"...your body tenses, you stop breathing and
you just can't read fast enough."
Dingo Paddock kept his head down and his shoulders stooped as he swiped a threadbare sleeve across the sweat running into his eyes. Nighttime heat turned the layers of too-large, secondhand clothes into a furnace, but he’d chosen them as camo, as well as for mobility in a fight. The layers lent him the appearance of the homeless who wore everything they owned.
Plus, the clothes concealed a Chris Reeve knife, ankle-holstered Glock 42, and a Sig Sauer 226 9mm in a shoulder holster.
Atlanta sometimes suffered a brittle cold night this late in June, but not this year. The temps had shot up over ninety earlier in the day.
Being armed to the teeth trumped comfort tonight.
Meeting a snitch wasn’t out of the norm for anyone who lived in the shadows of intelligence work like Dingo, but meeting with this particular snitch tonight ... it shouldn’t happen.
Coming out of hiding lowered this snitch’s life expectancy to zero, and hinted that Dingo might have made a mistake the last time they met. Six years ago.
If he had, the fallout would be bloody.
Something was up. He’d used his electronics skills to search for any reason this snitch would return, but there was nothing.
Because there was supposed to be nothing–and no one left–from back then.
He took his time walking across a street that ran through the West End. At two in the morning on a Tuesday, most of the city slept. This area had once been a nice place to live, but that was years ago, long before the current transient residents and less fortunate were even born. He shuffled into a space between two ramshackle buildings that offered a false sense of safety to those sleeping beneath blankets of newspapers.
The area reeked of piss, rotted food and the despair of knowing tomorrow would be no better.
A reminder of Dingo’s life back when abusive adults had called the shots.
He’d put a stop to that by the time he reached sixteen.
A fire burned in a fifty-gallon drum, and three men hovered around it out of solidarity and for the offer of light. Eight days to Independence Day, but this bunch had nothing to celebrate.
If Dingo closed his eyes, he could see seven-year-old Sabrina’s joy at watching her first fireworks display. She’d been so excited until she noticed kids sitting on their dads’ shoulders. He hadn’t been big enough to carry her on his shoulders yet, and felt lacking as the big brother she considered him.
Stay in the present to stay alive.
One of the men at the fire made a move, shifting in Dingo’s direction.
Tall guy who wore a faded flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows and pants sagging on his wiry frame. Lean muscle and prison tattoos on his forearms hinted at risk for anyone tangling with him.
A jagged scar ran south on his cheek.
That only made him ugly, not dangerous.
But the menace peering out of those black slits for eyes said he considered himself the most dangerous beast in this corner of the homeless kingdom.
And it might not be an empty boast.
He was sizing up Dingo as a potential threat in his territory.
Scar Cheek’s next move would be to test for a weakness.
Dingo remembered his kind from hard times on the tough streets of Queens, New York, as a twelve-year-old piece of white trash with an Aussie accent to boot. Opening his mouth back then had flagged him as foreign scum, another step below homegrown.
Hadn’t taken him long to think twice about speaking if he didn’t want to spend more time fighting than eating. First rule of survival was to choose your fights wisely.
How many times had he told Josh and Sabrina that?
Food had been sparse enough for one before he met a punk named Josh and a scrawny hellcat called Sabrina.
He’d taught them that brains could outmaneuver brawn.
Those two had caught on fast. Before Dingo knew it, Sabrina had turned fourteen and promoted herself to the head of their little gang and he’d let it stand. He’d never wanted to run the show and had warned both of them not to get attached to him.
Only fools get attached to anything or anyone. That’s what he’d tried to drill into their thick skulls.
Josh and Sabrina might have learned that simple lesson if Dingo hadn’t up and marked them as being under his protection.
What’d that make me?
The king of fools, because at thirty-one he’d still step between either of those two and a bullet. They were the closest he’d ever come to having family. Some things had changed since then, but not by much. Sabrina now ran covert teams of deadly operatives, which included Dingo and Josh.
As Dingo passed by the drum with flames flickering out the top, Scar Cheek drifted further in Dingo’s direction.
This guy thought fresh meat had just wandered in.
Even at twelve, Dingo had been no pushover. Since then, he’d faced off with predators far worse than Scar Cheek and walked away ... okay, limping sometimes, but he had no time to waste proving who was dominant tonight.
Not when he was down to eleven minutes to make his meeting with Bergman, the snitch who shouldn’t be in Atlanta again.
Not after what went down all those years ago in California.
Bergman had left this country so fast his shadow had to run to keep up. He shouldn’t be back now. And to be honest, Dingo doubted the snitch waiting on him was Bergman. More likely, it was someone Bergman allowed to use his identity to get a message to Dingo. But for tonight’s discussion, he was Bergman.
If Bergman was truly stateside? That was bad news.
Bad would be holding a pellet gun against an enemy toting a double barrel shotgun. This kind of news was more like shaking a stick at someone holding a howitzer.
Misery balled in Dingo’s gut and banged against his chest.
Just thinking about Bergman reminded Dingo of all he’d lost. Biggest loss of all? Valene Eklund.
He shoved that agonizing memory back deep into its hole. This couldn’t be connected to her. Dingo had cut the head off that snake and stomped it to pieces before he’d crawled out of the viper pit half alive.
Valene was safe.
She’d stay that way as long as he never went back.
Jagged pain sawed through him again. Tough shit. He had to accept losing her as the cost of keeping her out of the crosshairs of an insane criminal.
She was fine.
She had to be. He’d stayed out of her world completely for six years now, not even using his world-class skills to check on her from a distance, because ... he did that to hunt down the nastiest humans this world had ever seen.
He’d never use his abilities to snoop on those he respected and cared about, and even if he didn’t have his own moral code for how he used his electronics skills, he still wouldn’t snoop on Valene.
No point searching for more heartache.
Valene deserved to be happy, but that didn’t mean he wanted a front row seat to her joy when it had nothing to do with him. She’d been more than fine when he’d seen her a month ago. When she’d turned her back on him.
There was no reason for the ball of dread churning in his belly right now, but good luck convincing his gut.
Footsteps scuffed close behind him.
Dingo sighed. Scar Cheek was not giving up.
If tonight’s meeting with Bergman fell apart, the best-case scenario would be a twenty-four-hour delay before Dingo received a second cryptic message with new meet details.
Worst case? No second meeting, because Bergman hadn’t made it through the night to see daylight.
From behind Dingo, Scar Cheek cleared his throat.
His next move would be to call Dingo out in three, two, one...
“Hold up, bitch.”
At the same instant, Dingo heard a deep voice through the earpiece of his comm unit ask, “Want me to deal with your fan club?”
That would be Tanner Bodine, another member of Sabrina Slye’s elite team, who had eyes on Dingo’s six from where Tanner perched on a rooftop across the street.
Dingo whispered to Tanner, “When I turn, if I scratch my nose, pop him.”
Dingo tucked his chin against the rags wrapped around his neck and head as a makeshift scarf. Between that and his dark brown hair that had grown out in dense waves, no one would see his earpiece audio receiver unless they got up close and personal. Pivoting slowly, he kept his shoulders tucked to look as non-threatening as possible and lifted his hands waist high, palms out.
He didn’t want to hurt any of these guys. “No worries, mate.”
With all the Aussies now on commercials, these days his accent actually drew a positive reaction more often than not.
Scar Cheek crossed his arms. “Nobody passes without paying. What you got?”
“Not a thing, just like everyone else here.”
“That’s too bad, because I don’t like your kind.”
Seconds were ticking away. “Let me pass and I won’t be back.”
That drew a mean laugh from Scar Cheek who started forward again. “Hand over the scarf and anything in your pockets.”
Dingo frowned as if he was considering what Scar Cheek said and lifted his finger to his nose then started walking backwards.
Scar Face kept coming. “I’m not joking, fucker–”
Dingo heard the muted pop of Tanner’s suppressed shot, but only because he knew it was coming.
Scar Cheek flinched and arched his back, twisting around, trying to see what had hit him.
Dingo backed away as Scar Cheek muttered, “What the hell...” He jerked his attention back to Dingo and took a step forward then folded at the knees, hitting the ground face first.
The two men still hovering at the drum looked up at the sound of Scar Cheek’s body slapping the hard ground. They took him in, then sized up Dingo and went back to attending the fire.
Tanner hadn’t killed the guy.
He could have, but Tanner had carried a .300 Blackout Remington 700 sniper rifle. It was suppressed, so the shots were barely audible. An elastic cuff on the buttstock held five tranquilizer rounds–a special new tranq round Sabrina was testing. The tranq wound would hurt like a bad bee sting for the thirty seconds it took the drug to work, but now Scar Cheek would sleep long enough for Dingo to handle his business with Bergman.
In a few steps, Dingo reached a dark opening seventy feet from the men at the drum. It had once been a side entrance to the two-story building. A body-sized lump covered with a soiled blanket slept on the tiny landing between the doorframe and a stairway that should go up twenty steps.
That had surely been the plan when they built this place, but after the first two steps, the next eight were missing.
A metal handrail attached to the wall ran all the way up though.
Dingo leaned into the opening to be out of sight, then pulled on his night vision monocular that lit up the dark and changed everything into greenish-gray hues.
Leaping over the body, Dingo landed on the second step, then lunged up to grab as high as he could on the metal handrail. It gave under his weight, but not much. He didn’t waste time as he pulled himself up in case the anchor bolts gave out. Swinging his booted foot onto the next metal step, he dragged his weight to a standing position and paused to check down below.
No one could see him up in this black hole even if one of the homeless got curious.
He hurried up the last steps to the top landing where busted wood hung from the doorway on his left. Bits of broken furniture lay scattered everywhere.
Muffled noises erupted halfway down the hall.
Bergman wouldn’t have anyone else here. He operated alone.
Or he had at one time.
Dingo had known the snitch for five years before he left the country. The man normally waited so silently in the shadows you’d think you were alone if he was two feet away.
That second person creating noise might be a party crasher. Dingo had to keep Bergman alive or lose intel he desperately wanted. Needed. Just to be damn sure Valene was still safe.
He rushed forward carefully, watching his step so he didn’t fall through the rotted floors. What little noise he made would bother him, but it was being covered by Bergman’s high-pitched voice that cried out. “Stop. Stop! How many times I gotta tell you? I don’t know. If I knew the name, I’d tell you.”
“Then you’re of no use to me old man. You should be careful who you screw over in the future, but then again ... you have no future.”
“Nooo.” Then silence.
Dingo pulled out his Sig and shoved the door open, banking on the element of surprise.
That might have worked if not for rusty hinges squealing like stuck pigs.
And Bergman’s attacker standing just inside the door.
The dark figure spun around and kicked Dingo’s gun away, then drove a knife dripping with blood at him.
Dingo sucked back to save his stomach and grabbed the guy’s wrist, wrenching it. He slammed the wrist against the doorframe. The knife flew out of sight, but the guy was already swinging wild hits. His fists battered Dingo’s ribs in rapid fire.
If the fucker had killed Bergman, then Dingo needed the attacker alive.
Dingo swung away and came back around in time to see a foot flying at his head. He ducked and shoved upright then rammed his shoulder into the attacker, who had four inches of height on Dingo’s six-one. He’d given it all he had, knocking the guy into a wall.
The rotten structure shattered and the lack of resistance sent Dingo landing on top of his opponent with wood raining down on them.
A loud creak ripped through the air. The floor threatened to break away.
That body smash should have at least stunned Bruce Lee’s evil spawn, but no. He wasn’t even at a disadvantage being caught on the bottom of their tangled pile. Sharp strikes hammered Dingo’s ribcage again, dammit.
He already felt like he’d been run through a blender inside out.
Tomorrow was going to suck, but not as bad as tonight if he lost this fight.
He’d never learned all those fancy martial arts moves.
Where he came from, the dirtiest fighter won.
Dingo shoved the wood off and pushed to his feet.
With a move straight out of Hollywood, the guy flipped over, landed on his feet and took off down the hallway toward a window opening that had no glass left.
You’re not escaping that easily, Kung Fu.
Dingo charged after him, talking to Tanner as he did. “Get to the east end of the building. Chasing someone headed for a window on the second floor.”
But Tanner had to get down off the roof and across the street.
Dingo scooped up what looked like the leg of an old wooden chair that lay in pieces, and flung it for all he was worth. It whacked the crazy guy in the head with a solid thud.
That sent his perp stumbling just short of the window opening.
Dingo came barreling up, jumping over holes in the floor, and lost his footing as he reached the end of the hallway. The bastard staggered, but swung around with a wicked kick aimed at Dingo’s head.
This time Dingo was ready, and knocked the leg aside and ducked.
Who hired this guy?
Mercenaries with this level of skill did not come cheap.
In the next second, the son of a bitch made a move that telegraphed his intention to go on attack again, even after taking a hit hard enough to give him a concussion.
What was it going to take to drop this maniac?
As the perp swung around, Dingo cupped a fist with his other hand and jammed an elbow into the guy’s throat. He got a boot in his ribs for that and arched face first into the wall. Dammit. That shit hurt.
Fuck it. Dingo came around with a roar and body checked Kung Fu straight on, sending the bastard backwards into the window.
Make that right through the window.
Wood disintegrated as Kung Fu’s body blasted through the opening and out of sight.
Dingo lunged to grab him, but came up with a handful of nothing. He leaned through the window, fighting to draw air in spite of his battered ribs.
When he looked down, his attacker was sprawled and not moving. “Shit, take your time Tanner. I think he’s dead.”
“I’m going back inside to see if my contact is dead, too.” Dingo hurried back to the room Kung Fu had come out of, but every breath hurt like a bitch.
Climbing out that window and down the side of this building to get out of here won’t be no picnic either.
When he reached the room, his stomach flipped over.
It was Bergman.
The snitch’s lungs were playing a familiar tune, the death rattle. Kung Fu had gutted Bergman with a quick X across his soft abdomen. Bergman was trying to whisper something.
Dingo dropped onto his knees to get close enough to hear, because they both knew calling an ambulance wouldn’t save him. “Why’d you come back, Berg?”
“Had ... no ... choice.”
Before Dingo could press him on that, Bergman said, “Three targets.” Wheeze, rattle. “Part of … big plan.”
“Where are the targets?” Dingo asked.
“L ...” Gurgle. “They ...” Bergman’s eyes rolled up.
Dingo shook him. “Stay with me. L what? Who are the targets? They what?”
Bergman gasped and wheezed, sounding wet. His eyes focused for a moment. “Initials. F.E.P. O... N. C.” More wheezing. “P.G ... C. He ... found me. Want you.”
Dingo’s blood ran cold at the only he that could have sent Bergman back here, but that wasn’t possible. “Who are you talking about?”
“Satan’s ... Garden ... C–”
Bergman gave one last heave and air slipped past his lips in a whistle, then he stopped moving.
Dingo stared at him in disbelief.
Bergman had to be wrong.
Dingo had sacrificed eleven months of his life and most of his soul to destroy Satan’s Garden Club. He’d killed Santori Garcia, the head of that murdering group, and made sure he was dead. No rising from the grave for that one to threaten Valene again.
She was safe. He refused to believe otherwise.
This intel had nothing to do with her.
Someone had to be using the Satan’s Garden Club name again, because the only person still left from Garcia’s crew was a nasty buggar who’d been fourth in command. That one had another eighty years in prison, plus he’d never been high enough in the ranks to have been fully in Garcia’s confidence—not enough to know about Valene.
Tanner’s voice cut into Dingo’s thoughts. “You better get down here.”
“Why? What’s up?” Dingo finished searching for any information on Bergman. Wasted effort.
“Your guy’s gone.”
“What?” Dingo stood up.
“I did find something odd.”
“Hold on. I’m coming to the window.” Dingo found his Sig where it had landed in a pile of debris, then limped his way back down the hall. When he got there, the damn body had disappeared. “What you got, mate?”
Tanner had a golf bag slung over his shoulder–a way to stash the rifle so it wouldn’t attract attention–and his monocular flipped up on his forehead since the streetlight at the corner of the building gave enough light to see the weed-infested pavement. He looked up at where Dingo stood at the open window and said, “I doubt this shiny gold coin has been here very long.”
Dingo cursed. “Can you read anything on it?”
Tanner held the coin to catch the light. “S. G. C.”
Satan’s Garden Club’s calling card. The impossible had happened. Garcia’s people were back in business.
Whoever had found Bergman would come for Dingo next.