Fallujah, Iraq, 15 November 2004
Ryder Wilson enjoyed talking with Lance Corporal Grant. She was young, but sure as hell knew her shit when it came to advanced satellite communications.
His recon Marine unit had been on this rooftop in Fallujah for hours, waiting for something to break and to go after the insurgents who had terrorized this part of the city for the last few days.
Too damned quiet. Sergeant Miller suggested they eat in shifts while they could. He was informing Damián Orlando of the SITREP while Ryder spent time getting to know the Marine newly attached to their unit.
Didn’t usually find women Marines assigned to combat units, although the cease-fire they were under meant they probably wouldn’t have any direct engagement. He hoped not anyway.
“So where are you from?” Grant asked.
“Born and raised in New Mexico. Albuquerque. How about you?”
“Army brat. I’ve lived all over and then some.”
“That why you enlisted?”
Silence dragged out before she responded. “I guess so. Pissed my dad off that I didn’t choose the Army, but I had something to prove to myself. I just hope I’m still in when women Marines are allowed to serve in combat.”
“Not so sure that’s a good idea.”
She sat up straighter and glared at him. “Why not? I can perform just as—”
Orlando’s voice jarred them from the conversation. He and Sergeant Miller were hurtling across the rooftop in their direction when the sound of an explosion threw Ryder against the wall he’d been leaning on. His ears rang from the blast. They were under fire.
Momentarily dazed, Ryder tried to remember what he had been doing, but his focus shifted to protecting Lance Corporal Grant. She was his responsibility and shouldn’t be in the middle of this shit.
“Get behind me,” he said, picking up his rifle.
“Sergeant Miller and Orlando have been hit.” Ignoring him, she moved toward the two fallen Marines, and he followed.
“Madre de Dios! No! Sergeant, don’t you fucking die!”
Orlando was lying under the body of Sergeant Miller. Holy fuck!Ryder and Grant reached the body at about the same time and lifted their Sergeant off Orlando with reverence and speed combined.
“Corpsman up!” Ryder called. Once they had set Sergeant’s body down, they returned to check on Orlando.
Jesus, no. His foot dangled by what looked like some skin and meat alone. Where was Doc? Grant grabbed Orlando’s hand and spoke to him. Ryder had never seen so much carnage in all his years serving in the Marines.
Ryder moved so Doc could assess the situation and keep Orlando alive.
“Keep his head down!” Doc ordered, and Ryder moved to his head where he placed one hand on the young private’s forehead and another on his shoulder. Ryder filled Doc in on what had happened, but the mention of Sergeant’s name had him glancing over at the man’s head.
So much blood.
The hiss of an RPG made it clear the attack was still under way. Ryder realized he hadn’t done his damned job. He radioed their immediate need for artillery and air support with their preplanned fire coordinates.
Doc shouted, “Let’s get him off the roof!”
“Sure thing, Doc!” With Doc’s help, he and Grant lifted an unconscious Orlando onto a litter…
* * *
Just after midnight
Ryder rolled over in bed, drenched in sweat. His heart pounding, he gasped for breath. Fucking nightmares. He laid his arm over his eyes, but the images came back in living color. Vivid, but different than the one the other night.
Sergeant Miller’s lifeless body. Damián Orlando’s foot blown off. Doc D’Alessio nearly killed.
Jesus, I fucked up that mission. While he was shooting the shit with Grant, all hell broke out for his unit.
His cell phone buzzed. Not now. He didn’t want to speak to anyone until he had time to regroup. Tossing the sheet aside, he sat up. A beer. That ought to take the edge off.
Before he could open the door to the fridge, his landline phone rang. Whoever it was could leave a message. He wasn’t talking to anyone tonight. Even if it was Marcia. He could call his sister back in an hour or however long it took to regain control of himself.
The answering machine kicked in, and he waited for his sister’s voice.
“Wilson. Pick up the phone. Adam Montague here.”
How the fuck did Top have his phone number? He must have been the one calling on the cell, too.
Had Orlando mentioned to his former master sergeant that they had run into each other a couple of months ago on a Patriot Guard ride in southern Colorado? He had known it was a bad idea to go, but the man being buried had served with him in Kosovo. To lay low during his funeral would have been disrespectful, and he damn well wouldn’t let any asshole activist protester disrupt his buddy finally being laid to rest.
Another brave and hurting hero’s fucking suicide.
Other than the Patriot Guard Riders, Ryder had severed all ties to those who survived the past and had hoped Orlando would respect his request not to say anything to the others. He wanted to put all that behind him.
The nightmare from the mayhem on the rooftop in Fallujah told him he wasn’t doing a very good job of that, though. He reached for the phone.
“Yes, Top. Sorry. I was…in the head.”
“Glad I waited. How’re you doing?”
“Great. Got myself a nice place in the Jemez Mountains. Nice and quiet.”
Nobody bothers me, and I sure as hell don’t bother anyone else.
“Sounds good.” Top paused a moment. “Listen, Wilson, my sister is staying at our brother’s place in Albuquerque. I have no fucking clue what’s wrong, but when I called a little while ago, she said the police were there. Also said she’d call me back when they left, but I haven’t heard a thing. Patrick’s out of the country, and I’m worried about her.”
“Sorry to bother you this late, but would you mind running over to make sure she’s okay? It would mean a lot to me knowing someone I trust has taken a look around.”
Go into the city? All those people?Adrenaline kicked in, and Ryder’s heart began pounding.
A mission. His master sergeant hadn’t given him orders in nearly eight years.
Someone I trust.
The desire to live up to those words and help the man who had brought him and nearly every man home from their deployments outweighed Ryder’s penchant for drowning in his own shit.
“Sure, Top.” He reached for a pen and pad of paper. “What’s the address?” The neighborhood was more familiar than he liked. Ryder also jotted down her name—Megan Gallagher. Must be married since they didn’t have the same last names. Why wasn’t her husband looking in on her?
But Ryder would help where he could. She was Top’s sister. That’s all that mattered.
After also taking down a couple of phone numbers where he could reach Top, he said goodbye and tucked the paper inside his jeans pocket before returning to the bedroom to grab a long-sleeved flannel shirt and his leather jacket. It got colder than a witch’s tit when the sun went down here in the high desert. Riding a Harley without a windscreen didn’t help.
But he preferred to detach it when he rode alone. He couldn’t stand being cooped up in a car or truck either. Needed to be able to breathe—and have an unobstructed view of any potential threat. Usually, his treks were on mountain roads and small highways, limiting the danger.
Not like tonight. The lights of the Albuquerque valley spread out before him as he headed south on I-25. He couldn’t avoid the city this time.
Still, he wished he was alone back at Carlos’s house in the mountains. Being around people wore him down quicker than the road.
Only because you asked, Top.
A man didn’t turn his back on his Marine family, ever—no matter how fucked up he was. He hadn’t been in a real city in nearly two years. If he needed anything he couldn’t acquire for himself, his friend Carlos usually took care of it. But Ryder prided himself on being self-sufficient. He might be totally useless as far as holding a job went, but he didn’t take handouts.
If he’d truly gone off the grid, Master Sergeant Montague never would have found him. But he kept a phone because of his sister Marcia in Santa Fe. Maybe he’d tracked him through phone records. But didn’t he say he’d just heard from his sister about some trouble? Had he already known Ryder’s number? No answers came as the lights of the valley grew brighter.
Fucking city. God, he hated being around that many people.
Just let me keep it together in front of Top’s sister.
The last thing he wanted was for his unit to find out how badly he was handling the aftermath of his years in service. He’d tried going to the VA, but they were too far away—in miles and philosophy—to be of much help.
Hell, why was he so screwed up? He’d come home. In one piece, even. Look at Orlando. He’d adjusted well to his amputation, at least from what Ryder could tell from their brief meeting during the Alamosa PGR procession. If he hadn’t seen the man’s foot blown off by that damned grenade with his own eyes, Ryder would never have guessed Orlando wore a prosthesis.
Why couldn’t Ryder put the past behind him like everyone else in his unit had done?