Yes, there is life after the military. Just as they made major contributors in uniform, so they do as civilians. Two men that I had the privilege of meeting were kind enough to answer questions fr me, letting me know that going from combat to civilian life can be stressful. This can be said for Ethan Caine, the hero of FINDING REDEMPTION.
Meet Ethan, combat-hardened, Special Forces-trained, still dealing with the nightmares of battle. His usual dress is a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, sweat ants and athletic shoes (“They’re comfortable,” he says to anyone who asks.)But as others like him, when he is needed, he answers the call. He shucks of the invisible wall he’s barricaded himself behind and steps up to the plate.
Just like all the men of Special Forces.
“How much do you know about the Quintana Roo jungle in Mexico? Ever heard of it?”
Lisa frowned. “A little bit. Why? What does that have to do with Jamie?”
“Quintana Roo is a state on the Yucatan Peninsula. Ecotourism is the hot new market, it seems, and the Roo is cashing in on it.” He made a face. “Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun, is the jumping off place for tours into the interior. But more than one third of the state of Quintana Roo is a tropical forest—more like a jungle—with vast undeveloped areas that are difficult to reach.”
“And?” She leaned forward, the tension in her body stretching her like a guy wire.
“I think one of those groups snatched Jamie and someone has him in the Roo. I don’t know why, but Charles had too many visits there for this all to be just so coincidental. If someone is hiding Jamie, what better place could they find than a plantation hidden away from civilization?”
“My God.” Lisa whispered the words. “That means…there’s still a good chance he’s alive. Jamie could be alive.”
“Don’t get too excited, Mrs. Mallory.” His voice was flat. “We don’t know anything for sure. Yet.”
Her stomach tightened again and bile rose up in her throat. “Someone could have him locked up all this time? Who? Why? Why not give him back?”
Ethan’s eyes never left her face. “Could be someone wanted a child and decided yours fit the bill. If that’s the case, they could have taken any child and not gotten involved with a messy ransom demand.” He rubbed his jaw. “I felt from the beginning there’s something here that’s not quite right, and I want to find out what it is.”
No one said anything for a few moments. Then Ethan shook his head, reached for the carafe and refilled his mug. “Well, drink up. I have more preparations to make before I can get there and check it out.”
“What do you mean?” Lisa scowled at him. “What kind of preparations? Why can’t you just get on a plane and go?”
Ethan Caine watched her with his hooded eyes.
Josh’s hand closed over hers, giving it a gentle squeeze, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. “All right. I’m sorry. What is it you have to do?”
He spoke to her as one might explain something to a child, his tone a mixture of frustration and forced patience. “The Quintana Roo is a very unfriendly place. And these thugs I’m looking for don’t play nice in the sandbox. I know you want me to head for the airport now. But I’ve got to take a week to fix what I’ve done to myself since…since the last time I was out. If I’m out of shape, it won’t do anyone any good. And after all this time, a few more days won’t really matter.”
She stared at him. “Let me get this straight. You can’t go because you’re a wreck?”
A muscle jumped in his cheek. “I have other arrangements to make, too.”
“And after your week at a gym?” Her voice was filled with venom.
“I go to Mexico. Find the place where Las Tormentas hang out. Identify their leader and a foot soldier I can turn for information. Once I know for sure they’re the ones who took him, I can squeeze for answers.”
Lisa began drumming her fingers on the table. Why were they just sitting here talking instead of going to get Jamie? “So when do you start?”
Ethan pushed his coffee cup away and let his eyes rake over her face. “The minute I leave here.”
Lisa took another sip of water. “What if they kill him before you can get there? Wait.” A chill raced over her. “What if they’ve already killed him, but no one has found the body? Oh, my god.” She swallowed hard against the nausea bubblng up in her throat.
“If they were going to kill him, they’d have already done it,” Nick interjected. “A week won’t make a difference. I also don’t believe he’s already dead. Guerillas tend to brag about kills, reminding people what they can do if they are crosssed in any way.”
“But I gave them the money,” she cried.
“Exactly why we’re sure he’s still alive. It would be bad for business if they killed off hostages after the payoff. No one would hire them.”
Josh put his hand on her arm again and looked at Ethan. “What’s the plan?”
He poured more coffee into his mug from the carafe on the table and added three packets of sweetener. “Fly into Cancun and scope out what cantina these thugs hang out in. Figure out which one to pay off for information so I can pinpoint Jamie’s location.”
“The right group?” Oh, god. She felt lightheaded. “You mean—”
“He means,” Nick said in an even voice, “the kidnappers could be someone Charles met there but isn’t from the area. Or a dealer in Switzerland who does jobs for the cartel there. Or someone who works for the cartel and doesn’t like Charles.”
She looked at Ethan. “Is that true? Are you chasing a ghost here?”
His face was devoid of expression, but irritation flamed in his eyes. “Anything is possible, but every source I tapped into said this is the goup and this is where it happpened. And believe me, those sources were checked six ways from Sunday.”
“There’s a slimmer than slim chance any of those other possibilities exist,” Nick assured her. “This was too well-planned for it to be carried out by someone who just showed up to do business. And if it was a grouop that wanted to express their hatred for Charles, they would not be silent about it. The body would already have been found, setting an example.”
Lisa relaxd a fraction. Everything Nick said made sense. She’d just have to hold on to that.
“So.” Ethan patted his mouth with a napkin. “Once I get what I need, I’ll head for Playa del Carmen and start to work.”
Lisa stopped drumming her fingers and curled her hands into tight fists. “I’m going with you.”
All three men stared at her.
“Are you nuts?” Ethan was the first to speak, his voice like a sharp knife cutting the air. “Out of the question.”
She glared at him. “He’s my son. I’m going with you. That’s the end of it.”
“Or what?” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ll tell me to peddle my papers elsewhere?”
Lisa felt as if every nerve and muscle in her body was stretched to the breaking point. Gritting her teeth, she leaned forward. “Jamie is my son. I can’t just sit on my hands and wait to see what happens. I’m going, with or without you, so it might as well be with.”
“Lisa…” Josh’s voice had a warning note that said Don’t argue with this man.
“This is a very dangerous undertaking,” Nick pointed out. “And you’ve had no training.”
“Ethan can train me. I’m a fast learner.” She looked around at everyone, stopping at Ethan. “What’s your…what do you call it…cover? Who will you be?”
“A gringo tourist bum looking for some night life.” His lips curled in a mock smile. “I fit the part, don’t you think?”
She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “Wouldn’t it look less suspicious if you’re part of a couple?” She gave a short laugh. “Maybe honeymooners?”
“She’s got a point there,” Josh admitted with reluctance.
“Please,” she begged. Then, to her utter humiliation, tears leaked from her eyes and flooded down her cheeks.
Josh tightened his arm around her, and she leaned into him until the storm subsided. She grabbed napkins from the holder on the table and wiped her face.
“I apologize.” She took a long drink from the water glass in front of her. “I don’t usually fall apart like this in front of strangers.”
“No problem.” But Ethan’s eyes looked at her as if she were a lab experiment. “But that’s a good enough reason for you not to go. The jungle is rough, these people are rougher, and there’s no place for emotion. Stay home where you belong.”
“No!” She slammed her hand on the table. She was so ready to jump out of her skin she was shaking. “I belong on this trip. I’ll do whatever you tell me, but I have to go with you.” She drew in a deep, shuddering breath and let it out. “Don’t let the tears put you off, Ethan Caine. I’m a lot tougher than I look. I had to be to survive all those years with Charles Mallory. I can think on my feet, I’m good in a crisis, and I’m a crack shot.”
Ethan’s eyebrows rose, and he looked at Josh.
Josh nodded. “She’s telling the truth. I’d say she’s a natural with a weapon.”
“I bought a gun the day after Charles was killed,” she told him. “I went to a range and learned how to use it.”
Ethan turned his gaze back to her. After a moment he sighed, a sound of resignation. “All right. I know in my bones I’ll regret this, but we’ll go as the loving couple.”
“I hate to admit she’s right about the cover,” Nick interjected. “Couples are always less consicuous. Less threatening.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Ethan growled. “There are ground rules, and they’re not negotiable. I won’t have either the time or inclination to be your babysitter.”
She nodded. “Whatever you say.”
“That’s the first one. Whatever I say goes. No arguing. I mean it. This is my playground, not yours. There’s no room for amateur mistakes.”
Ethan looked at Nick. “You’re the point man, right?”
He nodded. “This will all be on the downlow. Along with everything else I’ll get burner phones to you. Don’t use any of them more than once. And you’ll have a sat phone. Cells don’t work in the jungle.”
“I’ll need aerial and topographical maps of Quintana Roo,” he reminded Nick. “A list of contacts in the area and someone to meet me with the required equipment.”
“Consider it done.”
Ethan turned his head to look at Lisa. “Like I said, I’ll be leaving in a week. I have to get in shape, and if you’re going, so do you.”
“W—What do you mean?” She frowned. “What kind of shape?”
He grimaced. “Mexico is hotter than hell. We might be hacking our way through a jungle, maybe sleeping under a tree. Doing God knows how much walking. Not to mention evading plenty of guys who would cut your throat like nothing. So that gives me one week to teach you the basics of survival. Self-defense. And despite what Josh says, make sure you know how to shoot a gun without killing yourself.”
“Like he said, I can shoot.”
“We’ll see.” Ethan fiddled with his mug, then gave her his penetrating stare again. “Last thing. If we plan to accomplish all this in such a short period of time, you have to move into my house.”
At that, Josh burst out laughing. “You want her to come live at your house? You really are crazy. It’s barely habitable for you.”
“Yeah.” Nick managed a grin. “I second that.”
Ethan glared at him. “This isn’t a social visit. Like I said, we don’t have much time. She’s gotta be there twenty four/seven to make this work.”
“Ethan’s right,” Nick told them. “I’d be against you going, too, Lisa. But if you’re determined, Ethan has to call the shots.”
“Fine. I’ll do it.” The fierce determination in her voice startled them. “When do we start? No, Josh.” She held up her hand as she saw him about to object. “This is my son and my decision. So forget whatever else you were going to say.”
Ethan shrugged. “No time like the present to get started. Let’s go by your house so you can pick up whatever you need. And remember, we’ll be traveling light.”
“I’ll need my car, too.”
“No. You won’t be leaving my house until we head for the airport. Leave it in your garage.”
Lisa took a deep breath and let it out, steadying herself. So be it. She’d wade through hell with the devil himself if it meant getting Jamie back. And maybe that was exactly what she’d be doing.
“Fine. Let’s get going.”
They all slid out of the booth, and she watched Ethan dump some money on the table. He waved to Manny as they filed out the doors, Lisa first and Nick bringing up the rear.
As Lisa turned to ask Josh a question, a sharp crack split the damp morning air and she heard the sound of glass splintering.