The road in front of me was empty. Just a narrow alley leading to the entryway I intended to penetrate. A fetid, cobblestone lane built centuries ago, it was dimly lit, with more shadows than light and piles of trash hiding what may lie within. Anywhere else in the world I would have silently cheered at the luck, but here, in Salvador, it raised the hackles on my neck. Empty roads in Brazil were like hearing the wildlife in a jungle suddenly go quiet, all the birds and monkeys realizing there was a predator afoot. I was in the historical section of the old capital city, with plenty of folks less than a hundred meters away at restaurants and bars, but nobody was walking down this alley. Meaning there was a reason for the lack of activity. It was counterintuitive to anything I’d felt before, where the bystanders were most often the threat. Crowds allowed camouflage for individual hostiles, like pickpockets, but more important to me, they prevented offensive actions by a team. There were just too many cameras and cell phones in today’s world, devices that recorded an event no matter how careful one was, so an empty alley was the perfect approach for me, and yet, I’d learned in my short time in Brazil that empty meant dangerous. For some reason, the humans here knew not to enter, an instinct that I should pay attention to. Unfortunately, that was out of the question because a bad guy, my target, held my best friend’s life in the balance. I turned to Aaron, and said, “That damn alley is going to be trouble. I can feel it.” He knew what I meant.
We didn’t worry about the “trouble,” per se; we worried about the mission, and whatever was waiting for us there could hinder that. He said, “Hey, we only have twelve hours before the clock is up. That’s a blink of an eye for hostage rescue. We need to go tonight, or we’re not stopping what the police have in motion.” I said, “Shoshana seems to think this is bad juju because of the monks. Maybe she’s right.” He chuckled and said, “My wife is a little off. Like you.” I nodded, but still hesitated, running through my options. He squinted his eyes and said, “You believe her.
You think this is going to go bad because of what she felt.” I said, “Aaron, cut the crap. She’s crazy all right, but sometimes she has a point. That’s all.” He withdrew a Glock pistol, press-checked the chamber, and said, “One way or the other, we need to make a decision. And I think you’re afraid of her saying ‘I told you so’ because of this alley.” I grunted a laugh and said, “Yeah, something like that. But you’re right. Too late now.” I clicked my earpiece and said, “Koko, Koko, I’m about to penetrate.
What’s your status?” Koko was the callsign of my partner in crime, Jennifer, so named because she could climb like a monkey. She said, “I’m good. On the roof over the balcony. The OP is in position, and I have a clear shot.” “Roger, all. Carrie, Carrie, you have lockdown of the front?” Carrie was Shoshana’s callsign. Because she was bat-shit crazy just like the Stephen King character. Ironically, the man I was working to save had anointed both of them with their callsigns. Which is why they were both willing to risk their lives to free him. They loved him as much as I did.
She came back, “This is Carrie. Front is secure. But I still think this is a mistake. We should not be assaulting a church. It’s bad. Bad all the way around.” I looked at Aaron and said, “Yeah, I agree, but I don’t get to pick where terrorists stay. I just wipe out the nest, wherever that ends up.” She said, “It’s not the church itself. It’s something else.
” I took that in, then looked down the alley. I said, “You want to help here? I think I have your bad feeling, too.” She said nothing on the net. Aaron whispered, “Good call. The front is facing the tourists. She’s not needed out there. Get her in play.” Through a combination of means, we’d tracked our target to the back of an old convent tacked on to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Called the São Francisco Church, it had existed since the sixteenth century, with an ornate Gothic façade that now was the anchor of a square housing outdoor cafes and art galleries. The front of the church—and the square it faced—was a completely safe place for tourists in the old capital of Salvador, but just outside the light, down the cobblestone streets we were on, the predators prowled, waiting on a stray lamb to leave the lights and laughter.
I took a look down the dimly lit alley, seeing the narrow confines of the ancient street snaking down the left-hand wall of the church, reconsidering whom I was asking for help. I’d left Shoshana to pull security within the crowds of tourists for a reason. Off the net, to Aaron, I said, “I’m not sure that’s so smart. She’s better protecting us defensively. Out front. Away from the action.” Aaron said, “Because you don’t trust her offensively?” “You’re damn right. She’s a walking disaster. Better for Jennifer to do it.” “Jennifer’s on the roof.
Shoshana’s perfect for this and you know it. Jennifer would be better as bait, with her blond hair and innocence, but Shoshana’s the next-best thing.” He turned away for a moment, then looked me in the eye, saying, “Shoshana’s a killer, but she’s pure. She won’t do anything if it’s not warranted. Honestly, I’m more concerned about you.” Aaron had seen what I was capable of, and he was hitting at the core of the mission. Could I maintain control? It was a good question, because in an earlier life, he’d almost killed me, and in so doing, he’d killed a friend of mine. The results hadn’t been pretty. He’d seen what I was capable of when I was walking the edge, leaning way over, and now I was operating in that same zone. Something he knew about.
I said, “I’m good. Don’t worry about me. Just worry about the threat.” He nodded, but I could see he wasn’t convinced. Shoshana came back on the net, whispering with an urgency neither Aaron nor I understood, “You feel something too, Nephilim?” Aaron grinned, and I returned it, holding up a finger before he got on the net. I said, “Yeah, but it’s not because of some damn ancient church. It’s because I can’t get to entry. I don’t want a gunfight. I need quiet, which means I need you.” “So you want me to do what?” “Walk down this alley from the back.
Expose any threat that may prevent our entry.” She said nothing for a moment, then came back, “That’s what you want? Me as bait?” Aaron’s eyes widened, and I saw him reaching to key his mike, him saying, “That’s not how to get her to execute.” I held up my hand again and beat him to the punch, saying, “Carrie, this is the threat. This is what I feel. And this is what I need.” Aaron and I looked at each other, and I felt my cell phone vibrate in my pocket. Shoshana came back on and said, “This is Carrie. I’m moving to the south of the alley. I’ll be coming south to north. I’ll have the light on my phone going.
” I pulled out my cell, saw it was Jennifer, and realized she didn’t want to talk on the open net. I held it up, then whispered to Aaron, “Tell Shoshana that all we need is to flush out any threats. We’ll handle it. I don’t need any crazy shit here. She just walks toward us until someone triggers. Or until she reaches us without a trigger.” Aaron nodded and I answered the phone, saying, “What?” Jennifer said, “You’re going to let Shoshana loose in that alley, after you felt a threat? Let’s back off. Attack a different way.” I saw a pinpoint of light at the back of the alley and said, “Too late. She’s in.
” Jennifer said, “That’s a bad call. She’ll kill anyone who threatens her.” I said, “If it’s the guys that we’re hunting, I don’t give a shit.” She said, “Pike, don’t go there—” And I hung up, watching the light. Not wanting to think about what I’d just said. Not after what had happened to my friend. She knew where I was headed, because she’d seen it once before. I knew it, too. The difference was I wanted it. The light bounced down the alley until it was abreast of our entry point, and Aaron and I began slinking down the lane, hiding from the streetlights behind us, stepping over the trash to avoid the noise.
We closed the gap, both wound as tight as a tripwire, waiting. And it came. Two men assaulted Shoshana from both sides of the alley, one from behind a dumpster and the other from a gap in the bricks. They slammed into her in a synchronized assault, and we took off running, reaching them just as they gained the upper hand. I saw one man cinch his hand into Shoshana’s hair, then bash her skull into the cobblestones. The second had his arms wrapped around her legs, pulling out a blade that glinted in the moonlight. They were in total control, right up until we reached them. Aaron slammed his boot into the man holding her hair and I jumped on the man holding her legs. I caught a glimpse of their fight, and then was subsumed with my own. He began attacking me, attempting to hammer my face with elbows and fists, and then hit me with the knife in my forearm.
I blocked the initial blows, returned them with my own, then felt the blade slice through my jacket, nicking my flesh. The wound he caused split open the blackness, the anger inside me boiling out. I gave him everything I’d bottled up over the last week. I abandoned my “team leader control” and let the beast run free, looking for vengeance. I battered his face, trapped his wrist against his torso, the blade now useless, circled around his body, and wrapped him up in my arms, pressing his head forward into his chest. He began frothing at the mouth, flailing his one good fist, and then gave up, dropping the knife and raising his other hand in an effort to surrender. It did no good. I wanted a release, and I worked to achieve it. I pressed him further, going deeper, until I felt his neck snap. The sound split through the pain, jerking me out of my darkness.
I let him sink to the ground, looking at Shoshana and Aaron. Both were staring back at me, Shoshana holding the other attacker in a joint lock, facedown on the ground. She said, “You were worried about me going crazy? What was that?” I shook my head, clearing the beast, not sure what I’d done. I said, “Let’s go. Put him out.” She nodded, then asked, “Permanently?” Because that’s just how she thinks. Not liking what I’d just done, I said, “No. Not permanently.” She said, “He’s Russian. He’s not a common predator.
He’s here for you.” For the first time, I noticed that the man I’d fought wasn’t from Brazil. I searched him, finding a passport from Saint Kitts. The same passport I’d found on the Russian I’d killed in Charleston. The one who had murdered my friend. The blackness came rushing back. This is all tied together. And it ends now. She looked at me expectantly, and I closed my eyes, reliving the explosion and the charred body. Shoshana said, “Pike?” I locked eyes with Aaron, and he didn’t flinch, just stared at me, letting me make the choice.
Not judging in any way. A part of me wanted to call Jennifer. Wanting someone to stop the slide I was on. She was the only one who could prevent it. I didn’t. Like a junkie feeling the heroin, I enjoyed what I was doing. I stepped over the edge of the abyss. “Kill him.” Chapter 2 One Week Ago Nung heard his boss swear out loud and shout, “Nung! Get your ass out here.” He stopped packing several laptops and rose from a pelican case.
He tossed in some bubble wrap and strode to the front of the company’s makeshift do-it-yourself office, more of a trailer than a structure. He opened the aluminum door, feeling the oppressive humidity of Myanmar hit and begin to soak his shirt, a relentless cycle that didn’t faze him, unlike the men he worked for. Being from Thailand, he had long ago ceased caring about the sweat/air conditioner sequence, but the men who’d hired him despised the furnace of Myanmar. He poked his head out and saw his boss attempting to talk in sign language to a Burmese official. Meaning they were doing nothing but waving their arms. His boss saw him and shouted, “Come on. Get over here.” He called himself Domingo, but Nung didn’t believe that was his boss’s name, because he knew the man was from Russia. Well, he didn’t know Domingo was from Russia, but the fact that he spoke Russian was an indicator. The subterfuge wasn’t particularly alarming to Nung, as he’d spent most of his life straddling the gray area between legal and illegal.
In the end, Nung hadn’t questioned the name because he, himself, was operating under the same subterfuge—his name wasn’t Nung, the Thai word for “one,” just as his brother wasn’t named Song, for the Thai word for “two.” The similarities, though, ended at the use of an alias, because Nung took his job seriously, wanting to earn his pay. Unlike Domingo. Nung reached the scrum, seeing Domingo’s false eye staring off into space, something that was always disconcerting to him. He never understood why the man didn’t wear a patch—or at least make sure his eye was looking forward. He heard Domingo say to the other contractor, in Russian, “This idiot is as bad as the dumb-asses we were hired to help. Thank God this contract is over.” Nung showed no emotion. The men he worked with had no idea he understood Russian, and he wanted to keep it that way. He’d learned plenty about their operations over the past four months on the contract, and all of it could be lucrative for his father and family.
A lithe man of just under six feet, he was taller than most Thais because of his heritage. His father was American—a Caucasian who’d flown for Air America out of Thailand during the secret war in Laos and Cambodia, where he’d worked more than just an aircraft for the CIA. After the war had ended, his father had stayed in Thailand, using the contacts he’d developed during the war to create a black market empire in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok. He’d married a Thai, and had raised his sons in the family business. Because of it, Nung had grown up—not immoral, but certainly amoral. His father had owned a brothel in the famed Patpong red-light district, which catered to foreign nationals. Unlike the other brothels that trafficked in underage boys and rough sex, he’d trafficked in exotic women. Russians, Swedes, Ukrainians. You name it, he had them. Nung grew up in that world, so much that when his mother had died when he was at the age of four, he’d been raised by a Russian nanny.
A woman his father had taken a liking to and had pulled out of the lineup for a softer life. She’d shown a greater intelligence than most his father had brought over, but the winning attribute was a true affection for his sons. The woman had been his life for years while his father worked, never acting as if she was doing anything for money, showing what he had later learned was love. A strange concept he’d never understood as a child, given his father’s transactional life. She was killed in a car accident after Nung had gone to a university, but her lasting legacy had been a touchstone of caring that was the only bit of emotion he had. Well, that and the fact he could speak Russian. Something he kept hidden from his current employer. He knew that Domingo had no idea, the thought fanciful. How could a Thai hired to work in Myanmar speak Russian? But he did. In English, the chosen language between them, Nung said, “What’s the problem?” Domingo said, “The problem is I can’t tell what this idiot is asking.
We were told to clear out of this camp now that it’s operational but he wants to keep our sensors. That’s not happening. He wants them, he can buy his own.” Nung worked for a group of Russians called Wagner, a private military contractor from the Russian Federation that had been hired by the government of Myanmar to help with the repatriation of the Rohingya, a persecuted group who had fled from a genocidal effort by the government to eradicate them from existence. They were a Muslim subset of the population of Myanmar, with its own language and customs, and the government had tried to kill them off for years, but really ramped up efforts in 2017, in a concerted attempt to cause them to flee or die, a final solution. After the rapes, murders, and burning of villages, the government got what they wanted; the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, like they’d done for decades before, but this time it had a new twist; the world was more connected, and the atrocities were caught on the internet. It was, in fact, a genocide. Embarrassed, the government of Myanmar had begun trotting out a hundred excuses for what had occurred, and offered to repatriate the ones who’d fled. And that was where Nung came in. Now wanting to look like the good guys, the government had begun receiving the people back into the Rakhine State, albeit into refugee camps because their homes had been burned to the ground by government troops.
Wagner had been contracted to build the camps. And they needed local help. Nung, because he spoke the language, had been hired through his father’s contacts to interact with the Burmese. It wasn’t lost on him that even though they’d reached out to his father for help, they were not as respectable as the Red Cross. He didn’t mind, though. He could take the insults and the less-than-noble actions he witnessed Wagner conduct. It was all business. Until it wasn’t. Nung saw Domingo push the man, then said, “What’s the problem? Let it go. Those sensors were paid for by the contract.
You’ve already made the money on them.” “Bullshit. That’s wrong. They paid for my services. If they want the sensors, then they need to buy their own. Tell him he’s fucked.” Nung said some words to the official, and he began waving his arms again, incensed. Domingo slapped the Burmese official’s hands out of the air, and Nung considered translating the wrong way and causing a fight. He’d seen how the Burmese treated the Rohingya, and it wasn’t as pure as the state propaganda machine put out. The man in front of him was just as bad as the man behind him.
They were both evil, and it would be nice to see them destroy each other. He did not. In short order, he had the situation resolved, the Burmese official walking away in a huff. He turned to the Russian and said, “Continue packing?” Domingo said, “Yeah. I want to be out of this shithole in the next four hours. Let them deal with it now.” Two hours later, Nung finished sealing the rest of the office equipment while Domingo and the other man talked in the shallow office to his left. As usual, they were speaking in Russian, and as usual, Nung was listening. He didn’t really care what they did with the Rohingya, because he was paid for a service, and he provided it. But in his heart he did.
He hated the Russians because of what he’d seen. They hadn’t done a damn thing to really help the refugees because the government hadn’t cared. It was all a joke for the press. The Rohingya members had been abused and castigated from the moment they’d created the first camp, and nobody seemed to give a damn, least of all the Russians of Wagner—which was the express purpose the Russians had hired him: helping to facilitate the resettlement of the refugees. It aggravated him. He could deal with the blood and violence, because he’d done it himself, but it was always against an enemy who understood the rules. Not a bunch of families that were being persecuted solely because of their heritage. He’d called his father only once, and had been told to continue, because the Russian connection was a good one, and he’d been forced to choose. Family meant everything to him. There was no allegiance beyond that.
Family was all. And so he’d continued. But he held a growing hatred, and while they treated him as the hired local help, they had no idea of his skills. Luckily for them, they’d never see it, and he could finally go home, serving his father and expanding the family business. Shoving more bubble wrap into another pelican case, Nung heard Domingo talking on a phone in the next room. He heard discussions about an operation in Brazil, and then Domingo became heated with the man on the phone, saying his men were already there and they couldn’t afford another compromise like the one in France. Nung perked up, no longer packing the case. Domingo glanced out the door and said, “No, nobody can hear me. I’m working with savages.” Then he said, “Are you sure? The same ones who killed Tagir? They’re in Brazil?” Nung worked around the box, pretending to pack but really moving closer to the door.
He heard, “Yeah, I got the email. I’m looking at it right now. Are you asking what to do? I’ll tell you what to do. Cut the head off of the snake. You know where he is. You got the information for Grolier Services, right?” Nung heard the words and had to physically stop himself from showing a reaction. Domingo continued, “I don’t care who they saw in Brazil, you kill that fuck in Charleston, and it’ll end. Get it done.” He heard the phone slam, then Domingo stormed out of the office, looking at Nung and saying, “What the hell is taking so long? Pack that shit up.” Nung said, “What’s the rush? We’ve been here for four months.
” Domingo said, “It looks like I’m going to Brazil, and I need to leave immediately. Get it done.” Nung nodded, watching him stomp out of the trailer. As soon as the door had closed, he went into the small office where Domingo had talked. The one with the desktop computer he was not allowed to access. He saw the window on the computer was open, the time-out for the password not yet engaged. He went to email. He glanced behind him, seeing the outside door still closed. He pulled up the first email and saw nothing but Cyrillic lettering. He cursed under his breath.
While he’d learned to speak Russian, he couldn’t read it. He highlighted all of it, then pasted it into Google Translate. The words that came out were a little schizophrenic, like an old telegram, but there was enough for him to make out: The group highlight in Switzerland be highlight in Brazil. Two members seen in Salvador. Cannot stop say who else is involved. But military contract people not people might prevent success. Presidential campaign is reaching apex and that though Lulu oilfields are in doubt. Recommend another Operation Harvest. Target Grolier Recovery Services now, before they harvest operation. Nung read the words, and inwardly curled.
What he’d heard earlier was correct. They were after Grolier Services. He had no idea why, but it made him bristle. He heard the door slam open outside, and closed down the Google Translate page. He went outside the small office and saw Domingo glaring at him. He said, “What?” Domingo said, “What, what? What the fuck are you doing? Pack this shit up. I want to go.” “I was looking at preparing the desktop in your office.” “Don’t touch that. I’ll do that myself.
I have to use the sat dish to get some plane tickets. Those fucks in Moscow want me to fly tonight. It never ends.” Nung said, “To Charleston, in the United States?” “Fuck no, someone else is doing the easy work. I have to go to Moscow, then Brazil.” And then something clicked in Domingo’s brain. “How the fuck do you know about Charleston?” Nung reverted to what Domingo knew; a dumb-ass savage. He ducked his head in supplication and said, “When you were on the phone, the only word I heard you say in English was Charleston. I’ll get this packed up soon.” Domingo nodded, staring at him for a beat.
Nung knew for all his bluster, he was not a dumb man. He’d seen it over five months. Nung bent down to the closest pelican case, packing up office equipment, and waited, feeling his eyes on him. After five brutal seconds, Domingo left, shouting at his men. And Nung made his decision. He knew the man who owned Grolier Recovery Services. He knew what that man had done for his younger brother. And he knew that only one thing counted in this world. Family. Something Domingo would learn the hard way…