These entertaining characters do not belong to me. They belong to the USA network, the genius of Matt Nix, his writers and the talented actors who give us human faces to see them more clearly. With thanks for letting me borrow them for a while.




Carlisle, Pennsylvania

At one time the wooden park bench would have easily held what seemed to be two large retired NFL linebackers with nary a squeak, creak or groan, but that day had passed. Several decades of freezing winter snows, springtime thaws and steamy summer rains had worn it down. Like the oversized men who rested on it, it had aged.

The bench had grown rustic and charming, but the men seated on it were not acquainted with charm, though both could be charming if required. The bench nosily protested their muscular weights as they sat, talked and watched.

They were not what they seemed.

Neither man was the kindly, grey-headed grandfather he appeared.

And the man they watched was not what he seemed, either. They prided themselves in the fact that they'd found him, but his appearance was confusing.

He wore the guise of a sanitation department worker.

Bundled in a one piece, navy blue insulated work suit with an orange sanitation department logo across the shoulders, he wore thick gloves on his hands and a navy watch cap on his head. A thick, close beard obscured his features. That man was much more than the worker who wrestled heavy, commercial dumpsters into alignment with hydraulic lift arms that up-ended the load into the truck before compressing it.

In a different time, in a different place, that sanitation worker had worn Armani suits as if they were tailored for him alone. And some of them had been.

In a different time, in a different place, the younger man had saluted the bench warmer on the right.

One day, many years earlier, he had come to him hours after he'd been pulled from a burning Jeep to once again thank him, as his superior officer, with quiet humility, for saving his life. That telling bit of humility had been the turning point the officer had waited for, the glimpse of maturity he wanted to see as he nurtured this man, like the others, with discipline and fairness.

Early on, he'd recognized the young enlistee's fervor and need to achieve, to accomplish. It was balanced with shrewd intelligence, physical skills and a desire for boundaries if only to know where they were so he could breech them.

So many of his young enlistees, like this one, had come from broken places.

They were looking for framework, structure, rules, order, family. They needed to find a place where the world made sense, a place where they could have what they couldn't have in the civilian world. By the time they came under his command, they were halfway toward understanding this world was a much bigger place, both safer and more dangerous than the one they had known.

Only no enlistee had been just like this one.

When the CIA came looking, he had been the fool who told them Michael Westen would make a good recruit. Today, this day, as he watched Westen work, there was no decision he regretted more.

He was not alone in this.

His companion on the bench shared his own deeply regrettable choice.

Between the two of them, they'd illuminated Westen as a target, and then they'd committed the unforgiveable by pretending they didn't see it.

Dan Siebels had backed away from Westen when someone with a title superior to his told him to. He'd let fifteen years of working with the man dissipate like early morning fog. He had followed procedure, and he'd left the man hanging, nearly defenseless as only Westen could be defenseless, in a Miami breeze. Occasionally, he doubted his decision to cut all ties with Westen, especially after he'd been temporarily reinstated.

Yet, as each new chapter was added to the Westen story, he told himself he'd done the right thing. He'd made the right decision.

Now he knew he had never been more wrong.

These two old friends, bundled in their parkas, each grasping a cane for very different reasons, gloved hands crossed on the tops, shared more than this regret for their roles in the life of the special ops sniper who had matured into a CIA operative who, like select others, operated outside normal boundaries when that was required and requested.

Both of the men who now watched Westen had retired, if you could call it that.

They shared a goal, but they had yet to figure how to accomplish it, given their nine to four jobs at the War College.

One of them was conducting a seminar in asymmetrical warfare for a new class of baby-faced lieutenant colonels while his companion escorted them, lecture by lecture, battle by battle, through warfare as conducted in the early 1800s in America, Canada and Europe. They worked together, illustrating how despite history writers' negligence, and despite the modern moniker, asymmetrical warfare had long existed and was successfully employed centuries earlier on the very soil beneath the concrete and brick where their feet rested.

Westen, and those who had worked with him, was one of the most highly skilled asymmetrical warriors either man was acquainted with. He'd had to have been, to survive.

Neither had met either Sam Axe or Jesse Porter, who were the same type of warriors, but each wanted to.

"Siebels, let's move before he recognizes us."

"Pull your hat down." The retired CIA case officer glanced back toward the sanitation truck and grimaced. Westen was watching them now.

"Too late."

Did he recognize them? The man who'd provided instruction in some of the finer points of marksmanship had no doubt he did.

"Damn." Siebels grumbled, as he used his cane to steady his rise to his feet. "This is your fault, Cap."




The knock was so soft he nearly missed it. "Mr. West?"

Moving aside the curtain that covered the small glass on the door, Michael looked out onto the landing. His landlady was standing on the top step, her hands around a plate of something wrapped in a plaid towel. Her husband, who had escorted her up the stairs, waited two steps below. He was holding a coffee can filled with salt free ice-melt crystals.

Michael opened the door to a slap of cold air that made him shiver. He wasn't surprised to see them there, but he'd hoped he'd convinced them he didn't need anything. Obviously not. They continued to ignore his quiet requests.

She thrust the covered container in his direction, and he took it. It was warm in his hands and smelled delicious. He'd thought he wasn't hungry. His appetite was just one of the many things he'd lost in the past year.

"The store had a buy-one-get-one, so I did. It's pot roast. You eat that. You need your strength. For your work. There should be enough for a couple of days. Oh, and here. For breakfast."

Her husband passed her a plastic grocery bag with something inside, and in turn she thrust that into Michael's hands. "We want to thank you for shoveling the drive last night and again this morning. We really appreciate that."

"No problem," Michael said quietly. "Thank you for this."

She was a small, stout woman who didn't smile much, but her husband, of similar stature, made up for that. He handed Michael the coffee can. "You'll need that for your steps. In the morning."

"Thanks again."

And then they were gone, hurrying back to their home on the opposite side of the long driveway. He watched until they were safely inside their home before he closed the door.

Michael was renting the upper level of what had once been a carriage house for $50 a month and as many repair projects that his landlords could devise.

He'd noticed many of the repair projects had directly benefitted him, but they were even handed in their requests. He'd done an equal number of things inside their home, from repairing ill-closing doors, painting bedrooms and windows to installing a new garbage disposal in a 1950s vintage kitchen.

Now that winter snows had arrived, he shoveled their driveway. Sometimes twice a day, depending on the snow.

Carefully, he opened their gift of food. Snuggled in the deep pan wrapped in foil and then covered with a kitchen towel was the equivalent of an entire roast with potatoes, carrots and onions. The bag contained bread, a stick of butter and a package of blueberry muffins.

He hadn't been hungry in weeks.

It was good to feel, even hunger.




He nudged her shoulder and handed her the binoc. "Here."

The driveway was clear and the yard light was on, so it was a straight shot across the street to watch as the elderly couple traversed the drive, climbed stairs on the west of the carriage house and knocked on the door.

When it opened, the light came on and he came into sight, he heard her quick, soft inhalation of breath. A few seconds later, she returned the binocular and stared straight ahead.

"That's him?"


He waited a moment before he realized she wasn't able to talk, so he put the car in gear and drove away slowly.




The flannel sheets were always cold when he first got into bed, but that didn't last once his body heat became trapped in the fibers. The sheets were another gift from his landlady. The bottom one was red and green plaid and the top sheet was littered with pink and lavender roses. The vintage wool blanket was a WWII or Korea item, dark olive drab, with a US Army imprint. It was topped with the newest addition to his bedding, something his landlords had left just inside the door last week, a down blanket he was sure Fiona would have liked.

He concluded the blanket was the reason the dreams began. It must have triggered them. He had intended to return it to his landlady, but once he found he could sleep when it was on his bed, he couldn't return it.

She had been gone for so long, but Fiona came to him now, in his sleep.

He could feel her arms around him, her hands on his face. He wanted her kiss but she was elusive, surrounding him then disappearing, warming him before he grew cold, tugging him to wakefulness before plunging him into a dark erotic moment so quickly come to pass that he would wake gasping, yearning to return to where he slumbered next to her soft and strong form. He knew he needed her but he couldn't tell her, and he could not return to her, not yet, except in sleep. So he slept. On his days off, sometimes ten hours, eleven.

He would sleep as long as he could before he would rise, dress, then punish himself with the job that allowed him to hide in plain sight, to forget his dreams, to forget what it was like for her to be in his arms.

And he would watch and he would listen and wait. He didn't know how long it would take to finish. And he couldn't leave, not until he had the last thing he needed so he could reclaim what remained of his life.

He needed his dreams. He needed Fiona.

He never needed the nightmare that brought him here.




Six Months Earlier

Sam Axe watched his friends in the distance dance the dance of need and rejection. He saw Mike reach, and Fiona reject. He didn't need to hear their words to read their body language.

He glanced at Madeline, saw the expression of disgust on her features then, looking over the top of her head, met Jesse's steady gaze. He realized he and Jess were sharing an opinion, possibly one neither woman would accept.

As soon as Fiona started her stalk back to stand next to Maddie, Sam turned to walk to Mike, but was stopped by a strong hand on his arm with a grip too firm. He winced.

"Do ya mind?" Sam tried to shrug away from the security guard's grip, and noticed it wasn't until Mike motioned for him to back away that he was freed.

"You doing okay?" Mike wondered when Sam stopped in front of him.

"Better. You?"


"What'd you do, Mike?"

"I promised I'd make things right, Sam. That's what I'm doing."

"So . . . ?"

"I'm finishing this, as best I can, for all of us."

"You sell your soul to the CIA, friend?" Sam watched as a small muscle in Mike's jaw twitched as he responded.

"Never again."


"Is not in prison," Mike replied. "You're all free. You're all safe."

One of the guards interrupted. "Sir? We're late."

"Yeah." Mike stretched a hand in friendship, toward Sam, the pain in his expression relaying everything he wouldn't say. "Take care, Sam."

Sam drew his friend against his chest, felt the impression of the underarm holster Mike wore, and heard his own voice tighten. "You, too, brother."

As he was being escorted to where Jesse, Madeline and Fiona waited, he could see Fi had already turned away. Behind them, the whoompa-whoompa thwack of the helicopter's powerful rotor moved air, making speech impossible until they re-entered the holding facility they'd been in for the past three weeks.

"Where are you taking us now?" Maddie asked, every word emphasized by a strident sarcasm that had become a permanent part of her personality in the past year.

"You're being released," a guard answered.

"Where are you taking my son?" she demanded.

"We're not taking him anywhere."

"I just saw him get on your helicopter. Now, where are you taking him?" she ground out.

"We're not taking him anywhere, ma'am. He's in charge. Not us."

Fiona glanced at Madeline. "So where do we go to get out of here?"

"This way, ma'am," the guard indicated a door.

Sam slowed his steps, as did Jesse while the women walked ahead of them.

"Ah, Sam, so, uh, Mike tell you why he's riding around in a Scout?"

Both men were aware the Army's newest light attack helicopter wasn't fully deployed yet; the fact that one was in use domestically, and that Mike was using it was damned interesting.

"No. He just said he's keeping his promise to make things right."

"You need to talk to Fi."

Sam sighed. "Yeah."




He found her gathering weapons, clothing and shoes from the first hotel room Elsa had provided for them as a safe house.

Sam had seen Fi's fine Irish temper in full force before, but he didn't have the patience for it today. Every movement she made was a precise exercise in fury.

"Hey, there," he greeted her.

She didn't turn around.

"Where you going?"

She refused to acknowledge him by looking at him, but answered. "Away."

"Does it have a zip code? Postal code? Can I call?"


"Can I help you get a ticket?"

She whirled around to face him then. "What? What! You want me to leave?"

As he suspected, tears tracked heavy streams down her cheeks. Her nose was red, her face blotchy. She swiped her palms across her face, attempting to wipe away evidence of her pain.

"No, I don't, but you said you're going away, so maybe you need some travel money."

He knew that would piss her off.

"Dammit. You knew. You knew!"

He shook his head sadly. "Hey, lady. I got out the same way and the same time you did. All the stuff I came with was handed back the same way yours was. Yeah, and with some cash. I thought you liked cash. It's, ah, useful."

Fiona dropped the bag she was holding and walked to the opposite side of the couch, away from where he stood. "This isn't about the cash, Sam. It's about the promise Michael broke. Again. He promised me he was getting out. Out. For good."

"He promised me we'd figure out a way to make this right again."

"So he's breaking two promises."

"And he promised his ma he'd get Nate's killer."

Fiona crossed her arms tightly. "Well, he did that, didn't he? And look what happened."

"One down and two to go."

She scoffed. "Is that what you think?"

"That's what I know."

"What I know is that he'll say anything, anything, to get his job back. To get his—"

"Is that what you think is going on? Ask yourself this. What the hell did he do to deserve this? You think this is just about his job? It's about his life. Yours, too, by the way."

"It doesn't matter."

"Maybe not to an Irish National."

Sam knew this was the time and place for clear thinking.

"That was uncalled for, Sam," Fiona said quietly.

"No, Fi, it wasn't."

She inhaled deeply and sat down on the couch, deflated.

He realized he, too, needed to sit down; his stamina wasn't where he wanted it to be. He'd needed to see Elsa, but he couldn't let Fiona's reaction to Mike's departure pass, to let Mike go undefended.

Slowly he lowered himself to sit on the chair across from her. "Look, Fi, I know you and Mike saved my life. I thank you for that, I do."

He waited until she acknowledged him. "You would have done the same for me."

"Want to know what else I thank Mike for? For helping me get back some of what I lost through my own damned fault when I left the Navy. Without that, I might not have a good woman I don't deserve who loves me. She," Sam said slowly, "admires loyalty."

"That's not what this is about."


"It's about breaking a promise."

"I haven't seen any evidence of that."

"You just watched him get on that helicopter and, and—and . . ."

"Yeah, I waved good-bye. You walked off. Nice."

Fiona sprung upright and paced across the room, her arms crossed, as if she didn't want to be reminded either of Michael's departure or her response.

"Just wondering something, Fi," Sam asked. "What did you promise Mike?"

She turned and glared at him.

"So if he promised you something, what did you promise him? Anything?"

She remained silent.

"That's what I thought. So, it's all on him, right? Everything."

Sam rose and headed toward the door. "Look, I'm guessing you can stay here as long as you want, but if you're going away, then thanks again for saving my life and let us know where you land, okay? See you, sister. I need to go see a woman about a hug."