| No Regrets |
By Shannon K. Butcher
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David Wolfes past caught up with him in the parking lot of a small-town grocery store in the Rocky Mountains. Late-November sun warmed his dark hair but did nothing to rid him of the chill of foreboding that sank into him with every step he took toward his former commanding officer.
Colonel George Monroe lounged against Davids Jeep, blocking his escape.
What are you doing here, sir? asked David, his tone sharp with displeasure.
Colonel Monroe regarded David with a steady stare that would have made a less confident man go pale. Monroes once-black hair was shot steely gray with age, and he had the emotionless eyes of a man whod seen too much suffering in one lifetime. But in his white knit shirt and khakis, he looked more like a retired golfer than he did a commander of the worlds most elite, secret fighting force.
Youre a hard man to find, Wolfe, said Monroe.
I wasnt wanting to be found, sir, replied David. Im surprised that you got this far.
We traced the money you sent your sister for her sons surgery.
David spat a searing curse. Hed wired the funds from over a hundred miles away under an alias of an alias of a man who didnt even exist. Monroe should never have been able to find him.
Unless hed really been working at it.
Ripples of unease slipped down Davids spine. Whatever Monroe wanted from him, it couldnt be good. Powerful military leaders like Monroe didnt ambush former military men in grocery store parking lots just to catch up on old times.
What do you want? demanded David.
We need you, Wolfe. Theres a situation.
I dont give a damn about your situation, said David, purposefully adding a belated, Sir.
Monroes mouth twitched with a hint of a smile. I see you havent lost your respect for authority these past two years.
No, but Im about to lose my temper, so youd best move away from my Jeep and find yourself another man for your situation. I quit Delta Force two years ago, remember?
Monroe didnt budge and David was quickly beginning to think that he was going to have to show Monroe just how much hed learned in all those years of being under his commandtraining to fight with whatever was at hand, and when nothing was at hand, fighting with nothing. His body tensed as he sized up Monroe for a quick, efficient takedown.
I wouldnt do that if I were you, Wolfe, said Monroe as if reading Davids violent thoughts. Im not stupid enough to think I could take you on in a fair fight, so I brought backup. Theres a sniper a hundred yards behind you in the trees. Hes not as good as Grant, but hes good enough. A brief, feral smile flashed over Monroes face.
David froze, suddenly feeling the weight of a lethal rifle aimed at his skull. If he touched Monroe, it would be the last thing he did.
Youre a bastard, sir, said David.
So says my wife, but then she doesnt know me like you do. Monroe flicked a hand signal at the sniper and David recognized the command to waiton alert. I need you to take on an assignment and Im not taking no for an answer.
Yes you will. I dont owe you anything. I walked away with a clean slate. The only favors I owe are to Grant and Caleb, and theyre not the ones asking. David suppressed his guilt as he mentioned his two closest friendsthe men he owed his life to countless times over. The men hed walked away from two years ago, leaving them to carry on the fight for freedom without him.
Monroe tilted his head and looked directly into Davids eyes. He was one of the few men David knew who could really look at him and not flinch. Youre wrong. You do owe me.
The sudden softness in Monroes voice worried David. Men like Monroe were never softnot with their wives or children and certainly not with the men like David, who they ordered to the most hellish places on earth to kill some of the most vile people ever to draw breath.
What the hell are you talking about? asked David.
I was the one who ordered the rest of Delta to stand down on your last op.
Pain seared Davids chest at the mention of that failed operation and just how much it had cost him. His body shook and the groceries crunched under his tightening grip. Against his will, his eyes shut and he was forced to face the horror of his two-year-old memories, still painfully fresh in his mind.
You were the one who gave that order? The lack of air in his lungs made the question come out as a thready whisper.
I did, said Monroe. And Id do it again today if faced with the same choice.
Had David not had the small outlet of revenge Monroe had given him, he wouldnt have lasted this long. The guilt would have eaten him whole.
Were you court-martialed? asked David.
Monroe looked away, his gray eyes sliding uncomfortably to the woods behind David, where the sniper waited for a sign to kill. It doesnt matter now. What does matter is that I need your help. I never meant to call in that particular favor, but I dont have any choice. I need you to come back for this op. Lives are at stake.
Bleak, painful memories flooded Davids head and he fought to hold them backto stem the flow of blood, death and pain all cloaked in shades of nightmares.
I wont go back, growled David, unfamiliar with the raw sound of his own voice. I cant. I lost too much working for you to ever go back.
Monroes mouth flattened into a grim line. The Swarm has resurfaced. Theyve started killing again.
David was so shocked it rocked him back onto his heels. Thats impossible. I killed them all. I torched the building and watched to make sure not one of them made it out alive.
David relived every single moment of his last op in the space of a heartbeat. He felt the blind rage that had gripped him as he killed, felt the grim satisfaction of knowing that the Swarm would never hurt anyone again, felt the hollow emptiness of knowing that no matter how many men he killed, he couldnt bring back the dead. Revenge changed nothing.
After several tense moments, David was able to rebuild the barrier on the part of his mind that was a tempest of chaotic nightmaresimages that beat at his sanity until only a bubble-thin film remained.
Four civilians are dead and the life of a young woman is at stake. I need you. She needs you.
You want me to protect her? asked David in disbelief. You must be desperate.
Monroe pulled in a deep, weary breath. You know the Swarm. You know their tactics. You also know what will happen to her if you fail.
Seething, violent rage billowed up into Davids throat, leaving behind the acid taste of bile. For two years hed thought that hed taken out every one of the Swarms members. Before he quit Delta Force hed made sure that they could never harm an innocent again.
Hed been wrong. For two years, hed been wrong.
Tell me where the Swarm is now, demanded David in a near growl. Ill kill every last one of them myself.
We dont know where they are. But we know what they want.
The woman, guessed David.
Monroe nodded. Dr. Noelle Blanche. Stick with her and you wont have to find the Swarm. Theyll find you.
A slow, ferocious smile curled over Davids lips. Where is she?
We need to talk.
Noelle Blanche started, and she turned around to see who had interrupted her concentration.
Professor Joan Montgomery, Noelles longtime mentor and friend, stood in the doorway of Noelles cramped office, looking worried and slightly nauseated.
Joan had been one of Noelles undergraduate professors at the University of Kansas. She had given Noelle her first taste of Latin and, because of Joan, Noelles educational destiny had changed. Her career path to mathematician had taken an exit toward linguistics and shed ended up at some wacky rest stop called Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematical Linguistics.
Noelle forced a welcoming smile on her face, pushing aside the intriguing, vaguely Cyrillic script shed just received in an e-mail from a colleague in Russia. Im teaching linear algebra in fifteen minutes, but I have until then.
Joans expression twisted with discomfort. Ive been sent by the dean to find out your final decision about that grant. Hes tired of waiting.
Noelle stifled a resigned sigh. I already told him I wont accept any grants funded by the military.
Joan tucked her graying, chin-length hair behind one ear, pulled out the orange, 1970s cast-off office chair and sat down. Why not? Youre the only one in the department who can do the work. Hell, as far as I know, youre the only one in the country who can do it.
Noelle shook her head and shoved a hand through her red curls to untangle them from the hinge of her glasses. Thats not true. There are at least four other people who know more than I do about that particular flavor of cryptology and two of them live right here in the States. Its just a hobby for me. They do it full-time.
They werent the ones the government offered oodles of grant money, Joan reminded her. Apparently, youre a lot more valuable than you think.
Noelle made a rude, snorting noise. My sisters the smart one. Let them ask her. Or anyone else. Just not me.
Why wont you do the work? It sounded fairly tame to me. Its not like theyre asking you to build a bomb or something.
They want me to develop a mathematically based encryption system for military use.
So? asked Joan, frowning at Noelle in confusion. Dont you think you can do it?
Noelle waved a pale hand, almost knocking over the Leaning Tower of Paperwork. Of course I can do it. Im already halfway finished with the algorithms because I couldnt stop my brain from working on the puzzle while I was sleeping. Ill have the solution in another two months, whether or not I want to know it, but thats not the point.
Then what is the point? Because Im not seeing how turning down easy money is going to help solidify your position here at the university.
If I give the military a tool, they will use it. Eventually, they will use it offensively. When that happens, people will die and Ill be partially responsible. I cant do that.
If you dont, someone else at some other university will, said Joan, her face softening with understanding. Youre brilliant, and it will probably take someone else five years to do what you can in two months, but eventually, someone will figure it out. Eventually, someone will give the military their tool.
But it wont be me, replied Noelle. I wont have that blood on my hands, even if it means I get fired.
Downsized, corrected Joan with a grimace.
Whatever. It all meant that Noelle would be out of a job.
Silence filled the room, broken only by the faint buzzing of the cheap fluorescent light overhead.
Not whatever, said Joan. Downsized.
The apologetic tone of Joans voice caught Noelles attention. They sent you to fire me, didnt they?
Joans dark eyes met Noelles green ones. If you dont accept this grant money, youre going to be let go at the end of the spring semester.
Let go. Noelle felt like her outdated chair had fallen out from under her. She probably shouldnt have been shocked, but she was. It was one thing to think about the possibility of losing her job; it was entirely different to know it will happen. And when. Are you sure?
Joan nodded, making her short gray hair sway along her chin. Thats why I was sent here. The department doesnt want to lose you and your freakish brilliance, but we just cant afford the additional expense right now. Since your salary comes out of the Linguistics Department budget, we had the final say. Im so sorry.
Noelle closed her eyes. What would she do now? Finding a job that didnt require her to say, Do you want fries with that? was going to be nearly impossible. It wasnt as if she had employers beating at her door, begging her to come to work for them. Mathematical linguistics wasnt exactly a booming field. Someone in an obscure career like hers would need months, if not years, to find another suitable positionlikely one that would have to be built specifically for her. What would she do until then?
She had racked up tons of debt in student loans just to get her Ph.D. The loan payments by themselves were more than her other living expenses combined. She could hold off the bill collectors for a while, but she was going to need a decent incomenot the kind she could make flipping burgers.
Noelle swallowed past the panic that clogged her throat. It was just money. Shed find some way around this obstacle.
You could always take the grant, suggested Joan.
Noelle wished it was that simple. She was sorely tempted just to give in and make her life a whole lot easier. But for someone who started college at sixteen, easy clearly wasnt her modus operandi. I cant do that. Its blood money.
Dont be so dramatic, scolded Joan. No ones asking you to hurt anyone. In fact, its entirely possible that doing this could save lives.
And if youre wrong? Noelle stood and shoved her laptop into its black nylon tote. I cant take that chance. I wouldnt be able to sleep at night wondering if my work cost the lives of innocents.
This is your career were talking aboutyour entire future rests on this decision.
Now whos being dramatic? scoffed Noelle.
Im serious. If you walk away from this grant, chances are you wont find another position anytime soon. If you take the job, then you stand the chance of becoming famous in academic communities as the woman who revolu-tionized mathematical linguistics.
Noelle rolled her eyes. Im sure theyll write that on my gravestone, right next to the part about how I helped kill thousands of innocent civilians in some country where the children dont even know what math is.
I cant let you do this to yourself, said Joan. Youre too brilliant to slaughter your career because of something that might happen.
It isnt your choice to make. Youve been by my side, supporting me when everyone else pointed fingers and laughed at the scrawny kid with more brains than social skills. You are more than just my mentor, youre my friend, but you cant ask me to do this. I wont be a part of killing, no matter how necessary some general thinks it may be.
Noelle shoved students homework into her bag, refusing to look at the woman who had given her nothing but good advice and steadfast support.
Ill call you this weekend, after youve had some time to think, said Joan.
Noelle didnt bother to tell her that shed already done all the thinking she needed to. Her mind was made up. And just to be sure she wasnt tempted to change her mind when the financial panic truly set in, Noelle pulled her laptop back out from its case and typed the command that would kill every trace of data on her hard drive tied to the project. There was no going back now.
Shed be out of a job come spring, but at least shed be able to live with herself and that was something no amount of grant money could buy.
Fired or not, Noelle still had a job to do until spring, and she had just settled in for a wild Friday night of grading clumsily executed Calculus I homework when the lights in her tiny rental house went black. With a sigh that came all the way from her toes, she pulled open a drawer that held one of many flashlights in her home. Shed always been told that old houses possessed great amounts of charm and character, but in her experience, they simply possessed noisy plumbing, abundant drafts and faulty wiring. It was the third time this week that shed blown a fuse in the houses ancient fuse box.
Making her way to the basement more by memory than sight, Noelle descended the bare wooden stairs. With the speed of much practice, she unscrewed and replaced the same fuse shed put in just two days ago. Mentally, she made a note to speak to Mr. Hasham about this problem when she paid him next months rent.
Even with the new fuse in place, the lights didnt come on. That had never happened before.
Above her head came the crash of breaking glass, followed by the muted tinkle of brittle shards falling to the hardwood floor.
Noelle jumped, then froze, listening. The sound had come from her back door.
Someone was breaking into her house.
Excerpted from No Regrets , by Shannon K. Butcher . Copyright (c) 2007 by Shannon K. Butcher . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top