John (Guardian Defenders #3) - Kris Michaels

Chapter 1

John Smith leveled his M-4 and stared down the sights before he dropped it and slapped a clip of ammunition into the receiver. With practiced ease, he drew the charging handle back and chambered a 5.56-millimeter round. His thumb grazed the firing indicator to ensure it was on ‘Safe’ before he shouldered the weapon. He grabbed his backpack by the carrying handle.

“You ready for this?” Luke Wagner asked his question as he approached. He’d met the operative he knew as Tempest at the Rose when he’d installed machinery and trained Joseph on how to use the passport press. When he was there, he’d run the Rose’s training courses with Luke. He’d never beaten the man, but there was a thin margin in his defeat.

He squared his shoulders. They’d done this dance four times before and they’d found nothing. The variables of combining the numbers as latitude and longitude were numerous. Thankfully, they’d eliminated several as nonplayers without sending a team. It was safe to say there was no enemy stronghold at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. They had one more location to search after this one. The reality that this could be another failed mission before it even started weighed on him, but he’d follow it through to the end. “I am.”

Luke rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck before he spoke again. “Mind me asking a question?”

“Shoot.” He’d answer what he could.

“Who is she to you?” Tempest dropped his snowshoes and took a seat on the log John had just vacated.

“My sister.” Tempest raised his eyebrows, and John chuckled before he clarified, “We both worked for a certain agency doing certain things. The agency decided we were… liabilities. She was killed and they tried to do the same thing to me.”

“So, what are you hoping to find?” Tempest talked to the ground as he attached the wide pad to his boot.

John sighed and shook his head, staring at the frozen forest ahead of him. “Answers, I guess. Why? Who ordered it? I’m officially dead, so the inquires that were made by Guardian had to be subtle. I’ve moved on. Hell, I learned how to manage a ranch and I’d never seen a cow before I showed up in South Dakota.”

Tempest laughed and tossed his other snowshoe down. “Amazing what we can become when we need to.”

“Thing is, I like it. Maybe better than anything I’ve ever done.”

“Done a lot?” Tempest retied his boot after snapping his snowshoe on, just like he’d done to the previous boot.

“More than you could possibly imagine.” John snorted. As a child, he’d been a master grifter, grew up, got caught, and became a sniper for his country before he and Lori worked designing deep-cover identifications. His sister had introduced him to that career. Lori was also the reason he’d left the service. His father had been murdered and she needed him.

“I can imagine a lot. You’re not the only one with a past, although with the protection orders we have from the very top of the agency, your past must be very interesting. Any wife or kids out there?” Luke stood up and grabbed his M-4 from where he’d propped it.

He appreciated the sudden change of subject. He wasn’t going to talk about his past, and Luke had just informed him he wasn’t going to press. He chuckled, “Nope. You?”

“Wife, or soon to be.” Tempest smiled and winked at him.

“Well then, you watch your ass out there today.”

“Damn straight, and right back at you. If I bring you home with so much as a scratch, I think the Kings would string me up.”

John snorted. “Frank just wants his ranch manager back.”

“If that’s what you think, you don’t know those people. They are all about family. Everyone who works for them is important, but those they’ve taken under their wing? Nah, son, your sister may be gone, but you’ve got more family now than you’ll ever need.”

“Huh.” Well, that piece of the puzzle slid into place.

“What?” Tempest looked at him.

“Makes sense now.”

“Again, what?”

John spoke the words he’d heard numerous times but hadn’t really assigned a meaning to. “Whatever it takes.”

“Because we’re family. Yeah, that’s right. We’ll do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.” Luke turned and nodded to the team’s leader. “Skipper, we’re set.”

Travis motioned and the men moved away from the vehicles. As they worked their way northeast from the dead-end road just past Keewtinohk Converter Station in Gillam, a small town in Manitoba, they followed the Nelson River. The