From the depths of despair, a hero shall rise.
US Marshal Jaeger Tripp is assigned to the Federal Witness Protection Program. The hurt and destruction he’s seen—along with protecting criminals who are only cooperating with the authorities to keep themselves out of jail—have left him with a bleak and jaded view of both life and people. His current assignment is Wren O’Riley, a computer wizard who witnessed a high-profile cartel hit.
To Jaeger, Wren is the same as any other job. He must protect him long enough to get him to testify at trial, and his personal feelings have no place in his work and must be set aside. But that’s easier said than done. On the run and fighting for their lives, Jaeger and Wren can’t help but grow closer. And Jaeger can’t help seeing beyond Wren’s nerdy exterior to a man who might be just what Jaeger needs to settle his soul and capture his heart—if they survive long enough to get that chance.
OPPRESSIVE HEAT caused the sweat to trickle down Jaeger’s back and pool at the waistband of his camouflage BDUs. For three fucking days, he’d been entrenched in the mosquito-ridden jungle of Colombia, waiting for his mark, Carlos Quintanilla—drug runner, coca grower, and major player in the Colombian cartel. He and his team were paid handsomely to sit, wait, and dispose of a target. And though the original twenty-four hours—in, shoot, and out—had grown to three days, mercenaries were paid to wait under any conditions.
Once the deed was done, he would trek four klicks through the jungle and rendezvous with the team, cross into Venezuela, and transform into a businessman for the trip back to the States. With his payoff, he planned to retire—hang up his hat as a killer for hire and live on an island in peace and quiet. Maybe. If the nightmares stopped and gave him respite.READ MORE
He watched through his rifle sight as Quintanilla lumbered along the edge of the pool of his multi-million-dollar fortress. Security was a priority for him, but that was of little consequence to Jaeger, who was perched approximately half a mile away from the complex in a makeshift tree stand with his Remington 700, nicknamed Lolita. He waited.
Movement to the right of the pool caught his attention. Jaeger shifted ever so slightly as the slim figure of a man dressed in blue flowered board shorts, a white undershirt, and flip flops approached Quintanilla. The young man couldn’t have been more than twenty-four.
A dirty blond mop of hair fell over his eyes. His skin was only slightly tanned, as though it had been kissed by the sun, and his ass was meant to be grabbed.
Jaeger didn’t have time to ogle over some squeeze Quintanilla kept at his house. Or maybe the young man was the drug runner’s son. Intel reported that Quintanilla’s wife, children, and mistress were away on vacation. So either the young man was a fuck buddy or a returning son, there to see daddy. Additionally, the team had watched the workers and security guards and knew the next few days were the only time that month Quintanilla would be alone. It looked like a vacation from the world. Quintanilla sent everyone else away and stayed to enjoy the amenities he acquired by dipping his hands into blood money. Carlos Quintanilla believed himself so powerful that no one would dare to touch him. He’d soon be proven wrong.
“Target in sight.” Jaeger spoke softly into the mic attached to the lapel of his camouflage shirt. The earpiece in his right ear crackled with static.
“Can you take the shot, Arrow One?” The speaker, located approximately four kilometers away, waited with the rest of the team for Jaeger to complete the deed and return to the rendezvous point.
“Roger, Base One. Shot available, but there’s a slight problem. The target is not alone. Over.”
Jaeger waited for base to confirm or negate his mission. He hoped it was a go, because if not, the sitting in a mosquito-infested jungle, being eaten alive would have been for naught. And that would highly piss him off.
“Can you take them both out, Arrow One?”
Jaeger thought and quickly contemplated the speed of the traveling bullet, the wind velocity, and the reaction time for the second target to move and attempt to take cover and fall at Quintanilla’s feet. He couldn’t guarantee it.
“Negative, Base One. Advise.” Jaeger waited.
Sitting in the jungle required patience, which any mercenary or sniper had in spades. The average man found it torturous to sit in silence for three minutes. Jaeger did it for days at a time. So the five minutes it took for base to get back to him was nothing. If Quintanilla attempted to leave the premises, Jaeger would have to either take him out and leave the young man alive or try to eradicate both of them.
“Base One to Arrow One. Over.”
“Arrow One here.”
“It’s a go, Arrow One. Target first, then the secondary. Take the trip to the destination and see if any cleaning is required. We are still a go for the meet. Over.”
“Roger, Base One. Over.”
Jaeger had the green light. Kill Quintanilla, shoot the young man, and confirm both kills. Jaeger had no doubt Carlos Quintanilla would be dead, but was not sure of the second target. He’d put a bullet in him on sight, if needed.
Jaeger peered through the lens, blinked his eyes to refocus, and stared at Quintanilla. He and his blond companion were seated side by side in chaise longues. The young man’s hands moved earnestly, as if the talk was at the forefront of his young life. Jaeger inhaled and filled his lungs. The feel of Lolita against his cheek and on his shoulder and the caress of the scope and wood stock comforted him but had also brought him great pain. But this was not the time to become maudlin. He had a job. One that would enlarge his bank account and maybe deliver the solace he’d struggled so hard to find.
Ever so slowly he released his breath as his index finger rested on the trigger. As he let go the last of his breath, Jaeger squeezed the trigger. The whiz of the bullet rang through the air and blended with the cacophony of birds in the untamed Colombian jungle. Jaeger released the shell, inhaled again, and aligned his second shot. Dead-on, the bullet pierced Carlos Quintanilla’s skull, and blood oozed from the hole. Quintanilla fell over in the lounger. The young man dropped to his knees and covered his mouth with his hands. The angle of his body made it impossible for Jaeger to kill him, but he’d maim him until he was onsite and could finish the deed. This better involve a bonus. And not a two-fer-one sale.
The second shot, strategically aimed at the young man’s side, tore through his ribs and pierced a lung, incapacitating him until Jaeger arrived. The man dropped.
Jaeger slung his minipack onto his back, hoisted Lolita onto his shoulder by her strap, and jogged through the foliage. Normally the slight trek would have taken about ten minutes on solid ground, but in the thick of the Colombian jungle, half a mile could take up to an hour. Jaeger didn’t have the luxury of wasted time. He humped the half mile as fast and expediently as the surrounding area allowed and arrived at the fortress in less than thirty minutes.
Careful and mindful of any unwanted guests, Jaeger quickly entered through a low-lying wall on the back side and made his way to the pool area. The silence was welcome, except for the slight whimpers of the wounded bystander. Jaeger verified Quintanilla’s death and turned his attention to the young man who struggled for breath as his lungs obviously filled with blood and his heart enlarged and worked overtime to pump. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. His soulful chocolate-brown eyes pooled with tears as he peered up at Jaeger. Blood, snot, and tears did not detract from the young man’s good looks. In retrospect Jaeger realized he was Quintanilla’s son and not a boy toy.
Jaeger removed his Sig from the side holster and aimed. The young man resignedly closed his eyes. Sadness illuminated Jaeger’s soul at the prospect of taking an innocent, but no witnesses were allowed. And Jaeger was paid to kill. He wasn’t quite sure where his feeling emanated from, but a job was a job, and Jaeger and the team were being paid handsomely. The boy had the misfortune to be born into the Quintanilla family and grow up the son of a notorious drug runner. Maybe not so innocent, then—tainted by his genealogy. Jaeger pulled the trigger. The sound was louder than usual.
JAEGER’S CHEST burned, and acid bubbled in his throat, made its way to his mouth, and mingled with a coppery taste. Hushed voices. Jaeger heard whispers. His team. What the fuck? Double-crossed. One of his team had shot him like a dog and left him for dead after he completed his assignment. Greedy fucks wanted all the money for themselves. Jaeger’s eyes drifted. His breath labored as he struggled to move. He’d die in a godforsaken jungle, alone and betrayed by his fellow killers.
Weakly he reached up toward the voices, but he gasped air. His eyes played tricks on him, and he blinked in an attempt to clear his vision before death took him. Then he saw—
His first kill.
A young man.
The streets of the twelfth-century German village were riddled with poverty, disease, and discontent. The Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Germany were once again at odds, leaving Jaeger Tripp and his family to struggle, scrape, and steal to survive. The emperors ruled their fiefdoms and villages while peasants were caught in the path of the mighty.
Jaeger wanted a way out. He wanted wealth and power. Strong as an ox and quick with a sword, Jaeger was a match for even the strongest lord or knight, but as a peasant, he would never get the opportunity to prove himself. His village was ruled by Lord Wolfram the Beast, with his son, Wren the Dreamer, by his side. Jaeger had seen Lord Wren on numerous occasions and both envied and hated the young man for his privileged life and good looks.
Lord Wren, while the same height as Jaeger, had nothing else in common with him. He sported an olive complexion, dark hair, and flawless skin. Jaeger surmised his ancestry was rooted outside of the kingdom. He was pampered, educated, wealthy—everything Jaeger desired but could not reach.
The street was desolate, and the darkness was eerie in a starless sky. The only sound was the scurrying of rats scouring for food. Jaeger paused on his journey. The sound was so faint, he almost missed it. He waited and listened again. It came from the alley, way across the dirt path. Jaeger stepped lightly and found a robed man leaning against the dank wall, rubbing his hands together to infuse warmth into his extremities.
“Ah, young man, how fortuitous that I find you as you make your journey home.”
Jaeger looked at the man with disdain. His impeccable speech could only mean that he was wealthy, yet he lounged in a dirty alleyway.
“Good sir, what can I do for you on this night?” asked Jaeger cautiously.
“I am in search of men. Men of sound bodies who are dissatisfied with the state of the empire and who would follow a new king—a king who would look favorably on those who serve him. Warriors of the highest caliber. I shall be your new king. But I am in need of assistance, as I cannot take the throne by myself. My name is Moriel, and I am a wizard and prepared to give you riches beyond belief.”
Jaeger scratched the side of his face. His beard was rough, dirty, and in need of a trim. The wizard made grand promises, but those always came at a price.
“And what do I have to do in order to become this great warrior you speak of, Moriel the Wizard?”
The slight man withdrew a parchment scroll from his robe, unraveled it, and laid it on an abandoned cart. Then he reached once again into his intricately patterned blue robe, withdrew a wand, and waved it in the air, causing an electrical charge to illuminate the darkness of the alley.
“Good question. What do you have to do?” The wizard reached into his robe and withdrew a knife. The blade gleamed and had a strange script upon it. Moriel handed the knife to Jaeger by the hilt. And Jaeger turned it over and over. It was heavy, and its blade was sharp.
“Yes. What do I have to do?” Jaeger repeated.
“The only thing you have to do is swear your allegiance to me, your new king, and do my bidding. Become the killer I foresee in your future and eradicate everyone who stands in our way, those who deem us unworthy. Swear your allegiance, and the world shall be yours. Men and women will fear you, yet want to be with you. Food and riches will be plenty.”
Jaeger stared at the wizard, transfixed. Moriel’s lips moved, sound came out, and the information was abundant. The wizard spoke of all that Jaeger desired. All that would allow him to leave his mark on the world. A very appealing prospect.
“And once we have acquired wealth, your throne….” Jaeger looked Moriel in his coal-black eyes. “The allegiance ends?”
Leaning forward, Moriel spoke in hushed tones. “The allegiance ends when you have forgiven your enemy. Nothing more, nothing less.” Moriel shrugged his shoulder nonchalantly.
Raising himself to full stature, Moriel swept his hand over the parchment. “Your decision?”
“Yes.” Jaeger needed no other prompting.
“Your blood shall be your signature and sworn oath. Draw the knife across yourself and sign the parchment with your life’s blood.”
Jaeger placed the blade across his left wrist and sliced. The red, viscous liquid trickled down his hand. Touching the blade to his blood, Jaeger coated the tip of the knife. Then he leaned over the parchment and noticed the many dark X’s—marks of the men who would be warriors of the wizard Moriel, his new king.
Jaeger made his mark. His body immediately tingled with new power. An electrical shock from the sky radiated from the top of his head to the tips of his worn boots. A sharp pain, not from the knife, bore into the inside of his left wrist. He drew his dirty fingers to his well-worn shirt, lifted the cuff, and looked down at the object of his pain—a mark, much like a broken sword. It was given to him by the wizard upon his blood oath.
“My liege.” Jaeger bowed his head to his new king.
“Come. You must accomplish a simple task before we begin our journey to join the others. Lord Wren.”
At those words, Jaeger looked up. Lord Wren, the man he envied. The man who had no care for the despair of the villagers or Jaeger.
“Yes, my liege?”
The haze of white light slowly became the man Jaeger had known many lifetimes before.
“Why?” Jaeger coughed, and more blood trickled from his mouth. “We did as you asked. Gave you the throne… riches.” Recognition dawned. The warriors had been cursed.
“You cursed us all those years ago. Didn’t you, you fucker? Turned us into assassins to do your bidding with little reward.” Jaeger coughed, and blood seeped from his body with each inhale and exhale of breath. His birthmark itched and burned—the broken sword, the mark that was forged into his flesh when he signed his blood oath to his master centuries before. Jaeger realized by placing his X on the parchment, he sealed his fate. In an era riddled with strife and resentment against the feudal system, Jaeger became Moriel’s pawn. His heart black with hate, Moriel played on his desire for greatness and riches. Jaeger became a black knight.
“Yes. People feared us. Riches were at our feet. But beyond that… nothing…. I have nothing.” The wizard had not changed in as many years. His face was still wrinkled, and he still wore the intricately patterned blue robe.
“Jaeger. Jaeger, you signed in your blood, may I remind you, an oath of allegiance?”
“That was many lifetimes ago. And you said when we forgave an enemy we would be free. I have forgiven many enemies in my lifetime. I have taken their lives, killed them, and absolved them from the sins they have committed. What more forgiveness did they need?”
“But, you have not forgiven an enemy. The one who would set your soul free and give you solace in your wretched lifetime.”
A vision flashed before Jaeger. Lord Wren—young, beautiful, privileged―everything Jaeger hated. And Jaeger had killed him. Could he have been the one? Could his first kill have started Jaeger’s downward spiral? And what of the young man he’d just killed? Quintanilla’s son. Olive complexion, flawless skin, much like Lord Wren.
Everything became very clear. With each life his memories of other lives were erased and he started anew, still doomed, but unable to remember and learn from his mistakes. Jaeger looked one last time at Moriel, who wore a smirk on his face, and Jaeger knew the answer. Death could not come fast enough.COLLAPSE