Soldier of Fortune excerpt

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Soldier of Fortune

By S.J. Frost

Published by MLR Press, November 24, 2016

Approx 46,000 Words

Blurb:

Mercenary. Gun for hire. Soldier of fortune. That’s Conrad Dane. Maybe he hasn’t always done things the right way in his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. And sometimes, it takes doing the wrong thing, to get the right results. These days, he’s backing out of the underworld, taking more jobs in the open in personal protection. He’s contracted to protect a rising politician and gets more than he expected. Not from bad guys, but from the politician’s son, Lucas.

Lucas likes the good guys, both in his favorite comic book superheroes and the men he forges relationships with. Conrad isn’t the kind of man he goes for, but that’s not stopping Lucas from being drawn to him, wanting to be closer to him.

Conrad and Lucas can’t deny their attraction toward each other. When someone targeting Lucas’s father pulls Lucas into danger as well, Conrad will do whatever it takes to keep Lucas safe.

Chapter One

Releasing a shaky exhale, Lucas gazed over the audience. There were a lot of people here. More than he thought would turn out. Every seat in the auditorium was filled, and more people lined the back wall and crowded the floor. It kicked up his nerves, despite the fact that no one was there for him. They were gathered to hear his father speak and say what many of them hoped, that Arthur Hartman would be running for senator representing the State of Florida.

He glanced at his father, standing behind the podium at the front of the stage, his baritone voice carrying through the auditorium as he delivered his ideals, his beliefs, his hopes for the future. Lucas knew everything his father stood for; they were the same beliefs he held, wanting a world where compassion ruled more than money, where people cared for and helped each other, the planet, and all her inhabitants. They both wished for a world in which equality and acceptance ruled before judgment and scorn, and where those in power understood they were in that position because of the trust people had placed in them.

Idealistic? Sure. Some would even say innocent, naïve. But wasn’t it better to strive for an idealized greater good? While it might be unattainable, in the act of trying to reach it, change for the better would still happen.

His father had already taken steps to create change with his renewable energy company, Green Hart. The company specialized in engineering and manufacturing products for green energy, solar, hydro, and wind. His father had started the company manufacturing solar panels for businesses and private homes, then his father decided, why stop there? Within thirty years, he had created one of the greatest powerhouse corporations in the United States—if not the world—for renewable energy, and employed hundreds of people.

Challenges and creating change were nothing his father hadn’t faced before, but this was different. He couldn’t believe it when his father told him he was running for government. He hadn’t understood why his father would take on such a thing. But as his father said, there was only so much that could be done in the private sector to enact change, when the leaders of the country seemed more concerned about who was lining their pockets.

He couldn’t argue that, but he wasn’t sure it was the best move for his father. Being in government could be dirty, and that was never how his father had done any kind of business. He understood his father wanted to push for the things he believed in from the other side of the fence, but he worried about the obstacles—and threats—his father faced.

Those threats were the true reason behind why Lucas was clasping his hands to hide the trembling. That morning, a call came through his father’s cell phone, an unknown and disguised voice telling Arthur Hartman to back down, drop his run for the Senate, and go back to quietly running Green Hart. Although, his father never had been all that quiet in running his business. Regardless, it made him less of a threat to some…perhaps many…than taking a step into government.

His father had laughed, saying, “Why should I be afraid of anyone who hides their identity and disguises their voice? I’m not one to be cowed before cowards.”

Lucas scanned the crowd. He didn’t think whoever was behind the threats was a coward. He thought they were serious. And they could be there now, hidden among the crowd.

His father’s voice boomed through the auditorium, murmurs of approval following his words as the people became entranced with what he was saying, their excitement rising with his father’s statements.

“I don’t need to boast about my accomplishments or the things I’ve done. We’re part of this community together. I see faces I recognize out there, my friends, my employees.” A few cheers from people at being acknowledged hooted throughout the crowd. Arthur pointed to a middle-aged man standing in front. “Ralph, I remember when we got your house set up with solar panels. And I remember too when you came back, laughing and showing me a check from the electric company, because your home was producing not only enough energy to sustain itself, but to start turning back your meter and feed energy into the grid.”

“I still get those checks!” Ralph shouted, people laughing and a few more cheers following his statement.

“And that’s a good thing! At least, I say it is. There are others who don’t believe the same. Who don’t believe in much of anything that I’ve said here today. But what I’ve said, what we’re here for today, are the values of us in the real world, in this community.”

Lucas could sense the charged energy in the room. Everyone was in key with his father, hanging on his words, their support and belief palpable. It was infectious. Of course he believed in his father, but standing here listening to him, he was overcome with pride, as well. This was a man whose footsteps he’d always wanted to follow in.

“They’re the values of us who live in more of this world, than those who stay tucked away behind the closed walls in Washington D.C.,” Arthur continued. “And I want to take our values to the capital. I want to throw open the doors and show them what really matters to the people. And I want to do it with your support as the next senator for this beautiful State of Florida!”

The crowd erupted with cheers and chants for Arthur Hartman.

Lucas let out a relieved breath. It was over. The rally was finished and nothing bad had happened. Maybe the threat had been hollow after all.

His father made a quick move, turning to glance back at him, smiling…and flinched hard. His smile wavered and faded. He looked down at the left side of his chest. A small, wet dark stain was growing larger on his father’s immaculate light gray suit.

Lucas sprang forward, lunging toward him. “Dad! Get down!”

He jumped for him, throwing his father to the ground. The wind whistled by his right ear as he tumbled to the floor with his father. An impact pinged into the metal sign behind the podium, featuring the silhouette of a green stag, standing proud. Hitting the floor, Lucas glanced up and back at the bullet hole in the sign.

Chaos exploded through the auditorium. The guards leaped into action—finally—one grabbed Lucas’s arm and hauled him up. Two more collected his father, the rest forming a human shield around them both as they ushered them backstage. Once cleared from the auditorium, they laid his father on the floor, one guard tearing at the suit jacket and shirt to get at the wound beneath.

Horror froze Lucas. He stared at the wound, blood flowing freely from it. His father’s face was already pale, and the sight snapped Lucas out of his shock. He ripped off his own suit jacket, wadding it into a ball and pressing it over the gunshot wound. “Hold on, Dad. It’s going to be all right. An ambulance is coming.”

His father lifted his hand, finding Lucas’s, and gripped it. “See? I told you whoever that scumbag was…that he was a coward. Wasn’t even man enough…to show himself.”

Lucas forced a smile for him. “Yeah, you were right. You always could see right through people, even when they don’t show themselves. But don’t worry about him, don’t even think about him. He’s not worth it.”

Closing his eyes in a long blink, his father moved his head in the smallest of nods. “But as soon as I’m on my feet again…I’ll be out there…showing them…” His voice hushed, but rather than making him sound weaker, Lucas heard steeled determination.

Bowing his head, Lucas closed his eyes. He wasn’t going to lose him. He couldn’t, not like this. His father had to pull through and when he did, he would make sure his father was safe…somehow.

Chapter Two

Conrad let his rental sedan roll to a stop and looked at the home beyond the tall, ornate steel gates. The long drive coursed between trimmed hedges, which was stupid. If someone made it over the gates and wall, the hedges—four feet tall and dense—would make perfect cover for a surprise attack. The victim would be rolling along, relaxed and feeling safe at being home, then…bang! Bullet through the window.

He scanned up the columns on the sides of the gates, one of them mounted with a security camera which was fixed in place. It didn’t look like the rest of the wall had cameras or any other security device. Why the hell did people think bad guys always came through the front door?

He assessed it all in under two minutes and it was obvious the grounds weren’t secure. He didn’t have high hopes for the rest of the place. Chances were there’d be a standard security system. With the size of the place and knowing his client had deep pockets, it’d probably be one of the better systems, but still standard issue and easily bypassed for any upper-level criminal.

Turning to the passenger seat, Conrad tipped up his sunglasses and flipped open the folder on the seat to a photo of his new client, Arthur Hartman. Fifty-eight years old, founder and owner of the Green Hart Corporation, world leader in clean energy and renewable energy. Had a major facility outside Naples and was one of the main employers in the area. All in all, there wasn’t much dirt on the guy. He appeared nearly as squeaky clean as the energy he was developing. Early in his business, he had some…connections, but had a good reputation with them now.

Conrad flipped the page to the next sheet. Personal life…it didn’t seem Hartman had much of one. He was a widower, his wife, Lisa, having passed ten years ago from a brain aneurysm. Supposedly. It might not be right for him to suspect anything shady, but he knew human nature too well to not.

Hartman’s closest relative was his son, Lucas, twenty-eight years old, having recently returned from living up north in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he had attended MIT, graduating with a PhD in environmental engineering; when he’d gotten his Bachelor’s he made sure to minor in business management. He hadn’t dug up much information on the son, but he wasn’t the client. He could gather more information on him while working the job, if he thought it was necessary. His gut told him the son wasn’t behind the attempt on Hartman’s life, but he wasn’t ready to rule him out, either.

He finished skimming the file and closed the folder. Cranking the wheel, he turned the car into the drive. He stopped in front of the gates and leaned out of the window to hit the call button on the intercom. A moment later, a woman’s voice came through.

“Hello, how may I help you?”

“Conrad Dane. I’ve got an appointment with Arthur Hartman.”

Silence followed, then the woman’s voice spoke again. “I’m sorry, Mister Dane, your appointment isn’t until tomorrow.”

“I’m nothing if not punctual. Is Hartman here or not?”

Her voice more terse, the woman said, “Just a moment, please.”

Conrad sat back in the driver’s seat to wait, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He knew his appointment was tomorrow, which was why he showed up today. When people were prepared and had plenty of time to get their game face on, it was easier for them to keep their secrets. Do the unexpected with them and it made it more likely they’d fumble. Stranger things had happened than someone setting up a “hit” on themselves to gain an outpouring of emotional support from people, and he didn’t need to waste his time on that kind of bullshit.

The gates rattled and began to slide open. Conrad drove through and toward the two-story mansion. It was a pretty swanky joint. White, with wooden beams as accents, and wood shutters that looked ornamental, rather than functional. Black panels covered the roof, for solar energy he guessed, given the client’s job. Roses, decorative shrubs, and other flowers lined the front of the mansion. In the center of the circular drive was a small pond with an old fashioned water wheel turning and churning the water. Grass sloped up to the pond, small trees lined it, making it seem like a picture from colonial times. He couldn’t see around the back of the house, but he knew from its location and from viewing it on Google Maps, it was on the coast, had a nice view of the gulf, and a large pool.

Parking to the side of the walk leading up to the front door, Conrad switched off the car and stuffed the folder into his black backpack. He opened the door and climbed out. Bounding up the steps, he spotted a security camera perched in the left corner of the porch, peering down at the space before the door. Easily spotted, easily avoided.

He didn’t get a chance to knock before the door opened. A short, middle-aged woman stood on the other side. She regarded him with pale blue eyes through small glasses. “Mister. Dane, I presume?”

“You should’ve verified that before presuming and opening the door, but yeah.” He reached into the inner pocket of his black leather jacket, drawing out an ID card and flashed it at her.

Her lips turned down in a frown, clearly not amused by him or his statements. “Fine, then. Come in. I’ll show you to Mister Hartman.”

Conrad stepped in and to the side, giving the woman time to close the door. He made a quick assessment of the room. Open and spacious, decorated in neutral colors. Pretty little decorative items dotted the space. Hanging on the walls were expensive modern art paintings that in his opinion, a kindergartener with finger paints could put to shame. Not really his tastes, but it fit with the classic image that so many of the upper crust strove to fulfill.

The woman turned from the door, her strides slow but confident as she took the lead. “This way. I’m Nancy, and I manage the household. Mister Hartman informed me that you would be staying here for the duration of your…service.”

“That’s right. Easier to keep him alive if I’m not sitting in a hotel waiting on room service.”

She glanced back at him, that disapproving frown on her lips. “You seem rather cavalier about the task you’re charged with.”

Conrad rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “If you’re going to get shot at, might as well keep a sense of humor about it.”

Her voice tight, as though she was putting effort into not snapping at him, Nancy said, “No one thought it was very funny that Mister Hartman was nearly killed.”

“I don’t know. I think I’d laugh at the guy who took the shot for missing. But that’s probably more of two peers ribbing each other. From your point, I can see where it’d be bad if your bread and butter got toasted.”

Nancy stopped and spun toward him. “I don’t know who you think you are, but—”

“Nancy.” The baritone voice came from a nearby room and to the left, and though the single word wasn’t spoken harshly, it carried authority.

Giving Conrad one last glower, Nancy turned and continued into the room. She stopped past the doorway. “Mister Hartman, here is Mister Dane.”

Conrad passed through the doorway. Arthur Hartman was tucked down in a plush, brown suede recliner, facing a large TV where a golf match was on the screen. Conrad barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Golf…nothing like wasting a beautiful afternoon by playing fetch with yourself.

Arthur Hartman looked much like his photo, the dark brown of his hair mostly overcome by gray, but still thick. He had a handsome, strong face, and hadn’t shaved that morning. His face had more lines and was paler than in the photo. Nearly having their life wiped out tended to do that to most people.

At the back of the room, windows running floor to ceiling overlooked an in-ground pool, and beyond to the beach and gulf. The foamy water rolled lazily onto the shore, then washed gradually back. It sent yearning through him to be on the beach in front of his house. But he could only lounge in the sun for so long before he got the itch to get on the move again. Though, that urge was growing less and less these days.

Conrad put his attention on the only other person in the room, a young man standing in front of the windows, his back to him and the sunlight framing his lean silhouette. Had to be Lucas Hartman, doing his sonly duty in tending his wounded father. Having him close would turn out to be handy in noticing anything suspicious with him.

Lucas glanced over his shoulder, meeting Conrad’s gaze. His crystal blue eyes widened in surprise and his gaze traveled down Conrad’s body.

Conrad felt a grin tugging at the corners of his lips. If Lucas did have nefarious intent toward his father, he’d learn about it within a day. The guy wasn’t good at masking what he was feeling, such as in that moment, finding him attractive. And he couldn’t deny, the feeling was mutual.

Lucas was shorter than him, he’d guess him to be about five foot nine to his six one. His dark brown hair was swept back, longer on top than on the sides. Lucas’s facial features were soft and achingly pretty, full lips, high cheekbones, thick, dark lashes framing his blue eyes. He wore a red T-shirt with the lightning bolt symbol for the Flash on it, and that did make Conrad’s lips crack into a grin. A good boy who like a good guy superhero. He definitely wouldn’t be Lucas’s type. Still, the job just got a lot more interesting.

“Mister Dane,” Arthur said, bracing his right hand on the arm of his chair to push himself up. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

Conrad swept by Nancy, moving to meet Arthur. “No need to get up, Mister Hartman. I know you’re still recovering.” He extended his hand down to him. “It’s good to meet you.”

Arthur took his hand, his grip strong…and forced to be so. Conrad could read it in every move Arthur made that he was still suffering from the gunshot.

“And you, as well.” Arthur motioned toward the young man. “This is my son, Lucas.”

Hearing his name seemed to spur Lucas out of staring at him and he moved forward. He reached for Conrad’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Conrad took his hand, Lucas’s grip more tentative than his father’s, his hand softer, smaller, but pleasantly filling his own. He held Lucas’s hand for a few seconds longer than needed, meeting his gaze and allowing a grin to slip onto his lips. “I doubt that. No one actually thinks it’s nice to meet me. Still, the words are appreciated.”

A slight smile touched Lucas’s lips. He broke their held gaze and turned to sit on one of the sofas that ran parallel with the recliner at the head.

Arthur glanced toward Nancy. “Would you please bring some refreshments for us and our guest?” He looked at Conrad. “What will you have to drink, Mister Dane?”

“You can call me Conrad, and a beer would be great.”

Lucas shot him a reproachful look. “So you like to drink when you’re on the job?”

Stepping around the corner of the sofa opposite Lucas, Conrad dropped down onto the thick cushions. “No, I don’t. But since I’m not planning on shooting anyone in the next few hours, I think I’m good having a beer.”

Lucas fixed him with a hard glare.

Conrad smiled back at him.

Arthur cleared his throat. “I think we could all use a beer. If you would, please, Nancy?”

Nancy bobbed her head in a single nod and left the room.

“Nice place you got here,” Conrad said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone who’s all about green energy to have a place this big. Probably leaving quite the carbon footprint, aren’t you?” He caught how Lucas twitched forward, ready to retaliate, but Arthur spoke before him.

“I can see how it would look that way, but this house is self-sustaining, powered by solar and hydro energy. Solar does most of the job, but I’m sure you noticed the water wheel out front. Its purpose is more than to look pretty. The water is on a continuous rotation that feeds into the electrical system to the house. We also have geothermal heat, not that it’s needed often here.”

“I stand corrected, then. Not often I meet a man who spouts off his ideals and actually lives by them.”

“What’s the point in having beliefs and ideals if you’re not going to live by them?” Lucas asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. A little thing called do I as say, not as I do. For a lot of people, presenting the image of those ideals is nothing but a means to get them what they want; money and power. Example being, most politicians.” Conrad turned his head toward Arthur, giving him a pointed look.

“You’re not wrong in that assessment, but it’s my goal to break the typical mold.”

“And that’s probably why someone wants to break you.”

Silence followed his statement.

Conrad took in both Lucas’s and Arthur’s reactions. Arthur lowered his gaze, his expression pensive, saddened, but unafraid. Lucas’s fear, however, was clear, and it was focused on his father. Fear and worry all but emanated from him. Conrad sat back, bringing one leg up to rest his ankle on his opposite knee. Yeah, Lucas was innocent of this…and probably was in a lot of other ways, too.

The final thought brought all kinds of possibilities flashing through his mind.

Nancy returned carrying a tray holding three bottles of beer, a large bowl of tortilla chips, another bowl of salsa, and a third of queso. She placed it on the coffee table between the sofas.

“Wow, you’re good,” Conrad said, grinning up at her.

She gave him another scowl and turned to leave, Arthur calling, “Thank you,” after her.

Conrad sat forward, grabbing his beer and swiping a chip through the salsa. “I don’t think she likes me.”

“She’s protective of us and the home, that’s all,” Arthur said. “This has brought a lot of stress and worry on her.”

Conrad popped the chip in his mouth. “Figured. I don’t think you have to worry much about as far as an attack here at home, which is a good thing because your home security is shit. If they wanted to knock you off in private, you’d have been dead by now. I have a feeling whoever is doing this, wants it public.”

Arthur nodded solemnly. “That’s my feeling, also.”

Conrad took a long drink of his beer. “Of course, that’s not to say their plan won’t change. Especially since their first one failed, thanks to their incompetent gunman.”

Lucas snapped his head up, having not yet taken his beer. “Incompetent? He shot my father and nearly killed him.”

“Exactly. A competent gunman would’ve dropped him on the first shot.” Conrad looked at Arthur. “From the report I read, you moved at just the right second so the bullet went to the side of your heart, not through it. You were saved by pure dumb luck. Rare when that happens, but also nice when it does. Had the gunman aimed for your head, like he should’ve, when you turned, his shot would’ve gone through your temple instead of the planned forehead hit.”

“He did aim for his head,” Lucas said. “On the second shot.”

Conrad brought his gaze to Lucas. “If you have to take a second shot, you’ve already botched the job. Nine times out of ten, a second shot is too late, as it was with your father.”

Lucas’s jaw visibly clenched for an instant. “You seem to know an awful lot about killing people.”

Conrad held out both arms. “That’s my job.”

“Who the hell are you exactly?” Lucas turned to his father. “Where did you find him?”

Arthur lowered his beer from taking a sip. “He came highly recommended.”

“By who?”

“It doesn’t matter. People I trust…” Arthur’s voice softened. “For this kind of thing.”

Lucas stared at his father, and Conrad could see he was trying to read him, understand what his father meant. “I thought you said you were hiring bodyguards.”

“That’s what Mister Dane is.”

“You’ve hired one man? That’s all?”

“Because I’m all that’s needed,” Conrad interjected.

Slowly taking his gaze off his father, Lucas focused on Conrad again. “So what are you? A bodyguard? Or a hitman?”

Conrad stretched his arms up and back, folding his hands behind his head. He saw Lucas’s gaze flick down to his torso, then lock on his two guns, revealed in his shoulder holsters with his jacket falling open. “I’m whatever I’m paid to be.”

Lucas’s jaw dropped slightly, then he turned on the sofa toward his father. “I don’t agree with this. How do you know he can be trusted?”

“Because I’m a professional, that’s why,” Conrad said.

“A professional what?” Lucas pressed.

“He’s a mercenary, Lucas,” Arthur spoke up. “He’s done some work for people I know.”

“And you think he can protect you better than qualified bodyguards?”

Conrad lowered his arms and sat forward, elbows on his knees as he looked at Lucas. “Those qualified bodyguards didn’t do such a hot job a week ago, did they? I can tell right now that you’re not real savvy to the dirtier business of the world. The bodyguards in the black suits? All they’re good for is keeping back the occasional nut job who gets the inkling in their head to throw a water balloon at a public figure. Against the real bad guys, those bodyguards are a joke. They were damn slow to react when your dad got shot, weren’t they? You got to him before they even realized what was happening.

“While I get you might not agree with my way of doing things, I’m here because your dad made a contract with me and for the duration of that contract, I’m going to keep him alive by whatever means necessary, and I don’t give a shit if you agree with my methods or not. Something tells me the end result in having a few more years with your dad is what really matters. So you’re going to have to suck it up, buttercup, because I’m going to be around for a while.”

Lucas gasped, his jaw fully dropping this time.

Conrad flicked a glance at Arthur and found the older man smiling behind his beer as he took another drink. And with that, he got the impression that Arthur thought his son could use a little education in the world, too.

Lucas turned to his father. “Dad, this isn’t right.”

Arthur sat forward with a wince, taking a chip and dipping it into the queso. “Son, there’s what’s right, and there’s what’s necessary. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they don’t. In this case, I believe with hiring Conrad, they do. Hopefully, as you get to know him, you will, too.”

Lucas stared at his father for a long moment, then shook his head and stood. He threw another disapproving glance at Conrad and walked away, leaving the room.

Conrad watched him go, his gaze dropping to Lucas’s ass, the jeans tight enough to hug the rounded curves. He looked away as Lucas turned out of the room and sat forward, taking another chip and dipping it in the salsa. “Cute kid you got there.”

Arthur laughed softly, but the sound was full and deep. He put a hand on his chest to the left, as if to steady the pain. “He’s a brilliant and good young man.” Arthur paused, his smile fading. “But, your words about him being innocent to…dirty business weren’t unfounded. I don’t want to say he’s been sheltered to the world, but he’s spent a lot of time in school, pursuing his PhD. Gaining knowledge behind the closed walls of academia can occasionally leave one naïve to the world at large. Part of me wishes he could stay that way, but I know how the world can take advantage of someone with as kind and generous of a heart as he has. I’m afraid he’s getting a crash course now in the darker nature of people.”

“Sometimes that’s the best way to learn.”

“Yes, sink or swim. He’s tenacious, so I know he’ll succeed. I think being around you might actually be good for him.”

Conrad let out a dry laugh and reached for another chip. “I’m not exactly the good influence type of guy.”

“I know. That’s why I said that.”

Glancing toward him, Conrad saw the smile on Arthur’s face, and one came to his own. In that moment, he knew they were going to get along well. He flicked his head toward the TV. “Anything on besides these guys chasing after a little white ball?”

Arthur laughed and reached for the remote. “How about a bunch of guys chasing around a bigger leather ball and tackling each other?”

“That works.” Conrad reclined on the sofa, throwing a glance toward the doorway, but disappointingly, Lucas hadn’t come back. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, hoping to see the guy again, but now he was positive that Lucas being involved would definitely make this job more interesting.

Copyright 2016 by S.J. Frost and MLR Press