Chapter Thirty-Two

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:46 a.m.

I lay there, panting like a marathon runner five feet from the finish line. Everything hurt, every inch of skin, every muscle, every nerve. I was drenched in sweat and blood, but I remained motionless, trying to hear an echo from a distant shooter.

But there was nothing. No sound except my own labored breaths.

The dead goon’s pistol lay on the box spring, but it was in direct line of sight from the window. I had no gun, no weapons in the hotel room. Why should I? After all, I was a tourist on vacation here in Tehran. All of my tactical gear was slag on the street outside the police station.

I tried to melt into the floorboards, waiting for the next shot, for the next round to punch a hole through the wall and through my body.

My attacker lay in a twisted sprawl. The shot had taken him in the left temple and the exit wound had blown most of his head off. A big damn bullet, traveling at three thousand feet per second.

I waited.

Nothing.

I waited some more.

More nothing.

Across the room, Ghost chuffed and twitched. His ribs rose and fell as he fought to swim back to consciousness.

The memory of the dead man’s teeth kept lunging out of the shadows in my mind, trying to eat away at what sanity I had left.

Gradually I decided I was waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen. The shooter was almost certainly gone by now, not after a kill. Not in a security-obsessed country like this one. The shooter was in the wind. I had to get out of this room, though. Couldn’t risk going outside yet. The basement had a nice, quiet laundry room. Good place to lay low for a few minutes at least until Ghost was able to travel.

The Warrior part of my personality was howling for blood; but the Cop part of my brain was analyzing what just happened. Or at least as much as was possible with a body that felt like it had been thrown down an elevator shaft and a head full of loud noises and thorns.

I grabbed the corner of the box spring and pulled it toward me until it tipped, sending the pistol sliding into my hand. I shoved it into my waistband at the small of my back. Then I wormed my way across the floor to the shooter. I had to risk reaching into the sniper’s line of fire to grab the guy’s foot, but I darted my hand out, clamped my fingers around his ankle and dragged him away from the window.

It was a wasted effort. I searched his pockets and got nothing. No jewelry, no scars or marks. All I got for my efforts was a better look at the tattoo, which told me nothing more than it had when I first spotted it. I pulled up his sleeve and used the camera in my cell to take a photo of it. It was written in an alphabet that was unknown to me, which was odd because I’m a student of languages. I speak a lot of them and can recognize a lot more. This wasn’t anything I’d ever seen.

The dead man’s mouth hung open and I could see his remaining front teeth. I took photos of them, too. Inside my chest my heart skipped a couple of beats. At close range those sharp shark teeth did not look like they’d been filed down. They looked like they’d grown in that way. I tried to pull one of the fangs loose, hoping that it was a fake. Some kind of combat denture. Something cosmetic. After three tries I yanked my hand back and wiped it on the rug.

I will rip your throat out and drink your life.

Hearing someone say that was bad enough, but people in my trade tend to talk all kinds of over-the-top trash. Fine. However, having someone with fangs say it is a whole different thing. You didn’t just shake that off. Even though I knew- knew — there had to be a rational explanation, no matter how exotic the science, it still hit me harder than it should have. It was so weird, so real that it awakened an atavistic dread that took me all the way back to the cave. Like I was some grunting Neanderthal huddling by a meager fire while outside strange and unnameable sounds came out of the midnight darkness.

My inner voices-Cop, Warrior, and Civilized Man-were all silent. Afraid to speak to me, unable to tell me what to do.

“Joe Ledger,” I told myself, “you have got to get the hell out of Dodge.”

I said it aloud because I needed to hear my own voice sounding nice and normal. It didn’t. I sounded scared and shaken and that didn’t help a goddamn bit.

I got to my feet and fell right down on my ass again, and the sound provoked a weak woof from Ghost. His eyes were still closed, though.

Next time I tried to get up I did it slowly. My hands were shaking and they were ice cold.

Making sure to stay away from the window, I bent and dragged Ghost out into the hall and kicked the door shut. None of the other doors on my floor opened, which was the plan. When our local contacts had picked this hotel for Echo Team they’d rented all the rooms just to leave them empty. Most of the floor below me was empty too. No witnesses, no curious faces peering out from between cracked doors. I doubt anyone knew about what had just happened except the sniper, me, and whoever sent the son of Dracula in there.

There was nothing in the room that I needed more than I needed to get gone. My cell was in my pocket, but now was not the time to make a call. Besides, I think my hands were shaking too badly even to hit speed dial.

It took Ghost another minute to wake up and two more before he could stand. As soon as he was on all fours, we crept down the back steps to the laundry room. I wanted to clean us both up and get myself together before we went looking for a safe house.

Ghost had his tail between his legs and in my way so did I.

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