Every Last Breath – Juno Rushdan

London, England Wednesday, 2:01 a.m. EDT, 7:01 a.m. BST No need to waste a bullet. Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater filled Aleksander’s ears, the violins and countertenor’s falsetto dampening the muffled cries of the woman bound and gagged behind him. He didn’t want her life, just the use of her third-floor bedroom. Then he and his son, Valmir, would be on their way. A wisp of a cool breeze rustled the ivory lace curtains, taunting him from the three-inch hole he’d cut in the window. Seated with his legs on either side of the tripod, he stretched his neck, letting the joints pop. He tucked the butt of the high-powered AX50 rifle into the pocket of his shoulder, pressed his cheek to the stock, and adjusted the scope for a proper zero. Sweat gathered on his brow, sliding down his temple in a sticky trickle as he waited. Three more minutes passed like a painful thirty. He gnashed his molars, fingers itchy. Putting a slug in a man’s skull was never easy, but every profession had its challenges.

He’d learned long ago, the same way he’d taught Val, to push through. To distill the unpleasantness of necessary things. The work became normal. Pushing and distilling a habit. But this wasn’t a job. This time, the endgame was personal. Aleksander sighted through the scope, his focus fixed and every sense alive. His position was ideal and the line of sight golden. Come on, he silently urged, though his quarry adhered to a strict schedule. Two bodyguards left the upscale town house across the quaint road. One stood beside the doorway. The other went down the steps to the curb, where a chauffeured car arrived at 7:15 on the button. The detailed dossiers Aleksander had purchased from the information broker had been worth the exorbitant cost. He’d waited, planned, saved, made the right connections, seething for seventeen years—an eternity that could drive a man insane. Very soon, he’d have what he yearned for most in the world, the reason he’d sold his soul to the devil.

Ah, yes. They would pay. He controlled his breathing, slowed his pulse. The front door opened again. Twenty seconds. That’s all he’d have for a clear shot—and all he’d need. He licked his lips in anticipation and thumbed the safety off his rifle as Val came up beside him. Blackburn emerged in the doorway across the street. A cold resolve settled over Aleksander at the sight of his target. One. Two. With his finger on the trigger, he drew in a breath and exhaled slowly. Six. Seven. He lined up the crosshairs, lasered red dot on the center of the forehead.

Eleven. Twelve. A smooth squeeze of the hair trigger and stout recoil. The .50-caliber hollow-point round spat from the end of the suppressor, swallowing any sound. The back of Blackburn’s head burst in a spray of pink mist as he pitched backward and dropped onto the sidewalk like a sack of potatoes. One down. Relief hummed through him. It had begun. Finally. Val gave Aleksander’s shoulder a little squeeze. Yes, they’d see this through until the end—together. No matter what it took. Aleksander removed his earbuds and packed the AX50 with quick, mindless efficiency— muscle memory gained from many years of practice. “The chartered plane is ready and waiting at Heathrow.

” “Excellent,” Aleksander said, thirsting for the next step. Hell-bent on reaping revenge. Chapter 02 Gray Box Headquarters, Northern Virginia 12:30 p.m. EDT Digging deep—beyond guts and the sublimation of physical pain—to survive a Gray Box mission was tricky enough. Doing so unscathed was impossible. Maddox Kinkade hung her towel in her locker and threw on her underwear and bra, gritting her teeth. Fucking up wasn’t her style. She was a go-getter, had an unblemished record—until now, with the covert op in Iran that’d spiraled from dicey to hell in a handbasket. A hot shower had done little good, but her aching muscles screamed thanks after a quick rub with liniment. As she shoved into her jeans, relishing the soothing tingle and scent of menthol, there was a knock on the women’s locker room door. “Yeah?” she called out. The door swung open. Gideon “Reaper” Stone, her best friend and wet work specialist— fancy term for CIA-bred assassin—met her eyes. His ice-blue gaze didn’t veer for a second to her exposed cleavage or the right side of her torso, which resembled battered meatloaf.

“Ten minutes,” he said. “Conference room. The DGB wants you on a priority op.” After losing their asset, blowing critical data retrieval, barely escaping a Quds hit squad, and crossing seven time zones, she’d been stateside less than three hours. She needed an IV drip of fluids, painkillers, and solid sleep. But what the DGB—director of the Gray Box—wanted, he got. “I’ll be there in five.” She checked her smartwatch. “Grab me a coffee?” “Sure.” Voice flat, face deadpan, his titanium veneer never softened. Not even for her. She pulled on a compression tank top, easing the irksome throb in her side, slipped her arms through the loops of her shoulder holster, and shoved her Gray Box–issued Maxim into the rig. Unlike a standard 9mm, this one had a built-in suppressor. She slid extra mags—one round shy of max capacity to preserve the springs—into slots on the holster and put on her lightweight blazer. Peering in the mirror, she whisked on makeup, covering a purple contusion on her cheek, undereye shadows, and sallowness in her golden-tan complexion, for a fresh game face.

An art she’d mastered doing in a jiffy. She corralled her damp brown spiral curls into a ponytail and stuffed a lipstick tube housing tear gas gel spray in her pocket before glancing at the almost decade-old torn photo strip taped inside the locker. Nikolai held her on his lap, snuggled close as she laughed. The only man she’d ever loved. Beyond reason or measure. The memory of that soul-deep happiness and the never-ending grief was a fist around her heart, squeezing—an ache she’d learned to live with, like a sore tooth she couldn’t pull. The guilt of his death had made her better suited for this job in a strange way. At twenty-nine, she had nothing else to live for, nothing more to lose. * * * Powering down the hall, she passed Alistair Allen, former MI6 officer, and Sean “Ares” Whitlock, the team’s other wet work pro. They were no doubt headed out of the subterranean compound for well-deserved time off after busting their butts as her backup. “Drinks should be on me.” Considering this fail rested on her shoulders. “Sorry, guys.” “We heard,” Ares said, implying the priority op. The one thing about him darker than his hair, eyes, and badass presence was his precision in killing.

“Don’t party too hard without us.” Party being a bizarre euphemism for trying not to die while getting the job done. “We’re blowing up your bar tab at Rocky’s.” Alistair winked, his smirk wry. With his faded jeans and slicked-back hipster haircut, he was the antithesis of James Bond. John Reece, their demolition expert, hustled over and slung an arm around her shoulder in a side hug. His ball cap read Another Day I Didn’t Use Algebra. “Eau de Bengay. How sexy. Grrr.” He purred like a tiger and flashed a dazzling smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial. She elbowed his ribs, quashing a grin. “It’s Icy Hot.” As if that sounded better. Their team’s rare bond ran deeper than friendship and was the glue holding her together.

The blood they’d shed for one another was thicker than water of the womb. She waved to Alistair and Ares, a tiny part of her wishing to go with them. More than that, though, she was hungry to tackle another op. Make up for her failure and reaffirm she belonged here as one of the anointed. The glass walls of the conference room had been electrically frosted opaque for the brief. Reece pushed through the door, holding it for her. Plowing through exhaustion, she craved caffeine worse than a junkie in need of a fix. She strode up to Gideon, who was standing rather than sitting, a sign the briefing would fly at warp speed. Gideon handed her a cup of hot java, and she hummed her thanks. Castle towered over the head of the glass table like a mountain of muscle. Tough guy, prick extraordinaire, and, as luck had it, her big brother. “The DGB is busy, so you’re stuck with me.” The harsh, clipped tone he’d perfected as a Navy SEAL could crush a diamond. “We’ve learned that in fifty-six hours, weaponized smallpox will be sold to arms dealers via closed auction.” Her stomach pitched.

Christ. This kind of op—and keeping it quiet—was the Gray Box’s bread and butter. Their offbook special-activities outfit had a black budget never meant to see daylight and was sanctioned for direct action on foreign and domestic soil to prevent exactly this type of doomsday scenario. “The heavy hitters on the short list are the worst of the worst. Blackburn in England. Reinhart in Germany. Kassar—the faceless arms dealer whose whereabouts are unknown. And the top two based right here in the great USA, Clive Callahan and Ilya Reznikov.” A chill spilled down Maddox’s spine, raising goose bumps. Ilya was a monster she wouldn’t piss on if he was on fire, and the hatred was mutual. It was hard to believe he’d almost been her brother-in-law. Once upon a time, she would’ve done anything to marry Nikolai Reznikov. She fixed a stoic look on her face and swallowed past the rising lump in her throat. “Retrieve and recruit Cole Matthews.” Castle brought up blurry photos of a guy on the touchscreen tabletop.

“Six-one, black shoulder-length hair, scar on his left cheek, tattoos on both arms. In his early thirties and rides a black Kawasaki Ninja. With his ties to Reznikov, he’s our only way into the auction. According to SIGINT reporting, the Russian embassy wants him for unrelated reasons. Real-time chatter indicates they have imminent plans to bag him. We’re tracking his cell phone. Get to him first.” Castle’s gaze locked in on her. Although they shared their mom’s sea-green eyes, his were sharper than broken glass. She glanced at the out-of-focus pictures splashed across the digital display. A peculiar tightening crawled through her chest. “The asset is hostile to government agencies and considered dangerous. Use your import/export cover. The story is we have a pharmaceutical company that is an interested buyer looking to profit from a new vaccine for this supposedly deadlier virus strain.” No-brainer why the chief wanted her on this.

Maddox was fluent in Russian, asset recruitment was her forte, and her personnel file noted her past familiarity with the Reznikovs. Familiarity was a pasteurized, watered-down version of the truth that only Castle was privy to and she never wanted the others to know. Especially not her boss. She shook off whatever it was that had coiled her muscles and let out the breath she’d been holding. “Questions?” Castle asked. “We’ve got it,” she said. Her brother folded his action-figure arms. “Keep it simple. Get it done.” Simple and easy were rarely the same, but this job was do or die trying. * * * Rosslyn, Virginia 12:35 p.m. EDT Everyone loved vacations. People worked hard most of the year so they could unplug for a week or two on a sunny beach on a tiny island. Burning through money, clogging arteries with decadent meals, filling dead time thinking about the holes in their lives, lazing about with no sense of purpose—all in the name of freaking fun.

Everyone except Cole Matthews. He exited I-66, and the iconic spires of Georgetown University came into view. Hitting the Key Bridge, an artery connecting northern Virginia to DC, he crossed the Potomac River. The hot thrum of his motorcycle echoed his simmering annoyance. This was his first day of vacation since he’d been a graduate student. One week of forced leave per the boss’s orders after Cole had lost his temper and mouthed off to a douchebag, a.k.a. a wealthy client who refused to follow his security detail’s instructions, endangering not only himself but Cole’s men. Cole had called it straight. The boss knew it. But for appearances’ sake, and since the client was always right even when clear-cut wrong, Cole’s penance to appease the rich putz was unpaid downtime. Or anger management—the one thing that sounded worse than a damn vacation. He glanced at his side mirror, checking his six—an occupational habit—and would’ve sworn the same white SUV he’d spotted two blocks from his Arlington town house was now three cars behind him. Was someone tailing him? He wasn’t sure.

The SUV didn’t ease too close on his rear, giving him plenty of space, keeping other cars between them and preventing him from catching the license plate. Controlling security and neutralizing threats was how he earned a living at Rubicon Inc. Best way to identify a tail was to do an SDR—surveillance detection route—with a spotter verifying you were being followed. On his own, he’d have to bait them into giving themselves away. Stall at a green light, take four consecutive right turns, enter a oneway street going in the wrong direction. Something to test their patience and coax them to slip up. Exiting the bridge, he cut left onto Canal Road NW, headed away from his originally planned destination. The picturesque neighborhood of Foxhall was a cluster of densely packed million-dollar homes laid out in a triangle. Plenty of bottlenecks and light midday traffic. Cole snaked deep into the heart of the neighborhood. He passed charming Tudors and immaculate lawns. Taking two sharp rights, he swerved down a street that choked into the kind of cul-de-sac that snuck up on you. Parking in front of a walking path sandwiched between two houses at the curved bulb end of the street, he waited. He lifted the helmet’s visor and sat, with the engine idling. The soft growl of his bike washed through his ears.

His eyes stayed trained on the intersection and his grip tightened on the handlebars, squeezing so hard his fingers grew numb. No cars passed. No white front bumper edged to the corner, giving the driver a peek. Heat radiated from the asphalt in palpable, bubbling waves. The sweltering June sun roasted him in his leather riding jacket. Perspiration licked down his spine like a warm, slimy tongue, to the pocket of skin between his kidneys. Still, he waited, his annoyance cranking to a quick boil. The heavy beads of the Buddha prayer necklace he wore on days when he didn’t carry a gun were like an anchor against his chest, grounding his focus. Maybe he was being paranoid. Mandatory leave was screwing with his head, but it was just the first of ugly things to come. Every unfortunate event that’d happened in his life had occurred in threes, an escalation from bad to worse to epic shitstorm that threatened to put him in the grave. And always during a godforsaken heat wave. Cole wasn’t superstitious, but he had an uncanny ability to scent trouble on the horizon. He sensed it in the atlas, the topmost vertebra between the skull and spine, like an arthritic joint sensed rain in the wind. Right now, he had a hairline tingle in the back of his head, juicing up, sparking.

He slammed his helmet visor closed and rode down the paved walking path, too narrow for a car to follow. After a quarter mile, the footpath opened into the mouth of a public library parking lot. He hit MacArthur Boulevard, navigating the grind of traffic aggressively, until crossing onto M Street. T h e dry-cleaning run—a counter-surveillance tactic to shake any ticks—to his Georgetown destination took a vexing, overheated hour. No sign of the tail, but there was no reason for anyone to follow him. Not after years of exercising painstaking care, cutting every warm-blooded link to his past, and living like vapor. He nabbed a spot in front of his favorite café. It served authentic Russian cuisine and wasn’t frequented by anyone in the Bratva, the Red Mafia. He pulled off his helmet and jacket, surveying the area. Smoothing his long hair behind his right ear, letting the left side screen the scar on his face, he tugged his tee down over the Browning blade sheathed and hooked to his waistband. The weight of the Ka-Bar knife strapped to his ankle was an added comfort. His gaze snagged on a white SUV parked down the block, on the other side of the street. It was possible multiple teams were on him and one had leapfrogged. But that would mean he’d been surveilled for several days without noticing. He never took the same route or came and went at the same times of day.

Anything to avoid establishing a pattern. But Rubicon headquarters, his town house that he’d turned into a veritable fortress, and this café that reminded him of his mother’s cooking were predictable places in his routine. A sixtyish woman carrying shopping bags dashed across the street, a key fob in her hand. The headlights of the white SUV flashed. She hopped in and pulled off. He let out a breath. Stop overreacting. Take a chill pill. But the persistent electric niggle at the nape of his neck refused to ebb. He dug in his pocket, grabbed a cable looped at the ends, and ran it through his jacket’s sleeves and a clip on the helmet, securing his gear to the bike with a U-lock. Then he strode into the cozy café, cosseted by the familiar smells of cooked cabbage and warm spices. The blond waitress, Anya, greeted him with an eager smile. He glimpsed Olga, the brunette, disappearing into the kitchen without giving him her usual wave. He looked over the handful of patrons. No one stood out.

The hole-in-the-wall joint had ten tables and a second egress point through the kitchen into an alley. He sat with his six to the wall, giving him sight lines of the entrance and hall to the kitchen. Anya sashayed to his table, throwing too much sway in her hips, nibbling her pink lip. She twirled a loose strand of blond hair around a delicate finger. “Summer borscht today?” The thick beet soup, served cold in the warmer months, was the closest he’d found to his mother’s recipe. The ultimate comfort food. He could taste the tangy sweetness on his tongue, and with the memory, others surfaced—but he didn’t want to think about his family, of everything he’d lost and the blood he’d shed. And he certainly didn’t want to think about the woman who’d taken a wrecking ball to his life and left his soul bleeding. A knot bunched in his chest. “No borscht today. Any specials?” “Beef Stroganoff.” His mouth would’ve watered if it hadn’t been dry as sand. “Sounds perfect for my first day of vacation.” “Mr. Workaholic on vacation?” He mustered a shallow grin, sweeping his gaze over the door and street.

“I find it hard to believe too.” “Tomorrow, how about you come to my place for a homecooked dinner?” Anya blushed, her moss-green eyes gleaming. “I’ll serve anything you want.” She pressed her voluptuous hip against the table and tapped a pencil on the plump swell of her breast. He took in her inviting smile and soft curves. If only he was interested in curling up with her rather than a bowl of borscht. But he’d learned through trial-by-fucking that casual sex had a way of making the emptiness more acute. He wanted a woman who set him on fire, warmed his heart and burned on his mind, without torching his world to ashes. “Very generous offer, but I have to pass.” His gaze fell to his hands, so like his father’s had been. Rough, callused, bloodstained. The hands of a killer. “I’m going to be busy.” Doing laundry. Working out.

Dodging imaginary tails. Trying not to go bananas. Vacationpalooza. “A big, strong hottie like you still has to eat.” Nice of her to think him attractive considering his hideous scar. With a nervous giggle, she jotted something on her pad and set the sheet on the table. “If you change your mind, call me. No reason to eat alone while on vacation.” She strutted off. He glimpsed her wiggling ass and swung his focus to the door and street. Another spike of alarm he couldn’t explain or shake keyed up his synapses to high alert. He slipped off the Buddha necklace and rubbed the solid beads. One hundred and eight steel ball bearings threaded with galvanized aviation wire and strong as hell. The decorative tassel and dharma wheel pendant added the distinctive touch, making a deadly tool seem a harmless instrument of prayer. Some might consider it sacrilegious.

To him, it was smart. “Anya.” She spun around, hopeful excitement beaming on her wholesome face. “I’ll have it to go. And add borscht to the order.” Her mouth flattened and the light in her eyes died like a blown bulb, but she nodded. Olga made a beeline to his table and set a glass of ice water down. “Is very hot today,” she said with the thick accent from the Urals. “Anya always forget to give you water.” “Spasibo.” Thank you in Russian. His throat was parched from the oven-baked ride. He pounded half the glass, drinking past the taste of chlorine and old metal in the tap water. If he had intended to stay, he’d get bottled. “Are you feeling okay, Olga? You seem a bit off.

” She wiped shaky hands on her apron, her gaze jumpy. “I’m sorry.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “They threatened to take my visa. Close my uncle’s restaurant.” She met his eyes. The fear in her face gripped him by the jugular. Lowering her head, she ran to the kitchen. His gaze dropped to the glass of water, and his blood turned to slush. No telling what the water had been spiked with or how long he had before it took effect. Cole stood, and the room spun. His vision blurred, then cleared. Shouting erupted in the kitchen. Dishes clattered to the floor. Outside, a white SUV double-parked in front of the café, blocking his bike.

Diplomatic plates, YR. Russians. Damn. Russian intelligence was worse than if the mob had come for him on their own. Also explained how those ticks, who lived and breathed tradecraft, could’ve been crawling all over him for days without him noticing. Clever of the Bratva to use them. Three men in black suits hopped out of the SUV. Three more entered the main dining room from the kitchen and pushed past a flabbergasted Anya. Cole’s pulse went ballistic, but his mind locked on one thing—self-preservation. He wargamed options. None boded well for him. He clutched the tassel, wrapping the Buddha necklace once around his hand, letting the rest of the beads dangle, and unsnapped the sheath of the blade at the small of his back. The men drew closer, cutting off his exits. He was cornered. With muscular cords protruding from their thick necks, wide jowls, and buzz cuts, they looked like a pack of Dobermans ready to tear into him.

Fortunately for Cole, he was a different breed. More werewolf than dog. Two bruisers flanked him. “Time to go home,” one said in Russian. Cole swung the necklace, whipping it hard across the face of the man on the right. The crunch of his jawbone breaking was audible, and the guy crashed into a table. Whirling left, Cole lashed backhanded at the other man’s arm, stopping him from reaching into his jacket for a weapon. Not hesitating for a second, Cole thrashed the guy’s head with a powerful one-two wallop of the beads, sending him spilling to the floor. Rubbery weakness pulsed in Cole’s legs. Dizziness washed over him. He pulled his blade and kicked the table into two others, desperate to stay on his feet. Darkness edged his vision. His throat tightened, heartbeat slowing when it should’ve been skyrocketing, thanks to the drug flooding his system. He had one minute to do as much damage as possible. Then his knees would buckle, it’d be lights out, and he would be as good as dead.


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Updated: 27 May 2020 — 16:23

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