ACT OF BETRAYAL by Matthew Dunn
IT WAS PAST midnight as wind and rain pounded the exterior of the tiny bookstore in Chicago. The store was closed and its owner was sitting at his desk checking the week’s receipts. The task wouldn’t take long—his store specialized in rare works that he sourced from around the world. He had some loyal customers, but they were few. This week seven people had made purchases.
The only light in the room came from his green desk lamp, old-fashioned in design to match the ambience of the shop. Aside from some electronic devices on his desk and recessed lights that cast a discreet yellow glow when turned on, the place looked like it could have been a purveyor of fine works established and un- changed since the eighteenth century. He’d constructed it that way: dark maple bookshelves; many of the books leather bound, all of them hardcover; two armchairs for customers to sit in when perusing potential acquisitions; an urn for his more discerning patrons who valued his loose-leaf tea collection; and a cage for his two lovebirds.
He was an old-fashioned guy at heart.
And though he could have done with more cash coming in, he’d deliberately established a business and identity that drew little attention. He playacted a shy man, his trimmed beard intended to put up barriers between him and others, his shoulders artificially stooped during the day as if he were ashamed of his six-foot-four physique, his cropped blond-and-gray hair functional because he had no woman in his life to impress, and his unneeded glasses covering one green eye, one blue. He was always in a smart three-piece suit because the attire was good at hiding his athletic frame and scars. Customers thought he was Edward Pope, a gentleman scholar from the South. They’d probably estimate his age was late forties. They’d be wrong about that and most other things. He’d led a hard life and was forty-five.
His name wasn’t Edward Pope.
It was Will Cochrane.
The assassin. The one Sapper and Kane were terrified of.
He wasn’t from the Deep South. He was raised in Virginia and earned a double first-class degree at England’s Cambridge University. And he’d been a bookseller for only under a year.
But he had to be Pope. In the eyes of the world, Will was a murderer. He’d killed people as a special forces French Foreign Legionnaire and assassinated targets in French intelligence black operations. He had been the West’s prime joint operative with the CIA and Britain’s MI6 for fourteen years, until he went crazy and killed a lot of cops and civilians in the States before throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge and dying.
His death was essential. He was America’s Most Wanted. He wasn’t what some thought of him—a psychopath. But he was a former special operative and killer. Had been all his adult life. It started when he was seventeen and walked in on four criminals suffocating his mother and about to kill his sister. His mother died; sister didn’t, because he grabbed his mother’s carving knife and ended the criminals’ lives before fleeing to the Legion. He wished he didn’t know how many people he’d killed since. It would be a lie. He knew every victim. Their souls lingered around him, taunting him, reminding him of who he was.
All 263 souls.
But the souls of the people they say he killed in the States didn’t hassle him.
Because he didn’t kill them. He never killed innocents, only those who needed to be killed.
But in the eyes of the law, that’s not the case and that’s why he had to fake his death and reinvent himself. A year ago, his situation was desperate, despite all of his training and covert operations experience in hostile countries. He’d received only one bit of help, but it was significant. Russia’s most formidable intelligence officer, code name Antaeus—now, thanks to Will, a defector living in the States—had cleverly managed to get $300,000 into Will’s pocket. Will didn’t know exactly why he’d done it. After all, Will had accidentally killed his family with a car bomb when in fact he’d intended only to kill the spy. But he suspected he knew why the Russian had become his benefactor: Antaeus wanted his generosity to plunge the knife that was Will’s guilt deeper.
Regardless of Antaeus’s motives, the cash helped set up Will’s new life.
Will’s family and close acquaintances were all dead. He’d be given the needle if cops found out who he was. The West he’d served with unflinching duty had hung him out to dry. He thought of himself as a scavenging dog, kicked out of its owner’s backyard and left to fend for itself. He was resigned to that, every day expecting the Feds to rush into his store and put a bullet in his skull. That’s what they’d do. No attempt to arrest. No negotiations. Execution only. Will wouldn’t blame them. They knew he’d cause carnage if given the slightest of chances.
He finished his accounts, took a swig of Assam tea, and frowned as he heard the female lovebird make an unusual sound. Like her male companion, she resembled a small parrot, her plumage green and yellow, face and beak red, large eyes pure white with black pupils. He’d taken the birds off the hands of an old lady who frequented his store. Her son, a merchant marine officer, had brought them back from exotic climes, though she couldn’t remember where because she was suffering from dementia. And she could no longer look after them, particularly now that the male had broken his wing. Will hated seeing animals in cages. But the female wouldn’t leave the male’s side. And for the time being, the male had to be kept in the cage until he was fully recuperated. Then Will would release them to a large aviary or the wild.
Their previous owner couldn’t remember their names, so Will called the male Ebb and the female Flo. Flo was now agitated, hopping about as opposed to what she usually did, which was nestling her face against that of her lover. Will opened the cage, knowing Flo wouldn’t go anywhere while Ebb was there. The former special operative bowed his head. Ebb was all wrong, flopping on the base of the cage, his good wing twitching, his broken one immobile. Will knew he was dying and there was nothing he could do about it. What goes through a bird’s brain? He didn’t know. And he didn’t know whether lovebirds were in fact lifelong lovers or if that was a myth. But Will knew how he felt. He had to give Flo closure, let her be free, not allow her to think there was hope that Ebb would return to her. Gently he lifted Ebb. His body was warm but now limp. He carried him to the store’s backyard. Flo followed him. Will had hoped she would.
Will looked at Flo, who was perched close by on the branch of a tree. She was watching. It seemed she and Will didn’t know what to do.
“I have to let you know this is the end,” Will said to her. Actually, he was saying it to himself.
He snapped Ebb’s neck and buried him.
Flo looked at him before flying into the darkness. As tears ran down his face, he wondered if she hated him. Or maybe she understood. Of course, he’d never know.
He returned to his desk and stared at the birdcage. After brushing soil off his fingers, he looked at his laptop and saw he had a new e-mail. Nobody sent him mail apart from spammers.
But this one was different. And shocking. It was from CIA officer Unwin Fox, the man who, alongside Will, had been one of those involved in the Berlin operation. Aside from Colonel Haden, Will didn’t know who the other people on the small team were.
His heart was beating fast as he read the mail. Its tone was desperate. There was no way Fox could know that Will was alive. Something was terribly wrong. Fox wanted to meet. Tomorrow. In Washington, D.C.
In all probability it was a trap. Lure Will out, then bam! Swooped on by cops. But then again, Will knew what happened in Berlin. The law didn’t. This would have been far too implausible a tactic to entrap him.
What to do?
He looked at the lovebirds’ empty cage. The door was open. He glanced at the entrance to his store.
What to fucking do?
He opened the drawer in his desk, pulled out his handgun, grabbed his bag containing all he needed if he ever had to run, and left.
He knew he’d never return.