Catch A Ghost
September 7, 2013
Hell or High Water, Book 1
The past can only hold you hostage if you let itâŠ
Everyone knows that Prophetâformer Navy SEAL, former CIA spook, full-time pain in the assâworks alone and thinks only about the trouble he can cause. But his boss, Phil Butler of Extreme Escapes, LTD., has just assigned Proph not only a new partner but also a case haunted by ghosts from Prophâs past. Suddenly, heâs got to confront them both head on.
Tom Boudreauxâfailed FBI agent, failed sheriff, full time believer in bad luckâis wondering why the head of a private contracting firm has hunted him down to offer him a job. Still heâs determined to succeed this time, despite being partnered with Prophet, EE, LTDâs most successful, lethal, and annoying operative, and even though the case is also resurrecting his own painful past.
Together, Prophet and Tom must find a way to take down killers in the dangerous world of underground cage matches, while fighting their own dangerous attraction. And when they find themselves caught in the crossfire, these two loners are forced to trust each other and work together to escape their ghosts . . . or pay the price.
Connected Books: Hell or High Water
Read an Excerpt
The encrypted email had been sent to Tom Boudreauxâs private email address. He couldnât trace its origins, but after watching the video attachment, he was betting it hadnât come from either of the men who held the starring roles.
The footage was dated a decade ago. The quality was grainy and slightly dark, but steady, most likely shot from a mounted camera fixed at a slightly downward angle to capture what appeared to be an interrogation of a military prisoner.
The opening shot showed a small room, cut in half by a table. Two men sat across from one another. The first manâs face was shadowedâpurposely so, perhapsâand he was dressed in battle fatigues. Directly across from him sat a younger man, his face in plain view, his wrists handcuffed, the chain passed through a metal ring attached to the table in front of him.
His hair was blond and spiked with sweat and blood. His nose looked broken; his eyes were already bruised underneath. His chest was bare except for his dog tags and some tape wrapped around his ribs. There were enough bruises on his body to fell most men.
But not this one.
He didnât shift in his seat or look uncomfortable or scared. Instead, he listened to the interrogatorâs questions silently, with what mightâve actually been a trace of amusement.
âWhy were you on the border?â
âWho sent you?â
âAre you a spy?â
At some point, the prisoner began a continuous sort of half humming, half singing under his breath, words to a tune that Tom couldnât quite place.
Interrogation was all about the mindfuck. But this guyâwho looked maybe nineteen if he was a dayâwas better doing the fucking than being fucked, and that made the interrogator angry. He banged the table, repeating the questions, and the young guy kept his singing/humming routine going. This time, Tom caught a few of the wordsâworld and aliveâand realized that both men were American.
Maybe this is just a training session? Tom knew they could get brutal, especially for Special Forces operators.
The interrogator spoke, a low, short burstâTom couldnât catch it no matter how closely he listened, no matter how many times he rewoundâbefore he reached across the table and ripped the tags off the young man, hard enough to jerk his body forward before the chain broke.
âWe know you killed an innocent man. No oneâs coming to help you.â
The interrogator threw the tags across the room. Tom couldnât see where they landed, but he heard the ominous clank when they did.
Tomâs blood ran cold as something in the young manâs eyes changed. It had nothing to do with the interrogatorâs words. No, it happened when the tags were thrown away.
The next moves took mere moments. The young man managed to pick the table up with his wrists still chained to it, knocked his interrogator to the ground, and pinned him there by his neck with a table leg. The camera was blocked for a few seconds as other men rushed into the room, all yelling.
When the men cleared the camera space, Tom saw the young man refusing to move, even with guns pointed at his head. His knees were on the table, and he was balanced just well enough so the interrogator could breathe. But if he leaned forward, even a little . . .
None of the men were rushing him, probably afraid heâd move and break the interrogatorâs neck. The young man turned his head toward the camera, teeth bared in a feral snarl, and then the video cut off abruptly.
One month later
Prophet didnât like sitting still, found it nearly impossible to do so unless it was a life-or-death situationâand that had to be literally life or death and not some bullshit sit still or Iâll kill you type of non-threat.
Right now, he was supposed to be playing good little office boy. Doing paperwork, which sucked anyway, but more so because he was wearing not one, but two casts. Goddamn it. He looked mutinously down at the blue encasements that covered his hands and forearms to just below his elbows, and fought the urge to slam them against the desk. Heâd done that once beforeâitâd cracked in half, but itâd been a different kind of cast. These he could fucking take a grenade to and they wouldnât open, thanks to Docâs tricks.
There were a few marks on one from where heâd tried to saw it with his KA-BAR, but that had just made the ends a little sharper and the whole thing more annoying than it had been, which was already pretty damned annoying. Although still not as annoying as the paperwork.
He planned on rectifying that situation as soon as the office emptied out a littleâwith a match, a garbage can, and a disabled smoke alarmâ
The phone rang. He stared at it like that would make it stop. Desk duty wasnât his forte, and this was some serious desk duty. It was partially because of his injuriesâalthough heâd played hurt beforeâbut mainly because of what he considered a minor infraction on his last trip out.
Obviously, his boss disagreed that storming a building protected by twenty guards and a state-of-the-art alarm system, without waiting for backup, and with a thief who hadnât technically, as of that mission, been an Extreme Escapes employee, was a minor infraction (although heâd like to point out that all the good guys had lived, thank you very much), but hell, Phil Butler had known him long enough to realize that nothing with him ever went by the book.
Since the damned phone wouldnât shut up, he finally answered with, âYeah,â and then someone was yelling in his ear. Oh, hell no, he didnât do that. He hung up and it started to ring again almost immediately. He muted the volume and began to draw on his cast, highlighting the number heâd gotten at the bar last night, before Phil walked into Prophetâs officeâunannounced and without knockingâand slammed files down on his desk.
âAh, come on, man.â Prophet flipped through them. âI finished these.â
âI thought the benefit of working here was not having to do this shit,â he groused, but Phil just smiled. Because Phil was grooming him, he knew, to take over EE. But the old man wasnât all that old, and he wasnât going anywhere for a while.
Plus, Prophet guessed he should be grateful he could still do shit like paperwork.
âFinish it and Iâll buy you lunch,â Phil said.
Prophet started to nod, then pushed back in his chair, which went flying, stopped only by the wall. âWhat do you want?â
âYouâre all so suspicious.â
Prophet pointed a finger at him. âBecause you only buy lunch when youâre up to shit. Dinnerâs reserved for someone whoâs dying.â
Phil pressed his lips together, pinched a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his noseâthe classic Iâm trying to hold it together so I donât kill Prophet signalâand said, âYouâre getting a partner.â
Phil spoke louder. âYouâre getting aââ
âI heard you. Itâs the eyes, not the ears.â
âHey, you made a joke.â
Prophet couldnât even begin to curse the man for that. He was too distraught over the partner thing. âWhy now? Itâs been a year.â
âI know. Youâre not the easiest man to partner up.â
âSo why try?â Prophet ground out.
âBecause these are my rules.â
âYou own this placeâyou can change the rules anytime you want.â
âTrue.â Phil rubbed his chin with two fingers as he contemplated Prophetâs words, then smiled. âTry this new rule on for sizeâyou canât order office supplies.â
âThis isnât going to work.â
âIt has to.â
âThis isnât another one of your jail charity cases, is it?â he asked, and Phil shrugged. âAh, come on. Who is he? Some prick fresh from Special Forces, thinking heâs the shit?â
âAnd that would differentiate him from you, how?â
Prophet pointed at him. âNice one, Phil. Come on, answer the damned question.â
Phil conceded, leaning a hip on desk as he said, âMost recently, he was a deputy in one of the parishes of New Orleans. Heâs former FBI, too.â
Prophet groaned, put his forehead on the desk and slammed it lightly several times. âI donât know which is worseâthe Cajun part or the Fed part. Donât we have anyone applying here whoâs a career criminal? I could at least learn something useful.â
âJust Blueâand heâs already partnered up,â Phil pointed out. âAnd weâre being a bit dramatic, no?â
âNo,â Prophet deadpanned. âLook, Iâll do a job with him, but this permanent partner thing . . .â
âYou know why Iâm doing it.â
Prophet straightened. âSo what? This guyâs going to be like my Seeing Eye dog? Because I could just get a real dog, you know. Would save everyone a lot of time and money.â
âYes, that would work out so well jumping out of planes.â
âIâm fine for now, Phil. I wouldnât be accepting missions if I wasnât.â
âI know. I get your doctor reports.â
âAnd when Iâm notââ
âI prepare for any and all eventualities,â Phil said, echoing what Prophet told him on a daily basis. âAnd Iâm not losing you. This partner thing is final.â
Prophet knew better than to continue arguing. He rubbed his cheeks with his fingertips, realized he needed a shave badly. He looked down at the sweats and ripped T-shirt he wore because heâd come here straight from training, without bothering with things like a shower. Or shoes. âFine,â he mumbled. âBut donât expect me to like him.â
Phil handed him another file heâd had tucked under his arm. âNew mission intel. And I never know what the hell to expect from you anyway. Heâll be here soon.â
âSoon, like soon?â
Again, Phil did the nose pinching thing and walked away, cursing to himself under his breath. Prophet had that effect on everyone, he supposed.
No time to shower or change. But hell, he wasnât looking to impress. Maybe the guy would think he looked like a crazy homeless person and demand another partner.
He gave his most put-upon sigh and left his office with the new op file to go raid the supply closet in the common area looking for his favorite pencils. Because when he was forced to ride a desk, he wanted his favorite supplies. Was keeping them in stock too much to ask?
Apparently so. And now he couldnât even order them.
He grabbed a box of paper clips instead so he could try to fix the communal copy machine. He pulled open one of the panels that held the ink supply, brushed the hair out of his eyes impatiently. Too long for most jobs, maybe even longer than he really liked it, but he wore it this way because he could. A daily reminder of his freedom from the bullshit bureaucracy that had hampered him in the past. But the thing of it was, he couldnât escape the future hurtling toward him like a meteor delivering a death blow.
Going blind doesnât have to be a death sentence.
For him, he wondered if it would be.
No one knew, except Phil. Prophet had told him in the hopes that Phil wouldnât want him for EE, that heâd stop courting him and just go away.
That hadnât happened, obviously. Phil had made sure that no one else at EE knew, except for Doc, and heâd made sure Prophetâs insurance at EE covered the specialist he now saw.
It would be up to Prophet when and if to tell anyone else at EE, and he wouldnât ever do it. Didnât need anyone treating him differently. Especially a new partner.
He thought about heading out to lunch, but he wanted to see if the guy was punctual. If he wasnât, Prophet would yell at him. And if he was, itâd prove that he was some kind of kiss-ass to Phil.
A sense of dull foreboding overtook him and he tried to shake it, but couldnât. Another glance at the clock, and he looked down in time to see Phil usher a man into his corner office.
Right on time.
To distract himself, he leaned against the copy machine and paged through the new mission file Phil had given him. He and his new, annoying partner were set to fly to Eritrea. EE kept a second base of operations there. Most of the time, it was strictly recon, which meant youâd wait for something to happen, check in twice a day, and then maybe, if you were luckyâor unluckyâbe sent out to do something.
Still, Prophet always managed to find some trouble there. It was hot. Corrupt. And heâd need plenty of weapons and cash for payoffs. T-shirts and candy for the kids. And knives. Maybe another machete because last time he was in-country, heâd broken his. A hell of a trip, his souvenir was an elbow that ached when it rained, and a scar on the back of his neck from the guy who had tried to cut his head off.
With Prophetâs own machete. So maybe scratch the machete.
Elliot was in the Eritrea office, had been for the past three months while heâd healed from a bullet wound. Prophet assumed he was being sent there to heal as well, and probably to bond with his new partner.
Son of a bitch.
He glanced up at the man who walked out of Philâs office. The guy was almost as tall as Doc, which put him in the six-foot-five range. And he was broad, with dark hair, but man, the chip on his shoulder was visible from the fucking moon.
Prophet stared down at his casts and sighed. Picked at the edges of them. Wondered if he went into an ER and complained about pain whether theyâd take them off for him, then remembered he was banned from the two closest ERs. He pulled his phone from his pocket and Googled ERs over twenty miles away, flagging a few viable options, until a shadow fell across him.
No doubt the gargantuan man. He took his time looking up, and when he did, he stuck out one of his casted hands. âIâm Prophet.â
âWhy? Whatâs your name? Jesus?â
The guy didnât crack a smile. One of his eyes was green, the other mostly brown, and it gave him a slightly unbalanced look, like a German shorthaired pointer Prophetâd once owned. But man, could that dog track.
âIâm Tom Boudreaux.â He ignored the casted hand, and Prophet pulled it back. Saw Phil hovering a few feet away. What did Phil think heâd do, punch him out in the middle of the office?
âNice to meet you, Tommy,â he said, smiling, and the guy rolled his eyes at him and wasnât this going to be fun? Prophet rubbed his fingers along the back of his neck. Getting his head cut off with a machete would be more fun than this, but he forced himself to be semi-human. âWhatâs your background?â
âI donât tell people things like that unless they buy me dinner first.â The drawl sounded deep Cajun. The drawn-out words and the lilting, easy roll of his voice made Prophet want to throw a chair at him, mainly because it had always been an accent heâd found irresistible. On anyone but this guy.
Okay, a little on this guy. Fucking bayou asshole.
But Iâll bet he can definitely track.
âDude, whatâs your area of expertise?â Prophet tried again.
âLook, Iâm not getting into a pissing contest with you.â
Tommy narrowed his eyes at him. âDidnât want a partner?â
âAwesome. Glad we got that out of the way. Because neither did I.â
âGot it, Tommy.â
âTom,â the man said evenly.
âWhat I said.â
âThis is going to go well,â Phil said, more to himself than to them. âLook, assholes, everyone here works with a partner. Donât fuck this up or I will fuck you up. Both of you.â
Prophet didnât doubt itâthe former Marine wasnât even six feet, but he was stout and muscled. And Prophet had learned a long time ago that bigger didnât always equal winning, which was good for him.
Not that he was small, but six foot two was a midget among this land of six foot fourâplus giants.
âIâve got shit to do,â he told Tommy, turned away from him and toward the copy machine. The paper tray wouldnât even open, so he banged his casts on it a few times, and the damned thing started working for the first time in days. âI should get some kind of bonus for that,â he told Phil.
âIâve got a bonus for you, all right,â Phil shot back.
âYouâre not talking about him, right?â Prophet pointed at Tommy. âBecause no.â
Meeting the man from the video shouldnât have been so goddamned unexpected.
Youâve really lost your touch, Boudreaux. Youâre off your game.
Tom hoped heâd get it all back soon. Like riding a bike. Although he felt more like heâd just fallen off one and gotten run over in the process.
Why the hell someone had sent him that video of his new partnerâhow anyone knew Prophet would be his new partner a month agoâwas the most pressing question.
Not telling Prophet about it at all was the best course of action until he discovered the answer. He already had the proof that Prophet was a maniacâa lethal one, both things perhaps born from necessity.
Or maybe he was just born that way.
He was a couple of inches shorter than Tom, and lankier. And there was no mistaking the fact that the man had war in his eyes. Tom didnât know if the general population could see it, or if theyâd stop at the rugged handsomeness, the way he looked as though heâd just literally rolled out of bed . . . and hadnât been sleeping.
But if you watched closely, youâd see that his gaze swallowed whole areas, that he stalked as opposed to simply moved. That he missed nothing.
The man was trouble. Those eyes had him locked and loaded, and Tom wouldâve felt less conspicuous naked on a float in the middle of Mardi Gras. He didnât scare easily, but this could easily become the most trouble heâd had in his life, and that was saying something.
As he watched Prophet walk away, Tom rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, then cursed because he was mirroring the man.
âThat went well,â Phil said as he escorted Tom into a large office across from his.
âIs this the part where you tell me heâll come around?â
At least Phil Butler was an honest man. Five minutes before heâd met Prophet, Phil had told him, âWeâre more of a discover-on-your-own type of company. I donât have time to hand-hold you through a partner or a mission.â
All Tom had been able to get out of Phil was his partnerâs ageâthirty-one to Tomâs thirty-sixâand the fact that Prophet was probably one of the best operatives Phil had ever seen, hands down. Heâd used words like highly skilled, capable, and lots of field experience.
EE had a reputation for providing their operatives with everything they needed, including what Phil liked to call creative freedom. Theyâd also given him a lot of training the past month. Heâd had his ass kicked by several operatives to get him up to speed on everything from new techniques in hand-to-hand and weaponry, to demolitions and explosives. It was a crash course, one Phil told him would continue in between his missions.
âWhat else do I need to know about Prophet?â Tom asked him now. âReal name, maybe?â
But Phil ignored his question, telling him instead, âYou can work here or at home. Most operatives rarely come in unless thereâs a meeting. Just know your intel for your first mission. Details are in your secured email.â Phil pointed to the laptop on an empty desk before he left the room.
Email. Right. He opened the brand new computer and found that his first name popped up, along with a list of passwords for him to reset. He did so quickly, anxious to check that he could get his secured emails, knowing heâd read them when he was out of this place and away from the maniac. Heâd figured if he could deal with the Cajuns, he could deal with anything. He mightâve been seriously wrong.
Someone knocked briefly on the still-open door. He turned to see the woman heâd met earlierâNatasha, from support systemsâand motioned for her to come in. She was tall and slim, and he had a feeling her body type belied her capabilities. Phil had told him that even the support staff knew how to kick ass.
Natasha would run the computers when they were on missions. Get them supplies. And right now, she might be his best friend here, because she asked, âWhat do you want to know?â with a small smile playing on her lips.
She looked behind her and moved closer, rather than shutting the door. Whispered conspiratorially, âHeâs been working here for years. I think he was Philâs very first recruit when he started EE, but his fileâs nowhere to be found. New partners always ask for it. Heâs also former Special ForcesâSEALs, I think.â
âRight. And I think he was in the CIA, too.â
Worse. So much worse. He wanted to bang his head against the desk, and she seemed to sense that. âHeâs really not that bad, Tom.â
Yeah, okay. âWhatâs his real name?â
Natasha smiled broadly this time. âWhy donât you ask him?â
Because I donât really care. âI will.â He paused. âWaitâyou donât know yourself, right?â
Natasha shrugged. âIâve given you more than youâll get from him in a year.â
It still didnât stop him from asking the question he of all people had no right to ask. âWhy canât he keep a partner?â
âIf it helps, they all want to keep him. Heâs the one who disengages.â
Now that was interesting. âHeâd kill you for giving this away.â
âI know. But he messed up my supply order twice. I warned him.â
Tom couldnât help but laugh as she slipped out the door. Maybe there was hope for this place yet.
It was only when he went to shut the door that he realized that the thing on the other side of the fairly large room was a desk. Covered with a tarp of some sort.
Prophet kicked the door open seconds later, which explained the black scuff marks on both sides. He was carrying a can of Coke and a box of donuts balanced precariously on files. All of it got dumped on Tomâs desk.
âWeâre sharing an office?â
âTechnically, youâre sharing my office,â Prophet pointed out.
âAre you going to be a dick the entire time weâre working together?â
Prophet smirked. âIâm what they label ânot good with authority,â Tommy.â
âGreat. And itâs Tom.â
âBut youâre not an authority figure, so as long as you donât act like a dick, we shouldnât have a problem, right?â
âSeriously, Iâm going to kill you,â Tom told him, then muttered, âIf I canât hide the body well enough, it will be so worth it going to jail.â
âI heard that,â Prophet called over his shoulder as he left the room with the donuts.
âI meant you to.â
So he was stuck with an asshole who happened to be former Special Forcesâand a possible POW, according to the mystery videoâand CIA to crazy-assed mercenary whoâd been allowed to roam the earth shooting things and amassing destruction in his wake.
And he rescues people too. Helps those who canât help themselves, Tom reminded himself. Because this job paid well, sure, but the missions werenât frivolous, and they were never against the interests of the United States.
Yeah, so the bastard is a walking paradox.
Heâd partner with the guy for this job, prove himself to Butler, and then heâd ask to work with someone new. For all he knew, Prophet the Great would do the same thing.
How bad could it possibly be?
He opened the one email he found and stared at the ticket that popped up, revealing his first trip.
In a small office.
For three months.
So yeah, it was bad. Really, really goddamned, motherfucking horribly bad.
Then he saw the actual email, which started, âProphet will share the mission plans with you.â
Because Prophet, of course, was nowhere to be found.
There was nothing else of any help to him but a âwhat to pack for the extended tripâ missive and a âdonât bring your own weaponsâ clause. He slammed down the lid of the computer, grabbed the cord, and walked out of the EE offices to his Harley. Maybe a long-assed ride would make everything better.
He had to move forward, because there was nothing to go back to. Sometimes, having no choice made every decision, no matter how bad it seemed, easier.
No weapons his ass. Prophet never went on a trip without a little something of his own, didnât give a shit that the Eritrea office had enough C-4 to blow up the country and then some. He liked something on his own person at all times, and the ceramic knife would pass muster easily enough. His go bag was always packed, one at home and one here at the office. Now he locked away some of the weapons he wouldnât risk, and prepared to do nothing but prep until takeoff. Which shouldâve been tonight, as far as he was concerned, but there were always reasons.
His new partner had gone home. Emailed him and said heâd meet him on the plane, as if Prophet gave a shit. Asked for the mission plans, which Prophet reluctantly had Natasha deliver to him. They didnât send shit by email when they didnât have to, no matter how secure. Messenger and then burning the evidence was the way Phil had learned to do things, and it was still the manâs preference.
It was also his preference to have EE tucked away from the busier cities. Thatâs why EEâs main office was a large house located several hours outside of Manhattan. Moderate weather for a good portion of the year, easy access to both the small local airports and the major international ones too. Ten support staff worked the day shift on a rotating basisâsame with the night staffâand on any given day there were a couple of operatives wandering through the halls. And, he supposed, Phil Butler was ever present.
The office also had a twenty-four-hour on-call support staff in case they needed backup. EE was a twenty-four-seven job, and everyone who worked here treated it as seriously as if they were an operative in the field. Because the operatives in the field depended on those men and women behind the desks.
Phil had a real hard-on about the buddy system lately. Yeah, it was safer for most, but Prophet had left that team shit behind. Didnât mind being anyoneâs backup on and off, but heâd be damned if heâd rely on someone like that.
Have to start relying on someone soon enough, as Phil liked to remind him.
Instead of going home, he hung out in one of the bedrooms on the upper floors of the office building. Heâd gone over the file four times. Didnât need the map to tell him shit about the area, not like the fucking new guy, and as much as Prophet wanted back in the field, he could think of a zillion other places heâd rather go.
He paced the floor like an angry lion, tugging alternately at the casts. Felt like they each weighed a thousand pounds, and Doc had refused to take them off for the mission.
âYou can shoot with castsâuse both hands. Or use a knife. Or let your partner cover you,â was all Doc had said. And dammit all to hell, he knew Prophet didnât need a partner, could do a proper job of hand-to-hand and wetwork with the casts by himself, a skill learned by necessity. And when Prophet had told him so in his most disgruntled tone, Doc had responded easily, âSo you donât really need the casts off, do you?â
âSo what, this is like a life lesson? Because I donât like those,â Prophet had told him, and Docâd merely grunted.
Around one in the morning, he showered with plastic bags on his hands and arms, which was a pain in the ass for washing anything, grabbed the well-worn Shogun paperback from his desk to tuck into his bag along with his computer, thought about going out for a drink, and decided on the diner for food instead. Ordered enough to put him into a comfortable food coma, and flirted with the waitress who was forty years older and kept squeezing his cheek.
He opened his laptop, logged in using his phoneâs secure Wi-Fi, and then entered the surveillance code into the private program that allowed him to check on his apartment. It had been wired six months earlier so he could monitor it without ever having to set foot in there. His was a second-floor walk-up with open loft space. It had once been an industrial building, and heâd bought the top two floors. The bottom two belonged to an international financier, which Prophet assumed meant spy. And Prophet assumed the guy, named Cillianâand yeah, heâd made fun of his name alreadyâknew what he was too. They looked out for one another and the building, but theyâd never actually met face to face.
He hadnât even known Cillian had wired the damned place until he got the guyâs IM late one night.
Hope you donât mind, but I took several security measures you hadnât considered. Hereâs the link to your alarms and cams.
Usually, you ask if someone would mind before you do shit like that, heâd IMâd back.
Better to ask forgiveness than permission. Iâve heard thatâs your motto.
Itâs a good motto when Iâm the one doing things Iâm not supposed to. Good alarms, though, Prophet had conceded.
From there, theyâd checked in often enough. Flirted, really. Prophet had even considered IM sex once, when heâd been bored out of his mind in Eritrea, but there had been a bombing outside his door just when things had gotten hot. Kind of ruined the whole moment.
This time, Cillian had been gone a week, according to his last message. There was nothing out of place except heâd stolen his lamp back.
Prophet had never actually seen Cillian without his buttoned-up businessman disguise. Knew the guy was dark haired and clean-cut. Former SAS, judging by the way he carried himself.
It was a very distinctive stance.
He typed, You took the lamp.
After a few seconds, Cillian IMâd back, I imagine you sound indignant as youâre saying that.
You broke into my place.
Several times. And are we having a bit of selective memory that you broke into my place to steal it first?
Life runs more smoothly on selective memory. He decided against telling Cillian that the couch would be his next acquisition. Iâm leaving for a while.
New case. New partner. Why heâd typed that, he didnât know.
Cillian was too sharp to let it pass. Youâve never mentioned a partner before.
Iâve had several.
Work partners, Cill. Mind out of the gutter.
Itâs more fun there. You and I both know it.
Prophet grinned at the truth in that.
So, youâve had several partners but never mentioned any of them before. What is it about him?
Fuck, heâd gone this far. Might be a permanent pairing. Thatâs whatâs being threatened anyway.
And how is he?
Pain in the ass.
Canât imagine heâs not saying the same thing about you. There was a long pause and then, Must run. Someone just tried to kill me.
Canât imagine why.
Prophet clicked off to have the last word and continued eating.
His cell rang a little after two. He juggled three phones: EEâs, a private one Phil didnât know about and therefore couldnât trace, and a third that only one other person in the entire world had the number to. A person who tied Prophet to his past so thoroughly that the yoke could choke him if he thought about it hard enough.
But tonight Prophet noted that it was quiet on that front. As it should be. As it needed to be. He didnât want any ghosts coming out of the woodwork.
This was the EE phone, the ring set specifically for ButlerâNazarethâs Hair of the Dogâand he picked it up on the first ring.
Phil paused. âI didnât want to tell you over the phone, but Iâm on my way cross-country and didnât want to sit on this. Iâve got some bad news. Itâs about Christopher Morse.â
âIs he hurt?â
âHeâs dead, Proph.â Prophet closed his eyes as Philâs words hit him like a physical punch. As if Phil knew, he paused momentarily before continuing. âThe police found his body in a dumpster a few days ago, but there was no ID. They had to use dental records, so heâs already been autopsied.â
If heâd been autopsied, they suspected foul play. âHow was he killed?â
âYouâll have to get that intel from the coronerâs report. Heâs rushing it for me now that heâs got a positive ID.â
Fuck. Prophet fisted his hands, as best he could, on the dinerâs table and thought about the old scars under his casts, made with barbed wire wrapped around his arms and hands, ankles and feet, scars that always reminded him of whatâwhoâgot left behind.
Not your fault, Proph, his team had said. But heâd never believe it.
Phil cleared his throat. âYou do want to check this out, right? Or should I send someone else?â
âIâll go,â Prophet said, well aware of how hollow his voice sounded.
âI can do this one alone.â
âYou shouldnât have to. Do whatever you needs to be done to give Christopherâs parents some peace. Iâll give Mick the other case. Natasha will drop the file to you any minute. She knows where to find you.â
Because Phil insisted on GPS chips in all their phones and other devices. And Phil could turn them on remotely if an operative decided to turn them off. âOkay.â
âKeep those fucking casts on.â
Phil hung up, but Prophet cursed him up and down under his breath anyway. Five minutes later, he had the file from Natasha, along with new plane tickets for five that morning.
He thought seriously about not calling his new partner and just going alone, but he didnât need to hear Philâs shit about it. Besides, once Tommy fucked up, Prophet would have the excuse to get rid of him.
* * * * *
The phone rang in the middle of Tomâs dream about a phone call and Prophet. He grabbed for his cell as he checked the time.
Three in the morning.
âForget the file.â Prophetâs voice, rough but not from sleep. How Tom knew the differenceâfrom watching the video about thirty times since this afternoonâand why he cared was another matter entirely. âWeâve been reassigned. Coming to get you in twenty.â
He hung up. Tom didnât question how the man knew where he lived or his private cell number. With Prophet as a partner, he supposed privacy was a thing of the past.
With that in mind, he made sure his computer password was set, and he locked it down tight.
He was already packed, so he used his precious time to set coffee to brew, and then jumped in the shower with mostly cold water to keep him awake. Sleep had been interrupted by his inability to shake the video images of Prophet from his mind.
As an agent, he used to get mysterious, often classified intel on a regular basis. But that was years ago. Before getting the video of Prophet, the most important email heâd gotten was an invite to the firemenâs annual gumbo cook-off.
Heâd saved a copy of the video file on a thumb drive, and hid the original among his computer files, along with the original email. Maybe EE had ways to trace it that he didnât know about. A lot had changed in the five years heâd been out of the FBI. At first heâd attempted to stay up to speed, but trying to keep a hand in the world he was trying to quit hadnât worked. Heâd eventually broken ties completely and gone back to his old ways, which included more backdoor hacking and do-it-yourself fixes than protocol had ever allowed.
The FBI didnât want him back. The parish didnât want him as their sheriff.
But Phil Butler had come in and offered him a chance. A chance with a fucking maniac for a partner. Prophet was impulsive. Reckless. Lethal. And sure, in the video heâd been under what mightâve been POW circumstances, but having met him in a non-life-threatening situation hadnât changed Tomâs opinion. The guy could pull Tom into trouble far too easily, or at least not be able to pull Tom back from his own special brand of impulsiveness.
Tom knew he had to be on his best goddamned behavior, whether Phil came out and said so or not. Phil was testing him, and rightly so. But more than that, this was also about him and his own personal demons, and his ability to conquer them. If he was really going to get back in, he had to hold himself tight and not get lulled by a partner whose style included building a bomb in his office.
What had Phil been thinking with this match?
When Tom finished with his shower, he toweled off as he walked into the kitchen. Poured his coffee. Stilled with the cup halfway to his mouth, and said, âI still have twelve minutes.â
âTwenty was the cap,â Prophet offered.
Tom turned toward the dark living room and saw his new partner sitting in the roomâs single chair, one leg swung over the side. He wore a green bandana wrapped around his head, covering his hair completely, and jeans that looked like theyâd seen better days. âHow did you bypass the alarm?â
âNot telling my secrets. Why do you live like a transient?â
His apartment was half of an old Victorian. An elderly woman owned the house and lived on the other side. She had round-the-clock aides, and her estate took care of the rentals. Phil had set it up, and Tom had been grateful. The place was old but spotless. Heat. A/C. A working kitchen, and wired for cable. A garage for his motorcycle now, and for the car heâd buy when they returned for the winter months in upstate New York.
He had two suitcases, ten boxes, and his Harley. That was his life.
âWhereâs the rest of your shit?â
âTrying to minimize my carbon footprint.â
Prophet rolled his eyes. âCajun hippie.â
âAnd I just got here.â
âBeen two weeks.â
How did Prophet know that? And what else did he know?
You asked about himâwhat makes you think he didnât do the same?
Tom refused to show weakness. A man like Prophet could sense it. âWhy do you have such a hard-on for me?â he demanded.
âItâs my job. Whatâs yours?â
âBeing your partner.â
âThat all, Cajun? Because Iâm thinking starting out lying to me is a bad thing.â
It probably was, and he was pissed at Phil for putting him in the middle. âI was told to keep you safe.â
Prophet nodded slowly in the dark. âI knew Phil would feed you some bullshit like that. You were told to keep me out of troubleâthereâs a big difference between trouble and safe.â
âWith you, I doubt it.â
Tom didnât know why heâd said that, like he already had some sort of familiarity with the man. Prophet caught it too, stilled. But all he said was, âYou donât know a damned thing about me. You gonna haul ass or what?â
Tom knew several damned things, some just from pure observationâlike the fact that Prophet could have a career as a thief and that he was a general, all-purpose pain in the assâbut he shrugged and drank his coffee on the way to his bedroom to dress. It was odd to no longer have a uniform of any kind. He supposed dressing like a civilian was a uniform in and of itself, since he was officially undercover.
If Phil told you to keep Prophet out of trouble, what did he tell Prophet about you?
He didnât think he wanted to know. Instead of focusing on it, he grabbed his gear, but stopped cold when he heard Prophet doing that singing/humming thing. The same tune from the videoâit was so clear he couldnât have mistaken it. He listened for a few minutes. Thought about telling the man what heâd been sent.
Then he dumped his coffee instead, flicked the machine off, and followed Prophet, who offered to do the alarm.
Tom let him.
Prophet drove an older-model Blazer that rode like it had something extra under the hood. The interior was fastidiously maintainedâthe only things out of place were the dog tags on the floor under Prophetâs feet. There were two cups of to-go coffee in the cup holders, plus a bag of fast food crap that Tom wasnât above eating to wake himself up.
âWhere are we going?â
âWe had to get up at 3 a.m. and pack to do that?â Tom asked around a mouthful of breakfast sandwich as Prophet tore along the highway.
âYou know how long of a drive that is?â
Prophet sighed. âWeâre taking a plane. You can read the files on the flight.â
Tom finished the sandwich and crumpled the wrapper as he eyed the speedometer. âDoes this happen oftenâthe case changing?â
Prophet turned to face him with a smile. âAnd here I thought youâd be able to roll with anything, Cajun.â
Never, he wanted to say. But instead, he pointed to Prophetâs casts. âWhat happened there? Did you punch your last partner?â
Prophet had turned his attention back to the road. âFunny, Cajun.â
âSo why does Butler have a hard-on for partners?â he asked, because the hating partners thingâalong with hating each otherâwas something they actually had in common.
Prophet sighed, like Tom was the most annoying person on the planet. âHe thinks that EE should be like other agencies in that regard, that partnering keeps operatives from going over the edge, going rogue, going crazy. That kind of shit.â He waved a casted arm for emphasis, barely hanging onto the wheel with the fingers on his other hand as the Blazer edged toward 90 mph. âEE doesnât have the same rules as the CIA or the FBI or even the military, which Iâm sure you already know, but Philâs a stickler for this partner shit. No getting around it. Not for long, anyway.â
Tom wasnât sure why heâd asked about partners. He definitely didnât want to talk about his past partners in particular. That subject always made his gut ache, so he nodded and dropped it.
Heâd agreed to work at EE, Ltd. because heâd assumed that a private contracting company would want people who were independent. Able and willing to work solo. Heâd been wrong about that, but heâd also been immediately impressed with Phil Butler. And he was willing to do anything to get back into the game.
âWhat exactly do you do?â Prophet glanced over at him, his gray eyes the color of an impending storm. âI canât partner with someone unless I know their deal. We have to be able to work together effectively.â
âYou donât even want a partner, so who are you kidding?â
âWeâre stuck with one another. You have my life in your hands. And vice versa. Itâs time for cooperation.â
Tom knew this would be a one-way street, but it didnât matterâhe wouldnât have Prophetâs life on his conscience. âI left the FBI five years ago. I was a field agent, not a desk jockey.â
But Prophet only focused on one thing. âLeft?â
âWas asked to take leave. A big fuck-up on a case. I resigned instead.â
âLet me guessâit was all a mistake. Not your fault.â
âIt was all my fault.â
Prophet looked at him with something akin to respect. If admitting failure was all it took, well, hell, Tom had a chance.
Whenever there was a ruckus at security, it was usually Prophetâs fault, so it was odd to see one already in progress as he walked toward the area with a soda as big as his head. And he was going through with the damned drink. Somehow.
âWhatâs going on?â he asked the TSA agent, who shrugged, checked his ID, and let him through. It was an odd time for a flight, so the airport terminal was quiet. Except for Tom, who waved his arms as he talked to security.
Prophet heard Tomâs choice curses in what Prophet assumed was Cajun French, and walked over to rescue his partner.
Who was actually supposed to be keeping Prophet out of trouble.
He wanted to video this and send it to Phil. Better yet, put it up on YouTube. But by the time heâd gotten closeâbecause heâd argued about keeping the soda with the second agent, telling her about hypoglycemia and the fact that it was only three ounces of soda and a lot of ice, and lost, and goddammit, someone owed himâTom had disappeared.
He pulled the Air Marshal badge heâd gotten for emergencies like this oneâand also because he was more than qualified to help out if there was any trouble on a flightâand asked the female guard, âThat guyâs with me. Whatâs the problem?â
âHe was randomly chosen for a pat-down. We found his piercings, and now heâs putting himself through the X-ray machine,â she said wearily, like sheâd seen it all before. And Prophet could only shrug in sympathy as they watched Tom climbing onto the conveyor belt and lying down flat on his back.
She motioned for Prophet to follow her. As Tomâs X-ray came through the machine, Prophet almost bit off his tongue. Clear nipple piercings and slightly more blurry cock piercings. Jesus, he hadnât expected that.
He swallowed hard, and a second agent sputtered, âHoly shit.â And then Tom was out, smirking at Prophet and the agents.
âI told you theyâre attached,â Tom said, starting to unzip his jeans. âWant me to show you?â
Prophet wasnât sure which one of them he was talking to, but he assumed it was security. To her credit, the female guard merely said, âActually, yes, sir. I wonât be the lucky one today, but youâre still going to need a full body search.â
Tom rolled his eyes, said, âOf course I am,â under his breath.
âThe ladies like that?â a male agent asked Tommy.
âMen like it more,â Tom told him, which confirmed to Prophet that the physical yank heâd felt toward the man hadnât been his imagination. Fucking accent.
âTo each his own,â the male agent said, while Prophet ground through his teeth, âWhy didnât you just take the damned things out?â
âWhy donât you just fuck off?â Tom bit out, and oh yeah, this was going well and they werenât even on the plane yet. As Prophet put his bag through security and walked through the metal detector, Tom went into a private room with two male guards and came out five minutes later, the men shaking their heads and Tommy still angry at the world.
âYou with him?â one of them asked, and Prophet nodded. âGood luck with that.â
One of the female TSA agents slid something into Tommyâs back jeans pocket, despite Tomâs earlier statement. And then she smiled.
Ignoring Tom and his bitching, Prophet led the way across the airport and onto the plane that was nearly finished boarding. It was still coach, which always sucked. But Texas coach was way better than Africa coach.
âSweetheart, please, some caffeine,â Prophet said to one of the flight attendants as he passed the small room that housed the beverage carts. âCoke would be fine. Several of them. Full cans, not the bullshit little glasses.â
He was handed two full cans as soon as he sat. He downed one immediately and opened the other. Found Tommy staring at him. âGuess youâre not a morning person.â
âI donât count four in the morning as morning,â Tom said crankily, and stretched his long body as much as he could so his shirt came up a little. He hadnât bothered to tuck anything in after the strip search, and he looked disheveled and way different than he had at the office yesterday afternoon. And cramped in the small space. âIâm going to sleep.â
Maybe Tom wanted to, but the guy was way too twitchy for that. Not angry any longer. More like distracted. âScared of flying?â Prophet asked.
âYeah, sure,â Tom said, barely listening to him as he plugged in headphones. Prophet shrugged and gave up.
The flight was pretty crowded, but their middle seat person didnât show. Once the doors closed and the plane was moving toward the runway, Prophet took the opportunity to stretch his legs across the space. Tom was shifting in his seat, unable to settle in. He had his eyes closed and Bose noise-canceling headphones on, probably hoping they could cancel out his partner.
Good luck with that. Phil always said Prophet could push Mother Teresa to her limits. âIâd take it as a personal challenge,â Prophet had told him, and Phil had done the pinching the bridge of his nose while muttering thing.
The announcement from the captain broke into his thoughts. Delay on the tarmac . . . back-up on the runway, third in line, or some shit like that. Other people groaned and the plane powered down a bit, even as the pilot reassured them that it wouldnât be long.
He thought about heading to the cockpit to check things outâhalf the time, he ended up knowing the pilot or found out they had someone in commonâbut decided against it. Mainly because he was still playing Air Marshal, but also because Tommy was still decidedly nervous.
He prepared to relax, maybe grab some sleep, when his internal warning radar went off. Heâd always had more situational awareness than most, but the training heâd received brought it to levels that sometimes drove him nuts.
He was turning in his seat casually, trying to assess what the hell was happening, when Tom opened his eyes, took off the headphones and said, âSomethingâs wrong.â
Musicâs a big part of my writing process. Each book has its own soundtrack, and although there are a lot more songs I used during the writing of Catch A Ghost, here are the standouts for me, including the lyrics that best explain why they fit in with my vision of either the characters or the storyline as a whole.
* * *
CLOSE TO THE BORDERLINE (Billy Joel)
I thought Iâd sacrifice so many things
I thought Iâd throw them all away
I didnât think I needed anything
But you canât afford to squander what youâre not prepared to pay
* * *
WORLD WITHOUT END (A.A. Bondy)
So donât leave me behind
For Iâm lost among my kind
And now you are broken
I am less
* * *
TRY AND LOVE AGAIN (The Eagles)
Right or wrong, whatâs done is done
Itâs only moments that we borrow
But the thoughts will linger on
Of the lady and her song
When the sun comes up tomorrow
Well, it might take years to see
Through all these tears
Donât let go
When you find it you will know
* * *
CALL ME (Shinedown)
I finally put it all together,
But nothing really lasts forever
I had to make a choice that was not mine,
I had to say goodbye for the last time
I kept my whole life in suitcase,
Never really stayed in one place
Maybe thatâs the way it should be,
You know I live my life like a gypsy
* * *
SHINE A LIGHT (The Rolling Stones)
Angels beating all their wings in time
With smiles on their faces
And a gleam right in their eyes
Thought I heard one sigh for you
Come on up, come on up, now
Come on up, now
* * *
SIMPLE MAN (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Boy, donât you worryâŠ youâll find yourself.
Follow your heart, lord, and nothing else.
And you can do this, oh baby, if you try.
All that I want for you my son,
Is to be satisfied.
* * *
SHORT CHANGE HERO (The Heavy)
I canât see where youâre cominâ from
But I know just what youâre runninâ from
And what matters ainât the whoâs baddest but the
Ones who stop you falling from your ladder, cause
This ainât no place for no hero
This ainât no place for no better man
This ainât no place for no hero
To call âhomeâ
* * *
PLUSH (Stone Temple Pilots)
And I feel that timeâs a wasted go
So where you going âtill tomorrow?
And I see that these are lies to come
So would you even care?
* * *
GONE GONE GONE (Phillip Phillips)
When life leaves you high and dry
Iâll be at your door tonight if you need help, if you need help
Iâll shut down the city lights,
Iâll lie, cheat, Iâll beg and bribe to make you well, to make you well
When enemies are at your door Iâll carry you way from more
If you need help, if you need help
Your hope dangling by a string
Iâll share in your suffering to make you well, to make you well
* * *
HOME (Phillip Phillips)
Settle down, itâll all be clear
Donât pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
* * *
DESERT SONG (My Chemical Romance)
Will it ever come?
Spend the rest of your days rocking out
Just for the dead
Will it ever come?
I can see you awake anytime in my head
* * *
IF I EVER LEAVE THIS WORLD ALIVE (Flogging Molly)
If I ever leave this world alive
Iâll take on all the sadness
That I left behind
If I ever leave this world alive
The madness that you feel will soon subside
So in a word donât shed a tear
Iâll be here when it all gets weird
If I ever leave this world alive