Suspense fiction’s most dangerous and unpredictable hero is back—with a vengeance. This time bodyguard-turned-fugitive Atticus Kodiak goes underground to protect the woman he loves and the country he may have to betray to defend.
It begins with a brutal ambush and the murder of a friend. Now Atticus is taking lessons from the world’s premier assassin, a.k.a. Drama. If he’s going to survive, he’ll have to become exactly what they’re accusing him of being: a stone-cold killer. From Eastern Europe to the Montana wilderness, Atticus and Drama will uncover evidence of a secret so explosive, it could shake the foundations of a nation . . . so shocking, their ruthless pursuers don’t care how many bodies it takes to bury it forever.
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Natalie Trent drove, speeding us away from Allendale and the body of the man I had been unable to kill.
She drove fast at first, trying to put quick distance between ourselves and the place where Oxford's body now lay, but once we left the Franklin Turnpike for US 202, she slowed to the speed limit. From inside her coat, she pulled her cell phone, pressed the same button on it twice without ever looking away from the road, and then moved it to her ear.
"About thirty minutes," Natalie told the phone, softly. "I've got both of them with meyes, both of them. He's going to need a car."
She listened for a moment to the reply, murmured a confirmation, then ended the call and dropped the phone back into her pocket. She checked her mirrors, left then right then rear view, and when she did that, she met the reflection of my gaze. She tried a thin smile, and it looked as tired as I felt.
"Dan says he'll have a car waiting for you," Natalie said, paused, then added: "You're still going through with it?"
"I'm wanted for murder," I said. I didn't say that the murder I was wanted for was probably the wrong one, the death of an FBI agent named Scott Fowler. I didn't say it because I didn't need to. Scott Fowler had been a friend to both Natalie and me, a dear friend of many years, in fact. Had been, right until the moment he'd shuddered out his final breath while I tried to save him from the knife that Oxford had buried to its handle in Scott's chest.
That was Oxford's revenge, the way he had worked. He'd killed Scott because he could, and because he knew it would hurt me, and he had been right. He'd killed Scott Fowler because Scott Fowler had been unlucky enough to call himself my friend.
That he hadn't, for instance, killed Natalie Trent, or any of those other people who had the audacity to call me their friend, to care for me, wasn't for lack of trying. It was because we'd barely managed to deny him the opportunity.
Natalie frowned, putting lines to her beautiful face, then shifted her attention back to the road and said nothing more. Beside me in the backseat, Alena shifted, turning her head to watch as a New Jersey State Police car raced by, lights and sirens running, heading the opposite direction. At Alena's feet, and mine, lying flat and forlorn, Miata pricked up his ears, raised his muzzle, then lowered it again, more concerned with the tension inside the car than anything that might be happening outside of it. He was a big dog, a Doberman, strong and loyal and silent as the grave. The first two were in return for the love Alena had given him; the last was because the man Alena had taken Miata from had cut the dog's larynx, to keep him silent.
Alena watched the police car disappear into the darkness behind us, then turned back and glanced at me, then quickly away again when she saw I was watching her. With the back of her left hand, she wiped at her eyes, deliberately erasing the last of her tears. If they embarrassed her, I couldn't tell. I imagined they did. The last time Alena Cizkova had cried, she'd been locked inside a Soviet prison cell with men three and four times her age. She had been eight at the time.
One shot would have been enough to kill Oxford, and God knew she could have put the shot where she wanted it to go. But Alena had used three instead, and the first two had been revenge, pure and simple. Until very recently, I'd been living with her and Miata at their home on the island of Bequia. Alena had brought me there to protect her life, and I'd succeeded, but with qualifications. Another woman, entirely innocent, had died at Oxford's hands. Then he'd taken the use of Alena's left leg with a blast from a Neostad shotgun that discharged while he and I had grappled. The shot had found Alena, turned the muscle and bone beneath her left knee to ground chuck. Since then, there'd been no opportunity and no time to seek truly appropriate medical attention, and now Alena Cizkovasometimes called Dramawho had once commanded millions of dollars for her ability to visit death upon anyone for a price, needed a brace and a cane to walk.
So Alena had returned Oxford's favor. I wondered if Oxford had realized what was happening before the last round found home. If he'd understood who it was who was shooting him, and why. Time dilates in moments like that, and he was smart, and more, he was quick. He'd probably understood. It was probably the last conscious thought he'd had.
Alena had exacted an assassin's revenge. Just fast enough to limit Oxford's ability to strike back, just slow enough to let him realize what she was doing to him, and why.
The three shots though, regardless of their significance, had been a mistake. One shot, maybe that would have been ignored by a slumbering resident jerked suddenly awake. One shot, he or she could have believed it was just their imagination. But three, in quick succession? No doubt someone had called the cops.
It was the first mistake I'd known Alena to make, and it was significant as much for its singularity as for the reasons I suspected that lay behind it. It wasn't an error of planning, nor an oversight. Nor was it an error in judgment. She had made it deliberately, because she wanted to. She had wanted to punish Oxford, and not just because of what he'd stolen from her body.
She had wanted to punish him for what he'd done to me.
She and Natalie should have been halfway to the safe house in Cold Spring by the time I put Oxford in my sights. Somehow, Alena had convinced Natalie to turn around, to double back, and that must have been quite the trick, because I knew Natalie. She and I had been friends for nearly a decade, colleagues for just as long, and even business partners for a couple of years. We'd fought each other, loved each other, and carried each other through very dark days. We'd seen each other in glory and despair, with warts and without. I knew just how damn stubborn she could be, and how seriously she took her job. There was only one thing that would have convinced Natalie to risk the safety of her principle.
The safety of a friend.
They had done it for me.
That was why Alena couldn't look at me right now.
And that was why, as soon as we reached the safe house in Cold Spring, as soon as I made certain that Alena would be protected, I was going to leave.
We crossed the Hudson on the Bear Mountain Bridge and the water was black beneath us, and the sky still heavy with stars. It took another seventeen minutes to reach Cold Spring, and another ten after that to locate the safe house off Deer Hollow Road, where the street tapered out into the surrounding woods. We were maybe half a mile south of the Cold Spring reservoir, perhaps a mile east of Lake Surprise, and there were no other houses on the street. The safe house itself was a small two-story structure, old, pushed back from the road and surrounded by trees. All of its lights appeared to be off. The only things noteworthy about it at all were the three vehicles parked nearby, a Mercedes-Benz SLK 230 Kompressor on the driveway beside a Ford minivan, both of which I recognized as belonging to the security detail, and then a twenty-year-old Honda Civic. Even in the relative darkness of the night, I could see the Civic showing its age.
Natalie swept the Audi into a slow turn, then reversed into the driveway, killing the engine. I got out first, Miata following on my heels. Natalie emerged next, immediately moving around to Alena's side to give her a hand out. It was late October, predawn in the Lower Hudson River Valley, and the air had a bite to it, cold and a little moist, rich with the smell of autumn.
The front door to the house opened, and Danilov Korckeva stepped out, a serious-looking pistol in his right hand, held against his thigh. He made for us briskly, looking past me, up the street, checking the approach. Then he glanced over to where Natalie was helping Alena out of the vehicle, and the anxiety on his face flickered for a moment as he gave her a smile, then faded altogether for an instant when Natalie returned it. Then Dan put his attention on me, and however sweet he was on Natalie Trent, I didn't rate, because the anxiety was back, and now he was scowling. Past him, in the darkened doorway, I could just make out one of the security detail, another of the Russians standing post, night-vision goggles waiting on his forehead and a Remington shotgun close at hand.
"What happened?" Dan demanded when he reached me, hissing the question. "You were going to cap the fucker and do the vanishing act. What happened?"
I moved around to the back of the car as Natalie used her free hand to pop it open with her remote. She had Alena out of the car now, supporting her with one arm as Alena got her cane beneath her. I lifted the trunk, took hold of the submachine gun I'd failed to kill Oxford with, and the HK PDW.
"What the fuck happened?" Dan asked a third time, more insistently, his voice lower.
Alena said something in Russian, softly, and it didn't sound hostile, but whatever it was, Dan reacted as if she'd put a knife to his throat. He stood six four, which put him almost five inches taller than both Alena and myself, and he had at least fifty pounds on me, probably as much as double that on her, and most all of it from bone and muscle, not from fat. I didn't know his age, but it had to be somewhere in the early forties, which gave him ten years on each of us. With his shaved head and his black goatee, he vibed Satan-as-bully, and looking at him you got the impression that he'd just as soon break your neck as get drunk on vodka with you. He'd been Russian spesnaz, essentially their equivalent of the Special Forces, and he these days was hooked in tight with the organized crime running out of Brighton Beach. He called Alena "Natasha" or "Tasha," for short, presumably because it was the name she'd used when they had first encountered each other. How he knew Alena I didn't know and I'd never asked, but however he knew her, one thing was clear.
She scared the living shit out of him.
When I met his eyes as I handed him the PDW and said, "Get rid of this," the look he gave me said that now I did, too.
"Can it wait until morning?" he asked. "I'll have to pull a guard off the house otherwise."
"It'll go in the Hudson."
I went back into the trunk, hooked the strap on the go-bag, and pulled it onto my shoulder. It was a small nylon duffel, nothing fancy. Inside were two pairs of underpants, one clean shirt, a toothbrush, a set of fresh socks, and what was left of the half million dollars I'd held back from Oxford's money. By my guess, there was about three hundred thousand left, but I wasn't sure, because I hadn't counted.
I pointed to the Civic, asked Dan, "That's for me?"
He looked vaguely embarrassed. "The best I could do so quick, Atticus."
"As long as it gets me to Newark, I'm happy," I told him.
He looked relieved, but not by much, then turned to follow Natalie and Alena as they made their way into the house. I went to the Civic, found the driver's door unlocked; when I opened it, the dome light stayed off. I appreciated that, and I appreciated that Dan had taken the time to disable it. Then again, from the shape of the car, it was just as possible that the bulb had died.
I tossed the go-bag onto the passenger seat, pulled the keys from where they were waiting in the ignition, and dropped them in my pocket. I closed the door again, took a moment for another look around, another listen to the surroundings. The sky was still dark as pitch, and the only sounds I heard were from the woods, rustling dead leaves and shifting branches, and then, from somewhere above me, the sound of something solid knocking on wood. A tree house was just visible in the branches, perhaps twenty-five feet from where I was standing, maybe fifteen feet or so from the ground. There was a figure moving inside, and he raised a hand to me, and I raised one back. Another of Dan's Russians, this one on overwatch. Whoever was up there was probably very cold and very bored, but again I appreciated the precaution.
Miata nudged my left hand with his muzzle. He'd hung back to wait for me, and I reached down and gave him a scratch behind the ears. He looked up, fixing me with those soulful dog eyes, and I swear it was as if he knew what was going to happen next. Dogs' eyes are like that. Sometimes you can see exactly what they're feeling; sometimes, you see exactly what you're feeling yourself.
"Yeah," I told him. "Stop wasting time, right?"
By way of answer, Miata turned and headed up the path to the house.
I followed the dog.
Natalie and Dan were in the kitchen, which seemed to be the only room with its lights on, and that was fine with me because there was no way to see into the kitchen from the outside. Looking from the exterior, the house would appear dark, and that was how both I and Natalie wanted it.
"Who's in the tree house?" I asked, taking off my jacket.
Dan's expression was one of both disappointment and surprise. "You saw him?"
"Not soon enough."
That mollified him, and he grinned. "That's Vadim up there. He's my boy."
Natalie arched an eyebrow. "You've got a son?"
"Nineteen," Dan said, then added, "He has promise."
I hung my jacket on the back of the nearest chair, fighting off a wave of sudden exhaustion while listening as Natalie and Dan continued discussing the security arrangements for the safe house. Oxford's death diminished the threat against Alena, but none of us was willing to say it was gone, not yet. Three hours before Oxford had planted his dagger in Scott Fowler's heart, Scott and I had met with two men at a Holiday Inn off Times Square. Two men who, we'd assumed, had been holding the end of Oxford's leash. One had been a big stack of jovial threat who had done most of the talking, but the other had been a quieter and more thoughtful piece of menace named Matthew Bowles.