Torsten Dahl book 1 - Stand Your Ground (2 page)

“Don’t get on it. Follow on the next flight. My men will pick him up on arrival. I’ll see you soon.”

Grant couldn’t help but wince. “Please make sure they’re your very best. Dahl will spot an obvious tail, even on vacation, and we can’t alert him to any of this.”

Vega was known, somewhat affectionately by some, to hire any man willing to join his extended family, which included the unsavory and the not-so-bright. The main criterion was that they would wear a suit.

But Vega was already gone.

Grant stared hard at his phone and then out the window. What did he mean?
I will see you soon.
No way was the world’s most wanted drug lord heading from Mexico to Barbados. They hadn’t discussed that. Grant had never met the man in person, and quite frankly never wanted to.

He sighed. Vega had old scores to settle, exactly as he did.

This thing with Dahl suddenly began to look as if it might get very messy.

Loud.

Two outcomes Grant could little afford. He turned and began to search for an available desk agent who could book him onto a later flight. He also began to mentally amend everything he’d imagined might work to trap Dahl. The cartel would do their own thing, regardless.

Funny thing. Here he was, not even booked on the next flight yet, but already dreaming up a plan to escape Barbados the earliest chance he got.
And, in truth, already regretting his call to Vega.

 

*

 

Torsten Dahl found it hard to shrug off the shroud of worry that had fallen across his broad shoulders less than a half hour ago. Airports were hubs of unending motion, one face popping up in a crowd could meld with another and another, and then disappear before a man even remembered why it had suddenly, inexplicably felt important. Dahl trawled his memory, sifting through the years, through incidents that he would never speak of with his family, until a match popped up like a painted, Halloween ghoul.

Nick Grant. An English-born, well-educated man known in criminal circles as ‘the Facilitator’ for services rendered to an exclusive set of bad actors. Grant’s title bridged a wide and pitiless gap, for he had been suspected of conspiring to commit more crimes than any book of law contained – from leaning on lawyers in pivotal trials to engineering bloody wars in the Middle East.

Dahl maneuvered around shelves and display cases as he shopped for sundries, using reflective surfaces as a backwards-facing mirror. Lightning-fast, he skimmed every face, every figure and frame. Men, women and children bobbed by, their features sparking no recognition.

Was he seeing ghosts? Had the job eclipsed all to the point where he saw enemies lurking at every corner? Dahl had been on the job for two years straight, no breaks except for a week’s leave here and there. He recalled something that had been said to him a dozen times in the last few weeks alone:

Take a break. You need it.

He’d helped avert Armageddon at least twice, not that anyone below a certain level of government would ever know, and who was really keeping count?

Continuing to shop, Dahl chose a handful of items to keep up the charade. He moved to the register, chiding himself for wasting any time that he could be spending with the three people who meant the most to him. Truth be told, it had been a long time since they’d all been together like this, and Dahl was feeling a little out of his element.

Isabella and Julia raced into the store and ran up to him with freshly washed hands, sparkling eyes and exuberant smiles. He was reminded again why he did what he did. Because every man and woman wanted just one thing out of life – to keep their family safe. But most weren’t equipped with the mind-set or capabilities required to go to war and earn that safety. So Dahl did it for them. Without question. Without regret. And with no expectation of reward.

“We found a chocolate shop,” eight-year-old Isabella said.

“Is it calorie-free chocolate?” Dahl asked.

Isabella turned her nose up. “What’s a calorie?” She wrapped her tongue around the word with ease, another reminder of how much Dahl had missed his girls’ daily development during the last few years.

“A calorie is a food unit,” nine-year-old Julia explained, “that grown-ups care about a
lot.
Mom always says she counts hers.”

Isabella laughed. “That’s silly.”

Dahl thought so too but kept his peace. He still couldn’t shake the feeling of unease that had taken root in him. A quick, surreptitious glance in a nearby sunglasses-rack raised no flags.

Of course,
he thought.
Because there’s nothing to see . . . There’s always an easier, more straightforward way to find out if you’re being tracked aboard a plane.

The nagging, persistent thoughts revolved around Dahl. As a career soldier, he trusted his instincts. Every single insightful, informative and often insensitive one of them.

His wife Johanna followed the girls into the shop, looking happy and smiley, but Dahl knew the façade was for the benefit of the children. Their long marriage was at its rockiest point ever right now . . . something Johanna and he hoped a vacation would cure. But no matter their marital woes, there was no way either daughter should be privy to it. Not at this point.

“Shall we wait at the gate?” asked Johanna.

Dahl nodded and led the way, his mind momentarily free from Nick Grant and focused on the greater task at hand: saving his marriage.

 

TWO

 

Dahl saw beauty everywhere. The bluest skies and highest palms were the softest of treats to the eye; the intermittent views of a Caribbean sea and sandy beaches were nectar, the laid-back attitude of the Bajan locals a soothing balm. Time moved differently here. Dahl could see it already. The shades of blue were deeper, richer, the yellows more golden and laced with promise. Even the music was a vibrant mix of high spirits and laughter. Isabella and Julia soon warmed to it, and seeing them happy and carefree brought Dahl a profound sense of relief.

This was already better than their flight experience in every way. He’d found himself hefting hand luggage down and smiling at the girls, reassuring them that they’d be out of the small cramped space with its below-par food and unsmiling stewardesses momentarily. Bodies had pushed against him from behind as others joined the fray. The flight attendants had finally started to smile as they saw an end to their working day.

The taxi slowed as its driver followed a wide, sweeping bend up a driveway bordered by palm trees and a high, orange-pink wall. At the very top it widened out even more as the hotel’s entrance appeared – a colorfully-clad gateway to paradise. Porters hovered outside, leaning on trolleys and tourists milled all around, getting in the way. Eyes drifted over the new arrivals, but none appeared suspicious, even the ones that lingered overlong on Johanna’s blonde hair. Dahl handed over a wodge of local currency to the taxi driver and then followed a porter into the high-ceilinged lobby, spotting the reception, check-out and concierge desks immediately. Isabella and Julia pointed out the way to the restaurants and shops and then they were treading between red ropes, in line to check in.

“Welcome to the Barbados Palm. How was your journey?”

Dahl presented their documents, which the receptionist ignored. “Not bad at all, thanks.”

“Name?”

Dahl reeled it off and spelled it out, thinking,
You’d know that if you looked at the bloody information in front of you.

He breathed in long and deep.
Stay calm. Relax.

“You are with us for two weeks? Yes?”

“Yes.” Through gritted teeth.

“Ah, I am so sorry. Your room is not yet ready.”

Dahl tensed, feeling the stress of the flight, his marital problems, the ghost of Nick Grant and a dozen other concerns mesh together somewhere around the right temple. A heavy pulse began to throb. “Are you joking? Is that the—”

A female hand fell onto his shoulder and squeezed, and a light voice whispered into his ear. “It’s okay. We can wait. We can relax. Remember?”

Dahl exhaled fast, letting it go. Of course they could wait. This was a vacation, after all.

Johanna continued her whisper. “I know you, Torsten. I see what you’re doing and I respect it. I also want you to think about our family, and what this means to us. This vacation. Can you do that?”

Dahl said that he could.

“Unwind and tone down just a little. A bit more every day. I can live with that if you can.”

He nodded quickly. “I’ll try.”

He grabbed hold of the trolley, exerting at least a little control over his destiny, and maneuvered it into a corner beside a plush white corner seat. The receptionist told them he’d call them over when their room was ready.

 

*

 

Dahl grunted and checked his watch. Already mid-afternoon. He felt more than a little frazzled. Maybe it had something to do with the Nick Grant false alarm earlier. Stuck on the plane in a world of worry, he’d cited an excuse to stretch his legs and cruised the aisles, from first-class and back, searching for one face among hundreds – that one, vile face that carried bloodshed, hurt and fear to every region it visited. With every step he was ready to act, muscles coiled, mind prepped, but the connection never happened. Dahl felt immense relief at first, and then doubt followed by suspicion. Soon, he had imagined several serious scenarios, each one worse than the last, and had to physically prevent himself from making a call to the team back in DC.

Instead, he’d deposited himself back into seat 34 D and taken several deep breaths.
There is no madman on this flight. There is no . . .

He leaned back now and managed to chill out for exactly nine seconds before Isabella landed knees-first in his lap, forcing out a groan. Julia looked on a little more seriously and met Dahl’s eyes over the younger girl’s head.
Kids
, she mouthed, disapprovingly.

Dahl grinned back and then grabbed Isabella and began to tickle her mercilessly until she started squealing and loudly stating that
she was eight now and not a child anymore.
Dahl apologized and stood her up with a sober face. Johanna brought mango smoothies and the four sat back to watch the comings and goings across the vast lobby until their room became ready.

Once inside, Dahl finally felt an easing of the pressure, especially when he was able to double-lock the door behind them. It took a matter of moments to scan the apartment, check all the locks and potential weak areas, assess ingress and egress points and get a feel for the general area. Turning, he saw Johanna watching him.

“You done?” she asked pointedly.

“All present and ready to have fun,” he said. “If I can remember how.”

“Take your shoes off,” Johanna said. “There’s a start. The hotel provides free slippers.”

“They do?”

Johanna handed him a set of white slip-ons wrapped in a sealed plastic bag. “Start with these. I’ll show you the bathrobes later.”

Dahl obliged and wandered the room, a bit more leisurely this time. The kids were checking out their own room and the twin beds. Dahl heard the balcony doors slide open and moved fast.

“Wait,” he said. “Just wait.”

Isabella humphed but Julia was at an age now where she understood. Dahl checked the balcony and the rails and then stood for a moment, staring down. Heart-shaped pools lay below, rippling and glistening. Adults swam lazily toward a pool bar, drinks already in hand. Palm trees shaded certain areas and flesh of every kind cooked in the heat of a slowly waning sun. Laughter and shouting and the smell of a barbecue drifted past his nostrils, and Dahl began to feel hungry.

“Can we go down?” the girls asked in tandem. “Please?”

Dahl looked to Johanna, who nodded.

He took his daughters’ hands. “Let’s go.”

They headed out of the room and down. Dahl looped the room card around his neck. His immediate thought was to seek out food and the nearest restaurant, but Isabella and Julia wanted to head for the pool. One look at their excited faces convinced him. Johanna backed it all up with a knowing smile.

“What’s good for them,” she said, “has to be good for us too.”

“Sure. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Don’t worry.” Jo gave him a fake punch in the shoulder. “We’ll keep you straight.”

Isabelle and Julia ran off noisily ahead, making the hall shake in their excitement. Dahl and Johanna followed more slowly, but eagle-eyed, always watchful where their girls were concerned. As they made their way down to the pool area, Dahl again found himself thinking of that chance encounter at the airport.

Nick Grant . . . Could it have been him?

Dahl always trusted his instincts. If he were on a mission, he would have stopped everything and called in immediately with his suspicions. But today was different. The presence of family changed everything. He wanted to stay married. And not just for the kids.

 

THREE

 

Dahl leaned back and placed his slippered feet upon the short round table that stood in the middle of their balcony. Johanna sat opposite him, the two of them finally alone after making sure Isabella and Julia were tucked into bed. Johanna sipped red wine while Dahl tipped back a bottle of local brew. Darkness had fallen, but the sounds of tourists wandering and playing below had not diminished.

“Nice view,” Johanna said.

Dahl looked through the balcony rails toward the beach. Beyond the sounds of revelry came the play of the surf across the sands, the soft whoosh of the waves.

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On what happens next.”

“We have a problem, Torsten, and we need to talk about it.”

Dahl sat forward. “There you go.”

“There
I
go? What the hell does that mean? There are two of us in this relationship, in case you’d forgotten.”

“All right. So why do you think we . . . have marital problems?” It was harder to say than he’d realized. It felt like admitting defeat.

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