Somewhere deep down in his gut Luke was sure he'd just been had.