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Back in Black
Author: Julie Ann Walker




Arlington County, Virginia



Hunter Jackson was happy for the AC.

The Mid-Atlantic states could be stifling in the relentless high summer heat, and he’d arrived at the meeting in full dress uniform. His medals weighed heavily upon his chest. His wool beret sat hotly upon his head. And the tailored jacket with its metal buttons made his movements stiff and awkward.

At least he wasn’t alone in his discomfort. Arranged around the conference table were five guys, similarly attired. And even had they not been advertising their ranks, affiliations, and commendations on their sleeves and chests, he would’ve known them for what they were.

It was there in the way they carried themselves, so straight and sure and maybe just a bit cocky. There in the solid cant to their jaws.

There in the hard gleam in their eyes.

The men who’d arrive to the meeting had blood on their hands. Because anyone who followed orders ended up that way eventually. And each of them had considered consuming a lead diet at some point. Because everyone in their line of work, who had even an ounce of self-reflection, had seen and done enough bad shit that they recognized it was possible the world might be better off without them.

Stone-cold combatants.

Granite-hewn warriors.

Spec-ops soldiers.

Although, the giant seated across from Hunter wore the white uniform and the trident pin that identified him as a Navy SEAL. So technically, he was a spec-ops sailor.

They’d been shown into the windowless room in the bowels of the Pentagon by a balding man in a three-piece suit. But no introductions had been made. No explanations for why they’d been summoned had been offered. Which meant they’d sat in closed-mouth silence for the last five minutes.

One of the first things a man learns when it comes to all things covert and clandestine, Hunter thought as he unconsciously wound the antique watch strapped around his wrist, is silence really is a virtue.

Nothing graced the drab gray walls of the room except for a round, analog clock that kept the time and reminded him he’d been up well before the sun. The air was filled with the smells of fresh starch, shoe polish, and a mixture of aftershaves. Hushed and harried voices sounded beyond the closed door, making him take a deep breath in preparation for…well…whatever the hell this was.

He was used to being called into action in the middle of the night. Came with the territory for any Green Beret. But never had that call summoned him to the heart of the D.O.D.

“Sorry to keep you waiting. It’s been one of those days.” A tall man with broad shoulders and salt-and-pepper hair rushed into the room. He grabbed a seat at the head of the table and slapped down a stack of files.

Hunter noted his name graced the tab on the file second from the top and felt a frisson of foreboding skim down his spine. Whatever was about to happen in the drab, gray room, whatever was about to be discussed, was going to be life-changing.

Now…whether that change was going to be good or bad, he couldn’t say.

“Although,” the man went on after shooting his cuffs and adjusting the knot on his tie, “it’s probably more appropriate to say it’s been one of those six months. Ever since Madam President took office, it’s been pedal to the metal.”

“Holy shit!” The guy sitting cattycorner from Hunter and sporting the insignia for the 75th Ranger Regiment leaned forward in his chair. He had an amiable Midwestern accent that pegged him as having been raised in a place that grew two things: corn and evangelicals. “You’re Leonard Meadows, chief of staff.”

Hunter watched the older man incline his head and realized the ranger was right. He remembered seeing Meadows standing behind the president when she took her oath of office.

“And you’re Sergeant Britt Rollins,” Meadows replied. “The man who led the successful raid on Abu al-Bakr’s compound in November 2020.”

Hunter raised an eyebrow. That’d been a hell of a coup. A mission that’d earned the respect of every Special Forces operator who’d ever held the title.

In typical army fashion, Rollins shrugged self-deprecatingly and gave credit where credit was due. “Couldn’t have done it without my team, sir. That job was a joint effort from start to finish.”

The chief of staff narrowed his eyes consideringly. “Speaking of the job, Sergeant Rollins, do you enjoy it?”

The ranger’s chin jerked back in surprise and Hunter found his own chin doing a little downward jig. It was rare to be asked that question, especially given the nature of the work they did. People didn’t like the idea of someone actually enjoying being a soldier.

After a brief hesitation, Rollins answered honestly. “They pay me to do it, sir, not to enjoy it.”

The man sitting next to Rollins, a handsome son of a gun sporting the Delta Force Airborne insignia, snorted in agreement while a small smile curled the corners of Meadow’s stern-looking mouth.

It appeared the chief of staff was pleased by Rollins’s response. That, or he’d been expecting something along those lines.

When he turned his piercing gaze on Hunter, training and habit had Hunter sitting straighter. “And what about you, Major Jackson?” Meadow’s deep voice was tinged with curiosity. “When you think about your career so far, what do you envision for your future?”

Hunter could’ve prevaricated or given the standard response. “I’m a military man through and through. I plan to keep on keepin’ on climbing those ranks, sir.” But, like the ranger, he went with the unvarnished truth. “To be honest, I don’t think much about yesterday or tomorrow. Yesterday is full of shit…” He winced. The military was known for cursory cursing. Sometimes he forgot to sensor himself around civilians.

“Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “What I should’ve said is yesterday is full of things I’d just as soon forget. And tomorrow may never come, so there’s no use wasting my time on it.”

“Mmm.” Meadows nodded and then continued around the table, asking each man a slightly different question, and getting back the same kind of response.

When he got to the end of the line, he sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers under his freshly shaved chin. “I have a proposition for you gentlemen.” His tone made the hairs on Hunter’s arms stand on end. In dread or anticipation, he couldn’t say. “I hope each of you will seriously consider it.”

Hunter listened intently to the chief of staff as he offered them a deal that seemed almost too good to be true. And when Meadows finished his pitch, silence cloaked the room. The only sound to break it was the hum of the air conditioner and the thud of Hunter’s own racing heart.

Exhaling slowly, he practiced box-breathing and felt the beginnings of…maybe not excitement, but something a lot like it.






Starke County, Indiana

Three and a half years later…



“Some nights are so dark the dawn seems impossible.”

The words Grace Beacham’s father spoke to her that awful evening her husband filed for divorce came back to her as she used the outdoor spigot to wash the blood from her hands. Hands so shaky she could barely perform the task. Hands so pale the brightness shining from her lit cell phone screen made the skin appear translucent. She could see her veins snaking beneath her flesh like holding a leaf up to the sunlight.

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