RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
If a guy has to play dead,
Rio’s the place to do it.
Jack Pierce sat beneath a bright red sun umbrella at an equally bright red bistro table outside a kiosk along the promenade at Copa. Listening to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the buzz of Brazilian music, he sipped his third caipirinha. Spring in Rio—string bikinis, bare-bottomed girls, sunshine, heat, and Cachaca. Another mission accomplished. Beto Bevilacqua, hated drug lord, dead. Yes, this was heaven on earth.
Jack appeared to be aimlessly dreaming as he stared out over the beach, girls, and ocean, but he was on alert, as always, as he waited for his contact to give him his next mission. He listened to the sound of approaching footsteps on the wave-patterned black-and-sand-colored tiles of the promenade. Even though he wasn’t wearing a watch, he knew the time. And his contact was right on it. Jack looked up at the newcomer when the footsteps stopped next to his table and fought to control his surprise. “Chief?” What the hell?
Jack regained his composure less than a second after it slipped, and smiled, putting on his spy mask of inscrutability. He wouldn’t let the chief see him sweat, even though it was damn hot outside. “This is a surprise. To what do I owe the honor? Things get boring at Langley? Or have you come down to check out the girls?”
Jack had been expecting his handler, code-named Talent, to show up. Only a handful of people on the entire planet knew Jack was still alive. All of them in the Agency, including the chief. But Jack still didn’t expect the big boss to pay him a personal visit.
National Clandestine Service chief Emmett Nelson, head of the spying arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, smiled down at him and pulled up a chair. “Jack. You still have the accent? It blends in nicely down here.”
Jack nodded. “Can’t seem to lose it. The doctor says my brain rewired it in as it healed.”
Jack had been in a coma for several weeks after a horribly failed mission two years ago. They’d drilled into his skull to relieve the swelling and pressure and save his life. It was a miracle he survived.
Since he had recovered from the explosion, his speech had been affected. He involuntarily spoke with a vaguely Latin accent.
“You’re looking good, too.” Emmett studied him, in a penetrating way only the chief and a master spy could. He wasn’t making idle chitchat. He referred to Jack’s new face and the fine job the Agency’s plastic surgeon did restoring it after Jack had been blown up in Ciudad del Este two years ago. The explosion crushed Jack’s face and nearly killed him. He’d had the final bit of reconstructive surgery just eight weeks ago. He hadn’t seen the chief since.
Jack turned his profile to Emmett and lifted his chin, giving the chief a good look at what the U.S. government had paid for. “I feel good—healthy and strong. What do you think of my new nose?”
“It’s a damn improvement over the original.” Emmett winked. “The whole face is. You were an ugly mutt. Now you’ve gone Hollywood on us.” The chief shook his head. “I should have told the surgeon not to make you so pretty.”
Jack laughed. His doctors told him his face had been mush—shattered jaw, dislocated and broken nose, crushed cheekbones and eye sockets. The plastic surgeons reconstructed his whole face, straightened and thinned his wide, crooked nose, took off his identifying moles, gave him high cheekbones and slightly less deep-set eyes. He looked like the old Jack’s handsome cousin—similar, yet different enough to fool his own mother. Like the man he’d have been if he’d had two better-looking parents and gotten the best possible combination of their features.
“Too late now,” Jack said with a tease in his voice. “I’m not getting myself blown up again just so you can have another shot at getting my look right.”
“Let’s hope not,” the chief said. “I had to bury your medical bills deep in my budget. You know how much I hate subterfuge.” He laughed when Jack shot him a skeptical look. “When it comes to accounting.”
The chief held a caipirinha of his own. He took a sip of it and grinned at Jack. “Word in the favelas is the remaining drug lords are running scared. Nice work.”
Jack shrugged again. It had been a professional pleasure to kill Bevilacqua after he’d escaped from prison. “It’s easy to do a good job when you love your work.”
The chief set his glass on the table. “It’s always rewarding to hear my employees have a high job satisfaction rate. I’ll be sure to mention it to the director during my next job performance review.”
It was well known in espionage circles the chief and the director didn’t see eye-to-eye. Emmett was always baiting him.
“Just keep my name out of it,” Jack said.
Emmett nodded and abruptly changed the course of the conversation to immediate business. “I have some disturbing news, Jack. The Rooster has been trying to track you down. Subtly, of course. He can’t alert his bosses at RIOT that he failed to kill you.
“We don’t know why he thinks you’re still alive, only that he’s trying to verify it and find you before RIOT realizes his mistake. If he finds you, he’ll kill you. If he doesn’t, but somehow makes a mistake and RIOT discovers he’s looking for you, well shit, we can’t have your cover of death blown. You’ve been too effective since Sariel ‘died.’”
Sariel had been Jack’s code name, after the angel of death. RIOT—the Revolutionary International Organization of Terrorists—was the Agency’s nemesis.
“No,” Jack said, silently cursing. “Thanks for the warning.”
“This is more than a warning,” Emmett said. “We know where he is.” He paused. “I want you to kill him.”
Jack couldn’t believe his ears. Finally. He grinned and resisted punching the air in victory. He’d been begging for the chance to strike the Rooster since the RIOT bastard murdered Jack’s buddy Kyle. Emmett had been promising him his chance—when the right opportunity presented itself. In Agency speak that meant when Emmett thought the mission had decent odds of success. This day kept getting better and better.
Jack lifted his glass. “To a successful mission and retribution.” Revenge.
Emmett lifted his glass toward Jack’s and knocked one back. “Ah, the Brazilians know how to make a drink.”
At that moment, Jack didn’t give a damn about Brazilian cocktails. He was ready to take the next flight out for destination Rooster. “I’ll start greasing my sniper rifle immediately. How soon can I leave?”
“Hold on there, cowboy.” Emmett studied him. “I haven’t given you the details. This mission is more complicated than taking the Rooster out at one hundred yards with a rifle.”
“A challenging kill—that’s even better.” Jack’s beef with the Rooster was personal. He wouldn’t mind killing him with his bare hands if he had to, not at all.
Jack could barely contain his excitement. He fought to stay calm, worried Emmett would pull the mission from him if he appeared too eager, too much like a loose cannon. He waited for Emmett to continue.
“Our sources say RIOT and the Rooster are planning to blow up an auxiliary meeting of the G Eight summit scheduled in Los Angeles for late October,” Emmett said as calmly as if he were discussing the weather. “Without the Rooster and his expertise and strategic-planning skills, RIOT will be hard-pressed to proceed on short notice. Before you kill him, we want as much intel as we can get about RIOT’s plans and the terrorist sleeper cells they’re hiding.”
Emmett looked out over the sparkling water and grimaced. “These damn G Eight summits are enough of a pain in the ass without the added threat of RIOT attacking. Too many ordinary protestors, anarchists, and rioters around during a regular meeting. Lots of security, but still a terrorist’s dream.”
Jack nodded, but his mind was elsewhere plotting and scheming. Besides being a personal dream come true for him, killing the Rooster was a career-making assignment. Not that a dead guy had much of a career. But Jack could make a killing, so to speak, if he got this one right.
The Rooster was RIOT’s top assassin. He’d been dubbed the Rooster because he crowed about his kills. He was Jack’s equal on the bad-guy side—his archenemy and nemesis. And the assassin who’d killed Kyle Harris, one of Jack’s two best friends, in Afghanistan and blown Jack up in Ciudad del Este, ending Jack’s life as Jack and making his wife, Willow, a widow.
Jack clenched his jaw, trying to hide his tic of excitement. “There’s something you’re not telling me. What’s the catch?”
“He’s in the States. We’ve tried, but we can’t draw him out of the country,” Emmett said, keeping his voice level and friendly so he wouldn’t draw attention.
Jack was seasoned enough to hear the anger and frustration in it.
“The son of a bitch is wily,” Emmett said. “He feels safe, thinks we won’t hit him at home. Too bad the bastard has to be an American citizen, a homegrown traitor. We’d love to pull him in and interrogate him, but the Feds would insist on due process and the Rooster is smart enough to leak intel that would scare the American public and derail our intelligence efforts.
“No, we can’t arrest him. We have to take him out with a targeted kill. Which means if you accept, you’re off the grid. We want you to learn what you can about the operation, kill him, and get out.
“You can contact me, or Magic, or Talent, or the members of the Agency you’ve worked with since the explosion, but that’s it.
“And if you fail or get caught, I’ll deny any involvement and claim you went rogue looking for revenge.”
Jack nodded. It sounded logical to him. “I expected no less.”
Emmett took a deep breath and sighed. “Kill him in a way that looks like an accident to the authorities and general public, but sends a clear message to RIOT and the Rooster’s handlers that we took him out. That we can, and will, take out their agents at our pleasure.”
Jack nodded. “What’s my cover?”
“How’s your Italian?” Emmett asked in Italian.
“Decent,” Jack answered, also in Italian.
“Very good.” Emmett nodded. “Malene’s worked out your cover. Your Italian accent will come in handy.
“You’ll be undercover as Con Russo. Russo has an Italian first cousin once removed, Aldo Salemo, who lives in the small town where the Rooster is hiding.
“You’ll be staying with him. The Salemos take in family with open arms without question whenever one of their own needs a place to crash for a while. They’re just one big, lovable Italian famiglia with hundreds of cousins. Too many to accurately keep track of.
“Your cover as Con is as one of them. A city boy, workaholic public relations exec for a private firm who has been under too much stress lately.” Emmett grinned in a way that let Jack know he understood Jack wouldn’t love this cover.
“A public relations guy under stress, that’s the best Malene could come up with?” Malene knew Jack hated office jobs and all that crap. What did public relations execs have to worry about? Why couldn’t she get him something physical and outdoors?
“It’s one of the most stressful jobs in the country. No control over circumstances or schedule. Always at the beck and call of the client. Always putting out firestorms when the client screws up or someone decides to sue. People with no control feel stress. At least that’s what I’ve read in the news.”
“You mean like assassins?” Jack smiled and shook his head. “I should ask for a raise.”
“Complete this mission successfully and I’ll put you in for one.” Emmett paused as a group of tourists walked by. “Back to the business at hand,” he said when they were past. “His nonna thinks he’s overstressed. She’s convinced he needs a break from the city, a few weeks in the country to unplug and unwind. So she called Aldo’s nonna, who called Aldo, and now you have a place to stay in Aldo’s detached guesthouse for a few weeks.”
“And if I finish up earlier?”
“A public relations emergency can always call you home. You’re going to love this place, Jack. Aldo runs a little winery and catering business on the premises. Malene says he makes a mean meatball. They melt in your mouth. And the men in the area like to hunt.”
Emmett casually slid a small flash drive across the table toward Jack. “It’s all here. Sound good?”
“Didn’t know I had an Italian side of the family.” Jack reached for the drive, but Emmett kept it covered with his hand and under his control.
Jack cocked his head. What game was Emmett playing? “It sounds homey. When do I leave?” He was itching to get going.
Emmett smiled and shook his head. “Not so fast. You still haven’t heard the whole story.” Emmett paused, turning a serious look on Jack. “What’s the best way to get to a male spy?”
“What is this, a certification quiz?” Jack pulled back his hand and finished his drink.
Emmett stared at him, his expression completely serious. “Through a woman, Jack. Who did you die to protect and give a better life to? Who’s always been your Achilles’ heel?”
Jack swallowed hard and waited for Emmett to continue, using every technique he had for managing his anger and keeping his pulse rate from racing into the panicked, dog-mode thinking range. If your pulse speeds up too fast, you lose your ability to reason and process; you go dog mode.
“The Rooster’s in Orchard Bluff. Pursuing your wife, Jack. Befriending Willow to find out what she knows and draw you out. You told me you never wanted to see her again, that you have to be dead so she can live the life she deserves.” Emmett paused and lifted his hand, revealing the flash drive with Jack’s mission details and cover story. “Are you still in?”
Copyright © 2013 by Gina Robinson