“Here he comes.” Ken was looking up while I lounged in the opposite chair in the outside dining area of Matsu.
In most places, that wouldn’t have been a great position for surveillance. Sitting out in the open like that wasn’t giving me a warm and fuzzy about our tradecraft.
That was assuming a couple of things, though. The first, that our target had the situational awareness to notice us, which he hadn’t in the last two days, and the second, that anyone looked at anyone else for more than a passing glance in this city, anyway.
We weren’t a mile from the Alaska Way Viaduct, which was a notorious homeless camp in a city that was increasingly becoming one big homeless camp. The cops only went certain places, and the rest of the city was on its own. In fact, there were two obviously homeless people, one of them aggressively gesticulating and yelling inarticulately, just down on the corner. So, the urge to not make eye contact with anyone was even stronger there at the moment.
That actually made life easier for us. Sucked to be a Seattleite, though.
I would have thought that a sushi restaurant on the side of the street within spitting distance of Qwest Field would be nonpermissive as hell, but despite the camera on the streetcorner a few dozen yards away, no one had approached us or asked us any questions. Hell, we hadn’t even gotten any weird looks, and we’d been hanging out for a while.
“He coming here again?” I didn’t look over my shoulder or otherwise show any particular interest. The vagrants on the street corner might be holding everyone’s attention, whether they were being obvious about it or not, but that didn’t mean we didn’t still need to be careful.
Ken didn’t look up, though he was still watching our subject. “Yep. Seems to be his favorite lunch spot.” Ken, getting as long in the tooth as he was, usually wasn’t the sort to get annoyed by the boring parts of the job, but even he couldn’t keep the vaguely sarcastic sneer out of his voice.
After all, we’d already spent most of a week watching a pencil-necked dweeb of a small-time journalist, who worked in a rental space belonging to a company called WeWork, and was about as interesting as the spots on the table in front of me. We were both starting to wonder just what the hell we were doing there.
“Pattern of life.” It was a part of the job, on surveillance. If the target really was up to something nefarious, usually it only could be picked out when he or she did something out of the ordinary, and people in general are weird enough that you have to establish a baseline for what “the ordinary” is. That can take a long time, which is why surveillance and private investigator work—which really boil down to the same thing—can take long hours of mind-numbing boredom.
Ken snorted. “What the hell are we following this guy for, anyway?”
I shook my head as Ernest Wise walked past and into the restaurant, not paying the two of us any mind. He seemed completely distracted, which probably wasn’t good for him. Not that he could probably do much even if his situational awareness had been on point. He was the very image of a stoop-shouldered “skinny-fat,” with a pronounced gut but scrawny as all hell otherwise. His hair hung down over his eyes, making it seem unlikely that he could have seen much even if he’d been paying attention.
He probably should have been. Even as he walked by and into the restaurant, I looked up and made eye contact with the bum sitting on the street corner.
Neither of us had intended it. He sure as hell hadn’t. His eyes widened as I took in his body language, and rapidly reassessed what I was looking at.
It took about half a second to see through his disguise. It was good, mostly thrift store clothes, just ragged and dirty enough to sell the idea that he’d been living on the streets, and he hadn’t shaved in a while. His hair, sticking out from under a dingy watch cap, was dirty and long. But there was an awareness about him that belied the appearance. Most of the vagrants on the street were either drugged out of their minds, mentally ill, or just eager to find a handout. There’s a certain alertness to be found in the last one, but this guy wasn’t that kind of alert.
This guy was a predator.
I could say that with a fair bit of confidence because so am I.
There’s a certain edge to a predator’s awareness. A panhandler is looking for marks, while a predator is looking for prey and threats. It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve been there, you know it.
He recognized me, too. Not me personally, but the fact that I was as out of place in that sushi restaurant as he was on the street.
Fortunately for everyone around, he didn’t panic, but looked away an instant later, going back to his play-acting. It was too late, though. He might hope that I hadn’t noticed, but I had.
Why was he here? Because of us? I felt myself start to tense, my eyes darting to the other bum, who was yelling nonsense at a light post. That guy seemed to be genuinely out of it, and the three other people I could see on the street, a pair of young women and a single older guy, walking in opposite directions, all three of them trying not to look at either of the street people, the older guy pausing to cross the street to keep away from them.
Hardly the enlightened ideal of Seattle, but probably common sense.
None of them read as the kind of meat eater the guy on the corner was. I wanted to check my six, but I couldn’t turn around like that without potentially giving the game away. Right at the moment, the guy on the corner had no real surety that he’d been made. Let me start scanning intently, and he might figure it out.
We’d had a couple of run-ins with guys in our own line of work, hired by a shadowy network of hitmen—or a single facilitator—who contacted contractors like us via anonymous, encrypted emails and farmed out high-paying hits, most of them aimed at undermining American security and helping those who profited off that same decline.
Was this guy one of that network? Phil and I had successfully infiltrated it for a few operations, but before we’d been able to get deep enough, we’d had to act to protect our actual client from a hit squad hired by the network in Indianapolis. We’d done what we could to cover our tracks, but they had to know that we were attached to Pallas Group Solutions—the fact that Carr & Sons Chemical had hired us wasn’t secret, though it also wasn’t advertised—which made us all targets.
“What have you got?” Ken had noticed my heightened alertness.
“Homeless guy on the corner.” Ken shifted his phone. He was using the camera as an over-the-shoulder mirror. Smart idea, as long as the bad guys didn’t see themselves in the screen. “The one sitting down.”
He watched for a moment. “Seems like a normal bum.”
“He was watching us. Definitely not a homeless guy.” The fact that Ken just nodded and took my word for it was thanks to a lot of rough times and hard-earned trust. I hadn’t known Ken nearly as long as I’d known Drew, my previous partner. Drew and I had been brothers from the Basic Reconnaissance Course onward, the better part of twenty years. But Drew was dead, killed in a raid in Mazatlán, and Ken and I made a good team.
Ken, shorter than me by half a head, his hair and beard more salt than pepper these days, scanned over my shoulder at the other end of the street. It’s an advantage to using a two-man team. You can cover a lot more territory with two sets of eyeballs instead of just one.
“Might have another one.” His eyes were momentarily fixed on a point over my right shoulder. “It’s genius, if you think about it.”
“It is.” My admiration was tempered by the fact that we were dealing with what were most likely professional killers every bit as effective and well-trained as we were. At least, if my paranoia wasn’t just running away with me. “But we are not in a place I’d like to be if this is gonna go down.”
“No argument here, brother.” He shifted slightly in his seat. To someone watching, he might just be adjusting, but I could see that he was repositioning himself to be able to get at his Glock quickly.
If this was going to go down, it was going to go down fast. Especially if they thought they’d been made.
We didn’t move from there, though, as desperately as every nerve in my body wanted to. Old boy on the corner there hadn’t made a move yet, and while I was a firm believer in the axiom, “When in doubt, attack,” this wasn’t quite the time or the place.
After all, I couldn’t be sure. They might not be there for us. They might not be who we thought they were. I’d been in enough insurgency environments over the years, where it had been awfully difficult to pick out the actual spotters and IED triggermen from the ordinary people. I knew all too well how important it was to be sure before you pulled the trigger, especially in a place like Seattle, which wasn’t exactly an active warzone—despite the high, and climbing, levels of violent crime—and was actively hostile to ordinary citizens simply defending themselves.
This could get ugly with a quickness, so we had to be very, very careful. So, we stayed where we were, all the more alert, trying to watch our potential predators as well as maintain contact with Wise. The contract was suddenly of secondary importance, but both of us were professional enough that we weren’t going to just drop it because of a perceived threat.
So, things got quiet again, even though both of us were now keyed up to a considerable extent.
At least, I was. Ken had always exuded an aura of unflappableness, though sometimes I knew it was a bit of an act. Still, he liked to say that he was far too old to get too stirred up, since it was bad for his heart. He was as calm and expressionless as ever as he kept looking over his newspaper, that he had to have read through about three times already.
I glanced inside. Wise was almost right on the other side of the window, sitting at a table and staring at his phone. He was every bit as oblivious to his surroundings as he had been before—either that, or he was better at this countersurveillance thing than I’d thought.
The next hour crawled by. The homeless guy who’d been yelling at a light post drifted away, but the guy on the corner stayed in place. I was increasingly convinced that he wasn’t what he appeared to be, but he wasn’t doing anything overtly threatening, so there wasn’t much of anything I could do about him. Just keep an eye on him until he did something.
Maybe they were just there on surveillance, in which case we might have a chance to break contact once we moved off. I could hope.
An open city street was not where I wanted to get into a gunfight, especially not when I hadn’t had a chance to pick the time or place.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as I endeavored to act casual, perusing my phone to cover my scans of the area. Nothing else had changed, and the eerie quiet and calm continued, even as the man on the corner and I tried to watch each other without appearing to.
I could tell that was what was happening. He wasn’t looking at me, but once I’d picked out that he was alert and watching, I couldn’t miss it anymore. He was good, but he was definitely in the same line of work.
The question that really started to weigh on my mind was, what was he waiting for?
It made sense that a professional would take his time, especially in the operating environment we found ourselves in. Seattle might not be permissive for us, but that meant it was just as nonpermissive for them—unless they had political connections that they could leverage against us.
That seemed likely, but for whatever reason, they weren’t acting with complete impunity, like I might otherwise have expected. It bore thinking about, even as I tried to keep track of our opposition and mentally prepare and visualize what I was going to do once things went pear-shaped.
Not if. When.
We were starting to run out of time. There’s only so long you can dawdle in a sushi restaurant, even in Seattle, without it looking off to somebody. We’d already picked where we’d relocate to, before we’d even walked in, but with that fake bum on the sidewalk, I was starting to get antsy.
Then, almost without my realizing how much time had really passed, Wise walked out of the restaurant and headed for WeWork again.
That was when I realized that I’d misread the situation. Because the guy on the corner wasn’t watching me. He was watching Wise as the reporter crossed the street, already starting to get up—though he was doing a reasonably convincing job of looking stoned or drunk while he did it—and talking to himself.
Or to the Bluetooth earpiece in his ear.
They weren’t after us after all. They were looking for Wise, the same way we were.
The question now was, what the hell were we going to do about it?
That question was answered for me when I caught a glimpse of the knife in the man’s hand as he started across the street toward Wise.