Please be advised there is language and mild sexual content within.
When we meet Delta Squad in EXCHANGE OF FIRE and SHADOW OF DOUBT they are a fully functioning, extremely cohesive group of men and women who are closer than family (squabbles and all). As a clandestine Black Ops team working for the corporation SweetBriar Group (AKA SBG) the rest of the world believes is an environmental company, they’ve learned to rely on each other to the point they’re considered the best of the best…but they had to start somewhere.
Below is a short story about the final test they had to complete in order to finish their training and earn a permanent spot with SBG. I had a lot of fun going back to the beginning and imagining them learning to work together and building the trust they almost take for granted five years later. I hope you enjoy this little peek behind the curtain.
Delta Squad Origins—The Final Test
Downtown Topeka, KS—New Year’s Eve, Five Years Ago
Cappy hung his head and cursed silently. He activated his throat mic and whispered, “Say that one more time.”
“I’m in, but I’ve been shot at,” Talon repeated softly in Cappy’s earpiece, his voice glacial—not that the tone surprised him, it seemed to be the man’s normal setting. Probably what made Talon so good at infiltration and “acquisitions”, but Christ, he never listened.
“Were you hit?” Cappy asked through his clenched jaw, his chainsaw voice even gravellier.
Cappy let out a breath. “Are you some place secure?”
“For the moment.”
“What the fuck were you doing breaching the perimeter?” Cappy exploded, unable to hold back, knowing his operative was okay. “You just blew our element of surprise. I told you to wait for Romeo and Magician to move into place.”
“Saw an opening and decided to take it.” No remorse. No chagrin.
“They probably left that opening on purpose, hoping to draw an operator in and you fell for it like a Goddamn rookie,” Cappy fumed. Take deep breaths. In went the oxygen, out went the anger…at least that’s what’s supposed to happen. The originator of that crap had never met Talon before.
“Son of a bitch,” Cappy barked, giving up on being Zen. “Talon, we’ve only got one shot at this—”
“Yeah, asshole,” Romeo, Delta Squad’s explosives expert and resident lothario chimed in through the comms. “You trying to make us lose?”
“Echo Squad can’t win,” Wraith, the team’s sniper, snapped.
“Wraith’s right,” Cappy agreed, his gut clenching at the stakes. “This is it. The final test. Echo Squad’s still young in their training,” he reiterated, though he shouldn’t have to. “If they lose, they continue drilling. If we lose, we’re out. No more ‘do-overs.’ No active assignments. No payday. SBG’ll start over and find new operators to fill Delta Squad.”
A thin line of sweat dotted Cappy’s hairline. He couldn’t let that happen. For so many reasons, they had to win.
Five strangers had been teamed together and undergone intensive training for the past six months. Two women—Wraith and Magician—and three men—Cappy, Romeo, and Talon—were supposed to be a cohesive unit by now, but obviously they weren’t.
As a former Green Beret—his heart flipped at the reason for his career change, but he pushed it aside. Death announcements and memorial services couldn’t be taken back now.
He had the military background to lead, but he worried he’d lost too much of his edge and it was no longer enough. How the hell was he supposed to be the C.O. of this group when SBG mandated they not divulge anything from their past? Hell, he didn’t even know anyone’s real name. They’d all been assigned or chosen their codenames and had been answering to them since minute one. It was fucked up logic to withhold someone’s background, the very thing that made a person who they were, from the people you had to rely on to have your back, but SBG didn’t see it that way. They had a clean slate rule. Everyone started off on the same footing and the only thing that mattered was what you did from that first meeting on.
SBG. The nickname operators gave to the clandestine side of SweetBriar Group. To his knowledge, SweetBriar Group’s real purpose didn’t exist outside of Hollywood or spy novels. Black Ops without the Red Tape. He silently snorted at the motto. While the rest of the world thought SweetBriar Group was an environmental company set on saving the ducks or some crap, it was really a front for a private sector Black Ops corporation with the government as their biggest client. And they were all vying for a spot to be the next squad in this crazy world.
“I’m in place,” Magician’s smooth voice interrupted Cappy’s thoughts.
Crumbled debris scritched underneath his combat boots as he shifted on the rooftop to peer at the structure across the street. Twelve non-descript floors made up of beige cement and glass looked like any other downtown building. The only thing different was the number 10865 etched above the revolving doors.
The final test was simple. Delta Squad had to infiltrate the building, upload a benign virus onto server, grab the laptop from the CEO’s office, and hightail it to the rendezvous point. All by midnight. What a way to spend New Year’s Eve. If they passed, the celebration promised to become team lore…but if they failed…
Echo Squad’s purpose was to ensure they didn’t succeed.
He checked his watch. 11:19pm. They were cutting it way too close.
Traffic was still heavy and horns blared in time with a cacophony of music from rolled down windows as passengers shouted “HAPPY NEW YEAR” to everyone in sight. The partiers filling the sidewalks would help cover their presence as they broke into the building, but now, thanks to Talon, the element of surprise was gone. Fuck.
He scratched at the charcoal spandex shirt confining all his muscles until they bulged. His legs were encased in matching material, covered by his cargo pants. The tiny lines running throughout the specialized material gave readings to the instructors back at SBG Headquarters. Everything from his heart rate to GPS location were now documented in HQ. The suit even had sensors similar to those found in laser tag to simulate “live” fire. If any one of them—Delta or Echo—were hit by the laser their guns were retrofitted with, then they’d have to act accordingly. A fatal shot took the operative out of the test and he or she had to immediately go to the rally point or risk having the entire team expelled.
“Wraith,” Cappy called through the open comm channel, “do you have eyes on the back of the building?”
“Yes,” she answered immediately. He had surrounded the building with a member of the squad. With Wraith as their designated sniper, she preferred high up and he pictured her staring through her rifle’s sights. “All’s quiet. Not counting the celebrators below. It’s too quiet inside. My instincts are flaring.”
“Check.” Cappy agreed. “If Talon hadn’t engaged with Echo, I’d have sworn they weren’t there.”
Cappy ignored the prick, choosing to gaze toward the west side of the structure. “Romeo, you got anything?”
“I got a glimpse of movement behind the drawn shades on the east side third floor,” Magician responded. “Couldn’t tell in the gap if it was the cleaning crew or Echo.”
11:22 pm. Time to enact the plan. “Ok, people, it’s go time. You all know your targets. Thanks to Talon we lost the edge, so stay sharp. Check in once you’re in place.” Cappy peered at the structure one more time, then pivoted to leave the roof. “Wraith, I’m turning surveillance over to you. Keep us informed if you see anything.”
“Check,” his sniper replied.
Cappy casually entered the sidewalk from the apartment building’s side exit. A large group of early twenty-somethings cackled and bantered with each other, giving him the perfect to cover to blend in as the strolled along the street. In order to complete all the objectives, every member of Delta had a specific area to accomplish. Romeo and Magician were assigned to gather the CEO’s laptop. Talon had the USB drive containing the virus and his only focus was gaining access to the server room and uploading it. Wraith maintained surveillance outside while Cappy needed to break into the security room and help guide his team through the feeds on the closed circuit cameras.
“Oh, yummmmm,” a female crooned just as she suddenly threw her arms around his neck and hung on. “Look at you.” His eyes almost crossed at the vodka fumes pouring out of the cute woman. “Want to be my midnight kiss? We can practice now.” Before he could say a word, her lips latched onto his.
Shit. He grabbed her wandering hands, stopping them just shy of grabbing his ass and wrenched away. The cool air swiped against the moisture she left behind from her sloppy kiss. “Save some for later,” he whispered to take the sting out of rejecting her advances.
Her puzzled frown curled up into a smile.
He opened the comm channel and turned his head to the side. “Romeo, Magician, calling audible. Need you in front of building. Now.”
“Check,” they both replied in his earpiece.
“Ooooo,” an intoxicated girlfriend to Groppy Hands moaned. “Where’d you come from?” She cocked her head and he worried the motion would throw off her equilibrium and have her sprawling the ground, but she only stumbled. “You some kind of commando? GI Joe?” She giggled and fingered the wire leading down from his earpiece to the mic strapped around his throat.
By now the rest of the group stopped and if he didn’t get a handle on this PDQ—pretty damn quick—Echo Squad would be tipped off he was moving in.
“Oh, no good,” a third female voice slurred.
Christ. How drunk were they?
“Here.” She pushed through the two women and yanked off her neon headband. Glittering words “HAPPY” and “NEW YEAR” bobbed on the top of metal springs as she jammed the hairpiece on top his head…not that his military crew cut was in jeopardy of getting into his eyes.
The two young men in the group laughed, causing their own New Year’s hats and headbands to bob with the motion and inspiration struck him.
Cappy grinned and pulled on the end of a fuchsia feather boa adorning Groppy Hand’s neck. “Can I wear this?”
“Sure!” she chirped and almost choked herself unwinding it.
“Am I missing the party?” a silky male voice asked to his right, causing the women to almost fall in their haste to turn around.
“Oh my God, I think I just came,” Intoxicated Girlfriend announced, her eyes almost popping out of her head as she stared at his operative.
Romeo’s grin stretched into a wide, cat-like smile and he winked at the girl. “Ah sweetness, and the night is still young.”
Intoxicated Girl let out a strangled sound and tripped over her feet, knocking into the other entranced girl.
Cappy rolled his eyes. The Italian Adonis was a tramp and almost every word out of his mouth was either sexual or sarcastic, but it had its uses. Cappy peered at the two guys in the group and found they were similarly awestruck but with Magician. Tongue-tying, gorgeous Magician played with a strand of her long, black hair as she ran a finger down the arm of a boy wearing a sparkling cardboard top hat and an orange feather boa.
A street vendor crossed the street at the light, pushing a steel cart laden with brightly colored, New Year’s paraphernalia. Cappy dug into his side pocket and pulled out three twenty-dollar bills. He ran a palm over Groppy Hands bicep and held up the cash. “Can you raid that cart and buy as much as you can for my friends and I? We need to get into the spirit.” The words on his new headband bounced as if to underline his point.
She snatched the money out his hand, grabbed the third girl, and pulled her toward the vendor. Cappy tuned out the flirting and drunk conversations and watched as the girls plucked items off the cart. Two minutes later they were back and he, Romeo, and Magician were suitable decked out to fit in with the party.
He laughed at Romeo’s antics as the man modeled his insanely oversized, neon green sunglasses, headband with a bobbing champagne bottle and glass, blue feather boa, and tacky-to-the-extreme glow-in-the-dark vest with the words HAPPY NEW YEAR stamped all over. Not that Cappy or Magician looked any better. They also wore as similar items effectively covering their tactical gear and helping them blend in with the crowds. Just what he wanted.
“Sarah, here,” Cappy motioned to Groppy Hands, “said she needs a bathroom, stat.” He shot a look—as best as he could behind his “sunglasses” to Romeo and Magician. “The building across the street has one they can use.” It had several actually. They had all memorized the blueprints they obtained from county records in order to execute the op.
“Yup,” Romeo agreed, nodding his head, making Cappy dizzy with all the adornments bobbing with him.
Magician wound her hands through both guy’s elbows. “Good idea. Talon’ll let us in.”
Cappy could’ve kissed her, not that her good looks did anything for him in the libido department. He preferred his woman to have a bit more…substance to offset his six-two, heavily muscled physique.
“Yeah, yeah,” Talon grumbled through the comms. “Give me a minute.”
11:32 pm. They didn’t have a minute. “Let’s hit it.” Cappy draped an arm around Sarah/Groppy Hands and urged her toward the crosswalk. Intoxicated Girl latched on to Romeo and an irritated frown flitted across Third Girl’s brow right before she scrambled to claim Romeo’s other side. Music blasted from downed windows as the cars passed and if Cappy wasn’t so strung out on completing this mission, he’d have enjoyed the carefree, party atmosphere.
Trooping across the busy four lane avenue, Cappy, Romeo, and Magician joined in on the banter and shouting, and acting as if they too swallowed an entire stock of liquor. Not surprisingly, by the time approached the revolving door to 10865, he and his operatives had managed to work their way into the center of the group. A shadow passed in front of the single plain glass door beside the revolving set a moment before he heard the satisfying snick. Thank God. Talon had done one thing right.
The skin along his spine tightened. This was it. The weakest point in the entire op. Echo could have operators stationed just beyond the doors, waiting to pick them off. It’d be game over. Talon may have unlocked the door, but that action for damn sure notified Snowman, Echo Squad’s C.O., that Delta was moving in for the strike.
Nothing to be done but play it out now.
He hung back enough to force one of the young guys to open the door for the group. Everything inside him wanted to assume the “stack” position and break left, while Romeo broke right, and Magician covered the rear as they sniffed out the enemy, but he couldn’t. He had to play the part and maintain the confusion the civilians brought to the plate.
Intoxicated Girl jumped with a small shriek, causing the hair on Cappy’s arms to stand on end. He whipped his focus over to see a pair of black soles on a downed man slowly disappear around the corner.
“E minus one,” Talon whispered in Cappy’s earpiece. “Used the juice so he’ll be out for the next hour.”
In the UH-1Y Huey on the way over from SBG’s Training Facility, the instructor had slapped a package of syringes onto each of their thighs and gave them all clearance to use the fast-acting, non-lethal drug on Echo, and warned that Echo would also be carrying a set. Cappy had slid the four needles out of the pouch and stuffed them into his side pocket a moment before he and the team fast-roped onto the top of a building, a mile south of here.
“Bathroom’s through there,” Cappy stated, wresting the attention away from the hallway and pointing to the door behind the long, empty desk. It wasn’t.
Groppy Hands/Sarah took off and lunged for the closed door. Before Cappy could slow the momentum, the rest of the partiers followed their friend and tripped over each other piling through the doorway.
Romeo vaulted through the stunned revelers, pulling a syringe out of his side pocket and driving the tip into the Echo Squad female’s side. He caught the woman, obviously responsible for manning the security station, before she fell to the ground, enfolding her against his chest. As if he hadn’t just knocked her out, he slurred with joy, “ISIS! So good to see you!” His wacky sunglasses had been knocked askew and the champagne bottle and glass danced wildly on top of his head.
Only Romeo could get away with that getup.
“E minus two,” Magician murmured, probably for Wraith and Talon’s benefit.
Cappy bowed. “Sorry,” he oozed to the group, feigning intoxication. “My bad. I meant it’s that way.” He pointed to a set of doors on the other side of the lobby. The party crew stumbled out of the room and Cappy checked his watch. 11:39 pm. Damn.
“Romeo, Magician, clear out,” Cappy ordered, straightening now that the group was gone. “Head for the CEO’s office. I’ll watch from here and warn you if anyone’s about to ambush you.”
Romeo jerked a thumb toward the bathrooms.
“I got them,” Cappy instructed, waving his hand in dismissal. “We’re running out of time.”
Magician rolled a chair over to Romeo and he gently placed Isis on the seat. Once he positioned her so she’d stay without sliding to the floor, he and Magician fled.
“I’m in the server room,” Talon’s cold voice broke into Cappy’s study of the six monitors. “No one’s here. Odd, but I’m not questioning it.”
Unease slid down Cappy’s spine. Had they walked into a trap or had the guy Talon dispatched earlier been responsible for that part of Echo’s security? He prayed for the latter.
“Excellent,” Cappy responded, spotting his operative in the lower right hand corner of the feeds and watching as he zeroed in on the server. In another monitor, Romeo and Magician had found the stairs and their steady pace already had them to the fourth level.
The security feeds weren’t wired with sound but he swore he heard the Bing! as unexpectedly, the elevator doors opened on the twelfth floor. A shaft of light poured onto the carpeted floor and out tripped the two young party guys.
Shadowed movement, just off-camera, blurred into focus, but before he could call out a warning, the operator’s suit flared bright red.
“E minus three,” Wraith’s voice stated calmly into his earpiece.
Lights flashed and danced on the female’s suit and the “terminated” Echo Squad member hung her head. The two guys jolted from their frozen stances and pointed, obviously talking to the “felled” woman.
“Virus loaded,” Talon announced and the black screen on the computer beside him pixelated until a bright yellow smiley face, complete with party hat, appeared on the screen with the words “HAPPY NEW YEAR” scrolling underneath.
A shadow in the upper stairwell caught Cappy’s attention and he activated his throat mic. “Romeo and Magician, target moving in your direction, one floor above you near the tenth level.”
“Check,” they both answered, stopping at the ninth floor’s exit.
“I’ve got you covered,” Wraith chimed in, “if you can lure him beyond that wall of offices, I’ll take care of it.”
Magician leaned over the railing and aimed her gun upwards. Red bursts reflected off the white railings and cement. The target veered closer to the wall but didn’t stop his downward momentum.
“He’s still coming toward you,” Cappy supplied, “but we’re running out of time. Talon, head to the CEO’s office. Use the elevator.”
The man’s blond head ducked out of the server room, darted to the two elevators, pressed the button on the panel, and crouched low in the left recess. The other elevator opened and he jumped inside, slamming his body sideways to disappear from view.
Romeo and Magician flung the stairwell door open and jogged through. It only took a second for Cappy to find them in the feeds since the building was so quiet at this time of night.
Squeak. Pound. Pound. Pound. Cappy jerked his head toward the monitor showing the area beyond the Security room’s door. A figure dressed in dark clothing cleared the hallway, the rubber on his combat boots protesting the fast movement against the tile floor, and ran straight toward Cappy.
Cappy ducked on the other side of the large metal desk and yanked his SIG-Sauer P226 from its holster. The magazine holding the laser components made his usually comfortable piece feel awkward and wrong, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He crouched low and focused his sight down the barrel.
The pounding ceased and the hairs on Cappy’s arms raised, his instincts warning him the man was just outside.
Cappy didn’t move an inch, just waited.
Thirty long seconds later, the door flung open and before the man could ascertain his surroundings, Cappy rapidly pulled the trigger. Snowman’s suit lit up, tiny red lights blinked everywhere the material was exposed.
Cappy had aimed for the head and heart.
“FUCK!” Snowman shouted, pointing his gun upward and glaring at the ceiling.
“Sorry,” Cappy said gruffly, truly meaning it. “I had to take the shots.”
The man’s gaze narrowed onto Isis’s unconscious body, his jaw ticking from fury. “I know.”
“E minus four,” Cappy announced for the benefit of his team.
“No, E minus five,” Romeo retorted. “Got the fucker as he passed my cubicle.”
Cappy wanted to whoop but knew that’d be completely inappropriate and disrespectful to the man in front of him. “We just terminated the last of your team.”
Echo Squad’s leader squared his shoulders and met Cappy’s eyes. “You guys are good.”
“Got the laptop, heading back down with the civilians,” Talon stated, making Cappy’s day.
11:54 pm. They were going to make it. “Check. Thanks for herding them back downstairs.”
The anger cleared from Snowman’s face and a smirk formed at the corner of his mouth. “Civilians? Really? Damn ingenious.” His gaze strayed to the top of Cappy’s head. “I can’t take you seriously with ‘HAPPY’ and ‘NEW YEAR’ waving at me like a drunk sailor.”
Cappy laughed, grabbing the obnoxious shades off the table. “My future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades,” he quoted the Timbuk3 lyric as he slid the neon pink sunglasses on.
“Christ.” Snowman laughed and wiped his face. “I can’t believe I lost to a group decked out like its Mardi Gras. I’m never going to hear the end of this.”
Cappy chuckled. “Hell no.”
Cappy and Snowman’s cellphone’s rang at the same time. They each pulled the devices from the clips on their belts. The second he registered it was Headquarters calling he opened the channel on his comms and indicated to Snowman they could answer.
“Congratulations, Delta Squad,” Victor Dalmingo, the newly appointed CEO of SBG after a tragedy befell his predecessors, lauded over their speakerphones. “You’ve passed the final test.”
Relief and exhilaration turned his limps to rubber and only sheer will allowed him to maintain his position instead of sinking into the other computer chair.
“Echo Squad,” Victor’s tone hardened and Snowman winced.
“I know,” Snowman answered calmly, and Cappy felt for the guy. The few glimpses Cappy had seen back at the training facility showed the man had the chops to be a formidable leader. “My team fucked up too much tonight and we were sloppy. We need to go back through the drills again. Delta definitely earned the win.”
Cappy blinked. Damn. It took a strong man to admit what Snowman just did. His respect for the C.O. raised to a whole new level.
Cappy flipped his gaze to the voice beyond Snowman’s shoulder and bit back his laughter. Groppy Hands/Sarah, Intoxicated Girl, Third Girl, and both young men filled the doorway like something out of a cartoon.
“I want a flashing suit!” Intoxicated Girl exclaimed, her glow-in-the-dark vest now shining brightly in the dim lighting was apparently not obnoxious enough.
A throat cleared on the speakerphone.
Oh damn. Victor had no clue who was talking. “We’ve, uh, got some friends with us.”
“Happy New Year!” Third Girl shouted, craning her neck around the doorjamb as if looking for someone. Most likely Romeo.
“Same to you, Veronica,” Victor answered, jolting Cappy. How—
“Squads,” Victor stated sharply, reigning in Cappy’s questions, “meet a few employees in operation support.”
Cappy blinked. Support?
“They were instructed to have a good time and cause a minor interference.”
Huge grins split across their ruddy faces and a few of them energetically waved. He couldn’t help but return a smile. Well, they definitely took the “good time” directive seriously.
Romeo and Magician appeared with Talon and Wraith moving in from behind. Members of Echo (the ones not knocked out) curiously looked on as they too forced their way into the room. The red lights on their “shot” members still blinked and flashed, feeding into the party atmosphere.
“The fact that you used them to complete the op is impressive, Delta.” Victor’s praise fed into Cappy’s exhilaration. “Shows the ability to think on your feet and adjust as needed. Impressive.” A short paused then his tone sharpened, “Now, everyone clear out—”
“Oh pooh,” Groppy Hands pouted, threading her way through the steadily crowding room until she stood in front of Cappy. “It’s thirty seconds midnight. We can’t leave now.”
She hit the end button on his phone, effectively hanging up on Victor and Snowman must have done the same. Moving closer, she peered up at him with a twinkle in her green eyes. “Sorry about the kiss and the alcohol fumes.” The apology didn’t quite meet her eyes. She pushed his hand holding the phone out of the way and molded herself against him. “Had to sell it and all that.”
“Indeed,” Cappy murmured, wrapping an arm around her waist. “Remarkable job.”
Her smile lit up her whole face and then it hit him. Cappy threw his head back and laughed. They had done it. He had done it. Led his team to victory without any “casualties.” Delta Squad was going to be activated.
The noise level grew louder and the countdown began, “Ten, nine, eight…”
His eyes dropped to her mouth and her tongue coated her bottom lip. The adrenaline still coursing through him demanded an outlet. He tightened his hold and her breath caught. He might just wrangle more than a midnight kiss from the lovely Sarah.
“Three, two, one. HAPPY NEW YEAR!”