First Chapter of Hushed Guardian

Chapter One


Brandon


Six years later...


“Our window is small. We need to be in and out in under ten minutes.” Tobias, head operative of my unit, points out the most direct entrances of the Sicilian militant compound we’re about to raid. Our objective is simple—seize the operation of an underage sex-trafficking ring with minimal causalities. “Martin, Copen, and Ellis will go in via the west entrance, Trace and Lloyd via the east, and Charlton and I will take the north.”


Tobias spins back around to face the group of twelve heavily-armored men hanging off his every word. It’s like this everywhere we go. From the moment I joined his team as a ‘consultant’ to repay the debt I owed when he kept my ass out of jail after the stunt Grayson and I pulled at the airport saw us being arrested for terrorism to right now, he’s forever admired and respected.


Many men have come and gone from Tobias’s team the past six years, but not once have they left on bad terms. Tobias is big, crude, and Russian, but he’s also one of the most respected members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


He climbed the ranks quickly when he caught the eye of the Associate Deputy Director after a sting in Ravenshoe almost eighteen years ago. A Russian sanction was attempting to sink a foothold in the sleepy town where Tobias was once a detective.


There was no way in hell he’d let that happen.


I don’t usually endorse rumors, but the story about how Tobias singlehandedly took down a consortium over ten years in the making is hard not to believe. The story was shared with me many times during the three years I worked as a ‘consultant’ for Tobias’s team, over a dozen times during my six-month stint to become an official member of the Bureau, and more than a handful of times the past three years I’ve been a field agent, yet, the facts have never altered. Not once. They stayed exactly the same.


I can tell you from both experience on and off the job, that doesn’t happen unless it’s true. So, as the rumors have it, Tobias ran a Russian sanction out of his hometown for one reason and one reason only—his daughter, Isabelle.


The tales never included the reason why his daughter was the sole focus of his campaign, and her name was never mentioned in any of the write-ups he logged with the Bureau, but it must have been important. Even now, years after Grayson unknowingly disclosed Tobias’s operations are solely chosen on if Tobias sees the eyes of his daughter in the eyes of the children we’re endeavoring to free from captivity, his team is still fighting the crusade he commenced over eighteen years ago.


Usually, operatives like his fold within six months. If they’re not shut down completely due to a lack of resources, they’re passed on to less-experienced agents whose funding would be sliced to a pittance of what’s needed to bring down a massive cartel ring like the one we’re endeavoring to seize today.


The only reason that hasn’t happened is because despite Tobias’s team not netting the primary player of an operation believed to be worth over 7.8 billion dollars, his team has notched up an impressive number of arrests since it was founded. They have disbanded more notorious crime syndicates the past six years than all the other divisions combined for the entirety of the Bureau’s history.


Some say Tobias’s unusual fondness for the man we’re hunting is the reason he’s failed to snag the number-one-wished-for-item on the FBI’s hit list. Others say it’s because Henry Gottle is always one step ahead of the authorities.


I’m somewhere in the middle.


It’s clear Tobias’s relationship with the mob boss of New York City blurs the line between corruption and righteousness, but Mr. Gregg taught me it’s okay to cross lines when it comes to keeping your family safe. As long as you know how to find your way home, you can cross as many boundaries deemed necessary to uphold your pledge. You just eventually have to return to the right side of the law.


It was those infamous words ringing through my ears six years ago that keep my feet planted on the ground when Melody boarded her flight to California. They also had me looking at the bigger picture when Tobias explained exactly how long the piece of string I was endeavoring to unravel was.


At the start, my ‘consultant’ position with the Bureau involved scrubbing toilets, shredding files, polishing Tobias’s boots, and any other mundane task he required me to do. Tobias milked it for all it was worth, and in all honesty, I hated him for it. My girlfriend had left me, my brother had supposedly killed himself, and my father won his bid to become the District Attorney of New York.


My life was shit, but Tobias never gave me time to dwell on it.


Grayson didn’t fare much better than me. At Tobias’s request, he was transferred to work under his father’s division of the Bureau. It was a temporary, six-month rookie exchange, but to Grayson, it was more punishment than cleaning up after men who ate way too much fiber.


We were both in the shit—literally.


Grayson sucked it up, portrayed the ideal agent, and was returned to Tobias’s team as a new man within four months.


It took a shit ton more effort for me to get on Tobias’s good side.


Keeping my head down and my mouth shut added a handful of murmured merits to Tobias’s daily grunt regime, but it was only after he walked in on me packing up after his team at a firing range did he add sentences into the mix.


While Tobias’s crew washed off the lead burning their skin from target practice, I coated mine in it. It had been over a year since I had held a gun, so I was more than eager to discharge a few rounds, and perhaps some of the anger I was still harboring over Joey’s death and Melody’s affair.


The fifteen bullets in the gun’s magazine made the paper silhouette’s head non-existent, and the one in the chamber ensured even if the target had survived fifteen kill shots to the head, he would have wished he was dead because I shot him right in the cock.


Thinking back now, it seems a little immature, but at the time, it felt fucking good to disperse some of the rage festering in my gut.


I looked into Melody’s claims she had slept with someone the instant I was out of Tobias’s idea of lock-up. I went through the belongings she had left in her room in my family’s mansion, interviewed her friends, and I even sat through several of her lectures to see if anyone gave off any indication they were missing her as much as I was.


I found nothing, not a single shred of evidence to corroborate her claims. It was as if she hadn’t lied until I went to supervise the removal of the old oak tree between Joey’s childhood bedroom and mine.

As I sat at the window watching the arborist cut down the tree that had destroyed my family, I thought back to the many fond times I had looked at it. In particular, the last time Melody had climbed it.


For the first time in weeks, I smiled.


My happiness didn’t last long.


With one set of memories instigating the wish for more, I dragged an old shoebox full of photographs from the headboard of my bed to my desk. The six-strip of condoms my mom had snuck inside the day after Melody and I had given each other our virginities had been reduced to five, and an empty package was sitting in the waste-bin under my desk.


I’ve never once in my life craved a violent, all-in rage as I did that afternoon. I wanted to demolish my room as the arborist was doing to the oak tree. I wanted to smash every piece of furniture I owned before dragging my mattress outside to set in on fire. I wanted my room to feel as bare and as hollow as I felt, and I was willing to lose everything to do it.


But instead of doing any of those things, I placed the box of pictures back where they belonged, paid the tree chopper the exorbitant fee my father negotiated to have evidence of Joey’s death removed from our lives as soon as possible, then left my family ranch without so much as a backward glance.


I’ve never been back since.


It was that afternoon that Tobias caught me expelling my rage on a defenseless paper target. I was in the process of reloading the Sig Sauer P226’s magazine when Tobias said, “Liam always recruited the best officers, so how come he never mentioned you?”


Unaware his question was rhetorical, I replied, “The Bureau requires a degree. I was also too young.”

Tobias smirked a smug grin before he turned away and mumbled, “I wasn’t talking about the Bureau.”

His reply stumped me for days. I was truly lost. It was only while pondering over a decade of stories did pieces of the puzzle start falling into place.


After a quick google search, I discovered the university Wren and my mother attended is one of the highest CIA recruited universities in the country. Mr. Gregg attended the same university as his wife four years prior. He possessed as bachelor’s degree in political science that I can’t find payment for, had a 3.4 GPA, was an American citizen, and his tax records for his senior year stated he was a military operative who hadn’t left campus for more than a few days at a time.


It could have been a coincidence, but Tobias’s lack of denial when I brought it up the following week all but confirmed my suspicions. Tobias is quick to tell you when you’re wrong. His lectures last as long as my father’s, and sometimes, he even goes as far as using a spreadsheet to show you exactly where you went wrong, so for him to keep quiet, I knew I was on the money.


Furthermore, despite what the movies portray, US-born employees recruited and trained to work as Intelligence Officers for the National Clandestine Service (CIA) are never referred to as ‘agents.’ They’re called ‘Operations Officers’ or ‘Case Officers’ or some go by ‘Officer’ for short.


Tobias said ‘Officer.’ He doesn’t fumble over his words, and he has never cracked under pressure, so to this day, I’m confident he didn’t make his remark for no reason. Between cleaning urinals with a toothbrush, and making beds like I was an army cadet, I gave my theory a little more thought.


AKA—I snooped while Tobias and his team were sleeping.


Without Grayson’s help, it took me eight weeks to unearth information that now would take me six minutes. The evidence wasn’t damning, but it did add a stack of wood onto my claims that Mr. Gregg was an Operations Officer for the CIA.


He was either that or a mobster.


I prefer my earlier theory.


Just like Tobias’s relationship with Henry Gottle gains criticism, so has links between the CIA and certain mafia syndicates. For decades, conspiracists have alleged connections between the CIA and organized crime. Rumors range from reputed members of the Chicago mob being killed days before government inquiries into the conspiracists’ claims to CIA officers colluding with members of the Bureau to cause gang-related violence. If the head of one crime syndicate takes out another, who’s going to mourn the loss?


Once again, I’m not a fan of rumors, especially ones that alter the more they’re shared, but from the photograph Grayson shared with Melody and me in the dress shop years ago, to the many phone conversations between Henry Gottle and Mr. Gregg noted in confidential FBI records, I can conclusively say they knew one another. I just haven’t deciphered how or why.


If Wren had been a defense attorney, their contact could have been brushed off as an acquaintance by association, but that isn’t the case. The meeting Tobias’s team intercepted between Mr. Gregg and Henry Gottle wasn’t the only one they had in the weeks leading to Liam and Wren’s death. They met a handful of times, including the night Melody said Crombie had tailed her mom from Mary’s Diner.


My focus returns to the present when Tobias says, “James and Rogers will run communications while the rest of you will enter via the south entrance.”


No one blinks an eye at Tobias referring to me by my middle name because as far as anyone in this room is concerned, my name is Brandon James. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and my father isn’t Vincent McGee, recently appointed Governor of New York. That would only make things awkward when rookie agents connected the dots because it’s not every day a federal agent is on the team hunting down his father.


I’ve known since I was young that my father is an evil man. Years of service reveal I am right. The only thing is, just like many of his ‘associates,’ he’s clever enough to keep himself out of jail. He hides bank records, keeps his hands clean by ensuring his name isn’t associated with anything shady, and believes his position of Governor makes him untouchable.


I’m determined to prove him wrong.


He got away with admissions fraud by stating the car he purchased with campaign funds was for his campaign leader. That’s how arrogant my father is. He doesn’t believe the authorities are smart enough to realize Florida and New York aren’t the same state, but because the Bureau would rather catch him for something bigger, they let his misdemeanor slide.


I won’t let a second slip-up pass without prosecution. It will only be a matter of time before he stumbles, and when he does, I’ll be there with my foot propped out, ready to aid in his fall.


While the agents check their weapons in preparation for the raid, Grayson scrubs at the beard that no longer looks like bumfluff before mumbling a curse word under his breath. He’s pissed, wrongly believing he is being excluded from the sting because he’s too close to the case to work it properly.

It’s not true. He’s one of the best field operatives in Tobias’s team, but his hacking skills are even better than that. He is the equivalent of three black hatters, and with Tobias needing eyes and ears in every room of the fortified warehouse to ensure his team isn’t walking into an ambush, he has to exclude Grayson from the raid.


Me, on the other hand, I anticipated being seconded to comms. I fucked-up four years ago by letting my past affect my future. Tobias is a great team leader, but he can hold a grudge as well as he can down a bottle of vodka and not get a hangover.


My error almost got me kicked out of the Bureau before I was even an official agent. It brought me back onto the straight and narrow, but the hit it caused my personal life is still being felt. The incident took Melody from being the girl I once loved to a girl I no longer know.


While working my jaw side to side to keep my annoyance on the down-low, I slot into a chair behind a bank of monitors. Grayson has already logged into servers that should be unhackable, so I commence working on establishing a connection with the main compound.


Criminal associations like the one we’re raiding tonight don’t store their assets at their residences, they use offsite compounds and commercial properties. The more valuable the asset, the more guards to watch them. This site has three men walking the property line, four guarding the main entrance, and another two in a watchtower.


Once Grayson breaks through the firewall keeping him out of the mainframe inside, I’m guessing there will be an additional dozen or so men inside. That’s around the standard number of goons for this type of operation.


The web we’re attempting to eradicate is massive. There are more than a dozen organizations sprouting off from it, and the list of suspects grows exponentially every day. Politicians, movie stars, drug lords, and a name I’m more than familiar with are only a handful of the men we’re chasing. It’s such a long process because this network wasn’t built overnight. It’s been operating longer than I’ve been born, and very rarely are the men helming the operations’ cooperative with the authorities.

Today’s sting will barely create a ripple to the empire as a whole, but it only takes one thread to loosen an entire web. That’s the thread we’re seeking today, and we’ll continue seeking until each member on our list of suspects has paid for their crimes, and men like my father realize no amount of power will save you from the law.


“Don’t forget to check the sleeping quarters this time around. There are usually a few men down there every raid testing the merchandise.” Grayson’s jaw tightens at the way I snarl ‘testing.’ This operation isn’t running drugs. They like underage women.


“Do you have a feed for the main residence?” Grayson asks, his tone curious.


I jerk up my chin. “Castro isn’t going anywhere soon.”


He gags when I point to Rimi Castro, suspected leader of a Sicilian crime syndicate currently based in New Mexico. He’s in bed with three women. None of them are his wife, and I doubt any of them are over the age of twenty-one. He likes them young, but his buyers like them even younger than that.


“What’s your total?”


Grayson ensures his live stream has every inch of the compound covered before moving for the infrared system to double-check his numbers. “Looks like twenty-three in total. Nine outside the compound, fourteen inside.” He relays that to Tobias through the radio headsets all the agents are wearing. They also have body cams and shoulder mics to stop any questions if our sting goes wrong.


Confident we have everything lined up, Tobias and the team climb into three blacked- out Escalades before testing communications. Once we give him the thumbs up, the operation starts. The two men in the tower are taken out first by a long-range sniper. One slumps into the wooden box they man eighteen hours straight while the larger of the two falls over the railing, landing smack bang between two guards manning the fence lines.


“Approach compromised. Sending message to Honey Pot. She’s naked.” I don’t mean the female agent we placed undercover in this operation is naked naked, it means she’s without backup and not carrying a weapon.


After switching my radio signal to a private channel, I say, “Infiltration negative. Target aware.” She can’t reply, but the quick donk, donk that sounds through my earpiece advises she heard me.


“Wait.”


Leesa, our Honey Pot, freezes immediately, narrowly missing four men sprinting through the open command center she’s tiptoeing toward. Usually, they wouldn’t give a whore a second look, but since she isn’t anywhere near the sleeping quarters at the back of the compound, their suspicions would rise as quickly as the sound of the AK-47s in the background of our feed.


“Move.”


While Leesa races for the computer responsible for the digital locks on the cages in the basement, I stray my eyes back to Castro. He’s still in bed entertaining his guests.


With my eyes back on the main monitor, and Leesa’s displaying she needs a twelve-digit sequence for access, I say, “Input the code exactly how I state. One wrong key, and you’ll be permanently locked out.”


After peering up at the camera blinking in the corner of the room, she nods. She looks scared. I’m not surprised. It isn’t every day a rookie agent goes undercover as a whore in a mafia syndicate.

Tobias had no choice but to pluck someone straight out of the academy. This job ages you very quickly. If he didn’t wade through a long list of graduates, his team would have never made it this far.


Leesa made quite the impression on Castro’s little brother, Paavo. He refused to share her with his men and has been seen multiple times the past month in a jewelry store buying her gifts. It’s been an almost seamless operation—almost too perfect.


“Are you ready?” I wait for Leesa to nod before relaying the string of text and numbers in front of me. “Delta, Juliet, three, hotel, bravo…” I stumble over my last word when I spot Castro moving in out of frame in the corner of my eye. He’s not adjusting girl number three’s hips so he can fuck her from behind, he’s throwing her off the bed. “Victor, kilo…”


While I continue reciting the passcode to Leesa, I ram my elbow into Grayson’s rib. He’s guiding agents through an almost pitch-black night, pointing out suspects lying in wait to kill them, while also remotely leading them through the warehouse, so they take the most direct route to the girls we’re endeavoring to seize.


I’ve just finished relaying the last digit of the code to Leesa when Grayson’s eyes stray to mine. When I point out Castro’s movements, I stumble onto something much more sickening than him fucking three girls at once. He’s speaking with someone, someone who can’t possibly be in two places at once, much less on two different live feeds. Castro can’t be liaising with Leesa at his residence while she’s staring directly at me from his off-site compound. It isn’t possible. Unless…


“Honey Pot has been compromised. I repeat, Honey Pot has been compromised. Pull back.”

My warning comes too late. When Leesa places the last digit into the computer’s mainframe, the cell doors in the basement pop open as predicted. They’re just not filled with underage girls, they are brimming with Sicilian operatives eager to slaughter US government officials.


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