Chooser of the Slain Book 1: Valkyrie
Who could be worthy enough to work at an agency called Viking Inc.? This group isn’t going to recruit any ol’ meat head. They are looking for a specific set of skills
Viking Inc., Business Division
“Do we really have to have these meetings so early?” Nathanial Hawker—Hawk to his friends and “that sharp-nosed” bastard to his enemies—tipped back in his chair and stifled a yawn. Pre-dawn light hadn’t yet begun to creep in through the front window of the Viking Inc. Manassas office. The Keurig on the side table gurgled as it went through its warm-up routine.
“What do you mean?” Jasper Taggart gave Hawk a pitiless smile. A thin sheen of wax on the old man’s bald pate indicated he had already showered, which meant he had already run his daily 5k. “It’s almost five a.m. The day’s half over!”
Hawk popped a coffee pod into the machine and bit his tongue. It was no good cussing out the boss before the meeting had started. Jasper was in his fifties, a good ten years Hawk’s senior. As a colonel in the Marines and later as a freelance contractor, Jasper had headed up more covert ops than Hawk could name on a good day. The man commanded respect, even if his scheduling habits didn’t.
The office alarm system beeped as someone came through the back door and punched in her ID code. A middle-aged woman swept into the front office hauling a big blue handbag over one shoulder and a bakery bag in her fist. “Sorry I’m late. I decided to run a few surprise drills down at the Lakeland facility. Rogers sprained an ankle and I had to get it sorted with insurance.”
Hawk checked his watch. Three minutes to five. To Charlie, early was late. He appreciated that.
Jasper had a less positive outlook. “Another goddamned injury? Christ, the Kyiv fuckup was bad enough. Quit sending my recruits to the hospital. They need refreshers on basic comms protocols, not midnight obstacle course drills.”
Charlie Evans dropped her bakery bag into the office mini-fridge. She was a small woman with a dark pixie cut beginning to silver at the edges. Johnny-on-the-street might look at Charlie’s horn-rimmed reading glasses and large, colorful bags and see a high school art teacher trying too hard to be quirky. They wouldn’t see the former middleweight boxing champion and special forces Major still rippling beneath her yellow raincoat.
“It was an emergency comms drill,” she said. “Rogers got all excited and forgot how to put one foot in front of the other. He fell down the stairwell trying to get to the server room before the buzzer.”
Jasper groaned and rubbed his temples. He looked at the ceiling and murmured, “Talent… Odin, please, send me someone with talent. But if basic competence is the best you can manage, I’ll take that.”
“Amen,” Charlie replied ironically. None of the senior staff were what you’d call Ásatrú, but when you called your organization “Viking Incorporated” and named your ops divisions after the Norse gods of war, foresight, and knowledge, it was hard not to fall into the habit. The rookies had taken to calling the three of them jarls.
“Your prayers are answered.” Hawk dropped a stack of folders onto the table. “Not by Odin but by Heimdall. Here are the recruitment files you asked for.”
Jasper eagerly picked up the files. “Fresh meat.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
Jasper flipped open the top folder and glanced over the bio page. “First guy. Twenty-two-year-old former Marine, private first-class, two tours of duty in Lebanon… Dishonorably discharged for drug abuse and gambling problems.” Frowning, he dropped the dossier into the circular filing bin.
“Next up: ten-year veteran with the San Francisco PD. Two years as detective. Not bad. Terminated on six charges of use of excessive force. Holy shit.” Jasper stared up at Hawk. “Her union didn’t even back her up?”
“We’re fighting a bit of an image problem, boss,” Hawk observed. “People hear ‘independent military contractor,’ and they think we take the thugs who can’t get hired anywhere else.”
Jasper sighed. “I know we have to build our own talent base, but I’d like to at least start with people who are not actively addicted to meth. Former addicts, maybe.”
“Check the next file.”
Jasper obliged and scanned the final dossier thoughtfully. “A network engineer who’s been running a Search-and-Rescue team out of Montana during tourist season. So he’s got some tech know-how and survival grit.” He flipped the page. “No criminal record?”
“One count of underaged drinking, expunged when he turned eighteen.”
“Fantastic,” Jasper scoffed bitterly. “Charlie, give the man a signing bonus. Make sure he keeps up on his medic training. Maybe he can splint up Rogers’ ankle for us.”
Charlie nibbled the tip of a ballpoint pen and scratched something into her notebook. “I’ll get in touch with the guy. See if he’s a good fit.”
“And that’s all she wrote?” Jasper gestured at the measly three files.
“I’ll have more files next week. I’m working on talent scouting,” Hawk replied stiffly.
“Oh!” Charlie sat up straight. She leaned across the office space, tugged open the mini-fridge door, and drew a clear plastic clamshell from her bakery bag. “I’ve been doing a little scouting myself.”
Jasper watched Charlie pop open the shell to reveal a perfect creamy yellow wedge. “Jesus… Another one? What’s this now?”
Charlie grinned and drove her fork into the pie. “Lemon meringue cheesecake. I made it to the bakery before closing last night. Can you believe they were about to throw this thing into the trash?”
Jasper held out a hand. “Hand it over. Let me try.”
She drew the pie closer to her. “You going to give me that raise we talked about last week?”
“Then buy your own damn cake, boss.” Charlie turned her attention back to the pie.
“You’re going to get sick on that stuff.” Hawk watched dispassionately as Charlie popped the first bite and thumbed a crumb of cheese from the corner of her mouth.
“Or fat,” Jasper added darkly.
Charlie smirked and flicked him a view of her middle finger. “You’re just jealous, old man.”
“You said you’d been scouting,” Hawk interrupted. “Did you have something for us, or are you showing off your unnatural metabolism?”
“Nothing unnatural about it. Just good old-fashioned iron pumping, six days a week.” Charlie set aside the plate of half-eaten pie and kissed her muscular upper arm. “But yeah. I’ve got the new recruit right here.” She shuffled through her bag and came up with a plain brown folder. She dropped it on the desk between Hawk and Jasper. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one. The CV got my big toe a-twitching.”
Jasper was eyeing Charlie’s pie, so Hawk flipped open the file.
“Well in that case… ‘Kearie, Valerie L.,’” he read. “Strategic tech and market consultant with the firm Asher and Asher, right here in Manassas. How convenient.” His tone grew contemplative. “Postgrad student at the University of Virginia.”
Charlie snatched her plate from under Jasper’s nose and took a spitefully large bite. “On hiatus. She’s taking some time away from her active studies to do a little traveling, put some of that fabled real-world experience under her belt. The postgrad program is holding her spot open for her. UVA doesn’t like to do that, so her department must think she’s something special.”
Abandoning his hopes for a stolen bite of pie, Jasper swiveled in his chair to read over Hawk’s shoulder.
“Her department…” Hawk flipped through the file until he located the academic records. His semi-permanent frown deepened. “History.”
“Middle Ages European history specifically,” Jasper clarified. He gave Charlie a puzzled look. “What do we need a history nerd for?”
Charlie scooped the last lonely lump of meringue with her pinky finger and licked it clean before depositing her empty clamshell into the garbage. She opened her mouth, but Hawk cut in. “Students of history can be particularly adept at identifying and predicting long-term social patterns,” he mused. “Nothing wrong with a history nerd. UVA is a good school.”
Charlie nodded and leaned back with her hands folded behind her head. “Knew you’d appreciate that.”
Jasper sniffed. “Egghead. That’s all fine, sure, but we’re looking for field operatives. Not another pencil-pushing consultant.”
“She has a black belt in jujitsu.” Charlie bit at the corner of her mouth, privy to some secret joke.
“So does my wife’s shithead nephew,” Jasper pointed out. “He’s seventeen and bought it at a strip-mall dojo run by a guy who spends his summers doing caricatures at Six Flags.”
Hawk quoted from the dossier, “Family connections: Hank Kearie, Brother. Navy SEAL, ten years, six tours of duty, one purple heart. Philip ‘Puck’ Kearie, Brother. Captain, US Army, six years, nine commendations, based in Fairfax.”
“Too bad military training isn’t passed through genetics.” Jasper folded his arms.
“It may not be, but…” Hawk flipped over the report and read the back. He let out a low whistle. “Father—David Pearson.”
“Holy shit.” Jasper’s stubborn reluctance had melted away. “The army general who ran those Kuwaiti ops a few years back?”
“Looks like the children took their mother’s surname,” Hawk guessed. “I didn’t even know General Pearson had kids.”
“They’re trying to keep the nepotism to a minimum.” Charlie sounded pleased with herself. “The family is big on self-reliance. You’re an only child, aren’t you, Jasper?”
“I am.” Jasper shifted his weight uneasily. “Of a single mother. I appreciate self-reliance.”
“There’s more than one school of hard knocks.” Hawk closed the file and dropped it onto the desk. “Growing up with a single working-class parent is one, and growing up in a military family is another. I’m guessing Miss Kearie didn’t learn her martial arts from your strip-mall dojo.”
Jasper nodded slowly. “This girl’s got a nice pedigree. I’ll give you that. I say, if she comes sniffing for a job we think about trying her out.”
Charlie shook her head. “I don’t think we should let this one get away, Jasper.”
“Because of the toe?”
Charlie sighed. “We bring her on as a consultant.” She lifted a hand to halt Jasper’s protest. “We’ve got plenty of consultants, sure. But we bring her in to test her out on a couple of jobs with the potential for going hot. See how much mettle a military brat really can pick up by osmosis. If she’s got the grit, we put her in ops training. I bet she flies right through it.”
“It looks like a close-knit military family,” Hawk noted. “Despite the conflicting surnames. We’ll need to watch Miss Kearie and see if she shows any potential positive action-based leanings.”
Charlie and Jasper shared a rare glance of commiserating confusion.
“Potential positive action-based leanings,” Jasper repeated slowly, working through the term. “Is that another way of saying they like to kick ass and take names?”
“Then why didn’t you just say it?” Charlie pushed.
Hawk straightened the untidy folders. “Look. In today’s society, you learn to guard your tongue. Everyone is ready to misquote you at a moment’s notice. I can’t lower my guard, or the Twitter trolls will be so far up my ass they’ll be cleaning my tonsils with a toothbrush from the wrong entry point.”
“Twee-tar?” Jasper drawled the word out, turning it over like he’d never heard it before. “Is that one of the newfangled glowing boxes all the damn kids are staring at these days?”
Charlie snickered. “You worried one of us is going to go misquoting you to the media, Hawk?”
“Not you, no,” Hawk snapped. “But I’m getting into the habit. You two had better learn the new doublespeak, too. The world is changing.” He huffed and fussed with the recruitment files. When his temper had cooled, he conceded. “We can give Miss Kearie a trial run. But we’re opening ourselves up to some nasty lawsuits if we expose her to danger that she’s not equipped to handle.”
“Not to mention a decorated army general might get a little salty if his baby girl gets kidnapped or killed on what’s supposed to be a Shanghai cakewalk,” Jasper noted.
“That’s exactly the kind of good-old-boys-club crap we need to cut out,” Hawk asserted. “Senior management at a paramilitary contractor calling an accomplished post-graduate professional ‘baby girl’? You’re a PR nightmare waiting to happen, Taggert.”
Charlie opened her mouth to make a quip, then seemed to think better. Joking was one thing behind closed doors, but you should only push the envelope so far. This wasn’t the office Christmas party.
Jasper seemed to take the admonition to heart and nodded. “Let’s say we’re all perfectly politically correct about it. What kind of liability are we exposing ourselves to if we send her on a job and she gets killed?”
“Same as we are with any other ops agent who signs the waiver and NDA,” Charlie pointed out. “A big insurance payout to her beneficiary. I think she’ll do it, boss. I think she’ll jump at the chance.”
“Why do you think that?” Jasper gave her a long side-eye. “Don’t say it’s an omen from your big toe.”
Charlie smiled a mischievous smile. “Miss Kearie’s got adventure in the blood. My guy in Central Intelligence tells me they’ve been wining and dining her for months. She hasn’t signed over her soul yet…but she hasn’t said no.”
Jasper and Hawk exchanged startled glances. Leave it to Charlie to save the sharpest hook for last.
“The CIA wants her?” Jasper leaned forward to rap his knuckles impatiently on the brown file folder. “Well then. We’ve got to have her.”
I don’t know about you but I’m already rooting for Valerie. Find out if she makes the cut on August 15th when Chooser of the Slain Book 1: Valkyrie is released. In the meantime head over to Amazon and pre-order it today.