CHAPTER THREE

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON, USA

As Marla parked her Mercedes in an underground garage and entered a well-appointed elevator, the Puissance Treize agent had a feeling she didn’t experience often.

She was frightened.

And with good reason. After being promoted to Assistant Sector Chief, and posted to the Pacific Northwest, she had been ordered to rid the Big Kahuna’s organization of an undercover FBI agent, and protect the crime boss from an assassin. And she’d been successful up until the moment when she decided to out the assassin. That’s when things went horribly wrong, and people began to die, including the man she’d been sent to protect. It wasn’t that Marla really cared. In fact, those who had died no doubt deserved their fate. But not on her watch.

Now, Marla was on the way up to meet with her new supervisor, a hard-eyed woman called Mrs. Kaberov, who, in spite of her polished exterior, had once been a member of the dreaded KGB, the Russian State Security Committee, before the Puissance Treize had hired her away. Which was why it felt like an ounce of liquid lead was sloshing around the pit of Marla’s stomach as she left the elevator, crossed a beautifully decorated lobby, and entered the private club.

The restaurant was called The Pacific Rim, and it boasted a sweeping view of Seattle’s Elliott Bay and the snowcapped Olympic Mountains beyond. A prissy ma?tre d’ was there to greet her and lead her to what was unarguably the best table in the restaurant. That’s where Kaberov sat, gazing out over the sparkling bay, as she spoke on her cell phone. A cruise ship was pulling away from a nearby dock as it departed for Alaska and a green and white ferryboat was about to dock as Marla stopped just short of the table.

Her supervisor’s white hair was pulled back into a tight bun and she looked stylish in a simple blue knit dress from St. Johns. Tasteful gold jewelry and the Herm?s handbag completed the outfit. Marla, who was dressed in a two-piece gray business suit and wearing a pair of colorful Pikilino shoes felt dowdy by comparison.

Finally, having ignored Marla for at least two minutes, the older woman closed the flip-phone and eyed her guest with glacier-cold blue eyes.

“You may sit down.”

It had been awkward, standing there like a child waiting for permission to sit, and it was a relief to take the other chair.

“I was speaking on the phone with Ali bin Ahmed bin Saleh Al-Fulani,” the Russian said, in a voice pitched so low that only Marla could hear her. “In spite of ample evidence to the contrary, he insists that you are normally quite competent, and should be given a second chance. I’m not so sure… Perhaps you will find the means to convince me.”

Marla would have answered, but a formally attired waiter chose that moment to intervene, and Kaberov ordered for both of them. Something Marla would have taken exception to, had her hostess been anyone else. But in this case she was willing to tolerate just about any indignity in order to escape what could be a death sentence. Because while the Puissance Treize could be generous to its more reliable employees, it had a very low tolerance for failure.

“So,” Kaberov began. Her English was quite good, in spite of a slight Russian accent. “I read the report you filed, and was impressed by how objective it was. You made no attempt to conceal your incompetence or evade responsibility for what can only be categorized as a disaster. You had been told who was coming, when he would arrive, and what he planned to do. Yet you managed to take what should have been a routine hit and turn it into a major debacle. Now, having had time to reflect on what took place, tell me where you went wrong.”

Marla felt an obstruction block the back of her throat, and struggled to swallow it.

“In retrospect I realize that I should have warned the Big Kahuna, and enlisted his aid before The Agency’s assassin arrived.”

Kaberov nodded her agreement.

“You were grandstanding. Trying to impress everyone with how omnipotent you were. And it cost you… Worse yet, it cost us. Fortunately the witnesses are dead. With one notable exception. And someone took the surveillance tape. Was that you?”

“Yes,” Marla lied smoothly. “I destroyed it.”

“Good,” Kaberov replied grudgingly. “That, at least, was the competent thing to do. Although it should have been included in the report. In any case, based on the number of bodies that were found, it’s clear that Agent 47 escaped. And eliminating him was the true purpose of sending you there.”

There might have been more, except that the waiter arrived with what turned out to be excellent chicken salad, hard rolls, and iced tea. And rather than continue the conversation, the Russian launched into an analysis of fall fashions. A subject Marla knew very little about, but greatly preferred to a further discussion of the “Yakima Massacre,” as CNN now referred to it.

But talk of clothing came to an end when the dishes were taken away, and Kaberov removed a small, carefully wrapped gold box from her purse.

“Here,” the Sector Chief said, as she offered the object to Marla. “A present for you.”

The gesture was entirely unexpected, and Marla didn’t know what to say, as she accepted the gift.

“Go ahead,” Kaberov urged. “Open it.”

So Marla removed the red ribbon, broke the seals that held both halves of the box together, and lifted the lid. There, lying within a perfectly formed velvet-lined recess, was a single, hand-loaded, 230-grain,.45 caliber bullet. The round had been polished, and seemed to glow as if lit from within.

The Russian was waiting when Marla looked up.

“It’s part of a matched set,” the older woman explained sweetly. “And, if you fuck up again, you’ll get the second one right between the eyes.”

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