Authors: Barbara Elsborg
Tags: #MM;m/m;romantic suspense
Keeping secrets is easy. Until love tempts him to break his cover.
Fall or Break
, Book 2
Archer Hart, former SIS assassin, has just completed a freelance hit job when he finds himself in a sniper’s scope. The bullet whizzing past his ear is a clear message: someone wants him dead. Retirement will have to wait, as his only choice is to assume a new identity—and keep running.
Conrad Black is a broken man. The injured barrister has come to the beach to recover from a hit-and-run “accident”, with plenty of time to wonder who might be wishing he’d been left dead instead of partially paralyzed. When he spots a surfer in trouble, he throws his crutches aside to pull the man to safety.
One glance at Archer takes Conrad’s breath away. And Archer finds himself envying the hands Conrad is using to pet his dog. But as the net tightens, both men can feel the targets on their backs heating up. The only thing that will save them is the truth...before death snatches away their one chance at love.
Warning: Contains a mercenary who’s broken the law beyond all recognition, and an uptight barrister who is the law. Also: a whole lot of crossing lines drawn in the sand, and even more tussling to determine who gets on top.
Archer lay face down on the roof in pale gray long johns and T-shirt, a gray beanie over his dark hair. He could have taken more elaborate precautions to conceal his presence but only one roof overlooked the one he was on and this morning he’d jammed the lock on its access door. Not that it would stop anyone determined to get up there, merely delay them, but he was as sure as he could be that no one knew he was on the roof of this building. Even so, as with all of his assignments, there was still a pressing need to spend as little time as possible in an exposed position. Fortunately his target was a timekeeper, which helped minimize the risk of Archer’s discovery.
His cheek pressed against the stock of the L115A3, he aligned his eye with the scope. The long range rifle was based on a weapon used by the British Olympic shooting team, weighed fifteen pounds, and had a range of one thousand five hundred yards. All he needed was eight hundred and seventy of them.
He had a clear view through a roof drainage channel of everyone entering and exiting the hotel. He’d have preferred not to do this in front of a public building but the time period between Farouk bin Abdullazin emerging from the ornate doors of the Ritz-Carlton and walking the few steps to his armor-plated limo gave Archer a window of opportunity; at least it did now that a few cut wires had ensured the hotel fountain was out of action.
On every occasion Abdullazin left the hotel, he’d paused to tip the young man at the door. Ironic that his generosity and punctuality would be his downfall.
Visualize. Focus. Relax.
Archer aimed at the point he expected the arms dealer to step into his sights. Although the .338 caliber ammunition he was using was designed to penetrate the body armor Abdullazin had taken to wearing, Archer was going for a head shot. He zoned out pretty much everything except his target. The small part of his brain not focused on that was alert for the unexpected in his vicinity—sudden noises, odd glints of light, any indication he might be under observation.
As the liveried young man pulled open the heavy glass door, Archer held his breath, his finger resting on the trigger. Identification of the emerging target, assessment of the probability of success without collateral damage, and the slight adjustment of his aim took a split second before he squeezed the trigger. He confirmed the hit and lack of need for a second shot before he moved. The bullet had struck the middle of the man’s face between the upper lip and the bottom of the nose.
Archer was already sliding away from the edge of the roof as those standing with Abdullazin struggled to take in what had happened. The high-velocity round had driven through the soft tissue of the T-line and hit the medulla oblongata at the base of the brain. The guy would have been dead before those around him heard the supersonic bullet. Archer had no interest in the man he’d just killed, and no moral qualms. He accepted the decision to have him terminated had been made for good reason. Abdullazin was an arms dealer and presumably had access to some weapon he shouldn’t have, or was willing to sell guns or worse to the wrong people. To know more was dangerous. Knowing too much might encourage Archer to think. Thinking would make what he did more difficult.
As he reached out with the bottom of his T-shirt for the hot spent shell, a fragment of concrete roof parapet flew past his cheek. Instant awareness that hunter had become hunted flooded his body with adrenaline. Acting on instinct, he grabbed the cartridge and flung himself back against the cover of the low wall.
A second shot sprayed an arc of gray gravel on his left-hand side and supplied Archer with a rough angle of attack.
Obviously the damage to the lock of the door to the higher roof hadn’t prevented access. He hadn’t factored sniper into the equation. A mistake. In his profession, you didn’t learn by your mistakes because they usually killed you.
He squirmed forward under the protection of the wall until he was as close as he could get to his way off the roof. There’d not been a third shot because the shooter was waiting for him to break cover. It’s what Archer would have done, though he wouldn’t have missed in the first place. Hopefully the other guy was acting alone and no one waited on the other side of the door Archer needed to get through.
Three yards of open roof for bullets to enter his head or back. This wasn’t the time to analyze the situation, but—
what the fuck was happening?
He knew he was an expendable asset with a deadly severance package but why was he suddenly a target? He forced himself to concentrate on getting off the roof
Even if there’d been another way down, everything he needed to make his escape from this location lay just inside the door he was staring at, a door he’d barricaded with a piece of wood to keep himself secure, that now posed an additional hurdle to his exit. Archer clenched his teeth and took deep breaths until he relaxed. Whether the intention was to kill him or pin him down until the police or someone else arrived, he couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
Once he’d shrugged out of his T-shirt, he tucked it between his feet, then brought his rifle up to his cheek. He kicked up, let the T-shirt go, came up on his elbows and stared through his scope.
There. Two hundred yards. The idiot’s half-standing.
Archer squeezed the trigger as a fourth shot hit a metal vent by his side. The shooter fell back and Archer sprang up and bolted to the door, grabbing the T-shirt and spent shell on the way. He tossed the wood aside and flung himself to safety.
Dismantling the rifle took twelve seconds. He slid the components into pockets inside a padded thawb along with his latex gloves. He dragged his T-shirt back over his head, noted the neat bullet hole through the shoulder, then pulled on the thawb and a ready folded keffiyah. Inside two minutes, Archer was back on the street walking away as a stooped, overweight, bearded Arab.
He heard the police sirens in the distance as he headed in the direction of the person who’d tried to kill him.
He ought to stick to his plan and get out of the city. He didn’t know for sure whether the shooter was dead. But dead or alive, he might supply information. Archer wanted to know who’d set him up.
The building the shots had come from was a residential block. He looked too conspicuous in the thawb to dawdle, but his inconspicuous clothes were miles away in a locker. As he walked up the steps from the street, he spotted the door to the hallway had been propped open. He slipped inside and turned for the stairs. A voice inside his head was telling him to leave it alone, to get out of there, keep to his plan, but unusually for him, he ignored the warning and kept going. He didn’t bump into anyone and when he reached the door to the stairs leading up to the roof, he found the lock he’d jammed had been busted out of the frame.
Archer put on his gloves and reassembled his rifle before he slid through, silently pulling the door closed behind him. He tucked the thawb into the waist of his long johns so he didn’t trip and sidled up the edge of the stairs, ready to shoot. His heart was pounding faster than he would have liked but he was too pissed off to take time to calm down.
The final door to the roof was open and as he neared the top, he heard groaning. He was still ultracautious as he advanced through the door but his shot hadn’t missed. A sandy-haired guy in his thirties lay in a pool of blood clutching his shredded guts with gloved hands. Archer kicked a Dakota T-76 Longbow rifle out of reach and crouched down.
“Who are you working for?” he asked in French.
The guy turned glazed eyes in his direction and pressed his lips together.
“You can survive,” Archer lied. The wound might not kill him but
would. “Tell me who you’re working for and I’ll call for help.”
When the man made no response, Archer asked him again in English, German and Russian. He could speak a few other languages but this guy had at least got one part of his mission right in staying silent.
“Are you the best they have?” Archer asked. “You had the perfect shot and you missed?”
“Go…fuck…yourself.” The man spoke in English with an American accent, though that meant nothing.
In a secluded place Archer would have made a more forceful attempt at persuasion but he didn’t need any well-meaning resident coming up to see what was happening and pretty soon all the rooftops in the area would be inspected by police investigating the shooting of Abdullazin. It wouldn’t take them long to get a helicopter in the sky.
He checked the guy’s pockets hoping to find a hotel room key, phone or maybe car keys but the guy hadn’t made that sort of mistake. Though when Archer rolled him over to check the back pockets of his jeans, he found a blood-spattered piece of paper. The photo of himself made his stomach lurch. He refolded it and tucked it away inside his thawb.
“Who do you work for?” Archer asked but the guy was losing consciousness.
He rolled him onto his back, memorized his face including the small scar by his mouth, and took a picture with his phone before he retreated to the stairs. From there he put a bullet in the middle of the sniper’s forehead. Archer retrieved the shell, disassembled his rifle and returned it to the hidden pockets of his Arabic garment before he went back onto the street. Three blocks later, he hailed a taxi to take him to Gare du Nord. The North African driver tried to engage him in conversation but Archer pretended he didn’t understand.
The photo in his pocket hadn’t been taken in Paris, but outside a hotel in Moscow where Archer had spent a week a month ago.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
His heart rate rocketed. How many people now knew his face?
Abdullazin would be his last hit.
It wasn’t a decision he’d just jumped to. He’d had the feeling he’d been pushing his luck lately, a creeping anxiety now confirmed as having substance. Time to get out while he still could. His pulse settled with the thought, even though he was under no illusions about his chances of success. Someone had been watching him in Moscow despite his counter-surveillance. Someone had been watching him in Paris and known he’d be on that roof. He’d spent a week here watching Abdullazin and despite all Archer’s safety measures, he’d somehow fucked up. Anger at having missed the signs sent his heart racing again. If whoever had contracted the other shooter had chosen more wisely, Archer would be dead.
The streets of Paris rolled past too slowly for his liking but he couldn’t afford for the driver to have an accident. He leaned back in his seat and tried to think things through. Who wanted him dead? Why? Had the shooter waited for Archer to make the hit before taking his? Or had the guy fucked up his timing and been trying to save Abdullazin from Archer’s bullet?
Does someone want
dead or just any person who took the shot?
Until he found out, he was in danger. Though leaving the business wouldn’t necessarily make him safe. He had plenty of money. No need to ever work again, though he wasn’t sure what he’d do with his life assuming he survived long enough to enjoy it. If it was a government agency that required him terminated, Archer knew how difficult it would be to stay alive. He probably ought to give himself a new face but there were issues with that—finding a good but bribable plastic surgeon, lying unconscious and therefore vulnerable, plus Archer liked the face he had, though not with this itchy beard.
When the cab pulled up outside Gare du Nord
he paid the driver and tipped him well but not generously enough to stand out. Eventually, the police would discover where the shot had come from; they might or might not find the dead shooter depending on who was running him and whether they had a cleanup crew nearby. If the scene remained as Archer left it, thorough crime scene investigators would be able to figure what happened, although not why. The police might trace the cab driver who’d taken Archer to Gare du Nord but that was as far as they would go. Gare du Nord was the busiest railway station in Europe, the busiest in the world outside Japan, with over a hundred and ninety million passengers transiting every year.
Archer collected his bag from a luggage locker on the lower ground level by the car hire desks and headed for the restrooms, alert for anyone looking at him because that made them a threat until proven otherwise. Seven minutes later, he emerged from the stall as a tall, clean-shaven tanned European in his late thirties, with slightly untidy straight dark hair. He wore glasses, and was dressed in well-worn jeans, boots, gray shirt and dark gray pea coat. The Arab gear, long johns, T-shirt, rifle parts and ripped up Saudi passport were in the bag.
Ninety minutes of counter-surveillance satisfied him he wasn’t being followed and he set off in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. By the time he reached it, he’d disposed of everything, including the passport and bag. The clothes went into doorways and rubbish bins. He dropped the rifle parts and bullet casings down storm drains, into Dumpsters and the river. The passport pages he burned in the toilet of a café.
When he’d disposed of everything but the photo he’d taken from the shooter’s pocket, he sat outside a café and ordered coffee. Once it had arrived, he took out his phone, put the battery in and sent an email to Phoenix, his broker for this job.
Archer’s finger shook as he pressed Send on the phone Phoenix had supplied. He didn’t generally talk to his brokers. Phoenix was the only one Archer had ever spoken to since he’d gone freelance. He did everything by email where possible, but he wanted to hear Phoenix’s reaction when he told him what had happened.
The phone rang before Archer had drunk half his coffee.
“Ten.” Archer gave his code name.
“Do you have some reason to speak to me?” Phoenix’s aristocratic English voice grated on Archer’s frazzled nerves.
“I don’t know. Do I?” He kept the snap out of his tone.
Phoenix sighed. “Talking in riddles, dear boy? You did the job. The second payment will be made into your account within the hour.”
“I became a target,” Archer said.
The brief silence suggested surprise but Phoenix was a master games player. Archer trusted no one.
Why did I think talking to him would convince me of anything?