Chapter 1

Carla Anderson rolled up to the looming storm-fence gate on her brother’s midnight-blue Kawasaki Ninja 1000 motorcycle. The pounding of the engine against her sore butt emphasized every mile from Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the 4th Infantry and hopefully never again the home of Sergeant Carla Anderson. The bike was all she had left of Clay, other than a folded flag, and she was here to honor that.

If this was the correct “here.”

A small guard post stood by the gate into a broad, dusty compound. It looked deserted and she didn’t see even a camera.

This was Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She knew that much. Two hundred and fifty square miles of military installation, not counting the addition of the neighboring Pope Army Airfield.

She’d gotten her Airborne parachute training here and had never even known what was hidden in this remote corner. Bragg was exactly the sort of place where a tiny, elite unit of the U.S. military could disap­pear—in plain sight.

This back corner of the home of the 82nd Airborne was harder to find than it looked. What she could see of the compound through the fence definitely ranked “worst on base.”

The setup was totally whacked.

Standing outside the fence at the guard post she could see a large, squat building across the compound. The gray concrete building was incongruously cheer­ful with bright pink roses along the front walkway—the only landscaping visible anywhere. More recent buildings—in better condition only because they were newer—ranged off to the right. She could breach the old fence in a dozen different places just in the hundred-yard span she could see before it disappeared into a clump of scrub and low trees drooping in the June heat.

Wholly indefensible.

There was no way that this could be the headquarters of the top combat unit in any country’s military.

Unless this really was their home, in which case the indefensible fence—inde-fence-ible?—was a complete sham designed to fool a sucker. She’d stick with the main gate.

She peeled off her helmet and scrubbed at her long brown hair to get some air back into her scalp. Guys always went gaga over her hair, which was a useful distraction at times. She always wore it as long as her successive commanders allowed. Pushing the limits was one of her personal life policies.

She couldn’t help herself. When there was a limit, Carla always had to see just how far it could be nudged. Surprisingly far was usually the answer. Her hair had been at earlobe length in Basic. By the time she joined her first forward combat team, it brushed her jaw. Now it was down on her shoulders. It was actually something of a pain in the ass at this length—another couple inches before it could reliably ponytail—but she did like having the longest hair in the entire unit.

Carla called out a loud “Hello!” at the empty com­pound shimmering in the heat haze.

No response.

Using her boot in case the tall chain-link fence was electrified, she gave it a hard shake, making it rattle loudly in the dead air. Not even any birdsong in the oppressive midday heat.

A rangy man in his late forties or early fifties, his hair half gone to gray, wandered around from behind a small shack as if he just happened to be there by chance. He was dressed like any off-duty soldier: worn khaki pants, a black T-shirt, and scuffed Army boots. He slouched to a stop and tipped his head to study her from behind his Ray-Bans. He needed a haircut and a shave. This was not a soldier out to make a good first impression.

“Don’t y’all get hot in that gear?” He nodded to indi­cate her riding leathers without raking his eyes down her frame, which was both unusual and appreciated.

“Only on warm days,” she answered him. It was June in North Carolina. The temperature had crossed ninety hours ago and the air was humid enough to swim in, but complaining never got you anywhere.

“What do you need?”

So much for the pleasantries. “Looking for Delta.”

“Never heard of it,” the man replied with a negligent shrug. But something about how he did it told her she was in the right place.

“Combat Applications Group?” Delta Force had many names, and they certainly lived to “apply combat” to a situation. No one on the planet did it better.

His next shrug was eloquent.

Delta Lesson Number One: Folks on the inside of the wire didn’t call it Delta Force. It was CAG or “The Unit.” She got it. Check. Still easier to think of it as Delta though.

She pulled out her orders and held them up. “Received a set of these. Says to show up here today.”

“Let me see that.”

“Let me through the gate and you can look at it as long as you want.”

“Sass!” He made it an accusation.

“Nope. Just don’t want them getting damaged or lost maybe by accident.” She offered her blandest smile with that.

“They’re that important to you, girlie?”


He cracked what might have been the start of a grin, but it didn’t get far on that grim face. Then he opened the gate and she idled the bike forward, scuffing her boots through the dust.

From this side she could see that the chain link was wholly intact. There was a five-meter swath of scorched earth inside the fence line. Through the heat haze, she could see both infrared and laser spy eyes down the length of the wire. And those were only the defenses she could see. So…a very not inde-fence-ible fence. Absolutely the right place.

When she went to hold out the orders, he waved them aside.

“Don’t you want to see them?” This had to be the right place. She was the first woman in history to walk through The Unit’s gates by order. A part of her wanted the man to acknowledge that. Any man. A Marine Corps marching band wouldn’t have been out of order.

She wanted to stand again as she had on that very first day, raising her right hand. “I, Carla Anderson, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution…”

She shoved that aside. The only man’s acknowledg­ment she’d ever cared about was her big brother’s, and he was gone.

The man just turned away and spoke to her over his shoulder as he closed the gate behind her bike. “Go ahead and check in. You’re one of the last to arrive. We start in a couple hours”—as if it were a blasted dinner party. “And I already saw those orders when I signed them. Now put them away before someone else sees them and thinks you’re still a soldier.” He walked away.

She watched the man’s retreating back. He’d signed her orders?

That was the notoriously hard-ass Colonel Charlie Brighton? What the hell was the leader of the U.S. Army’s Tier One asset doing manning the gate? Duh…assessing new applicants.

This place was whacked. Totally!

There were only three Tier One assets in the entire U.S. military. There was Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group, DEVGRU, that the public thought was called SEAL Team Six—although it hadn’t been named that for thirty years now. There was the Air Force’s 24th STS—which pretty much no one on the outside had ever heard of. And there was the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta—whose very existence was still denied by the Pentagon despite four decades of operations, several books, and a couple of seriously off-the-mark movies that were still fun to watch because Chuck Norris kicked ass even under the stupidest of circumstances.

Total Tier One women across all three teams? Zero.

About to be? One. Staff Sergeant First Class Carla Anderson.

Where did she need to go to check in? There was no signage. No drill sergeant hovering. No—

Delta Lesson Number Two: You aren’t in the Army anymore, sister.

No longer a soldier, as the Colonel had said, at least not while on The Unit’s side of the fence. On this side they weren’t regular Army; they were “other.”

If that meant she had to take care of herself, well, that was a lesson she’d learned long ago. Against stereotype, her well-bred, East Coast white-guy dad was the drunk. Her dirt-poor half Tennessee Cherokee, half Colorado settler mom, who’d passed her dusky skin and dark hair on to her daughter, had been a sober and serious woman. She’d also been a casualty of an Afghanistan dust-bowl IED while serving in the National Guard. Carla’s big brother Clay now lay beside Mom in Arlington National Cemetery. Dead from a training accident. Except your average training acci­dent didn’t include a posthumous rank bump, a medal, and coming home in a sealed box—reportedly with no face.

Clay had flown helicopters in the Army’s 160th SOAR with the famous Majors Beale and Henderson. Well, famous in the world of people who’d flown with the Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or their little sisters who’d begged for stories of them whenever big brothers were home on leave. Otherwise, totally invisible.

Clay had clearly died on a black op that she’d never be told a word of, so she didn’t bother asking. Which was okay. He knew the risks, just as Mom had. Just as she herself had when she’d signed up the day of Clay’s funeral, four years ago. She’d been on the front lines ever since and so far lived to tell about it.

Carla popped Clay’s Ninja—which is how she still thought of it, even after riding it for four years—back into first and rolled it slowly up to the building with the pink roses. As good a place to start as any.


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Copyright © 2015 by M. L. Buchman

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