The wind from the sea was unusually gentle, lifting the loose ends of my hair against my cheeks. The gulls screeched somewhere in the distance, and the waves slapped against the distant rocks, spraying gleefully over them on their tumbling journey towards the shore. There was the fresh smell of salt and damp seaweed in my nostrils. The beach had the same smooth, pale sand of other, prettier places, but this part of the coast was more famous for its rock pools and the deep caves set in its cliff face. We’d worked this area for over nine months now, and I loved it here, especially at this time of year when the holiday season was still early. Enough tourists to keep the place going, but not so many that every breath of air carried the shriek of a troublesome child or the stench of frying onions from the hotdog stands. I felt comfortable here; calm; secure. The sounds washed over me like the sea would itself, if I let it. The smells were sharp, rich and unapologetic; the air was crisp, the wind biting. Here, I swapped the frenzy and frustration of work for something more raw, more real. More poignant. It was one of my favorite places.
But then I had many reasons for feeling that way, some from nature and some from my own memories.
That afternoon, the four of us had come down to the beach for maybe the last time. A disparate group of men, looking for some company and yet strangely confused about what to do with our rare leisure time. It was the end of the job; the end of nine months of hard, dirty work. It had taken its toll, both in months spent and emotions played. We’d been placed in a small team together, and that’s how we’d stayed, twenty-four seven, until the job was done. Nine months. I’m not sure any of us had really taken in the fact that it was now over. Not only that, none of us had been reassigned yet. For the last week or so, we’d been adrift in this seaside town. We were somewhere between tension and taking it easy, and I for one was struggling to acclimatize.
Twenty-four seven, like I said. It had been intense but it had worked well. We were agents who wouldn’t be marked as similar men in more civilian circumstances, let alone friends, yet we’d learned to cope well with each other. We were an odd collection of guys. Grady was my own age, with a young, sharp wit and biting words, but a fierce concentration when it was needed. Ramirez was older, a hardened veteran, a hulk of a man and useful when muscle was called for. He was quiet most of the time, but his eyes missed nothing. And me? I was one of those poachers turned gamekeeper. I’d been a misguided, awkward and often violent youth who was on course for drifting into much harder crime. But I’d seen sense—or been persuaded to. A couple of years of mentoring by a friend of the family and I did the complete opposite of what was expected, moving into law enforcement. Had some kind of a talent for being a cop, apparently. A couple more of those years and I was persuaded into intelligence. It suited me, operating just outside of public view, with orders that were never the same twice over, and a certain degree of freedom you didn’t get in uniform. I kept my head down, learned a lot, caught some lucky breaks. It was a surprise when they asked me to join this specialist anti-terrorism unit, but I guess I was flattered, too.
The fourth man in our team was Nolan. Adam Nolan—bright, fierce and determined, our appointed superior. Not much older than I was, but he’d been in the unit for many more years. Wiry as hell but strong when it was needed, mentally and physically. Dark and graceful and damned good-looking, too, not that he bothered acknowledging it. When I first joined the unit, he’d been my liaison. He’d been awkward about it at first—though I like to think it was because he disliked training new guys, rather than he disliked me specifically. He was certainly pleased when I made it clear I didn’t need my hand held. Well, not for basic training, anyway. In those first few months, I didn’t know what else he thought about. About my training; about the hand holding. About me.
But I thought a lot about Adam Nolan in return. I didn’t admit it aloud. Maybe the other guys would understand: maybe they wouldn’t. They were good men, good agents… but I’d been the last to join. The mission had escalated in importance shortly after that: things had moved fast and dangerously. There hadn’t been much time to exchange family histories or work resumes. That’s not to say there was any hostility toward me: there was tolerance in the group, among us all. There had to be, for us to work efficiently. But that didn’t mean they’d be interested in my deepest thoughts and feelings. I liked them all, a lot.
But we were a singular bunch, like I said.
I walked slowly along the beach toward the cliff face and then back, at my own pace, alone with my own thoughts. I liked to spend time like that, unwinding at the end of the day. This morning’s radio briefing had been even shorter than expected, but things had gone so well there was little left for us to do. The terrorist group we’d been shadowing for all that time had been taken down. All major activists had been taken into custody; the weapons cache had been appropriated and decommissioned. Or so the official documentation phrased it. Anyway, Headquarters had wrapped up the paperwork at last, and they’d be sending transport to pick us up and take us and our equipment back to base tomorrow. They’d also offered up a grudging offer for my team to take some more time in R&R. One more night in this seaside town, then they’d arrange some extra vacation for us. Grady had pumped the air with his fist; Ramirez had grunted his pleasure. I didn’t remember what I said. Adam Nolan had already left the room.
As I strolled along, I looked out over the horizon, shading my eyes against the lowering sun. A couple of boats were far out, maybe fishing. The gulls hovered over the foam on the water’s surface, then something startled them and they wheeled up and away in smooth formation. The sea lapped up along the beach, each successive wave a little closer to my bare feet, teasing me, making the sand damp and sticky between my toes. In the background, I could hear the sound of traffic from the town, just a distant hum, and the occasional throb of mechanical noise.
After a mission, agents usually took full advantage of any respite. If we were based away from Headquarters, some of us drifted back in with the local precinct, seeking the company of cops who’d half understand what our life was like, even if their view was limited by a different daily routine. Not for them, the covert anti-terrorist work; the undercover surveillance. We faced different danger, despite being committed to the same cause. And some guys spent their time in whatever town we were stationed, easing off their particular tension in the bars and clubs. There’d been a couple of times I’d been called on to pick up some of our own men, making trouble among the civilians, driven just that little too far over the edge. It wasn’t an easy role. That certain degree of freedom I mentioned could be a burden too: lonely and sometimes frightening.
But now we were the only ones left in place—everyone else on the job had been recalled. It could have been disorientating but I was used to the smaller group already. Preferred it, really. I wandered over to where the others had settled a blanket on the dry sand and stood over them, looking down. “Did anyone see which way Nolan went?”
Ramirez was stretched out with his shirt off, his broad chest soaking up the remaining rays of pale sunlight. He was flicking through a magazine and grunted in reply. “Get outta my sun, Riley. I will not have stripes across my manly body from your skinny ass shadow.”
I took a step to the side, my skinny ass shadow looping after me and out of his way. I caught Grady’s eye, grinned at him, and spoke back to Ramirez. “So did your manly body see where your superior officer went?”
He grunted again, but he was half smiling. “Dammit, no. You know what he is like, every time we come down. He arrived ahead of us, and had already gone for his walk before we settled here.”
His walk. That’s what they called it.
Grady scrambled to his feet, a can of beer in his hand. He held it out to me but I shook my head. “No thanks.”
He shrugged and peered at me, his dark eyes sharp and assessing. “These last few weeks have been the worst for him, Riley. For all of us. Everything coming together; everything at risk. Why don’t you just relax? We’ve been working our asses off, living on too little sleep and too much junk food. Nothing’s been more important to us than the mission. And no time off to speak of, you know that. But now it’s over.”
Ramirez was more vocal this time. “Yeah, now the whole damned thing is over, Headquarters is peeing its pants with delight at our success, and we can fucking relax and have some fun, no? Go anywhere; see and do what we like. And what does Nolan do?”
“Is that what they call a rhetorical question?” I said, dryly. Grady laughed softly beside me.
Ramirez frowned. “You are as bad as he is. Every week, for months now, he drags us all down here, this godforsaken stretch of coast, full of rough sand and nothing but rocks to stare at. God alone knows what pleasure he finds here. And even now—when we are about to leave this town at last, to return to some better, livelier place—even now, he is down here. You both are.”
“And so are you,” I gently pointed out. “If you want to go someplace else tonight, I’m not stopping you.”
Ramirez reverted to his library of grunts. I noticed he’d turned two pages of the magazine at once but he didn’t seem to notice. “It is called taking stock, man. I am just deciding where best to take my manly body. No?”
Grady laughed. He was used to Ramirez’s complaints, as we all were. “It’s quiet here. Peaceful.” I saw him and Ramirez exchange a quick look. “We need rest before the recreation. We’re good with that.”
“Speak for yourself. It’s too fucking quiet here,” Ramirez grumbled. “Too few honeys.” He glanced over at me. “Hey, Riley, you like the party life same as I do, no? Maybe when Nolan gets back, we’ll take a bus along the coast, find another town that feels more like a riot than retirement. Last chance to live it up before we get back to the sweat and toil. We will go look for some company: company with a shirt open to her navel and a skirt up to her ass….” He must have seen something in my absent-minded smile that I hadn’t meant him to, because his blunt teasing stopped. And definitely more quickly than usual. He sighed. “Shit. That is not for you, I think.”
I frowned. I turned to find Grady looking at me, his expression deliberately blank.
“I never kept it a secret,” I said quietly. “I never thought you had any problem with it.”
Grady’s eyes softened. “Hey, don’t get defensive. There’s no problem at all. You like guys, we respect that.”
“He does. I think you are insane,” muttered Ramirez.
I started to laugh. Grady punched me in the shoulder with more affection than annoyance.
Ramirez appealed to Grady, who’d often joined him in the sea front bars. “You’re up for some entertainment, no? We leave Nolan to find his shells, or whatever he goes looking for, and then later… eh? A damned good supper and a hunt for real fun.”
“Whatever,” Grady said. He was laughing aloud now, too.
I wriggled a foot in the pale, slightly damp sand, letting it trickle in between my toes. We’d all kicked our boots off when we arrived. Adam’s sat neatly placed against the bag of provisions we’d brought with us. A bottle of water was missing from the pack; he’d obviously taken it with him.
Grady still hovered beside me. “Riley?”
“I’m good,” I said. “If you two want to head on out, it’s fine.” I smiled at him. “Seriously.”
Grady huffed out a breath. “Look, ignore Ramirez, talking with his prick as usual. We all know Nolan gets like this, now and then. Seems he just has to find the right place for himself, hide himself away and work it out. We don’t mind coming down with him—we can work around the most anti-social bastard, right? I’ve known worse. We can’t all be easygoing like you. Can we?”
I looked at the others, Grady’s quizzical face and Ramirez’s wry smile, and I nodded. “That’s true,” I said, because Grady seemed to expect an answer,
He laughed softly and clipped in his earphones, wedded as always to his music. He fiddled with the volume, frowning at it, then dropped back down to the sand beside Ramirez. They were both getting themselves settled on the beach. Whatever they might say, they welcomed this time out as much as Adam did.
“Evan?” Grady peered back up at me. His voice was gentler, using my first name. We rarely did that during a mission.
“I just wondered, that’s all.” I shaded my eyes again, looking over to the cliffs. “If he’s okay.”
“Nolan’s a bit of a mystery to us all,” said Grady. “All we can do is let him go where he chooses. He knows what he wants, just doesn’t tell us why.”
“It is the sea that draws him,” said Ramirez, thoughtfully. I turned my head sharply toward him. Adam’s friends—though bemused by him—knew him better than they realized. “She means many things to many people. She is a mistress. A vision, the awe of creation. A beast of enormous, immeasurable size.”
“Wet. Sinking. Drowning,” Grady listed, quite cheerfully. “That’s what the beast means to me.” He fiddled with the volume of his player, turning it up higher. “Sharks; stingrays! Salt in your hair; seaweed around your knees.”
Ramirez threw a towel at him, the tension snapped like a twig in a gust of wind, and things relaxed again.