Tomas Fiero was nervous.
Short, built like a fireplug, and with cauliflower ears and a nose that had been mashed flat more than once, Fiero didn’t seem like the kind of guy who should get nervous. Especially not when he had an HK VP9, three knives, and a garrote under his suit jacket. He was the kind of man who made other people nervous.
Something about this setup bothered him, though, in a way that he hadn’t experienced since he’d been a simple street enforcer, almost twenty years before.
The meeting place was the first part he didn’t like.
He turned in his seat to address the stunning blond woman in the back seat. “Signora, this is a bad place. After everything that has happened between us and Garin over the last two weeks, we should be meeting in a public place, with lots of eyes around.”
Erika Dalca, CEO of Ciela International and also the queen bee of one of the biggest and most secretive underworld networks on the face of the planet, was a woman of somewhere between thirty and fifty years of age. Her skin was flawless, her slightly angular face as perfectly symmetrical and lovely as it was possible for a woman to get without surgery. She was stunning, she knew it, and she used it as a weapon more often than not.
Right at the moment, she looked completely unconcerned, and as she turned her glittering green eyes on him, he knew that she was turning that weapon on him, if only to get him to shelve his suspicions and trust her.
“That is why we have an overwatch element up, Tomas.” She smiled faintly, and even that expression was enough to make a younger man forget where he was. Fiero, however, had worked for Dalca for years, and he’d learned to detach himself enough that her charms only had the vaguest effect on him. The part of him that had grown up with fairy tales wondered sometimes if she wasn’t some sort of siren or other mythical creature. “Gaston is watching our backs.”
Fiero just sighed. He wouldn’t even have agreed to the meeting, but Dalca wasn’t a woman you said no to, especially not when you owed her as much as he did. She’d been determined, after the events of the last few weeks, to handle this as peacefully as possible.
She was like that. While she could be extremely ruthless, all the same, she had a practical streak that made her determined not to waste resources and lives in violence if she could avoid it. In Fiero’s mind, that made her more willing to talk when they should be fighting.
He didn’t trust Artyom Garin to abide by the terms that had been worked out just for the meeting, never mind anything they came up with during said meeting.
Turning back to the front, Fiero nodded to the driver, semi-consciously touching the VP9 at his waist. There was nothing for it.
Putting the Land Rover into gear, young Kristof started them rolling down the flagstone road between the residential houses on the right and the open fields to the left. Fiero’s eyes flicked momentarily to the partially wooded rise on the south of the field. Gaston was supposed to be up there, in a ghillie suit, along with Murray and Yakob, watching the last house in the small neighborhood, where they were supposed to meet with Garin and his chief lieutenant.
He couldn’t see any threats. Everything was quiet, and there was even an older Czech lady walking her dog on the street. There were no Russian thugs hanging out near the white brick and white picket fences around the brightly colored houses. No guns. No suspicious vehicles.
Something was still off, but there was nothing he could do about it except keep his eyes open, his hand close to his gun, and his ears pricked. Dalca was too determined for anything else.
Kristof pulled the vehicle around the corner and in front of the gate. He didn’t park right at the gate itself, but pulled a couple of car lengths past it, then parked on the far side of the road, halfway into the field.
Dalca might have been dressed to the nines, but she didn’t complain in the slightest about the fact that her door was opening up on a recently harvested field. She just slid to the other side of the vehicle—though Fiero would much have preferred if she had gotten out on that side, putting the bulk of the subtly armored Range Rover between her and any of Garin’s people, at least for a moment—but he’d learned to roll with the punches. She wasn’t going to hide when the reality of the situation demanded that she show no fear in front of the Russians.
Fiero was well practiced at staying one step ahead of Dalca. He was already out of the vehicle and halfway across the street when she got out, glancing over his shoulder at the men getting out of their trail vehicle with some irritation. They were slow, and Dalca had nearly caught up with him by the time he reached the gate, while the younger enforcers were still only halfway across the street.
He opened the gate. The door remained closed, the windows dark. He stopped just inside and put out a hand to stop Dalca in her tracks. “Something’s wrong.”
She halted, stepping behind the brick column that supported the gate. She was relentless and determined, but she wasn’t stupid, and while she might have overruled him on attending the meeting at all, she wasn’t going to ignore his instincts when it came to actual security on site. Fiero had worked for Dalca’s father, after all, even before she had stepped into the old man’s vacant shoes and started to steer the network in her own, more subtle direction. He’d earned that trust.
There was a bush growing just inside the gate, and he slid partway behind it as he watched the windows and the front door. It wouldn’t provide him any actual cover, but it might keep any enemy inside guessing as to exactly where he was, which might buy him the crucial second or two to get Dalca to safety.
The door creaked open then, and a thickset man with practically no neck and a balding head, wearing a suit that was ever so slightly too small, stepped out. “You are late.”
Fiero felt a flash of anger. They weren’t late. He knew exactly the game this Russian thug was playing, and he didn’t like it. It didn’t bode well for any hope that they could resolve this problem between Dalca’s network and Garin’s Mafiya cell peacefully.
Still, at least it wasn’t gunfire. Not yet anyway. And Dalca wasn’t going to let strongarm mind games get in her way. She stepped out from behind the brick column and strode toward the house, sparing the Russian guard a withering, icy glare.
“Don’t try to tell me what time it is, Vasili.” The tone of her voice was as cold as her expression as she brushed past the man. There might have been a flicker of surprise on his face that she’d known his name, and Fiero suppressed a gloating smirk as he followed Dalca inside.
That smirk died completely as they came into the living room, or what had been the living room.
There was plastic on the floor, all of the furniture had been moved to the walls, and none of the men in dark track suits standing around the room were Garin. In fact, none of them were even any of his senior lieutenants. These were all mid- to low-level brodyagas. And they were all armed.
Fiero just pushed a button on his smart watch, glad that he’d thought ahead and hoping that he survived the next few seconds.
The Russian standing in front, a wiry, beak-nosed man with tattoos crawling up his neck, lifted his Skorpion machine pistol with a leering grin just before the first .50 caliber bullet smashed through the window and took the heavyset thug behind him in the head.
Blood and brains splashed across the wall as the thunderclap of the weapon’s report and the crash of shattering glass echoed through the room. The Russians all ducked, as did Dalca, though Fiero had been through enough violence that he hardly blinked as he snatched his VP9 out of his waistband and shot the tattooed thug with the Skorpion through the chest.
Gaston continued to mag dump his GM6 Lynx through the windows and the walls as Fiero grabbed Dalca and dragged her back toward the door.
The thickset gangster who had let them in was in the way, though. He’d ducked at the first report of the Lynx, but now he was coming back up with a Laugo Alien pistol in his fist. He was a split second too slow, though, as Henri appeared behind him, put the muzzle of his own Glock to the Russian’s temple, and blew his brains out.
Then Fiero was hauling Dalca out the door, running over the still-twitching body of the Russian and heading for the Range Rover. The meeting hadn’t been a meeting at all, but a trap.
Garin’s people might not have seen Gaston’s overwatch with a .50 caliber rifle coming, but they still hadn’t expected that the ambush would go entirely smoothly. Even as Fiero got Dalca halfway to the Range Rover, an Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUV came roaring down the road, pivoting with a screech of tires to block the entire street as men with submachineguns piled out and opened fire.
Henri went down immediately, several bloody holes torn in his suit coat, and hit the bricks with a limp finality. Robert was hit as well, though he threw himself back into the yard, clutching a bloody side while he shot back with his own Glock.
Fiero, for his part, picked up the pace even as he shoved Dalca to the side, putting himself between her and the gunfire. That was his job, after all. He fired the VP9, almost without aiming, just dumping the mag at the SUV. Window glass shattered, and he saw briefly that he’d punched a couple new, shiny holes in the body work. He didn’t hit any of the gunmen, but the incoming fire slackened, especially as the thunder of a carbine opened up from Dalca’s Range Rover. Kristof had entered the fray.
Panting, Fiero yanked the rear door open and unceremoniously shoved his boss inside. For her part, she made it look more graceful than it was, reaching into the go bag in the back seat for a weapon of her own, snatching the USP compact that she tended to prefer out of the integral holster and pivoting around, her businesslike yet fashionable dress hiked up to allow her to move more easily.
If Fiero had had less common sense and less history with her, he might have gawked at the sheer amount of leg she was showing, but he had much more pressing matters on his mind. He yanked open his own door as Dalca fired back at the Russian gunmen, pulling his 10-inch HK 416 out of the passenger seat as he yelled at Kristof. “Get in!”
He pivoted, put the red dot on the first head he saw peering over the hood behind a TMP-9, and put two bullets in it as fast as he could rock the trigger. Then Kristof was yelling at him, and he swung into the passenger seat, twisting around to face the back, pulling the door almost shut, pinning the rifle’s forearm between it and the door column. “Erika! Get inside!”
Dalca was already pulling her door shut as Kristof started the Range Rover moving. After a moment, Fiero had to do the same, as Kristof stomped on the accelerator and got the up-armored vehicle moving faster than Fiero could control the door.
He didn’t turn around just yet but jammed the rifle between his seat and the center console before reaching into the back seat and running a hand over Dalca’s body. There was nothing erotic about it, even if he’d had any such thoughts about her. He was checking for bleeds. “Were you hit at all?”
“No.” She’d already been running a hand over herself, showing the same cool assurance under fire that she always had in the boardroom or during more discreet business dealings. “Henri was hit.”
“So was Robert. Henri is dead.” He had no doubt about that. Turning back forward, satisfied that his employer wasn’t going to bleed out in the back seat, he heard the thunderous reports of Gaston’s GM6 again, as the overwatch opened fire on the Russian gangsters now that Dalca’s vehicle was out of the kill zone. “We will have to make them pay for this.”
“We will.” If she was suffering any shock over what had happened, Fiero couldn’t tell. She was as cold and collected as ever. “I know just the man to call about it, too.”