REAPER

Chapter One

August 3, 1974 - Paris

He sipped a tepid demitasse, and poked around a half-eaten baguette, eyeing each passerby and the occupants of vehicles on the street. He glanced at his watch again, wondering if he'd missed the guy, but certain he hadn't. Man, this is getting old.

For Ruben Carver, it was his third assignment―the first in Paris―and the bloom had definitely come off the Rousseau. The city of lights, the cornerstone of European sophistication since the Merovingians, was just another big, smelly burg. 

That's not to say he wasn't jazzed when the call came in for the gig. He was into it. 

He spent a couple of days in the library reviewing a fabled history of religion, renaissance, revolution and romanticism. It was fascinating stuff. That's why he was mystified when he discovered it was populated by a bunch of surly, hygienically challenged assholes. I got your age of enlightenment right here …  

He, and the rest of the surveillance team, had been living in Saint Germain-des-Prés in the 6th Arrondissement, for almost eight weeks. An area noted for its expatriate past, and the center of French intellectualism. 

Carver wasn't impressed. The conspicuous derision by the locals of all things pas parisien, had become irksome.

Then again, having just been dumped by a local―a real bombe bien roulée―whatever romantic notions the Okie had regarding his current assignment, ended when she walked out the door.

He didn't have much experience with women. His dad had signed the paperwork for him to join the Army on his seventeenth birthday, and until he'd received his discharge, a little over a year before, he'd spent most his two and half tours in Vietnam in the bush.

The weaker sex didn't seem all that weak, and while he'd read several books on unraveling the mystery of women, he'd come to the conclusion there was no conundrum; no gender riddle. Given the opportunity, a woman had zero difficulty in expressing how she felt, and in no uncertain terms, what she thought of him―in any language.

The enigma, if there was one, had to do with why, but even then it was clear. They had a problem with a guy who was more confident in a three-meter gunfight with a dink in a rice patty, than engaging chit-chat with a broad over a cocktail.

So there he was, sitting at an iron based guéridon bistro table, in an overpriced sidewalk cafe, called Les Deux Magots, with his psychological thumb shoved up the ass of his ego. It didn't matter he was supposed to be waiting to catch a glimpse of an Angolan warlord. He'd had his heart bruised yet again. What the fuck am I really doin’ here?

When Carver's service to his country came to an end at the Oakland Army Base in April '73, any plan he had for the future didn't go any further than what he could acquire with his GI bill. The welcome home sign he walked under going into the out-processing center, made him wonder if it was true.

He'd been a Ranger, a LuRRP, with an affinity for finding the enemy and making them wish he hadn't. It wasn't exactly the kind of skill set he could put to good use as an eight-to-fiver. 

The termination of his military life began with a steak dinner, replete with a mound of mashed potatoes and garlic greens. Then came the reissue of a Class A uniform, with the combat patch of his choice sewn on the right shoulder. 

The new jump boots were nice, but he preferred the beret in his duffle over the one they passed him. The ribbons for the medals he'd been awarded were a surprise. Except for the purple heart, which predicated his ETS, he didn't remember receiving any decorations. The spec-five who handed them over made sure to give Ruben a lengthy instruction on how they were to be worn.

A hair cut and shave was next, to go with the fresh martial regalia. Apparently, the Department of the Army wanted him to make a good impression when he arrived home in Bowlegs, Oklahoma.

Once all that was completed, he was given a physical. Based on his medical records he carried by hand, a recommendation of a ten percent disability was submitted for adjudication. If that came through, he'd be assured of beer money for the rest of his life.

On his way out the door, he stopped at a desk where he was handed his DD214, an airline ticket for Oklahoma City, and a stack of cash, all tucked in a manilla envelope. Next to the table was a drawing of Uncle Sam, with a tear in his eye, captioned, “I'll miss you.” Uh-huh, me too.

He found an empty seat on a bus outside the processing center to take him to San Francisco and that, as they say, was that. His exit from the United States Army was about as abrupt as the French bitch slamming the door when she took a powder. 

As terrible as the 'Nam could be, he'd never had the sense of being alone. Back in the World, and on his own was, for a moment, disconcerting. Oh, yeah, cuttin' the umbilical. 

When the bus reached the airport, he bought a pair of bluejeans, a Giant's jersey and ball cap. The Class A's went into the duffle, which he checked at the counter where he purchased a ticket for Los Angeles. The out-processing center gave him almost four thousand dollars for his unused leave, combat and overseas allowances, and back pay for promotions the Army had difficulty keeping up with.

He'd taken the SAT and applied for the fall quarter at the University of California Los Angeles from a hospital bed in Danang two months earlier. The acceptance letter was waiting for him, along with other mail from home, at the military post office. If the Army ever got anything right, it was that kind of shit―mail call and medical―the things that helped keep a troop's head on straight.

The initial port of embarkation in the city of the angels was a room at the Hollywood YMCA. He had more than four months before classes began and the four grand in his pocket would only go so far.

While he'd eventually have to call his dad, he had a phone number in his pocket, written on the flap off a C rats box, he wanted to dial first. It belonged to one of the two surviving members of his squad that was wiped out in a firefight in Laos in November ’72.

When they walked out of the jungle they found a firebase manned by a Marine Corps mortar platoon and an ARVN weapons company. It was Thanksgiving and the Marines were more than accommodating. One of his men was leaking from several shrapnel wounds and medevac'd to an aid station.

To thank them for their hospitality, Carver and Corporal Francis Wilson stuck around to help fend off a battalion of NVA that overran the compound that night. It was a high casualty shoot 'em up, which MACV declared a victory. The fellas at the Pentagon east figured it must have been, since there were Marines still standing once the dust settled.

Ruben and Francis had made a pact after that to keep in touch and the number he had was for Fran's parents. They lived in a place called West Covina, which Ruben understood to be about thirty miles east of LA.

As luck would have it, Fran was there, but only for a couple of hours. He had a job that was taking him out of the country for six to eight weeks, so any catching up would have to wait.

Francis was cryptic about what he was doing, saying only that it was government work. Since he couldn't provide any further details, he gave Ruben another telephone number.

Before he hung up, the former corporal encouraged Ruben to make the call, adding he'd stand as a reference. “Sarge, it pays better than the army, and nobody's shooting at you.”

That was the beginning of Ruben's association with the Rainbow Corporation―a civilian contractor used exclusively by the Central Intelligence Agency to run surveillance and surveillance detection in support of CIA operations globally. It seemed a perfect fit for a warrior with a GED.

Sitting alone for hours, in a city where every conversation was a huffy negotiation gave him plenty of time to turn introspective. He'd been able to complete two quarters at UCLA, and remain on the Rainbow payroll, collecting a full year's wages on six months of work. It didn't take him a millisecond to figure life amongst the frogs was still better than humping the Prairie Fire or dealing with jungle rot.

The team's rotation was coming up in ten days and he'd be back in LA in time for the start of the school year. He was getting his groove back thinking about it.

While this job began the second week in June, the observation post had been established for more than three months. It was situated across the street from the leased home of the Angolan.

Ruben had an apartment a few kilometers away and received the day's static surveillance location during the team meeting the night before. Static surveillance on a moving subject was a technique both expensive and time consuming, but it was also the hardest to detect by a target who expected to be watched.

Success depended on the ability to blend in. To become a natural and benign feature in the background. In Paris that wasn't easy. 

Upon arrival, Carver walked and drove the labyrinth of streets for days. He became familiar with all twenty of the Arrondissements, and memorized the subway, bus and tram systems.

He also went shopping. Once he'd observed what French men his age were wearing, and got a good idea how they moved and interacted with others on the street, he bought six changes of clothes and the appropriate accessories. With the exception of his passport, there was nothing on his body that would identify him as an American.

His last haircut was at the Oakland army base and instead of having it hang loose, he kept it in a ponytail. With his Fu Manchu, platform shoes, skin-tight polyester bellbottoms and wide-collar shirts, he looked like all the other disco dandies diddy-boppin down the Champs-Élysées.

One of Carver's attributes, which the organization rewarded with a little bonus money, was his ability to pick up languages. With a book and tapes he could be fluent in a few weeks. If he had a teacher, it wasn't long before he was near native.

He'd hired a tutor, turned girlfriend, who spent what time she did teach, working on his pronunciation. It was one thing to memorize vocabulary, grammar, idioms and have perfect comprehension. It was another to shake off an Oklahoma country accent.

Her other priority was trying to drum a complicated, and exacting cultural etiquette into his head. Parisians were downright peevish over the slightest faux pas. Eh, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

The third time the waiter cruised by the table, Ruben ordered another coffee. Protocol required he stay on site until he spotted the target or received a call. The OP would ring the cafe with the message his friend wouldn't be coming. The CIA really wanted to know where this guy was going.

With the success of the April '74 military coup in Portugal, the new regime in Lisbon began a policy of colonial divestment. Angola, one of those colonies, located in southwest Africa, had three warring factions that had settled into a stalemate.

Intelligence indicated the Soviet Union saw it as an opportunity. Desperate for years to acquire warm water ports, Angola was strategically perfect for the Russians. They'd have unencumbered access to the south Atlantic, along with the ability to finance its fleet from the most productive diamond mines on the planet.

To get the ball rolling, the Russkies decided to take sides in the conflict and settled on the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA. While it may have violated a number of international agreements under the umbrella of détente, they weren't going to let a little matter like world peace queer the deal.

The US, already with its back against the wall in Southeast Asia, was suddenly having to address the potential domino effect on the subcontinent. It believed if Angola dropped to the Soviets, then it was only a matter of time before its neighbors in the Congo and southern Africa, friendly to the US, would begin to feel the communist influence.

Source reporting suggested the Cubans, as Russian proxies, had arranged meetings with António Agostinho Neto, the titular head of the MPLA and currently residing in Paris. However, the meet locations and times were unknown. The Agency used rotating surveillance teams to mark the spots.

While the job didn't require much more than sitting and watching, Ruben's team had been on Neto for more than a month without a positive result. He had three or four habitual routes, but none the of people Neto met, the restaurants he favored or the hotels and businesses he visited, netted a single commie connection. The whole thing would have felt like a bust, if the warlord's aimless pursuits weren't, in and of themselves, suspicious.

The second coffee came faster than the first, which either meant the wait staff had begun to accept his presence, or they wanted him to drink up and get out. As much as he liked to believe it was the former, his experience told him otherwise. 

Ruben hadn't graced the establishment enough times to warrant that type of forbearance. Since he wasn't going anywhere, they'd have to be satisfied with his feigned ignominy. It made them feel better if he acted uncomfortable.

He uncrossed his legs to pull out a pouch of Gauloises tobacco. After loading and rolling the paper into a thin cylinder, he brought it to his mouth to lick the edge but stopped—nonplussed. In front of him was a man he'd encountered in Saigon, while waiting to catch the freedom bird home.

The lean, six-foot ginger, with a fresh brush cut and close shave over a pink, pockmarked complexion, evinced a memory Ruben had done his best to bury. It was the tan suit, however, that jogged the man's name front and center: Frank Delacroix. A civilian investigator for the US Navy, who worked criminal cases.

He was wearing the same lightweight gabardine suit the day he questioned Ruben about a murdered nurse. The image of the woman also floated up. He'd been witness to some seriously wicked shit in his young life, but nothing prepared him for what had been done to her. What are you doin' here Agent Delacroix?


Chapter Two

March 27, 1973 - Siagon

Carver was on his second Biere “33”, schmoozing a worn-out bar girl, and thinking this was about as good as it was ever going to get, in what was once the pearl of the orient. He still had a couple of days to kill in Saigon before he caught the last freedom bird back to the World. 

The twenty-ninth was the day all combat personnel were to di di mau, but most were already gone. He would have left months earlier, with his last unit, if he hadn't gotten hit.

As it was, he was still recovering from a shrapnel wound in his chest. A random mortar round had been lobbed into an ARVN firebase in the Quảng Trịprovince, where he and his platoon had taken shelter after a night mission in January. It caught him coming from the latrine. Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, he mentioned to no one in particular, he was happy it didn't find him in the crapper.

A small chunk of metal had gone through him a few inches below his left collarbone. While it missed his subclavian artery, it nicked a lung, causing a pneumothorax. In layman's terms, it was called a sucking chest wound, which in Ruben's mind was totally appropriate. It did indeed suck a big one. The concomitant collapsed lung,with the several weeks of treatment keeping the thing inflated, was no joy either.

He was laid up in Danang at the 95th evac hospital until he was told he'd have to find someplace else to bed down. The installation was being abandoned in place.

As a Ranger, most of his time in country was with the 75th Infantry Regiment. While his company engaged in long-range reconnaissance patrols primarily in the II Corps Tactical Zone, he'd had several night ops much further north. Many of which had crossed the border into Laos. 

Those incursions had been code named Prairie Fire bythe Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, also referred to as MACV-SOG, or the more colloquial Pentagon east. 

He and the boys did their best to avoid contact, but they weren't always successful. The number crunchers never complained when there was gun fight, though. They liked the body count. 

Carver would admit later in life, the time he spent in the bush was a major contributing factor to the ethos he developed when it came to conflict resolution. He never lost any sleep over greasing bad guys.

A week after he'd been notified of his homeless status, his rotation date back to the World, called a DEROS, along with a set of orders, miraculously appeared. Somebody remembered him. 

Before the injury, he’d been notified he was going to Germany as part the NATO force. He figured he could have done worse, but the hole in his chest put the snafu on any career aspirations. He was going home with an early out.

The hospital was able to process his orders to leave Vietnam, but he had to finish out-processing at the Oakland Army Base. A ticket for a chartered flight to Travis AFB was awaiting him in Saigon, five hundred miles south. A phone call from the hospital commander put him on a C130 flying out of what was left of the Danang Air Base that same day.

After draining the last drop of the cold brew, he hoisted his duffle, and ignoring the whining demand for more money, went out in the street to wave down a taxi. There were a number of war hotels in the city he'd heard about, including the Rex and Continental, but arrangements were made before he left Danang for a room at the Majestic.

It was an old, adobe beige, French colonial, with an arching marquee, and large radius windows on the ground floor. Its six stories fronted the Saigon river, and while it had seen better days, it seemed unscathed by the conflict.

The spacious, white pillared lobby, with its marble flooring and polished mahogany checkin counter, provided more than a hint of elegance. For a guy who considered Red Mountain a fine table wine, he wasn't sure he, or anyone else in his generation, could really appreciate the place. Ya gotta love that military discount.

There were more than a dozen people standing in three lines waiting to register. Most were young men Carver's age or younger in Army khaki. A few were older, white, government types in short sleeved shirts, slacks and Hush Puppies.

There were no Marines or Air Force, but there was one navy baby. A tall blonde, maybe five-nine or -ten, with her hair pulled tight to her scalp and rolled into a four-inch bun at the back of her head. 

He couldn't tell her body shape, other than she was slim in the hips and had a nice rack. The faded olive drab fatigues hid everything else. The sleeves on the tunic were rolled up above her elbows and her baggie field pants were bloused in jump boots.

On her right collar were two black bars―a lieutenant―and on the left was a caduceus, the designator for the medical corps; a US Navy tape was above her left breast pocket and above the right was her name―Ford.

She was a no-makeup stunner; a Tuesday Weld in boondockers. The type of woman who could make saggy granny panties sexy.

There was something else about her as well. Lieutenant Ford had the air of someone who'd been in-country one tour too many. More than her posture, it was her eyes. A lot of old boots, who'd been in the shit for months without a break, had a similar countenance. Grunts called it the thousand-yard stare. She must'a pushed a lotta guts back in place.

Carver also assumed the lieutenant was a nurse. He'd been in and out of several meat factories during his tours and all the sawbones he saw were men. 

As he thought about it, he also realized he'd never seen a navy nurse in fatigues. Air Force and Army, yes, Navy never―they wore the white, button down scrub dresses and nurse's caps. They had that whole Florence Nightengale thing goin' on.

The LT had a single suitcase, which was more of a tote. If she was in transit, she was traveling even lighter than Carver. That, however, was something he understood―she carried her real baggage between her ears.

He noticed they were staying on the same floor, and with his redneck charm on full display, he offered to carry it for her. She didn't bother to turn. 

“Down boy, you're not getting any of this,” and she walked on.

Carver buttoned his lip and let it slide. The fact the OD goddess said anything at all, made him feel pretty good about himself. 

The flip side to that single was he didn't need to be put on report either. While she rode the elevator, he tucked his tail and climbed the stairs. 

By the time he reached the fourth floor, she was at her door turning the key in the lock. She must have heard him in the hall because her head swiveled and she watched him for a few seconds. It was the last time he saw those far away eyes. 

Carver had made arrangements with a couple of GIs he met on the trip down from Danang, to meet at 17:00. They said they had rooms at the Rex but were willing to meet him at the Majestic.

Once they were on the prowl, it wasn't difficult to find a place they could exchange their military payment certificates, or MPC, for piasters. Military personnel weren't paid in greenbacks, for fear of currency arbitrage on the local economy. 

Merchants in the city, however, were willing to purchase the scrip at a handsome rate. The MPC had a shelf life, though, and new scrip traded better on the black market.

With a wad of legal tender in their pockets, they bar hopped until curfew broke them up. Carver made it back to the Majestic by midnight, but instead of going to his room, he headed to the hotel bar on the roof. He had enough left in his pocket for a couple of night caps and breakfast in morning.

It was close to two am when he ambled down the two flights. All he had on his mind was a shower and bed. 

What he found was a hallway lined with teenaged warriors in khaki and olive drab, entangled with raven haired LBFMs―a GI acronym for little brown fucking machines. On the clock for a little boom-boom action, they were apparently waiting their turns for the rooms they were sharing with their buddies. 

Ruben was still in his raggedy ERDL pattern camies and scuffed-up jungle boots. He must have looked a sight, or it may have been the stripes, but even in their inebriated states, they made a hole and let him pass without comment. 

He reached in a cargo pocket for his room key and found an old pack of four Chesterfields he's saved from some C rations. He had a mind to fire one up, when the nurse's door opened.

With a sense of nervous expectation, he stopped moving. He wanted to see her again and couldn't mask his disappointment when a man stepped out.

He was a naval officer in summer whites, with shoulder boards that identified him as another lieutenant. A six-footer, thick in the chest and arms, he had a v shape that made the cotton polyester appear molded to his body.

The white cap, with its eagle, shield and fouled anchors, was tucked under his left arm. He had four rows of combat ribbons above his left pocket and Carver recognized two things immediately. 

First, the ribbon for a silver star had a small gold star attached to it. Second, he had a special warfare pin, a SEAL trident, above the ribbon bars. 

Everything about the guy was strack, from his honey colored flat top, with the shaved sides, to the perfect gig line. The square, dimpled chin and jaw line that could cut bread, were offset by thin lips, a thick boxer's nose and heavy lids and brow over ice blue eyes.

There was no denying this squid was a badass. The kind of man other men stepped aside for. What pissed Ruben off wasn't the smug demeanor―that's something the guy probably rated―it was the expression on his face. It wasn't a smirk, really. It was more like … satisfaction.

He'd been dreaming about a night patrol in A Shau valley. A cherry from Fort Hood, Texas, was on point and tripped a bouncing betty. The mine blew out his lower back, tearing the grunt in half. Ruben watched as the hurled entrails became bloody ornaments on the surrounding bamboo.

The kid was dead, but Ruben could still hear him screaming. The image shocked his eyes open, and he sat up, panting. 

He scanned the room, taking a few seconds to remember where he was. The memory of the dream began to fade almost at once, but the howl of the dichotomized Ranger was now coming from the hallway.

He grabbed the cocked and locked .45 on the night stand, and bracing himself against the door frame, twisted and yanked the knob. He did a quick peek in the direction of the sound and saw a mama-san in a housekeeping uniform, her hand over her mouth, staring into the nurse's room. 

As Ruben stepped into the hallway, other doors began to open. He wasn't the only one with a firearm.

Clad in army issued boxers, he stayed close to the wall and double timed it toward the Vietnamese woman. When she spotted him, and the pistol in his hand, she didn't stick around. She ran past him in the direction of the elevator, sobbing.

While he knew whatever freaked the old gal wouldn't be good, it didn't prepare him for what he found. He crossed the threshold, pistol up and sweeping left to right, and he froze. His brain needed time to register what he was looking at.

Ever since he was old enough to hold a rifle, Ruben loved to hunt. It was the singular activity he enjoyed with his dad. As his little brother Claude came of age, tracking and stalking in-season game became a treasured family tradition.

Shooting rabbits and squirrels year-round wasn't much different than going grocery shopping. It put meat on the table. The real prize came the last two weeks of November, when they were licensed to hunt deer and elk. They didn't always bag their limit, but come rain or shine, they always brought something home.

As part of the ritual, it was his and Claude's task to prep the game for the processor. By the time Ruben was in junior high school he was an adept. 

He had no idea how the Army's mortuary affairs personnel at Tan Son Nhut air base would describe the body. It was likely they'd call it disemboweled or eviscerated, but Ruben knew exactly what the bastard had done.

What was left of Lieutenant Ford was hanging by the heels, on two wire hangers attached above the closet doors. She'd been field dressed. Oh, man, this is way too dinky dau. 

He was transfixed, until a young troop came up behind him.

“Holy shit! What the fuck!”

Ruben jumped. The only thing that saved the oxygen thief from a ball round in the chest was the safety.

Before the idiot could utter another dull trope, Ruben waved the barrel his direction.

“Go down to the front desk and make sure the Canh Sathave been called.” Ruben turned and stared at him until their eyes came together. “Do it now.”

“Huh?”

“The White Mice, dude―the cops. Haul ass motherfucker!”

Ruben closed the door. He'd witnessed enough fragging investigations by Army CID to know they didn't want anyone “disturbing” the scene. 

With that in mind he was careful not to touch anything, as he moved closer to examine the remains. He couldn't tell how she was killed, but he was certain she was dead before the jagoff went to work on the body. There wasn't much blood. How truly fucked up can someone be to do this?

Ruben calculated the guy used two different blades. A thin one was used around the anus to cut the rectum loose. He then made a incision along the centerline of the lower pelvis to expose the bladder and sever the urethra.

From there, Ruben figured the guy stuck two fingers in the laceration to pull the skin up, away from the organs. It would've allowed him to insert a larger knife and slice the body up the middle. Like using a letter opener on an envelope, he splayed the flesh to the sternum, without making a mess of the innards.

Ruben could tell there was some skinning done on the abdominal wall on both sides of the slit. It made it easier for the monster get his hands inside to cut the diaphragm away to free everything above the heart and lungs. Fucker really knew what he was doin’ … but why?

There were guys out in Indian country who would do some sick shit with a body, and the VC were no saints either. There was no excuse for it, but it was done mostly out of rage―pure hatred.

This was different. This was not the enemy. She'd been an angel of mercy; probably the last beautiful thing a lot of young GIs saw before they bit the big one. 

The memory of the evil asshole's face―a visage of self-satisfied pleasure―boiled up. Wha'd she say to me? “You're not gettin' any of this.” Fuck … wha'd she say to him?

The knife must've also had a serrated edge. The maniac had sawed through the sternum to separate the rids. Then he sliced the skin to her neck in order to cut the esophagus. After that he pulled everything out, including the heart and lungs.

Ruben figured the whole process took about ten minutes, and wondered what she'd gone through while still alive. Her hands, which were lying on the floor behind her back, had been bound with some kind of cloth. He squatted down and pushed the hair out of the way to get a better look. It was a pair of panties.

He knew, or rather hoped, the police would be there soon. Since he elected to stay with the body, the national police, referred to as white mice because of their uniforms, would no doubt assume he was the culprit. I'm gonna miss my flight.

Since he accepted that possibility, he wanted to know what the piece of shit had done with the rest of her. Unless it was under the bed, there was only one place left. 

All of her organs had been piled on top of a shower curtain lying next to the toilet. It appeared the frog man had washed himself off after the deed, based on the pink stain around the tub drain. 

He'd also brushed his teeth. Ruben didn't want to think what that could mean. There was no way he was going to scrutinize the mound of flesh next to the shitter, either.

As expected, the coppers beat on him until they got tired, and then turned him over to the US Army Military Police. A few days later, a couple of special agents with the Criminal Investigation Command, checked his story and cleared him. 

However, they wouldn't cut him loose. They sent him back to the Majestic with all his crap, sans the pistol and his Gerber MK II―a dagger he'd purchased with his own hard earned money. 

Since Lieutenant Ford was navy and the prime suspect was also navy, the case had been referred. He'd been order to provide a witness statement to a jackass from some organization called the Naval Investigative Service. 

He didn't want to talk about it anymore. Yeah, but it don't mean nothin'.


Chapter Three

August 3, 1974 - Delacroix

Carver swirled what was left in his cup as he stared at the agent man. The memory Delacroix elicited, while unwelcome, piqued a deep-seated curiosity.

Impulsive wasn't a character trait anyone would use to define Carver, especially when he was on the job. At that moment, however, ambivalence didn't come close to what was going on inside his head.

Delacroix had told him, in their one and only encounter, Lieutenant Ford was a dedicated and decorated nurse who'd been on her third assignment in the 'Nam. She'd completed two tours at the Naval Support Activity Station Hospital in Danang from '68 to '70. 

After that she went to the USS Sanctuary, a hospital ship operating offshore in the I Corps combat zone, until it rotated back to the States in April '71. Instead of going home, she volunteered for duty in Saigon and accepted a billet at the US Embassy.

She wasn't a beloved member of the staff. From what Carver was told she could be a first-rate bitch. But there wasn't anyone cooler under fire, and that included the Marines on the compound. She was missed.

He set the cup down, tamped out the hand-rolled and stood. “Mister Delacroix … hey, Mister Delacroix!”

When the special agent turned to see who was calling his name, Ruben waved. It was apparent from Delacroix's face he had no idea who Ruben was.

Ruben didn't want to leave the table. The waiter would've made a scene. There was always concern, justified or not, a foreigner would try to stiff the cafe on the check.

Instead, he gestured for the special agent to join him. He'd been operating in true name, and wasn't concerned about his cover. There was nothing extraordinary about a student traveling Europe on summer break.

He knew, however, what he was doing was against company policy. He wasn't just risking his job. If he missed Neto, then days of surveillance would be wasted, and the team might not get paid. He'd do his best to keep an eye on the sidewalk and the traffic, but he needed to know if the son-of-a-bitch had been caught.

Frank Delacroix hadn't changed much. He might have gained some weight, but then again, it'd only been a little more than a year.

He seemed wary when he approached, which Ruben considered appropriate. If a stranger had called his name, he would've had his hand on his knife.

“I guess you don't remember me. I'm Ruben Carver. You interviewed me last year in Saigon about the navy nurse that was murdered.”

Delacroix's face relaxed, but there was no smile. “Oh, yeah, I remember you. What are you doing here?”

Ruben extended his hand. “I'm doin' a little travelin' this summer. I think I told you I was accepted at UCLA.”

Delacroix clasped the offering for a brief up and down. “Yeah, you did. You doin' a school project, or somethin'?”

“Nah, I'm between quarters. I don't start again 'til September.” Ruben let his eyes roam as he answered. “I guess I could ask you what you're doin' here, but what I'd really like to know is if you caught the guy.”

Delacroix's jaw set. “Not yet, but we're close.”

Ruben was having difficulty looking past the man without being obvious. “Why don't we sit down. I'll order another coffee. Can I get you one? Seriously, I'd like to hear about what happened.”

The man hesitated, but looked at the chair, checked both directions along the sidewalk and sat down. Carver tried to signal an evasive waiter and turned back to his guest. He didn't care, one way or the other, if they ordered anything.

“So, can you tell me what happened?”

Delacroix sighed, pulled a soft pack of Salems from his coat pocket and lit one with cupped a match. He let the smoke curl from his nostrils before he started talking.

“Thanks to your description, and several months of record checks, TDY travel claims, and personnel who'd been assigned to SOG, we were able to narrow the investigation to a single individual.”

Ruben had been peering into each car as it passed, but made eye contact to say, “I don't get it. The guy was a navy lieutenant and a SEAL, with combat ribbons. How many could there be in Saigon at the time?”

“That's what we thought, until it became clear through the investigation, the killer must have been impersonating an officer. After we came to that conclusion, we had to assume his decorations and his trident were phonies, too. Hell, we even questioned his branch of service.

“The only thing we didn't shit-can was the notion he was in-country on temporary duty. The nurse had mentioned to one of her co-workers she'd be at the Majestic for a couple days, if they needed her. She was meeting a friend who was in the city for a short stay.

“We spent weeks interviewing family, friends and former co-workers. Whoever her 'friend' was, we figured she'd just met him, 'cause she never dated and rarely went out.

“The other thing we had to consider was the skill in which he gutted the victim. It was well practiced.”

Ruben was again studying everyone on the street. “I heard that. Did you ever find out how he killed her?”

Delacroix said nothing, but Ruben could feel him staring. Then the agent asked, “How'd you know that was an issue?”

“What … the fact she was dead before he started cuttin' on her?”

“Yes. That and the cause of death.”

“Look, I've been huntin' all my life and I was a soldier in one of the bloodiest wars in our history. And what I mean by that is the men in the field were in constant, close contact with the enemy. Depending on where they got shot or stabbed, they bled internally. The body cavity filled with blood.

“Animals do the same thing. On the flip side of that, if you shoot a deer through the lungs and heart, they generally drop fast. Once the heart stops they don't bleed much. When you field dress 'em, the guts come out clean … mostly.

“That's what I saw with the nurse. There wasn't much blood on the floor, none on the bed and when I found her organs in the bathroom, none of them looked perforated. There wasn't much blood on the shower curtain either.

“So, my question is, how did she die? She wasn't shot or stabbed, and I didn’t see any marks on her neck.”

“We believe she may have been drugged and then smothered.”

“Sex?”

“We don't know.”

Ruben turned a quick glance at the special agent, then eyed the road again. “Why don'tcha tell me now why you're in Paris. You don't strike me as someone on vacation.”

Delacroix took a final drag on the Salem and stubbed it out. “As I was saying, the skill he used in the evisceration, suggested this wasn't his first. We called a couple guys at the FBI who've been doing analysis on unusual homicides. Based on crime scene data they put together what they call a profile of the subject.

“It's new a field, but they've had some success. Anyway, they suggested we start contacting law enforcement agencies around the world, where American military were either stationed or have been hosted, and see if they had any similar cases. Since the killer was highly organized, it was likely the crime scenes would be identical.”

“Since we know what he looked like, it cut down on what we consider speculation regarding race, age and gender. Once we started receiving the information from other countries with cases that mirrored ours, we pulled the TDY records from all the services.”

“So you know who he is then?”

“Yep. We thought we had him in Naples, but he got away.”

“Got away? Uh-oh, wait a minute … if you're here, then you think he's here. Right?”

Delacroix nodded. “As it turns out, the guy is a SEAL, or at least was. In Vietnam he worked for MACV-SOG on missions even more sensitive than yours. He was CIA directed.

“That apparently hasn't changed. He's supposed to be particularly gifted as a solo asset, but on occasion he works with a team. That's what brought him to Naples. 

“The CIA isn't talking regarding his real assignment, but he'd been attached to Board of Inspection and Survey. It was totally innocuous, a great cover.  He and four others were on travel doing ship, sea and airport facility surveys. If he ran into any old SEAL shipmates, they'd keep their mouths shut. They know the drill.

“The command told me he was in Naples. The NIS office gave me an assist and we tried to take him in his BOQ room. He was gone, but he left his uniforms and gear. The four men he'd traveled with were found dead in their rooms, each with a single bullet to the head. 

We believe he got tipped somehow.”

“Sounds like the Agency was protecting their wunderkind. Probably why you didn't identify him a year ago.”

Delacroix nodded again. “Yeah, well, he made a mistake. With the help of the Naples police and Interpol, we tracked him to Paris. He used his passport to buy a train ticket in Rome.”

Ruben raised an eyebrow. “That doesn't sound like a smart operator.”

“If a guy's on the run he's liable to make mistakes.”

Carver continued to stare into the street. He wasn't buying it. He'd been around too many special forces pussies to believe one of them would screw the pooch that bad. 

Whoever this dude was, he wanted Special Agent Delacroix to think he was in Paris. Carver was willing to lay his entire trip money on the shitheel being in Timbuk-fucking-tu, or some other equally exotic locale.

He listened as Delacroix bitched about his encounter with a CIA case officer and the meeting with the Naval Attache. No surprise there.

The FBI agent at the embassy, who's title was Legal Attache, did get the NIS agent a meeting with a couple members of the Sûreté Nationale. They seemed more concerned about Delacroix's activity in France, than the possibility of a serial killer roaming Parisian streets. 

Ruben was sorry he'd gone against his better judgement in inviting the fella to sit down. He was in the middle of swearing to himself he'd never do it again, when Neto appeared.

It was actually the chauffeured Citroën SM Opera that Neto had been using since he arrived in Paris. Still, Ruben confirmed the warlord was in the back seat. 

Delacroix's voice became background noise, as Ruben studied the limo. Its direction at the intersection was important, but in that instant, he saw another face he recognized. He went cold.

Across the street, staring at him and the NIS agent, was the navy lieutenant Ruben saw coming out of the dead nurse's hotel room. There was no doubt―it was the ice blue eyes. 

Ruben wanted to say something to alert Delacroix, but he had to watch Neto's vehicle. After it turned, he checked his watch to make a mental note. Then redirected his attention to the spot where he saw the bad guy. The dude was gone.

The Oakie was torn, but he couldn't get involved. He had to let it go―he had to go. Fugazi, shithead.

He unwadded a ten franc note and stuck it under the ash tray. “I'm sorry Mr. Delacroix, I just saw the friend I've been waiting for. I gotta take off.

“I have a feelin' you're gonna find the asshole in Paris, but you need to do yourself a favor and watch your six. If he knew you were on your way to Naples, then he probably knows your here.”

Carver turned and walked away before Delacroix could respond. On his way back to the observation post, he was creeped out. He now wondered if he'd have to follow the same advice he gave the NIS agent.

Reggie didn't like being pulled off a mission, but it was nothing compared to the indignation of having to leave the navy. A lifestyle that suited him down to the ground, it was more than service to his country. It was the order, the discipline and the recognition of a job well done. 

He was valued. There were few men in the world who could claim his skill level. While he'd been assured of continued employment, it wasn't the same. 

The uniform not only defined him, it was an illustration of his exceptional talent. A visible representation of his unique abilities. 

Superman had his cape, and Batman the cowl. Reggie had his uniform, worn with pride and perfection. When other men saw him in it, they knew who and what he was: the Reaper.

The most important part of his life, his identity, had ended because of a woman. And they wanna know why I have issues. 

He liked to celebrate his victories with females of a certain ilk. What was the big deal? Who cared? It kept him sharp.

 Okay, so maybe I fucked up a little. In Saigon he'd made a mistake. A small error in the selection process and all of sudden everybody was upset. It wasn't his fault―she came on to him. Like all the other bitches, she grooved on the uniform.

Now it was gone and someone had to pay. He'd start with the sniveling prick across the street. He glanced down at the picture he'd received via Western Union, along with a name: Frank Delacroix.

Reggie had been following Delacroix since he stepped off the train the day before yesterday. He watched him from across the street, as he sat smoking a cigarette with some faggoty long-hair. Lookin' for a blowjob, Frank?

He had to back off when he realized the faggot was staring back. There was something about the eye contact that set off an internal alarm. It was recognition. 

He couldn't quite place him, but one thing was for sure, the cock gobbler was not what he seemed. The Reaper knew a dangerous man when he saw one.

Once Delacroix was taken care of, he'd rethink the pixie in platform shoes.


Chapter Four

August 6, 1974 - Paris Morning

Ruben had taken a bus to his next static surveillance post―another corner cafe with outdoor seating, called Le Tourville. Located at Place de l'École-Militaire, it had line of sight visibility of a number of intersecting roads, and in particular Avenue de la Motte-Picquet. At seven a.m. the place wasn't packed, but there were enough early risers waiting to be seated to make him inconspicuous.

The brasserie was spitting distance to the Champs de Mars, a landscaped park situated between the Paris Military Academy and the Eiffel Tour. A green spot in a maze of concrete, asphalt, steel and stone, it reminded him of the National Mall in Washington DC. A place he'd had a sack lunch or two, during the interview process with his current employer.

The encounter with the NIS agent and image of the killer, seventy-two hours before, continued to resonate. All-in-all, it was bad luck. 

Trying to balance his responsibility to protect the integrity of the mission, against a bona fide murderous threat, was a nagging distraction. No matter how he justified it, the psychological scales in his brain didn't tip in favor of his decision.

The waiter, in the usual uniform of white shirt, black bow tie, pants, and waistcoat, along with a white waist apron, sashayed around the tables. He took Ruben's order on a pad he held at navel level, sniffing his hauteur. 

Along with the pancake breakfast, which Ruben pegged as the Parisian answer to the full English, was a folded morning edition of theLe Parisien libéré. It took him ten-minutes to eat, and then settled into his chair, grabbed the paper, and waited for the car or the call.

President Nixon was front page news, admitting he'd withheld information on what was being called the Watergate scandal. Why the big surprise. He's a politician.

Ruben turned and folded the pages, glancing at an article about the US Congress limiting military aid for South Vietnam to a paltry billion dollars. He also scanned a so-so book review of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He'd bought a copy when it hit the stands in June.

A great story written in a style described by the reviewer as “grandiloquent”. Ruben nodded his agreement regarding the flowery prose, but assumed it was how all British aristocrats spoke. He's not a homo, darlin'. He's just British.

Then again, if the spy novelist was to be believed, most of the monied boarding school boys―from Britian's upper crust―had traveled Hershey's highway at one time or another. Yeah, well, nuff of that.

In imitation of the native born a few tables away, Ruben raised the creased gazette and yelled, “Garçon!

An aproned gent with a twitchy, pencil thin mustache was at his elbow in two heartbeats. No shit, Homer, I’m learning.  A few minutes later the waiter reappeared with a pear-shaped cafetière. 

It had a long, curved spout, and he made a show of pouring the thick coffee into an eight-ounce white porcelain mug. He then set the pot on the table.

Et voilà, monsieur.”

Très bien, merci,” came out of Ruben’s mouth, but his face said, “Maintenant dégagez de là!

The waiter gave him an appreciative nod and was off.

Oh, no … I'm turnin' into a frog. “Holy crap. Somebody find me a princess.” 

He ignored the half-dozen faces that rotated his way, and after a brief shudder, he continued his casual browse of the newspaper. The parchment crinkled as he turned the pages, checking headlines. I gotta keep an eye on the road.

The further he got into the edition the more it began to read like a tabloid. He was about to give up on the so-called news, when he spotted an article that made him nearly choke on his coffee.

The body of a US special agent had been found. The report was not a lengthy one—a single six-inch column at the bottom right hand corner of page five. It identified the victim as Franklin Eugene Delacroix, and described him as a senior criminal investigator for the United States Naval Investigative Service.

Holy shit!

His body was found in an alley less than a kilometer from the US Embassy. The Sûreté was handling it as a homicide, and as part of its investigation, was asking for witnesses, or anyone with information, to come forward.

There were few details, other than an edged weapon had been used. The US Embassy Public Affairs Section responded to media inquiries by only advising that notification of next of kin had reverted to NIS. A reason for his being in Paris was not given.

I shoulda told him. I shoulda said something.

Carver’s guts started to roil. It’d been more than a year since he’d had a feeling like this roll over him. He’d hoped when he left the ’Nam he’d never experience it again—the sense of responsibility for the death of another.

You were just doin’ your job. You were doin’ … no … that’s not right, man. You haveta tell somebody. He was doin’ his job and he was killed for it. 

Coffee sloshed into the saucer as he set the cup down. He gripped the newspaper with trembling hands, staring at the brief account, wondering if there’d been a mistake, and knowing there hadn’t.

He sat stunned for several minutes, forearms on knees, when it dawned on him. The fucker wasn’t lookin’ at Delacroix, he was lookin’ at me. He recognized me.

Carver stood and did a three-sixty, taking in everything and everyone around him. He then broadened his scope to the sidewalks and street corners.

He’d lost his cool. His head was back in the jungle, wary of Mr. Charles and the foreboding he had before a firefight. In those days, Corporal Wilson had been his early warning system. He said he could smell the VC.

Ruben couldn’t smell the guy, but he was sure he’d been blown. If the fucker had taken a knife to Frank Delacroix, then he’d probably taken the time to carve out a few answers as to who Ruben was. 

If the Okie was under surveillance, it wouldn’t take long to determine he wasn’t in town on sabbatical. The entire mission was in jeopardy. 

He now focused on finding the anomaly, the one person or thing that didn’t belong in his sixty-meter universe. It was only luck then, that he spotted the Citroën SM Opera.

The Angolan warlord was on Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, which turned into Place Joffre in front of the military academy. When Ruben checked his watch he almost missed the turn the Citroën made onto Avenue Frédéric-Le-Play, heading toward the Eiffel Tower.

Once the car was between the large apartment buildings that sandwiched the narrow oneway street, it disappeared. The Second Empire architecture with the Mansard roofs, were the upscale French equivalent of the New York brownstone and provided little, or no cover for a static surveillance.

He tugged a few crumpled bills from a pants pocket and tossed them on the table. He’d been keeping a rolling tally in his head and figured he left more than enough for the check, plus a nice tip. The waiter had to make a fuss nonetheless, but his displeasure was masked by the blaring of car horns and screeching tires as Ruben ran against the red light.

He’d opted for the Puma Clyde suedes that morning and was glad he did. Beating feet in street sneaks was safer than the ever-so-stylish stacks. He pulled a small camera from a case on his belt, and stretched his legs out in a sprint to the road where he’d lost sight of the Citroën.

The brake lights were all he saw, as the car made another right, a hundred yards ahead. Where are you goin’, Jack?

Ruben knew that street went to Avenue de la Bourdonnais. A wide boulevard that lead to the Bourdonnais river docks. He thought it was cliche, but what the hell, it probably was good for a clandestine meet. It wouldn’t take much to find out if the Cubans had a boat in the water.

His anxiety over the Delacroix thing hadn’t dissipated, but he needed to concentrate. From what he understood, none of the team vehicles had been burned yet. All along Avenue Frédéric-Le-Play and Avenue Émile-Deschanel, which it turned into, was unmetered street parking for the apartment dwellers.

The team could couple the static with a moving surveillance if they confirmed the route was one Neto used regularly. A few cars staged overnight, ready to be manned in the morning, seemed a perfect way to pick up the tail.

He didn’t know what made him turn. It might have been a slight change in the light, although there was no shadow he could remember. It wasn’t a noise either. He just felt something.

It’s funny how reflexes work. Even when the brain didn’t register, the body reacted. Like ducking from a low hanging limb before you realized it was there or blocking a sucker punch.

In this case it was putting his hands up before he saw the knife. What kept the pigsticker from going through his palm was the camera.

The blade had shattered the lens and lodged in the hard-plastic case. When the attacker tried to pull it free, he came away with the camera dangling from its tip.

Ruben was now cognizant. It was Lieutenant Slice-and-Dice and Ruben’s previous heebie-jeebies were gone.

His slid his right foot forward, twisting his hip into the right hook, but only connected with air.

As the killer did a bob and weave, he tossed the knife and in the same motion countered with a right cross Ruben only partial blocked. It caught him on the left shoulder a few inches east of the shrapnel scare. He might as well have been stabbed for the amount of pain the blow inflicted.

The man must have seen it on Ruben’s face as he staggered backward, because the dude smiled. He then reached inside his coat and Ruben had no doubt what was coming. 

The Okie didn’t run. Instead, he did a step through front kick that caught the prick on his right forearm. The pistol jarred loose and clattered on the pavement at Ruben’s feet. 

He didn’t bother to try for it. He kicked it behind him with his right heel.

The guy looked down at the camera knife and the pistol that lay ten feet away. “So, I guess you’re some kinda badass.”

What an asshole.“Well, I know what you are, motherfucker. What’s your name?”

The shitbird lunged with a left jab to Ruben’s nose and followed with another right cross. Ruben slipped the jab and blocked the cross with his left forearm, while twisting left to deliver a right knifehand to the killer’s vagus. 

The guy tucked his chin and shrugged, catching the strike on his shoulder. Ruben didn’t wait for a counter and used a round kick aimed at the outside of the killer’s knee. He must have telegraphed it, because the guy shifted his weight off of his left leg and rolled with the strike. 

It still must have stung him, because he took two shuffle steps backward. 

“You can call me the Reaper.”

“I’d rather call you the deceased.”

Reaper smirked. “I knew I’d seen you before.”

“It was only three days ago, asshole.”

The killer crouched and sidestepped left. “No, I’m mean before that. You were there … at the hotel. Just another dumbass fucking number ten grunt.

So, what are you doin’ here?”

Ruben matched Reaper’s motion. He knew the fight was about to go to the ground, and the bad guy had a good twenty pounds on him. 

“I’m on vacation.”

“I was gonna cut you a break, punk and take you out fast and clean. But now I get to enjoy it.”

The siren trill of police cruisers, coming from multiple directions, was like a referees whistle. Both men hesitated. 

Ruben stared at the Cary Grant with a Jake LaMotta nose and stepped backward until his foot touched the pistol. “I hate to spoil your party, pal, but I’m not stickin’ ’round to do a dance with the cops.”

With his eyes on the killer, Ruben picked the pistol off the asphalt and thumb the safety down. “I’ll keep this little memento. You know, just in case you wanna pay me another visit and all.”

Reaper didn’t flinch. Instead he walked to the knife, put his foot on the camera and yanked the blade free. “I’ll see you around, tough guy.”

Ruben watched him run off, waited another ten seconds and bolted toward to the École Militaire metro station, dodging cars and motorcycles as he crossed the street.

Reggie was in a rage. More pissed with himself than anything else, he’d made the mistake of underestimating the cocksucker. I’m gonna get that fuckin’ inbred redneck. Nobody does that to me.

He had other business, though. The prick from the embassy had a job for him, which meant the faggot would have to wait. But one of these days 

What did that agent man say his name was—Ruben something—oh, yeah, Carver.He’d ask his CIA contact to make a note of it. 

He sprinted up the Avenue Frédéric-Le-Play, and then cut over to Avenue de la Bourdonnais where he flagged a taxi. “American Embassy.”

Où veux-tu aller?”

“American Embassy … US Embassy! Go, go!


Chapter Five

August 6, 1974 - Paris Afternoon

Ruben stayed at the observation post only long enough to report a time and location on the Angolan’s movement. Ordinarily, he’d stick around and chat up the other team members who lived in the place. 

The torn shirt and bloodied nose, though, required too much explanation. There was also the pistol he’d shoved in his waist band at the small of his back. It imprinted under the polyester like a boner in a speedo—a physical state that barred any denial. 

When he reached his apartment, he dropped the pistol—a Browning Hi-Power—on the kitchen counter next to a bottle of Courvoisier. He twisted and pulled the cork out of the long neck and poured three fingers of the eighty-proof cognac into a juice glass.

He then opened the freezer compartment above the refrigerator and took out an aluminum ice tray. He ran tap water over it until he heard it crackle then set in on the counter. He yanked the lever, freeing the cubes, and dumped them in a plastic bag he’d grabbed from the cabinet under the sink.

Spinning the bag closed, he knotted it and balanced it on top of his head. With his drink in one hand and the pistol in the other, he headed for the living room. 

When he sat down in the easy chair, one of two pieces of furniture he had in the room, the ice bag slipped down to the base of his neck where he left it. He knocked back half of the brandy and set the glass down on the other piece of furniture, a side table with a reading lamp. 

He stared at the gun for a few seconds, examining the blemishes it received when it hit the pavement. He then thumbed the magazine release, racked the slide to eject a chambered round and dry fired. He racked it once more and set the slide stop. 

It was a semi-automatic, single action 9mm, with a thirteen round, double stack magazine, all in apparent working order. The pistol was so widely used, and its design copied, Ruben thought of it as almost generic. This one, however, sported a few modifications he noticed when he cleared the weapon.

It had an extended and threaded barrel, a ported slide and a highly polished feed ramp and throat. The sights had been raised for a suppressor and the rear had an adjustable beveled bladed.

Someone had also reworked the trigger. Ruben knew part of that was accomplished when the magazine disconnect was removed. The trigger pull was a smooth five pounds. A big difference from the normal eight with the disconnect in place.

Another advantage to scrapping that little piece of hardware was in reloading. A magazine didn’t need to be pulled out—it dropped free—and in the event a magazine exchange was interrupted, the pistol could be fired with an empty well. An overall improvement in weapon effectiveness from what Ruben consider a major design flaw in the original.

The final bit of gunsmithing artistry was the parkerized finish. A dull gray Ruben thought destroyed the aesthetic, but it did keep it from corroding. A detail especially apropos in humid climates, or if tucked close to a sweaty body every day.

He’d qualified with a Browning in Vietnam but preferred a .45—the government model 1911A1. However, that’s not to say there weren’t those who liked the gun. Ruben had seen several recon teams, operating out of the MACV-SOG, outfitted with them. 

None were as tricked out as this one, though. The troubling part of that historical tid-bit had to do with how they acquired them.

If the prick who owned this shooter brought it with him from a tour in country, it’d been purchased and issued by the CIA. While the Agency may have had deep pockets for custom firearms, the troops supplied weren’t approved to treat them like souvenirs. The spy organization continued to lay claim to the weapons, along with the people who carried them.

Ruben rubbed the scar which still ached from the punch-up. In his mind, the gun confirmed everything Delacroix has said about the man who called himself “Reaper".

The confrontation now fueled a few other concerns he had to cogitate on before he reported the incident. For one, the Sûreté was out.

If he went to the police, the first thing they’d do would bust him on the street fight. Then they’d hold him while they checked his story about Frank Delacroix, which meant dragging the Legal Attache at the US Embassy into it.

The Legat would in turn send a lead to FBI headquarters. While it was likely Ruben’s cover story would hold up, he’d be out of a job after the Bureau began a background check. He was sure there was nothing about him in France that linked him to the Rainbow Corporation, but that wasn’t the case in the US. 

The Bureau would have access to his employment history. While the classified nature of his work would put the kibosh on providing any of that information, his employer would be contacted nonetheless. Once that happened, the Okie could expect a pink slip.

Then there was the little matter of the pistol. If the cops had him in jail as a person of interest in a homicide investigation, they’d get a warrant to search his apartment. Since the French gun laws were stricter than a nun’s coital constraints, he’d have to toss the piece and he didn’t want to. He considered it a matter of self-preservation. The Reaper was still out there.

If he thought FBI involvement was a nonstarter, he sure as hell wouldn’t request an audience with the CIA. Mr. Reaper may have forfeited his Navy pension, but if he was a member in good standing with the CIA’s Special Operations Group—his nocturnal predilections notwithstanding—anything Ruben had to say would fall on deaf ears. 

In fact, just by bringing it up, he might find himself listed as a national security risk. Shit fire, boy maybe Special Agent Delacroix was a sanctioned hit.

Ruben examined the round he’d ejected. A jacketed hollow-point stamped with a +P above the primer. This little baby’ll wear your barrel out 

He slid it in the barrel throat and thumbed the lock to send the slide forward. The full magazine was next. He shoved it in the grip well and tapped the plate with a heel-palm. There was a distinctive click as it seated.

After toggling the safety, he set the pistol on the table; cocked and locked. He then drained the glass and considered a refill. He was in a quandary. It was like he’d climbed into a box full of assholes.

Ruben had never been a fuck-your-buddy tattle-tale. It was one of the reasons he decided not to reenlist. If there was a problem with someone in the unit, he handled it. Even if it required a tune-up, it was dealt with in-house.

In a peace-time Army, if he wanted to see his next stripe, he had to be willing to stick a knife his buddy’s back and use it like a rung on a ladder. It seemed to be a universally accepted practice.

This situation, of course, was different. He’d been witness to some seriously crazy shit in his young life, but this Reaper dude was straight up, all-hands-on deck, fucking insane. Ratting him out was a matter of saving lives—Ruben’s being at the top of the list.

He checked his watch. It was close to lunch time, and after the drink, he could feel the breakfast wearing off. There was a post office near a pasta and pastry joint he had a taste for, on a back street called Rue de Grenelle. It had a Western Union agent and an overseas telephone service he’d used a few times to call his dad.

DC was six hours behind. He figured after a sink bath, fresh shirt, and a plate of pissaladièreto die for, the NIS headquarters ought to be open for business. The Western Union agent would have a directory of federal agencies, and with the stack of francs he had in a dresser drawer he could stay on the line for a while.

He ambled down the short hall to the bathroom, touching his sore nose and wondering if it looked as bad as it felt.

“You wanna tell me what the fuck you think you’re doin’, Reggie?”

“I’m doin’ what I have to. That son-of-bitch Delacroix had been doggin’ my trail for months and none of you people would do anything about it.”

Paris was Arthur Sheppard’s first post after completing his case officer training. He may have been fresh off the farm, but he didn’t need to be a twenty-year vet to know he was looking at someone who could put his career in jeopardy. Over before it began.How the fuck did this guy get past his psych eval?

“You don’t belong to me asswipe, I get that. But let’s be real clear, if you kill anybody else in this country without my permission, I’m gonna make sure your contract is terminated … with prejudice.”

“You can’t do that. I’m connected.” Reggie leaned back in the chair; his hands dangling over the rests. 

At that moment, all Sheppard wanted to do was use the Beretta he had in his desk drawer to blow the smug expression off the turd’s face.

“I mean it Reggie … no more. That’s your only warning.”

“Yeah, okay, so you wanna give me my assignment.”

“I will in a minute. What happened this morning?”

Bryar shifted in his seat and shrugged a shoulder. “Nothin’ … I got into it with a guy I recognized from Vietnam. I seen him with Delacroix a few days ago. I woulda let it go, but he recognized me, too.”

Sheppard leaned over his desk. “What do you mean, he recognized you?”

“I mean he seen me at the Majestic hotel in Saigon, after one of my dates. I’ve been keepin’ tabs on him and I thought it would be easy to do him in the street this morning.”

“And?”

“And the guy got lucky. With your permissionI’d like to finish the job.”

The novice case officer had been briefed about Bryar’s after-hours hobby. He’d even had a quick sit-down with Frank Delacroix and listened to the special agent explain his investigation. 

Sheppard wished then he could have set Bryar up for a takedown, but there was nothing he could do. Reggie Bryar was indeed being protected by someone further up the chain.

“Do you know his name?”

“The guy’s a fuckin’ faggot named Ruben Carver.”

Sheppard blinked. “What?”

“What’s the matter, you got wax in your ears? Ruben Carver … Ruben Carver.”

“Army LuRRP?”

“Yeah, I think I saw the patch. Do you know who he is?”

“No, you don’t have permission to finish the job. You stay away from that guy. Do you understand?”

“What … what’s this?”

Do you understand?

“Yeah, I understand. What’s the problem?”

“You stay away from him. If anyone got lucky this morning it was you … you fucking moron.”

“Now wait a minute.”

Sheppard picked a manila envelope off his desk and threw it at Bryar. “Here’s your new assignment. Go find a desk somewhere and memorize the contents. Then give it to the woman who met you at the door when you came in. You can keep the passport and plane ticket.

“The job has to be done in the next forty-eight hours. You get no play time on this one. As soon as you finish, you’re on a flight to Bern. You got that?”

Bryar peered up at Sheppard like he was calculating distance to a target. “Yeah, I got it.”

When he stood, he sidestepped left and backed his way to the exit, turning only to open the door and leave.

Sheppard set clenched fists on the desktop and leaned against straight arms until his knuckles turned white. It has to be the same guy. Bryar may be a six-foot stack of shit, but he’s never missed a hit.

He’d known a Sergeant Ruben Carver—an Army Ranger who’d probably saved his life. It happened during an almost thirty-hour period aboard a hilltop firebase.

The encounter had left a distinct impression. He’d come to the conclusion the Oklahoma bred redneck was a natural killer of men. 

Sheppard had suffered a bullet in the butt on that hill and the Marine Corps saw fit to send him home. Soon after, the CIA showed its interest, and very quickly the Corps occupied only one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

Until Bryar’s sanguinary ad lib in the morning, Carver had become nothing more than a vapid memory; a three-whiskey war story. Maybe he did get lucky, but Sheppard had no doubt the man would be ready if Bryar tried it again.

His head drooped as he stared at his hands, considering his options. The CIA had the luxury of operating with little or no external oversight. Even when it went before Congress for its annual funding, the process was perfunctory at best. A twenty-minute dog and pony show before it was presented with a blank check.

While Sheppard didn’t doubt the importance of the work, his patriotism didn’t mask any naiveté either. He knew the Agency walked a fine line with its policy of the ends justifying the means. On the other hand, he was also keenly aware he didn’t want to be the only one holding the bag, if Reggie “the Reaper” Bryar succumbed to his sick impulses. 

He rose and walked out of his cubbyhole. The office of the Chief of Station was down the hall. A dowager who was the CoS’s last line of defense, sat in front of his door. 

He tried the ingratiating smile he learned at the farm. “Hi, Sharon. I need to speak to the boss.”

“Does it have anything to do with him?” She rolled her eyes and pointed at Bryar, who sat studying the contents of the envelop.

Sheppard nodded.

She stood, knocked and disappeared behind the portal. Thirty seconds later she reappeared. “You’ve got fifteen minutes.

Carver was back in his apartment by four-thirty. He had an hour before the team meeting, which gave him a chance to shower and think about where he’d go for a drink that night.

His call to the Naval Investigative Service headquarters went almost as expected, which is to say he did talk to someone.

The Western Union agent found the number listed in Alexandria, Virginia. After that it took a while to find anyone willing to take his statement.

He started with a request to speak to the director. The switchboard operator put him through to a woman who, of course, wanted to know what the call was about. It seemed the obvious question, and the singular reason for his attempt to contact the head of the organization.

When he told her it had to do with the death of Frank Delacroix, she put him on hold. Apparently, the director was a Navy captain who didn’t get involved in investigative matters. An odd non sequitur since Carver just assumed the head of any federal agency would be interested in information pertaining to a man down. 

At any rate, she routed him to another secretary who worked for someone with the title of Deputy Director for Criminal Investigations. Ruben thought he was getting somewhere, until she forwarded him to another phone.

The whole process took about ten or fifteen minutes, when a shaver finally came on the line, identifying himself as a special agent. He advised the deputy director was unavailable, and any investigative activity into the homicide was limited to a liaison role with French authorities.

Ruben interpreted that to mean if NIS sent any of its people to Paris to run an independent investigation, they’d wind up in handcuffs and deported. If ya think waiters are easily offended in this city, wait’ll ya meet one of its cops.

With some reluctance Ruben ponied up his contact information, but only after he gave an account of his connection to Delacroix and the SEAL who butchered the Navy nurse in Saigon. The same murdering cocksucker he spotted on a Paris street corner three days before he read about Frank’s untimely end.

Ruben felt it judicious to leave out his opinions regarding the CIA, his knowledge of Delacroix’s investigative progress that fingered the Reaper and his encounter with the lowlife scumbag that morning. It would only fog up what he considered a succinct narrative.

He put his toes to heels to peel off his sneakers, thinking he’d done his duty and that was the end of it—at least with regard to Frank Delacroix. Then his telephone rang. He had an unlisted number and up until his call to DC, only the observation post and his ex-girlfriend were privy to it.

“Yallow.”

“Is this Ruben Carver?”

He didn’t recognize the voice. “Uh … who’s calling?”

“My name is Harold Pfizer. I’m the deputy director of NIS criminal investigations. I understand you called my office this morning.”

“That’s right.” 

The line was quiet for few seconds, as if the deputy director was waiting for Ruben to say something more.

“We’d very much like to talk to you further about your connection to Frank Delacroix. As you can probably imagine, gathering as much information on the whereabouts of the person responsible for his death is a number one priority with us.”

“I can appreciate that, but I’m not comfortable discussin’ it on this telephone.”

“I understand. We’d prefer a face-to-face as well.”

“Are you in Paris?”

“No.”

“It’ll have to wait then. I won’t be leavin’ here until around the first of September and that’ll be straight back to Los Angeles.”

“Yes, well … actually, you’ll be on a flight to DC tomorrow morning. I believe your team leader will provide you your travel itinerary this evening.”


Chapter Six

January 3, 2007 - Yokosuka

Ruben pushed three buttons on the lock and twisted the knob. The metal door swung open on his new work station, which was a windowless affair about the size of a walk-in closet.

He sighed as he tossed his backpack in the far corner of the six by nine, florescent-lit box. Before the gray metal desk and five drawer GSA file safe were stuffed in the space, it’d been used for storage. The bare, white walls were scarred to the point they reminded him of a Jackson Pollock painting. 

It’d only been a month since he’d agreed to come back onboard with NCIS, and he was already wondering if he’d made the right decision. It was the result of his buddy Henry Dever, the newly appointed Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Operations and Investigations, going to the director of NCIS to plead the case.

Ruben had retired from the Service in July the previous year, but it didn’t take. After the unexpected breakup in September with his girlfriend—a case officer with the Israel Security Agency—and a subsequent debilitating bout with boredom, he’d made his way back to Tokyo.

His business partner, Barry Sullivan had greased the skids, providing the necessary sponsorship for a resident card. Together, they ran a private investigation firm during the day, and in the evening, a nightclub called The Joint,featuring live blues and jazz. 

Had they made any money in the venture, it would have been a setup to die for. Thanks to Henry Dever, circumstances arose which put Ruben in a position where he’d have to do just that.

His old colleague had brought news about another NCIS special agent Carver had mentored for a few years, and who had been using The Joint to run a counterintelligence operation.

The man was in a coma, after being tortured, shot and left for dead at a garbage pickup point in Japan’s capital. His asset, a young Chinese-American woman and Navy systems administrator, had been placed in protective custody as a witness.

The operation had uncovered intelligence about a centrifuges-for-oil deal between the Chinese and Iranians. However, neither NCIS nor the CIA believed the information she’d gathered warranted the type of treatment levied against the agent. Whoever did it was after something else.

Carver’s PI firm was hired to find out who was involved, what they thought the agent knew, and since NCIS couldn’t depend on the Japanese justice system to work in its favor, mete out some payback. What he discovered was a conspiracy orchestrated by an international camarilla known as The Board.

It was the third time, in as many years, Carver had to put a stop to an operation of the recondite order. The ensuing mayhem, killing and conflagration had been covered up, but not without some hard questions having to be answered.

Hence, the job offer. Ruben was brought back into the fold as a GS-13 annuitant, which meant he was reissued a badge and a firearm, along with receiving a decent salary. He was also allowed to continue collecting his monthly retirement check. He was the quintessential double dipper.

The only kicker was the one-year contract, renewable at the discretion of the director, which was actually a comfort to Ruben. From the day he returned to service, he considered the position a temp job. 

He preferred the bar scene and made a point of maintaining his close association with Barry. The Joint was Ruben’s on weekends and jam nights.

His chair was a worn-out DRMO number with a metal frame and hard plastic wheels. It squeaked as he rolled it away from the desk and sat down.

He leaned forward and tapped the return on his keyboard to activate the monitor. The motion caused enough pressure on his stomach to make him belch a reminder of what he’d had for lunch.

The buffet at the Chief’s Club aboard the Yokosuka naval base would never be mistaken for five-star fare, but it was cheap, filling, and close to the office. He could feel the greasy lasagna fomenting, as he tried to review the draft of events that had brought him back to his old haunts. I shoulda never had that second helping.

The report, for all intents and purposes, was complete. He’d been advised, however, any reference to The Board, a nuclear device, or any suggestion of WMD would be redacted. 

In Ruben’s mind, that editorial requirement turned the account into inconsequential prattle—a monograph of pandemonium. The only people on distribution from his end, though, were Henry and Art Sheppard, a deputy director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. 

They’d decide its classification, and who had a need to know. Ruben’s part in the affair was finished, and any opinions he had on the conduct of the operation or its outcome, weren’t being solicited. Who gives a shit anyway? Nobody got killed … well … nobody that mattered.

He read it once more for any misspelling, missing articles and prepositions, verb tense consistency, and other grammatical goofs he could find. One of Ruben’s former supervisors had an axiom he’d instilled in the Okie: there was nothing so fucked up that a nice piece of paper couldn’t fix.

The document was then sent as an attachment in a SIPRNet email he addressed to the two gents. Although Ruben didn’t mark it with a classification, he did send it via the secret internet protocol with a restricted distribution. He denied the recipients the ability to copy, print, save or forward the missive.

He knew they’d be pissed, but there was another time-proven adage he trusted: if it wasn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. Henry and Art would have their reference copies in the event anyone, with a need to know, came around asking questions. 

Carver’s memory didn’t require a cheat sheet. He immediately deleted the email in his sent box and the draft copy on his hard drive. 

He’d have the special agent working cybercrime wipe the drive’s free space later. Ruben figured the SAC would approve, since it followed Henry’s directive for eyes only.

Ruben pushed away from the desk, grabbing his NCIS logoed mug as he stood. He looked at his watch and figured the afternoon coffee in the geedunk hadn’t been on the burner too long.

There was also an inclination to hit the gym early. The convenience of a multilevel fitness center, a five-minute jog from the field office, had him now breaking a sweat five days a week. 

With the exception of a hand-rolled once in a while, he’d quit smoking, and had begun to favor water over martinis. He was even running on the weekends in Tokyo.

The benefits were obvious. His weight was down to two-twenty and he was back in the clothes he wore before his Iraq tour in ’03. His blood pressure was perfect and while his resting heart rate hadn’t reached bradycardia, it pumped in the mid-sixties.

The Marine’s fleet antiterrorism security team even allowed him to join their martial arts program a couple of nights a week. The big Okie was getting in shape—and liking it.

He didn’t get ten feet down the hallway before he heard his name called.

The new assistant special agent in charge for counterintelligence was waving at him with a piece of paper in his hand. A fella who was probably fifteen years Ruben’s junior.

“Hey, Carver. I need to see you in my office.”

“Wha’d I do now?”

“Nothing that I know of. I’ve got a lead for you that came from headquarters.”

When Ruben walked through the door, the youngster, now behind his desk, pointed at a chair. Ruben preferred to stand.

“Why am I gettin’ a lead from headquarters? I process agent applicants and do background investigations.”

The kid pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled a long, deep, audible breath. “I don’t know. Here, you can read it for yourself.” He shoved the paper across a spotless desktop. “It came directly from Henry Dever. You need to pack a bag. You’re going to DC.”

Ruben accepted the printed message and checked his watch, calculating the time on the east coast. It was nearly midnight there. Unless Henry had a SIPRNet connection at home, it was unlikely what he was looking at had anything to do with the report Ruben had just submitted.

He glanced down at the ASAC. “I’m gonna give Henry a call before I book a flight. I need to get an idea of how long I’m gonna be gone and what I’ll need to pack.”

“Okay, whatever. I’ve done my part by givin’ you that. It’s on you to get it done.”

Ruben thought twice about apologizing for interrupting the boy’s busy day. Without another word, he spun on a heel and walked out, coffee mug still in hand.

The fact Henry Dever had summoned Ruben to the nation's capital didn't bode well with the big Okie. In the old days, having Henry Dever give him a call was a treat. In the last two years, though, receiving a message from his old friend gave Ruben pause. 

This time was no different. It echoed his trip to the Navy Yard a year and a half earlier, when NCIS and the CIA used him in a joint operation to catch a wayward DARPA scientist. The dude was living the dream in Istanbul, while planning to unleash a planet killing pandemic.

It was another enterprise funded by The Board that went sideways. The organization had underestimated the mad scientist’s resolve in ridding the world of who he believed were the bad people. 

On that near disaster, Ruben acquired a pair of cauliflower ears, and met the love of his life. She subsequently dumped him, without so much as an offer for couples counseling, and his ears didn't do anything for his rakish good looks. While chicks may dig scars, they seem to draw the line on subperichondrial hematomas.

He’d overfilled his mug and slopped coffee setting it on his desk. He sucked on a scalded finger as he used his other hand to spin the dial on the safe.

The secure phone he’d been issued required a crypto card he kept locked away. This was the first time since he’d returned to service he’d needed to use it.

The card was in an envelope he had taped to a drawer wall, but before he retrieved it, he checked his watch again. He remembered it was the middle of the night in Virginia.

Henry and Patty had bought a house in a small burg in Prince William county, called Woodbridge. Ruben had been there once, and the experience had him seriously considering a lifestyle change. It only took a martini at The Joint to subvert any further whim of conversion.

He left the card in the envelope and direct dialed Henry’s home number.

“Dever.”

Ruben trapped the phone between an ear and trapezoid and leaned back in his chair—his hands resting on his crown. “You’re still up?”

“Hey, man. I was just thinking about you. Have you booked your flight?”

“Not yet. I wanted to call you first.”

“If you wanna know what this is about, you need to come here, Rube.”

Ruben rubbed his head, gripped the handset, and leaned forward—elbows on the desktop. “How much do I need to pack?”

“I’d like to tell you to pack light, but you could be gone for a few weeks. Right now, everything is open-ended.”

Ruben figured that probably meant closed-casket, considering the other holiday specials Henry had volunteered him for. He couldn’t really complain, though, he was aware the cushy position he’d accepted came with strings. 

While the terms of his annuitant contract specified his duties as “agent applicant interviews and background investigations,” it also stipulated, “and any other mission requirement as prescribed by the director of NCIS.” Henry had intimated, before Ruben signed and dated the agreement, it was that catch-all clause he was really being hired for. 

“Is this mission going to require me to go tactical?”

“When isn’t it? Any hardware concerns will, as usual, be handled on this end. Are you still in the office?”

“Yeah … it’s two in the afternoon here.”

“Do you think you can be on a flight by tonight?” Henry’s voice was stripped of any congeniality.

“Nah, I don’t think so. The last flight leaves before I can get to the airport. I’ll try to book a seat on an early flight tomorrow for Ronald Reagan. I should be there Thursday morning.” Ruben found himself trying to manage any unrealistic expectations.

“Will you have someone meet me at the airport, or do you want me to rent a car?”

He could hear Henry trying to stifle a yawn before he responded. “I don’t know, let me think about it. Give me another call before you leave. Do you know the direct dial number to my office?”

“Nope.”

“Let me give it to you.” There was brief pause. “Ready to copy?”

“Go ahead.”

Henry recited a ten-digit number. “If you get my voice mail, try my cell phone.”

Ruben was nodding while he listened. “Okay, I’ve got it. If I don’t reach you before I’m wheels up, I’ll look for a placard with my name on it. Otherwise, I’ll rent a car. Either way, don’t expect me in the Navy Yard until around noon, or more likely early afternoon.”

“That’s fine, but do me a favor and call me as soon as you land.”

“Hank … tell me now … is this gonna involve other agency collaboration?”

Again, the pause. “I guess that would depend on how you’d define the word.”

“Which word: involve, agency or collaboration?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, no … no, no … you can tell Art for me, he can go fuck himself.”

“Why don’t you call him and tell him yourself? I’m sure he’d be glad to hear from you.”

“Nah, I’m tired of bein’ that man’s butt boy.”

“What are you talkin’ about? If anybody’s his butt boy, it’s me. You’re more like the blunt instrument he likes to use when finesse hasn’t worked.”

Ruben wasn’t amused. “Excuse me?”

“Listen, Rube, I know how you feel—believe me. Unfortunately, I can’t cut you a break on this one. Let me just say, you bring a unique perspective to the table Art is personally aware of.

“Since we can’t talk any more about it than that, I’m going to bed. Call me before you leave.”

“Henry?” 

The line was dead.


Chapter Seven

The Reunion

There was a layover in Chicago, which was the only reprieve to a miserable flight. It’d been overbooked out of Narita, with the only available seat in the middle of the middle isle.

Surrounded by families with screaming toddlers, his discomfort was exacerbated by the folks closest to him. A scraggly Sikh to his right had body odor so rank Ruben swore it distorted the air—like heat waves off an Arizona highway. 

On the other side was a young Japanese woman, with long stringy hair, who couldn’t help making a pillow of his shoulder. She slumped on him every time she nodded off. The restless kid behind Ruben kept kicking his seat back, and the prick in front insisted on keeping his seat back in Ruben’s lap.

The second leg of the journey improved only to the extent the two bruisers he was sandwiched between didn’t smell bad. However, it was two hours of silent battling over the armrests.

He was traveling on an old official passport, with its dogeared brown cover. It was good for a few more years, and while he hated using it on foreign assignments, he moved through US Immigration and Customs without question. A real benefit since he had to clear customs at O’Hare, before making his connecting flight.

While he could’ve flown direct to Dulles from Narita, Ruben favored Reagan National. It sat inside the beltway on the Potomac, where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers came together. A fifteen-minute drive to the Washington Navy Yard, where NCIS headquarters was located.

The airport was a long, narrow, three-tiered structure with tall, domed ceilings connected and held aloft by steel pillars with open, arched chord joists. The pillars and joists where golden, with blue highlights where they met the ceiling and each domed section had a large, round skylight. 

To further enhance its use of natural light, the entire rear of the airport complex was roof to ground latticed windows. Arriving in the morning, the bright interior was a wakeup call for weary travelers. As he exited the aircraft, Ruben slipped on his sunglasses to help his eyes adjust.

Baggage claim was on the lowest level and while it had a more cramped feeling than the long-arched walkways and people movers, the gold colored steel pillars and high gloss floor were on display. The luggage carousels came out of and wrapped around the walls.

While he stood waiting for his suitcase to appear, he heard his name called behind him. He knew who it was before he turned.

Ruben threw his hands in the air and slowly spun around. “Don’t shoot g-man. I’m innocent.”

Fred Stacks, a journeyman NCIS field agent out San Diego, was standing with hands tucked in the pockets of a leather bomber jacket. His grin was hidden under an untrimmed mustache and his eyes behind a pair of mirrored aviators.

He extended a hand. “Bullshit. You’ve just never gotten caught. There’s a difference.”

Ruben gripped the offering and they patted each other on the back. “Things must really be fucked-up if the Henry’s brought you out of the land of fruits and nuts.”

Fred was a trusted friend going back more than ten years and one of the finest investigators Ruben ever worked with. He had the pleasure of closing a few big cases with Freddie, two of which had garnered his buddy agent of the year recognition. 

The last time Ruben had seen Fred was in May, seven months earlier. Ruben was part of a small team investigating an attempted suicide bombing onboard the USS Blue Ridge, the command and control vessel for Seventh Fleet.

The maladroit youngster guilty of the crime had been placed in the Naval Consolidated Brig aboard the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. While the Navy had him dead to rights, the investigation had unraveled a conspiracy involving a dozen other active duty members scattered within the US military services. 

Each one had been indoctrinated to spread jihad throughout the great satan’s armed forces by the same man. Ruben’s job was to find their homicidal patriarch, obtain the list of names he carried and stop a plan that would’ve affected U.S. military readiness on a massive scale.

Fred’s role was to provide liaison support with local law enforcement and assist with mission coordination at the San Diego office of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The operation subsequently went into the crapper in a shootout with a Somali terrorist cell that claimed the lives of two police officers and an FBI agent. 

In the end, they bagged the jihadist and his list, and while it wasn’t the first time Ruben had talked Fred into taking a bite out of a shit sandwich, he’d hoped it would be the last. With that in mind, he wasn’t sure he was all that happy to see the journeyman agent.

Fred shoved his hand back in the jacket pocket and in typical fashion for the man, had an unfiltered response. 

“I don’t know all the details, amigo. From what I can tell, though, our organization, which I believe means you, has been asked to unfuck a situation another agency has gotten itself into.

“I have no idea what Henry wants me to do, but I ain’t complainin’ … too much. Do you know what headquarters has had me doin’ for the last four months?”

Ruben spotted his bag. “Not a clue, pal. I’ve been retired—remember?”

“Oh, yeah, right. How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

The big Okie grabbed the side handle and began wrestling the bag off the turnstile. “Is that supposed to be one’na those rhetorical questions? Help me with this thing, will ya?”

Fred pushed through the milling crowd to Ruben’s left, grabbed a wheel and tugged. A second later the suitcase was upright on the floor.

As they moved to the exit he continued talking. “So anyway … for the the last four months I’ve been touring NCIS field offices and spendin’ three days a month at FLETC, lecturing on the Normal Heights shoot-out. A kind of a do’s and don’ts when a knock and talk goes balls up.”

Ruben grimaced at the mental image the comment evoked but decided to let it slide. While they’d lost good people that day, it wasn’t as if he and Freddie had had acrisis of conscience. 

The IG from every federal agency involved, along with the SDPD’s internal affairs, spent weeks trying to affix blame. The final outcome on everyone’s books, however, described the incident as misadventure. Sometimes, bad shit really does just happen.

“So, what’s the gripe? It sounds like a nice gig. I mean … you’ve got enough time on the job to be able to ride the whole celebrity cop thing to retirement.” Ruben waved at the air. “Then milk it some more by writing a book. Hell, the producers of the tv show might even adapt it for a two-part episode. They could let you strike a pose in a cameo.”

For what it was worth, Ruben liked the show, but he was on a sleep deprived roll. “Of course, using Somalis as bad guys would be bad form—too ethnic. They could always go with the ol’ Hollywood fallback by makin’ ’em white supremacists. A bunch of inbred dudes in biker leather and tattoos—the socially acceptable depiction of anarchistic assholes.” 

Ruben bobbed his head as if it was already a done deal. “Oh, yeah … all right. By the way, where’s the car?”

Fred stopped and looked both directions. “We need to take the escalator up to the next level. There’s a walkway to the parking structure.” He then shot a glance at Carver. “Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m not thinkin’ about makin’ it to retirement. It’s more like I’m wonderin’ what I haveta do to see my next paycheck.”

“Huh? What does that mean?”

“You’re a good man, Rube. There’s no denyin’ it. But just the same, workin’ with you oughta come with hazard pay.”

“Tell me about it … oh, that reminds me. I was supposed to call Henry when I landed.”

Fred drove through the Navy Yard gate at N Street SE, going straight to Harwood where he hung a left and followed the road around to Sicard Street SE. It’d been a tick over five months since Ruben had walked the same route to work every morning.

He’d transferred to headquarters in September ’05, to work for Henry who was, at that time, the global head of NCIS counterintelligence operations. Assigned as the desk officer for the Far East, Ruben was supposed to spend his days keeping an eye on CI operations out of Japan and Singapore. 

Officially, he’d been listed on the roles at headquarters for over nine months before he retired.  As he thought about it, though, he calculated the actual amount of time he spent behind the desk to be no more than three or four.

The first interruption was the Istanbul mission. Shortly after that, he took leave to help sort out a few issues troubling his Shin Bet girlfriend, Rivka Levitan. That resulted in time off while the Inspector General’s office conducted an investigation for misconduct and fraternization. Better than a violation of the executive order against assassination, I guess.

After that was the brouhaha in San Diego over the jihadist list. By the time he’d finally made it back to work at the Navy Yard almost a half-year had passed. 

Rivka hadn’t gone back to active service with Shin Bet, but she was traveling frequently for the Israeli organization on the odd contract. It was her request for assistance on one of those jobs that had Ruben submit his paperwork.

He figured he wouldn’t have been able to survive another IG investigation—known as a 2B in NCIS parlance—and settled on the metaphoric rocking chair. What he hadn’t counted on was Rivka taking a powder after they’d put a few Islamic tailors out of business. Men who were known for their explosive party apparel.

It’d been four months since she’d walked out of his life and he was still trying to get over it.

Fred had pulled into the parking lot across the street for the NCIS headquarters building, finding a slot reserved for its pool cars. 

“You can leave you bag in the trunk. I’m gonna hang on to the keys until we find out what our status is gonna be for the next few days. Have you got a hotel room yet?”

“I have a reservation at the Hilton on Connecticut Avenue. How about you?”

“I’m the opposite direction. I’m staying in Crystal City.”

“No worries.” Ruben pointed at the building. “This is their rodeo. It’s up to them to get us where we need to be.”

Three minutes later they were through the front doors and the mantrap. To Ruben’s surprise, the uniformed security at the guard station had his temporary badge in hand before he’d finished signing in.

“Special Agent Carver, you and Mr. Stacks are to go to the MTAC—on the second deck. Mr. Dever is waiting for you there.”

Ruben pulled off his overcoat and attached the badge’s alligator clip to his shirt pocket. “Thanks. Can I hang onto this for a few days?”

“You can. It’s coded to give you access to the building front and rear, and the FCI spaces on the fourth deck for the next three days. If you’re going to be here longer, you’ll have to go through the renewal process. It’s either that or apply for a permanent access card with admin.”

With a head bob, he and Fred marched off in lock step. It was lunchtime, and they had to jockey their way through a glut of personnel in the atrium. Near the rear security doors they found themselves in a riptide of liveware moving up and down the open stairwell to the second floor.

Halfway up, they met the director coming the opposite direction. No words were exchanged, but his nod of recognition did elicit a few comments from his obsequious entourage flapping behind on his coattails.

In a tone appropriate for the halls of the NCIS home office—a technique Carver had to learn the hard way—he uttered, “It’s Stranger in a Strange Land all over again. The only thing I ever agreed with headquarters folks about this place, is I don’t belong.”

On the landing they made two lefts and stopped at a double door, controlled by a ten key pad and card reader. Over the entry, in ostentatious block letters, was Multiple Threat Alert Center.

The MTAC was a repository and analytical nerve center for global threat intelligence. It was manned twenty-four hours a day by analysts, special agents, and military personnel, whose job was to link information on terrorist threats, interagency intelligence collection operations, counterintelligence, cyber mischief, and criminal activity.

Fred poked the intercom button below the keypad and was rewarded almost immediately with a feminine lilt demanding the reason for access.

“We’re here to meet Henry Dever.”

“One moment please.” Ten seconds later she was back on. “Face the camera and produce your IDs.”

When the latch clicked, Ruben tugged on the door knob and stepped into an antechamber where they received further instructions from a twentysometing with a thick mane of blonde disco curls and Dolly Parton implants.

“Mr. Dever is waiting for you, but before you can go inside, you have to place your cellphones in those bins,” an index finger with a two-inch, cubic zirconia studded nail extension pointed to their right, “along with any laptops or other electronic devices.”

Once that task was completed, she buzzed them through the inner door. It wasn’t the first time either man had been in the facility, but it was always an impressive sight. Especially since the rest of the building was so poorly accoutered. 

Headquarters, in general, was in a constant state of renovation, while at the same time in perpetual need of a paint job and fresh carpet. The MTAC, on the other hand, was state of the art—the jewel in the crown. Three thousand square feet containing sixty workstations, two offices, a theater briefing area, two multimedia conference rooms, and seventy-two square feet of wall space covered in television monitors of various sizes.

Ruben scanned the commodious bay and spotted Henry on the other side, waving at them from an open conference room door.

It took them a minute to circumnavigate the workstations and cross the briefing area in order to take Henry’s extended hand.

“I’m sorry I missed your call. There’s no cellphones in here and I was on a landline with Art, so the call forwarding didn’t work. How was your flight?”

“It woulda been better in first class.”

“Well, maybe the CIA can provide business class tickets, considering what Art’s got in mind. He’s waiting for us to call. We’re gonna video conference him in here.” Henry threw a thumb over his shoulder into the room. 

Ruben and Fred followed him into a ten by twenty-foot space filled with a three by a six oval table, six webbed high-back task chairs and a sixty inch flat screen monitor embedded in the wall.

“I can’t go with you on this one Rube, so I took the liberty of bringing Fred in as your backup.”

Ruben looked at Fred and nodded. “He’s definitely a good first choice.”

“He wasn’t … the first choice. I couldn’t get anyone else with enough experience to agree to the assignment.”

Ruben’s head slowly swiveled back to Henry. “You know in the movies when the guy says, ‘I got a bad feeling about this’ …”


Chapter Eight

The Briefing

“I’m sorry I’m not able to have this chat in person, but we’re in the middle of damage control around here.”

Carver was staring at a sixty-inch talking head he knew as Arthur Shepard—Art for short. A man who Carver had encountered first in 1972 on a hilltop fire support base in Vietnam. 

Art was the leader of a Marine Corps weapons squad supporting an ARVN company. The young lieutenant had provided aid to Carver, and what was left of his squad, after they stumbled out the jungle following a long-range reconnaissance patrol gone bad. 

Carver returned the favor by hanging around to help fight off two companies of NVA who subsequently overran the FSB. Art had caught a round in his ass during the assault, but what Carver remembered the most about that night was how naturally courageous, smart and determined a leader Art Sheppard had been.

Fast forward thirty-plus years and Carver ran into Art again in China. He was the CIA’s station chief in Beijing and a man who’d earned a reputation as a first rate hard-ass. A ruthless tradecraft practitioner, who’d had chunks of conscience chipped away from years in the cold war trenches. While it wasn’t exactly a cordial reunion, the results of Carver’s mission had apparently impressed the spymaster. 

With the approval of his boss and the director of NCIS, he called on Carver for the Istanbul operation and then again for the contract in Tokyo that brought him out of retirement. In each instance the big Okie was butting heads with The Board. 

An international cabal bent on global autocracy, The Board was all about the reshaping of the geopolitical map, as well as advancing the evolution of a one world cultural and economy. Over the last two years, Ruben Carver had been the albatross draped over the neck of the enigmatic order, having dismantled several of its more ambitious intrigues.

Before Henry had established the secure connection, he advised Art had recently been promoted within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, from Assistant Deputy Director of the Near East and South Asia Division to Deputy Director for NCS's community human intelligence operations, or HUMINT.

“Nice to see you again, Ruben. You’re looking fit.”

Carver sat with his hands in his lap and his ankles crossed, as he peered at the giant face with its underbite and jutting jaw. The shiny baldpate didn’t seem to balance the bushy white brows above heavy lidded, pale blue eyes.

“Yeah, thanks. I feel pretty good for a change. Although, since I’m sittin’ here, I’m sure you’ve got a plan to somehow fuck that up.”

“Succinct as ever. Who’s the man behind you?”

Before Ruben could answer Henry said, “This is Fred Stacks. An NCIS special agent from our San Diego field office. He’ll be Ruben’s second on the operation.”

“I half expected Adan Hanna. Isn’t he the one you normally plug-in to cover Ruben’s six?”

“We’ve used him on a few missions, but he’s unavailable for this one. He was promoted to an ASAC position in the Northwest.”

“Got him riding a desk, do ya? Well, he’s a good man. I hope Fred is as effective.”

“He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t. Fred was Adan’s training officer.”

Art’s lips pursed a tad listening to Henry’s endorsement, then continued. “Well all right then. Let’s get to it. What I’m going to tell you is classified Top Secret and has been compartmentalized. Henry has the documents you’ll sign that show you’ve been read in, along with the standard penalties for unauthorized disclosure.”

There was a momentary pause, then he continued. “Over the last month, four CIA case officers, functioning in nonofficial cover status, have been murdered. Two were found dead in their homes; one in Zurich and the other in Kuala Lumpur. The third was in the toilet of a Bangkok nightclub called The Dollhouse.”

Fred leaned forward and whispered in Carver’s ear. “I know that place, it’s in Soi Cowboy.”

Carver’s chin went up and down. “Remind me later to ask you why you know that.” He then refocused on Art.

“With regard to the two men in their homes, it appears they underwent aggressive, systematic interrogation before they were finished off with a single hollow point to the head. Our man in Bangkok was also shot in the head, but there were no other signs of torture.

“The only thing linking the NOCs were similar reporting on third party efforts to influence the successor decision in North Korea.”

“You said there were four NOCs who were killed,” Ruben interjected.

“I’ll get to number four in a minute.” He then took a breath. “Within days of each killing, analysts both at the CIA and NSA, people assigned the task of keeping an eye on suspected activity of The Board, were reporting on the deaths of several corporate officers from companies known to be owned by members of the order.

“It was no coincidence. While their deaths were made to look like natural causes or accidents, we’ve confirmed they were individuals recruited by the murdered NOCs into their respective source networks.

“At this point, we’ve surmised a motive. Just before any of this happened, Ruben here was hired to find out who and why one of your own had been tortured, shot and left for dead on a back street in Tokyo. He’d been running an asset against a group of Chinese scientists and engineers, and uncovered some intel about a centrifuges-for-oil deal between China and Iran.

“An interesting development, but fairly innocuous, considering the degree to which your man had been leaned on.” 

Carver cleared his throat. “His name is Junior Prosser.”

“Yes, well … be that as it may, what you subsequently uncovered was a conspiracy to set off a nuclear weapon on Japan’s main island and blame it on North Korea.”

Fred leaned forward. “Holy shit, is that for real?”

Art responded to the reaction. “Yes, it’s for real, but for all rational and political intents and purposes, it didn’t happen. Understand?” Fred sat back and waved at the screen. 

“I’m trying to provide some background. At any rate, we know for a fact it was The Board’s attempt to sway world sentiment, which would ultimately be a reason to instigate a military response against the totalitarian regime. 

“When it didn’t work out, they decided on a different tack. That’s when the reports started coming in. In effect, it was talk of a third-party purge of individuals who had a chance at staking a claim on the title of Supreme Leader, once Kim Jong-il was removed.

“I believe, as do a few of my other untainted colleagues, The Board wants to create a clear path to succession for a specific individual, and they’ve decided the best way is through attrition.”

“Well, if that’s the case,” Carver began, “why bother killin’ the NOCs if the cat’s already out of the bag?”

“It’s not about killing them because they passed on the intel to headquarters. It’s about The Board getting its own house in order. It’s one thing to have eyes and ears in the intelligence communities of every industrialized nation, but it’s another to have one of their own talking out of school.

“Those of ours who were killed, weren’t the only NOCs reporting similar intelligence. Once we made the connection, though, we brought the rest in.”

“So, what about number four?” Carver pried.

“She’d been placed in one of the firms I referred to earlier, managing a data analytics group in Hong Kong. Very sharp and a good producer, but she was an attractive, petite blonde and liked to party. Her weekends started on Thursday nights, but she managed to make it in every Monday morning.

“That is except for last Monday. When she didn’t call in sick, someone from the consulate was sent by her apartment to check on her.”

Fred sat forward again but addressed his question to Art. “Why didn’t you bring her in like the others?”

“Because she hadn’t been one of the NOC’s reporting on the North Korean connection. She was an analyst and had been reading about homicide investigations of female victims occurring very soon after the assassinations of the case officers and a number of the recruited corporate executives. 

“The victims were similar in size and appearance, suggesting a selection process. Some were prostitutes but not all, and the method used was so distinctly organized, they were without doubt serial.

“She believed she was on to something and formulated a profile theorizing it was the same person who’d been killing the NOCs and their agents. She forwarded the information to Virginia, but it didn’t get much play at the time.”

The executive function of Carver’s prefrontal cortex was kicking into high gear. He was already weaving together memory fragments that were being jogged loose and he didn’t like the image he was getting.

“What’d he find when he got to her apartment, Art?”

“Why would you put it like that?”

“What was the condition of her body?”

“They found her hanging by her heals from a ceiling fan in her bedroom. She’d been completely eviscerated.”

The towel he was sitting on was soaked, but it had enough cushion to keep his glutes from burning on the cedar bench. After more than thirty years of eliminating impediments to Agency spy operations, few things worked as well on the pain in Reggie’s arthritic joints and scar tissue than a dry sauna.

The amount of plastic surgery he’d undergone was also taking it’s toll. The damage to the nerves in his face had not only resulted in a near total loss of feeling, but muscle tension as well. His lips, which had been spread from the cutting and stretching of the skin around his mouth, drooped at the ends.

The only aspect of his features that survived over the years were his eyes. He’d refused to have them altered.

He straightened, and with arms bent, he flexed his shoulders backward, squeezing the scapulae together. Then he massaged his temples with the knuckles of his index fingers. A mental fatigue had recently developed in concert with his physical state. The lifestyle he’d carefully crafted over the years had lost its luster.

Even his proclivity for the hunt after a successful mission had become nothing more than a Reaper signature. The psychological release it had in his youth was gone. If you’ve field dressed one bitch … 

It wasn’t as if he’d grown a conscience. In his mind, killing presented a moral dilemma on par with ordering take-out. The problem, as he saw it, though, was an overwhelming weariness, and growing envy of people who had something to show for their hard work.

The lack of trophies wasn’t the issue. He never had the urge to reward himself in that way. From the early days of his training it had always been about the perfection of the process. The prey were just … meat.

 Over the years, though, when he’d visit accounts in their homes, he couldn’t help but take stock in the things they’d accumulated. The sum of which defined their personalities and characters. 

After an account was cancelled and he had an opportunity to give the wife or girlfriend the special attention she deserved—an activity which often included their progeny—he’d take the time to go through their things. Family albums, videos of vacation trips, labels on clothes, the quality of the sheets on the bed or towels in the bathrooms, were only a few of the items he studied.

 He’d looked in the refrigerator to assess their former culinary habits and checked the medicine cabinets for prescriptions and supplements. Those were particularly telling in life management.

It wasn’t necessarily an obsession. It was more like acquiring ideas for the house and lifestyle he’d enjoy settling down to. His little piece of heaven on earth.

He thought it’d finally come his way when a member of The Board came calling. It was no surprise, since he had a long-standing personal connection with the man who was instrumental in so many of Reggie’s own life choices. It was, in fact, inevitable Reggie would have a role in the organization. 

It was a not-so-secret international group, comprised of captains of industry, politicians, more than a few heads of state resting in the pockets of old money socialists, and nouveau riche capitalists—some barely old enough to shave—espousing static rhetoric. The Board viewed Reggie as a legacy acquisition, with a very specific and well-honed skill set.

With his desire for material possessions having grown beyond a product line influenced by his chosen profession, the remuneration The Board offered made leaving the Agency an even easier decision.

He’d been given a 1000-acre compound south of US route 12, in the Bitterroot wilderness area of Idaho. It was designed as a training area for mercenaries, which could have been mistaken for a college campus. It had a fifty-room dormitory, four multimedia classrooms, laboratories, a ten thousand square foot gymnasium, which included martial arts studios and a twelve lane, twenty-five-yard small arms range.

There was a fifty-meter pool, a half-mile track, a two-hundred-yard obstacle course, a rifle range, grenade pit, and a driving course with a skid pan. 

In addition to the complex, the teams he was assigned to educate and drill, had another twenty square miles outside the fence line, for advanced land navigation, infiltration, sniper training, extreme environment survival, and big game hunting.

Depending on the budget, talent acquisition, and long-term planning for high-risk operations, Reggie could run four classes of twelve-man teams through the facility four times a year. He’d cleared his first class for use two months earlier. 

A simple in and out incursion in a relatively unpopulated area of northern Japan. The squad’s job was to breach a hardened warehouse, kill everyone inside, grab the computer hard drives, servers, and CCTV records and leave the way they came. Easy peasy japanesey.

They didn’t make it back. The entire hit team was apparently wiped out within minutes of reaching its objective. According to the man who’d sponsored Reggie for his seat at the table, it was the fault of one dude.

When Reggie found out who it was, there was a moment of disbelieve, then a resurgent sensation of cosmic proportions. The very guy he’d encountered twice thirty years earlier, the same faggot cheese dick the CIA case officer wouldn’t let him finish, was somehow responsible for his team going tits up.

With The Board on his back about fielding a failure, Reggie stepped up as the Reaper to personally handle the wet work on the next series of high-risk tasks. He’d even left hiscalling cardon a ceiling fan in Hong Kong.

He pushed himself off the bench and strolled out of the sauna into a shower room where he rinsed the sweat off. His house on the compound was a two story, three thousand square foot one bedroom, one bath log cabin, with a professional kitchen. 

The rest of the place was a library workshop, where he custom loaded his ammunition, built his guns and his knives and managed the administration of what he liked to think of as the center for advanced study and training in the killing arts.

He slid the bathroom’s double doors apart, and stepping from the tiled floor onto a carpet made of animal skins, moved into his bedroom. The soft hides tickled the soles of his bare feet, as he walked to a six by eight-foot picture window. The edges of the glass had frosted over from a heavy snow that began its decent six hours earlier.

He stared down on what looked like four or five feet of powder and thought briefly about having the guys clear the helo pad. What was burning through his brain at that moment, though, was getting well overdue payback.

If the remains of the cunt in Hong Kong wouldn’t draw out that piece of shit, faggot motherfucker, then he was going to have find out what he did care about. For the first time in more than a few years, the excitement of the hunt was coming back. The Reaper was going to finally close an old wound by using his favorite skinning knife on one Ruben Carver. 


Chapter Nine

A Growing Suspicion

“Before you go into your ‘why me’ schtick, let me explain.”

Except for the moving lips, Carver could have sworn he was looking at a bust of Art Sheppard. Only a dead man had a better poker face.

“I’m all ears,” replied Carver. But he wasn’t, not really. He wasn’t gullible enough—at least when it came to the spymaster.

In the years NCIS had kept Frank Delacroix’s and Lieutenant Ford’s case files open, neither one had any promising leads. There wasn’t so much as a hint on the location of Reginald Paul Bryar—aka Reaper. 

On occasion, there were reports of investigations that floated in from both national and international databases, describing victims with the trademark butchery. A subject, however, was never identified, and while NCIS could provide copies of its quarter-century old investigative effort, nothing ever panned out.

In Carver’s mind, there was only one way a man like Bryar could remain invisible. He’d expressed the opinion to anyone willing to listen, from the day he was awarded his badge. 

The CIA had made it clear, however, it wouldn’t accept any requests for information on the matter. Carver had to be warned off more than few times in pursuing it through personal contacts in the Agency.

Now he’d been summoned for his next great big fucking adventure, and he waited for the same old glib explanation. The CIA is compromised with respect to The Board … yada, yada.

The mouth on the picture of Art began to twitch. “Okay, so like I said, the young woman in Hong Kong wasn't killed because of any North Korean reporting. She was killed because she was on the cusp of outing the person responsible for the deaths of our NOCs.”

Fred raised a lazy hand. “How exactly did she manage that?”

“She'd been asked to prepare an analytical piece on the NOC murders. In the process, she stumbled upon accounts of women who suffered the same treatment in newspaper reports from Zurich and Kuala Lumpur. 

“She then used her connection at the consulate to obtain copies of case files from Interpol, and the Malaysian Special Branch. After comparing the crime scene photos and the descriptions of the bodies, she requested a broader scope inquiry go out to law enforcement and intelligence agencies worldwide for cold cases with the same MO.

“Within a few days, she’d received jackets on more than a dozen unsolved investigations. They were identical in method and similar in victim selection with regard to size and body shape. The differences had to do with ethnicity or race. 

“The reason they'd never been connected was because of time and location. From Vienna to Vientiane, Tel Aviv to Taipei, the common thread was the noteworthy demise of a politician or business mogul—someone suspected of involvement in a growing national scandal or conspiracy—just prior to a woman's death.

“You have to understand, the analyst in Hong Kong wasn't a profiler per se, but it didn't take extraordinary mental acuity to conclude what she was looking at was a contract killer, an assassin, working for a well-funded organization or government agency. A group with a particular interest in the affairs of the country where he plied his trade and left his mark. 

“The cable she sent was the initial brush stroke in what was going to be a series of missives that would paint a reliable picture of the unknown subject.”

When the lips on the mannequin with Art’s face stopped moving, Carver drew his feet back and leaned forward in his chair, whispering, “Wait for it. Wait … for … it …”

“Someone in my organization didn't want that to happen.”

Carver leaned back with his hands in the air. “Oh, yeah, the money shot. Just squirt it all over the screen!” You fucking prick.

“Now wait a minute!”

“No, Art, you wait a minute. You know who this guy is and you probably know I know who the guy is. NCIS has been making inquiries about him with the Agency since 1973, and in every instance,  we were blown off.

“He works for the fucking Central Intelligence Agency, doing … what? Are you folks still calling it wet work or some other cute euphemism? You’ve got a nut case you’ve been usin’ in clear violation of Executive Order 12333, and since you want me to put an end to your problem—and don’t tell me that’s not why I’m here—I suspect he’s now off the reservation.

So what … he decided to make some real money by goin’ to work for The Board?”

It was a good thirty seconds before Art responded. In the same deadpan expression he’d maintained throughout the call, he said, 

“Yes.”

The setting was all too familiar. The three men had moved the party to a bar Carver favored in Adams Morgan. A jazz and blues club called Madam’s Organ, a ten-minute walk from the Continental. 

The boys had waited while he checked in and dropped his bag in the room. Then they hoofed it to the watering hole and settled at a table on the second floor. The same table where he griped to Henry about the Istanbul op a year and a half earlier.

Carver sat slumped, both hands on the tabletop, turning a whiskey tumbler back and forth between his palms. Henry was in front of him and Fred to his left, each with a half-finished drink of their own.

He hadn’t, as yet, set the seal on what was becoming a bitch session. Art always had a tendency toward the laconic, but to say Carver had reservations with the deputy director’s explanation of the mission scope couldn’t touch the internal conflict he was experiencing.

The swirling glimmer of Jameson left short legs at the bottom of the glass. Before he knocked it back, he raised it above his head, and in a voice loud enough for the bartender to hear, said, “Hey Gus, can we get three more over here?”

Carver saw the nod and tilted the remainder into his mouth.

Henry set his Tom Collins down. “Better go easy, there, cowboy. Alcohol and jet lag are a bad combo. Besides, you’ve been up for, what, twenty-five … twenty-six hours?”

Carver stared back. “Yeah, I guess. That sounds about right. It doesn’t matter, though, I’ve got a feelin’ I’m not gonna get much sleep on this one anyway.

Fred had been nursing a bourbon but drained it when Gus brought the next round. “You wanna give me a better run down on this Reginald Bryar dude?”

The big Okie gave a look around the room and then settled back in his chair. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Texas Floodwas coming through the house’s sound system, which made it easier to talk freely.

“I can tell you what I believe is still viewed as a gen crim case … no matter what Art has to say about it.”

For the next twenty minutes Carver relayed, in detail, his encounters with the guy who liked to fancy himself as Reaper. He left nothing out about the Navy nurse and the condition of her body. He talked about his first interview with Delacroix at the Majestic hotel and their chance meeting in Paris.

He had no qualms with regard to what he was doing in France, his reaction to seeing Bryar at the intersection and the responsibility he still felt about Delacroix’s death. 

After he described the fight in the middle of a Paris thoroughfare, he said, “I still have the fucker’s pistol. It’s in a safe deposit box at a Wells Fargo branch in Beverly Hills.”

He took a long pull on his whiskey. “There’s somethin’ else that’s buggin’ me. Art’s not tellin’ us everything.”

Henry nodded. “That wouldn’t surprise me. I think it’d be wise for him to keep his cards close to his vest. He did admit, though, Bryar worked for his organization. It wouldn’t be a big leap to assume Art had some personal experience in operations where Bryar had been used.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t say that … did he? It seemed to me he was doin’ his best to steer around what you and I know has the potential of becoming the elephant in the room.”

Fred glanced from one man to the other. “I don’t get it.”

Henry wet his lips with his first drink, while a puddle of condensate formed around the second. “Rube, here, thinks Art is still in contact with Reginald Bryar.”

Carver tapped the table like he was knocking on a door. “Get Art to send us an unredacted copy of the analyst’s cable. You can tell him we want to use it to formulate a possible next victim. We can even use our little buddy at the NSA. He’d be up for it.”

“You know I don’t like bringing that guy into out business.”

Fred scratched a spot on his cheek. “I’m still sittin’ here fellas. Wanna fill me in?”

“Henry has issues with a computer geek we turned back to the light side of the force, after The Board had him playin’ naughty with government computer systems a few years ago.” 

Carver’s eyes widened as he saw Henry’s head shake. “Okay, so he has some socialization issues … but he’s a genius at the keyboard. When it comes to data collection and link analysis there’s none better. He also has a nice light touch with electronic surveillance.”

“He’s a hacker and a traitor,” interposed Henry.

Pfff… labels. After I got the kid out of that burning skyscraper in Shanghai, and found him some gainful and legitimateemployment, he’s been a straight shooter. Now he gets to do for us what he did for The Board. He may not make as much money, but hey, he’s a respectable member of the community.

“Anyway, gettin’ back to the point, I’d like to know what the distribution was on the cable. Someone in Langley put a kill order on the analyst, and whoever that is would likely be a good bet on locating Bryar.

We can put Randy Hodges on that as well.”

“Is that the computer geek you were talkin’ about?” asked Fred.

In unison, the two men said, “Yes.”

Carver stirred an ice cube with an index finger. “Aside from our hardware needs and travel covers, I’d like to keep Art out of our day-to-day—at least until we figure out what side of the fence he’s standin’ on. He could be the one who had her killed.”

Henry was now the one looking around the room. “Whoa, hold on, your bigness. Art’s the one who brought us in on this. Remember? He wants her killer.”

Carver shook his head. “He wants Bryar, but that doesn’t mean the reason has anything to do with the analyst.”

“Yeah, I don’t know …” Henry squinted over tight lips. “I’m not ready to buy into the idea. Until we do have some analysis on the Agency’s distribution chain, we need a lead, and if I read his signals correctly, it’s Art who’s gonna put us on Reaper’s trail. 

I’m gonna keep Art in the loop on what we’re doing—at least for the time being.”

In no position to argue, Carver raised his glass, “You’re the boss, but do me a favor and quit calling him Reaper. If you don’t want to use his name, then call him shithead or dickwad. I don’t wanna validate the prick’s psychosis.”  

Carver put the glass to his mouth and stopped, “Ya know … there may be someone else we can enlist to help, but it’ll cost us a few bucks.”

“Whaddaya mean … like a source?” Fred had been working on his bourbon during the exchange.

“Not exactly. He’s more like a contact.”

Henry leaned forward, forearms on the table. “No. Absolutely not.”

“C’mon, Hank. You can’t deny he was a big help in Tokyo. He’s got no love for The Board, and he hasn’t tried to kill me in months. It’s got that whole ‘it takes a thief’ thing goin’ for it and he probably has more connections in that world than anyone else we could talk to.”

“Art will never go for it.”

“It’ll just have to be one of those things we don’t tell him.”

Art replaced the handset in its cradle and sat motionless staring at the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency, the wallpaper on his twenty-seven-inch computer monitor. He took a deep breath, cogitating on what he’d put in motion. 

Once again, he was yanking the chain on a man who had proven to not only possess an uncanny survival instinct, but the ability to win—at any cost. He couldn’t help but wonder if, by using Carver to put the Reaper down, he was digging his own grave.

He checked the clock in the top right corner of the screen, before pulling a bottom drawer open on the pedestal desk he’d had made from Chinese rosewood. A bottle of twenty-five-year-old Macallan sat in a velvet covered molded tray, along with a Rikke Hagen whiskey glass.

The cork came out with a soft pop and he poured just enough to cover the nub poking up from the bottom of the tumbler. He then took it all in one swallow. 

The glass had been designed to enhance the flavor of a beverage meant to be sipped. At that moment, however, he wasn’t interested in its taste.

The heat coming from on high wasn’t so much about the death of the the case officer in Hong Kong. While the rank and file morned her, along with her colleagues in Switzerland and Malaysia, much of the concern being jammed down his throat had to do with what she’d been able to piece together.

Art was one of the few who read the report. Some of it was solid inference, while the rest brilliant conjecture. In total it was a clear indictment on the use of certain prejudicial options that had been outlawed.

Even then it could have been shoved in a file and lost in the myriad of the “who cares” intelligence collection fodder, had it not been for the video. 

Some months earlier, the NOC had had her apartment broken into. Nothing had been stolen, but she could tell someone had made a point of touching nearly everything she owned. She’d also noticed the intruder’s interest seemed to settle for some time on the papers in and on her desk, as well as her desktop computer.

She assumed her cover had been blown, but instead of pulling up stakes and going back to DC for reassignment, it was agreed to leave her in place. The tech folks from the consulate went through the process of determining if the residence had been bugged. Apparently, they’d found a number of devices they considered Chinese in origin. 

Art wasn’t sure how they managed to turn the tables on the opposition. He assumed the devices the techies found were replaced with their own, but at that moment he didn’t give a shit.

None of this had been pushed to the senior management levels. The NOC didn’t feel it warranted any concern with regard to a physical threat. In her mind, as she posited it in her request for tech support with her handler, it was the typical heavy-handed approach by the Counterintelligence Division of the Ministry of State Security.

The idea was when whoever bugged her apartment came back to replace the ones removed, they’d get caught on camera. There was the possibility she’d be able to identify a coworker or two who then would become known Chinese intelligence officers.

Art poured another two fingers and setting the bottle down, tapped the return on the keyboard. The frozen image that came on showed a cramped apartment with a living room and open galley kitchen. 

Maybe it was the hanging pots and pans, the style of the loveseat and matching chair, or the neatly arranged desk with its Apple computer, which somehow gave it a feminine air. An inviting picture of warmth and comfort.  

In the middle of that dainty visage was Reginald Paul Bryar, standing naked with his hands and arms caked to the elbows, holding what looked like a paring knife. 


Chapter Ten

January 4, 2007

Ruben was scraping a razor over his face when the phone rang. He picked his watch off the counter squinting at the dial. Fred wasn’t supposed to be there for another thirty minutes.

He plucked the handset from its cradle, which was screwed to the bathroom wall.

“Charlie’s bait shop—we leave ’em out to dry.”

“Uh-huh, this must be the person with whom I am speaking.”

“Henry, what’s the word my man. Fred and I are gonna be at your office in an hour. Has somethin’ changed?”

“I talked to Art last night after I went home. I told him about our initial plan for you and Fred to go to Hong Kong. He agreed and sent me a email this morning. A charter flight outta Reagan’s been arranged.

“It’s scheduled to leave in two hours, but the flight crew has some flexibility since you two are the only passengers. I want you to hustle, anyway. I’ll text you the information for check-in.”

“Fred still has the g-ride. How do you wanna handle that?”

“Leave it at the Continental. The front desk can hang on to the keys until we send someone over to pick it up. The hotel should have a shuttle to the airport. Otherwise take a cab.”

Ruben stared at his reflection. The shave cream on his face had begun to dry in patches, and as if for the first time, he noticed the mustache he’d thought about growing protruded as uneven white stubble.

“Tell me, Henry, how many times have we said we’re gettin’ too old for this shit?”

“Before or after it became a movie cliche?”

“Yeah, right. Art imitating life …” A well-intentioned pun that caused another thought to float to the surface. “If we’re gettin’ the royal treatment, then Art musta packed us a goody bag we wouldn’t’ve gotten through luggage check.”

“I believe you are correct.”

“So, since you told Art our plan, can he arrange an interview with the ops officer who was managing the analyst? I guess they’re still callin’ ’em ‘handlers’?”

“I’ll pass on your request, but let’s not discuss it over an open line?”

“It’s not like I can pull a STU outta my ass, Hank. Since you want me and Fred to go straight to the airport, we’ll need support on the ground when we get to Hong Kong. The NCIS country referent would be a good start.

“I don’t know who that is, but his connection with the Hong Kong Police Force will hopefully allow us access to the analyst’s apartment and maybe a look through their murder book. I’d like to take a gander at the body as well.

“You know … we keep callin’ her ‘the analyst’. Why don’t we know her name?”

“I asked Art last night and her bio came attached with his email. Just a sec, let me pull it up on my screen. 

“Okay, here we go. Her name was Patricia Hemsworth—twenty-nine years old. Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana … graduated with honors from Ohio State in data analytics … makes sense … she earned a Ph.D. in cognitive science from Johns Hopkins … then went straight into the CIA.

“That’s the Reader’s Digest version. I’ll forward it to the Naval Attaché at the consulate in HK. You can view it there. It includes a photo.”

“Good, thanks. What about the cable that got her killed?”

“That came, too. I’ll send it as well.”

“Why don’tcha also send it to my SIPRNet email.”

“I can do that.” 

“Have you contacted Ryan Henderson?”

Henry’s response was not immediate. “Not yet.”

“Well, if you don’t I will. I want him on this one, Hank. I wanna see if we can identify the leak.”

“Now, what good is that gonna do again?”

“If we know who it is, we might be able use him to set a trap for the bad man. It’d definitely save us some time. 

“On the other hand, if we gotta Dick Tracy this thing, then I’d prefer to focus on his next target and Ryan’s got a good nose to sniff that out. It shouldn’t be too hard to narrow the field. We already know it has to do with The Board’s North Korean successor plan.”

“All right, I’ll see if he’ll help us. The NSA may have some interest in backing into this, anyway. Ryan was actually hired to track suspected global operations of The Board.

“We’ll continue the rest of this discussion after you get to Hong Kong. In the meantime, I’ll contact the SAC of the Far East Field Office and have him deploy the agent who’s handling HK. 

“I’ll also confirm that Art has ramrodded your country clearances through and ask him to set up the interviews you wanna conduct at the consulate. It’s likely they’ll spawn some new leads.”

“Yeah, I agree. Whatever the police determined in their investigation, it’s not likely they know she was a NOC. 

“I gotta sign off. Fred’s supposed to be here in ten minutes. I wanna finish shaving and put some pants on.” 

“Okay, later.”

Ruben was about to hang up when something else came to mind. “Oh, hey … you still there?”

“What?”

“I need a short layover in LA.”

“Talk to the pilot. It shouldn’t take too long to amend his flight plan. What’s in LA?”

“I’m goin’ to the bank.”

Reggie watched the chopper touch down. An impressive, four hundred-million-dollar medium-lift prototype designed to replace the U.S. Presidential transport fleet. It was called the VH-71, but according to the old man who appeared from its side door, its real nomenclature was “a big waste of time and money”.

Since The Board had been ignored in its offer to broker the commercial use of the aircraft, they made sure it wouldn’t reach the production phase. Never ending modification demands by the government, resulting in unrecoverable cost overruns, became the official reason.

As the blades rotated to a stop, the unmarked fuselage and tail boom were a reminder to Reggie how vindictive and petty the powerful clandestine fraternity could be. It wouldn’t do to be the cause of another perceived failure, even if his mentor was a plankowner.

Reggie held the cabin door for the rickety six-footer, his stride assisted by a silver-handled cain. Behind him was the man always in attendance during the visits. A combination valet and bodyguard, he was six-seven, and at least two and eighty pounds of bulging muscle. 

The old man called him Harvey. Whisper quiet, he was light on his feet, and had a flexibility and an economy of movement indicative of years in the arts. In any other environment, the intimidation factor alone would have been enough for his employer’s security. All Reggie wondered was where he could drop the pug without breaking any furniture.

Reggie had been warned of his sponsor’s arrival in time to drag out a pair of easy chairs from storage. The buffalo leather high-backs, he knew the old man favored, were separated by an end table and positioned in front of the stone fireplace—away from the windows. On the table was a bottle of peppermint schnapps with two shot glasses next to a crystal ash tray. 

While Reggie didn’t smoke and hated the German liqueur, he knew better than to deny his guest. There were aspects in their relationship that dictated a certain civility.

His name was Helmut Jaeger. A gifted pioneer in biochemistry, he’d made his fortune in pharmaceuticals after the Americans liberated him from the Russian occupation of Berlin. With his Nazi party history and implication in war crimes forgiven, he started life over helping the United States advance its lead in biological warfare.

By all accounts a solid citizen, he nevertheless harbored character traits he’d developed during the rise of the Reich. Although he didn’t believe in the inherent superiority of the aryan, it provided the outlet he needed to cultivate the expression of his nature unencumbered.

 He intellectualized it as social debridement. An attribute he’d spent a considerable amount of his valuable time transferring to one of his more talented offspring.

“Harvey, I think it is warm enough in here to forgo the coat and hat.” 

Reggie knew the old man’s English was impeccable, but as a lifestyle choice, he refused to dampen the German accent. It may have been an identity issue for the geezer, but it always reminded Reggie of Colonel Klink. Shuuultz!

Harvey lifted the fedora, uncovering snowy white hair. It was wavy but sparse and combed flat with oily tonic. When the overcoat was removed, Jaeger was in a three-piece Savile Row gray flannel pinstripe. The starch in the heavy, ivory cotton bespoke shirt, could have had it double as a corset.

Six months shy of his ninetieth birthday, Jaeger’s sallow skin was a thin veneer, pulled tight over his skull. His teutonic nose, long and narrow, was a topographic map of spider veins. The lipless, wrinkled mouth moved perpetually against yellow stained dentures.

What belied this ancient biscuit, however, were his eyes. Sunken, faded orbs, which saw everything; missed nothing.

When he eased himself into a chair, he pulled a silver case from an inside pocket, flipped it open and picked out a cigarette with a filterless brown wrapper. Then from the same pocket came a six-inch silver holder. While he prepped the smoke, he allowed Harvey to light it for him.

“Pour us a drink Reggie and sit down. I will not be here long, but I believe it is important to discuss the importance of your mission and set a few priorities.”

Reggie said nothing. He poured the schnapps to the rim of each glass, lifting one for Jaeger who took it with a steady hand.

After sitting, Reggie raised his, and with a quiet salute they emptied them in unison.

“The original operation is in place. The Board anticipates, which is to say, I anticipate your first target should be relatively easy. The North Koreans won’t be expecting it. After that, with each succeeding mark, you will obviously experience some resistance.”

Reggie gripped the bottle neck. “Would you like another?”

“No thank you. After each kill we will provide you a safe house and further instructions. We do not particularly care if the assignments look like accidents or natural causes, but you must insure there will be as little collateral damage as possible. Do not make a public spectacle.”

“You know, Herr Jaeger, as much as I enjoy our get togethers, this is somethin’ we could discuss through normal comms channels. Why don’t you tell me what’s really on your mind.”

Jaeger sucked on the holder without inhaling. “Now that you are free from the … inconvenienceof the Central Intelligence Agency, I have decided, per your own request, to allow you to pursue your side interest.

“The other members of the Board have been reticent, considering how successful Ruben Carver has been in disrupting some of our other projects. Japan was, of course, no exception.”

Reggie could feel the ends of his mouth move up his face.

“I have assured the Board, this extracurricular activity will not interrupt your primary mission. That said, I am here to relay personally, the newest member of our order has placed Carver in your path. 

“The elimination of the female in Hong Kong worked as planned. I would also add, your mastery of the aesthetic was duly noted. I believe your skill has surpassed even mine.

At any rate, my boy, your prey will be hunting you.”

Perfect. I’ll eat his fucking liver.“Thank you, Herr Jaeger. This is good news. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity. Have my travel arrangements been made?”

Ja. Your ticket for Hong Kong is waiting for you in San Francisco, along with your target package.”

“Will Carver be there?”

“From what I understand, he will. I don’t believe I have to emphasize that Carver is as you have described him, a target of … opportunity. The Board would very much like to see him come to a well-deserved end, but he is not the priority.”

Reggie straightened, bracing his hands on his knees and nodded. “Would you like to stay for lunch, Herr Jaeger?”

“That would be nice, but no. I have another appointment this afternoon. And please, Reggie, I have told you, when we are alone, there is no reason to be so formal.”

“Whatever you say … dad.”

“Ryan Henderson, this is a non-secure line.”

“Hey, Ryan, this is Henry Dever.”

Dever heard the chuckle on the other end of the line. “Mr. Dever, long time to no hear. What’s Carver want now?”

“Tell me Ryan, have you been tappin’ our phones?”

“Haven’t you been keepin’ up with the news, we’re tappin’ everybody’s phone. But to answer your question specifically, no … I’ve not been eavesdropping on you guys. That’s handled by a different department.

“Honestly, Mr. Dever, whenever I hear from you—and it happens a whole lot more than I like—it’s ’cause Carver’s got his balls in a sling.”

As Henry gave the comment a think, he had to concede it was probably true for almost all of Carver’s associates. Particularly, in the past few years.

“You have a point. What time do you break for lunch?”

“Don’t eat lunch. I’m on the ketogenic diet and micro-fast between breakfast and dinner.”

“What … you’ve got epilepsy or somethin’?”

“Huh? Noooo, whaddaya talkin’ ’bout epilepsy. I stay fat adapted ’cause I have great abs and plan on keepin’ ’em.”

I’m talkin’ to fuckin’ Gilligan.“Listen, I need to see you today. Do you think you can break your fast just this once? If you don’t want to eat, fine. You can watch me, I don’t care.”

There was an obvious sigh. “Okay, when and where?”

Henry leaned back in his chair, the phone jammed against his ear. “One hour, at the rear entrance of the NCIS headquarters building. We’ll go from there.

Oh, and one more thing.”

“This is where you get me in trouble, right?”

“No, not really … well, probably not really. I want you to find Sonny Xú’s contact information and send it to Carver.”

“How do you want me to do that?”

“You’re the NSA, do whatever you do to find that kinda info.”

“That’s not what I’m askin’. I already have Sonny’s number. He’s gone completely corporate. The dude’s even got a frickin’ website. How do you want me to contact Carver?”

“You might try calling him.”


Chapter Eleven

January 5, 2007 - Los Angeles

In concert with the bank manager, Ruben slid his small tarnished key in the second slot on the safe deposit box. In unison they twisted them counterclockwise. 

The banker then pulled her key free and looked at Ruben. “When you’re ready to store the box, press the call button and I’ll be right with you.”

Ruben nodded, and the woman stepped out of closet sized viewing room. Fred was standing next to him as he lifted the lid, and they both peered into the container. 

“Well, what have we here?”

The general shape made it obvious, but the pistol was wrapped in a dated oilcloth. The aroma of the fabric-soaked preservative, pleasant to most gun queers, wafted in the small space.

Ruben pulled it out and laid it on the table. “Be my guest.”

Using the tips of his thumb and forefinger, Fred peeled the cloth away and hefted the firearm. He ejected an empty magazine into his left hand, set it down and racked the slide to confirm a clear chamber.

“This is what the guy pulled on you in Paris?”

“Yep.”

“A Browning Hi-Power. Man, this is a stone-cold classic. I’ve always wanted one of these.”

“I thought you’d like it.” 

Fred studied the scratches on the slide and frame, twisted the cap from the end of the extended barrel and checked the threads. He then raised the weapon and gazed down the sights. With his left eye closed he squeezed the trigger. 

“It’s got some holster wear and looks like it’s been dropped a time or two.”

Ruben raised an eyebrow. “Only once that I know of.”

“I can see it’s had some work done to it. The barrel’s pretty obvious, along with the porting, and it’s definitely had a trigger job. It couldn't be more than a three pound pull.”

“Yeah, it’s been tricked out. Here, lemme have it.”

Fred handed it over and Ruben pulled the slide back and forth a few times. After dry-firing twice, he locked the slide back, and looked for any visible signs of rust before going through the process of a field strip.

Satisfied with its condition, he reassembled it and spun the thread protector back in place. He then inserted the magazine in the grip well and tucked the pistol in his waistband. As he cinched his belt a notch, he wished he’d brought a holster.

The few times he went Hollywood with a firearm, it always seemed to end in an embarrassing moment. A retention nightmare, with the shooter slipping into the crotch or seat of his pants. If he couldn’t find a men’s room to retrieve it, the weapon invariably dropped down a pant leg. Try ’splainin' that away while standin' in a teller line.

“There should be two more magazines in there,” Ruben pointed at the safe deposit box, “along with the suppressor that came with the gun.”

Fred reached in and pulled them out. “These magazines look new. How long have you stored this stuff?”

“I guess it’s been almost thirty years. I don’t know that I ever expected to carry the thing. If I ever packed a single action nine, I’d want something with a little more punch. Maybe a 38 super on a 1911 frame. I hear they come in .357 sig now, too. 

“Anyway, a solo nine round magazine seemed a bit light to me. I bought the extras from a dealer here in LA.”

Ruben put the suppressor in an inside coat pocket, next to his wallet and pushed the call button. “There’s a range in Inglewood, not far from the airport. We should be able buy +P hollowpoints if we show ‘em our badges. 

“It might even be a good idea to shoot a box to see how well the gun stands up to those. There shouldn’t be any compression fatigue with the magazines and the slide action feels good, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“So, tell me again, why are we goin’ to all this trouble? I mean, don’t get me wrong … I get excited about a day at the range like anybody else, but we’ve already got a small arsenal sittin’ on the plane.”

“Ever since that motherfucker tried to shoot me with it, I’ve never gotten past the desire to return the favor. Know what I mean?”

“No, not really.”

There was a knock at the door and Ruben pulled it open. Before the bank manager entered Fred stepped out.

“Are we gonna stay another night?”

Ruben thought about it for a second. “I don’t know ’bout you, but I’d rather not. You’ve got the pilot’s number, right?”

Fred pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket. “Sure do.”

“Why don’tcha give him a call and see if we can be outta here this evening.”

“Dude, I thought you loved LA.”

“Nah, I gave that t-shirt to Goodwill a long time ago.”

It was dusk when the commuter landed in San Francisco. Reggie had hitched a ride with the old man to Boise, and from there arranged a charter.

His destination was North Beach—thirty minutes through the city by BART. He’d snagged a seat when he boarded at the airport, but the view of the cityscape was soon impacted by rush hour strap-hangers. 

As he sat surveying the other passengers, thinking about the need to cull the herd, he considered getting off at Civic Center. A hike into the Tenderloin, where he could cruise for a little Chinese, was tempting. After the cleanup, he’d go into Chinatown to his favorite dim sum joint.

Reggie’s cell began to vibrate against his chest. The caller ID was blocked, but there was only one person with his number. He figured the old man must have sensed a vibe. They were kindred spirits, after all.

Forgoing any familiarity, he answered in a whisper. “Reaper.”

“Oh, good. Thank you for taking the call.”

“Uh-huh.” As if I’d blow it off.

“Now that you’re in the city, we would prefer you go directly to the condominium.” The disembodied voice was the same, but no longer cordial. A rehearsed intonation to signal an official call by The Board.

It’s not what he wanted to hear. From Reggie’s earliest memories, taking orders was a matter of discipline. His congenital nihilism had been tempered, at times violently, by a simple rule-based existence. 

He always followed the instructions of the recognized authority, never exceeded the parameters of a contract, and when he did exercise any natural inclination, he was never to get caught. Those were currently the top three.

“I’m hungry.”

The phone went dead. He’d been put on hold and he knew to wait.

“I believe you’ll find the cupboards are not bare. The refrigerator has been freshly stocked with items matching your culinary taste.”

The train had entered Daly City, making a stop at Balboa Park station. Reggie looked up and down the car, memorizing faces and watching those getting on. He mentally flagged anyone who paid him any notice.

He had no intention of breaking rule number one, but rule number three required a reason.

“Have I been compromised?”

“Your cover is intact. Your stay in San Francisco, however, is too brief for any impromptu frivolity. We’d rather you didn’t go out to play.”

The feeble fucker just loves to yank my chain.

“The target package should provide you all the diversion you’ll need this evening.”

“Okay, thanks for the call. I’m on the train, so if you got any other issues you wanna talk about, give me a call back in an hour or so.”

“Yes. of course. Auf wiederhören.”

Once again, the phone went dead, but this time the call disconnect was evident.

When he reached Embarcadero station, he debated whether or not to walk the rest of the way. Technically, he wasn’t disobeying his elderly mentor, but it would take at least thirty-minutes—an hour with a pitstop or two.

Instead, he compromised by jumping on a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf, using a clipper card he had from his last trip to the city by the bay. If he really wanted company that night, he could always call a number he had in his wallet. That actually defeated the purpose, though. It was like fishing in a stocked pond.

Aside from the precision required, the other aspect that activated the physical and mental release, was knowing the carcass would be seen by others. A viewing in a makeshift gallery.

At one point, he’d even considered posting photos of his work on the internet, but after some research, decided against it. The possibility of having it traced back to his location, no matter how temporary, raised the odds of being detected. 

He never worried about capture. However, the loss of law enforcement life, particularly to the degree he envisioned, would bring about a rash of criticism, or worse … censor. While Helmut Jaeger may not have been affected by traditional mores—being an aficionado of the art form—he was still ruled by the consensus of The Board.

The safe house was a shared residence for out-of-towners and was off limits to Reggie’s proclivities for fleshy objet d'art. The Board didn’t want the hassle of a multi-million-dollar bay-front property being defiled.

Don’t mean nothin’ … I can wait.As he jumped off the trolley to walk the three remaining blocks up a steep grade to the condo, he reminded himself of the reason for his reinvigoration. This resurgence of interest in the hunt had to do with nothing more than settling an ancient score. 

He detested the memory of running away, leaving that piece of shit upright, not even breathing hard. Akin to a virus that would cause periodic skin lesions, he was plagued with recurring bouts of unexplainable embarrassment or anger. 

For more than twenty-five years, it would sneak up on him and then persist for days. He couldn’t kill enough, torture enough, or butcher enough to keep it at bay.

Now that he’d finally learned to control the sensation, the illusive vaccine for what had ailed him was almost at hand. I guess all good things do come to those who wait … 

The condominium complex had key card access and was staffed by a twenty-four-hour guard service. Reggie suspected it was a rental property owned by a member of The Board. The unit he occupied, however, was always the same, which suggested it was the only one set aside for this type of use.

It was a two bedroom, two and half bath on the fourth floor. Painted in various shades of gray, it was lit with wall lamps and pendent lighting.

The living room had sliding glass doors to a cedar deck, with a view of the Wharf, Alcatraz island and the Presidio. He wasn’t much on landscapes, unless it involved a sniper position, but overall he enjoyed the comfort.

After he took a leak, he went into the kitchen, grabbed a bottled beer from the refrigerator and spotted a three-ring binder on the counter. It was the target package.

He set it aside for the time being and wandered to the back bedroom. That’s where he found his weapons cache and Pelican cases, a couple of empty suitcases and a closet full of clothes, shoes, boots and tactical gear. As usual, he’d decide his load-out after studying the contents of the binder.

At the moment, all he wanted to do was finish his beer, fry some bacon and eggs and muse on what he was going to do to that faggot shit stain Carver.

They didn’t spend more than thirty-minutes at the range. It took them longer to fill out the safety questionnaire, read the range rules, and listen to the patronizing bullshit coming out the mouths of the counter staff, then it did to actually load and shoot fifty rounds.

Using his government credit card, Ruben bought out the gun club’s remaining inventory of +P, which amounted to five boxes—250 rounds. If he got the jump on the prick, he wouldn’t need more than one or two, but there was no need to be stingy. Pumping two or three magazines into the asshole—just to be sure—seemed reasonable.

The pilot had expressed his pleasure in getting off the ground by having them in the air at seven pm. The flight plan and preflight inspection were expedited, and they were slotted at the front of the line.

Art had placed a Gulfstream G450 at their disposal. It was indeed a great ride, but its limited range meant stopping for gas at the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay and Atsugi, Japan. In both locations, they taxied onto an apron where a refueling truck was waiting for them. The cabin crew supervised the operations, while the pilot and co-pilot remained in place.

Ruben had traveled with the commander of the Seventh Fleet more times than he wanted to remember. In most instances it was in a P-3 Orion. A four-engine turboprop ordinarily used for anti-submarine and maritime surveillance. Noisy and slow, the only conversion for the admiral’s repose was some crappy padded seating.

The Gulfstream screamed luxury. Fast and quiet, it had leather cabin seating that reclined into beds, and a fully stocked bar and galley. The other feature was the onboard terminals with internet connectivity, and access to both the NIPRNet and SIPRNet.

Ruben was able to open the file Henry sent him containing the Patricia Hemsworth’s bio and her last cable to headquarters—a ten-page dispatch of impressive depth. She had built a link analysis from newspaper and media accounts, law enforcement results of investigations, various intelligence collection reporting and everything the FBI had in its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP.

She’d given an amazingly accurate profile of the man who liked to call himself Reaper. She was also trenchant in making the claim the killer was someone who worked for the CIA. 

The people he executed were, in almost every instance, individuals that were listed as persons of interest by the Agency. The female victims, in Hemsworth’s opinion, amounted to the killer’s signature after what were likely sanctioned operations.

As he scrolled through the cable, Ruben lingered over an incident in Tel Aviv almost six months earlier. It fit the profile only in the manner in which the person had been eliminated and the attendant femme dissection.

The anomaly was the primary target didn’t seem to have a strong connection to any Agency prejudice. Much of the investigative effort had been conducted by the Non-Arab Affairs Department of Shin Bet—the Israel Security Agency.

“Hey, Fred!”

Stacks, beer in hand, was leaning over an open Pelican case mentally itemizing the hardware they were smuggling into Hong Kong.

He didn’t bother to look up. “Yeah?”

“Come ’ere and check this out.”

He continued to stare into the case as he stood and then walked forward. “What is it?”

“I’m goin’ over the report Patricia Hemsworth sent to CIA headquarters. It’s lengthy, but take a look at this.” Ruben placed an index finger on the monitor, then moved out of the way allowing Fred to sit down.

The special agent took a moment to skim the entry. “So, what am I supposed to make of this? How is it any different to the other murders?”

“Well … from a timing perspective, it seems to fit with Bryar’s supposed departure from the CIA. If he is, in fact, plying his trade for The Board, it seems they’ve got a hard-on for the Israelis.”

Stacks said nothing as he stared at the screen.

Ruben sat down across the narrow aisle. “If Shin Bet is involved, then they’re lookin’ at it as an internal security issue … maybe as terrorism, but more than likely as a political hit. 

“Anyway, I’m wonderin’ if they’ve made the connection between the killing and gutting of the female, and the bullet in the brain of the Israeli industrialist?”

Stacks’ face swiveled back and forth a few times. “How could they? The analyst put it together because she noticed a pattern in the NOC assassinations. I doubt Shin Bet has been made privy to this report … but we can prob’ly find out easy enough.

“By the way, whatever happened to that Israeli hammer you were datin’? She was Shin Bet wasn’t she?”

Ruben slumped back in the seat, forearms on the rests. “I guess she still is. We split in September and she cut off all ties after that.”

“Geez, wha’d you do to bring that on? I kinda thought she was into you.”

“Couldn’t tell ya. I just woke up one morning to a note tellin’ me she had things to do.”

“Well that definitely sucks. You musta been waterin’ down your bourbon with tears.”

“Tell me about it. I really thought she was the one.” Ruben’s brow rose and he sucked in his cheeks. “Fuck it. It’s not the first time. 

“I’ll shoot an email to Art and see if he can put us next to someone in Israel. My experience with the tribes tells me they wouldn’t drop their investigation. Who knows, we might get lucky and find out they’ve already got a lead on Bryar.”


Chapter Twelve

January 6, 2007 - Hong Kong

By the time they landed in Hong Kong they’d been in the Gulfstream for nearly twenty-hours. While it may have been the most comfortable aircraft Ruben had ever flown, he still had difficulty sleeping. The low drone, soft vibration and random turbulence kept him from going deeper than a fractured doze.

Fred, on the other hand, seemed to be one of those folks who had no problem knocking-off. When they left Kaneohe Bay, he’d conducted an inventory of Art’s other contribution, which now included the Browning they picked up at the bank. He then stretched out after stowing it back in a concealed compartment, and within a few minutes his breathing went slow and steady, with some intermittent snoring.

He awoke briefly when the plane set down at the Atusgi Naval Air Station but was catching z’s again before they taxied for takeoff. A crewman came through the main cabin thirty minutes before they landed in Hong Kong, waking Fred up in time to complete the immigration and customs forms. 

While Ruben envied Fred’s constitution, the conversation they’d had about the murders in Tel Aviv sparked an email Ruben sent to Art and cc’d to Henry. It took a couple of hours to draft, since his thoughts kept meandering to Rivka and pondering all the what ifs, andthe maybe I should’ves.

 He was still feeling sorry for himself when the cockpit door opened, and the co-pilot stepped out. There was a smile below weary eyes as he walked aft toward the two special agents. The name tape on his olive drab flight suit read “Phillips”.

“We’re going to open the hatch here and drop the ladder. There’s an escort waiting for you guys on the tarmac.”

Fred stood and raised his arms above his head twisting left and right to stretch his lats and lower back. Ruben moved to the opposite bulkhead to look out a window.

There were two Chinese men in blue, ill-fitting uniforms, standing at attention maybe ten feet beyond the tip of the port side wing. 

Ruben turned his attention back to Phillips. “Are there any problems with us being here?”

“No, no. We had to notify them there would be two disembarking now. You’ll have to go through the standard immigration and customs procedure.” His head bobbed toward the hatch. “Since you’re arriving on what they view as a US government aircraft, they’ll take you through their VIP processing. However, you can expect to have your bags searched.”

“That’s not a problem, at least as far as our luggage is concerned. Did you tell ’em why we’re here?”

“I don’t know why you’re here, but the captain did advise them you’re here on business.”

Ruben looked out the window again. “Did you bring your official passport, Fred?” Ruben referred to the brown cover travel document issued to US government employees and contractors who traveled on official business.

“Yeah, I’ve got both.”

“Good. There shouldn’t be a problem then.”

The co-pilot cocked his head. “Why would there be a problem?”

“You did say the airport authority considered this a US government plane. The captain said we were here on business and they could reasonably believe it’s official governmentbusiness. If that’s the case, they’ll expect an official passport. The last time I came through here on one, no visa was required. Let’s hope it's the same this time.”

“I wouldn’t know about that. The crew always travels on tourist passports, with reentry visas for countries in Asia that require ’em. In Hong Kong we get the standard ninety-day window like any other Joe Citizen. That’s how it’s worked in the past, anyway.”

Ruben stood and draped his overcoat over a forearm. “I’m assuming Fred and I aren’t listed as crew?”

Phillips shook his head. “Well, actually, you are. So, if you’ve got the blue covers it might be better to use them.”

The corners of Ruben’s mouth bent down and his eyebrows up. “Okay … I guess we can do that, if you think it’ll keep you from takin’ any grief.”

Phillips rubbed his hands together and hunched his shoulders. “I’d appreciate it.

“Oh, just so you’ll know, if you haven’t been told already, this aircraft, along with its real crew has been assigned to you. We’ll take you wherever you need to go.

“Since we don’t know how long we’re going to be here, we’ve requested hanger service. The locals have advised they want to board and check the aircraft for contraband. We can’t claim diplomatic status, so we can’t deny ‘em.”

Fred had bent over to touch his toes and rose when he heard the last comment. “What about our special cargo?”

“They won’t find it. Their checks are mostly cursory. They like to see what we’ve got in the galley and they’ll probably confiscate a couple bottles of booze.

“The consulate has sent a car, though, and the driver has advised we’re carrying a diplomatic pouch he needs to retrieve.”

“How does that help us? Would he be willing to haul our gear, as well?” Ruben asked.

“I’m assuming he’s actually here to collect your stuff, ‘cause we didn’t bring a diplomatic pouch. If you want to wait for him and find out, the authorities should allow him access to the hangar space. That’s where we’ll transfer the case to the car’s trunk.” 

Ruben looked back at Fred. “It’ll probably complicate things if we stick around. We don’t want anybody gettin’ the idea we’re somehow connected to that thing.”

Fred nodded, and then to the co-pilot said, “Could you ask the driver to take it back to the consulate and give it to the naval attaché? We’ve got his number and can tell him it’s coming.”

Ruben agreed. “If we do that, we can have the attaché bring us anything we need in a backpack.”

“What about the body armor?”

“Oh, yeah … well, maybe he can put ‘em in a garment bag. It doesn’t matter, we’ll figure it out. Let’s go.”

The Hong Kong immigration officials did take exception to the two American special agents landing in their fair city on tourist passports. One officious little prick in particular thought it warranted an interrogation and separated the two men.

Before the questioning resumed, they were patted down, and their suitcases dumped. The inspectors touched and crunched everything. About the only thing they didn’t do was sniff the underwear.

Fred got the worst of it, though. A 9mm round was found in the fold of his suitcase liner. Ruben could hear the gong feigoing ape-shit and later heard the probing details of his buddy’s strip search. The big Okie sympathized but figured it was another gripping tale of intrigue Fred could regale the newbies with back home. The description of the finger wave was especially poignant.

Ruben’s Cantonese was rusty, and he decided from the start he’d make the wángbā dànuse English. No speaky Chinee, húndàn.

After a few minutes shy of three hours, he was finally allowed a call to the American Consulate. A message was sent to the naval attaché, who got the consulate’s Regional Security Officer involved, who in turn contacted the Hong Kong police.

Thirty-minutes later they were standing in the queue for a taxi. 

Not only was Fred steamed over their treatment, he was having difficulty standing up straight. Through tight lips, he declared, “That was totally fucked up. Why the fuckwas no one here to pick us up?”

For Ruben, it wasn’t just the last three hours that had him tripping over his thoughts. The lack of sound sleep had him spacing out and he could’ve sworn his eye sockets were lined with sandpaper. 

“Maybe we shoulda climbed in the trunk with that ‘diplomatic pouch’. Anyway, I’m hungry, and you, my friend, need a drink.”

They climbed into a grimy, red Toyota Comfort and as Ruben moved from the curbside door to behind the driver, he could feel his trousers sticking to the plastic cover on the bench seat. Before Fred slammed the door, Ruben instructed the cabbie to take them to the Grand Hyatt in the Wan Chai.

It was pushing five pm, and while the sun was dipping low on the horizon, it’d be another forty or fifty minutes before it set. The traffic on the bridge out of the airport was light and moving at a hundred klicks an hour. Things changed when they entered the traffic stream leaving Lantau Island. It was bumper to bumper slowing to a trickle.

Ruben knew it would have been cheaper and faster to take the MTR, but neither he nor Fred were in the mood to schlepp their bags through the crowd in the station. With the brake lights popping on as they passed the Disneyland resort, Ruben knew it’d be almost an hour to the hotel. The only upside was they’d be delivered to the door.

As they crept across Tsing Ma bridge toward Kowloon, Fred asked, “Is your face tingling?”

“Uh-huh, I can feel it in my throat, too.” Ruben leaned his face close to the window and gazed out on Victoria harbor. 

The skyline on both sides were hidden in a thick, brown inversion layer. “I heard the coal-fired factories in Guangdong are runnin’ day and night now. It looks like their contribution to the environment has settled in Hong Kong.

“I don’t remember it ever bein’ this bad. It we stick around here too long we’re gonna be coughin’ our lungs up.”

“I gotta tell ya, Rube. I’ve always appreciated your positive point of view.”

Carver’s head twisted toward his partner. “How so?”

“You’re worried about COPD, when it’s more likely housekeeping at the hotel will find us strung up, with our guts on the floor.”

“That’s me, pal … always lookin’ on the bright side. Have you got a breath mint?”

The red light on the receiver began to flash as he took the last bite of a chocolate eclair. Reggie always liked the afternoon tea at Tiffin—a buffet style cafe on the mezzanine level above the lobby of the Grand Hyatt.

It didn’t have a great seating arrangement for a restaurant. It was spread around a half dozen, polished onyx pillars that held the ceiling aloft above the lobby entrance. The buffet, which was overflowing with lobster tails, shrimp, and oysters on a half-shell, as well as salads, bread, and cheese, was surrounded by scattered tables piled with dessert assortments. Crammed at the side of that culinary cacophony was a full bar, with two tenders engaged in shaking and stirring exotic libations. 

For the monied Chinese and the remnants of British colonization, who loved to wallow in the epicurean, it was one of several hotel high-teas where they could get their glut on. For Reggie, it was the noise and the crowd—the energy of his prey at a shared watering hole.

There was a lounge singer on a piano, barely audible over clinking plates and glasses, along with the loud conversations of groups around tables, and on sofas. He sat watching, with his back to the twelve-foot window that stretched the length of the mezzanine. A panorama of the city and the mouth of the harbor he had no interest in.

He caught the eye of a waitress for his bill and dropped the receiver in a coat pocket. It had a VHS range of two miles, which he calculated gave him about ten minutes. 

She was quick, and in appreciation, he laid a pile of bills in the guest check presenter. He then moved to a spot along the mezzanine rail, where he’d have full visibility of the lobby and registration counter.

Before he left San Francisco, he’d received a text with the tail number of a private jet headed for Hong Kong. Based on the information, Reggie’s direct flight would put him in the special administrative region, at a minimum, seven hours ahead of the so-called special agent who was listed as a crew member.

When Reggie landed, he made a call to a local number for the safe house address and from that person, obtained the name of a venal apparatchik in the airport’s immigration office. For five hundred Hong Kong dollars, along with a promise of more, Reggie stood behind a two-way mirror and watched the first hour of the official’s interrogatories.

 By the time he left, he knew where Carver was staying, the purpose for his visit, the name of his little buddy he’d brought with him, and his contact at the consulate. He even learned where the airplane he arrived in was hangared.

Unlike the local government officials, bribing hotel staff for information was a little trickier. He settled on providing a transmitter the corrupt inspector hid in Carver’s suitcase.

Since the hotel elevators were all card key activated to the guest floors, Reggie booked a room for the night on the Grand Club level. From there he believed he could gain access to anywhere in the hotel using the service lifts. Putting a few bucks in the pockets of housekeeping or room service personnel in order to roam the halls freely, seemed a better plan.

The receiver in his pocket doubled as a tracker. The closer he came to the transmitter, the faster the light flashed. Within in ten feet, the small red bulb would stop blinking. It was a slow process, but effective. 

He wasn’t entirely convinced it would work, though. Carver might find the bug, or the more problematic: an uncooperative employee might notify hotel security. It didn’t matter. He had no intention of ridding the world of Carver that night anyway. 

Reggie preferred to watch the cocksucker a while and get familiar with his movements. He also wanted to determine if Carver’s faggot traveling companion had to be dealt with.

So far, everything else seemed to be playing out, and as if in confirmation, he watched Carver come through the lobby sliders. Reggie recognized him not by physical appearance, but more by carriage. It was the way the prick walked and held his head up.

Carver was thirty or forty pounds heavier than Reggie remembered, with the addition of a nose that showed signs of breakage and a pair of cauliflower ears. He looked a wreck as he dragged his bag across the black onyx lobby floor to the registration counter.

Reggie had no doubt he could do the fucker right then and be out of the hotel before anyone even realized what happened. But where would the fun be in that? 

If he’d learned anything over the years practicing his trade, it was patience. He couldn’t jeopardize his primary responsibility by an aggressive move now. Also, when he did get around to putting his sights on that buck, Reggie preferred him to be rested and alert. He wanted Carver to know it was the Reaper who did him.


Chapter Thirteen

January 7, 2007 - Sunday Morning

The morning after a long haul—and in this case, two long hauls back to back—was always tough on Carver. He didn’t suffer as much as other guys he knew. For some, the jet lag included headaches or inflamed sinuses. In others, it was irritable bowels or lower back pain.

Dehydration seemed to be his worst ailment, along with a bout of insomnia for a couple of days. He hoped his improved physical condition would be a contributing factor in his early recovery.

He’d begged off dinner after they got in, opting for room service. A b.l.t. on wheat toast and a bottle of San Miguel went down easy after a hot shower. Around nine, though, Fred called him and talked him into a toddy at JJ’s—a nightclub attached to the Grand Hyatt, off the mezzanine level.

A two-tiered space, with walnut paneled walls covered in framed photographs. It had a parquet dance floor, and a horseshoe shaped bar in polished rosewood. 

The entire space was close to five thousand square feet but had a claustrophobic vibe nonetheless. Along with the wood pillars, and private booths squeezed around a mosh pit and lunette stage, was a standing room only Saturday night crowd. They were grooving to a Filipino cover band doing top forty pop. 

The only lighting came from the stage par cans dangling from the ceiling and a crystal chandelier hanging over the bar. The glow of lit cigarettes helped guide them around standing tables and countertops used as barriers to the lower tier.

The customers were equal parts Hong Kong debutantes with their dates, working girls and hotel clientele. It seemed benign enough, but Carver couldn’t shake the sensation he was being watched. Even Fred picked up on it.

There were the sporting ladies trying to make eye contact, but this was different. It was the same augur he’d get in the bush just before Charlie came out to play.

The drinks went down fast and they called it a night. Ruben figured if he went to bed it would shake the creeps. It didn’t.

It wasn’t uncommon for him to a have sense of unease when dropped into a foreign environment on a case. He even considered a little paranoia essential to operational awareness.

After pulling on a pair of gray runner’s shorts, a Gold’s Gym t and his Nike cross-trainers, he sat for a minute to do a memory scan. He went over everything he’d noticed from the time he and Fred left the airport until he went to bed.

A mental grid search on each image didn’t reveal anything either out of place or odd for the environment. He stood, grabbed his keycard and headed for the door. It wasn’t often his cognition let him down.

While he wanted to get an hour in the hotel’s fitness studio before he met Fred for breakfast, there was no ignoring the malaise. He accepted it for what it was. Carver hadn’t seen Bryar, but he decided the bastard was there—close—a blip on his internal radar. The fucker is in rifle range … I know it.

He was at the elevator when something Fred said on their way to the hotel floated into view. Why hadn’t there been anyone at the airport to meet them?

Before he and Fred went to the consulate, he’d have to call either Henry or the ASAC in Yokosuka to find out what happened to the NCIS country referent. He really wanted the pleasure of being pissed about the guy blowing them off. 

The alternative, considering what he now believed was Bryar’s proximity, was a grim prospect. Carver had never allowed himself to get past the shame of Delacroix’s murder and another special agent down would only add to the spiritual knot. 

The other aspect of that scenario would be NCIS flooding the field with investigators. Then there was the FBI. With its overused euphemism as thenation’s premier law enforcement agency, it was always willing to intrude in a case with headline notoriety. 

No matter Art’s motivation, whether righteous or complicit in a coverup, if an agent went down, he’d lose all control of the operation. And any opportunity Carver had for a mano-a-mano face off would dip to a probability of close to zero.

The shitbird would be out of the area before the local constabulary finished its tirade over the invasion of US feds. He and Fred would have to look elsewhere, which meant following another string of homicides somewhere in the industrialized world.

That thought had him doing an about-face and walking back to his room. None of Reaper’s primary targets were opportunity kills. They were deliberate, carefully executed assassinations of individuals on someone else’s hit list.

It took a couple of tries with the keycard before he forced himself to slow down and allow the reader on the digital door lock to do its job. The soft hiss, and the slight gust on his face as he pushed the door open, reminded him why he always stayed at the Grand Hyatt. It was as if each room was hermetically sealed. A nice feature against what was becoming dangerously potent air pollution. 

With long strides, he juked around the bed to a garment stand where he’d draped his trousers. Without taking them down, he fished his cell phone out of a front pocket.

He’d turned it off after leaving LA to use a charging station on the Gulfstream. With all the nonsense he and Fred went through at the airport, he’d forgotten to switch it on. 

There were a dozen voice messages. Uh-oh

He held the power button again until the device shutdown and then used the room phone to call his mobile number. When his voicemail message came on he pushed the star button on the cradle and then his password.

The first five messages were from Ryan Henderson. Thank you, Henry. The rest were a mix of calls from Henry, an NCIS special agent by the name of Brian Kress, who’d been assigned to meet Carver in Hong Kong, and the local naval attaché.

Since Brian was the reason Ruben came back to his room, he laid a finger on the hook switch, checked his watch and dialed the number Brian left. An operator at the Marriott on Queensway answered.

It took a few seconds for another ring tone and then, “Hello.”

“Hey Brian, it’s Ruben.”

“Dude, where have you been?”

Ruben knew who Brian was but hadn’t made much effort to get acquainted. He was Junior Prosser’s replacement and that fact alone was reason enough to keep the newbie at arm’s length.

“Fred Stacks and I got in last night. We’re at the Grand Hyatt. I thought maybe you were going to meet us at the airport.”

“I would’ve if I knew your arrival time. No one had any information on your flight schedule.”

Ruben could feel the tension release in his shoulders. “Yeah, sorry … that’s my bad. We got waylaid by immigration over some bullshit issues with our passports and I forgot to turn my phone on.”

“I found out about that passport thing this morning.”

“Really? How?”

“I called the naval attaché. He said you’re gonna meet him this morning.”

“That’s right. We’re gonna eat first and be over to the consulate around ten. Do you wanna go over with us or meet us there?”

There was a slight pause. “I’ll just meet you there. I wanna get a workout in.”

“Sounds good. I might try to do the same. By the way, when did you get here?”

“A couple of days ago. The assignment came down fast. I was given enough time to pack a bag, then went straight to Narita. The ASAC drove me.”

“Do you know why?”

“I think so. Henry Dever briefed me on my way to the airport. The cell connection wasn’t great, but I know the general plan. 

“The cops are expecting us to drop by, but I’m not sure it can happen today. I need to call ’em to set a time.”

“That’s a big help, Brian … thanks.”

“Don’t thank me, yet. They didn’t sound too keen on giving us access to the crime scene.”

“What about the murder book?”

“That’s something you’re gonna have to negotiate. I think they’ve got the idea we’re here to criticize their investigation. That’s not why we’re here, right?” 

“No, that’s not the intent. To be honest, I’m not sure what we’re gonna accomplish. We already know who killed her, and we think we know why. We decided to start in Hong Kong to see if we could get a lead that’ll put us on his trail.”

“You don’t mind if I tell the cops that, do ya?”

Ruben thought about it, knowing Art would have a conniption fit, but it made sense from an investigative angle. “Yeah, go ahead. I’ll provide a description and a name, if they agree to put out a BOLO.”

“I’ll do my best. This is only my second time in Hong Kong. I haven’t exactly established life-long relationships, yet. Any cooperation they give will probably depend on how much slack they’re willing to cut me.”

Ruben hadn’t made regular visits to Hong Kong since ’04, but his connection with a number of cops in the Criminal Intelligence Bureau of the Crime & Security Department—also known as B Department—had been solid.

“Who’s your main POC?”

“That would be Douglas Wu in the security wing.”

As soon as Carver heard the name he said, “Okay, I know the guy. When I was comin’ here for ship visits and Seventh Fleet advances, I kicked around with Doug and another guy named … Christian Hayhurst.”

“I’ve met them,” was Kress’s comeback.

“Tell ’em I’m in town and the information we’re lookin’ for, we believe, will tie our bad guy into a couple of other cases we’re lookin’ at. That should get you around any road blocks.”

“Okay, I got it. Anything else?”

“Nope. Fred and I’ll see you at the consulate at ten.”

“Roger that.”

With that, the call ended, and Carver turned his cellphone on. He checked his watch again and calculated the time in DC to be a few minutes past eight pm.

It took almost a minute for the phone to boot and another minute of roaming before he had enough bars for a good connection. He punched in a number he’d had memorized for years.

“You better have a good reason for takin’ your sweet ass time checkin’ in.”

“Sorry, Hank, we didn’t get in ’til late.”

“I heard. Fred was kind enough to call before he went to bed.”

“Yeah … he told me he was goin’ to,” lied Carver. “Did you get my email about the Shin Bet investigation in Tel Aviv?”

“I did. I gave Art a call and he said he’d see about putting you in contact with someone in Hong Kong. I’m not sure how long that’ll take. The Israeli consular mission is pretty small in HK.

“You indicated a possible different motive for the organization’s target list?”

“Right, I did, but I don’t wanna get into right now. I’d prefer to wait ’til I’ve got a secure line.

“By the way, I appreciate you gettin’ hold of Ryan. I’ve got a few messages from him. I’ll give him a call from the consulate.”

“Yeah, whatever … I think that’s about Sonny and you know how I feel about gettin’ him involved. 

“On the other matter we wanted Ryan to look into, he’s supposed to call me when he thinks he’s found the leak. I’ll keep you posted on any developments, so have your phone on.”

Carver nodded at the order. “I’ll work out somethin’ with the naval attaché for the use of a STU and give you a call back when you’re in the office.”

“Okay. I’ll expect to hear from you tomorrow.”

Reggie sat transfixed, staring up at The Arch—a copper colored, eighty-nine floor residential monolith in the southeast corner of Union Square. He’d spread out on a park bench outside the Kowloon station thirty-minutes earlier, with a set of architectural schematics. 

While it resembled a giant lego copy of the Arc de Triomphe, it was actually four conjoining towers. Standing in unwavering homage to China’s postmodernism, it was the two inner towers being connected from the sixty-ninth floor up, that gave the structure its name. 

Reggie figured its design was to somehow differentiate it from the surrounding waterfront skyscrapers, which rose from the reclaimed terra firma like glittering stalagmites.

The mark, a Chinese woman in her late forties, had a 5500 square foot penthouse that occupied the eightieth and eighty-first floors of The Arch’s sun tower. Reggie had been using a set of Bushnell binoculars, pendent on a strap around his neck, to see if he could enter the apartment from the exterior.

He’d already determined it would be easier to get to the roof than approaching the flat by elevator. Based on the hefty condo price tags The Arch commanded, homeowners had expectations when it came to security. In response, the measures in place went well beyond simple closed-circuit television in the elevators. 

There was a thirty-man guard force, with roving patrols, and manned surveillance monitors with comprehensive coverage of the entire complex. All doors to the stairwells were alarmed and access control for residents included optical lobby turnstiles, individually coded keycards with chips designed to prevent cloning, and a strict visitor management system. The penthouse levels went a step further with biometric scanners.

Reggie had been told by a real estate agent, who’d provided a tour of available apartments that morning, if a siren sounded in any of the units, the security response was less than three minutes. While he was skeptical, he had no intention of putting it to the test. Especially since the system alerts were connected directly to the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station, five minutes away.

The building diagrams had also shown the roof was protected with motion detectors, as well as CCTV. When he asked the perky agent about it, she gave a little giggle. 

With her bouncing perm, form-fitting wool pant suit and clattering, pointed-toe pumps, she’d confided that building management had shut down the roof security. They’d had a problem with nesting birds setting-off alarms and rodents chewing on the camera cables.

Reggie’s focus dropped to the target package in his lap. It provided specifics about the mark’s daily routine and photo copies of scheduled appointments for the next two weeks. Apparently, her personal assistant’s salary hadn’t instilled a sense of unwavering loyalty, particularly when faced with a six-figure inducement.

The soon-to-be-dead-woman’s name was Wu Yu Yan, but for international dealings she preferred Sally Wu. Her picture in the binder was a promo headshot. Moon-faced under a side-bang bob, she had a thick-lipped smile her hooded, bantam eyes contradicted.

As Reggie turned the pages, it became obvious whoever did the advance on the subject didn’t just compromise the assistant. Without revealing means and methods, a surveillance capability was established not only inside the complex but inside her apartment as well. The notes on all of Wu’s activities, over a two-month period, were so meticulous it gave Reggie the impression she was being watched by someone living with her.

Reggie slammed the binder closed, leaving it in his lap. As he scooped the schematics together and tamped them against the plastic cover into a neat pile, he went through a mental checklist of the gear he’d need to complete the kill.

He then tucked the drawings in a binder pocket, and standing, thought about calling the old man to get the name of the person The Board hired to do the advance. I could use a guy like that to manage surveillance training at the ranch.

His lip twitched as Carver then came to mind. He’d followed the big faggot into the bar the night before. That fucker could use some remedial training. He looked me dead in the face … twice.

Stepping on the down escalator to the station platforms, there was a pang of disappointment. He was getting the feeling Carver had turned into just another punk-ass mark. And after all these years thinkin’ he was some kinda badass.


Chapter Fourteen

The Consulate

The taxi dropped them off at the Peak Tram Lower Terminus, which was directly across Garden Road from their destination. While they waited for the light to change, Ruben eyeballed the building.

As an architectural design, the consulate was the very essence of boring. It was an old, gray, six story structure, in the minimalist block style favored by the State Department of the 1950’s.

While it appeared less spacious than the other diplomatic missions Carver had visited over the years, the visual was deceptive. He knew it covered more than an acre of land. Much of it was hidden, not only by the fencing, but also by the foliage and natural landscaping of the hillside it was built into. 

Its only real distinguishing feature was the two-story wedge-shaped guard house and visitor entrance. A construction afterthought, with a facade of formed concrete and gridiron, it was emblazoned with a three-foot Trajan-regular font declaring: Consulate General of the United States of America.

There was heavy foot traffic behind them, with a stream of people flowing in and out of the tram station and the twenty-story St. John’s building that housed it. In contrast, Uncle Sam’s dwelling seemed deserted.

The line that ordinarily formed outside the gate, with the hopeful seeking consular services, wasn’t there. Even the local-hire security guards, who provided perimeter patrols and entry control were absent.

Fred had apparently made the same observation. “I imagine the Naval Attaché’s not gonna be happy about comin’ in on a Sunday morning.”

Ruben nodded with a prickly awareness. “It seems like every time I’m on one of these gigs, I’m disturbin’ someone’s weekend or holiday.”

Once the light changed they jogged across the intersection, watching on-coming vehicles. Traffic laws in Hong Kong did exist, but they were treated more like suggestions. 

Past the concrete curb barriers and inside the visitor entrance, they were met by a smooth faced youngster, with a high and tight. Maybe twenty years old, he introduced himself as LaShawn Webber, a marine lance corporal filling an admin billet in the defense attaché’s office. 

He wasn’t chatty, but he didn’t hide the fact he’d been recalled to work a half-day shift. From his appearance, Carver assumed the dress code had been relaxed.

The kid’s civvies bore the signs of high school hip-hop. The only difference was the white t-shirt passed muster with its pocket and was tucked into baggy faded blue jeans, hiked up and held tight by a scuffed leather belt. The adolescent ensemble was complete with a pair of red and black knockoff Air-Jordan—laces tied.

It was Webber’s job to escort Carver and Stacks through the security checkpoint, where they gave up their cell phones; then through the Marine guard post in the consulate lobby, where they relinquished their CAC cards for clip-on visitor badges. Carver had been through the routine so many times he had the items out before he was asked for them.

They were through the checkpoints in less than ten minutes and into an elevator parked at the lobby. When the doors slid open and they stepped into the hallway, it was quiet and half-lit. It was an indicator the building was empty, save for those sections requiring a weekend duty roster.

He also knew Sunday was the officially designated day of rest for everyone in Hong Kong. On previous junkets into the city, he’d heard it was common single and unaccompanied consulate personnel could be found around Statute Square trying to pick up Filipino domestics. He didn’t bother asking if that was where LaShawn was headed after his shift was over.

As they followed the marine through the office door, Carver expected to be directed to one of the small attaché spaces on the other side of the open admin area. Instead, LaShawn pointed at the large corner office where the Defense Attaché resided.

The DA was the boss—the officer-in-charge of gathering defense related intelligence of all activities affecting US military operations or engagements in the region. 

 He was one of the big dogs in the consulate, and while he was usually deferential to the Chief of Station, he had a direct line to the Consul General and the Defense Intelligence Agency—the folks he really worked for.

In Ruben’s experience the DA was usually an Army or Air Force colonel. In some cases, depending on the size and importance of the office, the position might even be held by a flag officer.

It was rarely staffed by someone in the Navy. Unlike the other services, which had a well-defined career path leading to a diplomatic mission, any naval officer who’d found himself flying a desk as an attaché was usually sitting out his career in disgrace.

Carver looked back at the marine and asked, “Is the Naval Attaché in with the boss?”

“Nope, he didn’t come in today,” LaShawn again pointed at the door, “but hecame in early and told me to tell you to go in as soon as you got here.”

Carver nodded, glanced at Stacks and under his breath said, “I wonder what this is about.”

“Who knows … let’s hope it doesn’t have anything to do with our Pelican case. I’m not seein’ it anywhere.”

Carver’s head swiveled to the marine. “LaShawn, was a Pelican case delivered here yesterday as part of a diplomatic pouch?”

The youngster’s finger was once again raised toward the DA’s door.

Shit.The big Okie took a deep breath, exhaled out his mouth, and started his stroll toward what he envisioned as an epic ass-chewing.

It was one thing to have to deal with a guy suffering from a bruised ego. It was another to be second guessed and dressed down by some Army jagoff pressing for his first star.

That’s why Carver was doubly surprised when he looked in the Defense Attaché’s office and saw Captain Roy Williams. The Naval Attaché he’d worked with in Beijing a year and a half earlier was sitting behind the desk, shooting the breeze with Brian Kress.

Wei.”

“Sonny? It’s Ryan … Ryan Henderson.”

There was no immediate response, but Ryan could hear grunting and hard breathing, as if the phone’s mic lay against the Chinaman’s mouth.

“You okay, Sonny?”

“Never … better … homes, but I’m a little busy right now.”

The clatter then coming through Ryan’s headphones, had him pulling them away from his ears. “I, uh, can call back later.”

“Nah, that’s okay … just … just hang on for a minute. I’m helpin’ put the final wraps on a … package.”

A sudden back and forth in what sounded like Japanese, between Sonny and a female, made him wonder if the hitman was in the middle of a booty call. It wasn’t a friendly exchange, but they weren’t yelling at each other either. For all Ryan knew, she could’ve been asking the chinkster if it was in yet.

The tête-à-tête went for a few more seconds and then broke into English. “No, no … grab the ankles and straighten the body … that’s right … good. Now get the heat gun and use it on the shrink wrap.

You still there, xiǎozi?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m here. You are talkin’ to me, right?”

“None other. What can I do you for?”

“It’s not actually for me. Ruben Carver is in Hong Kong and he’d like you to call him.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“No, wait, please. I was told he needs your number, so he can call you, but he hasn’t been answering his phone.”

“Great! Maybe that number ten lǎo měifinally got whacked.”

“Not according to his boss. Anyway, I thought you guys finally, like, buried the hatchet, or somethin’.”

 “The only place I wanna bury the hatchet is in his head. And whaddaya mean ‘boss’? The last time I saw that wángbā dàn, he was a private contractor. He didn’t have no boss.”

There was another burst of Japanese followed by English. “Just wait ’til I’m finished with this call. I’ll show you how to get him into the crate. You make sure the address label is correct. The client won’t be happy if this thing shows up at the wrong house.” There was chuckle. “ ’Course, he prob’ly won’t be happy when the postman drops it at the right address.

“Okay, where was I … oh, yeah … Carver and I are not friends. We ain’t comrades in arms. We don’t walk arm in arm on moonlit nights or sit on the beach with our toes in the sand, drinkin’ shaken—not stirred—martinis. 

“We hooked up once, in the purely platonic sense o’ that word, to put the kibosh on one of The Board’s more hair-brained schemes. You remember, right? You were part of it.”

Ryan tried to interject, “Yeah, well, that’s why,” but Sonny cut him off. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not callin’ him.”

“It has to do with The Board again and one of their projects in Hong Kong.”

There was a long, exhaled breath. “The Board, huh?”

“Yep.”

“What’s the number?”

“Hey, are you ready yet?”

Sonny tapped the disconnect on his bluetooth earbud and looked at his latest protégé. A thirty-year-old transplant from Gardena, California Sonny had recruited when she showed up at his door to kill him.

Her name was Amber Shiratori, but for reasons associated with an Interpol red notice, she was going by Yoko. She’d only been with Sonny for a month and the notion of trust between the two was embryonic, if that.

It took a few seconds to refocus on the work at hand. The paper coveralls were binding at the knees, as he walked back to the body to check on what she’d done.

“That looks pretty good.”

I shoulda never taken that call.Sonny wanted to bounce his head against the wall. His description of his non-relationship with Carver didn’t come close to the animosity they shared.

 Their truce was sustained by ignoring each other. Sonny had few scruples when making business decisions, but one rule of thumb he’d adopted, soon after his relocation from Singapore to Shanghai, was to avoid any contracts that would cause him to cross paths with the big yángguĭzi.

The one exception was related to The Board.

As he examined the seal on the plastic wrap, the body began to convulse. Within seconds Sonny saw the man’s eyes pop open, and terror driven, his squirming began. Like a landed fish, the recipient of someone’s ire flopped with an intensity that rattled the table lamps and ash trays.

Yoko pulled a combat folder from her coverall pocket, and with a gloved hand, flicked it open. “Why don’t you let me cut his throat?”

Sonny shook his head under the hoody. “No. Remember why we went to all this trouble. Just sit tight. It’ll be over in a few minutes.”

She propped her left hand on her hip and shifted her weight to her left leg. “This shit is takin’ way too long. I don’t get it.”

“The contract specified the mark had to suffer, while at the same time there couldn’t be any forensic evidence that foul play had been involved in his disappearance. 

“Like I ’splained before, this cracker is high profile. If we grabbed him on the street or in a hotel room, we’d have to deal with witnesses, hotel security, CCTV …”

“Okay, okay—I get it.”

“You did good getting him here; and the roofie showed some finesse—not too much.” Sonny’s lips arched upward. “I can see why Tak kept you around.”

Yoko’s hand came off her hip and her eyes rolled up to glare at him. “Don’t talk about Tak.”

The Chinaman didn’t rise to the bait. It was going to take a while longer for the woman to get over the demise of her previous employer, Takeshi Araki—better known as Tak.

An old school Japanese nationalist, he was a self-made gangster from a family of aristocrats and war criminals. After the second world war, his progenitors renewed the family fortune running salvage operations recovering imperial army booty throughout Asia.

After collecting several hundred tons of bullion, they decided to go into the arms business, which became Tak’s primary bread and butter. Educated in Los Angeles and operating out of Southern California, he kept the gun enterprise rolling for years, while expanding the family’s illicit offerings by adding narcotics to the product line.

Yoko and her boyfriend were pulled into the business when Tak found them doing a nickle in juvie for solicitation, robbery and aggravated assault. With his promise of education, counseling, and training in a trade, the court released the two kids into his custody. 

From then on, Yoko’s life of crime was well supervised. Tak was the only family she recognized and when Sonny participated in his demise, she took it personally.

“Relax. I’m payin’ you a complement.” Sonny looked down at the accounts receivable, which now lay still. “Grab the shoulders and we’ll drop it ass first into the trunk.”

“You wanna explain to me again why we’re mailing him to the client?”

“Because the prick wanted proof of death. Since I have no intention of doin’ business with that wángbādàn again, I’m givin’ him what he wants.”

Yoko gave a little giggle. “I’m beginning to like your style.”

“As you should.”

After stuffing the body in, closing and latching the lid and taping the address label in place, Yoko had another question.

“Who was that you were talkin’ to on the phone?”

“Put the padlock on the hasp. Then thread those steel wires we brought through the latches and make sure you crimp the seals.”

“How come you don’t wanna tell me about the call?”

Sonny stared hard at the woman. “Because it’s got nothin’ to do with you.”

“I heard you say Carver’s name. If it’s a contract to kill that motherfucker, I want in. I may still be unsure about you, but that piece of shit is goin’ down.”

The Chinaman had to choose his words carefully at this point. He’d seen some real promise in Yoko he thought he could develop. She was smart, easy to train, had a first-rate affinity with a blade, and she was fearless. 

Tak had used her as muscle for years and she was dangerous in the clinch. She had the potential of being great for business and Sonny didn’t want to have to cut ties with her. Besides, I don’t think I can fit her in the trunk.

The problem was the vendetta she had against Carver. While the hitman had convinced her she’d be better off working with him rather than trying to splay his innards, the ornery wángbādànwas a different story. 

It all started a couple of months earlier when Sonny had thrown in with Carver on a one-time gig in northern Japan. The Board had planned to set off an atom bomb on the Shimokita peninsula and the man the organization was using to light that firecracker happened to be Tak Araki.

 Carver put an end to the nonsense by sticking a Marine KA-BAR in the Jap’s guts. Yoko got away that night, but any homicidal intent she harbored against the big meathead before that happened, was only intensified after he’d derailed the Araki gravy train.

Returning Sonny’s gaze, she said, “Well?”

“Once we’re done here, I want you back in Shanghai … at least for the time being.”

She knit her brows and her lips went thin against her teeth. “That’s not gonna happen.”

“You and I have a good thing goin’ right now and I don’t want it to end. When it comes to Carver, I woulda thought you’d ‘ave learned your lesson in that elevator …”

“He got lucky!”

“He’s alwayslucky! You have no idea how many of my men—men better than you—I sent after him, only to be wasted. 

“You’re pissed ’cause he killed your old boss. I get that. But you need to remember that old hick fuck didn’t sneak up on Tak. They went at each other with knives.”

Yoko tried to speak, but the Chinaman stepped on her. “And let me tell ya why that’s significant. Unlike you and that xiǎo rìběnyou called master, a knife is not Carver’s weapon of choice.”

Bullshit.”

Sonny did his best to tamp a rising exasperation. “Listen up, homegirl, this whole ‘it’s personal’ routine has to be shelved. If you wanna go after the fucker when he’s layin’ in a full body cast, or usin’ a walker, you have definitely got my blessing. 

“Until then, I want you in Shanghai goin’ through the work orders we’ve had to backlog. I’m goin’ to Hong Kong to talk to him.”

“Then … who was that on the phone?”

“It was someone who works for the NSA. He told me Carver is mixed up in something involving The Board. 

“By the way, if you haven’t already figured it out, they’re the ones who really butt-fucked your boss in that warehouse—not Carver. It was a supreme double cross that got your boyfriend killed.”

Yoko relaxed her hands and shoved them in her pockets. “If that’s the case, why are you still accepting contracts from them?”

“I’ll take the odd contract. I won’t deny it. The Board never haggles a price and they always pay upfront, without question. That thing we did in Hong Kong right after you agreed to work with me—that job was for The Board.

“What I won’t stomach, though, is the really weird shit. Global pandemics and nuclear weapons—end of the world whacked-out crap—is where I draw the line. It’s bad for business.

“I’ve only been buttin’ heads with Carver for a couple years, but whenever he’s runnin’ some angle against The Board, it’s ’cause they’ve got an operation goin’ that’s gonna ultimately affect my bottom line.

“Now drag the trunk outside. I’ll call UPS.”


Chapter Fifteen

A Pleasant Surprise

Ruben strode across the room and extended his hand over the desk. “Hey, Roy … this is a pleasant surprise. What are you doin’ here?”

Captain Roy Williams was someone Ruben had worked with briefly when Roy was stationed in Beijing as the Naval Attaché. It’d been over a year and a half, but aside from his hair going a little grayer and thinner, he hadn’t changed.

In the neighborhood of six-five, he was narrow in the shoulders, and a few pounds shy of paunchy. His short frame on a forty-inch inseam, gave the impression of a man on stilts. 

For anyone who met him for the first time, however, it was the close-set beady eyes over a prodigious aquiline schnoz, that made him noteworthy. From what Carver heard, the guy was a doppelgänger for some actor who’d played second to a talking pig. That’s gotta be somethin’ to be remembered by … 

With a gummy grin, Williams gripped the hand. “That prick, Art Sheppard, wasn’t the only one to benefit from your shenanigans in Shanghai.”

Brian Kress, who’d been sitting chatting with Williams when the pair walked through the door, was now standing. “Shenanigans in Shanghai,” he laughed, “try sayin’ that five times fast.”

Williams’ smile dropped with his hand. “We were lucky we didn’t all go to jail. Fortunately, the Chinese government’s dick wasn’t exactly free of stink in the matter. The Chinese just did what they always do when they’re pissed … they slammed their door to any American entreaty for a few days and then it is was back to business as usual.”

His head swiveled to Fred. “You must be Special Agent Stacks. I’m Roy Williams.”

As the two men shook hands, Carver asked, “When did you get transferred to Hong Kong?”

“I’ve been here over a year. The Navy was ready to put me out to pasture, but instead plugged me in here as the DA. Since Hong Kong is, in essence, a Navy town, the DoD decided it was important to have someone in place with an understanding of fleet operations and requirements; being a China hand was a bonus.

“At least that’s what they said when the orders came down. Truth is, for those of us who were hit by the shit you threw against the fan in Shanghai, it turned out to be a kind of blessing, I guess.

“That said, I hope we aren’t going to see a repeat performance this trip. I saw what’s in that Pelican case.”

Carver turned to look at the container. “Considerin’ what we’re up against, Art didn’t want us travelin’ light.”

 Williams squinted and slowly nodded his head. “The NA told me about your hassle at the airport—something about your official passport?”

“Yeah, I don’t know. It just seemed like an excuse to fuck with us.”

“Aren’t you still persona non grata in China?”

Carver’s eyebrows rose as he took a breath. “I heard the State Department received a letter, but I never got anything in writing. Whatever was goin’ on at the airport, though, had nothin’ to do with that.

Anyway … you know why we’re here, right?”

Williams again nodded. “When I heard it was you at the airport, I told the NA—his name is Gilbert by the way—I told him you and I had history and I’d take the lead. He gave me a run down on your investigation. I still haven’t heard why it’s an NCIS matter.

“And just so you’ll know, the locals have found out the murdered woman …” Williams looked down at a Post-it on his desk, “Patricia Hemsworth, was a CIA plant. When you talk to the police you’re gonna get an earful.”

“Any idea who leaked it?”

“Not yet. The allegation showed up in the South China Morning Post. The CoS was down here yesterday screaming a blue streak.” Williams was referring to the CIA’s Chief of Station at the consulate. “Apparently, Art Sheppard was up his ass about it, and the CoS is of the mind either you, or,” Williams waved a hand at Kress, “Brian outed the woman.”

“Wasn’t me and Art knows it. Did you say anything Brian?”

“Nope, and I just talked to Doug Wu. If he knows she was CIA, he didn’t say.”

Williams pointed at the four leather back chairs in front of his desk and then took his seat. “Be that as it may, the CoS is still pissed and if Art hadn’t waved him off, he’d be down here trying to ream you a new one.”

Fred parked himself in the chair next to Kress. “Well, at least we’ve got that goin’ for us.”

Ruben remained standing, his hands jammed in his pockets. “Are we gonna be able to talk to the person Patricia was reporting to?”

Williams looked at his watch. “He should’ve been here by now.”

He barely finished the sentence when his desk phone rang. “This may be him now.” 

He held up an index finger as he grabbed the handset. “Williams … they’re here waiting for you … I don’t know, let me ask.” Williams palmed the microphone. “Can you guys meet him outside?”

Ruben responded without much thought. “Sure. Just give us a time and place.”

Williams dropped his hand. “Okay, when and where … really, there? Uh-huh … okay, I’ll tell ’em. Bye.” He held the handset a half-inch over its cradle and let it go.

“The guy’s name is Oscar Delacruz. He’ll meet you at eight in a girlie bar called the Crazy Horse. It's in the Wan Chai on Lockhart Road.”

Ruben pushed his fingers through his hair and tongued his incisors. “I know the place. The mama-san probably still has my business card tacked to the wall behind the bar.”

Ruben knew it was late in DC but decided to make the call. Williams had set him up with a secure line, and while the DA led the other two men down to the cafeteria for coffee, Ruben tried the two numbers he had in his mental Rolodex. The first, which he assumed was the direct dial to the geek’s desk, went straight to voice mail.

The second connected on the fifth ring. “I’m busy now.”

“Hey tough guy, it’s Carver.”

“Dammit, Carver. Do you know what time it is here?”

“Jeez, Ryan, if I thought I’d be interruptin’ somethin’ I wouldn’t have bothered. You only left a half dozen messages.”

“Five, and for your information, you are interrupting something.”

“Just pause it. You can get your jerk on later.”

“Fuck you.”

“Cool your jets, tiger. Tell me what you’ve got for me and you can get back to doin’ whoever. Can you go secure?”

There was an audible sigh. “Of course, but it’ll take a sec.”

A minute later Carver was listening to Ryan’s digitally altered voice.

“First off, I’ve been in touch with Sonny. He didn’t seem happy about it, but considering your history, you gotta figure it was a reasonable response.

“Anyway, as soon as I told him it had to do with The Board, he wanted your contact info. Since you don’t answer you phone, I told him where he could find you.”

Ruben’s amygdala reacted in a way he could only describe as a psych flinch. “Is he coming to Hong Kong?”

“What do you think? It probably goes without sayin’ you shouldn’t expect a buddy hug.”

Carver’s eyes rolled up from the desk top to focus on the weapons container shoved against the opposite wall.

“When did you call him?”

“A few hours ago.”

“And … where was he?” Carver’s impatience edged up. He didn’t like having to angle for answers to obvious questions.

“What, you think I’ve got some kinda friend finder on my phone? I called him.”

“Ryan.”

“Yeah, okay, so I ran a check on where the call landed. The Chinaman was in Beverly Hills, somewhere close to Coldwater Canyon park. That’s all I know.”

More to himself than to Ryan, Carver surmised, “Even if he got a flight out today he wouldn’t be here ’til tomorrow.

Okay, so … have you got anything on the leak?”

“I’ll tell you what I didn’t tell Mr. Dever. The message the Hong Kong analyst forwarded to CIA headquarters was tightly encrypted. No surprise there. However, it had only one person on distro, and you’re not gonna like who it was.”

Carver hunched forward, his elbows on the desktop. His left hand held the handset jammed against his ear, while his forehead rested in the palm of his right.

“It was Art.”

“Bingo, in one. There was something else, though.”

“Uh-huh?” Fuckin’ hell … 

“During the course of the Agency’s own investigation into her death, an encrypted video file was also sent directly to Sheppard. He sent back a short communiqué, which I’m tryin’ to decrypt now, but unlike her report, he didn’t forward a copy of it, or the video file, to anyone else.”

After the consulate visit, Ruben and Fred brought Brian Kress back to the Grand Hyatt for dinner. Since Brian had been fully briefed, Ruben felt more comfortable having him hang close than out on his own. At least for the next few evenings.

They’d also used the down time to load magazines, adjust their shoulder holsters and give each other a once-over. Among the ordinance in the Pelican case were a pair of Sig Sauer P226 with Trident suppressors they wanted to fit snug to the body. 

Concealed carry in Hong Kong was always risky, which made Ruben initially reticent to arm Brian. However, since, he’d already made the decision to pack the Browning, handing the spare 9mm to the young agent seemed the right thing to do. 

He made it clear, though, what it could mean if the local constabulary discovered they were strapped. It was no secret the cops had been known to circumvent the expense of due process with a fifty-cent hollowpoint. In any event, while none of the possible outcomes were good, they were mutually agreed: if things went to shit, Brian needed to be able to defend himself.

Carver figured it’d be a relatively quiet night along Lockhart road. He’d contacted the office of the Naval Supply Systems Command located at the Fleet Arcade on Fenwick Pier. There was no navy presence, US or otherwise.

The demographics of Wan Chai, on the north shore of Hong Kong island, was one of the little ironies of the special administrative region. Located from Canal Road on the east to Arsenal Street on the west, and Bowen Road as the southern boundary, the district was home to many of Hong Kong’s elite. It boasted the most educated, wealthy and politically influential residents on either side of the harbor.

And then there was Lockhart Road. Nestled between Jaffe and Hennessy on the north and south and Tonnochy Road to Arsenal, east to west, it was several blocks of garish flesh havens, disco bars and cheap restaurants. 

A modern day Sirenum scopuliwhere foreign sailors were lured with the promise Aphrodite’s delights. The pricy booze, bar fines and light fingered Filipino and Thai hostesses, often stripped them of everything but a blurry memory.

At a time when Ruben had been responsible for supporting Seventh Fleet ship visits to the port city, he’d spent all-nighters cruising through the Wan Chai, as well as Tsim Sha Tsui, and the more upscale Lan Kwai Fong. With the help of a small pile of cash and the sacrifice of some liver function, he’d developed an understanding with most of the mama-sans along the Lockhart strip. 

He promised to keep them off the Fleet’s blacklist, if they gave him a call when one of the less seasoned squids was out of control. For the more experienced swabbies, it was no mystery love-you-long-time was defined by the long green in their pockets. 

For the junior sailors and marines on their first west pac, their indignation could become unrestrained ire if they thought they’d been fleeced. This was especially true when their night of passion turned out to be nothing more than a quick hand job. 

An ass whipping by a bouncer was a given, but Carver was generally able to get the local beat-cops to turn them over to shore patrol. Revocation of liberty privileges and extra duty was far better than what would happen if they weren’t aboard the ship when it weighed anchor.

It would have seemed an easy walk from the Grand Hyatt to the Crazy Horse, but Ruben piled the guys in a taxi. The smog was clawing at his throat, but it wasn’t the only reason he elected to take the five-minute ride.

The night spots in Wan Chai, which made their real money when the ships were in, had to compete for the business of a dwindling group of local expats who favored the seedier scene. Even with light foot traffic, the three men would’ve had to physically brush-off the old mama-sans, and the more aggressive hostesses, every twenty-feet along the route. 

The Crazy Horse Club was on the ground floor of the Gold Star building. A prime commercial real estate property by day, its only purpose at night was to house one of the busiest boom-boom joints on the island.

Carver remembered it’s green, yellow and red neon signage, with its rearing pony protruding over the sidewalk, was almost as big as the bar’s interior. As usual, there were three girls with bright lipstick, black tank tops and hotpants perched on bottle crates out front. 

If their blank expressions and slouching demeanor were any indication, tricks were definitely turning slow. When the taxi door opened, and Ruben unfolded from the rear seat, their reflexive animation of uncrossing legs and arms propped against knees, reminded him of runners taking their marks.

He stepped up to the curb and addressed the one in the middle. A twenty-year-old face with forty-year-old eyes didn’t shy away from his pointed finger.

“You girls givin’ out discounts tonight?”

The laugh was shrill as she stood, her long toes drooping over the ends of a pair of clear plastic stiletto sandals. “Oh, surehoney.”

She strode the three steps that separated them, laced an arm under his, and rubbed a sagging braless tit against his elbow. 

“By me a drink and we can talk about it.” Filipina by accent, she had a soprano timbre not yet affected by alcohol and tobacco abuse. 

Before he could respond the other two girls had latched onto Fred and Brian. The three men were pulled, more than led, through a doorway covered by a black curtain.

The only lighting in the cramped space came from a seven-foot bar and a three-foot square stage, where a couple of girls in bikinis swayed to a monotonous disco beat. The dark walls were bare, except for a few velvet paintings of contorted erotica, featuring exotic women in unnatural poses.

Behind the bar, though, on shelves shared with barely touched liquor bottles, was an eclectic collection of dusty bric-à-brac. Framed pictures of party scenes and revelers flashing peace signs, old album covers, logo’d beer trays, ball caps emblazoned with ship’s names and a few concert posters, were the most prominent. 

Throwaway crap, which must have had some memorial value to the ancient matriarch planted on a stool in front of a beer tap talking to the only customer without a girl on his arm—a man fitting the description of Oscar Delacruz.


Chapter Sixteen

The Penthouse

If there was one thing Reggie grooved on when it came to his association with The Board was its deep pockets. The Agency always had money for operations, but they never stopped complaining about cost. 

The Board never talked cheap. Case in point, his Hong Kong safe house was a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot motor yacht. When he advised the old man what the best option was for completing the assignment, the boat was launched from its berthing in Discovery Bay to a private mooring buoy in Victoria harbor.

After the sun went down, the cover was pulled off a commercial variant of the UA-60 Blackhawk. A four-blade, twin engine medium lift helicopter, it had been modified for sound reduction. 

The tail rotor’s eight blades were hooded, and the main rotor had what was called “modulated blade spacing.” It’d never earn the reputation of being whisper quiet, but the modifications seemed to work as designed by projecting rotor noise up and sideways. 

With a flat-black paint job and lights out, it was nearly invisible at a thousand feet. Since the yacht wasn’t under any aircraft approach to the airport, Reggie had the pilot go straight up off the pad. 

Once they reached altitude the rest was easy. A five-minute flight over water, he directed the pilot to a hover point above the Arch Sky Tower and then drop until the pool became visible through his night vision googles. 

He had two hundred feet of seven-sixteenth polyester line in a deployment bag. He’d already knotted one end to a snap shackle he connected to the anchor ring above the door. He then threaded the rope through the rescue ring on his harness and stepped out onto the skid.

He thumbed the mic switch on his helmet. “I want you to bring it in a little closer over a spot I’m gonna paint with a green light. You let me know if there’s a clearance problem.”

“Roger that.”

Reggie gripped the rope with his left hand, using it as a brake. With his right, he pulled the Heckler & Koch UMP submachine gun forward. He had it laying on his back attached to a three-point sling.

The laser sight was mounted on the right side Picatinny rail in front of the magazine well. The on/off switch was at the rear of the device and accessible even with the thick rappelling glove.

He laid the beam on a spot behind a planter that looked to be outside the direct visibility of the picture window. Using the pool dimensions, he remembered from the schematics, he calculated the planter was at least four or five feet long and two feet wide. 

“Do you see the dot?”

“Wait one.” The chopper pivoted ninety degrees. “Yeah, I see it.”

“That’s where I’m goin’ in.”

“I can drop you in a little closer, Reaper, but not for long.”

“Is the wind a problem?”

“Nah, not for me. It’s the noise. You want this to be a surprise, right?”

“Oh, yeah …”

The sudden change in altitude made Reggie feel several pounds lighter. When the pilot arrested the fall, the reverse effect nearly pulled him of the skid, with his stomach lodged in his rectum.

“We should be over your target, Reaper.”

Reggie peered straight down. The pilot had indeed done his job. Reggie released his grip on the SMG and used his elbow to swing it to its previous resting place. In almost the same motion he grabbed the deployment bag and let it fall between the toes of his boots.

There was no guiding it and the wind would have some effect, but he chose the spot for the fudge factor. When the bag landed, he pressed the mic switch. 

“Geronimo.”

“Good hunting, Reaper.”

He stepped off the skid and allowed himself to free-fall the first hundred feet before he applied pressure to the rope strung behind his back. The glove may have kept his hand from catching fire, but he still felt the heat.

At five feet he stopped and flipped the night vision up. The light from the penthouse illuminated his entry point enough to get a quick look-around. While he was exactly where he wanted to be, he didn’t expect to see a naked nymph walking toward the window staring at him.

He pulled himself up with his right hand, taking the pressure off the rescue ring. When the line was free he let go of the rope and fell with bent knees to the wood-planked deck.

Reggie thumbed the switch one last time. “I’m down. Don’t bother stickin’ around. I’m gonna be here a while.”

Naked, Sally Wu descended a staircase without handrail or risers. The tract lighting on the first floor was up full, allowing her to watch her reflexion in the double-high glass wall that separated her living room from the pool deck. 

The sheen of sex sweat, highlighting the muscle definition in her legs and hard round ass, was luxuriating. She ran the edge of a hand down her butt crack and slapped a cheek with preening satisfaction. Not even a hint of cellulite.

When she touched down, she spun on the ball of her left foot—her short thin toes spreading from the pressure—to get the full frontal. Her fresh shave exposed a still swollen labia, and below the cleft, her dangling clitoral hood. God, I’m gorgeous.

As she catwalked forward, she used both hands to stroke her abs, then to cup her tits while squeezing and pulling the dark brown nipples and petite areola. The B cups were only a handful, but firm and symmetrical. The absence of sag and stretch marks were testament to her rejection of middle age and a disdain for the effects of the proverbial biological clock.

The real estate agents had told her the view was lovely from the penthouse. She giggled as she turned left toward the open kitchen. They have no idea.

She’d dropped a hundred and eighty-five million Hong Kong for what she considered a crash pad in Emphysema-ville. …better here than Shanghai or Beijing.

The Hong Kong passport, for which she’d relinquished her virtue over a long weekend, granted her unfettered travel into countries where she’d need a visa if she went bearing Chinese documentation. She could also conduct business, unencumbered by sniveling party bureaucrats, while still enjoying the protection of a state whose avarice was far more compelling than its collectivist underpinnings.

Unlike the Russians, who were stymied by the prospect of fending for themselves when the Soviet Union crumbled, no one had to teach the Chinese. The day the Maoist legacy was buried the people started turning a profit. Sally didn’t know how not to make money—brokering everything from coffee beans to chemical weapons.

The latest was US enriched uranium she sold to the North Koreans through a Russian connection in the Ukraine. It was a complicated deal structured around gold bullion valuations and certificate transfers, as well as the physical acquisition and delivery of the product.

It was her cup of bai jiguanand she knew of only one competitor: an Israeli who was working a deal with an Iranian supplier. The animus between Israel and Iran, as seen on the world stage, may have been genuine, but at the end of the day, business was business.

Sally actually thought she’d been aced out of the deal until the Israeli was found dead in his Tel Aviv apartment. According to her source in the Ministry of State Security, it was a professional hit.

The assumption was the Jews got wind of the transaction and put a stop to it. Apparently, it was messy enough to send a message to anyone considering a similar enterprise.

Sally looked over the spotless Italian marble countertops, wondering what there was to eat. She wasn’t a stranger in the kitchen, but once she could afford a housekeeper, the only time she had to lift a pot was when she gave the woman the night off.

Caffeine first. The lacquered, bleached oak flooring had a satin finish that was a comfort to her bare feet as she padded to the coffee maker. A Krups cappuccino machine sat next to the sink. 

At five feet nothing, she had to stand on her tiptoes to grab two cups from the cabinet above the counter.

Sally looked at the ceiling and yelled, “Do you want a coffee or cappuccino?”

There was no immediate answer and it irritated her to think her new director of security was in the shower. She thought she’d made it clear they’d bathe together. 

Sally was anticipating several hours of cháo chuī, and they’d only just begun. I’m going to make the slut’s jaws cramp.

The images emerging behind her eyes, however, were not of this new hire, but of her previous body guard companion. A thirty-something Japanese-American, with a bodybuilder’s physique, she had a a tattoo of a dragon, she called a ryū, winding down her back. The design of the red, gold, and black serpent began at the base of her neck and ended with its jaws open at her crack.

Sally loved watching it move when she plowed the bitch from behind with an oversized strap-on.

Oh, who cares. With an index finger decorated with a thousand-dollar manicure, she pushed the icon labeled “coffee.” Patience wasn’t one of Sally’s strong suits. 

A common complaint from a few of her ex-husbands, she could’ve cared less. She viewed the so-called virtue as nothing more than a willingness to tolerate another person’s incompetence. In her mind, patience and wealth accumulation were mutually exclusive.

While the machine ground the beans for a single cup, she decided to find out what the stupid cunt was up to. This liaison wasn’t a love affair. She had a very specific job description, after all.

The urge to start yelling as she stomped through the living room was interrupted by what she recognized as the rotor noise from a helicopter. It was quieter than usual, lasting less than a minute, yet still annoying because after hours use of the roof’s helipad was against the rules of the homeowner’s association. Maybe somebody died … 

Instead of storming the stairs to get her freak back on track, she reversed direction. She was sure something had been dropped on her brand-new decking. If that fucker broke something … or got dirt in my pool, he’ll be looking for another job.

The door to the pool deck and sky garden wasn’t a slider. It was hinged on a polished steel frame and had a tight seal with the two-inch thick glass barrier.

It required both hands on the door lever and the use of her legs to push it open. At that time of night, the difference in air pressure created by the penthouse’s hermetically enclosed ventilation system and the outside ether turned the living space into a vault.

There was a hiss as the door cleared the frame. A stiff breeze then hit it, and with the pressure equalized, the lubricated hinges provided little resistance. Sally was caught off balance and dragged onto the patio. 

She felt the skin scrap off a knee as she tumbled forward. While she saved her face by catching the fall with stiff arms, it jarred a scream that embarrassed her.

 Cussing, she stood. Her legs shaky, she could feel blood streaming down a shin. 

She wanted to look at the injury, but instead, saw movement in her peripheral vision. Her brain didn’t register what it was, only that it was foreign—unwanted.

Her reaction was primordial. Heart pounding with a rush of adrenaline, she turned to run. 

Two steps and she was yanked to a stop. An arm had wrapped around her waist, with something hard and cold digging into the small of her back. 

Before she could utter a sound, she’d been lifted off her feet, with her mouth and nose covered. A foul-smelling cloth clamped against her face burned her throat and lungs. This can’t be happening … Bà … 

The last words she heard, as the tears came, and the blurry lights of Hong Kong island went out, were, “Aren’t you a little cutie-pie.”

“Carver?”

“That’s me.”

Oscar Delacruz didn’t leave his barstool. He spun on the seat’s cracked cushion to face the man who spoke and offered his hand.

He didn’t have to stand for Carver to see he was somewhere in the mid-five-foot range. His wrinkled and lunch stained tan gaberdines were cuffed over brown penny loafers and the white button down, with its own tell-tale signs of sloppy eater syndrome, had its sleeves rolled to the elbows.

Short, curly brown hair, sparse at the crown, lay over a round face with bags-laden deep-set eyes and baby jowls. The pleats in the trousers were spread and his stomach protruded past his belt buckle by an inch or two, stretching his shirt against its buttons at the navel. 

Carver figured the weight gain must have been recent; the guy hadn’t yet gotten to the point of acceptance with some new threads. Considering the total picture, he placed the dude in his late thirties. Probably single or unaccompanied, he was managing whatever issues he had in his work life with food, booze, and bar fines. 

Carver moved forward and accepted the greeting with a squeeze and release. He then nodded at the old familiar face across the counter.

A tired smile cracked the makeup around her mouth. “I know you.”

“Indeed you do, mama. Nice to see you’re still in business.”

She waved a hand, slid off her stool, and hobbled to a cork board under a dogeared concert poster of Jimi Hendrix. Using both hands, she carefully removed a business card tacked in the middle of at least a dozen other carte de visiteand brought it back to the long flat-topped fitment.

The mam-san placed it in front of Carver with the same care in which she’d removed it from the board. “How long you stay this time?”

“Can’t say. Not too long, I reckon.”

Delacruz twisted away to lift what looked like a highball. Elbow still on the bar, he leaned forward to take a sip. 

Then without looking at the big man beside him, asked, “You come in here a lot?”

“Only on business, but it’s been a while.”

“Oh, yeah … me too. The mama-san, here, gets my business a couple times a week, don’tcha darlin’?”

The old woman cackled, eyeballing Carver and pointing at Delacruz. “He like his boom-boom. What you want to drink?”

“You still have my bottle of Jameson?”

Without a word she was off her stool again and Carver fixed his eyes on the case officer. “Did any of that boom-boom action extend to Patricia Hemsworth?”

The man stiffened, then relaxed. “Considering the surroundings, I guess that seems a reasonable question. The answer is no.”

Delacruz fidgeted in his seat, as if he couldn’t find a comfortable position. “I’m takin’ a big risk talkin’ to you. Patty was a good girl. Partied too much, maybe, but she was one of the best NOCs I’d ever run.

“What happened to her had nothin’ to do with what we were engaged in. In other words, it wasn’t the Chinese.”

Carver went palms down on the bar. “We know this. That’s why we’re here.”

“Yeah, well, as far as I’m concerned, the butcher job is all about someone trying to cover their ass, and ’cause of that, I could be the next one on the list.”

“Do you know more than what was in her report to headquarters.”

No, but do you think they’re gonna believe me? I was her handler. Anyway, even if I did, do you actually believe I’d tell you? I don’t know you.” 

He hesitated, took a sip of his highball and continued. “But I did some checking. You aren’t CIA, which under the circumstances is a good thing. You’ve got a good reputation among people I trust. They tell me you’re a major pain in the ass to the people I believe have to be involved.”

Carver nodded. “Okay, so what does that mean.”

“Don’t expect me to open up and poor my guts out, pal. I, however, do have something you need to see.” 

When the old woman brought the bottle, Delacruz stepped off his stool, picked up a soft-back brief case he had on the floor next to him, and waved a finger at Carver and the other two men. 

“Hey, mama, we need to use your backroom for a little while. Put the time on my tab, will ya?”

“You want girls?”

“Not tonight.”

The mama-san held a flat hand toward the end of the counter. She then placed four whiskey tumblers and the bottle of Jameson on a thick-plastic cork-bottom serving tray.

“You go … one of my girls bring this.”


Chapter Seventeen

A Hit Interrupted

Reaper was disappointed. The take down was easy enough, but the presentation was now in question. 

Ms Wu was on her back, her arms and legs spread, so he could get a better look at her. He’d removed his gloves and dropped his rappelling harness next to his deployment bag. He wanted to touch her unencumbered, skin-on-skin, before he stretched the latex over his hands. 

Reggie wasn’t sure how he’d finish her off. Ordinarily, it would have been hand over nose and mouth. Other than some discoloration, suffocation did little to disturb the tissue. 

A plastic bag was even better. He could probably find one in the kitchen, if he took the time to rummage around. 

A more entertaining end, though, would be to pick her up by her ankles and dip her head first in the pool. Hell, I could even do a little muff divin’ while I’m at it.

It was all good fun from that perspective. The problem was in the aesthetic. The bitch had skinned her knee. This’ll never do … 

He wasn’t sure if he’d heard the shot before or after the bullet hit him. All he was sure about was it must have been big and fast. 

It felt like someone teed off on his back with a tire iron. Maybe it was years of experience in combat, or a natural survival instinct, but he didn’t bother trying to breathe. He dove right in time for the second shot to rip a chuck of flesh off his left tricep.

On his stomach, he kept his legs pumping, pushing with the tips of his boots and pulling with his forearms until he was behind the planter. A pushup with his left arm was out, but using the top edge of the brick flowerbox, he pulled himself up enough to get his legs under him. 

Now in a low crouch, he brought the H&K around and toggled the safety off, pushing the switch three clicks. He figured the wind blowing across the patio, along with baffling from the suppressor, would keep the noise of a burst of ten or twelve rounds from traveling far.

It was another few seconds before he could take a deep breath. His back hurt like hell, but as he felt around the spot where the first bullet landed, it seemed the only place he was bleeding was from the arm.Yeah, but I’m not wearin’ body armor … 

The voice coming through the door had the quality of an adrenaline pump yet controlled and … female. 

“In about three minutes there’s going to be a small army of armed security here! Are you sure you want to do this?”

Well, that’s gonna fuck-up date night.Force of habit had Reggie pull the magazine to check the rounds. That’s when he saw the large dimple in the upper receiver. There was no doubt the weapon was trashed, but he tried yanking the cocking lever anyway. The bolt was jammed tight.

Since he didn’t see the need for dead weight, he pocketed the magazine, peeled the sling over his head and dropped the machine gun next to the bag. He then pulled the Mark 23 from its thigh holster.

He wasn’t crazy about the pistol. It was a big frame monster, heavy in the hand and off balance from the attached suppressor and laser aiming module. On the plus side, the thing was chambered in the same caliber as the UMP—+P .45 acp—and he just happened to have enough ammo to deal with a small army.

Reggie flexed his left arm. He could tell it was a through and through, and while the slug hadn’t hit an artery, it wouldn’t stop bleeding until it was looked after. 

The elbow and shoulder joints seemed intact and he was certain there was no damage to the bone. He didn’t need a tourniquet and a slow leaker could wait. It was only pain. He’d tend to it later.

Well, shit. He flicked the switch on his helmet. “Dragon Fly, this is Reaper. Do you copy?”

No response. The helmet’s transmitter was short range and line of sight. He knew there wasn’t a chance of a dust off, but he had to give it a try.

Pistol ready, he straightened and looked over at his mark. There was movement in her arms and legs—she was coming around. 

To the sharpshooter in the penthouse, he yelled, “Hey, darlin’! Why don’t you come out here and help me finish your boss. I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I don’t think so, asshole! The only one finished is you!”

Fuckin’ dyke sounds like a Brit. Oh, well … I guess we ain’t makin’ art tonight.Forcing a two-hand grip, he used his right middle finger to toggle the lever under the trigger guard, activating the laser sight.

He then thumbed the hammer back and pointed the laser at Sally’s head. He took a breath and exhaled slowly from his mouth until the little green dot stopped wavering.

On single action, the trigger required about three pounds of pressure. The first round went through her skull at the midpoint of her sagittal suture. From Reggie’s perspective it only ruffled a few hairs. 

The second was a few millimeters to the right, punching a hole in her parietal bone. A more satisfactory result, the bullet exited through her mandibular notch, taking with it a sizable chunk of the touchy-feely hemisphere. From the slight jerk in her shoulder, he assumed the slug had made a secondary entry at the right trapezius.

This bitch is done and dusted. How come I didn’t know about the other one?It wasn’t uncommon in his line of work to run into the occasional snag. The advance work on this job was so thorough, though, he couldn’t understand how an obvious lifestyle choice could have been overlooked.Unless … 

His arm throbbed and the muscles in his back had begun to tighten. He could move but it was going to have some effect on his range of motion. 

The penthouse layout had been memorized, and unless Ms Wu had done any remodeling, he also knew the positioning of the furniture. He’d have to move and shoot his way through the living room to the front door. Beyond that was a five-by-ten foyer with a private elevator.

If what the skank said was true, he had about two minutes to vacate. The upside, however, to what was becoming a worst-case scenario, was the glass wall.

The target package provided details on the giant pane, which was a two-inch-thick laminate. Along with its unobstructed transparency, it was capable of withstanding sustained gale force winds and the concomitant debris associated with typhoons—a common occurrence in Hong Kong.

He’d have a wide-open view of the first floor and the stairs going up to the mezzanine level, while having the protection of what was, essentially, ballistic glass. Whatever type of handgun she was using, Reggie calculated his odds were better than even getting to the patio door. 

There was also the added benefit of being able see where she was. Going through the opening, he could return fire. Time to motate … 

As he stood, two things happened. The first was his right latissimus dorsi spasmed, with a crashing effect on the muscles in his lumbar.

A deep, stabbing pain erupted next to his L1 that winded him and buckled his knees. He thought for a instant he’d been shot again.

He avoided collapse by catching himself on the edge of the planter, forcing the nerves in his legs to cooperate. He was now in an involuntary crouch, unable to pull himself erect. 

It was then the second thing occurred. It wasn’t a thought, really, or a feeling remembered. It was more like an emotion being relived. It was the exact same sensation he’d had when he left that faggot, no-account prick Carver standing in that Paris street.

The backroom was nothing more than a dark space set apart from the rest of the bar by a curtain similar to the one at the entrance. Lit by two three-foot fluorescent blacklight tubes, it was decorated with a pair of plastic-padded bench seats separated by an abraded coffee table—a foot rest for the cost conscious. 

The screened-off room was for budget blowjobs, and without ventilation, it smelled worse than dollar night at Stud’s theater in West Hollywood.

Carver sat next to Delacruz, while Stacks and Kress faced them from the other settee. The girl with the drink tray pulled up a folding chair to sit and poor drinks, but Delacruz waved her off.

“We can manage, darlin’. I’ll see you later.”

She moved with phony allure to the portière, her Cheshiregrin glowing bright white under the ultraviolet. Delacruz waited another thirty seconds before he lifted the briefcase to the table, unzipped its flap, and pulled out a laptop. 

“I don’t know how much you’ve been briefed on Patty’s role here in Hong Kong, and I’m not gonna get into details. What I can say is it’s gotta be obvious she was collecting on the PRC and its own collection operations on private business in the SAR.”

Carver interrupted what he discerned would be ground already tread. “I’ll tell ya, Oscar, since you don’t seem to be aware of it, we’ve been read into the operation you and Hemsworth were running.

“What we really wanna talk about is the analysis she was doin’ on the NOC murders. We’ve been told she’d been assigned the task.”

Delacruz shook his head. “That’s not exactly true. She had a special connection to the case officer who’d been murdered in Bangkok. It was one of those training camp hookups at the Farm that never last, but when she heard about what happened to him she took it hard.

“That’s what got her started looking into the matter. When headquarters got wind of what she was up to, she was officially warned-off, but she wouldn’t let it go.”

Carver leaned forward, forearms on knees. “I read her report. It was … thorough.”

Delacruz pushed the power button on the laptop. “Like I said, she was the best—fucking brilliant. The piece of paper she sent up the chain scared someone. That’s why she’s dead.”

Fred, who had been sipping on his whiskey throughout the conversation, interjected, “Art Sheppard said pretty much the same thing.”

Delacruz didn’t look up from the computer. “Did he? I wouldn’t trust a word that came out of that motherfucker’s mouth. That message went straight to him. Even I wasn’t on distribution. I didn’t read it until I was goin’ through her message traffic after she was killed.”

Carver felt for the man, but this head-to-head wasn’t getting them anywhere. “Listen, Oscar, it’s our job to find the guy who did that to Patricia and we need to know if you’ve got any information that’ll help us get it done.

“Did she leave anything in her work product that’ll give us a lead … location?”

“No, but I do have something you need to see. A couple months back, Patty told me her apartment had been tossed. It wasn’t one of those Ministry of State Security specials where they take shit apart and leave the pieces in the middle of the floor.

“It was subtle. Whoever went in tried to go undetected but didn’t put things back the way they found ’em. She knew as soon as she walked in the place was all wrong.

“We were convinced that if her cover hadn’t been blown, she was being surveilled to confirm a suspicion. I had one of our tech guys go into her place as a plumber and do a bug check. He detected not only high frequency RF but wireless video transmissions as well.

“We decided to leave everything in place, but I had him go in a week later and install a device we could use to piggyback on the signals. We wanted to find out what it was they were looking at.

“After another week or so, we hijacked the system altogether, changing the broadcast frequencies. Once they lost the video feed, we figured they’d go back in and try to fix it. We’d get ’em on camera.”

Carver watched Delacruz plug a thumb drive into a USB port. “Sheppard didn’t mention anything about tech surveillance on Hemsworth.”

When the window opened showing the device’s icon, Delacruz scrolled the cursor over it and tapped the touch pad. There was only one file—unnamed.

“I’m not surprised. By Mr. Sheppard’s direction, he was the only one to receive a copy of what I’m about to show you. It couldn’t have been more than few after he received it when I got a call from the Deputy Director himself ordering me to destroy the file. 

“He wanted a data wipe of every device the video had been on, including any servers we’d used in the process.”

Carver looked over at Stacks. He didn’t need mental telepathy to see that Fred was mulling over the dots he’d been connecting.

Oscar Delacruz had confirmed what Ryan Henderson uncovered. It was clear at this point Art had a tit in a wringer. If it was more than a violation of an antiquated executive order, only the spy master could tell them. 

Of one thing Ruben was certain: Arthur Sheppard, a snake eating devil dog with crimson and gold in his veins, would never have gone so low as to have one of his own butchered—no matter how much ass he had to cover.

Back at Delacruz, Carver said, “Okay, let’s see what Sheppard wanted to erase.”

The video ran for almost a minute when the image of who Carver believed was Reaper walked naked into the frame. His arms were covered in what could only be inferred was Hemsworth’s blood. 

When the killer turned, with his face fully visible on the monitor, Carver’s chest tightened. A bead of sweat formed at his hairline as he sat back.

Stacks had been watching Carver’s reaction and reached across the table. He spun the laptop around and pulled it toward him, so he and Kress could take a look at what the case officer had brought to the party.

“Is this him? Is this Reaper?”

“It’s him. He’s had a lot of work done, plus there’s the changes time will do to anyone, but that’s him. It’s the eyes and the expression on his face. Fucker.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

Carver stared back at his partner. “I saw that guy last night. First when we were checking in and later when we were in the bar. Reginald Bryar is in Hong Kong and he knows we’re here.”