Praise for The Game
Also by Tom Wood
For my parents
A Price Worth Paying
Today was all about waiting. Some things could not be rushed. Patience and preparation were necessary for the successful completion of even the most routine professional killings. Such jobs could be considered routine only because of the preparation that went into them and the patience displayed in their execution. If corners were cut in the lead-up to the job—should any contingency not be considered and planned for—mistakes would surely follow. Mistakes would also occur if the job was undertaken with anything less than the requisite calm and diligence. In this instance, considering the target, adherence to these two protocols was not only necessary but imperative.
He was a man somewhere in his mid-thirties, but maybe older, maybe younger. It was hard to be sure because almost all of the intel on him was unveriﬁed. It was either speculation or hearsay, rumor or guesswork. He had no name. He had no residence. No friends or family. His background was nonexistent. He was not a politician or drug baron or war criminal. He was not military or intelligence—at least actively serving—but he could not be called a civilian either. The only thing that was known with any certainty was his profession. He was a killer. The client had referred to him as the killer, warning that he had recently dispatched another team sent after him. If a book had been written on the art of professional assassination, he would have authored it. No such book existed, of course. If it had, the team getting ready to murder him would have memorized every word.
He had an unremarkable appearance. He was tall, but no giant. He had dark hair and eyes. The team’s women could not decide if he was handsome or not. He dressed like a lawyer or banker in good-quality suits, though ones that were a little too big for his frame. When ﬁrst they saw him he had been clean-shaven, but he now sported a few days’ beard growth. The only notable thing about him was his slight limp, as he favored his right leg over the left. Not severe enough to take advantage of, they agreed.
A million euros sat in a Swiss escrow account. It was theirs upon providing proof of the killer’s death. His intact head, preferably, or at the very least irrefutable photographic or video evidence.
They were a tight quartet—two men and two women. All Scandinavians: two Danes, a Swede, and a Finn. They had worked together for years. Always the four of them. Never using anyone else. Never operating if any of them could not be present. They were friends as well as colleagues. It was the only way to guarantee trust in the business of contracted killing. When they were not working, they socialized whenever they could. They took turns hosting the others for barbecues, dinner parties, and movie nights. They had been more than friends at various times, but those times had passed. Interteam relations were bad for business, they had eventually agreed. Their assignments were inherently dangerous. They could not afford to be distracted.
There was no leader because they each had unique skills and talents and therefore inherent superiority in their own ﬁelds of expertise. When a bomb was used it was used under the instruction of the Danish demolitions expert, who named his devices after former lovers. When performing a long-range kill the Finnish woman, who had the most rifle experience, held seniority. When poison was required the Swedish chemist made the decisions in his authoritarian baritone. When shadowing a target the second Dane, who was an exceptional actress and knew the most about surveillance techniques, gave the orders. They operated democratically when no single team member held obvious authority. The arrangement worked well. Egos were kept in check. Jobs ran smoothly. No one got hurt—except the target. And never more than they were paid to be. The Scandinavians were not sadists. Except when they were hired to be.
It had been a unanimous conclusion that today they could only wait. The target was even more difﬁcult to corner than they had been led to believe from the intel provided. He had no idea he was under surveillance, but his routine preventative measures bordered on the obsessive. Yet he was smart to use them. He was, after all, being hunted, and so far had given the team no opportunity to strike. Not only was he reputed to be an exceptional killer, but he was also proving exceptionally hard to kill. A good combination of talents, they all agreed, similarly agreeing that they should adopt some of his precautions into their own repertoire when this was over. Like him, maybe one day they would ﬁnd themselves on the wrong end of a contract.
He was staying in a grand hotel in the city’s central district. Aside from the main entrance, the hotel had three other ways in and out. They could watch them all, given their number, but in doing so spread themselves out too thinly to act when he showed. He never departed via the same exit nor returned through the same entrance twice in a row—until he did, obliterating any chance they had at predicting his next choice. The Finn, who was something of a statistician in addition to being an accomplished sniper, snapped a pencil in annoyance.
The target had a deluxe guestroom on the second floor. He had also booked the room next to it. That made it problematic to know in which he slept. The door that joined the two rooms made it impossible. It seemed he slept during the daytime. At least, he spent most of his time at the hotel during daylight hours, though never for a duration that would be conducive to a proper sleep pattern. The single longest period of time he could be veriﬁably in either of his rooms was ﬁve hours. Often he was in the hotel considerably longer, whether in the bar, restaurant, ﬁtness center, or just reading a newspaper in the lobby. He never arrived at or left the hotel at anything close to the same time. The only habit he showed was in opting for the stairs, never the elevator, despite the limp.
Not that the hotel was a good strike point. The rooms he’d booked were located near the elevators, where foot trafﬁc was common. They had little to no chance of orchestrating a kill without the interruption of other guests. It was hard not to become frustrated. They were used to choosing where and when to ﬁnish a job, not having their target decide for them where not to make it. They kept their annoyance in check, reminding one another to stay cool. This was all to be expected. Preparation and patience.
He appeared to have no routine outside the hotel. Sometimes he patronized street vendors peddling artery-clogging junk food. At other times he dined in restaurants serving the most exquisite and expensive cuisine. One afternoon he might spend several hours browsing exhibits in a single museum. The next he’d read a book, moving from café to café with it, never staying in any one establishment for more than an hour at a time, and sometimes for only a matter of minutes. When they had ﬁgured him so impersonal as to be almost a recluse, he then spent an evening charming women in a cocktail bar.
He had no mobile phone, but at what the Finn deemed random intervals he used Internet cafés or pay phones. They found no traces of his activities when the Danish surveillance specialist then used the same terminal or phone booth. They debated whether such activities were even necessary for him or if they were merely for show, to trip up and distract any undetected tail.
“It’s working,” the Swede said.
They had no idea why he was present in the city. It could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps he was preparing for a job of his own, getting to know the city and his area of operations. Maybe he was on the run and keeping incognito where he hoped his enemies could not ﬁnd him. Or could this even be how he lived day-to-day when he was not himself working? It was no life, they all agreed, however many zeroes he could command for his services. If every waking moment had to be spent in a perpetual sense of alertness, then there had to be better ways to make a living. It made them appreciate how fortunate they were. They looked forward to this job’s completion and their next get-together. It was the Swede’s turn to host and his wife was universally adored. She taught physics but could be a professional party planner, as they would often tell the Swede to his pride.
A hit on the move proved just as troublesome to organize as one based on location. The target used buses, taxis, subways, aboveground trains, and walking with no discernible pattern. Distances were irrelevant. He might walk three miles to visit a coffee shop, yet take a cab for two blocks or spend an hour on the subway only to exit via the same station. How much the limp bothered him on such journeys, they could not tell.
In open areas he stayed in crowds and never walked in straight lines. When on narrow streets he kept away from the curb and close to storefronts. His hands were always outside his pockets. When he drank coffee on the move he did so by holding the cup in his left hand.
“So his primary hand is always available,” the Finn observed.
“What if he’s ambidextrous?” one of the Danes asked.
The Finn replied, “Less than a one percent chance of that. For all we know, he uses his left hand to make observers think he’s left-handed.”
“Let’s assume he is ambidextrous,” the second Dane said. “Whatever hand is occupied, we consider him just as dangerous.”
The other three nodded.
They operated from a vehicle that was changed daily, renting a different van each morning. They would take turns sleeping in the back compartment while the others worked. They had multiple changes of clothes and other accessories to make sure he never recognized who followed him on foot. Sometimes they lost him in order to maintain their cover, but that was to be expected. Take no risks, they would tell one another. They knew he would return to the hotel at some point, because the Danish surveillance expert had hacked into the hotel’s registry system. They knew how long he was staying, how much he was paying for the two rooms, even what he ordered from room service and that he had requested feather-free bedding and smoking rooms.
“But he hasn’t smoked a single cigarette in all the time we’ve watched him,” the Swede noted.
“No assumptions,” the Finn reminded him. “This guy’s only consistency is inconsistency.”
“You sound like you respect him.”
“I do,” she said. “He’s a lion.”
She nodded and grinned. “His head will look great mounted above my ﬁreplace.”
Two days later the voice of the female Dane, who was one of the pair shadowing on foot, sounded through the speaker of the mobile radio unit set up in the back of the rental van.
“He’s buying camping supplies.”
The Swede pressed the SEND button on the radio control panel and spoke into the microphone. “What kind of supplies are we talking about?”
“A stove, solid fuel, waterproof sleeping bag, bungee cords, padded sleeping mats, a walking cane . . . items like that. I can’t see everything he’s loaded into the trolley.”
The Finn was also shadowing, but currently outside the store. Her distinctive red hair was hidden beneath a wig. “Any cold-weather gear?”
The Swede waited for the Dane to respond when there was no danger of being observed. After a moment’s silence she answered, “Not from what I can see. Shall I get closer?”
“Maintain a safe distance,” the Swede replied. “This could be a ruse to draw out potential surveillance. We make no assumptions about this guy. Take no risks. Okay?”
The Finn said, “I think he’s planning for a job.”
“You can’t be certain of that,” the Swede replied.
She responded without pause because while outside the store there was no danger of being exposed. “He’s not going camping for the fun of it. I know that much.”
“We can’t be sure he is going camping.”
“Talk quieter,” the male Dane said, and rolled over.
• • •
The next day was the same: more waiting. During that time they had witnessed him buying used mobile phones from a market trader and top-up credit from two different stores. The Finn had point for the foot surveillance. She enjoyed watching the target from relatively close proximity. She enjoyed pitting her skills at remaining unseen against such a careful mark. She didn’t take risks, of course, however much she wanted to impress the others. Particularly the Swede, who aroused her and frustrated her in equal measure in those moments when she did not think of her boyfriend or the Swede’s lovely wife.
The Finn wanted to be the one that ended this. Not necessarily with the kill itself, but by providing that advantage they had so far struggled to acquire. Perhaps if she did not lose the target, as the others often did, she would be led to somewhere that could be used as a strike point, or learn some extra intelligence that they could exploit to create one.
Gunning him down on the street wasn’t their style. They wanted to live free and enjoy their hefty tax-free commissions. It was rare they even left a body behind. A combination of the Swede’s cocktails of flesh-dissolving enzymes and acids and the Finn’s willingness to use power tools ensured that after they had made a kill, not enough of the target remained to be identiﬁed. They charged extra for such cleanup, but would do it regardless. The Finn kept her thrill at putting to use circular saws and belt sanders a secret from the other three. As a girl, gutting reindeer had always been her favorite part of hunting with her father.
She inspected such tools while following the target around a hardware and DIY superstore. They had on sale a handheld circular saw produced by her preferred manufacturer. It had a 1900 mm blade and used 1300 watts of power. Fun times could be had with that, providing one wore the right protective clothing. So much mess.
“He’s bought himself an oxyacetylene torch,” she whispered into her lapel mike. “It’s a good one too.”
The deep, sweet voice of the Swede responded in her ear: “What’s this guy up to? I know you’re going to say he’s preparing for a job.”
“Maybe he’s building something.”
“But what?” the Swede said in return.
She kept the target at the limits of her sight and observed as he added a set of protective goggles, fuel tank, and heavy-duty gloves to use with the cutting torch. He then went on to buy a small generator, diesel, and a folding four-wheel trolley to transport his purchases. At the till, he spent a minute flirting with the much older woman who served him. The smile that lingered on her face long after he’d gone told the Finn she had enjoyed the experience.
The Finn didn’t follow the target outside. She updated the Swede on his new acquisitions, and the Danish man was put into rotation, wearing smart business clothes—the opposite of the casual jeans and leather jacket he’d worn the previous day. Though arguably more attractive than the Swede, the Dane didn’t endure in her fantasies. She didn’t feel that electricity between them. The Finn took her place at the radio to let the Swede sleep. She watched his chest rise and fall beneath the sleeping bag.
While the male Dane kept them updated on the target’s movements, the female Dane drove the van around the city, always staying at least a street or two away from the target’s current whereabouts, but never staying so far away that they would be unable to exploit an opportunity. That opportunity never presented itself, of course; or, more accurately, the target never allowed himself to give one away.
It must be exhausting, the Finn decided, to live such a careful existence, in which one’s guard never lowered and each and every movement had to be not only considered but executed with perfection. The Finn couldn’t do it, and she was thankful she didn’t have to. She would never work alone. It was suicide. There was safety in numbers. No individual, no matter how good, could be as effective as a team. They were about to prove that on this particular job.
“I think we have something,” the male Dane’s voice announced through the speaker.
“Go on,” she said.
“He’s entered a storage facility.”
The Finn’s back straightened. “Interesting.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“He’s spending a lot of time in the reception area.”
“So he’s likely renting a unit.”
“Again,” the Dane said, “that was my take. Hang on. . . . Yes, he’s following an employee out. I can see keys and paperwork. He’s being taken to his unit.” He couldn’t hide the excitement in his voice.
The Finn clapped her palms together.
“What is it?” the Swede asked, stirring.
The Finn smiled at him. He looked so cute and disheveled. “We might have something.”
The female Dane used a laptop to remote-hack into the storage company’s system and discovered some useful information. The unit rented was four hundred cubic feet in size and situated in the middle of a row of similarly sized units. There were more than two hundred in total at the facility, all ground level. It was a typical facility—a chain—though not a high-end one. The security was adequate but nothing special. There were a few cameras, but plenty of blind spots because they had used the minimum they could get away with. The target had signed a twelve-month agreement, which was standard, and registered under a different name than he was staying at the hotel with.
“Check flight manifests,” the Swede said.
She did, and learned the target had an economy-class ticket booked for the day after he was due to check out of his hotel.
“Checkout is at eleven hundred hours,” she said. “His flight is at nineteen hundred the next day. Check-in two hours before that means thirty-one hours for him to hang around.”
“Too long,” the Swede muttered.
The Dane said, “He’s going to stay at the storage facility. That’s why he has the camping equipment.”
The Finn nodded. “He’s establishing a safe house. He’s not storing anything there. He’s keeping it stocked with the essentials so when he’s in town he has everything he needs to lie low.”
“But why stay at a hotel for the past week if his intention was to set up a safe house?”
The Finn shrugged. She didn’t know.
The Swede clicked his ﬁngers. “Because he’s coming back to town. He’s got a job lined up here. It must be a big one too, or one that is high risk. One where he wouldn’t be able to slip out of the city straightaway and won’t be able to risk staying at a hotel or guesthouse. But now he’s set up a safe house, he can lie low there until the dust settles while the cops waste their time quizzing receptionists.”
“Man, this guy is slippery,” the Dane said.
“Like an eel,” the Finn added, impressed. “But in two days’ time he’s going to slither into a trap of his own making.”
“You sound like you feel sorry for him.”
“I do.” She smiled. “Almost.”
The target checked out of his hotel as scheduled. They followed him to the storage facility, as they had done twice before while he deposited his various purchases. This time he dropped off a small suitcase, but then left.
“Don’t worry,” the Swede said, because the disappointment in the van was palpable. “We know he’s coming back.”
“Patience,” the Finn added.
“Do we lie in wait for his return?” the Danish woman asked. “He has the door secured with a state-of-the-art combination padlock, but give me a few minutes and I can crack it. Easy.”
“No,” her countryman replied. “He’s bound to have any number of anti-intrusion indicators on or around the door. We disturb the wrong mote of dust and he’ll know we’re inside.”
The Swede said, “Plus, does anyone really want to trap himself in a dark, conﬁned space just waiting for him to return?”
“Not my idea of a good time,” the Finn answered.
The Swede smiled at that, then said, “So, we’re agreed? We wait it out. He’ll come back at some point to sleep. He’s not going to stay awake for thirty hours straight when he doesn’t have to.”
“How do we get the door open without him knowing about it?” the male Dane asked.
“We don’t need to,” the Finn answered. “We stealth it into the facility, nice and slow and quiet. He won’t hear us coming if we keep it smooth. Obviously, he can’t engage the padlock while he’s inside the unit, so once we’re over the fence, he’s defenseless. One of us opens the unit’s door—so maybe two seconds. The other two breach, fast, flashlights on to locate him in the dark and blind him as he stirs. Then: bang, bang. It’s over.”
“Nice,” the Swede said.
Feeling warm from the praise, the Finn turned to the others. “So, it’s settled?” She raised a hand. “The storage facility is our strike point?”
The other three raised their hands in unanimous agreement.
“But let’s make doubly sure every particular is solid,” the male Dane said. “We need this to be one hundred percent.”
“Have we ever gone to work with anything less?”
Shortly after midnight they made their move. The night sky was clear. The air was mild. The male Dane stayed behind the wheel of the van, parked on the same side of the street as the storage facility, but between the wash of streetlamps and out of line of sight of the security cameras. At a distance the vehicle looked parked and unoccupied. He was the getaway driver, providing surveillance and possible backup while the others were inside the facility. They all wore earpieces so he could warn them of anything happening outside that might compromise the job. It was unlikely. The storage unit was located in a quiet commercial area with all businesses closed at that time of night. Little trafﬁc—whether pedestrians or vehicles—passed through the neighborhood. The only people around were them and him.
The Danish woman, the Finn, and the Swede would complete the hit as the Finn had suggested—the Swede using his strength to open the door in the shortest possible time, the Finn as the shooter, and the Dane watching their backs. The Finn had earned the role of killer because not only was she a ﬁne shot but she was also considerably shorter than the other two team members. The Swede was the better marksman with small arms, but his height meant he was not the best choice. As the target would be prone, a tall shooter would ﬁnd acquiring the target in the dark more difﬁcult. A split-second delay could prove disastrous. Everyone was happy with their roles and knew what to do and when.
The target had returned to his storage unit a few minutes before nine p.m. At ten, the staff manning the facility’s front desk packed up and went home. The team had no way of knowing how long it would be before the target went to sleep, but they ﬁgured waiting a couple of hours made sense, just to be certain.
“He’s not going to sit in there reading a book,” one of the Danes had said. “He’ll get his head down and get out as soon as possible. We know this guy doesn’t like to sit still. He knows he’s vulnerable in there.”
After the kill was completed the storage locker would provide enough privacy for the Finn to go to work with power tools. The target even had a generator to plug them into.
“Thoughtful,” she had joked.
They wore lightweight body armor under their jackets and were armed with suppressed pistols and several magazines of spare ammunition. They each carried their own preferred sidearm. No one was expecting anything more onerous than a double tap to the head—certainly not a ﬁreﬁght—but it was essential to prepare for events beyond the worst-case scenario.
The Dane moved toward the storage facility ﬁrst and alone. The brim of her cap was pulled down low to shield her face and the hood from her jacket hid her hair. She had an aluminum ladder in her hands and a stepladder strapped to her back with bungee cords—purchased from the same store their target had used. She rushed up to the facility’s gate, extended the ladder, and hooked the support hooks onto the top of the gate. Both the ladder’s hooks and feet had been wrapped in foam. In seconds she had climbed over and dropped down to the other side. She wore athletic shoes with thick soles.
She released the slipknot attaching a set of bolt cutters to her belt and used them to disable the gate’s lock. The locking bolt was accessible only from the inside.
The stepladder—similarly silenced with foam—was set in place, and she used the height it provided to reach a wall-mounted security camera. It covered the gate and space behind it. She coated the lens cover with black paint from a spray can.
“Move,” she whispered into her radio.
The Finn pushed open the gate and hurried into the facility, followed by the Swede. While this happened the Dane used the stepladder and spray paint to disable more cameras. No risks. The camera recording her climbing over the gate had been unavoidable, but her identifying features were appropriately hidden and no record of the Finn or Swede—nor of their activities within the facility’s boundary—would exist.
The target’s unit sat in the approximate center of a row of eight units—four units to the closest end, three to the farthest. They took up their positions. Their soft-soled shoes and skill at stealth ensured they made as close to no noise as was possible. The Swede took a parabolic microphone from his rucksack, held the earpiece in place, and pointed the microphone at the unit’s doors. He listened for a moment, sweeping with the device.
He nodded at the other two and mouthed, He’s asleep. Then he pointed to the right side of the door. The Finn and the Dane nodded back. The Finn shuffled over to the right and held up her pistol. Two seconds to get the door open; another one to acquire the target. No way he could wake up and react within three seconds, the Finn thought.
The Swede set down the parabolic microphone, and the Dane readied her gun: an FN P90 automatic weapon. A long sound suppressor was afﬁxed to the muzzle. It was a beast of a machine, but only backup. The Finn would do the shooting with a .22-caliber Ruger pistol. The low-powered slugs would still kill if they struck vital organs—which they would, because the Finn was an expert shot—but they would stay inside the head or torso. No exit wound meant less mess. Less mess meant less evidence. They had rolls of plastic sheeting waiting in the van, ready to be unrolled before her power tools came out to play. The P90 was in case the Swede couldn’t get the door open. It seemed unlikely that the target could—or indeed would—secure the unit’s door from the inside, but they were taking no chances. If he had rigged some locking mechanism to the inside and the Swede could not wrench the door open within three seconds the Dane would hose the unit down. The P90’s magazine held ﬁfty rounds that would be unleashed in a matter of seconds. Even with indirect ﬁre, there was no way the target would survive.
The mess would be absolute, which was why it was purely a backup plan. A nice, clean kill was how they preferred to operate, but with a target such as this they were prepared to accept that some corners might have to be cut.
The P90 now clutched in both hands, the Dane nodded to conﬁrm her readiness to the Finn and the Swede. He edged into position, squatted, and took hold of the door. He nodded to the others. The Finn clicked on the red-dot optic of her pistol and the under-barrel flashlight.
The Dane, gun in her right hand, held up three ﬁngers of her left hand to the others. Then two.
The Swede heaved open the rolling door, launching from a squat to standing, arms extended above his head, the metal creaking and clanging—loud and echoing.
The beam from the Finn’s LED flashlight illuminated the inside of the storage unit—the camping supplies and equipment, gasoline and cutting torch, and a man-sized shape in a sleeping bag in the far right corner.
A GEMTECH suppressor and naturally subsonic ammunition meant the Finn’s double tap was muted to two concentrated sneezes, inaudible beyond ﬁve meters. The sleeping bag rippled from the bullets’ impact.
She stalked forward into the unit, Ruger still at eye level, and aimed down at the prone target, seeking conﬁrmation of the kill.
“Wait,” the Swede said from behind her before she could reach close enough to identify the target.
She did as instructed, surprised at the volume of his voice and utterly trusting that he was justiﬁed in his instruction.
“It’s not him,” the Swede said.
The Finn could not see the body in the sleeping bag from her distance, so he would not be able to either.
“Left,” the Swede said.
She looked. “What the—”
The unit’s walls were corrugated metal sheeting rising two and a half meters to the flat roof. Where the left wall met the floor was a hole, one meter square. The cutout piece of metal lay on the floor next to it. Cut with the oxyacetylene torch.
“Cover it,” the Swede said as he moved forward into the unit.
The Finn trained her gun on the hole, the beam of the flashlight showing the blackened edges where the metal had been scorched by the torch. The Swede kicked the sleeping bag twice, then knelt down to check what was inside.
“Shit,” he said, feeling pillows stuffed into the bag to create a man-sized shape. He felt something square and hard. A mobile phone, set to speaker, playing a sound ﬁle of recorded breathing.
“He knew we were coming,” the Swede said, a slight edge of fear in his voice. “He was waiting for us.”
“Where is he?” the Finn asked.
The beam of the flashlight shone a little way through the hole in the wall and into the next unit, which seemed empty.
The Swede pointed at the wall—at the next unit. Then he held out his left hand, palm down, and lowered it as he crouched into a squat, indicating for the Finn to do the same. She did, and the flashlight beam illuminated more of the unit beyond as his eye level descended to see into it. It was as empty as it ﬁrst appeared.
“What?” the Finn said, the volume and pitch of her voice rising. “What is it?”
On the far wall of the next unit was another hole and another sheet of metal lying before it. The Swede lowered himself onto his hands and knees to get the angle and saw the same was true of the unit after that. And then again. He could see all the way through and the spill of artiﬁcial light beyond the ﬁnal hole that led outside.
The Swede said, “Watch the flank.” He glanced toward the Dane, who was still outside the unit.
He let out a panicked exhale and snapped up his pistol. The Finn saw him do so and spun to where he was looking. The female Dane, who had been there mere moments before, was gone. They hadn’t heard a thing.
“Stay calm,” the Finn said.
The Swede didn’t seem to hear. “He led us here. He wanted us to come after him. Shit. Shit.”
“Stay calm,” the Finn said again.
“He picked this spot to attack us and we watched him do it. It’s a fucking trap.”
The Finn didn’t argue. She used her lapel mike to radio the male Dane. “We need backup, right now.”
She repeated herself.
The Swede stared at her. “Not him as well . . .”
A voice came through the speaker: male, but not the Dane who was supposed to be waiting in the van. The voice was deep and low. Calm. Terrifying. “I’m afraid no one is coming to help you.”
“You bastard. I’m going to—”
The voice continued: “It’s nothing personal, but I can’t let any of you live. I know you understand that. You would do exactly the same in my position.”
The Finn pulled out her earpiece and smashed it beneath a heel. “Bastard.” She whispered to the Swede, “We need to move. Right now.”
“He’s at the van. If we’re fast—”
The Finn shook her head. “No, damn it. Think for a second. He could have killed Jans and taken his mike the second we were through the gate. He could be anywhere by now.”
“Then what do we do?”
The Finn thought about this for a moment, then pointed at the hole in the unit wall and made a walking action with her index and middle ﬁnger.
The Swede shook his head. “No way. That’s suicide.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
He didn’t answer.
The Finn inched closer to the hole.
“I’m not going through there,” the Swede whispered.
“Fine.” She pointed to the open roller door. “Stay here and cover that entrance until I get to it.”
“We can’t split up. That’s what he wants us to do.”
“We have to do something. Do you want to end up like the others? If we wait here, we’re playing into his hands.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
“It’s going to take me no more than a minute to crawl out and come back round the front. If I’m any longer than that, I haven’t made it.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Listen to me, please. You wait one minute for me. If I’m not in front of you by then, he’s got me. So you need to take advantage of that and run. Just run. He can’t be in two places at once. You count to sixty, and at sixty-one you run for your life. Do you understand me?”
He nodded and swallowed.
She exhaled, then kissed him on the lips. It surprised him, but he kissed her back.
“Don’t be late,” he said.
She didn’t want to be late. Late meant dead.
“I won’t be.”
The ground was cold beneath the Finn’s elbows and knees. She crawled through the ﬁrst hole and into the unit next to the target’s. It was empty. When she stopped, she could hear the rapid breathing of the Swede. She wanted to shout back and tell him to be quiet, but she daren’t give her position away. The target—not that he could still be thought of as such—could be anywhere in the facility, but he was close. The Finn knew that. Had their roles been reversed she would stay near, within eyesight or hearing range. She’d called him a lion before. Now she pictured a lion stalking through tall grass.
She crawled through the next hole. Only one more unit before she was outside. The cool air on her skin made her more aware of the sweat coating her face. The current unit was full of musty-smelling cardboard boxes crammed with magazines and books. The Finn stepped around them.
The ﬁnal unit was empty. She released a breath and crept over to the hole leading outside. If the killer was waiting to ambush her, it would be here. But there was just as much chance of him covering the unit where the Swede waited, which meant this hole would be safe to crawl through. There was no way to know for certain until it was too late. At least for one of them.
Thirty seconds remained until the designated minute had been depleted. What had she told the Swede? You count to sixty, and at sixty-one you run for your life.
She stopped. There was no need to crawl through the last hole and risk an ambush, because in less than half a minute the Swede was going to run. Then either he wouldn’t make it or he would. If he did, the Finn would know the killer wasn’t covering his rented unit and therefore must be watching the hole. However, if the Swede didn’t make it, then the hole was safe because the killer couldn’t be in two places at the same time.
The Finn waited.
She didn’t want him to die. But she wanted to die less. She breathed in shallow exhales and inhales to limit the noise. She needed to hear. She needed to hear whether the Swede made it or not. She willed him not to make it. Sorry, my sweet. Twenty seconds remaining.
With ten seconds left, she tensed, readying herself to make a break for it, or if it sounded like the Swede made it, to turn around and hurry back the way she had come. She wondered if the Swede had come to the same conclusion. She wondered if he was silently willing her to die like she was him.
At four seconds she heard the Swede move. He had counted too fast. Not unsurprising, given the heightened circumstances. Or maybe she was counting too slow. It didn’t matter.
She heard the scrape of the soles of his shoes on the ground as he launched into a run, as she had instructed. She heard the urgent footfalls. She pictured him powering out of the unit, veering left toward the exit, sprinting down the alley of space between the rows of units, reaching the—
Two muted clacks reached her ears. The footfalls stopped.
Bad news for the Swede. Good news for the Finn.
She dropped to her knees, crawling fast, not worried about noise, knowing the killer was out of line of sight, over near the facility’s reception building and main gate. He couldn’t be in two places at once.
The Finn crawled through the ﬁnal hole and out onto the far side of the last unit. The cool night air felt magical on her sweat-slick skin, but there wasn’t time to enjoy it. She had a single moment of opportunity—a single advantage—and she needed to make it work. She rose to her feet.
The killer was at one side of the facility, she was at the other. All she had to do was—
She felt something brush against her face—fast and surprising—then pressure on her throat as it tightened. An image flashed in her mind: the killer buying bungee cord.
It formed a noose around her neck, closing off her windpipe, sending burning pain and panic flooding through her. The Finn grasped at it, dropping her gun, trying to dig her ﬁngers behind the cord, but there was no room. The slack had been stretched out of it by her own weight and the killer above her—on the roof of the unit—pulling upward.
Her feet struggled for purchase. Her face reddened. Her eyes bulged. She tried to speak, to beg, but only a gurgling wheeze escaped her lips.
The upward pressure of the noose kept her jaw locked shut and the cord away from her carotids. Otherwise, she would have passed out within seconds as the blood supply to the brain was cut off. Instead, the bungee cord suffocated her, extending the agony to over a minute. Her teeth ground and cracked. Her lips blued. Capillaries burst in her eyeballs.
Eventually, oxygen deprivation induced a euphoric state of calm and well-being. The pain ceased. The Finn stopped ﬁghting. Then she stopped moving altogether.
Victor was still for a moment as the night breeze flowed over his face and through his hair. It slithered down his collar and up his sleeves. Cold, but gentle and soothing. His heart rate, slightly elevated from the exertion, fell back to a slow rhythm. He opened his hands and let the bungee cord fall away. Below him, the body collapsed to the ground. He felt nothing except a little soreness in his palms. Without the heavy-duty welder’s gloves protecting his hands the friction burn would no doubt have taken away skin along with sweat. The bungee cord’s inherent slack wasn’t ideal for strangulation, but its light weight and flexibility meant it was a fast, maneuverable noose. The proof was in the result. The woman couldn’t be any more dead.
He rolled up the padded groundsheets that he’d laid across the unit’s roof to muffle the noise of moving back and forth across it and lowered himself onto his good leg. Once inside his rented unit he put on some shoes and began packing up his equipment. He hadn’t required all of it, but the more superfluous items he purchased, the less chance there was of the team working out what he really needed and therefore what he had planned. Once it was all loaded onto the trolley—barring the waterproof sleeping bag—he wheeled it out of the unit, through the facility, and out of the open gate.
They’d parked in a good spot. It only took a couple of minutes to transfer it all into the back of the team’s van, alongside where the dead driver lay. The other corpses followed, pushed on the loading trolley and concealed by the groundsheets. Victor took his time. There was no need to rush. They had kindly disabled the facility’s security cameras for him. In any case, what few cameras there were had been positioned to cover the doors of the units, not their roofs, and he’d been careful to pick a spot outside of any camera’s arc in which to cut the hole with the oxyacetylene torch.
He’d used it to burn over the outer edges of the holes he had cut, and placed the rectangles of metal on the outside of each unit. When the morning shift arrived at six a.m. and saw the disabled gate lock and watched the camera footage they—and the subsequent police investigators—would conclude a break-in had taken place. Upon discovering they could not contact the owner of the thief’s—singular, because only one assassin had been recorded by the cameras—target, they would deduce that Victor had been storing something valuable and illegal, hence the false identity. With nothing reported stolen, the police would look no further into what seemed to be one criminal ripping off another. Nothing pleased a cop more. Karma, they would say, and do the deep belly laugh that only true joy could create.
There was little cleanup to do. He removed the man he’d shot ﬁrst, using the waterproof sleeping bag to ferry him so none of his blood and other leaking bodily fluids would be left behind. Victor had killed him with a subsonic .22 to ensure the round stayed inside the body and didn’t cause a messy exit wound. He ﬁgured the redheaded woman he’d strangled had been carrying a similar gun for the exact same reasons. He liked that. He felt he knew her a little better. There wasn’t much opportunity for relationships in Victor’s line of work and, even separated by death, he felt a connection with the woman. Maybe they had other things in common beyond consideration of armaments. He found himself wondering if they shared a similar taste in music or books. Perhaps she enjoyed the same kind of food. In another life they might have been friends. Even lovers.
He threw her corpse down on top of the others.
Subject: I Need Your Help
St. Petersburg, Russia
Victor opened his eyes to the view provided by his hotel room’s ceiling. No alarm had awoken him. No alarm ever woke him. When his consciousness ﬁrst booted up and took control of his body he needed his senses. Of those senses his hearing was the most important. He needed his ears to collect every creak of floorboards and brush of shoe on carpet, and the click of a doorjamb and a whisper of released breath that might save his life. Hearing could detect an enemy long before sight. Victor knew this because many times he had been the paid enemy of someone aware of his presence only when they saw him for the first time. By then it was always far too late to matter.
He heard nothing that presented any cause for concern. Regardless, he removed the SIG Sauer from the front of his waistband and kept it in hand after checking it for tampering. He wore a navy suit over a white shirt. The tie was folded and rested inside a pocket. His shoes were oxfords, their soles brushed clean to leave no dirt or telltale residue on top of the bedclothes.
The curtains were closed. The inner folds overlapped to ensure not even a sliver of the outside world could be seen, or could see in between them. A lamp cast the room in a glow of warm orange light, as sight was his second-best defense. Hotel corridors were always lit, so an assassin’s eyes would struggle inside a pitch-black room, but technology could render night as day, and a flashlight shone into eyes adjusted in that dark room would be blinded worse than by night alone.
There were three means of entry: the bedroom door, the sash window, and the door leading to the en suite bathroom. The bedroom door was locked and barricaded with the room’s wardrobe. It was heavy and awkward, but he was strong and patient and valued his life more than the time and energy it took to move it. It provided a nigh on impassable barrier of greater height and width than the doorframe. He used his sense of touch to check around its feet. The indentations in the carpet did not extend beyond their dimensions. The sash window opened to a gap of less than ﬁfteen centimeters. A skilled assailant could conceivably manipulate it to provide a large enough space to climb through, but the curtains were as he had left them and the postage stamp–sized square of toilet tissue had not been moved by the ripple of fabric or flow of air. He checked the bathroom door. A ﬁne ﬁber of wool remained in place, stuck across the gap between door and frame, at the very bottom, where it would fall quickly to the floor and disappear against the carpet if the door opened, because that is where he had taken it from. A hair had once been used by professionals for the same purpose, but Victor never chose to increase the chances of leaving DNA behind. For the same reason he had stuck the ﬁber in place with a tiny drop of shower gel from one of the complimentary bottles and not saliva.
The bathroom window was small, but large enough for a slight man or woman to climb through. Such an entry would be his preferred route. Farther from the sleeping target meant less chance of being heard, especially with a closed door in between.
Victor was not slight, but a lifetime of stretching meant his joints had the limberness of a gymnast. The window’s size would not have stopped him.
He positioned himself to the side of the bathroom door and used his elbow to flick on the light switch and blind an assailant who had been waiting in the darkness as he turned the handle with his free hand. He flung open the door and entered fast, gun leading. Seeing it was empty, he focused on the mirror behind the sink directly opposite the open door to check that no one stood behind it. Victor lowered the gun.
He was safe. At least until he stepped outside his room.
He checked the time. He’d been asleep for a little more than four hours. A combination of necessity, experience, and training meant he rarely slept for much longer in a single period. His body required as much rest as the next man to function at one hundred percent, but he spread out his requirement whenever it was possible. Most assassins would elect to strike when the target was most vulnerable, and deep in the slow-wave stage three of non-REM sleep was just about the best way of ensuring that. At that point the target would suffer the highest arousal threshold—the lowest chance of waking. For the majority, that point was halfway through the sleep cycle, four or ﬁve hours after drifting off, in the early hours of the morning. He made sure never to be asleep during that time, and sleeping approximately four hours increased his chances of being awake when most killers would think it best to strike.
Victor stripped, stretched, and exercised, then ignored the sensory deprivation of the shower and took a bath. It was freestanding, deep and long, and he could relax without his limbs bunched up. Good hotels were a huge drain on his resources, but the monetary expense was almost offset by the ability to bathe in comfort.
The hotel was a beautiful Regency building with a grand facade, high ceilings, and magniﬁcent chandeliers. Exploring it for the purposes of operational security had been nothing short of a pleasure. The lack of CCTV cameras—presumably for aesthetic considerations—was also to his particular tastes. He checked out, chatting banalities with the friendly clerk so as not to appear rude and therefore memorable, and took a cab deep into the city.
He considered the unexpected e-mail seeking his assistance while he entered a metro station, took the train at platform three because he saw three ticket booths were open, alighted at the second stop because two other people stood like him inside the car, and headed across to the southbound platform because a woman smiled at him as she approached the elevators.
A year ago he had deactivated several e-mail accounts through which independent brokers would contact him in the days when he had worked regularly as a freelance professional. People he had never met either offered him contracts or if he had operated for them before might ask to pitch him for particularly lucrative jobs. He would have more intimate contact with them only if they had misled or betrayed him, and then they would never have contact with him—or anyone else—ever again. It had been a dangerous but proﬁtable existence and one he had believed himself to have mastered, but ultimately the isolation that kept him alive had led to a period of servitude. A slave with a gun, he had thought of himself at that time. After that, an independent contractor. Now he wasn’t sure what he was. Unemployed, maybe.
His last client had passed him no work recently. He didn’t know if that was noteworthy beyond a lack of jobs that required his particular talents. He wasn’t about to ask. Unemployed or not, the fallout from those contracts of the past few years—as well as those of his freelance days—meant he could not let his guard down for even a single day. His enemies were legion, and some possessed great power and means. Others did not, but a solitary bullet was the sum total of all the power any enemy would ever need. He accepted and had expected such threats. Only dead assassins had believed they could operate their trade with impunity. The astronomical fee he charged for his services reflected the danger he lived with on a day-to-day basis.
A teenage girl sitting nearby chewed on the nail of her fourth ﬁnger, so Victor disembarked the train at the fourth station. This time he elected to leave, because a keen-eyed security guard watching CCTV monitors might note he had had gone north, then south, then north again. Even a tourist wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Especially one who didn’t look like a tourist.
Outside the station he took a cab, pretending he didn’t speak the language, mispronouncing landmarks until the driver had some idea of where he wanted to go. He gave it ten minutes, because the last two digits of the driver’s license number were ﬁve and two, and had him stop the car. The driver pulled over behind a BMW, so Victor took the next two right turns because B was the second letter of the alphabet, then continued walking, following the road he found himself upon, ignoring the next thirteen junctions, as M was the thirteenth letter, before alternating left and right for the next four turnings because W was the fourth letter when reading the alphabet backward.
He had detected no one, but that didn’t mean he was unobserved. If he was being followed the shadows would ﬁnd no signiﬁcance in his movements and ultimate location because he had never been there before and this end location was as close to a random result as any human could hope to create. The street was pedestrianized and lined with restaurants and bars. The crowd of people was dense and ever moving. It was a good place for drawing out shadows and losing them by entering one of the establishments. It was a poor location for an ambush, and until moments ago he had no idea he would be here, so any aggressors planning violence would have had no time to prepare. Nothing would happen here. For now, he was as safe as he was ever going to be.
He walked slowly along the street, listening to the sounds of joy and merriment surrounding him.
A young boy caught his eye. The kid was too young to be working in the area but old enough to be unaccompanied. His clothes were shabby and unclean, but he moved with purpose, sometimes walking fast, other times slow. The kid was malnourished and thin; the lack of calcium and calories in his diet had stunted his growth. A shame for all the obvious reasons, but beneﬁcial for one.
The boy was a pickpocket. Victor didn’t see him make any attempts, but that was only because the boy was waiting for his best opportunity. He was patient and considered, and used his short height to good advantage. People barely noticed him, whereas in return his eye level was not far above that of trouser pockets and handbags. Victor respected the poise with which the kid conducted himself. He was a survivor. He was just like Victor had been at that age, having broken out of the orphanage, living on the streets, doing what he’d had to. Surviving.
Memories were distraction, so Victor cleared his mind. He moved his wallet from his inside jacket pocket and into the left pocket of his trousers.
The kid was good. He didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Victor respected that.
Using his knuckles, he pushed open the door to a bar he liked the look of and stepped into a wall of heat and noise. It was closer to full than empty and had a pleasant atmosphere. Victor was never concerned by the kind of trouble that bars encouraged, but he tried to steer clear of ones where it was more likely to occur. He did everything in his power to avoid a confrontation with a civilian, but a man drunkenly determined to prove his masculinity would respond with equal aggression to passivity as he would to intimidation. Easier to shun those bars where such a man was likely to pass his time than try to pull a punch so that when it landed it did not kill that man.
He picked a spot at the bar and made eye contact with the barman, noting in his peripheral vision a short-haired Asian woman looking his way. Victor sipped an orange juice while he thought about the e-mail. Subject: I need your help. The body of the message consisted of nothing but a coded phone number. He knew the number because he knew the code because he knew the man who had sent it. He didn’t have to call the number to know it was a request for a face-to-face meeting. Something Victor rarely did, and rarer still when it was requested of him. It was uncommon for people who knew him to want to spend time in his company. Especially when the previous engagement had not ended well. Victor couldn’t help but be intrigued. The person who sent it knew enough about him to know exactly how big a request it was.
The e-mail had arrived in one of the few accounts he kept active. Scattered around the world were a number of contacts that he used to ﬁll the gaps in his skill set that he could not afford to leave blank. Such contacts included document forgers, gunsmiths, language coaches, hackers, doctors, smugglers, and experts in other specialist ﬁelds. Of those, only a handful knew the true nature of his profession, and only then because he had encountered them while plying his trade and recognized their value. He maintained certain e-mail accounts so that he could contact them via prearranged means, but also so they could contact him on rare occasions. Some debts could not be paid in money alone.
Those accounts were hidden and protected as any could be, disguised by proxy servers and complex webs of ownership, data redirections, duplicates, decoys, encryptions, and ciphers. Victor never accessed the same account more than once from the same city in the same year and regularly tested the integrity of the anonymity they provided. Any account he had the slightest doubt about would be deactivated.
One crack in his security might be all it took to put an assassin just like him on his trail or bring a police tactical team to his door. Prevention over cure was one motto he had no choice but to live by. An enemy ﬁrst had to successfully track him down. Having done that, the enemy needed to corner him while remaining undetected. And should the enemy manage that, there still remained the difﬁcult task of actually killing him.
He had no doubt it would happen. He conducted himself as though death’s touch was only a handsbreadth away. He would never make it to old age. Each job he undertook created more danger and added new enemies. But it was an impossible cycle to break free of. Working kept him sharp. Retirement meant the certain erosion of his skills, and there was nowhere on the planet he could hide where no one could ever ﬁnd him. Life was short. Time was precious. Which was why he took enjoyment from it whenever he could.
He checked to see that the bar had a card reader and said, “Can I buy you a drink?” to the Asian woman with the short hair.
She smiled. “Sure, why not?”
The night air was cold on Victor’s tongue. He liked winter. He liked the taste of it. He walked along the path pedestrians had carved through an ankle-high layer of snow that covered the pavement, his footprints blending into those imprinted before him. The snow crunched beneath his shoes. His breath clouded with each exhale but his hands hung loose by his hips; cold, but hands conﬁned in warm pockets were useless.
His destination was close. He knew where it lay at the center of a neighborhood of social housing built during the Communist era. Most had been deserted and derelict when he had last visited years before. Now some of the crumbling tenements had been torn down and replaced by newer buildings that were cleaner but no less unattractive than their neighbors. Cars crawled past, headlights ﬁltering through the falling snow that kept the road white. Black slush lined the gutters, a product of the day’s trafﬁc, now frozen.
Victor kept to the shadows, avoiding the spill of streetlights, and stopped when he was sure the two guys waiting outside the bar entrance were not regular doormen. They had the right dimensions but their coats were too expensive. He watched them for a moment. The light coming from inside the bar illuminated them well enough that Victor could estimate their ages and when they had last shaved. They didn’t see him in return. He couldn’t read their lips because they weren’t talking. They were alert and concentrating on the vehicles and pedestrians that drove and walked by.
He had expected to ﬁnd guards. He would have been concerned if he hadn’t seen any. That would mean they were skilled enough to avoid his detection and had the motivation to. The two meatheads would not be the full contingent of heavies. There would be more inside the bar and others out back.
An alleyway took him to the narrow street behind the bar that ran parallel to the one in front. Two more guys stood outside the bar’s rear entrance. One leaned against a stack of crates, smoking a cigarette, but he still looked just as focused and wary as his partner or the two out front. Victor couldn’t enter the bar without ﬁrst being spotted. The person he was here to meet did not want Victor getting close without being aware of it. But the guards didn’t need to be so obvious to do that. They were stationed out in the open to ensure Victor saw them. There were two reasons for this. The ﬁrst was the most obvious: it was a show of strength to dissuade him from any violent intentions he might have. The second was to say this wasn’t an ambush. The guards were in plain sight in an attempt to convince him there was nothing to be concerned about.
Victor wasn’t convinced. He trusted no one. He alone would decide whether to be concerned or not, but his guard wouldn’t drop in either case.
He approached the rear entrance. His contact would have expected that and put his best men before it. Victor usually preferred to do the unexpected, but not this time. The person he was here to meet would be reassured by his calculation proving correct. He would feel conﬁdent in his management of the encounter. Victor would seem more predictable and controllable.
Less dangerous. Victor liked people to think that.
He approached the two guards.
When he was twenty meters away the closest spotted him and used the back of a hand to bat the other man on the arm. Both looked Victor’s way. They straightened as he grew nearer and they were surer of his identity. They stood with feet shoulder width apart, hands by their hips but tension in their arms. He walked at a slow, measured pace, his gaze moving back and forth from one to the other. Their lips stayed closed. The one with the cigarette tossed it away. There was half an inch of white paper between the burning end and the ﬁlter. It landed on the road and extinguished.
When he was ten meters away their nerves showed. One clenched his ﬁsts. The other shuffled. Neither had spoken a word since they had spotted him. Which meant they weren’t in constant communication with those inside. Which reduced, if not eliminated, the chances of the meeting doubling as an ambush.
They were both taller than him, the ﬁrst by an inch, the second by three. Both had the wide shoulders and thick arms of guys who spent a lot of time in the gym. He wasn’t sure if they swallowed or injected their anabolic steroids, but they were long-term abusers. Growth-hormone users too—they had the telltale good skin but enlarged skulls with prominent eyebrow bones and protruding abdomens full of artiﬁcially distended intestines. They were more than just muscle, though. Victor’s contact hired only ex-military. He wanted men who could shoot as well as punch.
“Stop right there,” the bigger one said when Victor was less than three meters away.
Victor did as he was told. He kept his hands at his side, palms open. A passive posture.
“You’re him, yes?”
“That depends,” Victor answered back in Russian.
The man nodded to himself. “Yeah, you’re him all right.”
“If you say so.”
Victor shook his head.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then you’d better search me.” Victor held out his arms in invitation.
For a moment no one moved. Then the bigger one gestured at the shorter man to do so. He didn’t. He motioned for his companion to do the searching himself. They stared at each other, gazes and facial expressions doing the silent arguing but reaching no mutually agreeable conclusion. So neither man held a position of seniority. No one had to follow the other’s orders and neither wanted to search Victor. They had been well briefed.
He sighed loud enough to interrupt the power struggle and began unbuttoning his overcoat. Only the bottom two of the four buttons were fastened. That snapped their attention back to him. They stiffened, unsure what was happening, but Victor was moving too slowly and deliberately to be threatening. The smaller man reached into a pocket regardless, and kept it there when Victor took off the coat and let it fall to the pavement.
He stood there for a moment, passive and docile. Then, just as slowly, he held open his suit jacket. The two guards stared, concentration and confusion in their eyes.
Victor turned around on the spot, lifting the jacket tails as he gave them his back so they had an uninterrupted view of his waistband. He faced them again and exposed the linings of his empty trouser pockets. He pulled up the cuffs of his trousers, one at a time. He did the same with his sleeves.
“See? No weapon.”
They looked at each other again, this time more relaxed as they now didn’t need to get any closer to him than they had to.
“So are we good?” Victor asked with a lightness in his voice and a half smile, making fun of the situation.
The smaller man exhaled. The other shrugged. Then both nodded.
Victor extended the smile as he retrieved his overcoat from the ground. “Too cold for messing around longer than necessary, right, guys?”
He brushed off the snow with the back of his hand. They were smiling too now—three men ﬁnding humor after a moment of unnecessary tension.
He closed the distance to the two guards, still smiling, and held out the coat in both hands, elbows bent and near his waist, and gestured with it to the smaller of the two.
“Hold this for me until I come back out.”
He asked no question so there was no need for the man to decide on an answer. They were all smiling and relaxed now there was no threat. The man didn’t hesitate. He didn’t think to analyze the request. He took a step nearer and reached for Victor’s coat, bringing his hand out of the pocket so he could take it in both. His ﬁngers gripped the coat.
Victor released it, grabbed the guard’s wrists and yanked him closer.
He stumbled, off-balance, into the head butt that Victor launched at his face.
The strongest part of Victor’s body—the curve of the forehead—collided with the bridge of the man’s nose. Bone crunched. Cartilage flattened. Blood exploded from the nostrils in two downward jets and drenched the man’s shirt.
Victor sidestepped away to let him stagger forward under his own momentum. That he didn’t go straight down was testament to the man’s toughness, but, unconscious or not, he would be out of the ﬁght for as long as Victor needed him to be.
The larger man was quick to react but slow to move under the enormous weight of his unnatural musculature. He swung a well-executed punch that would break Victor’s jaw with a signiﬁcant bone displacement should it connect, but it was too slow to have any chance of hitting its mark. Victor dodged it, struck the Russian in the sternum with his right ﬁst, hit over the liver with his left, and twisted around the man as he reeled from the blows and tried to grapple, and kicked him in the back of the knee as he turned, trying to follow Victor’s movements.
He collapsed onto his knees, breathless and grimacing. Victor wrapped his right arm around the man’s neck, bracing with the left, and squeezed until he stopped ﬁghting and fell face-ﬁrst into the snow.
The other man had turned and was staggering Victor’s way, blood streaming over his mouth and raining from his chin. The Russian’s eyes were wide in an attempt to see through the haze of pain and tears. He threw a straight punch that Victor slipped, stepping inside the man’s reach and hitting him on the point of the chin with an open-palmed strike. His head snapped back and he dropped next to the other guard.
He patted them down, found phones, and crushed them under his heel. Both were armed—Baikal handguns and telescopic coshes. Victor tossed the weapons down a nearby storm drain. The two guys would wake up within a few minutes or not at all. It made no difference to Victor. He hadn’t tried to kill them, but he hadn’t tried not to.
He pulled open the bar’s back door and stepped inside.
The air was hot and heavy and loud. There was no music playing, but the dense mass of people, discretion eroded by alcohol, all shouted to be heard over each other. It was warm, heating on full blast to ﬁght off the winter outside, and several dozen people were packed inside, drinking and eating bar food. Coat stands near the main entrance were overloaded. A barman mixed cocktails while flirting with a group of young women in heels that could easily kill if employed with a modicum of skill. He wore a bow tie. An ice sculpture of what Victor guessed used to be a naked woman melted slowly behind the bar. The patrons wore stylish clothes and business attire, now wrinkled and disheveled after a few hours of postwork partying. Victor had never had a day job. He’d never worked nine to ﬁve. He knew he would go insane conﬁned in an ofﬁce all day. Assuming he wasn’t already insane.
There were no unoccupied tables and only enough room at the bar itself for one elbow. That wasn’t an accident. The man he was here to meet could have selected any number of quieter locations. He wanted to be surrounded by people. This time it was purely for his own protection and nothing to do with trying to convince Victor his intentions were not angled toward violence.
Revue de presse
“Fans of Lee Child and Vince Flynn will not want to miss The Enemy....an exceedingly smart thriller.”—Mark Greaney, national bestselling author of Dead Eye
“Tom has done his research and it shows. Tactical accuracy, globetrotting locales, and plenty of twists to keep you guessing to the last page, The Enemy makes James Bond look like a wannabe.”
—Brad Taylor, national bestselling author of Enemy of Mine
“Jack Reacher meets Thomas Crown in this electrifying thriller.”
—Simon Kernick, New York Times bestselling author
“If there’s anything Tom Wood knows, it’s creating scenes that crackle with suspense, fascination and copious action....he creates the kind of taut drama that makes the pages fly.... You’re going to enjoy this top-notch killer drama.”—Critical Mystery Tour
“[A] fascinating antihero.”—Library Journal
“Exciting and thrilling from beginning to end…Definitely recommended for readers who enjoy their action nonstop and unpredictable.”—Mysterious Reviews
“A truly great read featuring an unforgettable character….This is a thriller to the ‘nth’ degree….Readers will crave to see this one appear on the big screen.”—Suspense Magazine