Heartbreaker by Linda Howard

  Nothing. The place was just as it should be. The smell of the river, the sound of the water lapping against the boats, the creak of the docks, the gentle bobbing of the boats—­all of it soothed his soul, and he felt his permanent reservoir of tension emptying just a little. He’d definitely been born with an affinity for water. Once, noticing that he was doing something with his left hand, a teammate had asked him if he was ambidextrous, to which an instructor standing nearby had retorted, “No, he’s amphibious.” That was close to God’s truth: give him gills, and he’d have been a happy camper.

  He’d grown up around Pensacola, so he couldn’t remember a time in his life when the ocean hadn’t felt as if it were a part of him. The Potomac was a far cry from the Gulf of Mexico, but any water would do. Hell, he’d be content paddling around a lake in a canoe—­for a little while, anyway; then he’d start itching for some action. There was nothing like blowing shit up or getting shot at to give a man a real jolt of adrenaline.

  He went onboard the Shark, feeling the familiarity of the boat wrap around him. Because he respected the water as much as he loved it, he checked the gas and oil, the battery, the radio, and the bilge pump. He got his tackle from the locked storage and checked it. He checked that he had his cell phone, though he knew damn well that he did; same with the knife in his pocket, the pistol in the holster at the small of his back, plus the backup on his right ankle and the backup to the backup in the bottom of his tackle box. Everything was a go.

  He freed the Shark from its moorings, then slid into the seat and turned the ignition key; the reliable motor fired up immediately. He turned his cap around backward on his head, reversed out of the boat slip, and turned the steering wheel toward freedom. The choppy water reflected the blue of the sky today, with murky green depths sliding along below him. He felt every bounce and slap of the hull on the surface, then the ride smoothed out as he gained speed.

  Man, this was the life. Now if he could just haul in some fish—­for bragging rights if nothing else, so he could rub his success in Kodak’s face—­he would count this a damn good day.

  Even though he was just going fishing, he couldn’t turn off the habits ingrained by sixteen years of intensive training, live combat, and plain old feral instinct. He hadn’t reached the age of thirty-­four without learning how to stay alive. He gave the water the same attention he’d given the parking lot; his head constantly swiveled back and forth as he studied everything rushing by on both sides of the boat. He noticed every craft on the water, who and how many were on board each craft, what they were doing, how fast they were going and in what direction. He noticed if anyone paid any particular attention to him, which almost no one did, because there was nothing flashy about the Shark.

  The water traffic was heavier than he’d expected, given that this was a weekday—­maybe. He was halfway certain this was . . . Wednesday? Thursday? Damn. If this was Friday, he’d seriously lost track of when

  he was. Changing time zones was one thing, but when you backtracked across the IDL a ­couple of times, everything kind of went twilight-­zone on you, when tomorrow became yesterday, and today hadn’t happened yet. Stretching out his leg, he fished his cell phone out of the cargo pocket and swiftly glanced down to check the day. Thursday. Okay. He’d been in the ballpark, which was all he asked after a long mission.

  The Potomac was a big river, almost eleven miles wide in places as it worked its way southeast to the Chesapeake Bay. Avoiding the other boats should have been easy, but it seemed as if most of the ­people out today had no idea what the rules of the road—­or river, in this case—­were. Boats ran at angles, cutting in front of other boats, some deliberately throwing up water on other boaters. Wet-­suit-­wearing idiots on WaveRunners darted back and forth, in and out, seemingly oblivious to the topography of the river and whether the boats they were meeting had a choice of either hitting them or running aground. The wonder was that someone hadn’t gotten shot. After two close calls—­and the second time, having discarded the idea of doing some shooting himself, he almost chose hitting the idiot on the WaveRunner over scraping the bottom of his lower unit in the mud—­he gave up and took to the middle of the river. To hell with it; let everyone else steer around him. He might earn some dirty looks and cuss words, but at least he wasn’t in danger of tearing up the Shark.

  Because he was in the middle of the river instead of running along the right side, when he glanced at a cabin cruiser anchored about a hundred yards to his left, his sharp eyesight picked up the sun glinting on a shock of silver-­white hair as the wind blew back the hood of a black rain jacket. There were a ­couple of ­people on the deck, one in a blue shirt, and the other in the black jacket. The hair struck a chord of recognition with him, and on impulse he turned the wheel of the Shark toward the cabin cruiser; if the person with the silver-­white hair was who he thought it was, he wanted to make certain everything was all right.

  The hull bounced across the water; as he got closer he saw the person in the blue shirt go below decks. Then the woman—­because it was a woman—­with the silver-­white hair started waving at him, big, side-­to-­side enthusiastic come-­here waves, and he knew he’d guessed right.

  He waved in return, then a few moments later throttled back and eased the Shark alongside the cabin cruiser; he cut the engine off and moved up to lower the electric trolling motor into the water so he could hold his position. “Congresswoman,” he said in greeting to Joan Kingsley, twelve-­term member of the House of Representatives and a leading member of the House Armed Ser­vices Committee. They’d initially crossed paths the memorable time when the Kingsleys’ son had been kidnapped in Venezuela, and Morgan’s GO-­Team had been dispatched to rescue him. Congresswoman Kingsley had insisted on personally thanking all the men involved in saving her son’s life and had even thrown a lavish backyard barbecue at a private location for the team. Normally, acceptance wouldn’t have been possible, but because she was on the HASC, an exception had been made. You didn’t snub someone who held the strings to the money bags; Mac, the head of the GO-­Teams, was way too savvy for that, so he’d given the go-­ahead.

  To Morgan’s surprise, he’d liked her. She was undoubtedly a politician, alert to all angles, but she’d also struck him as not just grateful, but genuinely friendly. She had a warm, open smile and seemed to meet everyone on the same level. Her husband, a D.C. lawyer, was friendly enough, but unlike hers, his friendliness came across as more calculated. Well, hell, given that he was a D.C. lawyer, what else could be expected?

  “I didn’t recognize you at first,” she said, leaning over the railing and smiling down at him. “I wondered who on earth was barreling toward us.”

  “Sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

  “I wasn’t worried,” she said, and laughed. “After all, my boat is bigger than yours.”

  “Yes, ma’am, it certainly is” was all he allowed himself to say as his sharp gaze roved over the boat. Everything seemed to be okay, and given that no one else was on deck, she could have given him some kind of sign if there was any trouble.

  She was an important person in Congress; she should have exercised better security, but he wasn’t about to lecture her on that. He’d satisfied himself that there wasn’t any trouble, which was what he’d set out to do.

  “Come aboard and have a drink with us,” she invited. “We’re just having a relaxing day.” She turned her head as the man wearing the blue shirt re-­emerged from the cabin. “Dex, it’s Morgan Yancy.”

  “So I see.” Dexter Kingsley was buttoning up his shirt over his white tee shirt as he approached the rail. A practiced smile was on his evenly tanned face—­a tan that said it was either sprayed on or he’d been in a tanning bed. “It’s a good day to be on the water. Want to come up for a drink?” The invitation was the same as his wife’s, but somehow lacked the underlying sincerity.

  Morgan wasn’t even remotely tempted. Making polite s
mall talk wasn’t his strong suit, even if he hadn’t had the prospect of fishing pulling at him. “Thanks, but I’m heading to one of my fishing spots. When I saw the congresswoman, I just came over to say hello.” He pulled the trolling motor out of the water and leaned over to put his hand on the side of the cabin cruiser and push himself away, then settled himself in the driver’s seat. “Y’all have a good day.”

  “You too,” Congresswoman Kingsley said and turned away from the railing with a smile and a wave.

  Morgan turned the ignition key, his big motor roared to life, and he idled away from the cabin cruiser until he was far enough away that his wake wouldn’t violently rock their boat. He lifted his head into the wind and let the combination of water and leisure time pull him in.

  IT WAS DARK, the other side of nine-­thirty, when he pulled into his parking slot at the condo. It had been late when he’d docked the Shark, then he’d cleaned his tackle and locked it away before heading home. He’d also made a brief stop at a grocery to cover his basic food needs; he hooked the plastic bags on his fingers and dragged them with him as he slid out of the seat. A click of the remote locked the truck.

  The condos were at least thirty years old, six rows of two-­story buildings made of brick and pebbled concrete. He supposed the effect was supposed to be modern and uncluttered—­and maybe it had been thirty years ago, but now it was nothing more than butt-­ugly. Each ground-­floor unit, like his, had its own little patio, while the upper-­story condos had balconies that struck him as fairly useless but that were used a lot during the summer for grilling and such.

  The plastic bags rustled and banged against his left leg with every step, reminding him of why he hated buying groceries. After the fact, he always thought that he should throw a backpack in his truck and leave it there for hauling in what few groceries he bought, but he wasn’t home often enough for it to be a habit so he’d forget about the backpack. He’d also almost forgotten he didn’t have any coffee left, but the grocery’s sign had caught his eye and he’d whipped into the parking lot without time to signal, resulting in a few indignant horn blasts. Couldn’t be helped; he had to have coffee.

  A concrete support pillar and some tall shrubbery partially blocked his view of the condo building, something that grated but the homeowners association wasn’t willing to do away with part of its mature landscaping and shady trees just because he didn’t like it. He couldn’t explain that the greenery provided points of ambush because civilians simply didn’t get shit like that, so he dealt with it. It wasn’t as if he had a lot to worry about; the crime rate in these units was very low, and was in fact a selling point for the young families who made up the majority of residents.

  Still—­habits were a bitch, but he couldn’t ignore half a lifetime of training. To keep from walking around a blind corner, he swung wide into the street the way he always did so he was approaching straight on; there wasn’t a lot of traffic in the condo development, and he didn’t often have to wait until a car passed.

  But even with a direct approach, he still didn’t like it. Sometimes, such as now, he liked it less than at other times, and he couldn’t have said why. He didn’t have to; instinct was what it was.

  He stopped in his tracks.

  Sometimes . . . such as now.

  The sudden surge of awareness was like an electric shock, sending all of his senses into hyperalert. He instinctively moved his right hand to the pistol snugged into the holster at the small of his back even as he tried to pick up any movement in the shrubbery that shouldn’t have been there, anything that was responsible for making the back of his neck suddenly prickle. He couldn’t see anything, but still his senses were screaming. Something was there, even if it wasn’t anything danger—­

  The thought hadn’t completely formed when the shadows of the shrubbery moved slightly, black on black. More adrenaline shot through his system, and Morgan acted without thought, training taking over as he dropped the plastic bags and dove to the left, leaving his right hand free as he pulled his weapon.

  His body was still airborne, stretched out, when he saw a faint flash and a sledgehammer hit him in the chest.

  He had two distant but clear thoughts: Suppressor. Subsonic round.

  He slammed to the ground, the impact almost as jarring as the sledgehammer to the chest. He rolled with it, the pistol grip fitting into his palm as if his hand and the weapon had been made together, one functioning unit. One part of his brain knew he’d been hit and hit hard, but the other part stayed ruthlessly focused outward, intent on doing what he needed to do. He fired toward where he’d seen the flash, the sound sharp in the crisp night air, but he knew only a rank amateur would stay in the same place so he tracked his next shot away from the shrubbery, following the barely seen black-­on-­black shadow, and pulled the trigger again.

  His mind disconnected from the shock waves of pain rolling through his body because that was the only way he could function. His thoughts raced, analyzing probabilities and angles of fire, selecting the best option even as adrenaline overrode the devastation and kept his body moving. Without being aware that he was moving, he rolled behind a fireplug, and didn’t realize where he was until he was already there. A fireplug wasn’t much cover, but it was some.

  His vision was wavering, things rushing at him then drawing back, as if pushed and pulled by an invisible tide of air. Peripherally, he was aware of entrance lights coming on, of curtains being pulled back as his neighbors peeked out to see what the hell was going on. He blinked fiercely, trying to stay focused. Yes—­the increase of light brought a man’s form into dim view and he fired a third shot, controlled the upward kick of the muzzle, fired again. The dark form toppled to the ground and lay still.

  God, his chest hurt. Shit. This had really fucked up his tattoo.

  His vision wavered again, but he grimly held on, keeping his weapon trained on the downed threat. “Down” didn’t mean “out.” If he let go, let the darkness come, the other guy might get up and finish the job. Dead didn’t count until it was confirmed dead, and he couldn’t confirm shit right now.

  But doors were opening, ­people were shouting. The sounds were distorted and strangely far away, the lights fading. Through the growing shadows he thought he saw some of the braver souls venturing out, investigating the gunfire. Words swam at him, around him, and some of them sank into his consciousness.

  “Shawn! Are you crazy?” A woman’s voice, both angry and afraid.

  “Just call the cops,” said a man—­maybe Shawn, maybe someone else.

  “I already did,” said a third voice.

  “What the hell is going on?”

  More noise, more voices added to the chorus as ­people began approaching, cautiously at first, then with more confidence when nothing else happened. Morgan tried to call out, say something, make any kind of noise, but the effort was beyond him. He could feel his breath hitching as the distant pain rolled closer, like a tidal wave that was about to swamp him.

  This might be it for me, he thought, and was almost too tired to care. He tried to control his breathing because he’d heard that hitching sound before and it was never good. He didn’t have to hang on long, he thought—­maybe half an hour, if ­people would get the lead out of their asses and get him to the hospital. But half an hour seemed like an eternity when he wasn’t certain he could hang on even one more minute.

  He rested his head on the concrete sidewalk, feeling the chill of it. His outstretched hand was just resting on the winter-­dead grass at the edge of the sidewalk and he had the distant thought that it was kind of nice to be touching the earth. If this was it for him, well, it sucked to go, but all in all this wasn’t too bad, considering all the grisly ways he could have gone.

  But, damn it, he was fucking pissed because if he died, he didn’t know who had killed him or, more importantly, why.

  Someone bent over him, a vague shape swimming
out of focus. He had to send MacNamara a warning, and with his last ounce of strength he gasped out, “Ambush.”

  Chapter Two

  CONSCIOUSNESS—­OR THE lack of it—­was a strange thing, fading from one to the other and back again without a line of demarcation and without any direction by him. Sometimes he surfaced a few degrees from total nothingness to a vague and distant awareness of being, and the same vague and distant acknowledgment of the black nothing, and even knowing what it was, distinguishing between the two. Then he’d sink back down, and there was nothing until once again the tide of consciousness floated him upward like a piece of trash in the sea.

  Once there were a lot of bright lights, and warmth, and a sense of well-­being, but then that too vanished.

  I’m not dead.

  That was Morgan’s first coherent thought. Though he’d occasionally been aware of other things: pain, noise, indecipherable voices—­sometimes one he almost recognized—­as well as an annoying beeping, none of that had really meant anything to him; they were simply there, at a distance, like a pinpoint of light at the top of a deep, dark well. There came a time, though, when he drifted high enough that he realized what it meant that he could feel the pain and hear the noises: he was alive.

  Time was meaningless. ­People talked to him. He couldn’t respond even when he could understand, but they seemed to know this. They handled his body, doing things to him, explaining every step of the way. Sometimes he didn’t care, a lot of times he did, because, hell, some things just shouldn’t be done to a man. Neither seemed to matter. They did what they came to do, and that was that.

  Moving wasn’t an option; he not only seemed incapable of it, he wasn’t interested in trying. Simply existing took all of his strength. His lungs pumped at a strange rhythm that he couldn’t control, there was a tube down his throat, and damn, maybe living wasn’t such a good idea.

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