Authors: Scott Blade
FOREIGN & DOMESTIC
A Jack Cameron Novel
Also by Scott Blade
Jack Cameron Series
Foreign & Domestic
The Secret of Lions
S. Lasher & Associates Series
Cut & Dry
Copyright © 2015 Black Lion, LLC.
All Rights Reserved
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Jack Cameron/Get Jack Reacher
book series and
Foreign & Domestic
are works of fiction, produced from the author’s imagination. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination and/or are taken
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About the Author
“I think someone should give him a medal and a bullet in the head and name a bridge after him.”
ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER.
Cause and effect.
A son shoots his father in front of an entire nation, and the whole world sees it. Three bullets fired—two center mass and one miss. One thing leads to another. Cause and effect.
In the small African
country of West Ganbola, President George Biyena stood offstage in a pressed suit with a black and gold tie—his country’s colors. His wife stood on a provisional platform, built the day before in preparation for his first speech as West Ganbola’s president. She faced out toward his constituents. He gazed over them through a black and yellow curtain that matched his tie, surveying the crowd of hundreds of supporters, non-supporters, and the media. He had just emerged from a vicious election cycle, fraught with back-and-forth political character assassination ads and propaganda. He had almost lost the election, but not because the other guy was more popular—or even popular. And not because the other guy was the sitting president. It was only because the people of his country were terrified of the other guy. He had been an extreme dictator, a warlord, really. The other guy wasn’t a legitimately elected official. Not in the sense of what an elected official was supposed to be. The other guy was a dictator, a military leader who overthrew a once democratically elected government twenty years ago and then installed a fake democratic one. The other guy was nothing more than a criminal.
Biyena was proud of his political victory, a road that had been thick with more than just political defeat. It had been dangerous for him and his family. This path had led him through treacherous waters and political acrimony. Where so many others had failed, forced out of the previous presidential races against the incumbent socialist dictator, Biyena had succeeded. Any of his close, personal friends would attest to his patriotism. He believed his country deserved a fresh start, a new beginning. It was truly a great day for democracy and a great day for West Ganbola.
He had not made a public appearance in the three days leading up to the election due to concerns from his head of security. His death threats had risen sharply the week before, and it looked as though he would legitimately win the election. This meant he’d have to be under close watch. He waited in secret until the ballots were cast—and he’d won. Now he was about to give the speech that would move his country into a new era of peace.
He had rehearsed the process many times in his head. Walk up the steps. Cross the raised platform. Go over to the podium and hug his wife. Stand and recite his speech, eyes locked on his people.
He had stayed up the entire night before, practicing his speech in front of his two most trusted advisors. When they had run out of energy to continue, he had practiced it in front of a mirror at the Royal Hotel on Webiga Street.
In his country, English was the official language, but in actuality, over eighty languages were used in the region. Languages other than English were especially common in the more rural areas, which was almost everywhere. Near the craggy mountain ranges and olive jungles to the east, you could walk into a village, hear a regional language that had been born there, and then turn around and travel a few miles only to hear a completely different vernacular.
President Biyena waited for his wife to announce him to the crowd. He heard her say, “I’m so proud to announce my husband as
Biyena took a deep breath and held it. He felt the air go in through his mouth and expand his chest, and then he released it. He repeated the action and then stepped through the curtain, releasing his breath as he did.
The crowd was already standing and chanting his name.
It grew louder and louder as he stepped onto the stage.
He was overwhelmed by the chants and the distant sounds of beating drums and blasting trumpets to mark his arrival, by the sea of faces and the rows of children brought out to see him. They held up little black and yellow flags to show their support. He watched as the flags waved in the air, not knowing it would be his last time seeing them.
The children in the crowd were dressed like the adults, most of whom were dirt poor. They couldn’t afford the kinds of clothes the richer citizens could, the ones who stood closer to the front of the crowd and on the balconies of the two- and three-story buildings lining the downtown area of the capital city.
But even though the majority of the onlookers couldn’t afford suits or ties or decent shoes, they dressed in their finest. Many of the children wore threadbare, button-down shirts that didn’t fit them with long ties that probably belonged to their fathers. Many of them were barefoot, toes digging into in the gritty dirt. They weren’t barefoot because they couldn’t afford nice shoes to wear with their father’s clothing but rather because they couldn’t afford
shoes. Many of them didn’t own a single pair. Not all, but many. Too many was Biyena’s opinion, which was one of the reasons he’d joined the presidential race in the first place—no matter the risk, no matter the chance of losing his life.
Biyena held his arms out in a gesture of embrace as if to say, “I’m here, my friends. I’m your new president.” The crowd never stopped chanting his name. Instead, they roared on.
They grew louder and louder. They, too, had felt the rush of hope. Hope for a new future for their war-torn country—freedom from the political corruption and the fallacy of a government that had enslaved them into poverty instead of freeing them to enjoy a better economy and a better life. Parents hoped for a better life for their children. Grandparents hoped for a better future for their grandchildren. Wives hoped that their husbands could go to work and return home with a decent wage. Husbands hoped they could pay for clothing for their children and food for the entire family.
To them, George Biyena was a beacon of hope. They wanted a nation without terrorism. Without war. Without fear. Without overwhelming crime. Without brutal poverty. Without instability. Biyena was what they had longed for. He would change their lives and alleviate their struggles.
President Biyena ambled to the center of the stage with no sense of urgency. He wanted to savor this moment. He had worked hard for this victory against such a hated regime. The months of moving secretly from one location to the next had taken its toll on his wife and four grown boys. Especially his first-born son, Nikita Biyena.
Nikita was his pride and joy. He had grown into a successful businessman and was the father of three children of his own. And he was husband to a good wife. His father couldn’t be prouder of him.
President Biyena looked across the stage and saw that, near the bottom of the steps, his son Nikita was passing through the capitol police. He was waving frantically at his father. The policemen recognized him and let him pass.
His son wore a cogent look of concern on his face. He was normally the only of his sons who always kept his cool—nothing ever fazed him. Whatever was worrying him must’ve been something urgent, something that couldn’t wait. Or maybe Nikita was so proud of his father’s victory that he just wanted to share the stage with him in a show of support. Perhaps he wanted to hug him tight and was worried he wouldn’t make it. Perhaps. After all, Biyena had been so busy for months that the two had barely had any time to speak. There were even a few days when Biyena was certain that Nikita had vanished from his entourage.
Biyena reached the podium and leaned in toward an old, worn-out microphone, the kind with the steel vented face. It was called a Vintage Shure microphone, but Biyena didn’t know that, and it didn’t matter. He did know that his country had modern equipment. Just because they were a third-world nation didn’t mean they were lost in the 1950s. He wondered whose idea it had been to set up the old-style microphone. Maybe it was his campaign manager’s idea. Maybe it was supposed to present a more traditional appearance to his constituents and countrymen. Maybe the microphone would make him look like a mid-nineteenth century revolutionary who’d just won a similar election battle or an American leader like Martin Luther King Jr., giving a speech that would change a nation. Perhaps his people were waiting for him to give a groundbreaking, game-changing speech that would inform his enemies that the people of West Ganbola were no longer afraid. Or perhaps it was because there was an international news crew there covering his speech. Whatever the reason, Biyena liked to be included in all decisions, no matter how small. He believed that every little detail about his televised appearance was crucial. He believed that people remembered the details.
He dismissed his concern and stared at the microphone. A black wire ran down the front of the wooden podium and off the stage like a long, thin snake, disappearing below the gray, cedar boards of the platform. Biyena leaned forward to the microphone and said, “Good morning!”
The crowd went crazy. Chanting and hooraying. Waving their flags. The smallest sons were picked up by their fathers and held high on shoulders. Brash cheers filled the square, echoing past the low buildings, canvasing over the corrugated iron roofs, and dipping down the other side to fill the ears of people standing further away.
Biyena asked, “How are you doing?”
The crowd roared. The capital police stood out in front of the stage in a tight perimeter, preventing overzealous citizens from rushing the stage. The guys in front of the stage wore body armor and antiriot gear. Helmets. Vests. No guns. Only batons and stun guns as they weren’t authorized to carry guns. Biyena’s orders. This was an unwavering policy that he strongly believed in. It was his opinion that guns created a temptation for violence, and the last thing that Biyena wanted was for his police force to be tempted to fire their guns.
Shooting guns into a crowd of civilians was the kind of measure his predecessor would’ve taken. Not the kind of image Biyena wanted to project for the new direction of his country. So he had forbidden guns for most of the police. The only guys with guns were the snipers, Biyena’s personal bodyguards, who stood in the wings offstage, and the soldiers that stood guard on the outskirts of the capital. They waited in case there was any kind of resistance from the old regime, whose leader had vanished a few days ago when it appeared he was going to lose an election he’d assumed was in the bag. But Biyena had no fear of the old leader returning on this day because he had been told by his advisors that the old dictator had already fled across the border and would probably never be seen again.
Biyena imagined the old guy retiring somewhere warm like the coast of Brazil or Venezuela, countries he had had strong relations with, allies. Biyena and his advisors figured the old guy would most likely spend the rest of his life on a beach rather than in a jail cell where he belonged, but that was fine with Biyena. As long as the old dictator never again showed his face in West Ganbola, Biyena didn’t care where the hell he was.
He looked at his son again. Nikita was fighting with the guards on the stairs to get onto the stage. They frisked him, and he seemed annoyed and impatient with the delay.
President Biyena held his hands up high and said into the microphone, “This…this is because of you.”
Cheers grew as the crowd responded.
He repeated slowly, “This
because of you. All of you.”
The crowd cheered again, and the people continued to wave the little flags with West Ganbola’s colors, more and more, harder and harder. A sea of black and yellow flowed across his sightline. The spectacle kindled a sense of patriotism deep down in Biyena’s bones, igniting that sense of nationalism a man feels at his core. He felt like his old self—it felt like the old days. He remembered that young, idealistic guy who had dared to challenge the militaristic government he had lived under for over five decades.
He heard his son call to him from behind him.
Biyena turned and looked at Nikita. He looked into his eyes. They were laden with emotion and a look that seemed like regret. Perhaps his son was simply overwhelmed with pride, and that was the look he was seeing. He wasn’t sure.
Biyena waved at the guards to allow his son on stage.
Biyena said, “This is because of my family. This is because of my wife. My son.” He glanced back at the spectators and then at his wife and his son.
Nikita walked toward him, his look even heavier up close, and that transferred real fear into Biyena. And he was not a fearful kind of man. Fear was a great weakness. That had always been Biyena’s belief. Fear was a tool used by the powerful to control the weak.
He had always been a fan of FDR, and he believed wholeheartedly in the man’s famous lines that there was nothing to be feared but fear itself. But even though he held this credo close to his heart, he was still a grandparent and father. And like any typical grandparent or father, there was always one thing that caused him great alarm, and that was the thought of harm coming to his children or his grandchildren.
And that fear was what immobilized Biyena.
He didn’t move from the microphone but simply half-turned and asked, “What’s wrong, son?”
His voice was low and deep. It echoed over the crowd in a low boom from the speakers near the foot of the stage. The crowd fell silent in a cohesive hush as if listening to a sermon. A hiss from the speakers resonated over them in the dead silence. Whispers could be heard wafting through the air.
Nikita walked past his mother without looking at her. Not a glance. Not a nod. Not a flicker of his fingers in a partial wave. Not a single acknowledgment.
Tears filled his eyes.
Biyena knew in that moment it was bad news. No—it was the worst kind of news. He had never before seen anything rattle his eldest son, and he would never again see it because, at that moment, Nikita pulled a Colt M1911 from under his suit coat. It had been stuffed in the inside left pocket. And now it was gripped tightly in Nikita’s right hand.
The barrel stared at Biyena, a single, eyeless, black socket. The gun, a matte black, looked gloomy and dark in the bright morning sunlight. It was the type of gun that made a statement. It said, “Your time has expired.”
Nikita wielded the gun, pointed it at his father’s center mass, and, in three quick strides, he closed in on his father’s position at the front of the stage,
Biyena froze in utter terror. Confusion filled his mind at first, but then he had a split second of absolute clarity. He was going to die, and his oldest son would be the one to deliver this final message. The worst thing a parent can witness is the death of his own child, but the reverse is also true.
Nikita pulled the trigger. Once. Boom. Twice. Boom. Three times. Boom.
The sound was deafening in the silence, and the flash was a bright, fiery orange. The muzzle climbed as the first shot rang out. The bullet hit where Nikita had been aiming—more or less. It ripped through Biyena’s upper chest. Red mist burst out and colored the air in front of him.
It was the timing of the second bullet that set Mrs. Biyena off into a howl of frantic screaming. The second bullet blasted upward and to the left, sending it on a trajectory that ripped through Biyena’s right upper side, where the shoulder joins the neck. The third followed but deviated on a slightly higher path and completely missed. It fired off into the air over the crowd of spectators and rocketed another sixty-four and a half yards before crashing through an office window and embedding itself into the back of a thick wooden shelf that held reference books on regional logistics.
Nikita never got the chance to fire a fourth bullet because Biyena’s personal guards had drawn their own weapons and shot him dead. Two guards firing a pair of classic M9 Berettas killed him. The 9mm Parabellums fired through his back. Rupturing his pancreas. Collapsing his lungs. Severing his spinal cord. The guards were well-trained and overzealous. They fired into his major organs until he fell, face forward. It was overkill. But the job was done.
The life drained from him as his mother watched. She was on her knees, almost perfectly centered between the two dead men.
She wailed and screamed. Then she looked out at the crowd and saw the news cameras. All the major stations from West Ganbola were there, and the ones from neighboring nations. Al Jazeera was there and one American station—CNN International.
A PHONE CALL SKIPS THROUGH SEVERAL CARRIERS
and lines and bounces across the planet until it is rerouted back to the United States. To remain untraceable, even the cell phones being used were burners.
But none of that bothered the man known only to one other man in the world by the codename Jekyll. He wasn’t concerned about anyone listening to his conversation. The government didn’t scare him. Even if some flunky from the National Security Agency had stumbled upon his phone conversation, none of it mattered now. The mission was already done.
The only thing that really scared him was the man known to only a handful of people in the world as Hyde.
Hyde answered the phone, his voice dark and calm. No urgency. It was a shadowy voice that sent chills down Jekyll’s spine—and Jekyll was not a soft guy. He’d had plenty of training and was a formidable adversary, but Hyde was the scariest guy he had ever known. So he maintained a certain level of caution when communicating with him.
“The mission is completed,” Hyde said.
“I know. I saw it on the news. They’re playing it everywhere here like it happened on American soil,” Jekyll said.
“They may be playing it where you are, but it’s not getting much attention in Middle America where we want it to.”
“What did you expect? Americans don’t care about Africa. They won’t care until it happens here.”
Hyde said, “That’ll be soon enough.”
“How did you get him to do it?”
“The same way we’ll do it there.”
Hyde asked, “Does it matter?”
Jekyll said, “I guess not. Just curious.”
But I want to know how far you expect me to go
, he thought.
Hyde said, “We used leverage.”
“The children. We abducted his children. Told him if he didn’t kill his father in front of the camera, then we’d kill them. And not quick.”
Jekyll swallowed, and Hyde heard it.
Jekyll said, “Obviously he believed you. How’d he not know it was a bluff?”
Silence fell over the line, and then Hyde said, “He believed us because there was no bluff. We were serious. We made him understand that.”
“How?” Jekyll asked before he could stop himself. Like a reflex.
Hyde said, “He had three children.”
“Now there are only two.”
Jekyll swallowed hard again. He had no confusion about the kind of man he was. He knew he wasn’t a good guy—or even a decent one. And after the second mission was completed, he’d be seen as a traitor. He’d probably have to leave the US, which he’d already been planning to do. He’d bought his plane tickets with false identification and made his travel arrangements. Of course, he wasn’t flying out of the US. That was far too risky—and would be almost impossible for him afterward. In movies, it always worked. The bad guy wore a disguise and showed up at the airport, boarding pass in hand. No problem. Movies never explained how he got it in the first place. Because they couldn’t. There was no getting tickets with fake identification. Not in the United States. Those days were long gone.
Jekyll had procured his tickets in Mexico. Much safer. After the mission was done, he’d ride in the back of a hollowed out gas truck all the way to Georgia. Then he’d get out and stay the night in a safe house. Next, he’d hop on a bus and meet a new contact in Texas who’d drive him across the border in a company transport van for an American oil company. He’d be a part of the working crew, a bunch of guys who were paid to keep their mouths shut. They were already well-versed at smuggling people across the border, both ways.
All of this was okay with Jekyll—the mission, the risk, and certainly the money. But one thing he wasn’t crazy about was killing children. And that was the difference between him and Hyde. Jekyll was in it solely for the money. No question about it. But Hyde was in it for other reasons—reasons that bordered on psychotic. Hyde and his whole crew were unhinged. No question about that either.
Hyde asked, “Are you having second thoughts?”
“Of course not,” Jekyll said without hesitation. Any hesitation with this guy would’ve gotten him killed.
The sound of Hyde’s voice when he spoke that one word doubled the chills that ran down Jekyll’s spine.
Hyde asked, “Then you’re ready to do this? On American soil?”
Jekyll was no patriot, but he was still an American. And going against your own country could make you feel like a traitor. He didn’t want to think about it, so he didn’t respond to the question. Instead, he said, “So far, the media still thinks the son was acting alone. They’re buying the motive we put in place. The jealous son thing.”
“Of course, they’re buying it. They’ll swallow it whole. I knew they would.”
“So what now?”
“Now we move forward with our real target. No more third world bullshit.”
Jekyll said, “I think I’ve got an answer to that. To our problem.”
Hyde paused a beat and then asked, “A patsy? Who?”
Jekyll said, “It’s personal.”
“To you, I mean.”
Another long pause, and then Hyde asked, “You found him?”
Jekyll said, “I think so. I found a guy who fits the description. A drifter. A big guy. A passerby. A nomad. His last name isn’t Reacher, but he shows up on paper in the very place that Reacher’s records end. In Mississippi. Gotta be him, right?”
Silence fell between them. Jekyll could hear deep breaths on the other end of the line as if Hyde had closed his eyes and was imagining all the horrible things he had planned for this Reacher guy—things that made even Jekyll wince, things that he would be just as happy not to know about.
Hyde asked, “Where? How?”
“He’s coming here. To DC. You can pick him up soon.”
Hyde smiled and said, “Good. Tell me the when and where.”
Jekyll said, “I’ll call you tomorrow. At midnight. I’ll know more then.”
In one swift motion, Jekyll clicked the burner cell phone off and slipped it back into his pocket. He stood on the perimeter of a big Victorian house in a rich, elite Virginia neighborhood. A place where only the most elite senators, congressmen, and their families lived. A place that was guarded better than Rome had been, watched over by the most elite guards in the world—the United States Secret Service. Each house on the block appeared to be normal, but the difference between them and all the other homes in America was that most of them had a Secret Service presence. One guy or several, but they were there.
Jekyll had snuck out to take a smoke break, only he wasn’t only taking a smoke break but was instead making his scheduled phone call—checking in. He looked around the street and saw that most of the other houses were pitch black except for the occasional flicker of late-night TV through the curtains of several upstairs windows. The only people awake at this hour on this street were the night owls who couldn’t sleep, lying in their beds and watching their TVs without a care in the world. They certainly didn’t care about him. The United States Secret Service was as ubiquitous to them as the neighborhood garbage man. They were present, armed, and ready to die for them. Ready to take a bullet if necessary. But the people locked safely in their houses were used to that. Therefore, they were complacent. It was business as usual. Nothing special. The people in the houses worried about nothing. That was something that Jekyll was going change, but for now, there was nothing for them to worry about and nothing for him to worry about.
He looked back at the large house he had just left. No one watched him. No one had listened in on his conversation. No one had even taken notice that he’d left his post.
Nestled under his left arm and holstered in a shoulder rig was a SIG Sauer P229. It was chambered with a .357 SIG round, eleven more in the magazine. He kept the gun chambered and ready for use at all times.
Jekyll scanned the yard, the street, and the other houses one last time before tossing his cigarette onto the driveway and letting it burn down to a dull, smokeless nub. Then he turned and walked back toward the quiet house. Back toward the sleeping family, back to the people who thought they knew him. Back to the people who trusted him.
JACK CAMERON SAID, “COFFEE. I TAKE IT BLACK.”
He sat at a small, posh coffee bar inside a busy airport. Posh because it had chrome trim, chrome railings, and glass dividers between the guests and the staff. The seats were tall swiveling apparatuses that belonged in a nightclub and not a coffee bar. But Cameron didn’t complain—all he cared about was that a coffee bar had coffee, and probably good coffee at that.
Behind the attendant standing in front of him, a flat screen TV was mounted on the back wall above the coffee bar. It was a newly bought, newly installed LED TV with high-definition and no buttons visible on the front or the side panels.
CNN International played a muted report about the Confederate flag being removed from a distant, southeastern state—one of the Carolinas, which Cameron hadn’t been to, not yet. He wasn’t paying attention to the news, but if he had been, he would’ve seen a news crawl scrolling on the bottom of the screen showing headlines from across the world.
One headline, creeping by too fast for anyone who wasn’t focusing, read:
African son kills father, President.
A YEAR AGO,
Cameron hadn’t been a fan of coffee. He never had been, not in his whole life, until one day he sat in a booth in a diner in Austin, Texas. It was a generic diner with generic white countertops and high generic stools attached to it at the bottom by a long black bar with a second long bar for resting feet. Wall-length windows were nestled in the walls flanking the booths, like the one at which Cameron now sat with his back to the wall. He faced the door and the other guests, which was the way he liked it. He didn’t like to turn his back to an entrance—any entrance. You couldn’t see who was coming at you if you had your back turned. Not that he was paranoid or thought that bad guys were coming for him. Not that he thought everyone was out to get him, Cameron was a cautionary optimist by nature. He was a lot of things by nature. But one thing he wasn’t was a paranoid person. He didn’t believe that people were out to get him—the same way he didn’t believe that people were
out to get him. As a result, he remained vigilant and always on the defensive, which was a good habit to have. It was defensive living—like defensive driving.
Of course, in his experience so far, trouble seemed to find him no matter where he was. He had bad luck when it came to getting mixed up with trouble—a family curse. After learning as much as he could about Jack Reacher’s life so far, he had concluded that his father was full of bad luck and trouble. He had also concluded that his father’s bad luck had become his bad luck.
In the old days, before Cameron knew anything about his drifter father, there was a zero percent chance that someone had been out to get him. But in all honesty, he had made some enemies this last year. And even though he thought there was probably no one out to get him, he figured it was best to make himself difficult to locate. He believed it was better to err on the side of caution. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst”
had been a family motto, preached by his father and handed down to him from his mother.
Of course, his mother also used to tell him was that the best defense was a good offense—contrary to what he had learned in sports and gained from common wisdom. Her opinion was that it was better to get your offense in first than to wait for the other guy. A swift offense was the fastest way to ensure no defense was required.
Having been on the road for the better part of a year, Cameron had adopted many new philosophies. Some of them were his own, and some of them weren’t. Most were from one of his two parents. He had always thought his mother had been the original source of all the things she’d taught him. But he was learning, in different ways, that while she was his mother, she had also tried to be his father. In doing so, she had passed on some of his father’s opinions to him.
In the diner in Austin, Texas, a waitress had brought him coffee. Black. He had said nothing about it. No complaint. No request for something different. Instead, he had let curiosity get the better of him, and he had taken a sip. That sip had turned into a swig, and that swig turned into a gulp. Somehow that cup of coffee turned into an addiction, and he was now a full-blown addict. It had started somewhere deep in his organs, bones, and sinews—an urge he couldn’t explain pulling at him like a shark dragging him into the dark, black ocean depths. He stood little chance against it. And now he loved coffee, just like his father did.
Like father, like son. Cause and effect.
Three things had changed Cameron’s life forever. The first was the death of his mother way back in Mississippi, way back in a different time, and the second was the quest that she had set him on from her deathbed.
“Get Jack Reacher,” she had said.
The third thing was far subtler to the untrained eye, the passerby, the uncaring man, but it was of great consequence to Cameron. It was life-changing to him because he now knew exactly who he was. Or at least he knew a significant part of himself that he had never anticipated, and that was that he was a full-blooded addict—not to drugs or booze, but to coffee.
Pure. Black. Coffee.
was a better word to use to describe who he was when it came to coffee.
. He was a coffee fiend—he loved it like an alcoholic loves vodka.
RAGGIE ROWLEY WAS KNOWN
to her friends and family as Raggie and not by Nicole Marie Rowley, which was her real name. Not that there was anything wrong with the name Nicole, and not that she had any specific grievance against the name. In fact, it was a good name. Not too common but far from uncommon enough for her to get picked on by her friends. And the name Nicole wasn’t cliché at all. Not like some other names she thought were overused or
as her friend, Claire, would say.
Claire had been her best friend since they were seven years old. They’d met in an after-school dance class both Claire’s and Raggie’s mothers had forced them to attend. The two young girls had entered, hating the idea of joining a dance class. Neither of them wanted to learn dance, ballet or otherwise. And they especially loathed the idea of learning to dance with boys. It wasn’t what the class was about, but to Raggie, the endgame of learning to dance was so that she could grow up one day and dance at her wedding with an old man who would be her husband. Of course, she hadn’t considered that, at that point, she’d be old herself. Not really old, but to a seven-year-old, everyone over fifteen was old.
Claire and Raggie had been best friends until Raggie had gone off with her family to live in South Africa. Raggie’s father had a very important job. He was a secret agent. At least, that’s what he used to tell her, but the real truth was that he worked for the United States Secret Service. He was the team leader for a temporary advanced unit, sent out to secure locations before the arrival of the president.
Back when Raggie was still called Nicole, and back when she was twelve years old, she’d had to say goodbye to Claire and the rest of her friends because her mother and father had decided that the family was spending too much time apart. But now, they were all going to be together. Gibson Rowley had been assigned to a vacancy not very popular among his coworkers. He was to head the advance team for the southern region of Africa. This meant he would be responsible for prompting a protection plan within forty-eight hours for any location in his region.
His job was divided into two parts. First, he had to evaluate a location on short notice. This meant that he and his small team would scout out the locations where the president would be while he visited the region. He was responsible for evaluating the risks and concerns. His team would recon the locales and then coordinate with local law enforcement officials to have escape plans ready as well as arrange transportation details for getting to and from the locations.
Without the knowledge of local law enforcement agents, they always made secret backup escape plans of their own. Breaking laws or pissing off the local officials wasn’t their concern—protecting the president at all costs was.
Their second mission was to guard the locations and routes after they’d been analyzed. This was to ensure that the locations remained secure until after the president had come and gone.
Being on the advanced operating team meant that Rowley needed to remain on site. He had to live in South Africa as long as the mission was ongoing. He and his team had to remain in place at all times.
And when Nicole was still Nicole and not yet Raggie, she and her mother had to go and live in South Africa with her father. Not that this made much difference because even though the president didn’t visit the region that much, her father was always gone anyway. He was always too busy for her.
While Raggie was in South Africa, she made friends with some local girls. A small, tight group of them. Immediately, she picked up on something about these girls that set them worlds apart from the girls back home. These girls weren’t really girls at all. Not the baking cookies and wearing dresses kind. These girls were fun, and they tore down the American conventions of girls.
Nicole became good friends with them. Six weeks after the end of winter, they introduced her to something that would change her life forever. The girls were surfers.
It started as an exercise in trying to fit in with them, but over the course of that first summer, Nicole spent every afternoon—with or without her new friends—on the beach learning how to surf.
She loved it! Surfing was the thing that had been missing from her life.
That first time she caught a wave without tipping over or crashing into the unforgiving surf was one of the best moments of her life. She’d wished that Claire could’ve been there to know that feeling. To feel the rush of the wind and the unpredictability of the surf.
Even after her first injury from surfing, she’d longed to get back out into the waves. Before she understood how to ride a wave, she’d sprained her left knee trying to ride waves the wrong way. She had to stay out of the water for the rest of the summer, and it wasn’t until her thirteenth birthday that her mother had even let her return to the water.
Nicole spent her time away from the ocean thinking about the water and researching the sport of surfing. She watched videos on the Internet on how to surf. She even found a guy with a series of YouTube video—or a YouTube channel, as it’s known—who was a former pro surfer. He had great videos teaching techniques and tricks for getting the most out of a surfboard. The guy didn’t have a lot of followers, but he had an account with patreon.com so that he could accept donations from people to finance his lessons. And Nicole used her mom’s credit card to donate money to him on a regular basis. She had never met the guy, but she learned a lot from his lessons.
So when the first rays of warm weather hit the beach the following summer, she was ready to get back on the board. Nicole rejoined her friends and surfed every day. She even got good enough to look somewhat graceful. Her friends asked her how she’d gotten so good after her injury. And she replied, “How does anyone get good at anything these days? The Internet!”
NICOLE WATCHED THE SURF
from the shore. Her break was coming up. She knew it. She felt it in her bones. The wetsuit was form-fitting, but she didn’t have any form that would indicate she was a girl. She was thirteen years old and had a boy’s body—athletic arms, stringy legs, and a flat chest. She thought back to the girls back home in Virginia. She thought about Claire, who was at that very moment most likely praying she’d grow a pair of breasts and hoping for more curves to show off in a dress. She was probably trying to convince her mom to take her to Bebe or GAP or some department store and buy her some clothes that weren’t really appropriate for a girl who was barely a teenager. But that was how Nicole imagined the girls back home to be.
Right now, all she cared about was the surf. All she concentrated on was trying out the new trick that she’d been working on. She’d watched the advanced videos, and she’d practiced the jump every day during sunup. She practiced while the other girls were still asleep.
She wasn’t the only surfer around at sunup. In fact, most of the really dedicated surfers were at the beach by dawn. If midnight was the witching hour, then sunrise was the surfing hour.
Today was a weekday, and she had come early at dawn and practiced the jump, but she hadn’t done it in front of any of her friends yet. And they were there now. Three other girls stood in a circle behind her on the beach. Their surfboards were laid out on the sand like seals lying in the sun.
The tallest girl was Nicole’s closest friend out of the bunch. Her name was Saffron.
Saffron was fifteen and already had a sleeve tattoo—all tribal. And even though Saffron was her best friend, she was also the best surfer out of all of them. This was the reason Nicole had kept her new trick a secret from them. She wanted to impress Saffron. She wanted her to see her perform a jump that not even Saffron could do.
The trick was a high jump with the surfboard over a wave. It wasn’t anything special in the eyes of true-blooded surfers, but for a thirteen-year-old girl who’d had a knee injury several months before, it was pretty impressive.
Nicole watched for the perfect break. She’d been on the beach since sunrise, and now the sun was nearing sunset—not quite ready to set, but not far away. She didn’t have much light left to show her new skill.
The beach had been crowded, but not many people had been out in the surf because of the warning flag. There was a small crew of lifeguards on duty, and one of them had spotted dark shadows about a hundred yards down the beach. The shadows were probably from a school of fish or a group of sea turtles—it could’ve been anything really—but the beach wasn’t far from a place known for the likelihood of spotting
Carcharodon carcharias. Which is the scientific name for the Great White shark. So whenever there was the tiniest possibility that one had been spotted, the lifeguards threw up a red flag. Which meant danger. Which usually meant shark. And today, for the last hour, they’d had the red flag up.
Nicole watched out over the sea and saw her waves coming and crashing down. The perfect chance. No one else was on the water, nothing between her and her chance to show off her new jump.
She ignored the flag and went out onto the water.
NICOLE PADDLED OUT PAST
the first crashing waves and the shallowest parts of the beach. She felt the waves underneath the board. She cleared her mind and paddled forward. First she passed the three-foot depth and then five and then seven, and she kept going. She felt no fear. She’d practiced and practiced the jump and was ready to do it in front of her friends.
She passed the ten-foot depth and then the twelve and the fifteen.
The ocean wasn’t too brutal, but the surf was much higher than normal. Of course, she was getting further out so that she could ride in longer and then take a deep breath and find the right wave to jump from. She paddled, feeling her arms strain. Her elbows bent, fighting the current. The water splashed her face. Her eyes blinked involuntarily every time, and she forced them back open and stared ahead.
She got to a comfortable place and stopped paddling. The waves splashed in over her, and she held her breath and held onto her board with each pass. She came out of the other side and was ready for her wave. It barreled toward her. She grabbed the board, turned back to the shore, and paddled. Her hands pounded into the water and her feet kicked and kicked. Her left knee started to throb from the old injury. She continued to kick and kick.