Rick Peters was one of the CIA’s best operatives until the day the dragons—the company’s elite covert team—were disbanded. Forced into unwanted retirement, Peters struck out on his own, becoming an assassin. Now, a two-million-dollar payday is on the table if he can take out San Sierran dictator Manuel Salva. Peters intends to make it look like a CIA operation . . . and he has the perfect patsy in mind.
Retired for fifteen years, Alexandra Finway has left covert ops behind to raise a family. But when her former partner—and lover—storms back into her life, she finds herself contemplating getting back in the field. Peters claims the CIA wants two of their former dragons to stop a hit on Salva and remove the contract killer from play, all in the interest of international security.
A patriot at heart, Finway agrees to take on the mission, unaware Peters has drawn her into a dangerous game of cross and double-cross—and few will make it out alive.
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Friday, October 19, 198 —; 10:45 P.M.
The area was a twenty-square-block concrete clot of broken buildings and boulevards tangled in the heart of an otherwise healthy middle-class community. The ephemeral living tissue of the neighborhood, the spirit of its occupants, had died years before, victim of a social leprosy no politician or sociologist professed to understand; the blocks had been ignored and neglected, then finally abandoned to derelicts and wraithlike street people who entered their maze to play vicious night games and prey upon one another.
Had anyone been there to see him, the tall, elegantly dressed Frenchman would have appeared ludicrous and dangerously out of place in the ripped streets, easily mistaken for a soft, foolish tourist who had strayed too far from the protective aura of the resort hotels that glittered like a brilliant diamond cluster of light in the ring of darkness around Miami Beach one bridge, four miles and a sea of sad dreams away. A night player making such a misjudgment would not have lived to make another: Claude Moiret, high-ranking executive of the French Secret Service and controller of a private stable of free-lance assassins and general intelligence operatives, was prepared to kill anyone who approached him — an act he would carry out with characteristic, almost casual dispatch. Yet, such a confrontation would be a distraction, however slight, and Moiret did not want his attention drawn from the business at hand. He had taken pains not to be noticed; cloaked in the near-tactile, velvet warmth of the Miami night, he stood stiffly erect, his back inches from the disintegrating, powdery facade of a brick building, camouflaged by quivering, amoebic blots of moonlight that bled through the swaying fronds of a palm tree rising in majestic defiance of the rotting garbage girdling its base in front of a ruined movie theater across the street.
Moiret's left hand rested casually on the bone handle of a spring-loaded stiletto in the pocket of his double-breasted suit jacket, while his right cupped the throbbing glow of the lighted Gauloise that traveled back and forth to his thin lips with metronomic regularity. When that cigarette was finished, he ground it out and immediately lit another. Aside from the movement of his arm Moiret was motionless, the expanding carpet of cigarette butts at his feet the only sign of his nervousness.
He passed the time trying to analyze the nexus of conversations and commitments and pinpoint where he had lost control of this operation. He finally realized the futility of such analysis, recognized that in fact he had never had control; his client had steered events from the beginning, making all the decisions and effectively manipulating him. Reversing the usual procedure, Rick Peters had apparently conceived the project, then made the initial low-level contacts before inviting Moiret to step in and play his accustomed role in negotiating a final, detailed agreement.
Moiret had always considered the American no more than a journeyman assassin with a polished but limited range of expertise, an evaluation that had slotted Peters in only the middle echelon of the Frenchman's group of professional killers and spies. Moiret belatedly realized that he had seriously underestimated the American; as a result, Peters had surprised him each step along the way. Now, the Frenchman thought, he might have to pay a high price for the inability to break into the decision-making process, and the bemused curiosity that had kept him involved long past the stage where his instincts had told him to drop out. He was exposed, but he suddenly found himself at the end of negotiations without knowledge of the identities of his high-echelon counterparts and still knowing only the barest details of his client's plan.
Moiret had not believed Peters capable of formulating a plan that could accomplish all he had said it would. Now the Frenchman was less certain. Moiret recognized that his ability to judge had been clouded by his growing conviction that the project struck deep personal overtones in the American, considerations separate from the scheme's potentially catastrophic impact on the world and the huge amount of money involved. Moiret had no idea what those interests might be. In this matter, the Frenchman thought, Rick Peters was being driven to excellence by some dark psychic engine emitting an ominous, low hum that could be heard clearly if one listened long and hard enough.
Adding to Moiret's considerable distress was an acute awareness of the fact that the success of Peters' operation could mean that a third world war was less then a year away.
There was a sudden crescendo of sound, the raucous, stuttering bray of a car with a broken muffler. A few seconds later a taxi careened around the corner to Moiret's left and abruptly bucked to a halt with a high-pitched, wavering screech of worn brake linings. Dust swirled and eddied in the pale yellow cones tunneled out of the night by the taxi's headlights, Moiret immediately ground out his cigarette and watched as a man opened the door on the passenger's side and stepped out into the dust- moiled intersection.
In the eerie glow cast by the cab's interior light, Moiret could see that the man was dressed in his usual manner: French-cut jeans, cowboy boots to offset his slight stature, short-sleeved Oxford shirt beneath one of the sleeveless cashmere sweaters he habitually wore regardless of the weather.
The man paid the driver, then closed the door. The driver made a tight, squealing U-turn and the taxi skittered off like some metal insect toward the safe world of light and whole streets a few short blocks away.
"Here," Moiret said softly.
With a curt nod of his head, Rick Peters signaled that he'd heard, then glanced up and down the street. Apparently satisfied that they were unobserved, he strode quickly to the Frenchman. The hollow popping of his bootheels on the concrete seemed loud to the tense Moiret, like small-arms fire.
The two men shook hands perfunctorily, and Moiret, as always, marvelled at the forty-two-year-old man's youthful appearance. Peters had a gymnast's body, muscular and lean, with no trace of fat. His face, momentarily caught in a rippling band of moonlight, was that of a man perhaps ten or fifteen years younger. He had a full head of wavy blond hair; fair, freckled skin; large, innocence-filled eyes that in most light looked almost white, but were in fact a very pale blue.
"Are we set?" Tension made Peters' voice sound nasal and slightly metallic, as if he had a cold. "I'm not sure."
The pale eyes suddenly glinted with anger, triggering a bizarre, fleeting metamorphosis of aging in the surrounding flesh. A tic fluttered momentarily in the hollow of Peters' right cheek as he clenched his jaw muscles. In those few seconds Moiret thought the other man looked almost as old as he actually was.
"If you're not sure, Claude, what am I doing here?" Peters' words were soft but clipped, his tone impatient. "On the phone you told me that the meet was set."
"It is. I'm just not sure you should go."
"Why the hell not?"
Moiret slowly raised his right arm, then waited for Peters to turn and look in the direction of his pointing finger — the movie theater across the street.
All of the glass in the theater's wide bank of doors had been shattered. The surrounding facade was a case study in social geology, a pitted surface covered with layer upon layer of flaking, peeling graffiti rendered in at least three languages, fragmented evidence of the ethnic tides that had washed through the area before the neighborhood had finally died.
"Because," Moiret said flatly, "that's where they want you to meet them."
Peters abruptly spun to one side, out of the moonlight. The sudden movement from light to dark had the curious effect of making the smaller man appear to blink out of sight, and Moiret felt tiny blisters of sweat dew his forehead and the backs of his hands. The Frenchman knew that Peters, like most members of his profession, was more than a little paranoid; furthermore, Peters was a man who seemed incapable of forgetting or forgiving any real or imagined slight. The American was clever, incredibly quick physically, and tended to make instant decisions. At the moment, Moiret thought, Peters was very suspicious, and rightfully so. The Frenchman knew what he might think if their positions were reversed, and his pulse quickened.
A disembodied voice very close to Moiret's right ear said, "Who are they?"
Moiret stood very still, his hands conspicuously held out a few inches from his sides. "I don't know, Rick. I'm sorry. I don't have names, and I haven't met them face to face."
"You know that this is a very big hit, Claude. The world's going to be a different place when I'm through. I'm thinking that maybe you've decided it's too big; maybe you got nervous." There was a prolonged silence, during which Moiret concentrated on the whining drone of insects and tried not to be afraid. Finally the voice came again. "Claude, are you trying to take me out?"
"No," Moiret said evenly, slowly exhaling. The danger had passed. "We've worked together for ten years; you know I can be trusted. I'd be dead right now if you really believed I might have set you up."
Peters reappeared in the banded moonlight. The tic was gone from his cheek, but the mask of youth that was his face was still askew, wrinkled with tension. "What organization are they with? Alpha Nine? Comando Muerto? Sierran Nationalist?"
"I don't think these people belong to any of those organizations."
"The people I first spoke with were from Alpha Nine."
"I know, but I've been through five negotiating sessions since you asked me to come in. The personnel kept changing, and the Alpha Nine people were phased out early. That was smart; everyone in the business knows who they are. At least it shows these people are serious. They've gone to a lot of trouble to make certain they can't be traced."
"Good for them," Peters said angrily. "What about me? Christ, what about you?" He clenched his teeth, shook his head in disgust. "Claude, you've got your own bureau; you're plugged into the CIA, the Mossad, KGB, and God knows how many other intelligence services. Now you're telling me you don't have any idea who's waiting for me over in that theater?"
"I'm sure they're not professionals," Moiret said tightly. "If they were, I'd have some kind of line on them by now; I'd recognize a voice, a style. My guess is that they're the money-men who've been bankrolling the Sierran counter-revolutionaries for the past twenty years. They're tired of the bullshit and amateur bomb tossers they've been getting for their money, so they've decided to take care of business themselves. I think it's their first move into the actual organization of a field operation, and they're being very cagy. They called me only an hour ago to ask for this final meet with you. I tried to stall them, but they said the deal was off if you didn't show up. That's when I called you. Two million dollars is a lot of money. You have to make the decision."
"Don't get mealymouthed with me, Claude; I don't need to be told that it's my decision. You're my representative. You're supposed to take care of the details and look after my interests. Having a meet in a place like that is a chicken-shit idea to begin with, and now I find out I'm supposed to go in there bare- assed, without knowing a damn thing about the people waiting for me."
"But you don't have to go," Moiret said quietly. "Indeed, I don't want you to go. My advice is to pass on this one."
"It's a little hard to pass on two million dollars, Claude. I'm saying this is no way to do business. You blew it."
Moiret turned his face away to hide his own annoyance. "I agree with you," he said without inflection. "They forced it. If it weren't for the considerable amount of money involved, I'd have broken off talks without even asking you. But this has been your project from the beginning." He looked at Peters, shrugged. "The money's only good if you live to see it and spend it, Rick. I called you here, but I suggest you direct me to go in your place and tell them that the deal is off unless we can reschedule the meet for someplace that's mutually acceptable. If they won't agree, I'll make arrangements to give them back their deposit. We'll be out clean."
"They just might kill you."
"Then I'll have earned my commission, no?" Moiret replied evenly. The suggestion of a smile quickly faded. "It's my responsibility."
Peters abruptly turned again and stared for some time at the movie theater. His body was still, but his fingers wriggled nervously. When he spoke, his voice was taut with anticipation. "You say they did come up with the deposit?"
"Yes. Ten times the usual talk fee. I asked for a hundred thousand just to see how they'd react. They paid it when I let them see your dossier — which is another reason I didn't back away earlier. The only thing they wouldn't do was show or identify themselves. They always wore hoods."
"Three at the last meet."
Peters' fingers gradually ceased their movement as he continued to gaze at the ruined building across the street. "I'm going in," he said at last.
"Pass, Rick," Moiret said with a quiet urgency. "Even if the deal is on the level, I don't believe you can fulfill this contract. You may be able to get into San Sierra, but you can't hope to make your hit and get out alive."
"You're wrong, Claude," Peters replied matter-of- factly. "My plan will work."
"Why don't you tell me what you're going to do?"
"I will, but not now." Peters laughed sharply, without humor. "What are you worried about, Claude? You'll be a million dollars richer if I get killed. That's the up-front money, and I want you to take care of it for me, as usual."
"I was offering my help," Moiret replied tersely, barely controlling the anger that had been steadily building in him. "If I wanted more than my commission, I'd tell you to go. I'll admit I mishandled the negotiations, but I was dealing with your contacts in a situation which you'd created. Now let's handle this like the professionals we are. I say we cut it off here."
Peters slowly turned back to face the Frenchman. The American's boyish features were strangely blank, his gaze slightly out of focus, as if he were looking through, or somewhere beyond, Moiret. "It has to work," he said in a hollow voice. "I'll be getting rich at the same time that I finally tie up the one loose end in my life."
Moiret frowned. "Merde, Rick. What on earth are you talking about?"
Peters' pale eyes came back into focus. Naked cruelty flickered like heat lightning across his face and was gone. "I'll be in touch," he said. He turned, stepped off the curb and started across the street.
He ducked his head and stepped carefully through a jagged necklace of glass shards that remained stuck in the brittle molding of the metal frame of one of the theater doors. Two small yellow bulbs, which Peters assumed were powered by battery or gasoline generator, dimly illuminated a cavernous lobby ankle-deep in paper refuse, empty liquor bottles, and the slippery rubber residue of hurried, furtive sex. Rats skittered in the paper depths as Peters waded through the lobby and passed under the lights through the door.
He immediately sensed the presence of a man behind him, but made no move to defend himself as a thick, sloppily tattooed forearm snaked over his right shoulder and tightened across his throat. There was the smell of Old Spice. The bore of what felt to be a cheap, small- caliber pistol was pressed against the base of his skull, and Peters instantly registered the fact that the man was almost certainly left-handed. With the pistol in place, the arm came away from his throat and a hand began to fumble clumsily over his body.
"I don't have a gun," Peters said easily. "There's a knife in a sheath inside my right boot, but I'd consider it a courtesy if you left it there. This is supposed to be a business meeting."
"Shut up, turkey." The voice was big, like the man, with a lugubrious, lilting Sierran accent soured by menace. "Take the boot off and give me the fucking knife."
Peters slowly and tentatively started to bend over. He lowered his head away from the gun while at the same time lightly pressing his buttocks into the man's right thigh in order to gauge position. He shifted his weight to his left foot and, when he was not ordered to stop, proceeded to remove his boot.
Excerpted from "Turn Loose The Dragons"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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