Who is trying to kill the members of an elite special ops team that worked off the radar in Iraq in the ’90s? It’s up to Dan Stagg to track down the survivors — the men with whom he stormed an undefended surveillance station, killing everyone inside. And now, many years later, the team is being targeted in what seems like a series of unrelated attacks.
Dan teams up with his old comrade Al Benson, once a rising star of the USMC, now a respectable married civilian with a few secrets to hide. As they dig deeper into the secrets of the past, Dan discovers that Benson’s looking for more than just answers. An explosive affair threatens everyone’s future, and connects Dan to a past he thought he’d left behind.
Excerpted with Permission From Straight Up: A Dan Stagg Novel
Now, those of you who know me well will have rolled your eyes when I said I worked in a gym. ‘Oh yes, Dan, a gym. A place where guys come and take their clothes off. How convenient.’ I might bust your chops for that, or I might say ‘You’ve got me all wrong, I’m in a relationship now and I don’t fool around,’ and you’d pretend to believe me because you’d prefer to keep your limbs intact. But of course, you’re absolutely right. My official job at The Strong Box – ‘Lowell’s Premier Fitness and Martial Arts Facility’ (ie the only gym in town) – is personal trainer, specializing in kickboxing and other legitimized forms of violence. In between clients, who are sparse, I sit at the front desk, answer the phone, pick up wet towels in the locker room, mop the floors and generally clear up other people’s shit. It’s kind of like working for Uncle Sam, without the killing.
Of course there are opportunities, and yes, I’ve taken them. Not with the members: I can’t afford to lose this job, and the boss made us sign a piece of paper agreeing that any fraternizing with the clients would lead to instant dismissal. I guess a few too many horny housewives got banged up by their personal trainers. They’re safe from me, but their husbands might not be. Nobody need know that. I’m not what you’d call out at work.
I didn’t sign anything about co-workers, though. People move around a lot in the fitness industry – there’s a high staff turnover even in a little joint like the Strong Box, college grads trying to get a toehold in the business, former athletes whose competition days are over, even a few ex-military men like me. They’re all physically fit, and at a rough guess I’d say about 40 per cent of the men could be persuaded. You get talking about your bodies, you hit the showers after locking up at night, you compare abs or delts or whatever fucking muscle you like, and Bob’s your uncle. And it was just as I was putting the key in the ignition that I remembered I was sharing a shift with Lee, the young English guy who was doing a masters in sports science in a college over towards Boston. Like me he was living in cheap rented accommodation in Lowell, like me he was paying the rent by working at the gym, and in the couple of weeks he’d been there we’d really enjoyed complaining about stuff. He was 21, his first time abroad, his first time living away from home, and he was homesick. I guess I should also mention that he was tall and lean and had played rugby back at home, and hoped one day to play for his country. He had the English rose tattooed on his left pectoral muscle. ‘I want to wear that on my shirt one day,’ he said, the first time I saw him naked. If I had my way he’d never wear clothes again, but I just nodded and said something about sport.
He was already waiting when I pulled up to the kerb, leaning against the wall, wearing jeans and a thick sweater and a watch cap; it was September, the days still warm but the mornings cold as ice, a promise of the winter to come. He’d found a patch of thin early sunshine and was basking in it like a lizard, soaking up the warmth. His face was striking rather than handsome, particularly with the strong shadows accentuating his high cheekbones and deep brow. His eyes were close-set, his mouth large; in repose, he could look quite stupid, a brainless meathead. I liked this. I spent my career giving orders to guys like Lee, and I always had a soft spot for the dumb ones. When he heard the car door slamming he opened his eyes and smiled.
He stood up straight, pulled his cap off and ran a large hand over his head. The hair was cut in some crazy style, buzzed at the side but long at the top and back, a kind of modified Mohawk that would look fucking awful on anyone over 22. When you’re Lee’s age you can get away with it – just. His nails were bitten down to the quick, and he had a band-aid on his right middle finger.
I shook his hand, then inspected his fingers. ‘What’s the matter, Lee? Can’t you afford regular food? Been eating yourself?’
He pulled his hand away, stuffed it into his pocket, ashamed of the childish habit. ‘Yeah, right, I know.’
He had a habit of mumbling which, combined with a thick London accent and an unfamiliar vocabulary, made communication interesting. ‘How are you mate?’
‘I’m good. You?’
‘Yeah.’ He did a nervous little sidelong smile, hissed between his teeth. ‘All right. Cold innit.’
‘Let’s open up.’ I checked my watch. ‘Half an hour before we let ‘em in.’
‘I need a shower.’ He sniffed his armpit and grimaced. ‘I fucking stink.’
I scratched my 24-hour stubble. ‘And I need a shave. Come on.’
The Strong Box occupied the basement of two retail units, an outdoor clothing store and a tackle and bait shop, accessed by a metal staircase and a tiny front area into which garbage always blew. Our first job was to clear out the night’s debris.
‘I’ll do this,’ I said, opening the door: as the senior employee, I was entrusted with the keys. ‘You go get the water running.’
‘Cheers mate. I owe you.’
Yeah, and I can think of a thousand ways to make you pay, I thought, watching his ass recede into the gloom of the interior. I kicked the trash into a little pile and dumped it in the bin, hoping there were no sharps. Usual stuff: burger wrappings, cigarette butts, cans. I needed to wash my hands.
I could hear the shower as soon as I walked in; good boy, he’d done as he was told, first thing in the morning it could take five minutes for the water to get up to a bearable temperature. The boiler was always breaking down, which made for pissed off members and smelly employees. The Strong Box was not exactly high-end.
Releasing September 8, 2015