Once Laszlo had flown into town, and Erick had joined them all at Cade’s place, their plans to go straight to Badger’s side flew out the window as soon as Cade got the text from Kat.
No meeting. Badger is in intensive care. He won’t be coming out anytime soon.
Cade stared at the phone.
Cade shared the message as he dialed Kat’s number. When Kat answered the phone, he asked, “What happened?”
“Blood clot,” she said, her tone dark, low. “It was touch-and-go there for a while. It still is, in fact. I’m at the hospital now. But whatever plans you were hoping to include him in, he’ll pass for now. When he pulls out of this, he has to have surgery again.”
She said, “Absolutely he has. And I certainly won’t let him give up. But he should have had the surgery a long time ago.”
Cade could hear the sadness in her tone.
“Nobody can see him. Only family. And he doesn’t have any of that anymore.”
“We’re his family,” Cade said in a harsh tone. “So are you, Kat.”
“They’re allowing me in. But only because he seems to be calmer when I’m there. I don’t know if you have any pull at the hospital and can get yourselves in to see him. If not, what you should do is carry on with what matters to Badger most. And that is finding out who did this to all of you. But he can’t run point. And I know you need someone to keep communications open and coordinated.”
Cade stared off into space. Kat was right, but solving this issue would take a group agreement from the rest of the team.
“Levi and Mason need someone as their main contact. There have even been calls from a Merk and a Brandon. I don’t know who half these men are,” she said. “Plus I can’t just leave my business. I’m working at the hospital as often as I can so I can check up on Badger. Otherwise I’m at the office. Badger isn’t conscious—he won’t likely wake up for a little while. The doctors are hoping tomorrow. But they’ve given him drugs. Every time he surfaces, he fights to get out of the bed. He’s caught up in his own nightmares. They’re keeping him sedated until his body gets through the worst of it.”
“Don’t you worry. We’ll fix this,” Cade promised. “We’ll get back to you as to who’ll handle what. Your job will be to keep us in the loop on Badger’s condition.”
“My job is to keep him alive,” she said softly. “But I can also keep you in the loop.” With that she hung up.
The men just stared at each other, a somber pall falling over them. At the moment, four of the remaining seven of their former unit were gathered here. Talon, Cade, Erick, and Laszlo—who’d only arrived a couple hours ago.
Honey walked over and sat beside Erick on the arm of his chair and slid her fingers through his good hand. “I know you must go back out,” she said, “but I need to be here for Kat.”
Talon said, “We do what we set out to do. We’ll find the asshole who did this to us.”
“Yes, but we need a new man to stay here to run point. Like Kat said, there’re a lot of phone calls. Somebody has to be our communications center.” Cade watched as Honey glanced over at Laszlo and Talon and saw the same answer in their gazes. Cade turned to Erick and said, “And you’re it.”
Anger flashed in Erick’s face.
Cade shook his head. “No, no arguments. You have to step up and take Badger’s place.”
“I have no problem stepping up,” Erick growled. “But you’re not putting me in a babysitting position.”
Honey bounced to her feet. “I’ll put on some more. Sounds like we’ll need another couple pots.” And she disappeared.
Immediately Cade leaned forward and said, “Erick, you must also consider Honey.”
Erick glared at them, but Cade saw the awareness in Erick’s eyes. “None of us have a partner but Badger and you. We’ve made a lot of mistakes in our lives, and we’ve paid some pretty major prices already. But you also have a chance of something very special here. Kat is here for Badger. Honey needs to be here for Kat, and you need to be here for Honey. You are the obvious point man.”
Erick wanted to argue. The anger and frustration was evident on his face. But then his own phone buzzed. He glanced at it. “It’s Levi. He wants an update. Actually,” Erick said, “his words are, What the hell is going on?”
Cade settled back. “Exactly.”
“Still there’s nothing for me to run point on if we don’t have the next step determined,” Erick said, holding his phone but not yet answering.
“Has anybody heard from Geir?” Talon asked, then turned to Erick. “You already contacted him, didn’t you?”
The men straightened.
Talon demanded, “How long ago?”
Erick checked his phone. “Twelve hours.”
Instantly the air became charged. “That’s too long.”
“And that’s another reason why you need to run comms,” Laszlo said quietly. “In our heads we were still thinking about Badger, that he would keep track of this. What if Geir is in trouble?”
Erick pulled out his phone and called Geir. “Still no answer.”
“But the phone is ringing?” Laszlo grabbed his laptop and opened it up. “Give me the number.”
As Erick read it off, everybody entered Geir’s number into their cell phones.
“Geir has been out of touch for the last few months. In many ways it was hard to reach him because he just bounced around.” Erick stretched out his legs.
“This phone number he contacted you on is no longer valid,” Laszlo said.
“A burner phone?”
“Is there any chance he’s been thinking the exact same thing as Badger?” Talon asked. That was the big question in front of them. “Did he say anything to you, Erick?”
“Not really. I just told Geir that we were setting up a face-to-face meeting, and it was important. It had to do with two years ago.”
The men stared at each other.
Talon whispered, “Shit.”
“Instead he’s already on it. As in, he’s tracking down what the hell’s going on too.”
Inside Cade wanted to jump for joy. Geir was one of the good guys. Hell, all seven of them were good guys. “And there’s no way he’s guilty of blowing us up if he’s out hunting.”
“None of us are responsible for our land mine accident,” Talon said quietly. “I suggest we all come to that agreement right now. All seven of us are innocent. There’s another explanation. We just don’t know about it yet.”
The men nodded and, as one, said, “Agreed.”
“Always had that position,” Laszlo said quietly. “Four of us are here. Badger is in the hospital. That’s five. Geir is six. What about Jager?” He glanced from one face to the other. “Anybody heard from him?”
“I know his parents died recently,” Talon said. “I haven’t heard anything further.”
Erick’s voice, when he spoke up, was cautious, though still a lot of anger and frustration was in it. But he had come to terms with the worst of it. “I’m just throwing this out there because I think it needs to be brought up, and I’m not sure if you guys have thought of it.”
Erick locked his gaze on Cade’s. “There’s been a lot of death in our families in the last two years.”
Cade straightened. “What are you saying?”
“My older brother was found dead in his vehicle at his office. He had a weak heart already, and, after a supremely bad day at work, he had a heart attack in his vehicle. He was fourteen years older than me. And not in great health, so it was terrible, as he was still so young, but almost understandable. And that was well over a year ago now, likely fourteen months or so.” Erick slumped as Honey returned with the coffeepot on a tray. He smiled up at her. “Thanks, sweetie.”
She nodded, quickly poured out the coffee for all of them. “I’ll be working in the kitchen. I’ll leave you guys to it.” And with a bright smile she turned and left.
He waited until she was out of earshot before he turned to the others. “Badger’s parents were killed six months after our land mine explosion. Jager’s parents were killed.” He turned to look at Laszlo. “Any idea when?”
“About four months ago.”
“So, eighteen months ago and then four months ago we have two sets of parents gone. Anybody else lose somebody in this time frame?”
But Erick looked at him with a knowing eye. “Your sister. She died in what? A multicar pileup a couple of winters ago, right?”
Slowly, ever-so-slowly, as if a bigger movement would make him splinter into pieces, Cade nodded. “But that was seventeen months now.”
Cade nodded. “My sister was my last remaining family member,” he said softly. “We lost our parents when I was in high school. It’s one of the reasons I went into the navy. I was looking for a family.”
Erick squeezed his shoulder. “And you found it. Keep that thought in place.”
“Too much death for it all to be a coincidence.” Erick glanced at Talon. “Have you lost anyone in the last couple years since the explosion?”
Talon frowned. “I don’t have anything to do with my family. I was a foster kid way back when. I know my birth parents are out there but don’t know who they are, don’t know any of the details.”
“And your foster care family?” Erick asked.
“You mean the last one?” He shook his head. “I haven’t seen or heard from them in years.”
“Check to see if they’re still alive,” Erick said quietly. “Maybe, if they weren’t close to you, they weren’t targeted.”
Cade studied Laszlo’s face. “Laszlo, you’re not talking.”
“How long ago?”
“Just a month back.”
Silence filled the room.
Cade felt something inside splintering a little further with every word. “So it’s not enough that we were targeted? But now you’re saying our families have been targeted too?” He stared at the others. “That’s hate at a whole new level.”
“It is. It is indeed.”
They each picked up a coffee cup, lost in their thoughts and memories.
“Laszlo, you were with your father before you came here?”
Hi face grim, Laszlo said, “My brother is with him. At first it was my father looking after my brother. Now it’s more about my brother looking after my father.”
“My brother isn’t capable of looking after both of them. He’s been dealing with cancer treatments this last year. He’s in remission now, but he’s weak. In fact, he and my father are both vulnerable.” He put down his coffee cup with a bang, stood to pace. “I need to go home,” he said quietly.
Laszlo turned to look at him. “Only what the police told us. Now I want the full report.”
“Do you know who hit him? Do you know any other details?”
“My father always went for a walk in the evening. Always. For almost all of his seventy-four years he had dinner, then would go for a walk.”
“Don’t tell me the accident happened while he was walking?”
“Hit-and-run,” he growled. “Nobody knows anything about the vehicle. Nobody saw the vehicle. Nobody saw the accident. The dogs came home, barking, brought my brother outside to see what had happened. My brother found our father and got him to the hospital.”
“What kind of shape is he in?” Erick asked quietly.
Shoving his fists into his pockets, Laszlo rocked back on his heels. “It’s bad,” he admitted. “Head injury, several broken ribs, broken leg and hip. He’s out of the hospital now, at home, but he’s mostly immobile. I didn’t want to leave them. But, once I realized what was going on here, no way I wouldn’t come and help too. My father’s recovering. Nurses come to the house every few days to check on him. Plus he has my brother. Only now a killer could be coming after our father to finish the job he started.”
Laszlo’s jaw clenched, a muscle in the side of his face twitching. “And maybe we’re off in the deep end here,” he said. “Absolutely nothing says that the person who blew us up two years ago is going after our families. What about that makes sense?”
“Like Cade said,” Talon offered, “it’s hate. At a whole new level.”
“But it’s not just hating one of us. It means hating all of us.”
“We need to find out from Geir if he sustained any family losses,” Erick said abruptly. “While we already know about Jager’s parents’ deaths, contacting Jager for any further info will be a whole different problem—if we can’t get a hold of him yet.”
“If he’s gone dark, you know you can’t reach him unless he wants to be reached.”
“We might not get a response, but we can certainly get a message to him. The same as I did for Geir,” Erick corrected. “And I can do that. I can text him to find out if he’s had any personal losses and to say we’re worried about a new angle.”
“Do that now. I’ll book a flight,” Laszlo said. “No way I’m leaving my father and brother alone. Not right now. Not like this. Of all the things they are capable of doing, defending themselves against a pro is not one of them.”
Talon snorted. “No way in hell you two are leaving me behind. If they’ve already tried to take out your father, then we all have some work to do.”
“This just got exponentially bigger,” Erick protested. “We need every one of those accident reports.” He almost growled, then sighed. “Since I’m now the official comm center”—he glared at the other guys—“I’ll need details from each of you as to when and where and who. I’ll arrange to get copies of the official reports from the respective police departments and the coroners, as needed. We’ll compare all the details, and we’ll need everybody’s help to deal with what we find.”
“We already know Levi and Mason will help,” Cade said. “And they have some of the best computer equipment and the best programmers to go with it. Let’s pull all the information, toss it into one of their laps and see if they can come up with any correlations. At the same time, the three of us will fly to Norway and make sure that accident was exactly that. An accident.”
Faith stared at the email in her inbox. It was from Mary, the sister of her best friend, Elizabeth. She and Faith had gone to school together in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But when Faith went into flight school, Elizabeth’s mother had remarried and moved to Norway. It was where Elizabeth had been born, so she had decided to return to her home country and to become a teacher there, so she could stay close to her mom and sister.
Faith read it aloud slowly. “So sorry to tell you but Elizabeth was in a bad car accident. She’s alive and holding on, but the prognosis isn’t good.”
Faith reached for her phone, grateful Mary had at least included her phone number. When Mary answered, Faith said, “I’m flying over.”
Faith pinched the bridge of her nose. It was all she could do to not burst into tears. “When did this happen?”
“Yesterday,” Mary said sadly. “Accidents are like that. They take the best of us and wipe them off the face of the earth with absolutely no apologies.”
“I know you’re a pilot, but you need a plane to make it that fast.”
“I can probably get on the next flight. I’ll send you the details as soon as I know them.” Faith hung up with Mary as she raced to her bedroom, already calling the flight office. “I need a compassionate leave flight to Norway yesterday,” she snapped.
Being a pilot for the company, she already got free flights. But often overseas flights were fully booked. She just prayed for a miracle.
“We have one leaving in forty-seven minutes. But that’s likely too early for you.”
“No, it’s not. I’ll take it.”
She hung up the phone, threw a few pieces of clothing into her carry-on bag, grabbed her passport and purse, thankful she was always ready to go at a moment’s notice, and raced for her vehicle. She briefly thought about calling for a cab, her mind remembering the two men she’d met in her last cab ride.
She vaguely remembered their names. She remembered the blond, blue-eyed man more. But then he had one of those faces that left an impression. Eyes that seemed to gaze into her soul, looking for something, always searching for answers. Inside her car she opened the garage door with the remote, drove out, hit the button to close the door behind her then pulled out onto the main road. As soon as she reached the open highway, she stomped on the gas pedal.
She didn’t have time for any delays. They wouldn’t hold the plane for her either. It’s not like she’s flying this one. She was only fifteen minutes away from the airport on purpose. This was her life. She was out far enough to be in a suburban area but still close enough that she didn’t have a horrible drive getting in and out of work. She left her vehicle in long-term parking any time she could. That was where she headed now.
She parked and ran through the departure lanes. She cleared security easily and raced toward the departure gate. The gate attendant looked up, saw her and cried, “Oh, thank heavens. Everyone’s boarded.”
She nodded and barreled through. As soon as the onboard flight attendant saw her, she motioned her in, pointed at the front seat and said, “That’s yours,” and proceeded to close the door behind her.
Faith tossed her bag in the overhead compartment and collapsed into the seat, her breath ragged, her hands trembling.
Faith slanted her gaze at the woman and whispered, “Sorry.”
The older lady just smiled and nodded. “When you get to be my age, very few things in life are worth racing for.”
“A friend is dying.”
“Oh, my dear.” The woman grabbed her hand to hold it in both of hers. “I’m so sorry.”
The tears she hadn’t allowed herself to shed clung to the corner of her eyelashes. She sniffled, reached into her purse and pulled out a Kleenex. “I just got word,” she said. “It’s all I could do to grab this flight, so I can get over there.”
She gently withdrew her hand and settled into her spot. She had brought her laptop with her, and, as soon as the flight was at altitude and stable, she sent messages to move her work shifts around. She’d taken shifts from many coworkers, and thankfully they were happy to return the favor. Then Faith sent an email to Mary, saying when she would arrive. The next nine hours would be torturous until she finally saw Elizabeth with her own eyes.