After surviving a catastrophic helicopter accident that left him scarred and unable to continue serving on the Teams, former Navy SEAL Gunnar “Gunn” Nielson is settling into life as a Brotherhood Protector in the Yellowstone, Montana, office. While he’s appreciative of the chance to use the skills he honed while serving, he’s feeling as though he doesn’t quite fit in his new environment. Still, with the rest of his team otherwise engaged, he’s the lone protector available to provide protection for a scientist working at a research facility on a floating island in the arctic.
Read an Excerpt
“Maddie,” the radio squawked. “Maddie, you there?”
Eric Knapp’s familiar voice had Madeline Russo rushing to the radio. She’d been waiting for the team she’d sent out to provide updates. His team was the first to report in.
“I’m here, Eric. Have you found anything?” She glanced at the map where she’d stuck pins for each team’s destination. He and Perry Hughes were searching the north edge of the ice floe, the lowest point where some of the station’s crew liked to launch their kayaks when weather—and light—permitted.
“No, but there are a couple of polar bears sunning themselves on the beach. Do you think…?”
The “beach” was the actual launch point and not Mateo Schild’s stated destination. “They’re more interested in the seals than any human. Besides, what would he be doing there? His drills are nowhere near there. I just wanted us to do our due diligence and check every inch of this place.”
“It’s weird, for sure,” Eric said. “Why would he say he was going to take samples and then not? Where the hell else would he go?”
They’d all been asking that question since they’d determined he was missing. It made no sense.
“Do me a favor and follow the edge of the flow to the east before heading back. We don’t want to miss anything. And stay the hell away from the bears.”
“Will do. Out.”
Maddie shook her head. Since she’d taken a headcount that morning at breakfast, the knot in her belly hadn’t eased. Mateo knew better than to head out to take core samples on his own. Not just because the weather was so unreliable but because the ice in some places on their floating island was growing increasingly unstable. Already, the company that employed them, Polardyne Incorporated, had reduced the size of their staff in preparation for abandoning the site entirely after one final winter mission. Minimal staffing meant Maddie’s job description had stretched from Facility Chief to Jill-of-All-Trades. Although they had established a schedule for facility maintenance, more often than not, she was the one left to pick up the slack when corporate wanted the scientists on the island to do the “real” work. Most days, she didn’t mind. Being needed—and trusted—to run an outfit like this on the top of the world, with all its inherent challenges, was deeply satisfying and certainly different from field project management jobs she’d had in the past.
With that sense of foreboding weighing heavy on her shoulders, she knew she couldn’t sit in the warmth of the station while everyone else was out on the ice. Carrying a portable radio, she headed to the locker room to don the layers she’d need in the ten-degree cold, first stripping to her thermal underwear, pulling on a fleece shirt and pants over that, then donning the outer layer of wind and weatherproof shell jacket and pants, and stepping her sock-covered feet into her well-insulated boots. The last item she took up was a rifle because one never knew when a polar bear might walk through the camp, searching for an easy meal.
Outside, she glanced up at the sky. The forecast was for flurries, and the thick cloud cover was darkening the sky. Although each team was equipped with GPS and had lights on their snowmobiles, she didn’t like the fact they might not make it back before nightfall. Polar bears weren’t the only things to fear. The harsh, ever-changing terrain could be just as deadly.
“What were you thinking, Mateo?” she muttered as she made another round, searching inside and around the outbuildings. Her feet crunched on yesterday’s snowfall, but still, she had to watch her footing because the thick ice slab beneath it was slick. She moved to the modular building that housed their vehicles, sleds for equipment, and inflatable boats. She checked beneath and inside them and behind shelving. Then she circumnavigated the building, looking for anything out of place, looking beyond the tamped-down snow to the rougher terrain beyond it for anything out of the ordinary.
Then, she moved onto the building that housed their power plant. The hum of the generator was deafening, but she called out anyway. However, the building was unoccupied, and its surroundings were free of any sign of life.
Then she trudged toward the satellite dish, farther away from the buildings, out of habit, letting her hand trail along the rope that was tied to the power plant building because, in the dark or a sudden blizzard, the rope was a lifeline, leading the way back to safety.
Most days when she walked the site, she enjoyed the isolation. The sight of the barren ice floe, their floating island drifting in the Arctic Ocean, left her feeling at peace and more than a little proud. They were doing hard, important work, studying changes in the environment and weather patterns to pass their findings on to scientists working in far-flung places who shared their concerns for the future. Today, she felt horribly alone. She moved to the makeshift wind shelter that hid the antenna and protected it from being overtaken by snowdrifts. Inside the enclosure, which was open to the sky, she swept the operations panel to clear it and verified the settings. There was no sign that anyone had been inside the shelter recently.
She stepped outside and closed the chain-link door, then moved around the perimeter, searching for any footprints that might not have been filled by drifting snow. Again, nothing. Then she stood, staring beyond the enclosure. The terrain here was relatively flat, which was why they’d chosen that spot to erect the antenna. She glanced across the frozen expanse to the highest point of the floe, a low, jagged ridge of ice, the peaks shining in rays of sunlight that broke through the clouds. Too soon, they’d be living in constant darkness. Not that she minded. She’d survived her first dark winter by doing the work—keeping her crew busy with tasks during the day, then organizing game nights and movie nights, or even cringing and laughing through karaoke nights.
She gave her surroundings one last glance and started to turn away when she saw a rounded shape on the otherwise flat slab. Pulling her neck warmer up to cover her chin because the wind was picking up, she shuffled the thirty yards to investigate. As she grew closer, her heart began a dull thud because the shape was distinct.
Though covered in snow, the body was lying on its side. She dropped her rifle beside her, then knelt next to the body and rolled it toward her. She stared at Mateo’s frozen eyebrows and beard, his partially closed eyes, then bent closer, placing her cheek against his to feel for warmth, although the stiffness of his body told her what she already feared.
Mateo Schild was dead. Straightening away from him, she took a moment to close her eyes and say a prayer for her friend. Then she pulled her radio from her pocket and raised it to her face. She hit the talk button. “Guys, Maddie, here. I found him.”
Eric was the first to respond. “Since you didn’t say he was okay…” he said, his voice sounding strained.
She swallowed burning bile and shook her head before responding, “He’s dead. I’m just past the satellite antenna. I’ll need a sled to get him back to the station.” She paused to hear a response
“On my way,” Nate Holcomb said.
“I’ll meet you there, too,” Eric said. “But we may have another problem.”
Maddie cursed under her breath. “What is it?”
“It appears a craft, maybe a small boat or kayak, was dragged onto the floe. I see a long groove. It’s deep and straight, and snow hasn’t filled it yet, so I can tell it’s not naturally occurring.”
When he paused, she hit talk. “You think someone else was here?”
“Can’t think of anything else that could’ve made this groove. Had to be a kayak.”
“Get the sled and meet me here. The rest of you,” Maddie said, “head back to the station. Let ops at Polardyne know that we found him.”
It was dusk by the time Nate arrived, pulling a sled behind his snowmobile. Eric was trailing behind him.
The two men worked in silence to transfer the body to the sled and tie it down. Afterward, Maddie rode behind Eric back to the station. The rest of the crew were standing outside when they arrived.
“What the hell happened out there?” Emily Raskin asked, walking up beside the sled as Eric and Nate removed the bungee cords from around Mateo’s body.
“Don’t know yet,” Maddie said. “But we should check him out before we put him in the garage.” Heating in the garage kept the vehicles just warm enough that the engines didn’t freeze, but the back of the building was cool enough to store a body throughout the winter. A grizzly contingency that had been planned for.
“Em,” Maddie said, “clear the table and put down a tarp.” She didn’t have to say for what.
Darkness fell quickly. The outside floodlight popped on. Nate and Eric carried Mateo inside, others preceding them into the kitchen area to flip on lights. When Mateo lay on the table, Em gave a little sob and waved a hand in front of her face, her distress plain to see.
“You don’t have to be here,” Maddie said. She glanced around the group. “In fact, I only need Nate here since he’s our team medic. I’ll need someone to get a fresh set of clothes for Mateo. Leave it outside the door. The rest of you, please wait in the common area.” She turned to Eric. “I need you to find the body bag in our emergency supplies in the garage.”
Eric’s jaw tightened, but he gave Mateo’s body a quick glance, then gave her a nod and turned away.
When the kitchen emptied, she turned to Nate. “We’ll need to cut away his clothing, but we’ll bag it to preserve it. We do this by the book.”
Nate gave her a nod; his expression was grim.
Working silently, they began removing his clothing—first his jacket, then his knit cap.
Nate felt around his skull. “I don’t feel any lumps. He didn’t hit his head.” He bent over his face and spread his thawing eyelids. “What the fuck?” He backed away, then waved her over. “Have a look.”
Maddie bent over Matteo and forced down bile as she spread one eyelid. There were red spots on the white part of his eye. She frowned and shot Nate a glance.
Together, they cut away his jacket and T-shirt to expose his neck.
“He was fucking strangled,” Nate ground out.
As she stared at the thick band across the front of his neck, which rose to just beneath his ears, she shook her head. “This is unbelievable,” she whispered.
“What do we do?”
She frowned. “I’ll need to talk to Polardyne.”
He snorted. “They’ll say contingencies already exist.”
“For natural, unexpected deaths, not murders,” she hissed, not wanting the others to be alarmed just yet. Not until she was ready. She was in charge. She needed a plan. “I’ll use the satphone. Perhaps they’ll be able to get a helicopter out here to pick up the crew.”
“They’ve got millions tied up in the research, some of it coming from foreign governments. This is our last winter on the island. Do you think they’ll give that up?”
“We aren’t safe. Either one of us is responsible for this—”
“No way. Don’t forget what we found.”
“A groove,” she said, her mouth twisting. “We were invaded? Who’s going to buy that?”
“I’d rather believe it wasn’t one of us. We’re friends,” he said, his dark brown eyes growing glassy with tears.
“Is it okay if I come in?” Eric said from beyond the doorway.
Maddie shared a charged glance with Nate. “Yeah, come in. We need that bag.”
When Eric stepped inside, his gaze went straight to Mateo, and his eyes widened. He strode straight for the table and stared down. “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Maddie said. “Mateo was murdered.”