Chapter one

Antoine Morhange, night-guard at the Hobbleston office building in Brussels, Belgium, hardly took notice of the man in workman's overalls passing his reception desk. It wasn't unusual for technicians to come in for server maintenance in the middle of the night to not inconvenience anyone more than necessary. Neither did he notice the short flicker on his video screens two minutes later.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

Luther quietly closed the door to the security office. He removed the tranquilizer dart from the guards uniform and carefully pushed her aside on her office chair to be able to access the computer. She would wake up again in about fifteen minutes, thinking she had dozed off. And since nothing would have happened in the meantime, no one would ever know about her unauthorized nap and there wouldn't even be a reprimand.

He pulled up the second chair that was standing in the corner and sat down in front of the video screens. With a quick glance, he checked if there was anything unusual they should know about before he connected their up-link. "East, you get that?"

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

"I have eyes," Benji replied with an audible grin. He had won the position in the van by the sophisticated method of rock-paper-scissors. "South, you're good to go."

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

"Acknowledged, going in," Brandt replied and stepped out of the shadows across from the back entrance. He waved a short greeting up at Ethan who was sitting in a window-cleaner rig two stories up, overlooking the alleyway. That had been a last minute addition to their plan when they had realized that this was the only side of the building not covered by public security cameras and they had decided that having an extra lookout against nasty surprises wouldn't hurt.

He suppressed a sigh and opened the door. The fact that that rig had just happened to be there still seemed like a little too much of a coincidence. What bothered him more was that he felt superfluous. Benji and Luther could have easily done this on their own. Having one of them watch the cameras and Ethan the outside while he went for the server room were small, unimportant details.

In fact, he didn't doubt that if need be either of the techies could have done it on their own. If he'd had to set up the mission, he'd have kept it down to one of them, and maybe a rookie. But as it was, Hunley himself had authorized this operation and it was beyond the analyst why he had assigned four of his best agents for what was a two-men job at most.

Forcefully he pushed the thought away as he made his way down the back stairs. The door at the end of the staircase opened automatically with a silent click before he could say anything. The corridor in front of him was simple gray concrete with unpainted metal doors. He found the server room just where he had expected it.

This door also opened as if by magic, although he knew it was Benji's doing. While the corridor outside had been illuminated by emergency exit signs, the server room was pitch black except for small green dots of light. Brandt switched on his torch and looked around. He had been given a very detailed description of what he was looking for and where he was likely going to find it, and so he had little trouble locating the access port. He fished the tiny transmitter out of his pocket and jammed it in. "East, you're connected."

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

"Copy that," the techie replied cheerfully, while on a previously blank screen a list of folders started to appear. He opened a terminal and started putting in commands, then stopped for a second to stare. "Uh, it's not there."

"What do you mean, it's not there?" Luther asked sounding both incredulous and like a disappointed teacher.

"There's only paperwork, finance things," Benji replied, continuing his typing furiously.

Brandt bit his lip and did another long look around the room. "Wrong server?"

"No, it's the right place," Benji replied.

"Bad intel," Ethan pitched, resigned.

"No, this is the right place," Benji insisted, sounding harried. "It was here. The file was downloaded and deleted three minutes twenty seconds ago."

"Just before we came in. We would have seen them come out," Luther commented. The building bordered the Place Charles Rogier on two sides, which with its tram, bus and metro stops was well decked out in CCTV and the main entrance had its own security cameras. The only blind spot was the back entrance to the east, where Ethan was looking out and which had been locked until they had entered.

"Then they're still inside," Brandt concluded.

"If they were inside, I would see them," Benji insisted.

"They got out," Ethan decided. "And there's only one way they could have. I'm going after them."

"Three and a half minutes is a long time, North," Luther argued. "If they have a car they're gone."

"They're not gone," Hunt replied. He sounded slightly out of breath, but very sure.

The general bad feeling Brandt had had throughout the whole operation started to manifest itself as a knot in the pit of his stomach. He yanked the transmitter out of the bay and stormed out of the server room. The metal door fell shut behind him with an echoing clang.

"Ethan, wait!" he shouted, running up the stairs.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

"If they were inside, I would see them."

Benji was right, Ethan thought. The camera coverage inside was absolute and that the techie had just missed them was unlikely. The only place where there were no cameras was the east exit and that was where he was watching. But if someone knew he was there, they could easily get by him. He cursed.

"They got out, and there's only one way they could have," he said, swinging himself over the railing of the window-cleaner rig. He let himself down with a rope, jumping the last half meter, and hit the ground running. "I'm going after them."

"If they have a car they're gone," Luther put in.

But Hunt knew they weren't, and said so. They still had unfinished business here.

He turned in the only logical directions, away from the square, away from the city center, away from the train station further north and any other place that likely had CCTV. Due east. For a moment he contemplated the Botanic Gardens as he passed, but the gate was locked and would have been hard to climb.

"Ethan, wait!" Brandt's voice sounded through his ear-piece as he turned to follow the fence to the next railway crossing. If they wanted to avoid public spaces they would have gone there rather than down the broad Avenue Boulevard.

The railway underpass was a broad tunnel with two lanes for traffic divided by stone pillars and completely empty. The yellow streetlights and boarded up shop-windows together with copious amounts of dust gave it an eerie, haunted feeling. But Ethan didn't pay attention to that. He looked ahead where a residential area with small houses and narrow streets built a stark contrast to the skyscrapers on the other side of the train lines, thinking about where they had likely gone.

Too late he realized his mistake. He only saw the man in the shadows when he ran right past him.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

Brandt just caught a glimpse of Ethan disappearing around the corner, when he came out of the back entrance. His strides lengthened as he ran down the street, although he knew that despite his longer legs catching up with Ethan was hardly more than wishful thinking. On a whim he drew his gun at a full run, thumping off the safety blindly.

He couldn't see Hunt when he reached the corner, but he had seen in which direction he had gone and instinctively knew where he was headed. East was the only direction that made sense, and Brandt crossed to the railway underpass on a least distance route, not even checking for potential cars on the road.

And there he saw him. Ethan was right in front of him at the other end of the tunnel, outlined as a shadow against the yellow lamps. He was stopping from a full run, turning on his heel towards something Brandt couldn't see, his gun half drawn. Before he could bring the weapon up fully, he suddenly bent over like a jackknife, stumbling backwards.

The sound of the gunshot was amplified by the arch of the tunnel and for a moment all Brandt could hear was a high whistling noise ringing in his ears. He wasn't sure if he was shouting, as he raised his own weapon, deaf to his own voice. Slowing down only enough to have a reasonably steady aim, he fired three shots, but his view was broken by the pillars in the middle of the road.

For a moment he caught sight of a man running and followed him, but he blended into the darkness like a shadow and at the edge of the tunnel the agent lost sight of him with no indication to where he had gone. With a silent curse, Brandt holstered his gun and turned around. Ethan was lying on the cold concrete in a crumpled heap, a dark pool forming under his torso.