Dane Leven adjusted the tiny microphone in his ear and pressed his back up against the damp cement wall in a useless attempt to get comfortable. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he muttered under his breath when one of his knees popped. On the downhill slope to forty, he felt every one of his thirty seven years. He’d jumped out of one too many low-flying airplanes in complete darkness not to have a few chinks in his body.
Dane and two of his men waited on the second story of a bombed out, abandoned apartment building in the middle of one of Beirut’s worst neighborhoods. He wasn’t a fan of working in the dark, but since they were undercover, it was their only option at the moment. Only an hour of decent light remained. Not great conditions, but he was used to worse.
Nikolai, one of the agents, and also his cousin, returned from doing surveillance. His voice interrupted Dane’s concentration. “The perimeter of the building is clear. We should be fine for the next hour. How is Connor holding up?”
Directly across the street, Connor Kingston, another CIA agent, was in the process of making a deal with two Palestinian gun runners. His cover was as a militant for the IRA, supposedly in the market for a truckload of SCUDS. There was a new arms dealer operating out of Palestine who needed to establish a clientele. So far, they didn’t have the name of the real boss. Hopefully this meeting would be their way in.
“Great,” Dane said “So far everything sounds normal.”
An undetectable listening device attached to the inside of Connor’s worn out tweed cap gave them full auditory access to everything going on across the street.
Nikolai shot him a sly glance. “How does it feel to be sitting on the sidelines?”
Dane didn’t miss the teasing gleam in his cousin’s eyes. He resisted the urge to retort sarcastically. They’d grown up together and he was accustomed to his brotherly antagonism. “I don’t mind. Connor is the best choice for this job.”
True, Dane normally went undercover for a job like this, but he couldn’t remotely pass for being Irish. With his jet black hair, pale blue eyes, and sharp Slavic cheekbones, he never would have made it past the front door. Since Nikolai could pass for Dane’s brother and Marcus was Asian, using Connor only made sense. His dark red hair, fair skin, and ability to mimic any accent made him the perfect choice.
A cool breeze blew through one of the blown out windows and Nikolai grunted in appreciation. “Man, the only good thing about being here in November is the damn weather.”
“Right.” Dane nodded.
Both men had been in Beirut on more than one occasion in the summertime, and the dry heat wasn’t a pleasant experience. He’d take the current sixty-five degrees over a sweltering ninety-five any day.
Marcus, the fourth agent of their team, reappeared in the doorway. Quietly he said, “The bottom floor and the top two are clear. How is the meeting going? Any hiccups?”
Dane shook his head. “He’s in the process of setting up another meeting to talk numbers. You guys know the drill. This first meet is standard procedure. Once this is over, we’ll meet the real boss.” Gut instinct counted for a lot in this business. If a seller didn’t like someone for whatever reason, things wouldn’t progress past the initial meeting.
“Connor is a natural. I can’t believe he doesn’t do more field work,” Marcus said.
Dane inwardly smiled at the younger man’s enthusiasm. Being the youngest and most inexperienced out of the four, he itched to see some action and made no attempt to hide it. He looked pointedly at his young friend. “He’s a certified genius and of more use to The Company when—” Dane held up a hand when a barely audible sound alerted his senses. The other two men froze.
He heard it again. This time they all did. Scraping against cement. It could be a large rat, but he doubted it. The entire floor spread out around two thousand square feet, and mere slivers of fading light trickled through some of the boarded up windows. Cubbyholes abounded in the derelict structure. They had swept the place for signs of life, but if someone wanted to hide, it would be difficult to discover them without the proper lighting. It might be nothing, but he couldn’t take that chance.
“There.” Nikolai spoke low, but loud enough for them to hear. He pointed towards the doorway.
A young boy in tattered clothing darted out of the shadows and into the scant illumination of the narrow entry. He turned and sprinted down the stairs faster than they could get out the door.
“Americans, Americans!” he yelled.
The kid was probably a homeless victim of war. Dane didn’t think he was with the men meeting Connor, but this kid knew they didn’t belong and was screaming loud enough for people ten blocks away to hear.
“Shit,” Dane softly cursed, already springing into action. “This kid could blow our cover.” He slipped his Glock 18 out of his side holster and raced out the door.
As the kid ran into the street, his yelling got louder and more insistent. Dane was the first one to exit after the young boy, who had long since disappeared. The normal clamor of the daily bazaar was now a low buzz. Those few people still closing down their shops fled like cockroaches from sunlight at the sight of Dane and his men. He would have been shocked if they didn’t run. The three of them stormed into the street clad in black fatigues, face covered in black paint, and semi-automatics poised to fire. Who in their right mind wouldn’t flee from them?
The man standing outside the shelled-out one-story building Connor occupied, banged twice on the door when he saw Dane. He reached for his weapon, but he never stood a chance. Dane fired off two quick shots into his chest.
There wasn’t much time to make a decision. Dane shoved the slumped body out of his way and broke down the door with Marcus and Nikolai right on his heels. Bile rose in his throat. Connor lay on the cement slab in an expanding pool of dark crimson liquid. His face had drained of all natural color. His chest moved, but just barely. The back door groaned and creaked as it slammed shut. The fleeting sounds of footsteps running down the alley echoed in his ears. All his instincts screamed to follow, but he couldn’t leave one of his men.
“I’ll go.” Marcus sprinted out the door before Dane could respond.
“Be careful, they’re using silencers,” Dane yelled. They had to be. He hadn’t heard the shot that took down his friend.
“Call for backup. Now!” Dane ordered Nikolai who was already shouting into his satellite phone. “Don’t you die on me. Don’t you dare fucking die on me, Connor!”
The upper left region of Connor’s chest oozed blood. Surprisingly his bright green eyes stared straight into Dane’s without wavering. “I’m not…going to…die.” His words came out in gasps, but at least he was coherent.
“Save your breath. Backup is on the way.” Dane cut Connor’s shirt off, rolled him over, and searched for an exit wound. Moving quickly he pulled a sterile gauze pad out of his pack and applied it to his friend’s upper back. He had to stop the blood flow. Connor’s survival depended on it.
“Wait…call my sister.” Connor grabbed Dane’s arm in a vice-like hold that took Dane by surprise. “Call Calista. Promise…”
“I promise, Connor. Just stay with me.” Dane pressed down harder on his friend’s chest and motioned to Nikolai who was still on the phone. “Give me the Asherman Chest Seal.” He didn’t want to release the pressure on Connor’s chest until absolutely necessary.
Nikolai handed him the adhesive circular seal, and he placed it on Connor’s wound. The unique device let air and blood escape while also preventing reentry of either.
The familiar whop whop of the medevac helicopter sounded in the distance. Dane allowed himself a small breath of relief. “You hear that man? Backup is on the way. You just need to hang in there a little longer.”
“Tell her to bring me her special cookies,” Connor mumbled as his eyes drifted shut.
Dane choked back laughter that quickly turned into a broken sob. Only Connor, the human garbage disposal, would think of food at a time like this. Dane had witnessed more death than one man should in a single lifetime, and he’d never heard a dying man ask for cookies.
Nikolai reappeared seconds later. “The chopper is about to land. Two minutes max. I’ve already radioed Marcus. He’s on his way back. Do you think Connor will be able to hang on long enough?”
Dane glanced back down at Connor. His chest moved, but he was unconscious. “He’ll make it. He’s a fighter.”
Calista Kingston paced back and forth behind the billowing curtain that divided the stage as she waited to perform her final song of the night. Despite her internal efforts to steady her breathing, adrenaline pumped through her veins at lightning speeds. Redemption was the first song she’d performed that night. She hadn’t planned to do an encore, but the crowd wasn’t giving her much of a choice. Her latest platinum single shot straight to number one on the charts in the States and remained there for twenty seven weeks straight. The reaction here in Australia wasn’t any different, going double platinum almost immediately.
Above her, a canopy stretched across a cobwebbed skeleton of steel, giving her and the rest of the band protection from potential rain. The Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne housed close to thirty thousand people, though most of her supporters watched from a grassy incline. From where she stood, spotlights hit her face from every direction. She couldn’t see her fans, but she knew they were out there. The stomping, shouting, and applause of the crowd rattled her bones and teeth.
The piano player, drummer, and two guitarists waited on stage for Calista’s return. When she heard the first notes from the piano, she sprinted back on to the stage with a burst of energy. This was her last show on the world tour so she wanted it to be dynamite. She flashed her trademark smile and lifted the microphone to sing. Her mouth opened, but no words came out.
Cutting pain sliced through her heart. Gasping and wheezing, she clawed at her chest. It felt like a bomb of knives had exploded inside her. Her manager, Robert Carson, moved towards her in slow motion. She looked at her hands, fully expecting to see blood. Shock rippled down her spine. Nothing was there. Her vision blurred, and she rocked once on her heels. What the hell was happening?