Two years later, a village near Le Puy-en-Velay, France.
My hand stills halfway to the toaster.
It’s one of the alarms, signaling a perimeter breach. I have motion detectors everywhere, set up to create four concentric circles of security around our property. When triggered, it means someone has crossed one of the sensor boundary lines and is getting nearer.
I look toward the back deck where my wife is setting up for breakfast, whistling something to herself. Her mother and brother said they’d drop by later, but it’s too early to be them.
Two beeps mean the intruders have reached the second boundary. Based on how fast they are moving, it must be a vehicle.
“Ravi,” I call as I slide open the drawer and take out my gun. “I need you to go upstairs, baby.”
Ravenna stops what she’s doing and looks over her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
“Looks like we have some uninvited guests.”
Having a fence around the property as well as cameras may be useful security measures, but I would never set these up around our home. My wife won’t ever again feel like a prisoner whose every step is being watched. And anyone who wishes her harm would need to go through me first to reach her.
Ravenna leaves the plates on the table and heads inside the kitchen. Her long hair cascades like a shimmering black curtain down her back and bounces up a little with every step she takes. She rounds the breakfast bar separating the living area from the kitchen and comes to stand next to me.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Please,” I say and nod toward the stairs leading to the loft.
She just smiles at me and reaches into the large decorative bowl on the counter, from which she takes out one of my other guns and cocks it.
“No,” I growl.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Fuck. They’ve crossed the last perimeter boundary.
She tilts her head to the side and places her palm on my cheek. “You’ll never have to tread through the enemy lines alone, Alessandro. You taught me well.” She lifts onto her toes and kisses my lips. “I’ll be okay.”
I never should have told her about my missions. Or trained her to shoot.
A car horn blares outside. The person behind the wheel doesn’t seem to be satisfied with one honk and keeps hitting the thing in quick succession like a maniac. It’s a combination of short and long honks, the pattern repeating in cycles.
“Perfect,” I mumble and kiss my wife, then throw the gun back into a drawer. “You can put that away, baby.”
“Someone you know?”
I step through the front door and glare at the newcomer. There is only one person who’d come to my home and use his car horn as Morse code to relay a message. The message?
It’s me, hi.
“Really, Belov?” I cross my hands over my chest.
“What? You’re not a fan of pop-rock?” The blond man jumps out of his car and narrows his eyes at me. “How long has it been? Ten years? Man, you’re old.”
“Alessandro.” Ravenna peeks from behind me. “Are you going to introduce your friend?”
“Yes, Alessandro. Won’t you introduce us?” Belov smirks.
“That’s Sergei Belov, baby. The guy who almost blew me up during a mission. Twice.” I say, then look back at my ex-comrade. “What are you doing here?”
“We came for a visit.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” I grumble.
The passenger door to Sergei’s car opens and Felix Allen steps out. “It’s business, not a social call. We’re here for a return favor in lieu of payment for the services I’ve rendered.”
“What services?” I ask.
Felix adjusts his glasses and reaches into his pocket, taking out a folded piece of paper. He clears his throat, then begins to read aloud.
“Obtaining several sets of top-of-the-line counterfeit documents. Hacking into federal, state, and local governments databases, and accessing-slash-deleting-slash-modifying various records and information, hacking into law enforcement systems and appropriating confidential information”—he pauses and looks up at me before taking a deep breath and exhaling—loudly—as he proceeds—“thirteen times. Locating and appropriating black market long-range weapons, falsifying or eliminating serial numbers, as needed. Setting up two offshore bank accounts and purchasing . . .”
I can’t help but roll my eyes at the drama queen, then wrap my arm around Ravenna’s waist as Felix continues listing all the stuff he did for me over the years.
“That’s the guy who helped you get out of Z.E.R.O.?” Ravenna whispers.
“Yup.” I drop a kiss to the top of her head while Felix keeps yammering.
“. . . blackmail, calling in favors from Yakuza, as well as two Camorra factions. Arranging the disposal of corpses on a regular basis, hiring then firing a very expensive hitman . . .”
“But he looks so . . . grandfatherly.” She laughs. “If I saw him at a crosswalk, I would offer to help him across the street.”
“He would probably bite off your hand. And him looking like a grumpy old man only makes him more dangerous.”
“. . . acquiring a body of unique characteristics, as well as incurring a storage expense until a set of delivery instructions were received, procuring another body under an extremely short timeline, and the cost of an orchid bouquet.”
Felix puts the paper away and places his hands on his hips.
“Storage expense for a body?” I ask.
“Yes.” He nods. “You requested a six-foot-seven specimen. I had to buy a larger fridge.”
“And the bouquet?”
“My doctor said I needed to cut down on sugar intake. Guadalupe found the body when she was searching for my ice cream stash so I had to apologize for causing her distress.”
I look at the heavens and shake my head. “What do you want?”
“I need you to accompany Sergei on a tiny private mission for me.” He shrugs and brushes the nonexistent dust off his suit jacket. “Nothing too significant. Three days, maybe four, max.”
“What kind of mission?”
“A rescue mission. A short trip to Mexico and back. It’ll be a piece of cake, Az. I swear.”
“I see. If it’s an absolutely meaningless one, why can’t Belov handle it himself?”
“The location is kinda guarded,” the old man mumbles, avoiding my gaze.
“How many men?” I ask.
Felix shrugs but doesn’t reply.
“A hundred and three,” Sergei throws in and smiles. “It’s my buddy Mendoza’s compound. Hopefully, he won’t realize it’s me when we storm it.”
“And your brother is okay with you invading his partner’s location?”
“Not really.” Sergei cringes. “Let’s keep this on the down-low. Roman will lose his shit if he finds out.”
Charming. “And who are we rescuing?”
“Kai Mazur,” Felix says.
“Yeah.” I snort. “Not happening.”
“You owe me!”
“That man is seriously fucked-up, Felix. He will probably think we came to take him out and will try to kill us first.”
“You always see the worst in people,” Sergei pipes up. “Kai is a decent guy.”
“Kai is a decent guy? If I remember correctly, you two tried to kill each other at least five times.”
“A decent, fucked up guy?” he grins.
I pinch the bridge of my nose, barely able to believe this shit I’m hearing. It’s true. Crazy people just gravitate to each other.
“Come on, Az,” Sergei says. “We can’t abandon him.”
“All right, damn it.”
* * *
A crunch to my right.
I snap my rifle toward the source of the sound, seeing that it’s only a rodent scurrying amid the fallen leaves.
The air is heavy with humidity, making it hard to breathe, especially in full-gear tactical outfits and night vision equipment. I reposition, focusing my scope back on the wooden gate where two men are standing guard.
“That lunatic couldn’t let himself get caught in a cooler climate, could he?” I grumble.
“I’m sure he’ll be more considerate next time,” Sergei says as he keeps twisting the wires on his self-made bomb.
“How the fuck did he get captured?”
“No idea. Felix thought Kai was dead until his name came up in a message he intercepted over one of the unofficial channels. Can you believe that old bastard still has a back door to Kruger’s comms? Anyway, looks like the Mexicans had him for quite some time. Mendoza’s son-in-law got arrested in the US last month, so they’ve offered up a swap—Kai for sonny-boy.”
“How long is some time?”
Sergei finishes with the bomb and sets it down on the ground. “Three years.”
“Three years? Jesus fucking Christ. Are you sure he’s alive?”
“They would never kill him. Too valuable of a bargaining chip,” he says and reaches for his sniper rifle. “But what state we’ll find him in, that’s the million-dollar question. Let’s get closer.”
We move closer to the gate and take cover behind a big bush. I keep the guards in my scope while Sergei takes out a small tablet device from his backpack and flips it open. “By the way, I saw the recording of your funeral. Beautiful service.”
“Do they still believe it was a gas leak?”
“Those who need to, yes.” I nod toward the compound in front of us. “How many bombs did you set?”
“Twelve along the outside of the walls. Thirty-seven inside. Couldn’t do any at the gate since it’s guarded twenty-four seven.” He hovers his finger over one of the keys on the keypad and takes the bomb he just made in his free hand. “Man, I love this shit.”
He throws the bomb toward the gate. The thing lands between the two guards and explodes. A second later, a deafening boom fills the air as all the explosive devices Sergei had set detonate simultaneously. The ground shakes as if an earthquake has struck under our feet, sending dirt, wood, and building debris sky-high. I’m just waiting for the hellmouth to open and swallow us whole.
“You sure that’s enough, Belov?” I ask sarcastically while a cloud of dust and smoke rises above the fifty thousand square feet of Mendoza’s compound.
“It’ll have to do,” Sergei says. “Couldn’t get more C4 on short notice.”
It takes almost twenty minutes for the dust to settle enough for us to actually be able to see anything. The explosions knocked out the electricity and the entire football field-size compound falls into darkness, with the only light coming from a dozen or so fires that have sprung up in the area. The scene really does look like hell now.
“Now,” I say and pull my bandanna over my mouth and nose, then head toward the gate.
Screams and cries echo all around as we walk among the demolished structures. An occasional gunshot adds to the cacophony as we off the survivors on our path. Everything, except for the huge hangar in the middle of the compound, lies in ruins. Several men are positioned at the entrance, their guns raised as they frantically search for incoming threats. I take out five as I approach on the right, while Sergei disposes of four more coming up from the other side.
“Back,” he says and heads around the hangar as I continue walking toward the front entrance.
Three more guards jump out when I reach the hangar door, but I quickly take care of them and step inside.
It’s obviously a storage facility, likely drugs since that’s Mendoza’s business, with crates piled on top of each other on all sides, almost reaching the ceiling. I turn right between two rows of containers, searching for hostiles. Several gunshots sound on the other side of the building as Sergei sweeps his flank. I reach the end of the row and turn into the next one.
I’m nearing the middle of the hangar when I hear Sergei’s voice in my earpiece.
“Holy Mother Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,” he chokes out. “East corner. Get your ass over here. Now, Az.”
I turn left and hurry toward Sergei. He’s crouching, holding a fluorescent light stick over something on the ground. I shift my NVDs up and approach, getting a closer look. The sight that greets me leaves me at a loss for words.
A man, barely skin and bones, is lying curled on the ground. His pants are torn and dirty, and what’s left of his T-shirt is hanging like a rag over his chest. Every inch of the visible skin is covered with a layer of dried blood. His face is turned toward us, but if it wasn’t for a shock of long matted hair, I never would have recognized him. The last time I saw Kai, he was about the same weight as me, but now he looks like a fucking skeleton.
“Is he alive?” I ask.
“Kind of. See if you can find anything to break that.” Sergei nods toward the thick metal chain shackled around Kai’s right leg and bolted to the wall.
I run toward the hangar entrance to get a bolt cutter and other tools I saw on a table close to the door, and hurry back. The skin around Kai’s manacled ankle is raw. It’s as if the crazy motherfucker tried to chafe his foot off to free himself.
“Hold him down,” I say. “I don’t want him going berserk thinking I’m an enemy.”
“He’s barely breathing, Az. I don’t think he’s capable of anything else.”
I take a step forward and place the head of the bolt cutter around the chain, getting ready to make the cut, when a heel of a bare foot connects with my chin.
“Jesus fuck!” I snap. “I told you to hold him down, damn it!”
Sergei gets down on Kai, straddling him over the chest and grabbing his wrists. Kai lets out an animalistic roar and headbutts Belov so hard, Sergei’s head snaps back.
“Shit.” I reach into my jacket and take out a small plastic box with a syringe inside.
Felix got us the tranquilizer in case we’d have trouble overpowering Kai, but once I saw the state he was in, I didn’t think it was necessary. The crazy bastard lives to prove people wrong. I uncap the needle and plunge the thing into Kai’s thigh. He keeps thrashing around for several more seconds, trying to get a hit on Sergei’s head before his body finally sags. Kai’s eyes are vacant, silently staring off into the distance, but I notice his lips moving. I crouch next to him and bend low, trying to hear what he’s saying, but the words don’t make any sense.
“Are there tigers in Mexico?” I look at Sergei.
“I think he’s delirious,” I say. “He’s calling for ‘his tiger cub.’”