To Mitch Hoffman, my editor and,
more importantly, my friend.
WILL ROBIE HAD closely observed every one of the passengers on the short flight from Dublin to Edinburgh and confidently deduced that sixteen were returning Scots and fifty-three were tourists.
Robie was neither a Scot nor a tourist.
The flight took forty-seven minutes to cross first the Irish Sea and then a large swath of Scotland. The cab ride in from the airport took fifteen more minutes of his life. He was not staying at the Balmoral Hotel or the Scotsman or any of the other illustrious accommodations in the ancient city. He had one room on the third floor of a dirty-faced building that was a nine-minute uphill walk to the city center. He got his key and paid in cash for one night. He carried his small bag up to the room and sat on the bed. It squeaked under his weight and sank nearly three inches.
Squeaking and sinking were what one got for so low a price.
Robie was an inch over six feet and a rock-solid one hundred and eighty pounds. He possessed a compact musculature that relied more on quickness and endurance than sheer strength. His nose had been broken once, due to a mistake he had made. He had never had it reset because he’d never wanted to forget the mistake. One of his back teeth was false. That had come with the broken nose. His hair was naturally dark and he had a lot of it, but Robie preferred to keep it about a half inch longer than a Marine buzz cut. His facial features were sharply defined, but he made them mostly forgettable by almost never making eye contact with anyone.
He had tats on one arm and also on his back. One tattoo was of a large tooth from a great white. The other was a red slash that looked like lightning on fire. They effectively covered up old scars that had never healed properly. And each held some significance for him. The damaged skin had proven a challenge for the tattoo artist working on Robie, but the end result had been satisfactory.
Robie was thirty-nine years old and would turn forty the following day. He had not come to Scotland to celebrate this personal milestone. He had come here to work. Of the three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, he was working or traveling to do his job on about half of them.
Robie surveyed the room. It was small, adequate, unadorned, strategically located. He did not require much. His possessions were few, and his wants fewer still.
He rose and went to the window, pressed his face to the cool glass. The sky was gloomy. It was often that way in Scotland. A full day of sun in Edinburgh was routinely greeted with both gratitude and astonishment by its citizens.
Far to his left stood Holyrood Palace, the queen’s official residence in Scotland. He could not see it from here. Far to his right was Edinburgh Castle. He could not see that battered old edifice either but knew exactly where it was.
He checked his watch. A full eight hours to go.
Hours later his internal clock woke him. He left his room and walked up toward Princes Street. He passed the majestic Balmoral Hotel that anchored the city center.
He ordered a light meal and had tap water to drink, ignoring the large selection of stouts offered on the board over the bar. As he ate he spent some time gazing at a street performer juggling butcher knives atop a unicycle while regaling the crowd with funny stories delivered with an embellished Scottish brogue. Then there was the fellow outfitted as the invisible man taking pictures with passersby for two pounds each.
After his meal, he walked toward Edinburgh Castle. He could see it in the distance as he ambled along. It was big, imposing, and had never once been taken by force, only stealth.
He climbed to the top of the castle, peering over the gloom of the Scottish capital. He ran his hand along cannon that would never fire another shot. He turned to his left and took in the full breadth of the sea that had made Edinburgh such an important port centuries ago as vessels came and went, disgorging freight and picking up fresh cargo. He stretched tight limbs, felt a creak and then a pop in his left shoulder.
But first he had to make it to tomorrow.
He checked his watch.
Three hours to go.
He left the castle and headed down a side street.
He waited out a sudden chilly rain shower under a café awning and drank a cup of coffee.
Later he passed a sign for the ghost tour of Underground Edinburgh, adults only, and only conducted after full darkness had set in. It was almost time. Robie had memorized every step, every turn, every move he would have to make.
As he did every time, he had to hope it would be enough.
Will Robie did not want to die in Edinburgh.
A bit later he passed a man who nodded at him. It was just a slight dip of the head, nothing more. Then the man was gone and Robie turned down the doorway the man had vacated. He shut and locked it behind him and moved forward, quickening his pace. His shoes were rubber-soled. They made no sound on the stone floor. Six hundred feet in he saw the door on the right side. He took it. An old monk’s cloak was hung on a peg. He donned it and put the hood up. There were other things there for him. All necessary.
A Glock pistol with suppressor can attached.
And a knife.
He waited, checking his watch every five minutes. His watch was synched to the very second with someone else’s.
He opened another door and passed through it. He moved downward, reached a grate in the floor, lifted it, and skittered down a set of iron handrails set into the stone. He hit the floor silently, moved left, counted off his paces. Above him was Edinburgh. At least the “new” part.
He was in Underground Edinburgh now, home to several ghost and walking tours. There were the vaults under South Bridge and parts of old Edinburgh such as Mary King’s Close, among others. He glided down the dark brick-and-stone passages, his powered goggles letting him see everything in crisp definition. Electric lamps on the walls were set at fairly regular intervals. But it was still very dark down here.
He could almost hear the voices of the dead around him. It was part of local lore that when the plague came in the 1600s it struck impoverished areas of the city—such as Mary King’s Close—especially hard. And in response the city walled up folks here forever to prevent the spread of the disease. Robie didn’t know if that was true or not. But it wouldn’t surprise him if it were. That’s what civilization sometimes did to threats, real or perceived. They walled them off. Us against them. Survival of the fittest. You die so I can live.
He checked his watch.
Ten minutes to go.
He moved slower, adjusting his pace so he would arrive seconds before he was supposed to. Just in case.
He heard them before he saw them.
There were five, not counting the guide. The man and the peripherals.
They would be armed. They would be ready. The peripherals would think this was the perfect place for an ambush.
They would be right.
It was stupid for the man to come down here.
The carrot had to be especially big.
It was as big as it was total bullshit. Still, he had come because he knew no better. Which made Robie wonder how dangerous the man really was. But that was not his call.
He had four minutes to go.
ROBIE ROUNDED one final bend. He heard the guide talking, giving the memorized spiel and delivering it in a mysterious, ghostlike voice. Melodrama sells, thought Robie. And in fact the uniqueness of the voice was vital to the plan tonight.
There was a right-angle turn coming up. The tour was heading for it.
So was Robie, just from the opposite way.
The timing was so tight that there was no margin of error.
Robie counted the paces. He knew the guide was doing the same. They had even practiced the length of their strides, to get them perfectly choreographed. Seven seconds later the guide, who was the same height and build as Robie, and wearing a cloak identical to his, came around the bend a mere five paces ahead of his party. He held a flashlight. That was the one thing Robie could not duplicate. Both of his hands had to be free, for obvious reasons. The guide turned left and disappeared into a cleft cut into the rock that led into another room with another exit.
As soon as he saw this, Robie pivoted, putting his back to the group of men who would round the corner a few moments later. One hand slipped down to the recorder on his belt under the cloak and turned it on. The guide’s dramatic voice boomed out, continuing the tale that he had momentarily halted to take the turn.
Robie did not like having his back to anyone, but there was no other way for the plan to work. The men had lights. They would see that he was not the guide. That he was not doing the talking. That he was wearing goggles. The voice droned on. He started to walk forward.
He slowed. They caught up to him. Their lights swept across his back. He heard their collective breaths. Their smells. Sweat, cologne, the garlic they’d had in their meals. Their last meals.
Or mine, depending on how it goes.
It was time. He turned.
A deep knife strike took out the point man. He dropped to the floor, trying to hold in his severed organs. Robie shot the second man in the face. The sound of the suppressed round was like a hard slap. It echoed off the rock walls and mingled with the screams of the dying men.
The others were reacting now. But they were not truly professionals. They preyed on the weak and the poorly skilled. Robie was neither. There were three of them left, but only two would be any trouble.
Robie hurled the knife and its point ended up in the third man’s chest. He dropped with a heart split nearly in half. The man behind him fired, but Robie had already moved, using the third man as a shield. The bullet hit the rock wall. Part of it stayed in the wall. Part of it ricocheted off and found purchase in the opposite wall. The man fired a second and third time, but he missed his target because his adrenaline had spiked, blown his fine motor skills and caused his aim to fail. He next executed a desperation spray and pray, emptying his mag. Bullets bounced off hard rock. One slug hit the point man in the head on a ricochet. It didn’t kill him because he’d already bled out, and the dead could not die a second time. The fifth man had thrown himself to the hard floor, hands over his head.
Robie had seen all of this. He dropped to the floor and fired one shot into the forehead of man number four. Those were the names he had given them. Numbers. Faceless. Easier to kill that way.
Man number five was now the only one left.
Five was the sole reason Will Robie had flown to Edinburgh today. The others were just collateral, their deaths meaningless in the grand scheme.
Number five rose and then backed up as Robie got to his feet. Five had no weapon. He had seen no need to carry one. Weapons were beneath him. He was no doubt rethinking that decision.
He begged. He pleaded. He would pay. An unlimited amount. Then when the pistol was pointed at him he turned to threats. What an important man he was. How powerful his friends were. What he would do to Robie. How much pain Robie would suffer. He and his whole family.
Robie did not listen to any of it. He had heard it all before.
He fired twice.
Right and left side of the brain. Always fatal. As it was tonight.
Number five kissed the stone floor, and with his last breath hurled an expletive at Robie that neither of them heard.
Robie turned and walked through the same cleft as the tour guide.
Scotland had not killed him.
He was thankful for this.
Robie slept soundly after killing five men.
He awoke at six and ate breakfast at a café around the corner from where he was staying.
Later he walked to Waverly Station next to the Balmoral Hotel, and boarded a train to London. He arrived at King’s Cross Station over four hours later and took a cab to Heathrow. The British Airways 777 lifted off later that afternoon. With a weak headwind the plane touched down seven hours later at Dulles Airport. It had been cloudy and chilly in Scotland. It was hot and dry in Virginia. The sun had long ago begun to drift low into the west. Clouds had built up during the heat of the day, but there would be no storm because there was no moisture. All Mother Nature could do was look threatening.
A car was waiting for him outside the airport terminal. There was no name on the placard.
He got in, clicked the seat belt shut, and lifted up a copy of the Washington Post that sat on the seat. He gave the driver no instruction. He knew where to go.
Traffic on the Dulles Toll Road was surprisingly light.
Robie’s phone vibrated. He looked at the screen.
One word: Congratulations.
He put the phone back in his jacket pocket.
“Congratulations” was the wrong word, he believed. “Thanks” would be the wrong word too. He was not sure what the right one would be for killing five people.
Perhaps there was none. Perhaps silence would suffice.
He arrived at a building off Chain Bridge Road in northern Virginia. There would be no debriefing. No record of anything was better. If an investigation ensued, no one could discover a record that didn’t exist.
But if things went wrong Robie would have no official cover.
He walked to an office, not officially his, but one that he sometimes used. Even though it was late there were people working. They did not talk to Robie. They didn’t even look at him. He knew they had no idea what he did, but they also knew not to interact with him.
He sat at a desk, hit some keys on the computer, sent a few emails, and stared out a window that wasn’t really a window. It was merely a box of simulated sunlight, because an actual window was just a hole that others could get through.
An hour later a chubby man in a wrinkled suit with pasty skin walked in. They didn’t greet each other. Chubby placed a flash drive on the desk in front of Robie. Then he pivoted and left. Robie stared down at the silver object. The next assignment was already prepared. They had been coming at an increasing clip these last few years.
He pocketed the flash drive and left. This time he drove himself, in an Audi that was parked in a space in the adjacent garage. When he slid into the seat he felt comfortable. The Audi was his, had been for four years. He drove it through the security checkpoint. The guard did not look at him either.
The invisible man in Edinburgh. Robie knew how it felt.
Once he hit the public road he shifted gears and accelerated.
His phone vibrated once more. He checked the screen.
It didn’t make him smile. It didn’t make him do anything other than drop the phone on the opposite seat and punch the gas.
There would be no cake and no candles.
As he drove, Robie thought of the underground tunnel in Edinburgh. Four of the dead men were bodyguards. They were hard, desperate men who had allegedly murdered at least fifty people over the last five years, some of them children. The fifth man with two holes in his head was Carlos Rivera. A trafficker of heroin and youngsters for prostitution, he was immensely rich and had been visiting Scotland on holiday. Robie knew, though, that Rivera actually had ostensibly been in Edinburgh to attend a high-level meeting with another criminal czar from Russia in an effort to merge their business interests. Even criminals liked to globalize.
Robie had been ordered to kill Rivera, but not because of his human and drug trafficking businesses. Rivera had to die because the United States had learned that he was planning a coup in Mexico with the aid of several high-ranking generals in the Mexican army. The resulting government would have been no friend of America, so this could not be allowed to happen. The meeting with the Russian crime czar had been the setup, the carrot. There was no czar and no meeting. The offending Mexican generals were also dead, killed by men like Robie.