Josh by Maryann Jordan

1

The shrill alarm jerked Josh from his sleep. Waking from a dream, he bolted upright in bed, taking a few seconds to try to ascertain what the hell was going on. Throwing the covers back with one hand, he swiped the other over his face, blinking. Alarm. Outside. Fuck. The same damn alarm had gone off earlier in the afternoon when he was at work, but finding no threat, he’d reset the system.

The rain outside still pelted against his windows, squashing any desire to go out in the inclement weather to check on his house. Stalking to the corner of his room, he stared at the computer monitor that beamed with multiple shots from his various security cameras. He blinked the sleep from his eyes as he gazed at each one.

Front of the house. Nothing. Back door. All clear. Driveway. Just the rain pouring down. With a few taps of his finger on the keyboard, he checked the cameras pinned near the structure in his backyard. Still seeing nothing, he stretched his arms over his head, yawning. Must be just the movement from the trees or the heavy rain that caused the alarm to go off.

Resetting his system, he took a last glance at the monitors before walking back to his bed. Uncertain if he’d be able to sleep after a jarring wake, he crawled under the covers. While the rain continued to pound outside, his head had barely hit the pillow and he only flopped a time or two before falling back into a deep sleep.

The shrill alarm sounded once again, and he jumped. With a sense of déjà vu, he tossed back the covers and stomped across the room. Jesus, if this keeps up, I’ll have to shut the system down until the storm passes. His house was far back from the road, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever had anyone find him that he hadn’t invited, but with all the expensive computer equipment, he wasn’t about to take a chance.

Yawning widely, he bent over the table to stare at the monitors. Front of the house. Nothing. Again. Back door. All clear. Again. Driveway. The wind and rain hitting the trees.

Movement near the structure in his backyard caught his attention. Leaning closer, he could see a dark, unmoving lump at the edge of the camera view. What the fuck is that?

Irritation flooded him as he hurriedly jerked on a pair of jeans and headed downstairs. At the back door near the kitchen, he grabbed a rain slicker and shoved his feet into boots. Opening the pantry, he pulled out an LED flashlight with a high beam. Jerking his hood up, he opened the door and continued cursing as he stalked down his back steps. It only took a moment to come upon the dark lump he’d seen on the screen. Still uncertain what was lying on the concrete slab, he bent closer.

Pulling back the edge of material covering the object, he jumped. “Fuckin’ hell!” he shouted as a pair of clear, dark blue eyes peered up at him for a few seconds before closing once again.

Earlier that morning


Josh stood in his empty dining room, one hand on his hip, the other wrapped around a strong cup of coffee, and he stared out the window as the early morning dawn broke through the night. Dark blue sky. Gray clouds. Ocean waves crashing on the rocks below. And if he looked into the distance, he could see darker clouds beginning to roll. Rain was predicted to hit the coast near the end of the day. “Shit, I need to call my parents soon,” he muttered to himself. Storms always reminded him fondly of his parents

“For every problem, there is a solution.”His father’s oft-said words quoting William Alger came to mind, but it was his mother’s words that always followed, along with the scowl sent toward Josh’s dad that hit him now. “You know that’s not the whole quote! It’s, ‘After every storm the sun will shine, for every problem there is a solution, and the soul’s indefeasible duty is to be of good cheer.’”

His dad would laugh and wink toward Josh whenever that would happen. He sometimes wondered if his father didn’t leave off part of the quote just so his mother would jump in to correct him. It certainly fit their personalities. His mother always looked for the sun to shine. His father, who loved to tinker with cars and fix engines, was always looking for solutions.

Taking another sip, he continued to stare at the view out his window and remembered exactly why he’d bought this house. Dropping his chin to his chest, he shook his head. Okay, the view isn’t the only reason I bought this house.

Sure, the eccentric house had captured his attention. Who would have expected to find a huge Victorian house on the coast of Maine? When he’d seen it advertised, he hadn’t waited for the real estate agent, instead choosing to look at it immediately. And as he drove down the drive through the trees, he was stunned at what sat in front of him. The house nestled amongst the tall pines near the rocky coast was pale blue, resembling a dollhouse. A wraparound porch was on one side and a three-story turret on the other. The attic had a large circular window, and three incongruent, staggered rectangular windows moved up the side. Climbing from his vehicle, he walked toward the porch and chuckled at the heavy, ornate wooden double doors, resembling old church doors that had been purloined and fitted into the space by the previous owners.

The landscaping was overgrown, giving the house a neglected feel. He wasn’t surprised it had been sitting on the market for a while. But there was something about the house that intrigued him. And then, he’d walked around to the side, and he knew he’d found more than just a house—he was home.

Draining the last of what would be the first of many cups of coffee that day, he walked back into the large kitchen and rinsed out his mug. He had a dishwasher, but considering it was just him, he rarely used it. Now that he thought about it, the last time he’d turned it on was when he’d hosted his coworkers and their significant others after they’d insisted on checking out his house.

Glancing at the clock on the stove, he headed out the door but not for work. Nor for a run through the woods on his property. Nor for a kayak outing. Nor for a workout. The thought that most of his coworkers would be spending their early mornings in bed wrapped around their women made him snort. Hell, he’d like to do the same if he ever met someone that could hold his interest for more than a few hours.

He walked through the tall grass, heavy with the early morning dew, reminded that he needed to mow. Coming to the concrete stairs at the back of the property, he remembered one of his coworkers had commented that it resembled a small, outdoor amphitheater. True, but with the sprigs of grass that had gone to seed and rose from cracks in the concrete and the overgrown shrubs and vines that crept along the top, he couldn’t imagine anyone thinking it was a place to spend time other than him.

Bounding down the final steps and around to the side, he came to a reinforced steel door, painted and dented to retain the appearance of the rest of the area. Flipping open a keypad, he tapped in a code and entered the lit concrete hall.

The door slammed shut behind him, and just like he had every time he’d walked into the space since purchasing the property five months ago, he grinned. The World War II military bunker had been a dream find for Josh. The inside consisted of an entryway that led to a hall ending in a thirty by twenty-foot room. There were several smaller rooms off to the sides of the hall: a functioning bathroom, a small kitchenette, and a bunk room.

He’d placed a spare bed in the bunk room along with a change of clothes. While cleaning and working to set up his computers, he’d spent the night in the bunker in the early days. Now, he mostly lived in the large home but kept the bunker ready for those late nights when time slipped away from him.

Pouring his second cup of coffee from the kitchenette, he moved into the large room, settling into his chair in front of a large bank of computer screens and monitors. While most of his work was done at the Lighthouse Security Investigations compound, his boss had permitted him to set up secure equipment in his bunker. It made sense to have a backup system in place. Plus, his boss, Mace Hanover, knew that Josh continued working missions around the clock when necessary. If he could do them from the convenience of his own home while maintaining security, it would be suitable for all of them.

Sipping the hot brew, he cast his gaze about the room as his feet pushed the swivel chair around. Not bad for a computer nerd! Preferring to work by himself, he’d been surprised when he’d found a group of coworkers that he not only liked but considered to be friends. And while he spent most of his work time at the LSI compound, he enjoyed the quiet time in the mornings and late evenings when he could continue working on a mission or improving LSI’s computer systems.

For the next hour, with nothing pressing to work on, he tweaked several of his security programs to allow LSI to more efficiently collect information when they were on an active mission and needed to do so quickly and without a trace.

His phone alarm sounded, something he’d learned early on to set if he wanted to get to the compound on time. He was always up but lost track of time now that he had the secure bunker and needed the reminder it was time to leave.

The LSI compound was not far, and he was soon parking near the lighthouse, pulling his SUV in amongst the others that were already there. He jogged through the door leading to the kitchen, and his stomach rumbled.

The gray-haired woman standing behind the counter lifted an eyebrow. “It’s a good thing I fixed breakfast this morning!”

Marge Tiddle, a combination drill sergeant and grandmother, had met Mace when she worked as a CIA operative. Now retired from government work, she considered it her mission to help the LSI employees. Her husband, Horace, a former SEAL, took care of the grounds and compound. They were as much a part of the LSI institution as any others, and Josh never took them for granted. But, considering his stomach grumbled again, he reached for one of her breakfast sandwiches, not waiting before he sank his teeth into the burrito, egg, sausage, peppers, and cheese goodness.

“You better get downstairs and fix a cup of your coffee before you choke!” Marge had coffee in the kitchen, but everyone was aware that Josh fixed the coffee in the main compound room, not being the only Keeper who liked it strong.

With a wave, he walked out of the room and into a back hall. He glanced up toward the lighthouse tower instead of ahead at the hidden door of the elevator leading to the caverns below. When he used to arrive at work early, he’d often climb up and watch the sunrise from the top of the lighthouse. Deciding to put that on his list of things to do this week, he hurried into the elevator after moving through the security measures he and Mace had put in place.

Once at the bottom, he stepped into the cavernous main room of the compound, glad to see there were only a few already there. Hustling over to the counter, he fixed coffee in the industrial pot, taking another bite of Marge’s burrito while waiting for the brew.

“You’ve got to have a cast-iron stomach,” Drew said, plopping down his sugar-and-cream-filled mug of coffee onto the counter. “Man, I like it sweet.”

“That’s why you got me, Flyboy!” Babs, one of the Keepers who also helped with administrative duties, walked over and hip bumped the much larger Drew.

Drew threw his arm around his wife and pulled her close. “Sweet as sugar, baby!”

Rolling his eyes at their antics, Josh called out greetings as others made their way into the room. The sound of a voice he didn’t recognize caught his attention, and he looked over his shoulder as Mace and his wife, Sylvie, LSI’s office manager, walked into the room accompanied by another man. The gathering quieted; not surprising considering Mace never brought visitors into the compound.

When Mace had left Special Forces and CIA special operations, he’d spent five years creating Lighthouse Security Investigations. Having bought an abandoned lighthouse near where he grew up, Mace had the caverns created into their large workspace and numerous smaller rooms holding equipment, a gym, locker rooms, weapons rooms, and anything else they would need. LSI took on security missions and joint investigations with law enforcement and the government. Mace had spent a fortune, but in the years they’d been operating, they’d made a helluva lot more. He employed former military special operators, referring to his employees as ‘Keepers’ based on the old lighthouse keepers tasked with providing light and safety to those caught in the storms.

Mace’s deep voice cut through the silence. “Everyone, if you’ll take a seat, I’ll introduce a good friend of mine.”

“It has to be a good friend for Mace to bring him down here,” Walker said under his breath as he reached into Marge’s basket to grab another burrito.

Silently agreeing, Josh took his seat in front of the bank of computers while most others filled in the chairs around the large conference table. The newcomer was about two inches shorter than Mace while still being over six feet tall. Thick muscles, short hair, and piercing light brown eyes that didn’t seem to miss much. Curious, Josh, like the other Keepers, turned his attention toward his boss.

“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Carson Dyer. We served in the Special Forces simultaneously although always on different teams, then we had a chance to work together on several CIA special operations. When we got out, Carson headed back to California. He started his own security business, obtaining bodyguard contracts, which is a lucrative business out west. But he took that money and began building up an investigative business, as well. He and I’ve been in contact for the past couple of years, both as friends and possible business partners.”

Shocked that Mace was considering being a business partner with someone else and hadn’t mentioned it, Josh sat up straighter, his attention captured.

Mace chuckled as though he knew he’d just dropped a surprise bomb. “Don’t worry, LSI here won’t change at all.” After an audible collective sigh of relief was heard, Mace continued.

“Carson’s business is now renamed Lighthouse Security Investigations West Coast and is based on the coast of California. He has a few of his former employees that have made the transition given their military background. They’ve started the business, and Carson has already had private visits and tours of this facility with me. Still, since I officially have a partnership in the expansion, he wanted to come out and meet everyone.” Mace cast his gaze around everyone, his expression serious. “It’s important for you to know he is not here to recruit. But, if anyone wants to move to California, we’re open to discussion and negotiation.”

Josh found the idea of any one of their team moving to California disconcerting. Granted, employees at many firms moved around all the time, but since starting with LSI, Mace had kept the same original group of Keepers, only adding a few new ones as they’d gone along.

“And this afternoon, if the rain holds off, we’ll have a picnic on the grounds,” Sylvie said, her smile bright as she stood next to Mace.

“Okay, let’s talk missions now,” Mace said. “This is one of the few times that everyone is here, and we know that won’t last. Walker, do you want to report on the Honduras situation? After that, Tate and Cobb, you can bring us up to speed on the Conselli case. The FBI director has been in contact, and I’ve got Levi as acting liaison.”

As the others began their reports, Josh’s attention turned back to his computer screens. It wasn’t that he was dismissing the meeting, but his mind worked best if he could pull up the information on the screens as the others reported.

He’d heard about Mace when in the Special Forces, but they hadn’t worked together until he’d run missions from a tent in Afghanistan, his computer programs often what saved some of the teams as they relied on his intel. It had sure as hell beat trying to carry what he needed on him as his team made their way over the rough terrain. But looking around at what he had at his fingertips now, he grinned. Fuck of a lot better here.

By the time the meeting was completed, Josh was working fast and furiously to provide the other Keepers with the computer backup they needed. He worked in the field at times, but his skills were often best utilized in the compound where he could run multiple programs for multiple missions simultaneously. So focused on work, he didn’t realize when Mace and Carson approached until Mace’s hand landed on his shoulder, and he jumped.

“Fuck!” Glancing around, he felt the tips of his ears burn. “Sorry, boss.”

“Never apologize for concentrating on your job. Carson, I’d like you to meet Josh Appleton. He was one of the first people I hired when I started the business. I knew I needed the best in cybersecurity and computer programming. I know you’ve got someone already working for you in California, and if you ever need them to consult with Josh, I’m sure he’ll be amenable.”

“Nice to meet you, Josh,” Carson greeted. “And I do have someone, but one of the things I’ve talked to Mace about is having more open communication between LSI here and LSI West Coast.”

Holding the other man’s gaze, Josh nodded. “That sounds good. Especially if there’s the possibility of any shared missions, it would be a waste of time and resources if too much was duplicated unnecessarily.”

Brows lifted, Carson nodded. “You’re absolutely right.”

As the morning continued, Mace and Carson walked around and talked to the others, spending time with Sylvie and Babs to get the administrative viewpoint. Josh tuned them out as he continued to work, surprised when Sylvie called out, “Wind it up, everybody. We’re in luck because the rain is still out to sea and hasn’t hit our coast yet. So, let’s head on up and have a good afternoon.”

Josh stood and stretched, the last one to leave, as usual. He enjoyed their downtime and camaraderie building but found it difficult to pull away from the computers when information was coming in. He sometimes felt like one of his programs and found it hard to turn off the internal computer. Once outside, he breathed deeply, the impending rain making the coastline air even fresher.