Max DiSalvo gave his entire life to the SEALs. He would have married—he certainly enjoyed women—but he never could find one who understood his dedication to the Teams, even though many of his team members married happily. It takes a certain caliber of woman to be a SEAL wife, and Max just never found one who fit with him. Now, at forty-eight, he is out of the SEALs, running his own commercial fishing company in Maine where he grew up, and waiting for his assignments from DHS.
Regan Shaw, a SEAL widow, is an Intelligence Operations Specialist with DHS, and a woman who Max is drawn to from first sight. Part of her job is analyzing information to assess threats, and she’s discovered a doozy—there is a secret group of very wealthy people who, in partnership with a powerful cartel, are using the border with Mexico to smuggle terrorists from the Middle East into the country. Word has leaked that the cabal is planning a terrorist attack to take over the country on a national holiday, and a high-level member of the government is clearing the way with them for everything.
The group is about to have one of its executive meetings at an exclusive resort in Texas and that’s where Bone Frog Command is sending Max and Regan as husband and wife. Credentials have been arranged, and a story has been set, and there is backup for him should he need it, but the orders are: get in, get the information, and get out.
It doesn’t take long for them to realize how dangerous this group is and that it must be stopped. Now. When someone betrays them, and Regan is kidnapped, Max goes into war mode because, in Regan Shaw, he’s found the woman he’s waited for all his life, and he doesn’t intend to lose her now. But he will need every bit of the skills he learned as a SEAL to rescue her and bring down this very dirty conspiracy.
Max DiSalvo (Commander, Navy SEALS, Ret) double checked to make sure his boat, the lead boat in his small fleet, was securely moored in its slip before heading along the dock. Next he made sure that everything was locked up in the small shed where he kept extra equipment and where they finished cleaning at the end of the day. Finally he climbed the steps to the parking lot where his truck sat. His shoulder still bothered him now and then, but it didn’t keep him from pulling his share of the load. It just meant a hot shower at the end of the day and an application of the stuff the therapist had given him. He’d learned to live with the twinges and the stiffness when the weather was really cold. He was grateful that it hadn’t been worse, even if it had ended his career as an active duty SEAL.
Hauling himself into the driver’s seat, he rolled down his window and sat for a moment before cranking the ignition, just enjoying the scene. The sun was setting, its rays warming the air and sending heat through the windshield. The scent of sea salt filled the air, mingled with the aroma of fresh fish and diesel fuel. Another good day on the water. His crew had packed the entire catch up for delivery and taken off, so all he had to do was— What? Shower and change? Have a cup of coffee? A drink? Was that what his life had come to?
As a teenager, he had loved working in his family’s small but productive fishing company. He’d also spent summers at it until he graduated from college. He loved being on the water and when he wasn’t working a boat crew he was swimming, kayaking, or enjoying other water sports with his friends. Was it any wonder he ended up being a SEAL?
Once he joined the Navy and was accepted into the SEALs, he’d had no more time for the company. If he wasn’t on a mission, he was training for it or involved in rugged activities with his fellow SEALs. And enjoying women. Nothing serious. He was married to the SEALs. But he did enjoy the ones he spent time with. He figured when he settled down, so to speak, he’d have plenty of time to concentrate on a woman.
That moment in his life came sooner than he expected. At forty-eight he hadn’t been quite ready to leave the SEALs, but he didn’t have a choice. On the final mission he led his SEAL team, he’d been shot twice in his shoulder, the bullet seriously impacting the muscle and bone structure. The injury had ended his career as an active duty SEAL, and that had been the bitterest pill. He had done his best to requalify, sweating through all the therapy sessions and repeating the exercises at home, forcing himself through the pain to practice on the gun range, but it hadn’t been enough. His attempt to be restored to active duty had been an epic failure, one he had to get over if he was going to enjoy the rest of his life.
So now here he was, Commander Max DeSalvo, Retired, trying to step back into a life he hadn’t known for years and wondering if he’d be able to do it. Or even wanted to. He still had the skills, no question about that. Some things you never forgot. He was still physically fit, even allowing for the shoulder. So what if he had more gray hair on his head than he’d like. Maybe it made him look distinguished. And he couldn’t deny that commercial fishing gave him a sense of peace he hadn’t known for a very long time.
On the way home to Maine, he’d turned his thoughts to the future that had a remarkably different outlook. His parents, now in their late seventies, had been hinting about retiring and indulging their passion for traveling. Max had often thought about spending his days working on the ocean he loved so much, running the fishing boats he’d grown up on. He just hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. At least, he thought, he had a plan, a purpose for after the SEALs, which so many men he knew did not.
A few strokes of a pen had turned the company over to him. It was like putting on an old familiar sweater, and he had to admit he loved it. The fishing. Watching the sunsets. Being on the water. Reconnecting with some old friends.
Today had been great, catchwise. He had a top quality crew and top-notch captains for the other three boats, but his life had holes in it. Perhaps he’d left attention to the personal part too long. Maybe that was why he couldn’t get rid of this restless feeling.
Shaking his head, he started the engine, pulled out of the lot, and headed for home. These days that was a small New England colonial with a wide front porch. He’d thought of renting, but Sunset Harbor, as small as it was, only had two rental complexes, and neither one really appealed to him.
What if she doesn’t like it?
He had no fucking idea who she was, or how or when he’d even meet a she. He obviously hadn’t prepared well on that front. Just dragged his sorry ass back to Sunset Harbor, took over the reins of DiSalvo Commercial Fishing, plunked down a deposit on the house, and somehow expected his life to suddenly come together. The first six months he’d been busy getting reacclimated to civilian life, to his small hometown, and reconnecting with some of the people he’d known years before. As long as his right hand held up, he hadn’t missed female companionship.
But he felt it was time to make some changes in his life in that direction. Now that he had a stable, settled life, he didn’t want to live it alone. Not that he’d made a real effort to find female companionship. But he was growing tired of moving from one day to the next and wondering if this was a sad forecast of the rest of his future.
With a sigh, he showered off the fish smell and pulled on clean jeans and a DiSalvo T-shirt, checked the dismal contents of the fridge, and decided he’d have dinner and a beer at The Rusty Scupper. Ted Doyle always served the best food, didn’t pester him with questions, and he could hang out or not.
Less than thirty minutes later he was situated on a stool at the polished oak bar at the Scupper, sipping on a local craft beer and waiting for his meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A not very glamourous meal but damn! Nobody made it better than Ted’s cook. Maybe when he found a woman that would be one of the requirements. But first he had to start looking, and Sunset Harbor had a woefully short list of candidates.
“Here you go.” Ted slid the plate onto the counter in front of him, the fragrance of the food drifting up in a cloud of steam.
“Man, if your cook was single, I might have to marry him,” he joked.
“Maybe you can catch him on one of the nights his wife kicks him out of the house. Enjoy.”
He was just swallowing the last bite of his dinner and working his way through his second beer when a hand clapped down on his shoulder. At first, he tensed, wondering who was touching him that way. But when he turned his head, he found himself smiling.
“Crash? Holy shit, is that you? Dan, it’s good to see you.” He looked the man up and down. “But what the hell kind of costume party you dressed up for?”
Navy SEAL Silas “Si” Branson would always be Crash to his SEAL friends, the reminder of his famous joyriding episode. The man was tall as ever and still looking fit. Only instead of fatigues or jeans he was decked out in a tailored navy suit with a white shirt and a striped tie. His hair was cut a lot shorter, too, and when Max looked down he saw Si’s feet were shod in what looked like expensive loafers.
“If only.” His friend sighed.
“So I guess the rumors are true. You’ve gone over to the dark side.”
“It’s a lot darker than you think,” Si grunted. “So, how’s the shoulder? Heard it might be kind of gimpy.”
Anger rose up in Max at the mention of his injury. It had ruined his career as a SEAL, and talking about it made him want to throw something. Or hit someone.
“Doesn’t hurt my fishing,” he snapped.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Si held his hands up, palms outward. “Just asking. I have the same kind of problem. Wrecked my back and just could not come back from it. Killed me with the SEALS.”
Max was instantly contrite. “Sorry to hear that, buddy. And sorry I bit your head off.”
Si shrugged. “No biggie. I know just how you feel. So, no women in your life these days? I thought for sure the minute you retired you’d have a long string of them.”
Max’s laugh was short and sharp. “Yeah, I might have to look beyond Sunset Harbor for that. Seems the best women here are already taken. Anyway, how’s Maggie? Did I hear right that the two of you kissed and made up and got hitched again?”
“You did.” Si had a prou+d look on his face. “And she’s due to pop any day now.”
Max’s jaw dropped. ”She’s pregnant? Well, good for you guys.”
Everyone in their tightknit SEAL circle knew about the death of Si and Maggie’s son, the emotional devastation that followed, and the divorce. He was glad for his friend and wondered for a moment if he’d ever have that kind of emotional commitment with anyone.
Shut up. Si’s not here so you can complain about your love life. Or lack of it.
“As a matter of fact,” Si continued, “she’s one of the main reasons I have this new job.”
“Oh yeah?” Max lifted an eyebrow. “How’s that?”
“Her connections got me the interview and it was all the way after that.” Si nodded at Max’s plate. “If you’re through with your meal, let’s head to that booth in the corner and I’ll tell you.”
“Oh? We need privacy for this?” Max could not imagine why that was. Except…Wait a minute. Hadn’t he heard through the SEALs’ grapevine that Si was now with the Department of Homeland Security?
“Okay. How about a beer? Or coffee? Something to wet your throat while we talk.”
“Coffee would be great.” Si grimaced. “It’s been a long day.”
As soon as they were settled in the booth, Max looked at his friend. “So, tell me about this cushy office job you have now.”
Si barked a laugh. “I’m not in the office that much and I’d hardly call it cushy. But it’s the reason I’m here.”
“And that is?” Max kept his voice even.
Si reached into his inside beast pocket, pulled out a photo and slapped it on the table.
Max’s eyebrows shot up nearly to his hairline.
“Is that a picture of me? Where the hell did you get it, and what are you doing with it? And how did my face get in a picture at an event I’ve never attended.” He stared at the photograph. “Wait. There’s something different… Hell! That’s not me, but I sure as hell could pass for him.”
“Exactly. He also happens to be named Max. Max Ferron”
Max DiSalvo frowned. “Do I know him?”
“No. He and his brother, Bernardo, have made billions in the arms and munitions industry.”
“Yeah? Why does that give me a bad feeling?”
“Because you always were a smart son of a bitch, with good instincts.”
Max was still looking at the photo. “So, what is it you want from me?”
“How would you like to go to a very private, very small meeting with people who want to take over this country?”
Max was sure his jaw dropped far enough to hit the table.
“Are you shitting me?”
Si shook his head. “Not even a little. Look. I head up a unit of the DHS that’s so secret no one ever mentions it. We deal with the threats to national security that are so heavy, one misstep and the country goes to hell. We have a dangerous situation evolving here, Max, and I need you. Your country needs you. It’s not done with you yet. If you’re up for it, we need to go someplace more private to talk.” He paused. “And then, if you’re in, we need to head to the D.C. area.”
It took Max all of three seconds to make up his mind. He jogged over to the bar, slapped some bills on it then motioned to Si to head out the door with him.
“Where’s your car?” he asked. When Si pointed, Max said, “Follow me.”
Fifteen minutes later, they were in Max’s living room, Max sitting and Si pacing.
“First of all,” Si began, “I have this super-secret group within the DHS. It was my idea, and the director supports it. A small number of retired SEAL officers who can lead a group of multi-agency operatives when needed on missions no one else can know about.”
“And what’s this group of yours called?”
Si grinned. “The Bone Frog Command.”
Max chuckled. “I couldn’t have picked a better one.”
Every SEAL knew that in the Vietnam era Navy SEALs were known as frogmen. In the early 2000s a new image for the SEAL Teams began to emerge, a skeleton of a frog that paid homage to those earlier generations of SEALs. It became the inspiration for tattoos on many SEAL Team warriors. Max had one as did several of his SEAL friends.
“So,” he prodded, “what is it you want from me?”
“I want you to go to this meeting where there’s a good chance someone will try to kill you, get all the information you can, and get out with your skin intact so we can destroy this before it gets off the ground. And lock these people away.”
“That’s all?” Max burst out laughing. “You make it sound so appealing.” Then he looked at Si’s face and all laughter went away. “You’re serious. Okay. Let’s have it. What’s this all about?”
Si cleared his throat. “There is a group—a cabal—of five couples who live in some of the Western states. They control enormous wealth and have vast, silent, almost invisible reaches of power. They think they are untouchable gods who can do anything they want.”
“And what is it they want?”
“More power. All the power. Like I said earlier, their goal is to gain full control of the United States. To get rid of the government as we know it and have every bit of power in their hands, with their own puppet at the head so they can pull the strings.”
Max whistled. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah. No kidding. There’s some kickers here.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “One. They want to get rid of everyone in key positions of power and replace them with their own people. Two. They’ve been in bed with one of the most powerful cartels for some time. The Rojas cartel. One of them had the original connection and was providing a safe passage the cartel could use to bring drugs into this country. Apparently, along the way, the cartel added terrorists looking for new, fertile territory to rebuild their power. Now these people are working with that cartel to smuggle some of the worst, most high-value extremists over the border into this country.”
Max could feel the color draining from his face. “God. For what purpose?”
“Like I said, they have delusions of grandeur and want to take over this country. The chatter we’ve captured indicates their first step is a massive terror strike to dismantle the government. The unholy thought at Bone Frog is that the cabal has made a deal with these terrorists to be group leaders, with small armies made up of low-level terrorists and cartel soldiers.”
For a moment, Max was afraid he would throw up.
“Terrorism is, as we know, a tactic. A strategy used to achieve a specific end. One effect of what they’re planning is the weakening of the American economy by forcing massive spending on security. But that’s only stage two. Others will follow as the country collapses and these maniacs take control.”
Mac dipped his head. “Go on.”
“The cabal is pandering to the desires of these animals,” Si continued, “to help create a network in this country as they’ve done in their own. Then these traitors can destroy our existing structure through fear and intimidation and take over the country. With, we assume, the cartel soldiers as backup enforcement. That gives them an open market for their drugs with no controls.” He paused. “Think of it, Max. Their plan is to control the government, the media, the schools, the military. You name it.”
“Jesus Christ, Si.” Max could feel the blood draining from his face. He’d fought enough years in the sandbox to know what kind of governments operated when people like this were in charge.
“No kidding. And that’s not all. One of the three top people in the government is their new chosen figurehead. Someone who already has incredible power. He—or she, I guess—is helping them with this.”
Max stared at him. “The president?”
Si shrugged. “That’s one possibility. But it’s definitely at that level. We need you to find out who that person is and, so far, we’re stymied.”
“You know,” Max said slowly, “this sounds like they want to take over the world where others using the same methods have failed.”
“I wouldn’t say no to that. It’s what terrifies us. And we have a very short time frame.”
“What do you mean?”
“According to the chatter we’ve picked up, the big launch is scheduled for three weeks from now.” He paused. “July 4th.”
Max wanted to believe he’d heard wrong but knew he hadn’t. Holy motherfucker. He pushed himself out of his chair and went to stare out the big window, hands in his pockets, brain rushing full steam ahead.
“They picked Independence Day to take away the country’s independence?”
“That’s exactly what the fuckers did.” Si spat out the words. “That’s why we need you to help us stop them.”
“And just how am I supposed to do this? Exactly?”
“That picture I showed you of the guy who could be your doppelganger?”
“He’s suddenly become a key player.”
“Suddenly?” Max frowned. “You’d better explain that.”
“Okay. DHS has been working on this for two years, ever since they got the first hint of trouble. Once we knew all the names involved, we dug around looking for anything that gave us some leverage. We got one lucky break. We got information on Bernardo Ferron, arms and munitions billionaire, of some things he’s done that could send him to prison for a long time. Illegal arms sales. Hiding money in offshore accounts. Funding revolutions in small countries to provide more markets for his merchandise.”
Max made a rude noise. “Nice guy.”
“Tell me about it.” A muscle ticked in his jaw, the only sign of the stress he was under. “We were only able to learn the date this thing explodes a couple of days ago. And think about it, Max. We can’t even alert the military without sending signals to everyone and his brother. Not to mention the fact, where would we send them? There are so many logical targets I’m not even sure we have enough military to cover them all.”
“Fuck.” It was all Max could think of to say. He was well aware of the effect multiple terrorists strikes would have in this country
“Anyway,” Si continued, “we don’t have too many options. We need confirmation of the date and a blueprint of the strikes. We ‘convinced’ Bernardo to have a heart attack and to tell the others his brother, Max, will be taking his place.” He paused. “The man you’re a dead ringer for. And who, by the way, as you’re now aware, coincidentally happens to have the same first name you do.”
Max snorted. “I hope you aren’t using the word ‘dead’ literally.”
One corner of Si’s mouth turned up in a half grin. “Only figuratively, I promise you.”
“Do the others in this disgusting group know they’re getting a substitute? Are they even willing to do this?”
“Jed Whitlow, the person who put this group together, made sure everyone knew this was their best and only course of action. Bernardo, at our urging, was very convincing.”
“I won’t even ask what you mean by urging. But let me ask you this. What makes you think Bernardo won’t spill the beans? Or get away from his hospital room?”
Si’s smile was positively evil. “Because we have four former SEALs guarding him day and night. Jed Whitlow, who flew up to see him, thinks they are private security Ferron has hired. When he came to check it out we made sure everyone, including Ferron, put on a good performance.”
“And what does he get out of it.”
“He thinks he’s getting a free pass on prison and will have the opportunity to live out his life on some island in luxury.”
“He thinks? And what’s really going to happen.”
“That’s above my pay grade.” He walked over to Max. “Anyway, as soon as I saw the picture and heard the name, I knew we had to get you into this. You’ve got all the necessary skills. If you say yes, you’ve got five days to learn everything you need to know to become Max Ferron.”
“What happens then?”
“Their next very private, very secret meeting I told you about? It’s taking place at a lodge hidden away from the world. We believe it’s the final get-together before July 4th. We want you to go in there as Max Ferren and get every bit of information available to bring them down.”
Max gave a hard laugh. “You don’t want much, do you.”
“Listen. You’re our only chance. There’s no one else we can insert. We’ll give you all the protection we can. But, in the end, it may be up to you.” He sighed. “Will you do it, Max? I know this is a cheesy line, but like I said earlier, your country needs you.”
Max stared out the window for a long time. He knew this was risky. He might even get killed. But for the first time since he’d been shot, his blood was stirring and his pulse racing. He had a purpose. This was what he lived for. To serve his country in any way he could.
“Well?” Si prodded.
Max turned. “You knew I’d do it, or you’d never have come here. But I need the morning to get things organized with the boat crews and put someone in charge while I’m away.”
“Fourth of July, huh? They picked a symbolic day to do this. On purpose, I’m sure.”
“No shit. The assholes. I’d like to take them apart myself.” He paused. “There’s one more thing. I haven’t discussed it with anyone except my boss and Regan.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Part of their attack could include biological weapons.”
Max’s blood chilled, and he had trouble breathing. “Bioterrorism? Are you kidding me?”
“I hope so. We haven’t picked up any chatter about it, but you know it is a favorite of the terrorists in the Middle East.”
Max knew that very well. The possibility of it on missions was always there in the background, which was why they carried special gear.
“Fuck, Si. We need to shut this damn thing down before it goes any further.”
Si nodded. “That we do. Okay, I’ll have the chopper pick us up at one tomorrow. That do it for you?”
“The chopper?” Max chuckled. “Yeah, that’ll be fine, but we’d better do it somewhere away from here or the townspeople will be gossiping twenty/four seven.”
“Gotcha. Oh, and there’s a bonus with this. You’ll have a wife with you.”
“A wife?” Max stared at his friend.
“Yeah. Max Ferron was recently married. No one in the group has met her, but we had Bernardo vouch for her along with his brother.”
“They can’t be too happy about all this.”
Si nodded. “They’re not. But Bernardo’s been a driving force in this group. His arms and munitions are the key to pulling this off. He’s had to reach out to others to gather the quantity he needs, which means they’re no doubt already setting up the beginning of their worldwide network.”
Max stared at the other man. “And who is this woman who’s my supposed wife?”
“She works for DHS as an Intelligence Operations Specialist. Analyzes chatter coming in. She’s the one who first picked up on this. When she did, she was moved onto the Bone Frog staff so we could keep the people in the loop as few as possible. She’s been thoroughly briefed ln everything and will be a big help.”
Right. Some computer analyst who probably thought this would be a walk in the park.
“I assume she looks enough like the new Mrs. Ferren to pass for her?”
“Even more than we could have hoped for. We were able to scrub whatever is out there on the Internet, but I’m sure this group already has printouts with her picture. They leave nothing to chance. It’s a given when your plan is to take over the world.”
“What’s her name, anyway?”
“Regan Shaw. Another reason she fits the bill. Max Ferren’s wife is also named Regan. How bizarre is it that both first names, yours and hers, fit? We figure it’s some kind of sign.”
“One can pray.” He rubbed his jaw. “I just hope she knows enough to make this charade work.”
“Don’t write her off before you meet her,” Si joked. “You might be in for a surprise.”
“We’ll see,” was all Max said.