Ryder shifted through the crowd gathering behind the police barricade. A local news crew panned the scene from a vantage point to his left. In front of him, a young blonde lifted a wide-eyed toddler to her hip, giving the kid a better view. Gunshots fired had turned into a three-ring circus complete with spectators and media crews.
Crime scene tape snapped under his fingers before he made the conscious choice to proceed. A uniform cop moved to intercept him, but Ryder stopped him with a glare. Menace was an art form he’d studied for twelve years in the Army. He knew how to intimidate without a word, without a weapon. Could kill as easily.
No one stood between Ryder and his men. Ryder dialed back the tension bunching his shoulders. He scanned the scene, gauging overall mood and readiness. Time didn’t allow for more than superficial recon.
A row of patrol cars created a barricade behind which officers lined up, guns drawn. They faced a nondescript ranch house on five acres of hard dirt. A pickup truck was parked under a stand of trees, the only shade for a good ten miles. The shade didn’t help much; it was Texas summer hot.
Nervous energy spread like gossip through the officers on this side of the scene. They were getting trigger-happy the longer the standoff lasted. Jittery men did stupid things.
Ryder walked through the line of patrol cars. No one noticed until he placed his body between the police and the scene of the crime. A last line of defense for the soldier in the barricaded house.
Expletives exploded behind the cop cars. Ryder let loose a sarcastic grin and turned; sure he had their attention now. He lifted his hands so they didn’t feel compelled to shoot him. The energy in the open field shifted from unease to outright distrust. Sweaty grips tightened on guns. Every eye in the area focused on Ryder and judged him a million kinds of fool.
Ryder met their uncertainty with cool resolve. Today’s mission involved getting PFC Madigan out alive, which put Ryder in the hot seat. Times like this, he missed the adrenaline rush: the increased heart rate, the quicker thinking, and increased energy that presaged a good fight.
“Sir, step back,” a male voice spoke into a bullhorn.
Ryder shook his head no. He raised his voice for the camera and the crowd. He didn’t need a bullhorn. “I served with the man inside the house. You want this to end peacefully?” He nodded at the camera. “Let me go in and talk to him.”
More expletives before a tall, slender man wearing a ballistics vest stepped to the west end of the barricaded cars. Tall like a Jolly Green, the man’s shadow stretched across the desert, the setting sun casting him in silhouette. Any half-trained soldier coming off a three-day bender could take him out. The soldier trapped in the house qualified as exceptionally trained. Ryder had done the training.
Ryder held his position, protecting both sides from bloodshed. “Sheriff,” he guessed, rightly so when the man nodded. “I was on the phone with your suspect when you arrived on scene. We’ve established rapport. Let me go in before the situation escalates.”
It wasn’t a question. Ryder didn’t back down. Another news van pulled up in a billow of dust. The crew jumped out, filming on the fly.
A sidebar conversation happened behind the cars while the cameras whirred. Even at sunset, the temps were in the triple digits. The heat factor fueled tempers. Voices raised and lowered with curses and outrage.
Standing between the police and their suspect, Ryder didn’t break a sweat. He absorbed the heat, used it to fuel his system. Guns from both sides pointed at him. The police maintained their vigil, while inside, Madigan would do the same, his sole focus on the troops massing in his front yard. “Mad Dog” Madigan was a weapons specialist. He would have the scene covered.
While the sheriff and his men deliberated, Ryder’s backup moved into position through the rear of the house.
The phone in his back pocket buzzed with an incoming call. He reached and guns lifted to the top of the cars. His hands stayed steady as he pulled the phone out, keeping his movements slow and deliberate. The voice on the other end reached his ears before the phone did.
“Please tell me these reports aren’t live.” The Texas drawl didn’t calm the panic in her voice. He could picture her pretty face, brows raised in frustration. Her hands fluttering as she spoke.
“They’re live.” Regret closed his eyes for a barely perceptible moment. Lauren. He’d told her he had to go help an Army buddy. “This is me helping a friend.”
“With guns pointed at you?”
“Sometimes, that’s what it takes, baby. I gotta go.”
He clicked off and dialed Madigan. The call connected without a word spoken. The soldier’s breathing pattern was high and erratic, which concerned Ryder more than the police standoff. Every damn thing about this situation felt wrong. None of this shit was the way they were trained. Hell, Ryder would have sworn emotion had been beaten out of them until he heard the sob on the other end of the line.
“No shit.” He kept his tone low and measured, aware of the audience.
“I’m coming in whether they let me or not. Keep it holstered.” He pocketed the phone and looked across the yard to the sheriff. The other man’s gaze hid in twilight shadows, but his stance read more relaxed than the rest of his men. “Sheriff, I have him on the phone. This is your one chance to end this standoff without bloodshed.”
“How do I know you’re not taking another weapon inside?”
The smirk came natural to Ryder. Who was the sheriff kidding? Madigan stockpiled enough weaponry to start a civil war. The cache of weapons was what kept the sheriff’s men hunkered down instead of going inside. Ryder lifted his shirt and turned slowly, he even smiled for the cameras as he proved he wasn’t armed or dangerous. Well, the dangerous part was open for interpretation. “I’m not losing another soldier, Sheriff. That’s a promise I made my men when we came back.”
There wasn’t a soldier alive who didn’t know the odds. Twenty-two suicides a day. Not today. The words were a prayer. Too bad Ryder had nothing left to believe in or pray to. Sometimes you had to handle shit on your own.
“You can shoot me in the back for the cameras if you want, but I’m going in.”
He didn’t wait for a response. The dirt shifted under his boots as he spun and headed to the front porch. Ants circled a discarded pizza box on the welcome mat. The stench of rancid cheese hit him as he grabbed the doorknob, which turned easily in his hand. Ryder pushed into the house. Gloom shrouded the entryway.
“Close the door.” The voice came from the black void several feet to the right. “Lock it.”
“Not my first rodeo,” he said, but moved to comply. “You hung up on me earlier today, Mad Dog. We didn’t finish our conversation.”
They followed a strict protocol. No matter where a soldier lived, if he called, someone came running. No questions. They weren’t going to be part of some fucked-up statistic. Ryder was geographically closest to Madigan, so he dropped everything, kissed his new wife, and hit the highway. Rose had moved in from the north, and they’d arrived about the same time.
“I shouldn’t have called. Shouldn’t have involved you. I woke up—” Another hiccup from a hardened warrior. What the ever-loving hell?
“Nightmare?” They happened, and when they did, they felt real. Sounded real.
“I called before I had time to pull my head out.” Madigan’s tone calmed. “Before I could pin down what was real, a shitload of cop cars came barreling down the drive. How the fuck did they know to show up?”
“Good question.” Ryder kept his tone slow and easy as he catalogued the surroundings, waiting for his backup to come at Madigan from behind. Ryder was the distraction. They weren’t losing another soldier.
“You did the right thing, calling me. That’s the deal. Live by the team.” They might be out of the Army, might be disillusioned and disgraced, but they were still a fucking team.
Could they still be having side effects after all these months? “How much time?”
“Hours.” The anguish in Madigan’s voice turned the dark hall into a black hole. “I’m afraid to turn on the light. Find out what’s real.”
“The hell you are.” No fear wasn’t just a motto. “Pack that shit up. Concentrate on the situation. Where are Maggie and the baby?”
“They’re my life. You know that?”
“I do. So let’s end this so you can get back to living.”
Sniffling sounded from a corner and Ryder was closer to triangulating Madigan’s position. He could take him in the murky light, but Madigan’s eyes were already acclimated to the black void. He’d have the upper hand. Darkness was Ryder’s friend, helped him focus, but today, night vision didn’t give him the advantage. Ryder reached to the wall and patted until he hit a switch. He flipped the light.
“Fuck.” Madigan shielded his eyes with one hand while the other aimed a gun at Ryder.
Where the hell was Ryder’s backup? Rose was supposed to take Madigan from behind, but Mad Dog’s back was now against a wall. Madigan backed himself into a corner looking every bit like his call sign: Mad Dog. A halo of red hair capped a tall, lean body smeared with war paint. The wild expression on his face surpassed insane. Blood covered Madigan’s hands and bare chest as if he’d painted himself in some twisted ritual. His eyes were dilated.
“You on drugs?” Maybe drugs explained the panic that shouldn’t be there. And the lost time.
“No.” Madigan scrubbed a hand over his eyes. “At least I don’t think so.”
“What does that mean, Mad Dog? You know better than to experiment with that shit.” With everything they had had pumped into their systems, even alcohol was a gamble.
“I didn’t, not on purpose, Ryder, I swear, but I woke up with the worst fucking headache. Disoriented.”
They’d all experienced those symptoms at least once. Shit. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I went into town to get pizza. Maggie didn’t feel good and the baby was fussy. I thought—” He pounded his forehead with the hand holding the gun. “Why the fuck can’t I remember?”
Hours ago. “Your truck’s out front. Do you remember pulling into the drive?”
“Yeah.” He pounded the back of his skull into the wall. “Maggie screamed. That’s what I remember. She screamed. I bolted. God, I can’t believe— I wouldn’t, but I had to, it’s only me in the house. And I’m covered in it.” His voice rose. “They’re my life.”
“Calm down.” Something was seriously fucking wrong, because the soldier stank with fear. Ryder took two measured steps closer.
“Stay back.” Madigan lifted a handgun and aimed at center mass. “Don’t take another step.”
Ryder paused. “I’m not afraid of dying.”
Keep him talking. “Did Maggie leave you?”
“I wish.” Panic lifted his voice. “Not the way you mean. I don’t remember, but it had to be me.” An unfocused haze covered his eyes in a thin white film. “I’m the only one here, and there’s so much fucking blood.”
“You’re not making any sense.” Two steps closer. “Sitrep,” he barked, demanding a situation report from the soldier.
The order snapped Madigan’s shoulders to attention. “They’re dead.” He twisted his bloody hand in front of his hazy eyes as if the five fingers held the answers. “They’re my life.”
Seconds later, something in his eyes went hard. Determination replaced the haze, causing a shift in the soldier’s stance. All the training and the mood-altering modifications clicked into place until Mad Dog metamorphosed into a warrior.
Madigan knew how to kill and he’d finally settled on a target.
“The pain ends. Right now.” Madigan turned the gun to his head. “No fear.”
Ryder launched across the space, but he wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet. Blood spatter hit him before exposing the ruined skull of a man Ryder considered a brother. Mad Dog was a soldier, a protector, and a killer. Where did one start and the others begin?
Rose barreled down the stairs at the sound of gunfire. “What the fuck?” He took in the sight of the fallen soldier. They’d seen death. They’d lost teammates, but they’d never lost one like this. Train a man to kill, take away the fear, and suicide was too damned easy.
“Wife and kid are dead,” Rose confirmed. “Bloody fucking sacrifice. Just like Kandahar.”
One of the special teams had turned sadistic in Kandahar and taken out a local village. Bad press didn’t begin to cover the fallout. The organization reacted swiftly, shutting down the program and denying any and all knowledge. Contracts were severed. Their service records heavily redacted. Overnight, the entire team was out. Out of the military, out of the war, out of the only life they knew. Team Fear took the fall.
Nothing about Mad Dog’s situation could leak. Fallout from a failed government program on U.S. soil would be catastrophic. If the company investigated, retribution would be swift and fatal.
“I know. Get out,” he ordered. The cops didn’t need to know Rose had been in the house. “Rendezvous at zero three hundred hours. If I’m not there, you go underground.”
Rose vanished up the stairs. Outside, some idiot on a bullhorn issued threats he couldn’t hear inside the macabre house of hell.
Ryder leaned against the wall, and then slid down as the world shifted under his feet. Was this what it meant to be fearless?