Excerpt: Baby Call the Shots – 1


(Unedited preview)

The sun was just past the midpoint in the cloudless sky and was behind me, by design. The breeze was light and from the southwest. The two inches of snow that had fallen over the picturesque lodge in rural Virginia posed a slight issue with glare, but the Army-developed Mil-grid scope on my rifle compensated well enough for that.

All in all, it was a perfect day for a kill.

Only it would actually be a sedation. And it would be on three men, not one.

As the newest agent at the off-the-books agency Headquarters for the Elimination of Advanced Threats, known as HEAT, I had a lot to prove. Add in the facts that I was the only newbie agent who’d  made the newly created Alpha Team and the only sniper in the organization, and I was a unicorn. In the high-stakes, testosterone-fueled world of international espionage, being a woman to boot painted a figurative—and sometimes literal—target on my back, just below my unicorn mane.

This mission was my baby. It was the test run for a modified sniper rifle using custom-made tranquilizer darts. Tranqs are HEAT’s preference over steel bullets because the currency of our trade is information, and live targets tend to talk more than dead ones. This was my chance to prove I really belonged on the team, which might have accounted for the butterflies in my belly, a sickening sensation—and potentially a disastrous one—for a sniper. It didn’t help that my targets were ten minutes late and counting.

“Any sign of movement?” I asked quietly. The tiny comms unit in my ear was sensitive enough to pick up the merest whisper.

“Still waiting, Mai.” That was Cynthia Kessler, my HEAT partner. She and our two logistics agents on the team, Martin Penn and Tamela Sparks, were watching from a non-descript car in the corner of the parking lot. A car with a backseat and trunk big enough for hauling off three sedated men after I took them down.

A twig snapped some distance away from me. Dressed in dingy brown winter gear from head to toe, I blended into the trees well enough, unless and until someone got within a few dozen yards of me. “Jensen, identify a potential hostile,” I said to our IT guru who was monitoring visuals on the ground from the camera of a stealth drone.

“Family of deer about a hundred yards out, heading away from you.” I could almost hear Jensen’s grin. “’S’matter, Lee, got some nerves?”

From anyone else, that would have been an ass-kicking-worthy insult. From one of my teammates, it was a vote of confidence. If any of them were truly worried about my nerves or anything that might interfere with completing the mission, we’d be having an entirely different conversation. It calmed my jitters, which I could have worked around, but I was happy for the reprieve.

“Only thing I have is a headache from that god-awful concoction you whipped up last night,” I answered.

Jensen sighed dramatically. “Everyone on this team is jealous of my mad bartending skills.”

That drew protestations from everyone tied into the comms unit, which was our entire eight-person team. I’d never waited for a shot with so much chatter in my ear. It should have been distracting, but it was actually pretty pleasant.

“Mai, we’ve got movement in the lobby,” Cynthia said.

I pulled off my heated gloves and slid into position behind the scope of my MK-22, perfectly balanced on its three-legged tripod. The rifle was aimed at a spot to the left of the black SUV that had brought the men here. When the two high-level operatives from an emerging-threat organization—agency-speak for a new group of bad guys—entered the parking lot, the security guy with them would hear a sound off to their right and would shove them to the left of the van to shield them. That’s when I would do the final adjustments and take out the operatives first. By the time the security guy registered what was happening and turned to scan the horizon to find me, he’d feel the prick of the dart in his own throat.

“Lee?” TJ, our team commander said.

“Ready,” I answered.

“Roger that,” TJ said. “Kessler, update?”

My partner hesitated. That couldn’t be good.

“We have a situation,” Penn said. “Kessler’s assessing the damage.”

“Fuck me,” Jensen and I muttered at the same time.

“Talk to me, Cynthia,” I said.

“We have visual on a fourth man,” she answered. “It appears to be…holy shit. It is. It’s Chase Wilder.”

I blinked hard, my eyelashes skimming against the rifle scope. “Chase…as in, our fake boss at Bespoke athletic?”

“One in the same,” she confirmed.

I shook my head. I’d never met the man, since he wasn’t our boss at all. His only association with HEAT was that his brother, Derek Wilder, had been the agency’s best and brightest. A few months ago, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, he’d decided to retire from the lifestyle and join his younger brother in running the company they’d started as a cover operation for several HEAT agents. Derek had had extra incentive, as he and Kessler were madly in love and had a difficult time keeping their hands off each other. That kind of fraternization was a strict no-no at HEAT. But despite Derek’s own stellar record, his younger brother was mixed up in whatever the hell it was we were trying to stop.

The four men exited the building and I caught my first glimpse of them. The two operatives were average height, one graying, one balding, both wearing fedoras and sunglasses that made them difficult to identify. The security guy was beefy, with a shaved head and dark glasses that screamed “body man.” And there, in the midst of them, was the tall, pretty-faced, golden boy of Bespoke Athleisure. The turncoat. The bad seed. It figured. Hot guys got used to playing outside the rules that applied to the rest of us mere mortals. I’d learned that the hard way.

“I have enough darts to take out all four of them,” I said. “I’ll stick with the plan, hit the other three first. Penn, if Wilder’s smart enough to run, can you cut him off with the car? That will give me time to reposition.”

“Stand down , Lee,” TJ said.

“Sir, I can make the shots.” TJ hated being called sir, which was why I used it when he gave orders that annoyed me.

TJ sighed, and I could imagine the scowl on his face. “I don’t doubt it, Lee, but that’s not the concern. Kessler, is Wilder in distress?”

Distress? I disengaged from my rifle since apparently no one was going to let me use it today, and pulled out my high-def binoculars. The younger Wilder brother was grinning and shaking hands with the operatives. I couldn’t read any more than that, both because of the distance and because I wasn’t a human emotion detector. That last bit was a skill my partner possessed.

“Tense, a bit out of his element, but not worried,” Cynthia told us. “But when, exactly, were you going to tell us that Derek’s brother was our source?”

Source? Fuck me. For some inexplicable reason, moving the too-hot-for-his-own-good man out of the foe column and into the friend one perturbed me to no end. Then again, I could explain my reasoning. I’d seen this game before, up close and way too personal. Pretend to be one of the good guys. Fake being on the right side. Camouflage the evil beast lurking beneath the surface. Then stab everyone within striking distance in the back.

There’d been two career casualties the last time I’d seen it. One had been the psych discharge of the only other woman on my Army battalion. The other had been our squad captain, a decorated soldier and one hell of a leader, busted down two ranks and put on desk duty. I owed Cap my own honorable discharge a year later. It was his direct order that I keep my head down and mouth closed that had saved me from being caught in the fallout.

But it didn’t protect me from the boulder of guilt sitting on my chest. I would have been a lifer, would have stayed in the Army until they’d forced me out of the ranks and onto my pension if it hadn’t been for that shitstorm and my own unwitting part in it.

At the eye of the storm had been a handsome, enigmatic, wicked-smart, charming sonuvabitch. Aaron Malone. I’d been taken in by him first. I’d let that snake into the garden, had vouched for him to be embedded with our team. The weight of that bad call was still so heavy, sometimes it threatened to pull me under. On really bad days, it felt like Malone was still surveilling me. I saw his chiseled jawline and dead eyes on random men on the street. I woke up in the middle of the night sweating, thinking I was still deployed, at the mercy of him and his buddies who were too good at what they did and too well connected to be brought down by a bunch of Army scrubs.

Even now, sitting in some woods in Virginia, working for one of the most elite counter-intelligence agencies in the world, surrounded by people who could and did take down bad guys every bit as evil as Malone, he haunted me. The operative now talking with Wilder, the graying one, straightened as he spoke and revealed himself to be taller than I’d initially thought. He pulled off his sunglasses turned his head to speak to his body man, and I saw the deep blue of his piercing eyes and the hard cut of his cheekbones and…Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The guy could have been Malone’s twin.

Or it could have been the man himself.

Why not? The kind of operation we were investigating required some very specific skill sets, not the least of which was unadulterated assholery. Malone possessed more of that than anyone I’d ever met.

I adjusted by binoculars to take another look, just to prove myself wrong. But then he looked in my direction, and if I hadn’t been so far away and blending into the forest, I would have sworn we locked eyes. And those were his eyes. This was the man who had seduced me, betrayed me, and then done so much worse to my unit and my friends.

I switched off my comms so the team wouldn’t hear my adrenaline-fueled gasps.

“Lee, we’ve lost you,” TJ said immediately. “Is there a problem?”

I took a deep breath and switched my comms back on. “Sorry. I just wanted to do some off-the-record swearing.”

I slid back into position behind the rifle. I’d received the order to stand down. I’d never disobeyed a direct order. Maybe that had been a mistake. Maybe this one time…

“Keep everything on the record,” TJ said. “We can deal with some f-bombs, but mother-hen Jensen here has a near-fatal cardiac event when one of his peeps goes dark.”

“Sorry Jensen,” I said. Then I stopped talking and just breathed. Lowered my own heart rate. Squeezed one eye shut and focused the other one on my scope. Malone was literally in my crosshairs.

“Lee, I’ve got a visual of you in position,” Jensen said. “Command asks that you confirm you are standing down.”

This was my moment. My chance to prove not only that I was HEAT material, but I was Alpha Team-ready as well. “I can make this shot. I’ll leave Wilder standing, but I can take out the other three.”

“Stand down, Lee,” TJ said.

“You’re making a bad call.” Yeah, those words actually came out of my mouth, which should have been enough to pull me out of my trance, but I kept my position. “I can—”

“I said stand down! That is a goddamn order! That security guard will blow a hole in Wilder’s head before you squeeze off your second shot.”

“Oh, shit.” I rolled away from the rifle and onto my back. Of course. Wilder was the odd man out. Any security breach would be blamed on him, and anyone working for Malone would shoot first and ask for an alibi later.

“Now that we’re all on the same page,” TJ growled, “Kessler, I want you to get Wilder on the phone as soon as he’s in his car. Find out how the hell he ended up here, and tell him you’ll be bringing him for a debrief. Lee, pack up and be ready for Penn to pick you up in five.”

My comms went silent, which meant I was being cut out of the loop. I followed my last order, packing up my rifle as I kept an eye on the parking lot. A minute after I’d nearly gotten Chase Wilder killed, Malone and his henchmen climbed into their SUV and took off for parts unknown. Wilder headed toward a rented Beemer parked not too far from my teammates.

The comms in my ear clicked on, absent the normal, low-level chatter. “Mai, it’s Cynthia. You okay?”

No. I just saw the man who tanked my friends’ careers and drove me out of the military. I let the asshole slip through my fingers. He was a traitor and a mercenary, and I’ve let him live to sin another day.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.

“Bullshit,” she said. Sometimes her preternatural ability to read people—to read me—was a real pain in my ass.

I settled on a half-truth to appease her. “This was my chance to prove myself, you know?”

“You’ve already done that,” Cynthia said. “X doesn’t assign anyone to a team out of the goodness of her heart,” she referred to TJ’s boss and the head of HEAT. “Jury’s still out on whether she even has a heart, so there’s that.”

That made me chuckle, despite my frustration and embarrassment.

“And I hate to bring this up again, because it really makes me feel like I owe you, but you did save Derek and my asses on our last field mission. You’re one of us. No more doubting yourself.”

“Okay.” I snapped closed the rifle case and stood up to stretch. “Thanks.”

“I have to call Chase now, but we’ll be there to pick you up in two.” She clicked off the line and I was left in silence again.

Another twig snapped in the distance and I glanced over my shoulder. About a quarter of a mile away stood the doe and her fawns. They hadn’t gone so far, after all. The ricochet of my shots would have scared the hell out of them and sent them scampering, so at least my failure was good for someone. But it was best of all for Malone.

Now I was left with the hella hard decision of whether to tell anyone at HEAT about my past association with Malone. And if I did, there was the matter of how much I could say. The details of the incident that had brought down Cap and Aames were classified. It was bullshit, a cover-up, but the information was off-limits, even to TJ and probably X, unless and until they had a “need to know”. Which the Army would argue they’d never have.

Snow crunched under car tires on the path a few yards away from me. I climbed a small hill, deposited the rifle case into the car trunk, and slid into the back seat beside Cynthia. Everyone was painfully quiet as Penn continued down the path toward the nearby highway.

“What’s the story with Wilder?” I asked when it appeared no one was going to volunteer the information.

Cynthia widened her eyes. “Oh. Um…”

“Shit. TJ’s that pissed at me. You’re not even allowed to tell me what’s up?” I glanced at Penn and Sparks in the front seat. “None of you can talk to me? Am I off the mission? Is there even still a mission?”

My voice reached a high, squeaky pitch by the end of my diatribe.

Cynthia grabbed my elbow. “Mai, calm down. It’s not that bad.”

Penn glanced in the rearview mirror and grimaced.

“Well, it’s pretty bad,” she said. “What you did was dangerous. But we’re not trying to hide anything from you.”

“We’re just a little—” Sparks shrugged—“out of our element here. But this will blow over. TJ will calm down soon.”

It occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from TJ in over ten minutes. “What do I need to know before the debrief?”

Cynthia took a deep breath. She gave me her all-American smile with her perfect teeth and blue-eyed, blonde-haired air of innocence. “About that…”

“We’re taking you home,” Penn said, cutting to the chase. He ran a hand over his bald head. I’d learned enough from Cynthia to know that was his “tell,” the way to know his calm, cool exterior was all an act. “TJ will call you back in when you’re needed.”

“After he’s calmed down,” Cynthia added. “In the meantime, about Chase.”

Sparks turned around in her seat and glared at my partner.

“We’re off the comms and I’m not treating my partner like a mushroom,” Cynthia said. Keeping me in the dark and feeding me shit was what she meant.

Sparks glanced at Penn, her own partner, then nodded and turned around in her seat.

“Chase was approached by a security firm a few weeks ago when he was at a marketing conference,” Cynthia said. “A guy handed him a business card, which Chase turned over to Derek, who gave it to TJ.”

“Standard protocol for a HEAT front company,” I said. “So, something fishy came up when the team ran a deep background on the firm?”

“Worse than that,” Penn said. “Nothing came up.”

“Shit,” I muttered. “If they’re so off the grid that Jensen can’t track them down, what are they up to?”

“Exactly what our counterparts at the FBI were going to ask them after we tranqued two of their top guys and turned them over for questioning,” Cynthia said. “Chase wasn’t supposed to be there, but apparently they called him a couple of hours ago and encouraged him to join them. He didn’t have a direct number to any of us and he couldn’t get ahold of Derek.”

“So he winged it,” I said.

“Just like any of us would have done,” she said.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “But he’s not one of us, he didn’t have back-up, and he screwed up the entire mission. Yet I’m the one who’s on the outs.”

My fury at Wilder and Malone and every man who’d ever pissed me off rose to the surface again.

Cynthia clocked it immediately. Then again, I was radiating so much rage, Penn and Sparks were probably feeling it in the front seat, too.

“We’re going to debrief him, find out everything he knows, and call you in when we need you,” Penn said. “I know it sucks, but TJ and X are pretty adamant about it.”

“Fuck me.” I closed my eyes and took deep breaths to compose myself. Of course, TJ would tell X immediately. I’d nearly disobeyed a direct order, compromised a mission and endangered a civilian. I opened my eyes. “Are you sure I still have my job?”

Cynthia nodded, but not confidently. “Pretty sure.”

“And we all have your back,” Sparks said, and Penn nodded his agreement. “Just go to your parents’ house, do your family thing, lay low, and wait to hear from us.”

“Ugh, my parents party.” How could I have forgotten? “Wait, how do you know about that?”

Cynthia quirked an eyebrow at me. “Seriously? You work with a bunch of spooks, and you think we’re not going to know when a Vice-Admiral of the Navy, whose daughter just happens to be on our team, is throwing a party?”

She was right. HEAT knew pretty much everything about me there was to know. Everything except my connection to Malone, which I would keep to myself. They might drop the mission or try to freeze me out of it, but as long as they didn’t know about my personal connection, they wouldn’t realize they should try to stop me from going after him by myself.


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