A Solitary Man - Prologue

Diego tapped the barrel of his Heckler & Koch G3 rifle against the doorjamb of the small mud hut situated high in the Bolivian Andes. “¿Qué estás haciendo?” he demanded.
Xavier ignored him as he ladled the repulsive cassava gruel they called food from a bucket into a tin bowl. The bitter smell of wild roots was nauseating; the only redeeming quality to the soup, if there was one, was that it had boiled long enough to be rid of its natural deadly cyanide.
“Hey! I’m talking to you, Green Eyes!”
Xavier continued to ignore Diego but moved aside to reveal that he was ladling the gruel into a bowl.
“Too much!” Diego slapped the ladle and gruel splattered the dirt floor. The drops pooled and glistened in the flickering candlelight.
Xavier looked at him, careful to keep his expression neutral. “They’re weak and too thin.”
Diego grunted. “Easier to control the little maricónes.”
Xavier fought not to show his hatred of Diego and disgust for the pejorative. “You will lose money on them.”
Angry now, Diego shoved the nose of his rifle into Xavier’s side. “You and your boca linda. You work here more than a month and you think you know something. If I tell you it’s too much, it’s too much!”
Xavier set the ladle in the bucket and awaited dismissal, his eyes riveted to the floor.
Diego burst into cruel laughter, the stench of his rancid breath almost too overwhelming to bear. “Eh, maybe you’re right. We want them to look good for delivery tomorrow. You take the bowl and you come back for more and maybe I approve it.”
Xavier kept his gaze downward as he nodded and turned to leave with a mumbled “Sí, mi jefe.”
“You learn fast. I like that.”

Thunder raged overhead and lightning struck on the distant mountaintops as Xavier crossed the filthy, muddy camp. The Altiplano storms were famous for their brutality, often washing away entire villages.
Careful to note the positions of the cocaleros in his peripheral vision, he made his way to the squat hut where they kept the two boys. He went down on a knee and lifted the wooden bar on the door. He opened the door slowly, knowing even the dimmest glow from the firelight would be hard on their eyes after six weeks in pitch-dark captivity. The two boys huddled in a corner, their wrists and ankles bound, and the terror Xavier saw in their blue eyes made his gut clench. He carefully slid the bowl over the dirt toward the boys.
They glanced at it and huddled closer together as if trying to become one.
Xavier slid a small cloth pouch from his pocket and set it next to the bowl.
The boys glanced at it and then back to him.
One of the boys leaned forward, grabbed the pouch, and opened it quickly. He withdrew a small piece of paper and read it. His eyes went wide and he shook his head fervently.
Xavier nodded once before backing out of the hut on all fours. He closed and barred the door, stood, and resumed his paces as guard of the hut.

Twenty minutes later Xavier returned to the food hut with the empty tin bowl. Diego blocked his entrance with an extended rifle barrel. Xavier waited, unsure of Diego’s next move. “Not too much,” Diego ordered.
Xavier nodded. “Sí, mi jefe.” He entered the hut and ladled but one cup of gruel into the bowl. He stopped in the doorway for Diego’s approval on the way out.
Diego sneered at him, pinched his cheek, and patted it. “You learn very fast. This is good. No more food tonight.”
“Sí, mi jefe,” Xavier offered softly as he headed back to the hut.

Thunder cracked the sky, and Xavier nonchalantly looked up and then beyond the hut. There it was: the telltale signal lamp for extraction. As before, he dropped to one knee, set the tin bowl on the ground, and unbarred the door. He opened it, carefully slid the tin bowl to the boys, and then held his hand up, five fingers splayed.
One of the boys whispered, “Five minutes?”
Xavier gave him the barest of nods.
The other boy shook his head again.
Xavier’s gut twisted again. If he didn’t get them out tonight, it would be too late. They’d be shipped off to the buyer tomorrow and gone for good. “Has to be now,” he whispered ever so softly.
Tears filled the terrified boy’s eyes, and a faithless drop spilled over. “They’ll shoot us.”
Xavier shook his head slowly. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“Eh! You better not be touching the merchandise!” Diego yelled as he shoved Xavier hard in the side with a boot.
Xavier gritted his teeth and fought to ignore the pain. He raised his hand again, four fingers splayed.
The braver boy nodded.
Xavier quickly poured the gruel out at the edge of the hut and backed out with the tin bowl in hand. “Just getting the bowl, mi jefe.”
“Gimme that!” Diego grabbed the bowl. “Get back to your post, puto, or you go back to the fields!”
“Sí, mi jefe.” Xavier shouldered his rifle and began his routine patrol around the hut as Diego walked away.
Lightning struck in a nearby field and deafening thunder rolled across the sky above them. He continued his patrol and prayed heaven would wait a little longer before unleashing her fury. Each time he passed the back of the hut, he withdrew a sheaf of straw. On his fourth pass, the far-off signal blinked thrice, letting him know it was time.
Within seconds, a grenade exploded on the other side of the camp. Lightning cracked with a riot of color directly above them right before a barrel of coca paste exploded, the sound nearly drowned by thunder. Chaos descended and guards scattered in every direction as the sky opened up to lay waste to the land. Wild gunfire began, and Xavier drew a knife from the leather sheath on his aguayo belt, bent quickly, and snapped the skimpy wooden frame on the back of the hut. He reached in and grabbed the first boy, who came willingly. He quickly cut the bindings on the boy’s wrists and ankles. The second boy refused to come, and Xavier dragged him out by the arm. He cut his bindings and pushed both boys into the copse of coffee trees behind the hut. “Run!”
Xavier half ran and half dragged the boys along as they cleared the trees and raced down the muddy, crooked rows of coca plants. Lightning momentarily obscured the blinking Morse code of the signal lamp, but, after nearly two months working this field, Xavier knew exactly where to go. Gunfire sounded behind them, and Xavier’s hopes of a covert escape were dashed as a bullet whizzed past his ear. “Faster!” he shouted in the pouring rain.
As they crested a rise and descended to the edge of the field, a DEA helicopter rose out of the trees and hovered, skids just off the ground. Xavier looked for the second chopper, and when it didn’t show, he swallowed back panic as a sickening dread threatened to overwhelm him. Automatic gunfire sounded and the helicopter’s M60s swiveled and fired in response, but without the firepower of the second chopper, they had no chance of getting out alive. Amid the shower of bullets, one of the boys slipped and fell in the mud, and the other boy ran back to help him. Xavier ran back and grabbed them both by the shirt, lifted them, and half ran, half dragged them again. “Get to the helicopter!” He shoved them in front of him and they ran for the chopper.
As the boys neared the skids, tracer fire lit the blackened sky and bullets strafed the mud at their feet. Xavier didn’t dare look back. He ran at the boys, taking them both to the ground, but not before bullets arced, nearly tearing them in half. Warm red rain showered him, made brilliant by the riot of lightning overhead. He reached for them, still believing he could save them, right before his world turned to black.

Two weeks later….
Four blue eyes looked out at him from the dark, angry and accusatory. “You promised you’d keep us safe!” the boys shouted in unison as their eyes filled with blood.
Xavier Constantine woke with a shout. Terror held him in its vicious grip as vivid images tore jagged wounds in his mind. His heart pounded, his breathing labored, and sweat coated him like icy syrup. His hands shook and the nightmare clawed at his nerves as he tried to gather his fractured mind and pull himself together.
A nurse quickly entered the dimly lit hospital room as the cardiac monitor droned on. She checked his vital signs and noted them in the chart. “Another nightmare?” she asked gently.
He said nothing. He’d been stuck at Saint John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California, for two weeks, and he’d been ready to leave since day one.
“Do you want something to help you sleep?”
He shook his head.
“Let me know if you do.” The soft squeak of her shoes faded as she left the room.
He slowly sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed. His side ached where the artillery shell had pierced it. He ran a tired hand through his long hair and wondered yet again how the cartridge hadn’t taken a vital organ with it.
The boys hadn’t been so lucky.
Pain banded his heart, and he put the heel of a hand to his chest and pressed, as if the futile effort could somehow ease the ache… and the guilt that accompanied it. He wondered if either would ever leave him. He didn’t know, but he was sure their blue eyes would haunt him forever. Still shaking, he slowly rose from the bed and found his legs stiff. He desperately needed a workout. He stretched and worked each leg before heading to the bathroom to take a piss. He couldn’t take the sloth that came with hospitalization. If they didn’t discharge him tomorrow, he’d leave on his own.

The next morning Xavier dressed to leave the hospital, the loss of the two boys already casting a morbid pall over his day. The doc had been in to see him and they’d argued, but he eventually won out and was discharged and cleared to work pending a satisfactory session with the company shrink. He pulled on his favorite raggedy-ass MIT hoodie. With its stretched-out cuffs, stains, and holes, it reigned supreme in his dress code. Maybe he’d stalk The Coop when he got home and splurge on a backup. He’d worked so long undercover for the FBI he wasn’t sure he still owned a suit.
William Benson entered the room with an entourage as Xavier laced and tied his Vince Adam Revolvers. He wondered what in hell he’d done to deserve a visit from the executive assistant director of the Criminal Investigations Division. Behind Benson was Daniel Ward, Xavier’s boss at CARD, the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment program; Reggie Cook from the Evidence Response Team; Theo Mendez from the Innocence Lost National Initiative; and a woman he didn’t know, but who wore a T-shirt bearing the DOJ’s Project Safe Childhood logo. It looked as if a violent crimes against children convention had let out and his room was the doughnut lobby.
The belated entrance of Dick Blueblood told him why Benson was here. Dick wasn’t only Xavier’s least favorite yahoo from the Drug Enforcement Agency, he was a dick. After the loss of the two boys, Xavier had come to hate the arrogant, stubborn pig who’d fucked up their operation.
Xavier gritted his teeth and stood, vowing to keep his temper in check. He shook Benson’s hand, then Ward’s, and ignored everyone else.
“You’ve been cleared by Internal Investigations,” Benson said without preamble and handed the Smith & Warren wallet containing Xavier’s identification badge to him.
Xavier narrowed his eyes at the man as he accepted the wallet. He hadn’t realized they’d opened an investigation, let alone investigated him during the two weeks he’d been hospitalized. He looked at Ward, who shook his head dismissively and raised his hands to shoulder height in mock surrender. “Standard protocol.”
Xavier looked at the others in the room. “Who told the parents?”
“I did,” Ward answered solemnly.
“What about the other boy? Who was he?”
Reggie chewed his lower lip before he spoke. “No identification yet.”
Xavier frowned. “He looked to be about twelve. Someone had to have reported him missing.”
The Project Safe woman extended a hand. “Tucker. Lacy Tucker. We’re working on it with NCMEC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
So that’s her connection, Xavier thought idly as he shook her hand and turned to Theo. “The buyer?”
Theo shook his head. “Yacht’s in international waters, so we can’t touch it, but we know it. The Camarón. We’ve been watching it for a few months.”
Xavier almost snickered. Camarón meant shrimp in Spanish. What a dumbass name for a rich bastard’s football-field-sized boat. “Who owns it?”
“We’re looking into the foreign registry. She flies Norwegian.”
That didn’t make sense, but Xavier let it go in favor of pissing in Blueblood’s cornflakes. “What are you doing here?”
“Need you to sign off on our report,” he said with a cocky grin.
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Constantine, it was a joint effort,” Benson said smoothly.
Xavier fumed and told himself again not to lose it. “There was nothing joint about it.”
“Xavier—” Dick began.
“You blew it! You fucking blew it!” Xavier fought not to grab the man and beat the shit out of him. “We agreed to two choppers! You sent one! You and your goddamned cost cutting! You killed those kids to save a lousy fifty grand! You put a price on their heads!”
“Screw you, Constantine! I wasn’t the one who couldn’t get my ass to the chopper fast enough!” Dick yelled back.
That was it. Xavier punched him.
“Xav!” Reggie and Theo shouted in unison. They grabbed him before he could land another and he fought them as they wrestled him away from Dick.
Dick pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his bloody nose. “You’re off the team!”
“I was never on your team, asshole! You were on mine!”
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