Chapter Thirty-One

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:53 a.m.

I came out of the bathroom at a dead run and slammed into a figure in dark clothes and a hood.

We rebounded from one another, and for a weird moment I thought it was a ninja and that I was in a very bad movie. Then I saw that his clothes were ordinary black pants and a baggy shirt, and his mask was a simple balaclava.

The eyes that glared at me through the opening in the mask were weird, though. Really weird. They were a luminous red-like a white rat’s eyes-with long slitted pupils like a snake’s. Obviously contact lenses, and probably for the dual purpose of disguising his looks and trying to spook his opponent. If I was the kind of guy to stand there and gawp at him, I’d be dead.

Ghost lay twitching on the rug by the front door. Two metal flechettes were buried in his pelt and electricity coursed into him through silver wires that trailed up to a Taser the man held at arm’s length. The attacker spun and tried to pistol-whip me with the Taser.

I ducked the swing, came up fast from the crouch and smacked him over the ear with an open palm. It’s a useful blow that hurts like hell and jolts the balance, but if he was hurt, it didn’t show; and his balance didn’t suffer at all. He reacted by dropping the Taser and punching me in the ribs hard enough to lift my feet an inch off the floor. He tried to combine it with an overhand hammerblow, but I chopped it aside with my elbow. My ribs were white hot with pain, but I let that simply stoke the fury that had been burning in me since Rasouli ruined my morning. I wanted to hurt something that would scream, so I pivoted and drove at him with a flurry of precise strikes and nasty low kicks.

He matched me like we’d rehearsed this, blocking and parrying, slipping and evading every single strike; and he foot-jammed all my kicks. Then he found a hole in my attack, ducked in low and fast and drove a two-knuckle punch into my solar plexus. It missed the xiphoid by an inch as I turned away from it, but another white hot flare of pain exploded in my torso.

The punch almost dropped me. That one glancing blow was so immensely powerful that it sent me reeling halfway across the room.

That gave him a bigger hole, and he launched himself at me, snapping out with a vicious front kick that I barely evaded by turning and dropping into a three-point crouch. He landed and pivoted and his second kick was a side thrust that missed my knee by half an inch and shattered the heavy wooden leg of the desk chair. This guy was slimmer and shorter than me, but damn if he wasn’t strong.

I hooked my fingers around the slatted backrest of the chair and swept it off the floor, catching him solidly on the shoulder. The blow knocked him against the wall, but he rebounded and shattered the chair with a backward sweep of his arm. I threw an arm up to protect my eyes from the splinters; but even as I did that I did a backward kick and caught him in the stomach with my heel. I put a lot of torque in that kick and it should have knocked him out and given stomach cramps to his whole family back home.

All he did was grunt.

I mean… holy shit. A full-grown silverback gorilla couldn’t have stayed on his feet after a kick like that. My kick did exactly jack squat.

Well, not entirely true. It made him mad. And it was no fun to discover that up till now he hadn’t actually been trying to kill me. The Taser and his first selection of attacks were meant to disable. Now he was pissed, and he drove at me, stabbing at my eyes with his fingertips and trying to crush my throat with the stiffened webbing between index finger and thumb. The vicious prick fought like I did-only he was a lot stronger and a whole lot faster.

And I am really frigging fast.

So I changed the game and barreled straight at him, wrapped my arms around his thighs and picked him up to drive him right into the cheap wooden dresser which exploded into a shower of splinters, socks, and underwear. We crashed down onto the floor and I tried to slam his head into the broken base of the dresser, but he kicked up between my legs, catching me on the butt and knocked me headfirst into the wall. I got my elbow up in time to save my skull, but it left my side open and he punched straight up and caught me in the gut.

As I staggered away from that, he kicked out with both feet and sent me flying back onto the bed. He was up before I finished landing and he pounced on me. The force trampolined us off the mattress and down on the far side between the bed and wall. The attacker put a knee on my chest and cocked his fist for another of those pile-driver punches of his, but I grabbed the edge of the night table and jerked it down into the path of the punch. His fist hit the table, and for the first time he reacted. He yanked back his fist and cursed.

Not in Persian. Not in any Middle Eastern language. It sounded Italian but wasn’t, and though I couldn’t quite understand it, his words seemed strangely familiar. It was like trying to understand Portuguese when all you knew how to speak was high-school Spanish.

In the split second while he flexed his injured hand I saw a few inches of bare skin in a gap between his glove and his sleeve. There was a small tattoo, less than an inch long. It was shaped like a cross but made from a longsword standing vertical with a horizontal dagger as the guard. That image overlaid a red circle the color of a drop of blood. A word was written above it, arching over the image, but it wasn’t in English and I didn’t recognize the alphabet.

No time to ponder that now. I pulled my knees sharply up and then kicked him in the chest with both heels. He flew backward onto the bed and fell off on the other side. I scrambled up and flipped the twin mattress on top of him, then threw myself on top of it like a kid doing a cannonball into a pool.

That tore another grunt from him. Louder, filled with more pain.

I liked that effect, so I jumped up and down a few more times.

But on the third drop he shoved up on the mattress and my body landed on a slant. I fell one way and the force sent him the other way.

We got to our feet three yards apart, our backs to opposite walls. We were both panting now, though even with the pounding I’d just given him he looked fresher than I did. The bastard.

“Where is it?” he said, this time in heavily accented English. His voice was low and raspy. A mean, nasty voice.

I knew what he wanted. I figured that much out when we started this dance.

“Fuck you,” I said. Actually, what I said was “ Vaffanculo, testa di cazzo. ” Even if he was speaking some weird regional dialect of Italian I was pretty sure he’d catch my meaning.

He did, and as expected he didn’t much like it.

His red eyes flared with murderous rage and rushed me. I tried to stall him with a kick, but he swatted my foot aside, grabbed me by the shirt, and threw me across the room. I crashed into the wall hard enough to knock the cheap paintings from the wall; then I crashed down on the floor.

You see guys in movies do that-pick someone up and throw them across the room. That’s the movies. In the real world, it can’t be done. Not with someone my size. Not fifteen feet through the air so that I hit the wall at head height. It is not physically possible for a human being to do that.

My brain kept telling me that as I crashed to the floor in a heap.

I rolled onto my hands and knees and spat blood onto the floor. There was a piece of tooth there too. Fireworks exploded in my eyes and my head felt like it was cracked in forty places.

“Where is it?” he demanded again as he stalked toward me. Then he did something weird-even when added to the other weird stuff that was going on. Ghost was sprawled on the floor between us, and when the man suddenly realized that he was about to step on Ghost’s tail, he jerked his whole body sideways to avoid contact. A small, guttural cry escaped his throat as he did so. He rattled off something in that weird language, touched his heart, and drew a line with his fingers above his eyes. It had the same ritual feel as Catholics crossing themselves, though I’d never seen this gesture before. The Cop part of my mind wanted to make sense of the gesture and the man’s strange aversion to touching Ghost, but the Warrior was running the show, even though he wasn’t doing a great job of it, and that anomaly got buried under the need to survive the moment.

I tried to get up, but too many things hurt.

“What is on the flash drive the Murshid gave you?”

“The what?”

“The Tariqa,” he bellowed. “The Saracen! Where it is? Where is the flash drive?”

“I shoved it up your ass-why don’t you go look for it.”

He kicked me in the side and I barely managed to tuck my elbow against my side to save my ribs. Even so, the kick knocked me against the wall and the impact ignited more starbursts in my head.

“Who are you working for?” he said. His anger made his eyes seem to catch fire. “Are you Rasouli’s dog or are you working for that whore?”

“No,” I groaned as I fought to get to my knees, “your mother hasn’t called me.”

He tried for another kick, but I was ready and I rolled away from it and got shakily to my feet.

“It’s her, isn’t it?” he said, his voice heavy with contempt. He spat out another word, loading it with bile. “Arklight!”

I had no idea who or what that was, and now didn’t seem like a good time to ask. Running seemed like the best option, but my legs were rubbery and the room was doing a tilt-a-whirl around me.

Ski mask snarled at me. “Tell me or I will cut off your balls.”

“What the fuck is it with you guys?” I demanded. “How come every psycho in the Middle East has a grudge against my nutsack?”

I think he actually smiled, though all I could see was the crinkle around his crimson eyes. Then he rushed at me so fast that his body seemed to blur, hands reaching to grab. I tried to parry him, but he slapped my hands away, clamped his fingers around my throat and picked me up. And I mean all the way up so that I hung suspended with my feet inches from the floor.

Again, for a guy his size and a guy my size, this simply was not possible.

He bent close so that those unnatural eyes were inches from mine. His hands were as cold as ice.

“Last chance,” he sneered. “Where is the flash drive?”

“Fuck you. Where are the nukes?”

He paused for a moment, and I could see that I’d both hit a nerve and said the wrong thing.

“You know…” he breathed. Then his red eyes flared with rage that was ten times hotter than before. “Listen to me, you piece of shit-you have no idea what you are interfering with here. Give me the flash drive, tell me exactly who you’ve told, and I will end this quickly for you.”

“Or,” I choked out, “you could go piss up a rope.”

His eyes grew hotter still. “I am doing God’s work, and if you don’t tell me what I want to know I will rip your throat out and drink your life.”

Okay, I never heard that one before.

Not in real life.

I had a couple of witty comebacks for him. Stuff about his mother and livestock. But I thought that I was losing my audience. So instead I kneed him in the nuts as hard as I could. I put all of my pain and rage and fear into it. The impact canted him sharply forward, so I grabbed his head and clamped my teeth on his nose and tried my absolute best to bite it off. Blood exploded through the fabric of his mask, splashing against my face as cartilage collapsed between my teeth.

He screamed-so high and shrill that it hurt my ears. Then he started thrashing and tried to pull his head back from my teeth, but I wasn’t about to let go. I growled at him, clenched harder, and whipped my head back and forth like a dog. Hot blood gushed into my mouth.

His screams hit the ultrasonic. He flung me away from him and staggered back, pawing at his ruined face with both hands. I slammed into the wall again and dropped hard to the floorboards on knees and palms. The blood in my mouth was hot and tasted of salt. I gagged and spat it out. Part of his nose and the lower half of his mask flopped onto the floor.

Screw fair play. Screw the rules.

The man reeled and thrashed, slamming into one wall and then the other, keening in a high-pitched wail of inarticulate agony. His mask hung in dripping shreds. Most of his nose was gone. His mouth and chin were slick with dark blood.

I got shakily to my feet, sick and dazed. I figured I had him now if I could manage one more really good hit. Maybe break his neck, or crush his hyoid bone.

Then the son of a bitch wheeled toward me and hissed. His lips peeled back as he bared his teeth.

Suddenly the whole world froze and in that fragment of time I stared at his mouth.

At his teeth.

Good God.

His teeth were all filed to razor-sharp points. Like the teeth of a shark. But the canines-something was wrong with them. Really goddamn wrong. They weren’t just sharp, they were too long. Way too fucking long. Like the fangs of a dog. Or a wolf.

Or-

No. My mind refused to make that connection. It was insane and the day was already out of control.

And then the sharp-toothed, no-nose freakazoid son of a bitch pulled us right back into the real world.

He reached into a pocket and produced a gun.

Nothing weird or alien. Totally ordinary.

He had me and we both knew it.

So I let out a scream that was louder than his and I drove into him at full speed and force. It was a big, meaty impact that knocked blood from his face so hard it spattered the walls and ceiling. The gun went flying over my shoulder. Even then he tried to step out of it, but I had him and together we crashed through the glass door and all the way to the wrought-iron balcony. We hit the railing five flights above the empty street. There was glass and curtains and broken pieces of wood-framing everywhere, and even with all that we kept jabbing and punching at each other. Those jagged teeth bit the air, snapping at my face, my throat.

I shoved him back and then smashed him across the mouth with my elbow, exploding half his teeth over the rail and down into the street five stories below.

And still he fought.

Despite all of the injuries, the torn face, he spun me around and started bending me backward over the rail. I could feel my spine bending too far and too fast even while I wailed on him, smashing ribs and eyebrows and knocking more teeth out of his mouth.

Then suddenly his head jerked away from me like he’d been pulled by a rope. I heard a crack as his neck snapped, and saw a geyser of blood and brain matter splash against the shattered window frame, painting the floor and overturned mattress.

His body spun away back into the room, and he collapsed down onto the ruined bed like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

I never heard the shot that killed him. But I threw myself into the room and dove behind the bed.

Had the shooter been aiming for him?

Or had they tried to shoot me and missed?

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