The forty-something VIP stormed towards his head bodyguard, the other four guards rushing to maintain a full screen around him, five paces out, no corner of the lobby not covered by at least one set of eyes.

‘Nikolai, you disrespectful brute,’ the man in the pinstripe said as he drew near, ‘apologise to this man immediately.’

He gestured to Victor, and Victor recognised the rural Ukrainian accent.

The bodyguard called Nikolai looked at Victor and said, in inflectionless English, ‘Sorry.’

‘It’s fine,’ Victor said back.

The Ukrainian in the pinstripe suit turned to him. ‘Forgive me, please. My friend here has yet to be civilised. More primate than human. I do hope you’re not hurt.’

‘I’m okay.’

Victor took a step away, eager to end the interaction with the man whose life he had saved. Each second here increased his risk of exposure exponentially. The Ukrainian looked at Victor with a curious, almost intense gaze.

‘Oh, no,’ the Ukrainian said as his gaze dropped, ‘your suit.’

Victor looked too, seeing the small tear in his right jacket sleeve. It must have caught on the corner of the front desk as he stumbled.

‘It’s okay,’ Victor said. ‘It can be fixed.’

‘No, it’s ruined.’ The Ukrainian turned to Nikolai, and said in Russian, ‘You stupid fuck, look what you’ve done.’ He faced Victor again. ‘I’m so sorry. And that’s such a nice suit too. I can see you are a man who cares about how he dresses, as do I. I would give you money for a replacement, only I don’t carry any quantity of cash, and who has a chequebook these days?’

‘There’s no need, really,’ Victor said, thinking he’d have drawn less attention to himself if he had back-flipped out of Nikolai’s way.

‘There’s every need.’ The Ukrainian reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced a business card. He handed it to Victor. ‘I’m afraid I’m in the middle of a crisis at the moment, otherwise I would take you for a new suit, but here’s my card. Call me and we can work something out. If you are ever in Moscow I will have my tailor make you a suit so fine it will make you weep.’

Victor took the card. In both Cyrillic script and English, it said: Vladimir Kasakov. There was a phone number and a Moscow office address.

‘That’s very kind of you, Mr Kasakov,’ Victor replied.

‘Now, before my employees can do any more damage, you must excuse me.’

Victor nodded and headed to the front entrance. He didn’t turn around, but he felt eyes watching him the whole time.

Outside it was cold and the doorman looked far too frail to be still doing the job at his age, especially in this weather. Victor’s gaze drifted to the eleven-storey building whose ugliness was all too apparent even at over six hundred yards. The assassin had been right to shoot from there. Other buildings were closer, but not as well positioned to command an uninterrupted view of the hotel entrance. Victor would have used it himself, had their roles been reversed. He would have been more careful not to die there, however.

Victor saw his reflection in the hotel’s glass doors and noted that he didn’t look too dissimilar to the man he’d shot. He wore a charcoal grey suit with a white shirt and sky blue tie underneath his black overcoat. Perfect urban camouflage. His dark hair was short and not styled, his beard trimmed short. He looked like a stockbroker or lawyer, one that kept a smart but unremarkable appearance. He blended into the background, seldom seen, rarely noticed. Unremembered.

In a taxi, he unwrapped a stick of peppermint chewing gum and folded it into his mouth. He’d read gum made a good substitute for cigarettes, but no matter how much he chewed he couldn’t inhale any smoke from the stuff.

He had the driver take him to Gara de Nord station where he purchased a ticket to Constanta and boarded the train seven minutes before it was set to depart. He left his seat six minutes later and disembarked five seconds before the doors closed and locked. He left the station by a different exit, climbed into another taxi and told the driver to take him to Her str u Park, where he walked leisurely through the park before exiting and entering the Charles de Gaulle Plaza. He took a seat in the lobby and read a complimentary magazine while he watched the main entrance.

With no one registering on his threat radar after five minutes, he stood and descended the stairs to the lowest level of the underground parking garage. One of the high-speed elevators then carried him to the top floor. He went back down in a different elevator to the fourth floor and used the stairs to return to the lobby. He left the building by a side entrance.

He walked to the closest metro station and stayed on for thirty minutes, switching trains and doubling back on himself before changing routes and leaving at the University of Bucharest station. After a pleasant walk through the campus, a taxi took him to Elisabeta Boulevard near to City Hall and from there he walked the short distance to the entrance of the Ci migiu Gardens.

The park was quiet and peaceful. He passed few people as he made his way to the circular alley of the Rondul Roman where he spent some time looking at its twelve stone busts of famous Romanian writers while he finished his counter surveillance. His precautions were as essential a part of fulfilling a job as squeezing the trigger. The successful execution of a contract depended on remaining unnoticed and untraced. Nearly anyone could kill another person, but few people could get away with it once, let alone time after time.

For years, Victor had plied his trade with complete anonymity. Working freelance, he’d killed quickly, efficiently, silently. Those who employed him had no idea who he was. No one did. He had lived in near isolation — no friends, no family — no one who could betray him and no one to be used against him. It hadn’t lasted, and in hindsight, it was inevitable. He of all people should have known nobody could remain unfound for ever.

When Victor was satisfied he was not being observed, he left the Rondul Roman and walked to the centre of the park where a man-made lake was located. He paused on an ornate footbridge, removed the briefcase from within the suitcase, looked around to make sure he was alone, and discreetly dropped the briefcase into the lake. The rifle weighed just less than fifteen pounds and sank straight to the bottom.

Victor left the park via the south-eastern exit and caught a bus. He took a seat on the top level, at the back, disembarking after half a dozen stops when he was sitting alone with no other travellers nearby. The suitcase remained on the floor by his seat.

His thoughts turned to the man whose life he had saved. When Victor had received the contract he’d been given no information on the assassin’s target, only that he had to survive. Had the incident in the hotel lobby not taken place, Victor would have thought little else about him. But now Victor knew his name, and it was a name he had heard before. Few people in Victor’s profession would not have known it. Vladimir Kasakov was one of the biggest arms dealers on the planet, if not the biggest. He was an international fugitive. Normally, Victor cared little about the motives behind his jobs, but he couldn’t help wondering why his CIA employer would be so keen on saving the life of such a man.

It started to rain again and Victor increased his pace to match those of commuters around him. No one paid him any attention. On the surface, he knew he seemed just like them — flesh and blood, skin and bone — but he also knew that was where the similarities ended.

You know what makes you special? someone had once told him. People like you, like me, we take that thing inside us others don’t have and we make it work for us, or we stand by and let it destroy us.

And he’d spent his life doing just that, making it work for him. But his carefully maintained existence had fallen apart six months before and in the following maelstrom he’d fantasised about retiring, about trying to make a normal life for himself. A fool’s hope, but that had been then. Now, even if Victor wanted to, there was no chance he could walk away from what he did for a living.

He knew his new employer would retire him permanently if he tried.


Tunari, Romania

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