It was cold in the bathroom. The window above the toilet was draftier than a subway vent which the team appreciated for the most part—good ventilation was key when five men were sharing one bathroom. However, tonight the draft was irritating. Frank just wanted to sit in peace and not freeze to death. Was that really too much to ask?
Frank groaned as the lights flipped on, and Jensen walked into the bathroom with his cock already half out of his pants.
“Jesus, shit, Clay! What the hell are you doing in the tub...with a glass of scotch and a pile of cigarette butts?” Jake said, tucking himself back in as he frowned at Clay.
Frank took a drag of his cigarette before answering. “Didn't want to make a mess,” he said, lifting his almost empty glass to his lips and swallowing the cheap scotch down. “Do me a favor and top me up,” he continued, gesturing to the half empty bottle he'd left on the sink.
Jake frown some more, but he took Frank's glass and filled it up. “There a reason you're 'not making a mess' in the empty tub in the dark?” he asked as he handed the glass back. “I mean, not that it doesn't look like quite the party, but it seems more my style than yours...well, I'd fill the tub and be playing with my rubber ducky collection, but you know what I mean.”
Frank often wondered how Jensen got enough air to fuel that massive brain of his, as well as his never ending verbal stream-of-consciousness. It seemed like there couldn't possibly be enough for both, but then Jake did do some boneheaded things for someone so brilliant. “Had a rough night,” Frank said, adjusting his position in the tub and taking a sip of his full glass. He couldn't remember if the bottle had been full before he got in here. It probably had been.
“Rough as in you closed down a bar, or rough as in you were fleeing for your life from a crazy firing squad of highly trained, and absolutely beautiful lady assassins?” Jake asked, lowering the lid of the toilet and taking a seat on it.
Frank pulled the lapel of his suit jacket back to reveal the slowly seeping gut wound he'd been trying to ignore for the last hour. “Rough date,” Frank told him, watching the way Jake's eyes widened behind his ridiculous glasses.
“Shit, Colonel, she stuck you like a pig,” he said, jumping off the toilet and kneeling beside the tub. He reached out to tug Frank's shirt open to get a better look at the damage. “Fuck. Cougar isn't here. I think he and Roque were getting competitive at the bar. I suck at this stuff,” Jake lamented, grabbing one of Pooch's beloved face towels to cover the wound. Frank wondered briefly why he hadn't thought of that, but he blamed it on the intoxication and blood loss.
“I'll be fine. Take a piss and go back to whatever illegal activity you were doing on your computer,” Frank told him, stubbing out his cigarette on the edge of the tub. He really must have been feeling unwell because he usually at least tried to discourage Jake's illegal activities.
“I was just watching porn...I mean, no! I'm not leaving you to die in our tub. I want to be able to take a bath in here without you haunting my ass,” Jake said, applying pressure to the wound. Frank gritted his teeth and reached for another cigarette. “Man, I hope you don't die because if there's such a thing as ghosts you could be trapped in this bathroom for the rest of eternity. Imagine being stuck in here on a night Cougar makes his mother's chili...no, Colonel, you need to live.”
“Kid, anyone ever tell you you're a bit weird?” Frank asked him, sighing in frustration when he couldn't reach the pack of smokes on the tile floor.
“Nope, Colonel. No one has ever told me that. Has anyone ever told you that you suck at dating?” Jake retorted, applying just a little too much pressure. Frank reminded himself not to piss off the man in charge of his gut wound. Jensen was very vindictive after all.
“Most of the women I've met have made note of it, yes Jensen,” Frank said. Jake seemed to take pity on him then, reaching down and handing Clay the pack. Frank quickly pulled one free and removed the small lighter from the lid of the pack. He took a deep breath as the cigarette caught, and he breathed it out slowly.
“I'm gonna get Cougar's med bag. If nothing else, it probably has the good drugs in it,” Jake told him, placing Frank's free hand over the towel on his stomach then getting to his feet.
Frank looked up at the mildew covered ceiling as he waited for Jake to return. He wasn't afraid of bleeding out. He'd been stabbed in the stomach before—that time it had been much worse, complete with a serrated blade and a twist for good measure—and he could tell that this one wasn't so bad. If he stayed stabilized until Cougar came home, then he'd be fine. Nothing to worry about.
“Okay, so he's got more drugs than a pharmacy, and I have no idea what any of them do. That's not true; I know what the Viagra does, and I'm really concerned as to why we'd need that on a mission, but whatever, Cougar can have his secrets,” Jake said, dropping the large bag of medical supplies that Cougar had been growing steadily in his time with the team. Frank didn't ask where he got most of the stuff; it really wasn't worth dealing with the man's glare. All that mattered was that when one of them got injured, they felt no pain and nothing got infected.
“Hand me that one,” Frank said, pointing to one of the many bottles Jake was pulling out of the bag.
“What's that one do?” Jake asked, handing it over.
“Helps clotting,” Clay said, taking the pill.
“It says it's for heavy menstruation,” Jake said, squinting at the screen of his phone.
Clay rolled his eyes. “You going to set up an IV for me?”
“Then let's just hope a gut wound is a little like a bad period,” Clay snapped.
“Mind if I have some of your scotch if you're going to be grumpy about this?” Jake asked, putting the bottles back in the bag and removing some gloves and gauze.
“Help yourself, I'm already seeing three of you,” Clay sighed, tipping his head back. Why couldn't he have been found by Cougar, or even Roque? Roque had patched him up a couple of times in a pinch.
Jake was quiet for a few minutes as he took several heavy pulls from the bottle. “I got stabbed in the thigh once,” Jake said after several minutes of muttering to himself and going through Cougar's bag. Jake was going to be lucky if he didn't get stabbed again after Cougar saw the mess he was making of the med bag.
“How'd you get stabbed?” Clay took the bait. He tried not to question Jake very often because it usually got weird fast, but he was drunk and possibly bleeding out. It was a special occasion.
“Huh? Oh yeah, me getting stabbed. A girl in my class got angry when I kept correcting her wrong answers. I think I was eight. I still have a fear of those little pink handled kiddie scissors,” Jake told him. “Want to see?” Jake asked, already tugging down his pants before Clay could stop him. Jake stood up and dropped his pants, pulling up the edge of his colorful boxers to reveal an old puncture scar.
Clay's eyebrows rose. “You were eight?”
“Yeah. Turns out I was born irritating and with little sense of self-preservation. My sister says she's amazed I reached adulthood. I think it's mostly because she beat up anyone who would've given me trouble,” Jake said proudly as he folded back to the floor, pants still tangled about his feet. He took another big sip of the bottle, and Clay had to focus hard to see how much of the bottle was left. Jake wasn't fooling around.
“So tell me, Colonel. What do you do that drives women to want to kill you?” Jake asked, leaning against the side of the tub.
Frank chuckled at that, but it turned into a cough as his wound protested the small movement. “It's a family curse,” Clay said, pressing down on the wound and cringing at the pain it caused.
“Family curse my ass,” Roque barked, leaning in the doorway of the bathroom, fly unzipped and wearing a put upon expression. “You get stabbed again or something?” he asked Clay as he got a look at the situation.
“Can't a man bleed in peace?” Clay asked, taking a drag of his cigarette.
“You're in our only bathroom, Colonel,” Pooch said, slipping into the bathroom past Roque and sitting on the lid of the toilet that Jake had abandoned. “Jesus, this looks bad,” Pooch said, not sounding particularly concerned as he studied Clay and Jake. “Jake, why aren't you wearing pants? Do stab wounds make you want to get naked?”
“Shut up, Pooch. The Colonel was about to tell me why everyone with a pair of X chromosomes wants to murder him,” Jake insisted.
Roque snorted. “Kid, are you serious? He's more afraid of commitment than landmines,” Roque insisted.
“I am not,” Clay replied, but he wasn't actually certain he understood what Roque had said. The world was too fuzzy.
“Really? You were given the unit with the highest turnover rate because you can't even commit to soldiers,” Roque said, crossing his arms.
“I like you guys,” Frank said, looking at the six men standing in the room. It was strange. He hadn't realized everyone on his team had a twin.
“You want to know about Clay, Jensen?” Roque asked.
“Yeah,” Jake said, turning to face Roque excitedly.
Clay shook his head to find his focus, and once he found it he glared at his best friend of many years. “You wouldn't dare, Captain,” he said, trying to sound menacing but the alcohol and blood loss was doing nothing for his cause.
“I met Clay during my first tour of duty. I was overseas for six months, staring at snow the entire time. The food sucked; the entertainment sucked; the weather sucked. There wasn't even any combat to break it up. It was just boring as hell. But there was this guy. He was a fairly young officer. They said he'd graduated near the top of his class from West Point. Others said he'd bribed a general for a commissioned officer's position. I heard all sort of stories about this officer who didn't look to be doing much of anything, but he always seemed to be at the center of everything...
Clay's head tipped back as memories bombarded him.
Clay was walking out of the officers' tent when he heard the murmur of voices around the side of the next tent.
“I heard he murdered a man stationed in Fort Meade, and just showed up in his position the next day. No one questioned it,” A young private said to a group of men. Clay stayed behind the cover of the canvas, but he listened with interest to their stories.
“I heard he was a mercenary that got in good with the right people and was given this position.”
“I thought someone said he slept with a General's daughter to get his appointment.”
“No, it was the president's daughter!” another man hissed.
“I think you're all full of shit,” Roque said, his deep voice overpowering all of the others. Clay had seen William Roque around before, and heard his name mentioned often enough. The man was a good solider, liked to fight. There was talk that he might have liked it a little too much though. Clay didn't know, but he liked that the man wasn't one for gossip.
“Oh, and where do you think he came from?” one of the others asked.
“Don't matter. So long as he don't get me killed, I don't give a fuck where he came from,” Roque told them, getting up and heading in Clay's direction. Clay smirked as he stepped out of the shadow of the tent. Roque didn't so much as flinch, saluting Clay as he walked by. The others scrambled to their feet, attempting to look presentable in the presence of an officer. It didn't do much good.
“Sergeant Roque,” Clay called, turning on his heel to follow Roque.
“Sir,” he replied.
“I've been given a sensitive mission to complete, and I've been given the freedom to choose a partner to help me. Would you be interested?”
“I don't have much choice in the matter, do I?” Roque retorted.
“I won't hold it against you if you decline,” Clay promised.
“Are you going to get me killed?” Roque asked, point blank.
“I hadn't planned to,” Clay told him, though he was well aware that trouble tended to follow him. He'd been courting trouble since he was old enough to walk, and he'd been causing trouble with women for as long as he could talk.
“Fine, what's your sensitive mission?” Roque asked, halting his progress to the mess tent and fully facing Clay.
His sensitive mission had been a woman. It always was with him. They sent him in to seduce and get secrets. Clay was excellent at getting women to want him. It was his exit strategy that tended to go up in flames. Hence the need for a partner.
“So, I sit here drinking and looking bored and make sure that this woman's husband doesn't come back until you've got what you need and are out of there?” Roque asked, looking at the dump of a bar they had driven to. It was nearly two hours away from their base of operations, and it looked like the sort of place one went in order to pick up a black market kidney or two.
Clay knew that Roque was questioning his volunteering for this mission. It was too late now.
“Did you bring any weapons?” Clay asked.
“You told me not to,” Roque reminded him.
“Of course, I did.”
“Six knives, NSI,” Roque said, settling his sunglasses into place as they walked across the busy street to the mouth of the alley the bar was hidden in.
“Good. Don't use them unless it's complete—”
“I've been to a dive bar before, Lieutenant,” Roque reminded him.
“Good. If I call for help, come get me before she pins my balls to the wall,” Clay said, leading the way into the bar and finding them a secluded table in the corner. They had a round before Clay's target entered. He bought Roque another before disappearing to the table Ms. Belikov was seated at.
“Is this seat taken?” Clay asked her, not bothering to wait for confirmation before taking it. Ms. Belikov went through husbands the way most women went through clothing. According to Clay's intel, most of them ended up dead, but a select few were lucky enough to just never be heard from again. Her current husband was a government official who looked more hard-boiled than the egg Clay had for breakfast.
Clay turned on the charm, buying her drinks and complimenting her hair and style. She saw right through his bullshit, but she seemed willing enough to sleep with him. That was all Clay needed.
She had a room above the bar, and they quickly made their way upstairs. Clay made eye contact with Roque as they took the back stairs, and Roque gave an imperceptible nod that he was on watch.
Of course, things went to shit; Clay had his pants around his ankles when Sonya decided that she didn't trust him as far as she could throw him, attacking him with a switchblade she had stowed in her bustier. He dodged her slash and tried to wrestle the blade out of her hand, but she was much better at this than expected.
“Who do you work for?” she demanded, dancing out of Clay's hands and rounding on him again.
“I don't work with anyone. I was just hoping to get laid,” Clay insisted, his German a little rustier than he would've hoped. She lunged, slashing at him again, but Clay quickly deflected her arm. She kept coming at him, demanding to know what he was looking for. Clay kept holding her off.
There was a crash downstairs, and it distracted the woman long enough for Clay to get a solid punch in and knock her out cold. He searched her bag for any information he could find, then booked it out the second floor window into the alley below.
Just as he hit the ground, Roque came barreling out of the bar. “Go go go,” he shouted as he weaved toward the mouth of the alley. Clay was hot on his heels as soon as he heard a man screaming at them to stop.
“The man keeps tabs on her. As soon as you went up, some guy made a call, and her husband showed up with serious firepower,” Roque panted as they weaved through back alleys and marketplaces. They could hear gunshots in the distance, but thankfully there was no searing pain to go along with it.
Eventually, they slowed down and slipped into a crowded pub playing the soccer match, and they mixed in with the crowd pretending to give two shits about who was playing.
When they made it to the rendezvous point, they were both very tipsy and had little intel to show for their troubles.
“She didn't even take her top off?” Roque asked, sounding completely disappointed as he used Clay's shoulder to hold himself up.
“No, she was storing knives in there. I'd hate to see what she was keeping in her panties,” Clay replied.
Roque laughed loudly, doubling over as he grinned. “I'm glad I did this with you.”
“Oh yeah, why's that?” Clay asked him.
“Because now I know for sure that all of those stories are absolute bullshit. You have the worst luck of anyone I know,” Roque told him, throwing his arm around Clay's shoulder again. Clay laughed as well as they staggered the rest of the way.
“So basically, Clay invited you to watch him get his ass kicked by a Russian spy living in Germany. That's how you two became friends?” Jake said as Roque finished his version of the story.
Clay lifted his head and blinked at them. He was surprised to find Cougar straddling his hips, cleaning out his wound for him. He didn't even recall Cougar joining them. Also, he couldn't be certain, but it looked like Cougar's neck was covered in hickeys.
“Bathroom isn't big enough for all of us,” Clay told him, frowning at how warm it had become since people started disrupting his peaceful rest.
“Shut up, Clay. Roque is telling us stories,” Jensen insisted, but he squeaked when Cougar elbowed him in the bicep. “Keep your pointy elbows to yourself, Cougs.”
Cougar rolled his eyes, but went back to fixing the mess Clay's latest girlfriend had made of him.
“Cougar, you remember how we found you?” Roque asked.
Cougar smiled, and Clay sighed. That had been another delightful mission.
“Clay was told he could have his own sniper...if he went and picked him up from hostile territory in South America. We got the shittiest intel ever. We didn't even know if the guy was alive...”
It was hot as hell as they hitchhiked through three different countries to cross the border into a country the US had no right being in. It wasn't anything new; Clay and Roque had been any number of places that they'd “never been.” It was part of the job.
This job was a disaster from the start. Carlos Alvarez could very well have been dead already—his entire team had been M.I.A. for the better part of a three months. Two bodies had been given back to the US through some very covert agreement that would never make the papers, and that Clay didn't give a shit about. Alvarez wasn't one of those bodies according to dental records. That's all they knew. But there was about an eighty percent chance that Alvarez was dead in the jungle somewhere, and they too would end up that way by the end of this mission.
It was just Clay and Roque. Their superiors insisted that the smaller the team the better, as it would be easier to move unnoticed with fewer people. Clay knew from the start that that spelled suicide mission. Roque clearly had his suspicions as well, judging by the way he was cursing the government with every breath that wasn't used for cursing the wet heat and number of mosquitoes.
It took nearly a month of backpacking to get to the village Alvarez's team sent its last transmission from.
“If this isn't the dump of all dumps...” Roque said, staring at the shabby houses and foot roads as the village came into sight. “I bet they don't even have a bar,” he complained.
Clay would've liked a bar as well. After a month of talking only to Roque about everything from childhood friends to the crotch rot they were both hoping to avoid in such a tropical climate, Clay just wanted a stiff drink and to forget all about snipers and the military.
“How exactly are we supposed to find this guy anyway?” Roque finally asked the question they'd both been avoiding for the entire month.
“I think that we hope he finds us,” Clay suggested.
“And if he's dead?”
“We hope we figure that out before we join him.”
“Solid strategy, Clay. I'm finding a bar, and if there isn't one, I'm making one,” Roque told him, trudging away from him and into the village.
Roque found his bar—a tiny shack whose owner created all manner of moonshine in a set of troughs out back—and they spent the next three weeks practically living in it, save for the few hours each night that they slept under the stars. They both experienced the strangest intoxication from what the old man plied them with, but it beat focusing on their actual objective. The villagers were wary of them, but they never refused them the strange locally made liquor that Roque had been enjoying every day.
Roque got into friendly competitions with the locals. One day he competed against a man to see who could carry more buckets of water from the river. Another day, he was challenged to see who could thatch a roof faster. Half of the time, Roque was blind drunk as he played along, and the villagers laughed at his comical attempts to keep up.
It was obvious that they villagers knew a chump when they saw one and were using him for labor. They weren't any better with Clay; the women had him tasting their cooking or inspecting how neat their homes were. If Clay happened to test their hospitality as well, that wasn't for anyone to else to know. However, the women seemed to let all of the others know that they should corner him while their husbands were preoccupied with Roque.
It was as the sweat was drying on his chest after a round of rigorous “hospitality” that Clay first heard of the “Ghost Cat.”
“You talk like the Ghost Cat does,” the woman said, lying on her back and staring at the ceiling.
“The Ghost Cat?” Clay asked, rolling onto his side to look at her. She was beautiful. She'd lost her husband several years earlier, and she clearly didn't care if the villagers thought of her as a loose woman because she'd invited him into her bed on three occasions. Maybe they didn't care about such things.
“Yes, he's one of us, but he talks like you sometimes. Only when it's just us though. He's quiet as the grave when he comes into town,” she said, running her fingers through her tangled hair.
Clay just nodded at her words and rolled back on top of her. That night, Roque made mention of a man that supposedly lived in the forest. “Did they call him the 'Ghost Cat'?” Clay asked, taking Roque's cup from him and drinking from it.
“How did you know?”
“He's sleeping with their women,” Clay pointed out.
“Afraid you have competition?” Roque asked.
Clay rolled his eyes, but once they heard of the Ghost Cat they couldn't seem to escape the whispers. No one seemed to know anything about the man, other than that he may have been the embodiment of a god come down two bring them prosperity. He was incredible in bed, and no one denied him their company. He didn't speak. He was strong, and he could rain down death upon any who wished to bring him harm.
“That sound like a wayward sniper to you?” Clay asked Roque as they shared a round of drinks with one of the locals.
“Sounds like someone's living the life down here,” Roque agreed.
Finding the Ghost Cat was about as hard as the title implied. They spent days scouring the forests around the village. Clay was bitten by two snakes during those searches, and Roque had almost refused to suck the venom out of his inner thigh the second time.
“Nope, do it yourself,” he insisted, staring at Clay's bare thigh.
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” Clay demanded to know.
“Should've had the gymnast in Beirut work on your flexibility,” Roque told him, but he knelt to take care of it. He deserved a medal for this.
He spat it out with a look of utter disgust at the mark it left on Clay's leg. “I am never doing that again. If you get bit on the ass, I'm leaving you to die,” Roque told him as Clay tugged his pants back up.
Of course, that had to be the moment the Ghost Cat happened upon them. He dropped out of a tree while Roque was still on his knees and Clay was attempting to fasten his belt.
Clay raised his hands as he saw the pair of guns pointed at them by a man with dark hair and a patchy beard. His pants fell back around his ankles as he kept his arms up, and Clay cursed this mission with all his might.
“Why are you looking for me?” the man asked in a thick Spanish accent. Clay couldn't tell where it hailed from, but he could tell the man was more accustomed to Spanish than English.
“We're looking for a soldier that goes by Alvarez. We're here to take him home. We were hoping you might know him,” Roque said, keeping his hands up as well.
“He died with the others,” the man told them. His voice was calm, no hint of emotion behind the words.
Clay was impressed. If his whole team had been slaughtered, he wouldn't have been holding it together so well if confronted about it. Then again, his whole team at the moment was Roque—Clay would rain hell down upon anyone who tried to hurt Roque—though he was quite calm about this man holding a gun at him.
“That's not what we heard,” Clay said, wishing he was little a little more dignified.
“The government only sent the two of you. That means they are hoping you die here looking for Alvarez just like they set up his team's slaughter.”
“Well, wouldn't it be a kick in the pants if all three of us showed up at the extraction point alive and ready to raise hell?” Clay retorted.
“Not as nice as living in peace.”
“Is this really peace?”
“I live alone. I sleep with who I want. They accept me and do not bother me...”
“If we found you others will. They might be more interested in killing you,” Roque pointed out.
The man who'd yet to admit he was Carlos Alvarez cocked his head at Roque. “I know you,” he said, a smile curling on his lips. “I won a knife from you,” he said lowering the gun in his left hand and trading it for a large, dangerous looking knife that both Clay and Roque recognized.
“When the hell...”
“It saved my life. Cut my captor's throat with it,” Alvarez said. He paused for a moment, giving the knife a thousand yard stare. “I will go with you,” he agreed quietly.
Roque was smug about him being the reason Alvarez agreed all the way across another three countries in the opposite direction they'd come from.
Alvarez insisted they rework the extraction point to a beach in Brazil.
“I don't really remember those three days, do you Cougar?” Roque asked, finishing his story as Clay's head lolled to the side to look at him.
“Sí,” Cougar said, beginning to suture Clay's stomach closed. Clay tried not to look, but it was a little mesmerizing. Cougar was good at what he did. His hands were so precise. Clay closed his eyes tight before his brain started waxing poetic about Cougar's hands, or before he confused them with hands he'd felt on that beach in Brazil.
“How many laws did we break?” Roque asked.
“All of them,” Clay and Cougar responded.
“Not fair. You guys all have crazy stories about how you met. I just got assigned to you, nothing crazy about it,” Jake complained, staring into the now empty bottle of scotch.
“Dude, you bring your own crazy. Kinda like Clay's girlfriends, but more useful in combat,” Pooch told him.
“I demand another story. How did Pooch join you?”
“Car chase in Kiev,” Cougar grunted as though Jake should have already known that.
“Clay slept with the wrong dignitary's mistress. They planted a bomb in his car. Cougar sniffed it out because he checked the vehicle every time we came and went. Bomb goes off, and suddenly hell is coming down upon us. Clay managed to call it in and ask for backup...Pooch and a couple other guys were the only ones in the area. He was actually on leave and about to catch a flight stateside, but...”
“We've got company!” Clay yelled as they ran down another alley, trying to outpace the thugs following them. They were big guys—the sort of men you didn't expect to be fast, but they were keeping pace anyway.
Cougar was carrying his rifle, but somehow he was still out running the two of them as he quickly navigated the city. Clay was grateful that one of them had memorized the maps. It wasn't supposed to be this sort of mission, but in the end they all turned out to be this kind of mission.
“Why couldn't you just sleep with a hooker, Clay?” Roque asked as they rounded another corner.
“I did. Evidently, she was his hooker,” Clay retorted. “Shit,” he cursed as the men behind them opened fire.
“Your dick is poison, man. You are a bad luck charm,” Roque insisted, ducking as a spray of bullets ricocheted through the alley.
“Shut up, and run,” Clay said, turning to shoot back. He hoped it would make their pursuers pause, but it didn't help nearly enough.
As they came out the mouth of one alley, a van pulled up with the back door wide open.
“Sergeant Porteous here to pick up three assholes getting shot at in center city,” Pooch yelled, aviator sunglasses covering his eyes and some bobble-head dog riding on the dashboard.
Cougar came up short, looking back a Clay like he wasn't sure this man could be trusted. Truth be told, Clay wasn't exactly willing to hop inside that van either. With their luck, this Porteous character was probably going to murder them. However when another spray of bullets was fired, all three of them lunged for the open door, and they were off.
“You can call me Pooch,” their driver had told them as they made quick turns through the city heading for parts unknown to anyone but Porteous. Clay looked around the beat up van. It didn't look like anything the military would issue for use, which begged the question as to how Pooch had gotten it—especially being that he had only be due to stay in the city for a matter of hours before his connecting flight left.
“Why the hell would I call you that?” Roque asked, putting pressure on a graze on his arm. Cougar climbed into the front passenger seat and assembled his gun in case it became necessary.
“Who issued you this vehicle, Porteous?” Clay asked, knowing it was a bad idea.
“Some German stoner with greasy hair. He didn't give it to me per se, but he left it unlocked on the street. Who the hell does that if they don't want it stolen?” Pooch told them, waving it off like stealing a van was just a regular occurrence.
“You just took it...”
“Cars don't magically run, Colonel. I hot wired her. I can make any piece of machinery purr for me: cars, helicopters, boats. You name it, I've handled one,” Pooch told them, grinning as he took a corner a little too hard for anyone's comfort.
“Well this is certainly the best luck I've had since I joined your team,” Roque commented, gripping the handle above the door, so he didn't get tossed into Clay's lap.
“Say that when we get there safely,” Clay told him, though he had to agree that Pooch's appearance was convenient.
“I'm actually heading home to see my girl,” Pooch volunteered as he made another quick maneuver to avoid traffic.
“Only if we all don't die,” Cougar commented, pointing to a roadblock ahead of them. Pooch scoffed, leading them up a makeshift ramp of sorts and over the barrier. Clay almost prayed as they were airborne, but he left that to Cougar.
“So, why is everyone out to kill you, or is that classified?” Pooch asked them all.
“Clay's dick,” Cougar and Roque said in unison.
“I still hold rank here,” Clay reminded them, though he knew it was useless.
“That doesn't sound freaky or anything...”
“I didn't realize the prostitute was off limits,” Clay sighed, not pleased that he was explaining this to a subordinate.
“Man, never sample the local women. Never ends well,” Pooch told him.
“He's aware, but he just attracts crazy,” Roque said.
“Ah, I see. I've got a great girl at home, no bullshit. Hey, Cougar reach into my pocket. I've got a picture of her in there,” he said, wiggling his shoulder to show which pocket. Cougar frowned, but eventually he reached into the pocket of Pooch's jacket and removed a picture of a beautiful woman. He passed it around, and each of them grunted in approval before he handed it back to Pooch.
“Lucky man,” Cougar said, looking out the window.
Pooch drove like nothing Clay had ever seen, and they made it out of the city alive though Clay could have sworn he saw his life flash before his eyes more than once. When they'd used a sculpture as a ramp and gone airborne, Clay had made his peace with God, but somehow they were all still breathing.
When they reached the safe house several hours away, Clay had told Pooch that he'd be a part of the team, even if Clay had to call in some favors. Pooch's CO was reluctant to part with him, but Clay was quite persuasive.
“That makes me feel even worse. Awesome car chase, South American sex deity, and spy shenanigans. Why don't I get a fun meet cute with the Bossman?” Jensen drunkenly demanded.
Clay's head was so fuzzy at that point that he barely registered Cougar turning on the water in the shower to rinse away the blood before bandaging him up.
“Just be happy you haven't almost died because of Clay's taste in women yet, Jay. The time will come when you are grateful for this,” Pooch told him, or at least that's what Clay thought he said as the world went black.
Clay woke in the bathtub with a vicious headache and a pain in his gut. He vaguely remembered being stabbed with a letter opener when Patricia found out that he had no intention of marrying her. That had hurt like a bitch, but she'd fled as soon as she saw the Hello Kitty covered handle sticking out of his stomach.
Clay had helped himself to her finest liquor before he staggered down to his car and drove back to the house he shared with the team. He was glad that he'd brought her to the less expensive Italian restaurant for their anniversary—two months, but she'd insisted it was somehow a milestone—instead of the nicer one he favored.
Clay groaned as he sat up in the tub. He was damp all over, and he had a flash of Cougar hosing him down to prevent the tub from getting stained with his blood. Pooch had been concerned about their security deposit, as though Jake's bouts of redecorating hadn't already taken care of that option.
Pushing himself out of the tub took more energy than Clay wanted to exert, but he got to his feet, picking up his almost empty pack of cigarettes as he went. He put one between his lips and lit it as he stared at himself in the mirror. He looked like shit; his five o'clock shadow was bordering on a full beard, and his eyes were bruise dark from crappy sleep. He ran his hand over his face as he ashed his cigarette in the sink.
He'd survived another relationship. More precisely, he'd survived another less than stellar breakup. He was pretty sure that he owed Cougar a cold one for that.
Clay took another drag of his cigarette before putting it out and throwing the butt in the toilet. He splashed water over his face and took a leak before stepping out of the bathroom in search of coffee. He could already smell Jensen's potent brew wafting from the kitchen, and he hoped the Tech would be willing to share. The man was touchy about sharing his caffeine with anyone other than Cougar.
“Bossman, lookin' like even Lady Death doesn't want your sorry ass,” Jake greeted him, far too loudly for Clay's pounding head.
“Coffee,” Clay growled, considering stealing the mug right out of Jake's hands, but Cougar was sitting at the table watching him with sharp eyes. There was no point pissing off the sniper and risking no coffee at all.
“Is it really true that you and Roque are wanted men in Bulgaria for accidentally destroying a crop circle that looked like Jesus?” Jensen asked him, holding his coffee just out of reach.
Clay frowned at the younger man. What the hell had happened while he was out of commission? “What?”
“No Jake. He's wanted in Belize, and it was a handkerchief with the Virgin Mary on it in ketchup,” Pooch said, stepping into the room past Clay and taking Clay's mug out of Jensen's hands.
“That's mine,” Clay told him, ignoring the utterly ridiculous notion that he'd ever been in Belize, or that he had anything to do with the Virgin Mary—Mary Magdalene possibly, but not the Virgin Mary.
“Finders keepers,” Pooch said, unapologetic.
Clay sighed, stepping forward and pulling a mug out of the cabinet. He poured himself a cup of coffee, glaring at Jake as if daring him to complain.
“How's the stomach, Colonel Shish Kabab?” Jake asked, grinning at his own humor. Clay caught Cougar shaking his head at the table.
“Better than my head,” Clay said, going to sit beside Cougar.
“Can you confirm or deny the pink tutu incident that Roque told us about?” Jake asked, still beside the coffee machine.
“The what?” Clay asked him.
“I'll take that as a 'you can't speak of it because it's highly classified,'” Jake said, nodding to himself.
“What is he on?” Clay whispered to Cougar who was very focused on his own coffee.
“Roque,” was all Cougar said, picking up the newspaper in the middle of the table and effectively ignoring all of the idiots around him.
Clay sighed, and found his way to Roque's room, kicking the door to wake his second in command.
“What the hell, Clay?” Roque asked, rolling onto his side.
“What the hell did you tell Jensen while I was out of it? He's talking about us being wanted in a country starting with a B over some religious paraphernalia and something about a tutu,” Clay said, sitting on the edge of Roque's bed before he fell down.
“Oh that. I may have exaggerated a little bit, but we couldn't have the kid believing you went to West Point and graduated near the top of your class. He'd never respect that. Have you met him? He needs someone larger than life as his commanding officer. I tried to tell him we were pirates for about six months, but Cougar decided it was bed time and cut me off.”
“We were pirates for six months, Roque,” Clay said, remembering those very uncleanly months infiltrating a group of pirates that had been taking yachts and had a prominent senator's son hostage. It had been far from the adventure Jake would have seen it as.
“So, you've lied to our Tech?”
“He probably wont last six months, what does it really matter?” Roque asked.
Clay sighed. He wasn't sure that it mattered at all really. Jake Jensen probably knew more about their histories than they even remembered. The kid was too smart and too sneaky for his own good. As for Clay's past, he wasn't even sure what the truth was anymore. The past didn't matter. Living to make a future was the only thing that counted for anything in his line of work.