The Pooch was done. Finished. He’d had enough of this crap of a life and missing Jolene and…
And he was going to go on living anyway. He wouldn’t take the easy way out.
“Not like you, you fucker,” he growled to the silent sunset. With a groan for his own pain, Pooch dropped to the sand and sat his butt in front of the beautiful palm tree that seemed to be mocking him. He set down the two bottles in his hands and really considered the view.
The tree was tall and leafless until you got to the poof of scraggly hair at the top. It really was the only tree for about 200 yards, which had struck them both as strange the day they’d first come upon it.
It took them a month to settle in Antigua, and another month to get themselves set up so they could actually live and pay the rent. Neither of them was working on all thrusters there for a while, but after a time, they dug themselves out and went on.
Jake worked for an off-shore computer company, getting pennies on the dollar for work companies couldn’t afford to have done at US wages. He didn’t do anything else but drink, really, and Pooch thought that was part of his problem. Pooch himself tried to keep as busy as he could, reading, practicing the hacking skills Jake was teaching him to keep track of Jolene and the girls, working on cars that had seen too many days of sun and humidity on this rock of paradise… Anything to keep his mind off of everything. It was never enough.
Three months after Cougar had blown himself to hell, Pooch and Jensen rambled down the beach a mile from their bungalow and saw the palm, all by itself in the fading day.
“It’s whack, isn’t it?” Jake had said as he sat down before it, a dull ring to his voice that twelve weeks of grief hadn’t even begun to heal.
Copying his friend, Pooch had sat on his ass in the sand, just like now, and looked at the solitary palm tree. A storm had been rolling in, and the afternoon light was a weird yellow at the horizon; the ocean was the color of slate and cold-looking in the oppressive heat. “Yeah,” he agreed flatly. “Whack.”
Whole damn world was whack.
“No, I mean it,” Jake continued. “Never seen a palm grow like that.” He drained the last of his bottle. “It’s like Coug,” he whispered, forlorn. “The solitary soldier. But right there when you needed him to be.” He’d fallen silent and fingered his empty bottle, clearly wishing it was full again so he could drink away more of his thoughts.
Jake had always wanted Cougar to be right there. From the very damn minute the two of them met. Pooch remembered that vividly, too. Cougar had been a member of Clay’s team for less than six months when they lost Mackey. Mackey was a good tech, but too damn serious to deal with the likes of Clay’s Losers. He was all procedure and Clay was all justice and the two just didn’t mesh. No one was surprised when the Irish prick requested a transfer.
And in his place, Clay brought them this kid . Hell, Jensen was only a year younger than Cougar, but it was like having a hyperactive teenager on the team. Good at his job, no doubt, but just… Crazy as shit.
You would’ve thought Cougar, of all people, would hate the constant jawing, but somehow it was always the quiet sniper Jensen was jawing to. Put the two of them together on an op and they were unstoppable, Jake sliding in wherever he needed to be while Cougar stayed on the rooftops, guiding him with barely a word said. Was magic.
Pooch stared at the damn tree, silhouetted against a darkening sky.
“Magic’s gone,” he whispered. And how much of that was his own fault?
He’d known, that night—he’d known Jake was too far over the edge. And he’d left anyway. He was missing Jolene and the girls and Jake had been so damn crazy that morning… Part of him was just sick of being the one always picking up the pieces.
He should have stayed, but he honestly didn’t know if it would have made any difference. He’d probably still be sitting here waiting for the darkness to fall, a bottle of dust his only companion.
When Jake hadn’t stumbled in by morning, Pooch knew just where to find him, though he hadn’t expected the gun and the blood. But wasn’t it almost fitting? Cougar’s Tree, they’d taken to calling it, Jensen visiting so often, Pooch joked that he might as well make himself a home there.
“Guess you’ll have a different home now,” Pooch told him.
He rose and walked forward in the dark, striding past the tree and into the tide as it went out, Jake’s bottle in his hand. Clay and Cougar were atomic dust at the bottom of the Arabian sea, but as Jake himself had pointed out a hundred times, all the waters in the world were connected, so maybe they’d all be together in some weird way.
Pooch unscrewed the wide-mouthed bottle full of ashes that he’d been staring at for a week now. Was time to let go. He shook it slowly, giving the ashes time to scatter without clumping and falling to the bottom sand. They had a long trip to make, he hoped.
He hoped he’d make the trip himself some day.
“So long, you loser,” he murmured, remembering how Jake had whispered the same thing as they hightailed it away from New Jerusalem not much more than a year ago. He fought down a few exhausted tears and tromped back toward his own bottle, the tide wanting to suck him out with it. But he wasn’t that lucky. Not yet.
“See you when I see you.”