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Authors: Craig Schaefer

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BOOK: Red Knight Falling
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THIRTY-TWO

Fourteen hours. One last golden California sunset before the King of Silence came blazing down to Earth, after half a century of frustrated hunger in the void of space.

“What about occult countermeasures?” I asked. “You bound it once—”

“When it was weak. Confused and shaken from its arrival,” Huburtus said with a sad shake of his head. “It’s grown, since then.”

“We listened in on the Xerxes radio chatter,” Bette said. “No idea who hired them, but they didn’t get the tablet. And since you don’t have it, and we don’t have it—”

“Steranko has it,” Jessie said. “And he’s probably already handed it over to Bobby Diehl.”

Bette tapped her phone, showing us a tangled street map.

“Diehl’s corporate HQ is here, in Los Angeles. We’ve confirmed he’s on-site. Only problem is, I’m having trouble getting the authorization to mount an assault.”

“Trouble?” I said. “Why would anyone
not
want you to stop him?”

She sucked air in between her teeth. “I’m accountable to . . . people with conflicting alliances, and they often let procedure and bureaucratic infighting get in the way of expedient results. The authorization will arrive. Eventually. Probably when it’s far too late to
do
anything.”

Jessie stepped toward her.

“Well, good news,” Jessie said. “We’re here now, and we don’t ask for authorization to do anything. I’ve been told we have a bit of an attitude problem.”

Bette smiled. “Damn. I was hoping you’d say that.”

“We’ll handle Diehl and get that tablet back,” Jessie said. “What we don’t have is a fresh satellite to stick it in, or a way to get it back in orbit.”

“Leave that part to us. Once you have hands on, take the tablet directly to Vandenberg Air Force Base. That’s a hundred and sixty miles up US-101 North. Can you drive fast?”

“You have no idea,” Jessie told her.

“Good. While you’re securing the tablet, I’ll be pulling some strings and arranging a one-way trip on an Atlas V rocket. I’ll meet you at Vandenberg.”

Huburtus held up his wrinkled hands.

“Please,” he said, “be cautious. Marius Diehl was a sorcerer of ferocious skill. If his grandson has inherited even a fraction of his raw talent—or his cruelty—you’ll be in considerable danger.”

“Oh, good, I was afraid I might get
bored
.” Jessie looked back to me and Cody. “C’mon, clock’s ticking. Let’s go pick a fight with an evil billionaire wizard.”

The three of us strode through the museum. Swift, certain, like sharks with our nose on a blood trail. No question about where we had to go or what we had to do: all that remained was getting the job done.

Back at the SUV, April and Kevin were ready to roll. They’d heard everything over our earpieces, and Kevin had already pulled a dossier on Huburtus Becke along with Bette Novak’s air force service file.

“To be honest,” he said, “if I didn’t know better, I’d think she was, well, one of
ours
. Sketchy history, lots of redacted text and missing time, even a few temporary assignments to task forces that don’t seem to exist. As far as Huburtus goes, he checks out.”

I fired up the engine and slammed the Navigator into reverse, spinning out from the parking spot and rocketing for the open road. Every flicker of the ice-white dashboard clock brought us one step closer to doomsday.

“Bette’s working the shadows, same as us,” Jessie said. “Not sure what her angle is or who’s writing her paychecks.”

“Could be a new friendly,” Kevin said.

“Yeah, or she could be part of the group that liquidated Redbird Cell out in Miami. Too many maybes. All that matters right now is that we’ve got the same goals, and she’s got a rocket. Harmony, you ready for this? I’m thinking we go in badges first, get him alone and have an intimate chat. Maybe ‘arrest’ him if we need to take him someplace for a longer discussion.”

“Agreed,” I said. “Cody, I want you here in the SUV, behind the wheel. If things get weird and we have to leave in a hurry, be ready to move.”

“I’d be more helpful inside, with you,” he said. “I mean, Kevin can drive—”

I pursed my lips, biting down hard.

“No offense to Kevin, but I’d prefer you did it. You’ve been trained in offensive driving.”

Cody chuckled. “I guess if you call tooling around in a Crown Vic with Sheriff Hoyt training, sure.”

“Well, there you go.”

He didn’t push it, and I was quietly thankful for that. I wasn’t sure if he bought my excuse or if he was just polite enough to pretend.

Which is better than having to tell you the truth,
I thought.
Which is that Jessie and I are about to walk into a man’s office, interrogate him, and then, if we can’t arrange to send him to an illegal offshore prison facility, we’ll most likely kill him in cold blood. I’m not sure if you’re ready to see that side of my job. I’m sure as hell not ready to
let
you see it.

Diehl Innovations’ corporate HQ was a gleaming silver spike in the LA skyline, a needle of chrome and glass that caught the sunshine and scattered it back in my eyes like a fistful of hot diamonds. Happy employees strolled the manicured lawns around the tower, grabbing lunch from a line of food trucks parked along the avenue and sitting down to eat on stylish bamboo benches. No lack of loyalty here: every phone, tablet PC, and laptop in sight bore the Diehl brand.

I squeezed the Navigator into an open spot in the employee lot and tossed Cody the keys. “We’ll be back. Hopefully this won’t take long. Be ready to roll fast, just in case.”

“Wish I could be there with you,” he said.

I smiled, reached back, and squeezed his arm.

“You are,” I said. Then I got out of the SUV and shut the door behind me.

Jessie and I walked side by side up the granite path to the tower’s lobby, between long, lush green hedges. She put her sunglasses on. Her eyes had started to glimmer in the sunlight, her inner monster rousing from its slumber with the anticipation of impending violence. It had been a while since she’d had an excuse to let it out. I was a little concerned about that: it seemed that the longer the wolf went between feedings—sating itself on brutality—the harder it became for Jessie to keep it under control. It meant the difference between Jessie using the power in her blood to become a finely tuned fighting machine or a feral terror who wasn’t always able to tell friend from foe. When the wolf took over,
everyone
was meat.

“Arm’s length, huh?” she asked.

“Who? Cody?”

“Sure. You sidelined him. I understood doing it at the Bast Club, but we could have used another pair of hands on this.”

“Once we get Bobby Diehl to give up the tablet,” I said, “are we going to sanction him?”

“More likely than not.”

“Yeah. Cody doesn’t need to see that.”

Jessie glanced at me. “He’ll see it eventually.”

“No. He won’t. We brought him on for one mission, and only because we needed him. Period. After this, he’s going back to Talbot Cove.”

We skirted a pack of middle-manager types, walking slow and munching on fat burritos wrapped in tinfoil. Jessie gave me a grin.

“We could keep him.”

“He’s not a dog, Jessie.”

“True,” she said. “Dogs don’t look that good in tight jeans. Seriously, have you tried walking
behind
him? You’ll change your mind, guaranteed.”

I arched an eyebrow at her.

“Is this the part where you use levity to try and distract me from tensing up over the incredibly dangerous situation we’re about to walk into?”

“Yes, but instead of levity, I was trying to distract you with tantalizing mental visions of Deputy Cody wearing nothing but those jeans and a cowboy hat. Come to think of it, forget the jeans. Is it working?”

The glass doors of Diehl Tower whispered open as we approached, inviting us in.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’ll do.”

Bobby Diehl didn’t believe in hiding his money. Every dime was on display, from the polished Italian marble floors to the designer benches spaced along the windowed walls. Cool air-conditioning washed over us, banishing the heat with a breath of arctic chill. Building directories, displayed on standing blocks of pale sanded wood, bore flat-screen monitors that flickered to life as we walked past.

“Everyone knows their refrigerator,” Bobby’s beaming image told us from the screen, “but does your
refrigerator
know
you
? It will now. How about a refrigerator that not only knows when the milk is going bad, but sends you a text message with a grocery list?”

“Don’t know about milk, but they sure are heavy on the Kool-Aid around here,” Jessie muttered. We left the advertisement behind and approached the front desk. A receptionist who might have been moonlighting as a fashion model greeted us, not a strand of his fifty-dollar haircut out of place.

“Good afternoon, ladies, and welcome to Diehl Innovations. How may we help you today?”

We flashed our badges. “FBI,” I said. “We need a word with Mr. Diehl, please.”

He turned five shades of pale and scooped up his desk phone, dialing with a shaky finger.

“Of course,” he said, “just one moment, please. I’ll see if he’s in.”

He rolled his chair back, hunching over the phone and talking in low tones. We waited patiently until he set the phone down.

“Yes,” he said, “Mr. Diehl would prefer that all government inquiries be routed through his legal counsel. I’ll give you their contact information—”

“Is he here?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but he can’t be disturbed—”

“You’re a good employee. I can tell. You like your job here?”

He nodded like a bobblehead doll. “Y-yes, very much so!”

“And I’m sure you’re grateful to Mr. Diehl. You wouldn’t want to see him in any trouble, now, would you?”

He leaned closer to the desk. “Trouble?”

I leaned in, too, pitching my voice soft.

“We’re here about a legal matter. A very sensitive legal matter. And unless we speak directly to Mr. Diehl immediately, we can’t guarantee it won’t leak to the media.”

The receptionist looked like a deer in a semi’s headlights. “A . . . sensitive matter?”

“A sensitive matter,” Jessie said, “involving two kilos of cocaine, three underage high school cheerleaders, and a Chihuahua.”

He got back on the phone, hunched low in his chair and murmuring. “Yes, I
know
, but—” was all I could make out. Finally, he hung up again, running his finger along the inside of his shirt collar.

“Mr. Diehl will see you now,” he said. “Please take the elevator to the penthouse level.”

He pointed the way. An executive elevator paneled in mahogany and mirrors stood open, waiting for us. The “PH” button at the top of the elevator panel was already lit and gleaming, ready to take us to the end of the line.

THIRTY-THREE

The elevator doors rattled shut, sealing us in. As the cage whirred to life, gliding upward, a flat-screen monitor opposite the buttons flickered to life. Bobby Diehl gave us a big smile, standing in a spotless stainless-steel kitchen.

“Everybody knows how to use a microwave, but does your microwave know how to cook like a Michelin-starred chef? It will now. Let’s check out the cool features on the brand-new Diehl Innovations Cookstar 4000—”

“Mandatory commercials,” Jessie groaned. “Now we
know
he’s evil.”

We learned about the latest in microwave technology all the way to the fifty-sixth floor. Then the monitor went black and the doors rumbled open, and I instinctively reached under my jacket. This close to his crowning moment of triumph, Diehl wouldn’t be taking any chances. Our best hope was that he believed we were legitimate law enforcement, and that he’d try to get rid of us by sitting down for a quick private chat.

Once we got him alone, we could take him down.

The elevator opened onto a long hallway, light walls the color of sandalwood, and a crisp gray carpet. Photos lined the walls: glossy magazine ads for the company’s products over the years, from a bulky late-’80s home computer to this year’s must-have smartphone. Double doors waited at the end of the corridor.

“Ready for this?” Jessie asked me.

“Ready,” I said, and pushed open the door.

The antechamber to Diehl’s office spoke of quiet culture and wealth. Rough stone textured one wall, glowing under ceiling track lights, and water burbled down a pebbled fountain in the corner of the room not far from a cluster of soft oak chairs upholstered in pale gray. Next to the closed office door, a young brunette in a cream-colored Chanel pantsuit sat behind a minimalist desk.

“Welcome,” she said, gesturing to the chairs. “Mr. Diehl is just finishing up a brief meeting. He’ll see you momentarily, if you wouldn’t mind waiting?”

We took a seat. No idea how many people he was in there with, and two things we
didn’t
want were witnesses or a panic. We could wait a few minutes to minimize the chances of anything going wrong.

The waiting room smelled like faint rose perfume, and gentle string music played over hidden speakers. While Diehl’s assistant went back to work on her computer, I leaned sideways to get close to Jessie and spoke softly.

“So that thing back there,” I said, “what Huburtus said, about the kings in the outer dark.”

She nodded, impassive behind her dark glasses. “I know. Whatever the King of Silence is, it’s connected to the thing my dad worshipped. Same kind of critter, anyway.”

“Whatever we can learn about either one of them will give us a leg up. A second Red Knight’s just a delaying tactic—eventually, we have to figure out how to kill these things or at least banish them back where they came from.”

“The shadow in between,” Jessie murmured. “Huh. Let’s make the kings a priority—
after
we hunt down Roman and Mikki. Hopefully they haven’t gone far.”

I glanced to the closed office door.

“His meeting,” I said. “You don’t think . . .”

Jessie followed my gaze. She shifted in her seat, angling so it’d be easier to reach for her gun.

“I assume they’ve collected their paychecks and blown town already, but if either one of them pokes their head out of that doorway . . . no discussion. We blaze ’em both, right here and now.”

“No argument here,” I said.

The assistant’s desk phone chimed. She lifted the slim receiver to her ear, keeping a casual eye on us from across the room.

“Mr. Diehl’s office. Yes. Yes, thank you. I’ll be right down.”

She hung up and rose gracefully from behind her desk.

“I’m sorry, I have to run downstairs, Mr. Diehl’s lunch order is here. I’ll be back in five minutes; if he comes out of his office before I return, could you please let him know I’m on my way back up?”

“Sure thing,” Jessie said.

The second the office doors swung shut, Jessie and I were on our feet. She moved over to cover the entrance, just in case Diehl’s assistant came back early, while I swept around her desk. She hadn’t bothered to lock her computer: a click of the mouse banished her bouncing-ball screensaver and brought up wallpaper emblazoned with the company logo. From there it was a short trip to Bobby Diehl’s appointment book.

“Cute,” I muttered.

Jessie glanced over at me. “What?”

“He had a meeting with Steranko Consulting yesterday morning. Yeah, we missed the handoff, but on the bright side, now we
know
Diehl has the tablet.”

“Let’s hope he’s carrying it on him,” Jessie said. “Who’s he in there with now?”

I scrolled down the list, past appointment after endless appointment. My eyes landed on a big gray chunk of nothing.

“According to this, he isn’t. At least, nothing’s been formally scheduled.”

Another minute ticked by, and I started to get a nasty suspicion. I picked up the desk phone and dialed down to the lobby.

“Hi,” I said, keeping it breezy and doing my best imitation of the assistant’s voice. “Mr. Diehl wants me to check on his lunch order. Is it waiting for him downstairs?”

The receptionist paused. I could hear the confusion in his voice.

“His lunch? But that was delivered almost an hour ago. Didn’t it make it up to Mr. Diehl’s office?”

“My mistake,” I said, and hung up the phone.

Jessie didn’t need to hear the other end of the conversation. She took one look at my face and said, “She bailed, didn’t she?”

“It’s a setup.” We drew our pistols at the same time, closing on Diehl’s office door. “On three?”

Jessie whipped off her dark glasses. Her eyes, etched in fury, were like radioactive sapphires. She pivoted on her heel.

“Three,” she said, and lashed out with a side kick that splintered wood and sent the door blasting inward, rattling on its hinges.

I was first through the door, gun level, my aim slicing across the room. Diehl’s office backed up against a floor-to-ceiling window, a wall of glass that looked down over the LA skyscape and flooded the room with natural light. His desk was a tech geek’s dream, with three big, curving computer screens and a small army of Japanese robot action figures frozen in battle beside an ergonomic keyboard.

An empty office, with no sign of Bobby Diehl.

I cleared his private washroom, a marble sanctum with an LED television set into the mirror above the sink. No clues there. I emerged to find Jessie standing behind his desk. She held up a white porcelain mug with an ice-blue Diehl Innovations logo.

“His coffee,” she said. “It’s still warm. He was here.”

“Somebody tipped him off. While we were on our way up to his office, he was already on his way down.”

“And he told his admin to stall us as long as she could while he made his getaway,” Jessie said. “Son of a
bitch
. Let’s go.”

I holstered my gun and led the way, back out through the waiting room. We weren’t alone. The elevator at the end of the hall rumbled open, and two bruisers in off-the-rack suits stepped out. They strode toward us, side by side, walking with tense purpose. We did the same. We didn’t make eye contact, all four of us committed to the polite fiction that we were just going to pass one another by in peace.

Then we closed the distance. One shrugged back his pinstripe jacket and reached for the polished .357 in his shoulder holster.

I snared his wrist with both hands in an aikido grip, yanking him off balance, using his momentum as I turned my hip and hauled him off his feet. He went tumbling over my rounded shoulder, thrown like a rag doll. He landed on his back, hard, just in time for me to drop down and drive a punch square into his solar plexus. Jessie chose brutality over fluidity: the gunman shrieked as she snapped his arm at the elbow, ragged bone jutting against the blood-drenched sleeve of his jacket, then she dropped him with a knife-handed strike to the side of his throat.

We ran. Not for the elevator—on enemy ground, an elevator is a death trap waiting to happen—but for the door to the right. The one with the
F
IRE
E
XIT
O
NLY
push handle that set off a squawking alarm when I threw my elbow against it. A wide stairwell waited beyond the door, cinder-block walls painted hospital white and a chrome railing snaking all the way down. Fifty-six floors to go.

We raced down the concrete stairs, circling landing after landing, my breath burning in my lungs. Even still, I found the air to gasp out instructions over the phone, dialing on the run.

“Cody,” I said, “things just went sideways. Get the SUV ready and bring it around front. We have to go,
now
.”

We rounded another landing, a big yellow
52
painted on the wall. Two floors up, a door rattled open. The next thing I heard was a gunshot. A bullet cracked against the chrome handrail three feet away from me, ricocheting, biting into concrete. I paused just long enough to whip out my Glock, lean out over the railing, and return fire. The shot boomed like a cannon, reverberating off the stairwell walls and stinging my ears. Above us, another thug in a suit jumped back in alarm. I hadn’t hit him, but I’d given him something to think about.

More doors opened below us. A stream of confused, anxious-looking employees flooded the stairwell. Some clutched laptops or stacks of file folders, the sound of the fire alarm echoing at their backs. I made my gun disappear, and we mingled with the crowd, getting lost in the herd of suits and ties.

“Can’t believe they’re doing a fire drill today,” grumbled a man just ahead us.

“Tell me about it,” said a primly dressed woman at his side. “I’ve got a meeting with the reps from Northlight in twenty minutes. It took a month just to convince them to return my calls, and now
this
happens.”

Soon we were anonymous fish in a slow-moving stream, just two fellow employees making our way downstairs. Even at a sloth’s pace, my calves were aching by the time we finally reached the bottom floor. The lobby was like Grand Central station, herds of people milling in all directions, and a coordinator stood on the reception desk and called out instructions through a bullhorn.

“Everyone, please stay with your group and evacuate to the parking lot for a head count. Research and development, please exit through door one. Human resources, records, and accounting, door two—”

“Pick a direction,” Jessie said, but as I craned my neck to see over the herd, I realized all the possible exits ended in the same predicament.

Another pair of thugs, flashing conspicuous bulges under their blazers, stood at every single exit. Each employee had to pause, showing their ID, before the gunmen waved them out the door.

“Can’t fight our way out,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Too many civilians—somebody’ll get hurt. People are already tense from the fire alarm. If we so much as flash a gun, it could trigger a stampede.”

“I’m open to suggestions. How would you play it?”

I had to think about that, and fast. Our line kept inching forward, closer and closer to the big glass doors.

BOOK: Red Knight Falling
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