Zack’s Zest by Dale Mayer

 

Prologue

Zack Higgins walked into the coffee shop, took a look around, and realized neither Levi nor Ice were here yet. So he walked to the front counter and ordered himself the largest darkest coffee he could. With that in hand, he turned to look for the most isolated table and found it in the far back right corner of the coffee shop. He headed there and sat down. He tried to get here a few minutes early just because he refused to be late for meetings. He knew the last job had been only okay as far as he was concerned, having dealt with Rebecca. And the case itself had turned out all right, but the end results left him feeling very wounded in many ways.

Even now he still felt stupid, since he hadn’t had a sexual relationship with Rebecca in a very long time, and the one that they had been left with for the last many years had been platonic and friendly at best. But because he’d always been hanging on to the wonderment that maybe her daughter was his, his emotional entanglements with Rebecca hadn’t been severed. And that was too damned bad because he was sitting here now feeling more than a little sorry for himself, and that was as unacceptable as anything.

“There you are.” Ice’s warm voice broke through his musings.

He looked up and smiled. “Aren’t you a picture,” he said, nodding toward her obviously pregnant belly.

“Wow, thanks, I think,” she said, sitting down with a hard thump. “One day the baby turned, and all of a sudden I look very pregnant. And yet the baby is somehow poking all my organs. So any jokes now are not amusing.” But her bright laugh that followed belied her words.

He smiled at the two of them, noting that Levi had come up behind him. He stood, shook Levi’s hand, and asked, “Are you ready to be a father?”

“Probably not,” Levi said amiably. “But, like everything, we learn as we go.”

“That’s a good way to look at it.”

Ice looked to the coffee in front of him and asked, “Did you order anything to eat?”

“No,” he said. “The traveling has been pretty rough. I’m here now though.”

“Right,” Levi said. “What was your analysis of the last job?”

“A shitstorm,” he said instantly. “Not the job itself but for the emotional baggage that I had to get rid of.”

“And have you now?” Ice asked. “With another month under your belt?”

More than curiosity was in her voice, and he wasn’t exactly sure what it was. “I think so,” he said with a nod. Then he grimaced and said, “I should have been. Definitely, I know so. But you don’t have relationships with people for years like I had with Rebecca and wonder just why you couldn’t leave until this stage.”

“Good,” she said with that compassionate voice he’d heard over the phone many times. “The thing is, none of us heal instantly. None of us get over anything instantly. I’m much encouraged to hear that you are realizing it’s a process.”

“I wish I could just hit a Delete button on a keyboard,” he said. “It would make it a lot easier.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But the thing is, you need to be free and clear to get your head back into the game.”

“As I learned all too recently,” he said, staring at the mug of dark brew. “It’s a little disturbing to realize just how much I did have to separate from her, when I had already thought those ties were severed.” He looked over at Ice and Levi. “What’s this meeting all about?”

“Just want to know where you are,” Ice said. “Wondering if working for us is still something you’re interested in.”

“I am,” he said, surprised. “I figured after the last job you wouldn’t want me.”

“Everybody can have a tough job,” she said, “and everybody has emotional issues they have to deal with. It’s all about how you deal with them that’s the problem and/or the solution.”

“Are you sure you need more guys?” he asked, studying the two of them, hoping this wasn’t some take-pity job. “You’ve got what? Twenty-four guys working for you?”

“Yes, but we’re setting up satellite offices,” she said. “One in England, one in Europe.”

“Oh.” He stopped and stared. “That makes sense. A jump-off point, so to speak, to get your guys’ boots on the ground faster around the globe?”

“Plus networking,” she said. “And we’ve been enlisting various companies, like Bullard’s, to give us a hand setting those up.”

“Well, I’m American,” he said, “so I’m not sure just how that’ll benefit anybody to have me on board.”

“Levi is staying home for the next few months,” Ice said, “and I’m obviously grounded for at least as long.”

Zack nodded. “And?” he asked, but there was further silence.

“That means we are also two men short at the compound right now,” Levi explained.

“Do you have that much work?”

Ice answered, her tone firm. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Then I’m in,” he said. “What can I help you with?”

“When you were in the military, … in the navy,” she said, “you worked with Bonaparte and Trent, correct?”

He chuckled. “Absolutely.” Then he stopped, looked at them, and asked, “You’re not thinking about hiring Bonaparte, are you?”

“Is there any reason not to?” Ice asked.

Zack thought about it, shook his head, and said, “No, I can’t say that there is. They are both good men. Bonaparte just came out of a pretty ugly divorce though,” he cautioned. “Not sure if he is ready to dive into something like this.”

“But he didn’t sign up for another tour,” Levi said.

“I guess that’s something you guys watch for too, isn’t it?”

“Let’s just say, who is staying in the navy and who’s ready to come out are things we are always interested in,” Ice said with a smile. “But we also need to vet the men, in particular if we don’t know them.”

“Got you,” Zack said, smiling. “Bonaparte?” he said. “I haven’t seen him for a couple years, but he is a really good man, incredibly strong, but I know that the problem with his divorce was that he was unapproachable, as he told me.”

Levi laughed at that. “I think we’ve all heard that one time or another.”

“Well, I haven’t,” Zack said. “Apparently, I was wearing my heart on my sleeve anyway.”

“But you’re past that now,” Ice said. “When you find somebody who would really be a partner in all ways, that relationship will fade into nothing, and you’ll wonder what the attraction even was.”

“I’m already there,” he said. “At least as far as wondering what the original attraction was. I don’t have any relationships, so I’m good to go, if you have something of interest.”

“I have something of interest,” she said, pulling out a thick file from a large bag she had with her and placed it in front of her.

“What’s that?”

“Possible recruits,” she said. And she opened it.

His picture flashed back at him. “Well, I worked on one job with Galen,” he said. “I’d love to try another one.”

“Trouble is, we don’t do contracts,” Levi said. “Either you are in or you are out.”

“I think contracts might be the way to go for new recruits, a probationary period of sorts, for both sides,” he said slowly, studying the lean-faced man in front of him. Levi had matured a lot over the last couple years. But then he had heavy responsibilities on his shoulders as his company took off into one of the biggest protection agencies around the world. They were known to troubleshoot and to be the guy in a tough corner, when you needed one. “You’ve built yourself quite a place here,” he said to the two of them. They both just nodded. “It must be a little disconcerting to step back for the next few months.”

“What else could we do?” she asked. “Out of necessity, we’ll be keeping everybody else busy while we reduce our traveling time.”

“Understood,” he said. He looked as she flipped through her file. Then he saw Bonaparte’s face pop out. “You know he still looks like that too,” said. “He’s got a real baby face, and so everybody thinks he is this big teddy bear, but, according to his ex-wife, he just was empty emotionally.”

“Any reason for that?”

He looked at them in surprise. “His history?”

“I know his sister was murdered a long time ago,” Ice said, looking up at him sharply. “Anything else?”

And Zack realized just how important all that history was when it came to hiring those men. He shook his head. “Not that I know of. I was really close to him, back in the day, but haven’t seen him but a time or two now over the last couple years.”

“We need a four-man team,” she said. “Over in Istanbul.”

“Turkey?” He stared at her in surprise. “I heard that you guys operated globally. I just hadn’t realized how busy you were. As in all over the world.”

“I don’t know if this will stay in Turkey or not,” she said, “but we’ve certainly covered multitudes of countries by now.”

“What’s the job?”

She slowly tapped the file, now closed. “The deposed president is under house arrest. As is his vice president,” she said. “And the president’s daughter has disappeared.”

“By choice?”

“It’s possible,” Levi said, with a nod. “She is thirty-one, and she’s a well-known photographer.”

“I think I remember something about her,” Zack said, staring off into the distance. “Zadie Nather, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Levi said. “Zadie Nather. How did you hear about her?”

“She’s well-known for publishing very disconcerting photos,” he admitted. “Photos about the climate change. Photos about activists. The struggle of the youths to try and regain their position in a world that they consider almost past the turning point. And I think there was something about her father being high up in the government of Turkey and very corrupt.”

“Exactly,” Ice said. “What we don’t know is whether her photos are a reason behind her disappearance or whether she disappeared herself because she didn’t want to deal with the political climate in Turkey.”

“I thought she was operating out of England?” Then he stopped, frowned, looked out the window, and said, “but then I remember something about Australia and the US. She is a Turkish citizen but a vagabond by nature.”

“I don’t think she has a home base,” Levi said. “I think she travels around by boat.”

He looked at Levi in surprise. “A houseboat?”

“A small sailing boat,” he said. “How do you feel about water?”

He snorted. “I was in the navy. How do you think I feel?”

“You were a Navy SEAL, weren’t you?” Ice asked.

He nodded. “I was,” a heavy emphasis on the “was.”

“Were you caught up in that Commander Dalmatian debacle?”

He nodded. “I was. When bad orders come down, and good guys have to follow them anyway, and the good guys end up in trouble because of following the bad order, well, it got to be a sticky brass political scenario that I didn’t like.” He said, “I walked. I believe several others walked with me.”

Levi nodded. “We try to keep in touch with a lot of these events,” he said, “because that is where a lot of the best men come from.”

“Is that how you found out about me?”

“We’ve had our eye on you for a while,” Ice said. Then she winced, and her hand immediately went to her belly. She started to deep breathe. Levi looked over at her, an eyebrow raised. She slowly shook her head. “No, he’s just arguing for lack of space.”

“He?” Zack asked.

She looked at him, smiled, and said, “That’s my guess.”

He grinned. “I can’t imagine that it would make a difference to either of you,” he said warmly.

“Hell no,” Levi said. “Better she has twins, and we are done with it right away.”

“I’ll suck at that,” she said.

“Be pretty rough for the first few years though,” Zack warned. “A friend of mine had twins, and all she did was diapers for a while.”

“Well, we do have friends at home just dying to get their hands on the baby,” Levi said. “So Ice will have to fight to get her own diaper-changing time.”

Zack grinned at that. He’d heard so much about the compound and its family environment that he couldn’t imagine any child growing up there would be anything but well loved by many aunts and uncles. It was sheer magic that they managed to make it work at all. “So either I’m in or out?” he asked abruptly.

“You’re in,” Levi said. He stood. “At the bare minimum, get some zest back into your life.”

“Well, put that way, how can I refuse?”