FIFTEEN MONTHS AGO
“It’s in Freiburg, Germany. I’m sending the details through right now.”
“The target’s got nothing to tell us. No creativity needed.”
“It should look…opportunistic. A mugging.”
After walking quickly across the empty park, Dietmar Beck entered an avenue of majestic oak trees. Captivated by the colorful setting, he slowed his pace, and then came to a standstill. Massive, charcoal-grey oak trunks framed a quiet country lane. Like great monoliths, they endured, ancient and silent, in austere counterpoint to the ceaseless whisperings of the thousands upon thousands of restless leaves that danced and fluttered in a flaming canopy of golden-amber glory.
Beck stood, awed, breathing in the heady aroma of earth and trees, until a quick glance at his watch got him moving again, his shoes crunching on the gravel road.
He was on his way to meet an old friend, Jürgen Hillier to talk over recent media speculation that suggested Europe might be heading for civil war.
Idly contemplating the prospect of war, Beck observed the arrival of two men at the far end of the avenue. They were sauntering in the direction of the park. Rough and heavyset, they seemed to move with the casual grace of predators.
A tremor of uncertainty stirred Beck’s pulse. Unexpectedly, he felt exposed and unnerved. Was there a studied laziness to the easy stride of the men ambling toward him?
He found himself weighing the unsettling caprice of fate.
The larger of the two looked like a gypsy. Brightly colored tassels were tied into the thick black hair that hung about his shoulders. He was carrying something. A ball, perhaps. Or a rock.
Beck considered changing direction, even turning back. There was still time. But then his moment of doubt was swept aside. He was giving in to prejudice, he decided––a rush to judgment based entirely on the appearance of two strangers. Continuing on, his pace unchanged, he closed the gap between them, nodding as the men strolled by.
The big gypsy dipped his head in response.
Beck smiled to himself. He was reflecting on the incautious nature of a wild imagination, when his peripheral vision warned of sudden movement. He turned directly into the blow that broke his cheekbone. A second blow caught him on the side of his head. Exploding pain shattered his awareness. As he hit the ground, the two men leapt upon him, holding him down, pounding his skull with the rock.
It was over in seconds, the men vanishing quickly into the trees lining the lane.
The body on the ground stirred once, sighed, and lay still.
There was a moment of pause, of perfect stillness, when all was hushed to silence. Then a light breeze wandered through the trees, stirring gently the rich autumnal colors of the beautiful avenue.
A flicker of light, from somewhere in the shadows behind, brought a surge of panic to Amanda. “Oh my God, he’s found us,” she whispered, pushing herself flat against the rocky wall.
The arrival of Malensky forced Shaw to think in the moment again. A surge of adrenaline pumped through him. Reaching up, he grasped the American woman’s hand.
“I’ve got an idea.”
With assistance from Amanda, Shaw struggled to his feet and settled himself against the wall. He felt the cavern moving around him, weaving and swaying. For a few seconds he was child in a small red boat bobbing out on the water. Shaking his head, he took an involuntary step and lurched forward. Struggling to maintain his balance, he tottered toward to a rocky outcropping. Grabbing at the rock face, he leaned his head against the rough surface and caught his breath.
He nodded. “Shine the lantern on that opening you pointed out before.”
Amanda shone the flashlight across the open space. “That’s what I was saying, if we can get behind that crevice wall—”
Shaw cut her off. “I want you to go over there.”
“But Hanson, if we—”
“Listen!” he whispered urgently. “I want you to wait over there. When you see Malensky’s light, move your lantern around, so that he sees the reflection.”
He gripped her shoulder. “He’ll follow the light! And I’ll shoot him when he passes.” Fumbling in his trouser pocket, he pulled out the assassin’s small pistol.
Amanda saw the strength of the plan. Shaw was shielded behind the small outcropping of rock. He would not be seen until Malensky was right next to him. And by then it would be too late.
Quickly, she kissed him on the cheek. He was burning hot. “I’ll be waiting. Just over there.” She squeezed his hand. “Good luck.”
Picking up the bag and the lantern, she slipped away.
Shaw knew he had to concentrate. He could not allow his mind to wander during the next few minutes. He had to focus on the space around him. Holding the gun in both hands, he raised it to the height of Malensky’s head.
Suddenly, his pulse was hammering in his ears. Was there a safety catch? Shocked at his stupidity, he ran his fingers quickly over the small pistol and touched a tiny lever. Was the damn thing on or off? In the utter blackness around him, there was no way to be sure.
Cursing his foolishness, he caught a flash of light up ahead. Amanda was in place.
Suddenly, there was a sound back in the passageway. A foot scraped over a loose rock. There was a flicker of light, abruptly extinguished.
The moment had arrived. Easing the small lever down, he took several shallow breaths and tightened his grip on the gun.
He heard a short intake of breath, a whispered word in the darkness. Had Malensky brought the guard he had seen standing above him on the maintenance shaft cover? If so, which man was in front? Suddenly, a figure was standing close enough to touch. Shaw froze, held his breath. The gun was unmoving in his hands. The figure shifted his weight. He was turning his head. “Wha—”
Shaw fired. Once. Twice. Three times.