Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).
"How so?" I ask as I yank my fleece over my head. Chucking it across the back of the closest couch, I drop down into the wingback facing the door.
Sprawled out in the opposite chair, Alice flicks a hand. "That he'd confront you out in the open like that, at least this soon." She stares down at the dogeared, inch-thick file on the table between us, and her lips twist into a grimace. "It's pretty fucking bold."
Dry washing my face, I slouch back into the cushion and kick my feet up on the edge of the glass. I give it two minutes, tops, before McCarty has an aneurysm and yells at me. "Well, what do you think it means?"
"I don't know." Alice hums. "Did it feel like a warning?"
"Maybe." I shrug. "It definitely wasn't friendly." Replaying the exchange, I suck in a chest-full of air and slowly exhale. "But I'm not sure I'd call it a warning... Or if it was, it's not clear what he was warning me about."
Before Alice can respond, there's a loud grumble behind me, and a water bottle drops in my lap. "Did you grow up in a barn?" Emmett mutters, cutting me a hateful glare. As he skirts by, he swipes my feet off the glass, and when I laugh, he grunts in irritation. "Describe him."
McCarty plops down next to Rosalie and leans forward, propping his elbows on his knees. "Yeah, what was he like? Body language. Tone. Shit like that."
"Quiet," I answer, almost immediately, and shove a loose strand of hair behind my ear. "And I don't mean he just doesn't make noise. He's quiet. As in, everything about him." My eyes catch on a painting across the room. It's a high-end reproduction of one of Klimt's flower gardens, framed in an antique gold canvas floater to match the room. Blues bleed into greens in a riot of color and thrown-down patterning, yet its effect is almost soothing. "Calm. Efficient. Measured. Calculating."
"So, he's basically you with a dick." Emmett nods, as much to himself as to me. "He was hunting."
"I am not like that."
Still parked behind his bank of monitors, Whitlock snorts right as Rosalie barks out a laugh. "Yes, you are," she says, rolling her eyes when I scowl. "You can be damned near terrifying sometimes. It's one of your better qualities."
I flip her off, and she just laughs harder.
Alice makes another one of those humming sounds. "You said he reacted to being called Aronov's bodyguard."
"Definitely. He was quick to negate that assumption."
Alice's expression is unreadable, and her dark eyes churn. She taps a shiny black nail on her bottom lip. "And he reacted again when Eli texted?"
Ignoring Emmett's pointed glare, I kick my feet back up. "It wasn't as pronounced, but something was there. He may have just been annoyed by the interruption."
When she doesn't say anything else, I look over to Whitlock. "You catch any hits?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary," he replies, sounding almost bored as he simultaneously pulls up one of the screens. "Early this morning, someone in the Sacher ran background checks on you and Rosalie both." His fingers fly across his keyboard. "They went through a VPN server out of Iceland, and it was hidden under multi-layer encryption, but it was a pretty standard search." Whitlock shakes his head like he's disappointed by their lack of finesse. "Nothing popped up we didn't want them to see."
"Good." I crack the cap on my water and chug, erasing the lingering taste of my earlier coffee by the canal. "Can you call up Dayan?"
"You got it."
Five minutes later, Whitlock's screen pulses bright blue. In its center sits a simple seal with a menorah in the middle, ringed by a thin frame and Hebrew text. The seal blinks, then disappears, replaced by dark, glittering eyes set in an all-too-familiar face.
The second he sees me hovering behind Whitlock, El'azar shoots me a wide, devilish grin. "Good morning, Beautiful."
My shoulders instantly shake at that low, suggestive purr. "Boker tov to you, too."
That grin of his widens like it always does when I speak his language. My accent is godawful, and we both know it.
"I have missed you and your mischief," he croons, almost pouting. "When are you coming to visit me?"
Leaning against the back of the couch, I shrug and then sigh. "Maybe after this job. After all this fucking snow, frankly, I could use a little warmth."
"I would be more than happy to show you some…" El'azar wags his shaggy brows. "Heat."
Behind me, there's a chorus of groans, and I want to kick myself for giving him such an obvious opening. Instead, I roll my eyes. "You're terrible, you know that?"
"What?" Eyes dancing, El'azar fists his hands to his heart with dramatic flair. "You wound me, kapara."
I swear this man delights in tormenting me.
"I know, but you love me anyway," I say. Impatient and way too tired to play, I wave him on. "Yalla, now spill."
El'azar tsks, but then let's out a low chuckle. "Always business with you Americans, but fine." His gaze abruptly narrows at something off screen, and he rattles off a curt, pissed-off command in Hebrew before turning back to me. "First, you should know that you have managed to insert yourself into a hornet's nest." He shakes his head at me like I'm five. "Truly, you have a gift for finding trouble."
But he's not exactly wrong.
"Yeah? What did you find?" I slug back the rest of my water, and when I glance over to the foyer and the absurdly extravagant vase of blood-red roses that arrived while I was out, I frown. "Apparently, we have a dinner to go to, and I'd really, really like to know what these motherfuckers are up to before we go in."
Like the flip of a switch, that playful, flirtatious demeanor vanishes. In its place, the stern-faced, eagle-eyed Sayeret Matkal commander I met in the middle of a firefight over a decade ago stares back at me. Now in charge of one of the most secretive units within the Institute, he's basically Platt, but with an even longer leash and often far better intel.
Sometimes it's good to have scary friends.
At El'azar's unspoken direction, Whitlock pulls up a second screen. Tapping on a series of photos, he pauses on a long distance shot of a dark-haired fifty-something exiting a black sedan outside a familiar Baroque-style tan and red brick building. While he's sporting a finely fitted charcoal suit instead of the expected gray-green uniform, the guy moves with a long-time soldier's precision and focus.
"That's Aleksandr Markovsky."
I look back over to the video feed. "FSB?"
El'azar's chin dips once, and the angle highlights the pale, two-inch long scar that travels along his hairline and the faint scatter of discoloration under the strong, square line of his jaw. "He's moved up the ranks quickly. Came out of Spetsnaz. Made a name for himself during the last Chechen War." El'azar pauses, and there's no disguising the disgust written in every one of his handsome, olive features. "Rumors say he ordered repeated sarin attacks on civilian safe zones to intimidate the fighting forces. Schools, nursing homes, even hospitals."
"He sounds wonderful."
A second photo flickers across the screen, and this new guy's tall, muscular, and younger, maybe somewhere in his early forties. With tousled white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes, he's got the kind of charismatic good looks you only see out of Hollywood. Those symmetric features are hard, though, like they've been chiseled out of stone, and the swoon-worthy smile he's wearing is nowhere close to real.
"That one's a slippery devil," El'azar says. "Kaius Koshmarin. Bratva, although that's not common knowledge and those who know are smart enough to keep their mouths shut. He's now moving into politics, but they used to call him Caligula. You can guess why."
Behind me, I hear Emmett grumble under his breath. "This shit just keeps getting better and better."
Slipping out of her chair, Alice approaches the screens. "What's their connection to Aronov?"
"The usual. Power. Money." El'azar barks out another order to a subordinate off-screen. "Apparently, Markovsky is married to Aronov's sister, so there are familial ties between those two."
"What about Koshmarin?" she asks, tilting her head and frowning at the blond.
"It's unclear how or when exactly he linked up with Aronov and Markovsky, but with his other connections, we suspect he's the one handling the massive amounts of heroin they're exporting out of Afghanistan. Likely moving significant volumes of military-grade weapons in and out of there, as well."
"What about VolTerra?" I ask. "How does Aronov's mining operations come into play?"
El'azar grabs a stack of files and pulls out a set of documents littered with highlighted text and columns of numbers. "Finances are murky," he says, studying a handwritten yellow sticky affixed to the top of the page. "Seems that much of the income routes through our friends in Zurich and various international tax havens." He looks up. "And as you're aware, many of their key holdings are located in… challenged locations."
"So, in other words…" I pause, just long enough to peer down at Whitlock, who's already pulled up the same set of documents, plus another file that neither Platt, nor El'azar had a hand in locating. These new scans are all in German, and every one of the addresses sit in Paradeplatz. Whitlock's nose wrinkles as he skims the file, and then he finishes my statement, "VolTerra is essentially a vast, sophisticated front with enough legitimacy and scale to make people ignore what else is going on."
I shove off the couch and pace the length of the room. "What about the women and girls? What's the deal there?"
"It's a lucrative trade, increasingly so, and it's one that often travels with his other activities and associates." El'azar's jaw ticks. "But… it looks like it's more than just a financial play for Aronov."
"What do you mean?"
Stopping mid-stride when he doesn't immediately answer, I turn back to the bank of monitors right as Whitlock pulls up a series of gruesome images. Flashing across the screen, a dozen lifeless women in various states of undress lie on stained concrete floors, beaten, bloodied, and disfigured. Purple-black bruises litter thighs, arms, chests, and faces. Even the bottoms of their feet.
"Neshama, this man is very, very dangerous, and he has absolutely no moral compass. When he tires of someone or something, he throws it off like yesterday's garbage." El'azar's voice grates like shards of broken glass.
Another photo pops up. This one shows a pair of women, a blonde and a brunette, both young enough I'd still call them girls. Tall and thin, they're as gorgeous as any model, and even dead, it's clear these two were once someone's pampered pets. Like the others, they're a mess of bruises, welts, cuts, and blood. Blue-black handprints circle one girl's throat.
I have a feeling I know what's coming next.
Aronov's brand of evil is startlingly predictable.
"These two young ladies – university students from Prague – were once in his… coterie," El'azar says, and judging by the sharp furrow in his forehead and the percussive drum of his fingers against his desk, he's spitting mad. "Aronov played with them for a few months, and when he didn't want them anymore, instead of letting them go, he had one of his guards beat them for entertainment and then sold them off like cattle." His jaw clenches again. "They were found last week in a dumpster outside of Naples."
Now, I don't just want to hurt him.
I will hurt him.
My nails bite into the meat of my palms. When I slide back into place next to Alice, I glance down and realize I'm not the only one who wants this motherfucker's head. While Alice's expression is carefully neutral, almost detached, the hatred burning in her dark eyes is almost incandescent. When she looks over at me, we share a long moment of silent communication. Satisfied by whatever she sees in me, she gives me a short, succinct dip of her head.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I lean back against the couch once more. "Tell me about Masen."
El'azar chuffs and tosses the stack of files onto the desk beside him. "He's an interesting one."
"Do you know him?"
He gives me a pointed look. "No, not personally."
One brow climbs high because Eli knows everyone. "Would you tell me if you did?"
"Officially, no," El'azar says, flashing me a row of pretty white teeth. "Unofficially, of course, I would."
I nod. "Based on what you have on him, do you think he's compromised?"
For a moment, El'azar doesn't answer. Instead, he leans back in his chair and scrubs his face. "Indeterminate," he finally replies, and he's not happy about not knowing. "By all accounts Masen and Carlisle Cullen had a strong relationship. As a private contractor, Cullen was his CIA handler for over three years, ever since he left the Navy. It's very likely they worked together before that."
El'azar rifles through another stack of folders. When he picks up a file, I glimpse the telltale eagle and stars of the DoD on the cover, and it's all I can do not to laugh at the irony. Before I can school my amusement, he catches the twitch of my lips and gives me an impish, incorrigible smirk that makes even Whitlock snicker.
Going on like nothing at all is amiss, he says, "Intelligence places both in Afghanistan and later Syria at the same times. Iraq, as well. It's probable that Cullen and the CIA facilitated Masen's departure from the Navy so that he could run assignments… outside the normal channels." El'azar peeks up from the file. "As you're well aware, private contractors have certain operational and bureaucratic advantages that agencies such as the CIA..."
He grins. "And mine, like to employ."
"Yes, I'm aware," I reply, and this time it's my turn to smirk. "It pays better, too."
A low chuckle rumbles his chest before he continues. "The rest you heard from Platt. Masen was meant to infiltrate Aronov's organization, gather intel, and then eliminate the threat… But he stopped passing along information months ago and he's not responding to any attempts at contact."
McCarty pipes up from the couch. "What do ya'll have on Cullen's disappearance?"
"If that man is alive…" El'azar says. "It would be a miracle. The hotel room he disappeared from was a blood bath. DNA samples matched."
"Why no body?" Rosalie asks.
"They likely knew he was Platt's husband as well as CIA himself." El'azar shakes his head. "They're probably just fucking with her because they can and because it's amusing to them." He spits out a low curse in Hebrew. "I expect any day now that she will receive a box with his head. If he managed to survive and they have him, by now, I'm sure he wishes he had not."
Rolling my neck, I let out a slow, tired breath as the tight vertebrae crunch and pop. "I don't believe in coincidences. You think Masen was directly involved?"
"I know little more than Platt. I can't tell you what game he plays. It is unclear if he is on their side, yours, or his own." El'azar shoves the file on top of the others. "But my people will continue digging, and whatever we find, I'll send to you as soon as possible, red tape be damned. I am fully supportive of you ending this demon's existence. Markovsky and Koshmarin, as well."
"Todah rabah. You're the best."
A slow, sly smile stretches his cheeks. "You are just now figuring this out?"
"Yeah, yeah," I say, biting back a huff. "You don't need me stroking your ego."
And... for the second time, I want to kick myself for giving him that kind of opening.
In the same damned conversation.
Only this round, El'azar doesn't take it, and instead, his lips mash together in a hard line and he turns as serious as death itself.
"Be careful, Bella. Don't make me send one of my Kidon teams in after you. You know that I will, and the EU tends to get pissy when I do that." Eyes abruptly twinkling, he snorts at his own statement and gives me a playful wink. "Well, at least when they finally figure it out."
"I will, don't worry." My face splits in two, and I wink right back and add, "Oh, and Eli, tell your wife I said hello."
Just as the screen blinks to black, a loud, boisterous guffaw answers me.
Staring at the mass of crimson flowers by the door, I arch my back and shoulders in a long, lazy stretch, and when I spin back toward the team, my grin turns into something a lot more feral.
Now, it's my turn to hunt.
A quick note on "Kaius Koshmarin"… Russian has no hard C, hence the spelling with a K. Interestingly, Caius is an alternate spelling to Gaius (see more on that and the reference to Caligula below). Koshmar means "nightmare" in Russian. So… the last name is a play on that.
Boker tov: good morning
Kapara: literally atonement, used like neshama, meaning approximately darling, as a term of endearment
Yalla: common phrase taken from Arabic, meaning, come on, let's go
Todah rabah: thank you
Bratva: Russian for brotherhood, a common name for the collective units comprising Russian organized crime or mafia
Caligula: or Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was the third Roman emperor. Some sources paint him as a noble and moderate emperor. Others cite his cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversion, basically presenting him as an insane tyrant
Chechen War: above is in reference to the Second Russian-Chechen War, which was an armed conflict in Chechnya and the border regions of the North Caucasus between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, fought between 1999 and 2009. Both sides have accused the opposing side of committing various war crimes including kidnapping, murder, hostage taking, looting, rape, and assorted other breaches of the laws of war
DoD: US Department of Defense, is the executive branch department charged with coordination and supervision of agencies and functions of the US government related to national security and the US Armed Forces. The CIA and FBI are not under the DoD, however. The CIA is independent, and the FBI is under the justice department
IDF: Israel Defense Forces, or Israel's military
Institute: refers to the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, or Mossad, which is Israel's national intelligence agency
Kidon: literally, bayonet or tip of the spear in Hebrew, this is the elite unit within the Mossad that supposedly handles enemy assassinations
Paradeplatz: this is the financial or banking district in Zurich, Switzerland
Sarin: or NATO designation GB, is a chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent. Less potent than VX but still highly toxic. Exposure can lead to death by suffocation within 10 minutes if an antidote is not administered
Sayeret Matkal: General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269, or simply "The Unit", is the prime special forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It's an elite special operations unit much like the US's SFOD-D (Delta Force) or SEAL Team Six
Spetsnaz: this is an umbrella term for Russia's various special forces & special operations units