Northeast Thailand Jungle
Nine Months Ago
“I count four rebels. Confirm, over.” Hades melted back into the jungle, once again indistinguishable from the night.
“Check.” Taz’s whisper came over his earpiece. “One circling the perimeter, one guarding the cave. The two we followed in are chowing down by the fire. Last supper.”
That the Thai rebels were confident enough to have a fire meant they were still juiced from hijacking the missile convoy two nights ago. The rebels clearly thought the hard part was over; thought all they had to do now was turn over the merchandise and collect their pay.
“Good,” Hades breathed into the mic. “Bastards won’t know what hit them.”
With less than an hour before sunrise, they barely had time for a wham, bam, in-and-out. And if the Burmese extremists currently funding this little exercise in Armageddon showed up to take possession of their new toys before Hades and Taz finished this op, their collective pooch was screwed. Raiding the encampment with the Burmese also on-site would ramp up the odds from two against four, to two against fifteen. A major suckfest.
Damn. There was that phrase again. Suckfest, suckfest. Who used to say that? Not Taz but…
A sudden jabbing behind his left eye truncated the thought. Hades’s vision dimmed as the ice pick of pain wrenched deeper into his brain. The swiftness and severity sent him reeling to one side. What the hell?
Nausea burned his throat as the vertigo worsened. A salty, acid-tinged taste puckered his mouth. He stumbled into a tree and grabbed for it, ready to puke. Gritting his teeth, he drew air in through his nose.
Stay on task.
Don’t think of anything except the primary objective.
With his brain still half paralyzed with pain, he struggled to grasp the concept. Primary…objective. What was it again?
The rebels. The missiles.
Jesus! How could he forget? The Burmese extremists would arrive soon. They didn’t have much time. If they failed–
“We will complete the operation,” he whispered.
And the moment he refocused one hundred percent on the current operation, the pain, the disorientation vanished. His sense of relief was so profound that endorphins flooded his system, helping him to recoup instantly, with a bonus hard on. Gotta love testosterone, baby!
Twisting his head from side to side, Hades cracked his neck.
“Repeat that last transmission,” Taz whispered.
“I said, time to close down this freak show. Ready?”
“Hold your position three minutes while I neutralize their scout. Then move in.”
“Over and out.”
Hades crept away, stealth once more his ally. This particular camp, built around one of the many caves that honeycombed the area, had been used so frequently that a trail encircled the site, making it easy for the rebels to navigate with only a sliver of moonlight.
Made them easier to kill, too.
As nasty as the Thai rebels were in their own right, he had to keep in mind they were only couriers – hired to transport the contraband. The real stench came off the Burmese extremists. The fact that the extremists planned to sell the weapons to al Qaeda terrorists made Hades’s blood boil. Anything al Qaeda was the spawn of pure evil.
And while the thought of capturing one of the Burmese extremists and making them talk was tempting, gathering intel wasn’t part of this assignment. Ensuring that the SOBs didn’t score any fireworks to kill and maim was as good as it got this go round. But God help the bastards next time.
Circling a rock outcropping, Hades hunkered down. The jungle was hyper-quiet now, sharpening his senses. The moss beneath his boots felt spongy, the air scented with a funky mix of spore and mold. A slow, steady trickle of anticipatory adrenaline kept his muscles warm; ready.
He slid of his black SOG fixed blade knife between his teeth, freeing his hands as he mentally rehearsed, mapping the steps he’d take.
Just ahead a twig snapped, telegraphing the rebel guard’s approach.
Hades waited until the guard passed. Then in one fluid motion he straightened and stepped onto the path behind the guard. Ensnaring the man’s shoulders with one arm – while slapping his other hand over the man’s mouth – Hades snatched him backwards.
Immediately the guard tried to drop low. Hades almost smiled. He’d seen this move before with the Thai military – the quick slump to see if the six-foot-three muscle-bound American could keep up with the Thai’s superior agility and speed.
But Hades countered just as quickly. His hand dropped, locking across the guard’s jaw and twisting his neck to expose his throat. The SOG flashed downward and across, slitting the man’s jugular and windpipe.
The guard convulsed and dropped his weapon, horrified at the pulsing sensation of his very life spurting out onto the dirt. He raised his hands to the gushing wound. For naught.
Scooping up the dead man’s AK-47, Hades followed the path back toward the camp. Thus far, the job had been easy. Clockworkish. Which left him vaguely unsettled. Why?
Don’t question. Just act. Be like Taz.
Taz moved like an invisible grim reaper; strong, silent. Deadly. Be like Taz.
Despite their lack of radio contact, Hades suddenly knew that Taz had just slain a rebel who’d stepped away from the fire to piss. At times like this the two men’s psychic bond heightened to an unholy link. Which made them a powerful team. If they ruled the world–
“Shit.” Taz broke the silence. “One of ‘em failed to raise your mark by radio. Now he’s headed your way.”
Too late. Hades and the rebel spotted each other at the same time.
Having led with his gun, the jittery rebel squeezed off two rounds. Hades dove sideways into the thick brush and scrambled away unharmed knowing he’d never be that fucking lucky again.
Staying low, he paralleled the guard who now screamed for back up, officially mooting their silent-death MO. If the extremists were close it was game over.
High overhead, a band of monkeys screeched as they scattered through the treetops, their sleep disturbed. Great. As if the gunshot hadn’t been warning enough.
Taz’s voice came through his earpiece again. “Nice and quiet. That’s you, mate.”
Kiss my ass, Hades thought.
Grabbing a baseball-size rock, he tossed the stone a good twenty feet away. When it landed, the guard swiveled toward the sound. Hades pounced, taking the man down with a full body slam before he could fire again.
Just before snapping the guard’s neck, he caught a glimmer of the man’s final thought – Don’t fight. Surrender.
Kind of late for that.
“You good, mate?” Taz asked.
“Yeah.” A little too good. Like this was a video game he could play blindfolded; points awarded for kills. He was defending champ. And he would remain champ. Ready to take on the next level.
Hades cracked his neck again, this time seeking to relieve the ripple of unease that tick-tocked inside his head. What was wrong here? Fuck-ups traveled in packs. So far this op had been too easy.
“All clear,” Taz said, confirming he had eliminated the fourth rebel. “I’m going in.”
“I’ll be right behind you.”
Rain started to fall, the heavy drops pinging like beads as they struck the canopy of leaves. Hades ignored it as he crept cautiously into the rebel camp. The fire spewed smoke now, doused by rain and a kicked over stew pot.
Snuggled in a lush valley between jungle-clad low mountains, the camp lent an ominous meaning to the road less traveled.
He glanced around the camp. The place was neater than expected. Orderly. Moving closer, he paused to check the slain guard lying near the mouth of the cave. Damn it, what was taking Taz so long?
“You find the goodies?” Hades whispered into his mic.
“Not yet. This cave’s got more than one room.”
“Make it fast.” They had less than forty minutes to get back to the extraction point. If unexpected company showed up–
“Found it,” Taz reported. “And– Well, well.”
“Get in here.”
Hades ducked into the cave, eager to see what had his partner sounding pleased. Had Taz stumbled onto an even larger cache of weaponry?
“Come straight back twenty feet, then left,” Taz said.
The larger cavern was dimly lit by Taz’s shaded flashlight. Hades spotted Taz’s pack on the ground at the same time he sensed the presence of others.
Two dark-haired women cowered in the corner, their feminine scent contrasting with the foul smells of bat guano that permeated the cave. The women were prostitutes. That they were bound and gagged confirmed they weren’t trusted by the rebel brigand.
One woman let out a muffled cry.
“Shhhh-” Taz attempted to calm her as he moved closer, but the woman physically cringed as if trying to make herself smaller.
Then Hades got a glimpse of the woman’s thoughts and did a mental back up. She recognized Taz and was frightened…because Taz had raped her before; more than once. Right there on the cave floor. Hades shook his head. That was impossible. She was wrong. They’d never been here.
Still the woman was terrified, sobbing behind her gag. It made Hades recall another woman crying. A woman from his past. A man had been bent over her. Not Taz, surely, but…another man. Intent on…rape.
God! He couldn’t stop it back then, but he’d be damned if he’d let it happen again. If Taz so much as touched the woman, he was going down.
At that thought, pain perforated the inside of Hades’s head. What is past is forbidden. He staggered backwards, equilibrium shattered as what felt like an axe slammed into the base of his skull.
“Leave them,” Hades snapped.
But Taz had already tugged the woman upright, ignoring her awkward struggle of refusal.
“She said no!” Hades tackled Taz. In spite of their bond, in spite of all they’d gone through, he’d kill Taz if he took the woman against her will.
His head now threatened to split into piece. The pain became dual-headed monster. One-half breathed fire when he thought about the woman – the other woman from his past. And the idea of fighting Taz – his brother in arms, a man he’d sworn to die for – caused saw blades to cut into his nervous system.
“What the hell is your problem?” Taz roared.
The pain quadrupled causing Hades’s grip to weaken. He tried to maneuver the other man back into a spread eagle, no easy task since they were physically well matched. “Leave her alone!”
“You goddamn idiot!” Taz yelled. “I want to release her. They’re innocent women, for God’s sake. No need for them to die.” Taz freed an arm and slugged him full on.
Hades’s neck whiplashed, his jaw feeling like it had shattered, yet part of him welcomed the pain. It actually seemed to clear the internal agony.
“Hit me again, motherfucker,” Hades taunted. Grabbing Taz by the ears, he slammed the man’s head against the stone floor.
“Gladly!” Taz head butted Hades’s chin with a solid crack before grabbing his throat.
Fresh agony exploded inside Hades’s brain and with that he gained perfect clarity. Jesus – what were they doing here? This wasn’t real–
Instantly a new spiral of pain ripped down his spine. Don’t think. Remember the primary objective.
“The mission is not complete,” Hades ground out between anguished breaths. “We have to destroy those missiles before the extremists arrive.”
Taz’s blank stare cleared, as if he’d hit internal RESET switch. Nodding, he released Hades.
Rolling sideways Hades pushed unsteadily to his feet, then stood over Taz. “And we have a goddamned chopper to meet.”
Blood trickled from Taz’s nose. He ignored it, holding Hades’s gaze before accepting a hand up. “I still owe you one, asshole.”
A flicker in the opening to the cave caught Hades’s attention. “Behind you!”
He shoved Taz sideways as one of the rebels that had been left for dead charged forward, knife in hand. Though gravely injured, the man managed to bury the blade in Hades’s shoulder before Taz attacked the man and quickly finished him off.
“I swear I checked him before!”
“Yeah, well. Now we’re even.” Hades breathed heavily, panting.
“That should have been in my back.” Taz pointed to the knife protruding from Hades’s shoulder. “You want me to–?”
At Hades’s nod, Taz dug a bandanna from his pocket. Grasping the hilt, he yanked the knife straight back before jamming a cloth against the wound.
Hades grunted. The pain sharpened, but faded quickly. Too quickly. It always did. Déjà spooky vu.
They needed to get out there. Before… Before…
“We’re wasting time. Set the charges.” Unsheathing his SOG again, Hades moved to the far wall where the women huddled.
Having just witnessed the guard’s death, the women’s fears distorted their expressions. Rape was no longer their only concern.
He sent one woman a calming thought. Immediately her features softened, baffling her companion who clearly viewed the two men as dangerous.
Women were easy to influence; in different circumstances, he might even implant a tie between them making her totally acquiescent. Except she wasn’t his type.
The thought struck him as peculiar, because for the life of him, he couldn’t recall his type. And damn it, he had one. A fantasy lover who made his blood heat with nothing more than a come-hither gaze. She wasn’t easy. She wasn’t persuadable.
The SOG made short work of the women’s bindings. Hades waved them toward the entry. Disbelieving, the women edged sideways before climbing to their feet and fleeing toward the mouth of the cave.
Taz jammed a detonator into a brick of C4 and activated its timer. “That’s the last one. Ten minutes and counting. Go!”
Grabbing his backpack, Taz hustled toward the cave’s entrance. Hades followed. Outside, they began running full out, charging through the jungle. The eastern horizon was beginning to lighten. Dawn was imminent. So was something else.
Once more, Hades had the feeling that this was familiar. The jungle. The rushing. The suffocating sense of impending doom.
Don’t be fooled again. Don’t trust anyone.
That voice was different, yet familiar. Run. Get away. Hide.
Shit! Heat started fissuring inside his head as if trying to block the newer voice. But now he knew how to combat it.
Jabbing a finger into his knife wound, Hades tore his flesh open, inviting the searing pain. Or rather, the mental lucidity it brought.
They weren’t running to.
They were running from.
“They’re coming. Go faster. Get away.” That was Taz and the terror in his voice was unmistakable.
Hades ripped away the earpiece and radio and let them fall to the ground. Taz did likewise, matching him stride for stride as they veered off the muddy path.
Pain spiked beneath Hades’s skull. Withdrawing his SOG, he sliced his palm open, clearing his mind once more.
All of this was familiar because they’d played this game before. And lost. They always…fucking…lost.
“Do you remember?” he shouted to Taz.
“They always come at the end of a mission.” Taz had his knife unsheathed too and slashed his forearm through his shirt. “They control us. Our thoughts.”
“Not always. We can’t let them win this time. Remember our plan.”
Hades cut into his own flesh again. This time the throbbing in his head subsided long enough for a startling memory to burst forth.
Remember. Who. You. Are.
“I am…Max. Max.” Jesus. He wasn’t Hades. He was… “Max.”
Behind him the air woofed with the report of a gun being fired. Something struck and pinched his upper left back. Goddamn it! Reaching over his shoulder he grasped the silver dart, yanked it free and tossed it away.
He shifted his knife and cut deeper into his hand, again and again until the fog lifted. Remember. Remember.
He was Max Duncan. C. I. Fucking-A. His partners, Dante and Harry were dead. The three of them had been on assignment.
Max had been captured. Held.
Sweet Jesus. Max wouldn’t have survived without Taz’s help. Taz had taught him to remember; had beaten the shit out of him to force him to remember, to keep the will to live. And Max had returned the favor. Over and over. They’d keep doing it until they were free. Or dead. They’d sworn a solemn vow, sealed in blood. All or nothing.
“Run!” Max shouted. “Remember our plan. Four. Zero–” The sedative had started to kick in, slowing his feet. He knew what came next. He knew. “Go. I’ll meet you there.”
“Won’t leave you behind!” Taz looped Max’s arm around his shoulder and attempted to drag him. “Never leave…a man behind.”
“Damn it! I gave you an…order!” He tried to shove Taz away. “If you escape, we have a chance.”
Another gun fired and Taz flinched as he too was darted. “Crikey! Not again.”
“Remember plan.” Max fell to the muddy ground as if in slow motion. “Remember…who you are.”
His muscles locked up one by one now, a chain reaction that left his body paralyzed. His face felt cold. Icy needles stung his eyes. At what point had the rain turned to sleet?
Max blinked, desperate to recall the memory of warmth. A fire. Friends gathered around flaming logs. A woman’s soft touch. Waking to lovemaking. Soul-stirring kisses. His fantasy lover was back. Soothing his body as she kissed her way down his chest, lower, lower – opening her mouth to take him in.
Memories. True or false he needed those memories. He needed to pretend someone cared. That it mattered to someone that he lived or died. For where they went next was frigid. Desolate. Barren.
The agony inside his head mushroomed, totally blotting out his vision. No more dawn; no more hope. All was dark.
He tried to talk, couldn’t. He heard voices. Not English. Russian? Thai? Martian? Yeah. Familiar Martians. And they were drawing closer. They brought the cold. Remember. Remember.
“B-b-but they set the bombs. The mission was accomplished.” An uncertain voice. Male.
“…they fought over the women.” This man, the Russian was older. Heartless. “And neglected to look out for one another.”
“B-b-but in the end…he pro-pro-protected Taz.” The man stuttered, nervous. Always so nervous. He feared the Russian; knew secrets about the Russian. Secrets the nervous man worried could cost him his life.
“Another failure,” the Russian snarled. “Should have…”
“We will start over!” The Russian shouted angrily now. “I won’t rest until it’s perfect.”