INTO THE DARK
Afghanistan –Winter, 2001
Staff Sergeant Dallas Garrett reined in his mount, lifted his
field glasses, and scanned the switchbacks winding down the barren
slopes of the mountain range 100 km south of Mazar-e-Sharif.
“Yippee ti-yi-yo, get along little Taliban,” he sang
under his breath as an icy wind whistled around the steep rock
walls of the pass.
He’d been five years old the first time he’d sat on
the back of a horse. The memorable event had taken place back home
in West Palm on one of those kiddy pony rides where the bored little
critter had slogged around in a circle to the tune of a rotation
about every thirty minutes. Hadn’t mattered to him. He’d
thought he was Roy freaking Rogers. To this day, his brothers and
sister still gave him shit about his little red straw cowboy hat,
black plastic boots and toy six shooters that would have made a
real cow poke laugh his ass off.
It had taken the war on terror and twenty some years for Dallas
to mount up again. Good thing the horse knew what he was doing,
he thought, lowering the glasses. Three days ago when he’d
swung into the saddle, Dallas had still been as green as that five
year old playing shoot ‘em up bang, bang in the wild, wild
west. Well he wasn’t green now. He was saddle sore and trail
weary. And while the terrain he rode was wild, he was half way
to hell and gone from the west he’d dreamed of riding as
Cold sliced through his bones like a meat cleaver – along
with an itchy, niggling feeling that this op was running way too
smoothly. Snow scented the air as his team headed down a large,
deep chasm toward the bottom of the Dar-i-suf valley. Okay. So
this could prove to be their first glitch. Weather was a complication
they didn’t need – not if they were going to accomplish
their recon on the gathering hordes of Taliban-friendly Pashtun
fighters who were elements in need of serious attitude adjustments.
Or at the very least they needed to be destabilized to marginalize
the classic war lord structure. Enter Dallas and his Force Recon
Behind him, Rodriquez, Gates, Stover, Stalinsky – Ski – and
the rest of his men swore like the marines they were when the first
flake fell. Like Dallas, they were running on guts and determination.
And like him, by design, they all looked like they’d been
born in these God forsaken mountains.
Their faces and hands were baked brown by wind and sun. Their
dark beards were rangy and full. To further blend in with the locals,
Lungees or turbans covered their heads; the wind played hell with
the flapping tails of worn clothe that wrapped around their necks
and kept the headgear from going airborne. Their dull brown and
blue striped Chapmans were woven from coarse wool and camel hair;
the loose fitting garments smelled like wet dog, scratched like
hell and as an added bonus, did damn little to keep out the cold.
"When in Rome, shit," Dallas muttered.
He grunted, sucked it up and didn’t think about the Gor-tex
jackets they’d had to leave behind so their bulk wouldn’t
show beneath the Chapmans and give them away. He had everything
he needed. His M4A1 carbine and MEU(SOC).45 pistol were hidden
beneath the long, flowing folds of the robe. His team was similarly
armed, combat-wise and ready.
Gates, his sniper, carried an M40 sniper rifle – lotta ‘bang’.
Rodriquez’s M4 was equipped with the ‘boom’ in
the form of an M203 grenade launcher. Stover was loaded ass deep
in medical supplies. If all went as planned, they wouldn’t
need any of it. They’d get in, get out, and report their
findings back to COC before the bad guys ever got wind that they’d
been made. Then the flyboys could start their destabilization efforts
in the form of a few tons of smart bombs and cookie cutters.
Ahead of Dallas, Atiqualla, the Jimbush warlord whose friendly
political party consisted primarily of ethnic Uzbek Afghans, guided
them through the pass. Atiqualla rode the grey gelding – t’Aragh – like
he’d been born in the saddle. If you could call two pieces
of wood with a slice of thin carpet slapped on top a saddle. Dallas
shifted, gave his ass a rest and wondered if his balls would ever
be a color other than blue again.
Last night he’d dreamed of riding in a chopper. Hell. If
someone had told him eight years ago when he’d made Force
Recon that he’d be leading an op on horseback he’d
have told them they were full of shit. Horse shit, specifically.
He was a marine. He hiked. He jumped. He swam.
And yet today, he rode. Okay, fine. Whatever it took. With luck,
they’d be hauling ass out of here tomorrow, the bad guys
marked as targets for a precision bombing run. Mission accomplished.
Only luck, it seemed, was about to run out.
He heard the deadly whistle just before Ski called, "Heads
down!" from their flank.
The first RPG hit an instant later. Then the side of the mountain
started exploding around them and the world blew apart.
West Palm Beach, Florida, seven years later.
"So, what brought this on?"
Dallas didn’t so much as glance at his brother who stood
in the open bedroom doorway, a root beer in hand, a dark scowl
on his face.
"What? I’m not entitled to a vacation?" A man
on a mission, Dallas continued rifling through his bureau drawer,
ignoring Nolan’s long suffering breath. "E.D.E.N. can
get along without me for a few days. You three over achievers can
handle things," he pointed out, referring to his siblings
who were all partners in the security firm their old man had turned
over to them several years ago.
"Besides, with Jase and Manny on board now, you’ve
got plenty of bodies to fill the holes," he added, reminding
Nolan that E.D.E.N. was at full force with the addition of Jase
Wilson and Manny Ortega, two ex-special ops brothers in arms who’d
recently joined the company. "Perfect time for me to take
a break from bullets and bad guys."
Bullets and bad guys.
Without warning, a vivid assault of memory hit him like a gut
Ski. Gates. Rodriquez. Stover. They were all dead or dying.
He sucked in air. Stalked across the carpeted floor. But he couldn’t
move fast enough to outdistance the seven year old memories.
The stench of burning flesh seared his nostrils. The sick,
sweet scent of blood and gore suffocated him. And the sounds.
Jesus. Terrified cries of pain from both men and horses.
The ground was grave cold and running with blood, rubble and
snow when he came to. Dead ahead … awe, God. Pain throbbing
through his entire body, he clawed his way to Gates’s mangled
corpse. The corporal’s eyes were vacant, unfocused as he
lay sprawled in the debris, half of his face shot off. Twenty-three
years old. His mother would never see him whole again.
Dallas swallowed hard. Shook his head. Cleared his vision.
Seven years. Seven fucking years and the images he’d thought
he’d buried with his men were once again rising up out of
the mucky swamp of his memory, sucking at his soul like leeches.
Never was a good time to relive this shit. So why the hell was
this happening again? Why was it happening now?
Dallas straightened. Wiped a shaking hand over his face and snapped
at Nolan. "What!"
Brows knit, Nolan pushed away from the doorframe where, until
now, he’d been attempting to look nonchalant. "What
the hell is wrong with you? You’re either sniping like a
great white, or as silent and stoic as a monk."
Dallas grunted and tossed several pair of socks into the duffel
that lay open on his bed. His brother was spot on right. And he
was sorry about that. Just not sorry enough to muster the will
to do anything about it. Except give Nolan a break and get out
of his face for a while. "So I’d think you’d be
glad to get rid of me."
"Talk to me." Concern knocked the edge off the ex-Ranger’s
Talk to him? Christ. Dallas had made that mistake once already.
Two weeks ago. The night their oldest brother, Ethan, had remarried
Dallas had been shit-faced drunk – not his usual MO - and
light-weight that he was he’d spilled his candy-ass guts.
Cried to Nolan about the recent recurrence of the flashbacks, the
night sweats, the black holes that had become a part of his life
again. Nolan had wanted to play touchy feely ever since.
"You know, the VA has head men who specialize in-"
"Don’t even go there." Dallas cut Nolan off with
a dark look. He was a Marine. Okay, ex-Marine. For over five years
now. Still, the Marine doctrine was forever ingrained in his DNA.
And it was pig simple: Solve your problems, live with them, or
shut the fuck up. He wasn’t about to flop down on a cushy
couch in some psycho-babbling little cucumber’s office and
puke out his inner demons. ‘Philosophy’ battalion in
the mosquito infested swamps of South Carolina had made certain
of that. The head ‘philosopher’ – AKA: the drill
sergeant’s therapy of choice had been to apply a size-thirteen
boot directly to the ass whenever the urge to whine came over a
raw recruit. Effective as hell.
"Have you thought about looking for her?" Nolan asked
He’d forgotten. He’d spilled the beans about Amy Walker
that same night. Boo-hooed about the fact that he hadn’t
been able to stop thinking about the woman he’d helped rescue
from that clew of Abu Sayyaf terrorist worms with Ethan, Nolan
and Manny when they’d staged an unsanctioned, civilian op
to save Darcy from Jolo Island six months ago.
Amy had endured more degradation and torture at the hands of those
slime than any human being should be expected to bear. She’d
survived because of her strong spirit and guts. But she would carry
the scars – both physical and emotional – for the rest
of her life.
He respected her. Admired her. Cared about her. Wanted her.
Yet even though he’d suspected that she was planning to
disappear from his life shortly after they’d returned to
the states, he’d let her go. Because he’d known. Alone,
they might have a chance. Together, their excess baggage would
break an elephant’s back.
"Or is that what this sudden trip is really about?" Nolan
crossed the room. Dallas watched his brother set his root beer
bottle on the bedside table then lay back on the bed and get comfy,
crossing his arms behind his head. "You finally going after
"That’s going to leave a ring." Dallas evaded
the question by glaring toward the sweating bottle.
Just like he’d been evading the probability that the ground
assault they’d launched getting Darcy and Amy out of the
terrorist hellhole had been the catalyst for the resurgence of
his PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Long convoluted term.
Shrinks preferred it to ‘fucked-up’ in the head. Go
"Anal to the bone," Nolan grumbled after a long, silent
stare and grudgingly moved the bottle onto a coaster. "Did
you ever think that might be part of your problem?"
"No, but I’ve been thinking that you are. Don’t
you have a wife and a baby to go home to and harass?"
"You know," Nolan said, purposely ignoring Dallas’s
hint to leave him the hell alone, "I remember a day, not so
many moons ago when you and Ethan invaded my inner sanctum and
dragged my sorry hide out of a perfectly good drunken stupor."
"Too drunk to remember that Ethan came alone. If I’d
"Oh, right," Nolan interrupted with a tight grin. "You
weren’t with him. Guess I was drunk."
"Well I’m not so bugger off."
According to Ethan, Nolan had been close to the edge that day,
Dallas reflected. Beyond just drunk, deep in denial and ready to
piss his life down the toilet. His little brother had DX’d
out of the Rangers three months earlier, was laying a lot of blame
on his big bad self for a buddy’s death and Dallas and Ethan
had decided Nolan needed something to live for.
Joining E.D.E.N., Inc. as a securities specialist and protecting
TV anchorwoman Jillian Kincaid from a crazed stalker had started
out as a job. A means to bring Nolan back among the functional.
Who knew he’d not only straighten up and fly right, he’d
end up marrying his client, the daughter of one of the fattest
cats in the publishing business.
"Okay. So drinking’s not your problem – or your
forte," Nolan’s voice dragged Dallas back to the immovable
object currently stretched out on his bed, "but you’re
about a pin pull away from going off like a frag grenade."
Dallas worked his jaw. One thing about brothers. They understood
things. Nolan wasn’t going to let up.
"I’ll handle it," Dallas said, because he also
understood something. Nolan was worried about him. And he wasn’t
going to back away. "I’ll handle it," he repeated
with a grim nod when his brother’s expression relayed only
skepticism. "I just need a little space, okay?"
Nolan studied him long and hard. "Give me more than crumbs
here, D. You know I have to report back to the troops."
The ‘troops’, Dallas knew, consisted of their mom
and dad, Ethan and Darcy, their sister, Eve, and her husband, Mac,
and Nolan’s wife, Jillian. And he’d already figured
out that they’d sent Nolan here to get the goods on the only
Garrett who had broken Army tradition and opted to join the Marines – a
decision that had always made his sanity suspect in their eyes.
"Do NOT sic Eve on me," he warned, figuring that would
be Nolan’s next move.
Their sister – Nolan’s twin – was five feet
two inches of blond hair, blue eyes and TNT. Eve loved hard, cared
hard and wouldn’t think twice about pinning Dallas to the
wall if she thought she could protect him by doing so. The best
thing that had ever happened to that woman was marrying Tyler ‘Mac’ McClain.
Mac gave back as good as Eve dished out, didn’t take any
of her lip and, Dallas was relieved to know, Mac was crazy in love
"Give me a reason not to send her over. Tell me where you’re
That was the hell of it. Dallas didn’t know. He didn’t
know squat – except that he needed distance. The concerned
looks were wearing on him. The worry that creased his mother’s
brow fueled his guilt.
"Fishing," he said, making it up on the fly. "I’m
going fishing, okay? With some buddies from my old unit."
He’d go to hell for lying but since odds were he was heading
there anyway, one more sin against mankind wouldn’t make
"So when do you leave?" Nolan clearly wasn’t taking
the bait and was doing a little fishing of his own trying to catch
Dallas in a lie.
"In the morning. Early flight to the gulf. I’ll see
you in a couple of weeks. Happy now? Good. Now get the hell out
so I can finish packing."
Dragging a hand over dark hair that was badly in need of a cut,
he strode out of the bedroom toward his condo’s front door,
swung it open and waited for his brother to follow. The sultry
heat of the Florida night slogged into the room in thick, heavy
drifts. A sky that had been threatening rain all day finally let
go and a burst of fat drops fell as he stood there. Needing to
After what seemed like a decade, Nolan finally sauntered toward
him. Hands tucked in his hip pockets, he stopped about a foot away.
Though Nolan was the youngest of the three brothers, he stood within
an inch of Dallas’s 6’1’ frame, carried his weight
in the same lean, rangy build, and stared at him through the same
intense blue eyes.
"If your ass isn’t straightened out when you get
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Dallas interrupted. "You’re
gonna introduce it to my shoulder blades."
And then Nolan did the damnedest thing. This ex-special ops soldier
who was now a full partner with Ethan, Dallas and Eve at E.D.E.N.
Securities, Inc., this hard as steel warrior who took no prisoners
and cut no slack, grabbed him in a bear hug and squeezed until
Dallas’s ribs cracked.
"Take care, man," Nolan said and let him go. Without
a backward glance, he walked out the door and into the rain.
Thank Jesus God
Because if his little brother had taken time to look Dallas in
the eyes, he would have seen they were wet. And that was one humiliation
he positively could not deal with.
* * *
Dallas was dry-eyed and hard-faced when he heard the knock on
his door five minutes later.
Eve, he thought with a sick knot in his gut. Damn Nolan and his
good intentions. The little bastard had gone straight to Eve – and
she’d tear into him like a pit bull after a T-bone until
she got some answers.
Muttering under his breath, he stomped to the door and swung it
open, determined to nip this little inquisition in the bud.
Only it wasn’t his sister standing there, drenched to the
bone as rain came down like buckshot.
His heart cracked him sledge hammer hard, dead center in the middle
of his chest as he stared into the face of a woman he’d seen
for the first time in the fetid jungles of Jolo Island.
Cornflower blue eyes speaking to him without her uttering a word.
Jesus. Sweet Jesus Christ.
Dallas had thought of her, dreamed of her, worried for her, even
cursed her for messing with his head after she’d disappeared.
But he’d never planned on seeing her again.
Too much baggage.
Too many problems.
Too much work, he’d told himself over and over again.
Told himself now.
All of that flew out the window when she took a halting step toward
him and collapsed into his arms.