They continued walking on in silence. North followed Addison past several closed doors under the ever-present security cameras, hidden behind black hemispheres embedded in the ceiling.
They turned a corner, passing the door that led back to the elevators. Ashley was standing there, her hands behind her back as she blocked the door. She stiffened when she saw them.
“Hi, Ashley,” North said as he passed.
She bowed her head, avoiding his eyes.
“Come on, North,” Addison said. “There’s no going back now.”
Hearing Addison’s words, Ashley leaned back, pressing her body against the door, stepping sideways to block the handle. She looked up at North, her cheeks pale, eyes wide. Her lips were trembling.
North shrugged and walked through the door at the other end of the hall. Addison locked it behind them.
“If I wanted to cut and run,” North said, “do you really think she could have stopped me?”
“We’re short on people. We use who we have.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally.”
North let him pass and followed him down a short hall that opened into a conference room.
A laptop computer and a projector rested at one end of a dark polished wood table. Twelve chairs were available but only two were occupied, one by a man and one by a woman. North didn’t recognize either of them.
“Sit,” Addison said harshly, as if commanding a dog.
North glared at him for a second before taking a seat across from the others. Addison stood at the head of the table near the projector.
“I’m Rod North,” North said.
“Elizabeth Holland,” the young woman answered, her thin lips neither smiling nor frowning. She met his gaze with icy gray eyes. Her short auburn hair was cut in a bob at an angle to match her sharp jawbone. She was wearing a black sleeveless button-down business top, showing off her tan, well-toned arms.
“David Jeffers,” the man seated near her said. “Just call me Jeffers.” He greeted North with an informal salute. His hair was tied back, ample gray in the blonde ponytail. His face was weathered and covered in gray stubble. He was dressed in a pink polo shirt and khakis. His rumpled appearance struck North as better suited for a beachside pub than an office building.
“Nice to meet you both,” North said.
“Likewise,” Jeffers said.
Holland inclined her chin.
“Great,” Addison said. “You’ve all met. Congratulations. You’re a team now.”
Holland, North and Jeffers all exchanged quick glances.
“Moving on,” Addison said, clapping his hands together. “I don’t like to repeat myself, so pay attention. You’ve all gone through the official orientation, and endured the legal crap I’m required to say. Now I am in full control. Everything from here on out runs my way. There’s no Redfire anymore. There’s just me.”
The three team members were silent.
“I have only one rule: Do what I say and don’t screw up. Got it?”
He waited a second.
“Isn’t that two rules?” Jeffers asked.
“If I say it’s one, it’s one. Now, quiet,” Addison said. He powered up his laptop. The projector glowed, but no image appeared on the far wall. Addison tapped on his computer, cursed, then banged on the projector. The fan inside whined. He pounded on his keyboard angrily. Still nothing.
North looked at Jeffers, who smirked and shook his head.
Finally with a flash, the far wall lit up with a huge version of a page torn from a magazine. A brief article was crowded alongside a large photo of an elderly groom in a tuxedo and his much younger and taller bride walking across a red carpet. Her gown was sparkling and sheer, her ample breasts threatening to pop loose.
“Tell me what you see,” Addison said.
“Looks like a page from a tabloid,” Holland answered. She read the first line of the photo’s caption. “The Billionaire’s Buxom Bride.”
“Focus on the photo.”
“Sure. I’ll start with the old guy. Bald. Spotty and wrinkled. Leaning on a cane. Wearing bifocals. Has to be at least eighty. His tuxedo fits well. The lady on his arm seems at least forty years younger. He definitely comes from money.”
“North,” Addison said. “Why don’t you break down the sugar baby? Tell me what you see.”
“Sure,” North said. “She looks like a model, maybe a porn star. Looks like she’s had a top-notch boob job. Not that I notice those things.”
“You didn’t mention her see-through gown,” Holland said.
“I didn’t notice,” North answered. “It’s see-through.”
“Easy, kids,” Addison said. “Ever hear the name Danforth Percy Sinclair?”
“No,” North said, “but I’m guessing he’s the old rich guy?”
“Would Redfire work with a poor client? Yes, that’s him,” Addison said. “Worth more than you or I ever will be. More than all four of us put together over a dozen times.”
“What’s the story with the girl?”
“The story is she’s out of your league, North. That’s Sinclair’s wife. Her name is Yvonne Windstorm. The singer. You know.” He sang without enthusiasm, in barely melodic tones, “Do it to me, do it do it. Oh baby, do it to me like you do. Ever hear it?”
“No,” North said, “but let me say your rendition was outstanding.”
Jeffers snorted, holding back his laugh. Holland didn’t show any emotion.
North continued. “I’ve heard of her, but that’s about it.”
“I’m sure you have. She’s been in most of the soft-core yank mags. Anyway, she’s irrelevant to the mission. The old guy is the target.”
“Target?” North repeated, raising his eyebrows and leaning forward.
“Down, boy,” Addison said. “Target as in objective. Purpose. Mister Sinclair recently placed an activation call to our Premium Services Account line. During the call he reported he was on a cruise ship that was being hijacked.”
“I listen to the news all day,” Jeffers said. “I didn’t hear anything about a hijacking.”
“Oh, hello, Jeffers. I thought you’d fallen asleep. To address your comment, the media probably doesn’t know yet. But they will soon. Now look at this.”
Addison pressed a key on his laptop and the tabloid page was replaced by a photograph.
Three men in black ski masks, each one brandishing an AK-47 rifle, were gathered on the white top deck of a cruise ship. “Sunset Mist” was painted on the bow in a flowing pink script. The men were standing under a mast flying a black and green flag at its top. Raised below it was an upside-down American flag, torn and partially burned.
“The black and green flag is a modification of the national Kariqistan flag,” Addison said.
“How did you get these pictures?” North asked.
“From one of Redfire’s assets onboard the Coast Guard vessel the Bonnie Jane, already en route. The captain sent his helicopter ahead to scout. They got these pictures but pulled back when she started taking fire.”
“So, did the Coast Guard bring out a negotiator?”
“You mean there’s something you don’t know?”
“Wrong,” Addison said, holding up his index finger. “As far as you’re concerned, I know everything. Is a negotiator on the scene? It is more accurate to say I don’t care. And since I don’t care, you don’t care. Mister Sinclair has secured the resources of Redfire. He’s our one and only concern.”
“And the service we’re providing him is what?” North asked.
“The service we are providing him,” Addison repeated loudly, “which is what I would tell you if you stopped asking questions, is this: get him off the boat alive as soon as possible. That’s it.”
“A Katrina contract,” Holland said.
“We prefer not to use that term,” Addison said. “The official name is a Private Rapid Response Extraction Service. And let me remind you, they’re extremely confidential.”
“They’re public knowledge,” Holland said, her cheeks blushing slightly. “It’s in Redfire’s annual report.”
“Something funny?” Holland asked.
Jeffers shook his head. “I didn’t think anyone read those things.”
“Yes,” he said, “This is a Katrina contract. Redfire’s top-selling product since 2005. Next time you cash your paycheck, say a prayer of thanks for government incompetence. Now we need to prepare to leave.”
“Wait a minute,” North interrupted. “This is all the intel you have? Didn’t Sinclair say anything else?”
“He did mention we should hurry up,” Addison said.
“Well, excuse me for asking, but I like to know as much as I can when I’m about to enter a hostile environment,” he said, glancing at his teammates. “So, is there any more information?”
“How much do you need?” Addison said. “I’m not going to hold your hand. Besides, I’ve given you all we have. That photo of three men with AK’s. Probably a few more on board. Terminate them or don’t as necessary. Just get Sinclair free as quickly as possible so he can go back to counting his money.”
“But the Coast Guard is already there.”
“Maybe you weren’t listening. What was my one rule? Do what I say. And I say get Sinclair and bring him home. I don’t care about anything else.”
North shrugged, his arms extended.
“All the other Redfire assignments I’ve been on were combat-related,” he said. “This is a rescue mission. Not military support, not recon, or anything else. There’s huge potential for collateral damage here. These jobs might be a hot product for Redfire, but they’re new to me. I’ve heard of them, but never been on one. So forgive me asking for some more info before I put my ass out there.”
Addison leaned forward, both hands flat on the table. “Yes, North. I’ve seen your record. I’m impressed. I understand you’ve historically had more of a wet work focus, but you’re making it harder than it needs to be. Sinclair calls us and we go get him. That’s it. Rules of engagement are up to you. Whatever is holding him back, natural or man-made, he’s paying us so he doesn’t have to deal with it. He doesn’t have to wait for an incompetent or non-existent federal rescue, a protracted negotiation or a clumsy assault by a bunch of rent-a-cops playing commando.”
“Isn’t that what we are?” Jeffers said.
“You’re supposed to be professionals,” Addison said. “This is a huge opportunity. A chance to show other potential customers we’re the best private armed services provider. These Katrina contracts, they’re the wave of the future.”
“But if they’re so secret,” Jeffers said, “how will other customers-”
Addison cut him off, raising his voice. “Word will get around at the country club. Now, do you have any questions relevant to the mission?”
The room was silent except for the whirring sound of the projector’s fan.
“There’s nothing else you can tell us about what to expect?” North asked. “Any clue as to the hijackers’ motivations? Demands?”
“No. And we don’t care. I’m hoping the three of you, with your years of experience, can handle a bunch of ignorant desert rats in the middle of the ocean.”
Addison paused a moment.
“I’ll take that silence to mean you’re done with the bellyaching. Based on your skill sets, I’ve chosen your assignments. North and Holland are the infiltration team. Jeffers will be operating a four-seat micro-submarine to bring you in and get you out.”
“Four seats?” North said. “What if he’s got his wife with him?”
“Mr. Sinclair’s contract stipulates that it applies to him and only him. She’s inconsequential,” Addison said.
“Does Mrs. Windstorm-Sinclair know she’s inconsequential?”
“All that matters is that you know it. Sinclair’s contract is for himself only. I’m sure he considered his wife might be with him when he activated his account, but we don’t do this for free. You are to rescue only him.”
“What if he won’t leave without her?”
“You are authorized to restrain him and even render him unconscious in order to fulfill Redfire’s end of the contract. His consent was implied when he activated the account. That’s the agreement he signed. I’m sure the army of lawyers he can afford goes over every word of every contract the guy signs, so it’s time for you to stop worrying about him and focus on the task.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“Then you won’t mind getting started,” Addison said, slamming shut his laptop. “The helicopter is waiting on the roof to take you to our boat near the scene. We’ll drop the micro-sub as far out as possible and you’ll take it from there. Any questions?”
Addison paused for one second.