Authors: John Connolly
Tags: #Mystery & Detective - General, #Irish Novel And Short Story, #Assassins, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #General, #Suspense, #Murderers, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Fiction, #thriller
Hara and Harada didn’t make it much farther than Massena, and in that they were both unlucky and lucky: unlucky in the sense that they were now unable to participate any further in Louis’s operation, and unluckier still when a routine search of their vehicle revealed their cache of weapons. The cops declined to give them the benefit of the doubt, and they ended up in a cell in the Massena police department on Main Street while the chief figured out what to do with them, and thus their lives were saved.
Slowly, Angel and Louis approached the barn doors.
“One hundred feet,” said Louis.
“Distance between here and the forest to the east.”
“If they’re waiting for us, they’ll take us as soon as we leave.”
“You want them to take us here instead?”
Angel shook his head.
“You go left, I go right,” said Louis. “You run, and you don’t stop, no matter what. We clear?”
“Yeah, we’re clear.”
Louis nodded. “See you on the other side,” he said.
And they ran.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, ROMEO AND JULIET , III, V
GABRIEL OPENED HIS EYES. For a few moments, he had no awareness of where he was. There were unfamiliar sounds, and he was surrounded by too much white. This was not home: home was reds and purples and blacks, like the interior of a body, a cocoon of blood and muscle and tendon. Now, that protection had been stripped away, leaving his consciousness vulnerable and isolated in this strange sterile environment.
His responses were so sluggish that it took him time to recognize that he was in pain. It was dull, and it seemed to have no single locus, but it was there. His mouth was very dry. He tried to move his tongue, but it was stuck to his palate. Slowly, he formed spittle to release it, then licked his lips. He could not move his head more than an inch to the right or the left, not at first, and, anyway, it hurt him to do so. Instead, he worked on his arms, his hands, his fingers, his toes. As he did so, he tried to remember how he had come to be here. He had almost no recollection of anything that had happened after he had left Louis in the bar.
No, wait, there was something: a stumble, an old man’s fear of falling, then a burning, like hot coals inserted deep into the core of his being. And sounds, faint but still audible, like the popping of distant balloons. Gunshots.
There were stinging sensations in the back of his left hand and in the crook of his right arm. He saw the drip needle in the soft skin on the right, then took in the green plastic connector at the top of the second needle that had been inserted into a vein in the back of his hand. He thought that he might have vague memories of waking before now, of lights shining in his eyes, of nurses and doctors bustling around him. In the interim, he had dreamed, or perhaps it had all been a dream.
Like most men, Gabriel had heard the myth that one’s life flashed before one’s eyes in the moments before death. In reality, as he had felt the cold rasp of death’s scythe cutting through the air close by his face, its chill in stark contrast to the burning that had followed the impact of the bullets, he had experienced no such visions. Now, as he pieced together what had occurred, he recalled only a vague sense of surprise, as though he had bumped into a stranger on a street and, looking into his face to apologize, had recognized an old acquaintance, his arrival long anticipated.
No, the events of his life had come to him only later as he lay in a drug-induced stupor on the hospital bed, the narcotics causing the real and the imagined to mingle and interweave, so that he saw his now-departed wife surrounded by the children they had never had, an imaginary existence the absence of which brought no sense of regret. He saw young men and women dispatched to end the lives of others, but in his dreams only the dead returned, and they spoke no words of blame, for he felt no guilt at what he had done. For the most part, he had rescued them from lives that might otherwise have finished in prisons or poor men’s bars. Some of them had come to violent ends through Gabriel’s intervention, but that ending had been written for them long before they met him. He had merely altered the place of their termination, and the duration and fulfillment of the life that preceded it. They were his Reapers, his laborers in the field, and he had equipped them to the best of his abilities for the tasks that lay before them. Only one walked in Gabriel’s dreams as he did in life, and that was Louis. Gabriel had never quite understood the depth of his affection for this troubled man. His dream gave him an answer of sorts.
It was, he thought, because Louis had once been so like himself. Gabriel heard a chair shift in the corner of the room. He opened his eyes a little wider. Carefully, he turned his head in the direction of the sound, and was pleased to find that he had more movement than before, even if the discomfort that it caused was still great. There was a shape against the window, a disturbance in the symmetry of the horizontal bars of the half-closed blinds. The shape grew larger as the man rose from his chair and approached the bed, and Gabriel recognized him as he drew closer.
“You’re a difficult man to kill,” said Milton.
Gabriel tried to speak, but his mouth and throat were still too dry. He gestured at the jug of water by his bedside, and winced at the pain the movement brought. It was that damned needle in the back of his hand. He could feel it in the vein. Gabriel had been hospitalized twice in the previous ten years: once for the removal of a benign tumor, the second time for a hairline fracture of his right femur, and on both occasions he had been strangely resentful of the connector in his hand. Odd, he thought: the injuries that have brought me to this place are more serious and painful than a thin strip of metal inserted into a blood vessel, and yet it is this upon which I choose to focus. It is because it is small, a nuisance rather than a trauma. It is understandable. Its purpose is known to me. And today, at this moment, it represents the first step in coming to terms with what has happened.
Milton poured a glass of water for him, then held it to Gabriel’s mouth so that he could sip from it, supporting the old man’s head gently with his right hand as he did so. It was a curiously intimate, tender gesture, yet Gabriel was resentful of it. Before, they had been equals, but they would never be so again, not after Milton had seen him reduced to this, not after he had touched his head in that way. Even though there was kindness in the action, Milton could not have been unaware of what it meant to Gabriel and his dignity, his sense of his own place in the complex universe that he inhabited. A little of the liquid dribbled down Gabriel’s chin, and Milton wiped it for him with a tissue, compounding Gabriel’s anger and embarrassment, but he did not show his true feelings, for that would be to surrender entirely to them and humiliate himself still further. Instead, he croaked a thank you and let his head sink back onto the pillows.
“What happened to me?” he asked, the words little more than a whisper.
“You were shot. Three bullets. One missed your heart by about an inch, another nicked your right lung. The third shattered your collarbone. I believe the appropriate thing to say in these situations is that you’re lucky to be alive. Not for the first time, I might add.”
He lowered his head slightly, as though to hide the expression upon his face, but Gabriel’s eyes had briefly closed and he missed the gesture.
“How long?” asked Gabriel.
“Two days, or a little more. They seem to think you’re some kind of medical marvel; that, or God was watching over you.”
The ghost of a smile formed on Gabriel’s lips. “Except God does not believe in men like us,” he said, and was pleased to see a frown appear on Milton’s face. “Why”—he paused to draw a breath—“are you here?”
“Can’t one old friend visit another?”
“We’re not friends.”
“We are as close to friends as either of us have,” said Milton, and Gabriel inclined his head slightly in reluctant agreement. “I’ve been watching over you,” continued Milton. He gestured toward the camera in the corner.
“You’re a little late.”
“We were concerned that someone might try to finish the job.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe.”
“And are you my only visitor?”
“No. There was another.”
Gabriel smiled again.
“He believes this was linked to the earlier attacks,” said Milton. “He’s going after Leehagen.”
The smile faded as Gabriel regarded Milton carefully.
“Why should Leehagen interest you?”
“I never claimed that he did,” said Milton, as he waited to be questioned further. He thought that he saw something flit across Gabriel’s features, a vague awareness of hidden knowledge. Milton leaned in closer to him. “But I have some information for you. You asked me to find out what I could about Leehagen and Hoyle; most of it I suspect you already know. There was an anomaly, though, for want of a better word.”
“The one who called himself Kandic wasn’t hired to kill Leehagen.”
Gabriel considered what he had been told. His mental functions were still impaired by the drugs, and his mind was clouded. He tried desperately to clear it, but the narcotic fug was too strong. Under other circumstances, he would have made the deductions required alone, but now he needed Milton to lead him. He swallowed, then spoke.
“Who was he sent to kill?”
“My source says Nicholas Hoyle.”
Milton shook his head. “Someone further afield. Hoyle is involved in an oil deal in the Caspian. It appears that there are some who would prefer it if he was involved no longer. My source also says that whatever occurred between Hoyle and Leehagen in the past, it has now been forgotten, if the feud ever truly existed in the form that was claimed. It seems they have used the rumor of their mutual antagonism to their shared advantage. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’: at times, Hoyle’s rivals have approached Leehagen, and Leehagen’s enemies have approached Hoyle. Each man used the approaches to learn what he could to the other’s advantage. It’s an old game, and one that they’ve played well. They also share an interest in young women—very young women—or they did until Leehagen’s illness began to take its toll. Leehagen still supplies Hoyle’s needs. The girls have to be untouched. Virgins. Hoyle has a phobia about disease.”
“But his daughter,” said Gabriel. “His daughter was killed.”
“If she was, it was not at Leehagen’s instigation. It had nothing to do with him, or any feud, real or imagined, with Hoyle.”
“Real or imagined,” repeated Gabriel softly. He was feeling nauseated, and the pain seemed to have intensified. It was a trap, a ruse. He closed his eyes. What was that saying? There is no fool like an old fool.
“Help them,” said Gabriel. He gripped the sleeve of Milton’s jacket, ignoring the stinging in the back of his hand.
“And whom should I help?”
“Louis. The other. Angel.”
Milton sat back in his chair, gently releasing the cloth of his jacket from Gabriel’s fingers. It was a gesture of disengagement, of distancing.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “Even after what was done to you, I can’t intervene. I won’t.”
The tension in Gabriel’s body could not be sustained. He was weakening. He sagged back into the pillows, his breath now coming in short bursts, like that of a runner at the end of a long race. He knew that the end was coming.
Milton rose. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Tell Willie,” said Gabriel. There was a blackness descending upon him. “Tell Willie Brew. Just that. All I ask.”
And as he lost consciousness, he thought that he saw Milton nod. The house stood on an acre of land, the building itself spreading over three floors and four thousand square feet. It was secure behind high walls, with motion-activated lights in the yard and an alarm linked to a private security firm that employed men known to have no qualms about drawing, and using, their weapons.
The house was occupied by a man named Emmanuel Lowein, his wife, Celice, and their two children, David and Julie, aged eleven and twelve, respectively. Also with them for the past two days were two men who spoke little and slept less. They kept the Loweins and their children away from the windows, ensured that the drapes remained closed, and monitored the grounds using a system of remote cameras.
Louis had never been in the safe house before, and he knew Bliss only by reputation. Lowein had information about a number of South American politicians that friends of Gabriel were very anxious to acquire. Lowein, in turn, wanted security for his family and a new life far from jungles and juntas. Gabriel was acting as the go-between, and Louis and Bliss had been assigned as added security while the negotiations were continuing. Lowein was a target, and there were those who were anxious that he should be silenced before he had a chance to share what he knew. Gabriel had long held the view that, in the event of an individual or individuals being targeted by professionals, one could do a lot worse than have men of a similar mind-set as part of the guard detail.
Bliss was almost a decade older than Louis. Unlike Louis, he had high-profile kills to his name, but there were rumors that he now wished to fade into the shadows for a time. Men in their line of work eventually began to accumulate a long list of enemies, principally among those who refused to acknowledge the separation between the killer and those who had ordered the kill. To the professionals, the Reapers, it made no sense: one might as well blame the rifle itself, or the bullet, or the bomb. Like them, the Reapers were simply tools to be applied toward the ultimate end. There was nothing personal about it. Nevertheless, such reasoning could not always be understood by those who had suffered loss, whether that loss was personal, professional, political, or financial in nature.
But Gabriel did not want Bliss to leave him, and did not seem to trust Bliss entirely now that he seemed intent upon ending their relationship and refusing to do Gabriel’s bidding for much longer. Thus it was that Bliss had been assigned, with Louis, the temporary custody of the Lowein family. There would be no more kills for him for the time being, and perhaps not ever again.