The HitDavid Baldacci
FEELING ENERGIZED BY THE DEATH that was about to happen, Doug Jacobs adjusted his headset and brightened his computer screen. The picture was now crystal clear, almost as if he were there.
But he thanked God he wasn’t.
There was thousands of miles away, but one couldn’t tell that by looking at the screen. They couldn’t pay him enough to be there. Besides, many people were far better suited for that job. He would be communicating shortly with one of them.
Jacobs briefly glanced around the four walls and the one window of his office in the sunny Washington, D.C., neighborhood. It was an ordinary-looking low-rise brick building set in a mixed-use neighborhood that also contained historical homes in various states of either decay or restoration. But some parts of Jacobs’s building were not ordinary at all. These elements included a heavy-gauge steel gate out front with a high fence around the perimeter of the property. Armed sentries patrolled the interior halls and surveillance cameras monitored the exterior. But there was nothing on the outside to clue anyone in to what was happening on the inside.
And a lot was happening on the inside.
Jacobs picked up his mug of fresh coffee, into which he had just poured three sugar packets. Watching the screen required intense concentration. Sugar and caffeine helped him do that. It would match the emotional buzz he would have in just a few minutes.
He spoke into the headset. “Alpha One, confirm location,” he said crisply. It occurred to him that he sounded like an air traffic controller trying to keep the skies safe.
Well, in a way that’s exactly what I am. Only our goal is death on every trip.
The response was nearly immediate. “Alpha One location seven hundred meters west of target. Sixth floor of the apartment building’s east face, fourth window over from the left. You should just be able to make out the end of my rifle muzzle on a zoom-in.”
Jacobs leaned forward and moved his mouse, zooming in on the real-time satellite feed from this distant city that was home to many enemies of the United States. Hovering over the edge of the windowsill, he saw just the tip of a long suppressor can screwed onto a rifle’s muzzle. The rifle was a customized piece of weaponry that could kill at long distances—well, so long as a skilled hand and eye were operating it.
And right now that was the case.
“Roger that, Alpha One. Cocked and locked?”
“Affirmative. All factors dialed in on scope. Crosshairs on terminal spot. Tuned frequency-shifting suppressor. Setting sun behind me and in their faces. No optics reflect. Good to go.”
“Copy that, Alpha One.”
Jacobs checked his watch. “Local time there seventeen hundred?”
“On the dot. Intel update?”
Jacobs brought this information up on a subscreen. “All on schedule. Target will be arriving in five minutes. He’ll exit the limo on the curbside. He’s scheduled to take a minute of questions on the curb and then it’s a ten-second walk into the building.”
“Ten-second walk into the building confirmed?”
“Confirmed,” said Jacobs. “But the minute of interview may go longer. You play it as it goes.”
Jacobs refocused on the screen for a few minutes until he saw it. “Okay, motorcade is approaching.”
“I see it. I’ve got my sight line on the straight and narrow. No obstructions.”
“I’ve been watching the patterns of the people for the last hour. Security has roped them off. They’ve outlined the path he’ll take for me, like a lighted runway.”
“Right. I can see that now.”
Jacobs loved being ringside for these things, without actually being in the danger zone. He was compensated more generously than the person on the other end of the line. At a certain level this made no sense at all.
The shooter’s ass was out there, and if the shot wasn’t successful or the exit cues made swiftly, the gunner was dead. Back here, there would be no acknowledgment of affiliation, only a blanket denial. The shooter had no documents, no creds, no ID that would prove otherwise. The shooter would be left to hang. And in the country where this particular hit was taking place, hanging would be the shooter’s fate. Or perhaps beheading.
All the while, Jacobs sat here safe and drew bigger money.
But he thought, Lots of folks can shoot straight and get away. I’m the one doing the geopolitical wrangling on these suckers. It’s all in the prep. And I’m worth every dollar.
Jacobs again spoke into his headset. “Approach is right on target. Limo is about to stop.”
“Give me a sixty-second buffer before you’re about to fire. We’ll go silent.”
Jacobs tightened the grip on his mouse, as though it were a trigger. During drone attacks he had actually clicked his mouse and watched a target disappear in a flame ball. The computer hardware manufacturer had probably never envisioned its devices being used for that.
His breathing accelerated even as he knew the shooter’s respiration was heading the other way, achieving cold zero, which was what one needed to make a long-range shot like this. There was no margin of error at all. The shot had to hit and kill the target. It was that simple.
The limo stopped. The security team opened the door. Bulky, sweaty men with guns and earwigs looked everywhere for danger. They were pretty good. But pretty good did not cut it when you were up against outstanding.
And every asset Jacobs sent out was outstanding.
The man stepped onto the sidewalk and squinted against the sun’s dying glare. He was a megalomaniac named Ferat Ahmadi who desired to lead a troubled, violent nation down an even darker road. That could not be allowed to happen.
Thus it was time to nip this little problem in the bud. There were others in his country ready to take over. They were less evil than he was, and capable of being manipulated by more civilized nations. In today’s overly complex world, where allies and foes seemed to change on a weekly basis, that was as good as it got.
But that was not Jacobs’s concern. He was here simply to execute an assignment, with emphasis on the “execute” part.
Then over his headset came two words: “Sixty seconds.”
“Copy that, Alpha One,” said Jacobs. He didn’t say anything as stupid as “good luck.” Luck had nothing to do with it.
He engaged a countdown clock on his computer screen.
He eyed the target and then the clock.
Jacobs watched Ahmadi talk to the reporters. He took a sip of coffee, set it down, and continued to watch as Ahmadi finished with his prearranged questions. The man took a step away from the reporters. The security team held them back.
The chosen path was revealed. For the photo op it would present, Ahmadi was going to walk it alone. It was designed to show his leadership and his courage.
It was also a security breach that looked trivial at ground level. But with a trained sniper at an elevated position it was like a fifty-yard gash in the side of a ship with a billion-candlepower beacon lighting it.
Twenty seconds became ten.
Jacobs started counting the last moments in his head, his eyes glued to the screen.
Dead man arriving, he thought.
Almost there. Mission nearly complete, and then it was on to the next target.
That is, after a steak dinner and a favorite cocktail and trumpeting this latest victory to his coworkers.
Three seconds became one.
Jacobs saw nothing except the screen. He was totally focused, as though he were going to deliver the kill shot himself.
The window shattered.
The round entered Jacobs’s back after slicing through his ergonomic chair. It cleared his body and t
hundered out of his chest. It ended up cracking the computer screen as Ferat Ahmadi walked into the building unharmed.
Doug Jacobs, on the other hand, slumped to the floor.
No steak dinner. No favorite cocktail. No bragging rights ever again.
Dead man arrived.
HE JOGGED ALONG THE PARK trail with a backpack over his shoulders. It was nearly seven at night. The air was crisp and the sun was almost down. The taxis were honking. The pedestrians were marching home from a long day’s work.
Horse-drawn carriages were lined up across from the Ritz-Carlton. Irishmen in shabby top hats were awaiting their next fares as the light grew fainter. Their horses pawed the pavement and their big heads dipped into feed buckets.
It was midtown Manhattan in all its glory, the contemporary and the past mingling like coy strangers at a party.
Will Robie looked neither right nor left. He had been to New York many times. He had been to Central Park many times.
He was not here as a tourist.
He never went anywhere as a tourist.
The hoodie was drawn up and tied tight in front so his face was not visible. Central Park had lots of surveillance cameras. He didn’t want to end up on any of them.
The bridge was up ahead. He reached it, stopped, and jogged in place, cooling down.
The door was built into the rock. It was locked.
He had a pick gun and then the door was no longer locked.
He slipped inside and secured the door behind him. This was a combination storage and electrical power room used by city workers who kept Central Park clean and lighted. They had gone home for the day and would not be back until eight the next morning.
That would be more than enough time to do what needed doing.
Robie slipped off the knapsack and opened it. Inside were all the things he required to do his work.
Robie had recently turned forty. He was about six-one, a buck eighty, with far more muscle than fat. It was wiry muscle. Big muscles were of no help whatsoever. They only slowed him down when speed was almost as essential as accuracy.
There were a number of pieces of equipment in the knapsack. Over the course of two minutes he turned three of those pieces into one with a highly specialized purpose.
A sniper rifle.
The fourth piece of equipment was just as valuable to him.
He attached it to the Picatinny rail riding on the top of his rifle.
He went through every detail of the plan in his head twenty times, both the shot he had to make and his safe exit that would hopefully follow. He had already memorized everything, but he wanted to arrive at the point where he no longer had to think, just act. That would save precious seconds.
This all took about ninety minutes.
Then he ate dinner. A bottle of G2 and a protein bar.
This was Will Robie’s version of a Friday night date with himself.
He lay down on the cement floor of the storage room, folded his knapsack under his head, and went to sleep.
In ten hours and eleven minutes it would be time to go to work.
While other people his age were either going home to spouses and kids or going out with coworkers or maybe on a date, Robie was sitting alone in a glorified closet in Central Park waiting for someone to appear so Robie could kill him.
He could dwell on the current state of his life and arrive at nothing satisfactory in the way of an answer, or he could simply ignore it. He chose to ignore it. But perhaps not as easily as he once had.
Still, he had no trouble falling asleep.
And he would have no trouble waking up.
And he did, nine hours later.
It was morning. Barely past six a.m.
Now came the next important step. Robie’s sight line. In fact, it was the most critical of all.
Inside the storage room, he was staring at a blank stone wall with wide mortar seams. But if one looked more closely, there were two holes in the seams, which had been placed at precise locations to allow one to see outside. However, the holes had been filled back in with a pliable material tinted to look like mortar. This had all been done a week ago by a team posing as a repair crew in the park.
Robie used a pincers to grip one end of the substance and pull it out. He did this one more time and the two holes were now revealed.
Robie slid his rifle muzzle through the lower hole, stopping it before it reached the end of the hole. This configuration would severely restrict his angle of aim, but he could do nothing about that. It was what it was. He never operated in perfect conditions.
His scope lined up precisely with the top hole, its leading edge resting firmly on the mortar seam. Now he could see what he was shooting at.
Robie sighted through it, dialing in all factors both environmental and otherwise that would affect his task.
His suppressor jacket was customized to fit the muzzle and the ordnance he was chambering. The jacket would reduce the muzzle blast and sonic signature, and it would physically reflect back toward the gun’s stock to minimize the suppressor’s length.
He checked his watch. Ten minutes to go.
He put in his earwig and clipped the power pack to his belt. His comm set was now up and running.
He sighted through the scope again. His crosshairs were suspended over one particular spot in the park.
Because he couldn’t move his rifle barrel, Robie would have a millisecond’s glimpse of his target and then his finger would pull the trigger.
If he was late by a millisecond, the target would survive.
If he was early by a millisecond, the target would survive.
Robie took this margin of error in stride. He had had easier assignments, to be sure. And also tougher ones.
He took a breath, and relaxed his muscles. Normally he would have someone acting as a long-distance spotter. However, Robie’s recent experiences with partners in the field had been disastrous, and he had demanded to go solo on this one. If the target didn’t show, or changed course, Robie would get a stand-down signal over his comm pack.
He looked around the small space. It would be his home for a few minutes more and then he would never see it again. Or if he screwed up, this might be the last place he ever saw.
He checked his watch again. Two minutes to go. He didn’t return to his rifle just yet. Taking up his weapon too early could make his muscles rigid and his reflexes too brittle, when flexibility and fluidity were needed.
At forty-five seconds to target, he knelt and pressed his eye to the scope and his finger to the trigger guard. His earwig had remained silent. That meant his target was on the way. The mission was a go.
He wouldn’t look at his watch again. His internal clock was now as accurate as any Swiss timepiece. He focused on his optics.
Scopes were great, but they were also finicky. A target could be lost in a heartbeat and precious seconds could pass before it was reacquired, which guaranteed failure. He had his own way of dealing with that possibility. At thirty seconds to target he started exhaling longer breaths, walking his respiration and heart rate down notch by notch, breath by elongated breath. Cold zero was what he was looking for, that sweet spot for trigger pulls that almost always ensured the kill would happen. No finger tremble, no jerk of the hand, no wavering of the eye.
Robie couldn’t hear his target. He couldn’t yet see him.
But in ten seconds he would both hear and see him.
And then he would have a bare moment to acquire the target and fire.
The last second popped up on his internal counter.
His finger dropped to the trigger.
In Will Robie’s world once that happened there was no going back.