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— ONE —
The panic filled him. It was fluid and heavy, choking his lungs and pooling in the pit of his stomach, weighing him down. As Lex walked, the hazy, midday air turned into a tidal drag and his knees weakened. He had to stop to catch his breath, so he lurched toward a pharmacy closed for the siesta, ducking out of the high sun and into cooler shadows.
He hid there for a few moments, trying to moderate the fear and failing. He ran a hand through the hair framing his corn-fed features. His haunted, terrified eyes blinked behind his glasses as he fiddled with them, smearing the lenses.
Lex looked down at himself, and for the first time he saw the tiny dots of rust red that speckled the white T-shirt beneath his baggy black hoodie. The vise clamped around his heart tightened a little more. He touched his cheek and it came away smeared with flecks of crimson. Quickly, Lex rubbed his face clean with the hoodie’s sleeve and fumbled at the zipper, pulling it all the way up to hide the rest of the spatter.
It was the Greek guy’s blood. Lex didn’t even realize that it had got on him. His mind was so focused on running away.
It all happened so fast. They had set the meet for a wide piazza on the outskirts of the old township of Rabat, toward the southern end of Malta. Lex had been on the Mediterranean island for days and it seemed to be getting smaller with each passing hour. He wanted to be gone. When the message came, he was falling over himself to get to the rendezvous.
The information arrived in a chain of digital text, filtered through the encrypted Tor server Lex had set up on the day he started running. Decoded, it was a promise from the Greek smuggler to get him out of Europe and on a plane to Canada. Kyrkos, that was the man’s name. The deal had been agreed. It was going to happen.
It was supposed to play out with them connecting in Rabat and then driving down to Valetta, where Kyrkos had a boat moored. Lex had planned to end this day on the waves, watching the sun set over the ocean. He was going to have a little ritual, where he would have burned the identity documents he was carrying and toss the ashes into the water. Start anew.
Lex Wetherby would be buried at sea and gone forever. That was how it should have happened, because no one knew where he was. He was safe.
But after he had sat down across a café table from the Greek, the burly bodyguard positioned nearby did a weird double take. He moved like he’d seen something wrong, something dangerous. In the next second, the big man jerked backward as if he’d been kicked by a horse.
Lex had seen people get shot before, but there had always been noise, the thunderous crack of a gun. This time he’d heard nothing, and it made everything strange and unreal.
Kyrkos had bolted from his chair, knocking over a glass of wine. He had enough time to swear at Lex before a second silent round hit him in the face. The Greek tumbled over in a heap and some tourist on a nearby table saw the blood. A child screamed.
Lex fled, an innate sense of self-preservation making him flip the table aside as he dashed away. A third shot had splintered a corner of the wooden tabletop. Unable to help himself, he’d thrown a look over his shoulder as he sprinted toward the mouth of the nearest alleyway, toward the faint promise of safety.
Tourists and locals stood frozen with horror, hands to mouths, faces lined with shock. The only ones who’d looked his way were a man and a woman of average height, their identities hidden beneath identical light-colored baseball caps and big black sunglasses that covered half of their faces. He’d glimpsed the dark, angular shapes of compact pistols hidden in their hands and all reason in him dissolved. Up came the oily panic, like a boiling flood head.
He’d raced through a narrow, airless passage full of stale odors which spat him out on to Kbira Street a few blocks north of the piazza. He’d followed the old road, moving without thinking, skirting around the dusty flanks of the church of St. Augustine. Rabat stood atop a hill, and there was a steady breeze through the medieval streets that plucked at his hair and pushed bits of litter along the gutters. On all sides, terraces of sun-bleached buildings crowded in on one another, most of them closed up for the afternoon.
Running on autopilot, Lex almost doubled back before he realized he was on the verge of making a fatal mistake. He staggered to a halt in the pharmacy doorway, trying to catch up with himself, concentrating on what he could remember about the town. He knew there was a coach terminus not far from here, where Rabat met the walls of Mdina, Malta’s ancient fortress capital. All he had to do was slip aboard a local bus and get away, lose himself among the other passengers. The rest he could figure out en route. For now, he was trying to concentrate on not dying.
The red ruin of the Greek’s face flashed up in his mind’s eye, and Lex gagged as he tried to blot out the image. Nestor Kyrkos was connected and the man had enemies, he knew that. He wondered if maybe the man and the woman in the baseball caps had come to end the Greek’s life for some infraction that he wasn’t even aware of. Maybe they weren’t interested in him at all.
But then, reflected in the pharmacy’s window, Lex saw an olive-toned face half-concealed by dead black lenses on the other side of the street, and he knew that he was the real target. Kyrkos and the bodyguard were just collateral. Their deaths had been the shooters clearing the field of anyone who could be a threat, before turning on their true quarry.
Lex slipped out of the shaded alcove and pushed through a group of aging English tourists coming the other way. Over their muttered complaints about his rudeness, he heard the low drone of a subsonic bullet a split second before a sand-colored block in the wall near his head grew an impact crater. The tourists reacted with mild surprise at the sound of splintering rock as Lex left them behind, hugging the yellow stone of the surrounding buildings, putting them between himself and the killers until he turned the corner.
No sound. Whatever weapons the two assassins were using, they were practically silent. No one else seemed to be aware of what was going on.
Lex moved as fast as he could without actually breaking into a run, afraid that giving in to the panic would result in his death. In his haste to escape, he had left his messenger bag behind at the café, but there was little in there that he couldn’t replace. The most important thing, the invaluable thing, he had on him. The prize for which he had betrayed his comrades had not been out of his reach since he’d left Berlin.
His hand twitched and tightened as this thought ran through his mind, and nervously Lex ran his other fingers over the scars on his palm, picking at the old, healed wound. His right leg was starting to hurt, like it always did when he was stressed, but he pushed the phantom ache aside by patting himself down, taking inventory of what he still had on him in the pockets of his cargo trousers and hoodie.
Not much. Adrenaline soured in his mouth, leaving a metallic taste. This wasn’t like the kind of fear he was used to, the rush of speed that washed over his body when he base jumped or rode a curl on a surfboard. That he could manage, because in those situations Lex was always in control. This was raw and hard and overpowering, and he was struggling to keep his head straight.
These people want to murder me. The reality of it finally hit him full-on, punching the air out of his chest.
The fateful choice Lex had made weeks ago, while in Germany, had come back to bite him. The people he lived with, partied with, the people he thought he had known … Now he wondered if he had never really understood them. He’d been willfully ignorant of what was actually going on, of the plans being made. He had deliberately looked the other way and ignored the hard questions that threatened to spoil the fun of it all. Until the day had come when he couldn’t gloss over it anymore.
Lex hated himself for that. When it got too much, when he couldn’t sleep at night for all the fear in him, he ran. He ran to here, into this. And now the killers his former friends had sent to deal with him would do their jobs, and Lex’s too-late attack of conscience would be rendered worthless. He cursed under his breath and tried to shake off the sick dread that threatened to choke him.
He started to jog, deliberately going around the ornamental gardens at the north end of Rabat and through the parkland. He slipped behind the trunk of a large carob tree to catch his breath, and dared to take another look back in the direction he had come.
The man in the cap and glasses was close, a few hundred meters away in the shade of a road sign. He was looking in the opposite direction, scanning the street for any sign of his target. Lex saw his mouth moving, but couldn’t hear any of the words. The man had two fingers pressed to his neck, as if checking his own pulse. When his fingers dropped away, Lex saw what looked like a nicotine patch on the assassin’s throat.
The man glanced in the direction of the bus terminal and nodded, listening to a voice that only he could hear.
Lex followed the line of his gaze. His gut twisted as he saw the second shooter, the woman, emerging from between two white-roofed single-decker buses. She had her hands clasped together, holding her gun out of sight under the folds of a light-colored jacket.
Her head turned, dazzling sunlight flashing off those big glasses, and she looked right at Lex. Her body language changed in an instant, as if a switch had tripped inside her. She started walking his way, slow and unhurried. She had the same kind of patch on her neck as the other guy, and her mouth shaped more words that Lex could not make out.
The matter of his survival collapsed down to one single option. Lex couldn’t head for the bus terminal, he couldn’t go back the way he had come or down the road that descended the hill. Those routes would take him right across the paths of the assassins.
But there were clumps of people going in and out of the old walled city, more groups of tourists crossing the stone bridge that led to the historic gate into Mdina, enough of them for Lex to use as cover. He moved as quickly as he could, the old pain in his leg biting anew, and screened himself behind a clutch of laughing sightseers busily taking selfies.
He felt a strange moment of dislocation as he threaded his way toward the baroque portal rising up in front of him. He knew little about Mdina’s real past, but he remembered that this place had doubled for mythic castles in television fantasy sagas, shows that Lex had binge-watched on long and lonely nights as he waited for his code to compile. He half-expected the people on the bridge to draw swords and come at him; it felt like the whole world wanted him dead.
He tensed with every step he took, waiting for another silent shot to strike him between the shoulder blades, but it didn’t come. As he passed into the shadowed streets of the medieval fortress, he shivered involuntarily.
On the far side of the gate, the road split into three, and the milling tourist crowd went straight ahead, following Villegaignon Street past the entrance to St. Agatha’s Chapel, the first of half a dozen churches crammed inside Mdina’s millennia-old ramparts. Lex broke off from the group, slipping away into the side street that followed the line of the fortress’s southern wall. There was another entrance into the old city that he had seen from the taxi which brought him here, to the west. If he could reach it and double back, he still had a chance to get away unseen.
He started sprinting, but the pace didn’t come easily. With each slap of his trainers on the cobbled street his bad leg jolted him. Soon the walls began to close in, near enough that he could have reached out his arms and touched both sides at once. The narrowing passage captured some of the daylight, reflecting off the sandstone walls and casting precious few shadows where he might have halted to get his bearings. Off the main thoroughfare, Mdina seemed deserted, reinforcing the strange movie-set aura of the place, but Lex couldn’t afford to stop, not when the assassins were so close on his heels.
He skidded around a shallow corner and spotted the arch concealing the western gate. The locals called Mdina the “Silent City” because of a preservation edict that forbade the use of cars inside the walls for all but a few residents, but there was more to it than that. The old battlements seemed to channel sound into odd, ghostly echoes or soak it up entirely. Lex couldn’t be sure if the rapid steps he heard behind him were his own footfalls reverberating back at him or those of a killer, and he didn’t dare to slow his pace to find out.
He made it to the gate and dashed though, emerging once more into the full brightness of the day at the top of a ramp leading down to the highway.
The woman in the cap and glasses had anticipated him. She was coming up the ramp to the western gate in quick runner’s strides, her face flushed with effort. She held her gun close to her waist. They both stopped short in surprise as they saw one another.
She recovered first. Her weapon came up, the blocky black shape of the revolver seeming too large for her long and delicate fingers. Lex was briefly dazzled by something—then saw that the pistol had an integral laser sight beneath the barrel, sending a crimson dot dancing down his face, across his throat and chest.
He threw himself back toward the gateway as she fired twice. The pistol let out a low metallic clatter, more like the sound of jangling keys than the thunder of a gunshot. Divots of yellow stone splintered out of the arch, hot fragments nicking Lex’s cheek as a bullet almost struck him.
He veered back the way he had come and ran deeper into the city, jackknifing into the first side street he found to get out of the woman’s line of sight. A third bullet cracked into the flagstones at his feet as he lurched around the turn. The narrow thoroughfares of Mdina had been designed to be no longer than the length of an arrow’s shot, so that invaders couldn’t get the drop on local soldiers, but against modern firearms that conceit counted for little. Lex’s headlong flight took him up a shallow rise, beneath lines of colored glass lanterns hanging out over the street, past windows barred by iron grates and locked doors. He saw the red splash of the laser off the wall ahead of him and dodged aside again before the assassin could draw a bead.
Lex skidded into a piazza, the wide-open space dominated on the far side by the bright frontage and bell towers of the Cathedral of St. Paul. More clumps of tourists were dithering here, groups of elderly folk up from the cruise liners moored in Valetta or parents with their animated children in tow, snapping pictures or listening to fast-talking guides leading them about on walking tours. Lex looked past the travelers, trying to find another escape route.
The few cars that were permitted inside the city walls were parked here, and he scanned them, desperately looking for one he could steal.
His gaze caught on the other assassin. The man halted across the way from him, pretending to be interested in the complex ironwork of an ornate second-floor balcony. One hand curled across his belly, hidden under his jacket. The man rocked off his heels and turned in Lex’s direction, the motion calculated to look casual and non-threatening.
A fresh surge of panic came over Lex and he searched the faces of the oblivious holidaymakers. He wanted to shout at the top of his lungs, scream for help. But if he did that, what would happen? In his mind’s eye he could see the two killers firing wildly into the crowd, slaughtering people in a mad rush to end him.
Lex started walking, quickly and purposefully, pulling his hoodie tighter around him. He did have one last card to play, one final risky gambit that might get him out of this. But he needed height and distance to make it work.
He passed a boutique selling expensive ornamental glassware, on the ground floor of what had once been a medieval hostel. He looked up, briefly wondering if he could access the building’s roof from within. Outside the boutique stood a life-size mock-up of a Maltese Hospitaller Knight. Without warning it was thrown back, slamming against the wall, falling into pieces at Lex’s feet. He saw the bright silver edges of a bullet hole through the knight’s chest plate and staggered back, catching sight of the woman standing at the mouth of the side street. She had her gun concealed in the same way as her partner, and the shot she fired had passed through the gaps in the crowd and nearly struck its intended target. All the tourists were looking in Lex’s direction now, surprised by the commotion but still utterly unaware of the assassins in their midst.
At last, Lex’s reserve snapped and he gave up all pretense of trying to blend in. He started running again, weaving through the people ambling along the main street, ignoring the curses and shouts left in his wake. He gambled that his hunters would follow him at a more careful pace, knowing that the narrow road he followed only ended in one place. Lex was deliberately boxing himself in, cutting off other avenues of escape.
The street emptied into the Piazza Tas-Sur, an open space more commonly known as Bastion Square. Around the edges, restored palazzos with red-fronted doors had been turned into museums or terraced restaurants, making the most of the superlative view out across the northern ramparts of the city. Visitors stood on the broad steps that led to the top of the battlements, taking in the sheer drop down the side of the hill to Mdina, the outlook over the village of Ta’ Qali and the vineyards beyond. On a clear day like today, it was possible to see out to St. Paul’s Bay and the resort town of Buggiba on the northern coast.
The pain in Lex’s bad leg collected around the knee joint and he winced as he slowed to a walk. He started checking the zips and fasteners on his clothing, making sure they were secure. Under different circumstances, what he planned to do now would have excited him. He would have a GoPro clipped to his shoulder, and the action camera set to record everything. But here and now he was more afraid than he had ever been in his life, driven by abject terror instead of a thrill-seeking impulse.
Lex closed up the hoodie and tugged a canister from the thigh pocket of his cargo trousers. The size of a large beer can, it attached to a web of expanding bungie cords that he spooled out and looped over his shoulders, snapping them together with a spring-loaded D-ring. He pulled it tight and the canister sat high on his back, between his shoulder blades.
Lex took a deep breath and climbed the stairs up to the battlements two at a time. As he reached the top, he felt the distant twitch of his stomach swooping before the sight of the drop.
If I do this wrong it will end me, he told himself. But if he didn’t do it, the shooters would put him down right here in front of everyone. He turned his head and closed his eyes, feeling the breath of the wind on his face, sensing the direction of the gusts.
Then Lex reached up his back for a red plastic toggle on the bottom of the canister, and stepped over the cautionary signs warning not to approach the unguarded edge.
* * *
Behind him, Lex’s pursuers held their guns sideways on and low. They kept them down by their hips, hidden in the folds of their jackets. Both of them fired, but even with their specialized training, their shots were off-target by too great a margin. One round blasted a discarded water bottle sitting on a step, the other blew up a puff of rock dust a few inches from the target’s feet. Again, the faces of bystanders started to turn in his direction.
“He is going to kill himself,” said the male assassin through the wireless communication node adhered to his throat. This was unexpected.
“No,” said the woman, her reply tickling him through his skin. “I don’t think so…”
The target’s arm came down in a sharp motion, and the object he had strapped to his back snapped open into a blossom of bright orange fabric and fine white cords. The thin material immediately caught the steady breeze and inflated into a narrow rectangle with a kite-like cross-section.
“A parachute?” The man disregarded protocol and launched forward, hoping to get to the target before he could step off the ledge.
The compact canopy filled with wind, drawing shouts of surprise from the assembled tourists in the square, and the target pushed off the side of Mdina’s battlements and into the air.
The woman grabbed her partner by the shoulder and pulled him back. “Wait.” She was already putting her weapon away.
He resisted, irritated at the idea of missing the kill. The chute was little better than a gimmick, a toy that would barely slow the target’s descent. If he got to the edge, if the woman covered him, he might still be able to hit the mark. It was galling to think that this civilian would escape them.
“Both of you stand away,” said a third voice. “I have this.”
* * *
Lex had half-expected the micro-chute to flop out and tangle, leaving him with nowhere to go, but the device performed better than he dared to expect. A nasty shock went through his chest and shoulders as the canopy took his weight and the cords cut into his flesh, but that was a small price to pay for getting away from the silent shooters. An unexpected thermal from the base of the tall hill threw him up and to the side, slipping him away from the edge of the fortress city, carrying him toward the farms ranged out below. Elation shocked through his body.
It would be a hard landing, he could tell from the rapid rate of descent and the fluttering of the canopy, but it would be one he could stagger away from and that was all that mattered. Lex was already thinking about what to do next—find a vehicle, get down to the coast and get off this rock—when the wind boosted him up once again in a brief rise. He caught sight of the church spires and tiled rooftops across Mdina and Rabat.
In the tallest of the towers, the light of the sun glittered in reflection. A flare off the glassy eye of a telescopic sight.
A moment later, a single steel-cored 7.62mm bullet penetrated Lex’s body a few degrees off his sternum and tumbled violently as it passed through him. In the brief instant it took to enter through his chest and burst out through his back, the round spun and ripped through the tissues of his lungs, and tore open the bottom of his heart. Blood gushed into the ragged void created by the passage of the sniper shot and his body twitched as it went into brutal, fatal shutdown.
Lex died as he sank toward the ground, his life ended in an instant. When his corpse finally crashed into a row of vines down in the valley, his clothes and the orange chute were soaked with a wet mess of dark, arterial red.
* * *
A tourist pointed over the edge of the battlements and shrieked. Others were holding up cell phones to record what was going on, and neither Cat nor Dog wanted to remain in the square a moment longer, for fear their faces might get captured on some idiot’s video footage.
“Back to the rendezvous point,” Dog said, stepping back from the ramparts. He gave Cat the slightest of sideways looks as he walked away, acting as if they had no connection to one another. “Leave through the main entrance. I will go through the west gate.”
“Understood,” said Cat, speaking without speaking, the device on her neck sensing the half-constructed words as they formed in her throat and turning them into a droning signal. The sub-voc unit made her skin crawl and she resisted the urge to scratch her face, directing the motion into adjusting the sunglasses perched on her small nose.
“I am making my way to the car,” Fox said. Cat unconsciously looked up, although from where she was there was no way to see the high roost the sniper had used. “Local law enforcement officers are at the site of the first engagement. Recommend we shift to secondary exit protocol.”
Dog was team leader, so the decision was his, but both he and Cat respected the elder Fox’s field experience and the answer was as she expected it to be. “Agreed.”
She passed by the cathedral and quickened her pace. Her fellow assassin had already vanished into a side street. “What about the target?”
“I saw where he went down,” Dog replied. “We must act quickly if we are to get there before anyone else.”
“I had to leave the rifle behind,” Fox admitted.
“You sanitized it?” said Dog.
“Then it won’t be an issue,” Dog added. “Proceed.”
Cat slowed her pace as she passed through the Mdina gate and stopped at a vendor to buy a bottle of chilled water, aping the tourists congregating nearby. As she paid for the drink, the green Fiat the team had been provided with came around the corner and slowed to a halt. Cat walked over and climbed into the back.
From the driving seat, Fox gave her a nod and then drove on, halting a second time at the next intersection to pick up Dog. As they rolled away from the traffic lights, a silver police car lined with a blue checkerboard livery raced past in the other direction. As soon as it was out of sight over the crest of the hill, Fox accelerated away, aiming the car toward Ta’ Qali.
“Why was he not killed with the first shot?” Fox’s voice sounded gruff when he spoke aloud. He didn’t direct the accusation at either of them, but Dog stared out of the window and at first gave no indication he was listening.
“The Greek and his bodyguard were more dangerous,” said Cat, after a moment, as she peeled the comm unit’s self-adhesive pad from her neck. “They were armed. They needed to be neutralized first.” She always felt odd talking immediately after removing the sub-voc—she had to consciously remember not to whisper each word she said.
Fox was going to add more, but Dog turned to him. “Just drive,” he said. “If we don’t get what we came here for, then we will have to consider our alternate options. That will extend the duration of the mission.” He gave Cat a look. “None of us want to be here any longer than we must be, no?”
Cat shook her head, and began reloading her weapon, swinging out the revolver’s angled chambers to insert fresh rounds. There might be witnesses at the landing site, she reasoned, and if that were the case it would be necessary to silence them as well.
Copyright © 2018 by James Swallow