“Is that all?” Tyka said, gun still drawn, bodies on the floor surrounding her and Mahmoud. “That wasn’t even a challenge.”
“That is all,” Mahmoud replied evenly, looking at her with admiration. “And if I do say so myself, Ms. Tyka . . . I’d like awfully much to see how you’d handle a challenge.”
Tyka and Mahmoud had found many of the remaining members of the Marconi crime family at a café in Sicily, which also happened to be the last place Gabriella was seen alive. The heads of the syndicate had convened for an emergency meeting, since Gabriella had killed as many as she could before she was gunned down. The two assassins had made quick work of taking out the ones that remained. They performed well as a team, managing to do what they needed individually without getting in each other’s way. Tyka had worked with Gabriella for years, and had briefly agreed to join the Bod Squad, but had removed herself upon hearing of Gabriella’s death. She had a reputation for being one of the finest assassins around and was known as the silent weapon of both the Berkut (the Ukrainian special police) and the French intelligence agency, DGSE. After Gabriella’s death she’d spiraled into a kind of despair she had known only in her youth in Eastern Europe. Gabriella had become family to her, and the loss was more profound than Tyka was prepared for. Destroying the men responsible for her friend’s murder gave her just a hint of peace, a lightening in her heart. It would take a lot more to bring her real peace, but this was a good way to start.
“Well, then, shall we go?” she asked, raising a dark blond eyebrow at Mahmoud as she holstered her guns, one at her side and one tucked at the small of her back. She had several more weapons and tools in the sleek black backpack she carried, as well as the small pink pistol she always kept in her boot, but had needed only two guns for this job.
He smiled at her, catching her eyes, a mischievous glint in his own. “Did you want to hang around and wait for more? Or are you the type that enjoys marking your territory?”
She huffed at him, crossing her arms in front of her. “Really, Mahmoud,” she said. “I don’t get turned on by death. If I did, I’d be fucking constantly.”
“Like we’re not already?”
“Well,” she said with a smile. “I do like to get a job done, and done right.” He laughed loudly, and she brushed past him, going to check that the coast was clear.
Tyka was successful as an assassin because she could become invisible at a moment’s notice. But when she caught Mahmoud’s eye, and saw how his gaze was burning into her, she got frightened. She had to be careful. Because around him, she was anything but invisible.
Mahmoud flew a bit lower under the radar than Tyka, but was no less skilled. Based in Morocco as an independent contractor, he had clients all over the world who paid him very well for his work. He’d gotten into this branch of intelligence after his family was demolished; before that he’d worked for the Moroccan state police doing local investigative work. But something had changed in him when those he loved had been so cruelly taken from him. He had hardened and built himself into a machine . . . one that could track, capture, and kill. As far as he was concerned, everything he had done up till now was practice for the moment when he would catch the archvillain Baba Samka and torture him in the most violent way imaginable. Then, he thought, he would retire and live a simple, normal life in his beautiful home in Tangier, his favorite place on earth.
Mahmoud was debonair, wealthy, sharp, and well put together, all of which added up to him spending his life as a bachelor. He never lacked for female companionship, and there were several women he saw regularly. Would he ever share his life with anyone? His space? His heart? He didn’t think so. Though it was something he wanted, something he often wondered about, he didn’t think he was capable of real love. Not after he’d lost the people who’d meant the most to him. No, after that he’d closed up shop to anyone who wished to be more than a lover.
He looked over at Tyka and nodded. Time to move on. Much as he’d rather dally with this sexy wildcat, they needed to hit the road. But she did something to his insides, and he found his blood ran hotter around her. “Let’s blow this joint, Ms. Tyka,” he said, gazing at her with admiration.
“Your wish is my command, Mahmoud,” she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, if only that were true,” he murmured. She was funny, and a challenge, and he wished he could see into the depths of her soul, but she kept herself tightly wrapped. Every once in a while he could actually catch a hint of vulnerability in her, and he relished the chance to discover more. But now her walls were clearly back up. No matter . . . it was time for him to pursue a new angle on the case, and they’d be better off if there were no complications between them.
Jackson had let him know that there was a new target to investigate, an old contact of Gabriella’s named Birdsong. Apparently he had a villa nearby, and might be working with Buzz. They’d go check it out and see what they found. And he wouldn’t mind spending more time in the company of the lady he referred to as l’Assassin Blonde. He was so attracted to her, addicted even . . . he just couldn’t seem to get enough. She was providing a much-needed distraction in the midst of an all-consuming battle within his soul.
Robert Smith was weeping inconsolably. He was deeply in love with Gabriella—they had been seeing each other ever since he had trained her at the CIA. Smith was the leader of a highly specialized unit; he was also an instructor at the CIA and head of programming for Camp Peary, as well as a consultant to the FBI. He was FBI trained and CIA hired, and Gabriella had always said that made him the perfect man.
After touching down in Sicily, Smith had checked into a hotel in Palermo, near where Gabriella had grown up, to collect himself. He was in disguise as a British businessman, but the cover was a matter of routine, not necessity. He had a very helpful quality in the world of intelligence . . . he blended in, to the point of being nearly imperceptible. He was the complete opposite of the tall, dark, and vibrant Gabriella. Robert appeared to be normal, even milquetoast, thoroughly unmemorable.
I will cry, he thought, until there are no tears left. Then I will kill them all. He wept for several long, agonizing minutes, then dried his face and gathered his strength. He was ready now to punish whoever was responsible. He would find every last one, and make them pay in the most excruciating way imaginable. Only then would he have avenged the only woman he’d ever loved.
John Collins Boss, the Boss to his colleagues, had been officiating at Susannah and Chas’s wedding when he had seen his code written in the sky. After that, he’d taken some time for himself. If anything could have challenged him, it was this newest turn in the case. He was in his forties, and in all his years he’d never had a code word stolen before; he felt violated. But it also made him hungry in a way he hadn’t been since he first started his business—to solve the case, to put this man and his accomplices behind bars, to make the world safe again.
When he’d gotten to his office on Capitol Hill, he’d sent a Casablanca to Babs Worthington, something he’d done only once before. Babs was the head of her own agency, an all-female operation that did recon for women who’d been victims of violence, and every once in a while she called him in for backup. Due to the nature of her work, she’d also been insistent that they keep their ten-year relationship a secret. She’d said it was because of work, but the Boss wasn’t buying it. Regardless, he was getting tired of the constant runaround. One thing he wasn’t tired of, however, was the way Babs always knew how to sort out a situation when the shit hit the fan.
She arrived about thirty minutes later, just when he was at his wits’ end. She immediately sat him down and without hesitation cracked open a bottle of whiskey. Then she lit up one of her customary Marlboros and said, “Spill it, Johnny.”
The Boss explained all of it from the beginning: the discovery of Bruni, aka the Italian, and his network; Bruni’s assassination by his cousin Gabriella; and her subsequent murder by his cronies. How Chas had been working undercover with a different branch of the FBI, and that he’d joined the members of FTP and a couple of independent contractors to form the Bod Squad. Finally he closed by relating the trip to Mahmoud’s home in Tangier, where they all had realized that Bruni was only a tributary in the waters run by the criminal mastermind Baba Samka. He admitted to his frustration in finally finding Buzz Carter in Johannesburg only to learn that he was Baba Samka, and then uncovering his plot to aim a nuclear missile at the Pentagon. After laying it all out before her, he threw his hands up and told her that Buzz had escaped, and now they didn’t even know for sure if he was Baba Samka, and the whole thing was blown to shit anyway.
At this, Babs ran her hand through her close-cropped black hair and took a long, deep drag of her cigarette. She looked at the documents in front of her, shuffled them around a bit, and sat silent for a moment. Then she said what he’d been thinking, and her smoky voice really hit it home.
“Well, Johnny, I think you’ve got everything you need right here. The real question is . . . do you want to find him or don’t you?”
Oreida Jackson and Lisa Bee Goudreau were back in the boardroom at Quantico, waiting for everyone to gather around. They had also been at Susannah and Chas’s wedding in Alexandria—their second wedding attempt, to be exact—when the Boss’s code word, Casablanca, had been written across the sky. Once again, they’d had to stop Susannah and Chas’s wedding before the couple tied the knot. And once again, Jackson felt responsible.
Right before the wedding, Lisa Bee had unearthed some troubling information about a possible lead, but Jackson hadn’t wanted to ruin the nuptials . . . again. When Casablanca had been inscribed above, and it was clear that the code came from outside the Bod Squad, they had been forced to stop everything and head back to Quantico. It had been a small wedding, but most of the members of the Bod Squad, as well as Fritz (their FBI contact) and a handful of others, were in attendance. It had taken them a couple of hours to collect themselves and make their way back to Quantico; now it was nearly seven p.m.
Jackson reached over and put a hand on Lisa Bee’s shoulder. She looked up at him with concern in her eyes, and he smiled at her, smoothing back a curl of her unruly red hair. “You okay, Bee? Been one fuck of a day already.”
“Don’t I know it,” she said, her musical N’awlins dialect hitting just the right tone. “Jackie, what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know, hon. But I think you got us just where we need to be. That was damn fierce intel you came up with.”
She blushed. “Thanks. I’m just nervous to present it to Fritz.”
“Don’t worry about her,” he said. “I’ve got your back. And I think anything that helps is going to be a real gift here.”
“I know you’re right.”
“That’s because I’m always right, eh, Bee?” he said with a chuckle.
Now she laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far . . .”
Jackson looked over at Lisa Bee and smiled. They had recently consummated their relationship. Consummated it multiple times, in fact. Jackson was the joker of the group, or so it had seemed. The fierce Moroccan operative had used a hipster persona as a cover for his work stateside . . . and as a part of his personality he had always liked to hide his heart behind. He and Lisa Bee had worked together for years, and were close friends. At some point—he wasn’t even sure when, or how—he had fallen for her. During the last leg of their journey, in Morocco, he had told her of his feelings. And somehow he had been lucky enough to have her fall for him. Now they were partnered in both life and work.
He reached over and took her hand. “You’ll be great, Bee. It’s time to show Fritz what you’ve got.”
“Well,” Tyka said quietly, “it’s not subtle.”
“No,” Mahmoud responded. “But perhaps subtlety is a dying art.”
“Much like good marksmanship.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Tyka and Mahmoud were hiding across the street from Birdsong’s villa in Bagheria, about a thirty-minute drive from Palermo proper. It was midnight, and few people were about. Though Bagheria was technically in Palermo, it was known as the playground of Palermo’s elite and had been designed as such. Tyka had been nearby more times than she could count; Bruni, the former head of the Marconi crime family, had lived right down the street. Tyka had spent a lifetime casing Bruni’s villa, though she could never breach the security web of his bodyguards, alarms, and state-of-the-art cameras. Besides which, Gabriella would never let Tyka near him; she wanted to reserve that honor for herself. When Gabriella had killed Bruni, Tyka had thought they were done with the Marconis, but it seemed that Bruni’s death was only the beginning of a much more sinister game.
Tyka let out a sigh and threw back her long blond hair. Well, they wouldn’t have to look far to confirm what Jackson had reported. The well-lit wrought-iron entry gate of the villa was designed around a shield bearing the insignia BS. For Matteo Wrenn’s nickname, Birdsong, she assumed. Wrenn was a former South African pro soccer player who had retired young and now made his living buying and selling information. He was an old contact of Chas Palmer’s from when Chas was undercover and working with the Mob; he also knew Gabriella from the same circles. And were the initials BS just a coincidence? Or had the Bod Squad happened upon the best lead they had up to this point to find Baba Samka, the supposed murderer of her best friend, the killer of Mahmoud’s family, and the perpetrator of several heinous crimes all over the world?
“Well,” Mahmoud said quietly. “What do you make of this?”
“I don’t know,” Tyka said. “It’s too much of a coincidence. And I don’t like coincidences.”
“You and me both. Shall we go take a look around?”
“Give me a moment to think.”
Tyka always took her time before acting, having learned early on to be suspicious. She had spent her early childhood in Ukraine, raised by a single mother who was a double agent, but they had frequently spent time at their second home in France. After her mother starting working for the French government, Ukraine grew suspicious of her. In 1990, when Tyka was six, the Ukrainian parliament had just come to power, and the country was on the verge of civil war. Tyka and her mother had to flee through the Odessa Catacombs to find safe passage back to France, and ever since then Tyka had had a paralyzing fear of small enclosed spaces. She also had a fear of ever letting her guard down.
Her early life had been so strange that she’d never made friends or dated the way other girls had. Her mother never wanted anyone in the house, and Tyka was moved from school to school both in Ukraine and in France. All the homes she had ever lived in were cold, in temperature and in feeling. And none of them had food . . . grocery shopping was something her mother rarely remembered to do. Growing up, Tyka survived on bread and potatoes and not much else. She’d taught herself the ways of petty thievery . . . how to steal loaves of bread from the trucks, how to eat meals and run out without paying. She’d learned how to connect to people only out of necessity, not out of a desire for friendship or closeness. She had developed some exceptional survival skills; she was extraordinarily self-sufficient, independent, and adaptable. And she’d come to accept that she didn’t need anyone.
She looked over at Mahmoud. “What say we go around back and do a quick rundown? I’d like to have a closer look.”
“So would I, Ms. Tyka,” he said, stepping toward her, a look of desire in his eyes.
“Really, Mahmoud. It’s time to focus, don’t you think?”
“As you wish, Ms. Tyka. I live to serve.”
He sharpened and neutralized his features. Tyka recognized the expression well, something Gabriella used to call “the neutral mask.” It was how they all looked when they focused on a task or were about to take someone out. Focused, and like they had no feelings whatsoever. Tyka found herself surprised at her sudden disappointment in seeing Mahmoud’s persona armored again.
In truth, Tyka dreamed of finding her other half, but she would never share that particular intel with a soul. She had thought about partnership a lot over the last few years . . . especially since she’d had a front-row seat watching Chas and Susannah’s romance. She’d connected with this group partly because of Chas, but mostly because of his father, Chuck, who had known her during one of her first jobs. When she was fifteen, she had run away from home and found her way as an apprentice to a young man named Spliff, who’d been hired to take out the Italian. When Spliff was outed and killed by one of Bruni’s bodyguards, she’d inherited his job. Along the way she’d met Chuck, and he’d given her a message to pass on to his son if things got rough for Chas. Years later she’d had that chance, and seeing the man Chas had become made her want a man of her own. But what other half could there be for a Ukrainian assassin who traveled all over the earth killing people? It was a lot to stomach. Of course, the fact that the people she took out deserved it did make it better. But who was she kidding? Who was going to fall for a hired gun?
Except for another hired gun.
She looked away, then back at Mahmoud. Pretentious fuck. He had really grown on her, though. Beneath his exterior was a loyal and caring heart; she could see it in his eyes. Sometimes, briefly, she caught a flash of something gentle and vulnerable underneath the sharply tuned elegance that was Mahmoud. Something she longed to see more of.
“Well, if you live to serve,” she said drily, “I am in need of a cabana boy.”
“Someone to hold your weapons?” he asked, his face still neutral.
“I would never let anyone touch my weapons.”
“Of course,” he replied. “Your crown and scepter, then. Or perhaps the train of your robe.”
“Really, Mahmoud. I only have need of someone to carry my cigarettes. And occasionally a bottle of chilled vodka.”
At this he cracked a smile. “I left my cooler at home. But your cigarettes I have at the ready.”
She took a moment to look him up and down. He was dressed all in black, simple clothes, good for reconnaissance. Though it looked like he carried nothing, she knew he had at least four concealed weapons, as did she. And, she now realized, her cigarettes. He was staring intently at the villa, likely trying to figure out the easiest access point. Birdsong’s home was a rambling old estate right on the coast; it had untended gardens and stone stairs that led to a patio. The villa looked uncared for; crumbling paint and broken shutters could be seen on every wall. She knew instinctively that the best entrance would be the side; the front was too obvious, the back usually quite protected, but there was often a side entrance that even the sharpest would overlook. She was testing him, mentioning the back. Trying to suss out how sharply tuned he really was.
He looked back at her then, his focused gaze catching hers. “Right side, yes?” he asked. She couldn’t help but smile as she nodded quickly and they instantly moved together, deftly working in tandem. It was a strange comfort to be in the presence of someone who spoke her language, and it filled a space Gabriella had left behind. There was an untended patch of garden between Birdsong’s estate and the one next door—it was the perfect place to trespass. Working silently, almost as one, they made their way into the overgrowth.
Back at Quantico, all had gathered for the briefing. Jackson and Lisa Bee had set up a small presentation using Lisa Bee’s laptop, and they were joined by Susannah and Chas, who had changed into casual clothes after their second almost-wedding. “This wasn’t quite the honeymoon we planned on,” Susannah said with a wry smile, “but it is the one we keep getting.”
“Honestly, kids, I don’t know that I can take it anymore,” said Susannah’s mother, Janice, also looking frayed. Fritz seemed exhausted and stressed; she had been at the wedding because she was an old friend of Susannah’s mother, and she nodded in agreement, gently resting a hand on Janice’s shoulder. Janice had passed messages for Fritz using the gift store she owned in Alexandria, but that was as deep as she’d gotten involved. Until her husband had turned out to be alive, and a suspect in a deadly manhunt, and then she’d been pulled in deeper.
“Well, it looks like this is the only honeymoon any of us are getting at the moment,” said the Boss as he walked in, his thick hair a bit unruly underneath a classic fedora but the rest of him in very good shape. The Boss’s love of old movies influenced his style, but in truth he was a master chameleon. He was famous among his team for being able to change looks at a moment’s notice. Today he wore a white button-down shirt, dark slacks, and a long black trench coat; the fedora he wore made him look like something out of a film noir. A veritable Robert Mitchum from Out of the Past, perhaps . . . one of his favorites. “I hope you’ve all enjoyed the all too brief respite. Because it’s high time we get back to business.”
The Boss took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, feeling a new stridency forming in his soul after his talk with Babs. They’d gone painstakingly over every detail of the case, then used the daybed in his office to go over every detail of each other. He stood a bit taller, filled with adrenaline, the pump of his heart a steady thrum in his chest. Looking at Fritz, Janice, and the Bod Squad, he thought about what Babs had said to him earlier. Did he want to find Baba Samka? Fuck yes.