itinerary included with the dossier was accurate. The businessman had no reason to doubt his client-supplied information.

Another adjustment of the scope and he saw the entire width of the hotel’s front side and two-thirds of the way up its single tower. Light from the rising sun reflected off the windows of the top three floors within the scope’s view.

The rain had ceased by the time a limousine pulled on to the hotel’s drive from the adjoining road and stopped outside the main entrance. A large white guy dressed in a beige overcoat and dark jeans climbed out and ascended the steps with the brisk efficiency of a bodyguard. His head swept back and forth, fast but efficient, gaze registering every nearby person, assessing for threats and finding none.

The man with the rifle felt his heart rate begin to speed up as the time grew rapidly closer. He breathed deeply to stop it climbing too high and negatively affecting his aim. He waited.

After a minute, the bodyguard reappeared and took up position midway down the steps. He looked around before gesturing back up at the entrance. In a few seconds the target would come into view. According to the dossier, the target — a Ukrainian — typically travelled with several bodyguards who would naturally have stayed at the same hotel. The bodyguards were all ex-military or ex-intelligence, who would no doubt surround the Ukrainian and make an otherwise completely clear shot difficult.

The man with the rifle had selected the MSG-9 because it was semiautomatic and would allow him to fire several times inside of just a few seconds. The 7.62? 52 mm full metal-jacketed rounds carried enough power to pass through a human body and still kill someone standing behind, and these particular bullets incorporated a tungsten penetrator to account for the body armour the target and his guards would likely wear. A wall of flesh two armoured-men thick could shield the Ukrainian and he would still die.

Before the businessman could zoom in closer to prepare for the shot, a tiny flicker of light from a window of the hotel’s thirteenth floor caught his attention. He quickly raised the barrel of the MSG-9, angling up the scope to check out the light source. He feared a guest was better enjoying the view of the city through a telescope or pair of binoculars. From an elevated position they might inadvertently spot him, and if so, he would have to forget about the contract and make a quick escape. No point completing the kill if the police apprehended him afterwards.

Once the reticule centred over the window he increased the magnification of the scope, and saw the source of the flicker was not the reflection of sunlight on the lenses of binoculars or a telescope but a rifle scope like his own.

A suppressed muzzle flash transformed the businessman’s surprise to alarm for the two-thirds of a second it took for the bullet to reach his head.

Pink mist swirled in the air.


Victor watched the body fall out of sight and took his eye away from the scope as the crack of the shot slowly faded into nothingness. The rifle’s long sound suppressor had negated the muzzle report but could do nothing to stop the sonic boom emitted when the bullet broke the sound barrier. Though a person with the right ear would know a shot had been fired, without the accompanying muzzle blast and flash its point of origin would be all but impossible to decipher. Subsonic ammunition would have eliminated most of the sound, only it was windy in Bucharest, and at a distance of six hundred yards, Victor didn’t trust the slower round’s accuracy.

The hotel-room window hadn’t opened far enough for his purposes so Victor had unscrewed the pane. As a result it was cold inside the room, but the flow of air would help disperse the tang of cordite. Shooting with the rifle barrel outside of the window would have helped with the smell, but it would also have helped give him away. Only amateurs operated like that.

Quickly, but not hurrying, Victor unscrewed the suppressor from the rifle’s barrel and disassembled the weapon. He placed the individual parts back inside the foam rubber insert of a leather briefcase. The process took less than fifteen seconds. Using a handkerchief, he retrieved the hot brass shell case from the floor and placed it in a pocket. He then moved the armchair he’d been sitting on away from the window and back to its original corner. With his foot, he rubbed the depressions from the carpet where the chair legs had rested near the window.

He screwed the windowpane back in place and used a small piece of sandpaper to smooth the heads of the screws. He surveyed the room for signs of his presence. It was contemporary, neat and very clean. Neutral colours. Lots of stainless steel and lightwood. No personality in the decor but no offence either. He saw nothing to be concerned over. He hadn’t used the bed or the bathroom, or so much as turned a tap. Hard as it had been to resist the pull of 300-thread-count sheets, the room was a strike point — nothing more — and tasting its comforts wasn’t worth the implicit risk. Sleeping in the same place where he fulfilled a contract was simply not how Victor conducted business.

Happy he’d left no physical evidence to tie him to the room, Victor placed the briefcase inside a larger suitcase, closed it and exited the hotel room. His pulse was two beats per minute above his resting heart rate. He didn’t have to worry about fingerprints as a clear silicone solution covered his hands to prevent oil from his skin leaving prints on anything he touched.

He walked to the stairwell to avoid the security camera near the elevator and descended to the first floor. He passed through the lobby, ignoring the commotion, with his head angled slightly downward so the cameras there would only see his forehead and hair.

Near to the hotel entrance, a tall, wide-shouldered man in jeans and a beige overcoat was speaking frantically to a similarly sized but older man. Both looked Eastern European, Slavic — Russians or Ukrainians maybe. The older man appeared to be in his late forties, clothed in a fine black pinstripe suit that was perfectly cut across his large, muscular frame. He had short-cropped black hair that was grey at the temples, and a clean-shaven face. He stood left side-on to Victor and the jagged line of scar tissue forming the bottom of the ear was clearly visible. There was no earlobe.

Four other men surrounded the two Slavs. All were pale-skinned Eastern Europeans, all in dark suits, all muscular but not overly so, all with the bearing of ex-military high-end bodyguards. They formed a tactical screen around the man in the beige overcoat and the older man in the pinstripe suit, each looking in a different direction — overlapping fields of vision, alert, good, primary hands hovering near their waists, ready to earn their pay cheques.

As Victor approached the desk he heard the large man in the overcoat explaining in Russian why the man in the pinstripe — the VIP — needed to wait inside. Victor pretended not to understand the topic of conversation as he reached the front desk and stood at an angle so the nearest camera would only catch the back of his skull.

The receptionist behind the desk looked flustered, staring at the group of Slavs, and didn’t notice Victor’s presence until he held a hand across the guy’s line of sight.

‘Sorry, sir,’ he said in Romanian-accented English, ‘how can I help you?’

‘I’d like to check out early, please.’

Victor gave his details, handed back his keycard, and waited for the receptionist to finish doing whatever receptionists had to do, all the while listening to every word of the conversation between the head bodyguard and his VIP.

As he checked the bill and went to sign the paperwork, he heard heavy footsteps approaching. Normally, Victor never allowed anyone to walk up behind him, but conscious of the security camera, and in the process of signing out, he couldn’t reposition himself without drawing attention to what he was doing. And the bodyguards looked observant enough not to let such telling movements go unnoticed.

As a result Victor stood still as he finished putting his alias’s signature on the bottom of the form, and received a predicted shove to the shoulder from the bodyguard as he arrived at the desk to bark orders at the receptionist. Victor didn’t dodge and he didn’t resist the shove — again to preserve his cover as a forgettable guest — but the bodyguard had to weigh two hundred and thirty useful pounds and Victor stumbled. He recovered his footing easier than a surprised businessman might have, but only to stop himself crashing to the floor.

Before he could make an expected angry — but not too angry — comment, he heard the man in the pinstripe suit shout, ‘ Nikolai.’

The guy in the beige overcoat turned from the front desk to look at his boss. Victor looked too.

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