eople this side of town had a nasty habit of killing each other.
Dmitri Stavitsky leaned against the wall of the Gas ’N Grub and hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans. Stores around here closed before dark, with their doors double-bolted and metal gates rolled over the windows. The ice machine to his left made a continuous
sound that drowned out some of the traffic noise from the county road less than a hundred yards away. To his right, a group of teenage boys played basketball in front of a house no bigger than a two-car garage. The court was dirt and the hoop had no net, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.
The area was a familiar work site for reapers. Things had always leaned toward the dangerous side in the Midway district, but turf wars had claimed twelve lives in the past two weeks and even the police were keeping their distance after dusk. And with so many people dying in the streets, Dmitri had no choice but to rotate reapers into the area so no face would become too familiar with the locals.
One of the teens overthrew his shot, sending the ball arcing over the hoop. Without looking, he took off after the ball, chasing it onto the side street. A passing car swerved around the boy, and the driver honked his horn while shouting a stream of obscenities. The kid didn’t miss a beat, flipping the driver the middle finger as he bent down to scoop up the ball.
The teen froze in his tracks when he caught sight of Dmitri. Even with a few days’ scruff and grungy clothes, it was difficult to blend in this part of town. The locals largely kept to themselves, but they still knew who belonged and who didn’t.
And he certainly did not belong.
Dmitri met the kid’s wary gaze long enough to insert a mental suggestion.
Just another homeless guy. Better get back to the game.
The suggestion served its purpose, and the kid turned on his heel and jogged back to his buddies across the street.
Already the tang of death fouled the air and hummed in Dmitri’s blood. The hum would grow stronger as the time of death drew closer, until it buzzed in his body like a live wire. He glanced down at his watch. Less than three minutes until the moment of termination. There was a time when he used to scan the area in search of his latest client, but now he preferred to kick back and wait for the action to arrive. The less he knew, the less he pitied. He’d learned that valuable lesson during his days with the KGB, back when Kennedy was president of the United States and Dmitri still drew mortal breath.
A late-model Lincoln rounded the corner, the bass so loud it made the ground vibrate. The rims were probably worth more than the entire car, and the windows were tinted so dark they looked like they’d been sprayed with black paint. When the car slowed to a stop, the teens abandoned their game and clustered around the window on the passenger side.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on. He’d seen it happen at least a thousand times before. The rapid hand signals, followed by the exchange of a small bag for money. The routine remained the same regardless of the drug.
Dmitri’s pulse quickened as the call of death intensified. Someone or something had just triggered the chain of events leading to tonight’s termination. And with the wheels set in motion, it was only a matter of time before Death added another soul to its precious collection.
He watched, as he always watched, while familiar events unfolded. The flash of blue lights illuminated the night as police cruisers blocked the road and surrounded the Lincoln. One of the teens made a break for freedom, but was quickly taken down by the K-9 unit. Tires squealed and metal crunched as the drug dealers attempted to ram their way past the police roadblock. Somebody yelled, “He’s got a gun! Shots fired!”
A few of the cops dove for cover while the rest opened fire on the speeding car, peppering the windshield with bullets. Dmitri crouched low when a stray round ricocheted off the wall a few feet from his head. Seconds dragged into minutes until the sound of gunshots finally ceased and chaos gave way to the inevitable.
An officer wearing tactical gear wrenched open the passenger side door while his partner yanked a young man from the car and shoved him to the ground. The guy was bleeding but alive and cursing up a storm. One cop cuffed his hands behind his back and another read the Miranda warning.
The driver wasn’t so fortunate. His bullet-ridden body lay slumped against the seat, his eyes wide and unblinking. Two officers inched closer, rifles aimed at his head. A third leaned into the car and checked for signs of life. The heavyset cop shook his head, a scowl darkening his features when he stepped back and slammed the door. He shouted something to one of his fellow officers before stomping off toward a nearby cruiser.
By now the neighbors were emerging from their homes, curious to see what the ruckus was all about. Judging by their weary looks, they already had a pretty good idea. Most of them kept a safe distance from the scene, passing along bits and pieces of information to fill the gaps in their knowledge. A select few ventured closer, only to be turned back by officers guarding the perimeter.
Dmitri stayed silent by the ice machine, unseen and unnoticed by the officers and neighbors. From his vantage point, he had visual contact with the recently departed, and that was all he needed to get the job done.
His focus narrowed until he saw nothing but the corpse. With his mind he breached the man’s physical shell, sifting through blood and bone in search of that delicate seam binding body and spirit. At last, he found it, and applied just enough pressure to sever the link. Some reapers offered comforting words or promises of peace to appease the soul and make the transition smoother. But not him. He performed his duties with surgical precision, giving no quarter as he harvested the soul from its host.
Once it was free of its physical anchor, the rest was easy. Instinct took over when he guided the spirit close, and his body absorbed the dead man’s essence. The soul condensed to its purest form, a swirling mass of tightly packed energy. Slowly, it became aware of its change of environment, and confusion gave way to anger and despair.
Dead? Aw man, that’s bullshit. Who tipped the fucking cops? It best not have been that punk ass Travis. Wait, who’s gonna take care of my grandma if I’m gone? She ain’t got no one left but me. . . .
Dmitri closed his eyes while he contained the soul, shielding his mind from the onslaught of unwelcome emotions. Later, when he returned to the privacy of his home, he’d activate the portal within his own body and send the soul on the final leg of its journey. Whether that meant Heaven or Hell, he didn’t know. Didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, this was nothing more than a job to do until his own soul was deemed worthy of salvation. And considering the sins that stained his spirit, he’d be working toward that goal for a very long time.
By now, the police had roped off the scene with bright yellow caution tape. Crime scene technicians hovered around the Lincoln, snapping photos and gathering evidence. Two paramedics were crouched down beside the wounded drug dealer, stabilizing his injuries before loading him onto a stretcher. All of them were oblivious to the soul’s departure from its body. Most mortals were incapable of seeing such things, and if they did, the rational parts of their minds quickly dismissed what they’d just witnessed.
Head down, Dmitri stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away from the flashing blue lights. Without so much as a backward glance, he shuffled toward the main road. The police didn’t notice him and even if they did, they would assume he was just another vagrant passing through town. They’d never suspect his true nature, the predator lurking in plain sight.
Experience taught him never to bring his car into a high-crime area, so he’d parked his vehicle a safe distance away and traveled to the appointment on foot. He walked back along the soft shoulder of the busy two-lane road, mindful of the vehicles zipping past. No streetlights meant poor visibility, and the last thing he wanted was to get clipped by a speeding semi. He reached the gas station about fifteen minutes later, the parking lot brightly lit and only one truck at the pumps.
“Son of a bitch.” Some sorry excuse for a human being had boosted his pride and joy. He’d left his classic Dodge Challenger coupe parked along the north side of the building by the pay phone, but now the spot sat empty.
Temper flaring, he kicked the nearby trash can. He’d put a lot of work into that fucking car. Last summer, he rebuilt the transmission and reupholstered the interior. It had taken him weeks to find the parts needed to fix the carburetor. Whoever stole it was in for a world of pain when he hunted them down. And he would. It was only a matter of time.
Dmitri retrieved his phone from his back pocket and scrolled through his list of contacts. All of the reapers in his unit were booked solid tonight, but a few were working in the general vicinity. Ruby had an eleven-fifteen down by Walt Disney World, but Adam wasn’t due to his appointment in Lake Mary for another ninety minutes. Plenty of time to swing by and give him a lift.
He was waiting for Adam to pick up when a familiar rumble caught his attention. His head whipped toward the sound, his blood pressure spiking when he saw his own car swinging into the lot. The Challenger veered around the gas pumps and headed straight to where he stood. With the dark tint he couldn’t make out the driver right away, but as the car rolled closer, the person slowly came into view.
No fucking way.
The driver’s side window rolled down, and an unwelcome blast from the past stared back at him. During their mortal lifetimes, she’d worked counterintelligence for the United States government. She’d updated her hairstyle since the last time they crossed paths, but otherwise she looked exactly the same. Same hazel eyes and angular face. Athletic build. Zero makeup. And judging by the condition of her fingernails, she still bit them regularly. Like most creatures of habit, Gwen Peterson abhorred change.
“That’s my car,” he bit out through gritted teeth.
“Yeah, I know. I got bored waiting around for you, so I decided to take it out for a little spin.” After all these years, she still hadn’t lost an ounce of that grating New England accent. The honey-blond nightmare flashed him a grin, and her eyes crinkled at the corners. She drummed her fingers against the top of the steering wheel. “It’s a really sweet ride, Red. You must have put a lot of work into it. Hop in. We’re late.”
Her grin widened to a smile. “You’ll see.”
When he made a grab for the driver’s side door handle, she hit the gas and the car lurched forward a few feet.
“Uh-uh,” she said with a shake of her head. “I’m driving.”
The vein in his forehead felt like it was going to burst as he stomped down the parking lot after her. “I’m not riding shotgun in my own car,” he snarled.
“You are tonight.”
He made another grab for the door handle and the car shot forward again. The thought of wringing her neck flashed through his mind, but then he thought of what Samuel would do to punish him and the notion lost its appeal.
“I could do this all night, but we’re running low on time. The big boss is expecting us in less than an hour.” The smile fell away from her face, revealing the no-nonsense bitch he’d known during his Cold War days. “Get in. The passenger side’s unlocked.”
Some men were nice to look at. Others, you couldn’t look away from. And then there was Dmitri Stavitsky.
He was taller than her, around six foot four, and had the powerful build of a gymnast. The shirt he wore did nothing to conceal his thick, corded arms or the broad expanse of his chest. His thighs strained against the confines of his jeans. He carried himself with an air of confidence that most men found intimidating and most women found irresistible. And even though Gwen despised him as much as he despised her, she had to admit he wore it well.
Gwen could feel his eyes moving over her while she drove, and she resisted the urge to squirm in her seat. “What?”
The passing streetlights played over the planes of his face. He hadn’t shaved in a day or two, and his jaw was shadowed with stubble. It made him look almost as dangerous as he was.
Back in the day, he’d been one of the KGB’s top agents. For nearly a decade, he worked within the borders of the United States, stealing some of the country’s most valuable secrets. What he couldn’t steal he usually destroyed with calculated and ruthless efficiency. He killed defectors before they could spill their secrets as well as killing anyone else deemed an enemy of the Soviet Union. The full extent of his treachery was never determined; he’d taken those secrets to the grave.
“You cut your hair.” During the Cold War, he’d spoken with a flawless American accent to mask his true identity. The habit died when the Iron Curtain fell, and now his rich, deep voice contained a blend of both Russian and American, with the former growing more pronounced when he got pissed off.
“So nice of you to notice.”
One corner of his mouth twitched. “It makes you look like a boy.”
Her grip tightened around the steering wheel. “Like I give a damn what you think.”
He laughed under his breath. “I think you do.” The smirk on his face vanished when she ground the gears. “Careful! It took me two days to rebuild the transmission.”
“Sorry.” Not really. She totally meant to do that. “Third’s a little sticky.” She held back a smile as she hooked a right onto Alafaya Trail.
Dmitri raked his hands through his short, dark hair. He was a few weeks past the time for a cut, and the ends curled around the nape of his neck. “Why are you here, Gwen?” Her name sounded like poison on his tongue.