My windshield wipers squeaked as they hastily swished back and forth, barely able to keep up with the torrential rain. The pelting on the roof of my truck sounded like volleys of gunshots. But the sound of gunshots didn’t bother me. No, it was the raindrops.
I hated the goddamn rain. And if I believed in divine intervention, I’d swear it was God’s tears as he laughed his ass off at me.
Since I wasn’t a believer, it meant the weather guy fucked up, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have left the city if I knew it was going to rain. Especially when the pounding in my head was like a bloody freight train roaring down the tracks. An out-of-control freight train that threatened to launch itself into the air, then plummet to the ground and explode into a fireball of burning metal.
I slowed to take the ramp off the highway, and the volleys eased for a second before picking back up as I pressed on the accelerator.
Two hours of this shit. Two hours listening to the constant pings hit the metal as if they were drilling through my skin and slowly filling up my lungs.
It was suffocating. Debilitating. And yeah, there was that familiar prickle of fear that ate away at my sanity.
Moving to Arica, Chile where it hadn’t rained in the last fifty-nine years just skyrocketed to the top of my list of things to do in life. Not that I had a list. Only people who thought about the future had those lists.
I wasn’t one of those people.
I only thought about the next target. The next extraction. The next motherfucker I was going to torture, and if they were lucky—kill.
Because there was nothing pretty in my world. But somehow it made sense to me.
Until Moldova. What a shit show. Sure, the mission was considered a success. We managed to extract the hostage, but not without damage.
Damage to my already screwed-up head.
I let them in. The demons.
And they didn’t just pop by to remind me that they were still there on the other side of the wall. No. They crashed through the wall riding a goddamn bulldozer.
Normally, I was fast enough to decapitate them before they did any serious damage, and they’d fall back into their cage.
But I wasn’t fast enough this time, and I nearly ended up in a body bag, which I would’ve if Deck, my ex-Special Forces buddy, hadn’t jumped me. We landed hard in a half foot of sewer water just as a barrage of gunshots flew over our heads.
Mistakes like that get you dead or someone on your team dead.
It was a complete clusterfuck. My clusterfuck.
Now I had downtime. An undetermined length of time off the grid to get my head straight. No, it was more than getting it straight. It was building back the stone wall that had been pulverized in one second flat.
I drove for another hour, and the rain finally eased to a stop when I reached the private road.
I slowed and turned left, passing the oversized metal “No Trespassing. Violators will be SHOT” sign nailed to a cedar post. The edges had rusted, and someone, likely kids with nothing better to do on summer break, had scratched out the “S” in shot, so it read “Violators will be HOT.” It didn’t matter; I had about a hundred more posted around the perimeter of the ten-acre property. You had to be blind not to see them and stupid to ignore them.
The tires bounced in numerous potholes overflowing with muddy rainwater and splattered the windows. The road wasn’t much of a road, more like dirt path weaving through a forest of maple and pine trees with the odd birch thrown in.
The engine dropped into a lower gear as it climbed a steep hill. Stones spit from the tire treads and low-hanging branches scraped the top of my roof like Freddy Kruger announcing his presence.
The road forked at the top of the hill, and to the left led down into a valley, across a wooden bridge, and over a river. I couldn’t see it from here, but nestled in the trees was a cabin. The previous owners had renovated it before I bought the property ten years ago, but I didn’t buy it for the cabin. I bought it for the privacy and seclusion.
I’d used the cabin a few times, but it had one huge fuckin’ issue—a tin roof.
Rain hitting tin sounded like a nail gun going off and the nails penetrating my skull.
How anyone thought rain sounded soothing was beyond me. I’d nearly burnt down the cabin the first time I’d heard it, and I would’ve if the rain hadn’t soaked the wood so it refused to catch fire.
I hadn’t stayed in the cabin since and decided to build a house on the property instead.
I turned right at the fork, veering away from the cabin, and relaxed my grip on the steering wheel as the house came into view.
The tension in my shoulders eased, and the burning in my chest subsided.
This was the one place where I didn’t have to worry about the shit that messed with my head.
One place where I couldn’t hear the rain and what it brought with it.
The demons could hold hands and jump off high-rise buildings screaming their heads off and I could deal with it here. And if I couldn’t deal with it, then no one was around to see how fucked up I was.
It was my sanctuary.
No Internet. No TV. No people.
Nothing except a shitload of squirrels foraging for nuts and woodpeckers tapping into maple trees.
I pulled up to the front porch and stopped, shifting into Park.
I stared through the mud-streaked windshield at the house. It was a work in progress and had been for eight years. It would likely be another eight before it was finished, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Working on the house gave my head a chance to decompress. To rebuild the wall and shut out the rain and everything that came with it.
Cedar shingles covered the roof, but it was the layer beneath the shingles that mattered. I’d put a thick wool blanket of soundproofing underneath the sheeting that muffled the sounds. The sounds being the pissing rain.
I shut off the engine and unfolded out of the matte black Ford truck.
I opened the back door and reached in, pulling out my khaki duffel. I slung it over my shoulder, closed the door, and pressed the fob to lock the truck.
I strode up to the house, combat boots sinking into the thick gravel soupy from the rain. I hadn’t gotten around to building stairs up to the front porch. Instead, there were a couple of planks perched on cement blocks.
My gaze hit the yellow caution tape tied between the six wooden posts on the porch.
Goddamn Jaeg. What was he doing? Warning the squirrels not to fall off the porch?
I asked him check on the place, not safety check it.
But then, Jaeg excelled at not listening and doing whatever the hell he wanted.
We’d met in our teens in the underground where wealthy pricks bet on derelict kids who needed two things: an outlet for their rage and money.
I’d told him he was going to end up in the hospital if he fought me. He ignored me, and the stupid asshole ended up in the hospital with a broken nose, a concussion, and two cracked ribs.
Eighteen years later, the asshole still didn’t listen. The only difference now was there was a good possibility he’d last a lot longer than five seconds if he threw a punch my way. Might even be a challenge since I’d taught him everything he knows, and he was no longer that tall, lanky kid with spaghetti arms and a penchant for pain.
I dug in my cargo pants pocket for the key. I stepped closer to the door, and my booted foot hit something. I glanced down at the sisal mat in front of the threshold. A mat I didn’t buy. A mat that read, “I’m an asshole. Go away.”
At least it was appropriate. I was an asshole, and I didn’t want guests, visitors, or drop-ins—period.
I slipped the key into the deadbolt and froze at the sound of a twig snapping in the distance.
My spine stiffened.
No way in hell was that a neighborhood squirrel.
I didn’t move.
My hand tightened around the key.
I hadn’t told anyone I was a coming back because I didn’t want anyone to know.
And anyone who knew me also knew it was suicide to try and sneak up on me—even Jaeg wouldn’t risk it.
What I did have was a shitload of enemies who’d love to find me. The kind of enemies that took pleasure in ripping off fingernails one by one. The kind that spent years hunting their enemies just so they could enjoy hearing them scream before they gutted them.
And for that reason, I was careful to keep this place separate from my job with VUR—Vault’s Unyielding Riot—and my ex-military buddies. Our job entailed extracting hostages and taking down some of the worst motherfuckers in the world, so keeping that life separate was imperative.
No connection. Nothing that could link me here.
Even Deck, who owned VUR and who I’d trained with in Special Forces, didn’t know where I disappeared to when I went off the grid, and I trusted him as much as I could trust anyone. I’d never shared my past with him. I didn’t talk about it, period.
But there was always a chance someone I’d pissed off had found out about this place. And I’d pissed off a hell of lot of people in my life. People with infinite cash flow. People who would go to great lengths to find the man who tortured and killed some sick fuck who happened to be important to them.
And then there was the possibility the twig snapping was a starving coyote hunting rabbits. With only a couple hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours, three hours of rain, and my head feeling as if it was being held together by spiked vise, I was off my game.
The low creak and rustling of leaves sounded as if a branch was being pushed aside.
No way that was a coyote. If it hunted like that, it would’ve starved to death a long time ago.
I turned my head in the direction of the sound, and I waited patiently, listening for any other footsteps that might indicate they weren’t alone.
Patience was my specialty.
As a kid, I’d patiently waited in air ducts, sewers, pipes, and every other single sphincter-like place that bastard could fit me. Then as a teenager, I’d patiently waited for the right moment to knock out my opponent. In the military, I’d waited for hours in the scorching hot sun for Intel to confirm our target was in some hidden bunker so we could take him out.
You learn to ignore the pain from the cramping, the thirst, and the hunger. To keep your breath controlled and remain motionless. If you were lying in the sand, you became the fuckin’ sand.
The sound of footsteps on the wooden bridge entwined with the squawk of a bird as it took flight from the top of a maple tree.
I was hoping I was wrong, because I didn’t need this shit. Not when I was holding on by a frayed thread threatening to snap at any moment. I needed sleep and silence.
My hand went to my waist, and I slowly slid my gun from the holster.
I moved silently along the porch to the far end and ducked under the caution tape. I leapt from the porch onto the spongy grass, keeping low as I made my way to the cover of the pine trees.
The footsteps trekked northwest, running parallel to the river.
I moved quick and soundless through the woods, avoiding the fallen twigs and ducking under low-hanging branches. Despite rarely being here, I knew every inch of this property. I’d made sure I did.
The soft steps slowed for a second, and I heard heavy breathing. Pathetic. Whoever hired this asshole was cheap and had scraped the bottom of the barrel.
The steps suddenly quickened as if they’d heard me, but that was highly unlikely. I’d been trained to be undetectable since the age of five. Being silent meant not getting caught, and not getting caught led to easing the hunger pains and avoiding welts across my back.
There were no mistakes. No second chances. If you screwed up, you were either dead or in for a shitload of pain. But the truth was, even if I didn’t fuck up, I never really won. No. I just lived. Whether that was a good thing or not was still up for debate. But I sure as hell wasn’t letting some pathetic asshole make that decision for me.
I drew closer and clicked off the safety.
The person stumbled as they tripped over the rotting log near the old “cannon” tree where the river curved. It was a pine tree that had a huge hole through the center of the trunk like a cannonball had blasted right through it.
I silently moved in.
With two movements, I locked my hand around their throat and slammed their body face-first into a tree trunk. A whoosh of air escaped their lungs from the impact, then there was a sucking sound as they attempted to draw in air after having the wind knocked out of them.
I pressed the barrel of my gun to their skull and clicked off the safety. “Who sent you?” I growled.
The person was small, maybe five foot five, no match for my six-foot-four height, even if they had extensive combat skills, which I doubted, since they’d made the noise of an elephant. That alone should’ve tipped me off that whoever I had crushed against the tree wasn’t a hit man.
No. It wasn’t a man at all.
It was a woman who smelled like cloves and coconuts with a hint of pine.
With her spine pressed against me, I couldn’t see her face, but I saw her toned, graceful legs clad in black yoga shorts paired with white mud-streaked running shoes and a light pink T-shirt.
Her blonde hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and a few wisps had escaped and brushed against the back of my hand that held her throat.
My jaw flexed. Christ.
Probably some rich bitch weekender from Toronto thinking she could go wherever she pleased because it was the wilderness. I had signs posted all over the bloody place. Even if Captain Kirk beamed her down here, she had to have seen one.
I released her throat, and she turned her head to look toward the cabin. I kept my gun pressed to the back of her skull to prevent her from trying to make a run for it. Not that she’d get very far. Still, after a ten-hour flight on a cargo plane and a three-hour drive in the rain, I wasn’t in the mood to go for a run.
But she obviously was. What the hell was she doing running in the woods—on my property?
I was about to ask her that when she struck, quickly shooting her elbow back toward my throat. I blocked it with my forearm and grabbed for her wrist, but she whirled in a flurry, and my fingers latched on to air instead.
She jerked her knee up, aiming for my balls. With a quick sidestep, I easily evaded her attempt to send me to my knees, and her knee hit my thigh instead.
It took me two seconds flat to spin her around and trap her arms to her sides with her body caged against me. If I’d been some nervous asshole with a twitchy finger, she’d be dead right now.
“Never. Ever. Attack someone with a gun to your head,” I growled into her ear. “Don’t do anything stupid, and we’ll both go our separate ways in thirty seconds.”
And never swallow in front of your enemies, princess.
“What are you doing here?”
“Running. I… was… just running,” she said in a raspy, breathless voice. The shortness of breath was likely a combination of fear and her stupidity run. I wasn’t sure about the raspiness. It was either natural or I’d damaged her vocal cords when I squeezed her throat.
Either way, I didn’t like it. And I didn’t like it because the sound vibrated inside me and sunk deep into the pit of my stomach where it settled, threatening to make itself at home.
“No shit.” I slipped my gun into my holster. “What are you doing running on my property?”
Her body stiffened and a small gasp escaped her throat. “Your property?” she asked. I almost believed her act that she had no clue she was trespassing. Optimal word—almost.
I tightened my hold across her chest. “Yeah. Mine. And I have every right to shoot you for trespassing.” That was a lie. We were in Canada where shooting anyone just for being on your land was illegal. But then, so was carrying a handgun.
She shifted her weight and turned her head toward the bridge as if she was considering making a run for it.
“Don’t even think about it,” I warned. But she’d done that twice now. It was enough for me to know something or someone else was there. If I had my head on straight and not overloaded with pirouetting demons, I would’ve acted on the first signal.
I hadn’t heard anyone else running, but she could’ve fallen behind some pathetic boyfriend who thought it was okay to leave his girl alone in the woods. I’d shoot him in the leg just for that.
I shoved her away from me and turned while reaching for my gun.
She curled her fingers around my forearm to stop me. “Wait.”
I froze, and every muscle contracted. My gaze landed on the hand gripping my forearm, her delicate fingers resting on the inked wings of a hawk entwined in battle with an eagle.
I waited for the unbearable pain. The burning. The ice shards. The urgency to tear off my skin.
But it didn’t come.
My eyes snapped to her face.
That’s when everything went to shit.
It was as if a backhoe dug into my brain and scooped out those buried memories and dumped them on top of me.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.
I’d faced the most dangerous criminals in the world, but nothing could’ve prepared me for seeing her again.
Seeing her ocean-blue eyes.
Eyes with specks of green like lily pads floating on their glistening surfaces.
Eyes that haunted because they were embedded in me.
No. Something embedded could be dug out. It was more than that. They were scarred into me.
Turbulent waves flooded her glassy orbs. Waves of fear I’d no doubt put there. But something was different in them. The innocence was gone, and in its place was determination, as if she was fighting the fear.
But you can’t fight fear.
No, you open the door and let it the fuck in, then you consume it and spit it out.
Her fingers twitched on my forearm.
I jerked back. Her hand slid off of me, and she lowered it to her side.
Jesus. I had to get out of here.
“If I catch you on my property again, I will shoot first,” I said. It was a lie. Of course it was a lie. But she didn’t know that. I just wanted her gone. She needed to be gone.
Before I had a chance to walk away and forget the seriously screwed-up anomaly that happened when she touched me, she blurted, “But I’m staying here. In the cabin.”
Her words hit me like a tsunami dragging me out to sea before it buried me under the sand.
I curled my hands into fists and ground out, “You mean my fuckin’ cabin.”
*subject to change before publication
Published by Nashoda Rose
Copyright © 2022 by Nashoda Rose