Read an Excerpt
By Baldacci, David
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Baldacci, David
All right reserved.
WILL ROBIE HAD closely observed every one of the passengers on the short flight from Dublin to Edinburgh and confidently deduced that sixteen were returning Scots and fifty-three were tourists.
Robie was neither a Scot nor a tourist.
The flight took forty-seven minutes to cross first the Irish Sea and then a large swath of Scotland. The cab ride in from the airport took fifteen more minutes of his life. He was not staying at the Balmoral Hotel or the Scotsman or any of the other illustrious accommodations in the ancient city. He had one room on the third floor of a dirty-faced building that was a nine-minute uphill walk to the city center. He got his key and paid in cash for one night. He carried his small bag up to the room and sat on the bed. It squeaked under his weight and sank nearly three inches.
Squeaking and sinking were what one got for so low a price.
Robie was an inch over six feet and a rock-solid one hundred and eighty pounds. He possessed a compact musculature that relied more on quickness and endurance than sheer strength. His nose had been broken once, due to a mistake he had made. He had never had it reset because he’d never wanted to forget the mistake. One of his back teeth was false. That had come with the broken nose. His hair was naturally dark and he had a lot of it, but Robie preferred to keep it about a half inch longer than a Marine buzz cut. His facial features were sharply defined, but he made them mostly forgettable by almost never making eye contact with anyone.
He had tats on one arm and also on his back. One tattoo was of a large tooth from a great white. The other was a red slash that looked like lightning on fire. They effectively covered up old scars that had never healed properly. And each held some significance for him. The damaged skin had proven a challenge for the tattoo artist working on Robie, but the end result had been satisfactory.
Robie was thirty-nine years old and would turn forty the following day. He had not come to Scotland to celebrate this personal milestone. He had come here to work. Of the three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, he was working or traveling to do his job on about half of them.
Robie surveyed the room. It was small, adequate, unadorned, strategically located. He did not require much. His possessions were few, and his wants fewer still.
He rose and went to the window, pressed his face to the cool glass. The sky was gloomy. It was often that way in Scotland. A full day of sun in Edinburgh was routinely greeted with both gratitude and astonishment by its citizens.
Far to his left stood Holyrood Palace, the queen’s official residence in Scotland. He could not see it from here. Far to his right was Edinburgh Castle. He could not see that battered old edifice either but knew exactly where it was.
He checked his watch. A full eight hours to go.
Hours later his internal clock woke him. He left his room and walked up toward Princes Street. He passed the majestic Balmoral Hotel that anchored the city center.
He ordered a light meal and had tap water to drink, ignoring the large selection of stouts offered on the board over the bar. As he ate he spent some time gazing at a street performer juggling butcher knives atop a unicycle while regaling the crowd with funny stories delivered with an embellished Scottish brogue. Then there was the fellow outfitted as the invisible man taking pictures with passersby for two pounds each.
After his meal, he walked toward Edinburgh Castle. He could see it in the distance as he ambled along. It was big, imposing, and had never once been taken by force, only stealth.
He climbed to the top of the castle, peering over the gloom of the Scottish capital. He ran his hand along cannon that would never fire another shot. He turned to his left and took in the full breadth of the sea that had made Edinburgh such an important port centuries ago as vessels came and went, disgorging freight and picking up fresh cargo. He stretched tight limbs, felt a creak and then a pop in his left shoulder.
But first he had to make it to tomorrow.
He checked his watch.
Three hours to go.
He left the castle and headed down a side street.
He waited out a sudden chilly rain shower under a café awning and drank a cup of coffee.
Later he passed a sign for the ghost tour of Underground Edinburgh, adults only, and only conducted after full darkness had set in. It was almost time. Robie had memorized every step, every turn, every move he would have to make.
As he did every time, he had to hope it would be enough.
Will Robie did not want to die in Edinburgh.
A bit later he passed a man who nodded at him. It was just a slight dip of the head, nothing more. Then the man was gone and Robie turned down the doorway the man had vacated. He shut and locked it behind him and moved forward, quickening his pace. His shoes were rubber-soled. They made no sound on the stone floor. Six hundred feet in he saw the door on the right side. He took it. An old monk’s cloak was hung on a peg. He donned it and put the hood up. There were other things there for him. All necessary.
A Glock pistol with suppressor can attached.
And a knife.
He waited, checking his watch every five minutes. His watch was synched to the very second with someone else’s.
He opened another door and passed through it. He moved downward, reached a grate in the floor, lifted it, and skittered down a set of iron handrails set into the stone. He hit the floor silently, moved left, counted off his paces. Above him was Edinburgh. At least the “new” part.
He was in Underground Edinburgh now, home to several ghost and walking tours. There were the vaults under South Bridge and parts of old Edinburgh such as Mary King’s Close, among others. He glided down the dark brick-and-stone passages, his powered goggles letting him see everything in crisp definition. Electric lamps on the walls were set at fairly regular intervals. But it was still very dark down here.
He could almost hear the voices of the dead around him. It was part of local lore that when the plague came in the 1600s it struck impoverished areas of the city—such as Mary King’s Close—especially hard. And in response the city walled up folks here forever to prevent the spread of the disease. Robie didn’t know if that was true or not. But it wouldn’t surprise him if it were. That’s what civilization sometimes did to threats, real or perceived. They walled them off. Us against them. Survival of the fittest. You die so I can live.
He checked his watch.
Ten minutes to go.
He moved slower, adjusting his pace so he would arrive seconds before he was supposed to. Just in case.
He heard them before he saw them.
There were five, not counting the guide. The man and the peripherals.
They would be armed. They would be ready. The peripherals would think this was the perfect place for an ambush.
They would be right.
It was stupid for the man to come down here.
The carrot had to be especially big.
It was as big as it was total bullshit. Still, he had come because he knew no better. Which made Robie wonder how dangerous the man really was. But that was not his call.
He had four minutes to go.
ROBIE ROUNDED one final bend. He heard the guide talking, giving the memorized spiel and delivering it in a mysterious, ghostlike voice. Melodrama sells, thought Robie. And in fact the uniqueness of the voice was vital to the plan tonight.
There was a right-angle turn coming up. The tour was heading for it.
So was Robie, just from the opposite way.
The timing was so tight that there was no margin of error.
Robie counted the paces. He knew the guide was doing the same. They had even practiced the length of their strides, to get them perfectly choreographed. Seven seconds later the guide, who was the same height and build as Robie, and wearing a cloak identical to his, came around the bend a mere five paces ahead of his party. He held a flashlight. That was the one thing Robie could not duplicate. Both of his hands had to be free, for obvious reasons. The guide turned left and disappeared into a cleft cut into the rock that led into another room with another exit.
As soon as he saw this, Robie pivoted, putting his back to the group of men who would round the corner a few moments later. One hand slipped down to the recorder on his belt under the cloak and turned it on. The guide’s dramatic voice boomed out, continuing the tale that he had momentarily halted to take the turn.
Robie did not like having his back to anyone, but there was no other way for the plan to work. The men had lights. They would see that he was not the guide. That he was not doing the talking. That he was wearing goggles. The voice droned on. He started to walk forward.
He slowed. They caught up to him. Their lights swept across his back. He heard their collective breaths. Their smells. Sweat, cologne, the garlic they’d had in their meals. Their last meals.
Or mine, depending on how it goes.
It was time. He turned.
A deep knife strike took out the point man. He dropped to the floor, trying to hold in his severed organs. Robie shot the second man in the face. The sound of the suppressed round was like a hard slap. It echoed off the rock walls and mingled with the screams of the dying men.
The others were reacting now. But they were not truly professionals. They preyed on the weak and the poorly skilled. Robie was neither. There were three of them left, but only two would be any trouble.
Robie hurled the knife and its point ended up in the third man’s chest. He dropped with a heart split nearly in half. The man behind him fired, but Robie had already moved, using the third man as a shield. The bullet hit the rock wall. Part of it stayed in the wall. Part of it ricocheted off and found purchase in the opposite wall. The man fired a second and third time, but he missed his target because his adrenaline had spiked, blown his fine motor skills and caused his aim to fail. He next executed a desperation spray and pray, emptying his mag. Bullets bounced off hard rock. One slug hit the point man in the head on a ricochet. It didn’t kill him because he’d already bled out, and the dead could not die a second time. The fifth man had thrown himself to the hard floor, hands over his head.
Robie had seen all of this. He dropped to the floor and fired one shot into the forehead of man number four. Those were the names he had given them. Numbers. Faceless. Easier to kill that way.
Man number five was now the only one left.
Five was the sole reason Will Robie had flown to Edinburgh today. The others were just collateral, their deaths meaningless in the grand scheme.
Number five rose and then backed up as Robie got to his feet. Five had no weapon. He had seen no need to carry one. Weapons were beneath him. He was no doubt rethinking that decision.
He begged. He pleaded. He would pay. An unlimited amount. Then when the pistol was pointed at him he turned to threats. What an important man he was. How powerful his friends were. What he would do to Robie. How much pain Robie would suffer. He and his whole family.
Robie did not listen to any of it. He had heard it all before.
He fired twice.
Right and left side of the brain. Always fatal. As it was tonight.
Number five kissed the stone floor, and with his last breath hurled an expletive at Robie that neither of them heard.
Robie turned and walked through the same cleft as the tour guide.
Scotland had not killed him.
He was thankful for this.
Robie slept soundly after killing five men.
He awoke at six and ate breakfast at a café around the corner from where he was staying.
Later he walked to Waverly Station next to the Balmoral Hotel, and boarded a train to London. He arrived at King’s Cross Station over four hours later and took a cab to Heathrow. The British Airways 777 lifted off later that afternoon. With a weak headwind the plane touched down seven hours later at Dulles Airport. It had been cloudy and chilly in Scotland. It was hot and dry in Virginia. The sun had long ago begun to drift low into the west. Clouds had built up during the heat of the day, but there would be no storm because there was no moisture. All Mother Nature could do was look threatening.
A car was waiting for him outside the airport terminal. There was no name on the placard.
He got in, clicked the seat belt shut, and lifted up a copy of the Washington Post that sat on the seat. He gave the driver no instruction. He knew where to go.
Traffic on the Dulles Toll Road was surprisingly light.
Robie’s phone vibrated. He looked at the screen.
One word: Congratulations.
He put the phone back in his jacket pocket.
“Congratulations” was the wrong word, he believed. “Thanks” would be the wrong word too. He was not sure what the right one would be for killing five people.
Perhaps there was none. Perhaps silence would suffice.
He arrived at a building off Chain Bridge Road in northern Virginia. There would be no debriefing. No record of anything was better. If an investigation ensued, no one could discover a record that didn’t exist.
But if things went wrong Robie would have no official cover.
He walked to an office, not officially his, but one that he sometimes used. Even though it was late there were people working. They did not talk to Robie. They didn’t even look at him. He knew they had no idea what he did, but they also knew not to interact with him.
He sat at a desk, hit some keys on the computer, sent a few emails, and stared out a window that wasn’t really a window. It was merely a box of simulated sunlight, because an actual window was just a hole that others could get through.
An hour later a chubby man in a wrinkled suit with pasty skin walked in. They didn’t greet each other. Chubby placed a flash drive on the desk in front of Robie. Then he pivoted and left. Robie stared down at the silver object. The next assignment was already prepared. They had been coming at an increasing clip these last few years.
He pocketed the flash drive and left. This time he drove himself, in an Audi that was parked in a space in the adjacent garage. When he slid into the seat he felt comfortable. The Audi was his, had been for four years. He drove it through the security checkpoint. The guard did not look at him either.
The invisible man in Edinburgh. Robie knew how it felt.
Once he hit the public road he shifted gears and accelerated.
His phone vibrated once more. He checked the screen.
It didn’t make him smile. It didn’t make him do anything other than drop the phone on the opposite seat and punch the gas.
There would be no cake and no candles.
As he drove, Robie thought of the underground tunnel in Edinburgh. Four of the dead men were bodyguards. They were hard, desperate men who had allegedly murdered at least fifty people over the last five years, some of them children. The fifth man with two holes in his head was Carlos Rivera. A trafficker of heroin and youngsters for prostitution, he was immensely rich and had been visiting Scotland on holiday. Robie knew, though, that Rivera actually had ostensibly been in Edinburgh to attend a high-level meeting with another criminal czar from Russia in an effort to merge their business interests. Even criminals liked to globalize.
Robie had been ordered to kill Rivera, but not because of his human and drug trafficking businesses. Rivera had to die because the United States had learned that he was planning a coup in Mexico with the aid of several high-ranking generals in the Mexican army. The resulting government would have been no friend of America, so this could not be allowed to happen. The meeting with the Russian crime czar had been the setup, the carrot. There was no czar and no meeting. The offending Mexican generals were also dead, killed by men like Robie.
When Robie arrived home he walked for two hours through the darkened streets. He ventured down by the river and watched the headlights on the Virginia side cut through the night. A police patrol boat slid past on the calm surface of the Potomac.
He stared up at the drab, moonless sky; a cake without candles.
Happy Birthday to me.
IT WAS THREE A.M.
Will Robie had been awake for two hours. The mission set forth on the flash drive he’d been given would cause him to travel well past Edinburgh. The target was yet another well-protected man with more money than morals. Robie had been working on the task for nearly a month. The details were numerous, the margin of error was even less than with Rivera. The preparation was arduous and had taken its toll on Robie. He could not sleep. He was also not eating very much.
But he was trying to relax now. He was sitting in the small kitchen of his apartment. It was located in an affluent area with many magnificent dwellings. Robie’s building was not one of them. It was old, utilitarian in design, with noisy pipes, odd smells, and tacky carpet. Its occupants were diverse and hardworking, most just starting out in life. They left early every morning to take their place at law firms, accounting practices, and investment concerns spread over the city.
Some had chosen the public-sector route and took the subway or bus, biked, or even walked to the large government buildings housing the likes of the FBI, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve.
Robie did not know any of them, though he saw all of them from time to time. He had been briefed on all of them. They all kept to themselves, immersed in their careers, their ambitions. Robie kept to himself too. He prepared for the next job. He sweated the details because it was the only way he could survive.
He rose and stared out the window, down to the street where only one car passed by. Robie had traveled the world for a dozen years now. And everywhere he went someone died. He could no longer remember the names of all the people whose lives he had ended. They didn’t matter to him when he was killing them and they didn’t matter to him now.
The man who had previously held Robie’s position had operated during a particularly busy time for Robie’s clandestine agency. Shane Connors had terminated nearly thirty percent more targets than Robie had in the same amount of time. Connors had been a good, sound mentor to the man who would replace him. After his “retirement” Connors had been assigned to a desk job. Robie had had little contact with him over the last five years. But there were few men Robie respected more. And thinking about Connors made Robie dwell for a bit on his own retirement. A number of years off, it would eventually happen.
If I survive.
Robie’s line of work was a young man’s game. Even at forty Robie knew he couldn’t do it another dozen years. His skills would erode too much. One of his targets would be better than he was.
He would die.
And then his thoughts came back to Shane Connors sitting behind his desk.
Robie supposed that was death too, simply by another name.
He walked to the front door, placed his eye against the peephole. Though he didn’t personally know any of his neighbors, that did not mean he wasn’t curious about them. He was, in fact, very curious. It wasn’t hard to explain why.
Their lives were normal.
Robie’s was not.
Seeing them going about their everyday lives was his only way to stay connected to reality.
He had even thought about starting to socialize with some of them. Not only would it provide good cover for him—attempting to blend in—but also it would help prepare him for the day when he would no longer do what he did now. When he might have a normal life of sorts.
Then his thoughts turned, as they inevitably did, back to the upcoming mission.
One more trip.
One more kill.
It would be difficult, but then they all were.
He could very easily die.
But that was also always the case.
It was a strange way to spend one’s life, he knew.
But it was his way.
THE COSTA DEL Sol had lived up to its name today.
Robie wore a straw-colored narrow-brim hat, a white T-shirt, a blue jacket, faded jeans, and sandals. There was three days’ worth of stubble on his tanned face. He was on holiday, or at least looked to be.
Robie boarded the large, bulky ferry to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. He looked back to the mountains rising along the rugged and imposing Spanish coastline. The juxtaposition of the high rock to the blue Med was captivating. He admired it for a few seconds and then turned away, forgetting the image just as quickly. He had other things occupying his mind.
The high-speed ferry headed to Morocco. It pitched and swayed like a metronome as it left Tarifa Harbor on its way to Tangier. Once it gathered speed and hit the open waters, the ride smoothed out. The belly of the ferry was filled with cars, buses, and tractor-trailers. The rest was crammed with passengers eating, playing video games in an arcade, and purchasing duty-free cigarettes and perfume by the carload.
Robie sat in his seat and admired the view, or at least pretended to. The strait was only nine miles wide and the ride would take only about forty minutes. Not a lot of time to contemplate anything. He spent it alternately gazing out at the waters of the Med and studying the other passengers. They were mostly tourists, eager to say they had been to Africa, although Robie knew that Morocco was very different from what most people probably would think when they imagined Africa.
He walked off the ferry in Tangier. Buses, taxis, and tour guides awaited the masses. Robie bypassed them all and left the port on foot. He entered the main street of the town and was instantly besieged by peddlers, beggars, and shopkeepers. Children pulled on his jacket, asking for money. He directed his gaze down and kept walking.
He passed through the congested spice market. At one corner he nearly stepped on an elderly woman who looked to have fallen asleep while holding on to a few loaves of bread for sale. This had probably been her entire life, thought Robie. This corner, and a few loaves of bread for sale. Her clothes were dirty, her skin the same. She was soft and plump but malnourished, as was often the case. He bent down and put some coins in her hand. Her gnarled fingers closed around them.
She thanked him in her language. He said “you’re welcome” in his. They both somehow understood the exchange.
He walked on, increasing his pace, taking any steps he encountered two and three at a time. He passed by snake charmers who placed exotically colored and defanged reptiles around the necks of sunburned tourists. They wouldn’t take the snakes off unless five euros were placed in their hands.
A nice racket if one could get it, thought Robie.
His destination was a room over a restaurant promising authentic local food. It was a tourist trap, he knew. The food was generic, the beer warm, and the service indifferent. The bus guides led unsuspecting folks there and then hurried elsewhere to eat a far better meal.
He headed up the stairs, unlocked the door to the room with the key he had previously been given, and locked the door behind him. He looked around. Bed, chair, window. All he needed.
He put his hat on the bed, looked out the window, and eyed his watch. It was eleven a.m. local time.
The flash drive had long since been destroyed. The plan was in place and the movements practiced at a mock facility back in the States that was the exact duplicate of his target. Now he simply had to wait, the hardest part of all.
He sat on the bed, massaged his neck, working out kinks from the long trip by plane and boat. This time the target was no idiot like Rivera. He was a cautious man with professional assets who wouldn’t spray bullets around. This one would be harder, or at least it should be.
Robie had brought nothing with him from Spain because he had to pass through customs to get on the ferry. A weapon found in a bag by Spanish police would have been something more than problematic. But everything he needed would be in Tangier.
He took off his jacket, lay back on the bed, and let the heat from the outside make him drowsy. He closed his eyes, knowing he would open them again in four hours. The sounds from the street receded as he fell asleep. When he woke, nearly four hours had passed and it was the hottest part of the day. He wiped sweat from his face and went back to the window, looked out. He watched big tour buses navigate streets never built for anything so large or cumbersome. The sidewalks were full of people, both locals and visitors.
He waited another hour and then left his room. On the street he turned east and double-timed it. In a few seconds he was lost in the hustle and bustle of the old city. He would collect what he needed and move on. All these items would be for the mission. He had traveled to thirty-seven countries and had never purchased a single souvenir.
Seven hours later it was quite dark. Robie approached the large, stark facility from the west. Over his back was slung a hardened case and a knapsack with water, a pee jar, and provisions. He did not plan on leaving here for the next three days. He looked around, taking in the smells of a third-world country. The air was also heavy with the threat of rain. That would not bother him. This task was an inside job.
He checked his watch and heard it approach. He ducked down behind a cluster of barrels. The truck passed by him and stopped. He approached it from the rear. Three strides later he was under it, holding on to metal jutting out from its underside. The truck drove on and then stopped once more. There was a long, wrenching sound of metal on metal. It started up again with a jolt that nearly caused Robie to lose his grip.
Fifty feet later the truck stopped once more. The doors opened, feet touched the floor. Doors clunked shut. Footsteps headed off. The wrenching sound came again. Then hardened locks were clicked into place. There was quiet, except for the footfalls of the perimeter patrol that would be there 24/7 for at least the next three days.
Robie timed it so he was out from under the truck and racing away just as the wrenching sounds stopped. The facility technically had been cleared and put in lockdown. This was the only opportunity Robie had to get in. Mission accomplished, at least this part.
He took the steps three at a time, the hard-sided case hitting him in the back.
Next came the race against the clock.
He reached the top, grabbed the girder, and did a monkey crawl, hand over hand, to the targeted spot. He swung to the left and then the right and then made his leap.
He landed nearly silently on metal and skittered to a spot eighty feet distant, in one of the darkest corners of the space.
He did so with five seconds to spare.
The lights clicked off and the alarms came on. The interior space was instantly crisscrossed with beams of energy that were invisible to the naked eye. But if anything with a pulse touched them sirens would go off. All intruders found would be executed. It was just that sort of place.
Robie turned over on his back, his face to the ceiling.
Three days, or seventy-two hours, to go.
It seemed his entire existence was one uninterrupted countdown.
IT WAS TIME.
The prayer rugs came out. Knees dropped to the ground and all heads turned east and then lowered to rest near the knees. Mouths opened and the familiar chants flowed.
Mecca was twenty-five hundred nautical miles away, about five hours by plane.
For the folks on the rugs it was a lot closer.
Prayers said, religious duties fulfilled, the rugs were rolled back up and stowed away. Allah was also put away, in the backs of his followers’ minds.
It was too early to eat. But it was not too early to drink.
There were places in Tangier that accommodated this, Muslim teetotalers or not.
The two dozen men went to one such place. They did not walk along the streets. They traveled in a four-Hummer motorcade. The Hummers were armored to American military standards and would defeat all bullets and most missile strikes. Like the buses, these vehicles seemed far too large for the narrow streets. The main man rode in the third Hummer, where his front and rear were covered.
The man’s name was Khalid bin Talal. He was a Saudi prince. A cousin to the king. With that sole connection he was accorded respect in almost all corners of the Muslim and Christian worlds.
He did not come to Tangier very often. Tonight he was here to do business. He was scheduled to leave during the early morning hours in his private jet that cost well over one hundred million dollars. A staggering sum to virtually anyone, it was less than one percent of his net worth. The Saudis were close allies of the West in general and the Americans specifically, at least in public. A stable flow of petroleum made for good friendships. The world moved around at speed, and men from a desert country where few things would grow could afford aircraft costing nine figures.
However, this Saudi prince was not such a friend. Talal hated the West. He hated the Americans most of all. That was a dangerous position to openly take against the world’s remaining superpower.
Talal was suspected of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of four U.S. servicemen, abducted from a club in London. Nothing could be proven, though, and the prince had suffered no consequences. He was also suspected of bankrolling three terrorist attacks in two different countries, resulting in the deaths of over one hundred people, a dozen of them Americans. Again, nothing could be proven and there were no repercussions.
But those actions eventually had put Talal on a list. And the payment for being on that list was about to come due with the full blessing of the Saudi leadership. He simply had become too bothersome and ambitious to let survive.
The people he had come here to meet did not much like the West or the Americans either. They and Talal had a lot in common. They envisioned a world that did not have the stars and stripes leading the way. The gathering was to discuss how to make such a world happen. This caucus was a closely guarded secret.
Their mistake was letting the closely guarded secret no longer remain a secret.
The club was entered through a metal door with a number pad. Talal’s lead guard hit the ten-digit code that was changed daily. The six-inch-thick hydraulic-powered door clanged shut behind them. There were blast walls set up at strategic points. The interior perimeter was ringed by armed guards. This was serious security for the few people who could afford it.
The prince and his group sat at a large round table in a roped-off area that was hidden behind drapes and set atop an elevated teakwood platform. The prince’s eyes continually moved, sizing up the environment around him. He had survived two assassination attempts, one by a cousin of his and another by the French. The cousin was dead and so was France’s best contract killer.
Talal trusted no one. He knew the Americans wouldn’t be far behind now that their French ally had failed. His guards were vetted and loyal and a close-knit group that allowed no outsiders in. There were no whites, blacks, or Hispanics anywhere near his inner circle. He was armed. He was a good shot. He kept his mirrored sunglasses on even indoors. No one could tell where he was looking. The lenses were also specially designed. Their magnification levels allowed him to see things his naked eye could not. But he did not have eyes in the back of his head.
The uniformed waiter approached not with drinks but merely with napkins. The prince brought his own glasses and liquor. Being poisoned was not on his agenda. He poured his Bombay Sapphire and added the tonic. He sipped, his gaze swiveling, his mind partly focused on the upcoming meeting. He was prepared for every contingency.
Except an enlarged prostate.
It was an annoyance that even his wealth could not overcome. He could not have someone else piss for him.
His men made sure the bathroom was empty of enemies and free of explosives, and inaccessible except for the one door. An aide wiped down the sink, commode, and stall with an anti-bacterial spray. Billionaire royalty do not frequent urinals.
Talal went to the cleansed stall, closed the door behind him, and latched it, using a handkerchief to do so. He had discarded his robes before coming here. He wore a custom-made suit that cost ten thousand British pounds. He had fifty such suits and couldn’t remember where they all were, since they were spread over his many properties around the world. He had never flown commercial even as a young man. He had teams of servants at each of his homes. When he stayed at hotels they were the finest, and he rented out entire floors so he would not have to endure seeing a common person when he went to his room. He was whisked everywhere either by motorcade or helicopter. People of his wealth did not sit in traffic. His life of rarefied luxury was unimaginable. And that was fine by him, because in his mind, he was unlike other human beings.
I am better. Far better.
Yet he still had to unzip his fly to do his personal business, just like every other man, rich or poor. He studied the wall in front of him, the graffiti and filthy language written there. He finally looked away in disgust. It was the Western influence that had brought such things, of that he was convinced. In that world, women could drive cars, vote, work outside the house, and dress like whores. It was ruining the world. Even his country now said that women could vote and do other things that only men should be able to do. The king was insane and, worse, a puppet of the West.
He hit the flush lever with the sole of his shoe, zipped his pants, and unlatched the stall door. While he washed his hands, he stared at his image in the mirror. A fifty-year-old man looked back at him: gray in the beard and quite large in the belly. He was worth well north of twelve billion dollars, making him the sixty-first richest person in the world according to Forbes magazine. He had taken his oil money and leveraged it into many profitable operations using his business savvy and international connections. He was sandwiched on the list between a Russian oligarch who used gangster tactics after the fall of the Soviet Union to snap up state assets for virtually nothing and a twenty-something tech king whose company had never made a dime in profit.
He left the bathroom and walked back to the table with his guards organized in a hard-diamond pattern around him. He had copied this tactic from the American Secret Service. His personal physician traveled with him, just like the U.S. president. Why not emulate the strongest? was his thinking.
And in his mind, he was just as important as the American president. In fact, he would have liked to replace him as the de facto leader of the free world. Although the world would not be nearly as free with him in charge, starting with the women.
Drinks finished, they moved on to their evening meal at a restaurant that had been completely rented out so that the prince could dine in peace without the fear of strangers interrupting. After that he changed back into his robes and returned to his jet, housed in a secure hangar back at a private jet park outside the city. The Hummers pulled past the open doors of the hangar and stopped in front of the massive jet. While most planes were painted white, this one was all black. The prince liked the color. He thought it was masculine and powerful and possessed a tangible element of danger.
Just like him.
The hangar doors closed before he got out of the Hummer.
There would be no targets for long-range rifle shots between open hangar doors.
He walked up the steps, puffing slightly as he neared the top.
The hangar doors would reopen only when the plane was ready to take off.
The meeting would be held on the plane, while it was on the ground. The meeting would last for one hour. The prince would control the meeting.
He was used to controlling situations.
That was about to end.
THERE WERE TWO GUARDS at the bottom of the stairs leading to the jet. The rest of the security was in the plane, surrounding what would be the main target for any attack. The fuselage door was closed, locked. It was like a vault. A very expensive vault. But as with all vaults, there were weaknesses.
The prince sat at the center of the table in the main part of the cabin. The interior was entirely of his own design. The plane consisted of nearly eight thousand square feet of marble and exotic woods, oriental rugs, and exquisite paintings and sculptures by long-dead, museum-quality artists that he could admire at forty-one thousand feet and five hundred miles an hour. Talal was a man who spent his money and thereby enjoyed his wealth.
He gazed around the table. There were two visitors here. One was Russian, the other Palestinian. An unlikely partnership, but it intrigued the prince.
They had promised that for the right price they could accomplish something that virtually everyone, the prince included, would have thought impossible.
The prince cleared his throat. “You’re sure you can do this?” His tone was full of incredulity.
The Russian, a big man with a full beard and a hairless head that gave him an unbalanced, bottom-heavy appearance, nodded slowly but firmly.
The prince said, “I am curious as to how this is possible, because I have been told that it is absolutely pointless even to try.”
“The strongest chain is defeated by its weakest link.” This came from the Palestinian. He was a small man, but with a fuller beard than the Russian. They were like a tugboat and a battleship, but it was clear that the small man was the leader of the partnership.
“And what is the weakest link?”
“One person. But that person is placed next to the one you want. We own that person.”
“I cannot see how that is possible,” said the prince.
“It is not just possible. It is fact.”
“But even so, access to weapons?”
“The person’s job will allow access to the necessary weapon.”
“And how do you own such a person?”
“That detail is not important.”
“It is important to me. This person must be willing to die, then. There is no other way.”
The Palestinian nodded. “That condition is met.”
“Why? Westerners do not do that.”
“I did not say that the person is a westerner.”
“Decades in the making.”
“Why do any of us do anything? We believe in certain things. And we must take steps to realize those beliefs.”
The prince sat back. He looked intrigued.
The Palestinian said, “The plans are in place. But as you know, significant funds are required for something like this. Much of it in the aftermath. Our person is secure, for now. But that could change soon. There are eyes and ears everywhere. The longer we wait, the greater the chances of the mission failing before it has been given a chance to succeed.”
The prince ran his fingers over the carved wood of the table as he glanced out the window. The windows were extra large, because he enjoyed the views from his high perch.
The subsonic round hit him squarely in the forehead, exploding his brain. He fell back against his leather seat and then slowly slid to the floor. Gray matter, blood, bone, and tissue covered the plane’s once beautiful interior.
The Russian leapt up but had no weapon. It had been confiscated at the door. The Palestinian just sat there, paralyzed.
The guards reacted. One pointed to the shattered plane window. “Out there!”
They rushed to the door.
The two guards outside the plane had drawn their weapons and fired at the source of the fatal shot.
Shots pinged around Robie’s position. He aimed and fired back. The first sentry fell with a kill shot to the head. The second collapsed a few moments after that with a bullet wedged in his heart.
From his high perch Robie pointed his rifle’s muzzle at the door of the plane. He sent five shots right through the center, destroying the opening mechanism. He swiveled around and took out the cockpit window and with it the plane’s controls. The big bird would be grounded for a while. It was fortunate for his mission that bulletproof material was too thick and heavy to carry on planes. That made it simply a hundred-million-dollar vault with a very large Achilles’ heel.
Then he was done with killing.
Now came the hardest part.
He tightwalked down the girder until he reached a wall on the far side of the hangar. He pushed open the window, attached his cable to the support ring he had bolted into place the night before, and rappelled down the wall. His feet touched the asphalt and he ran due east away from the hangar and the dead prince. He scaled a fence, dropped to the other side. He heard shouts behind him. Some beams of light broke the darkness. Shots headed his way, all far off target. He knew that could change.
The car raced up. He threw his gear in the backseat, jumped in, and it drove off before his door was even shut. Robie did not look at the driver and the driver did not look at him. The car traveled for only a few miles, into the outskirts of Tangier, before stopping. Robie slipped out, headed down an alley, walked another five hundred feet, and entered a small courtyard. A blue Fiat was there. He slid into the driver’s seat, snagged the keys from under the visor, and started it up. He gunned the engine and left the courtyard. Five minutes later he neared the center of Tangier. He drove through the city and parked the car at the port. He popped the rear hatch and pulled out a small bag packed with clothes and other essentials, including travel documents and local currency.
He boarded not the high-speed ferry back to Spain, which he had taken to get here, but instead the slow ferry from Tangier to Barcelona. It took twenty-four hours to go from Barcelona to Tangier and three hours longer in the other direction.
His employer had sprung for a three-person family berth rather than simply a seat. He went to this space, stowed his bag, locked his door, and lay on the bed. A few minutes later the ferry slipped away from the dock.
Robie could see the logic. No one would expect an assassin to escape via a boat that took over a full day to get to its destination. They would check the airports, the high-speed ferries, the highways, and the train stations. But not the lumbering old bathtub that would take twenty-seven hours to go a few hundred miles up the Med. He would actually arrive two days from now, since it was nearly midnight.
Robie had had with him a long-range surveillance cone that had allowed him to hear the conversation on the plane between the prince and the two other men. Access to weapons. Decades in the making. Significant funds for the aftermath. It would have to be followed up. But that was not his job. He had completed his task. He would make his report and others would now take over. He was certain that even the Saudi royal family would be relieved that one of their black sheep had been killed. Their official statement would condemn such an act of violence. They would demand a full investigation. They would posture and fume and whine. Tense diplomatic communications would be exchanged. But in private they would toast the ones responsible for the killing. In other words, they would toast the Americans.
It had been a clean operation. Robie had had the prince in his crosshairs from the moment he’d gotten out of his SUV. He could’ve taken him out then, but wanted to wait until the prince and his guards were on the plane. It would allow him more time to get away if the security detail were trapped inside the aircraft. He had lost sight of the prince for about half a minute right after he had entered the plane, but had reacquired him as he walked down the aisle and sat at the table.
Robie had aimed for the head of Talal even though it was a tougher shot, because of something he’d seen through his scope. When the prince had leaned forward in his chair, Robie had seen the straps underneath the man’s robes. He was wearing body armor. One did not wear body armor around the head.
Robie had spent three days and nights of his life perched high up, peeing into a jar and eating power bars while waiting for his target in a facility that was supposedly in lockdown and totally secure.
Now the prince was dead.
His plans would die with him.
Will Robie closed his eyes and slept as the ferry gently swayed on its slow ride over the calm waters of the Med.
THIS ONE WAS DIFFERENT.
It was close to home.
So close that it was home.
Nearly three months had passed since Tangier and the death of Khalid bin Talal. The weather was cooler, the sky a little grayer. Robie had not killed anyone during that time. It was an unusually long period for him to be inactive, but he did not mind. He took walks, he read books, he ate out, he did some traveling that did not involve the death of someone. In other words, he acted normal.
But then that flash drive had appeared and Robie had had to stop being normal and pick up his gun again. The mission had come to him two days ago. Not much time to prepare, but the mission was a priority, the flash drive told him. And when the flash spoke Robie acted.
He sat in a chair in his living room, a cup of coffee in hand. It was early in the morning and he had been up for several hours. As the next mission grew closer it had been difficult for him to sleep. It had always been that way with him—not so much nervousness as a desire for heightened preparation. When he was awake part of his brain was constantly refining the plan, finding errors and fixing them. He could not do that while he was asleep.
During his downtime he had adhered to his earlier plan of socializing more and even accepted an invitation to an informal party held by one of his neighbors at the man’s apartment on the third floor. Only a dozen people had attended, some of whom also lived in the building. The neighbor had introduced Robie to several of his friends. However, Robie’s attention had quickly focused on one young woman.
She was a recent renter here who made the trek to the White House as early as four a.m. on her bike. Robie knew where she worked because he had received a briefing on her. He knew she left that early for work, because he had often watched her through his peephole.
She was a lot younger than Robie, lovely, intelligent, at least from what he had observed. They had made eye contact on several occasions. Robie sensed she might be as friendless as he. He also sensed that if he started talking to her she wouldn’t have minded. She had worn a short black skirt and a white blouse. Her hair was swept back into a ponytail. She had a drink in hand and every so often she would glance in Robie’s direction, smile, and then look away as she continued her conversation with another person whom Robie didn’t recognize.
Several times Robie had thought about approaching her. Yet he had left the party without doing so. As he was walking out he’d glanced back at her. She was laughing at a comment made by someone, and never looked his way. It was probably better that way, he’d thought. Because really, what would have been the point?
Robie rose and stared out the window.
It was fall now. The leaves in the park had started to turn. The evenings were chilly. The humidity of summer was sometimes still with them, but its intense edge had measurably eroded. The current weather was not bad for a city that was built on a swamp—and still was a swamp by many people’s estimation, at least the part where the professional politicians nested.
Robie had done his recon in the abbreviated time allotted. The run-throughs, logistically harder in this situation, had still been performed.
And he still didn’t like it.
But it was not his call.
The location would not involve Robie stepping on a plane or train. But the target was different as well. And not in a good way.
Sometimes he went after people intent on global menace, like Rivera or Talal. Or sometimes he simply went after a problem.
You could take your pick of labels, but in the end they all meant the same thing. His employer decided who among the living and breathing would qualify as a target. And then they turned to men like Robie to end the living and breathing part.
It made the world better, was the justification.
Like flinging the planet’s most potent army against a madman in the Middle East. Military victory was ensured from the start. What could not be wholly predicted was what came after victory. Like a morphing chaos you couldn’t escape.
Trapped in a trap of your own making.
The agency Robie worked for had a clear policy on operatives who were caught during a mission. There would be no acknowledgment that Robie even worked for the United States. There would be no steps taken to save him. It was the opposite of the U.S. Marines’ mantra: Everyone in Robie’s world was left behind.
Thus on every mission Robie had employed an exit plan known only to him, in case the operation went awry. He had never needed to employ his personal backup plan, because he had never failed a mission. Yet. Tomorrow was simply another day for something to go wrong.
Shane Connors was the one who had taught Robie this. He had told Robie that he had to use his backup plan once, in Libya, when the operation, through no fault of his, had imploded.
“You’re the only one out there who really has your back, Will,” Connors had told him. That advice had stayed with Robie all these years. He would never forget it.
Robie surveyed his apartment. He’d been here four years, liked it for the most part. There were restaurants within walking distance. The area was interesting, with many unusual shops that were not part of homogeneous national chains. Robie ate out a lot. He liked to sit at tables and watch people go by. He was a student of humanity in a way. That was why he was still alive. He could read people, often after observing them for only a few seconds. It was not a natural talent. It was a skill he had built up over time, as most useful skills were.
In the basement of his building was a gym where he would go to work out, hone his muscles, ratchet up his motor skills, practice techniques that needed practicing. He was the only one who ever used the facility. For training involving weapons and other necessary tools of his trade there were other places he went. Other people he worked with.
At forty years of age it didn’t come any easier.
He toggled his neck back and forth and was rewarded with a satisfying pop.
He heard a door open and close in the hall. He stepped to his peephole and watched the woman walk her bike down the hall. This was the woman from the party, the one who worked at the White House. She sometimes wore jeans on the way to work and then presumably changed into her official duds when she got there. She was always the first to leave the building in the morning, unless Robie had already departed for some reason.
That was the name on the mailbox downstairs. He knew the A stood for Anne. His background briefing on her had told him that.
His own mailbox simply said Robie. No first initial. He had no idea if people wondered about that or not. Probably not, though.
She was in her late twenties, tall, long blonde hair, thin. He once had seen her in shorts when she first moved in. She was somewhat knock-kneed, but her face was elegantly structured, with a mole under her right eyebrow. He had heard her during a discussion in the hall with a fellow tenant who did not support the current administration. Her replies had been sharp and informed. Robie had been impressed.
He had started referring to her in his own mind as “A.”
Robie stepped back from the door when she disappeared into the elevator with her bike. He moved back to another window overlooking the street. A minute later she left the building, shouldered her knapsack, swung onto her bike, and was off. He watched her until she turned the corner and the reflector strips on her backpack and helmet disappeared from view.
Next stop: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was four-thirty in the morning.
He turned back from the window and surveyed his living space. There was nothing in his apartment that would tell anyone searching it what he did. He had an official position that would be backed up to the fullest in case anyone questioned anything. But still, his apartment was nondescript and contained almost nothing of personal interest. He preferred that to having others invent a past for him, placing photos of people he didn’t even know around his apartment and passing them off as relatives or friends. “Hobbying” a residence with tennis rackets or skis or stamp collection books or a musical instrument was standard procedure. He had turned all such offers down. There was a bed, a few chairs, some books he’d actually read, lamps, tables, a place to eat, a place to shower and use the toilet.
He reached up to the pull-up bar he kept over the doorway leading to his bedroom and did a quick twenty. It was good to feel his muscles in motion, pulling his weight up to the bar with relative ease. He could run most twenty-somethings into the ground. His strength and motor skills were still excellent. Yet he was forty now and clearly not what he once was. He could only hope to counter the inevitable erosion of skills and physicality with increased field experience.
He lay down in the bed but didn’t put any covers over him. He kept the apartment cold. He needed to sleep.
The coming night would be busy.
ROBIE WAS IN the basement gymnasium of his building. It was nearly nine p.m., but the place was open twenty-four/seven for the residents. All you needed was your key card. In one respect Robie’s workout routine never varied: He never did the same workout twice in a row. He focused not on strength or stamina or flexibility or balance or coordination or agility. He focused on them all. Every exercise he did required at least two and sometimes all of those elements.
He hung upside down on the pull-up bar. He did stomach crunches and then worked his oblique muscles while holding a medicine ball. The U.S. Army had devised a functional fitness regime that mimicked what soldiers did in the field, the sorts of muscles and skills required on the battlefield.
Robie held to the same concept and worked on things he needed to survive out there. Lunges, thrusts, explosiveness from his calves up. He worked everything in synergy. Upper body and lower body at the same time that he was pushing his core past the breaking point. He was chiseled but never took his shirt off. No one would ever see him strolling along displaying his six-pack unless he needed to as part of a mission.
He did a half hour’s worth of yoga until he was drenched in sweat. He was holding an Iron Cross on the pull-up bar when the door opened.
A. Lambert stared over at him.
She didn’t smile or even acknowledge him. She closed the door behind her, went over to a corner, and sat down cross-legged on an exercise mat. Robie held the cross for another thirty seconds, not to impress her, because she wasn’t even looking at him. He held it because he had to push his body past what it was used to. Otherwise he was just wasting his time.
He let go and dropped lightly to the floor. He snagged his towel and wiped off his face.
“I think you’re the only one who uses this room.”
He slid the towel down to find her now looking at him.
She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. The shirt and jeans were tight. No place to conceal a weapon. Robie always checked that first, male or female, young or old.
“You’re here,” he said.
“Not to work out,” she replied.
“Tough day at the office. Just chilling.”
He looked around the small, ill-lighted room. It smelled of old sweat and mold.
“Must be nicer places to chill than this,” he said.
“I didn’t expect to find anyone else here,” she answered.
“Except me, maybe. From what you said, you knew I used this room.”
She said, “I just said that because I saw you here tonight. I’ve never seen you down here before, or anyone else, for that matter.”
He knew the answer but asked, “So, tough day at the office. Where do you work?”
“The White House.”
“That’s pretty impressive.”
“Some days it doesn’t feel that impressive. What about you?”
“Do you work at one of the big firms?”
“No, I’m on my own. Always have been.”
Robie draped the towel around his shoulders. “Well, I guess I’ll leave you to your chilling.” However, he didn’t really want to leave just yet. Perhaps she sensed this. She rose and said, “I’m Annie. Annie Lambert.”
“Hello, Annie Lambert.”
They shook hands. Her fingers were long, supple, and surprisingly strong.
“You have a name?” she asked.
“First or last?”
“Last. It’s on the mailbox.”
“And your first?”
“That was harder than it should have been.” She smiled.
He found himself grinning back. “I’m not the most outgoing guy you’ll ever meet.”
“But I saw you at the party on the third floor the other night.”
“It was a little out of character for me. First time I’ve had a mojito in a long time.”
“Maybe we can go out for a drink sometime.” Robie had no idea why that offer had come out of his mouth.
“Okay,” she said casually. “Sounds good.”
“Good night,” said Robie. “Have a nice chill.”
He closed the door behind him and took the elevator back up to his floor.
He immediately made a phone call. He didn’t really want to do it, but any contact like that had to be reported. Robie didn’t think there was anything to be worried about with Annie Lambert, but the rules were clear. Annie Lambert would be investigated to a greater degree. If anything turned up Robie would be notified and appropriate action would be taken.
As he sat in his kitchen Robie wondered if he should have made the call at all. He could not look at anything normally ever again. Someone being friendly to him was a potential threat. It had to be reported. A woman “chilling” and saying hello to him had to be called in.
I live in a world that isn’t remotely normal anymore. If it ever was. But it won’t always be like this. And there’s no agency rule against having a drink with someone.
So maybe he would. Sometime. He left his building and walked across the street. The high-rise there had a perfect view of his, which was the point. On the fourth floor was an empty apartment. Robie had a key for it. He entered the apartment and went directly to the corner of the front room. Set up there was a surveillance scope that was rated as one of the best in the world. He powered it up and turned its muzzle toward his building. He pushed and pulled on dials, making corrective adjustments until a certain part of his building came into sharp focus.
His floor, down the hall three doors. The lights were on, the shades raised three-quarters. He waited. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. It was all the same to Robie.
Annie Lambert’s front door opened and closed. She moved down the hall. He swung the scope in measured movements, following her trek. She stopped at the kitchen, opened the fridge, and took out a Diet Coke. With his scope he could read the label clearly. She closed the fridge with a swipe of her hip. She filled a glass halfway up with the soda and the other half with rum pulled from a cupboard over the stove.
She walked down the hall. Before she got to her bedroom she unzipped her jeans, slipped them off, and tossed them into a laundry basket. She set her drink down on the floor while she pulled her top over her head. Her underwear was pink. She was not the thong type; her underwear fully covered her bottom.
Robie had not seen this. He had turned his surveillance device off when she had started to unzip her pants. The scope cost nearly fifty grand. He was not going to use it for pathetic voyeurism.
Robie returned to his building and rode the elevator to the top floor.
An access door that was locked led to the roof. The lock was not a complicated one for him. Robie took a short flight of steps up to the very top of the building. He ventured to the edge and looked out over the city.
Washington, D.C., looked back at him.
It was a lovely city at night. The monuments looked particularly magnificent when mood-lighted against the darkness. In Robie’s mind, D.C. was the only city in the United States to truly rival the great cities of Europe when it came to official decoration.
But it was also a city of secrets.
Robie and people like him were one of those secrets.
Robie sat down with his back to the wall of the building and gazed upward.
A. Lambert had officially become Annie Lambert. Knowing it from the briefing paper wasn’t the same as hearing it in person.
And he had reported her for nothing more than probably just being friendly.
Tough day at the office. Just needed a place to chill.
Robie could relate to that. He had some tough days at the office. He could use a place to chill.
But that would never happen.
He showered and changed into fresh clothes. Then he gunned up. It was time to go to work.
ANOTHER FOSTER HOME she did not want to be in. How many now? Five? Six? Ten? She supposed it didn’t really matter.
She listened to the screams coming from the downstairs of the duplex she had called home for the last three weeks. The man and woman downstairs yelling at each other were her foster parents. Which was more than a joke, she thought. It was criminal. They were criminal. They had a string of foster kids through their home and made them pickpocket people and deal drugs.
She had refused the pickpocketing and the drug dealing. So tonight would be her last night here. She had already packed her backpack with her few belongings. There were two other foster kids living in the one bedroom with her. They were both younger and she was loath to leave them here.
She sat them on the bed and said, “I’m going to get you guys help. I’m going to let Social Services know what’s going on here. Okay? They’re going to come and get you out of this place.”
“Can’t you take us with you, Julie?” asked the girl tearfully.
“I wish I could, but I can’t. But I’m going to get you out of here, I promise.”
The boy said, “They won’t believe you.”
“Yes they will. I’ve got proof.”
She gave them each a hug, opened the window, climbed out, wriggled down the drainpipe to the flat roof of the attached carport, worked her way down a support pole, reached the ground, and ran off into the darkness.
She had one thought in mind.
I’m going home.
Home was a duplex even smaller than the one she had just left. She took the subway, then a bus, and then she walked. Along the way she pulled out an envelope, walked up the steps of a large brick government building, and pushed the envelope through the mail slot in the door. It was addressed to the woman who was handling the foster care placement for her and the two other kids back at the duplex. She was a nice lady, she meant well, but she was completely swamped with children no one seemed to want. In the envelope was a photo card with pictures capturing the couple in the middle of abusing their foster kids, engaging in clearly illegal activity, and sitting stoned out on the couch with crack pipes and piles of pills in full view. If that didn’t do the trick, she thought, nothing would.
She reached the house an hour later. She didn’t go in the front door. She did what she always had done when getting home this late. She used a key she kept in her shoe to go in via the back door. She tried to turn on a light, but nothing happened. This did not surprise her. It merely meant that the electricity had been turned off because the utility bill had not been paid. She felt along the walls and used the moonlight coming in through the windows to see well enough to reach her bedroom on the second floor.
Her room was unchanged. It was a dump, but it was her dump. A guitar, sheets of music, books, clothes, magazines were piled everywhere. There was a mattress on the floor that served as her bed, but it wasn’t easily visible under all the other stuff. She rationalized that her parents had not cleaned up her room because they knew she would be back.
They had problems. Many of them.
They would be regarded by most people as pathetic, drugged-out losers.
But they were her parents. They loved her.
And she loved them.
She wanted to take care of them.
At age fourteen, she was often the mom and dad, and her parents were often the kids. They were her responsibility, not the other way around. But that was okay.
They should be asleep by now, she knew. Hopefully not stoned.
Actually things were looking up. Her father was working on a loading dock and had been gainfully employed there for a whole two months. Her mother labored as a waitress in a diner where a two-dollar tip was the exception rather than the norm. It was true that her mom and dad were recovering addicts, but they got up every day and went to work. It was just that the drug problems and the stints in jail had led the city to sometimes deem them unfit to have custody of her.
Hence the banishment to the foster care system.
But not for her. Not anymore. Now she was home.
She fingered the piece of paper in her jacket pocket. It was a note from her mom. It had been sent to her school and left at the office. Her parents had plans to move away from the area and start over afresh. And they, of course, wanted their only child to go with them. Julie hadn’t been this excited in a long time.
She went to their bedroom across the hall to check on them, but it was empty. Their bed was like hers, simply a mattress on the floor. But the room wasn’t messy. Her mother had tidied up. Clothes were put away, albeit in baskets. They had no dressers or armoires. She sat on the bed and removed a photo of the three of them that was hanging on the wall. She couldn’t see it that well in the dark, but she knew exactly who was in it.
Her mother was tall and thin, her father shorter and even skinnier. They looked unhealthy and they were. Years of drug abuse had left permanent scars, chronic problems, lives that would be significantly shortened. Yet they had always been kind to her. Never abused her. Looked out for her when they could. Fed her, kept her warm and safe, again when they could. They never brought problems back to the house. The abuses they had committed were done away from here. She appreciated that. And every time she had gone into foster care they had worked hard to get her back.
She put the photo back on the wall and pulled out the note from her mom that had been sent to her school. She read it again. The instructions were clear. She was excited. This might be the start of something great. Just the three of them in a new life away from here. The only thing that bothered her was the contingency plan her mom had put in the note, if for some reason they didn’t hook up with their daughter. There had also been cash along with the note. The money was for the contingency plan. Well, there was no reason that her parents wouldn’t be able to meet up with her. She assumed that they would be leaving in the morning.
She started to the door to return to her room and pack up her belongings that she hadn’t taken to the foster care home.
And then she stopped.
There were noises, which didn’t completely surprise her, since her parents sometimes kept odd hours. They must just be getting home.
The next sound she heard erased all other thoughts she had.
It was a man’s voice. Not her father’s.
It was raised. Angry. It was asking her father what he knew. How much he had been told.
She heard her father whimpering, as though he were hurt.
Then Julie heard her mother’s frantic voice. Asking the person to leave them alone.
Julie crept down the stairs, her body shaking.
She had no cell phone or else she would have called the police. There was no landline phone in the house. Her parents couldn’t afford it.
When she heard the gunshot she froze and then started running down the stairs. When she reached the lower level she saw her father slumped back against the wall in the darkness. A man held a gun pointed at him. There was a dark patch on her father’s chest growing bigger. His face was ashen. He fell to the floor, his arms whipsawing around and knocking over a lamp.
The man with the gun turned and saw her. He pointed the pistol at her.
“No!” her mother shrieked. “She doesn’t know anything.”
Though barely a hundred pounds, she hit the man in the back of the legs and he collapsed to the floor in pain, his gun spinning out of reach.
“Run, honey, run!” screamed her mother.
“Mom!” She called back. “Mom, what is—”
Her mother screamed again, “Run! Now!”
She turned and ran back up the stairs even as the man spun around and landed a crushing blow to the top of her mother’s head.
She reached her room, grabbed her backpack, sprinted to the window, and grabbed hold of a trellis of metal over which someone long ago had planted ivy. She climbed down so quickly that she lost her grip and fell the last six feet. She got up, slung her backpack across her shoulders, and ran off.
A few seconds later a second shot came from the house.
When the gunman ran outside, the teenager was already out of sight.
But he stopped, listened. The sounds of footfalls reached him. He set out west, moving deliberately.
THE WOMAN WALKED to her car. She was probably thinking a million different things as she slipped her briefcase in the backseat of her Toyota sedan, right next to the kiddie seats. Busy professional, mother, housekeeper—the list went on and on, as it did for many women.
Her black suit was a discount off-the-rack model, like most of her clothes. It was a bit grimy after a long day and her heels were nicked in several places. She was not wealthy, but the work she did was important for her country. That made up for a paycheck that was smaller than she could have earned in the private sector.
She was in her middle thirties, five feet nine, more than thirty pounds overweight from her last pregnancy and no time to do anything about it. She had a pair of kids, ages three and less than a year. She was in the process of getting a divorce. She and her soon to be ex-husband currently had joint custody of the kids. One week on and one week off. She wanted full custody, but that was difficult to manage with the work she did.
There had been a change of schedule tonight. She had one stop to make before heading home. She drove off, her mind swirling with thoughts of work issues mixed with the demands of two active children. There was no room in there for her. But that just came with motherhood, she supposed.
Robie stared up at the five-story apartment building. It looked like his place. Old, decrepit. But he lived in a nice part of the nation’s capital. This was a part of D.C. that suffered from a lot of violent crime. However, this particular neighborhood was becoming safer. You could raise a family here without worrying too much about your kid dying while walking home from school because he was caught in the crossfire of drug crews battling for street supremacy.
There was no doorman here. The outer entrance was locked and one needed a pass card to get in. He had that. There were no surveillance cameras. They cost money. The folks who lived here couldn’t afford that. Or a doorman.
Robie had gone from cartel bosses to Saudi princes to this. The dossier on tonight’s target was particularly light. Black woman, age thirty-five. He had her picture and her address. He had not been told the specific reason why she must die tonight other than she had ties to a terrorist organization. If Robie had to label her, he would probably put her in the “problem” box his employer sometimes used to justify death. He couldn’t visualize anyone living here as being a global menace. They tended to matriculate to fancier addresses or else hid out from the law in some country that did not extradite to the United States. But terrorist cell members were trained to blend in. She apparently was one of them. In any event, the reason why she had to die was above his pay grade.
He looked at his watch. The building was all condo but less than half occupied. After the financial meltdown fifty percent of the folks here had suffered foreclosure. Another ten percent had lost their jobs and been evicted. The woman lived on the fourth floor. She was a renter and could never afford the mortgage on this place, foreclosed or not. There were only two other people living on that floor, an old woman who couldn’t see or hear, and a security guard who worked the night shift and was currently fifteen miles away. The apartments above and below the woman were also empty.
He toggled his neck, felt the pop. He pulled up his hoodie.
The plan was set. There was no stand-down button to push. The rocket was fueled and the launch was commencing.
He looked at his watch. His spotter had seen her go into the building alone hours ago, grocery bag in one hand, briefcase in the other. She had looked tired, the spotter had reported to Robie. That would be a good look, compared to what was coming.
It was moments like this that made Robie wonder what he would do with the rest of his life. He had no problem killing cartel trash or rich, megalomaniac desert sheikhs. But tonight Robie had a problem. He reached a gloved hand inside his pocket and felt the gun there. Usually it was reassuring for him to touch his weapon.
Tonight it was not.
She would be in bed. Her apartment was dark. At this hour she would be sleeping.
At least she would feel nothing. He would make certain his strike caused instant death. Life would go on without her. Rich or poor, important or not, life just did. He would leave by the fire escape. It emptied out to an alley, as many of these buildings did. He would be back at his house by three a.m. Just in time to go to sleep.
To forget tonight ever happened.
As if I can do that.
ROBIE SWIPED THE CARD through the reader and the door clicked open. He pulled his hoodie tighter around his head. The hallways were poorly lighted. Fluorescent tubes popped and flickered. The carpet was soiled and pulled up in certain spots. The paint on the walls was peeling.
He opened the door to the stairwell and headed up. The air was filled with the smells of cooked food. Mingled together in the air, they did not make a pleasant aroma. He counted the floors. On the fourth one he exited the stairwell and closed the door behind him.
This hall looked just like the one on the first floor.
Number 404 was the one he wanted.
The blind and deaf lady lived at the end of the hall on the left. The security guard in absentia resided at 411. The lock on 404 was a deadbolt, probably engaged by his target tonight. Robie had noted that most of the other exterior condo doors had simple locks. The deadbolt meant she was security-minded. Yet it took him all of thirty seconds to defeat the lock using two slender pieces of metal in concert.
He closed the door behind him and put on his night-vision goggles. His gaze swept the small living room. There was a night-light inserted into an outlet, providing a bit of illumination. It didn’t matter. Robie had been given the plans of the apartment and had memorized all relevant details.
His fingers closed around the gun in his pocket; the suppressor can was already spun on the muzzle. No wasted time.
In one corner of the room was a round particleboard table. On it were a laptop and stacks of paper. The lady had brought her work home, it seemed. There were books on a small shelf. There was no carpet, only worn area rugs.
In one corner was a collapsible playpen. On two walls were pieces of construction paper taped up. There were stick-figure kids and a stick-figure woman with messy hair. In childish script were the word “I” and the word “mom” separated by a crude drawing of a heart. There were also toys piled in one corner.
All this gave Robie pause.
I’m here to kill a young mother. The flash drive said nothing about kids.
Then in his headset came the voice.
“You should already be in the bedroom.”
This was also what was different about tonight. He wore a pinhole camera that conveyed live video feedback, and an earwig through which his handler could prompt him to do his job more efficiently.
Robie moved through the room, stopping at the closed door to the bedroom.
He listened at the cheap wood for a few moments and heard what he expected: low breathing, soft snores.
He gripped the knob with his gloved hand, pushed the door open, and stepped through.
The bed was set against the window. Directly outside was the fire escape. In many respects this was far too easy, like a movie set properly lighted and waiting for the actors to execute a pivotal scene.
It was dark in here, but he could still see her lying in the twin bed. Her heavy body made a substantial hump under the covers. Much of her weight was carried in her hips and buttocks. Robie knew it would take some effort to lift her corpse onto the gurney after she’d been pronounced dead. The cops would look for clues, but there would be none. Ordinarily Robie would police his brass. But he was chambering dum-dum rounds tonight, so most likely they would stay inside her. And if so, the medical examiner would find them during the post. But what he would never have was a gun to match them to.
He lifted the Glock out from his pocket and moved forward. When you wanted to make sure that one shot would do the trick, there were any number of places where this could be accomplished.
To avoid the blowback of blood and tissue on his person that inevitably came with a contact shot, Robie had opted tonight to make the kill shot from a few feet away. He would fire once into the heart, and then for insurance he would place a second shot into the aorta, which was the width of a garden hose and ran vertically up to the heart. There were things in front of the aorta, but if one knew where to shoot and the angle was right, the shot would sever the hose ten times out of ten. The bleedout would be lightning fast. And if the bullets somehow passed through her, the mattress would probably collect them.
He moved to the front of the bed and raised the pistol. She was lying flat on her back. He lined up her heart in his gunsight. Instead of his target he momentarily saw in his mind the toys, the playpen, the drawing that said, “I heart mom.” He shook his head clear. Refocused. The drawing stormed back into his mind. He shook his head again. And—
Robie jerked slightly when he saw the small hump next to her. The head with the wiry hair sticking out. It had been hidden under the covers. He did not pull the trigger.
In his ear the voice said, “Shoot.”
ROBIE DID NOT SHOOT. But he must have made some sound.
The wiry head moved. Then the little hump sat up. The boy rubbed his eyes, yawned, opened his eyes, and stared directly at Robie standing there, his pistol pointed at the boy’s mother.
“Shoot,” the voice said. “Shoot her!”
Robie did not fire.
“Mommy,” said the boy in a fearful tone, never once taking his gaze off Robie.
“Shoot,” said the voice. “Now.”
The man sounded hysterical. Robie couldn’t put a face with the voice because he had never met his handler in person. Standard agency procedure. No one could ID anyone.
“Mommy?” The little boy started to cry.
“Shoot the kid too,” said the handler. “Now.”
Robie could fire and be gone. Taps to the chests. One big, one small. One dum-dum fired into the child would destroy his insides. He would have no chance.
“Shoot now,” said the voice.
Robie did not shoot.
The woman began to stir.
“Mommy?” Her son poked her with his fingers but kept staring at Robie. Tears slid down his thin cheeks. He started to shake.
She slowly woke. “Yes, baby?” she said in a sleepy voice. “You’re safe, baby, just a nightmare. You’re safe with Mommy. Nothing to be scared of.”
He tugged on her gown.
“Okay, baby, okay. Mommy’s awake.”
She saw Robie. And froze, but only for an instant. Then she pulled her child behind her.
Robie put a finger to his lips.
She screamed again.
“Shoot them,” the handler said frantically.
Robie said to her, “Be quiet or I shoot.”
She didn’t stop screaming.
He fired a round into the pillow next to her. The stuffing flew out, and the round deflected off the mattress springs and drilled into the floor underneath the bed.
She stopped screaming.
“Kill her,” the handler roared in Robie’s ear.
“Stay quiet,” said Robie to the woman.
She sobbed, hugged her son. “Please, mister, please, don’t hurt us.”
“Just stay quiet,” said Robie. The handler was still screaming in his ear. If the man had been in the room Robie would have shot the asshole just to shut him up.
“Take what you want,” mumbled the woman. “But please don’t hurt us. Don’t hurt my baby.”
She turned, hugged her son. Lifted him up so they were face-to-face. He stopped crying, touched his mother’s face.
Robie realized something and his gut tightened.
The handler was no longer screaming. His earwig held nothing except silence.
He should have picked up on that before.
Robie lunged forward.
The woman, thinking he was about to attack them, screamed again.
The window glass shattered.
Robie watched as the rifle round passed through the boy’s head and then drove through his mother’s, killing them both. It was an enviable shot made by a marksman of enviable skill. But Robie was not thinking of that.
The woman’s eyes were on Robie when her life ended. She looked surprised. Mother and son fell sideways, together. She was still holding him. If anything her arms, in death, appeared to have tightened around her lifeless child.
Robie stood there, gun down. He looked out the window.
The fail-safe was out there somewhere with a fine sight line, obviously.
Then his instincts took over and Robie ducked down and rolled away from the window. On the floor he saw something else he had never expected to see tonight.
On the floor next to the bed was a baby carrier. In the carrier sound asleep was a second kid.
“Shit,” Robie muttered.
He crawled forward on his belly.
His earwig came alive. “Get out of the apartment,” his handler ordered him. “By the fire escape.”
“Go to hell,” Robie said. He ripped the pinhole and earwig off, powered them down, and stuffed them in his pocket.
He snagged the carrier, slid it toward him. He was waiting for a second shot. But he did not intend to give the shooter a viable target. And the man on the other end of the kill shot wouldn’t fire without that, Robie knew. He had sometimes been the one holding the rifle out there in the darkness.
He moved clear of the window and stood, holding the baby carrier behind him. It was like lugging a large dumbbell. He had to get out of the building, but Robie obviously couldn’t go out the way he’d planned. He glanced toward the door. He had to get something before he left.
He carried the child out of the bedroom and scanned the living room with a penlight. He spied the woman’s purse. He set the carrier down, rifled through the purse, and took out the woman’s driver’s license. He snapped a picture of it with his phone. Next he photographed her ID card. Her government ID card.
What the—? That fact wasn’t on the flash drive.
Finally, he spied the blue item partially hidden under a stack of papers. He grabbed it.
A U.S. passport.
He snapped photos of all the pages, showing the places to which she’d traveled. He put the license, ID card, and passport back and grabbed the carrier.
He opened the front door of the apartment and looked right and then left.
He stepped out and hit the stairwell four strides later. He raced down one flight. The layout of the building was whirring through his mind. He had memorized every apartment, every resident, every possibility. But never for such a purpose as he had now: escape from his own people.
Number 307. A mother of three, he recalled. He went for it, his feet flying down the hall, touching only lightly on the crappy carpet.
Miraculously, the little one slept on. Robie had not really looked at the child since he had picked it up. He glanced down now.
The hair was wiry, like that of his dead brother. Robie knew the child would never remember the brother. Or the mother. Life sometimes was not just unfair, it was beyond tragic.
He set the carrier down in front of 307. Robie knocked three times. He did not look around. If someone in another apartment looked out they would only see his back. He knocked once more and glanced again at the baby that was starting to stir. He heard someone coming to the door and then Robie was gone.
The child would survive the night.
Robie was pretty certain that he wouldn’t.
ROBIE WENT DOWN one more flight to the second floor. He had two options.
The rear of the building was out. The long-range shooter was there. The fact that his handler had wanted him to leave by the fire escape told Robie all he needed to know. A bullet in the head would be his reward for being stupid enough to try to get out that way.
The front of the building was out for a similar reason. Well lighted, one entry—he might as well paint a bull’s-eye on his head when the backup team showed up a minute from now to clean up this mess. That left the two sides of the building. His two options, but Robie had to narrow it to one. And quickly.
He was moving as he was thinking: 201 or 216. The first was on the left of the building, the second on the right. The shooter in the rear of the building could move over to the left or right and thus cover the rear and one side simultaneously.
So left or right?
Robie moved, thought.
The handler would be helping the shooter, feeding him where he thought Robie would go. Left or right? He strained to remember the composition of the area. There was this high-rise building. The alley behind. A block of small businesses, gas station, strip mall. On the other side of that another high-rise that looked abandoned to Robie when he had done his earlier recon. The shooter had to be in there. That was the only sight line that worked. And if the building was abandoned, the shooter would have room to roam, to reset his position and turn his scope to Robie.
So which will it be? Left or right?
His original target, 404, was closer to the left side of the building. The handler might think Robie would go that way because he was closest to that side already. The handler didn’t know that Robie had gone to the third floor to drop off the other kid and then proceeded down another flight. But the handler would figure Robie would have to go down. He hadn’t brought anything to rappel down the side of the building.
Robie thought this through. In his mind’s eye he visualized the shooter sliding his position over to his right—Robie’s left—setting up his bipod, adjusting his scope, and waiting for Robie to appear.
But Robie hadn’t appeared yet when speed was essential. The shooter would take this into account. Robie, he knew, was trying to outguess him. Zig when they expected zag. So to the right instead of the left. That would explain the time that had passed thus far. Not dropping off the second kid.
In Robie’s mind he now slid the shooter to the left, or Robie’s right, on his mental chessboard.
The time for thinking was over.
He sprinted down the hall toward the building’s left side.
Number 201 was empty. Another foreclosure. Small personal miracles sometimes grew from large economic disasters. Ten seconds later he was inside. The apartments all had the same layout. He didn’t need a light or his goggles to navigate. He reached the back bedroom, opened the window, and climbed out.
He gripped the windowsill, looked down, gauged the drop, and let go.
Ten feet later he hit and rolled, cushioning the fall. Still, he felt pain in his right ankle. He waited for a shot to hit him.
None did. He had guessed correctly. He ran at an angle away from the building, hid behind a Dumpster for a few moments, recalibrated his senses to the new surroundings. Then he was up and over a fence and sprinting up the street five seconds later.
They probably hadn’t seen him leave the building or else he’d be dead. But they had to know by now that he’d gotten away. A response team would be searching for him. Grid by grid. Robie knew the drill. Only now he had to defeat it.
For as long as he’d been doing this Robie had known that what had happened tonight was a possibility. Not a distinct possibility, but one he had to account for. Like for all his other missions, he had a contingency exit plan in place. Now it was time to execute the plan. Shane Connors’s advice to him had finally come into play.
“You’re the only one out there who really has your back, Will.”
He walked ten more blocks. His destination was up ahead. He checked his watch. Twenty minutes to spare if the schedule hadn’t changed.
The year-old Outta Here Bus Company had taken over an old Trailways terminal near Capitol Hill. The company obviously didn’t have a lot of start-up capital, and the station still appeared like it was shut down. The company’s buses parked here did not look as if they could pass even a routine inspection. This trip would definitely be economy class all the way.
Robie had used a fake name to reserve a ticket on a bus leaving in twenty minutes. Its destination was New York City. He paid for the ticket in cash. Once he got to New York he would execute the second step in his contingency plan, which would entail leaving the country. He planned to put as much space between himself and his own people as he could.
He waited outside the terminal. Its location was not all that safe, especially at two in the morning. But it was far safer than the situation Robie had just left. Street criminals he could deal with. Professional killers with long-range rifles were far more formidable.
He looked at the other people awaiting the arrival of the bus that would carry them to the Big Apple, counting thirty-five passengers, including himself. The bus would hold nearly twice that, so he would have some buffer space. It was open seating, so he would try and snag a place away from everyone. Most of the people had bags, pillows, and knapsacks. Robie had nothing except his night-vision goggles, his pinhole camera, and his Glock pistol in an inside zippered compartment of his hoodie.
He ran his gaze over the line of people again. He deduced that most were poor, working-class, or otherwise down on their luck. It was an easy assumption. Their clothes were old, tattered, their coats threadbare, their expressions tired, beaten down. Most people with even limited financial means would probably not choose to ride to New York City in the middle of the night on a dilapidated bus carrying their own pillows.
The bus pulled into the parking lot in a wide arc and came to a stop near them with a screech of rusty brakes. They all lined up. That’s when Robie noticed her. He had already counted her as one of the thirty-five, but now his gaze came to rest fully on her.
She was young. Maybe twelve, maybe barely a teenager. She was short, skinny, dressed in faded jeans with holes in the knees, a long-sleeved shirt, and a dark blue ski parka without arms. She had on dirty, scuffed tennis shoes and her dark, stringy hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail. She carried a backpack in one hand and her gaze was set resolutely on the ground. She seemed to be breathing hard, and Robie noticed that both her hands and her knees had traces of dirt on them.
Robie looked for but did not see the small rectangular shape in her jeans pockets, front or back. Every teenager had a cell phone, especially the girls. Yet unlike most teens, she might have kept it in her jacket pocket. In any event, it was none of his business.
He looked around, but saw no one who could be her parents.
He edged forward in the line. It was not out of the realm of possibility that they would find him here before the bus departed. He gripped his pistol in his pocket and kept his gaze down.
On board the bus he shuffled toward the back. He was the last on, and most people had taken seats nearer the front. He sat in the last row, near the bathroom. There was no one else in this row. He sat next to the window. From here he could remain invisible while still seeing anyone coming, through the gap in the two seats in front of him. The windows were tinted. That would foul any attempted shot from outside.
The teenage girl sat three rows up from him on the opposite side of the aisle.
Robie looked up as a man hustled onto the bus right before the driver shut the door. He showed his ticket and moved toward the back. As he neared the girl he looked the other way. This was passenger number thirty-six and the very last to board.
Robie sank lower in his seat and pulled his hoodie closer around his face. He gripped his pistol in his pocket and edged the muzzle up and forward so that it was aimed at a spot the man had to cross if he continued to head Robie’s way. Robie had to assume that they somehow had found out about his contingency plan and had sent this man to finish the job.
But the fellow stopped one row beyond the teenage girl and sat in the seat directly behind her. Robie’s hand relaxed slightly around his pistol but he continued to watch the man through the gap.
The girl got up and put her bag in the overhead rack. As she stood on tiptoes to accomplish this her shirt edged up and Robie saw that her waist was tattooed.
The bus pulled off with a grinding of gears and the driver headed out onto the surface street that he would take to the interstate and then on to New York. There were few cars at this hour. The buildings were dark. The city would awake in a few hours. D.C. was not like New York in that regard. It did sleep. But it rose early.
Robie’s gaze settled back on the man. He was Robie’s size and age. He had no bag. He was dressed in black slacks, gray jacket. Robie’s gaze went to the man’s hands. They were gloved. Robie looked down at his own gloved hands and then gazed outside. It was not that cold. He saw the man engage the lever to slide his seat back a bit. He settled in.
But Robie’s instincts told him it wouldn’t be for long.
This man was not on the bus simply to travel to New York.
PROFESSIONAL KILLERS WERE a unique lot.
Robie thought this as the bus motored along. The vehicle’s suspension was for shit and thus the ride was too. They would have to endure two hundred miles of this, but Robie was not focused on that. He stared through the gap, watching, waiting.
When you were on a mission you looked for things that other people would never focus on. Like entry and exit points. Always have at least two of each. Gunsight angles, positions from which others can strike back at you. Sizing up opponents without seeming to do so. Trying to ferret out intent by reading body cues alone. Never let anyone notice you noticing him.
Robie was undertaking all of these tasks right now. And it was totally unconnected with his plight. He had people after him, clearly. But just as clearly the girl had someone after her. And Robie now knew that he was not the only professional killer on board this bus tonight.
He was looking at the second one.
He slipped the Glock from his pocket.
The girl was reading. Robie couldn’t see what, but it was a paperback. She was intent on this, oblivious to all other things. That was not good. Young people made easy targets for predators. Young people were glued to their phone screens, thumbs ramming keys, firing off messages of importance, like Facebook status, the color of their underwear that day, girl problems, hair problems, sport stats, where the next party was. They also always had earbuds in. With the music roaring, they could hear nothing until the lion struck. Then it was too late.
Easy prey. And they didn’t even know it.
Robie lined up his shot between the seat gap.
The other man leaned forward in his seat.
They had been traveling for only a few minutes. They were passing through an even more derelict part of the city.
There was no one sitting next to the girl in the window seat. There was no one across the aisle from her. The closest person to her was an old woman who had already fallen asleep. Most in the bus had settled down to sleep, though they’d barely gone a half mile as yet.
Robie knew how he would do it. Head and neck. Pull right, pull left, the same method the U.S. Marines teach. Because the target was a child, no weapon would be required. No loss of blood either. Most people died silently. There was no melodramatic dying sequence. Folks just stopped breathing, gurgled, twitched, and then went quietly. People close by were clueless. But then most people were clueless.
The man tensed.
The girl shifted her book a bit, letting the wash from the overhead light hit the page more fully.
Robie eased forward. He checked his gun. The suppressor can was spun on as tight as it would go. But in the close confines of the bus there was no such thing as a silenced gun. He would worry about explanations later. He had watched two people tonight lose their lives, one a little boy. He did not intend to make it three.
The man set his weight on the balls of his feet. He lifted his hands, positioned them in a certain way.
Pull-pull, thought Robie. Head left, neck right. Snap.
But not tonight.
ROBIE COULD READ a lot from a little. But what happened next was not something that he had anticipated at all.
The man screamed.
Robie would have too, since pepper spray stung like hell when it hit the eyes.
The girl was still gripping her paperback, keeping her current page. She had not even turned in her seat. She had just fired the spray backward over her head, nailing her attacker directly in the face.
However, the man was still moving forward, even as he screamed and clawed at his eyes with one of his hands. The other hand found purchase on the girl’s neck at about the time Robie’s pistol collided with the man’s skull, sending him crashing down to the floor of the bus.
The girl looked around at Robie as most of the other passengers, awakened now, stared at them. Then their gazes drifted to the fallen man. One old woman wearing a thick yellow robe started screaming. The driver stopped the bus, slammed it in park, turned to look at Robie standing there, and yelled, “Hey!”
The tone and the stare indicated to Robie that the driver thought he was the source of the problem. The driver, a heavyset black man of about fifty, rose and started down the aisle.
When he saw Robie’s gun, he stopped and put his hands in front of him.
The same old woman screamed and clutched at her robe.
“What the hell do you want?” exclaimed the driver to Robie.
Robie looked down at the unconscious man. “He was attacking the girl. I stopped him.”
He looked at the girl for support. She said nothing.
“Would you like to tell them?” Robie prompted.
She said nothing.
“He was trying to kill you. You nailed him with pepper spray.”
Robie reached over, and before she could stop him he’d ripped the canister from her hand and held it up.
“Pepper spray,” he said in a confirming tone.
The other passengers’ attention now turned to the girl.
She looked back at them, unfazed by their scrutiny.
“What’s going on?” asked the driver.
Robie said, “The guy was attacking the girl. She pepper-sprayed him and I finished him off when he didn’t back down.”
“And why do you have a gun?” asked the driver.
“I’ve got a permit for it.”
In the distance Robie heard sirens.
Was it for the two bodies back at the building?
The man on the floor groaned and started to stir. Robie put a foot on his back. “Stay down,” he ordered. He looked back at the driver. “You better call the cops.” He turned to the girl. “You have a problem with that?”
In response the girl rose, grabbed her backpack from the overhead bay, slipped it over her shoulders, and walked down the aisle toward the driver.
The driver put up his hands again. “You can’t leave, miss.”
She drew something from her jacket and held it in front of the man. From where he was standing behind the girl Robie was blocked from seeing what it was. The driver immediately retreated, looking terrified. The old woman screamed again.
Robie knelt down and used the fallen man’s belt to efficiently tie his hands and ankles together behind his back, completely immobilizing him. Then he followed the girl down the aisle. As he passed the driver he said, “Call the cops.”
“Who are you?” the driver called after Robie.
Robie didn’t answer, because he could hardly tell the man the truth.
The girl had worked the lever to open the bus door and stepped off.
Robie caught up to her as she reached the street.
“What did you show him?” he asked.
She turned and held up the grenade.
Robie didn’t blink. “It’s plastic.”
“Well, he didn’t seem to know that.”
Those were the first words she had spoken. Her voice was lower than Robie would have expected. More grown-up. They moved away from the bus.
“Who are you?” asked Robie.
She kept walking. The sirens drew closer and then started to fade away.
“Why did that guy want to kill you?”
She picked up her pace, moving ahead of him.
They reached the other side of the street. She slipped between two parked cars. Robie did the same. She hustled down the street. He picked up his pace and grabbed her arm. “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
He didn’t get an answer.
The explosion knocked them both off their feet.
ROBIE CAME TO FIRST. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but it couldn’t have been very long. There were no cops, no first responders. It was just him and a bus that was no longer there. He gazed over at the skeleton of burning metal that had once been a large piece of transportation equipment and thought that, like a plane crashing nose first into the earth from a great height, there could be no survivors.
This area of D.C. was deserted at this late hour and there were no residences nearby. The only people wandering out to see what had happened were obviously homeless.
Robie watched as one old man dressed in ragged jeans and a shirt turned black by living on the street stumbled out onto the sidewalk from his home of cardboard and plastic trash bags inside a doorway. He looked at the bonfire that had once been a bus with passengers inside and called out between rotted teeth, “Damn, anybody got something good to grill?”
Robie slowly rose. He was bruised and sore and would be even more bruised and sore tomorrow. He looked around for the girl and found her ten feet from where he had landed.
She lay next to a parked Saturn whose side windows had been blown out by the blast. Robie raced to her and gingerly turned her over. He felt for a pulse, found it, and breathed a sigh of relief. He checked her over. No blood, a few scratches on her face from where her skin had collided with the rough pavement. She would live.
A few moments later her eyes opened.
Robie eyed the grenade that she still clutched in her hand.
Excerpted from The Innocent by Baldacci, David Copyright © 2012 by Baldacci, David. Excerpted by permission.
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