For Jesse Meyer, for his friendship and mad guitar skills
Belvedere Island, California
BRADY HAWK TOSSED a grappling hook onto the balcony overhanging the second floor. He eased the rope toward him until he felt it catch. With a gentle tug, he pulled the line taut before testing it with his whole weight. Satisfied that the rope was secure, he scrambled up it before flinging himself onto the third-floor balcony.
“I’m on the third floor,” Hawk whispered into his coms.
“Roger that,” said Alex, his wife who was monitoring the operation from the comfort of her office in the mountains of Montana. “From the schematics, you’re about twenty meters to the left of a laser security system guarding the entrance. You’re going to need to be very careful.”
“Any guards?” he asked.
“None that I can see.”
Hawk drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It’d been five years since his last mission with the Phoenix Foundation, a black ops organization that worked hand in hand with the CIA whenever it was best that there was no trace of American government involvement. Since that time, he’d settled down in Montana with Alex and had enjoyed creating a new life, a slower-paced life, a private life. Hawk and Alex both decided they hated it.
While they both enjoyed bringing up their son John Daniel in a stable environment, they craved the thrill of secret missions and the satisfaction of knowing that they were keeping people safe. It was what led Hawk and Alex to put their skills to use again, which was why Hawk was atop the mansion of Silicon Valley magnate Warren Frost. Inside Frost’s third-floor office, his computer held records of hundreds of proprietary software codes and patents. All Hawk had to do was retrieve the files without anyone knowing he’d been there.
The stillness from being perched high above the house overlooking Belvedere Cove was almost enough to lull Hawk to sleep. Aside from the faint sound of the water lapping against the rocks below or the breeze rustling the leaves of a nearby snakebark maple tree, the only other sound Hawk could hear was his own breathing. He steadied it before proceeding toward the labyrinth of laser beams.
Using a pair of special glasses, Hawk could see the gauntlet he needed to get through in order to open the door. The fatal flaw Alex had identified in the security system was easily exploited if someone was agile enough to enter the laser field from the edge of the balcony. And Hawk was more than capable.
With great care, he took his time maneuvering through the beams, ducking beneath some, leaping over others. At one point, he came within an inch of tripping the system before he froze on one leg and recollected himself. After a deep breath, he continued and succeeded in reaching the door. Using a print he’d lifted off one of Mr. Frost’s wine glasses the previous night at dinner, Hawk accessed the door.
“I’m in,” he whispered.
Hawk went to work, attaching a device to the computer that allowed Alex to hack into the system. In a matter of minutes, she had identified the folder, copied all the data, and erased her digital footprint.
“Nice to see you’ve still got it,” Hawk said in a hushed tone over the coms as he crept toward the door.
“You, too,” she said. “The last thing I want is to be widowed right now. If I have to read that book to John Daniel every night without relief in sight, I swear I might take a flying leap off the mountain.”
Hawk suppressed a chuckle, permitting only a faint smile. He knew exactly the book Alex was referring to, the one about Corduroy, the stuffed bear who wanders around a department store in search of a button before getting taken home. Like most kids’ books he’d read to John Daniel, it was cute the first fifty times Hawk read the story. Then, it just got old. And John Daniel had decided that he couldn’t go to sleep ever again without hearing the tale of Corduroy. Hawk had tried an array of other books, all collecting dust on John Daniel’s bookshelf. But none of them would satisfy him, except for Corduroy.
Hawk put his hand on the doorknob, whisking him away from the familiar bedtime routine of John Daniel. Still on Mr. Frost’s property, Hawk required full concentration to finish the mission. In ten minutes when he was speeding away from the scene, he could think about how much he still loved Alex and how much John Daniel’s stubborn book choice reminded Hawk of himself—and his wife. But Hawk wasn’t there yet.
After he turned the doorknob, he eased back outside and proceeded to work his way back through the laser beams.
“How am I looking?” Hawk asked over the coms.
“So far, the area is still clear,” Alex said. “There aren’t any guards patrolling the verandas on any level.”
Hawk secured the grappling hook once more before preparing to rappel to the ground. But just as he was about to push off from the side of the balcony, he heard the click of a gun.
“If you move another muscle, I’ll fill you full of lead,” a man said.
Hawk froze. “Alex,” he whispered, “are you seeing this man next to me?”
“Negative,” she said. “You’re the only heat signature on the balcony.”
“Well, unless Mr. Frost’s guards are ghosts, the infrared feature on the satellite must be broken.”
“I still see you on there,” she said.
“Well, I’ve been made,” Hawk said.
“Just wait. Use the time to come up with an exit strategy. After all, that’s what you do best.”
Hawk agreed, but the problem persisted: There was a huge amount of risk involved no matter what move he made, even the kind where he stayed still. Following a brief pause, Hawk responded to the guard.
“I’d show you my hands, but they’re clutching this rope,” Hawk said. “I’m going to walk slowly up to you.”
“Okay,” the man said, moonlight glinting off the barrel of the gun trained on Hawk.
Hawk took two steps up the side of the balcony before pushing off and sliding toward the ground. When his feet hit the ground, he felt a pair of hands on his shoulders and a gun jammed into his head. The pale light danced on the faces of two men as patchy clouds swept past the moon.
“Don’t shoot,” Hawk said. “I know Mr. Frost wouldn’t want to have a mess to clean up.”
One of the guards grunted. “Based on what we’ve seen, this would be nothing to clean up.”
Hawk raised both hands in the air.
The other guard held out his hand. “Give me the flash drive.”
Hawk eased into his pocket and pulled out the device. He kept one hand in the air as he dropped the device into the guard’s open palm.
Before the man even had a chance to inspect it, Hawk stomped on one guard’s foot and punched the other one in the throat. Hawk followed up with a roundhouse kick to the first guard’s head, sending him flailing until he hit the ground.
Hawk sprinted toward the wall. Designed to keep people out, Hawk wished it wasn’t as good at keeping people in as it was. He took a flying leap and tried to get enough traction to propel him upward, but his first pass failed. Backing up, Hawk tried again, this time his hands latching hold of the iron bars protruding out of the top. He’d nearly scrambled halfway over when he heard the click of a gun.
“If you so much as flinch, you’re dead,” another man said.
“I’m done,” Hawk said over his coms.
“No, there’s got to be a way out,” Alex said. “You’re almost there. Think.”
Hawk was done thinking. He unceremoniously rolled toward the outside of the wall. He’d almost cleared it when he felt a searing pain in his right shoulder.
“I’m hit,” Hawk said over his coms, followed by a flurry of cursing from Alex, “but I’m over.”
He staggered to his feet only to feel a leg sweep his feet out from underneath him as he tumbled back to the earth. That was followed by a boot on his neck.
“The flash drive,” the man said. “And this time I want the real one.”
Hawk considered smashing the man in the face before noticing two other guards stepping out of the shadows with their weapons trained on him. Out of options, Hawk placed the device in the man’s hand.
A lanky man dressed in a gray suit stepped out of the SUV parked on the side of the street and strode toward Hawk.
“I warned you that you’d never get away with it,” the man said.
The overhead street light illuminated the man’s face. His tightly cropped goatee accentuated his square jaw. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses were pressed firmly on the top of his nose.
Hawk sighed and shook his head. “Mr. Frost, I had no idea you were here.”
“Apparently, you didn’t think any of my guards were here either, which was the point of this exercise.”
Hawk reached out and shook Frost’s hand. “I must say that kind of technology makes breaking into your house somewhat of a fortress.”
“Based on your near success, I’m sure you’re going to recommend that I beef up my security.”
Hawk nodded. “It could use some work. I’d recommend switching to QuadTech’s laser fence instead of the laser tripwire system. Or better yet, use a combination of the two. Even the most prepared thief will have a difficult time lugging the equipment necessary to disable both systems.”
“Good advice,” Frost said.
“That’s why you pay me the big bucks,” Hawk said. “But these heat suppression vests your security team was using are amazing. Alex couldn’t tell anyone else was here.”
Frost chuckled. “Now that’s the kind of endorsement I wanted to hear. We’ve got a tentative contract to manufacture these with Colton Industries once the testing is complete.”
“Tell him they’re genius,” Alex said over the coms.
Hawk tapped his ear and smiled. “Alex is particularly impressed.”
Frost leaned toward Hawk and spoke loudly. “Thank you, Alex. That means even more coming from you.”
“I’m glad we could be of assistance,” Hawk said.
Frost nodded. “This was an incredible exercise. Having some of the best operatives in the business—”
“Former operatives,” Hawk corrected.
“Yes, of course, former operatives attempt and fail to break into my home office makes me feel a little more safe, even though we have some work to do.”
“We’re glad we could be of service.”
“Would you like to come up for a drink?” Frost asked. “I’ve got a shot of 1964 Black Bowmore with your name on it.”
“I never refuse some of the world’s best scotch,” Hawk said with a grin. “Just let me tidy things up with Alex.”
“Of course,” Frost said. “Take your time. I’ll have one of my men direct you to my study.”
“I already know the way,” Hawk said.
He stepped away and reconnected with Alex, this time using his cell phone.
“So, what did you think?” Alex asked. “Were you comfortable getting back in the saddle?”
“It’s like I never left. And you?”
“Aside from the fact that I would’ve gotten you killed tonight, I felt fine.”
Hawk took a deep breath. “It wasn’t your fault. It’s new technology. You couldn’t have known.”
“But we failed.”
“The point of the exercise wasn’t necessarily to succeed. Frost simply wanted us to test out his innovative technology. We’re still getting paid, and I’m coming home in one piece.”
There was a long pause before Alex interrupted the silence.
“You still miss it, don’t you?” she asked.
“Don’t you?” Hawk said.
“I do, but little John Daniel is my world now—and yours too. We can’t take the risks we used to.”
Hawk nodded. “I agree. And that’s why we’re testing private and corporate security instead of saving the world.”
“But that’s what we’re really good at,” she said. “This stuff just pays the bills. And I know if I’m this conflicted, you are too.”
“John Daniel is our world right now. So, I’m not sure I would call how I feel conflicted.”
“Hawwwk, don’t you lie to me,” Alex said. “You know I can tell when you’re lying.”
He huffed a soft laugh through his nose. “You can’t see if my right eye is twitching or not. Besides, we’ve talked about this before. I’ll lose my mind if I just tend to the ranch and don’t do anything else.”
“You know I feel the same way, but I just get the sense that even doing this is going to make you want to get back into the field.”
Hawk stared up at the clear sky, nearly devoid of stars due to the bright moon and light pollution from San Francisco just across the water. It was practically a blank canvas as opposed to the work of art sprawled across the Montana sky nightly.
“Those days are over for me,” he said, trying to convince himself.
“You’re lying, Hawk. Your twitching eye isn’t the only tell you have.”
“Even if I wanted to go back, I couldn’t,” he said. “The only person I trusted in Washington is retired, not to mention that I could never return to the city, not after living in Montana.”
“Agreed,” she said. “This is the perfect place to live and raise John Daniel. I’m glad we both know that.”
“You did great tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow, honey,” he said before hanging up.
Hawk took another deep breath and looked skyward.
He hated lying to his wife.
EDDIE TYSON WIPED BLOOD from the corner of his mouth as he collected himself after absorbing a right hook from a hulking Russian nicknamed Boris the Great. The concrete floor was cold and slick due to the sweat splashing onto the ground from the two fighters. Turning around to face Boris, Tyson set his jaw and glared at the man.
The Russian had four inches and a hundred pounds on Tyson, the expatriate who was quickly getting used to life in central Siberia. That disparity alone would likely be enough to make the fight seem like a mismatch. But at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds of rippling muscles, Tyson looked more like the bruiser than his less-toned opponent. Boris celebrated his victories by draining kegs and patting his ever-growing belly, also a stark contrast to Tyson, who preferred to slam a single shot of vodka before exiting a jubilant arena where the crowd drank early into the next morning to either celebrate their good fortune or forget their folly.
Tyson spun to face Boris, who gestured with his index finger for his opponent to come closer. If this brawl had taken place on the street, Tyson would’ve taken a different approach. He would’ve gone for the knees first followed by a wicked throat punch. But that wasn’t what Peter Smirnov, the event organizer, wanted. “Maximize the pain on your opponent to earn an additional bonus,” Peter had said to the two men before the fight. Peter didn’t want a fight—he wanted a show. And if Tyson wanted that extra money, he knew he needed to comply.
Tyson backed up, resulting in a chorus of boos from the crowd. That’s when a man in the crowd put both hands on Tyson’s back and shoved him toward Boris. Tyson leveraged the momentum into an unexpected burst toward Boris, who’d taken his eyes off Tyson for just a moment to soak in the adulation from an adoring crowd. By the time Boris could recover, it was too late.