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"Got some interesting local news for you, boss."
Weston Bracks swiveled around on his leather office chair to face the computer screen where he had Skype open and his employee's mug peered at him. This field scout, Wayne Pearce, was reliable, though a bit of a joker, so he waited for the man's "news" hesitantly.
Bracks toyed with the Cellini Rolex on his left wrist, drew a breath through his nose as he looked over Pearce's annoying image and exhaled a disinterested "And?"
"I'm tracking through the Czech Republic at the moment."
"You should have been in London by now. It's been four days since you left the Ukraine."
"I wanted to do some sightseeing."
Bracks closed his eyes and rapped his knuckles against the underside of the desk.
"Just a joke, boss. I missed my flight, so instead I hopped in a car to take me across Europe to London.
I've pulled into Chrastava to have a bite. Did you know this town used to manufacture hand grenades for the Germans during the Second World War?"
"You are a fount of information, Pearce."
"I do pick up things here and there. Though the dialect in these parts changes from mile to mile. There are so many forms of Slavic, it's hard to keep it straight."
Pearce had a dozen or so languages under his belt, which was one of the reasons Bracks tolerated him. Still teasing his college frat boy years, this man. As smart as he was himself, he hadn't the ability, or time, to pick up new languagesa frustrating deficitso had to rely on Pearce as interpreter.
"Is there a point to this story?" Bracks prompted, rubbing the bridge of his nose with a thumb to make sure his annoyance was broadcasted on screen.
"There is always a point, boss. The whispers in the local watering hole claim that a vampire has been unearthed on a nearby archaeological dig."
"A vamp" Bracks contemplated hanging up, but then this was probably another of Pearce's jokes. "Very well, I'll bite, so to speak. What in such a rumor could possibly entertain my interest?"
"I don't think it's a rumor. The Gypsies are freaking out. I know the Romani are superstitious and all that jazz. But they seem to really believe that an actual vampire has been discovered."
Superstition. Bracks knew superstition could be a useful weapon. Both for and against him. By using the ingrained beliefs of others, a smart man could ensure the tables were turned in his favor. And he always appreciated favorable odds. "Tell me more."
The boy's feet left the ground. He lost one of his tattered, canvas shoes as his body soared through the air. His father would make him do his brother's chores for a week if he lost that shoe. He was held around the chest from behind, while a man slapped him across his mouth so hard he thought he might lose his front teeth.
The foul-smelling guy behind him muttered, "Quiet, kid. We'll take care of you now."
Take care of him? They were hurting him!
Shoved into the back of a shiny black vehicle, before he could reach to steady himself, he was grabbed by another big man with dark hair and dark clothing. Then his eyes were covered with a dusty cloth and another vile-tasting cloth was shoved in his mouth. They tugged his wrists together with what felt like scratchy rope, and then manhandled him into the seat.
He clawed at the unreachable rope, his fingers too short. But he kept trying. His father had taught him he had to fight for his place in this world, and he'd learned that well enough in school where he was ignored simply because he was Romani. Gypsy garbage.
But no one had ever forcibly taken him like this before. How could he, all of eight years old, stop it? They were big men and he was blindfolded.
The vehicle smelled like gasoline and stale, greasy food. He wanted to be home safe with his nana and his dog, Mutt.
"Not a long ride," the man with the awful breath said, slapping him hard on his leg so he cried out against the cloth in his mouth. "You are wuzho. You'll be helping people in need. Fine boy."
Helping people? He liked to help people because that showed them he was not the garbage others claimed he was. But wuzho? He knew that meant something about pureness or being clean.
Who would help him?
He stopped struggling and tried to breathe through his nose, though the dust and dirt from working in the potato field at the edge of his nana's farm clogged his head and made it difficult to draw in air. His tears soaked the cloth over his eyes, and he choked up a sob. He chewed nervously on the gag.
These men were not nice. They were not going to help people. He'd give up his dog, Mutt, right now to be back in school, taunted and teased by the others.
Would his nana realize he was gone before the sun set? His brother had ditched out, as usual, to go smoke with his friends in the forest. They'd once started a fire on purpose with cigarette cinders and a half a bottle of vodka stolen from one of their parents' cupboards. It hadn't blazed for more than ten minutes before rain had snuffed it out. His brother never got caught. Never got in trouble.
Bet his brother would never get kidnapped by bad people, either. Nobody would touch him. If his brother returned to the field by the end of the day and didn't see him, he might ask his nana about him, he might not. His brother didn't pay much attention to him, other than to shove him out of the way.
The vehicle hit a pothole and his body lurched sideways and smashed against the door. His forehead hit the metal clip on the seat belt and the icy burn of metal digging into his skin made him cry out. But he couldn't hear his voice, only the pounding of his heartbeats.
You'll be helping people in need.
Over and over he repeated the words in his head. Until he believed them.
Garin Braden strolled into the containment room, walled with riveted steel panels, in the basement of a building he rarely visited, but owned for business. He kept a numbers of "offices" across the world. The steel floor clanked dully with each stride he took. The room was humid and smelled of rust and rancid water.
His freelance assistant, Slater, stood waiting for him, hands akimbo. The man was in his thirties, divorced twice, adamant about mixed martial arts and a vegan lifestyle and spent winters in a Tibetan ashram. He possessed no body fat whatsoever. Solid muscle.
Garin peered over Slater's shoulder. In the center of the sixteen-by-sixteen-foot room, a bald and barefooted man tied into a steel chair, sweat and blood on his face, defied him with a hardened gaze. Could either have been from exhaustion or desperate fear. Smelled like fear, but Garin knew to never judge a man by his expression.
"What's his break time?" he asked Slater.
Slater rolled a lazy grin across his narrow face. The stub of a cigar was always stuck at the edge of his mouth like a plug to stop the drool. The cigar seemed like an affront to the man's otherwise austerely healthy lifestyle, but then who was he to judge? "I give him forty-five minutes. An hour, tops."
An hour? Slater was slipping. He may be lean and lanky, but he had fists of iron and a vicious determination to get to the truth. And of all the times for expediency, this was it.
"That ship is out there somewhere," Garin said. "Carrying my merchandise."
They'd lost GPS contact because of a storm off the Mediterranean coast. And Garin had immediately suspected foul play. His equipment was top-of-the-line. Someone had broken communications, and he wanted to know who.
Sometimes his hires were not as top-of-the-line as his equipment. It was a risk a businessman had to take.
"I need to get to that vessel before the Syrian authorities do," he said, stating the obvious.
Or someone less law-abiding within the government would take off with his booty. Well, not his exactly. He was just the middleman. The ship was due to intercept with a buyer, a new client Garin did not want to piss off.
Smacking a tape-wrapped fist into his palm, Slater performed a few fighter-style bounces on the balls of his feet and returned to the sweat-soaked detainee. On the floor near the wall lay a length of thick, rusted chain, and on top of that was a battery-powered drill fitted with a diamond-tipped router bit. Slater didn't often use props; they were for show.
Garin didn't linger. If Slater couldn't get the man to talkand quicklythe night was going to be a long one. The detainee was a contract agent, he guessed. Someone the government had hired for a one-off surveillance job. And he wasn't sure which government that was, exactly. Usually, such agents' allegiances changed from job to job, and tracking their home base was impossible. They were ghosts for hire.
Three hours later, the man finally broke. It was too late to intercept the ship unless they used heavy artillery. Garin did not want to engage with the Syrian government. He preferred the argument with the client instead.
"Sorry, man." Slater wiped the sweat from his face. Now the chain hung about his thick neck, another man's blood brushing streaks across his pumped biceps. "He was a machine."
"You win some " Garin let the sentence hang there. Clutching his fingers into a fist he fought the urge to grab Slater and smash his head against the steel wall. He'd wanted to win this one, but he wasn't going to get misty over the lost supply. A bigger, better batch was out there somewhere. New clients were also an easy catch. "Did he cough up a name?"
"Yes, it's one you've heard before."
Garin blew out a heavy breath, not having the patience for Slater's dramatic pause.
Finally, with a wincing tilt of his head, the man said, "Weston Bracks."
Garin let out a hiss.
Should have expected as much. Why hadn't he? Bracks had been a tick on his hide for years, nearing nemesis status, though Garin would never admit to it, nor would he allow any man to best him without retaliation.
Bracks kept coming back for more and more. And Garin's pride would not allow him to give the man a win. This game of cat and mouse had gone beyond annoying.
"It's three in the morning," Garin said. "Thanks for your work. I'll be in touch."
Slater wandered out, leaving cleanup to Garin's morning crew.
"Bracks." He blew out a breath and fisted his opposite palm.
Again. And Garin with a full schedule over the next twenty-four hours. He needed to nab a few hours of sleep before tomorrow's meeting in the Czech Republic, a three-hour drive from his home in Berlin. He never did business close to home, but this was a routine stop to ensure smooth operations. As well, he'd arranged a quick pickup in the area. Hell, since he was driving there he was going to do all the business he could.
Yet Garin doubted he'd catch a single wink now that the bastard had made an appearance in his life again.
Roux, Garin's one-time mentor and sometime adversary, got a good chuckle over his and Bracks's tete-a-tetes. Although they were hardly as civilized as that term implied, and commonly involved one or both of them racking up yet another international felony.
Roux said he was reminded of theirRoux and Garin'sown special "friendship." A dubious connection neither one would ever have guessed would last more than five hundred years. That they would last more than five hundred years. How that was even possible remained a mystery tied into the sword of Joan of Arc and the pair's failure to keep her alive. It was a mystery that confounded Garin Braden to this day.
Maybe he was finally acting like the old man he should be after all his centuries on this earth, but Bracks's latest hit annoyed Garin more than usual. The shipment had been a result of months of groundwork and careful negotiations. And now it was in the hands of the authorities.
"Too much work wiped out in an instant."
Bracks had gone beyond being a thorn in his side, and Garin intended to end this game once and for all.
Early the next day, Garin's entourage made a pit stop before they crossed the German border into the Czech Republic. Stopping in a small town to gas up, they had been offered free doughnuts with a full tank. His men had taken the offer, while Garin couldn't stomach the artificial sweetness. If he was going to destroy his health, he preferred recreational drugs.
Now they drove south of the border and, following the GPS instructions, arrived at an unmarked warehouse by the edge of a wooded area. In the distance, he could see silver flashes of water. Possibly a creek.
Garin strode into the warehouse, noting it was three stories high. The tin roof had holes in spots where birds perched, yet the walls were secure concrete slabs built in prefab sections. Three-quarters of the warehouse was empty. Two bodyguardshis ownflanked him. They were for show and safety. He wasn't so stupid he thought he could waltz in and out again with some new party favors. One of the musclemen was also his driver, the other just plain muscle.
"Monsieur Braden." A thin Bulgarian man wearing a multicolored knit hat with flannel flaps over his ears bowed and pressed his palms together before his chest in the universal sign for namaste. Knee-high riding boots showed a lot of wear and a long red-and-white, zigzag scarf looked like something someone's grandmother might have made if she'd been high on medicinal cannabis. The Bulgarian swept a hand back toward the goods. "Please, look over the product."
The "product" was crammed into the back of a rusted black delivery truck that was scoured with more dents and holes than an Army tanker in Iraq riddled by steel penetrators. The bodyguards assumed stances behind Garin at ten paces, and kept their eyes on the three men who accompanied their host. None were a match to the body shape and strength of his men, but that meant little. A concealed weapon always trumped a swinging fist. Which is why his men carried more than enough artillery to put down a stampede, if necessary.
From the haphazard arsenal pile spilling out of the truck, Garin fished a dusty AK-47. The folding stock swung out freely. Sand spilled from the barrel. Something rattled inside the receiver. And it smelled like gasoline. This was not good.
He shook his head. He hadn't expected pristine secondhand weapons, but this was pushing his idea of acceptable. And while the assault rifle was a favorite among the military for its durability and ease of use, these weapons were more than a decade old, which shouldn't matter, but Garin guessed they had never seen cleaning oil.
"This is crap," he said, turning to his host.
Knit Cap waved his hands in a salesman's protest. "Oh, no, no, the weapons work perfectly well. Just give it a shake."
He grabbed a magazine from inside an opened cardboard box stuffed among the weapons and jammed it into the receiver. An easy fit. Expected. These weapons were designed to be durable, if not long-lasting.
Swinging about, Garin aimed at Knit Cap. The man didn't flinch.
Garin ground his back molars together. He was in no mood for this today.
"Your unflinching stance tells me you're confident this one won't fire," he challenged. "I don't like that."
Knit Cap shrugged.
Garin tossed the gun aside. It landed on the pile of weapons in a clatter, sending not only AK-47s sliding to the ground, but also a spill of fine sand he assumed had originated in the deserts of Kabul, which is where this shipment had supposedly come from. "Is this all you've got?"
"It is what you requested! Quality goods. They are in working order, I swear"