Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Excerpt - COMES A HORSEMAN by Robert Liparulo

Captain's Log, Stardate 06.23.2009

Comes a Horseman
by
Robert Liparulo


The ancients saw Death as a blazing figure on horseback, swift and merciless.

Those facing the black chasm often mistook their pounding hearts for the beating of hooves.

Now, two FBI agents pursuing a killer from a centuries-old cult realize they have become his prey.

To survive, they must ignore their own fear, their own hearts pounding in their ears...

Pounding like Death, riding a pale horse.

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Excerpt of chapter one:

Chapter One
Five years ago
Asia House, Tel Aviv, Israel

He waited with his face pressed against the warm metal and his pistol gouging the skin at his lower back. He thought about pulling the weapon from his waistband, setting it beside him or even holding it in his hand, but when the time came, he'd have to move fast, and he didn't want it getting in his way. He'd been there a long time, since well before the first party guests started arriving. Now it sounded as though quite a crowd had gathered on the third floor of the big building. Their voices drifted to him through the ventilation shaft, reverberating off its metal walls, reaching his ears as a jumble of undulating tones, punctuated at times by shrill laughter. He would close his eyes for long periods and try to discern the conversations, but whether by distortion or foreign tongue, even single words eluded him.
Luco Scaramuzzi lifted his cheek out of a pool of perspiration and peered for the hundredth time through the two-foot-square grille below him. He could still see the small spot on the marble floor where a bead of sweat had dropped from the tip of his nose before he could stop it. If that spot were the center point of a clock face, the toilet was at noon, the sink and vanity at two o'clock, and the door--just beyond Luco's view--at three. Despite the large room's intended function as a lavatory for one, modesty or tact had prompted the mounting of walnut partitions on the two unwalled sides of the toilet. It was these partitions that would allow him to descend from the air shaft without being seen by a person standing at the sink--by his target.
A gust of pungent wind blew past him, turning his stomach and forcing him to gasp for air through the grille. The building was home to several embassies, an art gallery, and a restaurant--enough people, food, and trash to generate some really awful effluvia. When the cooling system was idle, the temperature in the ventilation shafts quickly soared into summer-sun temperatures, despite the nighttime hour, and all sorts of odors roamed the ducts like rabid dogs. Then the air conditioner would kick in, chasing away the smells and freezing the perspiration to his body.
Arjan had warned him about such things. He had explained that covert operations necessitated subjecting the body and senses to elements sane men avoided: extreme heat and cold; long stretches of immobility in the most uncomfortable places and positions; contact with insects, rodents, decay. He had advised him to focus on a single object and think pleasant thoughts until equilibrium returned.
Luco shifted his eyes to a perfume bottle on the vanity. He imagined its fragrance, then thought of himself breathing it in as his fingers lifted hair away from the curve of an olive-skinned neck and felt the pulse with his lips.
He heard the bathroom door open and pulled his face back into the darkness. He held his breath, then exhaled when he heard the click of a woman's heels. Her shoes came into view, then her legs and body. Of course she was elegantly dressed. Not only did the nature of the gathering demand it, but this room was reserved for special guests--the target, his family, and his entourage: people who were expected to look their best. The woman stopped in front of the vanity mirror, glanced at herself, and continued into the stall. Turning, she yanked up her dress. Hooked by two thumbs, her hosiery came down as she sat.
The top of the partition's door obstructed Luco's view of her lap, and during the bathroom visits of two other lovely ladies, he had found that no amount of craning would change that fact. So he lay still and watched her face. She was model-beautiful, with big green eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and lips too full to be natural. She finished, flushed, and walked to the sink, where she was completely out of view. This reassured him that the plan had been well thought through. She fiddled at the sink for a minute after washing her hands--applying makeup, he guessed--and left.
He waited for the click of a latch as the door settled into its jamb. It didn't come . . . Someone was holding the door open. Masculine shoes and pant legs stepped silently into view. Luco's breath stopped.
Watch for a bodyguard, Arjan had told him. He'll come in for a look. He may flush the toilet and run the water in the sink, but he won't use anything himself. The next man in is your guy.
He would recognize his target, of course, but getting these few seconds of warning allowed his mind to shift from vigilance to readiness.
He could see the bodyguard in the bathroom now, a square-jawed brute packed into an Armani. The guard stepped up to the vanity to examine each of the bottles and brushes in turn. He dropped to one knee, with more grace than seemed possible, and examined under the countertop and sink. The bathroom had been thoroughly checked once already, earlier in the day, but nobody liked surprises. Luco smiled at the thought.
Standing again, the guard glanced around, his eyes sweeping toward the grille. Luco pulled back farther, fighting the urge to move fast, which might cause the metal he was on to pop, or the gypsum boards that formed the bathroom's ceiling to creak. He imagined the guard's eyes taking in the screws that seemed to hold the grille firmly in place. In reality, they were screw heads only, glued in place after Luco had removed the actual screws. Now, a solitary wire held up the grille on the unhinged side.
The guard inspected the toilet, the padded bench opposite the sink, and the thin closet by the door, bare but for a few hand towels and extra tissue rolls. Every move he made was quick and efficient. He had done this countless times before--probably even did it in his dreams--and never expected to find anything that would validate his existence. He didn't this time either. After all, his boss was the benign prime minister of a democratic country with few enemies. A grudge would almost have to be personal, not political.
Or preordained, thought Luco. Preordained.
The guard spoke softly to someone in the hall.
The door closed, latching firmly. Someone set the lock. The target walked into view. He drained a crystal glass of amber fluid, almost missed the top of the vanity as he set down the glass, and belched loudly. He fumbled with his pants, and Luco saw that his belly had grown too round to let him see his own zipper, which could present a problem with the superfluous hooks and buttons common to finely tailored slacks. The target left the stall door open. He stood before the toilet with his pants and boxers crumpled around his ankles, his hips thrust forward for better aim, the way a child pees.
A confident assassin may have done the deed right then, just pulled back and shot through the grille into the target's head. And, certainly, he could have hired such professionalism. Arjan would have done it; had even requested the assignment.
But it has to be me. If I don't do this myself, then it is for nothing.
Given that requirement, Arjan had set about preparing his boss for this moment, arranging transportation and alibis, securing timetables and blueprints. Arjan had made him train for five weeks with Incursori loyalists. They had worked him physically and filled his mind with knowledge of ballistics and anatomy, close-quarters combat, the arts of vigilance and stealth--at least to the extent that time allowed. Arjan had explained that using a sniper's rifle and scope was infeasible, considering the deadline.
Shooting a man from three hundred yards is a skill! he had snapped. It's not like the movies, man. It takes years of training to guarantee a kill. And you'll have only one chance, right?
Right.
So somewhere in Arjan's dark mind, a switch labeled "close kill" had been thrown, sending Luco down a track that led to this ventilation shaft and his hand on the wire that held the grille in place. Slowly, he unwound it from an exposed screw. Then he recalled Arjan's instructions and relooped the wire.
The target's unabated flow told him he had at least a few more seconds. Luco removed a moist washcloth from a Ziploc baggy. He rubbed it over his face, removing sweat and dust from around his eyes, letting the water refresh him. Arjan had told him that countless missions failed because of haste and machismo myths about warriors fighting despite handicaps. "Perspiration in your eyes is a disadvantage you can avoid, so do it!" he had ordered.
Luco dried himself with a washcloth from another Ziploc. His fingers felt clammy inside the tight dishwashing gloves he wore, but that was better than trying to handle the wire and pistol with sweaty hands. Surgical gloves, he had learned, were too thin to prevent leaving fingerprints. And Arjan had been clear about wearing the gloves from ingress to egress--so clear, in fact, that he'd made Luco wear them the entire last week of his training.
The target was tugging his pants up, running a hand around to tuck in his shirt. As soon as he rounded the partition to step in front of the sink, Luco whipped the wire off the screw and let the grille swing down. A string that was attached to the wire slid between his thumb and forefinger until a knot stopped it, halting the grille inches from the wall.
The water at the sink came on.
He used his strong arms to position himself directly above the opening. His legs pistonned down, and he dropped to the floor. By bending his knees as soon as the toes of his rubber-soled boots touched the marble, he managed an almost-silent landing. Still crouched, he pulled the pistol from his waistband. It was a China Type 64, old but especially suited for the job at hand. Its barrel was no longer than any handgun's, but included a silencer; its breech slide was lockable--and was now locked, he noted--to prevent the noises of cartridge...

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