Click. Click. Click.
Resting her arms, Mallory Hart inspected the pictures of a bald eagle she’d just shot on her digital camera. Hiking in the San Juan Mountain range of the Rockies was one of the best places for her to shoot nature scenes, which she’d then upload to stock photo sites for sale. She currently had over a thousand of them on various websites, and the extra income helped pay for her college classes, text books, and supplies.
After taking a few more shots of the majestic bird soaring overhead, she glanced at her watch: 2:30 p.m. She had about another hour before she had to start back down the marked trail. It was approximately two miles to where she’d parked her six-year-old, gray Toyota Corolla. Her friends thought she was crazy to go hiking alone on Wednesdays when she didn’t have any classes scheduled, but she liked the solitude. It wasn’t often she came across another hiker this far into the wilderness during the middle of the week, and she always made sure she didn’t stray far from the main trail. Just in case she did run into trouble, in her backpack was the satellite phone her father, who was retired from the Marines, insisted she have since it was difficult to get a cell signal sometimes. There were also two bottles of water, a few granola bars, a compass, and spare batteries for her camera. Clipped to her jeans was a container of bear repellent.
A scurrying occurred behind her, and Mallory spun around to try and spot the small animal that had caused it. Her gaze flickered around the brush and trees, but there was no creature in sight. High above her, birds sang and squirrels chittered. The unusually warm weather in the mountains for late March had brought some of the wildlife out of hibernation early.
Squatting down, she tried to see if a red fox, wolverine, or porcupine might be looking for food. The sound had been too big to be a chipmunk or squirrel, and too small for anything larger. She searched high and low. Nothing.
A breeze lifted her blonde hair off her shoulders, and an odd chill went down her spine, causing her to pull her lightweight jacket tighter around her body. She was in the middle of the wilderness, high on a dirt trail, surrounded by aspen, cottonwood, and evergreen trees, some shrubbery, and rocks, yet she felt as if she were being watched. There was a gentle, downward slope to the east, leading to the small lake, and a more precarious, upward one to the west.. Scanning the area around her, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She hoped like hell it wasn’t a cougar or wolf. A bear would make a lot more noise than those two carnivores—especially if it didn’t realize Mallory was there.
Deciding to start back toward the parking area, she kept her eyes out for wildlife she could shoot with her camera and any that might be a threat. After glancing back over her shoulder a few times, she began to relax a little and her mind went to what her boyfriend had planned for their date tonight. She’d been seeing Kevin McCarthy for a few weeks now, and things were starting to get serious. He wanted to take things further, however Mallory was nervous about it. She wasn’t a virgin, so that wasn’t the problem, but she hadn’t been lucky with men in that department. The boy she’d lost her virginity to at sixteen had been sweet while they’d dated, but he’d left her for a girl he met in college while Mallory was still a senior in high school. The only other guy she’d been with had been after high school graduation, and he’d dumped her shortly after she’d put out. She’d learned too late he’d only been looking for another notch in his bedpost.
Those were the only two men she’d ever slept with. Number three might have been a guy in her freshman year of college, but she found out the bastard in her English Literature class had a bet with his friends he would be in her bed in less than a week of dating. Mallory had sworn off the opposite sex for a while after that, concentrating on her schoolwork and photography instead. After a year of not dating, she’d finally broken down after Kevin had pursued her for several weeks. But with her past history of dating jerks, she was now gun-shy about sleeping with him.
She’d only gone about a quarter of a mile on the winding trail, when she stopped short. There was bear scat in the middle of the path, and from the stench, it was recent. It had to be, because she’d have noticed it when she came that way fifteen or twenty minutes ago.
“Shit,” Mallory mumbled to herself. The unintended pun was lost on her as her gaze darted around again. “The last thing I need is a fresh-out-of-hibernation momma bear with her cubs.”
Another rustling sounded to her left, and she shifted in that direction. Again, she couldn’t help but feel like someone was studying her. She hadn’t seen any hikers in over forty-five minutes, and the last ones had been two middle-aged women who’d been out birdwatching, and they’d been a lot closer to the parking area.
Letting her camera hang from the strap around her neck, Mallory unclipped the bear spray from her belt loop and carefully continued down the path. Rounding another curve, she gasped and froze when a large figure stepped out from behind a tree. Her heart pounded in her ears as she stared at the burly man dressed in military-style clothing. His unruly dark hair needed a trim and so did his beard and mustache. A jagged, two-inch scar ran from his upper lip across his right cheek. He was over six feet tall and almost as wide. A large knife was sheathed and strapped to his leg. While she didn’t see any other weapons, that blade was enough to scare the crap out of her. Mallory gripped her bear spray tighter as the man grinned at her.
“Hey there, pretty girl. I didn’t mean to scare you.” His leer belied his rumbling words.
Mallory tried not to show she was afraid. Swallowing hard, she hoped her voice sounded strong and unaffected by the fear coursing through her. She pasted a fake smile on her face. “It’s okay. You just startled me is all.”
“Uh-huh.” The man stepped forward, and Mallory moved backward. “I scared you. I can see it on your pretty face. What’s your name?”
She knew better than to tell him the truth, so she answered the first name that popped in her head. “Susan.” Sorry for borrowing your name, Mom.
“Susan. Pretty name for a pretty girl.”
The way he kept calling her “pretty” sent shivers down her spine. He took another step closer, and her gut churned. “Thanks, but if you don’t mind, I’m in a hurry. I’m meeting people back at the parking area.”
An ugly sneer crossed his face. “Oh, I don’t think anyone is waiting for you. I think you’re lying and I don’t like when people lie to me.”
When the creep moved even closer, she started to lift the bear spray, more than willing to press the red button if she had to. Suddenly two arms wrapped around her torso from behind, pinning her own arms to her side. She screamed as she was lifted off the ground, her body twisting, trying to get loose. The spray bottle dropped out of her hand as she flailed her arms and legs. The man in front of her laughed when she tried to kick him, and grabbed her ankles with his dirty paws, holding them to the side. Mallory opened her mouth to scream again, but her throat went dry and her eyes widened when he unsheathed the huge knife and held it in front of her face.
“Stay quiet, pretty girl, or I’ll cut you into little pieces.”
Sitting in the cockpit of Trident Security’s jet, Ian Sawyer stared out at the blue horizon above the gray clouds below. Beside him, his pilot, Conrad “CC” Chapman, a retired Air Force captain, was thankfully not in a talkative mood. They were flying the Omega team to Colorado for their final training mission before letting them loose without being under the watchful eyes of the six members of the original Trident team. The plan was to drop them in the wilderness with the bare-bones minimum of supplies and a two day hike back to civilization to see if all the months of bonding and training had paid off. With new governmental and civilian contracts and missions coming in weekly, Ian and his brother, Devon, who co-owned the private security company, had spent the past sixteen months or so putting together another cracker-jack team. In addition to a West Coast team, which was still in its infancy as well, they would no longer need to subcontract additional personnel for many of their missions and cases. But all of that was not in the forefront of Ian’s mind.
Back in Tampa, another submissive from the BDSM community had gone missing, and it was probably only a matter of days before her mutilated body would be found at some public spot. Brenda Arliss would be the serial killer’s twelfth victim, unless she’d disappeared under other circumstances, which Ian doubted. He and Devon, along with their cousin Mitch, also co-owned an elite, private, BDSM club, and were worried one of The Covenant’s subs would be targeted before the FBI and TPD figured out who the killer was. Hell, just knowing any woman, sub or not, from his club or not, had been tortured like the victims had been burned in his chest.
Six weeks ago, one of the Doms from The Covenant had been brought in by the FBI for questioning, but had been released due to insufficient evidence. A DNA test and the solid alibi of being under surveillance by the FBI when Gina Spinak, the eleventh victim, had been snatched, had assured his innocence. The Dom apparently also was able to account for his whereabouts for when several of the other women were abducted, but was being stubborn about revealing the information unless it was absolutely necessary. Ian figured it was because he’d been with a submissive who was in the public eye, but he couldn’t be sure. Either way, the man was no longer a suspect, but that meant the FBI/Tampa PD/Trident Security task force was back to square one—again. Despite the head of the local FBI’s objections, TS had been brought in as consultants due to their connections and involvement in the lifestyle.
The door to the cockpit swung open and Tempest “Babs” Van Buren stuck her head in. “Coffee? I’m making a new pot because Batman’s is crap that’s not fit for human consumption.”
Babs, short for her call sign “Bad-ass bitch,” had been an Air Force helicopter pilot who’d been assigned to assist Ian’s SEAL Team Four and a Marine unit in Afghanistan years ago. Her moniker hadn’t come from an attitude problem, but because she’d been one of the most talented and bravest helo pilots around. She’d received numerous commendations during her tours in the devil’s sandbox, the last one being a Purple Heart after coming under heavy enemy fire while extracting a few Marines from enemy territory. The tail rotor of the helo had been hit and failed, but thanks to Babs’s talent in the sky, they’d been able to get far enough away from the hot zone, before she had to do a hard landing. What the Marines who were with her hadn’t known until after the crash was she’d taken two bullets in her left leg, shattering the tibia and fibula, yet she’d still managed to fly the disabled bird. The doctors might have been able to save her limb had it just been the initial injury, but further damage was done when they crash landed. After being rescued, she’d been flown straight to a military hospital in Germany, where all efforts were exhausted before they’d finally amputated the leg before sending her back to the States to recover.
Before the female captain had been released from the hospital here in the US, Ian had gone for a visit and offered her a job with Trident. Once she’d gotten over the shock that she was still going to be able to fly a helicopter for missions, she’d accepted. Now, when she wasn’t piloting their MH-X Silent Hawk, a military-grade, stealth bird, she was also an ace mechanic and maintained their fleet of vehicles, along with new hire Russell Adams. Most people didn’t even realize Babs used a prosthesis unless they saw it. After training with the Trident boys for the past few months, she was entering her first marathon since losing her leg, having completed several of them while still in the Air Force.
CC waved Babs off, but Ian stood, and when the woman stepped back into the cabin, he followed her to the rear of the jet where there was a fully stocked kitchen. The rich aroma of coffee, which couldn’t be coming from any convenience store brand, hung in the air, tantalizing his nose and making his mouth water. He grinned. “What? You don’t like sludge anymore? You used to suck that shit down in the sandbox.”
She let out an unladylike snort. “That’s because I had no choice. Here, I do.” Opening a cabinet, she pulled out a bag of whole beans from the Death Wish Coffee Company, dubbed “the world’s strongest coffee” and a grinder he hadn’t known was in there. “I made sure to hide my own stash on board.”
“Damn, woman, you’re a saint.” Grabbing a clean mug, he handed it to her to fill.
“Saint Babs.” She smirked as she poured the coffee and handed it back to him. “I kinda like that. Although, I’m sure all the dead popes would roll over in their tombs if I was canonized.”
Taking a sip of the dark brew, Ian’s eyes fluttered shut as his taste buds rejoiced. “Fuck, that’s good. Hide it from the peons out there. They haven’t earned it yet. Hell, they may never earn it. When we get back to Tampa, order a case of this and stash it in my office. It’s almost better than sex.” When Babs lifted an eyebrow at him, he shrugged. “I said almost.”
Shaking his head, Ian turned and studied his new team, who were scattered about the luxury jet’s seating. They came from a variety of military branches and law enforcement agencies. Cain Foster was sleeping in one of the recliners. The former Secret Service agent was very experienced with flying all over the United States and could fall asleep on a plane before it’d even taxied down the runway. Ian had seen him doze through several flights only to wake up completely refreshed as soon as the landing gear was lowered. He’d been one of their first hires for Omega and had quickly risen to the top of their list of who would lead the team. In the end, they’d chosen him and Tristan “Duracell” McCabe, who was sitting on one of the couches reading a political thriller, to be co-leaders.
McCabe was a retired Army Ranger, who’d been shot in the arm a scant few weeks before his last tour in Afghanistan ended. He’d still been recovering from the wound when he’d come to work for Trident. Both men excelled at leadership, and had experience and knowledge the other didn’t possess—Foster was skilled in personal protection and dealing with social settings, and McCabe was an ace when it came to desert and jungle warfare. Together, they’d been the perfect choice to lead the team.
Lindsey “Costello” Abbott and Logan “Cowboy” Reese were sitting at a table with a backgammon board open between them. Abbott was a retired Marine sniper with an impressive number of combat kills. Despite her experience in war, she was a laid-back person off duty. She was pretty hot, too, which she used to put her enemies at a disadvantage—she didn’t look deadly, and by the time people realized she was, it was too late for them. She’d quickly earned the respect of both the Alpha and Omega teams during training exercises and a few missions and cases she’d been involved with so far. While Jake Donovan, the Alpha team’s sniper, had been out in San Diego for the past year and a half putting together the Trident Security West Coast team, Lindsey had filled in on both Tampa-based teams.
When they’d been going through the candidates for Omega, Ian and Devon had known they were taking a huge chance on hiring Reese. The former MARSOC—Marine Corps Special Operations Command—Raider had been one of seven Marines taken hostage by insurgents in Iraq thirty months ago. Two of them, Reese and another man, had been the only ones to survive the week as ISIS prisoners of war. The others had been tortured to death, and the remaining two Marines had been scheduled for the same fate before being rescued by a joint MARSOC-SEAL operation. Reese was still dealing with PTSD, but as far as Ian could tell, he had it under control with the help of weekly therapy sessions, which were mandatory for him to remain with Trident. Despite his traumatic experience, he’d already proven he was a kick-ass addition to the team.
Sacked out in another recliner was Valentino “Romeo” Mancini, the pretty-boy of the group. Like many people have said about Jake Donovan over the years, Mancini had “Hollywood” looks. That and his apparent “love ’em and leave ’em” attitude toward women and relationships had led to his moniker. The retired Army SF soldier had come to Trident from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, bringing his own experience in dealing with certain critical scenarios.
Darius “Batman” Knight had been a known entity to Ian and Dev before joining Trident, having served on SEAL Team Four with the original six-man Alpha Team. After several tours, and dozens of dangerous missions, he’d heard Trident was looking to expand and had immediately put his name in the hat of potential candidates. It had been a no-brainer for him to be offered one of the positions.
Rounding out the team, the final member was Kip “Skipper” Morrison, a retired Army SF and Los Angeles Police Department sniper, who was watching a movie on the TV with Batman. He was originally from the Tampa area and had taken the position with Trident in order to come back and help his family. His parents were divorced, and his father had remarried and had two younger children. When their father and stepmother had been killed in a car accident, Kip and his sister had stepped up to raise their half-siblings, a boy and a girl, ages nine and thirteen, respectively. They were still catching flak from their mother, who’d remained bitter about her divorce after all these years, but Kara, an elementary school teacher, and Kip knew they were doing the right thing raising the orphans. Ian gave them a lot of credit. So far they were doing a fine job as the children’s guardians.
After the months of training, Ian was convinced he and Devon had chosen well, and was confident there would be no regrets. Back in Tampa, the new team also had Nathan Cook as their support contact. The uber-geek had been hired from the NSA—National Security Agency, and Trident had needed to get permission from the government to bring the man into the private sector. Thankfully, the contract they’d all signed enabled Cook to still log into the NSA’s mainframe for research, since most of Trident’s missions were the result of government contracts.
Once they landed at a small airport outside Montrose, Colorado, they’d drive into the mountains to a small town named Ouray. Then tomorrow, the team would board a Blackhawk helicopter with Babs at the controls. It’d been easier to contract out a local, private aircraft instead of flying their own bird from Florida to Colorado. The flight company’s pilot had agreed to ride shotgun as Ian had wanted his entire staff working as they would in the field. The team would fast rope into the mountains with a two-day hike out. Provisions would be minimal, ensuring they worked together for survival. They would have a satellite radio, which was only to be used in life-or-death situations—a broken leg wouldn’t qualify. With their combined experience, they’d easily be able to get their injured party back to the extraction point.
Movement from the two rows of first-class-style seating at the front of the jet caught Ian’s eye. A pair of arms stretched over the back of the seat, and he smiled. His wife/submissive Angie had woken from her nap. He took a step forward then stopped and glanced down at the coffee in his hand. Grimacing, he sighed, took a final mouthful of the delicious brew, and poured the rest down the sink.
Bab’s stared at him, horrified. “That’s a sacrilege.”
“I agree, but the smell of coffee is one of the things that turns Angie green at the moment. Until her morning sickness passes, I can’t bring it within ten feet of her.”
Chuckling, she toasted him with her mug. “And you called me a saint.”
He opened the galley’s refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of Coke and another of ginger ale. Striding through the cabin, his stomach growled—if he was hungry, then Angie must be starving. He never thought there would come a day when she would out-eat him, but when she wasn’t sick to her stomach, she was filling it, which was fine with him. What wasn’t fine was that some of her food cravings made his own stomach sour. Pickles and ice cream had nothing on his wife’s choices these days.
“Nice to see you awake, Angel.” He held out the bottle of ginger ale to her. “Did you sleep well?”
Her face lit up when she saw him, and she patted the seat next to her, before taking the soda from him. He felt a stirring in his groin as he sat. Fifty years from now, when they were old and gray, she’d still be beautiful and make him want her. “Thank you, and yes, I did. Where are we?”
“About an hour from the airport. Do you want something to eat?”
Before she had a chance to answer, her stomach did it for her by rumbling. Ian smiled and placed his hand on the small swell of her abdomen. He couldn’t wait to see her belly grow with their child because she really wasn’t showing yet. But her breasts had already grown larger and more sensitive, which he loved.
“What’s on the menu?”
“I had food services stock a few of your favorite, weird cravings.”
Her smile grew, and he knew he was about to cringe at whatever she said next. “Bacon and Hershey’s syrup?”
Yup, talk about a sacrilege. “No, but I can make you mayonnaise on cinnamon raisin bread, peanut butter and baloney on rye, or there’s vanilla ice cream and honey barbecue chips.” She loved to mix them together, and Ian couldn’t stand to watch her eat it—or any of the other weird combinations of food for that matter.
“A mayo sandwich, please. And a Yoo-hoo, if there is some.”
Rolling his eyes, he stood. “I hope Jordyn craves that if Carter ever gets her pregnant.” Their friend, who was a US spy, hated even looking at mayo for some reason.
Heading back to the galley, Ian knew no matter what his Angel wanted, he’d get it for her—even if it was something physically impossible, like the moon. However, that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to gag in the process.
©Samantha A. Cole 2017