(The second book in the Fallen Angels series)
A novel by
J R Ward
To Kara Welsh, for everything!
And with thanks to Leslie Gelbman and Claire Zion
and everyone at NAL who are so amazing.
Thank you to Steve Axelrod, my voice of reason.
With huge props and thanks to Team Waud: D, LeElla, and Nath, without whom none of this would be possible—what would I do without you? And with a shout-out to Jac (and his Gabe!): My kitchen is your kitchen. No, really. Please. Don’t make me beg.
Thank you also to Ann, Lu, and Opal—the most incredible line tamers I’ve ever seen! And Ken—I’m trainable, see? I really am—you can send back the Gorilla Glue. Also to Cheryle, who I take orders from because I’m no fool.
With big hugs to all the mods on the boards—I’m so grateful for everything you do out of the kindness of your hearts.
Tremendous thanks to my C.P., Jessica Andersen, who has been endlessly supportive and smart and lovely and brilliantly funny for all these years. I still wish I were in your top five. *sigh*
And, of course, with thanks to Mother Sue (Grafton).
As always with love to my mother and my husband and my family and the better half of WriterDog.
“This is it,” Matthias said as they came up to an abandoned village that was the color of the caramel on a Friendly’s sundae.
They were fifteen miles northwest from where they were staying in a barracks full of army boys. Being that he and his boss were XOps, they were outside the stream of defined corps, which worked to their benefit: Soldiers like them carried IDs from all branches of the service and used them whenever it suited.
The “village” was more like four crumbling stone structures and a bunch of wood-and-tarp huts. As they approached, Jim’s balls went tight when his green night-vision goggles picked up movement all over the place. He hated those fucking tarps—they flapped in the wind, their shadows darting around like fast-footed people who had guns. And grenades. And all kinds of sharp and shiny.
Or in this case, grungy and gritty.
He hated desert assignments; better to kill in civilization. Although a proper urban or even suburban assignment carried more exposure, at least you had a shot at knowing what was coming at you. Out here, people had resources he was unfamiliar with and that always made him twitchy as fuck.
Plus he didn’t trust the man he was with. Yeah, Matthias was the head of the organization with a direct line to God. Yeah, Jim had trained with the guy way back when. Yeah, he’d been under him for the last decade.
But all of that just made him more certain he didn’t want to be alone with the big man—and yet here they were, at a “village” in the fine township of Nowhere-anyone-could-find-a-body-ville.
A gust of wind went Nike across the flat landscape, sprinting over the sand, picking up those tiny little particles, and carrying all of them right smack into the collar of his digital-fatigues. Beneath his black, lace-up boots, the ground was constantly shifting, as if he were an ant walking across the back of a giant and irritating the piss out of the bastard.
You began to feel that at any minute, a great palm could come down out of the sky and flatten you.
This trek to the east had been Matthias’s idea. Something that couldn’t be discussed anywhere else. So naturally, Jim had worn a Kevlar vest and about forty pounds of weapons. Along with water. MREs.
He was a pack animal for real.
“Over here,” Matthias said, ducking into the doorless entry of one of the stone structures.
Jim paused and looked around. Nothing but tarps doing the cabbage patch, as far as he knew.
He got out both his guns before going inside. Bottom line? This was the perfect locale for a forcible inquisition. He had no idea what he’d done or what he’d learned to warrant an interrogation, but one thing he was clear on—there was no reason to run. If that was the “because” he’d been brought here for, he was going to go in and find another two or three XOps guys in there to work him over while Matthias asked the questions. If he bolted? They’d just hunt him down all over the globe, even if it took weeks.
Could explain why Isaac Rothe had shown up this afternoon with Matthias’s protégé and second in command. That pair were straight-up killers, a couple of pit bulls ready to go for anyone’s throat.
Yup, this made sense and he should have figured it out sooner—although even if he had, there was no escape from a reckoning. Nobody got out of XOps alive. Not the operatives, not the fringe-playing intel guys, not the bosses, either. Die with your boots on was the way you lived—not that you knew that going in.