There he set himself in a defensive stance, clearly waiting for Dalton to reengage as if this were some sort of formal martial-arts contest. Dalton took a breath, shook his head and shoulders, and began to move toward the man. At that moment, Dalton sensed a quick movement behind him. Turning his head, he saw a small gray shape running toward the bedroom. A second man, going for Veronika. Dalton took two steps after him, a very bad idea. Somehow the man—Dalton had tagged him “Smoke”—covered the distance between them in a blur and delivered three rapid knuckle strikes, two to Dalton’s right kidney and one to the back of his skull. Dalton’s head nearly came off his neck, and a red fog clouded his vision. Fighting a wave of nausea and vertigo, he went down on one knee, rolled onto his left hip, and did an ankle-level leg sweep that knocked the big man’s feet out from under him.
The man went down hard, slamming onto his back. Dalton was on him, three rapid strikes, twice to the throat and vicious knuckles into the man’s left eye. Smoke grunted in pain, his breath chuffing out. From the bedroom came an agonized shriek, cut suddenly short. Smoke arched his body violently—he was unbelievably strong—smashed a knee into the side of Dalton’s head, broke free, rolled away, was up on one knee and starting to rise. Dalton stepped in fast and kicked him in the face, giving it everything he had. Smoke’s head snapped back, and blood flew from his open mouth. He rocked backward under the force of the kick, turned it into a shoulder roll, and vaulted to his feet again, as lithe as a panther, his feet wide apart, his body half turned, poised, rooted, ready. In the light Dalton could see the man’s misshapen mouth open, revealing strong white teeth, covered in blood. The man was trying to
The . . . thing . . . The fucking Orc . . . was actually
at Dalton, his scarred lips twisting into a grimace.
“Come on, Slick,” he said, in English, a Slavic accent, the words slurring, his voice strained and hoarse. “You fight like fucking girl.”
The only thing on Dalton’s mind was Veronika. This man had to go down now. Smoke did a head fake to Dalton’s right, a rippling blur as he pivoted into another kick strike at Dalton’s head. It literally brushed Dalton’s left ear as he dodged backward. The man landed on the balls of his feet, feinted right, cut left, and abruptly broke off the fight.
He turned his back, raced to the balcony, butted the door open, vaulted the rail, and dropped soundlessly into the night.
Dalton spun around and headed for the bedroom, his heart a cold stone in his chest. The room was black, but he heard rapid breathing coming from the bathroom. And something else too. A high-pitched, whistling sound.
Her voice, coming from the bathroom:
“Micah. In here.”
Dalton jumped over the bed, got to the bathroom door. A match flared, and he saw Veronika in its glow lighting a candle on the edge of the bath. She was naked, her breasts and belly, her right hand and forearm all sheeted in blood. On the floor in front of her lay the second man, a razor-edged leaf-bladed punching knife on the bath mat beside him. The man was on his back, writhing and making a barely audible keening sound, like a teakettle whistling. His legs were kicking convulsively, and a wet stain was spreading over the crotch of his jeans.
He had both of his hands up to his face. They were gripping the plastic handle of something that had been shoved very deep into the socket of his left eye. The handle had a long coiled electric cord attached to it. It took Dalton a moment or two to realize what it was. A curling iron.
Dalton stepped around the man on the floor, went to Veronika, knelt, looked at her hands, her body, afraid of what he would find.
“Did he cut you?”
“No,” she said. “It’s all his blood. I heard something thumping. I thought it was dream. I couldn’t feel you. Then I knew it wasn’t a dream. I keep the pistol in the bathroom, like a panic room. I am thinking I would lock the door, get the pistol. He was too fast, right on my back. He kicked the door open. I reached for whatever, caught that, and went at him. I could not see him, but I could smell him. It punched into his eye. I hope I kill him.”
Dalton looked at the man, writhing and gasping on the mat.
“I think you have. It just hasn’t gotten through to him yet. They cut your power off. Do you know where the switch is?”
“There’s a panel in the janitor’s closet, at the top of the stairs.”
“Where’s the pistol?”
She reached into the cabinet, pulled it out from under the towels.
“Can you handle him?” he said.
She nodded, doing an automatic press check to see if there was a round in the chamber. Then she leveled it at the man on the floor. Her hand wasn’t shaking at all, and the look on her face was a killing look.
“I’ll be back.”
A minute passed.
Veronika watched the ugly little man suffering in utter horror, the reality of what she had done sinking in.
Then her bedroom light came on, and Dalton was back at the door, with her bathrobe in his hands.
He switched on the bathroom light, covered her, held her for a moment. They stood and watched the man’s agony. The keening sound he had been making slowed, finally stopped, and now there was just the thump and rustle of his boots on the floor and his ragged breathing, shallow, gurgling and rasping in his throat.
Dalton knelt down, pulled the man’s bloody hands off the butt of the curling iron. White skin, a black growth of beard, in his gasping mouth a row of tiny yellow teeth. His body, although badly formed, with signs of chronic malnutrition, was bony and hard as a tree root. His one open eye was a shiny black pebble. His lips were turning blue, and his mouth was filling up with blood. Sensing Dalton nearby, he reached out and grabbed him by the hand, his bony fingers sinking into Dalton’s skin. His lips moved, but only a whisper came out
“He asks if he is dying,” said Veronika. “Is he dying?”
“Yes,” said Dalton. “What language is it?”
“I think it’s Hungarian.”
“Can you ask him who sent him?”
The man jerked at the sound of her question and then became still. Only the slow throbbing of a vein in his forehead indicated that he was still alive. Dalton touched the end of the plastic handle, held it for a time, feeling the pulse of the man’s brain in the handle.
“Mi a neved?”
said Veronika. “I ask him what his name is.”
The bloody mouth opened.
“He says I am whore. And unclean. I think he is Muslim.”
Dalton picked up one end of the electric cord, handed it to Veronika.
“Plug it in.”
Veronika, realizing what Dalton was proposing, shook her head, her eyes widening. Dalton got up and did it for her. After a few moments, a wisp of smoke began to curl up around the handle of the rod protruding from the man’s bloody eye socket.
The smoke was acrid and reeked of scorching flesh, burning brains, human fat cooking off. His chest began to shudder, and his mouth opened in a rictus of pain, but no sound came out other than a dry croak. Dalton leaned down and spoke into the man’s ear, words that Veronika could not hear, a silky whisper. The man began to shake uncontrollably. Dalton sat back on his heels and watched the man for a time, his face set and cold.
“What’s your name?” he barked at the man. “Tell me, and it stops.”
The man found his voice.
Dalton looked at Veronika, pointed to the cable. Veronika unplugged it, her face paper white, her expression full of horror.
“Who sent you?”
Yusef shook his head, his jaw tightening.
Dalton reached for the plug again. Yusef must have sensed the motion because he tried to speak.
“Ut . . . a . . . zók. Uta . . . zók.”
“What is he saying?”
“I don’t know. The Wanderer? The Traveler? The Tramp?”
Yusef’s chest shuddered twice, and then he stopped breathing. Dalton reached out and touched the handle. The man was dead.
Dalton stood up, his legs shaking a little. A row of bullet wounds that looked like cigarette burns rode up the left side of his chest. He had a surgical scar on the lower part of his abdomen, about sixteen inches long, and still a little red-looking. Veronika looked at Dalton, taking him in. He was, in a way, terrible to look at, just as he had said, his flesh was like a cave pictograph telling of ancient battles.
“You said something I couldn’t hear. And then he starts to talk. What did you say?”
“I said that that he was Muslim, that he was dying, and that if he did not speak I’d soak his corpse in pig’s blood and bury him with a dead dog to keep him company. It would mean he’d be defiled and could not enter Paradise.”
“God. Such people, the Muslims. Are you all right?”
“There were two. That’s why I couldn’t help you.”
“I know. I could hear.”
He didn’t say what was in growing his mind, that the point of the attack was to kill
. Yusef had waited until the bigger man, the fighter, had drawn Dalton out of the bedroom. The fighter had held back, even when Dalton was dazed and vulnerable. It was a fight Dalton could easily have lost. The man was good, maybe better than Dalton. But he suspected that Veronika was the real target.
“Where is the other one? Is he dead?”
“No. He jumped. From your balcony.”
“I’m on the fifth floor. Maybe he died.”
Dalton doubted it. Fighting him had been like getting caught in a printing press. The guy was six feet at least, much heavier than Dalton, and one hell of a lot stronger. Frighteningly fit. At the end of the fight, Smoke hadn’t even been breathing hard.
Broad and squat, but he moved like a duelist, on the balls of his feet. Stunningly quick. As elusive as smoke and water. And tough as a steel-toed boot. Dalton might as well have been punching an engine block.
A pit fighter, perhaps, but very well trained. Special Forces training? His style was mixed, some Thai, some Spetsnaz handiwork, and a few Delta Force tricks that Dalton had almost forgotten.
And that face.
That ruined face, literally featureless, two slit eyes and an ugly stump of a nose, bald, blue-veined skin as shiny as plastic, and totally earless. And the voice, harsh, guttural, as if the vocal cords had been scorched. Burned.
Smoke had been in a fire, a very bad one, his features melted, burned away. Skin grafts, surgery, whatever had been done for him had not been done very well. Smoke was a walking horror.
A fifty-foot drop onto a lawn would not kill something like that. Dalton wasn’t sure what would.
Maybe an RPG.
“I don’t think he’s dead, Veronika. I think we’ll see him again. Let’s get you into the shower. I think they bypassed the alarm, but your neighbors will have called the police.”
She shook her head.
“They’re turning this building into a co-op. That’s why there’s a big scrap bin out at the back. Renovations. They forced out most of the renters. There is only one other family on this floor, the Zuckermans, and they’re in Tel Aviv. The building is made of concrete. I don’t think anybody heard anything. And, if they did, they’d mind their own business. They’re old. They remember the Russians. Old Viennese do not call the police when they hear things in the night.”
“We’ll have to go.”
“Yes, Veronika. You can’t stay here.”
“Because I think Yusef was here to kill you.”
“Why do you think that?”
Dalton laid it out for her, how Smoke had held back, keeping Dalton busy, while Yusef had slipped past him and gone after her. When he was done, her eyes were full of a liquid light, and her skin was as pale as new snow. He took her in his arms and held on to her for a time. Gradually her breathing steadied.
“Now what? What do we do now?”
“You take a shower. I’ll clean up the place and dump Yusef in the bin. Then we get the hell out of Dodge.”
She looked up at him, puzzled, and managed a smile.
“Dodge? What is ‘get . . . out of Dodge’?”
Dalton smiled grimly, and bent down to pick up what was left of Yusef, rolling him into the bloody mat, hoisting his skinny corpse easily, draping it over a shoulder.
“I mean, we’re leaving. Leaving Vienna. Leaving now.”
cleaned up the flat as well as they could. Dalton carried Yusef’s body down the fire escape, dumping it into the construction bin at the bottom of the yard and burying it in a mounded heap of discarded shingles. When he got back up to Veronika’s flat to clean himself up, she was dressed and holding a small black leather bag.
She looked shaken, confused, frightened, resolute, and very sad. Dalton, who was feeling a few of the same emotions, and a couple of different ones—guilt and anger being the strongest—thought she was feeling exactly the way she should be feeling.