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HAKIM took a bit of comfort in the fact that the old woman had died in her sleep. He wasn’t in the room when it had happened, but he’d heard the mechanical clank of the slide jerk back and then forward and the spit of the 9mm round as the gases were vented through the silencer. He’d watched the old man die on the porch first. He didn’t know why, but he wanted to see it with his own eyes. With his broken and bruised body he pulled himself out of bed and hobbled his way to the front of the RV. He watched his friend raise the gun and shoot the old man from a distance of no more than a few feet. There was another brief flash from the muzzle and the body convulsed one last time.

Hakim had killed before, in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but never so close—so personal. They were just sil

houettes in the distance. He considered how difficult it must be to see every wrinkle and misplaced hair. To know the exact eye color of the person whose life you were extinguishing. Would those eyes come back to haunt your dreams? For Hakim the answer was yes, but for his friend he wondered. Did anything really get to him? Was there a line he would not cross?

Hakim stared through the windscreen and then watched with increasing concern as his friend climbed the porch steps and moved into the house. With great effort, Hakim climbed down the RV steps and moved as quickly as his broken and battered body would allow. He climbed the porch steps no more than five seconds behind Karim. He looked down at the lifeless carcass of the dog and the old man, who had been literally shot between the eyes. He moved with increasing alarm. He didn’t know why but he was convinced there were children in the house. No matter what the maniacal clerics said, Allah would never condone the killing of children.

In the foyer Hakim paused. There was a staircase straight ahead and a hallway just to the left. Farther to the left there was a TV room. There was a big leather chair and a matching footstool. A blanket was in a pile on the floor. That must have been where the old man was when they pulled in. That would explain why he was up so fast and was able to intercept Karim outside. He hobbled over to the chair to confirm his theory. He touched the leather chair. It was still warm from the body heat of the man.

That was when he heard the faint yet distinctly mechanical clank and spit of the suppressed Glock firing a round. The sound did not come from the second floor. The headlights of the RV were still spilling through the big picture window on his left. As he looked in the direction of the sound he saw Karim come through a doorway at the back of the house. He raised his weapon and pointed it directly at Hakim. And then something very strange happened. Hakim had thought of death before, but he had never welcomed it. Now it felt like a warm blanket against a cold biting wind. He was ready to wrap himself in it and fade away. Face whatever judgment waited for him in the afterlife. Based on what he had allowed to happen the last few days, he doubted he would see paradise.

“You idiot,” Karim’s voice cut like a knife through the dark, still house. “I nearly shot you.” He moved across the room quickly, his footfalls silent on the carpet. “Stay put while I check upstairs.”

As he walked past, Hakim reached out and grabbed his arm. “We do not have to kill every person we encounter.”

His friend angrily shook himself free and moved swiftly upstairs. After he had disappeared, Hakim walked to the back of the house. He stood at the bedroom door and hesitated. It was dark inside, but he could easily discern the shape of the bed and the nightstands and lamps. The near side of the bed was flat and undisturbed. The far side had a lump. Hakim sighed and without making a conscious decision his feet were moving. They carried him across the room to the side of the bed where he guessed the man’s wife had been lying, doing what billions of people do every night—sleep. How had she offended Islam? Could someone be an infidel if she was asleep in her own house thousands of miles from the heart of Islam, in a largely Christian country?

Hakim stood over the shape and willed himself to look closer, to confront yet another evil perpetrated by his best friend. At first he could only make out a silhouette under the covers and a head on a white pillowcase. He bent farther and the features of the woman’s face became clearer. Then he saw it. A dark circle at the woman’s temple no bigger than a small coin. Hakim reached out and turned on the bedside lamp. The red pucker mark was surrounded by a circle of gray. Karim had shot her point-blank, the tip of the muzzle no more than a few inches from her skin. He had expected to see an elderly woman, but instead saw someone who looked to be in her early sixties with many years left to live. Until they picked her house.

Hakim felt sickened by the whole thing. He turned off the lamp and walked back into the TV room. He stopped at the fireplace and looked at the photos arrayed on the mantel. Lots of kids. School photos, sports photos, and photos of family vacations. Hakim guessed they were grandchildren. He could barely breathe. He closed his eyes and prayed and listened. Listened for the clank and the spit of Karim’s gun. He prayed that the kids were not here. He could not take any more senseless killing. Not tonight. Maybe never again. He asked Allah for guidance, asked him if this was truly what he wanted, and when he didn’t hear from him he made a promise to Allah. It was a bargain. He would follow through on his end of the deal, and he hoped that Allah would keep up his end of the bargain.

Shortly after that Karim came downstairs and announced that the upstairs was empty. Then he radioed Ahmed and told him to make a quick sweep of the perimeter before coming in. Hakim breathed a sigh of relief, but he didn’t have much time to enjoy it. He felt a slight tickle in his throat and then he began to cough. At first it didn’t seem unusual, but then he felt the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. He moved to the chair where the man had been sitting and managed to fall into it just as he blacked out.



THIS Russian was quicker than he looked. Rapp figured he must have twisted into the blow at the last second, blunting Rapp’s strike and causing him to miss by a fraction. The Russian’s throat would be a little sore in the morning and he wouldn’t be eating any tacos for a few days, but his windpipe was intact and in working condition. That meant he would have no trouble sucking oxygen into those big lungs and in turn providing fresh blood to those big arms, and that was a problem.

Fights tended to follow a pattern, and for Rapp it was usually pretty predictable. It started and five seconds later it was over, Rapp on his feet, and the other guy on the ground clutching some part of his body that would need a doctor to fix. So, when his first strike missed it was like a symphony conductor hearing a poorly played note. The audience might not have caught it, but he knew it, and he knew he had to do something fast or this big guy would get hold of him, and he’d be the one in need of a doctor’s attention. The other thing Rapp did was re-evaluate his opponent. Moving into a blow was not the tactic of an amateur. Pros leaned in, rookies leaned back, and if you never learned to move into the blow, you weren’t long for this rough-and-tumble world.

As Rapp withdrew his strike he felt the hand of the Russian clamping down on his right wrist. Rapp yanked his right hand down hard and rotated it clockwise. At the same time he delivered a quick rabbit punch to the Russian’s nose, not hard enough to break it, but enough to make him bleed and maybe stun him for a second. Rapp made his first retreat. With his right wrist free, he hopped back a step, and that was when he felt more than saw the guy’s massive right fist screaming toward the left side of his head. Another move every fighter has to learn is a standing turtle. There’s nothing pretty about it, you simply tuck your chin into your chest, bring your shoulders up, and prepare to receive a few blows.

The punch glanced off the top left side of Rapp’s head. Rapp registered the stinging pain, but ignored it. When a guy this big throws that big a punch he almost always leaves himself open. Rapp found the opening. He ducked, slid to the left, and delivered a hammer punch just beneath the guy’s right armpit, where the ribs are most exposed. The brutal punch stood the big man up as he arched his back and tried to step away from the next blow. Then three things happened in quick succession. Rapp eyed his spot. It was the back of the guy’s right knee, just above the top of the calf. Always the knees with these big guys. That was their most vulnerable point. Rapp stomped down hard with his right foot. This time the joint would be working with him. The guy wouldn’t go to the hospital, but he would be going down, and for now that was all Rapp cared about. He had other things to do that were more important. As the big Russian started his tumble, Reavers stepped in and hit him with a perfectly placed right hook that snapped the Russian’s head a quarter turn to the right.

It was as if someone unplugged the guy. He went down on one knee, his arms dangled, his shoulders slouched, he started to topple forward, and although Rapp couldn’t see it, he knew the guy’s eyes were rolling back in his head. That was when the third thing happened. Rapp spun to go after Max Johnson and found himself face-to-face with the muzzle of a Sig Sauer pistol.

“One more fucking move and I blow your head off.”

The English was perfect. The accent a slight southern drawl. Most likely Texas or Oklahoma. The face, lined and weathered. Rapp guessed him to be in his midthirties. “You wanna shoot a federal agent in the head you go right ahead. They’ll ship you back to Texas and fry your ass!”

The guy blinked, thought about it for a minute, and said, “Show me your ID. Nice and slow.”

Rapp carefully reached into his jacket pocket, withdrew his ID, and flipped it open. He watched as the bodyguard glanced back and forth between Rapp’s face and the ID. Rapp knew what was going through his mind, so he asked, “Who do you work for?”

“Triple Canopy.”

They were good. One of the best, which meant this guy was more than likely pretty level-headed. “I’m OGA . . . attached to Homeland Security, while I’m back here in the States. You guys do a lot of work with us over in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The guy nodded.

Rapp hadn’t said a lot but he didn’t need to. OGA stood for Other Government Agency, which anyone who worked for Triple Canopy, and had been over to the Sand Box, knew was a polite way of saying CIA. Mentioning all of the

work that Triple Canopy did for Langley was a subtle reminder that while Sidorov might be paying a small fortune for protection, the CIA, the State Department, and the DOD were paying a real fortune, to the tune of about a half billion a year, to Triple Canopy and its subsidiaries.

Rapp said, “I just need a word with your employer.”