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The Guilty

David Baldacci


  WILL ROBIE CROUCHED shadowlike at a window in a deserted building, inside a country that was currently an ally of the United States.

  Tomorrow that could change.

  Robie had been alone in many vacant buildings in foreign lands over the years, tactically positioned at windows while holding a weapon. One did not normally kill from long distance with a sniper rifle chambered with brain-busting ordnance fired with the aid of world-class optics while people stood around and watched you do it.

  Robie was and always would be a tactical weapon. Longer-term strategies were the professional domain of others, mostly political types. These folks made good assassins, too. Only instead of bullets, they were basically bribed to enact laws by other folks with more money than was good for them. And they harmed a lot more people than Robie ever could.

  He eyed the street four stories below.


  Well, that won’t last. Not after I do what I came here to do.

  A voice spoke in his ear mic. It was a slew of last-minute intelligence, and a verification of all details of the “execution plan,” which was quite aptly named. Robie absorbed all of it, just as he had so many times in the past. He processed the information, asked a few pertinent questions, and received a standby command. It was all part of the professional equation, all normal, if such things could be in a situation where the end result was someone’s dying violently.

  He had not set out to kill others on the command of an elite few. Yet here he was, part of a false-flag unit loosely attached to a clandestine intelligence agency known by its three-letter acronym that people from Bangor to Bangladesh would instantly recognize.

  He had come to it by degrees.

  Initially came the training where the targets were first paper, then clay, and finally mannequins that bled surprisingly realistic-looking blood housed in hard paks stuffed in torsos and heads. Where precisely plastic flesh and Hollywood blood had turned to real flesh and real corpuscles he couldn’t say. It might be that he had subconsciously set aside this most transformative of sequences. It was certainly true that he had never looked back and tried to sort out how he had arrived here.

  He had pulled triggers and wielded blades and swung fists and fingers, legs and elbows, and even his head in precise motions, and ended the lives of many without questioning the basis for these actions.

  Official killers who questioned were not popular. In fact, for the most part, they were unemployed. Or more likely dead.

  Lately, though, he had started asking questions. Which was why he wasn’t as popular as he used to be with the acronym agency whose first letter was C and whose last letter was A. The letter in between stood for intelligence, which Robie sometimes thought was seriously lacking there.

  He shook off these thoughts, because tonight he had another trigger to pull.

  He gripped a pair of night-vision binoculars and took a visual sweep of the narrow building across from him. Unlike his, it was not vacant. It had lots of people inside it. People with more guns than he had. But he only needed one. There were twenty-four windows facing him, four on each of the six floors. He was concerned only about the second window over from the left on the third floor. In his mind it had a bull’s-eye painted right over it.

  The curtains were currently drawn over this opening, but that would have to change. As good as he was, Robie couldn’t kill what he couldn’t see. And right now those millimeter-thick cotton drapes might as well be two-inch-thick polycarbonate sheets with a Kevlar-threaded middle.

  He looked at his watch.

  Five minutes to go.

  Four and a half of those minutes would seem like an eternity. The last thirty seconds would seem like drawing a breath—and a quick one at that. Normal people would experience an accompanying adrenaline rush right about now. Robie was not normal. His heartbeat would actually slow, not rise. And his features would relax, not tighten.

  His left hand reached over and touched the already assembled long-range, custom-built rifle lying partially inside his duffel. It was relatively lightweight as such weapons went, and the jacketed subsonic round was already chambered. He would only have one chance to fire one round. He had never needed more than that.

  His hand went out and lightly rapped the wooden windowsill.

  Even state-sanctioned assassins needed a bit of luck every now and then.

  He knew the background of the man he was going to kill tonight. It was like so many of the others whose lives he had terminated. The target’s interests and goals were not in alignment with the United States, which had allied itself with competing—if similarly barbaric—factions that were demanding the removal of this person. Why they didn’t simply do it themselves was a good question that Robie had never bothered to ask for one simple reason.

  He wouldn’t have gotten an answer.

  Thus, he and his gun had been sent to do the deed, in the interests of national security, which seemed to be a catchall to justify any death, anywhere, any time.

  The clipped voice came back in his ear.

  “Target alone in the space other than the two bodyguards and the domestic. The curtains will be opened in three minutes.”

  “Confirmed on all counts?” Robie asked, because he wanted no surprises.

  “Confirmed on all counts.”

  He looked over his shoulder at the window behind him. That was to be his escape route. It didn’t look like much of an escape route, and the truth was, it wasn’t. But he’d survived worse ones. He was simply a shadow tonight. Shadows were hard to catch. And harder still to kill.

  He looked at his watch, synchronizing it in his head with the countdown point he’d just been given. Countdown to calm, he told himself. Countdown to the kill, he added.

  The window he was kneeling in front of had already been raised two inches. The windowsill would be his rough fulcrum point. He lifted the rifle out of the duffel and slid the barrel through this opening until the muzzle cleared the glass by three inches and no more. He had drawn a thick bright red line on his barrel that constituted his stop point.

  The night was black, and the ambient light meager. The attack was, hopefully, unexpected. Anyone spotting the dark metal barrel would have to be exceptionally good, and the fact was the other side didn’t have anyone of that caliber. That was the reason Robie had been able to gain access to a vacant building with a sight line directly into the target’s home. That would never have happened with the Russians. Or the Iranians.

  Right on schedule the curtains parted. It was a simple movement replicated millions of times a day all over the world. However, people usually opened the curtains when it was daytime to let in natural light. At night they usually closed them to gain privacy.

  That was always the hitch in this plan. And Robie would know nearly immediately if that hitch turned into total disaster.

  The maid stepped back from the window.

  Robie thought the woman’s gaze lifted just a bit to the building across the street. And she seemed to linger too long in front of the glass.

  Move, Robie thought to himself, trying to will this message across the width of the street and into her head. It had taken considerable effort, money, and skill to place her right where she was, where she had to be for all this to work.

  But if she froze now, none of that would happen. She would die and the man she worked for would not. Robie being here would all be for naught. He might die, too, since the U.S. would disavow any connection to him whatsoever. That was just how this worked.

  A moment later she moved away from the opening, and his sight line once more became unobstructed.

  Robie let out a long breath of relief and allowed his muscles to relax.

  He rested his right cheek against the rifle stock’s
carbon fiber left side. The use of this material had dropped his rifle’s weight from eight pounds to three. And as with an aircraft, weight was critical for Robie’s task, meaning the less the better. He gazed through the optics latched down on his Picatinny rail. The inches-wide crevice in the curtains came into focus. Through his scope it looked a mile across. It would be impossible for him to miss.

  There was a table in view. On the table was a phone. Not a mobile phone—an old-fashioned landline with a spiral cord. The call would be coming through in less than two minutes. The stage was set, everything choreographed down to the last detail.

  Part of Robie couldn’t believe the man or his bodyguards would not notice just how carefully everything had been arranged. Through the parted curtains he could see the bodyguards doing what bodyguards did. Moving, taking in details, trying to keep their deep paranoia in check long enough to carry out their job. But never once did they look toward the window. Or, presumably, think about where the phone was positioned in front of that window.

  Never once.

  Which meant they were idiots. Robie’s people had long since discovered that convenient truth. Because of that they had not even attempted to buy these folks off. They weren’t worth the price.

  Robie started exhaling longer and longer breaths, getting his physiological markers down to levels acceptable for a shot of this kind: cold zero. In reality the actual shot would not be that difficult. The narrow street including its curbs was barely a hundred feet wide, which was the reason he was using the quieter subsonic round; it was an ordnance perfectly acceptable for a shot over such a short distance. His shot was angled down one story—again, not a problem. It was true he would be firing through glass at the other end, but at this range, glass was not a factor. There was no wind and no ancillary light sources that could possibly blind him.

  In short, it should be an easy kill.

  But Robie had found that there was really no such thing.

  The voice in his ear spoke two words.

  “Vee one.”

  It was the same terminology that pilots in the cockpit used. V-1 meant that the takeoff roll could no longer be safely aborted. Your butt was going up into the sky whether you wanted it to or not.

  There was one small difference here, though, and Robie well knew it. So did the person on the other end of his secure line.

  I can abort this mission all the way up until my finger pulls the trigger.

  “Thirty seconds,” said the voice.

  Robie gave one more sweeping glance left, than right. Then he looked only through his optics, his gaze and aim dead on the opening between the curtains.

  Place empty except for target, two bodyguards, and the maid.

  Check, check, and check.

  “Ten seconds.”

  The call on the phone would be the catalyst for all.

  “Five seconds.”

  Robie counted off the remaining moments in his head.

  “Call engaged,” said the voice.

  It was being done via remote computer link. There would be no living person on the other end.

  A man moved into view between the curtains.

  He was of medium height and build, but that was all that was average about him. Like Hitler before him, he had the extraordinary ability to whip his followers into a frenzy of such devotion that they would commit any atrocity he ordered. That skill had led him to be deemed a Category Alpha enemy of an important if fluid ally of the United States. And that category was reserved only for those who would eventually suffer violent deaths, as the United States played the role of global wrecking ball for those willing to pony up allegiance to it, however briefly.

  Robie’s finger slid to the trigger guard and then to the real V-1 point for him—the trigger.

  He saw motion to the right of the target but still fired, pulling the trigger with a clean, measured sweep as he had done countless times before.

  As was his custom, after the muzzle recoil, he kept his gaze aimed squarely on the target through his optics. He would see this to the end of the bullet’s flight path. The only way to confirm a kill was to see it. He had been tricked once before. He would never be tricked again.

  The glass cracked and the jacketed round slammed into and then through the target. The man fell where he stood, the phone receiver still clutched in his dead hand.

  There was no one alive on either end of the call now.

  Right as Robie was about to look away, the target disappeared completely from sight. And revealed behind him was the child—obviously the blur of motion Robie had seen right as he fired.

  The jacketed round had cleared the target’s skull and still had enough velocity to hit and kill the second, far smaller target.

  Through his optics Robie saw the girl, the bullet hole dead center of her small chest, crumple to the floor.

  One shot, two dead.

  One intended.

  One never contemplated.

  Will Robie grabbed his gear and ran for it.



  HIS ESCAPE ROUTE took Robie out the fourth-floor window opposite where he had fired the shot that had killed one male adult and one female child. With his duffel over his shoulder he jumped and his booted feet landed on the gravel roof of the adjacent three-story building. He heard gunshots and then the breaking of glass.

  The bodyguards had just fired their salvos at the building he’d been in.

  Then he heard two more rapid-fire shots: bang-bang.

  The maid had just dispatched the guards, or so Robie hoped.

  And then she had better run like hell because Robie could already hear tires squealing on pavement.

  His landing had been awkward, and he had felt the scarred skin on his arm from a past injury pull and then partially tear as it took the impact of the landing. He leapt up and ran for the roof doorway that led into the building. He took the stairs down three at a time. He cleared the building and found himself in an alley. There were two vehicles parked there. Into one he threw his gear and his outer layer of clothes and his boots. Now he had on only skivvies. The driver sped off without even looking at him.

  He climbed into the rear of the other vehicle. It was an ambulance. A man dressed in blue scrubs was in the back. Robie climbed up on the gurney, where he was covered with a sheet and a surgical cap was placed on his head. He was hooked up to several drip lines, and an oxygen mask was placed on his face. The man injected a solution into Robie’s cheek that swelled his face and a few moments later turned his skin a brick red and would keep it that way for another thirty minutes.

  The ambulance drove off, its singsong siren and rack lights going full bore.

  They turned onto a road that ran parallel to the street that separated Robie’s shooter’s nest from the target’s building.

  Two minutes later the ambulance lurched to a stop and the back doors were thrown open. Robie closed his eyes and let his breathing run shallow.

  Men with guns appeared. One climbed in and barked at the man in scrubs. He replied in his native language with just the right amount of professional indignation, and then pointed at Robie. The man with the gun drew very close to Robie’s face. Then he examined the IV lines and the oxygen mask and Robie’s swollen and flaming-red face. He asked another question, which the scrubs man answered.

  Then the armed man climbed out and the ambulance doors closed. The vehicle started up again.

  But Robie kept his eyes shut. He didn’t open them until thirty minutes later when the ambulance stopped next to a chain-link fence.

  The scrubs man tapped Robie on the shoulder and then pulled the IV lines and took off the mask. Robie climbed out, his bare feet touching cold pavement. A car was waiting next to the ambulance. He climbed inside, was handed clothes and shoes, and quickly dressed.

  Thirty minutes later he was wheels up in a jump seat in the back of a UPS Boeing 777 freighter that had counted him as an extra package on board. The jumbo jet banked sharply north and then we
st, and started its climb out on the long flight back to America.

  Robie sat in his jump seat and pulled out the secure phone the scrubs man back in the ambulance had tossed him right before he’d exited the vehicle.

  The message was waiting for him in the form of a text.


  Well, Robie knew the first part. And now he knew the maid had carried out her role and gotten away, too. And he also knew that the folks on the other end of this communication were trying to put a positive spin on the whole mess.

  He typed in a message on the phone and fired it off.

  All he could see in his mind was the face of the little girl with curly dark hair whom he’d killed tonight. Unintentional or not, she was still dead. Nothing on earth could bring her back. And he wanted to know how the hell it had happened.

  The ding signaled the answer to his query.


  Collateral Damage? They were really going to try to spin that one? On me?