Linda Howard


© 2016

To all the beloved dogs who have enriched my life



IT WAS ONE OF THOSE BRIGHT, EARLY-MARCH DAYS THAT made you think spring had to be here, even though you knew the winter bitch wasn’t yet ready to loosen her grip and move completely out of town. Morgan Yancy sometimes lost track of what season it was anyway. He’d have to stop and think: was he in the Northern Hemisphere, or the Southern? His job demanded that he travel to hellholes at a moment’s notice, so he could find himself going from the Arctic to the Iraqi desert, from there to South America-wherever it was in the world that his talents were needed.

Thirty-six hours ago he’d arrived at the small condo that passed for home these days, slept the first twenty-four hours and awakened to the discovery that his days and nights were mixed up. Wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. So he stayed up a while, ate some peanut butter smeared on stale crackers, worked on his gear, ran seven miles in the dark city to tire himself out, then conked out again.

When he woke, it was spring-or as good as.

He took a cool shower to blow the rest of the cobwebs out of his head, then rummaged in the refrigerator and found that his last bag of ground coffee had enough in it to make half a pot. Good enough. He opened the carton of milk, sniffed, winced, and poured it down the drain. There was some fuzzy green cheese in the fridge too, so he tossed it. No doubt about it: he had to do some grocery shopping while he was home this time. He could do without cheese and milk, but things got dicey if he didn’t have coffee. Funny how he could go days, weeks, without it, drinking whatever was handy, but when he was home he damn well wanted his coffee.

The bright sunlight lured him out onto his postage-stamp patio. Coffee cup in hand, he stepped out and assessed the situation.

The weather was perfect: just cool enough not to classify as warm, but warm enough that he was comfortable without a jacket. There was a light breeze, and a few cotton-ball clouds floated by.

Well, fuck; life was tough sometimes. He didn’t have a choice about it: he had to go fishing. He’d lose his man-license if he let a day made specially for fishing slip by without taking his boat out.

Besides, the old Shark needed to have the cobwebs blown out of the motor every now and then. He did upkeep on it whenever he was home, but it hadn’t had a good run in about five months-which, come to think of it, might have been how long it had been since he’d had more than a day at home. The team sure as hell had been on a grueling stretch.

He fished his cell phone from the cargo pocket on his right thigh, and called Kodak, a buddy from his GO-Team. Kodak’s real name was Tyler Gordon, but when you have eidetic memory, what the hell else could people call you besides Kodak?

Kodak sounded a little groggy and froggy when he answered, not surprising considering he’d been on the last job with Morgan. “Yeah, wassup?” The combination of hoarseness and borderline consciousness made the words barely intelligible.

“Fishing. I’m taking the Shark out. Wanna go?”

“Fuck, don’t you ever sleep?”

“I’ve been sleeping. I’ve slept for most of two days. What the hell have you been doing?”

“Sometimes not sleeping. I’m sleeping now. Or I was.” There was the sound of a huge yawn. “Have fun, buddy, but I won’t be there having it with you. How long you going to stay out?”

“Until about dark, probably.” He should’ve expected this; Kodak was a horn dog, pure and simple. He’d have thought about getting his rocks off even before putting some decent food in his belly. Not that Morgan hadn’t thought about getting his own rocks off, but that had come after food, and he hadn’t gotten any further than the thought.

There was another yawn. “I’ll give it a pass this time. Catch you later.” The air went dead as Kodak disconnected.

Morgan shrugged and slipped the phone back into his pocket. So he’d be fishing alone today. He didn’t mind. Most times, he preferred it. The sun, the wind, the water, the blessed solitude-it was great, especially when he was unwinding from a job.

Within five minutes he’d downed enough coffee to get him by, pulled on a shirt and some socks and boots, and was in his truck heading for the marina. Breakfast came from a fast-food drive-through, but hell, it wasn’t as if he didn’t eat crap most days of his life anyway. Besides, in his opinion America had some great-tasting crap. If the fat police really wanted to complain about food, they should go to some of the shit-holes he’d visited; after that, then maybe they’d have a deeper appreciation for tasty crap.

The marina where he kept the Shark was on the old, run-down side and a fairly long stretch down the river, but he liked it because it was small, and he could keep better track of any new boats or any suspicious vehicles in the parking area. If he were able to get the boat out on anything resembling a regular schedule, he’d be able to keep better vigilance, but so far he’d never had any trouble-no reason he should, just that habit was habit-and he had a talent for spotting vehicles that were out of the ordinary for their surroundings. Nothing stood out today, though he did take the precaution of driving up and down all the aisles before stopping. There were no vehicles parked facing out and no rentals or anything else suspicious.

He backed his truck into a parking slot, got out and locked it, then double-checked that it was locked. It was second nature; he double-checked everything when it came to security. As he stuck his key into the padlock on the security gate that blocked entrance to the docks, the marina owner, Brawley, stuck his head out of the shack thirty yards away and shouted, “Been a while! Good day for fishing.”

“Hope so,” Morgan replied, raising his voice to cover the distance.

“You heading out to the bay?”

“Don’t think I’ll go that far.” The Chesapeake was a good forty miles down the Potomac; he’d use up most of his fishing time running there and back.

“Catch one for me,” Brawley called, then ducked back inside the shack. Through the glass, Morgan watched him pick up the phone, an old-fashioned corded job that had probably been there since the day the marina was built, and cradle it on his shoulder as he dialed. You didn’t see many of those phones these days.

Morgan snapped the padlock closed again, then continued down the dock to the slip he rented under the name of Ivan Smith, which he’d chosen because the name amused him, Ivan being the Russian “John.” Hell, this was D.C.; probably half the population expected that the other half was using aliases.

He scrutinized all the boats he passed, looking for anything unfamiliar-not so much the boats themselves, though a small, out-of-the-way marina like this one tended to have a slower turnover rate than the bigger marinas-but equipment, such as an expensive radio array on a shit-can boat, or people who didn’t quite fit in. Maybe their shoes were hard soled, or maybe they were armed, anything like that.

Nothing. The place was just as it should be. The smell of the river, the sound of the water lapping against the boats, the creak of the docks, the gentle bobbing of the boats-all of it soothed his soul, and he felt his permanent reservoir of tension emptying just a little. He’d definitely been born with an affinity for water. Once, noticing that he was doing something with his left hand, a teammate had asked him if he was ambidextrous, to which an instructor standing nearby had retorted, “No, he’s amphibious.” That was close to God’s truth: give him gills, and he’d have been a happy camper.

He’d grown up around Pensacola, so he couldn’t remember a time in his life when the ocean hadn’t felt as if it were a part of him. The Potomac was a far cry from the Gulf of Mexico, but any water would do. Hell, he’d be content paddling around a lake in a canoe-for a little while, anyway; then he’d start itching for some action. There was nothing like blowing shit up or getting shot at to give a man a real jolt of adrenaline.

He went onboard the Shark, feeling the familiarity of the boat wrap around him. Because he respected the water as much as he loved it, he checked the gas and oil, the battery, the radio, and the bilge pump. He got his tackle from the locked storage and checked it. He checked that he had his cell phone, though he knew damn well that he did; same with the knife in his pocket, the pistol in the holster at the small of his back, plus the backup on his right ankle and the backup to the backup in the bottom of his tackle box. Everything was a go.

He freed the Shark from its moorings, then slid into the seat and turned the ignition key; the reliable motor fired up immediately. He turned his cap around backward on his head, reversed out of the boat slip, and turned the steering wheel toward freedom. The choppy water reflected the blue of the sky today, with murky green depths sliding along below him. He felt every bounce and slap of the hull on the surface, then the ride smoothed out as he gained speed.

Man, this was the life. Now if he could just haul ...

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