Where Death Meets the Devil
Jack Reardon, former SAS soldier and current Australian Meta-State asset, has seen some messy battles. But “messy” takes on a whole new meaning when he finds himself tied to a chair in a torture shack, his cover blown wide open, all thanks to notorious killer-for-hire Ethan Blade.
Blade is everything Jack doesn’t believe in: remorseless, detached, lawless. Yet, Jack’s only chance to survive is to strike a bargain with the devil and join forces with Blade. As they trek across a hostile desert, Jack learns that Blade is much more than a dead-eyed killer—and harder to resist than he should be.
A year later, Jack is home and finally getting his life on track. Then Ethan Blade reappears and throws it all into chaos once more. It’s impossible to trust the assassin, especially when his presence casts doubts on Jack’s loyalty to his country, but Jack cannot ignore what Blade’s return means: the mess that brought them together is far from over, and Ethan might just bring back the piece of Jack’s soul he thought he’d lost forever.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Fuck, fuck, fuck. This wasn’t how a guy was supposed to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday. He was supposed to be in a pub, listening to a drunken rendition of “Happy Birthday,” or at a BBQ being introduced to so-and-so’s cousin with the great personality, or out to dinner with a slice of wheat-free, dairy-free, taste-free cake. Hell, anywhere but here.
Here was a twelve by twelve of raw cinder block, roofed in rusted, corrugated tin and in the middle of God-knew-where. The only furniture was the folding chair in the centre of the room, bolted to the cement floor. The chair Jack was tied to by wrists, ankles, thighs, and chest. They hadn’t gagged him, which meant there was no one to hear him scream; hadn’t blindfolded him, which meant what he saw wouldn’t matter.
It was cold, but not as cold as it got closer to dawn, so only a couple of hours had passed since he’d been jumped, at least. The shivers running along his spine aggravated the shallow knife wound under his left kidney, to say nothing of the potentially broken ribs creaking each time he moved. His right wrist was either badly sprained or fractured; the plastic restraint was biting into the swollen tissue. All of it hurt enough to make his teeth ache. Or maybe that was from the repeated blows to his jaw.
“Hey!” Jack couldn’t help but try. “What’s going on? I didn’t do anything. Come on, what’s the deal?”
Like before, no response.
The icteric light of a dozen fluorescent glow-tubes hanging overhead gave everything a sickly yellow tinge. Behind him, the wall with the door. To his left, a wall with a set of shackles. It was easy to imagine himself strung up, hanging there defenceless, while the tools on the wall to his right were taken down and used. Knives, pliers, straight razor, a shock-stick, what was possibly a cat-o’-nine-tails. All of them were hung on a backboard, the type with an outline of each tool so you knew where to put them. Someone had made sure each tail of the whip hung in its precise place.
Still, it was a nicer scene than that on the wall in front of him.
A poster stuck up with aged, yellowed tape. An expanse of turquoise water, a curve of golden sand, a row of perfect palm trees, a peerless blue sky arcing over it. On the beach, four young ladies in bikinis played volleyball.
It had a caption: Wish you were here.
The truly disturbing thing, though, the one thing in the entire room that really concerned him, was that someone had used what was probably blood to smear a question mark at the end of it. That one, perhaps joking, addition did what nothing else in the room could.
It made Jack think he wasn’t going to get out of here alive.
He really didn’t want to die here. Not in this goddamned place, not for this bloody job.
Jack closed his eyes. The darkness he found there suited the cold, but it didn’t stay dark for long. It rarely did these days. Something always lurked behind his eyelids, waiting to pounce.
Tonight’s bad memory was the compound. Walking from the barracks to the Big House, where Mr. Valadian stayed when he was in residence, he’d kept his hands stuffed in the front pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched against the chill of the desert night. Thankfully, his jeans and wool-lined bomber jacket, collar turned up around his neck, had been enough barrier against the cold.
Jack had barely got one foot on the bottom step before Jimmy was there. Thinking it had been a routine summons, Jack hadn’t been prepared, a telling fact of how bad things had become. Jimmy had locked his free arm around Jack’s neck, pushing a knife up under his jacket, the point keen against his skin.
Then Robbo had appeared and things had gone from confusing to screwed very quickly.
Jack banished the new bad memory to the files in the back of his head, then slammed the drawer shut on his own foolish mistakes. Too cocky, too complacent. Too bloody tired of the job as a whole. God. He just wanted to go home and forget any of this existed.
He might as well be wishing for the moon, because he was stuck here, surrounded by nothing but extremely hostile, empty desert in all directions. The Great Sandy Desert was too hot, too dry, or for pitifully few days a year, too wet. Those brave enough to endure it were small, scattered Aboriginal communities and a couple of mining companies who poured money on the inherent problems—and organised-crime bosses with big secrets to hide. With no water, no weapons, and no friends for hundreds of kilometres, Jack had about as slim a chance on his own as he did right here.
Then he heard a deep humming sound. It Dopplered around the hut, growing louder as its source prepared to land. The double-thumping of the helicopter’s two contra-rotating rotors pounded against the shack, making the tools clatter against their backboard, jerking them out of their neatly aligned positions. Chains rattled and the roof crackled under the new pressures.
Well, that was one thing confirmed. It was Mr. Valadian who’d ordered his capture. He was the only obscenely rich megalomaniac in Australia who had a Russian Kamov Ka-52 Hokum-B attack chopper. Which meant Jack probably wasn’t getting out of this with his skin intact, let alone alive.
The bird eased down, and a moment later, the engines cut off. In the sudden silence, Jack heard voices.
There was the stately drawl of The Man himself asking a question. Robbo’s glacially paced tone answered him. The Man again, then the eager-to-please nasal twang of Jimmy. The nasal twang was fresh that night, courtesy of the punch Jack had landed on the prick’s nose.
The Ka-52 was a two-man aircraft, three if two of the people were willing to get pretty well acquainted. As none of these three could pilot the thing, Jimmy and Robbo had probably been outside all the while, hopefully freezing their pathetically small nuts off.
The door opened, and Jimmy’s greasy, “This way, Mr. Valadian,” was followed by a soft snort from The Man as he stepped into the hut.
“Watch the door,” Mr. Valadian said, no particular command in his tone, just an air of expecting to be obeyed.
“Of course, sir,” Jimmy gushed as the door shut firmly on his sycophancy.
“Turd of a man.”
Jack almost laughed. Mr. Valadian was one of those charming psychos, sophisticated and polite, and supremely capable of cutting a person to the bone with a blunt summation of their flaws.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” Mr. Valadian said as he strode into view. “I was delayed by business.”
The Man was not tall, not short, not ugly, not handsome. Brown hair, brown eyes. Unremarkable. Unmemorable. Evolutionarily perfected for vanishing in a crowd or sliding right off the end of a lineup. He had a sheet of charges as long as Jack’s leg—possession of illegal firearms; possession of stolen property; financial fraud; even one for supplying underaged prostitutes to a redacted third party. A few had stuck, resulting in a couple of short-term “holidays” in minimum security, but most had slipped right off The Man’s well-dressed back with barely a hitch.
That wasn’t why Jack was here, though.
“No problem, boss,” Jack said, trying for cool nonchalance. “Gave me a chance to tidy the old torture shack up some. I’d offer you a seat, but . . .”
Mr. Valadian smiled. It was the tolerant one The Man turned on business rivals, usually ten seconds before they were taken out of the running for good. As if he were at one of those “business” meetings right now, he wore a tailored suit in rich, dark blue, an ultra-fine wool overcoat hanging to his knees, and leather dress shoes dusty from the ground disturbed by the landing chopper.
“Come now, Mr. Reed,” The Man said. “We both know why we’re here. Just as we both know you don’t want to make this hard for yourself.”
“Sorry, boss, I must be a bit slow tonight. I really don’t know why I’m here. If I’ve done something to disappoint you, I’m sorry.”
How far could he push it? Jack had certainly felt like he was in favour lately, being called out on several high-level meetings with Mr. Valadian, his opinion of this or that person’s motives requested. He’d felt like he was trusted. Finally. And now this.
The Man considered him, eyes hooded. “Are you? I would like to think you really were, Mr. Reed. The worst part of it is I liked you. Smart, fast, perceptive.” He snorted. “Trustworthy. But I suppose that was the job, wasn’t it.”
Then he lifted his gaze and nodded fractionally.
Another person moved into Jack’s line of sight, startling him so the chair creaked sharply. He hadn’t even suspected there was someone else in the small space. None of his senses had picked up the footsteps, the heat, the sounds of another’s breaths.
It was a man, which wasn’t surprising. Mr. Valadian had very antiquated views on the sexes. Women had their place, and it wasn’t in his business, be it in the glittering towers of glass and steel in the cities or in secret, paramilitary compounds in the middle of God-didn’t-give-a-shit-where. This guy was no taller than The Man, but built lean, moving with the light, gliding steps of a person confident in their strength and skills. He wore, oddly, dark sunglasses and a suit of deep charcoal, fitted but cut to conceal weapons, which he was unashamed to show off. Pushing back the side of his own long woollen coat, the newcomer flashed a compact webbing under his suit jacket and the butts of two large handguns. From an inner pocket, he took a small grey box and handed it to Mr. Valadian. Returning his hands to his sides, he backed into a corner. Under a shock of dark hair, the skin of his face was pale and smooth, closely shaven.
This man was a complete unknown. And that meant an unclassified danger. Jack’s stomach clenched in anxiety, but he didn’t let it show on his face.
“What’s going on, boss?” He used what he hoped was the perfect amount of confusion. “Who’s the pretty boy?”
Ignoring the second question, Mr. Valadian said, “What’s going on is that I’ve been made aware of a spy within the compound. Care to tell me anything about that, Jaidev?”
Jack forced a startled laugh. “A spy? Shit, and you think it’s me? Oh, come on, boss. I’ve been with you for how long now? Fifteen months. Why would you think—”
“Tell me your real name, Jaidev.”
“Real . . . It’s Jaidev Reed. Named for my grandfather. He was Indian.” Jack let a touch of frustration into his tone.
“I’m sure he was,” Mr. Valadian said. “His name may have even been Jaidev, but I sincerely doubt yours is. If you won’t tell me your name, perhaps you’d like to tell me who you’re working for.”
“I work for you. I’m not a spy!”
“Are you from the military? ASIO perhaps? Maybe even the Meta-State?”
Jack frowned. “Meta-State? What in hell is that?”
The Man regarded him for a moment. “The Meta-State is a highly guarded secret agreement between Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, and various other Southeast Asian countries to share intelligence and resources regarding terrorism and international threats. Rumours say the Meta-State controls a hidden anti-terrorism operation spanning not just the members of the Meta-State, but several other, potentially volatile nations as well.”
“Wow,” Jack said. “That sounds cool, if a bit far-fetched.”
“Trust me, Mr. Reed, it is real.” Mr. Valadian held up the small box. “Do you know what this is? It’s a signal jammer. It’ll block my phone and the comms on the chopper, but it’ll also screw with neural implants.” Not waiting for Jack to pretend ignorance this time, he said, “Yes, another secret the government would prefer we know nothing about. They’ve been trialling neural implants in the military’s elite forces for some time now. Given your age, if you were military, I’d say you have one, Mr. Reed.” Mr. Valadian gave him a patient look. “Tell me, Jaidev, who are you working for and what interest do they have in me?”
Shit. Fifteen months. So close to getting everything he needed—proof of Mr. Valadian’s association with terror groups in Russia, Egypt, and Argentina; development of smuggling routes into and out of the Australasian region; the reason for the secret paramilitary compound housing a small army and enough weapons to pose a serious threat to the security of the Meta-State—and it was all about to end in spectacular pain and disaster.
Jack tried one last time. “Got me, boss. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Hm. Wrong answer.” The Man’s thumb moved over the button.
Fuck fuck fuck.
This wasn’t how a man’s thirty-sixth birthday was supposed to go. It wasn’t that Jack particularly wanted a big celebration; it would just be nice if for once it was a possibility. The way things were going, he’d probably be lucky to get out of here before his next birthday.
Here wasn’t quite as bad as the torture shack, but it ran a close second. The room was freezing, his chair felt as hard as rock, and the buzz of incessant voices was like the constant drip of water torture. Case review meetings with the director were their own special brand of cruelty.
“Alpha Subject was seen entering the building on the fourth at nineteen twenty-six. He didn’t reappear until twenty-two forty-eight, when he left in a vehicle with Deputy Secretary John Garrett. They proceeded . . .”
Jack tuned out Unit Leader Lewis Thomas’s voice. This was all information they knew backwards and forwards. Including Jack, and he wasn’t even an official member of the team assigned to Alpha Subject and his dodgy acquaintance with the deputy secretary. He was just an “advisor,” not that Lewis needed Jack’s advice on a case he was handling well enough on his own. They simply didn’t know what else to do with Jack. Hadn’t known what to do with him for the past eleven months.
As Lewis droned on, Jack’s gaze wandered in the direction of the main floor beyond the glass wall of his current prison.
They were on the eighth floor of the Neville Crawley Building in Darling Harbour. On public record, the building housed a federal financial services department, and while the first three floors were stocked with fiscal analysts, accountants, and economists, the upper nine floors were full of data analysts, spies, and handlers. The latter groups made up the Sydney branch of the Office of Counterterrorism and Intelligence—known simply as the Office—created and run by the Meta-State.
On the main floor, his fellow Internal Threat Assessment assets were busy with their jobs, bustling between cubicles, staring intently at screens of information, flicking through reports from field operatives or technicians. They were productive. Useful. Making a difference. And here Jack was, listening to someone else’s report on a job he was barely a part of.
He might as well still be tied to that chair in the torture shack.
Wish you were here?
Shaking off the clinging tendrils of that old memory, Jack focused long enough to hear Lewis ask his second, Lydia Cowper, for clarification on a certain point. Letting the woman’s soothing voice roll over him, Jack hauled himself out of the mire inside his own head and back into the present.
“. . . photographic evidence,” Lydia was saying, flicking a series of shots from the screen in front of her to the big one hanging on the wall at the end of the table. The images showed two men in a car, leaning towards each other. One was clearly the deputy secretary. The other one was the mystery. “These are the best photos we’ve managed to obtain of Alpha Subject so far. Our operative delivered the raw footage and recordings to Technical for analysis this morning. Hopefully we’ll get a positive biometric match to a known subject in the next couple of hours.”
Which wouldn’t stand up as irrefutable evidence in any court of law, but it would at least confirm the deputy secretary of a government department was dealing with shady unknowns so Lewis’s investigation could move to the second stage. It was good progress, but not enough.
“Good.” ITA Director Donna McIntosh tapped her tablet. “Keep me apprised of any developments. We can’t afford to drop the ball on this one. It’s already taken far too long to get even this paltry amount of information.” Her tone was the not-angry-just-very-disappointed one she used so effectively.
“Yes, ma’am.” Lewis began gathering up his folders and tablets, then paused. After a moment, he nodded to himself with a determined expression. “Ma’am, things would be easier if we could just get more cooperation from Intelligence. I’m getting a lot of excuses whenever I request something. A lot of bounce-back of things marked urgent. Someone needs to put a bloody bomb under them or—”
All it took was one of McIntosh’s looks to stop him in his tracks.
Lewis had worked for ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, before sidestepping into the Office. He’d faced down Defence Force generals and two different prime ministers and walked away with his career intact. Still, Jack had been subjected to McIntosh’s glacial stares enough to sympathise with Lewis’s involuntary flinch.
“If you’re making an official complaint, Lewis, I will expect the correct paperwork on my desk before close of business today.” McIntosh didn’t let up on the cool look.
For a moment it appeared as if Lewis might argue. Interdepartmental politics were murky enough most asset-level staff steered well clear of them. An official complaint and investigation could take years, and in that time, resentment would soar, cooperation would plummet—even further—and everyone would suffer. Thankfully, Lewis backed down with a shake of his head.
As they all stood, ready to leave, McIntosh said, “I’ll talk to Director Harraway, Lewis. See if we can speed up the flow of information from Intelligence.”
Tension falling from his shoulders like a heavy cloak, Lewis smiled gratefully at her. “Thank you, ma’am.”
She returned the smile, then motioned him and Lydia towards the door. Jack, too, beelined for the exit.
“Jack,” McIntosh said. “Stay back.”
Groaning inwardly, Jack turned to face the director. “Ma’am?”
McIntosh was beautiful—long blonde hair he wasn’t certain was natural, blue eyes that could go from warm summer sky to stark glacial ice in a blink, and a trim figure with what he would have called killer curves on anyone other than his superior. No one in their office knew her age; Jack guessed she was old enough to be his mother, but the pregnancy would have been a mildly scandalous one.
Overall, Jack had always got on well with his director. She was tough but fair and, on the rare occasion she took an interest in one of her assets’ personal lives, sympathetic and accommodating. Things had been a little strained between them since Jack’s return, but that was at least half Jack’s fault. Still, as she gestured for him to resume his seat, the distant, chilly cast to her eyes reminded him of the few meetings they’d had before he was inserted into Valadian’s group. Those objective discussions with McIntosh and his handler, along with the entire preparation for the job, had felt rushed. No sooner had Valadian appeared on their radar than Jack was being hastily debriefed and sent on his way. And no one, most especially not McIntosh, had bothered to tell Jack why they were moving so dangerously fast on this one.
No wonder the whole operation had gone tits up. Maybe if McIntosh had been upfront from the start, Jack wouldn’t be in limbo right now.
Sitting, Jack braced himself for whatever was coming.
“I read your latest psych eval this morning.” Leaning back in her chair, hands clasped over her stomach, she regarded him steadily. “You’re a good asset, Jack. One of the best. It’s been tough having you grounded these past months. I’m sure Lewis wouldn’t be in quite the mess he’s in right now if you’d been cleared for field work in his investigation.”
Shit. This didn’t have the sound of good news.
“Ma’am, I’m good to go. No flashbacks for nearly eight months. No nightmares, either. I know I passed my psych eval.”
“You did. Dr. Granger notes marked improvement in both conscious and subconscious reactions. Your threat response has come down to an acceptable level. Your cognitive modelling is back up to par. Once you requalify at the range, you’ll be fine to be reinstated as a full field operative.”
“Great.” Jack felt lighter than he had in a long, long time. “Glad we had this talk.”
McIntosh pinned him with her gaze. “I’m keeping you grounded, Jack.”
His first thought was, So this is the flavour of torture this year. Eleven months he’d spent convincing them he was fine, that he was back and whole and ready. Eleven months breaking free of the torture shack and the desert and . . .
Jack threw himself out of his chair and took a couple of steps away from the table. Away from those thoughts, away from everything that had happened back then. He put his hands behind his head, fingers laced together, to keep them from doing something stupid.
The director waited him out, undoubtedly judging his reaction. Passing a psych evaluation was piss easy compared to actually going back into the field. No matter how layered the questions or how deeply the psychologist dissected the answers, a test could never, ever, replace real life.
Several deep breaths later, Jack asked, “Why, ma’am?”
Not resorting to a simple answer like Because you nearly flipped out just now, McIntosh said, “Frankly, Jack, it’s because I’m worried about you. Dr. Granger is willing to put you back in the field, and if it were just a matter of your mental stability, then I’d be happy to throw you out amongst the lions once more. But it’s more than that.”
Maybe she had learned a lesson from the hasty prep for the Valadian op, but her apparent caution wasn’t something Jack could appreciate right now.
“What more is there?” Trying for restraint and missing it as it flew right past him, Jack flung out a hand to indicate the rest of the office beyond the glass walls of the conference room. “I’m going crazy out there. Cooped up in these walls, advising on operations I should have been working on, or leading. You promised me Field Leader after the Valadian operation.”
McIntosh stood and looked at Jack until he stopped pacing. “Everything you’ve said is true, but the fact remains, you were fifteen months in deep undercover with Valadian. By your own report, you began to sympathise with the subject of your operation.”
“I didn’t turn, ma’am. Yeah, he was a charming bastard and I guess I liked him, sort of. But he was a criminal. Terrorist wannabe. You know I would never have gone over.”
With an almost sympathetic expression, McIntosh said, “I want to believe that, but honestly, Jack, I just don’t feel as if you’re here with the rest of us. You’re a good operative; I don’t want to lose you. But until I’m one hundred and ten percent convinced you’re still loyal to the Meta-State, I’m keeping you grounded.”
“Jesus. How am I supposed to convince you if you don’t let me do anything?”
“I’m still working on that.” McIntosh slipped her screen into a pocket. “I didn’t expect you to pass your psych evals this quickly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good progress, but you still have a ways to travel before I’m convinced. Why don’t you take some time off? Wind down.”
“Is that an order, ma’am?”
“No. Just a suggestion.” Her eyes warmed a touch. “At least go home early today. Do you have plans tonight?”
Shoving his hands into his pockets, Jack shook his head.
“You should. It’s your birthday.”
As if he had forgotten. “Yes, ma’am. One drunken revelry coming right up.”
“Stop by the tearoom on your way out. We got you a cake. Happy birthday, Jack.”
McIntosh left, taking the shortest route through the maze of desks on the main floor. In her wake, Lewis turned to look back at the conference room, clearly wondering what had happened after he’d left.
Jack and Lewis had joined the Office at the same time, trained together, and worked several investigations together in the early years. Their paths had diverged when Lewis proved better at the administration side of operations and Jack had excelled in the field. Lewis directed a sympathetic grimace in Jack’s direction and then, with a theatrical heave of his shoulders, tucked himself into his desk and kept working.
“Screw it,” Jack muttered and pushed through the doors.
The hum of the office surrounded him, either the comforting sound of good work being done or pointless thumb-twiddling. Jack hadn’t worked out which since he’d come back. It was one thing to tell Dr. Granger what she wanted to hear, another thing entirely to believe it. Sometimes, Jack found himself wondering if Ethan’s views on bureaucracy had more merit than not, and that wasn’t something he could exactly chat to Granger or McIntosh about.
Jack retreated to his desk and picked up his jacket. Then he hesitated.
Despite McIntosh’s permission, and his general grumpiness with his role as advisor, Jack experienced a twinge of guilt for leaving Lewis’s operation when it needed all hands to keep it from derailing completely. Working with too little information and too many variables, the operation had been languishing for some time. Jack should stay. He wanted to stay and do his job, even if he couldn’t be in the field. In here or out there, red tape or no, Jack believed what the Office did was important. Vital. He should stay . . .
However, the very thought of being here right now, barely contributing, weighed on his shoulders. Wallowing wouldn’t be good, but neither would sticking around and potentially getting pissed off enough to do something stupid.
Decided, Jack slung on his jacket and swung around the end of his little cubicle. Opposite him was Lewis’s desk. The unit leader slumped in his chair, tapping idly at his touchpad, flicking through images, a worried frown creasing his forehead.
Jack almost changed his mind. Before he could decide, though, Lewis looked up and smiled tiredly.
“Going home?” he asked.
“Yeah. Birthday treat from McIntosh. If you need me, though . . .”
Lewis shoved dark-blond hair out of his face. “Nah, we should be sweet. Not expecting much action tonight. Not if the data from Intel keeps trickling in like it has been.” There was a bitter twist to his words his outburst in the conference room had only hinted at. “Fingers crossed McIntosh can get Harraway to make things happen. Sorry I can’t get away. Maybe we can have a belated birthday drink at the watering hole tomorrow.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Jack tapped his right temple. “If you decide you need me, I’m switched on.”
As far as he knew, Jack was the only local Office asset with a neural implant. They didn’t advertise the matter. Only those he’d worked closely with knew about it, or that he’d been SAS. It was an old tradition of the service—the only people claiming they were SAS, weren’t.
“Thanks, man,” Lewis said with feeling. “At least there’s cake to keep me company tonight.”
Forcing a chuckle, Jack left. Before he even reached the stairwell, his implant pinged.
Half convinced it was Lewis, Jack said, “Need your hand held already, Thom-ass?” He could have only thought the reply, but that required a bit too much concentration at the moment.
“Excuse me, Mr. Reardon.” McIntosh’s icy tone cut through his head.
The chill combined with his surname meant he’d managed to somehow royally piss her off. And he didn’t think it was just his unconventional answer to the call.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said contritely. “I was just on my way out. As you suggested.”
“Not any longer, I’m afraid. Something’s come up. You have a visitor. In the public foyer.”
Jack’s stomach dropped. Officially, he was employed as a Specialist Security Advisor to the International Security Office, which provided protection details for Australian dignitaries overseas. ISO HQ was in Canberra, and while being a fully functional organisation on its own, it was also the cover for a lot of Office assets. No one knew to look for him here.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“He gave his name as Paul St. Clair.”
Jack went cold. Twelve months since he’d first heard the name. Eleven since he’d come back, hoping to never hear it again. Six since he’d stopped waiting for it and resigned himself to never hearing it again.
After swallowing a hard lump of panic, Jack whispered, “Happy fucking birthday, me.” Then, all the tedium of the past months suddenly shattered, he said, “Code black. Lock down the building and get a security team to the foyer, now.”
The instant Mr. Valadian’s thumb shifted over the button, Jack closed his eyes and slid sideways. It had to be the fastest transition to a trance state ever. Definitely a personal best.
Before Jack’s inner eyes, the overlay for the neural implant grafted to his right temporal lobe appeared. His mission parameters and reports were filed in neat rows. Under them were his health stats, delivered via a subdermal device that monitored his blood components. There was an acute inflammatory response, the biochemical markers indicative of a broken bone, likely his right wrist, and the growing white cell count of a possible infection.
While equivalent to a smart phone, all the implant had done for the past fifteen months was ping home base on a randomised schedule. No one had picked up the signal—or so he’d believed.
In the lower corner of the overlay was a red dot. A kill switch for the implant, because they couldn’t risk valuable intel falling into the wrong hands.
All this Jack surmised in the split second before Mr. Valadian’s thumb depressed the button on the jammer. There was an instant of lightning between the jammer turning on and Jack flicking the kill switch, but that was all. No crippling static burning through his head, nothing to cause his limbs to spasm or make him scream. Nothing to rip away his cover of lies.
Jack opened his eyes. Mr. Valadian was pushing the button on the jammer over and over. He kept glancing between it and Jack, clearly looking for, and not finding, a response.
“What was supposed to happen again?” Jack asked.
Mr. Valadian glared at him, then he half turned and tossed the jammer to the other man. “This thing doesn’t work. Or the information was wrong.”
Pretty Boy caught the small box and tucked it away again. “The information isn’t wrong.” His voice was surprisingly low and husky, and British.
Mr. Valadian sneered at Pretty Boy. “You said he’s military.”
Was military. Their info was six years out of date, which meant they weren’t looking at ISO or the Office for his handlers.
“I said it was highly probable, not definite,” Pretty Boy said. “We had to test it.”
Scowling, Mr. Valadian fished his phone from a pocket and tapped at it, cursing under his breath when he apparently couldn’t get a signal. The jammer was working, just not on Jack.
Jack continued to look contrite and confused. No matter what The Man thought about his supposed loyalty, Mr. Valadian couldn’t let him go now. Still, Jaidev Reed would keep insisting on his innocence.
“Come on, boss, you know I’m good. Didn’t I deal with Rindone exactly how you asked?” Executions didn’t sit well with Jack, but ridding the world of psychopaths like Link Rindone had its own brand of justification. Still, the sight of Rindone sprawled on the carpet of Mr. Valadian’s Hong Kong office, back of his head blown outwards by a bullet from Jack’s gun, took up a drawer in his mental filing cabinet. “Let me go and I’ll do anything you say, no questions.” Feeling the timing was right, Jack added in a level of desperation. “Anything you want, sir, I’m your man.”
Swinging back to face him, Mr. Valadian managed to calm his expression into a bland nothingness that could see him vanish in a crowd. “What I want, Mr. Reed, is to know what you’ve passed on to your real employer.”
“How many times can I say it? Nothing! I swear!”
And it was God’s honest truth. He hadn’t passed any intel back to the Office. They couldn’t risk anything more than a location ping. All the information Jack had gathered was in the implant. Even if something happened to him, the implant had enough independent battery life to store the data until his body could be retrieved. A comforting thought for his handler only.
The Man merely looked at him. Then he straightened his cuffs under his coat sleeves. “Someone sold out Yakim Nikonov to the Russian FSB. Two years and two million dollars is not a loss I can just write off because you’re willing to suck my dick.”
Jack sat back, unable to keep the stunned look off his face.
Yakim Nikonov was—had been—a brigadier in the Krylov bratva, looking to branch out on his own. Mr. Valadian had targeted Nikonov as a potential ally and had spent the past two years courting him. Negotiations had been slow and expensive.
Jaidev Reed, however, wasn’t supposed to know about Nikonov, and now he needed to cover that lapse. Morphing the shock into grudging acceptance, he said, “Not that I was gagging for the chance, but if that’s what it takes to convince you I didn’t sell anyone out . . .”
He had the grim satisfaction of seeing Mr. Valadian gape at him. Pretty Boy arched a dark eyebrow over the pane of his sunglasses.
“This is getting nowhere,” The Man said firmly. “You played a damn fine game this past year. I never once suspected you.” With a wave of his hand, he indicated Pretty Boy. “I’ll leave you in the capable hands of my associate. He’ll persuade you to tell him everything you know, I’m sure. Did I introduce him before? No? So sorry. Mr. Jaidev Reed, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Mr. Ethan Blade. I’m sure you’ve heard the name. Goodbye, Mr. Reed.”
Jack didn’t even note the final dismissal or watch Mr. Valadian leave. He was focused wholly on the figure in the corner.
Not Pretty Boy. Nothing so innocent.
Right from the start of this bloody op, Jack had feared it would go tits up. There hadn’t been enough planning, nowhere near enough background information gathered on Valadian. They’d dropped Jack into this too fast and underprepared. He’d landed on his feet, though, and done the best he could, the best anyone could have done, given the lack of resources and intelligence on the subject. All that to the side, nothing could have prepared him for this.
Ethan Blade. Jack fought the urge to panic.
The somewhat ironically named John Smith List, updated by every intelligence agency around the world, catalogued all known assassins. The superstars of the paid-killer ranks held the top four or five positions, the wannabes filling out the lowest ones. It was, however, the mid-listers Jack feared the most. Those who calmly and methodically picked up tickets on targets, killed, and got paid. No flash, no glory. Ruthless and precise.
Ethan Blade, the seventh-ranked assassin in the world, didn’t move or say anything. Just stood there and regarded Jack through the opaque veil of his sunglasses. A riddle wrapped in a mystery behind dark shades.
Whatever happened now, be it a miraculous escape or certain death, Jack’s cover was shredded. He dropped the Jaidev Reed persona, squared his shoulders, and looked right back at those black lenses.
“Ethan Blade, huh? I guess there weren’t too many professions you could go into with a name like that. International assassin or circus performer, really, they’re your only options.”
Blade didn’t respond.
Jack dredged up one of Blade’s most notorious jobs. “Those Marines in Colombia, found dead by poison inside their LAV. They never did discover how it was delivered. The men hadn’t eaten together. There was no trace of gas, no injection marks. Come on, tell me how you did it. One professional to another.”
“Okay, we’ll come back to that one. How about the team of Afghani special ops forces walking into the Dashti Margo and never being seen again. They were tracked right into a salt flat, where their footprints just stopped. Midstride, then gone. I’d love to know how that one was pulled off.”
“It wasn’t me.”
The reply was so unexpected it took Jack several seconds to process it, and even then all he could manage was, “What?”
“The Dashti Margo. It wasn’t me.” The corners of Blade’s mouth turned up in a chilling little sardonic smile. “If you ever find out how it was done, let me know. One professional to another.”
Before Jack’s shock-dulled brain could catch up, Blade retrieved the jammer from his pocket, cracked open the case, and fiddled inside for a moment. He closed it and tossed it at Jack. It landed in his lap.
“When I say ‘now,’ hit the button.”
“What?” Jack stared dumbly from the grey box to the man and back again. “What’s going on?”
Blade reached under his coat and drew his handguns. They were Desert Eagles, visually impressive, but as a combat weapon, Jack had always thought them a bit too cumbersome. One had a laser sight attached under the barrel, and the small red dot danced across Jack’s chest for a moment. Thankfully, it moved off him when Blade strode past him, coming to lean against the wall, head tilted towards the door, listening.
Straining his neck to look over his shoulder, Jack gaped at him. “What?” It was starting to sound like the only word he knew.
“Yell, as if I were torturing you.”
“No,” Jack snapped, tired and cold and too confused to care. “I’m not going to yell until you tell me—”
The laser-sighted pistol aimed at his head. Jack blinked as the red dot skittered over his face, following him unerringly as he tried to dodge.
So Jack yelled. He screamed and yelled, adding a few whimpers for good measure. Whatever Blade was waiting for happened a minute or so into the show. Waving for Jack to keep it up, he tucked one gun under his arm, took off his sunglasses, and folded them into an inner pocket of his suit jacket. Blinking rapidly, he grabbed the gun again and squared off against the door.
“Now,” he said calmly and kicked open the door.
Startled, Jack coughed on a pretend scream and jerked his head around, trying to see what was going on. Blade was through the doorway the moment it opened. The Desert Eagles boomed, aimed in opposite directions, followed by the dull thuds of bodies hitting the ground. Two more shots and a cry of pain. Whatever else might have resulted from it was drowned out by the sudden whine of the chopper firing up.
Cutting through the drone of the chopper engine were the sharp retorts of return gunfire. The assassin dove to the ground and rolled out of sight, the Eagles answering in their deep, deadly voices. The door shut behind him, closing Jack off from the sudden combat.
Holy shit. More than Jimmy and Robbo out there, then. However many there were, they couldn’t have all come in the chopper, which meant they’d been here all along.
Jack wished him luck against the unquantified enemy. The Ethan Blade legend suggested he would actually win. Which was a positive for Jack. Not a great one but better than the current situation. With Mr. Valadian’s troops out of the equation, Jack would only have to deal with one man—Blade.
It even sounded as if it was working, the frequency of exchanges lessening, the screams of dying men coming further apart. Still, the jumbled cacophony was enough to start memories of nightmare combat flashing on the edges of Jack’s perception.
Before Jack was lost to the memories, the door slammed open and a calm and affable British voice called, “I said ‘now,’ Jack, if you please.”
Oh. Yeah. The jammer.
Spreading his thighs as much as he could, he let the box slide down between them, jiggling his legs so it landed on its side. Jack squeezed them together, depressing the button.
Outside, the night exploded.
McIntosh stalked into the situation room. She spared a quick glance for the staff at the banks of monitors, then arrowed in on Jack. “Explain this now, Mr. Reardon.”
Jack straightened from leaning over Technician Alderton’s chair. “Flick it to the big screen,” he told her, then turned to McIntosh. “The man who came asking for me.”
One eyebrow cocked, McIntosh looked at the picture now spread across the big screen on the wall before them.
The foyer of the building was open and airy with glistening marble floor, tasteful abstract sculptures, and leather seats that were incredibly uncomfortable to discourage lingering. The long, curving reception desk was manned by four operatives. Stock-standard security personnel guarded the entrance to the elevators and the foot of the grand, sweeping staircase that didn’t actually lead anywhere, but looked impressive.
Currently, the reception staff were barricaded behind their desk, bulletproof shields raised, assault rifles and handguns at the ready. The security personnel had been joined by a tactical squad taking positions behind all the convenient sculptures and suddenly not-so-superfluous staircase. The front glass wall of the foyer had darkened until it was opaque, the space now flooded by emergency lighting. What it showed seemed very unimpressive.
A single man knelt in the middle of the floor, dressed in a tailored suit, hands behind his head. Silent and obedient, he appeared to be the most unthreatening person in the world. With his arms up, his jacket gaped open, showing no signs of concealed weapons.
“Unless he’s carrying the world’s smallest knife, he’s clear,” McIntosh muttered. “What about the name he gave? Paul St. Clair.”
“We have two hundred and seventy-five hits on that name, estimated age, and ethnicity, but haven’t expanded the search outside of domestic databases yet,” a tech answered, fingers flying over his keyboard. “We’re eliminating them at a rate of five point two per minute, ma’am. We should have it narrowed down to three or four candidates in thirty minutes.”
“Forget the search,” Jack said. “The man doesn’t exist in any database we can access.”
McIntosh turned on him. “You obviously know who he is.” Implicit in her words was that anything other than full disclosure would be viewed as highly suspect.
Jack studied the still figure on the screen. Nearly a year since he’d last seen him and even through the camera, he looked unchanged. Lean, strong, full of coiled potential. Lack of visible weapons didn’t mean the man was unarmed. It just made him more dangerous. That old sensation of dread and excitement returned.
As if sensing him, the man in the foyer lifted his head and looked directly at the camera. A shock of dark hair fell back from his forehead. He wore sunglasses. Below the dark shades, his mouth was quirked up in a small smile.
“Mr. Reardon.” McIntosh’s tone hovered just above a snarl. “Explain.”
“He’s crazy,” Jack said, completely honest. “He was working for Valadian when I encountered him.”
“Just tell me who he is.” McIntosh’s glacial words broke Jack’s shock like a dunk in ice water.
“He’s Ethan Blade.”
The announcement was met with silence, and then Alderton tapped furiously at her keyboard for a moment. She began reading from the file she’d pulled up. “Ethan Blade. Active assassin, working mostly in Eastern Europe, Africa, and South America. Preferred method of execution is a firearm; one instance of poison noted. Currently number seven on the JSL. Length of activity . . . sixteen years.” As she finished, she looked at Jack with a mildly sceptical expression. “Are you sure it’s him? The man in the foyer doesn’t look that old.”
How to answer that safely? “Well, he was working for Valadian, and Valadian always had the finest of everything. And I saw him in action.” For good measure, he added, “If he isn’t Blade, he does a very good impression.”
McIntosh turned to Jack. “The unnamed benefactor in your report.”
When he’d come in after four weeks dark, Jack had stuck to the truth as much as possible. Less likely to trip himself up that way. He’d reported the events at the torture shack as they’d actually happened, just left out the name of Valadian’s “associate,” saying his benefactor—a disgruntled Valadian stooge—had disappeared into the night after the explosion.
“Yes,” Jack agreed.
“Everyone, get out.”
For the second time that day—that hour—Jack found himself in private conference with Director McIntosh.
Damn Ethan for putting him in this position.
For a long moment, McIntosh ignored Jack and watched the unmoving assassin in the foyer of a building hiding one of the world’s most well-kept secrets.
“You knew who he was when you wrote the report.”
Heart skipping beats, Jack said, “I did.”
It was too late for more dissembling. By showing up here, Ethan had effectively blown all of Jack’s reports of that time to smithereens.
“Did you tell him about this building?”
“Jesus! Of course not. Valadian left him in the torture shack with me. For reasons of his own, Blade decided not to kill me and helped me escape. The man took out a small army of Valadian’s troops to do so. When we parted ways, I said I wouldn’t reveal his part in it, but if I ever saw him again, I’d bring him in.” All true, as far as it went.
Now that reason was creeping back in, Jack couldn’t believe it was happening. Not like this. He stared at the image of Ethan. Why now? Why like this? Ethan could have easily found Jack at home, at the gym, or anywhere other than here, somewhere they wouldn’t have to deal with this shit. And yet it was classic Ethan Blade. So perfectly insane Jack wanted to laugh. Relief and anger swirled in a heady mix, making him a bit reckless.
He gestured grandly at the image of a captured, contrite Ethan Blade. “There you go, Director McIntosh. One less assassin in the world and another feather in your cap.”
McIntosh cut Jack a look full of Arctic chill, then turned to the screen. “How did he find you then?”
“Who the hell knows? The man poisoned a unit of US Marines in an armoured transport without leaving a hint as to how. Pretty sure finding an Office branch wouldn’t be beyond him.”
“You sound almost as if you admire him.” McIntosh’s words hinted at Jack’s unfortunate admission of coming to like Valadian.
“Not admire, as such,” Jack hedged. “More . . . cautious about underestimating him.”
Jack was torn. There could be a couple of reasons why Ethan was here, only one of which was worth more than Jack’s life. In the months since parting in the desert, Jack had decided Ethan’s theory hadn’t panned out. There had been, after all, no fallout—and the fallout would have been unmissable. After so long, it couldn’t still be viable, surely.
“Jack,” McIntosh said softly.
Setting aside one potential trap, Jack focused on avoiding the other one. “Ma’am?”
“Promise me, promise me, he isn’t here because you turned.”
“God’s truth, ma’am. I haven’t turned. Would I have told anyone who he is if I had?”
“Honestly, Jack, I don’t know.” With a frustrated sigh, McIntosh tapped Alderton’s screen, drawing the image closer to Ethan’s face. “All right. What’s our move?”
Given a bit of breathing room at last, Jack took a moment to seal away his mixed feelings about Ethan’s appearance, putting them in the filing cabinet with all the other problems.
“Make sure he’s not carrying,” he said. “Get him into a secure room. Find out why he’s here.”
A full minute passed as they watched the unmoving assassin on the screen.
“He’s here for you, Jack,” McIntosh said. “You have the task of securing him.”
Jack kept his expression schooled into something vague. Not an hour ago, McIntosh had said she didn’t trust him fully. Now she was sending him into a very sensitive situation. On one hand, he could see why she might do it. Ethan was here for Jack, or at least, because of Jack. Who knew what results they’d get sending anyone else out there. Deaths? Possibly. A fight? More likely. Unnecessary roughness? Definitely. But if his director had recorded her doubts anywhere, this was skating too close to breaking policy for Jack’s comfort. McIntosh was usually a stickler for the rules.
Except for when she’d broken land-speed records getting the Valadian job up and running and Jack inserted undercover, sidestepping several Office standard operating procedures to do so. Could her reason for throwing Jack into the op too quickly back then be the reason why she wanted him to deal with Ethan now?
Christ! As if wondering why Ethan had picked now to show up wasn’t enough, he also had to think that maybe McIntosh had some hidden agenda as well.
“Jack? Are you up to it?”
If he didn’t want to play McIntosh’s game, he should say no. If he wanted Ethan brought in without blood being spilled, he had to say yes. His path split once again. It all came down to loyalty. He chose a path.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
The shockwave rocked through the ground under the torture shack. The rusted bolts holding the chair in place cracked, and it and Jack toppled over. He hit the cement on his left side. Pain snapped through him from the knife wound, blanking out the roar of the explosion for a moment. When he could make out nuances beyond the dull pound of blood through his ears, Jack heard the rising whine of a chopper straining against gravity. The pitch of the engines was wrong, too high, overly stressed, as if something had been damaged. Then the sound evened out and, with a burst of deep, thrumming noise, the chopper shot away.
So, the aircraft wasn’t what had exploded.
In the wake of the vanishing chopper, Jack could make out the relatively quiet hiss and cackle of fire. Something out there was burning. A sudden flurry of gunshots signified some survivors.
Jack struggled against the plastic ties, hoping his new position had changed something. The metal of the chair creaked, and the armrest under his right arm shifted. Teeth gritted, Jack worked his arm back and forth and up and down, feeling the frame of the chair move. Feeling, also, a rather excruciating pain rip up his arm. Tears stung his eyes and he blinked them away. The plastic armrest cracked as he kept working. Sucking in a deep breath, he held it and twisted his arm savagely. The old plastic snapped all the way through and fell away from the metal frame.
The sudden relief whipped through him like a blow to the head, leaving him dazed. Continued gunfire encouraged him to keep going.
With the tie loosened around his wrist, Jack wriggled his swollen arm free of the plastic restraint. His situation had improved, if fractionally. He was still mostly tied to the chair, still surrounded by the enemy, still confused as to what Blade was doing, but he had an arm free. Albeit a broken arm, but he’d worked with less.
Jack began rocking, leaning forward, pushing back. Twisting his left arm, he managed to get some purchase on the ground, and used it to help lever himself upwards. When he had some momentum going, he shoved up and threw his weight sideways. The chair rolled over and he was on his back, legs higher than his head. Another little shove and he toppled onto his right side, arm out to avoid smashing it into the ground. Still, the impact on his shoulder jarred his wrist, and he couldn’t hold back a cry of pain. Breathing through it, he reached out and, scrabbling at the cement, hauled himself towards the wall with the torture tools.
Time vanished somewhere beyond the pain, his whole being focused on his goal. Peripherally he was aware of the gunfight continuing outside, though the number of exchanges was reducing, now interspersed with panicky yells.
At the wall, he used the holes in the backboard to help pull himself upright, shuffling the chair back under him. Its rough journey across the floor had hastened its rusty deterioration, and it wobbled under his weight now.
The straight razor was at the very outer edge of his reach. Stretching his fingers towards it strained his broken bone and inflamed flesh, but when the slender tool slid off its hook and fell, it was all worth it when it landed in his lap. From there, it was relatively painless to pick it up, flip it open, and saw through the plastic ties.
“Good,” Blade said behind him. “At least you’re not totally useless.”
Standing and spinning in the same move, Jack hooked a foot through the leg of the chair and kicked it in Blade’s direction. The assassin sidestepped it casually.
Muscles burning from too long in one position, Jack held back even though he wanted to charge and hit and kick. He’d been knocked down one too many times tonight. Confusion and frustration made a sparking cocktail of his blood, but being injured and clueless made it the wrong time to go against someone of Blade’s reputation.
Instead, Jack matched Blade’s calm pacing around the walls of the torture shack. Blade watched him, expression part curious, part amused. He kept his Eagles down by his sides, with all the appearance of being nonthreatening. Jack carefully didn’t laugh at the ridiculousness of the thought. Rather, he rolled his shoulders, flexed his arms, and tensed and relaxed his legs. The ache subsided and he warmed up in the cold night air. Blade stopped by the poster, waiting. There was dust on his coat and his hair was frazzled, but otherwise, he looked as if he’d just walked out of a meeting with his accountant, not out of a gunfight.
“What’s the deal, Blade?” Jack asked.
“The deal, Jack, was to kill Samuel Valadian,” Blade said blandly.
Jack should have pretended confusion at the name, but protecting a cover already shot to shit was pointless. “You know who I am?”
“Yes. Jack Reardon, former lieutenant of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. Discharged six years ago for medical reasons I couldn’t discover.” Securing his right-hand gun in the underarm holster, Blade kept his gaze on Jack. “May I change mags? I’m almost out and there are still a few soldiers out there. It would be best to do this now, rather than in the middle of an exchange.”
Jack was fixated on Blade’s eyes. They were pale, unnaturally so, with pupils big and dark in the light of the fluorescent tubes overhead. Between that and the revelation Blade actually knew who he was but hadn’t told Mr. Valadian, Jack realised just how painfully ignorant he was of, well, everything at the moment.
“Sure,” he said, struggling for the one thing that seemed even remotely likely—Blade was planning on keeping him alive. Why? Jack had absolutely no idea.
Lips curled up in an unreadable smile, the assassin reached into an inner pocket on his overcoat and pulled out a mag for the handgun. “Catch.” He tossed the mag at Jack, no harder than what was needed to get the mag to him.
Jack let it hit him in the chest. It landed on the ground at his feet.
“These are my favourite guns,” Blade continued, hefting the Desert Eagle he still held. It had the laser sight. “I’d rather you didn’t let this one hit the ground.” He made as if to throw it.
“Why give me a gun?”
“You feel up to hand-to-hand combat? I’m impressed. Personally, I’d rather we didn’t close with the remaining forces outside, but you were SAS. Your tactics probably differ from mine.”
“Yeah,” Jack muttered. “I’m not a murderer.” It was hard to put honest conviction behind those words.
“Do you think to shock or shame me with that?” Blade advanced, holding the gun out to him, butt first. “I am what I am. And right now, I’m a lone man against superior numbers. It would be silly to dismiss a potential ally. At the very least, Jack, take it so you may protect yourself if I fall.”
Jack adjusted his grip on the razor, keenly aware of how sad a weapon it was contrasted to the man before him. Within the military, the SAS were the elite forces. Jack hadn’t been the most gifted in all fields, but he could hold his own against his fellows, which meant he could wipe the floor with just about anyone else. However, what he knew of Ethan Blade was enough to give him pause.
Shifting the razor to his injured hand, Jack accepted the gun. It settled into his hold with a satisfactory weight.
The moment the weapon was transferred, Blade backed off. He made a slow show of producing another mag and the other gun. After tucking his Eagle under his right arm, Jack crouched and picked up the mag at his feet. He worked his fingers over it to make sure it was actually full. It was. Standing, he locked his gaze on the odd, unsettling eyes of the man across from him. Together, they released the spent mags and slammed the new ones home.
Jack had the loaded gun pointed at Blade instantly, turning side on to present a narrower target. “Drop it, Blade.” The red dot landed on Blade’s chest.
Smiling, Blade held his own gun in two fingers, the other three splayed out. “Yes, Jack.” He crouched and laid it on the ground carefully. “May I remove my coat?”
“God,” Jack hissed, out of his depth with this strange creature. “How many more weapons do you have in there?”
“A few,” the assassin said, amused. He shrugged out of the coat and spread it over the ground. “Would you cover the door while I assemble the rifle?”
“The rifle?” He was starting to wonder why he was even trying to get the upper hand. Blade was refusing to play the part. Lowering the Eagle, he nodded. “Sure. Got nothing better to do.”
Blade smirked at the sarcasm and began tearing open the seams of the overcoat’s inner lining.
Shaking his head, Jack turned his back on the assassin and crouched by the door. He expected his better judgement to put up an argument, but the usually finely honed sense stayed quiet, as if having a known killer at his back wasn’t at all alarming. Frankly, at this point, a bullet in the back of his head would just be an end to the confusion. A hollow-point at this range would take out the implant, making the last fifteen months a pointless waste of time. Still, if Blade was serious about killing Valadian, then the problem was eighty percent solved.
Flickering orange light rimmed the door to the shack, the crackle of flames clear now he had the chance to listen for it. There wasn’t much else to hear, apart from the tin roof shifting as it heated up. The air in the shack started to warm, smoke curling through the gaps in the walls. Whatever was alight was close by.
“They’ll be closing in on us,” Blade said as he worked behind Jack with a quick staccato of weaponry pieces snapping together. “I believe there are three snipers on the ridge to the east. At least five more mobile troops on the flat. How’s your long-range aim?”
“Better than average.”
“Brilliant. You can take the rifle then.”
Turning enough to look at Blade, Jack shook his head. “You’re a crazy bastard, aren’t you.”
“You’re half right.” The assassin stood and displayed the assembled weapon.
It was a sleek, lightweight sniper rifle known as an Assassin X. Made by unknown sources for people just like Blade, they were designed for easy concealment, quick assembly, and undetectability to most scanning devices. All those elements combined into a weapon that wasn’t robust, had limited range, and only supported small-calibre rounds. The word that came to mind when Jack saw one was “flimsy.” However, in the hand of Blade, it looked worthy of its name.
From inside his suit jacket, Blade produced a scope and clicked it into place on top of the rifle. “Night-vision scope. The mag holds seven .22 LR rounds, one in the breach.” Which he loaded with a soft clack. “Headshots would serve us best, Jack.”
“Right,” Jack said with a sinking sensation. There was so much about the whole situation that was wrong, but he found himself agreeing all the same. It’d be a bloody miracle to hit anything with an unfamiliar rifle, let alone three headshots.
Blade joined him by the door, listening. “The trucks are still burning. Good.” He paced away, head tilted as he looked at the roof in the corner over the beach poster. “Up, I think. Jack, your assistance.”
Jack hesitated. He was an asset of the Australasian Meta-State, paid to protect its citizens from dangerous elements. Elements like Samuel Valadian and Ethan Blade. Right now, however, his best chance of stopping the former was to work with the latter.
With Blade on his shoulders, Jack stood steady while the assassin pushed the corner of the tin upwards. Done, Blade slid down and dropped to one knee. Making a stirrup of his hands, he said, “You first, Jack.”
There was no point in arguing. With his injuries Jack wasn’t getting up there without help. Judging the height of the wall, Jack stepped back a couple of paces. “Ready?”
Jack sprang forward, hit Blade’s hands with one foot, and leaped. With a boost from the assassin, he grabbed the top of the wall easily. His broken wrist protested instantly and strenuously, but he threw his right arm over the edge of the cinder blocks, digging in with his left hand. Shoulders heaving, he hoisted himself up and out.
Slithering onto the corrugated tin, Jack kept low. The ground troops probably wouldn’t spot him, but Blade had mentioned snipers on a ridge. The assassin was up and out seconds later. He’d left his overcoat behind and closed his dark suit jacket from neck to waist, eliminating the glow of his white button-down.
“This way,” the assassin whispered and eeled along the edge of the roof.
As promised, the night was lit up by two merrily burning transport trucks, angled to block access to the shack. They were flatbed trucks with canvas coverings for troop transport. The fires were dying down, however, having consumed the meagre amount of fuel available in the material, the wooden benches, and the interiors of the cabins. Scattered around the two bonfires were the bodies of men from Mr. Valadian’s army. Each transport could comfortably carry fifteen men, and it appeared they had been packed to capacity. About twenty lay unmoving, and then there were three possible snipers and a handful of troops still lurking beyond the fires.
Thirty or so soldiers, plus Jimmy and Robbo, all for Jack. He didn’t know whether to be honoured or horrified.
Joining Blade at the front corner of the shack, bodies pressed tight side by side, Jack pushed away his misgivings and concentrated on the task at hand. This was no different from some of the jobs he’d run with the Unit. Trying to convince himself of that, Jack put the Assassin X to his right shoulder. After a second, he switched to the left. His right wrist wouldn’t handle the recoil in its current condition. Jack settled the rifle, wriggled into a better position, and scoped the lay of the land.
The green-hued scene through the night-vision lens opened up for him. The land was arid; dry, cracked, dusty ground; low-growing spinifex; rocky protrusions increasing in size and number as the land swelled towards the ridge, the rock bed breaking free of the dirt in a jagged wall. The sky above was clear, no clouds, just stars—a perfect desert night. Jack scanned the top of the ridge. It was irregular with a sharp-edged cliff face, rounded mounds of dirt, straggly vegetation and, somewhere amongst it all, three bodies lying much as he was.
“Ready?” Blade whispered.
“No, but let’s just get it over with.”
With a soft chuckle, Blade said, “As you wish, Jack.”
Then he stood up, a perfect target framed against the starry night, and got it started.
Where Death Meets the Devil is a stunning debut. It hits all the right marks as a well-plotted, well-paced and well-written romantic suspense novel.
Fans of tense action and smoldering romance will appreciate the emotional connection between Jack and Ethan