Countdown to Zero Hour (7 page)

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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He wished he could savor the meal but was on the clock and ate fast so he could help clean up when everyone was done. Rolan indicated he wanted to talk when he got up from the table. Art gave him a nod and carried a stack of plates to the kitchen.

Hayley wasn’t there. The lights were off, and there were dirty pots and pans around the stove. Slight panic shook him, but he remembered that Garin remained in the dining room, and there weren’t signs of any struggle in the kitchen.

Placing the plates down, he left the kitchen on the service side, past the washer and dryer. The light was on inside Hayley’s room, revealed by a thin white line at the bottom of her closed door. It had been a hell of a day for her. He knew she needed the break and didn’t speak through the door to check in on her when he passed.

Back up on the third floor, he knocked twice on Rolan’s door and got permission to enter. Rolan was at his window, sipping an after-dinner liquor. He was like one of those elegant vampires, sucking the blood out of anyone unfortunate enough to be in his way or have what he wanted.

The man dressed Art down in smooth Russian, “Dernov didn’t like you fighting with his man.”

Art’s anger rose at the idea of being dressed down for protecting Hayley. He tried to keep his Russian even and articulate. “But he knew why.”

Rolan set his glass down and rubbed thoughtfully behind his ear. “Do you know who Garin is? His family?”

Do any of you fuckers know who my father was?
Art would have to save that revelation. “No idea.”

“It’s an old family. History with other families, if you understand.” This conversation was obviously tedious to Rolan.

Art did understand. Rich people had servants who they thought could never say, “No.” But Hayley did. “I get it,” he replied.

“This is not trouble I need.” Rolan picked up his glass again.

Past the reflected interior of the room in the window, Art saw the desert stars. He would bring his own trouble to Rolan and the others.

The boss continued. “I have a very important week, and everything must run like a train. But not like your American trains.”

“If Garin gets his way, then Hayley won’t cook.” Art shrugged, and felt the tightness in his shoulders with the thought of the blond guard shoving Hayley against the counter. “I was just keeping the train running.”

Rolan sipped and nodded. “Yes, I appreciate that. And hopefully you won’t have to go to such lengths again.”

Art smiled. “Garin hopes not.”

A small chuckle shook Rolan and his small glass of liquor. He glanced at the door, indicating they were done.

“Good night.” Art walked out of the room.

Rolan answered the same while Art closed the door and moved back into the house.

Yes, there were guards everywhere, but security wasn’t as tight as it could be. None of the shades were drawn while lights blazed inside. Anyone out in the night would have a perfect view of the men milling about the rooms. Art’s teammate, Jackson, was too smart to break his cover and take a peek. But maybe there were other Automatik operators farther out there with spotting scopes, checking movement, confirming the headcount Art had sent them.

It was good knowing he had armed friends waiting on the other side of the wall. In the house, he was very alone. The other guards now avoided him. Some just glanced away as he walked by. Others shot him mean looks. Garin had pull.

Even Gogol hardly acknowledged Art when they passed in the hall. Art knew better than to make the other man’s life difficult by trying a conversation on him. Instead he closed himself in his locked room and turned out the light.

Same as before, he sat with his pistol resting on his thigh and opened the communication app. He sent the detail about the exposed windows, in case no one had seen it yet.

A message came back: ‘Denga’ means half kopek. Then it disappeared on his screen.

So the full-blooded Russian Garin had a problem with half-breed Art. He must’ve been super pissed to have been beaten by someone beneath him. The bastard wasn’t going to give it up. He’d find a way to off Art without making too many waves.

Art had slept with his finger on the trigger before. He’d stay up all week if it meant keeping Garin from the satisfaction of ending him. But if it came to protecting Hayley again, Art didn’t know if he’d be able to hold back before killing Garin. Which would throw off the whole operation. Once Art started shooting, he wouldn’t be able to stop until he and Hayley were miles beyond the compound walls. The clock continued ticking a deadly countdown toward the first shot fired. Could he hold it all together until the rest of the bosses showed up and his team was in place?

Chapter Seven

She’d thrown the lock on her bedroom door, but Hayley wasn’t able to get any sleep after dinner. Her nerves buzzed. Every muffled voice or creak of a footstep in the house had her eyes open and her legs wanting to run.

After a couple of hours alone and trying to convince herself to rest, she got back to work. The kitchen was hers. Even the ground floor was mostly vacated. A couple of the men were in the living room, sitting in comfortable chairs, facing the dark windows.

Most of the activity was upstairs. The crack of pool balls would startle her every few minutes. Low laughter filtered down the service stairs. Quiet conversations in Russian. Were they talking about her? Art? Were they planning something?

She had to stay busy. All the tension of the questions could overwhelm her. Ignoring the plates and pots from dinner that were piled in and around the sink, she worked on creating new food.

Her santoku knife easily lopped off the ends of an onion. Three others were already peeled. Paper stripped off the one in her hand, revealing luminous white. She knew if she skinned the secrets of what was going on in the house around her, the core wouldn’t be so bright and inviting. The same must be true for Art.

Sweeping aside the paper, roots and stems, she started breaking the other onions down into long curves. There wasn’t a specific use for them, but it never hurt to have caramelized onions in the kitchen.

A silent chill swept through her limbs. A gust of icy fear. She spun, sensing a presence dangerously close to her. Had Garin come back to finish his game? The knife was still in her hand as she turned.

Metal hit metal. Art stood before her. She didn’t know how he could be so fast. In a blur, he’d drawn a knife of his own and blocked her blade.

She froze, locked in his emotionless gaze. He was a hunter, a fighter.

He blinked, bringing the light back to his eyes, and took a step back, disengaging their knives. His black blade was shorter than hers, but thicker, with wicked serrations on the top edge.

What would he have done if she’d been an actual threat?

He squinted at the knife in her hand. “I think I fucked up your edge. Let me see it.”

Was it safe to be unarmed with him just then? “Can I see yours?”

He hesitated, then glanced through the kitchen quickly, assessing. With a quick flip, he gripped his blade and held the handle out to her. It was all one piece of metal without any wood or plastic on the sides, and warm from his fist.

She presented her knife, and he took it, examining the steel. His fighting knife was well balanced and cleanly made. She shifted it to her right hand but couldn’t quite get the grip for her needs.

“I don’t know about cooking with this one,” she said. But it did make her feel safer with the weapon in her grasp.

“Never.” He looked up from her knife to her. “It’s not clean.”

Now it was like holding a poisonous scorpion. “You’ve...used it.”

“Whoever got it deserved it.” His voice carried the same darkness as the deep desert night outside the windows.

She carefully placed his knife on the counter, far from any food. “I don’t think I’ve ever had the authority to decide something like that.”

Still holding her knife, he picked his up and replaced it into a slim sheath just behind the pistol on his hip. “Don’t worry, I’ve never killed someone with this knife.”

“But with a different one?” Why would she ask questions she didn’t want the answer to? She was just begging to see how bad he was. Maybe that was her reasoning, so she could categorize him as evil and finally keep a safe distance.

He ignored the question, turning his attention back to her knife. “I nicked it here. Sorry.” Turning the blade, he caught the artificial light from above. The clean line of her edge was interrupted by a jagged crescent, less than a quarter inch across. “Might be able to fix most of it. You have another one you can use for a bit?”

“Always.” She pulled a shorter santoku from her roll but kept it in her hand instead of setting it on the board near the onions.

Their brief knife fight was over, but tension hummed like the echo of the clashing metal she’d felt all the way up her arm. It looked as if there were things on his mind, none of which he would say.

“I’m here for the dishes.” He carried her knife to the sink along the wall and started to organize the dirty plates and pans from dinner.

“Try not to sneak up on me in here.” She resumed cutting the onions but maintained a fraction of her attention on Art’s broad back.

“I’ll walk heavy. I’ll knock on a tabletop.” His knuckles hit a quick pattern.

“I don’t know Morse code.” Her knife through the onions made a slower, steady rhythm.

“Just two letters: Charlie Foxtrot.” He chuckled. “Cluster fuck.”

“Did you get your knife in the Marines?” Maybe that part of his past wasn’t so dark. He obviously still held pride about his service.

“Couldn’t afford it then, even in Recon.” The water flowed, and he soaped up the stack of plates. “A lot of our gear there was pretty...primitive.”

“Recon’s like elite, right?” All her onions were chopped. She clanged a broad pan on the stove and kicked the heat up.

“We’d take whatever crazy ingredients the brass gave us and somehow make the missions work.” He turned a knowing smile back to her.

She smiled back, then remembered how fast his knife had been drawn. The stove took her attention, and he resumed with the dishes. She put a knob of butter in the hot pan, letting it sizzle and brown down for a bit, then scraped in the pile of onions. With a shake of the pan, the onions were coated and on their way.

Art sighed. “Lord, that smells good.”

“Sometimes the basics are the best.” In order to bring the cutting board to the sink, she had to step dangerously close to Art.

Physical contact was common in a kitchen. Some spaces were so small, she’d been practically standing in someone’s hip pocket in order to work the stove. But brushing her shoulder along Art’s back was nothing like she’d experienced on the job before. Dark sparks tingled across her chest. Then lower. She’d never cooked with a hired muscle bad guy in the kitchen. And that didn’t describe all he might be.

By the time she was next to him, placing the cutting board on the counter, he was staring at her. A hired goon wouldn’t have the depth that he had in his eyes. His hands were firm on the edge of the counter, shoulders flexed, poised. She couldn’t read all of him, but it felt like he didn’t want to take his gaze from her. And she understood the hunger on his face.

It was her kitchen. She could be just as opaque as him. “I’ll wash my own knives.”

“Roger that.”

But neither of them moved for a moment. Thousands of miles away, in a bar or restaurant in San Diego, she might think about taking it to the next level. Sure, he was good-looking. Lethal. He was a tough guy. And so was she. It could’ve been fun to wreck a bedroom. Under very different circumstances.

“I’m just here to cook. Remember?” She held his stare until he broke it.

“Loud and clear.” He didn’t sulk, though. A lot of other guys would pout or get angry with rejection. Art maintained his energy, but didn’t push.

She took the long way around the island to get back to the stove and the caramelizing onions. They sweated down nicely. Shaking the pan folded the raw strands down into the heat. Sprinkling a few pinches of brown sugar on them helped deepen the flavor and the sweet aroma.

The moments when she wasn’t attending the food, she’d watch Art. His rhythm swayed, making the task of doing the dishes like a sultry dance. The black window reflected his face. Some of the time he was calm, but mostly his awareness continued to bounce from spot to spot.

After a while, the pile of pans and dishes were transferred from the side of the sink to the drying rack. He shut down the water. “I’m all done here, Master Chef.” He made his way toward her, carrying a small pot full of soapy water and her notched knife. “Anything else you need?”

After organizing the onions just the way she wanted them in the pan, she took a step back from the stove. “That’s all I can think of right now.” Not true. She wanted a taste, just a taste of his potent energy. Her mouth watered for it. But she knew one bite wouldn’t be enough.

Again their bodies got way too close when he leaned over to smell the onions. Sensuously, his eyes closed for a moment. Then they were open again, assessing his surroundings. “How long are you going to be working down here?”

“Probably another hour for the onions.” If she had the energy and focus, she might prep a bowl of quick pickled vegetables, as well.

“Go straight to your room when you’re done. Lock the door.” It wasn’t a command, but his caution was clear.

“Roger that.”

His low laugh rumbled through his chest. She could almost feel the vibrations. He moved past her and to the doorway. “You’re a badass, Baskov.” He didn’t look back. “Good night.”

“‘Night.”

Her voice echoed in the kitchen and service hallway, and he was already gone. The shadows had swallowed him, and she couldn’t even hear his footsteps.

The onions sizzled and murmured like a group of approving girlfriends. Art had scared the hell out of her when he’d surprised her in the kitchen. Without him, though, the space felt less safe. She’d keep her head up. No one else would sneak up on her. Art had already gotten close enough.

* * *

He’d never handled a knife as fine as Hayley’s. Some master bladesmith had forged and shaped it, and now it was up to him to undo the flaw he’d notched in the edge. Hopefully that was the extent of the damage she’d take during the trip. Art mentally kicked himself as he opened what appeared to be a closet door in the service hallway to reveal a set of stairs leading down. He’d been giving himself orders on how to protect her, and his own damn knife had put her in danger.

Instinct had taken over, but it was his fault for sneaking up on her in the first place. She’d been so focused on chopping those onions, he hadn’t wanted to distract from her Zen. He’d be more careful. And when he was back in his room, where her knife waited next to his sharpener, he’d do whatever he could to erase the flaw in the steel.

The house was quiet. The day-shift guards slept. The graveyard shift worked the perimeter with night vision goggles and sound amplifiers. Everyone was fed, and the dishes were done.

Art descended below everyone. The narrow staircase turned from the top floor down to a half basement that stretched out under the kitchen and a quarter of the dining room. He moved as quietly as possible, trying to keep the soapy water in the pan he carried for this stage of his recon from sloshing out.

His flashlight brightened the angles of the basement, which smelled like fresh-cut lumber. Plumbing ran all around him. Electrical wires were stapled to the joists overhead. He pressed deeper; the darkness closed behind him.

Desert spiders had already taken up residence in the corners of the construction. They were probably his only companions. Except for maybe a hired killer for the Russian mob.

But that’s what you are
, he reminded himself.

That was all Hayley thought of him. Because she had no evidence otherwise. Could he trust her enough to tell about his undercover work for Automatik? Would she ever trust him if he didn’t tell her?

The woman was like her knife. Beautiful and purposeful, and with a wicked edge. She’d make a good asset. An ally. And knowledge of the real scenario might help her stay safe.

That, and he wasn’t happy to know she thought of him as a leg breaker for one of the biggest crime organizations in North America.

She was above him, tending to the onions, which had blanketed the whole floor of the house with their comforting smell.

The joists and flooring of the building creaked with her footsteps. He could feel her, balanced and easy at the stove or focused on the cutting board.

Growing up, his home had been mostly filled with women. He’d watched his mother and sisters cook plenty of times, picking up enough tips and techniques to keep himself fed once he’d moved out. But Hayley’s motion was so practiced. Like a sniper going through the routine and ritual of targeting, adapting, then firing. If she’d ever let him, he’d love to sit and just watch her prepare a meal.

There wouldn’t be that kind of leisure time until the mission was over and he’d cleared the taste of gunpowder from his mouth.

He reached a concrete retaining wall that marked the edge of the house. Pipes and conduit from the kitchen ran over his head and out the wall near where it met the ceiling of the basement.

He set the pot of water on the ground and leaned close to the wall, feeling the concrete for the smallest flaw that an explosive charge could exploit. Jagged ridges on the surface bumped under his fingertips. This wall would go. It was just a matter of where to put the charge. Inside? Then he’d have to do it in advance of the assault.

He crouched low, moving the loose dirt at the base of the wall. If the concrete wasn’t properly attached to its footing, the whole piece would buckle and take a chunk of the house with it.

Footsteps on the stairs to the basement interrupted the search. Art had his knife, his pistol, but that escalation of force wouldn’t be necessary if he could maintain his cover. Looking like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t would only rile things up, so he stayed low at the wall.

“Digging for your ancestors?” Garin sneered in Russian. He strode into the basement with his own flashlight, which partially illuminated that self-satisfied smile on his face.

Art picked up a handful of dirt and shone his light on it. He replied in Russian, “See how it glitters? Metal. Corrosion already.” He swept the flashlight beam up to a pipe running along the ceiling. “Propane.”

Garin came to a stop ten feet from Art. “You’re a tradesman?”

“I do a lot of things.” Art picked up the pot of soapy water and lifted it to a dark pipe near the ceiling. He poured water over sections that were lumpy with rust, watched and waited. “There.” A series of bubbles marched out of one spot. “We have a slow leak. They used bad pipes.” He’d suspected the work down here would be shoddy, and testing potential leaks gave him the perfect cover for investigating the basement space.

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
5.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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