50

Prague, Czech Republic

He saw it in his head.

The aircraft veered in the sky, wing tipping toward the ground. In the first moments, the spectators thought it was part of the show. They had come to be thrilled, were used to seeing aircraft pirouette dangerously close to the ground. This looked like one more maneuver.

Then a few realized it wasn’t intentional at all. The plane was moving unnaturally, sharply sideways and downward. There was something wrong with the wing and engine. Smoke.

A missile had struck.

The next three seconds would be a blur. Then everything would move in a strange sort of slow motion, time jumbled backward and forward at the same time. Black smoke would spout from the ground, even before the flames, before the shock of the explosion. A spiked yellow ball would veer from the center of smoke, rolling wildly through the air. Everything would turn white.

There would be a moment of peace, a tease before the pain.

A rush of air came next. The lucky ones would know death.

The man they called the Black Wolf closed his eyes, fighting off the vision, closing away his own memory, trying to return to the task at hand.

He could strike the aircraft with a missile from here, at the edge of the runway, during one of the shows. It would serve as a cover for the rest of the operation, the attack on the officials. With the proper timing, the horror would be multiplied.

But it added difficulty. Getting past the security was a solvable problem, but once the shot was taken, escape would be very difficult, probably unlikely.

Did he care? In some ways death would be a relief. It would end the pain that constantly attacked him from every direction at once.

But if he took the shot here, he would not be present for the rest of the mission. He would not lead the assault, and could not guarantee that it would succeed. It wasn’t hubris to think that he was the most important piece of the plan, the leader the others depended on for success. That was his real function. He was the Black Wolf.

Drama was not the goal of the mission. He would not attack the aircraft.

The Black Wolf folded his arms pensively. He would launch the op elsewhere.

* * *

A security guard stopped him on the way out of the airport. The Black Wolf rolled down the window, curious about the procedures. He had not anticipated being stopped on the way out.

“Do you have your papers?” asked the guard, speaking in Czech.

The Black Wolf handed them over. They claimed he was Slovak.

“I have a cousin who lives in Trencin,” said the man.

“I live outside the city,” replied the Black Wolf. “We have an old family farm.”

“It must be very nice.”

“Unfortunately, there is no money for the farm, but the scenery is very pleasing. That is why I have this job.”

The words flowed easily from his mouth. As long as he could remember, he’d had a way with words. The ability to use many different languages had blossomed after the change. Before, his languages were primarily Asian. Now he could wander Europe like a native as well.

They’d made him smarter. Stronger. Younger, in a way.

He’d trade that for relief from the pain. For peace, finally.

“It’s very bad,” agreed the guard. “A shame for common people.”

“We have worked hard,” said the Black Wolf. “But we must take outside jobs. My parents — eventually they will lose the farm. It seems a sin. It was taken from the family first by the communists, then restored. Now we lose it again.”

“And you are here on work? What do you do?”

“A mechanic. Fixing machines.” He smiled, then shrugged. “It is a knack I picked up.”

“I have ten thumbs, I think.”

“Will there be much traffic tomorrow?” asked the Black wolf. “I am supposed to arrive before dawn. They told us to be prepared. But I have such a long way to come. I couldn’t afford to stay in the city. I have a cousin, thank God, with a couch. But he lives an hour away.”

“Oh, that’s bad. I would give myself plenty of time. The security will be ferocious. Even for workers.”

“Which gate would be the shortest?”

The man thought for a moment. “I would use the one we use, at the south. There will be a few trucks, but you should get through the quickest.”

“Then I’ll have to drive across the runway.”

“You can take the inner road — ask for a pass.”

The soldier talked on. The Black Wolf nodded, taking mental notes. He had more than enough information to plan an attack here, but pumping the man was good habit. One never knew when plans had to be changed or what contingencies would have to be followed.

An American C–17 landed as they were talking, its engines so loud the guard fell silent.

“Quite a plane,” said the guard.

“Yes,” said the Black Wolf. I jumped from one, he almost added. The words appeared in his brain and almost made it to his tongue.

Had he really parachuted from a C–17?

Shards of the memory flickered into his head. He saw himself going out…

What life was that? What had he been before the crash?

A killer, as he always had been.

“Was there something else?” asked the guard.

The Black Wolf realized he’d been staring into the distance for a few seconds, lost in the muddled memory.

“Nothing,” he told the man, rolling up the window. “Thank you for your kindness. It was good to talk.”

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