The hunter has become the hunted
Victor is a freelancer, a professional, a killer-the best there is. He's ice cold, methodical, and deadly. He lives alone. He operates alone. No one knows his background, or even his name. For him, business is a straight transaction. He's given a job; he takes out the target; he gets paid.
He's in Paris to perform a standard kill and collect for an anonymous client. The contract is simple, routine, and Victor completes it with trademark efficiency, only to find himself in the middle of an ambush and fighting for his life. Faced with powerful and determined enemies, and caught in the crossfire of an international conspiracy unfolding across four continents, Victor is forced to go on the run across a winter-ravaged Europe. Pursued by the authorities, hired assassins, and intelligence agencies from both sides of the Atlantic, he discovers that no place is safe for him anymore and there is no one he can trust.
But Victor is no easy target, and he's every bit as ruthless as those hunting him. He will find out who wants him dead and why, one corpse at a time.
Debut author Tom Hinshelwood has written a classic cat-and-mouse thriller for the twenty-first century that takes off from the very first page and never lets up. Filled with adrenaline-charged action worthy of the big screen, The Killer will have readers looking down the barrel of a gun at every turn.
The Killer was previously published under the title, "The Hunter".
About the Author
TOM WOOD is a freelance video editor and scriptwriter. He was born in Staffordshire, England and now lives in London. The Killer is his first novel. He has also been published under the name Tom Hinshelwood.
Read an Excerpt
By Tom Hinshelwood
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Tom Hinshelwood
All rights reserved.
The target looked older than in the photographs. The glow from the streetlight accentuated the deep lines in his face and pallid, almost sickly complexion. To Victor the man seemed on edge, either high on nervous energy or maybe just too much caffeine. But whatever the explanation, it wasn't going to matter thirty seconds from now.
The name on the dossier was Andris Ozols. Latvian national. Fifty-eight years old. Five-feet-nine-inches tall. One hundred and sixty pounds. He was right handed. No noticeable scars. His graying hair was cut short and neat, as was his mustache. His eyes were blue. Ozols wore glasses for shortsightedness. He was smartly dressed, a dark suit beneath his overcoat, polished shoes. With both hands he clutched a small leather attaché case to his stomach.
At the entrance to the alleyway Ozols glanced over his shoulder, an amateurish move, too obvious to trip up a shadow, too quick to register one if he did. In Victor's experience people often paid more attention to what could be behind them, instead of what lay ahead. Ozols didn't see the man standing in the shadows just a few yards away. The man who was there to kill him.
Victor waited until Ozols had passed out of the light before squeezing the trigger with smooth, even pressure.
Suppressed gunshots interrupted the early morning stillness. Ozols was hit in the sternum, twice in rapid succession. The bullets were low powered, subsonic 5.7 mm, but larger rounds could have been no more fatal. Copper-encased lead tore through skin, bone, and heart before lodging side by side between vertebrae. Ozols collapsed backward, hitting the ground with a dull thud, arms outstretched, head rolling to one side.
Victor melted out of the darkness and took a measured step forward. He angled the FN Five-seveN and put a bullet through Ozols's temple. He was already dead, but in Victor's opinion there was no such thing as overkill.
The expended cartridge clinked on the paving stones and came to rest in a puddle shimmering with sodium-orange light. A quiet whistling from the twin bullet holes in Ozols's chest was the only other sound. Air was escaping from the still-inflated lungs — the last breath he never had a chance to release.
The morning was cold and dark, the approaching dawn only beginning to tinge the eastern sky with color. Victor was in the heart of Paris, a neighborhood of narrow avenues and twisting side streets. The alleyway was secluded — no overlooking windows — but Victor spent a moment checking that nobody had observed the killing. No one could have heard it. With subsonic ammunition and a suppressor, the noise of each shot had been muffled to a quiet clack, but that couldn't stop the random chance of someone deciding this particular location was a good place to relieve their bladder.
Satisfied he was alone, Victor squatted down next to the body, careful to avoid the gore draining from the quarter-inch exit wound in his victim's temple. Using his left hand, Victor unzipped the attaché case and checked inside. The item was there as he expected but otherwise the case was empty. Victor took the flash drive and slipped it into his inside jacket pocket. Small and innocuous, it barely seemed reason enough to have a man killed, but it was. One reason was as good as another, Victor reminded himself. It was all a matter of perspective. Victor liked to tell himself he did nothing more than get paid to do what the human race had been perfecting for millennia. He was simply the culmination of that evolution.
He frisked the body thoroughly to confirm there was nothing else he should know about. Just pocket litter and a wallet, which Victor opened and tilted into the light. It contained the usual: credit cards and a driver's license in the Latvian's name, cash, as well as a faded photograph of a younger Ozols with the wife and kids. A good-looking family, healthy.
Victor put the wallet back and rose to his feet, mentally re-checking how many rounds he'd fired. Two to the chest, one to the head. Seventeen left in the FN's magazine. It was simple math but protocol nonetheless. He knew the day he lost count would be the day he squeezed the trigger only to hear the dreaded dead man's click. He'd heard it before when the gun had been in another's hand, and he'd promised himself then that he would never die like that.
His gaze swept the area again for signs of exposure. There were no people or cars in sight, no footsteps to be heard. Victor unscrewed the suppressor and placed it into a pocket of his overcoat. With the suppressor in place the gun was too long to be properly concealed and too slow to draw with speed. He turned on the spot, locating and retrieving the three empty cartridges from the ground before the spreading blood reached them. Two were still warm but the one from the puddle was cool.
The half moon was bright in the sky above. Somewhere beyond the stars the universe continued forever, but from where Victor stood the world was small and time all too short. He could feel his pulse, slow and steady, but maybe four whole beats per minute above his resting heart rate. He was surprised it was so high. He wanted a cigarette. These days he always did.
He left the alley, shoes virtually silent on the hard, uneven ground. He'd been in Paris for a week awaiting the go-ahead — and he was glad the job was almost over. All that remained was to stash the item tonight and contact the broker with its location. It hadn't been a difficult or even risky contract; if anything, it had been simple, boring. A standard kill and collect, beneath his skills, but if the client was willing to pay his outrageous fee for a job any amateur could have fulfilled, it wasn't Victor's place to argue. Though something in the back of his mind warned him it had been too easy.
Before he disappeared into the city he took one last look at the man he'd murdered without word or conscience. In the dim light he saw the wide, accusing eyes of his victim staring after him. The whites already black from the hemorrhaging.CHAPTER 2
There were two of them.
Medium build, casually attired, nothing remarkable about either except for the fact that they were too unremarkable. The Hôtel de Ponto was on Paris's chic Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and its guests were wealthy tourists and business executives, men and women adorned with designer garments. In an everyday crowd the two would blend in. But not here.
Victor saw them the instant he was through the main entrance. They were standing in front of the elevators at the far end of the lobby, their backs to him. Both stood completely still, one with hands in pockets, the other with arms folded, waiting. If any words passed between them they did so without any change in body language.
The grand lobby was quiet, less than a dozen people occupying space. It had a high ceiling, marbled floor and pillars, an abundance of exotic potted plants set throughout, green leather armchairs grouped together in the corners and central space. Victor headed toward the front desk that ran along the wall to his right, walking at a relaxed, casual pace despite the potential danger. He kept the men in his peripheral vision at all times, ready to act should one look his way. He hadn't fully made up his mind about the duo but in Victor's business a potential threat was a definite threat until proved otherwise. In the lobby he was exposed, vulnerable, but nothing in his demeanor betrayed that. He drew no attention from the other people in the room. He acted and looked just like them.
Fellow practitioners of Victor's profession were popularly believed to dress only in black, but looking like a cliché wasn't high on Victor's priorities. Like most people he looked good in black, too good for someone whose life might depend on going unnoticed. Dressed in a charcoal suit, white cotton shirt, and monochrome silver tie, Victor looked every inch the respectable businessman. The suit was wool, off the rack, excellent quality but one size too big to give him extra room at the hips, thighs, arms, and shoulders, but without appearing too ill fitting. His Oxford shoes were black, polished but not overly so, high around the ankles and with a thick, treaded sole. His glasses were simple, his haircut boring.
He chose his attire to create a bland, neutral persona. Anyone who tried to remember Victor would find it difficult to describe him accurately. He was a man in a suit, like millions of others. Aside from the easily removable glasses, the only distinguishing feature that might be noticed, and was present only to divert attention from elsewhere, would be shaved off later. He was smart without being stylish, neat but ordinary, confident not arrogant. Forgettable.
He reached the desk and smiled politely as the raven-haired receptionist looked up from her work. She had tanned skin and large eyes, her features skillfully and subtly made up. Her returning smile was cheerfully false. She hid it well but Victor knew she would rather be anywhere else.
"Bonjour," he said, but not too loudly. "Je vous appelle de la chamber 407, je suis Mr. Bishop. Pouvez vous me dire si j'ai recu des messages?'
"Un moment s'il vous plait."
She made a curt nod and checked the log. There was a large mirror mounted on the wall behind the desk in which Victor watched the reflections of the two men. The elevator doors opened and they parted to allow a couple to exit before entering themselves, almost in unison. He saw their hands. They were wearing gloves.
Victor moved position to get an angle on the elevator interior but could see only the reflection of one of the men inside. Victor kept his head tilted to one side, his face partially shielded in case the man looked his way. The man had fair skin and a square face, clean shaven. He wore a focused expression, staring straight ahead, arms limp at his sides. His gloves were brown leather. Either he had a deformed ribcage or something handgun shaped was concealed beneath his nylon jacket. Any doubts Victor harbored about their motives now evaporated.
Were they police? No, he decided. It was barely two hours since he'd killed Ozols and there was no way he could have been linked to the crime in such a short time frame. They weren't operatives either. Intelligence agents wouldn't need to wear gloves. That left only one occupation.
Victor guessed Eastern European — a Czech or Hungarian or may be from the Balkans, which tended to produce particularly effective killers. He'd seen two, but there could easily be more. Two guns are better than one but a whole team would be better still for obvious reasons, especially when the target was an experienced contract killer. Only the very best can afford to work alone.
The way the men acted suggested there were others. They had no care of their surroundings, no worry about security. That said surveillance. That said a larger team. There could be as few as four or as many as ten. If there were more Victor didn't give himself much chance.
That they knew where he was staying required a considerable level of proficiency or accuracy of intelligence. Until Victor knew who he was up against he couldn't afford to underestimate them. He had to work on the assumption that they were at least his equal. Should he be proved wrong it would only be to his advantage.
The receptionist finished checking the log and shook her head. "Monsieur, il n'y a aucun message pour vous."
As he thanked her he watched the man in the elevator's focused expression disappear, replaced for a moment with pain or deep concentration. The man raised a finger to his right ear before looking quickly to his associate. His mouth opened to speak as he reached to stop the doors from shutting, but he was too late. Victor managed to read the first words on his lips before the doors closed.
He's in the lobby ...
They were wearing radios. He'd been spotted.
Victor turned around and surveyed the area, taking a few seconds to study each person in case he'd missed other members of the kill team. The natural reaction to the imminent threat would be to act immediately. In the physiological response to danger the adrenal glands flooded his bloodstream with adrenaline to increase his heart rate, to make the body ready for action. But relying on instinct was not something he welcomed. In the wild it only ever came down to two choices — fight or flight. For Victor decisions were rarely that simple.
He swallowed down the adrenaline jolt, breathed deeply, forcing his body to calm down again. He needed to think. There was nothing to gain by acting quickly if in doing so he did the wrong thing. In Victor's line of work those who made a first mistake were rarely around long enough to make a second.
He counted ten people in the lobby. A middle-aged man and his trophy escort were heading toward the adjoining bar. A group of stiff-backed old men sat on the leather chairs laughing. The alluring receptionist was stifling a yawn. Walking toward the exit a businessman shouted into his cell phone. Near the elevator a mother struggled to control her toddler. No one who might be with the two men, but more could be entering the hotel through the tradesman's entrance at the back or maybe through the kitchen, simultaneously cutting off all avenues of retreat as they closed in on their prey. It was textbook. But no use if that prey wasn't where he was supposed to be.
For some reason their timing was off and whatever plan they'd been following had fallen apart. They would be shaken, worried they'd been compromised and that their target might escape. They'd lost sight of him and needed to reestablish that contact. Or perhaps they would just abandon any pretense of stealth and try to kill him now, while they thought him vulnerable and off guard. Victor had no intentions of being either.
He studied the display above the elevator. It flashed 4, reaching his floor. He watched it intently for a moment. A few seconds later it flashed 3. On the way back down.
Victor glanced at the main entrance. If he left now he would only have those on surveillance outside to contend with. They might not be prepared to go after him out in the street, and if he was fast he might escape without shots fired. But he couldn't leave. In his hotel room he had his passport and credit cards. All for a false identity but they already knew too much about him.
He could use the stairs but not if one of them had taken that way down to make sure he didn't. Because there was another problem. He was unarmed. The FN that killed Ozols had been stripped and each piece disposed of separately. The barrel in the Seine, slide down a storm drain, guide rod and recoil spring in a Dumpster, magazine in a trash can. Victor only ever used a gun once. Walking around with all the evidence a jury would ever need to convict him was not his style. If he could get to his backup he could at least defend himself.
There was only one functioning elevator though. An out-of- order sign dangled from the other's doors. Victor strolled across the lobby and stood in front of the working elevator the two men had used. He cracked the knuckles of his right hand one by one with his thumb.
There was a ting as the elevator reached the lobby. Just before the doors began to open Victor stepped to one side and pressed his back against the adjacent wall in a small recess where an elaborately decorated vase stood. He remained motionless, ignoring the bewildered gaze of a five-year-old boy. Everyone else was too preoccupied to notice him.
One of the two assassins walked out of the elevator and took a few steps into the lobby. The second didn't follow, obviously on his way down through the stairwell. The man with his back to Victor was compact, thick at the neck, ex-military by his build and gait. He was standing casually, no head movement. Even though apparently motionless Victor knew he was surveying the room, but with his head fixed, just moving his eyes, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention his way. He was good, but not so good as to look behind himself.
Victor waited until the last possible moment before slipping between the closing elevator doors. He passed within six inches of the assassin.
A second before the doors fully closed the man noticed the young boy pointing in Victor's direction and turned. Random chance. For an instant the man looked directly at Victor.
Recognition flashed in the assassin's eyes.
The doors closed.
Excerpted from The Killer by Tom Hinshelwood. Copyright © 2010 Tom Hinshelwood. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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