Following his nightly routine, Cody Roberts fed the dogs before pouring a healthy drink, scotch neat. Soon after he’d returned from Afghanistan, the nightmares had started. After a solid month of waking up drenched in sweat, he’d come to the conclusion they weren’t going away. After a good degree of experimentation, he’d learned that scotch worked better than vodka, rum, gin, etc. etc. at keeping the dreams away.
Taking into account that it was his first night in his new home in Pensacola, Florida, and in the morning he would report for his first day at K2 Special Services, he cut his normal consumption from six, seven, sometimes eight glasses to no more than two. If nothing else had been left to him, he still had control of his actions—one reason he hadn’t stuck the barrel of his gun into his mouth. Plus, his dogs needed him, and that fact alone got him out of bed each morning.
Once Pretty Girl and Sally finished chowing down, he took his drink, picked up his guitar from a chair in the living room, and went out on the front porch, the dogs trotting along behind him. He set the glass on a table and the instrument on the rocking chair. The boxes still to be unpacked could wait. His dogs needed to learn their boundaries.
“Heel.” Pretty Girl and Sally took up positions on each side of him and he walked them around the perimeter of the yard, showing them how far they could range. He had them sit at the edge of the sidewalk, told them to stay, then walked into the road, turned to them, and said, “No.” Both dogs wanted to come to him, but knew better. Satisfied they understood the street was off-limits, he returned to the porch, followed by his furred friends.
He’d always had a way with dogs, but it had been in Afghanistan that he’d honed his understanding of them. His teammates had called him a dog whisperer. Maybe he was. All he knew was that he preferred their company to most humans since returning home. They never judged him and found him lacking, nor did he have to worry about disappointing them.
From a cloth bag he’d put on the porch earlier, he pulled out two balls and tossed them into the yard. The dogs quivered with excitement—balls being their favorite thing in the whole wide world—but waited for him to give the command.
“Go play.” They took off as if shot from a cannon. Cody settled in the rocking chair with his guitar on his lap. Sipping his scotch, he watched them for a few minutes to make sure they were staying on the grass. Normally he would be on his second or third glass by now, but since he’d limited himself to two, he wanted this one to last awhile. It was going to be a long fucking night.
Pretty Girl and Sally tossed the balls up in the air, then caught each other’s, a game he had taught them so they weren’t dropping the slobbery things at his feet every thirty seconds. He grinned at their antics, one of the few things he smiled about these days. After setting the glass on the table, he began to strum the guitar.
In tribute to Layla—the dog left behind—he always played Eric Clapton’s “Layla” first. The e-mail he’d gotten the day before from Wizard, a friend still in Afghanistan, had been discouraging. The possible sighting of Layla hadn’t panned out, and as he sat alone in the twilight of a setting sun, he let his despair of ever finding her sink into the music. She had saved his life, had kept him from stepping on an IED, and he owed it to her to find her and bring her home.
To keep from agonizing over Layla’s condition and saying to hell with his two-glass limit, he closed his eyes and let the music consume him. The dogs played until they tired themselves out, then brought the balls to him, dropping them at his feet. Both flopped down, panting and tongues hanging out. Not ready to go in, Cody sipped his scotch between playing Eric Clapton songs.
After a while, the scotch was gone. He was contemplating how long to wait for his second and last drink when a car turned into the driveway across the street. “Quiet,” he said to the dogs.
The car pulled into the carport, and the engine shut down. Because he sat in the dark, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, he was confident he wouldn’t be seen. A woman got out and headed for the front door.
Her hair was swept up in a ponytail, the tip of which reached halfway down her back. Her height he estimated at a little above average for a female. She was slim and wore a pair of jeans and a blue T-shirt. Something about the slump of her shoulders made him think she was sad.
Not his problem, though. Continuing his impersonation of a statue, he remained still, waiting for her to disappear into her house. She slipped her key into the lock, then turned and stared straight at him.
Cody sucked in his breath. He’d spent countless hours hunkered down in dusty rooms or on rooftops, his sight centered down the barrel of a sniper’s rifle, and he knew how to become invisible. He moved not one muscle as she squinted into the dark. There was no way she could see him, but it was as if she sensed him.