dusty Land Rover sat parked in the shadows of the three-story brick wall outside the back entrance to Deuben’s clinic. Thibodaux put a hand flat on the hood and raised the brow of his good eye. “Still warm,” he whispered. “Your friend’s got company all right.”
A flurry of German curses, flung on the pointed voice of Gabrielle Deuben, poured through a crack in the second-story window above them.
“I don’t know what she’s saying,” the big Cajun said, “but she don’t sound like the happy sort of woman.”
A muffled grunt followed, like someone being hit in the belly.
Quinn put a shoulder to the door. Locked. He stepped aside, making way for Thibodaux. Booting a door himself when the big Cajun was around was akin to using a teaspoon to dig a ditch. He could do it, but why?
“Now you can huff and puff,” Quinn said.
It had been nearly two years, but Quinn still had a clear picture of the interior layout. Doors to the clinic and the small kitchen Deuben used as her personal office ran off the end of a short hallway. Just inside and to the right, blue cotton curtains covered the entrance to a set of timber stairs, roughhewn and nearly as steep as a ladder. They were ancient and creaky, a passive burglar alarm, but that mattered little since Thibodaux had put his boot to the back door with great effect, splintering the jamb with a loud crack in the process. Rather than creeping up, Quinn and Thibodaux bounded up the steps, hoping to reach the top before Grigor and his men had time to formulate a strategy.
Quinn heard a second gasp when he was mid stairway, followed by another torrent of German curses. He hit the top step at an all-out run.
The upstairs was comprised of a one large open room with what looked like a small bathroom off the far back corner. Two large timber support columns ran up to wooden ceiling beams in the middle of the twenty-by-twenty room. A bald Chinese man with his shirtsleeves rolled up over brawny forearms stood over Belvan Virk beside the column to Quinn’s left. The muscular Sikh slumped in a chair, chin to chest, his bare feet and hands tied in place with thick cords. His face was a swollen mass of blood and bruises, but he managed a crooked smile when he looked up to see Quinn.
At the other end of the room, at the foot of a tidy double bed, Gabrielle Deuben was also tied to a chair. A tall man stood over her while two henchmen wearing jogging suits slouched on the foot of the bed, as if waiting for orders. Deuben wore only a thin cotton gown that had ripped in some earlier struggle and now hung well off a pale shoulder, exposing more than it covered. Deuben was far from being the sort to slump in defeat, but the tendons in her neck strained like knotted ropes as she arched her back and fought the ropes that held her in place. The Mongol’s men had not been gentle when they’d tied her up and her hands and bare feet were purple from loss of circulation. Spittle dripped from her lips.
Deuben’s face fell slack when she saw Virk’s change in demeanor, but a smile of her own spread over her face when she followed the Sikh’s gaze. Catching Quinn’s eye, she shot a quick look at the tall man looming over her, as if to let him know this was the one behind her present troubles. This had to be Grigor The Mongol.
He was more thickly built than the others in his crew, and there was a natural curl to his head of shaggy black hair. His brows grew wild and bushy over deep-set eyes. An expensive leather vest covered a tailored white dress shirt, complete with gold cuff links. The shirt was unbuttoned halfway down the front, exposing a dozen gold chains draped across his hairless chest. He clutched a heavy riding crop of braided rawhide in a gloved hand. Far from a simple quirt or whip, the rough leather resembled a short version of a South African hippo or rhino skin
, capable of flaying skin or worse.
It was easy to see how such a man might intimidate a more timid sort into doing business with his “black hotel.” Full of his own perceived power, he misjudged the situation completely when he saw Quinn.
None of his men appeared to have a gun, but Quinn knew from hard experience how quickly a weapon could materialize.
Thibodaux had never really stopped moving when he reached the top of the stairs. He chose the man sweating over Virk as the object of his fury. A deep growl grew in the big Cajun as he plowed into the much smaller man. Lifting him high over his head by the belt and scruff of the neck he slammed the man into the floorboards like a bug against a windshield. A boot to the ear kept him there.
The two goons who had been sitting on the bed sprang to their feet and bore down on Quinn at a run. He sidestepped the leader like a matador, dropping to a crouch as the second man ran into him, intent on a tackle. The point of Quinn’s shoulder caught the man low in the belly, driving the wind from his lungs. Quinn twisted slightly, matching the man’s momentum while springing upward at the same time, pushing with his legs. Upended, Quinn’s would-be attacker flipped face-first into the wooden floor with a sickening thud. Quinn booted him hard in the ribs to keep him down.
The man who’d run past decided to keep going, yelling over his shoulder at his boss that he was going for help.
“Don’t let him get away!” Quinn snapped, but Jacques was already sprinting toward the stairs.
Seeing one man abandon him and two more reduced to crumpled heaps on the floor, The Mongol turned to face Quinn. His mouth twisted into an unnatural twitchy half smile—he was a cruel man, now terrified for his own safety. He held the rawhide swagger stick like a sword above Deuben’s head. “I will break her neck before you could reach me,” he said.
Quinn spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. “Idiot! Do you have any idea who this woman’s friends are? You are fortunate that you have not truly harmed her. As circumstances stand now I will be able to take my boss one of your ears—to let him know you heard his message.”
“My ear?” The twitch in Grigor’s smirk boiled over into his right eye. “What are you talking about?”
Quinn stepped sideways toward the heavy timber support column nearest the bed. Grigor was forced to turn with him to keep him in sight.
Quinn yawned as if he was fatigued at the mundane nature of the fight. “If you had hurt her,” he said, “I would have been forced to return to my boss with your head. But taking heads is such an ugly business, best left to thuggish brutes.”
“You are bluffing.” The eye twitch grew into something that looked like full-blown apoplexy.
A muffled cry rose up from the stairwell when Jacques caught the fleeing member of The Mongol’s crew. Quinn shrugged. “No help on the way, Grigor.”
“You are dead,” The Mongol whispered, his voice growling louder with every word. “Dead. Do you hear me? I will have you killed before you can flee the city.”
Quinn looked at his fingernails, feigning boredom again. “I doubt your men will trust a leader with no ears.”
Grigor’s eyebrows shot upward. “You said one ear!”
“I did,” Quinn goaded. “But you appear to be hard of hearing—”
Mentally undone, the gangster loosed a low growl. Rushing forward, he swung blindly with the leather crop.
His back to the column, Quinn had already decided to use the heavy timber as a weapon. With the end state of the fight already in his mind, it was a fairly simple matter to get from A to B with a man like Grigor who bullied his way through life on little more than bluster, bruised women, and brawn.
Quinn stepped inward, closing the distance to catch The Mongol’s arm high at the shoulder, robbing his swing of power. At the same moment, Quinn pivoted, bringing the point of his elbow across the other man’s jaw, cracking teeth and opening a two-inch gash in his cheek. Reversing directions, Quinn let his arm snake up and over the back of a staggered Grigor’s neck, trapping the man under his armpit. Using his opponent’s momentum against him, Quinn yanked backwards, slamming the top of Grigor’s skull into the heavy column. There was a good chance such a blow would kill the man, but Quinn didn’t have time to care. He felt Grigor go slack in his arm and let him fall.
Kicking the swagger stick out of reach, Quinn did a quick pat down to make certain there were no hidden pistols. Satisfied Grigor and the other two men posed no immediate threat, Quinn moved to check on Deuben.
She looked up at him with blinking wide gray eyes, her mouth agape. “Do you ever lose a fight?”
“Every time,” Quinn said, rolling his shoulder and feeling the cartilage pop a little more than it had just a few moments before.
“See to Belvan first,” Deuben said, her voice frayed from screaming threats at her tormentors.
Quinn drew a wicked, fat little blade called a Riot from his belt sheath and cut her loose first anyway. “He needs a doctor.”
“I am fine, little brother,” the big Sikh said, his words thick with Punjabi enunciation, despite his swollen face. He dabbed at a bloody lip once Quinn cut him loose as well. “Lucky for them you happened along when you did. I believe that one was about to injure his hand on the bones of my face.”
Thibodaux lumbered in with the last member of Grigor’s crew draped over his shoulder, out cold, arms trailing.
“This one decided he didn’t want to leave so bad after all,
,” the Cajun grunted, tossing the limp body on the floor next to the others.
“Jacques Thibodaux,” Quinn said, nodding toward Deuben, who now used her fingers to comb tenderly through the Sikh’s long beard examining his wounds. “I’d like you to meet Dr. Gabrielle Deuben and her bodyguard, Belvan Virk.”
Virk extended his hand. Deuben nodded, but continued to fuss over the Sikh, ignoring the fact that her thin cotton gown was torn from shoulder to hip. Soft tut-tuts and tender chidings said their relationship had moved well past the bodyguard and client relationship.
“It is a pleasure to meet the brother of a little brother,” Virk said, eyes fluttering at the attention from the woman who was surely his lover.
Quinn gestured toward Grigor’s body. Even unconscious, the man’s mouth turned up in a crooked smirk. “Seems as though I’ve happened by again when you’re in the middle of an adventure.”
“This is Kashgar, Mr. Quinn,” Deuben said. “The Wild West of China. Each and every day is fraught with this sort of adventure. You just happened by on a Tuesday.” She let her hand linger on Virk’s shoulder. “You’re going to need stitches,
Moving quickly as if she’d come to some decision, she strode across the room to the bed. Deuben possessed the sensibilities of a physician when it came to nudity—even her own. She peeled the gown over her head and tossed it in the corner garbage bin and stood naked while she searched through a basket of laundry for something else to wear.
“You have forgotten our company, my dear,” Belvan said, who looked naked even in a pair of slacks without his customary turban and Sikh crest.
“Ha! I know how a man’s brain works.” She gave a dismissive laugh. “I was much less modest in that bit of torn gown than I am out of it completely.”
“I do not blame her.” Virk rolled his eyes at Quinn. “But with her experience, sometimes I wonder that she likes any men at all.”
“I like the strong ones,” Deuben said, glaring at the unconscious Grigor while she stepped into a pair of clean khaki pants. “It’s the weak bastards who pretend to be strong at the expense of women who disgust me.”
Across the room, Quinn saw Thibodaux shudder.
After pulling on a white T-shirt, Deuben grabbed a traveling medical kit out of the closet and opened it on the bed. She filled several small syringes from various ampules she got from the bag. Then, holding all but two of the syringes in her teeth, she squatted beside the still unconscious Russian. She used the first to inject something straight into his stomach and then gave him several small shots from the second on the side of his head and neck.
Moving from person to person, she gave each of the other three men a single injection in the hip, through their clothing.
“There,” she said as she finished the last shot. “That should keep them all sedated, for the near term at least.”
“You gave Grigor more shots,” Thibodaux said, squinting as if he really didn’t want to know the answer. “What was that all about?”
“ ‘First, do no harm,’ ” Deuben said, groaning as she used the timber column to get to her feet. “I have taken an oath as a physician. The second syringe was a local anesthetic to make it less painful when you cut off his ear. If you wish to maintain the respect of a man like Grigor The Mongol, you must follow through on your word.”
an Kimura sensed the threat before she saw it, low, almost painful in her belly. Small in stature, she made up for her size with an uncanny skill from a lifetime of training. The edge of a dark tattoo showed above the low V at the open collar of her silk blouse. She’d been standing just inside the doorway to the Chief of Staff ’s office, waiting to follow McKeon toward the Oval. It was only by happenstance—and her abhorrence of being anywhere near the idiot President Drake for one second longer than she had to—that she’d waited instead of going on to meet him there.
She moved the instant the man entered the room—a place where he had no business being. She saw his hand sweep the tail of his suit jacket as he reached for his sidearm, already crouching slightly the way American law enforcement did when they prepared to shoot.
Going through a process sometimes called the OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—it took the average police officer a little over two seconds to decide to draw and fire. Something out of the ordinary might disrupt this loop and make the actor have to start the process of orientation over, slowing the time toward action. Though the man, an agent from the way he moved, had already decided to kill McKeon, he was, in his heart, one of the good guys and wanted to do so without taking an innocent life.
Ran screamed as she moved, using the most fragile and terrified voice she could muster. Stunned by the cry, the agent paused for a split second, giving her time to spring forward, slamming the point of her shoulder into his floating ribs and driving him backwards. Her own hand shot to the collar of her light wool blazer during the rebound, snatching a razor-sharp thumb dagger from inside the reinforced lapel. A flick of her hand severed his carotid artery, spraying an immediate arc of blood across the room at the same moment his pistol cleared the holster. A consummate professional, Knight could have still shot and killed McKeon before he bled to death, but Ran was still moving. She ignored the swath of spraying blood and caught the hand that held his pistol as it rose toward the intended target. Letting the thumb dagger fall to the carpet, she trapped Knight’s hand in hers, and stepped toward him, turned his wrist inward on itself in a tight circle. This
, or wrist reversal, used Knight’s own weight and momentum to snap the small bones in his wrist. His trigger finger convulsed when the weapon was turned, the round impacting him just below his diaphragm. Ran wrenched the gun away after the initial stunning round, putting three rapid shots into the man’s neck to obliterate the work from her thumb dagger.
She pushed away, dropping the gun beside the dying man and falling to the floor in the process, soaking the seat of her slacks in his blood. She scooped up the thumb dagger and dropped it in the pocket of her blazer. She summoned a flood of tears—she used them just as effectively as she had the dagger and pistol.
The entire process, from Ran’s scream to the attacker’s head hitting the floor, took just under three seconds. A Secret Service agent named Harper burst into the room with pistol in hand. Legs splayed, tears streaming down a stricken face, Ran raised her open hands and turned her head away to keep from being shot.
Secret Service agents are trained to protect before they investigate. When he didn’t find anyone to shoot, Harper grabbed the Vice President by the scruff of the neck and hustled him out the door away from the blood and into the arms of a cadre of arriving agents. Claxons sounded up and down the hall, calling for a general lockdown of the West Wing. Inside the Oval Office, the President’s Secret Service detail would be surrounding him in a bristling phalanx of ballistic vests, pistols, and submachine guns and rushing him to the bunker.
Ran stopped crying immediately once she found herself alone in the room with the dead body and a pallid, trembling David Crosby. She stood to face the Chief of Staff, wiping her bloody hands on the thighs of her slacks, not because she was disgusted, but because blood was slick and she wanted to be ready if another threat presented itself.
“I want to know who this man was,” she said, turning the dead man’s ashen face toward her with the toe of her navy blue pump.
“Adam Knight,” Crosby said, rolling his lips until they turned white. “He was the agent in charge of the CIA Director’s detail. I should call the FBI.”
“I’m sure the Secret Service is doing just that,” the Japanese woman said.
Crosby’s jaw hung slack. A wisp of thinning hair hung down across a pasty forehead. “That was amazing,” he said. “That thing you did with his hand . . . you saved the Vice President’s life.”
“I panicked.” Ran tried to downplay the speed with which she’d dispatched the shooter. It was much better if people thought her merely McKeon’s sullen concubine rather than his protector. “And he was sloppy. Anyone could have done it.”
It took the better part of an hour for Secret Service personnel from both POTUS and VPOTUS details to confer and decide to give the all clear for the White House campus. A team of agents from the Washington Field Office of the FBI—as well as Director Bodington himself—arrived twenty-one minutes after the shooting, but were forced to sit outside until the Secret Service decided to admit them. Once inside, they had complete control over everything but the President and Vice President’s immediate security. Since the shooter was a government agent, albeit CIA and not their respective agencies, tensions regarding turf and jurisdiction ran into the stratosphere. Bureau agents milled about conducting interviews and casting looks of blame while the Secret Service personnel glared back at the interlopers who dared to invade their sacred ground.
After four hours and a heated Oval Office chat between Director Bodington and the President, all investigating agents decided they had all the evidence they needed.
President Drake demanded a meeting with McKeon and Ran in his personal study as he had the White House back to himself. The study was located off the Oval Office. It was more private, and absent the peephole in the door leading out to his personal secretary and body man’s area.
Fuming at the dictatorial summons, McKeon found himself unsteady on his feet at having been so close to death. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of dying—he simply had too much left to do and did not want to see his father’s legacy ruined because of some madman with a vendetta.
Hartman Drake fumed and paced in the tiny office like a caged cat wearing a bow tie. He’d tossed his suit jacket over the arm of a leather couch and worked to remove gold cuff links while he was on the move. He was not a tall man, but hours in the gym—hours when he should have been doing his job—had given him an incredible physique for a politician of any age. Veins bulged on the side of his bullish neck as if he’d pulled the bow tie too snug.
McKeon sat on the far end of the couch next to the window overlooking the Rose Garden, more exhausted than he’d been in a very long time. He’d already fielded a call from his wife, who’d heard about the shooting on the news. The call had set Ran even more on edge and she moved even closer to him, sitting all the way forward on the edge of the couch, her body taut as if she planned to spring up and fend off another attack at any moment.
She had changed out of her blood-soaked business suit and into a pair of jeans and a black cotton blouse with long sleeves. It looked hot for summer in DC but it hid the tattoos that covered her body from shoulder to just above the knee. In any case, McKeon was not at all sure that Ran felt normal sensations like hot and cold weather.
“What the hell happened?” Drake demanded, falling back in a thick leather chair and throwing his feet up on his desk. “I’m not about to set foot in Seattle if we can’t even keep some crazy assassin from slipping into the White House. Best security in the world, my ass. Who was this guy?”
“The lead agent on Director Ross’s protective detail,” Ran offered, deadpan.
McKeon chose his words carefully. “We cannot cancel the trip to Seattle,” he said. “The Japanese advance team has been here for a week. Plans have been set. I don’t have to tell you how crucial this meeting is.”
Drake waved away the words, ripping off his bow tie. “I am aware of how important it is.” His eyes narrowed, glaring as if he was accusing McKeon of something.
“What is it?” McKeon asked, anger at the other man’s impudence rising in his gut. “Say what’s on your mind.”
“This guy who got in,” Drake said. “This assassin, he went after you?”
“A target of opportunity within the administration.” McKeon rolled his eyes.
“No.” Drake set his jaw like a bulldog, not buying any of it. “Everybody says this guy badged his way in here looking for an agent on your detail right from the beginning. That means you were the primary target.”
McKeon shook his head in dismay. “Are you actually angry that the assassin didn’t come to kill
?” He’d thought it impossible that Hartman Drake’s self-absorbed delusions could ever surprise him.
“What I am angry about,” Drake fumed, “is that the American people think you are the one running this show. I read the commentaries. Everyone’s saying we’re a co-presidency and calling me the Lieutenant Commander in Chief. It’s bad enough that half the Congress insists on calling me ‘Acting President.’ ”
McKeon shrugged. “Technically, you are the acting president. This is new ground constitutionally. But it doesn’t matter. You have the powers of the President so—”
“Do I?” Drake spat. “Because I tried to call a cabinet meeting last week and David told me we couldn’t because you were not available! Do you hear what I’m saying? I can’t call a meeting to run the country because the VP isn’t able to attend.”
McKeon patted Ran softly on her knee, trying to calm himself as much as her. Her entire body hummed with pent up energy but Drake was too self-absorbed to see it. Had he taken the time to really look at her, he would have seen that the gleam in her eye and the particular crook of her lips meant she was on the verge of punching him in the throat with her thumb dagger.
“What do you want me to say?” McKeon muttered. “Shall I tell you that you are the wisest man I know and say it was you who put together this entire plan to send the United States spiraling into a terrible and final
? Do you—?”
“You and your fifty-dollar words.” Drake smirked, shaking his head. “What the hell is a
McKeon stood to his full height and doubled his fists. McKeon was normally composed to the point some would consider bland, but Drake’s idiocy caused his head to shake. “You would have starved to death as a small boy if my father had not taken you from your filthy Tajik existence and placed you in a good home. . . .” He clenched his teeth, breathing deeply to try and regain his composure. “What is it you want from me?”
“What I want,” Drake said, lips quivering with a mixture of fear and frustration, “is for you to treat me with the respect I deserve. I am, after all, the most powerful man on the planet—something it would do you well to remember.”
He reached behind the desk and picked up a gym bag. “I have to go to the gym and work off some steam,” he said. “In the meantime, both of you get the hell out of my—”
A knock at the door cut him off.
“Mr. President.” David Crosby’s muffled voice came through the door. It was unlocked, but with Drake’s tendency to bring pert female staffers back into his office, the Chief of Staff knew better than to open it uninvited. Drake invited him in.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. President,” Crosby said, looking relieved that he didn’t have to sneak some girl out the back hallway. “You’re needed in the Situation Room. Something to do with Chinese submarines.”
“Dammit!” Drake dropped his gym bag in his desk chair.
“Do you want me in there?” McKeon smiled inside. “Or would you like me to let you handle this without me, Mr. President?” he said.
“Shut up,” Drake said, grabbing his jacket but dispensing with the bow tie. “Of course, I want you in there.”