Day One: 5:13 a.m.
The bed trembled, its legs jerking and thudding about in a kind of macabre dance. Cole woke instantly. Is this the big one? The king-size bed shimmied and rattled a few more times, then settled back down, coming to rest slightly askew on the hardwood floor of his bedroom, the earth having released its rage. Another fucking tremor. He ran his hands through his sweat-damp hair, glancing over at the bedside table.
Five-fourteen a.m. He slid his gaze from the clock to the picture, as he did every morning, ready to administer his daily punishment. During the long night of sleeping intermittently, he had made up his mind, but now, looking at her face, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t dishonor her memory in that way. Especially not in that way. The coward’s way.
His mind zeroed in on the single event defining his life, the day haunting him every second the clock ticked. The day almost a year ago when he’d pulled into his driveway after a voice message he could make no sense of. Finding the front door ajar. Walking down a hallway so silent he could hear the pounding in his skull echoing his slamming pulse. Finding the bathroom door shut against him. One more obstacle. Turning the handle as slow as a swimmer in deep water, finding it unlocked, his throat tight and aching. The creak of the hinges. The door swung open. His vision darkening around the edges as he took in the horror of the scene. The heaviness in his chest that made him sink to the floor, gathering her into his arms. No. Oh, God no. Not like this.
His cell phone rang in the dead stillness of a house that had once been a home, jerking him back into the present. Swallowing hard, he picked up the phone from the table, turning his back on the photo of his wife and himself mugging for the camera in happier times. The words of his father haunted him. ‘A real man never cries, son, no matter what’. Did he mean even if the worst thing that could happen, happened?
“Yeah.” He managed one sharp word.
“Hey, Cole, it’s Jake. How’s it going?”
Hearing his friend’s voice ratcheted down his anxiety, put the cap back on his demons. Had it been only nine months ago that they had put Kastrati and his son away for crimes against humanity? The one bright spot in the past year had been the whirlwind operation involving Jake and his new wife, Silk. Teaming up, they had been successful in putting the Kastrati crew, a cartel that had been on his radar for some time, behind bars for trafficking in women and drugs.
Silk had borne the worst of it, when the son’s senseless drunk-driving had left her sister and her sister’s unborn child dead on the streets of LA. She’d even gone after the man herself when he’d been released on a technicality with the help of high-priced lawyers—she’d been waiting with a high-powered rifle across from the courthouse to take him down. And that was how she and Jake had met. Better than a dating agency, Cole supposed. A more awesome and skilled pair of operatives he could not hope to meet. Jake with his brilliant and fine-tuned military skills and Silk with her PI’s investigative knowledge and dedication. She was almost as obsessive as he was about taking out the bad guys.
When he didn’t answer right away, Jake asked with a hint of concern in his voice, “Did I wake you?”
“No. A fucking tremor managed to do that this morning. Seems the San Andreas fault is unhappy these days. Playing with us mortals and reminding everyone who’s the boss. Other than that—I’m fine. How’s the new family?”
He cleared his throat and focused on the present. He got up and padded into the living room to open the drapes, staring out at a world that appeared normal, on the surface, anyway. He knew better. A dark abyss lurked underneath, just waiting to swallow a person whole. Not going to happen. Life is precious, even when crawling through hell. Staying there kept Mathew’s memory intact and he’d not give that up for anything. Someone had to remember his little boy. Keep him alive. And someone had to try to save others. Do what they could. Choose me.
“Great. Glad you’re okay. We were wondering if you’ve got the time to come our way for a visit?”
“Sure, what’s up?” He recognized Silk’s excited voice in the background as she insisted, “Just ask him already!”
Now, it was Jake’s turn to clear his throat. What was making his friend who had undergone the horrors of war nervous? “I had intended to wait until you got here, but you know our Silky. Well, here it goes. So, we’re in the process of starting up our own company—The TETRAD Group. I think it could be right up your alley, Cole, with your need to rush in and rescue others, not to mention that your skills and abilities complement Silk’s and mine perfectly. You know we shone as a team when we worked together to take down the Kastrati crew a few months back. Silk and I still talk about it all the time, thinking—hell yeah, we can do more. All of us, together, taking on cases for people who have nowhere else to turn. We can go and do things even law enforcement can’t and yet have their support and insight because Quinn Malone’s already on board with his far-reaching connections. I know you’ve worked with him lots in the past. He can bring a slew of abilities to the group, what with his undercover operative skills from working as a FBI agent and his former career as a lawyer. He knows the law inside and out, just like you do. Isn’t that where you met? At law school?”
“Yeah, Quinn and I competed for top honors in our graduating class.” A long time ago and in a land far away.
“What do you say, buddy, want to come to Vancouver and discuss it? Become one of the four founding members? Our aim is to help people who have trouble going to the local authorities—you know—do whatever it takes to make a difference and protect the innocent. Like you’ve been doing already. But with your tech savvy, hacking skills, undercover experience and understanding of the human mind, we would be unstoppable. Strength in numbers with a diverse range of overlapping skills brought into the mix from all of us. We’ll stand together, strong and proud. Make a difference in this world that’s desperate for more heroes.”
Do I? Maybe this is what I need. A complete change. And working together on cases meant so much more could be done. He had an admiration for the like-minded, married pair of Jake and Silk. And he’d worked off and on with Quinn over the past few years, his contact with the former FBI agent proving invaluable to his own personal crusades when he’d used up every bit of knowledge he could throw at criminals allowed by law, and then some.
The guy was the best. Knew how to play the dual role of human being and undercover agent and not mix up the two. He always got which side of the law he was on. Cole understood first-hand how hard that could be, acting at being one of them without becoming one of them. Learning to live with duality. It was hard enough infiltrating a motorcycle club or a drug cartel, but when he’d taken it to a far more disgusting level to get close to the nefarious perverts of NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, and had to listen to their sickening conversations and self-justifications, well, that took it to a level Cole found he was unable to deal with, though Quinn had gone on a righteous crusade and brought the fuckers down. Even having to talk Cole off a ledge when he’d threatened to blow up the convention center where the group was holding one of its secret annual meetings. Cole had to admire not only his dedication, but his loyalty to the cause and to friends.
Hell, Quinn even had a sense of humor about his undercover work, sending one criminal to jail when he was posing as a drug dealer and having the asshole call him from there to ask him to “raise bail”. He’d done that all right. Raised it to a million with the help of inside officials—not quite what the creep had meant. Though the time when Cole had posed as a hitman-for-hire in an online sting to take down a dirty lawyer looking for a revenge killing on a business partner and his innocent wife—that time had cemented the loyalty of their friendship when Quinn had smoothed things over with law enforcement. Things have a way of going awry when Cole worked a case driven by emotion, lack of sleep and an intense drive for justice. No apologies. It’s who I am.
People said they looked alike, but Cole could never see it, at least not anymore since he’d lost so much weight and Quinn now outweighed him by a good twenty pounds. Sure, they both had dark, military-short hair and brown eyes, but that was where the similarity ended. Besides, his nose had been broken playing basketball—being so big and tall had made Cole a favorite on his college team. God, those were simpler days.
In a blink of an eye, the series of cases they’d been involved in flashed through his mind, pushing him to a quick decision.
“Sure. What the hell. I’ll come up, see how things work out on a trial basis. Not much going on right now, anyway. Kind of between things. I can close up shop for a few days and not a soul would know I’m gone.” He shrugged, staring out of his front window at a neighbor now watering his lawn. “I’ll catch a plane tomorrow and text you the time.”
“Great! That’s great.” The palpable relief in his friend’s voice was nice to hear. Made him feel needed, something he’d not experienced for a long while. He ended the call and strode into his office, where he booted up his laptop to check out airline reservations. He found a flight with a layover in Denver and booked it. God, I need coffee.
His phone rang again. So much for coffee.
“Cole,” Jon said before he could even say hello, the hard edge to his friend’s tone unusual.
Hmm. What now? “Hey, Jon, I was just thinking about you. Great minds think alike. Just planning on calling you about dropping by and visiting tomorrow. I have a layover in Denver planned.” Jon lived in Denver, had for the past fifteen years, since his daughter Sara’s birth, his and Rose’s only child. “How you doing?”
“Been better, but it’ll be good to see you. How about you? How you holding up?”
“I’m okay. What’s up with you?” A tightening of his stomach muscles made Cole straighten in his chair, all senses alert. He shut his laptop lid and homed in on the voice coming over the phone, paying careful attention to each nuance. In the psychology courses he’d taken, he’d discovered the subtle clues for what a human being wanted to share or tell a listener were there, not hidden at all.
“Sorry, it’s just business. So much going on right now. Crazy busy—you know how it is. But you’re going to be here soon, so we can talk then.”
It was damn well more than just business. But it was also obvious Jon would never say whatever was troubling him over the phone. Cole would get to the bottom of it tomorrow, that was for damn sure.
“I’m okay. Got an interesting job offer I’ll tell you about also, if you’re sure you have the time?”
“Sure, we’d love to see you. You know how Rose dotes on you.” Jon’s voice softened, sounding more himself, when he spoke of his wife. A good woman, Rose. Cole swallowed hard, regret riding him hard.
“Okay, tomorrow it is.”
Cole hung up the phone, his nerves on edge. He went into the galley kitchen, filling a cup with instant coffee and adding hot water from the special machine that kept water hot or cold all the time. He drank it standing over the kitchen sink, surveying his neglected backyard that had used to be his pride and joy. The bright red swing set he’d sweated over a few years ago needed a coat of paint, its rusty surface beginning to lean. Yes. Past time to move on and do more.