Swap Out! - M. L. Buchman - ebook
Opis

-a Dead Chef thriller- Before there was Kate Stark there was Jeff the Chef. He has one simple choice: Sauté! Smile!E:E Die! U.S. Special Forces are “taking down” television’s culinary superstars. Why?? Someone watched the pot? Cried over spilt milk? Cooked the goose but not the gander?? Only Jeff the Chef knows, and he’s next! His recipe for survival: Step 1. Finding the woman who refused him years ago Step 2. Boarding the nastiest helicopter that was “never built” Step 3. Descending into a renovated missile silo that “doesn’t exist” Step 4... To survive is gonna take one hell of a Swap Out!

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Swap Out!

by M. L. Buchman

Dedication

To my favorite lady to:

Cook with,

Eat with,

Laugh with,

Be with.

FIRST COURSE

HORS D’OEUVRES

YESTERDAY

CHAPTER 1

Four-and-a-half minutes before the premature finish of her last show ever, Maggie brushed her hair back and tucked it behind her left ear to give the television audience a clear view of her profile.

She leaned in to check the frying chicken and pretended the camera wasn’t there.

She’d insisted that it be placed a little higher than other cooking shows. Not the best for showing the food, but definitely right to showcase her cleavage to advantage. And the frilly edge of her Navajo-blue satin blouse made it appear that even more showed than truly did.

Mama always said that sex sold. And she proved it with her elite clientele and her upper East Side condo. Hence Maggie’s chosen screen name, Hadderly. Almost couldn’t resist the next step, Had Her Lately.

Of course, Maggie preferred not to sell sex by the half hour like her mama. Well, there was a laugh, dearie, we both work in the thirty-minute format. Mama often cooked their midnight meals after her last trick left, Maggie’s first Naked Chef. Definitely not her last.

The skinless chicken breast in a simple egg-white and spiced-flour batter was sizzling up to low-fat perfection. Her mouth rattled away with practiced nonchalance about fats, calories, anti-oxidants, and high-flavors-not-being-sacrificed-thank-you-very-much. Make it sound easy and it sold that way, first cookbook headed into third printing. Hardcover. Eat them noodles!

Her brain always ran a different script than the show’s.

“See ladies. You can cook these dishes, and still have the figure that knocks them dead in their tracks, every man’s bedroom fantasy. Well, maybe not you middle-age, middle-weight housewives. Not without my inherited metabolism. I could live on pizza and pie and look like this. Mama and me, we could be twins. Men walk into sign posts when we stroll Fifth Ave arm-in-arm. Forty-one and she still snags the rich fifty-year old jerks looking for teenage fantasies in their beds. She makes them pay, big time, and she doesn’t disappoint. At twenty-four I’ve got it twice over.”

Maggie inspected the audience while she chatted about kale, arugula, and walnut salad, “good calcium and Omega 3s there,” and gave the side camera a long view of her flat stomach and perky, sheerly-harnessed breasts.

Ten years and she’d be made with enough cash to live out her days in luxury. Then she’d worry about finding a nice beach house and a man who could make her toes curl just by walking into the room. But no man would ever declare she was successful because of him. For now, she’d take men as she found them, delectable and disposable.

Any likely ones in the audience today? She inspected the four rows of studio theater seating while explaining her mother’s mustard vinaigrette.

There was always Joey. Her production assistant sat in the second row for each filming as a last resort, always introduced as her “good friend.” Achingly handsome. He wasn’t the sharpest whip, but they looked damn good together for the final taste shots. Boring in bed. Really, really sad. A waste of manflesh and it would be a long time until she sank that low again.

All this month she’d found handsome enough husbands of other women for the last shot, but that’s as far as it went. Mama’s siren song beckoned to other wives’ men, VIP and very cash-heavy ones to keep her in her high-rent lifestyle. Her daughter only took ‘em free and single. But it had been far too long since she’d found one in the audience handsome enough to assuage her own appetites. And the dregs you found trolling in bars weren’t worth the effort of carving your way through their egos.

Then she spotted him.

Back row, off to the side. Not a big man. No broad shoulders or square chin, but the look of self-assurance and absolute focus that always made her knees weak. He sat a little too obviously by himself, all out of age with the scrawny little grandma beside him. He focused on her with an intensity that was both arousing and a bit scary, her favorite mix.

Awfully far back to invite down for a taste. . . But, if she climbed the steps to fetch him herself, the camera following her stair-mastered behind from behind . . . Sex sells, Mama. Should’ve worn a lower-backed blouse. Should’ve worn one open down to her ass. But it was mid-show, too late to help that. She’d shake her hair loose as she walked, that provided the same effect. Guys couldn’t resist her straight fall of Scandinavian blond hair any more than they could Mama’s.

She turned up the heat a little under the chicken, had to accelerate the cooking to create the extra camera time to make the walk. Her timing was always impeccable, on and off camera. They were already talking hour format and even hinting at a live-broadcast cooking show, the top of the pyramid. On my way up, Mama.

This was the last episode to film today and damn if she didn’t deserve a treat.

She’d start with him in the dressing room.

Hopefully, he’d have the stamina for another round in the taxi, then back to her place . . .

Or maybe they’d start right here on the polished wooden floor after the crew was gone, a little Mazola Roller. Been a while since she’d done that, two naked bodies and a couple pints of oil.

“Use canola ladies,” she indicated the frying pan and thought about kneading his tight, slippery buttocks, “avoid those saturated fats.” Her smile for the camera was perhaps a little greedy, but they’d think it was for the food. She knew better. A quick glance revealed that he was up on the edge of his seat. He understood her smile. Excellent!

Maggie moved to the oven to check on the garlic-olive oil bread while keeping up her inane cholesterol-chatter about “Virgin versus extra virgin,” continued for the camera. “Not even close, ladies, not since thirteen.” Boy from the apartment next door, did it in the elevator. Scared the daylights out of him and snagged ten bucks from the security guy for giving him a peep show on his monitor. Her first paid appearance on TV.

The initial blast of heat from the oven brushed her hair back, a little sweaty could be very sexy. She pulled the door all the way down so that the hot air spilled over her skin above the plunging neckline. Bedroom sweaty. She and Mr. Back Row Hunk were just gonna sizzle together.

A small flash blinked deep in the oven. No bigger than the spark off her bedroom doorknob zapping her finger after shuffling barefoot across the plush carpet in Mama’s high-rise condo.

The tiny flash blossomed forth, a slow-motion, unfolding flower of deep orange. The convection fan in the back spun rapidly.

But she hadn’t set it to convect. She checked. The switch was off. The bread better not be burnt, that could be awkward, though she had a spare loaf stashed ready for a discreet swap out in the second oven.

The blossom of orange flickered red and yellow as the fan roared up to a high whine. The smell of gasoline wafted across her nostrils, gasoline?

A firestorm blew out of the oven like a dragon’s breath. In an instant, a tornado of heat and fire wrapped around her.

After the shock came the pain.

She spun away exposing her waist-long ponytail to the blast. It burst into flame. Like a rotisserie beef, she twisted one way and another as the jet-fuel, benzene, and styrene mix roasted her alive in front of the studio audience. The napalm gel burned away her sheer clothes then clung to every part of her skin and turned her into a twelve-hundred degree human torch.

The high-angle cam caught her in naked glory the moment before her skin began to crisp, a perfect Godiva clothed only in flame. Without question, the film, no matter how well suppressed, would hit the Internet within the hour. It would go viral within a day. She’d finally found international fame.

The last thing Maggie Had Her Lately ever noticed was the empty seat in the back row of the audience.

CHAPTER 2

At the same moment, twenty blocks south of Maggie’s studio, First Lieutenant Bobby Stenman wasn’t minding his current assignment as much as he’d expected. From the second to last row he watched television chef “Julio Julio, the Spanish Wonder.” He had to be the most irritating man alive.

Which wouldn’t be much longer.

“Welcome back to Chef Julio Julio, that’sa me, the Best of Spanish Food coming to you live from Rockefeller Center. Let’sa see what we’ve done.” He opened the second oven, pretending he hadn’t just shoved the raw one into the first oven two minutes ago, right before the commercial break. He tipped his finished seafood paella for the cameras to see. Camera Two slid in for the close-up while Camera One set up for the audience-reaction shot. The audience lighting only reached the first few rows making the crowd appear larger than it was. Stenman was careful to remain safely lost in the shadows.

He’d researched this operation like any other. And there was nothing authentic about the chef, Mr. Dave Roberts of the Bronx. Not his upbringing, not his tan, not his pretended heritage. Bobby had failed to uncover the fatal flaw, the one that made Julio a target of his superiors, but that information wasn’t his job.

The chef was babbling about the Iberico Chorizo sausage and the sweet clams. “Can’t you just imagine the bee-you-tiful smells there at home? Our studio audience certainly doesn’t have to!” He fluttered his eyebrows in a fashion that was meant to be wise or meaningful, but reminded Stenman of a bad Austin Powers imitation.

It was almost worth killing him just to silence that trademark fake accent, cultivated to cover his itinerant, dead-beat father’s Brooklyn grind.

Julio made wafting motions over the dish with his free hand. The Audience Cam panned the front couple rows while they did their best to look excited. Pretty good imitation, maybe they really were.

At the far left end of the second-to-last row, Stenman prepared to hide his face with a cough, but the camera’s eye didn’t come near his section. Didn’t test his disguise of a pale blue button-down shirt and loosened tie that made him appear but a bored, young business exec with nothing better to do on a Tuesday afternoon than sit in a television studio audience and applaud on cue.

No savory paella aromas reached him. Back here all he could smell was the sour sweat of the woman to his right and the hot metal stench that reminded him more of an overheated weapon than the studio lights hanging only a few feet overhead.

Chef Julio Julio flashed his signature smile at the camera. Perfect teeth and deep Latino tan not inherited from his fair-skinned Puerto Rican mother. He maintained the look with heavy bouts of UV tanning.

Stenman had suggested a UV overdose, but Command had rejected it. It wasn’t high enough profile for this scenario, whatever that meant. Stenman was paid to plan and conduct the operation, not to question it. Asking why it was a matter of national security to kill a television chef had gone unanswered. Not that he’d expected one.

His orders were very clear. Do the op and then sit quietly in the audience to make sure it all went as planned. Witness only. No action. No questions.

A few prep smells finally reached his row. The bright tang of sautéed onions. The browning of the sausage made him near enough insane after living on moldy rice for the last ninety days in the Thai jungle while chasing opium lords. He’d have to delay his return from this op at least long enough to get a couple of Quarter Pounders at McD’s.

He sure as hell wasn’t going to taste the paella.

Chef Julio Julio waved invitingly to a woman in the front row. It took a second wave for the leggy, bottle-blonde to break her inertia at being picked out of the crowd. She offered a coy giggle as she moved to the counter with a nice sashay of hips. Good choice, aisle on one side, a woman of similar age and equally skimpy yet expensive attire on the other. She wasn’t there with a husband or doting parent. Girlfriends out on the town, maybe a little bored if the chef was lucky. Maybe they both were looking for a little post-show party if his luck was running high.

It wouldn’t be.

Stenman shook off the assessment and leaned forward in his chair. Chef Julio Julio had never done this before, never shared his food with a guest. Background had showed that his wife and his mistress had both dumped him in the last two weeks, but the celebrity chef had kept on cooking as if nothing had changed. The op had been given the last-minute go-ahead.

There wasn’t a contingency plan for this change because Chef Julio Julio had simply never shared his cooking with anyone. He even threw out the leftovers rather than giving them to the crew as most other chefs did, another quirk Stenman had been unable to trace. Made for a lot of hard feelings on the set, but profile perfect for this op.

Chef Julio Julio leaned in very close. Flirting heavily, sending a titter of laughter through the older ladies in the studio audience including the underwashed behemoth whose hip was forcing him half into the aisle. After a lengthy whispered inquiry, the chef introduced, “Bee-you-tiful Jennifer from Ohio” to the camera. It was easy enough to guess what else had passed in that precious airtime by the blonde’s coy smile. She was indeed bee-you-tiful, even if Stenman wanted to throttle Chef Julio Julio for his overuse of the word.

Stenman’s seat embodied a padded luxury compared to squatting in the Thai jungle. Dry, too. But the jungle sounded very attractive. Now. Right now.

He should stop the show, break the charade. But all his training rooted him to the spot. Silence had been ingrained for years. It kept him from acting rashly in far more hazardous conditions than a New York television studio. He considered the options rapidly, but there weren’t any. The top-ranked mandate of this op was invisibility. Not low profile, but zero profile. Making a major fuss on a live, national TV feed about poisoned paella definitely wasn’t zero.

Both cameras swung forward. One on their faces, the other operator finding a nice profile shot of the unexpected guest from bust to top-of-head. Stenman was no producer, but shouldn’t one of the cameras be showing the food on a cooking show?

Leggy Jennifer and Chef Julio Julio dipped their forks together into the paella. All he could do was curse the chef’s overactive testosterone and watch. In a gesture that would have been charming in any other situation, they fed each other their forkfuls.

Their “yummy” sounds were the last they were ever going to make. They both grabbed their throats, again in unison. The audience laughed. Someone even chanted, “Too hot! Too hot!” More laughter.

The close-up camera picked out the heckler, second row, three in from the center aisle. Young woman, maybe early twenties, half-dozen years younger than Stenman, worn leather jacket over a tight t-shirt with a torn out collar. Blond and blue hair. Worked on her, kind of cute. They gave her a few extra seconds of airtime, good to have a wide spread on your audience demographic. He checked the overhead TV monitor repeating the camera’s views for those seated in the back rows. Seriously cute, several steps better than perfectly coiffed, blonde Jennifer’s studied presentation. Under different circumstances he might have chatted her up.

Focus, Stenman. The Op. Zero profile.

He shifted behind a corduroy cowboy hat some brunette wore too far back on her head as the camera swung. This is New York, lady. City Cowboy went out years ago.

When Chef and Blonde didn’t respond, the same heckler called out, “Breathe! Breathe!” Throaty voice, kinda sexy. The camera jerked back, catching a nice bit of cleavage and a wicked smile. Cute and funny. Killer combo.

Stenman grimaced at his word choice. Breathing was one thing they couldn’t do.

The floor director edged forward at first, finally, against all of her training, rushing in front of the camera as their throats closed permanently. The shellfish-based neurotoxin would be easily discounted as severe allergic reactions. Any medical tests would discover the nature of the toxin. Another member of his team would take care of the food scraps before they tested for the exceptional quantity of it. Not his part of the op. But he’d planted the toxin. This was his part. He forced himself to watch.

Their skin paled. Chef Julio Julio turned a white that belied his pretended Spanish heritage and Jennifer from Ohio, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was turning a rather ugly blue as true asphyxia took hold. Suddenly he wasn’t so interested in his Quarter Pounders.

When they collapsed to the studio floor, Stenman rose quietly from his seat, eased down the emergency stairs at the back of the seating, and moved out the studio door before the screams began.

No one would remember his face. Probably not even that there’d been a man in business casual seated in the back.

He was invisible.

He was US Special Operations Forces, a professional ghost for his country.

He hadn’t even been there.

CHAPTER 3

Jeff “the Chef” Davis watched Julio’s show that he’d taped last night. His new flat-screen television looked huge and out of place in his apartment, but the picture was worth it. Made it feel as if he was really there.

He half watched as his friend did his Spanish paella, a second place winner at three different contests back before he was a television star. A good dish, Jeff knew it well. Jeff “the Chef” had placed first all three times: a Prime Rib marinated in pineapple barbeque sauce, breast of turkey à la Davis, and Mahi-mahi roasted with red peppers and caramelized with Jamaican rum.

Jeff switched the Chagall reprint of I and the Village beside the screen with the smaller, framed menu of his prize-winning seven-course meal at a Craig Claiborne contest. The large screen stood out less. Well, a little less.

Julio was selling his finished paella to the audience. Then he called a girl up from the audience, at least a decade younger than he was, more like two. Jeff knew he’d picked his next target. Julio had always been a fan of the long and leggy blondes. His wife, his mistress, and bee-you-tee-ful Jennifer from Ohio were practically interchangeable. He’d known Julio for years and the man never ceased to amaze him. Jeff had trouble speaking with a pretty woman outside his professional, on-screen persona. Julio swept them up like a Central Park street cleaner.

The menu was really too small for the space it was supposed to fill. Somewhere he had a photo of Craig shaking his hand. An old Craig and a younger Jeff, much younger. Which was why he’d taken it down in the first place. But he was over that now and it would look nice beside the menu.

On screen, the feeding each other thing made a cute touch. Julio and the leggy blonde looked good together on camera, you could even hear the audience sighing at the romance of the moment. He certainly knew how to play the crowd.

Jeff should call him and see if he’d persuaded the blonde into his bed. Or even the blonde and her friend. It was hard to put anything past Julio, he was a blonde-glutton. Maybe he wouldn’t call, they might still be abed. It was only mid-afternoon.

It wasn’t until the floor director rushed on screen that Jeff realized something was wrong. He grabbed the remote and turned the sound off. After some fumbling he turned it up to a room-filling roar. He more fell than sat back on his couch.

Chaos exploded on his television screen. Julio and the girl collapsed. Audience members screamed. Someone actually trampled Julio as they sprinted across the set. Jeff jerked to his feet and then dropped back onto his couch as his knees let go. He looked around for some explanation. But he was alone in his upper West Side apartment. All the plush trappings of the nation’s number one television cooking show host paled before the tragedy unfolding on the screen.

No one thought to stop the camera feed and the camera guys were doing their job well. Too well. They captured it all for posterity. The stampede as half the audience surged forward to gawk. The other half a stampede as they bolted for the door in terror of their own lives.

Julio’s gaping mouth and confused, dying eyes were abruptly replaced with black. After a few seconds a Tide commercial filled the screen. The sound of the screams and confusion continued over the wholesome housewife and her son’s grass-stained soccer uniform.

Jeff hit the mute button. The abrupt silence lasted a long moment before he heard a siren sound far below. It was wrong, they’d be too late already. And the time was wrong. He’d taped Julio last night.

Julio couldn’t be dead, not last night and not now.

He’d had dinner with the man two or three nights ago. Three. They’d been friendly rivals for a decade, once they’d found they were both from the same neighborhood in a back corner of Bronx.

Julio had shrugged off the loss of both Becky and Bobbi Jean, his wife and mistress, lightly.

“We learned growing up that it was dangerous to get too attached to anything, especially a relationship. You remember, mi amigo.”

Jeff had grown up two blocks away and his parents had moved to the country before Jeff was ten or Julio was born, which Julio blithely brushed aside as if they’d been bosom buddies. But he remembered the Bronx and that letting anyone close was dangerous. Was that why he was fifty-six and alone? No, that wasn’t it. Jeff picked up the remote and set it back down.

“I’d be some kinda peesed,” Julio’s television accent slipped out on occasion in his real life as well, “if they weren’t just women.”

Jeff had almost spit his Katz’s corn beef sandwich on Julio.

“See,” Julio had taken a bite of his pastrami on rye and spoken around it. “My male ego is intact. Women are everywhere. They are all beee-you-tiful,” he kissed his fingertips and tossed the kiss toward the ceiling, “and thankfully many of them are willing to tickle the fancy of big TV stars like us.”

And last night, in the midst of a detergent commercial, Julio had died on a studio floor in midtown. Dead because of his promiscuity? Perhaps killed by his mistress or wife?

He had to call Julio. It had all been some sick joke. They’d have a good laugh over it next week while Jeff cooked Beef with Oyster Sauce and Mr. Chu’s Pork Egg Fu Yung as promised.

Jeff managed to find the stop on the remote, before reaching for the telephone. On screen was Maggie Hadderly doing her “Health and Happiness with Hadderly” routine. She was an up and comer, have to keep an eye on her. A comfortable enough thing to do for its own sake, cute kid. He’d even bought her cookbook, retail. It was good enough for a first one. The potential was there.

The closed captioning caught up with the show, it came up whenever he had the sound muted.

Yesterday Maggie Hadderly was cooking for a studio audience of sixty five . . .

Good crowd for a weekday, pre-recorded show. She was doing better than he thought.

. . . when she went to her oven. Experts are saying this required no exceptional mechanical skills to achieve.

Maggie sashayed to her oven. She really was fun to watch, the woman definitely knew how to sell it. She pulled open the oven door and a tongue of flame twenty feet long shot out of the oven and enveloped her in fire.

Jeff sprang back to his feet and dropped the remote. It bounced off the coffee table and the mute switched off.

Screams filled his apartment. Maggie’s screams. Her audience’s screams.

He almost screamed in response.

People rushed in from off camera with fire extinguishers. They shot them off—and the entire studio kitchen was enveloped in flame.

“In addition to the napalm in the oven, three fire extinguishers had been refilled with gasoline,” the voiceover resumed, some pert woman was reporting in exactly the same tone she’d probably used last week to report the results of the Westminster Dog Show.

Jeff recovered the remote and turned the volume down as he watched. Maggie was roasted alive.

God, napalm. Who had she “peesed off?” Some jilted lover? She was nearly as infamous for the length of her list of conquests as she was famous for her cooking. Had she and Julio both been murdered by someone they’d slept with?

He buried his head in his hands. The phone in one hand and the remote in the other clunked against his forehead. He hung up the phone and muted the television.

The news was now busy reporting a stray kitten who’d scampered across the runway at a Bryant Park fashion show. Leggy models in tight skirts and stilettos were sprawled like spilled rice along the runway. The captioning appeared . . .

Fortunately the models in the shorter [cough] attire were wearing thongs.

A close up made sure that America had a clear view of how little use a thong really was in hiding anything.

He pressed the play button. Detergent had to be better than this.

Show day tomorrow.

For the first time he didn’t want to go and wasn’t sure if he dared. Not that there’d been any ex-lovers lately to hunt him down. But still, maybe the winning entry was to not enter at all. Huddling beneath the bedcovers in his high-security, high-rise apartment sounded very appealing.

A sharp knock on the apartment door jerked him back to his feet. The television remote flew from his hands once more and landed on the carpet in front of the set.

Some stupid corner of his brain suggested getting a new career selling yo-yos for the number of times he’d leapt to his feet in the last two minutes.

The knock expanded. Bidda, bidda, bum, bum, bum.

No! This couldn’t be happening. Bloody hell!

Twenty-seven years since he’d heard the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” drum solo pounded out on his door. Plus four months and six days, the same useless part of his brain informed him. He resisted looking at the clock so that it could fill in the hours. The morning of his last day with EMS. His last day working to change the world for—

Oh hell and damnation!

SECOND COURSE

IN THE SOUP

TODAY

CHAPTER 4

“How many of you are women?”

Staff Sergeant Dave Lundgren managed to suppress his sneer. Who did this woman think she was talking to? Sure, Master Sergeant Shelley Thomas outranked him, but not by much and she’d probably slept with some general’s staffer to get the promotion. She did fill out a pair of fatigues the way few women could, but she was also a class “A” certified bitch to go with it.

And now she couldn’t even count for herself. They’d make her a commissioned officer any day now.

The three women in his seven man team raised their hands. He couldn’t believe he’d agreed to a week of this training. Well, the Colonel had assigned them to it, but they were the best Military Police patrol at all of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. They didn’t need this shit. They needed some R-and-R.

Another week and he’d have been into the pants of Senior Airman Baker down the row. Now that was really talking. Pert little blonde and cute as could be. Not real chesty, but nice.

“Then why didn’t any of you act like one?” Thomas would be berating the women for a while, so he tuned her out.

This was the funkiest assignment he’d been on in his ten years in service. Loaded into the back of a Huey chopper with no windows at midnight, even a bulkhead between his team and the pilot. Doors locked from the outside, now that was real safe. He’d add it to his report to the colonel.

For three hours the seven of them had been locked up while they flew who knew where. Landed at night. So fucking black they couldn’t see a thing. Not a light anywhere. Stars, the blacked out Huey, and a flight of stairs going down.

Then this shit. He looked up at the roof, huge blast doors made the ceiling thirty feet above. They were in an underground missile silo. He’d give Sergeant Thomas coolness points for that. Building a training center in an abandoned missile silo was a badass idea.

But the woman herself was hopeless.

They’d been here since before sunrise and it was probably night again now. First, she lectured his team that they are going to be working downward through the stories of the silo as the week progressed. Second, that if they even tried to get out or go into the other silo they’d be shipped off to some kinda hardship post. Empty threats had never meant much to him.

Now they’d spent hours learning to walk. A big loft covered most of the first floor. It was set up like a terrain obstacle course. She’d rigged sound meters by each type of ground and you had to keep walking back and forth over them until you measured quieter than a chipmunk or some such crap. Any idiot could walk across dirt, squelching mud just took going slow, same with flowing water, gravel was a pain in the ass, but tall grass was trickier than it looked. It had insisted on brushing loudly against his pants and gear. And no one but Baker managed to walk silently through the rose bush hedge. He was still all scratched up from that.

“You!” Thomas was toe-to-toe with him, barely an inch away. He musta jumped six inches straight up. Her fatigues were buttoned up to the throat now. The colonel had pitched a fit that she’d walked right by him without an ID check. Better not to explain how fine the woman had looked with no bra and her fatigues open halfway to her navel. Auburn hair alive with curls flowing past her shoulders hadn’t hurt the image. The hair was now back in a severe ponytail. And the bitch within had replaced the friendly-woman role she’d been wearing like a cheap dress. Still, seriously nice stack, not big, just really nice. Wouldn’t mind seeing more of it under friendlier circumstances.

“What!” he shouted back at her. She’d been on his case all day and he was sick of it.

“Answer the question, soldier!”

He’d been in the military long enough that he’d learned to remember what officers were spouting off even when he wasn’t really listening.

“Why didn’t I act like a woman in the last scenario?” He slung his M4 onto his back, pulled the protective goggles down from his forehead like a pair of sunglasses, and wiggled his butt as he moseyed away from her.

“Is that better, sir?” He made his voice all smooth like the girls did on Baywatch.

Should have gotten a laugh from his team. It would have before Sergeant Bitch got a hold of them.

She charged him. One moment she was fifteen feet away. The next she was laying her shoulder into his gut. He had the M4 barely halfway around when they flew backward and he was plastered onto the floor.

She came off him in a roll and had her Glock pistol pulled and aimed at his eye. Shit! It was ugly looking up a barrel like that, just inches away even through Lexan goggles.

The finger on the trigger tightened and she shot him.

He heard a scream. In his own voice. Then he clapped both hands over his eye.

She peeled his fingers aside and looked down at him even as he struggled to cover it again.

“It was just a training round, you idiot.” She let go of his hands and they clamped back around the goggle.

He finally managed to blink his eye open and could see his fingers clutching the goggle’s lens.

He pulled them aside and he could still see. Thank God!

Fuck!

Her pistol still hovered there, six inches from his face.

“Don’t call me ‘sir.’ I work for a living.”

He nodded quickly to show she had his full attention.

She stood up, managing to place a knee solidly into his gut as she did so. She holstered the Glock, which was a good thing. But he’d be more careful in the future, she’d pulled it so damn fast. He’d never seen anything like it.

“First, why did you forget Tueller’s twenty-one foot rule that we spent so much time on this morning? I can charge twenty-one feet faster than you can draw, aim, and fire a weapon. There’s a reason our government spent so much time and money teaching you hand-to-hand combat. And second, why didn’t you think like a woman in the last scenario?”

Tueller’s Rule. Shit! They’d all spent two hours trying to outdraw her as she charged them. No one came close, not even Baker. How many times had he felt safe while securing some drunken Marine because he knew he had a pistol if it got messy? Too many. If they’d had the brains to charge him, he’d have gone down a hundred times. The two times he had were bad enough.

And “act like a woman. . .?”

“I don’t know what you mean, si— ma’am.”

“Look at the scenario.” She kicked him in the ribs. Hard enough to get him moving to his feet. Another item on the report, right there with shooting him in the face. Though on second thought maybe he’d leave that out.

The missile silo was fifty feet across and she’d said it was almost two hundred feet deep. This first floor was thirty feet high. The terrain training had been in a loft halfway up the first story. The padded room for hand-to-hand training on the floor level beneath it. The other side of the room was dominated by a shoothouse.

This one was in worse shape than most he’d seen, it had definitely had a hard life. The small building, made mostly of plywood sheets, had been built back against the curved wall of the silo. A battered door hung on the front, a couple more sheets of plywood made three internal rooms. A thousand training rounds had splatted against sides leaving their little scuffs and scars. A light inside shone out a side window and lit an elevator cage that led down into the deeper levels of the silo.

“You had time to study this. We’ve been in this room for fourteen hours and,” she consulted a heavy watch with a snap cover that she wore on the inside of her wrist just like the Special Operations Forces guys, “eleven minutes. The shoothouse has been sitting here the entire time.”

She turned to face the rest of the team.

“Every one of you was asked to mount a raid on the house knowing there was a hostage at risk inside held by a single attacker. Who survived their raid?”

CHAPTER 5

Shelley Thomas waited and watched. Would the blockhead sergeant get at least this right?

No one raised their hands.

His first correct answer of the day.

Shelley had ambushed and shot every one of them and they’d have the welts of training rounds for another couple days to remind them. It served them right. Of course, she’d had her fair share of bruises when she was training as well, but she wasn’t about to tell them that. Instructors had to be invulnerable, bulletproof, and immortal.

“First lesson, this one you should already know, don’t attempt room-clearing on your own. You’ve all been trained that such a strategy is non-survivable under most circumstances. Now, did any of you refuse the scenario?”

Not a one.

“So, you’re all suicidal. Did any of you team up?”

None had. She could see them reviewing the orders she’d given earlier. “Each of you shall attack . . .” She’d been most careful to never say anything about how many at a time. One after another they grimaced at their own oversight, the slow sergeant last of all.

“Suicidal loners.” Shelley walked to the other end of the line. The sergeant was too easy a target and she had to back off a bit. He was the team leader and she couldn’t have the team not respecting their leader. Though there had been more than one shake-up in the three years she’d been doing these week-long courses. The Air Force paid her to take teams to the next level. Four times teams had mutinied and selected new commanders. None of the failures had started out as bad as this guy.

“Each one of you directly charged the door.”

“I didn’t, ma’am.” The petite senior airman retained her ready stance. Spoke to the lion without letting any fear show. Some potential there. Shelley resisted the smile remembering the first time she’d talked back to a DI. The drill instructor had almost dislocated her shoulder on the way to putting her face in the dirt.

“Were you dead within five feet of the door?”

Her reply was slower, “Yes, ma’am.” Double chest shot, right lung and heart. But they both knew she was the only one to be creative, waiting twelve heart-stopping seconds before diving through in hopes of throwing off the terrorist’s timing. Nice try even if it hadn’t worked, but she’d remember the tactic for use herself if she ever got truly desperate.

“Anyone notice the light I left shining in the side window?”

There was silence. It was hard to miss, especially in the darkened silo. It still lit up the wire cage surrounding the service elevator like a beacon in the night. She could see the question settle home on everyone, except the staff sergeant she’d leveled. Failing grade on day one, buddy boy, not a good start. And your superiors know to listen to me even if you don’t.

“Assess first. The missile silo is circular. You could have come either direction around the house. The floor is sprung to dampen the shaking of near-miss atomic blasts and your shoes are padded. It would be easier than any of the walking lessons from this morning. All of you stamped to the door like buffalo. I could have heard you down to level four.”

She grabbed the lapel of the sergeant. Screw being nice. She’d drive him for all he was worth and see if he got his shit together. The team would be better off without him if he couldn’t make muster. Shelley dragged him to the lit window in the side of the shoothouse. He resisted with all the effectiveness of a drunken Chihuahua.

“What do you see?” She allowed him a full second and then pulled him back.

“A room. The front door.”

She shoved him aside so hard he’d have hit the floor again if he hadn’t run into the elevator cage. He bared his teeth but she ignored him. All show, little threat; just the testosterone talking. Though she’d be careful not to turn her back on him.

She waved the female senior airman to her side. The airman looked to the staff sergeant for permission, but he was too busy being pissed.

Shelley strode over and dragged the airman by the collar, time to be clear who was in charge here. She gave the young woman the same single second of time to look through the window before pulling her aside.

“You?”

“Rear entry,” the woman spoke slowly as she worked out what her eye had captured. “Door open and masking the back entry from the most likely hide for the terrorist. Hostage by the door tied to a chair.”

They turned to look together at the mannequin as everyone except the glowering sergeant sidled in for a look.

“Easy grab? Save the victim?” She wouldn’t mention that she hadn’t been in the obvious hide and had the back door covered as well, but they hadn’t even tried.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Assess, plan, act, Airman. Remember that just because you’re military police at a huge Air Force base is no reason to charge in like a bull with no testicles. There’s nothing more useless than not thinking first. Never let your emotions run you, that’s the man’s method of fighting. Though you should all know better by this stage of your careers.” The others finally met her gaze this time as she inspected them each in turn. Time to let them off the hook, a little.

“Sometimes brute force and a frontal assault is needed, but high-security MPs aren’t all that far from Special Operations Forces. Think, feel your way into a site. We’ll work more on how to do that on days three and five. No matter how it feels, time is rarely the shortest commodity. Just a few seconds more study and you might have lived.” She pulled her Glock. Aiming through the window without turning to look, she shot Priscilla the mannequin in the dead center of her chest. The round ricocheted with a hard thwack of plastic on plastic. “And your hostage might still be alive.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The airman didn’t salute. It had taken her most of the day to beat saluting out of this squad. Clearly none of these people had ever done an overseas tour. Never let the enemy know who’s in charge, and a salute certainly does that. They knew that in the field, but bypassed it stateside. Pomp still mattered more than leadership, at least to the leaders. Stupid twits, but not the team’s fault.

“Stand down. We start again at 0400 tomorrow.”

Several hundred pushups and near enough a thousand crunches scattered throughout the day had taught them it was better not to groan while she was still in the room. They’d moan for sure when they realized they were trapped on this level of her training silo, nowhere near their food or barracks three stories below. They might whimper right until their six hours of sleep on a hard floor was interrupted two hours early with a simulated raid.

She’d bet money they wouldn’t have a guard posted. That was a first night bet she’d never lost.

It would take them three days to move down to the fourth story below ground. Three days until they saw the kitchen and barracks. The United States Air Force wasn’t paying her to be nice. It was decent of the sergeant to be such a shit to help keep her in the mood, though she’d better not thank him. His sense of humor probably hovered little above the gutter.

CHAPTER 6

Shelley trotted down the underground tunnel that connected the two renovated missile silos in this eighty-acre installation. The Titan missiles had been built in clusters of nine, with most of the area left as fields of hay. The other seven had been collapsed and filled in. The underground Launch Control Center had been filled in as well.

Now there was just this pair of silos and an innocuous looking above-ground house that had been the missilers’ residence. Apparently no one had ever used it to sleep, they’d always preferred to sack out in the hardened subterranean bunkrooms.

All the way to the main junction between the silos, she ran with pounding steps. Good to remind them that after fifteen hours, she was filled with more energy than they could muster at daybreak.

The service tunnel to the right led to the other remaining silo. The tunnel connected level one in the training silo, intro, to level one in her personal silo which she’d made her home in this decommissioned and supposedly abandoned complex.

Her body started bitching at her the instant she dropped to a walk. Her legs were shaky, her blood sugar had crashed about an hour ago, and her shoulder throbbed from where the sergeant had tried to knock her aside with the stock of his M4 at the last second.

If it had been in defense rather than rage she’d give him partial credit for it, but it wasn’t and he still was one big black mark on her mental tally sheet.

Once through the blast door of Silo Two, she spun the handle and dogged it down, secure against all intruders. They’d been lectured that exploring through the complex was strictly prohibited, part of the day-one rules. Anyone who left Silo One never came back to training and were relocated to hardship bases. She’d shown them the records to prove it before they’d in-processed, their last chance to turn back.

No one ever refused the week-long program, though most eventually wished they had. Still, she’d learned many times over that security was her friend and she double-dogged the two-thousand-pound blast door guarding her home.

She wrapped her arms and legs around the firepole and slid down to level two, kitchen and dining. Shedding gear onto the island counter, she moved to the toaster. Racking the training Glock in plain sight next to it, Shelley pulled the SIG P210 out from the shadowed bottom of the cupboard. She thumbed the release and dropped the magazine out: full, real ammo, live round in the chamber. She slammed the magazine back into place and stowed it back in the shadows.

Everything was in place, not that anyone other than the men who’d built it five years ago had ever been here. At fifty feet across, the circular floor had room for a cozy dining nook, unused, a table for thirty she’d never sat at, and a kitchen that could service a half dozen chefs that had never been here. Nothing here but the SIG and a few, strategically hidden grenades.

She opened the pantry. Stacks of large cardboard boxes filled the floor of the space. The top one was slashed open. She reached in and pulled out the first packet that came to hand. “Meal-Ready-to-Eat, Chicken Salsa” was stamped across the muddy-brown plastic bag. She slit it open with the Bowie hunting knife from her thigh sheath, the only real weapon allowed in most of the training levels. The one she was never without.

With another cut, she opened the “Chicken Salsa” and the “Mexican Rice” pouches. She dumped both in the main bag, because the foil pouches were too small to hold both, and stirred them up. Next she crumbled in the two “Crackers, Vegetable,” then dumped in the Tabasco sauce from the mini-bottle. The candy “II” package went straight into the trash, bad luck there.

The shortbread cookies, cheese spread, Jalepeno this time, and instant coffee she tossed on the center of the island counter for an early morning snack. The FRH went into a drawer with all of the other flameless heaters. Who wanted to waste ten minutes to heat up a stupid meal? Jabbing the spoon into her dinner bag, she chucked the rest of the wrappings in the trash with the candy.

Her mother would cringe.

Good!

Hell, Mom would probably shit neat little, civilian, pacifist poops like a stupid rabbit. She thought Shelley had turned into some sort of gung-ho military type. She’d never understood that no one could hate war as much as a warrior. No one who hadn’t laid it on the line knew what true hell it could be.

Not allowed into far forward combat or Special Operations Forces because of her sex, Shelley had done her fair share of front-line work on HR teams. Hostage Rescue could be as hot as any forward combat landing zone, some of the most exciting and scary flying she’d ever done.

Shelley started to chew on the MRE cold as she headed for the elevator.

Supper was the only time they’d ever been together really. Every night like clockwork, Mom would stop work at six and serve dinner at seven. As often as not, by seven-thirty she’d disappear back into her office. Shelley’d done the dishes from a stool to reach the sink and was putting herself to bed since before she could remember.

Fatigues landed in a pile heaped outside the closet boxed in beside the pantry. The outfits she’d shed the last few nights were piling up, somewhere under there was a laundry basket once upon a time. Have to do a couple loads soon, training session or no. Always important to look fresh and pressed for trainees, let them know it’s so much easier than they think it is. Even when it isn’t.

Halfway to the elevator there was the slightest rumble, not in the air, not sound. Just a vague vibration through the environment. She leaned to the left. A bright green bowling ball flew out of a chute embedded in the ceiling. Without further sound it slashed across from the middle of the hallway into a hole in the right-hand wall continuing its never-ending traverse through the complex.

Not asleep at the switch. Not this girl. The steel cage of the elevator rattled as she shoved the door aside.

She finished the MRE by the time the elevator reached the tenth level, the bottom of the silo, two hundred feet below ground. She tossed the pouch and spoon into the nearly full can in the corner of the cage. Stripping down, Shelley kicked her underclothes into the other corner, and entered the lowest level of the old missile silo. Twenty feet deep of groundwater, fifty feet across, heated by a solar hot water system she’d installed up on the surface. One light hung above the pool, barely brighter than a crescent moon.

Twenty-five laps and she’d be able to sleep for a few hours at least. She massaged her shoulder where the M4 had left its bruise. Maybe fifty to make sure it stayed strong.

CHAPTER 7

Twenty-seven years.

Jeff Davis stared at his apartment door as if it were the thin burnt crust of a falling soufflé. At any moment, the crown would collapse and the drummer’s fist would pound through the mahogany door and force him to face the past.

But if he didn’t answer, the solo would play all the way through. Then repeat. Endlessly. The only man he knew who used Iron Butterfly’s drum solo as a knock was also awe-inspiringly tenacious. He was also one of the few men alive who could breeze past this building’s high-level of security with a joke and a smile. Even by New York standards the doormen here were fierce, one of the main reasons he’d bought in. A lot of celebs had.

Phillip Peterson. Knocking, bidda-bidda-bum.

Definitely not a good thing. Please don’t let it be a portent of things to come. It had been a good year, at least until this moment. There were two parts of his past he couldn’t face. Thankfully Phillip wasn’t one of them. Close, but survivable.

Maybe he’d just pretend he wasn’t home. I’m not here. I’m at the ballet or a punk concert or… Or he was dead. He winced at that thought. Maggie and Julio were and he wasn’t ready yet to descend into the dark Disposall of the soul. Not by a long shot.

Hiding would only work if he could tolerate the relentless drum solo that was now really getting down to the hard core bass drum combo, knuckle, knuckle, palm slap, palm slap, fist, fist, fist. And who would they dig up next . . . Mandy? He absolutely wasn’t ready to face that, would never be ready. Better to face the lesser of two…

He swung open the door a few notes before the end of the solo and Phillip hulked in the door. A little balder, a bigger beer belly, but still the same gigantic wall of a man broken adrift from his foundation. The six-foot-four slab of muscle leaned in and thumped the final few beats against Jeff’s forehead, then wrapped him in a bear hug with a fierceness that rocked him back on his heels now as hard as the day they’d met most of a lifetime ago. Phillip breezed into the apartment as if he’d visited a thousand times rather than, well, never.

Oh God. It was worse than he imagined. Mandy Peterson had stood behind him, hidden from view. The gentle slip of a sailboat next to her brother the dreadnought. And Jeff always adrift somewhere in between. Now she and Jeff were left fluttering about in Phillip’s wake.

Mandy.

He was so screwed.

“Hi, Mand.” His voice cracked like a teen’s, not a man of, well, more mature years. Many more years.

“Hello, Jeffrey.” Always his full name. Their hug was a bit perfunctory, but his body remembered how sweet hers was. Decades washed away in the smell of her hair. He backed away as rapidly as possible without overt rudeness.

Amanda Peterson was changed, and not. She looked fantastic. Age loved this woman even more than youth had. The flowing brunette hair down to her waist was now a perky salt-and-pepper Dorothy Hamill wedge. The clothes, simple and elegant as always. The dazzling smile, now a tentative question.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. The loss of her was his sole regret about leaving EMS and the one reason he’d looked back a thousand times. She was now from a different past, a different Jeffrey Davis. One he barely remembered and couldn’t forget though Lord knew he’d tried. They were separated by more than a sea of sauces and gravies. They were but a moment lived over half a lifetime ago.

“I like the ponytail.”

He reached back. The graying tail reached past his shoulders. He tried to shrug.

“Flying my freak flag.” His hair had been military-short the three years they’d been together and he’d never been a freak. Well, not often. “You can take the man out of the sixties, but you can’t take the sixties out of the man.”

“It’s good.” She appeared to mean it.

“It’s good to see you, Mand. Really.” The smile doubted him, but the blue-gray eyes were very forgiving. She’d always been able to see all the way inside him.

How did he look to her? In the mirror before each show he was just Jeff. Thirty years had thinned him out and he’d toughened up a bit. He liked to think of his reflection a bit like a good beef, aging well, long and lean, still thin faced and clean-shaven. He even sported a bit of a tan from a not too busy life. Yet with all his toughening up, his heart still went completely awry every time he thought of her. And now. In person…

Mandy made a point of looking up and down the hall, even though there was nothing to see. He was being a lousy host but his words had dried up, powdered, and were stored in some unused spice jar he couldn’t find anywhere in his brain now that he finally needed them. She shifted her feet again. At least she was as uncomfortable at being here as he was. Phillip, however—

“Okay, enough happy reunion bullpucky. C’mon, you blockhead. We got some serious as shit issues to hash out here and you gawking at a girl ain’t gonna answer a one of ‘em for me.” His Texas drawl mixed with college-roommate frankness had thickened rather than waned over the years until it was like swimming upstream through a language partly recognized but mostly eradicated from memory. “Eradicated with prejudice,” to quote the old wartime order to slaughter everything in an area.

Phillip grabbed his arm and dragged him stumbling over to the kitchen until Jeff was facing his own open SubZero refrigerator. Mandy tagged along behind. He didn’t have to see her to know, he could feel where she was, always could. The kitchen was a spacious peninsula design. Large enough that he and Julio, the now dead Julio, had thrown large dinner parties from its counters with great success. Now, Phillip and Mandy made it so crowded he could barely breathe.

“We got serious trouble here,” Phillip shook him by his arm as easily as a salad dressing. “This can’t be the only beer you have? This shit? After all these years and you can only offer me Tiger? And Biere 33? No, 333, they added a three. For luck or some stupid thing I bet.” Phillip let him go and Jeff dropped back against the stove, thankfully unlit. With his massive paw-hands, his college roommate and Vietnam compadre cracked open one Tiger and handed over another.

Phillip slugged back half the bottle in a single swallow. “Damn, that was nasty. As awful as I remember when we were in-country. Domestic Viet beer on the upper west side of Manhattan. That’s weird as shit, Jeffie. You know that, don’t ya?”

Jeffie, that he had managed to block out as well. Crap!

“In-country” had been a couple of straight-laced, botanist, lab rats studying the aftereffects of various defoliants on native Vietnamese flora and fauna. Phillip told stories like a wild-ass, forward-area patrol ranger with a relish that was utterly believable. Even Jeff, who’d actually been there, had been amazed at the incredible things they’d almost certainly never experienced, together or apart.

Well, if they wanted to fluster him, they were doing it perfectly. He’d never been able to get a word in edgewise on Phillip. Not in the jungle, not in college, and certainly not in the three years he was working with him after ‘Nam.