Sweat dripped from his forehead, but Rank ignored it as his feet pounded the dirt path that followed the rocky, Maine coast. To his left was the ocean, the early morning sun glistening over the undulating surface. The crash of waves on the boulders lent a relaxing cadence to his run. A wide field of green grass sparkled with dew to his right, covering the area between the rocks and the lush, evergreen forest in the distance. The sun had risen over the water and now the gulls were diving for their breakfast. Breathing in the crisp air, he continued along the path.
John Rankin, known as Rank ever since he obtained the call sign as a SEAL, kept a steady pace, his well-trained body barely feeling the effects of the run. A strand of his long, dark blond hair slapped him in the face. A grin slipped across his lips as he tucked it behind his ear. What would his former SEAL commander think about his new look? Nothing good, that was for sure. Lieutenant Commander Eric Lopez still kept his hair cut high and tight, even after leaving the SEALs. Eric would roll his eyes if he could see the long mane he now sported.
It had been several years since he had served and in some ways he missed it, but he enjoyed his life and his freedom, now. His feet continued to pound out a staccato rhythm as his memories slid back to his days as a SEAL, from his station in Little Creek, Virginia to the mountains of Afghanistan. As always, when the memories hit, he felt the pang of having to leave his team mid-mission, unable to let his brothers know what was happening. The day Eric had come to him with news of an assignment change was the first time he had considered not following an order, but he had soon put that to rest. After all, that was what he did—accept missions, plan meticulously, and then execute with absolute accuracy.
Admittedly, he was at first angry being forced to leave his SEAL team to join a CIA Special Ops mission. Now, he could see how that one decision had been the beginning of a new career direction for him. Meeting fellow CIA Special Operator Mace Hanover was the best thing to happen to him, outside of his military accomplishments.
When Mace became a civilian again, he formed a security and investigations business that rivaled the best in the United States. Wanting to hire the best of the best, he pulled from those he knew he could trust and hired them to be part of his elite team. Every one of the people who made up Lighthouse Security Investigations respected and trusted Mace. He was a leader through and through. In the end, the team was made up of SEALs, Deltas, Rangers, Army Special Forces, and Air Force Special Ops.
Keeping his breathing steady as he ran, he relished the cool air rushing over his body. Making his way around a rocky slope, he spied their lighthouse in the distance. Grinning, he slowed his pace and moved toward the rocky shore.
The beach in this part of Maine was much different than his home state of North Carolina or the Virginia beaches near the Navy base. There, white sand led to the waves. But here, the large boulders gave way to smaller rocks with only a small strip of sand. Wading into the waves, he began to swim.
The water was cold but he barely felt it, years of SEAL training having left him more than adept at swimming in icy temps. Strokes sure and even, his arms broke through the waves at a steady pace, keeping him parallel to the shore.
Thirty minutes later, he came to a hidden cave tucked into the base of the lighthouse. Climbing out, he scrambled over the slippery rocks. Giving his head a shake, he sent water droplets from his hair splattering in all directions. Careful of the moisture on the stone floor, he made his way up one of the passages to a steel security door.
Flipping open the panel hidden in the wall, he tapped in a security code and then stood carefully while the retina scan took place. Next, he placed his hand on a finger scanner and waited while his digital prints were taken. Within a few seconds, the steel door swung open and he entered, shutting it immediately behind him.
Walking down the well-lit hall, he passed the gym and entered the locker room. Shivering a little in the air conditioning, he moved directly to the showers and rinsed off the sand and salt before pulling on his clothes. Hearing a noise, he looked up and observed several of his coworkers coming in from the gym. All three men narrowed their eyes as they saw his easy grin.
Cobb shook his head, his eyes twinkling as he said flatly, “You swam in.”
Grinning, he puffed out his chest and taunted, “What I want to know, is why you guys walked in. You’re going to give us SEALs a bad name.”
Snapping the towel out of the air he laughed.
Shooting him a twinkle-eyed glare as he walked by, Walker challenged, “Race you any time.”
They all knew Walker was the best swimmer amongst them, but that would not stop him from rising to the challenge. It was not in his nature to back down, no matter the odds, but before he had a chance to retort, Mace stuck his head through the door and called out, “Meeting. Five minutes.”
They nodded, immediately serious and professional, and quickly finished dressing before heading out into the hall. Leading the way, he followed Mace’s path through another security door and into the cavernous main room of Lighthouse Security Investigations. The walls and ceilings were reinforced with steel beams and panels. The concrete floor was smooth, but retained the appearance of a cave floor. The room was sealed and environmentally protected, filled with computer equipment and stations where some of the other Keepers were working.
Stepping up to stand by Mace, he followed his line of vision and focused on one of the screens on the wall. Each of the Keepers was meticulous in their mission research and planning, but none matched their boss’ sharp intuition. If something caught his attention, they all took note.
The main doors clanged and Rank turned to look over his shoulder as Sylvie, Mace’s wife, walked in, her arms filled with a large basket. The dark-haired beauty and her son had been rescued by the Keepers months before and she now worked as one of LSI’s administrative managers. Mace hurried to her side and kissed her lightly, his hard expression instantly softening at the sight of her.
Her smile widened, beaming up at Mace as he took the burden from her. Though he was not generally one for romance, Rank enjoyed seeing their happiness. He had never seen Mace so at peace. Even so, his attention was quickly snagged by the delicious smells emanating from the basket.
Scanning the gathering, Sylvie greeted the Keepers, inviting, “Marge sent the muffins down, but said there’re more upstairs if anyone gets hungry later.”
Not wasting another second, Rank moved quickly, making it to the table just in time to battle with the others to get his hands into the basket.
Whirling around in his chair, Josh grumbled, “Hey, save something for me.”
Shaking his head, he grabbed up a chocolate chip muffin and walked over to their best computer expert and handed it to him. “You’ve gotta get in the field more, Josh. Can’t even battle it out for a pastry these days.”
Josh grinned while chewing and Rank headed back over to the table, taking a seat between Clay and Blake. As he unwrapped his muffin, the main security door opened once more and he observed two more members of their team entering. Bray, a former Army Special Forces medic, walked in with Drew, a former Air Force Special Operator and helicopter pilot.
As everyone ate breakfast, Sylvie made the rounds, chatting with those who were caught up on their reports and gently reminding those who had paperwork to complete for her. “Payroll goes in next Friday, everyone,” she called out as she made her way to her desk. “Get your expenses to me and your reports to Babs.”
“And where is the intrepid Babs?” Drew asked, his grin wide, his southern roots evident in his accent. “Damn, that woman can’t get here on time to save her soul.”
“I’m here jerkface,” Babs called out as she sauntered into the room, glaring at Drew.
Her hair had been pixie short with pink tips but had now grown to her shoulders and the ends were robin-egg blue. Though she was of average height and slender, she was a force to be reckoned with. Rank had seen her practice moves in their workout room. She could throw a much heavier man and defend herself in almost any situation.
Tilting his head, he observed as she settled herself at her desk. She gave little away about her background, but he knew she had been a CIA Special Operator, one that Mace recruited when he opened his business. She had refused a mission position, instead insisting on a safe, managerial job. He had no idea why, but she was good at her job and, if it suited her, then he had no desire to question it.
Starting the morning briefing, Mace looked over at him and asked, “How’s the Tercelli case?”
Flipping open the file he had brought over from his desk, he reported, “As you know, this is the mission I’ve spent the most time on recently. The FBI asked us to get some information from a possible informant concerning the new Senator of Vermont, his father, and a possible link to the Russian mafia. For obvious reasons, they don’t want it getting out that the FBI was investigating a Senator. Thomas Tercelli was recently appointed as Senator from the state of Vermont after the recent death of John Abrams. The governor appointed Thomas, who had worked closely with John, to the position to finish the term until a formal election can take place. The problem the FBI is noticing is with his father, Frank Tercelli, who lives and works in New Hampshire. He’s been on their radar for over a year for possible money laundering and, with his son now being a Senator, they’re watching him even more closely.”
“Just money laundering?” Drew asked, leaning forward, his forearms on the table.
He looked up and gave a nod to Josh, who flashed up information on their main screen. After several photographs appeared, he continued his briefing. “The top photo is Frank Tercelli and directly under him is his son, Thomas.” Another man’s face filled the screen, his black hair, square jaw, and dark eyes giving him a Hollywood, sinister appearance.
Seeing a few pinched brows and open mouths, he chuckled. “I know, I know. This guy could not look more like a mobster, but honest to fuck that’s who he is. Anatoly Kozlov. Possible Russian mafia selling arms across the Middle East.”
Clay asked, “Is there a direct link between Kozlov and the Senator?”
“Not on paper, except through his father, but someone has stepped forward claiming to have new information. I’ve been working with the FBI Director, and it seems that the new Senator’s closest aide, Lawrence Griffey, has indicated he might have some information. He’s the informant we’re to make contact with.”
“The FBI thinks the Senator is dirty?” Clay followed up.
“What have you got set up so far?” Mace asked.
“I’m getting close to a meeting with Lawrence.” With a nod toward Drew and Walker, he added, “In fact, we’ve got a face-to-face tomorrow night. He’s skittish…doesn’t want to meet during the day where he could be seen clearly. He’s going to be in Portsmouth, having dinner with both Frank and Thomas. I’ve got it set up so that I’ll be inside the restaurant, observing them. My arrangement is to meet with Lawrence very quickly in the back alley when he’s finished. I’ve got Walker as a backup and watching the end of the alley, and Josh and Clay will be here on the computers watching the security cameras on the back of the restaurant. Quick, easy, no problem.”
Nodding, Mace cautioned, “I know you’re one of the best at thinking fast on your feet, but don’t get too cocksure. Remember, if something can go wrong, at some point it will.”
“Always, boss,” he assured him.
Casting his gaze around the room, Mace’s lips curved into a barely–there smile. “And that’s why you all are Keepers. You plan the fuck out of the missions and get things accomplished, just the way we need.”
He swallowed back the grin that threatened to escape, appreciating the praise even though it was not necessary. He had been accused more than once of being cocky, but that assurety came from planning to the finest detail. He was meticulous when it came to planning and executing a mission, which is why they always went well. Leaning back in his seat, he closed his file folder, turning his attention to the others giving reports.
When everyone was finished, he headed upstairs and spied Marge and Horace out in the yard. She was pruning flowers and Horace was mowing the lawn. When he was first hired by Mace, he had assumed the couple had been longtime caretakers. It was not long before he discovered, much to his surprise, that Marge had been a CIA Operator as well and Horace had been a Navy SEAL. Now retired, they desired to stay near the action without being in the middle of it. They took care of the LSI grounds and all of the Keepers at the same time.
Marge slid off her gardening gloves and smiled, approaching him. “Where you off to?”
“Gotta get ready for a hot date tomorrow night.” He saw the speculative gleam in her eye and added, “With an informant…a man…and you know I don’t swing that way.”
Standing to his full height, he patted his tight abdomen. “Not enough good women in the world to tame all this goodness,” he joked.
“You’re a dog,” she groused, her eyes narrowing.
He laughed and then howled, stopping when she popped her gloves against his shoulder again.
Looking up toward the blue sky, he ducked, and threw his hands up over his head. Pretending fear, he cowered as he continued to stare upward. “Then I guess I’d better watch out.”
“Oh, get out of here,” she laughed.
Chuckling, he walked toward his SUV, waving at Horace before pulling out and heading down the lane.