Napa Valley, California, June 25, 8:56 a.m., Present Day:
Through the crosshairs of his long-barreled sweetheart, Ivan scanned the wood-casement window of the vineyard’s stone-walled residence, and waited for his intended target to walk into view. His movements were slow and meticulous.
Lying in the loft of an old barn, he calculated range, altitude, temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, and humidity. His skin was irritated by the coarse hay that surrounded him, but he ignored the sensation and focused on his calculations. Click. He made a minor adjustment on his rifle to account for the drop of the round due to air density. And another for windage.
Although misty rivers of fog swirled into gray whirlpools around the winery, the computer enhanced scope of his Springfield EBR allowed him to visually lock onto the home’s large bank of windows. Human movement flickered behind the glass.
He didn’t want to pull the trigger. Nevertheless, Ivan waited for the perfect moment, the perfect shot.
As she headed toward her father’s vineyard, Maddy drove as fast as she dared down a familiar tree-lined Napa country lane. Today, she didn’t recognize the road. It looked eerie and unnatural. The area was draped in sheets of fog from yesterday’s unseasonable rain, and the silver half-light gave the trees an ethereal patina.
“Sensei, would you kill someone if you had to?” AJ asked.
Surprised, Maddy frowned. “I’m not a sensei yet, remember?” She paused for a moment before she replied to his query. “Where did that question come from?”
“We were talking about it in the locker room at the dojo after class. We know aikido is about non-violence, but what if you don’t have a choice?” His voice dropped to a dramatic whisper. “What if it was kill or be killed?”
Maddy shook her head. The things children thought about. “I would always look for another way.”
She glanced over at AJ, glad she’d brought him along today. His ears stuck out and his face was dotted with freckles. She found him adorable.
“Okay. Can martial arts masters light paper on fire with just their hands?”
Maddy halted the car at a stop sign and peered through the swirling, patchy fog, trying to get her bearings while she figured out how to answer this question. The mist distorted everything. She turned right.
Without warning, a smothering mass of black, rustling feathers flew toward the car. She flinched in her seat and slammed on the car brakes. Her heart pounded. She stopped breathing and scanned the road ahead of her. After a long moment, she realized with chagrin that she had just scared a bunch of ugly, red-faced black turkey vultures into flight by turning onto a new road after a stop sign.
She took a deep breath. It wasn’t like her to be so jumpy. She was, after all, shodan, a first-dan black belt. But the sudden movement of wings, obscured through the morning’s foggy haze, had pulled her off balance. Maddy gave the car some gas and it inched forward down the road.
Maddy looked over at AJ. “Are you okay?”
AJ laughed. “I’m okay. But that scared you!”
“Did not!” Maddy replied, twisting her ponytail.
“Did too—I saw you jump! And you smashed on the brakes.”
Maddy grinned for a moment at the childish banter and AJ’s creative language. It could be a happy day, in spite of everything. She loved AJ, she and Vincent had even talked about adopting him. Vincent, her former fiancé. Of course, that was before the breakup. Since then, she’d been feeling brittle, and the nightmare last night didn’t help. The dream was gut-wrenching. Although the sensation had faded in the dim light of morning, much of it lingered like a bad relationship. That dream was probably why she was on edge and had jumped at the thrashing wings.
She looked at the dash clock—only a few minutes late. Heart still beating faster than normal, she turned down the long shadowy driveway of the once proud vineyard.
Up in the old barn, Ivan was close to the target, only seventy meters from the glass curtain that separated him from his quarry. Although the misty morning limited his visibility, he felt confident in his ability to execute the task Baron Sokolov had assigned to him.
Ivan recalled much longer-range kills. Two months ago, from a nearby skyscraper, he’d eliminated a traitorous spy during a French soccer match, piercing the man’s forehead as directed. His record was just under two thousand meters, one hundred fifty meters shy of the longest recorded sniper kill in history. But he reminded himself to stay vigilant and cautious, traits that had earned him medals as one of Russia’s most accurate shooters.
Being watchful was his nature. It was the silver lining of his disorder, congenital analgesia, which made him insensitive to pain. My gift from Mother, he thought.
Ivan wondered where on his body he would mark this job. His left arm was covered in sets of hash marks—scars, where he had marked his kills. He started scarring himself in school to impress the other children, and in time it had become a blood ritual after a task to remind himself to be careful, that he too could die. After this morning, it would be time to add another scar. At one hundred and fifty-five confirmed kills, he had scars on both thighs, both arms, and was running out of room for the marks.
Soon he would catch up to the kills his grandmother had recorded during World War II. After Germany had invaded, she had volunteered for the military and had one hundred and seventy-nine confirmed kills to her credit. Impressive. He remembered how she had taught him to shoot when he was young. She had a fondness for killing rabbits and he could still picture their crimson blood sprayed on the bright Siberian snow. However, patience was her favorite lesson and it had served him well.
A puff of wind tugged at a windmill in the distance, and the melancholy creak of metal scratching metal disturbed the morning silence. He held his breath and listened for any sound to indicate he’d been discovered. There was nothing further, only an unnatural, muted quiet.
Focused on his breathing and the window, he continued to wait for a clean shot.
He was tired of killing, but he had to do his job. This last job. Or his son would die.