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Line Of Fire by KB Winters (1)

Chapter One

Dylan

Fuck me, this wasn’t good. A minute ago, it was just a run of the mill raid. We popped out of a submarine a few miles off the coast and traveled in an SDV to a secluded cove that made for a nice launching point for our mission. We’d been hunting down various leaders of a terrorist group all over the Persian Gulf and Middle East for the last three years.

Today started off like most missions, and our target was some random mid-level bad guy in the wrong part of town. One would think with our intel we could avoid getting pounded by rockets as we approached our target, but so much for our stealth approach. Nope, these motherfuckers were waiting for us and armed to the teeth. We found ourselves pinned down with little to no cover and of course, no exit. My team was spread out between two buildings side by side, the bad guys’ compound was just under a mile away.

The rockets were getting closer, and each team member checked in on our wireless closed-circuit transmission. We were ten SEALs and two CIA men, one of them my buddy, Chip Sherman, in charge of communications. We’d gone on more than a dozen missions together over the last seven months. Like any intel, you win some and you lose some, but overall, we’d done pretty well and had taken out a handful of bad guys and recovered a shit ton of computers, cell phones, and hard drives along the way.

We’d also managed to bring in a few of the bad guys whole, and I’d guess they were locked up tight and facing some pretty nasty interrogations by some local friends of the CIA.

The call to abort and rendezvous on easy street, as we called it, couldn’t have come a second too soon, since our buildings that had provided us cover once the rockets started were now being pounded by mortar fire as we headed in the other direction fast. We knew we had no choice but to get out in the open, but if we moved quickly and avoided conflict, we had a chance to make it to our rendezvous in seven minutes for a ride to a waiting ship somewhere off the coast.

There wasn’t much talking over the headset as we moved our way through the maze of buildings leading to the edge of town and the coast beyond. With each step, the sounds of rockets and people screaming faded. By the time we reached the edge of town, we only had one more small field to cross before we hit the tree line and hopefully a waiting chopper to get us the fuck out of here.

I could hear our bird coming in as we came into the clearing, and our ride set down and doors flew open. We piled into the chopper and counted off. It was confirmed that we were intact and whole.

Two minutes later, the coast line faded behind us, and we headed for an aircraft carrier that was some distance off the coast.

I looked around at my fellow team members, and most seemed to be deep in thought but no real emotions showing. It’s a look that only hardened warriors know, and I could only figure I looked the same.

When the carrier came into view, Chief Stevens looked over at one of the CIA guys and shouted, “What the fuck was that all about? Those pricks were waiting for us. We came in from a goddamn submarine under heavy fog. There is no way they could’ve seen us coming. They had to know about the mission.”

“Look, man, I have no idea what just happened, but I promise you, we’ll figure it out.”

“Walker, I know you CIA boys play by a different set of rules, but I know a fucking set up when I see it. And what just happened was a set up. So, don’t give me the ‘we’re gonna get to the bottom of it bullshit’.”

Before Walker could reply, we’d made our final approach on the U.S.S. Lenexa and the talk quickly switched to, “Make sure you grab all your shit and get moving.”

We followed a couple of officers who were waiting on us to a vacant ready-room used by pilots to prepare for missions.

“Okay, men, you can chill out here for a bit while we find you a place to crash out for a couple of nights.”

Then it was just the twelve of us. Before I could even settle into a soft, comfy chair the door flew wide open and someone yelled, “Attention on deck.”

I wasn’t the first man to spring to my feet but before I could fully stand, I heard, “As is, gentlemen.”

In the doorway stood what I assumed was the captain of this particular ship. His eyes met Lieutenant Miller who quickly jumped up and introduced himself. The captain nodded and glanced around the room at each of us.

“I’m glad you men are all safe. When we got the distress call, we jumped as quick as we could. Is Petty Officer Malloy here?”

Never had the sound of my name worried me more than it did right then. I knew something was wrong, and it had nothing to do with the mission we’d just come back from.

I quickly sprang to my feet. “I’m Petty Officer Second Class Malloy, sir.”

When his gaze locked on me, I knew it was gonna be bad.

“Son, I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to say it.” He took a deep breath, stalling, I assumed.

‘‘We just received word from your commanding officer, Captain Michaels. I’m sorry, son, but the Red Cross was notified by your folks about an hour ago that your brother was killed early this morning back in Brighton.”

My heart pounded into my throat. “Aw, man. Uhm.” Words escaped me. “Can I uhm … wow.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. My little brother, Jimmy had been killed.

“I’m sorry, son. I don’t have any other details on what happened to him. We have a C-2 leaving with your CIA attachment in about fifteen minutes. They’ll switch planes at a NATO base about two hours away and head back to Langley for a debrief. I’ve been instructed to put you on the plane with them, and they’ll drop you off in Brighton. Captain Michaels said he’d personally pack up your belongings and they should be waiting on you, along with your emergency leave orders once you hit the base in Kuwait.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“Once again, I’m sorry. You should have access to a phone once you hit the CIA plane. Ensign Jones will escort you to the flight deck and get you folks on your way in just a few. For the rest of you, we’re working on sleeping quarters, and I can point you toward the mess hall if you’d like. We’ll post someone at the door to keep an eye on your gear.”

I’d been in shock before, but this was something different. I replayed the words over and over in my head. Nothing made sense, my mind was swirling as I tried to process the news. This nightmare couldn’t be real. My kid brother was supposed to be home safe looking after the place.

My fellow team members and brothers in arms all made some form of gesture as I headed out the door to the flight deck. Petty Officer Hanson, “Bear” hugged me so hard I lost my breath for a minute.

Five minutes later, I was loaded up on a C-2 with our two CIA guys, Chip Sherman and Ted Walker.

Once we were airborne, my thoughts shifted to Jimmy and my family back home in Brighton. A dozen images flashed across my brain. If some drunk driver took him out after a wild night, he’d face the business ends of my fists. Had something gone wrong in his bar? Nah, Uncle Paddy was there to look after things. Or maybe it was something simple—and stupid. Just like Jimmy to climb up on a ladder to help our dad repair something on the back porch and fall and break his neck. Like people said about us—I had the gift of ambition, Jimmy had a talent for trouble. It couldn’t have been an illness, they’d have told me the last time I called home. Not knowing was tearing my brain apart.

I prayed I’d be able to call soon and let my parents know I was on my way. They had to be devastated. Every minute that passed brought on new questions, and there was no one to reach out to for more information. I just had to hang on for a little while longer.

The flight off the carrier back to Kuwait seemed to go by quickly. I didn’t remember much about it other than loud engine noise and no room to move around.

Once we landed, I followed Ted and Chip to a waiting plane and was greeted by a flight crew and escorted to the main cabin. It was far from an average commercial airliner. From the outside, it looked like any other jumbo jet, but once I crossed the threshold, it was a different plane entirely. The main cabin was like anyone would expect of a first-class cabin. Large comfortable seats, personal TV screen to watch whatever was available, and a navy blue blanket and small pillow to get some shut-eye. It was the rest of the plane that was impressive. Once you passed through first-class, the jet was a fully functional mobile CIA operations center.

As I was settling into my seat, a flight attendant stopped and gave me the once over. I’d like to think she was checking me out, but guessing from the look on her face, it had more to do with my attire than my looks.

“Mr. Malloy, I’m so sorry about your loss, sir. Once we’re airborne, I’ll show you where your things are and a place where you can clean up and relax.”

I glanced down at my clothes and scoffed. I was a mess. And not just my clothes.

“Thanks, I’d appreciate that. Is there somewhere I can make a call?”

“Yes, sir.” She pointed to the console next to the seat behind me. “There’s a phone there. Just pick it up and tell them you need an outside line. You should be free to call anywhere.”

I glanced at my watch, and with some quick math, I figured it was early afternoon in Brighton. The stewardess smiled and gave me a slight nod before she turned and walked toward the cockpit.

“Damn. Damn. Fuck. Shit. Damn,” I cursed under my breath. I hated to make this call.

I sucked in a deep breath, steeled myself, and picked up the phone. I’d been through hell and back in my years as a SEAL, but nothing had prepared me for this.

Nothing at all.

My voice cracked as I gave the number to the operator. When my father answered the phone, he put me on the speaker. My ma was hysterical, unable to say much of anything. Pops tried to talk coherently, but mostly it was a lot of tears and consoling my mother. I could hear the sorrow and pain in her cries, and my father wasn’t doing much better.

“I’m on my way home, Pops,” I croaked out.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I can’t bel...I can’t believe this happened. Your brother was . . . He was murdered.”

My gut clenched at the word. Murdered? What the fuck? “Pops, you can’t be serious. What happened? Who did this?”

But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say any more. Maybe not in front of Ma. “Dad, I’m on my way home. I’ll rent a car when I get there. I’m still overseas, but we’re flying out now.”

“Okay, son. And your ma, she’s...she’s a mess. Dylan, son. Be careful.”

It was everything I could do to hold it together. “I will. I love you, Pops. Tell Ma I’m on my way.”

I hung up the phone and leaned back into the seat. Murdered. Dad had said he was murdered. Had I heard that wrong? I wiped the wetness from my eyes as I stared out the window. While I was on the phone, we’d taxied down the runway and were already in flight. I hadn’t even noticed. The flight attendant jolted me from my thoughts.

“Can I get you anything, Mr. Malloy? A drink? Something to eat?”

“Sure. Something strong sounds great. Neat.” I checked her name tag. “Shelly?”

“Yes, sir.” She smiled. “You got it. I’ll be right back.”

After a few proper drinks to calm my mind, I followed Shelly back through the maze of technology to the back of the plane.

“Your things are in here,” she said, and opened a door to what looked like a miniature luxury hotel room. “You’ll find clean towels and toiletry items over there. Take your time and hit the button by the table if you need anything. Our flight is just over twelve hours and we have a good variety of food, so just let me know if you need anything.”

“Sure. Thank you. I’ll let you know.”

Shelly gave me a small smile. “I’m really sorry for your loss, Mr. Malloy.”

“Yeah, I appreciate it. I’ll just get to—”

“Oh, yeah, right.” She closed the door, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I fell back onto the bed, even more dazed than when I spoke to my parents. Somehow, it hadn’t seemed real until I heard the pain in their voices. I wasn’t sure how real it felt until now. I shoved off the bed, needing to get a shower and some grub. I thought about my buddies in the CIA and wondered if they could get me any information. They definitely had the hook ups.

The hot water washed over me, all the dirt and grime cascading down my body and into the pristine tub. This place was immaculate, and I hoped it would all wash down the drain. No, I take that back. I really didn’t give a fuck. My brother was dead. No, not just dead. Someone had done this deliberately. But how could Jimmy have an enemy? Sweet little Jimmy. A wrecking ball had hit me in the gut with that news. I couldn’t even name my emotions because I’d never had them before. Anger? Grief? A desire for revenge? All true but still they didn’t cut it.

While I stood under the shower letting the steam release some tension, I remembered back when my ma used to sing to us as little boys.

There was a boy called Michael Finnigan,

He grew whiskers on his chin-igan.

The wind came out and blew them in again.

Poor old Michael Finnigan, begin again.

We’d yell as loud as we could ‘begin again’ and fall down laughing. Damn, that was so long ago. I should’ve come home sooner. I shouldn’t have left Jimmy on his own. My kid brother needed me, and I was too busy playing big fucking American hero. After a few minutes of beating myself up, I got out of the shower, got dressed, and headed straight over to Ted.

“I need you to find out what happened. You got men in Brighton?”

“I’m one step ahead of you, Malloy.” Ted Walker handed me a printout of a newspaper article from the Brighton Globe. As I scanned the article it hit me like a ton of bricks, not only had Jimmy been gunned down in cold blood in his bar, but three others were killed including Tommy Gallagher, a childhood friend of Jimmy’s and mine.

Ted interrupted my reading and said, “We have a local agent picking you up at the airport and will drive you back to your parents’ house. If you need anything—and I mean anything—Malloy, just pick up a phone and give me a call. He reached out and handed me his business card as I settled back on the news story.

“Thanks, man. Actually, I was thinking about renting a car once we get to the airport.”

“You sure? We’re glad to help you out.”

“I appreciate it, but I’m gonna need a car anyway.”

“Not a problem. We’re flying into a private terminal so our local guy can get you to the rental car place.”

***

More memories swarmed my head as we flew over the ocean. Brighton. An outpost of Boston, its neighborhoods populated with mainly Irish Catholics who lived in the six-story brick apartment buildings covered with decades of soot, dreams, and disappointment on tree-lined streets. Not a place where your own was in danger.

Jimmy and me as kids, playing Army men in the backyard of the building our dad bought when loans were cheap, trading in soda cans to get enough money for a couple of candy bars at the little corner store, finding a mama cat and her pack of kittens underneath the back porch, and riding our bikes through the neighborhood with Tommy Gallagher.

“Damn,” I muttered under my breath at my next thought.

Emma Flannigan.

My chest constricted more at the thought of her. The red-haired girl had starred in my dreams from the time I turned sixteen. I hadn’t seen her for six years. Not since she’d off and married Tommy, my one-time friend. Now, there’d be no avoiding her. I’d finally be forced to confront the biggest regret of my life, face-to-face, and somehow convince her and the rest of my family that I wasn’t still running from the past.

Our past.

Not that any of that mattered now. Not in light of the reason behind my trip home.

Twenty-four hours ago, I didn’t know when I’d have boots on the ground in the States again, let alone when I’d find myself back in Brighton. But I always imagined my family and friends all there at the security gate to embrace me.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Jimmy was supposed to be there, too.

Tears pressed at the backs of my eyes, and I squeezed them shut to keep any waterworks from getting loose.