Cougar woke up all at once, suddenly. Something was wrong. He could tell that much, even if he couldn’t exactly say why, and it was on instinct that he kept still, kept his eyes closed, kept his breathing slow and even.
He was tied to a chair.
This was unusual, but hardly unheard of. He had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten there. Again—unusual, but hardly unheard of. This, he thought, should still be more concerning than it actually was. The alarm was buried somewhere under the sluggish pounding of his head.
He took stock. His head was pounding, which could mean that he had taken a hit. He didn’t seem to be wearing his mic or his earpiece, or—and here he risked rolling his head ever so slightly to the side to make sure—his hat. His boots were in place, and the rest of his clothes were intact. Damn. That meant that if he had let Jensen put a tracker there—
Memory came flooding back, and with it came a bit of clarity. He had been the eyes in the sky for Jensen, keeping watch while Jensen had been stealing some intel on Max’s operations. It had been quiet, he remembered that much. It had been quiet, and Jensen had been humming something under his breath, in that thoughtless way he had when he was so deep in what he was doing that he didn’t even realize he was making noise at all.
The room he was in seemed perfectly quiet, so he opened his eyes. Thankfully, it was empty, and Cougar had the perfect opportunity to test his bindings and look around. The walls were dull, gray, and uniform, corporate-style; the carpet was dusty and stained with disuse. He had been tied to the chair with a simple rope, but well enough that it would probably take quite a bit of time and effort to struggle free.
So he had been captured. Jensen, he thought again, nerves streaking through him like a lightning strike, and strained to look around him, behind him, hoping to catch a glimpse of his teammate. There was nothing, which could mean any one of a hundred things. He could be in the room next door. He could be perfectly safe, back on-site and wondering what the hell had happened to Cougar.
There was nothing for him to do but put it aside. Whatever the situation was, he couldn’t know or control it from here.
* * *
It only took a minute or two more for something to happen, so at least he didn't have to stew in impatience for long.
Off to the side, almost out of his line of sight, a door clicked open, letting in a sudden burst of sound. There were voices murmuring, fans whirring and electrical humming, and even something that sounded like a radio or a police scanner, nothing that Cougar could make out clearly.
“Yeah, he’s awake,” someone said from just outside the doorway. When he twisted against the ropes holding him in place, Cougar could just make out the edges of a group of figures making their way into the room, talking quietly enough among themselves that they had to be trying to keep him from overhearing.
They weren’t bothering to cover their faces, which made him grit his teeth against the nervous leap in his stomach. Usually, only the most confident people showed their faces in situations like this—either because they planned to kill him before he could cause any damage, or because they trusted they could deal with whatever revenge he might want to dish out.
A mask meant they planned to let him live long enough to tell someone what they looked like. A bare face was a death sentence.
But it didn’t take him long to realize that something wasn’t quite right. These men trickled into view more slowly than Cougar would have expected, keeping to the edges of the room. Only a few had weapons at all, and about half of the ones Cougar could see were worn in strange or uncomfortable ways, in the sort of places that looked good in movies but that were incredibly inconvenient in practice.
“He’s just staring,” one of the men said, possibly louder than he had intended.
That was—a strange thing to say, and equally strange was the way a couple of the others nodded, like they had expected—what, exactly? Was Cougar supposed to do something? He felt pretty confident that someone else was supposed to be taking charge of this whole situation, not the man who’d been knocked unconscious and tied to a chair.
Besides, it wasn’t like they weren’t staring back, and it was starting to get on his nerves.
“Did someone tell the boss he’s awake?” said someone just outside of Cougar’s line of sight. There were some murmurs of agreement, also out of sight, and that made the staring slightly more ominous. They weren’t just standing around.
They were waiting.
“Think he even understands English?” Again, that came from somewhere outside his line of sight, and Cougar managed to grit his teeth and keep his expression blank with a force of will.
He felt a burst of brief but intense pleasure at the idea of killing these men, one at a time, with a pistol pressed to their foreheads instead of a rifle shot. This was hardly surprising—what was surprising was the equally intense pleasure he took from the idea of giving them to Jensen first. Whatever hideously embarrassing torments Jensen would devise for them would be worth the wait before he put a bullet between their eyes.
Still. These were clearly incompetent kidnappers, nothing like the sort of men that Max would hire, and something wound tight in Cougar’s chest relaxed. It was a little hard to worry about unknown torments when his captors seemed more thrown off by the situation than he did.
“Wait. Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, check him for bugs or something? Before the boss gets here?” one of the men said, sounding a little embarrassed to be speaking up. He was tall and rail-thin, with the sort of pale face that made him look like he hadn’t seen true daylight for a couple years.
Like a gaggle of birds, they all swiveled their heads to look at Cougar, confusion clear on all their faces. “We could ask the boss,” one of the others said dubiously, when it had been made abundantly clear that none of them had the slightest idea how they ought to go about this.
Christ. He had managed to let himself get captured by the most idiotic kidnappers on the face of the planet. If the others found out about this, Cougar was never going to hear the end of it. Forget fear, forget adrenaline, forget being tied to a chair—this was almost laughable.
The first man spoke up again, clearly encouraged by the lack of mockery for his suggestion. “Or we could just take his clothes,” he suggested. “If he’s hiding anything, we’ll get it away from him.” That got a few strange looks, but no protests, and then the group stepped toward him almost as one.
And, abruptly, it was no longer funny. This was not his day, was it? Cougar bared his teeth, scowling and furious, but he already knew how this was going to end.
When the scuffle wrapped up he was once again tied firmly to the chair, this time in only his boxers and nothing more, ribs and wrists bruised and pride aching. His head was really throbbing now—someone had managed a solid hit to the knot on the back of his head where he assumed he’d been knocked out the first time around, hard enough to make his ears ring. He was better off than his attackers, though, many of whom were bleeding. And beyond that, managing to break the nose of the man who had suggested taking his clothes in the first place almost made the whole thing worthwhile.
He’d also gotten a good look at the rest of the men in the room, even the ones that had been lurking out of his line of sight. If he could make that information hurt later, he would, goddamn it. Hadn’t Jensen said once that he knew how to get people onto the Homeland Security watchlist?
He thought about that while he watched his clothes disappear out the door, along with most of the men who had been watching him, leaving only two or three men, the least bloody of the bunch, to keep an eye on him.
Yeah, the watchlist sounded good. Cougar didn’t know exactly what kind of strip-search the TSA agents would put on at the airport the next time they tried to board a plane, but he could still be pretty sure they would enjoy it even less than he had.
* * *
It took another ten minutes this time before the door clicked open again, long enough for Cougar to start to feel a little cold, which really just added insult to injury.
The man who came into the room had Boss written all over him, from the shine on his boots to the way he held his gun with just a little more confidence than anyone else, though that really wasn’t saying much.
Cougar guessed the man had seen a couple episodes of Breaking Bad, and now assumed he knew what it took to be a badass.
That was enough to let him stare blankly into the distance for a couple minutes more, letting everything that came out of the man’s mouth turn into static that he could easily ignore. There was nothing Boss could say to him worth hearing or responding to. Instead, this had just become a waiting game. How much time had passed since he’d been taken? How far had he been moved? How long would he need to stall before Jensen—before someone tracked him down? He was starting to seriously doubt he had all that much to worry about in the meantime, but there was always the chance that even idiots had something extra up their sleeves.
“Don’t feel like talking, huh?” Boss said, and Cougar tuned back in just in time to roll his eyes. “Well, I’ve brought someone in who knows all about you and your…gang. He has some questions for you, buddy. Let’s see if you aren’t a little more talkative when he’s through with you.” That—was actually mildly concerning, especially if it turned out their interrogator was more competent than the rest of them. Cougar perked up a little bit.
Boss turned and gestured, sending one of his minions scurrying to open the door and poke his head through. He said something that Cougar couldn’t make out, and pushed the door clear so that someone in the hallway could come in.
The man who walked through was nothing like Cougar had expected. He was short and mousy, and looked more nervous than anything else. More importantly, he was familiar, in a vague and half-remembered sort of way that had Cougar narrowing his eyes and wracking his memory. An incident in Brazil came to mind, with drug runners and a twitchy American informant that Roque had scared half to death.
Ah. This was that informant, then, and judging by the way he recoiled the moment he met Cougar’s eyes, he clearly remembered Cougar better than Cougar remembered him.
“Oh, shit,” he said, eyes wide in a pale face.
Cougar looked blandly back.
“This is the guy?” he said, rounding on Boss. “You said you caught one of the arms dealers, not one of them!”
“One of who?” Boss said, and Cougar was starting to think that someone had made a mistake of some kind. It did nothing for the simmering resentment under his skin.
“He’s military,” Twitchy Informant said, proving once and for all that these couldn’t be Max’s guys. Max knew them, knew better. “He’s—he’s black ops, man, he and his team took out a whole gang in South America a few years back. Oh, shit.”
Boss looked confused, uncertainty creeping across his face.
“Tell me you got his team,” Twitchy practically ordered.
Boss was already shaking his head. “He was alone,” he said, and the hard knot of concern Cougar had been doing his best to ignore disappeared under a rush of relief. Jensen was alive. Jensen was fine—even better, Cougar realized, Jensen knew he was missing, would have known the second that Cougar had stopped responding. Knowing his team, they were probably on their way already.
Twitchy looked thoroughly spooked now, like he was expecting Clay and the Losers to burst through the door at any moment, guns blazing. “Oh, shit,” he said yet again, and Boss finally lost his temper.
“Would you stop whining and explain?” he snapped.
“Dude, this guy’s not with the arms dealers,” Twitchy said urgently. “He and his team take out guys like that in their sleep. And when they find out he’s missing…”
Cougar grinned, imagining the inevitable chaos, just as Boss glanced over at him. Boss did a visible double take, and took a very gratifying step away from Cougar’s chair.
* * *
It actually took less time than Cougar might have expected to make the explanations all around. Twitchy Informant rambled his way through a story about how he knew Cougar, and how bad of an idea it would be to irritate him or his very well-armed and government-trained killing machine friends; Boss slowly turned splotchy and pale, like curdled milk.
Boss, looking gratifyingly terrified, then stammered his way through his own excuses. They were environmental rights activists—whatever that was supposed to mean. Cougar took note of their group name only so that Jensen could hunt them down online and destroy their credit scores later. They were standing against a group of arms dealers—who, in Cougar’s general experience, were neither more nor less damaging to the environment than anyone else, but clearly logic and critical thinking were not requirements for membership in this group. Now that they knew that Cougar was on the side of peace, justice, and the American military-industrial complex, would he be willing to help them defeat this great evil?
Cougar stared but didn’t dignify that with an answer.
Boss accepted this. At least the man wasn’t a total idiot. “Are you going to attack us if we let you go?”
Cougar shook his head.
Or maybe he was an idiot, since he was apparently willing to just take Cougar at his word. Cougar wasn’t exactly about to complain, since it meant that Boss said the best thing that Cougar had heard in hours: “Untie him.”
* * *
Cougar shook his hands, getting the blood flowing again now that his wrists were free. “I need to make a call,” he said, speaking for the first time since he’d woken up, and the rasp in his voice turned the words into a low growl. He didn’t bother to clear his throat. It got his point across well enough.
The man’s nervous tension spiked. Cougar knew before the man spoke that he wasn’t going to like what was about to come out of his mouth. “Um, you see, we don’t actually have any phones. They’re a drain on energy and resources, and e-waste typically contains huge amounts of lead and toxic substances—”
Cougar paused halfway out of his chair, closed his eyes, and took a slow, deep breath.
“—but there’s a payphone right outside…!” Boss’s voice actually cracked, squeaking up into another register, and the man cleared his throat a few times in quick succession.
Sure. Fine. Whatever. Cougar shook his head, let it go, and stood up the rest of the way. “Clothes. Now.”
“You heard the man!” Boss gestured at his men with small, jerky motions, practically shooing them out of the room.
Another pause, another spike in tension. “Um,” one of the men said. It was the one that had suggested taking Cougar’s clothes in the first place, and Cougar had a feeling he already knew where this was going.
* * *
Someone had, apparently, had gotten the bright idea to burn his clothes in the hopes that any weapons or tracking devices would be destroyed. Cougar didn’t have that many belongings to begin with, being a fugitive on the run from the United States government and all, and the loss of even that much was infuriating. The loss for a reason that stupid was making his trigger finger start to itch for his gun. Any gun. At this point, Cougar wasn’t feeling picky.
Boss took one look at his face, decided that he valued his life, and started apologizing before Cougar could even take a breath to say—something. Even Cougar didn’t know what would have come out of his mouth at that point.
Maybe he would have just started screaming.
And maybe that came across in his expression, because Boss and his gang managed to find a pair of pants from somewhere quicker than Cougar would have thought possible. They didn’t fit, and there weren’t shoes or a shirt to go along with them, but at this point Cougar was resigning himself to the fact that he was going to have to take what he could get. At least no one had been stupid enough to fuck with his gun. Cougar had done a quick check when some minion had brought the rifle back to him, and found that the chamber had been cleared and the weapon returned safely to its case. He'd do a more thorough check-up before he used it again; for now, he threw the case in its carry-sling over his bare shoulder, the weight familiar and settling.
“Let’s get you out of here!” Boss said, putting on a front of manic cheerfulness that was making Cougar want to wring his neck, just a little. Nonlethally. Clay would be upset if Cougar started strangling people now, when he was so close to resolving this whole situation without a body count.
“We’ve only got paper bills, so we’ll have to grab some change for the payphone on our way out!”
Maybe Clay would understand, actually. Cougar snatched the dollar that Boss was waving around out of the man’s hand and started walking before the temptation got too strong to resist.
* * *
It turned out that he was being held in what looked like a standard office building, complete with watercoolers, cubicles, and beige carpet that was old enough to feel almost sticky against Cougar’s bare feet. He put it out of his mind, following Boss silently through darkened hallways.
The vending machine in what seemed to be the break room whined for nearly a full minute when Cougar put his money into it, and then spat Cougar’s dollar bill out. With more patience than he was truly feeling, Cougar shoved it in again, only for it to come straight back. His eye twitched involuntarily.
“Oh, I think it’s too wrinkled,” Boss said, embarrassment edging into his obvious panic. “The only other bill I have is a twenty…?”
This whole thing was becoming a little too slapstick for his taste, and Cougar forced himself to relax before he ground his teeth together so hard that he broke his jaw. He took a deep breath in, let it out.
And then he shoved his rifle case around and used it like a battering ram to crash into the glass front of the machine, which made a very gratifying sound as it smashed. Boss made a wordless noise of disapproval, cutting off when Cougar shot him a glare. Carefully, he reached into the machine and flicked open the locked front from inside, and from there it was easy enough to get into the cashbox so he could fill his pockets with—
Nickels. The cashbox was filled with nickels, and nothing else.
Cougar had never been one to let his temper get the better of him, but if there was ever a moment for it, it would have been then, with an aching knot on the back of his head, wearing someone else’s too-large jeans, breaking into a vending machine like a petty thief for a handful of nickels to use on a payphone. Screaming was starting to seem more and more like the best option in this scenario. He could practically hear Jensen’s voice in the back of his mind, ranting about cell phones, have you heard of them? This is the 21st century, not the Dark Ages, Jesus.
Cougar was going to take those nickels, damn it. He was going to take all of them.
Boss made a funny noise when Cougar grabbed the first handful, but didn’t stop him, not then, and not after the second handful, or the third—Cougar stopped only when he felt that the pockets of his acquired jeans would hold no more, and even then he felt a little disappointed by the last spare dollar or so in coins lying abandoned in the metal cashbox, as childish as the feeling might be.
It would have to do. Carefully, Cougar stepped away from the vending machine, avoiding the visible shards of glass, and slung his rifle case back over his shoulder. Then he turned to Boss, who was watching him like he was a feral dog about to bite, and raised his eyebrow, as if to say, Well? What now?
“I’ll, uh, I’ll show you to the door,” Boss said.
Cougar raised his other eyebrow. Get on with it.
“This, uh, this way,” Boss said, tripping over himself, and turned to walk down the hallway, keeping Cougar carefully in sight.
Cougar lowered his eyebrows and followed.
* * *
The door swung open noiselessly under his hands, and he stepped out without hesitation, ignoring the rough concrete against his bare feet. The early morning air was cool, but this was Southern California; even at its coldest, the weather never really dropped down too far. Cougar would survive.
Boss made as if to step through the door behind him, and Cougar stopped him with one hand pressed firmly against the center of his chest.
“I’ll just…stay here, then,” Boss said weakly.
Cougar gave him a gentle shove to get him moving, and let the door slam shut in his face.
The payphone was across the street. Looking around, Cougar could see at least one traffic camera pointed toward it, and there were certainly others nearby. It was possible that Jensen had already tracked him this far, and if so, it was safe enough to assume that he would be watching.
It was a full dollar to make a call. Cougar fished the correct change out of his pocket one nickel at a time, fed them into the machine, and dialed.
It rang, and rang, and rang. Cougar wondered if it was possible to set the thing on fire with the power of his thoughts alone.
The generic voicemail message began to play, and Cougar put the phone back on the hook with more force than strictly necessary. The plexiglass walls of the phone booth rattled.
And again, Cougar fed nickels one at a time into the machine, counting them out with a fatalistic sort of fury—all twenty of them, clattering one by one through the slot. This time, as he dialed, he stared directly at the traffic camera he had spotted earlier, making sure that his expression conveyed just how thoroughly unimpressed he was with this whole situation.
He was cold. His head ached. His clothes were gone, his feet were bare, and his hat was missing in action. There was absolutely nothing that could make this situation any less terrible, except—
“Road kill grill,” Jensen chirped. His voice sounded tinny over the terrible phone speakers. It was possibly the best sound Cougar had ever heard. “You kill ‘em, we grill ‘em!”
“Jensen,” Cougar said, and despite everything, despite the adrenaline and aggravation of the last few hours, only just managed not to smile.