51 Khodami Street, Vanak Square
June 15, 8:29 a.m.
The last thing the businessman in the bad suit did that day was open the door to his hotel room. He was undressing to take a shower when he heard the soft knock and padded barefoot to the door, a frown creasing his jowly face. He was neither expecting nor wanting a visitor of any kind. His frown deepened when he saw that it was a woman who stood outside, her face hidden by a modest chador but burdened with a heavy black canvas equipment bag whose strap was slung across her torso.
“Who-?” began the businessman, and the woman shot him in the chest with a pistol that had been hidden beneath her flowing sleeve.
The businessman gave a single croaking bleat, and then his eyes rolled up and he fell backward onto the floor. The woman kicked his legs out of the way, checked that the hall was still empty, stepped inside, and closed the door.
The Italian woman knelt and pressed her fingers against the businessman’s throat. The pulse was there, steady and rapid, though she knew it would slow down within seconds. The gun she used was a Snellig gas-dart pistol, its tiny glass projectiles were loaded with horse tranquilizer.
She unslung the heavy bag, laid it on the bed, unzipped one of its many compartments, and removed a scope. Then she crossed to the window and put the scope to her eye. The Serbian subcommander of her team had followed Ledger after the meeting with Rasouli had ended, tailing him to a store and then to the Golden Oasis Hotel. After determining the floor and room number, the Serbian gruffly asked for further orders.
“Go back to the staging area,” answered the Italian. “File your report and wait for me.”
She hung up before the Serbian could ask another question.
It was an easy matter to decide on a vantage point from one of the surrounding hotels. She used her Oracle computer to hack the booking records for each hotel until she found a perfect spot. Now she controlled a safe vantage point and peered through the scope to count floors and windows until she found the right one.
At first all she saw was a balcony, sliding glass doors, thin sheer curtains beyond which a bleak room was occupied only by Joe Ledger and a large dog. Ledger sat on the floor, petting the dog. She adjusted the scope to study the animal. It was a beautiful white shepherd, and that made the Italian frown. Was the dog’s color a coincidence or was there another element to this man? Was he tied to the Sabbatarians? Was that a fetch dog?
That question would need to be answered, because it might mean that Ledger would have to die right now.
Still frowning, she removed her sniper rifle from the canvas bag. The rifle was not in parts. She had spent too much time carefully sighting it in to have it all spoiled by disassembling the weapon. Only the stock was detached and she clicked it into place and then mounted the weapon on a tripod. Like most professionals in her craft she preferred shooting from a prone position, or kneeling with a bipod, but she had no idea how long she would have to wait here in this hotel room, so a tripod was more practical. It reduced the risk of muscle fatigue.
She mounted the scope onto an American McMillan Tac-50 bolt-action sniper rifle and loaded it with. 50 caliber Browning machine gun rimless cartridges, lean and long and completely lethal, even if she was forced to take a body shot instead of the preferred head shot. Not that she would have. The Italian sniper had not missed a kill shot in many years. She had learned the craft from the greatest shooter who ever lived, Simo Hayha, the legendary Finnish shooter known in international sniper circles as the White Death, and rightly so. During the Winter War between Finland and Russia in 1939 and ’40, Hayha had racked up 705 confirmed kills. Five hundred and five with an iron-sighted bolt action rifle, the rest with a submachine gun. Hayha endured murderous subzero temperatures as low as minus forty Celsius and in less than one hundred days had been an angel of slaughter to the Russians, sometimes stuffing his mouth with snow so his breath did not condense and reveal his position. Even after taking a bullet to the face he survived and escaped capture.
Hayha had been one of many tutors Lilith had hired to prepare her for the life she led. And though he was ancient and near death, his mind was sharp and his lessons profound. Hayha had been a master killer, and yet his eyes were always calm, always peaceful. The Italian never understood that. When she looked in the mirror she saw the eyes of some vile thing. Something tainted and impure. Something evil.
She sat in a folding chair in the shadows of the hijacked hotel room. No lights except the indirect light from the open window. Above her, a rickety ceiling fan turned continuously and there was a breeze from outside, but the curtains did not move. They were weighted down with rocks she had brought upstairs with her for that purpose. Blowing curtains could spoil a shot and they draw the eye. She did not want to attract any attention.
Ledger still sat on the floor.
The sniper leaned back from the rifle and removed a small leather case from her bag, unzipped it, and propped it on the night table. The device was the size of an e-book reader but it was a very powerful portable computer with a satellite uplink. The sniper booted the device, entered her password, and activated the voice interface.
“Authorize Arklight field protocol five.”
The monitor flashed several times and then settled on a screen saver with the smiling face of the Mona Lisa.
The Mona Lisa spoke.
“Oracle welcomes you.”
The Oracle computer had been designed by a man named St. Germaine but re-programmed by her mother; the voice was hers as well, though with a slight alien quality when composing unique phrasing. The sniper had added the animation of the Mona Lisa to give it a less threatening feeling. She loved her mother but, like everyone else who ever met her, was deeply intimidated by her. Even the other two Mothers of the Fallen deferred to her.
“Access all data for mission coded Arklight eight-one-one-seven.”
“Accessing. Do you want to update your field report?”
“Yes.” She gave the computer a detailed report beginning with the phone call from Rasouli that morning and the resulting change in the mission for which her Arklight team had been contracted. At the conclusion of the report she said, “Collate data. I will want a set of probabilities.”
“Collating,” said Oracle. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes. I want everything you can find on Joseph Edwin Ledger. White male, early thirties, American.”
“There are ninety-seven unique instances of living people named Joseph Edwin Ledger; one-hundred and sixteen for deceased-”
“Stop. Subject is likely military or ex-military. Possibly law enforcement.”
“There is one instance of a Joseph Edwin Ledger with the Baltimore Police Department in the state of Maryland. There is also one instance of a Joseph Edwin Ledger with the United States Army Rangers. Personal identification numbers and Social Security numbers match.”
“Open a file on him. I want everything. Ledger’s background. Service record, awards, citations, reprimands, psych profiles, his politics. Anything you have.”
“There is already an active Arklight file on this subject.”
“When was the file opened and who opened it?”
The computer gave an open date from July of the previous year. “The file has an L1 code.”
“My mother opened that file?”
“Summarize the content of that file.”
Oracle began reading out information regarding several matters of grave international importance. The Seif al Din plague, which coincided with the opening of Ledger’s file. There were others, all high profile. The shutdown of the ultrasecret vault in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania; the famous Jakoby-Mengele file; and others, leading up to the Seven Kings event last December. The records were spotty and included more speculation and unofficial information than hard evidence. As the Italian woman well knew it was virtually impossible to prove anything about the DMS. Very often files of this kind suddenly vanished from even encrypted hard drives. There were rumors of a DMS supercomputer called MindReader that had an aggressive search and destroy subroutine for ferreting out this kind of information.
“Oracle,” she said, “have you been attacked in any way since this file was opened?”
“Isn’t that unusual?”
“There is a note in the file stating that any questions of this kind be directed to Lilith herself. Your mother does not permit additional speculative notes to be added to the file. Would you like me to pass along a request to your mother?”
“God no,” said the sniper before she could stop herself. “No,” she corrected.
“Shall I continue reading the subject’s service record?”
Ledger reached out and pulled his dog toward him, wrapping his arms around the animal and laying his head on the dog’s shoulder. What an odd thing for a man like him to do, she thought. A strangely human act, totally at odds with the things Oracle was saying: that he was emotionally fractured, that he was utterly ruthless in a fight, that he had killed people with guns, knives, explosives, his hands. However, the way he held his dog and stroked the animal’s fur and spoke to it-even though she could not hear his words-made her smile.
“Oracle, stop report,” she said. “How did my mother obtain the information for her file on Ledger?”
“That information is in a subfolder marked eyes-only. Would you like to request temporary clearance to read that report?”
The sniper took a breath, then let it out slowly. “Yes.”
“That request has been forwarded to the Mothers.”
Oracle moved from the bland details of an unremarkable military record, through a moderately interesting though short police career. The sniper found nothing of real note there, however, except that Ledger had been scheduled for enrollment in the FBI academy. There were no records of his having actually entered the academy. What really caught her interest, however, were Ledger’s psychotherapy reports and transcripts of sessions with Dr. Rudolfo Ernesto Sanchez y Martinez. Ledger was a deeply damaged individual who had a minimum of three and possibly as many as nine separate personality subtypes living in his head. Dr. Sanchez’s records indicated that Ledger had found a way to balance these personalities and even put them to work, like a committee, within his fractured mind. It was not a unique occurrence, but it was very rare; and rarer still for such a man to be accepted into the police department and, apparently, the Department of Military Sciences.
“Stop. Who recruited Ledger into the DMS?”
“Unknown, though there is a high probability that he was recruited directly by St. Germaine.”
The sniper’s pulse quickened as it did every time she heard that name.
That was one of the many names for a man currently using the name Church. St. Germaine was the name her mother used for the man. The sniper had never met him, but other Arklight agents told wild stories. She doubted most of them were true, but all of them were fascinating.
“Oracle,” she said, “why might St. Germaine risk using a field operative with Ledger’s psychological profile?”
“Speculate. Access all known data on St. Germaine and cross-reference.”
“There are one hundred and three separate field reports that include the man code-named St. Germaine under twenty-eight aliases. Twenty-six of those reports indicate a tendency to use agents with unpredictable or unstable personality types. Four of the six analysis reports uploaded by senior Arklight operators postulate that Mr. Church uses said unpredictable personalities to introduce random elements to missions.”
“An X factor?”
“That is the theory most commonly postulated.”
“What is the probability that Mr. Church sent Ledger to Iran knowing that he would become involved in my current mission?”
“There is insufficient data to calculate a complete probability model.”
“I am unable to perform that function, as you well know,” said Oracle in her mother’s dry voice. It was one of the messages Mama had added to the database. An attempt at humor.
“What is the likelihood that Rasouli knew my team was associated with Arklight?”
“Unknown, however the mission for which your team was originally contracted has multiple connection points to the Mothers of the Fallen and-”
“What is Rasouli’s connection with Joseph Ledger?”
She processed that as she made some minor adjustments to her rifle.
Why had Rasouli wanted to meet this man? Was he an intermediary? Or, more likely, was Rasouli trying to recruit him as a double agent? Despite the poverty most of the people in this country endured, the government was very rich, with pockets deep enough to tempt saints and angels. The sniper had seen that firsthand in the absurd amount of money Rasouli had paid to have her team provide security for half an hour in a coffee shop.
“Oracle, give me a probability estimate on Ledger’s loyalty.”
“That question lacks specificity.”
“Based on Joseph Ledger’s psych profiles, can he be bought? Could Rasouli buy him away from the DMS?
“But we can’t discount it?”
“That would be unwise.”
She peered through the scope. Ledger was still sitting on the floor with his dog. Was he crying? The blowing curtains on Ledger’s window made it impossible to tell, but the American looked like he had something on his cheeks. Tears or dog slobber?
“How dangerous is this man?”
“To others or to himself?”
The question did not surprise the sniper. She was more than half-convinced the marks on Ledger’s cheeks were not there because of his dog.
“As a fighter and field agent,” she said.
“According to psych profiles and all other available data, Captain Joseph Edwin Ledger should be considered a Class-A threat.”
The sniper found that very interesting.
There was movement. Ledger abruptly straightened and looked at the closed door against which he sat. Then he and the dog climbed quickly to their feet. Ledger reached inside his jacket but after a moment brought his hand away without a gun. It was clear that someone had just knocked on the door, and it seemed apparent from Ledger’s body language that the visitor was expected.
But who was it?
Another of St. Germaine’s agents? The Sabbatarians?
Or one of those unholy bastards in the Red Order?
“Oracle. Stand by.”
As Ledger reached for the door handle, the sniper leaned her shoulder against the stock of the rifle. Her slender finger stroked the cold metal rim of the trigger guard.