“I THINK I’m getting too fucking old for this,” Lowell said to himself, dropping his carryall on his kitchen floor. He could barely take a single step, he was so tired. He kicked off his shoes and walked through the small apartment toward the bathroom. He passed nothing of any importance. There was truly nothing there that meant anything to him. The pictures that hung on the walls had been bought at a thrift store. The framed photographs that sat on the shelving unit in the living room were of people he didn’t know—pictures he’d found years ago and had carried with him. They made good camouflage, and that was what he was an expert at. The few times he’d had people over because of a job that his cover as a reporter had demanded, his guests would have found nothing he didn’t want them to find. There wasn’t a single thing in this place that wasn’t put here by him either to deceive or to tell a guest, invited or uninvited, absolutely nothing about him. He was a ghost, someone who wasn’t supposed to exist. In fact, his real name had been uttered so few times in the last ten years, he had almost forgotten it.
His phone rang as he reached the bedroom. Lowell thought about not answering, but he knew who it was, so he reached for the damned thing. “Yeah.”
“Is that any way to talk to the person who just spent half the day trying to save your ass?” There was little heat in the female voice.
“So? I doubt it’s worth saving,” he countered. Lowell was tired and mighty cranky. “Besides, he can be angry all he wants, but the whole mess was his fault for not doing his homework and giving me crap information. So you tell His Highness that either he pays up or my next contract will be my own, taken out on him. And remind him I know where his weaknesses are.” He had had enough of temperamental royalty. They thought they were above everything, but they died just like anyone else. Lowell knew a million ways to kill and how to do it without leaving a trace.
“I made sure he knew,” Moonstone told him. He knew her by that name and didn’t care what her real one was. She was his handler and one of the few people he trusted, but even then only up to a point. His characteristic lack of trust had kept him alive for years, so he went with it, telling everyone, including her, only what he wanted them to know. “But I doubt we’ll be getting any more work from him.”
Lowell scoffed. “We will. He needs my services and he knows it. How else is he going to take out the enemies that lurk around every corner? At least the enemies his paranoid little mind keeps telling him are lurking. But I think it best if the next time he calls, I should be unavailable.”
“Very well,” Moonstone said with no emotion whatsoever.
“So did he send payment?”
“Yes. I transferred your funds through a new route to the usual account. They are available now. And I have another job for you.”
“God, no. I can’t do anything more right now.” Lowell was too exhausted. He’d made up for the fiasco that had happened a few months earlier, when he’d been unable to convince a colleague to take a job. That had been the last time he’d been this tired, but then he’d taken the job and he’d been bested by some kid. That was not going to happen again. He knew his limits, and he’d gone against his judgment then. He wasn’t going to now. “These jobs are getting harder, and I need some time to rest.” He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and he didn’t recover as quickly anymore either.
“This is a good one and it pays very well. A Central American businessman has a rival that he desperately wants eliminated. It should be a quick in and out. I’m sending over the details.” Lowell remained quiet. “This is a lucrative job, very lucrative—they’re willing to pay twice the usual rate. I told them you would need some convincing.”
“I’ll do it for three times the usual rate… for me. Whatever you get above that, you can have. Call me back when they agree.” Lowell cut off the call and tossed the phone onto the bed. Then he went to his closet and grabbed a wire coat hanger. It made a simple but effective key. Lowell dropped to his hands and knees and carefully threaded the curved end of the coat hanger into a knot in the old woodwork molding. He went through a rather complicated set of motions that had to be done just right—otherwise the user would find himself with a face full of cyanide gas and be dead within seconds. Lowell had done this multiple times and felt the mechanism open under his practiced fingers.
He pulled back the section of molding and took out a thin case that contained his secure laptop. Using it, he logged into an encryption service and then routed his connection around the globe before logging into his account. He saw the funds Moonstone had said were deposited and immediately transferred them to a different account at the same bank and then out and through a series of accounts to one only he was aware of.
As soon as he was done, he closed every connection. He’d been online for only a matter of minutes, but he wanted to leave no trail and no way for anyone to trace his movements. Then he replaced the laptop, locked everything back up, and went into the bathroom, where he turned on the water. He removed the facial alterations he’d used on this job. It pulled like hell on his skin, but part of the beauty of what he did was that few people actually saw his real face.
When all the crap was off and he’d shaved and cleaned his face so his skin could breathe, Lowell stepped under the now hot water with a sigh. These damned jobs were taking too much out of him. He’d been thinking that he was getting close to retirement for a while now, but a few more jobs to add to his bank account, or even this one job, if Moonstone could arrange it, could tip him over the edge and then he wouldn’t have to do this any longer. Granted, he’d have to find something to occupy him for the rest of his life, but he could certainly do that. He put all that out of his mind and concentrated on the feel of water sluicing down his skin. It felt like weeks since he’d been truly clean and free of all the things he had to do for his job. Once he was clean, he stood still and let the water run over him, shutting off his brain for a few minutes and just letting himself… be.
Of course, that relaxed feeling only lasted until he got out of the bathroom. His phone was already ringing. He picked it up and glanced at the number before answering it.
“He agreed to our price.” He knew Moonstone had added plenty for herself, but he didn’t care—he was getting what he wanted, and that was enough to make up for the inconvenience.
“Good. When do I leave?”
“Tickets and information are being delivered to your door right now. You know what to do once you get them. All the details you need will be in there. Of course, you and the client are not to meet.”
“Don’t know who he is?”
“You are to avoid him at all costs. There can be no connection between the client and the end result. That’s the one stipulation. You know the deal. Make it look like an accident or natural causes and you’ll get a 50 percent bonus.”
“Sounds like someone’s desperate,” Lowell observed, not expecting an answer.
“Let’s just say they’re motivated,” Moonstone said in her usual unflappable tone. “Look, you’re going to need to be on top of your game for this one. Even though they say this will be a quick in and out, you know there can be potential complications that could make this difficult. I don’t know if there are any, but if I get wind of them, I’ll let you know. I also suggest that you do your usual homework.” She hung up, and Lowell dropped the towel from around his waist. He pulled on old but comfortable clothes and left the bedroom. He thought about pouring a shot of his favorite tequila, but at this point alcohol was not a good idea.
When the front door buzzer sounded, he went down to the lobby and took the sealed packet from the bicycle messenger, checked that it was unopened, and then tipped the kid before returning to his apartment. It had surprised him early on that Moonstone used messengers, but just like sometimes it was best to hide in plain sight, he knew that sometimes the simplest things were the best. Lowell dropped the envelope on the table as he walked to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and stared at emptiness. After closing the door, he picked up the phone, ordered Chinese delivery, and settled on the sofa to review the details of his next assignment.
“I’M GETTING way too fucking old for this.” Lowell dropped his carryall on the floor of his apartment. This time he ached from head to foot. He’d accomplished his mission with remarkably few problems, and no one had been the wiser. The problems had started when he’d gotten ready to leave the country and the bastard who’d hired him had tried to renege on the deal. Apparently, the “businessman” liked to get things for free and didn’t care how he went about it. It had meant a great deal of additional effort, but Lowell had gotten his money, complete with bonus, when he’d met the client in his own bedroom with a gun. Suddenly the wheels were greased and everything became an understanding. Payment had been very forthcoming at that point, and Lowell had left without a further word.
The little snafu had messed up all kinds of plans, and while he’d been able to get out of that godforsaken country, he hadn’t been able to get a flight home for two days and he’d gotten tired of hotels, bad food, and… hell, he was just getting tired.
Lowell grabbed his secure phone and made his call. “I’m back, and if you ever send me on a job like that again, I’ll hunt you down wherever you are and make you my next job.”
Moonstone laughed. They both knew that was pretty much impossible, mainly because he had tried. It was in his nature. But there were too many safeguards in place to protect both of them. For one thing, they had never met and only communicated through prearranged methods that changed on a regular basis. “But you’re home,” she said.
“Yes.” He already knew they’d been paid and he was about to transfer the money where he wanted it. “And I have no intention of taking another job. Not now.”
“I wasn’t going to ask.” She was lying and Lowell knew it. “But I have plenty of work for ‘Spook’ whenever you’re ready.” He had no doubt of that. “Spook’s” talents were very much in demand. They always had been. But he was simply too tired right now to take on anything else.
“Give me a few weeks and I’ll be in touch.” He was going to take a vacation, and as much as he hated to admit it, he needed some advice. There was only one person he knew of who he could turn to. It was too bad that guy would probably tear him to pieces as soon as he saw him. The more Lowell thought about it, the dumber he realized his idea was. There was no way he was crossing paths with him ever again. He’d made a mistake back then, and the guy had handed him his head.
He headed for the bathroom and shook his head when he saw his reflection in the mirror. He pulled at the chin and cheek extensions, wincing slightly as they came away from his skin. He hated this part, but it was necessary. Changing his features allowed him to pass undetected. They also went with the various passports and identities he’d created. Once his face was his again, he turned on the shower and stepped under it, washing out the temporary color he’d placed in his hair to darken it. His normally mousy brown hair was an asset when he traveled to certain parts of the world. It made it very easy for him to darken or lighten it when he needed to.
The water ran dark for a few minutes as he shampooed out the color. Once it was clear, he washed the rest of himself and then stepped out. He wrapped a towel around his waist, feeling a hell of a lot better. He had no jobs on the horizon and nowhere to be or anything that he had to do. Lowell got dressed and retrieved his laptop, transferred his funds, and then disconnected. After stowing the piece of equipment again, he flopped on the sofa, ordered delivery, and turned on the television. It would surprise most people to know that a guy who took care of other people’s problems in the most lethal way possible vegged out in front of the television like anyone else when he had nothing better to do.
Lowell’s dinner arrived a few minutes later. He went down to the lobby to get his food because he never let anyone in his apartment if he could help it, paid the guy, and climbed the stairs back up. His phone was ringing when he entered, so he placed the bag on the counter and answered it. “Yeah.”
“We’ve got a problem,” Moonstone said without preamble. “Your location has been compromised. Apparently your last client has many more connections than we figured, and he arranged through contacts for you to be followed. We don’t know how close they got, but you need to get out of where you’re holed up and to a safe location. Destroy and dump this phone. We’ll go to emergency contact procedures.” The line went dead.
Lowell took a deep breath and calmly retrieved the few items he needed from the apartment. He placed the phone in a plastic bag, then smashed it with a hammer into tiny bits. His computer and other vital tools he placed in his carryall, and then he dumped the dirty clothes in a trash bag. He heard nothing out of the ordinary, but checked outside anyway, just in case. Of course he saw nothing, but then he most likely wouldn’t. For this he couldn’t rely on his sense of sight.
When he had packed what little he needed, Lowell sat at the counter and opened the bag of food. He sniffed the beef with broccoli and his stomach roiled. He dabbed the sauce with his finger, then sniffed it again. His finger tingled slightly, and he wiped it with a napkin before washing his hands thoroughly at the sink. “Amateurs,” he whispered. It wasn’t impossible to poison a guy like him, but it was damned hard. His system had been exposed to so damn much that on some level it alerted him. Lowell’s stomach was cast iron, so if it rebelled at the sight of food, then there was something definitely wrong with it.
Lowell smiled and dumped the food in the plastic bag with the pieces of his phone. That would mess up anything that anyone could try to get from it. Now he was sure they would be watching the building, so he went to his closet. After pulling off his comfortable clothes, he changed into an outfit he’d “borrowed” from his older neighbor when the man had left his clothes in the laundry room.
Soft footsteps on the stairs alerted him to someone approaching. He peered out into the hall and saw the older man whose clothes he was using enter his apartment. This was perfect. If the place was being watched, they would think the man had changed clothes and was leaving again.
Lowell picked up speed and powdered his hair with a touch of gray. Then he grabbed a jacket and his carryall and left the apartment. He made a quick stop in the trash room, where he opened the soupy plastic bag and dumped the contents down the chute. The rest of his trash followed. He didn’t care about that. Nothing could be traced to him, and only the phone had anything of value and it was now gone. With just his small carryall, he slowly descended the stairs and continued down to the basement. Long ago he’d devised an escape route in case he needed one.
Just before opening the door at the bottom of the stairs, multiple footsteps that weren’t as muffled as their makers had hoped sounded on the stairs overhead. They were moving fast, and Lowell knew he didn’t have much time. He walked to the laundry room and closed the door. His heart raced, but he kept his thoughts clear. He pushed the last dryer aside and pulled open the small door he’d installed there when he’d first taken the apartment. He crouched down and made his way through the small space, then pulled the dryer back in place and stepped out into the alley just down from the back entrance to the building.
He looked both ways and saw the inevitable man standing beside the back door. Staying close to the building in the shadows, Lowell turned and made his way down the alley. Once he was far enough away, he picked up his pace. At a main street, he caught a taxi and told the driver to take him to the train station.