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Authors: Craig Schaefer

Red Knight Falling

BOOK: Red Knight Falling
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ALSO BY CRAIG SCHAEFER

The Daniel Faust Series

The Long Way Down

Redemption Song

The Living End

A Plain-Dealing Villain

The Killing Floor Blues

The Revanche Cycle

Winter’s Reach

The Instruments of Control

Terms of Surrender

The Harmony Black Series

Harmony Black

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 Craig Schaefer

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by 47North, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and 47North are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503935198

ISBN-10: 1503935191

Cover design by David Drummond

PROLOGUE

Linder liked his morning routine. His little rituals, his moment of calm before the chaos of the day. When he was in DC, that meant breakfast at the Café du Parc on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sidewalk seating at a wrought iron table under the shade of a blue umbrella. The umbrella canvas rippled as a chill October wind ruffled Linder’s chestnut hair. He didn’t mind the cold. It kept him sharp.

Breakfast was two eggs, sunny-side up, rissole potatoes, two strips of applewood-smoked bacon, and a slice of white toast he left untouched. A mug of coffee, black, one sugar. Simple. Clean. A good start to the morning.

“Let’s talk about Douglas Bredford,” said the man behind the newspaper.

Linder didn’t look up at the man who had pulled out the chair opposite his, sitting down and unfurling a copy of the
Post
. Linder had been sitting in companionable silence until the visitor had to ruin everything by opening his mouth.

“There’s nothing to talk about.” Linder scraped the tines of his fork across a bubble of egg yolk. It ruptured and spilled like blood from a gunshot wound. “Bredford’s name didn’t come up in Agent Temple’s report. There’s no evidence that he made contact.”

The visitor kept his face shrouded behind the newspaper.

“And you believe her reports?”

Linder snorted. He chewed on a forkful of egg. Smooth as custard.

“Let’s talk about what happened in Talbot Cove, instead,” Linder replied. “I told you I was sending a Vigilant team in there and to keep it clear of hostiles so they could get their work done. You
knew
. And you know who else showed up in town right around the same time as my people? Nyx ended up in Temple’s report. By name. Given that she’s a goddamn demonic bounty hunter, I had to assign her a Hostile Entity designation. Then I flew home to Richmond for a couple of days. Guess who was waiting for me, in my living room, with my daughter sitting on her lap.”

“Nyx?”

“Nyx’s
mother
,” Linder said, eyes hard as flint. “And she’s pretty pissed off right now, considering her little girl is officially on Vigilant’s hit list.”

“I can smooth things over.”

“Oh, can you? I’ll only say this once: keep her away from my family. And keep her away from my people, too. I can’t do my job if
you
don’t do
yours
.”

“And I told you,” his breakfast guest said, cutting him off, “I’ll smooth it over. Back to Douglas Bredford, please. We are concerned that your team may have been . . . contaminated. His reappearance after all these years is highly suspicious.”

Linder rapped the tines of his fork against his plate. Now he finally looked up, glaring daggers through the wall of newsprint.

“How about we talk about you
managing your shit
? There is nothing wrong with my team. Jessie Temple and Harmony Black are the best operatives I have.”

“That’s what we’re worried about.”

“We’re not doing this again,” Linder told him. “We are not pulling a repeat of the Cold Spectrum incident just because your boss is a little
worried
. Bredford’s been terminated. He stuck his head out of hiding just long enough to get it chopped off. Problem solved. What are you upset about?”

The man behind the newspaper didn’t answer.

Linder lifted his fork.

“You.” He tapped the fork in the air for emphasis. “You didn’t put that bomb in Bredford’s trailer, did you? Somebody else took him off the table. Another player. Who?”

“Not your concern.” A pale hand slid an unlabeled beige envelope across the table, bumping it against Linder’s coffee cup. “This is, though.”

As the hand pulled away, it flashed a glimpse of pewter cuff link at the wrist. Jagged cuts marred the face of the pewter oval, painting a symbol that made Linder imagine scars on the face of the moon. Something primal and cold.

He took the folder, rested it in his lap, and paged through the photographs inside. His eyebrows raised, just a hair.

“This has all been verified through the back channels? You’re certain it’s not a ruse, maybe the competition trying to draw us out?”

“Unlike people,” the man behind the newspaper said, “mathematics don’t lie. Run the numbers for yourself.”

Linder closed the folder, keeping it on his lap.

“I’m putting Temple and her people on this,” Linder said. “Don’t even think about arguing. We’ve got zero room for error here.”

“We’re holding you responsible for the results. Out of curiosity, where are they now?”

Linder stared down at the file in his lap like it was a bomb on a hair trigger.

“They took a few days’ leave. Some kind of team-building exercise, Temple said.”

“Temple lies, though, doesn’t she?”

Linder pushed back his chair, abandoning the plate, his appetite gone. A cold wind gusted down the boulevard, sending a ragged chill across his back.

“I told you already: Jessie Temple and Harmony Black are the best operatives we have. Don’t get in their way. And don’t countermand my authority again.”

“Your authority,” said the man behind the newspaper, “is what we
say
your authority is. Keep your people on a short leash. Or we’ll do it for you.”

ONE

When you’re part of an illegal government conspiracy, your actual job description gets hazy. For example, say you and your team take a few days of leave time and fly to Boston to hunt down the man who killed a fellow agent. If you’re working off the books, but the books don’t officially exist in the first place, have you really gone rogue, or are you just putting in unpaid overtime?

“I don’t think he’s coming,” I murmured.

My partner Jessie’s voice crackled over my earpiece. “Chill, Mayberry. This is the best shot we’re gonna get.”

“And when are you going to stop calling me that? We left Talbot Cove two weeks ago.”

“Aw, shucks, Harmony,” she drawled, “you’re just a small-town girl in the big city. After this is done, maybe we can go huntin’ crawdads at the ol’ fishing hole.”

It had been a long two hours, standing out on a cold, windy street corner and waiting for our target to show his face. I’d traded in my usual suit and tie for jeans and an olive army-surplus jacket over a cotton T-shirt, blending in with the crowd. On the other side of the street I spotted Jessie, her frizzy hair tucked under a Red Sox cap, and dark glasses shrouding her turquoise eyes.

We were in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, a cozy nest of historic brownstones and high-end shopping, standing in the shadow of the Prudential Tower. I turned and started my way back up the block for what felt like the fiftieth time, merging with the pedestrian traffic. It was almost cold enough to catch a glimpse of my breath on the air, but walking helped.

I strolled past a panel van parked curbside, bearing the livery of the Boston Department of Public Works. It was a surveillance-model special, on loan from the local Bureau office. As far as the locals knew, we were gathering intelligence on a Serbian gunrunner named Ranko Vukovic. They were half-right. We wanted Vukovic, but we wanted his boss a whole lot more.

“No activity on Ranko’s cell phone,” Kevin’s voice said over my earpiece. He was hunkered down with April inside the surveillance van, keeping tabs on the street. We’d had a tap on our target’s phone for two days now, and the most he’d done was snap naked selfies and send them to his increasingly uninterested girlfriend.

Before that, though, he’d received a private invitation to meet with the man we were really after: Roman Steranko. The last time Jessie’s team crossed paths with Steranko, one of her people ended up dead.

Vigilant Lock had a high turnover rate. Considering our mandate was to hunt and exterminate occult threats—going head-on against sorcerers, monsters, and the powers of hell—none of us expected to retire with a pension. Or an open-casket funeral. Going in, you get only one guarantee: that if and when a target gets lucky and takes you out, your replacement would make damn sure they paid for it.

I was the replacement.

“You don’t have to be in on this,” Jessie had told me.

We sat alone together in a rental sedan in the parking lot at Logan airport. Faint thunder pealed in the distance, while rain lashed down from a grimy black sky and turned the world outside our windows into a blurry mosaic.

“I know,” I said.

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.

“I mean it. I don’t want you to feel any of us will think any less of you. The crime was before your time. No obligation to get in on the payback. This is probably gonna get messier than you might feel comfortable with.”

I contemplated the rain.

“I never saw myself as a team player,” I told the windshield. “Always worked better solo. Before.”

“And now?”

I leaned my head back against the stiff fabric headrest, looking sidelong at her.

“Jessie, two weeks ago we faced down a couple of major-league demons together. We jumped into
another dimension
and saved my baby sister from . . .” I trailed off. Shook my head. “Do you really think I’m going to stand on the sidelines here?”

“Saving your sister was just us doing our jobs. You don’t owe me any favors for that.” She paused. “You . . . hear from her, any?”

I thought about the closed closet door in my mother’s house on Long Island Sound, the little clay beacon on the dresser, and the pale-blue night-light beside it.

“No. Not yet. She’s doing whatever it is she thinks she needs to do over there. When she’s ready, she’ll come home.”

I hoped I was telling the truth.

Jessie cradled her phone’s cherry-red shell in her palm and tapped in an unlock code. “All right, here’s the target: Roman Steranko, aka the piece of shit who put one of my people in the ground.”

The man in the photograph could have been handsome, in a cruel way. He had a hook nose and hard eyes, his thin-lipped mouth permanently set on the edge of an impending smirk. His gaze said,
I know something you don’t, and I want you to know I know it
.

“What is he? Some kind of sorcerer?”

“Weirdly, no,” Jessie said. “Steranko’s a little unique for a Vigilant target. He doesn’t have any supernatural gifts himself—that we know of—but he likes to recruit and surround himself with people who do. What he does have is an amazing talent for technology.
Any
technology. He can pretty much make a toaster stand up and dance. Mathematical prodigy with a photographic memory; he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic when he was fourteen years old.”

Jessie swiped her finger across the screen, shuffling the photo aside. The picture underneath was a grainy shot from a warehouse security camera, showing a leather-jacketed Steranko supervising as four men loaded a coffin-size crate onto a rolling cart.

“Steranko’s a relic hound. He’s got a nose for finding occult artifacts. Then he sells them off for top dollar—as you can probably imagine, not to the most savory customers. We weren’t just trying to get him off the streets: we wanted to wring his full client list out of him. Probably give Vigilant a year of cleanup work, but we’d save a lot of lives.”

I knew what she meant. In my experience, occult relics—whether they were crafted by some long-dead sorcerer, spirit-haunted, or possessed with malignant life—were bad news all around. The worst of the lot could spur curses generations long, dooming an entire family’s bloodline just because some unlucky jerk went to an estate auction and brought home a nifty-looking antique.

Vigilant Lock has a storage facility for any artifacts we recover in the field. It’s called the
Wunderkammer
, and I’m told it’s very clean, very cold, and a very scary place to be working at night.

“So,” I said, “what happened? I mean, if you want to talk about it.”

Jessie shrugged. “I fucked up. Nothing else to say. We’d tracked Steranko and his crew to a shipping depot in Portland. My partner, Mikki, and me, we split up. She went in a side door while I circled around back. Didn’t realize he’d seen us coming a mile away—the whole thing was a setup. Steranko was long gone, but he’d left a parting gift: ten pounds of Semtex on a remote trigger. By the time emergency services cleared the fire . . . there wasn’t a whole lot of Mikki left to bury. If I’d been two minutes faster, I’d have died right next to her.”

She stared out the windshield, her voice tight.

“Or I could have taken the side door, and she’d be the one sitting here, alive and in one piece. Hell of a thing to think about. I made one judgment call on the spur of the moment, and lost an operator. Just like that.”

I watched her, catching the hard glint at the corner of her eye. “The way you described Mikki when we first talked about her, she didn’t sound like a gem of a human being.”

Jessie laughed. No humor in it.

“Mikki,” she said, looking over at me, “was a queen-size dirtbag in a size-zero miniskirt. If she had anything resembling morals or a conscience, they never managed to surface above the seething narcissism. But that’s not the point. The point is, she was on
my
team. Under
my
authority. And I gave the order that got her killed. There has to be a reckoning for that.”

“And Kevin,” I said.

Jessie slumped back in her seat and sighed.

“Kevin still thinks she walked on water and lit up the sun with her smile every morning. April and I tried talking to him about it once. Biggest argument we ever had. Mikki played a character for him, because that was her idea of fun, and he bought the act. He’s walking around with memories of a girl who never existed.”

A sneaking suspicion occurred to me. “They didn’t, uh . . .”

Jessie frowned as she caught my drift. “Oh, no.
Hell
no. That’s where I drew a line. They were never allowed to spend the night in the same room together. Believe me, I stomped on that idea with a quickness. Doesn’t mean he isn’t mourning her like a dead lover, though. I figure, we take this guy down, maybe Kevin can get some closure. Move on, you know? The kid’s nineteen—that’s too young to carry that kind of weight.”

“So when we find Roman Steranko, what then?”

“We take him in alive,” she said. “I
want
that client list. Insofar as how we get it out of him . . . we’ve got more options than I’m usually willing to pursue when dealing with a suspect. And if he gets a little banged up on his way to an offshore detention site, well, what was that old Clint Eastwood line? Something to the effect of ‘I’m not gonna get all broken up about his rights’?”

The next morning, we hit the streets of Boston.

Steranko was a ghost, but his entourage wasn’t so discreet. It didn’t take long to track down Ranko Vukovic, whom Jessie had ID’d as being involved in the bombing that killed Mikki; he was Steranko’s go-to man for explosives and other nasty party favors. The gunrunner wore the legacy of his trade, too, going by his last mug shot: a puddle-shaped burn scar had left his jaw as a lobster-red smear, and two fingers on his left hand were missing. Not a hard guy to spot in a crowd.

We struck gold faster than we thought. We got a tap on Vukovic’s phone just in time to pick up a call from Steranko: he wanted to meet and discuss a new job.

“Intel suggests Vukovic doesn’t know jack about the occult,” Jessie had told us, gathered in the cramped surveillance van and prepping for the stakeout. “Steranko keeps him in the dark. You know what that means, kids: we treat this as a legit, by-the-book FBI bust,
not
a Vigilant op. We play it right, we can get this guy put away for a good long time.”

Legit. As in, no witchcraft from me, no glowing eyes and supernatural strength from Jessie, just two federal agents carrying out a textbook takedown. Part of our job, working for Operation Vigilant Lock, was keeping the world in the dark when it came to the supernatural. Letting ordinary criminals in on the secret was
not
on the agenda. Ranko Vukovic would go to a normal court and a normal prison, to serve out his normal sentence.

Roman Steranko, on the other hand, had a one-way flight to Detention Site Burgundy in his immediate future. And nobody would ever hear from him again.

The meet was set for a rustic tap house called the Boylston Street Grill. Vukovic had taken a seat at the bar, ordering up three fingers of whiskey on the rocks, and kept the stool beside him clear by glaring at anyone who got too close. One drink turned into two while we covered the street and waited for the big fish to swim on in.

“I’m moving closer,” I murmured. “Something’s wrong. Steranko’s an hour late, and I don’t know how much longer Vukovic’s going to hang around.”

Outside the Grill’s big plate-glass window, I caught a glimpse of Vukovic at the walnut-wood bar. He sat transfixed, staring straight ahead. I slowed my walk, keeping it casual in case he looked my way, and tried to figure out what had his attention as I pushed the front door open and eased my way toward the bar.

A long, single-line LED display hung above the wall of bottles behind the bar. Neon-red dot-matrix letters scrolled like a stock ticker, reading out the latest scores and sports headlines. Then the display flickered once and went black, rebooting. A new message scrolled by, intended for an audience of one.

 

F-B-I A-G-E-N-T-S C-O-M-I-N-G G-E-T O-U-T N-O-W

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