essential oxygen. But beyond one hundred and twenty beats per minute the ability to use fine motor skills — those that require small muscle movements, such as accurately lining up a set of gun sights — were reduced. At above one hundred and thirty those skills are almost entirely lost. To the body such abilities aren’t immediately necessary to survival.

Victor would beg to differ.

By controlling his breathing Victor interrupted the normal working of the autonomic nervous system, effectively putting the brakes on his climbing heart rate. Victor couldn’t override his instincts but fortunately he could manipulate them.

He figured the guy in the lobby wouldn’t waste any time in contacting the other units, informing them they had been spotted and the target was on the run, heading upstairs. Victor could get off at any floor, find a window and be gone in a matter of moments. But he needed his effects. If the kill team didn’t get to them the authorities eventually would. Passports had stamps of countries and dates. Credit-card numbers could be traced. The gun would ensure they investigated him thoroughly. Every piece of documentation was for an alias, but one that he had used before. He took every precaution imaginable, but there was always a trail to follow for those who knew how to look, and at the end of that trail was the real him. He couldn’t allow that to happen.

The elevator passed the first two floors without stopping. Victor kept his breathing steady. He counted off each long second until the ting.

Victor was out in the hallway while the doors were still opening, moving fast, heading left toward the stairwell at the end of the corridor, maybe thirty feet from the elevator. Closed.

He didn’t need to press his ear against the door to hear two sets of feet leaping up the stairs. They were fit, strong, maybe twenty seconds away. He needed time to secure his things, time he didn’t have. Unless he made it for himself.

A fire axe hung on the wall farther along the corridor. Victor smashed the glass with his elbow and lifted it from its perch. Returning to the stairwell he pushed the blade under the door handle, wedging the bottom of the haft on the floor. It was a good fit, sturdy.

A fire extinguisher stood beneath where he’d taken the axe. Victor hoisted it up in his left hand and moved back to the elevator. It was still on the fourth floor. He pressed the button to open the doors.

Suddenly the stairwell door shook but the handle remained rigid, the axe preventing it from turning. They tried again, more forcefully, but again the handle didn’t move regardless of how much strength was applied. After that there were no more attempts.

Victor turned his attention back to the elevator. He placed the fire extinguisher between the open doors, leaned inside, and pressed the button for the lobby. They closed as far as the extinguisher before the retracting and repeating the endless cycle. Victor estimated he’d bought himself at least two minutes. He needed less than one.

He reached his room without a sound and stood before the door. There could be others waiting for him inside. They’d be alert, ready. He kicked the door open and went in, immediately dropping into a low crouch, reducing his profile, head lower than where centre mass would typically be. It took a split second to survey the room, another second to check the en suite bathroom.

No one.

There were the two in the stairwell, plus surveillance outside, and possibly others elsewhere in the hotel. They were good, organized. If they were really good they would have a sniper in a building across the street.

Victor didn’t go anywhere near the window.

In the bathroom Victor took the lid off the toilet tank and retrieved the ziplock bags from inside. One contained his passport, plane ticket, and credit cards. He removed the items and placed them inside his jacket. The second had another fully loaded FN Five-seveN and sound suppressor. It always paid to prepare for the worst, Victor reminded himself. He tore the bag open, took the gun, screwed the suppressor in place, and pulled the slide to put one in the chamber.

An attache case containing a change of clothes and the rest of his possessions was already packed and sitting on the bed. Victor grabbed it with his left hand and went, keeping his gun out of sight down by his right side. He walked briskly down the corridor, alert, away from the stairs and elevator, heading for the fire escape. He would be gone long before they realized what was happening.

He stopped.

If he left he would leave knowing nothing about his would-be killers. Whoever had sent them wouldn’t just call them off. He was on someone’s hit list now. If they had found him once they could do so again. Next time he might not spot them so quickly, if at all.

They were a numerically superior force but they had lost the initiative. One of the first things he’d learned about combat was to never give away an advantage.

Victor turned around.

They came to his room breathless, guns in hand. One moved to the right of the door, the other stayed to the left. The target’s door was ajar, the lock broken. The taller of the two, the more senior, took a second to double- click the send button of the radio transmitter in his inside pocket. A whisper came through his wireless flesh- coloured earpiece.

The assassin made a quick hand signal to his partner and they burst into the room. The first went in fast and low so the second could fire over him as he followed directly behind. The first man swept the left-hand side of the room, the other the right. Maximum speed, aggression, and surprise to make anyone inside defensive, stunned, slow to react.

The room was empty. They checked the bathroom — it was the same. While one covered the other they examined the closet, under the bed, anywhere that might conceal a man, no matter how unlikely. They had been told to be thorough, to leave nothing to chance. They checked behind the curtains, first holding out a hand across the window to give the marksman in the building opposite the signal not to fire. Their faces glistened with perspiration.

Each room was a mess. The target had obviously fled in a hurry, not hanging around long enough to take all his belongings. Clothes were strewn about the floor, the bed was unmade, toiletries left by the sink. It was sloppy, unprofessional.

Both men relaxed slightly, breathed a little easier. He was gone. They hid their guns in case anyone came their way. When the elevator had refused to appear they’d had no other choice but to run back up the stairs and break down the stairwell door. It hadn’t exactly been quiet.

They left the room, pulling the door shut behind them. The more senior of the two lifted his collar and reported into the attached microphone that the target was gone. He was careful with his choice of words not to imply any mistake on his part. They weren’t worried, all of the building’s exits were covered, one of the other team members would spot him and move in — might even be doing so at this very moment. The target was as good as dead. Each of the team members was due a large bonus when the job was complete, and they hadn’t even had to fire a single shot.

Their boss had told them to be careful, that their target was dangerous, but now the nerves they’d felt seemed misplaced. Their dangerous target had fled at the first chance he had and was now someone else’s problem. They shared the same thought. Easy money.

Their faces changed when they learned the target hadn’t left the building, that none of the others had even reported a visual. The two men looked at each other, their expressions silently echoing the same question.

Then where was he?

Victor stepped away from the spy hole of the door opposite and raised his gun. He fired, squeezing the trigger ten times in rapid succession, emptying the magazine of exactly half its ammunition. The hotel door was thick, solid pine, but the bullets in the FiveseveN were shaped like rifle rounds and cut through it with barely any loss in velocity.

Two heavy objects hit the carpet, one thud after the other.

The door creaked in front of him. He’d kept it shut with his foot, having broken the lock to gain entry. He pulled it open with his left hand and stepped into the hallway. In front of him the first man was slumped on the floor, propped up against the door frame of Victor’s room, head hung forward, blood running from the mouth and collecting into a pool on the carpet. Apart from a twitching left foot he made no movement.

The other was still alive, lying face down on the floor, making a quiet gurgling noise. He’d been hit several

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