Torsten Dahl book 1 - Stand Your Ground (3 page)

“We stayed in Stockholm for you.” Johanna said. “We moved to DC for you. Uprooted everything. We still hardly see you and . . .” She sighed sadly. “You’re missing them grow up.”

Dahl took a quick swig to hide a stab of pain. Of course she was right. One week away amounted to hours of lost moments, every single one of them precious. Children only grew up once and the changes were fleeting.

Blink . . . and you miss it.

His father told him that. Not in this context, but in a manner that spoke for all the best things in life. The good times were short and the
times? Well, they vanished faster. One moment you were at the center of all the good stuff – the next it was fading in your rear-view.

“What are you thinking?” Johanna asked.

“That I don’t know how to make this right.”

“Clearly. And we’re stuck. Where do we go next?” Johanna rose and took time to pour herself another glass. Laughter and a little song floated up from below, a happy balm infusing the air.

“What do you want me to do?”

“That’s not the right question. If you suffered a wound in battle what would you do about it?”

“I’d bandage it,” he said. “Or cauterize it closed, depending on how severe it was.”

Johanna chose to ignore the last statement. “And would it heal?”

“Yes. Eventually.”

“And do you have a bandage for us?”

Dahl remained silent. The response that tempted him —
No, but I’m afraid we’re at the cauterization stage —
didn’t seem appropriate. It felt surreal: Here they were, on the first evening of their long-awaited vacation, discussing the collapse of their marriage. He didn’t think their conversation could take a darker turn until Johanna spoke again.

“I’ve found myself thinking about what it would be like with somebody else.” As she said it, she brushed a tear from her cheek. “I’ve had a wandering eye.”

Dahl stood up fast and moved to the balcony, staring into the darkness of the night sky, a reflection of his heart. “Not once have I stopped loving you,” he said. “Do you want me to quit my job?”

“Of course not. And I don’t want to hurt you. I only say it to be honest. But something has to change.”

Dahl turned to face her. “I have no idea how to . . . get us back on track, Jo. In being the best soldier I’ve lost something, yes, but I’m still a caring father. There seems to be some invisible barrier. How do you find the fire again, once it’s lost? How do you find the will?”

Johanna wiped away more tears. “Do you know what I think the main problem is? We don’t
each other anymore. Not like in the beginning. At first we relied on each other every day. But as time went on, we learned to function apart from each other. And once you don’t need each other, you turn to other things. Maybe . . .” She shrugged. “Maybe we change it all now. Maybe we should just take a break for a while.”

Dahl took his seat and reached across for her hand, suddenly convinced that he had to stand his ground. “We can work it out,” he said. “Find the bandage. Make it heal. Just give it some time, some sunshine, and some sandy beach. We’ll talk more . . . about us. Every night. It’s good to get this out in the open, Jo. You were right to do it. Because now we know where we are.”

“I’m right here, Torsten. Have been for years.”

She released his hand, squeezed out from behind the small table and headed back into their room. As she curled up underneath the covers, he turned his head again toward the night sky and the shadow-strewn beach, wondering what manner of enemy might lurk out there.

He might not have the answer for his marriage tonight, but there was one thing he could do: He would keep his family safe. He would watch out for them.

All night, if need be.




The dawn began as a fiery conflagration where the sea met the sky, its flame spilling across the cloudy vault, throwing burnished fingers toward the land, all imprinted with the promise of the sublime day to come.

Dahl and Johanna woke early to the kids’ excited footsteps. The grown-ups pretended to be asleep during their clandestine assault, “snoring” loudly until the youngsters pounced. His wife and he rolled around in the sheets with their daughters, goofing happily until their eyes met.

Despite it all, and contrary to what he’d hoped, Dahl didn’t feel any better about things this morning.

The breakfast buffet was lavishly spread out, the coffee invigorating. It was still early when they were all fed and watered. At the children’s insistence they agreed to explore the entire hotel, grounds, shops, lobby and all. Dahl wholeheartedly endorsed their plan – the soldier in him would have insisted they do it anyway.

Always check the lay of the land,
he thought.
Even the kids know it.

As it turned out, the lay of the land to Isabella and Julia meant the placement of ice cream huts, jet skis and banana boats. Dahl let them roam while making his own recce – the questions piling up as his toes squeezed the sand.

What’s hotel security like? Are they armed? How soon could the local authorities arrive in an emergency? He even looked around for the closest weapon he could improvise.

Calculations ran through his brain, glazing his eyes slightly and Johanna saw through it all. She sighed and walked on ahead.

He was a soldier and would never change; she’d known that since they met, as college students, for goodness’ sake. And she’d accepted it. Their problem was . . . something else.

He pocketed a map of the hotel and its grounds from a handy kiosk and ran ahead to catch up with the kids. Paddling was proposed, followed by a swim in the pool and some lazing on a deck chair. Dahl nodded his agreement, eyes sweeping the crowds for a certain familiar face.

Nobody he recognized appeared among the hotel guests, causing him to wonder whether he’d been mistaken the day before.


People like Dahl didn’t make mistakes. Nor did enemies who survived him.

Flicking back to Nick Grant, he remembered a man who always wore expensive clothes, bespoke hats and occasionally tailored gloves. A well-bred man, articulate, who enjoyed small jokes and was intelligent and wholly mean. Something in his youth had doused any semblance of light that may have once existed within him, Dahl knew not what. Grant was a ghost, the consummate professional and a stone-cold killer rolled into one – the only twist being that he manipulated others into doing the killing and usually left the area he’d duly devastated before the real horrors began. The first time Dahl had encountered him, Grant had been facilitating a drug deal in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. All the stars were there – the head of the biggest Mexican drug cartel and half his family, the Russian ex-KGB enforcer he was dealing with, middle-men on both sides, and Grant.

Dahl and his task force had shut it all down.

Not now. Not here.

It was enough to know that he’d failed to catch the Facilitator twice, captured only a few of the cartel and killed others. It was enough to know that Grant had later been at the heart of a second atrocity, personal to the man, and no doubt many others. Dahl had other problems to contend with right now than those lying in wait between Grant and him.

The only questions in Dahl’s mind now were: Had Nick Grant been on such an urgent mission that he couldn’t act upon his sighting of Dahl? And had Dahl’s preoccupation over his marital woes impaired his judgment?

The answer to both questions was the same.
We’ll find out soon enough.




Johanna trailed her children with a sad heart. In truth, she’d been hoping a family vacation away from the everyday rigors would help reaffirm her affections for her husband, for the bond they’d once shared. But now that they were here, the situation only confirmed her worst fear: their relationship was in serious trouble. Not only did her husband and she lack the old spark of romance; Johanna had also cared for the kids for so long on her own that she simply didn’t need help. Or want it. Her husband’s assistance felt more like an intrusion. A hindrance. When Torsten proposed ideas, her immediate thought was that she could do it better. She wanted to make the calls – and deserved to.

Hell, I do this every day.

In desperation, she’d told her husband that her eye had been wandering, even though it wasn’t true. She’d hoped the ploy might be the one thing to pierce the shell that surrounded him. Was his job really so important? Were there not others who could do what he did? Deep inside, where a part of her heart lay unbroken, she wanted to talk it all out.
But Torsten,
she thought,
you’re not
. Not fully with us. In your mind, you’re off stalking some battlefield, buddies at your side. The kids need you and they don’t see it . . . but I do.

And soon, she knew, Isabella and Julia would too.

Despite her doubts, Torsten deserved a chance, and that was what this vacation was all about. They would continue to talk and she would do her best to understand his side. But Johanna had already determined that she would stand her ground. No compromises and no ambiguity. Not this time. Her husband would either be a family man in everything he did, or not at all. Which meant this might be their last vacation as a family.

Harsh. Possibly unreasonable. But Johanna had moved past reason. In the end, she would do what was best for her children, and this half-lived life wasn’t it.




Dahl broke the habit of a lifetime, taking a beer before lunch.

The irony of his situation did not escape him: in the field, his colleagues called him the Mad Swede. He was known as a sociable fellow with a caustic sense of humor and loyalty bordering on recklessness. To his men, he was a dependable leader who had a slightly crazy warrior mentality. When things went south, all eyes turned to him.

Here though, in the civilian world, with all the tourists and the staff and the earnest locals around him, he felt a stinging sense of inadequacy. This wasn’t his milieu. Nothing here functioned as he understood it. Years of combat seemed to have eaten away a part of his humanity. Yes, he could remember enjoying Disneyland with the family only a few short years ago. Yes, there had been a time when he never wanted to leave them and return to work.


Where had it gone? Dahl wanted it back, normality and all the fire that came with it. Every last, flickering flame. Could he kindle the blaze by force of will alone? Could he prove he was a part of this family, a worthy husband and caring father?

Johanna called to him from the center of the pool. “Get your ass in here, soldier.”

Well, that was a good start.

Dahl waded among the bodies, reaching his family and ensuring they received a perfectly gentle but awesomely thorough soaking. He threw Isabella into Johanna’s arms, loving the high-pitched squealing and ignoring the disapproving looks of those nearby. He tried to do the same with Julia and was amazed by how heavy she was.

“What on earth have you been eating? Buffalo?”

“Whereabouts are you from in the UK?” an older guy treading water nearby asked.

It was a common reaction. Dahl had gone to an expensive college in southern England before dropping out due to the affections of a young, pretty girl back in Stockholm, much to the anger and endless chagrin of his parents.
It’s the army for you, boy,
they’d threatened him.

And he’d never looked back.

“I’m not English,” Dahl said with a glance at that pretty girl from years and years ago. “Actually, I don’t know
I’m from anymore. But I do know that I’m right where I want to be.”




Gabrio Vega studied the busy workplace outside his pristine clean office window, watching the men who walked and hurried and hustled there, for the most part all burly, tattooed warriors kindly asked to fit into suits that were too tight for them and to wear ties that bunched up around their thick neck muscles. Vega stared, taking in everything and nothing at all, considering what was to come and hoping his people would make it out in one piece.

They had families, these men, dependents. He would do almost anything to see them return unharmed.

That said, they stood at the commencement of one of the biggest operations of his career. It wasn’t enough to remain detached inside his sparkling, state-of-the-art office, or to issue demands and kill-warrants from behind alarmed doors. Sometimes, Daddy had to come out and play.

Vega knew that his unease for the welfare of his men ran entirely contrary to the clinical detachment with which he managed his enemies. Weakness was not a trait to be displayed in any guise, but Vega considered no part of his operation a weakness. Even concern for his men. The benefit outweighed the cost. Enemies who’d underestimated him lay all around the desert; or their heads did, planted like baby cacti.

Somehow, this environment, the efficient, industrious activity before him, calmed Vega despite all its peculiarities.

Dissention was rare, and dealt with swiftly, but Vega rarely got involved in such goings-on. The rest of the world, the cartel, and his own machinations kept him focused and on the job for as many as nineteen hours a day.

Vega closed the shades of his office window and turned to the slender, perfectly quiet young man in the room.

“Dario. What do you think?”

Vega’s son had recently turned seventeen. He was rangy but solid of frame, with ropey muscles and a chiseled jaw. Unfortunately, he was also a bleeding heart, not interested in learning the family trade. Vega had decided seventeen would be the boy’s coming of age, the year that would make or break him. A harsh undertaking to be sure, but one already undertaken by all of Vega’s extended family, who toiled and risked it for him every day.

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