Victory on the Edge Excerpt
“No, Ivan, it was ten cases, not ten boxes. Since when have I ever ordered ten boxes of live ammo from you?”
Max Landford channeled her frustration as she zipped her compact SUV into the driveway at Victory, plowing through the vine tendrils that waved over the driveway into the employee parking lot. She let Ivan, who had never screwed up an order before, argue his point while she slapped the Tucson into park and grabbed her leather case.
“Uh, huh. I understand that’s what he said. It’s not what I said.” When she turned off the ignition, the call redirected automatically to her earpiece. She climbed out and strode up the cobbled walk to the refurbished brick mansion that was Victory headquarters. The place had felt more like home than her little apartment ever since she started working as the operations manager here eight years ago. The zing of possibility never failed to vibrate as she came up this walk, knowing that today, like every day, she would be helping the people here solve problems no one else could fix.
“Ivan.” She sighed and swiped the ID card she wore on a lanyard around her neck, typed in her passcode, and pressed her thumb to the scanner. In seconds she was speeding through the main hallway and up the wide staircase to the offices on the second floor. “Right now, it doesn’t actually matter what happened. I just need it fixed. How fast can you do that for me?”
At the top of the stairs, her heels thudded once each on the wood floor before striking the carpeting in the bullpen, the large main room that took up most of the second floor. A herd of grunts—the operatives who carried out Victory’s missions—milled around the entrance to the break room, and she slalomed through them without breaking stride.
“Coffee’s out,” Holly told her from one of the bullpen desks. Her tall brown boots were crossed on top of it, a deck of cards flipping through her fingers.
Max stopped walking and held up a finger to the team leader. “I don’t care,” she told Ivan. When Holly’s eyebrows went up, Max jerked her head no and waved the finger at her earpiece. “Let’s say ten percent, and we’ll all triple-check the next one, okay? Okay. Thanks, Ivan.” She disconnected the call and popped the earpiece out. “What happened to the coffee? We just stocked on Friday.” She’d seen the intern sign for the big supplies delivery and restock the coffee herself.
Holly shrugged. “Espresso machine’s not working.”
She didn’t have time for this. “You can use the drip. It makes more at a time, anyway.”
“No one likes that as much. No flavors.”
Max rolled her eyes and headed for her office. Her nerves were stretched tight about tomorrow’s op, which was going to be challenging enough. All these little “inconveniences” needed to stop. The order snafu with Ivan was just the most recent in a cluster of annoyances with potential to cause real problems if they weren’t addressed right. Someone else could deal with the coffee. “You guys are so spoiled,” she muttered.
“Heard that,” Holly called over her shoulder.
“Get your feet off New Guy’s desk,” Max yelled back. Then she closed her office door and her eyes, shaking off the distractions. Today her focus had to be on the extraction op in New Jersey. It was going to be delicate, and she had a dozen things to check on before they were ready to run it. She switched on the light and shoved her leather messenger bag onto a chair against the wall, zeroing in on the pile of message slips in the center of her desk blotter. The ones for potential clients, she sorted to address later. An attorney who hired them to protect clients pending trial. Someone new, struggling with pressure from a developer who wanted to force them to sell their property. Three vendors checking to see if they needed anything—those could definitely wait. She paused at a familiar name—her Aunt Kim’s old boss. They were due for their quarterly employee evaluations, but that wasn’t urgent, either. A missing person situation she’d prioritize, set up a meeting.
By the time she’d laid out her plan for dealing with the new business and re-organized her to-do list for tomorrow’s operation, an hour had passed. She reached for her coffee mug and dumped air into her mouth. She scowled at the empty mug. Oh, yeah. She’d never filled it. Coffee was “out.” Maybe someone had caved and brewed a pot of drip. She shot across to the break room too fast for anyone to stop her and did a quick assessment. The single-cup machine stood open and empty, but the holder was dry. So they hadn’t gotten it working. A half-full pot sat on the warmer of the bigger, industrial machine, so she settled for that. Not that she’d ever admit to anyone it was settling.
Sharp click-clack steps struck the tile behind her, and Max glanced over her shoulder to see Cassandra, her boss and the owner of Victory, enter the break room, followed by Holly and New Guy. All three looked at her expectantly.
“What?” She sipped at the barely-hot-enough brew. They watched her do that. Then waited some more. It was a familiar game. Cassandra teased her regularly about them being unable to function without her. Holly had this whole lazy/selfish façade no one ever bought. New Guy, well, it was only his second day. Too soon to know if he was the jump-in-and-save-the-day type.
She jolted internally when she met his gaze, her mug pausing halfway as she lowered it. He was watching with amused interest through blue-green eyes that had that natural eyeliner thing going on, and some part of her perked up and went ooh. She hadn’t been around him much yet while he dealt with HR onboarding and apparently hadn’t been paying much attention.
She swallowed and cocked her head. “I can’t believe you’ve been waiting for me to fix the coffee machine. Why didn’t you call maintenance?”
“Gary says it’s too fancy-dancy for him,” Cassandra told her. “And that it’s more in your wheelhouse than his.”
“It’s not.” She stepped toward the door. None of them moved. “Oh for—” She rolled her eyes and thunked her coffee mug onto one of the small tables before swiveling to the machine.
The reservoir was full of water. The empty cup holder looked clear. She popped the tabs that held it in place, shaking her head at the wondering murmurs when she pulled it out. How had no one ever figured that out before? Dumb question. They never needed to try. She always caved.
She fished in the bottom of the well. A soggy bunch of wet paper towel pinched in two fingers, she whirled around. “Seriously? You couldn’t figure this out? Also, stop using paper towels as filters!” she shouted into the bullpen. The reusable filter for ground coffee was right there next to the machine.
“Who would do such a thing?”
“You got it, Max!”
She shook her head with exasperated affection at the clamor of assurances. She knew damned well it was her own fault. Her personality gravitated toward “fix everything,” and it had become a damned game for everyone to expect it from her.
After flinging the paper towel in the trash, she snapped the cup holder back in, slipped a cup of dark roast into it, shut the machine, and punched the button. Dumping her now-cold regular coffee in the sink, she got the cup under the spout just before it started streaming. “There. Everyone happy?”
“Thrilled. Thank you.” Cassandra glided to the machine. “Just in time for the staff meeting.”
“The—” Max glanced at her watch. Five minutes to nine. But it was Tuesday. Except Cassandra had been out of town yesterday morning, pushing their weekly meeting by a day. She tried not to scowl. She had been so engrossed in dealing with stupid problems and making sure they didn’t affect tomorrow’s op that she’d lost track.
Awareness prickled over the left side of her body. She glanced that way without turning and caught New Guy watching her. Everyone else had gathered around the counter, reaching around each other to prepare their coffees, but he stood back, holding a to-go cup from a café down the street.
“You okay?” he asked.
She felt her eyebrows pull together and release. “Yeah. Why?”
One shoulder lifted. “You just looked a little derailed.”
She almost denied it, but it was true, so she gave him a full shrug in response. “There’s a lot going on, and my focus was a little too intense. I wasn’t paying attention to the time.”
He nodded and moved away, going to the desk Holly had been violating with her boots and retrieving a notepad and pen. She did a quick assessment, wondering why she’d zinged. Undoubtedly he was good-looking, with shaggy, streaked blond hair, the darker strands matching his lightly tanned skin. Straight nose, an anomaly in their line of work, and a full mouth balanced above a strong jaw. Today’s green shirt was the same style as yesterday’s navy, worn with jeans and work boots, just like every other team leader at Victory. The laces were paratrooper style, extra secure.
Again, nothing out of the norm. Just chemistry, then, and chemistry could be ignored.
“Morning’s going fast. I’ll see you guys down there.” The plan was to grab her digital tablet and go straight to the meeting room, but her desk phone was buzzing when she stepped into her office. “Yes, Tori?” she called after hitting the intercom button.
“Royce just called. They have problems.”
Max stuck her hand in her messenger bag. “Why did he call the main number instead of my direct line?” Royce was running tomorrow’s extraction op, and team leaders on an active job had access to Max not just on the company phone, but her cell phone and through two or three apps on her tablet.
“He was on a pay phone.”
She froze. “What?” Did pay phones still exist? Why the hell would Royce be using one? “What happened?”
“Something fried all their tech.”
Max bowed her head and pressed her fingers hard around the bridge of her nose. “Is he still on the line?”
“No. He gave me the number of a burner phone he purchased but said to give him half an hour while it charged.”
Shit. Using a burner bypassed all their security. She grabbed a legal pad and pen and started a list. “Did he say if everything was synced to the server?” All of their intel and planning notes were saved to a dedicated server until an op was completed. It was mainly so everyone involved had constant access no matter where they were. Once in a while a computer or phone crashed. But something like this had never happened before.
“Yes, he said it’s fully updated. They just can’t access it because all their stuff is dead.”
“Define ‘all their stuff.’ Laptops? Coms?”
“Yep, everything electronic.”
What the fuck? She didn’t ask Tori any more questions. She couldn’t help with the why, and getting them re-equipped had equal priority. “Okay, give me his number.” She scribbled it down. “Thanks, Tori.” She disconnected and went to the doorway, scanning the few grunts who hadn’t yet gone down to the meeting room. She pointed and called, “Estes! I need you.”
He jogged over. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“Find Penelope and get her to duplicate all the equipment we sent to New Jersey. It all has to be synced to the NJEO server. While she’s doing that, sign out a vehicle from the motor pool. You have to take the stuff up to the team in New Jersey. I’ll give you drop details once I have them.” She copied Royce’s burner number and handed the scrap of paper to him. “Royce is the team leader up there. Here’s his current phone number. It’s not secure.”
“Got it. It’s about three hours up there, right?”
“If you’re lucky.”
He winked. “Don’t need luck if you’re good.”
Max dismissed him and checked her watch. She had about twenty minutes before the time Royce wanted her to call. Grabbing the legal pad as well as her tablet, she started scribbling down questions for him as she walked. They had to figure out what happened before they took the risk of continuing with the op. Were they blown? Had the damage been deliberate, or incidental? They may not be able to figure that all out before tomorrow, but delaying the op wasn’t an option. Someone’s life was on the line.
When she slipped into the meeting room, Cassandra had replaced her “owner” hat with her “chief motivator” cap. About once a month, she turned these routine meetings into inspirational speeches. Yay, said no Victory employee ever.
“What is the biggest driver of success?”
The room stayed silent. Max found a seat along an outside aisle and quietly unwrapped a tiny round lollipop. A few empty seats away, New Guy shifted and glanced around, as if waiting for someone to answer this super-easy question. He could be forgiven, of course, because this was his first briefing. But the rest of them weren’t buying into Cassandra’s tactics. Not when there was fresh meat to do it for them.
“What characteristic allows someone to succeed against all odds—and is the main reason for others’ failure?”
Fried tech, thought Max, sucking the lemony lollipop. But still none of the two-dozen people in the room spoke.
New Guy swept the room again, his eyebrows half raised, maybe because nobody was answering her, maybe because half of them were watching him. He shrugged before waving his hand in the air. When Cassandra nodded, he said, “Power.”
“No.” She resumed her slow stroll across the front of the small auditorium room, the word echoing up into the acoustically placed ceiling panels.
A scowl carved briefly into New Guy’s features before they smoothed out and he tried again, this time without waving. “Then money, as a means to gain power.”
“Those are goals, but not motivators.” She stopped at the small table she used for briefings in lieu of a podium. “Is anyone else brave, like Mr. Braga?” Her mouth twitched at the silence, the only sign that she was amused by their stubbornness. “It’s belief.” She flicked her remote behind her, and a photo of the latest business superstar flashed onto the screen. “Belief in your success is absolutely essential to overcoming both natural obstacles and those created by others.” In rapid succession, she flipped through images of a Super Bowl celebration and a political parade, stopping on a professional-looking publicity shot of one of the Kardashians. “It’s the main reason Victory has a nearly one-hundred-percent success rate. The reason so many agencies and private citizens come to us to solve problems no one else can.”
Max tapped open a document file and began typing website copy on the screen keyboard. Victory is not a last resort. It’s a first offense. We were created to prevent victims, not simply to act once you’ve become one. Cassandra had been on her to get something new up for SEO. She’d love that Max had been inspired by her speech.
“Belief is also essential to failure. When those with different goals—whether they’re team members or enemies—believe more strongly than you do, your achievements are doomed.”
Max mentally rolled her hand, wishing Cassandra would get on with it so she could wrap this up and focus on New Jersey. But her boss wouldn’t miss out on indoctrinating the new guy. Max tilted her head to study him, mentally flipping through his new employment file. His talent wasn’t documented, but it wasn’t unusual to keep those off official paperwork. His résumé was full of the usual: graduated from college early with two degrees, served in the military, then spec ops, followed by private “security” that was basically non-government special operations. He’d moved through all that faster than most people. He was only thirty-five, a year older than her.
“Right.” She crunched through the tiny lollipop and stood, grinding the crumbs into submission as she made her way down to the front to give her weekly status report on existing ops, new clients, and upcoming regular events. Victory had a general security arm that paved the way into many of their “special” jobs, the ones they existed for. Stuff too ambiguous for regular law enforcement, too complicated or even too simple for a private investigator. Max was in charge of operations, meaning she handed out assignments and kept track of who was doing what when. Today everything was routine except New Jersey, which she didn’t have enough information to talk about yet, so she wrapped up in ten minutes and dismissed the meeting.
“Sebastian.” Cassandra waved New Guy down to the front and put her hand on Max’s forearm to keep her from heading out. When he reached them, she asked, “You settling in okay?”
He smiled wryly. “I thought so, until you called me out in front of everyone. Now I feel unsettled again.”
Cassandra laughed and tugged Max forward as the last agent exited the room and the door sighed closed. “If I thought you couldn’t handle the heat, I wouldn’t have put you on the spot.”
“If she thought you couldn’t handle it, you wouldn’t be here at all,” Max countered. She unwrapped a new lollipop and stuck it in the corner of her mouth, holding out her hand. “Max Landford.”
“Sebastian Braga.” His hand was warm and a balance of rough and soft that sent a shiver across Max’s shoulder blades. “You can call me—”
“New Guy.” She winked. “We’ll call you New Guy until it wears off.”
“Fair enough.” His eyes twinkled, holding her gaze for more than a few seconds. They were arresting, and not just because of the twinkle. The color wasn’t amazing, but he had that darker rim both around the iris and along his lashes. He could make a fortune doing toothpaste commercials or something. But that wasn’t what kept jolting her. There was a snap inside her every time they made eye contact, as if they aligned magnetically. Very unusual for her, and very distracting.
“Max is our operations manager,” Cassandra explained. “She’ll show you around, introduce you to everyone. Any questions you have, she’s the one to ask.”
Show him around. Her jaw tightened. “Uh, Cass, I have a problem to handle with the New Jersey op.” She explained about the tech. “I have to talk to Royce.”
“Okay, then you can show Sebastian around after that. In fact, I want him to observe the operation. He might be able to help.”
Max realized her jaw was sagging and closed it with a snap. She was going to delegate the tour to a grunt—they were supposed to be called “operatives,” but that was just too long—until Cassandra mentioned help. He was the new guy. She didn’t even know what his talent was. How was he supposed to help?
“I have a conference call. Thank you, Max,” Cassandra said over her shoulder, ignoring her surprise.
What the hell was going on around here?