October 2015 – In the air above the Iraqi desert
Even the incessant whirring of the extraction chopper blades was not enough to block the sound of the gasping breaths of the two dozen operators of US Army 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta that were aboard. The operation had been brutal.
To a man, every pair of unmarked fatigues was spattered with blood—that of their marks, the hostages they had rescued, or their own. The man leaning against the stark gray wall of the Blackhawk helicopter stared with lifeless eyes at his hands, the heat quickly congealing the deep red to black, His long black hair and grizzly beard were matted with it. The acrid, copper smell was nothing new. Delta Force encountered it often, but usually the blood and death were administered instead of received. Every man on the team lived with the possibility it could happen. But it didn’t make it any easier to handle when it did. He had never had to swallow his own vomit before as the familiar smell caused his stomach to roll. The thing was, his name had been on that bullet. His friend had taken it instead.
Realistically, he knew he had not made a mistake. The mission, like always, had been planned and carried out down to the smallest detail. The fault lay with the inaccurate intelligence the Kurds had provided to Operations Command. The whole op had been a clusterfuck of misinformation. Their spies inside the ISIL compound had reported that once Delta reached the prisoners’ cells, there would be only three guards. The main ISIL cell was supposed to be three and a half minutes away. It should have been an in and out mission in the pre-dawn hours, made easy by the moonless night.
Boomer had blasted through the outside wall of the prison and Thorn had entered first, quickly taking out the guards only to be pinned down by five more ISIL fighters who had entered from the left. While his attention went that direction, Wheel-Man, his Master Sergeant, had yelled “Right Flank!!” just before he leapt to shove Thorn to the ground. All hell had broken loose as the rest of his team had battled with the incoming group of ISIL soldiers. Wheel-Man had taken a bullet to the neck while saving Thorn’s life.
Methodically, the team, aided by the Kurdish forces, had neutralized the situation outside the prison when the primary force of ISIL fighters reached the prison. They released some 70 odd hostages. None of them were the Kurdish fighters awaiting execution that Delta had been sent to retrieve. Thorn wasn’t aware that he took out three more of the bastards with his Glock sidearm as he staggered toward the chopper with Wheel-Man’s heavy body over his shoulder. He wasn’t aware of Boomer running from within the compound to relieve him of the dead weight. All he was aware of was the arterial spray from Wheel-Man’s jugular and how it covered his face and soaked into his clothing.
Being second in command and always a soldier first, he bellowed at Boomer, “Pull everyone back. Blow the motherfucker to hell. Leave nothing.”
I should have reacted faster. I should have felt something was off. I should have been better.
His friend had been the father of three sons, his youngest less than a year old.
December 21, 2015
Sergeant 1st Class Thornton James Hawkins III stretched his muscular frame over the pristine white bedding of the Fayetteville, North Carolina hotel room, his keen ears hearing the steady rush of the shower in the en suite. The first round of sex had been fast, rough, and messy but had brought a brief respite from the troubling thoughts that had held him hostage since the Iraqi incident two months earlier. He had finally decided.
For nine years he had been dedicated to Delta. Nine years was a long time for a Tier 1 operator, even one as young as he. He had not sought his position. Central Command had sought him. Thorn’s life had been far from conventional. He had been blessed… or cursed, whichever way one wanted to look at it, with a far above average mind, a strong athletic body, and nerves of steel… everything that made an exceptional Delta operator.
With his genius IQ and his affluent family getting the best tutors, his life had always been on the fast track and so far advanced from his peers that he couldn’t relate when people talked about their childhood. He had never really had one. Never attending public schools, he was only 15 and already in college when he saw the twin-towers fall on 9/11. That was when he knew he wanted to serve. By the time he joined the Army at 18, he had already earned degrees in both business and architecture. After the mandatory six months of active duty, he volunteered for the 75th Ranger Regiment. 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta approached him on the very day he turned 21. He had done more and seen more than he could ever have imagined, and it was mostly some pretty nasty shit. Now, at 30, he was already burned out. The constant training and regular ops were taking a toll on his mind and his body.
Thorn had always known that at some point he would join his father at Hawkins Properties Inc., their real estate development company in Atlanta. His parents were still young enough to enjoy early retirement. They had been waiting on him. Once his decision was made, he didn’t consider for a minute that he should take more time before deciding to leave Delta. His world revolved around quick, precise decisions. That was the way his mind worked. It was time.
Realizing that the shower was off, Thorn noticed Boomer watching him intently as he leaned against the door frame, a towel wrapped around his lean hips. His blond hair was slicked tightly against his head. That devil-may-care grin of his quirked up. “Whatcha doing over there looking so serious? Maybe you need some more birthday sex. Wanna go again, Ghost?”
Boomer usually called him Thorn when they were together. Ghost was the moniker the team had given him because his Mediterranean heritage and the fact he spoke multiple languages let him blend in. He was the go-to guy when they were on ops in the Middle East or anyplace else where skins were darker. The name Ghost referred to the fact he could get in, take out a target with a gun, a knife, or his bare hands, and then get out before anyone spotted him. Sometimes, it was difficult to separate being Ghost and being Thorn.
“Later if you’re up for it. I want to talk to you first. Come here.”
Boomer sauntered the few steps to the bed, climbed in, and put his wet head on Thorn’s naked chest. “Oh, I’m up alright. With you around, I seem to stay up,” he said in that playful manner that everyone on the team liked so much while being aggravated by his incessant teasing at the same time.
From the day Sergeant Tanner Russell joined his troop three years earlier, Thorn was drawn to the cocky fellow Southerner from Arkansas with the laughing eyes. By then, ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ had ended, but to maintain morale within the team Thorn had still told no one he was gay. But the first time his glance had caught Boomer’s, they both had recognized kindred souls. The free spirited bi-sexual Boomer leveled out the rest of the serious-minded team and being a boss with explosives made him an easy fit.
They had side-eyed one another for months, but when they ran into each other at a gay bar there in Fayetteville, all bets were off. The never shy Boomer outright asked if Thorn would be interested in a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement.
Thorn declined the tempting offer at first. He was more of a ‘hit it and quit it’ kind of guy who preferred anonymous hook-ups without obligations. He liked to keep his life in order, and a relationship was definitely not something he had ever wanted or considered. Besides, nothing good could come from messing around with someone he worked with daily, no matter how sexy Boomer was.
The bold Boomer eventually wore him down and they began meeting whenever they could get away from Ft. Bragg. Despite both being alpha males, the mutually beneficial arrangement had somehow worked, neither man expecting more than the other was prepared to give. Behind closed doors, they were Thorn and Tanner. Outside, they were Ghost and Boomer.
Sighing heavily, Thorn knew of no way to tell Boomer of his decision except to just lay it out there. “My tour is up in a few weeks. I’m out.”
Tanner swallowed hard; the brown eyes staring intently at him becoming glassy, his lashes blinking rapidly. “I… I somehow knew this was coming. Is this about what happened with Wheel-Man? You know that wasn’t your fault.”
“Yes, and no. We all know what we are signing up for when we take this job. Considering the crap we get into, it was only a matter of time before we lost someone. My biggest regret will always be that Wheel-Man sacrificed his life for mine that day. Did you know he was planning to retire next year because he wanted to have time with his family? Well, I have been away from mine since I was 14 years old. 14… That’s younger than when most kids start dating.”
Boomer kept silent to let him finish. “All I’ve done is learn, train, and serve. My family knows nothing about my life because our team’s very existence is classified. I was never around for Abbie. How she can love me like she does is beyond me because she doesn’t know me. Nothing about my life has ever been normal. My Dad has always wanted me in his business, so I want to try something normal for a change. I think it’s time.”
Boomer lightly kissed the soft dark chest hair beneath his cheek and breathed in his scent. “Your life has never been normal because you aren’t normal. You’re extraordinary. You have abilities that other people can only dream of having. You’re smarter, stronger, better than everyone else because you constantly challenge yourself to be the best at everything you do. You’ve excelled at everything from marksmanship to tiddly winks without having to put in a lot of effort. Besides all that, you are a sexy son of a bitch, even with this long hair and scraggly beard.”
In an attempt at levity, his fingers tugged on Thorn’s black shoulder length locks before turning serious. “You will never be a regular guy, Thorn. With that big brain of yours, you may find that a so-called normal life won’t have enough challenges to satisfy you. Have you thought of that?”
Thorn had. He’d done nothing but think about that for two months.
Boomer languorously trailed his lips down Thorn’s treasure trail. “Thorn, I would never try to influence your decision, but I don’t want you to leave. I’m selfish. What we have may not be ideal, but we’re good together.”
“Yeah, we are. We’re very good. But, this is part of everything that is not normal. We have to hide and can’t be who we really are without it affecting the team. Tan, I’m just tired. I feel like I’ve lost my edge and you know that can’t happen when you do what we do. It would eventually hurt our team.”
Tanner’s mouth dropped open in amazement. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re a beast at everything you do, especially me. You score higher and last longer than any of the rest of us. When it’s called for, you’re a fucking killing machine and the backbone of our group. If you can’t get the job done one way, you turn all that juju karate shit on them. You never flinch and you’ve never been unable to overcome any obstacle that’s put in your path.”
“Tan, that’s just my point. I want to be someone who is not expected to kill on command. I’ve been able to do it only because I know why we do it. But, for every one we take out, there are a hundred more that come after.”
Decisively, Tan answered, “Yes. That’s why we will never stop until we get them all or there are none of us left.” Then his voice wavered. “What about us, Thorn? Will we still see each other?”
Thorn frowned. This wasn’t how this conversation was supposed to go and was the exact reason he never got involved. It was supposed to have been just fun for both of them. “Tan, when we started I told you I didn’t do relationships and you agreed to that. You’re my friend and I hope we’ll always have that. You’ve got two more years on your tour and I am going to have to learn how to run a big corporation from the ground up.” Thorn felt the tremor that ran through the firm body in his arms.
“So, that’s a no?”
“Yeah, Tan, it has to be.”
Boomer breathed deeply and let it out in a sigh. “Then I guess that’s that, huh?”
“You’ll always be my friend. You know that.”
“Yeah, friends… we’ll be friends. Sorry I brought it up. I keep forgetting how you’re able to compartmentalize everything.” After a long, uncomfortable pause, Boomer raised his head. His playful grin was forced, but it was there. “OK, we have an hour before your Facetime call with Abbie. What can we do to pass the time, I wonder? You’re going to miss this, Ghost-Man. When you do, remember I didn’t walk away but you let me go.” Then he swallowed Thorn’s hard dick into the back of his throat.
Sighing heavily, Thorn threw his head back into the pillow and didn’t think at all. With sex, he and Boomer were always on the same page. Yes. I will so miss this. He couldn’t dwell on the desperate edge with which Tanner ran his hands and mouth over him as if he was memorizing his body. It felt as though it was their first time all over again… but it was one of their last.
When the video call connected, the first thing he saw was the ethereally beautiful face of his little sister. A funny looking green elf hat perched atop the golden hair that fell into a thick braid over her shoulder. “Hey, pretty girl. How’s my favorite person in the whole wide world?”
Abbie had been a surprise gift to his parents while he had been at college. Born with a form of Asperger Syndrome, she was as light as Thorn was dark. Because of her condition, her slim body had not matured as much as other girls her age, so she appeared much younger than her 14 years. Her facial features appeared wooden when she interacted with most people, but with Thorn she always seemed more normal, even to the point of meeting his eyes when she spoke, which was a rare thing for her. The first thing out of her mouth was, “Happy Birthday. When are you coming to see me? It’s Christmas. You’re supposed to be home for Christmas. Did you know Jesus was born on Christmas?”
Over the years, he could not always make it. “I’ll be there in two days, Baby Girl. I promise. Yes, I know that. Now, tell me what you’ve all been up to.” Abbie had better language skills than most people on the spectrum, but she stammered into all the inane things in her life.
Finally, she reluctantly passed her tablet over to her mother. Marguerite Hawkins was still a beautiful woman despite the silver strands running through her dark hair. “Hello, Son. Happy Birthday. Are you alright? You look so tired. I see you still haven’t gotten a haircut.” Her brow furrowed as she studied him.
His family thought he was merely a regular member of the Rangers. His lame excuse to account for his appearance was that the Army allowed it since it added protection in desert environments. In reality, Delta’s members never wore uniforms and were encouraged to appear like ordinary people so they could blend in. When not on a mission everyone wore street clothes. Even their fatigues had no markings that could identify them.
All the time he was talking to his mother, Abbie kept jumping into the frame to stick her tongue out at him. It had been a thing between them since he had finally gotten her to do it when she was four. Chuckling, he did it right back at her each time. Finally, his Mom said, “Son, I love you, but your sister is chomping at the bits to get to the mall. I’ll talk to you when you get home. Here, talk to your father.”
Abbie’s head popped into the frame again. “Thorn, I’m gonna go buy you a Christmas present. Did you buy me one?”
With a sad look on his face, he teased, “I did, but I gave it to my other special sister.”
“No, you did not. I’m your special-est sister.” Then she frowned and her voice became timid and hurt. “Have you got a sister that’s more special than me, Thorn.”
Humor was one thing Abbie had a problem understanding, and he felt bad for teasing her. She took everything literally. “No, Baby Girl. I was teasing. You are my one and only special-est sister. I love you and will see you soon, OK?”
Brightening at his explanation, she surprised him by saying “Well, my present better be good. Bye. I love you back.”
He heard his mother and sister leave as he greeted his dad. Thorn may have gotten his dark hair and skin tone from his mother’s Sicilian side, but everything else came from James Hawkins. They were built alike and their facial structure was the same. His dad has been blond before he turned prematurely gray. The hazel eyes so like his son’s showed his keen intelligence, but where Thorn’s personality was serious and closed off, his father was friendly and forthright. The man was honest to a fault.
“Hey, Son. Happy Birthday. It’s been a while. Are you OK?” His dad’s voice soothed Thorn’s frazzled nerves. It always had; always so smooth, confident, and evenly modulated.
“Yeah, Dad, I’m OK. Just a little tired. I’m coming home in a few days, but I was hoping to talk to you privately if you have the time.”
James frowned as though his question was an insult. “For you, I have as much time as you need.”
“Dad, I’ve decided to leave the service when my tour is up in a few weeks.”
A smile split his father’s face. “Son, that’s the best news I’ve ever had. I’ve been praying for years that you would stay safe until you came back to us. I know you can’t talk about whatever it is you do. I didn’t want to lay a guilt trip on you, but I’ve been so worried ever since you joined the ‘Rangers’.” The sarcasm when he said the word spoke volumes.
He and his father had always been so attuned to each other that they could have whole conversations with only a look or a word. Technically, he was still a Ranger. Delta soldiers came from all branches of the service. He should have known his Dad was too smart to believe he was still in regular military. “I’m sorry, Dad. Does Mom know?”
“No, Son. Your mother didn’t need the worry. I know you had your reasons. It’s your life. I support whatever you choose to do. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together after the first few years because I know my son and he can’t lie for shit. At least, not to me.
“But you listen to me. I am in awe of you. I always have been. I know you did what you felt you had to do. I couldn’t be more proud than I am for the man you’ve become. You’ve always been so far ahead of everyone else. You were still a child when you left home, but with all your accomplishments I couldn’t hold you back. I have always trusted you would make the right decisions. I may never know much about your life, but I know the sacrifices you’ve made to make a difference in this world. I know you’re no regular soldier, and that’s all I need to know. I love you, Thorn.”
Thorn blinked back the tears. “Thanks, Dad. I love you and Mom and Abbie so much. You’re going to have to teach me all you know about the business, you know.”
James scoffed. “Yeah. Sure. Like I can teach you anything. You’re who I built if for and it will be yours soon enough, anyway. Son, there’s a lot we need to talk about while you’re home.”
“Sure, Dad. Now, we’ll have time.”
“Hey, I was hoping you’d get home for Christmas, so I took your cycle down to Aberdeen’s shop to get it all tuned and ready for you. With the way you look now, you’ll look right at home on that Harley. Don’t tell your mother I said so, but I think the hair looks good on you; the bushy beard… not so much.”
Thorn saw his Dad’s eyes cut away from his just before he started laughing hilariously. “Uh, Thorn, that young man shaking his butt in the bathroom is not something this Hawkins man is interested in seeing. Looks like you’re busy, so bye, Son. See you in a couple of days.” His father was still laughing when he hung up. That’s when Thorn realized the mirror behind the bed reflected a full view of Boomer with ear buds in his ears. Just like his Dad said, he was getting down and dirty to his tunes and he was buck-assed naked. It was so like Boomer to shake off his melancholy and face the inevitable, and it was so like his dad to accept his presence in Thorn’s room.
Along with everything else in his unconventional life, his parents hadn’t blinked when he came out just after joining the Army. His mother’s advice had been ‘just be sure to wear condoms’ and his dad said ‘just be you and be proud. You don’t owe shit to anybody.’ The subject of his sexuality had never come up again.
As he watched Tan shake his fine ass, his jeans constricted his hard dick. Another pang of regret flashed through him. He would miss Tan, but Thorn had never had a relationship and didn’t want one. He had never been on a date, nor had his heart broken. But as he watched his lover shimmy and shake and rotate his hips suggestively, he couldn’t deny the appeal of having a life with someone as free as Tan. Turning off the phone, he pitched it to the foot of the king sized bed.
His father had made him feel much better about the decision he had made, and surprisingly, he was looking forward to going back to life on the outside. Feeling lighter than he had in weeks, he stepped out of his jeans and pulled his T-shirt over his head.
Not wanting to waste the few hours before they had to report back to Ft. Bragg, he admired Tan’s body in the mirror as he folded his arms around his toned chest and rubbed his hard cock against his ass. Tanner didn’t turn him away. Yes, I will definitely miss this.
Little did he know, his orderly life was on the verge of being turned upside-down.
The two men reported to Ft. Bragg’s training center at 0600. A 24 hour sexual marathon took a lot out of a man, so it was tough getting through the day’s rigorous regime. Completing the intense six month long Operator Training Course had been only the beginning of what every man had to go through to remain a member of the team. Every day they were not on a mission was spent honing their skills and their bodies in preparedness.
Thorn had just come from the shoot house when he was summoned to report to the squadron’s command headquarters. A chill of apprehension ran up his spine. Something was up when the chain of command was broken. “Sgt. 1st Class Hawkins reporting, Sir.” He flipped a salute and stood at attention.
“At ease, soldier,” ordered the man who had gotten up from his desk to stand in front of him. Lt. Col. Jason Temple uncharacteristically put a firm hand on Thorn’s shoulder. “There’s a phone call for you, 1st Sergeant. I’ll let you have some privacy.”
Anxiety settled in his gut in a knot of outright alarm. The commanding officer of the entire squadron did not interact with operators directly. Anyone in his family who needed to get in touch with him would have called his phone, but it had been in his locker all day. Hesitantly, he answered the phone on the desk. “Thorn Hawkins.”
At first he thought the caller had hung up, but finally he heard “Thorn, it’s Devlin.” Although several years older, Devlin Jeffers had been the closest thing to a best friend he had while growing up. Their parents were friends, and the families had vacationed together most years. The two boys spent a lot of time playing video games before he left home. But Dev had still been in high school when Thorn left for college. His friend was currently a lieutenant with Atlanta PD Homicide. Thorn’s throat closed up in dread and he couldn’t say a word until Devlin asked, “Thorn, are you there.” Something was very wrong. He heard it in his voice.
He choked out his answer. “Yeah.”
“Thorn, something happened last night. There was a… Your family was… Thorn, your family has been murdered.”
He couldn’t hear any more. The ringing in his ears made him dizzy as he struggled to breathe, and sweat covered his body as nausea rose into his throat. The phone dropped from his hand onto the wool carpet. Staring into a black void, for the first time in his life Thorn dropped to the floor in a dead faint.
It could have been seconds or minutes before Thorn regained consciousness. The powerful scent of the ammonia inhalant burned his nostrils and eyes. Col. Temple and the officer who at been at the outside desk kneeled over him. “Soldier, I’ve called for a medic. Stay still.” The order was compassionate, but firm.
Thorn lunged to his feet and jerked away from the hands trying to contain him. Staggering away from the two men, he took a defensive stance and growled out, “NO! Fuck, no! Leave me alone.”
Acknowledging he wasn’t rational and knowing how much damage he could do, both men stepped away to give him the space he needed. Drunkenly, his legs folded in under him again. Leaning his back against the colonel’s desk, he grabbed the phone off the floor. His mind raced as he tried to comprehend what was happening. Taking deep breaths, he attempted to calm down enough to understand. “Devlin, tell me everything.”
“Thorn, right now I don’t know much. We’ve only been on the scene a short while. All I can say is it appears to be a home invasion. Pete Slater had tried to reach your father all morning. When he couldn’t, he called us to investigate. It’s bad, Thorn.”
Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he choked out, “Abbie, our baby girl. What about Abbie?”
There was a long, pregnant pause. Finally, Devlin answered tightly, “Her, too.”
His deep sobs filled the room as he choked out, “My family! My entire family!”
The anxiety flushed over his body again. He curled his body into a fetal position on the floor and cradled the phone to his chest. It was too much to take in, even for his disciplined mind.
He didn’t know how long he lay there, but knew Devlin would wait as long as it took for him to get a grip on his sanity. Finally, with gritted teeth all he could get out before he slammed the phone down was “Dev, I’ll be home as fast as I can get there.”
Drawing on every ounce of mental toughness he could garner, he blindly stumbled through the outer office in a daze. As he reached the door, Colonel Temple gripped his arm. “1st Sergeant, I am so sorry. There’s a car outside and a jet waiting at Hanger 4. They’ve been instructed to take you where ever you want to go. If there’s anything the Army or I can do, we’re at your disposal. Take as long as you need and keep me informed.”
Thorn choked out, “Atlanta.” Belatedly, he remembered to add, “Sir” but he forgot his departing salute.
Boomer was waiting outside the hangar with Thorn’s duffle bag slung over his shoulder. For them to have arranged it, he must have been in the colonel’s office longer than he thought.
Tears were running down Boomer’s face as he handed Thorn the bag. Thorn stood stiffly and accepted the tight hug that his lover kept platonic. Boomer breathed harshly against his ear, “Your phone is in your bag. I’m there for you—any time—any place.” Then he pulled back to search meaningfully into Thorn’s eyes and choked out, “Goodbye, Thorn.”
Once aboard the plane that was taking him home, the desolation festered into rage along with a determination unlike any he had ever experienced and an unnatural calm swept over him. Someone was going to pay.
It was cold and raining when the jet touched down at Robins Air Force Base an hour later. He had changed into civilian clothing while on the plane, leaving his dirty unmarked fatigues aboard. Jeans and T-shirt were no protection in the downpour. Tan had packed his leather jacket, but he didn’t feel the icy sheets and didn’t put it on. As he reached for his phone to call a taxi, he heard “That won’t be necessary, 1st Sergeant. I’m here to drive you.” He had not noticed the young soldier standing quietly to the side. He led him to an unmarked black SUV.
“Atlanta. Just drive, I’ll let you know where.” He barked, too tired and too angry to even consider niceties. Unsure what he should do first, he called Devlin. “Dev, I’m here.”
“Driving in from Robins. Can I come to the house? Dev, I have to do something!” He was desperate for answers. He did not know how to deal with uncertainty.
“No, Thorn. You can’t be here. Let us do our job. It’s too early for me to know what happened. What hotel will you be in? As soon as we finish here, I’ll be there.”
Thorn grabbed a chunk of his long hair and pulled hard hoping the pain would ward off the numbness and jumpstart his brain. Choosing the first hotel name he could remember, he answered, “The Whitley, I’ll be at the Whitley.” He never considered if a room would be available.
The woman at the front desk examined the rough-looking man with the duffle bag over his shoulder. The look in his eyes frightened her and his large muscular frame was ominous. He was nothing like the hotel’s regular clientele. “I’m sorry, Sir, but with the holidays our rooms are all booked.” When Thorn glared across the counter, she swallowed hard and tapped on her keyboard. “I can give you our executive king suite.” With his curt nod, she asked, “And how long will you be staying, Sir.”
Thorn didn’t know, so he threw out, “Three months.”
Her eyebrows rose almost to her hairline. “But sir, that suite is $350 a night and is non refundable.”
Pitching a black American Express card onto the counter, he growled, “Book it!” He had never been more thankful for the card his father insisted he keep on him. As she passed him the keycard, he barked, “Send a bottle of Glenfiddich to my room. Make that two bottles. When Lt. Jeffers with APD shows up, send him up.”
Time seemed to stand still as he waited for Devlin to show up. It would have been so easy to drink enough scotch to pass out and escape the nightmare, but he set a deliberate pace. He wanted to take the edge off the anxiety so he could think straight and would probably need the alcohol more after he heard what Devlin had to say. As he paced back and forth, he called Pete Slater, his father’s personal assistant and friend.
“Thorn, I am so glad you’re here. Devlin called and said you were on your way. I am so sorry. I’m still having a hard time believing this. Whatever you need, just say the word.”
Determined he was going to deal with this in the way he knew his father would expect him to, he brusquely answered. “First, I need to talk with Dad’s personal lawyer. Give him my number and set up a preliminary video call for tonight. What is the atmosphere like within the company at the news?”
“What you would expect — shock — chaos. With James being both President and CEO, they’ve called an emergency meeting of the board for 8:30 tomorrow morning. There have been rumblings for a while that an attempt of a coup has been in the works, but your dad had enough support it never developed. With his death, you’re in a vulnerable position.”
“I figured as much. I’ll be there. Some of those sons of a bitch will try to take advantage of this, so I need to nip it in the bud beforehand. Make sure the company attorney is there, too. Upload a copy of the company bylaws to the cloud and email me a link.”
Quietly, Pete asked, “Thorn, are you sure you’re up for this. It can wait.”
“You damn right I’m up for it. I intend to do what my dad would want done. But, Pete, I’m going to need your help. You’ve worked by my father’s side for almost 25 years. You’re going to have to teach me everything you know and tell me who I can trust and who I can’t.”
“Well, Young Hawkins, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
Thorn hunched over the desk in his room, scratching notes on some hotel stationery. The first order of business was to get a laptop. Using a cell phone for research wouldn’t cut it. He needed to find out everything he could about each of the board of directors’ members. As long as he was keeping busy and focusing on his goals, he could hold it together. Breathe, Thorn. Focus. But when he heard the two taps on the door, his hands began shaking and his legs didn’t seem to want to work as he walked to the door.
Devlin’s weariness showed in his slumped shoulders and rumpled suit. He was on the verge of collapsing. With no greeting, he engulfed Thorn in a hug, a shiver running through his imposing frame.
Several inches taller than Thorn’s 6 foot two inches and fifty pounds heavier, Dev was once an All-American linebacker for Florida State. He had chosen criminal justice over professional football. Signs of a few extra pounds around the middle didn’t detract from his massive shoulders and chest. Where Thorn intentionally developed muscle mass, Dev was just a big man.
Devlin’s voice quivered when he whispered near Thorn’s ear. “I’m sorry, Thorn. They were some of the best people I have ever met.”
His friend’s legs seemed as unsteady as his own as he swayed in his arms. Gripping Dev’s thick biceps with both hands, he walked him backward to the couch in the suite, taking the side chair for himself. “Tell me everything, Dev. I have to know.”
Dev leaned against the arm of the comfortable sofa, his hand over his closed eyes, and with a wooden voice it began. “A uniformed officer was first on the scene. The house was lit up and the front door wide open. Upon entering he found your parents in the den and according to protocol, he verified death and notified homicide. He preserved the crime scene until I arrived. I assumed control of the case rather than assigning one of my detectives. Thorn, it was… it was…” His voice broke.
Thorn shoved a double scotch into Devlin’s hands. He drank it down and held out the glass for more. Breathing heavily, he continued when he regained his composure. “There had to be more than one perpetrator because… because… of the extensive… oh, hell, Thorn, you don’t want to know… you don’t need to know.”
Devlin was a seasoned detective and had seen a lot of tragic things. With the difficulty he was having, Thorn knew it had been gruesome. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, taking deep breaths, pulling all the self discipline he had learned in his training into his mind and body. I have to do this. I have to do this. I can do this. His expression was nothing but a blank, unemotionless stare when he answered calmly and assertively. “Yes, Dev. I do.”
Devlin felt a chill run up his spine as he observed the immediate change in his Thorn’s demeanor. For the first time he noticed the physical changes, the shoulders and chest bulging with uncommon muscle mass, his eyes hard and ruthless, every muscle in his body tensed in rage and resolve. His friend was no longer the genius book nerd he had grown up with. The man in front of him was not one anyone would want to mess with. This intense man was capable of anything.
Looking Thorn straight in the eye, he continued, “Your parents were bound and gagged. From all indications, your father had multiple non-fatal stab wounds, all with a large-blade knife, with the fatal wound being to the heart. Your mother was also stabbed multiple times, but death was by strangulation. Abbie was found in the pool. She had been raped anally and strangled. Her hair had been cut. From what we could tell, nothing was taken from the house except your mother’s jewelry and your father’s wallet. That, and the fact there was evidence of motorcycle tracks on the property, leads us to believe the killers took just what they could carry. We’ll know more after forensics gives their report.”
Still with that vacant stare, he replied, “You’ll keep me informed? And, Dev, I want to see the crime scene photos.”
Dev shook his head. “You know I can’t do that, and I wouldn’t even if I could. You don’t need to see them. At this point in the investigation, I’ve already said more than I should.”
“Take my word for it, Dev. I can do more than you are allowed to do. But I can’t without your help. I WILL make sure that someone pays for this. Do you get me?”
“Yeah, yeah, I get you.” He did not doubt his old friend meant every word. Devlin finished the drink in his glass and put the unopened bottle under his arm before heading for the door. After the day he had, he deserved to pull a good drunk.