Smoke & Mirrors (Outbreak Task Force)

By: Julie Rowe

To Loen, my sister and my friend.





Chapter One


At one o’clock in the morning, the I-15 through the Utah desert gave the impression it had been abandoned for years. Lyle Smoke drove his jeep through the desolate moonlight, not another car in sight. Not even the slow, slumberous roll of tumbleweeds. Not even wildlife approaching the pavement looking for roadkill.

Nobody to listen.

Nobody to issue orders.

Nobody to guard his back.

Eight years in the army—breathing, eating, shitting that life. Gone.

He wasn’t Sgt. Smoke, the soldier who could track ghosts, capture boogey-men, and keep his battle-brothers safe. He was Smoke, just smoke. Nothing and nobody and not here.

The quiet highway should have been soothing.

It wasn’t.

A good soldier didn’t trust the quiet. Smoke hated it.

He used to love it.

He’d spent summers on the reservation with the desert as his backyard. He’d rode horses and dirt bikes through it, camped for days at a time, and hunted to feed himself. He’d learned to navigate by the stars and knew the location of every water source.

But those simple, quiet, satisfying days were long gone.

Now his days were nightmares of memories. Memories of pain and blood.

All that shit should have stayed in the fucking Afghan sandbox. Too bad his brain hadn’t figured that out yet.

He passed the silver shrouded shadow of Jack Rabbit Rock on the right. The last time he’d been in this part of the desert, he’d taken Liam there. His son had sat in front of him in the saddle, his small body warm and trusting as he looked everywhere at once and pointed at everything.

“Papa,” he’d said, his voice high with excitement. He pointed at something new and announced, “Papa.”

Stopstopstopyoustupidfuckerstop.

Smoke clenched the steering wheel, gritted his teeth, and tried to shove the reminder that his son would never have a life out of his head.

He sucked in deep breaths and focused on the facts. The truth. Maybe if he recited reality often enough, he’d accept it.

The last time he’d been home had been for Liam and Lacey’s funerals.

Liam and Lacey were dead. His son and the mother of his son were dead.

There. He’d thought it. Didn’t make it any truer to him than five minutes ago.

He’d sworn to stay away until he’d accepted what had happened. Yet, here he was, not twenty miles from the epicenter of his pain. Here he was, ready to kill someone, but no enemies to gut in his mother’s kitchen.

Reaching to rewrite the past was stupid, dangerous, and insane. Didn’t stop him from reaching for it in his head, anyway. The past was a ghost not even he could track. Still…the desert held other memories for him. Memories of happier times.

He’d say hello tomorrow morning, kiss his mom, nod at his father, then pack his shit and go hunting for a week. Or three. Maybe that would cure him of his increasing need to choke the life out of something with his bare hands.

He drove through his hometown of Small Blind, Utah, to his parents’ ranch-style house. He left his vehicle on the street and went around toward the back door. A car was parked at the back of the driveway. Rental plates? Someone visiting?

Then he saw the dent in the driver’s side door. A monster-truck sized dent. The kind of dent you can only get if you’ve been T-boned by something big and mean and pissed off. Some of the scratches in the paint looked like letters.

Fuck off & die FBI.

What a fuckup. Not an FBI vehicle. Not an accident. Not dealing with smart assholes.

He took a look inside. The airbag on the driver’s side was smeared with something dark. Blood. The driver would have a couple of black eyes. And a hospital bill.

What was a bloodied and bent car doing in his parents’ driveway?

Stop stalling, pussy.

He opened the back door, stepped inside, and memories raked pain across his battered, bruised, and broken heart.

After the first stab of sharp steel, images of Liam became a dull, dishwater ache, settling into his chest as if they were moving in for the duration of his deployment.

No, he was home, not in a combat zone.

Fuck, was he ever going to catch up to reality?

He took a step, and when no improvised explosive devices—physical, emotional, or otherwise—went off, he took another step. His room was only twelve more steps away. Twelve teeny, tiny triggers that could blow him up from the inside out.

The darkness helped by shrouding everything in shadows. His room, his stuff, his bed were right where he left them. Okay, good. He could breathe a little easier now.

Smoke set his duffle on the floor and stripped. He kept his boxers on in case his mom walked in, but it was hot enough in the room that he didn’t want any part of the pile of blankets on the other side of the bed.