Chapter One

The Living Dead Man

 

[Click here to purchase this novel on Amazon.]

“WILL YOU shoot him already?”

Steve Dane laughed and shifted in the bed. The accordion down the hall continued blaring. Nina rolled away from him and pulled the covers over her.

Male and female laughter mingled with the noise. The party had been going on since midnight.

“Laugh all you want,” she said. “You won’t get any of my goodies until that man is dead.” Her words were dusted with a soft Russian accent.

Dane said, “Other than the noise, it’s a nice hotel, right?”

“It is not. I get to pick next time.”

“This is one of the nicest hotels in Italy. This is what you wanted.”

“Next time we’ll go to Geneva.”

The downstairs staff had acknowledged receiving many complaints, but they were powerless to help. The accordion player was a pop star, whose name Dane had forgotten, who had lots and lots of money that he spent at the hotel and surrounding establishments, and they were not going to disturb him lest he start breaking things and decide to spend his lots and lots of money elsewhere.

“It’s too late for polka,” Dane had told them. “It’s the wrong century for polka.”

The appeal had been ignored. This was no way to start a vacation.

Dane drifted off to sleep and started to snore. He jerked awake for a moment when Nina punched him in the arm.

 

 

DANE ROSE before Nina, who lay on her stomach, arm dangling over the side of the bed. Her snoring sounded like a chain saw stuck in a log. After a hot shower, he scraped whiskers off his face and pulled from the closet a set of clothes he’d had the hotel dry-clean and press the day before.

The long-sleeved Sedona Silk shirt with pearl buttons fit perfectly, covering the warped and puckered flesh on his right arm. Years ago, Dane had been in a helicopter crash while on a CIA mission in Central America. The ruptured fuel tanks splashed gasoline onto Dane’s clothes and the clothes of a friend trapped in the wreckage. Dane pulled his friend out. The chopper exploded, and they went up like Roman candles. Dane hit the dirt and rolled back and forth like a madman and put the fire out. He’d been lucky. Only his right arm, part of his side and chest, and a portion of his right leg had been affected. His friend Len Lukavina had not been so lucky.

To Dane the scars had become a symbol with its own motto: “You’ve survived the worst. Everything else is easy.”

But the scars also symbolized a darker truth: “You are not invincible.”

After cutting loose from the CIA, Dane had formed a mercenary unit called the 30-30 Battalion. A skirmish in South Africa netted him several million dollars’ worth of diamonds, and he disbanded the unit. It was time to fight the battles he wanted, to bring a fight to the predators who sought to exploit the defenseless who had nobody to turn to. Idealistic, yes. He could afford to be idealistic. And he could afford the luxurious lifestyle that came with such independence.

Plenty of action, plenty of rough spots, and he’d always come out on top. Then he almost died in a fire. And then came a betrayal so close to home that he turned his back on that home and took off for the wild pastures of the world.

He ran a hand over the close-cropped black fuzz atop his head and decided that another haircut was due soon. At least the flames hadn’t reached that spot, the one area he couldn’t conceal.

He pulled on a pair of Mick Marten black slacks, fastening the leather belt. He slipped on the spit-shined black leather shoes, with steel toes, next.

He left the bedroom for the suite’s living room; collecting the newspaper from in front of the door, he sat on the brown leather couch, which matched the dark walls and cabinetry. Both rooms of the suite were in a combination of light brown and off-white that only the Italians could pull off. He scanned the headlines.

The check-in clerk had tried to dissuade him from having the physical paper delivered each day.

“You can get newspapers on your wireless device now,” she said.

“I don’t have a wireless device.”

“Well. Everybody else does.”

Dane grinned at her. “I’m not everybody else. I still like the way a newspaper feels.”

With a shrug, the clerk made the appropriate notation on his check-in form.

The world, he read, was in its usual state of chaos. Every now and then he glanced at the bedroom, where Nina was still snoring. About an hour later when he finished the paper, he flung the covers off and smacked her plump behind. She awoke with a jolt mid-snore and cussed him up one side and down the other in a string of rapid Russian.

She trudged into the bathroom while Dane stepped out on the deck and lit a Punch cigar. The hot tub off to the right was cold now, the water still, and he smiled at the memory of their quiet romp in the water the previous night. The canopy above blocked the bright sun, and the wooden deck and brass railing reminded him of being on a cruise ship, though he tried to avoid those as much as possible. He listened to the chirping birds and the breeze and Nina’s splashing in the shower.

She had once been a highly decorated agent with the Russian FSB. She and Dane met when Dane was in Europe investigating the possibility that a pair of Anastasia’s jewels had shown up on the black market. The “possibility” had been a ruse, the jewels nothing but a pair of really good fakes, but as Dane sought the items for his own profit and Nina for her country’s history, their genuine chemistry assured both that they would soon pledge all of their remaining days to each other.

Nina remained angry through breakfast. They sat in a back corner of the hotel coffee shop munching brioche and drinking cappuccino. They were in Mestre, Italy, about twenty minutes from Venice via the Freedom Bridge.

Nina swallowed the last bite of her roll while Dane spread jam on his. The window next to them looked out on a busy street; Dane sat with his back to the wall, eyeing everyone who entered. One never knew where a snake might show up, so it was best to look under every rock.

Another brioche waited on his plate. Nina reached across the table, broke the roll in half, and ate it. Crumbs landed on her green sweater.

“Keep that up and you’ll get fat,” he said.

“What do you care? This body is off-limits to you.”

“Go all the way or go home,” he said, and set the remaining half on her plate.

She bit into the half.

Dane laughed again, looking at her. She had the high cheekbones and sunken cheeks of many Slavs, but matched with her petite frame, they gave her the look of somebody who was always starving.

Dane had his own hungry and defensive look to him. Ever-alert eyes, a habit of sitting in front of a wall, as he did this morning. But he wasn’t afraid of predators, despite those out for his head. The prey sought by other predators, and how he could offer resistance and shelter to those unable to provide their own, occupied his mind.

“This was supposed to be relaxing,” she said, “after our work in London.”

Their last bit of buccaneering concerned the CEO of a charity who had embezzled funds—nearly all of the funds. They set up quite a con (the plot was Nina’s idea), fleeced every dollar from the worm, and returned it to the charity minus a 15-percent commission. And the worm was cooling it in a jail cell. He’d been stupid enough to leave a paper trail of evidence (or had it been fabricated?) that assured conviction.

They had earned a rest.

“Sugar bear,” Dane said, “we never rest for very long.”

Dane brushed crumb bits off his blue shirt and stood up. Nina gathered her purse, slipped on a pair of sunglasses and refused Dane’s outstretched arm.

“Now you’re being silly,” he said.

“We’ll start our tour looking at museums,” she said.

“Why don’t you just shoot meinstead?”

He paid the check and they went outside. The morning air was spiced with the crisp scent of the sea just a few miles away.

They waited at the curb until a gray Jaguar F-Type swung around the corner. A uniformed valet hopped out and handed Dane the keys in exchange for a large tip.

A striking young woman also at the curb watched the street. Long black hair stretched down her back; she wore a pink sweater, checkered skirt and black leather stilettos. Quite the mod ensemble.

Nina jabbed Dane’s side. “She’s not even finished growing yet.”

Dane put his hand to Nina’s cheek and planted a kiss on her lips. “You exhaust me.”

The young woman screamed.

When a black car pulled up and the back door opened, the girl looked inside and started to say something but cut the words off. She turned and ran. From the other side, a suited man jumped out and grabbed her. He pinned her arms back and shoved her into the car. She struck her head on the edge of the roof, and the blow chopped off further protest. The suited man slammed the door.

Other pedestrians gawked.

Steve Dane launched into action.

Dane tackled the suited man. He soon felt the power behind the man’s muscles when the man kicked Dane away. Both scrambled to their feet, and the suited man struck with a series of kicks and punches. Dane deflected some of the blows but others landed, each sending a shock of pain through his body. Dane struck the man’s jaw; the man recoiled but shifted into a backspin kick that put Dane on the ground. The suited man ran back into the car, and the car took off into traffic.

Dane pushed himself to his feet and ran to the Jag. Nina shouted, “Hey!” Dane left a cloud of smoke in his wake. He weaved through traffic, honking the horn, keeping the black car in sight.

A second black car closed quickly on his rear and tapped the bumper. The Jag surged forward a little. Dane steered it straight. The backup car approached again. Dane swung into the next lane.

Dane glanced over at the driver and passenger, two tough-looking thugs with thick hair. The driver slammed the side of his vehicle into the passenger side of Dane’s Jag. Metal crunched. The side glass split into a string of spider cracks.

Dane’s car plowed across the median. Oncoming traffic swerved. Dane wrenched the car back to the correct side of the road. The backup car struck him again, this time on the front panel, and Dane hit the brakes, falling back. He sped up, but the second car’s brake lights flared; Dane slammed his own brakes but collided anyway. More metal crunched. Smoking rubber and the stink of burning brakes filled the cabin. The smash made the seatbelt strain against his body; the strap bit into his neck. He relaxed against the seat, wincing. Brakes behind him screeched, but nobody else crashed into him. Dane watched both black cars speed away.

He jumped out of the car to check the damage. The collision had caved in the front end. The car behind him sat at a diagonal angle, and out the corner of one eye Dane saw a man get out. Another man, this one older, sat in the back seat of the car. Nina was in the back seat with him. The older man was holding a gun to Nina’s head.

“Come with me,” the young man said. “Now.”

 

 

THE CAR was a blue four-door Mercedes. At least the leather seats felt like a couch, soft and comfy, and the driver had no problem keeping the interior climate at a cool 73 degrees, according to the dashboard readout.

Dane and Nina settled back for the ride. They were squished next to each other, with the older man and his never wavering automatic against the other door.

Dane said, “You okay?”

“Not a mark. These nice men asked me to accompany them a few moments after you left.”

Dane pulled at the torn fabric of his shirt. “Guess this one’s getting tossed.”

“You can afford it.”

“Hey, Pops,” Dane said to the older man, “you can put the gun away.”

The older man, unblinking, did not respond.

Dane turned to the driver. “Junior, tell Pops to put the gun away. We aren’t going anywhere.”

Junior laughed a little.

“I think,” Nina said, “that he thinks you’re some sort of tough guy.” She called out, “He’s not. He’s soft and mealy. He won’t even shoot a stupid accordion player.”

“I am not soft,” Dane said. “I’m hard-boiled. I’m also two-fisted.”

“You’re no Spetsnaz,” Nina said.

“Stop talking,” Junior said.

Dane patted Nina’s leg and straightened his cuffs to cover any exposed skin.

Junior left the city limits. They passed farms and large homes. Further in the distance, more green countryside awaited, apparently unclaimed by the locals. A long drive through the region would make a nice afternoon activity, Dane decided, as long as they survived their present trip.

But if the two palookas had meant to kill them, they would have been dead already.

Nina sat with her hands in her lap. Her purse sat between them. She made eye contact with Dane and dropped her eyes to the purse, and then looked back at Dane and blinked twice. The thugs had not searched her purse. Minus ten points for Pops and Junior. They must have grabbed her as soon as he took off after the kidnappers. Dane would have expected Pops to have the attention to detail his kid apparently lacked.

The car turned into a circular driveway and stopped in front of a house, one story, made of marble and stone; a large formal garden on one side, a vineyard on the other. The front double doors looked like solid oak.

“Nice,” Nina said. “This day may improve yet.”

Pops and Junior escorted Dane and Nina inside and into a sitting room, where a large man occupied a motorized wheelchair. Both of the man’s legs stopped at the knees.

The man’s legs were gone but his upper body was solid. Chiseled jaw, prominent cheekbones, dark eyes. He examined Dane and Nina. He had long ago reached the other side of sixty, but plenty of life burned in his eyes.

The man’s face registered in Dane’s mental mug file, and he had a sinking feeling that the man seated before him was supposed to be dead.

“Good morning,” the man said. “My name is Dominico Russo.”

 

 

“LEAVE US,” Russo said. Junior and Pops stepped out.

“I thought I recognized you,” said Steve Dane.

“You would have disappointed me if you had not, Mr. Dane. It is a pleasure to finally meet you and the beautiful Miss Nina Talikova.”

“Care to fill in some blanks?” Nina said.

“Perhaps you can explain, Mr. Dane?”

“Let’s see,” Dane said. “Big boss in Eastern Europe for La Cosa Nostra. Never served a day of jail time, even as a young man.”

Dominico Russo smiled. “That would be exaggerating a bit. Go on.”

“What else is there? You ran your empire with an iron fist, but somebody thought he could take it from you, and that same somebody blew up your boat. Rumors of your death have floated around for the last fifteen years.”

Dominico Russo nodded. “The blast killed my wife and took my legs. There is more to the story than somebody wanting to take my place, but we shall get there in a moment. I retired, if you will, to this place, quietly. I have a small staff, two of which you have met, and they are loyal.”

“I bet a certain young lady with long black hair and a thing for leather boots means something to you.”

“That was my daughter. Please, both of you sit down. You are making me feel like a terrible host. What would you like to drink? I make my own wine here. A merlot. Or would Miss Talikova prefer vodka?”

“Merlot, please,” she said. “Bring on those vitamins.”

Pops served them at a glass table in the garden. Roses bloomed. Bright sky above. Nina sipped red wine while Dane sipped Maker’s Mark mixed with Coke. Dane leaned forward with elbows on the table, while Nina sat back with crossed legs. Her purse remained on her lap.

“How did you know who we were?” Dane said.

“You are not unknown in the world, Mr. Dane. Checking in at the hotel under your real name was not very smart, but I suppose you had no reason to do otherwise. I pay a man there to let me know who checks in every day. I also get copies of lobby photographs. I have that arrangement with every hotel in the city. When my men informed me of what happened in front of the hotel, I made the obvious connection.”

“I wish I could have done more,” Dane said.

“You had not the equipment or manpower to do anything, Mr. Dane. What you did required a personal sacrifice that nobody, in this day and age, seems willing to demonstrate. I admire your confidence, but it can also be your undoing. I spent a lot of years thinking I was untouchable. Look at what’s left of me.”

“What’s left of you still seems formidable to me, Mr. Russo.”

“You are being kind. But enough of that. I have called you here to finish the job, for which I will pay you a great deal of money. Please. I want my daughter home. I want the person who took her disposed of. I know you are not an assassin, but they say you are not unwilling to kill. And the official reputation of the two of you speaks volumes.

“Will you do me this favor? Money is no object. Leila mustbe found. She is all I”—he stopped, swallowed—“all I have left.”

“We wouldn’t know where to start,” Dane said.

“A place to start,” Russo said, “will be the easy part.”

 

 

“LEILA,” RUSSO said, “has always lived apart from me, especially in my heyday. She does not know where I live. We visit often, but I always go to her. We established these precautions when she was young, because of my enemies, and increased them after the attack on my boat. Leila was in high school when that happened. Somehow, some way, she was summoned to Mestre by note, allegedly signed by me. The note says she was to meet me outside the hotel.”

Dane nodded.

“She checked into the hotel this morning before I could intercept her,” Russo said. “Here is the note.” He produced the piece of folded paper from a side pocket of the wheelchair. “Two others from my staff searched her room while you were in transit.”

Dane looked at the note and showed it to Nina. It was nothing special. A handwritten note with a curving signature. On its face, it meant nothing. Dane said so.

“The note may not shed any light on who is behind Leila’s abduction,” the man in the wheelchair said, “but this other letter does. It arrived before you did, so I assume they delivered it as soon as they had her in the car.”

Russo produced the new letter from his shirt pocket. Dane read it. Nina looked over his shoulder. The note demanded that Russo show up at a park later that night. Nobody had signed the bottom.

Dane said, “So this is where they will demand a ransom?”

“I suppose.”

“I guess a telephone call was too hard.”

Nina said to Russo, “They want you out in the open.”

“I cannot go out. Not in my condition. Please go in my place. You are authorized to accept any terms and make any promises you think need to be made.”

Dane held up the new note. “May I keep this?”

“Of course.”

“You have a bargain, Mr. Russo.”

“My friends call me Nico.”

Dane smiled. “You may call me Steve.”

“And you may call me,” Nina said, “Miss Talikova.”

A loud laugh bubbled up from Dominico Russo’s belly. “You remind me of my beloved Stephania, rest her soul.”

“There is one more thing, Nico,” Dane said. “As your new friend, I have to tell you this.”

Russo cocked an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Show him, baby.”

Nina reached into her purse and took out her compact 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson M&P Shield. She placed the black polymer pistol on the table.

“Your men,” Dane said, “need a refresher course.”

Russo nodded. “Indeed they do. Well. I am glad this was a friendly visit.”

“One more thing,” Nina said. “Why us instead of your organization?”

“Because somebody in the organization,” Dane said, “caused this problem.”

Russo nodded. “Correct, Mr. Dane. I do not know who I can trust.”

“Pops and Junior?”

“You mean Luigi and Pasquale. They are trustworthy. The others too.”

“How do you know for certain?”

“There are some things a man knows, Mr. Dane.”

“Is finding the traitor part of our job?” Nina said.

“No,” said Russo. “I have my own way of doing that. Of course, if you should learn something”—he smiled—“I know you will do the right thing.”

*****

Click here to continue reading Brian Drake’s Skills to Kill.