Countdown to Zero Hour (8 page)

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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“You just want to be the only one who plugs the leak in the cook.” Garin stepped closer, squinted at the bubbles, then moved back.

The two of them could dance to the death right then. They both knew it. Whoever was left standing could tell any story he wanted. But the bosses had already gotten involved in their friction. Both men knew the big guns would be furious if anything else serious went down.

Art shot back, repeating, “I do a lot of things.”

“Can you fix it, tradesman
denga
?” The large guard crossed his arms in front of his chest, indicating that he wouldn’t dirty his hands on a job like that.

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Just need to hit town for some supplies.” The pipe would be the simplest fix in the whole mission.

“It’s a slow leak. We’ll figure out when we can spare you.” Garin yawned in a broad gesture, then turned and ambled away the way he’d come.

The goon didn’t have any authority over Art. Only Rolan could tell him what to do and when and how. But it wasn’t worth getting in to a cockfight in the basement with Garin. The big man was baiting him. Art wouldn’t give.

But when they did tangle again, because it was inevitable, there’d be no stopping until Garin was dead.

Until then, Art had to keep his real purpose in the basement secret. The flaws of the house, the weaknesses of Garin and any other guard would be logged and communicated and exploited when Art finally brought in the Automatik shooters. The endgame would have to come before he was compromised and Hayley was put in more danger.

* * *

Exhaustion weighed on Hayley like a lead coffin lid. But she couldn’t sleep. Day one at the house felt like it had covered years. Her brain barely comprehended that she’d woken up in San Diego that morning. Her friends had been asleep when she’d left. Where were they now? Were they worried about her? She hadn’t given them any cause to be and now felt even more alone and isolated in the compound surrounded by desert.

Hayley lay in the bed with a single, dim night-light on, staring at the uneven drywall work on the ceiling. She backtracked and tried to figure if there had been any way out of this. But Art had insisted, and Rolan’s power had loomed behind him. She’d already accepted the up-front money, which she and her mom really needed. And the second half of the cash would help refill their bank accounts, as well. When Burton had pulled the plug, he’d fucked all the financial planning she’d put together.

Art had subtly promised consequences if she hadn’t taken the job. What were the consequences of staying?

The door was locked. She’d taken Art’s advice, going a step further to wedge a chair under the knob. But she still didn’t feel safe and wouldn’t rest easy until she was back in her bed in her old room in Kendra’s and Julieta’s guest house. Another imposition she’d placed on friends and family. This gig had better dig her out of this financial hole.

Not helping her sense of dread was the slow hiss of grinding metal echoing in the hallway on the other side of the door. It pulsed slow and steady, like a deadly calm heartbeat. In the ground-floor living room, Art sharpened her knife. He wasn’t rushing the job. Every few strokes, the sound would stop and she imagined him checking the edge. Then it would start again.

Was he hunched over his work? Maybe in a tank top. That would be a sight. She’d felt his muscles, had caught glimpses of what his T-shirt revealed under his jacket. She could imagine the definition of his deltoids and biceps. The cords of his forearms would flex as he handled her knife.

She let out a long breath.

Art would only be a possibility in a very different lifetime. No matter what she saw in the depth of his eyes, he was on the payroll of a bad guy.

But he wasn’t a bad guy. He’d fought Garin. He’d kept watch on her. Even now, she knew he was sending a message by sharpening the knife on the floor where her room was. He protected her door.

It was as safe as she could feel in this pressure cooker of a house.

Tomorrow she’d be back among the guns and men. She had to sleep in order to do her job.

Turning out the light and closing her eyes, she tried to calm herself by going over a mental map of the kitchen. Counters and stoves and the sink and cupboards were all accounted for. The onions had cooked down well and rested in the refrigerator for whatever recipe she might work them into.

The steady rasp of the knife continued outside. In her imagination, it turned into Art’s even breath next to her.

She must’ve fallen asleep. There’d been no dreams, but the next time she’d opened her eyes, the window high on the side of her room was brightening with daylight.

The cook had to be the first one up, so she hurried through her morning routine in her room and in the small bathroom down the hall, then brought the kitchen to life. There were about four different available ways to make coffee, from a large French press to drip to a stovetop espresso pot, and she fired them all up. If the rest of the house wasn’t awake yet, this would get them going.

Rolan was the first to arrive. His silver hair was immaculate, and he glowed as if he’d already played a round of tennis, showered, then completed a crossword puzzle. He drew big circles around the kitchen with his fingers and indicated in broken English, “Breakfast here. We come to you.”

She nodded understanding and started prepping for a buffet line. Bread, toast, butter and jam. Cold cuts and cheese if anyone wanted them.

Rolan collected his food and coffee.

Folding in what Russian words fit, she tried not to make it sound too much like an apology. “Lunch will be...bigger.”

“This is good.” It was almost like he played at being forgiving. Like he could lure someone in, then skewer the person with his disappointment.

Luckily, there was no way she’d get that comfortable in this environment. She was cooking in a minefield.

Rolan carried his breakfast away, and other men arrived for their coffee and toast. Dernov’s hair was rumpled from sleep, and he didn’t even glance at her while he gathered his food. A minute later, Garin arrived and selected his breakfast as if the whole process was entirely beneath him. That didn’t stop him from making another leering smile at her before he left, though.

She was working on refilling the French press when someone knocked a quick pattern on the counter. Art stood at the entrance of the kitchen, her knife laid across his hand. The memory of the sound of his deliberate attention to the blade came back to her. The slow and steady pace brought a small sense of calm to her kitchen that morning.

“I wasn’t able to get all of the notch out.” He held the knife out to her as she approached. “But I straightened everything and put a new edge on the whole thing.”

“I heard it.” They were close now. She reached forward and took the knife from his hand, careful not to touch his skin. “Do you sleep?”

“Lightly.” He busied himself with coffee and food while she examined the knife.

The edge was amazing. The small divot remained, but the rest of it was polished and razor sharp. “I could split atoms with this.”

“A nice A-bomb would level this place.” Unlike the others, Art stayed in the kitchen to eat. He leaned on a counter, sipping black coffee and crunching through the bread. Even this early in the morning, he wore a light jacket over his T-shirt. There was a pistol and a brutal knife under there. What else?

The flow of men slowed down then stopped. The house had been fed. Garin brought in dirty cups and plates, mumbling something to Art and glancing from him to Hayley. But Art ignored whatever it was and helped organize the dirty dishes in the sink, staring out the window at the already baking desert.

“There’s a little propane leak below here.” He moved from the sink to the back door, peering out the glass. “I can fix it, but I’ll need to go to the nearby town.”

She didn’t know what state they were in, or if it was even the US, but a small town always yielded interesting foods. “I’d like to go with you.”

He turned to her, and they both paused with her bold statement.

She explained, “Local ingredients would round out what I’ve got here.”

He nodded with understanding, then returned his attention to the window in the door. “There might be food out there.” He swung open the back door.

Warm air swept into the kitchen. The land smelled dusty and dry, but not dead. A sharp mineral aroma on the breeze brightened Hayley’s deep breath. She was drawn to the open door and stood just behind Art.

He pointed at several sprays of pale green that poked up from the cracks in the earth. “That’s edible, isn’t it?”

“It’s green.” Without thinking, she put her hand on his shoulder to move him aside. He stood solid. The resistance was charged. She could push harder. No doubt he could push back. They could clash together.

His eyes were heavy lidded. Lips parted. Did she gasp a short breath?

Without blinking, he took a step back, giving her the space to pass.

Head spinning slightly, she needed all the fresh air she could get. The oven-dry desert wasn’t as hot as it had just become in the kitchen.

A set of concrete stairs descended from the kitchen to the ground. Was she dizzy from the moment with Art, or were the steps uneven?

He followed a few paces behind her. The dirt was hard packed under her feet. A lizard scurried for safety. She made a line for the closest plant, but Art took his time, always assessing around them. He turned, scanning the house, the ground, the wall surrounding the compound.

“Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it won’t kill you.” He thrived in the light. His broad hand smoothed over his bald head like he was knocking off a hat to soak it all in.

The air tasted wetter when she leaned low to the plant. The bigger leaves were broad and pointed, with jagged edges. Smaller sprays of thicker leaves reached higher.

“I think that’s called shepherd’s purse.” Art’s attention kept shifting from the house to the wall. A guard sauntered along the edge of the house but didn’t linger near them.

Her hand hovered close to the plant but didn’t touch it. “Edible?”

“Yeah. That’s what they taught us in some of our desert training.” He crouched next to her and plucked off one the larger leaves. “Hardy things.” He popped it into his mouth and chewed. “Like us.”

They were both paid by the bad guys to use their knives. Could she judge him without judging herself?

She also pulled off one of the larger leaves and dusted it. Putting it in her mouth and chewing released a peppery flavor. It would be a good accompaniment on top of a salad, or cut into ribbons for fish or chicken.

For a moment, the house and guards and the compound walls weren’t there. It was just her and Art in the desert. He watched her chew with a grin on his face. It was the same grin she felt as she’d discovered the food.

She grabbed the base of the plant and pulled it up, roots and all. Art walked to another one nearby and did the same.

She asked, “When did you eat goat eyeballs?”

He knocked dirt from the roots and said, offhand, “We were making good with a village
malik
in Afghanistan. It was an important meal, but not something I’d order again.”

The sunlight seemed to dim as Art’s posture changed. The ready soldier stepped away from the area with the plants, eyes scanning. He cocked his head, listening, then glanced at her.

“That’ll be Ilyin, incoming,” he said. “Boss number three. Another mouth to feed.” He was back on the job, walking with intent back toward the house, his shoulders swinging slightly with that badass theme song.

Their connection thinned with the distance. His game face was back, and she missed the unguarded truths they’d been passing back and forth.

After a few steps, he stopped and turned back to her. “You had zucchinis in your bags. Can you make zucchini cakes?”

The desert plant would give them a perfect kick. “The best you ever had.”

His smile was more dangerous than his hidden knife. Even a few steps away, he could make her pulse kick faster. “Kill me with them.” Then his dark edge came out. The serious eyes. He held up a cautioning finger. “With the boss comes a bodyguard. Another player in Garin’s game.”

She nodded, and he was off again. Maybe it would be safer if she ran off into the desert. She could eat the plant in her hand, but others were poisonous. Spiders, snakes and scorpions hid in the sand. The smallest thorn or fang could kill her.

The desert was just as deadly as the house.

Art was her guide. Only with him could she navigate the worlds of violence and danger. He was part of them, and as she drew closer to him, she became part of them, too.

Chapter Eight

The gate in the surrounding wall opened and closed and the whole complement of guards around the house tensed. Fingers crept closer to triggers. The men coiled, ready to shoot and run. Art knew the guards might not be formally trained, but they were all experienced. Automatik’s attack would have to take full advantage of the element of surprise.

Rolan and Dernov were already on the front porch, watching the cream-colored SUV arrive. Garin stood to Dernov’s left, sneering at Art. Then his face drained of emotion when the SUV pulled up in front of the house.

The engine stopped, then ticked and settled from the long hot drive. Ilyin was the boss of the central wing of the Orel Group. He’d come in from Chicago or St. Louis or whatever big town he called the shots from up there. Art wasn’t deep enough in the organization to get all the details, which made this operation so important. Automatik didn’t have to go looking for all these criminals. The bad guys were coming to them.

Ilyin’s driver/bodyguard got out of the SUV and strode around to open one of the back doors. The man was stone and concrete. Sunglasses hid his eyes, but Art knew he’d find nothing there. The guard’s expressionless mouth told it all. And his veiny hands, fighter’s hands, that showed from below his basic black suit.

The jacket bulged a bit. A submachine gun, or a sawed-off shotgun, hung under his left arm.

The man opened the SUV door, and Ilyin stepped out. His blue-gray suit remained perfectly pressed, despite what must’ve been hours in the car. This man was older than Rolan and didn’t carry the same light as in that boss’s eyes. Ilyin was a butcher. Art felt it. The man got his hands dirty.

With a subtle shift of his shoulders, Rolan caught Art’s eye. A brief nod from Rolan toward the car told Art what he needed to do. Bellboy.

Ilyin approached the front steps of the house and Art moved opposite, into the parking area. Ilyin’s guard eyed him for a moment, then dismissed him, pointing at the trunk of the SUV. After popping the latch, Art hauled out two suitcases, one heavier than the other.

The guard’s luggage was probably filled with bullets. Ilyin’s clean clothes had to be surrounding straight razors and bone-cutting cleavers.

After exchanging greetings and quieter words Art couldn’t catch, Rolan, Dernov and Ilyin walked into the house. Ilyin’s man was behind them. Then Garin. Then a couple of guards who Rolan had supplied as host. Art trailed the procession up the stairs, carrying the luggage.

Attacking up was a good possibility. Between each flight of stairs was an open landing with solid cover. It would take a little while, but anyone caught up top would have nowhere to go as long as the service stairs were covered.

He itched to communicate the information to his team. Three bosses were in the house. Two more to go. Every firing lane and back exit had to be accounted for by then. And he still hadn’t figured out the safest place for Hayley during the assault.

The group reached the top floor, and Ilyin eased into his room. The fourth down the hall. His guard went with him, checked everything out, then motioned Art forward.

He left the larger suitcase by the foot of the bed and considered lingering for a tip, but knew the joke wouldn’t be appreciated. He wasn’t full-blooded Russian. He was the second-class citizen in the house.

Like his dad had been. Easy for them to kill without a thought. But Art wasn’t easy to kill.

Rolan kept him on the payroll for a reason. They needed him. And soon, they’d fear him.

But for now he was the
denga
, half-breed with unique information to share and a back strong enough to lift the luggage.

Once Ilyin was squared away with Rolan and Dernov, his guard and a few others broke away. Art followed with the guard’s bag, returning to the second floor. Now that they were apart from the bosses, the conversations started flowing. The men knew Ilyin’s guard, who they called Vasily. Their reverence for him was clear. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, everyone fell silent to hear the raspy words.

Things were tightening up for Ilyin and the central wing. Asian gangs were crowding them. There had already been blood spilled, and Vasily had a taste for more.

The room he was given was on the opposite side of the guard hallway from Art, closest to the stairs. Art deposited the man’s suitcase and extracted himself from the group. But not before hearing Garin speaking to Vasily, hissing something nasty about Art and throwing around
“denga”
again.

It was when Garin glanced downstairs, toward the kitchen, that Art’s anger rose. If the high-level guards ganged up to make a play at Hayley, there’d be nothing short of bloodshed that could stop them. But Vasily didn’t seem to care and remained stony in Garin’s face.

The footing in the house continually shifted, always tipping toward disaster. Art was reminded of a helicopter pilot he knew. She said that flying one of those birds was like balancing a bowling ball on a marble. It was a matter of developing a touch for the equilibrium.

Going after Garin right then would’ve sent them all to hell. Art made no waves, walking down the hall to his room.

Once inside, with the door locked and the pistol on his lap, he sent the latest intel. The basement retaining wall was detailed, along with the stairway assault possibilities. He explained that Ilyin was there, as well as pertinent info on Vasily. Art consumed the house and the people in it, breaking them down to the smallest atom, then figuring out how to destroy it all.

Three bosses. Two to go. The countdown sped faster.

* * *

New faces gazed blankly at her while she described the lunch to the men at the dining table. Art, in the seat closest to the kitchen, translated. “Salmon baked in vegetables, zucchini cakes and a cucumber salad.”

Art gave a secret wink, just for her, as he translated the zucchini cakes.

The men were already eating. Forks rang on the plates with quick rhythms. The food was going over well. She’d added the broader, peppery leaves of the shepherd’s purse to the zucchini.

One of the new men was definitely a boss. Ilyin, Art had called him. He sat upright in his suit, eating with perfect manners. He looked like the kind of guy who wore an overcoat draped over his shoulders when it was cold.

His guard ate steadily, almost mechanically. She couldn’t tell if he tasted any of the food or just fueled his ropy, menacing body.

And Garin was his usual slimy self. Taking his time, turning the plate and inspecting it. Then watching her as he ate.

She ignored him and turned to leave with a last glance to Art, her one friend in the place. And her biggest temptation. He smiled back gently, as if wrapping his arm around her shoulder and letting her lean on him.

The last thing she saw when she exited the dining room was a simple gold band on Ilyin’s ring finger. He was married. These men had wives. Families.

She cleaned the pots and pans from lunch and tried to imagine these mob bosses with their wives. Or sisters. Children? Even as benevolent as Rolan pretended to be, she detected a cruel and manipulative interior. He always appeared calmly poised to lash out at someone if the person disappointed him. These men didn’t seem human enough for family. They were killers and manipulators, destroyers.

But that didn’t mean they couldn’t do that to the people closest to them. What would their children become?

Art had talked about his family a bit. A mother, sisters. Did they know who he worked for? He hadn’t completely lost his humanity. Maybe it was a matter of time among this organized crime. Perhaps for her, as well.

Then she wouldn’t feel anything. The prickling anxiety that drew her shoulder blades together might go away. The cruelty of the guards and bosses would be normal. Emotions would seem like a weakness.

No, she couldn’t live that way. And maybe Art wouldn’t disappear into that world.

The food would save her.

After recovering the kitchen after lunch, she started on dinner. She needed to rest, but slowing down would only speed up her mind. The fear and sickening sense of dread would overwhelm her.

Carrots, jalapeños and red onions were chopped and bathed in a vinegar, sugar and water mixture to quickly pickle them. Once they were in the refrigerator to develop their flavor, she prepped the other elements for her kotlety-inspired meatloaf.

When she arrived at the salad, the process faltered. She needed something unexpected. Just parsley wouldn’t transform the cut greens. The thicker, sweeter leaves of the shepherd’s purse remained from the plant she’d pulled, but there weren’t enough.

Stepping into the bright sun, she waited for her eyes to adjust before venturing onto the desert dirt. As soon as the kitchen door closed behind her, a guard came around the corner of the house, his shining machine gun tight in his hands.

He relaxed a bit when he saw her but maintained his poise. She stepped away from the house, searching for plants, and his gaze remained on her.

Any shade would’ve been welcome. Or a breeze. Instead, the heated air sat on her back and shoulders. The sun burned into the exposed skin of her neck. It felt like the whole sky above the desert was trying to crush her.

A shallow crack in the earth led to one shepherd’s purse plant, then another. She tugged them up, feeling what kind of determination it took to survive in that environment.

Deliberate footsteps crunched toward her, loud enough to be heard over the sound of the chugging generators. She knew the rhythm of the walk. It was disquieting how anticipation pumped her blood faster. She barely knew him, and he was able to change her heart rate with just a few steps. But she couldn’t shut it down, or shut him out, and tested the temptation like a quick lick of a salt.

Art strode, his back to the sun. “Hottest time of day.”

“I don’t siesta.” She searched out another plant and pulled it.

“At least find some shade.” His shadow gathered around her feet.

She shook the plants, letting dirt fall from the roots. “I’m done now.”

Art walked back to the house with her. The guard leaned on the wall and lit a cigarette, squinting into the sun.

As he strode, Art asked her, “What about dessert?”

“It wasn’t requested. And I found plenty of candy in the pantry. Someone was thinking ahead.”

“But do you make dessert?”

“I can handle a couple of things.”

He opened the door to the kitchen. “I’m sure you can.”

His surprising, deliberate sleaze and the cooler air in the house made a brief giggle bubble up through her. He closed and locked the door behind her, then glided out of the kitchen without looking back, leaving her alone. Wanting more. This taste of him wasn’t quite enough.

She washed the plants off and rolled them in paper towels to dry. A siesta sounded pretty nice. A quiet room with a book, or just a window to stare out of for a while. With Art close by.

The excitement with Burton had always been about the future. Growing their skills and their careers. Cooking, analyzing.

Art was immediate. He lived and survived and inspired her to open her eyes to the moment. And they could share so many moments. Loud nights or quiet days. Together on a sunlit bed. His chest pressed against her back. His arm around her belly. Mouth on her neck, just below the ear. Her skin heated with the thought, and she shivered with the tease.

The fantasy shattered. Ilyin’s guard entered her kitchen, his face emotionless, dark eyes remote. She didn’t have a metal spoon in her hand this time, and a chill threatened to freeze her to the floor. Her knives were on the island, closer to the man than to her.

He extended his thumb and tapped it to his chest. “Vasily.”

Okay, that was his name. What did he want?

The same thumb pointed at her.

She nodded understanding, the fear ebbing slightly. “Chef Hayley. Hayley.”

He shook his head and turned his hand, wanting other information. There didn’t seem to be a lot of patience in Vasily, and she didn’t want to know what the coiled springs of his body would release when it ran out.

“Baskov.” She hoped he was trying for her last name.

“Da.”
He tilted his head back and forth, considering.

Hopefully her family hadn’t left behind too many skeletons in the old country closets.

Again, he tapped himself with his thumb.
“Moskva.”

The smallest of small talk. He was from Moscow.

She told him her family had come from Ufa.

With the narrowing of his eyes, her fear came back. She’d told him the truth, but it still might damn her. What were the consequences of not passing this test? Vasily didn’t appear to enjoy toying with his victims the way Garin did. Even if she called for help, he could definitely do unthinkable damage before Art showed up.

She was ready to lunge for her knives.

Vasily nodded and repeated, “Ufa,” back, seeming satisfied. Wired like a killing machine, Vasily walked out of her kitchen, leaving the air colder in his wake.

A long breath didn’t release her tension. She hurried to her knife roll and pulled a paring knife and a chef’s knife, placing them on different parts of the long counter at the wall. No matter where someone tried to corner her, she’d have a knife close by.

Her transformation continued. Kitchen knives were now for defense. She was accepted by some of the bad men. And she wanted one of them to be close to her. Not for protection, but so she could do bad things with him.

* * *

The window over the sink was black with night and reflected the lit kitchen back to Art. Hayley moved about the counters and the stove, erasing the work it had taken to create that night’s dinner while preparing for the next round.

He knew Jackson was out in the dark, watching. The wall around the compound was too tall for the hidden man to see into the ground-floor windows, so he wouldn’t have firsthand knowledge of Art doing all these dishes.

Art finished the last of the large pots and broke the silence. “Dinner was a hit. Reminded me of my momma’s kotlety.” In the reflection, he watched her pause and lean on the kitchen island. “Overheard a couple of the guys reminiscing about their mothers and grandmothers. You’ve definitely got the touch if you can reach these bastards’ dark little hearts.”

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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