Death Angel (Chapter Three)

WHEN THE ASSASSIN LEFT SALINAS 'S PENTHOUSE, HE DIDN'T take the elevator. Instead he strode silently to one of the stairwells and went down four floors. Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked the door to the luxury apartment he'd leased for a couple of months. He had to live somewhere, and though he moved frequently, he liked being comfortable. When he had to, he could-and did-endure long periods of wretched discomfort, but this wasn't one of the had-to times. Besides, it amused him to live right under Salinas 's nose.

The silence wrapped around him like a welcome blanket. Only when he was alone did he relax-at least, as much as he ever relaxed. The rooms were spare, not because he couldn't afford to buy furniture, but because he liked the space, the emptiness. He had a place to sleep, and a place to sit. He had a television, and a computer. The kitchen was supplied with just enough for him to get by. He didn't need anything else.

When he moved from here, he would wipe everything down beforehand with a cleaning solvent to remove any fingerprints he'd left, then he would donate all the furnishings to a charity. Finally, he would have the apartment professionally cleaned, and it would be as if he'd never been here at all.

He would take some of his clothing with him, but, like the furniture, he wore things only a few times before donating them. If a sharp forensics tech found a thread that had first escaped his own notice and then the attentions of the cleaning service, and if by some colossal stroke of good luck on an investigator's part led to him, nothing in his wardrobe would match that thread.

His computer was his Achilles' heel, but he couldn't do the necessary research prior to each job without it, so he did what he could to limit the risk, periodically wiping the hard drive, then removing it and installing a new one. As a final precaution, he would physically destroy the old hard drive. His safety routines were time-consuming, but they were simply part of his life. He didn't fret about them, he simply did them.

He traveled light, and he traveled fast. He had a sentimental attachment to nothing, so there was nothing from which he couldn't walk away. As for people…they were much like his possessions: temporary. There were people of whom he was fond, in a distant way, but no one who elicited any strong emotions in him. He didn't even get angry, because he saw it as a waste of time. If the issue was minor, he walked away; if it was something he had to handle, he took care of the matter calmly and efficiently, and wasted no time worrying about things afterward.

Being a killer was neither something he worried about nor reveled in; it was simply what he was. The assassin was a man who knew himself and accepted that knowledge. He didn't feel what other people felt; emotions, to him, were mild and distant. Because of that, nothing ever overruled his brain. He was sharply intelligent, and physically he was strong and fast, with the extraordinary hand/eye coordination that all truly superb marksmen possessed. Everything about him was perfectly suited to his chosen occupation.

While he might not have standards, as such-because standards seemed to imply some sort of moral guidance system-he did have rules. His number one rule was: never kill a cop. Never. Under any circumstances. Nothing would bring the full fury of law enforcement down on him faster than harming one of their own. Nor did he ever take a job involving romantic affairs, because not only were they messy, they tended not to be lucrative. His prime targets were usually connected to the crime underworld, industrial espionage, or politics. The cops didn't really care about the former, the second category tended to be hushed up, and he never took a political job in this country. That kept his life as tidy and uncomplicated as he could make it.

He went into his bedroom and removed his clothes, dropping them into a hamper in the closet, then went naked into the bathroom and carefully peeled the flesh-colored latex from his earlobes. He constantly changed his appearance in small ways, on the theory that he couldn't be too careful. Surveillance cameras were everywhere these days, thanks to the bastard terrorists. He always did his homework and located the most obvious places for surveillance to be set up, assumed he was being filmed, and worked the angles.

He could have showered here, instead of in Drea's bathroom, but she was far more astute than she wanted people to know. Short of an emergency, not many people would forgo washing off after four hours of sex-unless they knew they could shower very soon somewhere else, like maybe somewhere else in this very building. She might not have come to that conclusion, but he hadn't wanted to take the chance. Anyone sharp enough to pull the wool over Salinas 's eyes wasn't a person he could take lightly.

The afternoon had been…satisfying. Very satisfying. Not only had he learned a lot about Salinas, but he'd pushed the boundaries of his own self-control and had a great deal of pleasure from it. He'd wanted to know how much Salinas needed him, and the answer was obvious: very much-enough that Salinas had agreed to share his woman, which ran contrary to the basic foundation of his heritage, his position, and his ego. The only time someone in Salinas 's position would give away his woman was when he was tired of her, and the assassin was damn certain that wasn't the case.

The identity of his latest target, a major drug trafficker in Mexico, had made the assassin curious. Salinas was a major distributor, but his operation was on the delivery end of the drug chain. Drug dealers were constantly knocking each other off, but for a distributor to have a supplier eliminated was…odd. Something else was going on, something that could prove to be very lucrative to a man who was the best at what he did.

The assassin had carefully considered all the angles and possibilities, and devised a way to find out what he wanted to know. If the answer was "yes," then Salinas would soon desperately need the assassin's services, which in turn meant the assassin could name his price for the job. If the answer was "no," no real harm was done, because while he'd have to stick by his implied threat to never work for Salinas again, there was never any shortage of jobs. There was, in fact, a surplus of people who wanted him to kill other people. Economically, there was no downside for him, and a "yes" answer also gave him a nice physical bonus: Drea.

He was a solitary man by nature, but he wasn't a monk. He liked women and he liked sex, though he regarded both much as he regarded his own physical comfort: something he could do without if necessary. Normally he stayed far away from other men's women, because the situation could get sticky and he didn't want that much attention drawn to himself. But something about Drea had caught his interest the first time he'd seen her.

It wasn't her looks. He didn't have a particular type that he liked, but at the same time he'd never gone for the skinny, overly sexual, big-haired bimbos. Yet the attraction he'd felt for her had been instant and strong. He supposed skin chemistry outweighed all the negative factors, and led him to take a second look, which was when he'd realized that, regardless of how she looked and acted, she was far from dumb.

What had given her away wasn't anything she'd done, really. He had to admit, her act was flawless. Rather, it was his own heightened awareness of her. He'd always been, by nature and by practice, a skilled observer; the predator instinct in him accurately read minute changes in expression, in body language. He couldn't pinpoint what had alerted him, only that he abruptly knew there was a sharp brain under all that hair, that she was playing Salinas like a violin.

Realizing that had only increased both his attraction and his admiration for her acting ability. She wasn't running a con, he had no doubt Salinas was getting good service for his money, but she was definitely running a risk. Salinas wouldn't blink at having her killed if the least thing made him suspicious of her.

The assassin respected survivors, and Drea was that. When he saw a way to have her, he didn't hesitate.

He'd been faintly surprised by her initial reaction. Women like her, who traded on their looks and bodies to get what they could from men like Salinas, usually saw sex as a commodity. At first he'd thought her reluctance was just an act, to pander to Salinas 's ego, but when it became obvious she was truly terrified, he'd mentally shrugged and decided to drop the whole thing. He'd found out what he wanted to know, just by Salinas 's reaction.

When she ran out on the balcony he'd started to leave, but an unusual impulse had sent him after her. She looked terrified enough to jump, and he didn't want that. Going out there had been risky-hell, the feds had to have Salinas under constant surveillance-but ultimately worth it. He'd touched her arm and felt the burn and sizzle of an almost electric connection, and within seconds she'd been responding-still frightened, but she'd felt that potent chemistry as strongly as he had.

He liked taking his time with sex, but today had been unusual. Once Drea had gotten over being so scared, she'd turned hot enough to scorch him. In the intensity of her response, he'd read how starved she was for attention, for being seen as she truly was, seen how much she needed to be stroked instead of being the one doing the stroking. Salinas had to be a lousy lover, selfish and lazy, to leave a woman that hungry.

As enjoyable as the afternoon had been, the assassin didn't plan a repeat. As he'd told her, once was enough. Now he would disappear until Salinas made contact again, and focus on turning this developing situation to his financial advantage.

Forty minutes later, an elderly gentleman with stooped shoulders and a slightly tottering gait left by the front entrance. He used a cane to steady himself as he made his way to the curb and waited for the doorman to hail a cab.

High above the street, Xavier Jackson and Rick Cotton noted the old man's exit, but they'd seen him coming and going several times before and a cursory investigation had revealed he was a tenant in the building, so their interest promptly moved on.