“YOU DON’T GOTTA ACCEPT THIS.”
Staring at my older brother, hands shaking like a fiend in NA, I don’t see shit.
“I know you think they minds is made up, man, but you gotta fight this thing.”
As a kid, I fought for food and respect.
As an adult, I fought for free college and the dumbass next to me.
The only thing I couldn’t give less of a shit about if it were blocking a latrine in the men’s barracks, is freedom.
Fighting for someone else ain’t never did shit for me.
“Are you listening to me, Freeman?”
I don’t respond.
I was past talking the day the only defense attorney that would meet with me, told me that getting discharged and rotting in prison would be a dent in what I owe the U.S. government.
And I joined the military to avoid prison. Imagine that.
Well. Fuck all of them.
Eight years of decorated service. More than half of them spent seeing shit I wish I didn’t and negotiating hostile situations as part of the Marines Special Operations Command.
I was the youngest officer in my class to join the raiders and was on my way to making a career out of a nothing life.
Instead it took everything I had and left me with exactly that. Nothing.
I can’t even get angry. Just numb.
I’m not sure why his next words are the bough that breaks, but I break the silence. “Come on, Freeman. You got a family. Faith.”
“Filed for a divorce.” I wish that was the worst of it. Nausea wrecks my gut all over again, venom filling my mouth.
Wishing he wouldn’t ask, but knowing better, I answer before Lamar can ask the question. “I had her followed after I found a pregnancy test in the trash.”
I cut him off with a look.
My brother’s discomfited sympathy makes the nausea worse. Swallowing malice and tasting pain, I try not to remember the casual way my wife of just two years had looked me in the eye and told me with joyful deception that she was thirteen weeks pregnant when she was really six weeks—with another man’s baby.
But Faith is the least of my fucking worries at the moment.
My life is over. I’ve been disgraced. Made a mockery of.
Everything I’ve done in eight years, tainted with the scandal of my poor choices.
I trusted the wrong people and paid for it.
Lamar doesn’t want to admit it. I don’t want to face it. But that doesn’t change the facts. I made a bad call, and there’s a lot of people who want to watch me hang for it.
“Damn, man…” my brother’s voice chokes off.
I sigh, taking another swig of Maker’s.“Yep.”
Unable to put off the inevitable, I make up my mind. I’m done.
I gave the U.S. Military everything and it fucked me several times over. I’m not their scapegoat. All my decisions were made with integrity.
This one is no different.
“I’m not fighting it.”
Lamar shakes his head. “You gonna be in Fort Leavenworth before the month’s out, man.”
I don’t tell him a military prison is a vacation compared to the worst of it.
WHEN LAMAR LEAVES mom’s, I lock up, pour a few fingers of Maker’s into a glass so I don’t feel like an alcoholic, and stand in front of the old herb and vegetable garden that hasn’t been kept up with since our mother died.
Wilted vines, discarded from a tomato plant are almost as depressing to look at as I am.
I could use a joint right about now, but too many years with a rigid stick up my ass keeps me from calling my wife’s—ex-wife’s— cousin. Not that he’d sell to a custo in uniform, anyway.
After two fingers, I curse Faith’s name.
After two more, I can be honest enough with myself to admit that more than my marriage was coming to a head, eventually.
She’d been unhappy for a while and being a military wife was not at all what she’d expected.
A pre-law student at the time that we met, she was bubbly, social. But after a year of living together, it’d become clear that Faith and I were not compatible in life, after love ran its course.
She never met a stranger and liked dinner parties and shit. I hated noise, crowds made me want to throw up and panic attacks were a dime a dozen.
Not to mention, she was young. Too young and now that I look back, I don’t know what I was smoking, marrying a damn college student.
I wasn’t husband of the year by any stretch, but our generational differences had doomed us from ’I do.’
Something changes the air and in an instant, my neck hairs raise. My reactions slowed from the alcohol, but my instincts still sharp, I smell her before I hear her.
Ten steps southeast.
My trigger finger twitches, and I sober instantly. My hand on my Sig, I study the shadow in the corner of the living room I grew up in.
“Lamar,” I call out, though I know it’s not my brother standing behind the wall.
The gait’s off. Definitely female.
“Put the gun down, Mr. Booker,” a smoky alto says. A soft hint of a French accent, I can’t place the dialect. The woman finally steps out of the shadow and into my living room.
“The bottle too.”
Wondering if I’m having a bad reaction to the whiskey or if I’m officially losing my mind, for the first time in my life, I don’t know how to respond.
I don’t lower my gun, though.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The woman rolls her eyes, shaking her silver blonde hair. At least in her early fifties, slim, wearing all black, she has a stern look about her that I’ve only seen in marines.
I know what I’m looking at, but I don’t know who and I don’t like that.
My newfound notoriety has made me a liability. I’ll never work in spec ops again—not even as a merc.
Whatever she’s doing here, we don’t have a damn thing to discuss.
I rack the pistol. “You got thirty seconds to get the fuck out my house.”
Relaxed against the arch separating my foyer from the living room, the blonde fox smirks at me like I’m some idiot pool boy. “Freeman Ulysses Booker. Born November 19th, 1988, to Carolyn and Dewayne Booker. Youngest of two children, you and your oldest brother, Lamar Booker. Straight A student through high school, three sport athlete. Had a partial scholarship to the West Point military academy but enlisted in the marines after graduation, instead, completing an officer track five years later—Interesting decision.”
A college application costs a week’s worth of groceries, a new coat or half a light bill…The military was feeding my family. West Point wasn’t. Not that I have to explain myself to a stranger. “What do you want?” I grit out.
“I am not unaware of your circumstances,” she says, frowning. Stoic, icy-blue eyes fuck with my nerves. “I am sorry if I am coming across as such but make no mistake, Mr. Booker, you have gotten yourself into quite a bit of trouble over the last year.”
“What’d you say?” It’s a dumb question. Everybody and their mother know who I am.
“I know you are edging toward the brink of alcoholism. I know you have been seeing the doctor for hallucinations. The reality of your situation is that atonement for your mistakes will not change the fact that your life will never be what it was, no?”
I blink, feeling a hundred years old. “Even if I was interested in hearing you out, I’m done making people like you, rich. That’s why you’re here, right?” War is a profitable business, but my bullshit aside, no job is worth treason. Even I have standards, apparently.
Damn, I need another drink.
The tall blonde’s eyes tighten as she watches me refill my glass with the Maker’s. “I saw you visited the precinct this morning.”
My glass pauses at my mouth. “CIA?”
Laughter, rich like a Harlem jazz singer, surprises the fuck out of me.
Not CIA, then.
She confirms. “The organization I work for is employed by several governments, but not backed any one.”
I’m not sure why, but I get the sudden feeling that whoever this nameless woman in my living room is, she’s not willing to leave without getting what she came for.
Desperate people are unstable people, and I don’t like that either. My grip on the gun tightens.
“Organization,” I stall for time.
“With the kind of resources local law enforcement do not have access to.”
That gets my attention.
Not because she has something I want, but because she clearly thinks she does.
I take a sip, letting the smooth burn of the alcohol carry my problems with it. “Congratulations?”
Blondie’s patience must be at her threshold because in a move so fast, I barely see it, she grabs my glass, sets it on the counter. And cold as fuck, without hesitation, she levels me with six words. “We know who murdered your brother.”
“You do not know me. My name is Elaine Moulin and I do not have very much time to explain, but my… employer has started their recruitment phase for the year and I was chosen to propose a candidate. I would like you to consider my offer. In return, as a token of my deepest gratitude, I will hand over the man we have determined is the same who stabbed Lamar Whitney Booker on April ninth of last year.”
“How do I even know you got the right guy?” For all I know, they tortured some rando fuck into a confession. Military, law enforcement—don’t matter. They’re all the same and I wasn’t raised to grab at dangling carrots.
Elaine Moulin makes bored and pissed look like one emotion. “Operators within our ranks have access to technology that is technically against federal law in the States. Meaning, your law enforcement agencies do not have access to our networks.”
Cool as hell, she smirks. “Meaning, Detroit PD is backed up to their eyeballs. That evidence could have sat for months. Thanks to me, this is not the case.”
I frown. “What evidence?”
Her gaze cuts to mine and like a stone-cold bitch, her next works suck the oxygen from the room.
“We have reason to believe your brother’s fiancée was having an affair with Angel Alvarez.”
Trying to make sense of the words, but my scrambled brain too fucking slow, I stare at my drink. “I’m not following.”
Goddamn it, Lamar.
If this shit’s got cartel on it, I’m as fucked as my career.
Her eyes flick to mine. “Lamar interfered with a dangerous man’s obsession. It did not matter that she was his betrothed. If Alvarez felt they had a bond that superseded Jamilah’s relationship, he was willing to kill for her.”
Clearing my throat, I ask something I shouldn’t. “Where is he now? Alvarez.”
While Elaine Moulin considers this, I note the custom dark red pantsuit, Louboutin heels, and platinum rock on her finger, and my first thought is that she’s wild for wearing half a mill in this neighborhood.
But something tells me she wouldn’t even be standing here if she didn’t know how to be invisible.
Her blonde, shoulder length hair swings with her steps. Then I realize something.
This rich broad just dangled the bait, and like a rookie, my dumbass latched.
“That is not how this works,” she says, doing that tsk-ing with her teeth. “In this world, information and favors are the only currency.”
I want information. She wants a favor.
Elaine continues and the more I listen to her explain just exactly what I’d be agreeing to, I can’t help but hate that this is what it’s come to.
Just a year ago, I might have paused to think about it. Stopped to consider the consequences. But that’s what’s scary about offering a bone to a man with nothing to lose.
He’ll grasp at the scraps.
Grasping at mine, I sell out, making a choice that was never really one at all.
“What do I have to do?”