HIT THE TARGET…
While carrying out a hit on a terrorist financier, Victor finds himself the target of an assassin who proves to be just as deadly as he is. Never one to let such a thing go, Victor sets about hunting down his attacker and those who sent her. She is Raven—a freelance assassin with a dark past and hidden agenda. If Victor wants to stay alive he must find out who Raven really is and what she is truly after.
…OR BECOME THE TARGET.
Does she really want him dead, or does someone else want them to kill each other? With the stakes growing higher by the minute—as a city-wide blackout plunges Manhattan into darkness—Victor and Raven must decide who is friend and who is foe before a deadly terrorist plot threatens to consume the city and them along with it.
About the Author
Rob Shapiro is a voice-over artist, musician, and composer who got his professional start with the Children's Theatre Company & School of Minneapolis.
Read an Excerpt
• Chapter 1 •
Alan Beaumont stepped through the automatic door of his office building and down the broad steps to the pavement. The sky above DC was a monochrome of gray cloud. A light rain fell, but a few drops of water were not going to bother him. Damp clothes? Whatever. Messed-up hair? He had no hair to ruin. That was long gone. Nothing had helped retain those once-magnificent curls. Not pills. Not potions. Nada.
He used a thumb and middle finger to snap open his Zippo lighter and lit the cigarette perched between his lips. Smoking was perhaps the only real pleasure he had.
He watched the downtown traffic and the pedestrians pass by, all miserable. Good. He didn’t like anyone to be happy but himself. It wasn’t pure selfishness. Joy was a zero sum game. There just wasn’t enough to go around.
He sucked in a big lungful of smoke and held it in as he closed his eyes and tilted his face to the sky, exhaling as the sporadic raindrops exploded on his cheeks, forehead, and eyelids.
“You look like you’re enjoying that.”
He opened his eyes and looked at the speaker. A young woman stood nearby, dressed in a long cream raincoat, hat, and brown leather gloves. She was pale and tall—almost as tall as Beaumont, with wavy blond hair. Her lipstick was bright red. A bit too much for the office. A bit too suggestive. She must be new then. One of the many drones who serviced the company, he assumed. He had no doubt walked past her a hundred times or more by now. She would know his name, his job, and maybe even how he liked his coffee, but to Beaumont she was no one.
He shrugged and turned away. He was in no mood to chitchat, least of all with someone whose face he didn’t need to recognize. She was a looker, sure; lots of real estate in the bust and hips, but he wanted to savor his damn cigarette alone, as God intended.
“I used to smoke myself,” the woman said, not taking the hint. It sounded like she was from the South. Probably some state Beaumont had been lucky enough never to soil his soles on.
“That right?” Beaumont felt obliged to say.
He edged away from her. It wasn’t rude, he told himself. The young woman had intruded on his solitary time.
She did so again, stepping around Beaumont until they were face-to-face.
“I smoked for maybe ten years,” the young woman continued, undeterred. “Two packs of Marlboro’s a day. I had a cigarette in my hand all day long. I started young, you see. I managed to kick it, though. Now I’ll allow myself the occasional cigar. Better than nothing, right? But oh, how I miss a real cigarette.”
She was smiling, but in a sad way, and Beaumont began to feel sorry for her. She reminded him of his daughter.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” he asked.
She nodded. “Is it that obvious?”
She smiled in a manner that said the office coven had not welcomed her with open arms. He saw her loneliness and had a strange flash of the future, when he was an old man a couple of decades from now, fat and divorced with a daughter and a son who didn’t bother to call him because he had never bothered to take them to the park. Would he be so in need of human contact that he would ignore a stranger’s efforts to cold-shoulder him, because any interaction was better than none?
“How are you settling in?”
She wrinkled her nose and shrugged.
“That bad, eh?”
She didn’t answer.
“Say,” Beaumont began, “would you like a smoke? For old times’ sake. It’ll make you feel better.”
He forced himself to smile.
The young woman’s face lit up as if she’d won the lottery and Beaumont felt even sadder for her. He rooted for the packet.
“No,” the woman said, holding up a palm. “I’d better not have one. I’ll only start again. One’s never enough, is it? But I wouldn’t say no to a single drag, if you don’t mind.”
She gestured at Beaumont’s precious cigarette. Beaumont looked at it too. He wasn’t a sharing kind of guy, even if there was a hot chick half his age involved. He glanced up at the tall young woman. He looked at her bright red lips. She didn’t appear to be sick. She didn’t look like she was carrying some flesh-eating retrovirus. The hope in the woman’s eyes tore down any resistance Beaumont had, and reminded him that he wasn’t quite as soulless as he’d thought.
There was no reason not to, but if a man was asking to share his cigarette, he would tell the fool to take a hike. But it wasn’t a man asking.
Maybe if he let her put his cigarette between her lips, she would let him . . .
He offered the cigarette and the young woman took it between two fingers of her left hand. She brought it up and set it between her red lips with surgical precision, puckering around the filter and tensing them, but she did not inhale. Beaumont watched, entranced.
“That was close,” the young woman said, taking the cigarette away, but this time with her right hand. “I almost caved.”
Before handing the cigarette back, she rolled the filter between her gloved fingertips for a moment.
“Holding it was enough,” the woman continued, as Beaumont watched.
“Your choice,” he said, taking the precious cigarette back.
A trace of lipstick was smeared on the filter. He took a drag.
The young woman watched him, something in her eyes. She removed the gloves and placed them into a pocket of her raincoat. She held out a palm to catch raindrops and when her fingers were wet wiped them across her lips several times. She took a handkerchief from a pocket and used it to wipe her lips clean.
“Washing away the taste?” Beaumont asked, a little aroused.
The woman smiled at him, but said nothing. She looked pleased with herself. Smug, even.
“So,” Beaumont began. “What’s your name?”
She didn’t answer. She just stared.
“Hello? Anyone home?” Beaumont waved a hand before her face and laughed.
No response. No wonder she was having a hard time fitting in when she was bat-shit crazy.
“Right,” he said with a big exhale, erection retreating, and regretting allowing this weirdo to intrude into his private time. He felt the annoyance building inside him, anger making him feel hot despite the cool rain pattering on his scalp.
“All right, honey. I’ve humored you long enough. You can stop eyeballing me and be on your way. There’s a good girl.”
“Soon,” the woman said, staring.
Beaumont turned away, loosening his tie. Damn it, he was really fucking wound up now. His heart was hammering. He reminded himself never to feel sorry for anyone again. Ever. People were scum, always looking to take advantage.
He tried to swallow but his throat felt like sandpaper. This pissed him off even more. The smoke made him cough. Face red, he tossed the cigarette away. Was it sweat he felt on his forehead amongst the raindrops?
He turned to head back into the office, only to see the young woman still standing there.
“Haven’t you fucked off yet?”
“Soon,” the woman said again.
“Listen, you’ve ruined my ‘me time,’ so why don’t you—”
Beaumont felt faint and reached out a hand to brace against the woman’s shoulder.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked, without sympathy. “You’ve gone terribly pale.”
“I . . .”
Beaumont had no strength in his legs. If he wasn’t standing straight up with his hand on the woman’s shoulder, he wouldn’t have been able to stay on his feet. His mouth filled with water.
“Oh,” the young woman said. “That can sometimes happen if one’s constitution is weak. I think we can probably blame the cigarettes for that.”
She stepped away from Beaumont and eased him down to his knees. Beaumont threw up. He watched vomit and blood sluice away in the rain.
“What . . . did you do to me?”
“I can’t claim all the credit, much as I would like to. My chemist is quite the genius, no?”
Beaumont didn’t answer. He toppled forward, face-first, into the pool of vomit and blood. His breathing was shallow, his pulse weak and irregular.
“I’ll be on my way then,” the young woman said. “Adieu.”
The last thing Beaumont saw was his extinguished cigarette, lying on the pavement, soaking up the rain.
• • •
The tall woman walked away while Beaumont was taking his final breaths on the pavement. When she had passed beyond the wide-angle lens of the security camera overlooking the entranceway’s exterior, she removed her cream overcoat, turned it inside out in a practiced move that took five seconds to complete, and slipped her arms into the fire-engine red coat it had become.
Half a block away her patent leather handbag was dumped into a rubbish bin. She dropped the blond wig into another bin at the end of the street.
Five efficient wipes with a solvent-soaked cotton pad removed the pale makeup from her face. The blue contacts came out next. The clip-on earrings followed. Pads from her bra joined them. As did ones from her hips. She stopped and lifted one foot to her ass. She reached down and twisted off the detachable four-inch heel from her shoe. She did the same with her other foot.
Less than a minute after Beaumont’s heart had stopped, she boarded the 1115 bus to Arlington looking like a different person.
• Chapter 2 •
The sky above Prague was a patchwork of blue and white. Thin clouds paled the late-morning sun, but enough light fought through to shine from polished cars that lined the road and puddles that nestled along the curbs. The twisting, cobbled side street was crammed with boutiques and cafés and town houses. Passersby were rare and traffic rarer still at this time of day.
A man sat alone at a small round metal table outside an artisan coffee shop. He was tall and wore a charcoal suit beneath a woolen overcoat, black, and black Oxford shoes. His dress shirt was white and his plain tie was burgundy. His black hair was longer than he often had it, at a few inches in length that brushed his ears and reached almost to his eyebrows if he did not push it back from his face. Two weeks without shaving had given him a dense beard that softened his jawline and disguised his cheekbones. The nonprescription glasses were plain and functional and further broke up the lines of his face to a shapeless, nondescript visage. His scarf was brown lamb’s wool that was draped, but not tied, over his shoulders and tucked into the thigh-length overcoat, which was undone. He sipped a black Americano from a fine china cup that was as delicate as it was decorative. He made a conscious effort not to crush the little handle between thumb and forefinger.
His table was the central one of a line of three that lay on the pavement before the coffee shop, all painted white and chipped. The table to the left was occupied by two blond women in fine clothing and jewelry, probably mother and daughter, discussing the weather and where to have lunch after they finished their morning shopping trip. Large bags surrounded their chairs. To the man’s right, two older men with lined faces and gray hair talked about how best to ingratiate themselves to their new younger, hipper clients.
The man in the suit would have preferred to sit on one of the flanking tables so as not to be boxed in with no obstacle-laden exit, but the two men and two women had been there before his arrival and both pairs seemed as if they would be staying long after he left. He pretended not to notice that the blonde mother kept glancing his way.
His hands and ears were red and his breath misted before him, but he kept the buttons of his overcoat unfastened and his scarf untied and elected not to wear gloves or a hat, as was common for him.
He wore no hat because, when removed, it meant a greater chance of casting DNA-rich hair follicles into the air to be left behind in his wake. He wore nothing on his hands as even the highest quality gloves reduced dexterity, which he valued above all else. It was more effective to grip with bare fingers, as it was to gouge eyes and tear out throats. His coat was unfastened so a weapon hidden beneath it or within an inside pocket could be drawn without interruption. He was unarmed, as was typical; carrying a weapon was only useful when he had no choice but to employ it, and was a threat to his liberty the rest of the time. But he was a man of habit: an unfastened coat had the added benefits of being easy to discard if required; the scarf was untied so as not to provide an enemy with a ready-made noose, but could be whipped away fast so as to be employed as such by himself against assailants.
He had many enemies, acquired over a professional life that ensured for every foe he managed to remove, a new one would be standing by to take their place. He had learned that survival depended on attention to detail, no matter how small or trivial it might seem before it proved decisive. He had learned to never lower his guard, no matter how safe he might be. Those lessons had been carved into his flesh, ensuring he never forgot them.
He was waiting. Waiting accounted for more than half his work. He was patient and focused. He had to be. He was a man who took his time and valued perfection over speed. He only rushed when necessary, which was rare. There was a certain artistry to his work that he found, if not enjoyable, then satisfying.
He sipped from the little cup. The quality of the coffee was excellent, but not in proportion to the effort it took to hold the delicate cup without breaking it. A shame, but the coffee provided a reasonable excuse for his presence.
On the far side of the road, a narrow-fronted hotel sat between town houses. A protruding awning and doorman were the only obvious signs of the hotel’s existence. There were no fluttering flags or ostentatious trappings on display. The guests liked discretion and they liked privacy and were happy to pay the hotel’s exaggerated rates to enjoy both.
The man in the suit was interested in one guest in particular. He was a member of the House of Sa’ad, the extended royal family of Saudi Arabia. He was one of the many princes, a decadent thirty-year-old who spent his family’s wealth almost as fast as it could be created. If he were not limited by his father, the prince would no doubt bankrupt them within eighteen months.
Al-Waleed bin Saud toured the world on a permanent holiday, moving from city to city with his humble retinue of sixteen individuals. That retinue included two personal assistants, an accountant, a chef, a security detail of nine and three young women who were listed as interns but did nothing except shop and spend time alone with the prince. He stayed in the most expensive hotels, and only ones that could accommodate his particular requirements. Though he lived an extravagant, hedonistic lifestyle he tried to maintain the image of a respectable, devout, and proud Saudi. To maintain the illusion and to ensure no word of his habits reached his homeland, he shied away from hotels that were too large or too rigid in rules and regulations. He elected to stay where he could bribe staff and hire out a whole floor at a time, whether he needed the rooms or not, for the sole use of his retinue. And he preferred to stay at hotels that could provide suitable extras for the discerning guest, such as prostitutes and narcotics.
Though he embraced every Western decadence imaginable, Al-Waleed helped fund the activities of extremists and fundamentalists from Mali to Malaysia. Though pocket change to the prince, these donations provided a significant percentage of the funding for several groups known to have committed atrocities and determined to commit more.
The prince was far from the only rich Saudi to support terrorism, but he was one of the most prolific. His donations were often paid in cash or jewelry, making them difficult to trace and even more difficult to intercept. Thus the decision had been taken to terminate his financial support once and for all.
The problem, as was the case for the wider issue of Saudi support for terrorism, was Western reliance on the kingdom’s oil. The symbiosis could not be jeopardized. The House of Sa’ad would not tolerate the murder of one of their own any more than they would tolerate one of their princes risking the Western support the royal family needed to stay in power.
So a compromise had been reached.
The prince was to die, but his death could not lead back to the CIA who orchestrated it nor to the House of Sa’ad who had no choice but to condone it.
Which was the reason Victor had been hired.
• Chapter 3 •
The psychological evaluation included within the dossier theorized that Al-Waleed’s support for terrorism was a way of balancing out his excesses with his religious conscience. Victor cared little for such insight. He dealt in usable and exploitable facts. He cared about verified wheres and whens, not speculative hows and whys. The only judgment he trusted was his own.
The two guys to his right stood up and left, leaving much of their breakfast behind and unfinished, only to stop and stand a meter from their vacated table to continue their discussion. One slipped on sunglasses. The other squinted and held up a hand to shield his eyes from the direct sunlight. They interrupted Victor’s line of sight to the hotel entrance.
He did not require a perfect view to know when the prince would show because no Rolls-Royce had pulled up outside to provide him with transportation. Hotel records supplied by Victor’s employer showed the prince was planning on staying at least another three days. This was typical. His itineraries over the last twelve months showed a mean duration of four nights for visits to European cities outside summer months. Last night, on arriving, Al-Waleed had partied hard into the early hours, drawing complaints from guests on the floor below. Victor did not expect to see him anytime soon. But he had to wait, just in case. Secondary data was no match for that collected himself.
Which was fine by him. The coffee was good, even if the china too delicate, and the sunshine was pleasant enough on his face to counteract the cold elsewhere. He had a newspaper before him, which he browsed but did not read, to help his cover. He was used to drawing little to no attention, and aside from the blond woman’s casual interest, this morning was no different. Hiding in plain sight was as necessary a skill as any he had acquired. The fewer people who noticed him, the freer he was to act and the better his chances of a clean getaway in the aftermath.
He had performed a reconnoiter of the hotel prior to the prince’s arrival. He had stayed for two nights in a suite on the same floor as the prince was now staying, and had used his time there to explore its halls and corridors, adding three-dimensional intelligence to the two-dimensional plans he had studied. He had memorized the faces and names and routines of staff members, the position of CCTV cameras, how long it took room service to deliver, how many times the employee would knock and how long they would leave a tray outside before removing the untouched food.
It was simple enough to act the part of a regular guest because, like Al-Waleed, he spent much of his life living in hotels. But whereas the prince moved from city to city out of boredom and a desire for new and ever more exciting experiences, Victor did so out of simple necessity. A moving target was a hard target.
The hotel had a lobby fitted with comfortable armchairs and sofas, but his prior presence there ruled out the lobby as a place to wait. At best, he would be recorded on CCTV cameras, and at worst a keen-eyed member of staff would note him. His study of the hotel had also eliminated it as a strike point, so although the danger of being noted was minimal, he would not go there. He took no risks he did not have to.
The two gray-haired men finished their conversation, shook hands, and departed in opposite directions. A waiter collected the cash they had left to cover the bill and began gathering up plates.
Both blond women had also departed by the time a silver Rolls-Royce pulled up outside the hotel. It was earlier than the CIA-supplied intel suggested. No problem in itself, but it reinforced Victor’s protocol of relying only on his own intelligence.
Three of the prince’s security detail stepped out of the hotel entrance a moment later and approached the vehicle. They were all Saudis, dressed in a uniform of smart suits and sunglasses. They looked the part, but knew little about personal protection work beyond what could be squeezed into a two-week course. Still, they were a problem because they operated in groups of three, rotating every eight hours to provide Al-Waleed with continuous twenty-four-hour protection. They were armed too. The prince had diplomatic status and could bring whatever he wanted across borders, including guns.
The prince emerged after the bodyguards had performed a perfunctory check of the locale and climbed into the waiting Rolls. Al-Waleed was dressed in the traditional flowing robes favored by Saudi men. He was average height and wide in the midriff. One of Al-Waleed’s assistants followed. The bodyguards climbed in after him. The last man replaced the valet driver who had fetched the car.
The Rolls-Royce pulled away from the curb and left the street.
Victor continued to wait. He stood only when the prince’s accountant left the hotel about five minutes after Al-Waleed had gone. He was a tall, thin man in his fifties, with a shiny bald head and goatee beard trimmed to razor-straight edges. Like the rest of Al-Waleed’s retinue the accountant was a Saudi. He was a friend of the prince’s father, sent along to accompany the wayward son on his adventures and to make sure he did not overspend his allowance nor run up debts the father did not want to pay.
Al-Waleed held positions in several Saudi firms owned by the House of Sa’ad, but worked in title only. His lengthy holidays were described as business trips, yet he saw no clients and attended no meetings. Even if he wanted to play businessman, his father would never allow his unreliable son to damage the family’s corporate interests. The accountant handled everything. The prince had no personal business ventures, finding such matters tedious; he preferred to occupy his time spending his huge allowance on whatever fun money could buy, and the support of terrorism.
Al-Waleed hated the accountant and what he represented and treated him with appalling disdain. Any task Al-Waleed felt was beneath him would be delegated to the accountant, often purely for the sport of humiliating the man. Thus it fell to him to buy drugs and hire call girls and arrange meetings with terrorist middlemen.
Such middlemen were a necessity, for known members of terrorist groups had good reason to be cautious about venturing out of cover in search of funds. Given the difficulty of hunting down the diverse and disparate terrorist groups, with new ones forever springing up from the ashes of those destroyed in an endless cycle, the war against terror had instead begun targeting their sources of income. Without money, bombs could not be made nor bullets purchased. It was prevention over cure. A philosophy Victor tried to live by himself.
One such middleman was due to arrive in Prague later that day. He was a Turkish banker named Ersin Caglayan who handled the bank accounts of several charities that siphoned funds to jihadi groups all over the Middle East. The prince had met with him a number of times in the past and would again while both were in the country.
Victor watched the accountant while he thought about the problem of killing the prince without the CIA being blamed in the process. Setting up his death to look like natural causes—a freak accident or a heart attack—was out because of the complexity both required on such a hard target. Al-Waleed moved around too much and had too many guards in the way for Victor to plan and exact such a death.
A simple solution, however, was to have Caglayan take the blame.
• Chapter 4 •
The woman advertised her age as twenty-five, but was at least ten years older. The soft glow provided by the low-wattage lighting helped the lie by smoothing out the fine lines in her face, and generous makeup covered the dark bags beneath her eyes. Victor went along with the deception. Neither did he comment on the fact the photographs on her website must have undergone extensive retouching. There was no need to be impolite.
Still, she was an attractive woman with long dark hair and blue eyes full of life and ambition. She opened the front door to her second-floor apartment on Parížská Street, off Wenceslas Square, wearing a silk robe and an enormous smile. Her teeth were bleached white and too straight and perfect to be her own.
She advertised herself as an escort. It was a soft, almost harmless-sounding word. Victor understood the need for it in the same way he understood why people like him called themselves mercenaries or shooters or hit men. He only thought of himself as a professional killer. He had no need to soften his means of employment any more than he had his use of prostitutes.
She took his hand and led him inside without a word, gesturing him to go on into the lounge area while she closed the door behind him. Victor didn’t like to give anyone his back, but he was playing the part of a typical client and did as she asked to preserve the illusion of normalcy. A significant part of his life was spent acting; even so, pretending he was just another regular guy while maintaining a permanent guard was a difficult balance to achieve. He never liked to increase his vulnerability if it could be avoided, but sometimes it was better to be a little more vulnerable in the moment to ensure continued survival outside of it. Now was one of those times.
He rubbed his hands together in a sign of nervousness and because they were cold from an afternoon spent following the prince’s accountant around the city.
The woman’s apartment was small but furnished with expensive pieces in a clean, modern style. It was so spartan he wondered whether it served only as a place of business and she lived elsewhere, but bookshelves filled to capacity contradicted that assessment. Maybe she just liked the minimalist approach.
“You know my rate for the hour, yes?” the woman asked as she followed him into the lounge.
She spoke in English, but with a strong Czech accent. Her high heels clicked and clattered on the bare flooring. In them, she was as tall as he.
He had already turned to face her, positioning himself so he was near to the same wall as the west-facing windows, at an acute angle so as not to be in the line of fire for a marksman across the street.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then I’d like to see my gift now,” she said with a smile that made it seem as innocent a request as the way she phrased it.
He withdrew his wallet and counted out crisp banknotes.
She approached and took them from his hand, still smiling, but the smile slipped away as she turned to count the money and put it out of sight on a bookcase between two hardback novels. Historical fiction, he noted.
“I take it you read all the rules,” she said without turning around. “What’s allowed and what’s not.”
“That’s good to know. I don’t like having to repeat myself. It wastes our time.”
“I’m not here to waste time,” he said.
She turned around and regarded him in a different way, as if assessing his desires and perversions from the way he stood and the cut of his suit. Maybe it was a game she played with each client, having long grown used to what makes a man tick.
“What shall I call you?” she asked as she toyed with her hair.
Victor remained silent.
The woman said, “You can tell me your name, honey. I won’t tell anyone, I swear. Discretion is all part of the service, I assure you.”
Victor said, “Honey will be fine.”
She tilted her head to one side. “Is that what you want me to cry out in bed?”
“There’s no need for you to pretend.”
She smiled. “I don’t think I’ll need to with you, will I?”
He’d heard it all before, of course. It wasn’t his first time paying for sex. It was sometimes necessary in a life where he could allow himself no real connection with anyone, but could not afford to be distracted by desire for too long. It was one impulse he could do little to control with will alone.
He smiled with her because that was what she expected him to do and he was playing the part of a regular client—a businessman cheating on his wife, maybe, or a politician living out a sordid cliché of a personal life—not a professional killer who used hookers because he couldn’t risk a relationship, or even a friendship. Any personal connection created a gap in his defenses and at the same time put that person at risk from those who meant Victor harm. The last time someone had wanted to get close to him he had convinced them the feeling was not mutual.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”
He gestured to a small table where a lead crystal decanter sat on a solid silver tray; Scotch, judging by the pale yellow color of the liquid.
“No,” she said in return. “I’m afraid that whiskey was a present from a dear client. It would be rude to share it with another. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“What do you like?” she asked, and he could feel the expectation of her words. She wanted to see if she was right in her previous assessment of him.
“I prefer to show, rather than tell.”
This seemed to catch her by surprise. “That sounds . . . promising.” She tapped her bottom lip with a long red nail. “And there was I thinking you were going to be boring.”
“I can assure you I’m a painfully dull person.”
“I think I’ll be the judge of that,” she said.
They stood in silence for a moment.
She gestured with her eyebrows, which had been plucked and drawn back on. “Bathroom’s that way.”
“Yes, of course,” Victor said. “Clients need to shower first.”
“That’s what my listing clearly states.”
“What if I told you I don’t like showers?”
“Then I’d politely bid you farewell.”
She smiled and said nothing.
“Do any clients refuse?” he asked.
“It happens on rare occasions. Most men accept my rules. Most behave as a gentleman should.”
“And what happens on these rare occasions?”
“I show them the door.”
Victor said, “Even very dear clients?”
She carried on smiling, but did not answer. “Help yourself to a robe.”
He nodded and circled through the lounge so he did not have to pass in a straight line across the window. His route brought him close to the woman. She brushed his arm as he walked by.
The bathroom was off the hallway. He stepped inside and shut the door. He slid the little brass bar across to lock it. Not that such a mechanism had any strength to resist a forced entry, but he did not want the woman entering and interrupting what he had planned.
• Chapter 5 •
Victor pulled the hanging string by the door to turn on the light. An extractor fan whirred into life as the fans got to speed and emitted a quiet hum. He reached behind the shower curtain to turn on the shower. Then he lowered the toilet lid and stood on it so he could reach the extractor fan high on the same wall as the bathroom’s small window.
He took a cent coin from a trouser pocket and used it to unscrew the plastic protector from the face of the extractor fan. He felt the change in air pressure as the whirling blades sucked air from the bathroom and forced it outside. The blades were made of plastic and weak, but were spinning fast enough to split skin and maybe damage tendons. He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a ballpoint pen. Its shell was made from aluminum.
He held it in a tight grip and pushed it between the blades. They came to an abrupt stop.
He heard clicks and creaks and a mechanical whine before the sound stopped and resistance died with it. He removed the pen and the blades sat unmoving while he replaced the fan’s faceplate and screws.
He gave it a couple of minutes for the room to steam up, then began undressing. He did so in a particular way, in a particular order to limit his vulnerability doing so. His balance and flexibility were both excellent, but bending or squatting and standing on one leg all put him at greater risk than sitting down. He first sat on the toilet lid to untie his shoes, perched on the edge, head over hips, ready to spring to his feet if necessary. He untied both shoes before removing them, to spend the least possible time wearing only one shoe. Running or fighting wearing one shoe would be a considerable hindrance, even without the fact Victor had no intention of dying in such an undignified manner. His socks followed because bare feet gripped surfaces far better than soft wool. The jacket and tie were next, which he stood up to remove, followed by his shirt, trousers, and then underwear. He placed all the items in an easy-to-carry pile and left them on the toilet seat while he ran the taps to wash himself as requested.
When he had finished washing he turned off the shower and dried himself off on one of the several white towels hanging on a rail and wrapped it around his waist. He saw the rail could accommodate another two towels and tried not to imagine the previous two clients who had been here today before him. He slipped into a toweling robe but did not tie it.
The woman was waiting for Victor in the lounge when he stepped out of the bathroom.
“You take your time, don’t you, honey?”
He shrugged and said, “I think your extractor fan is broken. The bathroom’s all steamed up.”
“Oh, that’s annoying. Be a dear and open the window for me.”
He placed his folded clothes on an armchair in the hallway and returned to the bathroom and did as she asked.
He heard her say, “Would you please excuse me for a second?”
“Of course,” Victor said.
He used the time to approach the lounge window, standing side on to the wall next to it and peering outside and over the balcony. He saw that there were no conceivable sniping nests from which a marksman could take a shot, so he allowed himself a few extra seconds to gaze outside at the city.
The view from the window showed a sky blanketed by cloud. No sun was visible. He could see an uneven cityscape of sloping rooftops of red tiles and tall chimneys. A scattering of snow lay across them, thicker on the west-facing slopes and patchier on those facing east. The buildings beneath had an understated beauty with their pale pastel-colored walls and arched windows. Clock towers and spires poked at the gray sky above. For a pleasant moment he watched the swirling gentle spirals of white chimney smoke rise and dissipate, seeming to join the clouds as though they linked Earth to the heavens. He heard the woman return and turned away from the soothing fantasy.
“Do you like the city?” the woman asked him.
“Yes,” he said, speaking the truth, then added, “It’s my first time here,” which was a lie.
Of all his skills, lying was the one he employed with the most frequency; he spoke more often in lies than truth, existing in a constant state of pretending to be someone he was not—a businessman, a tourist, a nobody. Always unremarkable, always unworthy of attention. It had become second nature to do so because the part he played least of all was himself.
No one saw that side of him other than his victims and the reflection in the mirror of a face that was no longer his.
She stepped closer to him and untied her robe, slipping out of it in an effortless motion that would have been elegant if Victor could have ignored the fact she had performed the move countless times. She stood before him in a white bodice. He looked her over as she expected him to.
She parted his robe and eased it off his shoulders. She spent a long time looking at his body and the many scars and marks that covered his skin. He was used to the stares and the questions that followed. He had been cut and burned and shot and torn and bitten and more. He had whole tales memorized for every one of them, explaining away the more prominent scars as the result of a car crash and the lesser ones as sports injuries; if the person inquiring knew a scar caused by a bullet when they saw it, he had war stories from a military career that was different from his own.
But when the woman had finished examining him and her gaze returned to his, she did not ask a single question. Which was as rare as it was unexpected. Instead, she said to him:
“I knew that you weren’t boring.”
• Chapter 6 •
The tailor had been cutting suits since the Second World War. He told Victor as much while he waited in the fitting room of the low-ceilinged atelier. The establishment was small but stylish, with a long waiting list of elite clientele. It was owned and run by a single tailor who was so short he had to stand on a rickety three-legged stool to measure Victor’s shoulders.
“I was a boy cutting fabric for Nazi officers,” the tailor explained, looking as though he might fall off the stool to his death at any moment. “Can you imagine?”
Victor said, “I’m not sure I can.”
The tailor snorted. Not quite a laugh, not quite a huff. It sounded to Victor that the man had a chest infection or some persistent pulmonary problem. The tailor did not seem to be any less energetic as a result.
“I smoke sixty a day,” he’d bragged. “And I’ve outlived all my boyhood friends who did not.”
Victor offered a hand to help the man off the stool, but he batted it away with palpable disdain and dropped down with a creak of floorboards, or maybe knees.
His fingers were stained by the lifetime of smoking he boasted of. Framed black-and-white photographs adorned the walls of the atelier. They showed the old tailor with clients, maybe even celebrities from yesteryear Victor didn’t recognize. In every one the tailor, like his clients, was smoking. One even showed him standing among tobacco plants in some tropical plantation.
The tailor wore a three-piece stone brown suit complete with pocket square and pocket watch. His glasses were bifocals with thick lenses and the Cuban heels gave him enough height for the top of his shiny scalp to hit five feet if he stood straight-backed, which he did not.
He fetched the bespoke suit from a back room and hung it up on a wheeled rail for Victor to try on.
“I don’t understand your reasoning, my boy. You already have a charcoal suit. Off the rack, obviously, but of decent enough quality to avoid outright humiliation. Why pay for another?”
“Do you not want my business?” Victor asked.
“I want you to look your best,” the tailor countered. “Is that so hard to comprehend? Is your brain not in proportion to your height?”
Victor couldn’t help but like the man.
“Charcoal is so unadventurous,” the tailor said with a tut. “It is but the sickly cousin of black. A pauper to be ignored, not a gentleman to be envied. Black is a color. Charcoal is a shade.”
“Black is the absence of color.”
The tailor acted as though he hadn’t heard him. “What about it? Black would be more striking. You’ll look good in black.”
“Everyone looks good in black,” Victor said.
The tailor looked hopeful. “Is that a yes?”
Victor shook his head. “I only wear black to a funeral.”
The tailor did his best not to sigh. He looked pained. His face was a spiderweb of deep wrinkles. “But of course. Why would you wear black at any other time? Why would anyone want to look his best? What kind of world is it when someone elects to wear what suits him less? What about a nice navy? It’ll be more sophisticated, but still subtle.”
Victor unhooked the jacket and slipped his arms into the sleeves. He said nothing.
The tailor said, “I wish you had at least gone for a pinstripe or a colorful lining.”
Suits were important to Victor. He wore one more often than not. A suit gave him an air of authority and respect. In a suit he looked like a man of no small importance while blending in to the masses of office workers, lawyers, and bankers found in almost every major city. A suit was ideal camouflage for the urban terrain where he both lived and worked.
Victor buttoned up the jacket and rolled his shoulders.
“It’s perfect,” he said, feeling the extra room he had asked for, which made it easier to hide a gun, to fight or climb or run for his life.
The old tailor’s eyebrows rose and arched and a curved fence of closely spaced grooves deepened across his forehead. He wrinkled his nose and blew air out of pursed lips. He did not approve.
“No, no, no,” he said. “That won’t do at all. We need to fix this. It’s terrible. The fit is nothing short of an abomination. I’m ashamed of myself.”
“I like it the way it is. This is exactly what I asked for.”
“Then I need to saw open your skull and check you have a brain, my boy. Look here. You don’t need all this room across the chest. Are you planning on getting fat? Are you planning on growing breasts?”
Victor shook his head.
The tailor chewed his bottom lip. He looked stressed. Sweat beaded on his forehead. “Let me bring it in a smidgen. It’ll look all the sharper. Please? I can’t let you walk the streets like this.”
“I prefer it the way it is,” Victor replied. “You’ve done an excellent job.”
“I’ve embarrassed my name and the name of my father. How about a tiny tuck?” He held a finger and thumb a few millimeters apart. “Just a little? I promise it will still allow you room to breathe. For me. Please.”
“This is comfortable.”
“Comfortable? That’s a filthy word if ever I heard one. Barbaric, even. If all we cared about was being comfortable, then we would be a huge hideous mass of synthetic materials, shapeless and indistinguishable from one another. Sir, if you came in here for comfort, then you must have misread the sign above my door. I do not sell comfort here. I sell suits. I sell style.”
Victor remained silent.
“Fine,” the tailor said with a heavy exhale. “I give up. We’ll do it your way and you can walk out of here knowing I shall live my last years in a state of unhappiness and shame.”
“I’m glad we can agree.”
The tailor removed a solid silver cigarette case from his inside jacket pocket and thumbed it open. He held it toward Victor, who shook his head.
“A gentleman should smoke,” the tailor said as he took out a cigarette for himself. He didn’t light it. “And a man who appreciates a tailored suit needs to smoke. He must know his tobacco like he knows his fabrics.” The tailor held the unlit cigarette beneath his nostrils and inhaled. “Suits are my love, but tobacco is my passion.”
“I quit,” Victor said.
“Then start again,” the tailor implored. “Before it’s too late. But only the best. Good cigarettes are like a good suit. Utterly distinct and separate from the mass-produced garbage so commonplace today. No two varieties of cigarette, if made correctly, are the same. They have a range of flavors and feels that titillate the palate. Like a fine wine, almost.”
“Most wine tastes like vinegar to me.”
The tailor looked at him with disgust. “Your barbarism knows no bounds.”
Victor nodded. The tailor helped him out of the jacket. “I’m just going to tidy up these threads and the suit will be ready to collect this afternoon. Or you can wait here and I’ll do it now. Your choice.”
“I’ll wait, if it’s all the same to you.”
The tailor shrugged. “Child, it makes no difference to me what you do. Would you like a drink? Or something to read? I’ll be about twenty minutes. I’m assuming a barbarian such as yourself can actually read? I’m probably giving you too much credit, aren’t I?”
He asked as though he expected an answer.
“I’ll entertain myself,” Victor said. “Take your time, please.”
The old man nodded and went to leave. He stopped and turned around. “And a haircut and shave wouldn’t kill you. . . .”
He trailed off, muttering under his breath as he closed the door behind him.
Alone in the measuring room, surrounded by mannequins, hangers, and fabrics, Victor stood still, listening to the quieting footsteps of the old tailor as he shuffled away. A moment later, another door clicked open and then closed again. Victor pictured the tailor settling into a comfortable chair to make the final adjustments to the charcoal suit.
He had twenty minutes.
Victor reached into a trouser pocket and withdrew a mini plastic bottle labeled as containing antibacterial hand gel. There was a small amount of ethanol inside, for the appropriate smell, but the bottle contained clear silicone gel. The consistency wasn’t quite the same as alcohol gel, but it was similar enough to pass a cursory examination. Not even an airport security guard had ever done more than sniff the bottle, let alone apply some and compare it to a genuine product.
He squeezed a blob of silicone gel into his palm and spent two minutes rubbing it over his hands, paying particular attention to his fingertips and palms. The gel was cool and oily. It took a minute further to dry. His hands were now coated in a waterproof barrier, invisible to the naked eye, which would prevent the oil from his skin being left behind on any surfaces he came into contact with. No oil meant no fingerprints.
Three minutes to apply the gel meant seventeen remaining.
He replaced the bottle in his pocket and approached the room’s only window. The sash window was open a crack and the semitransparent white drapes rippled in the breeze. Victor pushed them to one side and heaved open the window until it was high enough for him to bend over and step through onto the balcony outside.
• Chapter 7 •
The balcony was narrow and overlooked an alleyway four meters below that ran through the center of the block. It was clean and tidy with no discarded refuse. Everything had been placed by diligent boutique owners and store workers in bins or boxes. The sounds of the city were muted and quiet. Victor stepped up onto the black iron railing that surrounded the balcony and used a palm to brace against the brickwork while he found his balance.
He extended his arms above his head. The balcony above was just out of reach of his fingertips. He lowered himself into a half squat, then leapt straight up, catching hold of cold masonry with eight fingertips because it was too high to also catch with his thumbs. Without them, he lost forty percent of the strength of his forearms, but he pulled himself up with the remaining sixty.
When his head had cleared the lip of the balcony, he released his left hand and shot it up to grab hold of one of the iron bars. He then did the same with his right hand and heaved himself up enough to get a foot onto the balcony edge. He brushed down his suit to get rid of dust and pollution.
The balcony was the same as that of the tailor’s below, but the window led to a private residence. Victor ducked down so as to reduce the chances of being seen by the two figures—a naked man and woman—moving about inside. They were paying too much attention to each other to care about what might be happening outside the window.
He waited anyway, because he still had more than fifteen minutes before the old tailor returned with his finished suit.
Nine minutes later the two figures in the apartment stumbled from the lounge and disappeared into a bedroom. Victor sidestepped to the far edge of the balcony. A meter farther along the exterior wall was another window. This one was open a few inches.
Victor sat on the balcony railing and pivoted round. With one hand holding on to the railing he stretched out the other arm until he could grip the windowpane and slide it higher to create a larger opening. When it was high enough to fit through, he gripped the sill in one hand, released the railing, and swung himself across. He pulled himself up and into the bathroom.
Six minutes left. It was going to be tight.
The bathroom was humid from the shower. The floor was wet in places. Victor avoided the puddles and footprints and eased the door open.
He could hear grunts and the knocking of a headboard against a wall. Outside the bathroom door he found a pile of clothes on the same armchair he had used the previous afternoon.
In a pocket of a suit jacket he found the accountant’s smartphone.
It was locked, as expected, but Victor removed the SIM card and inserted it into a credit-card-sized scanner attached to a secondhand phone he had bought for cash that morning. He activated the app and waited while the scanner extracted all of the data from the SIM and copied it onto the empty SIM in his phone. The scanner had been supplied by Muir, his CIA handler.
In his freelance days he had worked with a range of brokers, most of whom he never met or learned their identity. It had been rare to work directly with a client. Both they and Victor preferred to use professional intermediaries who understood discretion and knew how to put the right people on the right job. At other times they would be associates of the client in some capacity. They might be individual free agents or members of intelligence agencies or executives of private security firms or sometimes board members of multinational corporations with a cutesy brand image and beyond-ruthless business practices. In his earlier days he had worked for brokers and clients whom he knew, as they in return knew him, at least as well as anyone could. For years he had avoided any personal connection with his work, and it had helped keep him alive far longer than he had believed he would remain breathing. In recent times the majority of his work had come from individuals within the CIA, even though the wider organization maintained a termination order for him. The arrangement was a good one, and not only for the intermittent donations to his bank account. His handlers kept him off the radar of the rest of the agency. That alone was worth maintaining the relationship. The jobs he received were infrequent and often dangerous, but that danger was offset by the lack of CIA contractors hunting him. They also paid well.
It was as good a business relationship as Victor could hope to have with anyone.
After a short pause the screen changed to denote the new SIM was now a clone of the accountant’s.
One of the perks of working for the CIA was access to such technology.
He removed the accountant’s SIM from the scanner and replaced it inside the smartphone he had taken it from. He slipped it back into the same pocket.
Four minutes remaining, if the tailor wasn’t faster than expected with the adjustments.
Victor crossed the lounge to the bookshelf and found cash placed between two historical fiction hardbacks.
He put some extra cash between the books to cover the cost of the broken extraction fan and exited the apartment the way he had come in. It sounded as if the accountant was almost finished.
Lowering himself out of the window, he inched along the sill until he could stretch one hand across to grab hold of the balcony railing while he supported his weight with the other.
Less than a minute after his return to the fitting room the door opened and the old tailor came in.
“All done,” the tailor said as he hung up the suit. “And when I say all done what I really mean is the abomination is complete.”
Victor said, “I’ll need a tie as well.”
“Let me guess,” the tailor said with an exaggerated sigh, “something plain? Nothing with even the remotest hint of style? Something insufferably boring?”
Victor raised an eyebrow. “How did you know?”
• Chapter 8 •
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Tom Wood’s thrillers:
“Tactical accuracy, globetrotting locales and plenty of twists to keep you guessing to the last page....Makes James Bond look like a wannabe”—Brad Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of No Fortunate Son
“A truly great read featuring an unforgettable character...this is a thriller to the nth degree.”—Suspense Magazine