Iosif spun away from the impact, clutching at his shoulder at the same time. Instinct rammed through the other four of us like a live wire. As the Russian teetered and lost his balance, his partner stepped up to cover the falling man with his own body. Stani joined him, after a moment, and both Russians sent a hail of covering fire off into the darkness. None of the bullets had the vaguest chance of hitting a target, of course. Deep within the docks, with the starless gloom of night settled in around us, it was all I could do to make out the vague silhouettes of the four people I’d arrived with. Wherever our invisible assailant was, the odds of a lucky shot ending the conflict before it had a chance to escalate was slim to the point of irrelevance.
I squeezed off a few bullets along the general trajectory of the sniper’s bullet as well, as I scrambled to my feet. I ran straight for Iosif, who had slumped to his knees. His eyes blazed, though, and his teeth were gritted. “Anton, where are you?”
I saw him a second after the question hit the air. The Ukranian was huddled in relative safety, squeezed in the thin space between two shipping containers. Unless there was a second shooter, and I wasn’t willing to rule out that possibility, nothing short of divine intervention would give the sniper a clear angle. Anton looked at me and I could see, in the barest second’s worth of eye contact, that he understood what I was going to do. His eyes took in my forward momentum; the fallen Iosif; and Stani, standing shoulder to shoulder with his associate, firing blindly at a target they had no hope of hitting. Then, he ducked further into the darkness between the two containers.
“Damn it! Anton!” If he heard me over the roar of guns, the explosives expert gave no answer or sign. I dropped and slid, just as the second sniper bullet whizzed through the air. It passed like an angry hornet a foot or two to my right and dug a furrow into the dirt where it ended up. My slide brought me to just behind Iosif. He was trying, and failing, to force himself back to his feet. I laid a hand on his shoulder without thinking; he winced, cursed in his mother tongue, and fell back to the ground. My hand came away sticky with blood.
“The trailer!” I yelled at Stani’s back.
He didn’t acknowledge me until his clip reached its end, and he was forced to perform a tactical reload. “What?”
“That trailer! The office…whatever you want to call it,” I said. I grit my teeth and pressed down hard on Iosif’s shoulder wound. The Russian let out a string of words that had to be vile, but he didn’t try to throw me off. “We can’t stay out here.”
A third bullet came through the darkness. It struck the side of a nearby container and then ricocheted off elsewhere with a painfully sharp twang. Stani looked at the container and then made a decision. “Help me with him.”
The Russian was easily double my size, and he looked like the sort of person who carried more muscle than fat. I moved so that one of his arms was over my shoulder. Stani gave an order to Leonid and the man slammed an extended magazine into his empty gun, a heartbeat after the weapon clicked empty. His submachine gun allowed him considerably more latitude with ammo. Short bursts of fire seemed to be helpful, if in no other way than forcing the sniper to take shots that he or she would otherwise not have missed. When Leonid started up another rattling barrage, Stani took up Iosif’s other arm.
We moved as fast as we were able, supporting Iosif’s considerable bulk, as Leonid provided covering fire in brief, brilliant explosions of light and fire. The sniper sent three more rounds in our direction. Two went entirely wild and struck nothing nearby. The third shot came periously close. When it hit a metal surface, close to my face, I flinched away and was rewarded with a scoring of steel chips and splinters up my cheek. I felt dampness there and decided that, if the injury was bad, I was better served ignoring it until I was in a position to deal with it.
I don’t know when he decided to move but, at some point during our fighting retreat, Anton left his hidey hole and slipped into the trailer ahead of us. I started to form a particularly cutting series of invectives the instant I saw his shadow slip into safety. When Stani and I reached the trailer and half-carried, half-heaved Iosif into cover, I was too tired to call up the appropriate amount of anger. Leonid fired off a sustained burst of bullets until his gun clicked empty. He slammed the door shut and, for lack of a better option, shoved a heavy chair in front. Then, he locked the door and looked to Stani for further instructions.
Two more bullets pierced the thin walls of the trailer, and left twin pinholes in their wake. Then, there was silence. I touched my cheek and was relieved that to find that the cuts weren’t deep. I wiped away the layer of blood. “How bad is he?” I asked, pointing to Iosif.
Iosif said something to Stani, who translated it back to me. “He says that he is angry.”
“That’s nice, but what about his arm? That’s a…lot of blood.”
There was another quick exchange of Russian between the two. Stani raised his voice at the end of their discussion and Iosif lapsed into sullen silence. “He will rest until this is over,” Stani said. I got the distinct impression that he’d abbreviated the conversation its ultimate conclusion, but that wasn’t important enough o warrant more than a moment’s worth of consideration. “What is this? What is happening?”
“A trap,” I said, “inside of another trap.” I drew conclusions at lightning speed, speculating at some points when necessary. “He knew the Russians would send someone to investigate, but he didn’t know who or where. So he set up an alarm system – maybe a motion detector? – to let him know whenever anyone entered that back room. But whoever he hired as a sniper would need time to get in position, and he couldn’t actually get to anyone inside the building. So Asher needed to stall so that we’d still be here, and then he needed to get us back outside so that we’d be sitting ducks.”
Stani knelt next to Iosif and tore a long strip of fabric from the sleeve of his sportcoat. He tied it around the bullet wound and knotted it tight before he spoke again. “How do you know all of this?”
“I know how he works, that’s all.” I grimaced. “Apparently not well enough, though.”
Anton hadn’t spoken since well before the shooting had begun. Now, he cleared his throat. I spun on him with fire in my eyes. The heat died away when I saw how absolutely terrified he was. “What should we do, then?”
I spent another five seconds considering the merits of a cathartic rant, but decided to shelve it until later. “If he can call for backup, they’d be close by, but I don’t think he can do that. Asher runs as light as possible. The more people he’s hired, the more people who can be bought out by another party.”
“So, the sniper might leave, then?”
“He might, sure. He might also drop dead from a spontaneous heart attack. I don’t think either outcome in particularly likely, though.”
Stani finished with Iosif’s makeshift tourniquet. He took the handgun from within Iosif’s jacket, ejected the clip, and then pocketed the bullets. “So we wait until someone comes along?”
“Not a chance,” I said instantly. “He thinks I’m just going to sit here while he lines up a shot at Sarah, then he’s lost his damn mind.”
Stani’s expression reminded me that he had no idea who Sarah was to me. “What, then?”
I thought over the possibilities. “If that sniper can’t get to us out there, he’ll have to come after us in here.” Stani and Leonid nodded, unison. “He’s probably better armed than us. I’d wager he’s got the sniper rifle, but maybe something else more suited to a close-quarters situation. He can’t have come entirely unprepared. Something like that submachine gun you’ve got, Leonid?”
The bodyguard lifted the weapon and raised an eyebrow. Stani translated the expression. “No. He would not have something so small.”
“Small? Seems like a submachine gun is kind of a heavy gun to be just carrying around.”
“It is portable, yes,” Stani said. “It is not a strong weapon, though. I would carry a larger rifle, in his position.”
He shrugged and nodded.
“That’s more of a long range gun though, right?” I shook my head as soon as I’d asked the question. “And this is a sniper we’re dealing with. How would an AK work in quarters this small?”
“It would work fine. That is the point. It works fine in almost every situation. But…” Stani trailed off.
Anton answered in a whisper-soft voice. “It would be difficult to turn quickly with such a large barrel. If he were in a hallway, or somewhere too tight for him to easily move, then the gun would not be ideal.”
“That’s something, then.” I formed a plan and dismissed it almost immediately for a variety of reasons. I bowed my head in thought, shifting my weight from one to leg to another. Something resettled in my pocket and, as soon as I realized what it was, a new idea twinkled from the depths of my mind: something insane and suitably unpredictable. I turned the second plan over in my mind, examining it for critical flaws. Finding none, I motioned for Leonid and Stani to come closer. “This is what we’ll do.”
It took three minutes to explain the barebones of my plan, and two more before we got into place. Iosif was moved to an empty room next to the office, where he complained about his treatment to Stani. I gathered from the complete lack of reply in the same language, that Stani had chosen to ignore his bodyguard’s protestations. After those first five minutes, it took another two before we heard scraping sounds from outside the trailer. I borrowed one of the Russian’s signals, and held up a closed fist: the international sign for “hold fast.”
Thirty seconds later, the door to the trailer creaked open. The barrel of a Russian-made AK-47 peeked through the crack first, and was followed by the shadowy silhouette of the sniper a moment later. He swept the gun from right to left, checking the corners of the center room immediately with an ease that came only from great practice. When he walked further into the room, I noticed that he wore heavy-duty military-grade combat boots, relieved perhaps from a pilfered shipment or purchased at a surplus store. When his footsteps made next to no noise, even to someone who was deliberately listening for them, I amended that thought and added the possibility that the sniper had come by the boots in the honorable way. Russian hitters had always been numerous, and the fall of the Soviet Empire had done nothing more than flood the market with skilled, easily purchased assets.
The sniper, who I took as Russian for lack of any other available information, came fully into the room and shut the door behind him. A barely audible click let me know that it locked behind him. Without lowering his eyes, he removed a wrapped shape from his back and laid it on the floor. Unburdened, he moved deeper into the trailer.
There were four rooms in the trailer, not including the office at the back. Iosif was sequestered in the farthest free room with Anton; I trusted that they would both stay quiet until the crisis was past. Stani and Leonid hid behind an opened door, with just enough room for the larger Russian to peek out into the living room without being seen in return. The barrel of his gun was just barely visible.
I’d never killed anyone in my long career. It was rare for violence to become necessary at all, in any form. Sarah and I had operated with a minimum of fuss. More often than not, we were already on a return flight by the time any of our marks realized what we’d done. If I’d found myself confronted with a hitter, then I had made some horrific mistake earlier in the assignment. Still, at that moment, I drew from my own deep well of rage. Asher had found Sarah, and he’d sent this sniper to ensure that I wouldn’t be able to save my ex-wife from the revenge of a madman. If someone insisted on getting in my way, there was no telling how far I’d go to protect her.
I took in a long, steadying breath and waited. I didn’t have to wait long. A voice, computerized and tinny, spoke a long string of Spanish from somewhere in the building. I watched as the sniper’s attention swiveled to face the sound, just as the voice repeated its single sentence. The attacking Russian moved toward the couch, under which I had hidden Jules’s cellphone. I tensed, waiting until he was fully committed to searching the area and, therefore, not prepared for an ambush.
I looked back to the doors at the end of the hall. Stani mouthed something in English. It took me a second to decipher it. “Are you ready?” He’d asked.
I placed an index finger on my lips and shook my head. “Not yet,” I mouthed back.
The Russian wasn’t a complete mook, as it turned out. He slowed just before he leaned over the couch to examine the source of the computerized voice and tilted his head in confusion. My eyes met Stani’s and I nodded.
In the enclosed space, Leonid’s Makarov boomed like a mortar round. The sniper’s life was saved by pure luck. In the instant when he’d tilted his head, unsure of what he should do next, Leonid’s bullet passed through the air where his skull had been. Leonid recovered quickly and squeezed off two more rounds that struck the sniper center mass. He rocked back under the hits, grunted, and then lifted his assault rifle. I caught the glint of layered Kevlar plates beneath his shirt.
Hiding wasn’t an option. The walls in the trailer were too thin to provide much protection against a sustained spray of bullets. We had no room to maneuver and, seeing as the sniper had thought to wear some sort of body armor, shooting him was out of the question. The amount of time it would take to line up a headshot would be at least double the time the sniper would need to perforate us.
Instead of freezing, I charged, screaming incoherently in a mixture of terror and foolish courage. The sniper stepped back, shocked and surprised at my wild assault. I could actually see the realization of his superior position occur to him seconds later, and a smile crept across his face. He leveled his gun at my head.
I fired my own weapon wildly as I ran. Most of the bullets only served to add additional holes to the trailer’s walls, but one hit the sniper’s body armor, just above the solar plexus. He took two steps away from me, the wind knocked from his lungs before he could brace himself. The smile vanished from his face and he aimed his gun once more. That’s when Stani hit him from the side like a ballistic missile.
The short Russian didn’t have much mass, but he struck with every ounce of momentum he could muster. The sniper was driven to the floor with an audible crack. His assault rifle skidded away from his hands as the knuckles struck the metal flooring. He and Stani struggled with each other, nothing more than cloud of hands and feet, for several seconds, before Stani managed to gain the upper hand. He straddled the disarmed sniper and swung, hard, at his face. The sniper turned his head slightly, so that the first punch missed. The second, third, and fourth did not.
The whole encounter took less than a minute. Leonid was just beginning to come out of his hiding spot, his Makarov held at the ready, when he saw Stani astride the fallen and beaten sniper, his eyebrows leapt in undisguised disbelief. “What?” Stani asked, when the look became too much for him to deal with. “It is not the first time I have fought.”
I kicked the fallen assault rifle away before I knelt next to the sniper and began searching through his pockets. “You saved my life,” I said to Stani, as I worked.
“No.” He shook his head. “You saved mine. I was…paralyzed, at first.”
I could see that the admission caused him nearly physical pain. If either Anton or Leonid spoke English, Stani’s pride might not have let him say anything at all. “Call it even?”
Stani considered that. “I must admit,” he said, “I am glad that your employer saw fit to send you to Ukraine.”
I started to respond, when my fingers brushed against a small cell phone, hidden in one of the sniper’s numerous pockets. A cursory attempt to check its contents provided me with nothing except a view of the lock screen. I slipped the phone into my own pocket and then retrieved the one I’d borrowed from Jules. “Anton,” I said, raising my voice slightly, “it’s over now.”
The door at the end of the hall creaked slightly open. “Did you…?”
“No. He’s still alive. Probably not too happy about that, but it is what it is. Stani?” The Russian had been cracking his joints with a systematic method that seemed entirely too painful to be of any use. He stopped when I said his name. “What’re you going to do with this guy?”
He flashed a grin at the unconscious sniper. “I am sure there is much he can tell us about Asher’s organization, his contacts, and the like.”
I was fresh out of good will and couldn’t scrounge up even the slightest concern. “Well, have fun with that. But…” I decided to gamble on any good will I’d accrued. “Anything you find out…I’m going to need a copy of that. Personally.”
Stani frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Tell your bosses whatever you want, of course,” I clarified. “I’m not trying to get in the Bratva’s way. But if you need to get some information to me, directly, or to my…employer, I want you to route all that to me. I’ll sort it and figure out what’s relevant.”
“How would you like me to do that?”
I blinked. I was already working on an entire selling pitch to convince Stani to help me. “Just like that?” I asked, slightly miffed that a decent speech would go to waste.
“You and your employer share enemies with me and mine. Asher tried to kill me and he tried to kill my…associates.” His eyes flickered over to the room where Anton remained. It was only for a split second, but it was long enough. “If sharing information with you helps us to find Asher, then I am happy to do it.”
“Alright, then.” I felt a small tinge of guilt for misleading Stani, but not enough that I wanted to clarify the situation. “I don’t think I’ll be using this phone very long, so…” I sighed and, after a moment of frantically considering other options, gave him one of my burner email addresses that I hadn’t checked in four years.
“And you, Devlin? Where will you be going?”
I felt the locked phone in my pocket and reminded myself that, no matter what I did, Sarah was already in Asher’s crosshairs. He knew where she was and without information, she was defenseless. “Home,” I answered, finally. “I’m going home.”