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Alex Tempest leaned on a dirt-crusted stone wall, head lowered, trying to control his breathing and ignore the pain. His legs felt like gelatin and sent sharp, stabbing jolts of agony into his hips; his head spun with a sudden wave of nausea. Every muscle was bowstring tight and his heartbeat raggedevery sound brought a flinch and a shift of disoriented senses.
The sun had begun to set over the Mexico City skyline, but the heat continued to roll off the streets in waves. On the floor of a villa just outside of town, Vincenzo Carrera lay dead in a pool of blood. His men hadn't stopped to clear away the body, the blood or any of the evidence. They hadn't even disposed of the kilo-sized bag of cocaine, blown to bits and strewed across the inlaid mosaic of Carrera's garden. The powder floated about like fine drifts of snow. Carrera would never spend the money he'd expected to make on that sale. He would not make his reservations at La Villa Cordoba, nor his date with his wife and young daughter the following day at the beach.
All that remained of Carrera was his well-oiled organization, designed to sell drugs and kill or destroy anything that got in its way. It wasn't supposed to have mattered. In, remove the target and out. That was the plan. That was always the plan. Alex wasn't known as "the Chameleon" without good reason. He had worked his way into incredibly tight spots, killed and disappeared countless times. This wasn't even one of his more difficult assignments.
But something had gone wrong. Something had been going wrong for some time, in fact, and though he'd tried to ignore it, it only grew worse as each day passed. This time it had nearly cost him boththe success of his mission and his life.
As he waited for the shadows to deepen and his legs to stop shaking, he went over the mission again, trying to see if there was anything he could have done differently, trying to see where he'd gone wrong. Somewhere there was an error, a stupid error and he hated stupidity almost as much as he hated the trembling in his normally steady hand.
The earlier stages had gone exactly as he'd foreseen. It wasn't his first trip to Mexico City and his old contacts were in place. He'd managed to infiltrate the lower levels of Carrera's organization without incident, had marked his time and his place. It had taken two weeks of careful watching and listening to be certain he had it right.
Carrera had been too arrogant to distance himself from his business and his organization was too dangerous to be left without close control. It had only been a matter of time until a deal went down and Alex was close enough to the center of the operation to pin it down. They weren't secretive in their activities once inside the walls of Carrera's villa. Whom did they have to fear? Enough of the local policia were on the take to ensure secure operations and no business ever took place on the streets or in an unsecured location. Again, what would be the purpose?
Alex had slipped into the deep center of the garden shortly before the deal was set to go down, his tan skin darkened with a touch of makeup and his clothing already a perfect match to what the guards of the villa were wearing. There were five posts along the villa's wall and he'd placed himself very near one of these. The guard hadn't seen or heard himhe was searching for threats from outside the villa, not from within.
Just before 5:00 p.m., he'd slipped up behind the guard, slit his throat and took his place, watching the streets beyond the walls carefully. He moved and acted exactly as the guard would havea professional doing his job. There was no reason anyone would look at him twice and no one had. The damned plan was perfect.
At five o'clock sharp, Carrera appeared in the garden. He sat where he sat every afternoon, and a young girl brought refreshments. He ate fruit, and he laughed with the two bodyguards who were never far from his side. They were short, squat men with dark hair, dark glasses and no smiles. They made a quick sweep of the garden. They glanced up at each guard post. They didn't take any special notice of Alex. He paid no attention to them, willing them to see only what he wanted them to seea guard on duty.
At half past five, a long white sedan wound its way up the long driveway to the villa. It stopped just shy of the iron gates. Men poured out of twin guard shacks on either side of the gate, scanning the passengers, opening the trunk and searching quickly, checking the engine and sweeping beneath the undercarriage with mirrors. Slick, quick and efficient. Alex appreciated thatunder other circumstances he might have admired it.
The gates opened and the car slid in, moving at a leisurely pace. Alex watched, lost sight of the vehicle and turned his attention back to the streets.
For the moment, his duty was to protect. He kept his rifle, a modified Russian SVN-98, with the barrel tipped toward the street, but low enough that anyone watching from beyond the fence couldn't see it. They knew, of course. The police knew, the locals knew, everyone knew better than to approach the fence, but that was no reason to let down the guard. He knew what was expected, and that was what he became. It was how he operated, how he survived.
The Chameleon absorbed his environment, took on its colors.
The deal went down moments later. There were no formalities. Carrera's men escorted a small party from the villa to the garden. There were three men. One carried a banded metal case. The other two were mirror images of Carrera's menshort, squat, expressionless. They didn't glance around, but Alex knew they were aware of every detail. Their lives and the life of their leader depended on it. It was all like clockwork, and that was what was supposed to make it simple.
The money was counted. The drugs were presented for inspection. Carrera lounged in a chair, indifferent to the proceedings. The man who had carried the case moments before scooped a small sample onto his finger, tasted it quickly, then pulled a smaller case from his pocket. He took out a glass bottle, dropped a bit of the powder into it, added liquid and shook. That was the moment.
Alex knew that no one would be able to resist watching that bottle. Either the drugs were good, and the white sedan would glide back out the gates the way it glided in, leaving Carrera to count the cash, or it was a setup, an ambush meant to send some message to a lesser dealer or a competitor. It mattered little to Alex. Every set of eyes was locked on the bottle, and in that moment, he struck.
He shifted the rifle in the blink of an eye and sighted in on Carrera through the integrated scope. There was no time to hesitate, but Alex was a crack shot. It was thirty feet down the opposite side of the wall, but he'd already rigged a line. The entire operation should have taken, by his calculation, about forty seconds.
The crosshairs rested on Carrera's heart, and Alex curled his finger around the trigger, preparing to gently squeeze off the single round that would end Carrera's life. Except, at that moment, his hand began to shake. Not a small tremor, but an uncontrollable spasm that wrenched his fingers into a locked claw. He fought to control it, and pulled the trigger instinctively. The slug slammed into the bag of cocaine and sent a cloud of powder into the air. In that momentary confusion, cursing to himself, he resighted, pulled the trigger again, and blood spouted from Carrera's templethe only part of him that was visible above the tabletop.
Carrera was dead, but the damage to the mission was done. Men were already on the move.
Alex dropped the gun and grabbed at his line. He slid down quickly, rappelling down the sheer stone face. The muscles of his hand clenched again, so tight that he nearly cried out. He dropped too quickly and fought for control. He heard voices calling out in the distance. He heard gunfire, probably the buyer's men crossing with Carrera's in the confusion. He heard the roar of an engine, and he knew they'd seen him. He hadn't gotten over the wall quickly enough.
He hit the ground moving far too quickly. He braced, released the line and rolled, but pain shot through his legsmore pain than there should have beenand it was all he could do to keep his feet. There was a hundred yards before he'd be near any sort of cover. The first side street consisted of lines of small houses, all the same, most of them uninhabited. The few that weren't empty held Carrera's men and their families. It was a small demilitarized zone, more for camouflage than habitation.
Behind the second house on the left side of the street, he'd parked a Ducati dirt bike, small, powerful and maneuverable. He heard sounds of pursuit, too close. As he ran, he tossed aside his jacket and shirt. Dangling from the handlebars he'd left a dirty serape that many of the natives here wore. He whipped it over his shoulders, slid his arms in and dropped heavily onto the bike. His legs tingled as though they'd fallen asleep, and ice picks stabbed at his hips. His vision darkened for a moment from the sudden pain, and he nearly blacked out. He gritted his teeth, punched himself in the thigh repeatedly and kicked the engine to life.
He spun out and around the corner as the first wave of Carrera's men swept out the gates and into the streets, searching for likely targets. It was five miles to the center of the city, where the streets would be busy with people and tourists and where the police would have to make at least an attempt to pay attention. Alex blinked and gripped the handlebars tighter, his hands like talons. His eyesight blurred and it was all that he could do to keep the Ducati upright.
For a time he operated on pure instinct, and the bursts of gunfire and the roar of engines at his heels became the sounds of dreams on awaken-ingdistant and unreal. He was the Chameleon, and he needed only to disappear.
He dumped the bike at the edge of a small market, running between carts overladen with fruits and vegetables, and ducking in and out of alleys. At six feet one inch, he wasn't small enough to remain unseen in a doorway or tucked behind some clutter in the alley. He kept moving, ignoring the protests of his body, knowing that it didn't matter where he ended up, only that they not find him. The crowded streets were his best chance of blending in and eventually disappearing.
A car roared by the mouth of the alley where he stood. There was no way to know for sure if it was one of Carrera's. He had to assume that it was. Alex took a deep breath, steadied himself and pushed off the wall. He stumbled at first, then found his stride and, hanging close to the wall, stepped confidently into the street. Just ahead was a small cantina with tables looking out onto the street. He lowered his head and stepped inside.
The urge to turn and scan the street was strong, but he ignored it, walking into the shadows near the rear of the bar and taking a seat. Anything he did that might bring attention to himself would be a mistake. He needed to become what he appeared to bea tired worker in from the fields, looking for a place to wait out the last heat of the day and enjoy a drink. His clothing, the makeup he wore and even the contact lenses that turned his normally pale blue eyes a dark brown color would all serve to make him look more like a native. He ordered beer in fluent, unaccented Spanish and slouched over it. Occasionally, he turned toward the door and glanced at the street, but he was careful to make such motions inconspicuous and innocuous. There was nothing to be gained by moving now. His best bet for survival was staying put, and the way he was feeling, the rest was a blessing. There was no way to deny itsomething was wrong. He had to get out of Mexico and back home. He had to see a doctor. There was no longer any way to deny the sudden, excruciating pains or the uncontrollable trembling in his hands. His physical conditioning had not slacked off, and yet he seemed to spend most of his energy trying to concentrate, or fighting the pain in his legs.
Something had gone horribly wrong and his life too often depended on the skills of his body. A mistake in his line of work could easily prove fatal. And, if he was honest with himself, the missions were often too important to the safety of the world for him to fail.
The bartender polished the copper-and-brass beer taps. He paid no more attention to Alex than he did to the tables or the chairs. Alex looked into the mirror on the other side of the bar, his eyes mocking him in the reflection. There was nothing in the image to indicate that something was wrong with him, but he stared at the image as if it were a puzzle, as if maybe, if he stared long enough he could make the pieces fit back together.Alex sipped his beer and thought quietly.A young boy wandered in, looking for an easy mark or a free meal.