Soldier, p.5
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       Soldier, p.5

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  “Your word,” Griffin replied, his expression serious now. “I want your word, Riley. I give you what you want, you help me disappear, and neither you—” he shot a quick glance in my direction “—nor anyone in your network, ever bothers me again.”

  “Yes,” Riley growled. “You have my word. Now give me the damn information before I change my mind and rip that forked tongue out through your teeth.”

  Griffin nodded. Fishing in his breast pocket, he withdrew a pen and pulled a napkin toward him across the table. After scribbling a few lines, he folded it again and shoved it toward Riley.

  “GPS coordinates,” Griffin said as Riley grabbed the square and flipped it open. “Give that to Wes. He should be able to find it. Have him confirm that it’s there.”

  Riley frowned. “This is just one location,” he said, holding up the napkin. “You told me you knew where the others were.”

  “I do. And I’m certainly not stupid enough to hand them over all at once. What’s to stop you from running off and leaving me high and dry with Talon?”

  My temper flared. “Because we’re not like you?” I challenged, and he gave me a patronizing smile.

  “You mean handsome, well-dressed and able to see when the tide is turning? More’s the pity.”

  My dragon raged at him, itching to rend and claw and bite, but Riley’s warning glare stopped me. Griffin pulled a phone out of his suit jacket and glanced at the screen. “Well. I think we’re done here, for now, anyway. I do hope you rented rooms at decent hotel, Riley, and not one of those hole-in-the-wall dumps you usually go for.”

  I curled a lip. “He’s coming with us?”

  “Of course. How else am I going to avoid the organization? I certainly can’t uphold my end of the deal if a Viper sneaks in my window one night and caps me in the head. Then you’d never get the rest of the information, would you?” At my disgusted look, he chuckled. “Don’t worry, chickadee, you won’t even know I’m there. And once Wes sets me up with a new identity and life, you’ll never see m—”

  A muffled pop rang out, the distant retort echoing behind us, and Griffin jerked in his seat, his eyes going wide. I jumped and stared in shock as a thin stream of blood ran down his face from the hole in his forehead. For a second, he sat motionless, looking stunned. Then he toppled forward and hit the table facedown with a thud. The empty glass fell to the sidewalk and shattered, the crash unnaturally loud in the sudden quiet. For a single heartbeat, everything was frozen.

  Then someone close by let out a shriek and pandemonium exploded around us.

  Riley leaped up, shoving his seat back, as the restaurant crowd began to flee, overturning tables and chairs, shoving each other aside in their desperation to get away. “Get inside, Firebrand!” he snarled, glaring wildly at the rooftops across the narrow street. “Get out of the open, now!” Dodging humans, we ducked into the tavern, which was in a similar state of chaos. People were either running away, hiding or talking frantically into their cells. I heard the bartender on the restaurant phone, trying to speak into it while two patrons yelled at him over the counter.

  Riley pulled out his own phone and spoke briefly to Wes, his golden eyes scanning the crowds and rooftops across the street. The patio was nearly empty now. I could see Griffin’s body lying on the table, a pool of crimson spreading over the white cloth. My cheeks felt sticky, and with a start of horror, I realized his blood had spattered over my face when he was shot. Firmly I shoved my stomach down before it could crawl up my throat.

  “I don’t see anyone,” Riley muttered, and a tremor went through his voice. But whether it was fear or rage, I couldn’t tell. I shivered, and he looked down at me, his gaze intense. One hand rose, his thumb gently brushing my cheek, as if assuring himself the blood on my face wasn’t mine. “You okay, Firebrand?” he whispered.

  Shakily, I nodded. “Was this...Talon?” I whispered back, and he gave a grim nod.

  “Yeah. It must be. Though this is the first time I’ve seen a Viper take someone out in broad daylight, in front of a crowd. That’s not like them at all.”

  “Could it have been the Order?”

  “I don’t think so. They wouldn’t have any reason to kill him, especially if he was selling them information, too. Talon is the one who wanted him silenced.” His gaze flickered to the patio and the body sprawled on the table, and his brow creased. “They must’ve really wanted him dead, to take him out like that.”

  A siren blared in the distance, making us both jerk up, just as a familiar car lurched to a stop in front of the tavern.

  “There’s Wes,” Riley said and brushed my arm. “Let’s get out of here. Keep your head down and move fast.”

  With one last look at the body on the table, I fled the tavern after Riley, my heart pounding wildly as I threw myself into the backseat and slammed the door. Riley dived into the front as Wes hit the gas, honking the horn and weaving through pedestrians, and we sped away into the city.

  GARRET

  6:22 p.m.

  Parked in the shade beneath a gnarled tree, I raised the binoculars and stared at the mansion at the bottom of the rise. This hilly, residential area several miles outside London seemed to be one of the wealthier parts of town, as large houses with an acre or two of land were not uncommon. Through the gated fence, the enormous, redbrick estate loomed at the end of a long carriage driveway. To the untrained eye, it looked like a normal—albeit huge—mansion, with tall windows, a pool out back, and a perfectly landscaped lawn and garden. But normal homes didn’t have guards posted around the perimeter, or a pair of trained attack dogs that swept the grounds every so often, searching for intruders. Normal homes didn’t have the type of security usually reserved for royalty—the precautions here indicated a man who either was so paranoid, he thought enemies lurked around every corner...or had something to hide.

  The first time I followed the Patriarch to this neighborhood just north of London, I’d been surprised, maybe even a little stunned. In the Order, prudence was commended and extravagance was frowned upon. Everyone, from the senior officers to the newest grunt, made do with what he had and did not reach beyond his station. Wealth and physical possessions were unimportant. We served a higher order and anything that could tempt or distract us from our holy mission was to be avoided.

  But the Patriarch was certainly doing well for himself, considering the size of his home and the number of guards posted. I knew he also had a small apartment in London, because he’d spent the evening there once, entertaining what looked to be a pair of officers from the Order. Perhaps he kept the apartment to hide the fact that he really lived here, in this enormous mansion. Considering the mansion’s isolation, I suspected most of the Order didn’t know where their revered leader actually lived. I wondered what they would think if they did know. If the man really was receiving visions from God, it was definitely paying well.

  Lowering the binoculars, I leaned back in the seat, trying to get comfortable and knowing that was impossible. This was the fourth evening I’d sat here, lurking around the home of my former leader, the head of the Order itself. So far, I’d seen nothing unusual. No suspicious activity, no strange guests arriving in the middle of the night. The downstairs window, where I assumed the Patriarch’s office was located, glowed softly with lamp and computer light, and would for another thirty-eight minutes.

  I took a sip of bitter black coffee, trying to curb my restlessness. Stakeouts were not my forte. Sitting around, waiting for something to happen...that was what Tristan had been good at, what made him such a deadly sniper—his ability to wait as long as it took for the target to show itself. I was better at kicking down doors and charging in, guns blazing, to shoot everything that moved. That wasn’t an option here, but I was running out of time. If something didn’t happen in the next few nights, I was going to forgo the stakeout and try to sneak into the house itself. Given
the amount of guards, dogs and security, such a plan would’ve horrified Tristan.

  Tristan. Memories flickered, dark and unwelcome. That was another reason I didn’t like sitting around—my mind tended to dredge up things I’d rather forget. I wondered where Tristan was now, if he was still alive, fighting dragons in the never-ending war with Talon. I wondered if he ever told stories about his former partner the Perfect Soldier, before that soldier turned traitor and sided with the enemy.

  A vehicle rolled up to the gates. I sat up quickly, grabbing for the binoculars, as it entered the driveway, then pulled to a stop outside the front door. It was the same dark SUV that drove the Patriarch to and from St. George headquarters. Until now, the Patriarch’s schedule could be timed to the minute. He left work at seventeen hundred on the dot. Barring traffic, he arrived home exactly twenty minutes later and immediately went to his office, where he remained until 7:00 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., his lights went out and wouldn’t click on again until five o’clock the following morning. No one bothered him or interrupted his schedule. Except for the guards, he lived alone—no wife, children, or pets. Everything he did was order, habit and routine.

  But not tonight.

  Gripping the binoculars, I focused on the front door just as a familiar figure emerged. He wasn’t a tall man, and his short brown hair was peppered with silver, but he was still powerful and imposing, and his gait was confident as he walked to the waiting car. This was not a man who sat in meetings or behind a desk all day; this was a warrior and a soldier. Nodding briskly to the man who opened the door for him, the Patriarch slipped into the backseat. The doors slammed, and the SUV began to move.

  All right. Time to get some answers.

  * * *

  They didn’t go far. Ten minutes after I began discreetly trailing the SUV through a quiet neighborhood, the vehicle slowed and pulled up to the curb. The back door opened, and the Patriarch emerged, followed by two large men. Though they were dressed casually, I could tell they were armed—definitely his security detail. All three gazed calmly up and down the street before they crossed the road and entered the public park on the corner.

  I shut off the engine, then grabbed the backpack on the floor and exited the car, watching the Patriarch’s vehicle turn the corner and drive away. Shouldering the bag, I hurried across the street and peeked around a tree, catching sight of my quarry as they strode purposefully through the short grass and deeper into the park.

  I dug my earbuds out of my pocket, stuck them in my ears, then pulled out my throwaway phone, keeping my head down. I’d never met the Patriarch, but I could only assume he knew what I looked like. My photo had probably been circulated through the Order, and the Patriarch would certainly keep up with current affairs in St. George. Following him was a risk, but if he did happen to glance back, hopefully all he would see was an oblivious teenager listening to music while texting on his phone.

  With my eyes glued to the screen, I started walking.

  I trailed them as casually as I could while still attempting to keep them in my peripheral vision. Thankfully, this area of the park was wide and open, with sweeping fields and few trees to block lines of sight. A fair amount of civilians wandered the paths; joggers and bikers, parents with children, people walking their dogs. It was easy to mimic them, to pretend I was just a random civilian enjoying the evening.

  Finally, the Patriarch and his men made their way toward a large blue-green pond at the end of one field. A man in a gray suit sat on a nearby bench, staring over the water. The Patriarch stopped a few dozen feet from the bench and spoke quietly to his guards. They turned, folded their hands in front of them and scanned the area while the Patriarch continued toward the pond.

  Shrugging off my pack, I walked to a tree about a hundred yards from the bench and sat down, leaning against the trunk with my back to the water. Setting my bag on the ground, I unzipped the top just enough to feel around inside. The shotgun microphone sat nestled in the bottom—amazing what you could pick up on the internet. Carefully, I plugged my headphones into the microphone, switched it on and pointed the entire backpack toward the bench, trying to find the right angle. There was a buzz of static in my ear, and snatches of a conversation filtered through the earbuds before resolving into separate voices.

  “—llo, Richard,” crackled one voice, smooth and confident, making me frown. Richard? Who was on a first name basis with the Patriarch? I held my breath, easing the backpack to a better position. The voice sputtered a moment, then grew stronger. “Lovely evening, isn’t it? I heard last week was nothing but rain.”

  “Let’s skip the pleasantries.” The deep second voice was clipped, impatient, which surprised me. I’d heard speeches given by the Patriarch, his words inspiring the soldiers of St. George as he reminded them of our holy mission. In all instances, he was poised and confident, never raising his voice to get a point across. He’d sounded nothing like the brusque, almost nervous man across the lawn. “That’s not why we’re here.”

  Interesting. I suddenly understood why the Patriarch had chosen to meet in a very public park. If he didn’t trust the other man, he wouldn’t want to pick a location where the other could do something nefarious with no witnesses. Rules of enemy negotiations: don’t meet on the enemy’s turf, and don’t give him the opportunity to double-cross you.

  So, who was this other man? And how had he convinced the Patriarch, the leader of St. George, to meet with him like this, when he obviously didn’t want to?

  “As you say. I suppose we should get down to business, then.” By comparison, the other’s voice was cool and almost smug. “I trust the operation in China was a success?”

  There was a creak, as if the Patriarch had seated himself on the bench and leaned back. His voice was begrudging as he answered. “The squad located the temple in the mountains and found the targets inside, just as you said.”

  “And?”

  “They’ve been dealt with.”

  “Excellent. My people will be pleased to hear it.” A pause, and then the faint tapping of keys, as if the stranger was typing something on a laptop. “Another successful raid, and your men have done well. The funds should be in your account by the time you get home.”

  My stomach dropped. Certainly not the vision from God the Order would have us believe. Who is this person? Is he even part of St. George, or is he something else entirely?

  “You don’t look pleased, my friend,” the stranger went on. “Are you disappointed with our arrangement? Surely the destruction of another nest is cause for celebration, yet you seem unhappy.”

  “I am not,” the Patriarch said in a cold voice, “nor will I ever be, your friend.” His voice faded as static buzzed through the headphones, and I carefully adjusted the backpack until it cleared. “...benefits us now,” the Patriarch went on. “But do not think we will ever be allies, and do not think I will change our beliefs. The Order does not bow to the whims of dragons, regardless of loyalties or circumstances.”

  What?

  “Be that as it may,” the man returned with a smile in his voice, “I’m afraid it is far too late for you to reconsider our arrangement. What would the rest of the Order say, if they knew their Patriarch had sold himself to the enemy? Do you think they would care that one tiny branch of Talon wants to bring down the whole? Do you think St. George would agree that doing business with a handful of dragons in order to destroy the rest is for the good of us all?” His voice grew faintly threatening. “If certain documents suddenly became known to the rest of the Order, what do you think would happen?” The stranger snorted. “Well, you know your people better than I. What is the punishment for treason—for consorting with dragons?”

  I was barely breathing now. This...this was unreal. I sat rigid with my back to the tree, listening to the leader of St. George—the man the Order revered above all others—carry out a secret transaction with a dragon
. Accept money from a dragon, to eliminate other dragons. And not only that, it sounded like these meetings had been going on for a while. My mind whirled with questions as confusion, disbelief and anger surged to life. How long had the Patriarch been lying to us? How long had he advocated the complete destruction of an entire species, when he himself was in Talon’s pocket?

  The Patriarch...is in league with Talon, I thought numbly. No one was going to believe this. I was having trouble believing it myself.

  “So, I’m afraid our transactions are going to have to continue, my friend,” the stranger—the dragon—went on in that same cool, smooth voice. “There is too much at stake, for both of us, to stop now. But that’s not the end of the world, is it? After all, you’re still eliminating your enemies. You’re destabilizing the organization. Who cares where the information comes from—as long as dragons are dying, you’re still achieving your holy mission, are you not? Protecting humanity and all that.”

  “You mock me, lizard. But I will see your kind extinct. Even if I must make a deal with the devil to see it come to pass.”

  “There you go.” The dragon didn’t seem at all perturbed at the Patriarch’s threat. “We have similar goals, you and I. The Order wants dragons dead—we want some dragons dead. And if Talon grows weak in the meantime, how is that a bad thing for St. George?”

  The Patriarch’s voice went coldly polite. “I assume you have another lead.”

  “I do.” I heard the faint rustle of paper. “And another opportunity for your people to redeem themselves, since they cannot seem to pin down this one dragon long enough to eliminate him.” The stranger’s voice took on a dangerous edge, even though his tone was light. “A pair of dragons waltzes into your chapterhouse, frees a traitor and waltzes out again, right under your noses. I would think finding them would be the Order’s top priority.”