Five years ago
Asia House, Tel Aviv, Israel
He waited with his face pressed against the warm metal and his pistol gouging the skin at his lower back. He thought about pulling the weapon from his waistband, setting it beside him or even holding it in his hand, but when the time came, he'd have to move fast, and he didn't want it getting in his way. He'd been there a long time, since well before the first party guests started arriving. Now it sounded as though quite a crowd had gathered on the third floor of the big building. Their voices drifted to him through the ventilation shaft, reverberating off its metal walls, reaching his ears as a jumble of undulating tones, punctuated at times by shrill laughter. He would close his eyes for long periods and try to discern the conversations, but whether by distortion or foreign tongue, even single words eluded him.
Luco Scaramuzzi lifted his cheek out of a pool of perspiration and peered for the hundredth time through the two-foot-square grille below him. He could still see the small spot on the marble floor where a bead of sweat had dropped from the tip of his nose before he could stop it. If that spot were the center point of a clock face, the toilet was at noon, the sink and vanity at two o'clock, and the door--just beyond Luco's view--at three. Despite the large room's intended function as a lavatory for one, modesty or tact had prompted the mounting of walnut partitions on the two unwalled sides of the toilet. It was these partitions that would allow him to descend from the air shaft without being seen by a person standing at the sink--by his target.
A gust of pungent wind blew past him, turning his stomach and forcing him to gasp for air through the grille. The building was home to several embassies, an art gallery, and a restaurant--enough people, food, and trash to generate some really awful effluvia. When the cooling system was idle, the temperature in the ventilation shafts quickly soared into summer-sun temperatures, despite the nighttime hour, and all sorts of odors roamed the ducts like rabid dogs. Then the air conditioner would kick in, chasing away the smells and freezing the perspiration to his body.
Arjan had warned him about such things. He had explained that covert operations necessitated subjecting the body and senses to elements sane men avoided: extreme heat and cold; long stretches of immobility in the most uncomfortable places and positions; contact with insects, rodents, decay. He had advised him to focus on a single object and think pleasant thoughts until equilibrium returned.
Luco shifted his eyes to a perfume bottle on the vanity. He imagined its fragrance, then thought of himself breathing it in as his fingers lifted hair away from the curve of an olive-skinned neck and felt the pulse with his lips.
He heard the bathroom door open and pulled his face back into the darkness. He held his breath, then exhaled when he heard the click of a woman's heels. Her shoes came into view, then her legs and body. Of course she was elegantly dressed. Not only did the nature of the gathering demand it, but this room was reserved for special guests--the target, his family, and his entourage: people who were expected to look their best. The woman stopped in front of the vanity mirror, glanced at herself, and continued into the stall. Turning, she yanked up her dress. Hooked by two thumbs, her hosiery came down as she sat.
The top of the partition's door obstructed Luco's view of her lap, and during the bathroom visits of two other lovely ladies, he had found that no amount of craning would change that fact. So he lay still and watched her face. She was model-beautiful, with big green eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and lips too full to be natural. She finished, flushed, and walked to the sink, where she was completely out of view. This reassured him that the plan had been well thought through. She fiddled at the sink for a minute after washing her hands--applying makeup, he guessed--and left.
He waited for the click of a latch as the door settled into its jamb. It didn't come . . . Someone was holding the door open. Masculine shoes and pant legs stepped silently into view. Luco's breath stopped.
Watch for a bodyguard, Arjan had told him. He'll come in for a look. He may flush the toilet and run the water in the sink, but he won't use anything himself. The next man in is your guy.
He would recognize his target, of course, but getting these few seconds of warning allowed his mind to shift from vigilance to readiness.
He could see the bodyguard in the bathroom now, a square-jawed brute packed into an Armani. The guard stepped up to the vanity to examine each of the bottles and brushes in turn. He dropped to one knee, with more grace than seemed possible, and examined under the countertop and sink. The bathroom had been thoroughly checked once already, earlier in the day, but nobody liked surprises. Luco smiled at the thought.
Standing again, the guard glanced around, his eyes sweeping toward the grille. Luco pulled back farther, fighting the urge to move fast, which might cause the metal he was on to pop, or the gypsum boards that formed the bathroom's ceiling to creak. He imagined the guard's eyes taking in the screws that seemed to hold the grille firmly in place. In reality, they were screw heads only, glued in place after Luco had removed the actual screws. Now, a solitary wire held up the grille on the unhinged side.
The guard inspected the toilet, the padded bench opposite the sink, and the thin closet by the door, bare but for a few hand towels and extra tissue rolls. Every move he made was quick and efficient. He had done this countless times before--probably even did it in his dreams--and never expected to find anything that would validate his existence. He didn't this time either. After all, his boss was the benign prime minister of a democratic country with few enemies. A grudge would almost have to be personal, not political.
Or preordained, thought Luco. Preordained.
The guard spoke softly to someone in the hall.
The door closed, latching firmly. Someone set the lock. The target walked into view. He drained a crystal glass of amber fluid, almost missed the top of the vanity as he set down the glass, and belched loudly. He fumbled with his pants, and Luco saw that his belly had grown too round to let him see his own zipper, which could present a problem with the superfluous hooks and buttons common to finely tailored slacks. The target left the stall door open. He stood before the toilet with his pants and boxers crumpled around his ankles, his hips thrust forward for better aim, the way a child pees.
A confident assassin may have done the deed right then, just pulled back and shot through the grille into the target's head. And, certainly, he could have hired such professionalism. Arjan would have done it; had even requested the assignment.
But it has to be me. If I don't do this myself, then it is for nothing.
Given that requirement, Arjan had set about preparing his boss for this moment, arranging transportation and alibis, securing timetables and blueprints. Arjan had made him train for five weeks with Incursori loyalists. They had worked him physically and filled his mind with knowledge of ballistics and anatomy, close-quarters combat, the arts of vigilance and stealth--at least to the extent that time allowed. Arjan had explained that using a sniper's rifle and scope was infeasible, considering the deadline.
Shooting a man from three hundred yards is a skill! he had snapped. It's not like the movies, man. It takes years of training to guarantee a kill. And you'll have only one chance, right?
So somewhere in Arjan's dark mind, a switch labeled "close kill" had been thrown, sending Luco down a track that led to this ventilation shaft and his hand on the wire that held the grille in place. Slowly, he unwound it from an exposed screw. Then he recalled Arjan's instructions and relooped the wire.
The target's unabated flow told him he had at least a few more seconds. Luco removed a moist washcloth from a Ziploc baggy. He rubbed it over his face, removing sweat and dust from around his eyes, letting the water refresh him. Arjan had told him that countless missions failed because of haste and machismo myths about warriors fighting despite handicaps. "Perspiration in your eyes is a disadvantage you can avoid, so do it!" he had ordered.
Luco dried himself with a washcloth from another Ziploc. His fingers felt clammy inside the tight dishwashing gloves he wore, but that was better than trying to handle the wire and pistol with sweaty hands. Surgical gloves, he had learned, were too thin to prevent leaving fingerprints. And Arjan had been clear about wearing the gloves from ingress to egress--so clear, in fact, that he'd made Luco wear them the entire last week of his training.
The target was tugging his pants up, running a hand around to tuck in his shirt. As soon as he rounded the partition to step in front of the sink, Luco whipped the wire off the screw and let the grille swing down. A string that was attached to the wire slid between his thumb and forefinger until a knot stopped it, halting the grille inches from the wall.
The water at the sink came on.
He used his strong arms to position himself directly above the opening. His legs pistonned down, and he dropped to the floor. By bending his knees as soon as the toes of his rubber-soled boots touched the marble, he managed an almost-silent landing. Still crouched, he pulled the pistol from his waistband. It was a China Type 64, old but especially suited for the job at hand. Its barrel was no longer than any handgun's, but included a silencer; its breech slide was lockable--and was now locked, he noted--to prevent the noises of cartridge ejection and round rechambering inherent to semiautomatic pistols. With its subsonic 7.65mm bullets, it was the quietest pistol ever made.
He stepped behind the target, who was bent over the sink, splashing water on his face. Perfect. The gun's locking slide meant he had only one quick shot. The next shot would take at least five seconds to prepare--an eternity if a wounded victim was screaming and thrashing around and bodyguards were kicking in the door. His goal was instant incapacitation . . . instant death. And that meant the bullet had to sever the brain stem, which was best achieved from behind. He pointed the pistol at the approximate spot where the man's head would be when he straightened.
But, still bent, the man reached for a hand towel, knocked it to the floor, and turned to retrieve it. Catching Luco in his peripheral vision, he stood to face him. His eyes focused on the gun, and he raised his hands in surrender. His attention rose to Luco's face. Puzzlement made his eyes squint, his mouth go slack.
He knows he's seen me before, Luco realized.
"Ti darò qualsiasi cosa oppure," the man pleaded. I will give you everything. His voice was hushed, obviously believing that cooperation would forestall his death.
"Sono sicuro che lo farai," Luco said. I know you will. Stepping forward, he touched the barrel to the indentation between the man's lips and nose--lightly, as if anointing him--and pulled the trigger. The man's head snapped back. Brain and blood and bone instantly caked the mirror behind him, as a dozen fissures snapped the glass from a central point where the bullet had struck. Miraculously, none of the shards came loose. The noise had been barely audible above the sound of the faucet. Luco caught the body as it crumpled and laid it gently on the floor.
Then the smell hit him, like meat shoved into his sinuses. He stood, tried to breathe. Something fell from the mirror and landed wetly on the countertop. Vomit rose in his throat. He slapped his palm over his mouth and willed it back down. Hand in place, he forced himself to survey the slaughter--the brain matter on the mirror and counter; the blood there, as well as spreading in a pool under the head, a rivulet breaking away and snaking toward a floor drain near the toilet; the face contorted in terror, mouth open, tongue protruding, eyes wide.
He wanted to remember.
Back below the ventilation opening, he jumped and pulled himself into the shaft. He could have used the bench for a boost up, but the idea was to slow his pursuers, even by mere seconds. It wasn't the time it would take the guards to move the bench into place that mattered, but any confusion produced by not having an obvious escape route to follow. First, they'd call for a screwdriver (or shoot away the screw heads). Then they'd tug at the grille, which the high-tensile wire would hold firm. Ultimately they'd get into the shaft, glance at the false metal wall he would place behind him, and head the other way.
Six minutes after the assassination, he clambered out of the shaft behind a stack of boxes in a storage room. Through the door, two steps down a hallway, and he was descending the narrow and dark servants' staircase, rarely used since the installation of elevators in the 1970s. He came out in a kitchen three floors below. Hands were immediately on him, pulling at his blood-spattered overalls.
"Hurry," a young man whispered in Italian. His head moved in all directions as he peeled the clothes away.
Luco stripped off the rubber gloves, then vigorously rubbed his hands together. He opened a pocketknife and ran the blade over the laces of his boots. The young man--Antonio, Luco remembered--tugged off the boots and pushed on a pair of expensive oxfords to match his suit. Everything went into an attaché case. Antonio scrubbed at his neck, face, and hair with a wet towel.
"Ah," Luco complained, wiping at his eye.
"Dishwasher soap. Nothing better for blood." Antonio tossed the towel into the attaché, produced a comb, and ran it through Luco's hair. "Come." He led Luco to a heavy fire door at the rear of the building and signaled for him to wait. He opened it and slipped through. Fifteen seconds later he was back, beckoning Luco outside.
A long alley ran away from the Asia House, cutting a canyon between two tall buildings. The only illumination appeared to be the glow of a mercury-vapor lamp on the far street where the alley ended. Everything else was submerged in blackness. Propping the door open with his foot, Antonio pointed down the alley. "The car is parked on Henriata Sold."
Luco gripped the young man's shoulder and gave it a shake. He leaned closer. "Grazie." Antonio whispered back, "Anything for you."
Luco stepped into the dark alley, the click of his heels echoing quietly. The door closed behind him. He smiled.
It was finished.
And it had just begun.