Midnight Man (Midnight #1)

The hunter has mud and greasepaint on his face, is buried belly-down in the root pocket of a giant oak and is wearing a ghillie suit designed to meld into a wintry Pacific Northwest landscape. He smells like an animal, which is good. The other animals in the forest give him a wide berth because they recognize him for what he is—a large and dangerous predator. He is in killing mode and the other animals sense that.

Below, in the valley, is a large limestone villa, surrounded by guards. The hunter finds the guards with their elaborate security watches and the thick surrounding walls topped with barbed wire ridiculous. From his vantage point, anyone who steps out of the villa steps right into his crosshairs.

The shot is already lined up, elevation has been calculated. When the prey is in the crosshairs, windage will be factored in. The hunter knows how to do this, supremely well.

The hunter’s comrades have given him intelligence. The prey is in the villa, secluded and alone, except for the guards. The comrades have given the hunter watch times, schedules, a list of enemy firepower and their promise to help him. But the hunter has chosen to act alone. This is his fight, his war. He stands alone. If he has to die, he will die alone.

He waits, day after day, night after night.

At midnight on the fourth night, a night so windless the hunter knows he could drive tacks into a target, the prey steps out to stand for a moment. He is tall, blond, handsome, with cold features clearly visible in the night scope. He pauses for a moment, looking around, feeling secure. Foolishly secure.

He is surrounded by walls and guards. He doesn’t know they are as nothing. He bends to light a cigarette and the green flare in the night vision goggles ruins the hunter’s vision for a moment. He waits.

He waits for the prey to pull on his cigarette, blow out a leisurely plume of smoke which dissipates slowly in the cold still air. Waits for the prey to exchange pleasantries with the guards. Waits for him to pull in a breath of the pristine mountain air, secure in his safety and immunity.

And it is then, when the prey crushes the cigarette beneath his heel, having taken a last, secure glance at his rich and safe kingdom, starting to turn back inside, it is then that the hunter strikes.

Something was happening in the living room. Male voices were raised in excitement. The phone rang constantly. Suzanne debated briefly going in to see what was going on, but she didn’t really care. In the four days and four nights she’d been locked up in the safe house, she’d learned to turn her emotions off, otherwise she’d have gone mad.

There were no windows and she knew the time of day only because of her wristwatch and the small TV in her room.

She didn’t even know where she was. She’d been flown to a small airport, but they’d been met by a car out on the tarmac in the General Aviation section and she couldn’t see the name of the airport. What did it matter? Wherever she was, she wasn’t free. Wherever she was, John wasn’t with her.

The time had seemed interminable. Bud had stayed with her the first three days but had had to leave yesterday.

Thank God the debriefing had finally ended. She had told her story over and over, to agent after agent. Finally, they had just left her alone. From the conversations of the agents looking after her, she understood that the grand jury arraignment would be soon. Then there would be another safe house. The trial. Then the new life would begin.

She leafed through her magazine, not bothering to read the articles. Her eyes blurred with tiredness. She’d cried herself to sleep night after night, astounded that she had so many tears in her. Last night had been no exception. Now it was morning and she had another endless day to get through.

At some point in the future, the tears would stop. They must. Soon, she hoped.

The door to her bedroom opened and she looked up. Through the door into the living room, she could see at least ten FBI agents, instead of the usual four. The phone rang again, the fifth time in half an hour. What was going on?

She’d never seen the man who walked in before, but he was a clone of the others. They were all the same—medium height, black cheap suit, utterly humorless. “Ms. Barron? May I have a word with you?”

Oh God, not another debriefing. She put her magazine down. “Yes?”

“Out here, please.” He held the door open, gesturing toward the living room.

Suppressing a sigh, Suzanne stood up and followed the man out the door. The conversations going on stopped when she walked into the room. All eyes turned to her. What was going on?

The man took her elbow and led her to a chair. He sat down next to her. “Ms. Barron, I’m Special Agent Alan Crowley and I’m in charge of the Carson case. There have been…developments. An unusual set of circumstances.” He stopped and looked at her as if expecting a response.

“Yes?” she said, finally.

“Ms. Barron, we’ve received word that several hours ago Paul Carson was shot and killed.”

Suzanne stared at him, uncomprehending. “What?”

“An unknown assailant, a sniper, shot Paul Carson through the head. Which means there is no longer a federal case against him. Which means, Ms. Barron, that you are free to go.”

“I—“ Suzanne looked around, at the vast display of FBI power, the safe house, back to Special Agent Crowley. “I’m free to go? I’m…safe?”

He sighed. “Yes. You’re not a threat to the people Paul Carson was working for. You were a threat to him, personally. Now that he’s been…taken out, no one would come after you. They’d just be creating more problems for themselves. Our street informers have assured us of this. We wouldn’t be letting you go if we weren’t certain that you’re safe. So you’re free to go.”

Free to go. Free. To. Go. Suzanne blinked, wondering if her exhaustion was playing tricks with her mind. She opened her mouth to ask Special Agent Crowley to repeat what he’d said when the front door of the apartment opened and Bud stepped in.

Oh, how nice. Bud had come to take her home. She smiled at Bud and then froze when Bud moved aside. There was another man behind Bud, just as tall, just as broad-shouldered but with close-cropped black hair and gunmetal eyes. The hair on the nape of her neck rose.

Suzanne stood up slowly, shaking. Oh, God, she thought she’d never see him again. She wanted to call his name, but her throat was closed. Her legs could barely hold her up.

Suzanne looked at him hungrily. He looked leaner. Had he somehow lost weight in the past few days? Lines of exhaustion clawed his beard-shadowed face and he was filthy. He had the look of a wild animal about him.

She took one step, then two, and then ran into John’s arms. His arms closed around her fiercely, and she broke into sobs.

“We won’t ever find the weapon, will we?” Special Agent Crowley asked behind her.

John’s eyes were cold as he looked at the agent. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

He bent and lifted Suzanne in his arms and smiled down at her, one of his rare smiles, looking so odd in that exhausted unshaved face. The agents were standing silently, watching them. Nobody made a move to stop him as he turned with her in his arms and walked out.

“Come love,” he said, as he carried her over the doorstep, “let’s go home.”

The End