Russel spun on the balls of his feet like a dancer, whirling to the side and bending his knees as the BMW was almost on him. Eric heard two loud pops, and the BMW veered violently and crashed into the side of the building.
"Shit. I don't have collision," Yang Shao grumbled, pushing the deployed airbag out of his face.
Eric used one of the Ravens to slice his airbag, quickly deflating it. He tried to open his door, but the front quarterpanel of the BMW had smashed back against it, effectively locking him in. He leaned back and kicked against the door, and it opened just enough for him to squeeze out.
Russel was waiting calmly a few feet behind the wrecked sedan, admiring the tires he'd slashed with the Corsican blade he held in his right hand. As Yang Shao struggled out of the car, Russel flicked his wrist, sending the knife sailing into Yang Shao's arm. The thin Chinese dropped the Desert Eagle he'd been leading with, and in a flash, Russel was next to the driver's door. He kicked it with one massive boot, slamming Yang Shao's head between the door and the car's frame.
Yang Shao was unconscious, sprawled on the driver's seat, bleeding profusely from his nose.
Eric drew the other Raven, now with one in each hand. Russel nodded, and pulled out another knife, this one an all-too-familiar Hissatsu. With his free left hand, Russel wagged one finger at Eric in a "come here," gesture.
Both of them froze for a second as they heard sirens. Eric saw the Impala first, as it was coming up behind Russel. It was Johnny and Nathaniel, right on time to pick him up for his meeting with the Russians.
Russel grinned and reached into his cargo pocket, then threw something small and black over his shoulder. The street in front of the Impala suddenly exploded, and the car crashed into the shallow crater. The sirens wailed once more and died.
Russel smiled again and waved to Eric, then took off around the apartment building. Eric set off after him, but by the time he made it to the back of the building, the skinny assassin was already gone.
"Shit. I hate it when they do that," Eric grumbled, sheathing the knives under his shirt.
As he walked around the front of the building, he found Johnny and Nathaniel outside their wrecked cruiser, weapons drawn. Nathaniel was bleeding slightly from a wound on his forehead -- Eric guessed his head had bounced off the steering wheel when the Impala had plunged into the ground. Johnny looked uninjured, but definitely pissed off.
"Eric! Who the hell just threw a damned grenade at us?" Nathaniel yelled.
"That, gentlemen, was the famous Russel Brandt."
Eric looked into the BMW's cabin -- the driver's seat was empty. Yang Shao, like Russel, had pulled a vanishing act, leaving Eric to explain the wrecked black sedan registered to a Chinese assassin currently wanted by the two cops standing right in front of him.
"I really, really hate it when they do that," Eric grumbled.
* * *
Nathaniel was sitting at Eric's kitchen table, and Johnny was standing by the door, arms crossed. Eric was in the bedroom closet, digging for the medical kits he kept around out of habit. He noticed a few drops of blood on the closet floor and looked up -- there was a tiny blood smear on the crawlspace hatch. Finding two medical kits, Eric pushed one slowly through the crawlspace and felt it snatched out of his hand. He then went out into the living room with the other.
"You're lucky. It's not near as bad as it looks," Eric said, snapping on a pair of latex gloves and cleaning the blood oozing from Nathaniel's forehead with a gauze sponge.
"Sure is bleeding a lot."
"Head wounds tend to do that, boss, regardless of severity. Never cracked your skull open before?" Johnny asked.
"Not 'till now."
Eric applied a pair of butterfly closures to the gash. He checked Nathaniel's eyes with the medical kit's penlight.
"No concussion. How does it feel?"
"Minor headache. I'll live. There's going to be a lot of paperwork on this one, Eric. I'm not sure I'll be able to keep your name out of it."
"Yeah, I figured. Don't worry too much about it -- everyone and his brother seems to know where I am anyway."
"So what happened? I ran the plates on that BMW -- registered to the nutbag we had in custody a couple of days ago, Chen Yang Shao. Are he and this Russel character working together?"
Eric shook his head.
"I don't think so -- I think Yang Shao was waiting for Russel to show. When he did, all hell pretty much broke loose. Like you saw, actually."
"I'll say. I'll have to wait for the forensics guys to confirm it, but that was no ordinary grenade. It blew too big a chunk out of the street," Johnny said.
"Yeah, and Russel was never the type to use explosives. But let's get to the matter at hand -- your investigation."
"I think we have bigger problems to worry about, Eric," Nathaniel shook his head.
"We don't jump on this meeting with the Russians tonight, and we blow the whole thing. We blow this, you have scenes like the one out there," Eric waved his hand toward the street, "happening every night."
"I'll be going in with him, boss. One of those freaks decides to show up again, we've got 'em evenly matched, at least."
"I don't suppose I really have a choice. The task force is already staging for the operation. We've got Joe's under discrete surveillance, so we'll be ready in force if anything bad goes down."
"That's the spirit," Eric nodded. "Just make sure you're very, very discrete. I don't want to spook this kid Pyotr."
"You won't see a thing," Nathaniel nodded.
Eric's cell phone vibrated once against his hip -- a text. He'd only gotten three or four texts ever on that line, and they'd all been @Twitter device notifications. He'd turned them off months ago, so he was understandably curious who was texting him now.
The text was from an 813 number that Eric didn't know. The text read:
You should know it was never my intention to kill the shrink. I just used her to flush you out. You're the only one in my sights.
"Something wrong, Eric?" Johnny asked. Eric realized he must have made some sort of face.
"Nah. Junk text. Casting calls in your area! That kind of crap."
The phone vibrated again. Eric looked at the screen:
Well, and Yang Shao. I'm definitely killing that guy. But that's a whole other matter altogether.
"All right, then. I'll go get changed," Eric said.
The phone vibrated once more:
And, well, anyone who gets in the way. Oh, hell, let's just make this easy -- the Stockyards. Midnight.
"They just won't leave you alone, will they?" Nathaniel smiled weakly.
"Unsubscribing now," Eric said, quickly punching in a reply text:
You're on, bitch.
Eric changed quickly into a black wifebeater and a pair of dark green cargo pants, which fit just loosely enough for him to strap one of the Ravens to the inside of his lower left leg without it showing. Out his window, he could see four more unmarked police cars -- members of the task force, no doubt -- and a tow truck pulling what was left of the BMW out of the side of the building. The old brick structure had actually held up rather well. . . the car, not so much.
$70,000, down the drain. This is why I buy cheap cars and fix them up, Eric thought.
Of course, that hadn't worked out too well for him, he realized. The Thunderbird was still presumably all the way across town -- with the events of the last day, he hadn't had a chance to go check it out.
The meeting with Pyotr wasn't until nine, and it was just coming up on seven, so Eric talked Johnny into giving him a ride out to the Thunderbird in one of the unmarked cars that had showed up on the scene. Nathaniel stayed at the apartment, on the phone with the office, getting a jump on the mountain of paperwork he'd have to deal with Monday morning.
"So what did Captain Henry Graham tell you guys?" Eric asked as Johnny piloted them out onto I-80.
"Name, rank, serial number?"
"Not even that. The man just would not speak. We ran the info on his dog tags -- no Army record. No records at all, actually."
"Gets weirder. We have him in custody maybe 25 minutes, and two FBI agents show up at the holding cell. Say they've got orders to take this guy into custody as a Federal prisoner. Their paperwork checked out, so we had to let them take him."
"The FBI give you any information on the guy?"
"None. Said it was classified. Hear that a lot from them, actually."
"What do you mean by 'a lot?'"
Johnny took the ramp for I-680.
"'Bout six months back, I arrested an Air Force officer -- 2nd Lieutenant, a medic -- for simple assault. Bar fight, but this kid took out three or four guys much bigger and meaner than him like it was nothing. We had him in the cell for maybe an hour, and same deal -- FBI shows up, takes him, says it's classified. Charges expunged from the record a few days later."
"OK, that's a pattern."
"Didn't think much of it at the time. Lot of military guys around here, what with STRATCOM right down the street in Bellevue. I just figured the kid was attached to some sort of hush-hush project, and his bosses made the charges go away."
"I wouldn't have thought any different, I guess, at the time. But now?"
"Yeah, it wasn't a big leap. I put some feelers out to some of my pals in SF that're still in. They haven't got back to me yet, but if there's something there, they'll find a way to let me know about it."
"You're a sharp one, farm boy," Eric smiled.
Johnny pulled the cruiser up behind Eric's stationary Thunderbird and put the lights on. Eric walked out to his car and plucked a parking ticket from the windshield, which he held up to show Johnny.
"Sorry, homeboy. Gotta take care of that one yourself," Johnny laughed.
Eric shrugged and got into the car. He tried his key in the ignition, and the engine started right up. He noticed, however, that even idling, the temperature gauge was starting to creep up slowly. Eric shut down the engine.
"Overheated. I probably pushed it too hard last night. Mind driving me to a gas station? Some new fluids should make it drivable, at least in the short term, provided I don't get stuck idling too long. I'll tear the guts out tomorrow and fix it."
Johnny nodded. Eric was relieved that it wasn't a major fix -- after all, he needed a way to get to the Stockyards that night.
Johnny and Eric showed up at Joe's in Eric's car at ten minutes before nine. Pyotr was already there, suspiciously eyeing a cup of coffee sitting in front of him. His look turned even more suspicious when he saw the muscle-bound, overtly preppy Johnny, dressed in a pair of khakis and a black polo shirt.
"He looks like police," Pyotr spat.
"He is police," Eric smiled, sitting down across from Pyotr and motioning to Johnny to do the same. "Come on, Pyotr. You really think I like cops any more than you do? My man's straight. And you need him a lot more than he needs us right now."
"You police, big man?" Pyotr asked. Johnny said nothing.
"He's ex-black ops. You starting to catch on yet?" Eric waved down the waitress and ordered coffee. Johnny just nodded. The two steaming mugs arrived seconds later, and Eric sipped from his as he watched Pyotr try to reason out what he'd said.
"Black ops. This is like FSB?"
"Jesus. How long have you been doing this crime thing? Three, four days? It's amazing you can even feed yourself," Eric shook his head. "Fine. I'll spell it out. Try to keep up."
Johnny sipped his cup of coffee and stared straight at Pyotr as Eric talked.
"It shouldn't surprise you that the U.S. Government isn't happy with what you guys do for a living. I've found out they've decided to send a secret military unit after you guys, to wipe you out rather than arrest you. Are you getting this so far?"
"Then why is that one here?" Pyotr asked, stabbing his spoon in Johnny's direction.
"You have a special problem, you call in a specialist," Eric said. Johnny smirked and nodded. "I'm putting together a team of subcontractors to deal with your problem, but we don't come cheap."
"Vokov will pay whatever money you ask."
Eric shook his head.
"Not money, Pyotr. You tell Vokov I want a breakdown of all his operations in this town. We decide what we want, then we take our chunk. It's that, or these guys keep splattering yours until you're extinct."
"I can make no promises."
"It's that, or you deal with the problem yourself. Run and tell your boss," Eric said, waving his hand dismissively. Pyotr just sat there, staring dumbly at Johnny.
"He means now, little man," Johnny growled. Pyotr jumped up and scurried away from the table, out to his Mercedes SLK, and tore off.
"Ooh. Very nice touch, Johnny."
"So where'd you come up with that line of BS to feed him?" Johnny asked, finishing off his first cup of coffee and signaling for a second.
"Made it up off the top of my head. He bought it, though."
"And you're going to get him to reveal all of their operations in town. Nice. Boss'll love you for that one."
"And we can see by that breakdown where these guys are most likely to hit them next. Works on both sides of your investigation, I'd say," Eric smirked.
"All right. I'm going to report this back to the boss. You coming?"
"I think I'll get some food. Been a while since I've eaten," Eric told him.
"I'll catch a ride with one of the task force guys," Johnny nodded.
Eric had a thoroughly excellent omlette and another couple cups of coffee, then headed back out to the Thunderbird. He was actually feeling pretty good about meeting Russel later -- one way or the other, at least it would be over.
Eric was just about to put the T-bird's key into the driver's-side door when he felt a sharp pinch between his neck and shoulder -- the sting of a needle, he realized as his trapezius muscle flooded with a cold, liquid sensation. Eric tried to turn around, to spin and fight, but all he did was flop to the ground and flail around ineffectually for a few seconds before everything went black.