Black Flag

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The Princess Bride

Pirates of the Caribbean

The Widow’s Strike

Best regards,

Brad Taylor

* * *

I continued down Coleman Boulevard, listening to the hum of the rubber against the pavement, the only enclosure on the vehicle being a bikini top from the windshield to the roll bar. I said, “Seems okay.”

By the time we’d turned on Mill Street, next to Shem Creek, the Jeep had begun to list. Two minutes later, as we pulled into my office complex butting up against the marsh, the tire began to thump and the Jeep had leaned over, starting to strain as if it was driving through tar. I jammed on the brakes before I destroyed the rim. I swung my legs out and stomped around to the passenger side, hearing Knuckles laugh.

“Told you.”

I squatted down and studied the tire, saying, “What the hell would you know about Jeeps? It’s not a submarine or a fast boat.”

I heard him jump down while I located the problem. It was a two-inch roofing nail, jammed right between the treads. A punji stake perfectly placed. A millimeter to the left or right, and it wouldn’t have punctured the thick mudders.

I was debating pulling it out or leaving it in when I heard, “What happened?” coming from behind me.

She said, “What? This behemoth got a flat tire? I thought it was indestructible.”

I inwardly cringed. I had had to do a lot of convincing to get Jennifer to allow me to purchase the Jeep, since it was officially a Grolier Recovery Services vehicle and thus a joint decision, and part of that had been how an archeological research firm needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle that was made for abuse. When I’d come home with a 1984 CJ-7 with a full roll cage and giant Gumbo Mudder tires, she’d demanded I take it back. I’d worn her down, and now I was going to get the backlash.

She turned to Knuckles and said, “That’s our ‘company car,’ believe it or not. Like we have to drive through a swamp each day to get to work.”

Seeing he was about to be put between the two of us, and wanting no part of it, he said, “That dungeon is pretty cool. I didn’t know how old this city was. I thought Old Town Alexandria was pretty sweet, but this tops it.”

While most of his time at Grolier would be spent doing work, when we’d gone to get takeout in downtown Charleston, I’d shown Knuckles the Provost Dungeon, an ancient building on Broad Street that had a history as old as our republic. Honestly, it

True to form, Jennifer became animated at any mention of old shit. She said, “It

Even though he was Navy, I saw Knuckles’s disinterest bordering on the supernatural. I said, “We got lunch for you and Brett.”

She looked sideways at Knuckles, sensing his treachery, and said, “Perfect. He just finished with the computer. Knuckles can start his research while he eats.”

I smiled. Jennifer didn’t let me get away with much, but she was now fixated on punishing Knuckles for sidetracking her from the tirade about the Jeep.

He said, “I think Pike could use a hand here.”

“No.” I said, “I got it. I’ll holler if I need help, but it’s not really a two-man job.”

“Not exactly how I expected to spend my leave. I thought if I came down here we would get a charter boat and go sailing or something.”

“Well, if you want the government to pay for your vacation, then they’re going to get some government work out of it. Especially if you want to be vice president of maritime operations for Grolier Recovery Services.”

He scowled again but followed Jennifer toward our office, as I knew he would. He was the last guy to cut corners, and my bet was he’d know more about my company than I did in a few hours.

Knuckles looked a little bit like a hippie, with longish black hair and a fondness for tie-dye and hemp, but like the business he had come to visit, that was simply a facade. The reality was markedly different.

On the outside, Grolier Recovery Services was a boutique agency that facilitated archeological work around the world, helping with country clearances, host-nation negotiations, or outright security if needed. On the inside, it was a sophisticated cover that allowed U.S. counterterrorist operators to penetrate foreign terrain and put someone’s head on a spike. Both Knuckles, a Navy SEAL, and Brett, a paramilitary officer from the CIA’s Special Activities Division, were ostensibly employees of the company, which meant each actually had to know something about what it was we supposedly did. It was painful, but I’d done my fair share of cover development through the years.

Jennifer and I were the only permanent employees. With her degree in anthropology and natural curiosity in history, she really was the heart of the business. I brought an in-depth knowledge of how our government functioned, from the State Department to the CIA, along with some decidedly unique martial skills. Which was a polite way of saying I was just muscle, although it had been my idea to start Grolier in the first place.

I went to work on the tire, jacking up the back end and finding something rotten. An hour later, I was done and went to give Jennifer some more bad news.

I opened the door and saw Brett getting quizzed by her. A fireplug of about five foot seven, he was always smiling and impossible to aggravate. I’d never seen him mad or excited, and we’d definitely had some high adventure. In fact, he was still rehabbing from a bullet wound he’d received about two months ago. I guess the closest to angry I’d seen him had been when I’d anointed him with the callsign Blood because of something stupid he’d said. Being African American, he’d immediately tried to change it, but that wasn’t happening.

Knuckles was still on the computer, attempting to learn all of our contracting procedures. I’d given him his callsign as well. When I was still on active duty, he’d come to my team with the Joe-Cool callsign Reaper, because the SEALs are in the Navy and they’ve all seen

even if they won’t admit it. In the special-mission-unit world, you don’t get to pick your callsign. It picks you. It took a while, but eventually he did something worthy of a callsign change, and he became Knuckles. He and I had become like brothers over the years, but I still liked poking him in the eye every once in a while.

Jennifer looked up when I opened the door, and I dreaded what I had to tell her about the Jeep. Dreaded the reaction. Our business relationship was absolutely fine, but if you were to tag our personal relationship on Facebook, it would be “It’s complicated.” Although that in itself might be changing, which would reflag the relationship with my team as “It’s complicated.”

Everything about my life was complicated. Even my lovely CJ-7.

With Jennifer looking expectantly at me, I bit the bullet and said, “Jennifer, I need you to follow me to the shop. I’ll have to leave the Jeep overnight.”

“Why?”

I wearily shook my head and said, “There’s a lot of fluid around the hub of that wheel. It’s either differential or brake fluid. Either way, it needs to get checked out. That nail was probably a good thing.”

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