Prologue: New York, September 10th, 2015

 

WILL MRACEK, twenty-seven and newly in love, hesitated at the door to the private office in the lower floor of Jean Claude’s—no, their—penthouse apartment. It was his first day living with Jean Claude, and he’d thought a surprise lunch date a good way to celebrate.

Feeling nervous, he reached up to shove a stray lock of hair out of his face, wishing for the umpteenth time that his wavy chestnut hair wasn’t so damned unruly. As he did so, he saw with dismay that he’d missed a smear of brown binding glue on the back of his hand when he cleaned up before leaving his workshop that morning. He sighed, trying in vain to rub it away. It was bad enough that he wore silver-rimmed glasses and all his clothes made him look like Professor Plum without absentminded stains to complete the picture. He needed to get out more too. Hiding away at his desk was not doing any favors for his olive-tinged complexion.

Even now, Will wasn’t sure what a powerful businessman like Jean Claude saw in him, a quiet book restorer. He remembered the first time Jean Claude had walked into his shop, a priceless first edition of Madame Bovary in his hand. He could still feel, even now, the way his stomach had clenched at the sight of such handsome, powerful elegance, at the gray eyes that had pierced him so deeply. He’d never felt such instant attraction before, and it had made him clumsy, awkward.

But Jean Claude had smiled, seemingly charmed. And the next day he’d returned—this time with a bouquet of flowers and an invitation to dinner, which Will had instantly accepted. Three months later, he’d told Jean Claude he loved him. Caught in the throes of such powerful feelings, he hadn’t been able to say no when Jean Claude asked him to move in, despite their short courtship.

Now he wondered if he’d made a mistake. Just standing in the expensive penthouse in uptown Manhattan made Will nervous. He hoped a lunch date would remind him why he’d come here, who he’d come for.

Clearing his throat, Will raised his hand to knock, then hesitated when he heard voices just inside the door. He frowned, still too unsure of his place to know if an interruption would be welcome.

The door—made of heavy, polished walnut—stood open just a crack. It was enough that he could see Jean Claude inside at his desk, talking to a bald man dressed in a black business suit who stood on the other side with hands clasped at his waist. Will still felt a little jolt when he saw Jean Claude. The Frenchman was so handsome, with his silver-black hair and aquiline nose, pale as winter skin, and piercing gray eyes. Adelaide, his gorgeous Amazonian assistant, took notes in the corner.

Will should have left. Later, he would wish he had.

“…Operation was successful,” the bald man said. Even from the distance, Will could see the sweat gleaming on his forehead. Intrigued—he’d always been cursed with an overabundance of curiosity—he leaned forward, straining his ears to hear. “The goods made their way across the border with no suspicions.”

“Good.” Jean Claude’s voice was colder than Will had ever heard it, almost bored. “Any difficulties?”

“A few Iraqi border guards stuck their hands in the bags. We took care of them. The usual procedure. We were discreet, sir.”

Will paled. Goods? Borders? What was he talking about?

“Are you sure?” Jean Claude’s voice dropped to a dangerous murmur.

The man in front of him fidgeted nervously. “Sir?”

“Are you sure you were discreet?”

“Uh, yes. No witnesses.”

“Then what do you call this?” There was a hiss as Jean Claude slid a manila folder across the polished wood of his desk.

The man in black cringed and reached out to flick open the folder with a shaking hand. When he saw what was inside, he stepped back as if he’d been slapped. “Sir, I—I don’t know how—”

“That is a report from US Military Intelligence,” Jean Claude said. “From a small boy in Nippur who saw men dressed in black gun down the guards at the National Museum. Men wearing uniforms with the Graywater logo.”

Silence.

“I’ll take care of it,” the man said after a long moment. He was short of breath, and Will heard a palpable fear in his voice. “I’ll—”

“You can’t clear this up,” Jean Claude said. “This isn’t the FBI—I don’t have any sway with military courts. There’s only one choice here.” In one fluid motion, Jean Claude reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun. There was a click, the sound too quiet for what it was, and the man crumbled onto the carpet with a heavy thud.

Will slammed his hands over his mouth to stifle a scream.

“Take him to the Midtown office.” Jean Claude’s voice was silky smooth. He stood and walked over to the body. Bending, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the gun clean. Holding it with the white cloth, he slid it carefully into the dead man’s fingers. “Make sure the note takes full responsibility.”

“Shall I alert our contacts at the FBI?” Adelaide asked.

Jean Claude was silent a moment, looking down at the dead man. Then, standing, he shook his head. “The NYPD, I think. If and when the FBI gets to it, they’ll know not to involve me. I want all traces of the Nippur operation to lead back to him.”

“Understood, sir.”

Outside the door, Will felt nauseated. Panic threatened to overtake him as he listened to Jean Claude coldly determine how to dispose of a dead body. He must have made some noise because Jean Claude suddenly looked over, meeting his eyes with a cold gray stare through the crack in the door. Surprise ran across his face.

“William?”

Will didn’t wait for him to take action. Instinct took over, sending him running back to the elevator, his heart thumping as he jumped inside and jammed the button for the first floor. It closed on Adelaide’s menacing form at the end of the hallway, nostrils flared, and a dangerous glint in her eyes.

He rode the elevator forty floors with his heart in his throat, sure that at any moment it would stop, that Adelaide would be there, forcing the doors open, bringing that gun up, ready to—

The elevator stopped at the ground floor with a quiet ping. He stepped into the apartment’s gold-and-marble lobby, breath held, and made a beeline for the revolving doors that led outside.

Keep walking. Don’t look back.

He forced himself to smile at the doorman, to walk, not run, into the busy streets of New York outside. He knew it would be easier to find him if he stood out from the crowd, so he bowed his shoulders and kept his head down. Will slipped into the stream of drab New Yorkers on their way to lunch, moving around the dog walkers with their small leashed packs and the occasional bike messenger who dared to ride amongst the pedestrians. Only when he was a dozen blocks away did he let himself step into an alleyway and fall to his knees, his breath coming fast.

What was he going to do?

He ran through the possibilities, forcing the fear down. His workshop in the Village—but no, that would be the first place Jean Claude would look. He didn’t have any close friends or family in the area either, not since his father had died the year before.

Suddenly his phone rang. Will took it from his pocket, saw Jean Claude’s picture blinking on the screen, and hesitated a long moment before answering. “Hello?”

“William.” His voice sent shivers down Will’s spine. “Love, you’ve seen something shocking, I know. But I can explain. Please, come home. I’m worried about you.”

“Worried about me? You just shot a man,” Will hissed into the phone. His eyes widened as he looked up at the mouth of the alleyway, making sure he was still alone. Saying it aloud made it all the more true. “You’re a… a murderer.”

“Will, I love you, and you love me. Isn’t that worth listening to what I have to say? I promise, I don’t want to hurt you.”

Will saw again his hand snap out, the cool disinterest with which he pulled the trigger, cleaned the gun, and placed it into the man’s hand—framing him as a suicide. “I trusted you,” he whispered. His heart ached in his chest, and tension sent pain ratcheting through his head, mixing with his panic. “I’m going to the police. Homeland Security!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no need for hysterics. Just come home. I can send Adelaide with the car for you—you’re on 85th and Park, non?”

Will looked up, his heart skipping a beat as he saw Jean Claude was right. How did he know? “No, I—I need time to think. To decide what to do,” Will stalled, looking around like a cornered animal.

There was a cold silence. When Jean Claude spoke, there was a hard edge in his voice. “Come home now, Will. Or there will be trouble. Don’t make me come after you, my love.”

Fear curdled Will’s blood as Jean Claude’s words struck him through the phone. Don’t make me come after you. Panicked, Will slammed on the End Call icon and watched the call minimize. Still on the first wave of adrenaline, he stared at his phone, then realized what had happened.

The GPS locator. Jean Claude was tracking him.

Riding that adrenaline, Will dropped his phone on the ground and stomped on it till the screen cracked and flaked off. That done, he took a deep breath and tried to make his brain work again. He would only have a few minutes before Jean Claude came for him. He needed a plan, and quickly.

If Jean Claude found him again, assurances or not, he was going to kill him. Will knew it like he knew his own name. Nor could he go to the police, not with the way Jean Claude had talked about them, about their ties. He had only one choice if he wanted to survive: he had to disappear.

He pulled out his battered brown wallet, hoping something in it would spark an idea, the faintest hint of a plan. He took a quick inventory—a debit card, driver’s license, Antiquarian Book Society membership, twenty dollars, and a few old business cards. Then he saw the corner of some dirty cardboard sticking out from the back of his wallet. He pulled it out, the memory coming to him in a flash as he read the business card, the international number carefully printed by hand on the back, his cousin John’s name scrawled on the bottom.

It had been raining the day he gave it to Will.

“I’m done with the Marines. Thought I’d try going to Prague to teach English,” John had said, sounding embarrassed. They’d been close as children, and in the brief time John spent in New York while recovering from a battle wound, had regained some of their old friendship. “If you ever have business in Europe, give me a call. You know you’re the only family I’ve got left that I actually like, right?”

Will had laughed and taken the card, promising to use it but doubtful he’d ever leave the continent. He’d seen John off at the airport with a quiet wave, wishing he were brave enough to set out on such an adventure.

Maybe now was the time.

Heart pounding, he hurried out of the alleyway and down the street. First, he’d run—far away from here, disappear into the city. Then he’d buy a disposable phone and make that call.

And then?

He swallowed hard and let his mind blank as he dove into the crowd of people hurrying down the street.