Elliot slouched in the sad yellow stink of the aging van. He watched the rain smack the windshield as he listened to the muted squawk of the police band and wondered how many cigarettes it took to make something smell this awful. Next to him, Sparks sped the process along by lighting up. Carefully, of course. He didn't want to send a signal to the dope house down the block.
Elliot Elliot. E squared. Double E. Dubby when he was a kid. The legacy of an idiot father long gone in an old Toyota pickup. Took the tools of his trade with him. A pool cue. A maxed-out credit card. An empty beer cooler.
"Couldn't you step outside with that?" one of the guys asked from the back. A young guy, nonsmoker obviously. You saw that all the time these days.
Sparks ignored him. Sparks was top dog. Team leader. Sparks called the shots. He turned to Elliot, the greenest among them, recently yanked off desk duty, pushed through training and out onto the street. Sparks pointed through the windshield into the gloom and drizzle beyond. One crummy little house after another. Almost identical, especially at 5 a.m.
"Check out the ride."
A tricked-out Honda sat in the little driveway where Sparks pointed.
"Dead giveaway. They're never smart enough to drive something shitty. They gotta haul out their dick and wave it around."
Sparks referred to the residents of the house. A Mexican-Colombian conspiracy, intelligence said. Bad boys backed by_combat-level armament. Dealers of meth, crack and coke. High-octane drugs only. Perfect for a customer base running on empty.
Sparks snorted. "Cool cars. Bad dudes. Crappy houses. It's always the fuckin' same. Always. I want out." He exhaled twin cones of pale blue. "Two more years. That's it. I'm outta here."
Sparks rubbed his beard. Sparks always rubbed his beard. He had amazing whiskers. His face went from nude to opaque in just a couple of hours. Elliot once asked him why he didn't just grow a beard. Because I'd look like a fucking terrorist, he replied. A career-limiting move, for sure. Right now, he just looked sleazy.
"I've heard some people don't deal so well with retirement," Elliot ventured.
"Not me," Sparks said. "I'm ready. I'm more than ready. You watch your ass out there. These guys won't go down easy."
Elliot nodded. At the briefing, they'd learned of six possible residents. Five murder raps and sixteen armed assaults among them. Elliot was fearful, but not frozen. Elliot was ex-military, sort of.
Sparks looked at his watch and stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray. "It's showtime."
He grabbed the radio mike and checked in with the support team tucked away in the next block, then turned to the rear. Six faces framed in blue helmets turned toward him. "Okay, you guys know the drill. Be cool."
They all spilled quickly and quietly out of the van. They formed up single file, then trotted up the street through the gloom, Elliot in the rear. The light thump of combat boots pushing through the drizzle.
Elliot's Kevlar vest bobs slightly as he trots along. His M16 feels weightless. He rides high on the heat of the moment.
Sparks signals a halt as they pour into the front yard. No light seeps from anywhere in the house. A streetlight rakes the front and pushes the porch into shadow. Sparks points to the tactical light mounted under the barrel of his rifle. The signal is understood. When they crash in, they will go to tactical light so no time is lost hunting for a light switch.
They steal onto the porch. They split in two and bracket the front door. Sparks opens the screen door. Very carefully. Sims and Carter come up from opposite sides with the entry ram, a heavy metal tube with two handles.
The ram flies forward just as Elliot sees the tricycle out of the corner of his eye.
It sits out in the yard, small and pink. Plastic streamers hang limp off the handlebars. Not good, Elliot thinks. Intelligence said nothing about civilians. He turns to Sparks just as the door explodes into the darkness beyond.
"Police! Put down your weapons and hit the floor!"
Tactical lights on cocked rifles sweep the floors and walls. Spotlights from hell.
"I said police! Put 'em down and get down! Right now!"
Elliot's bad feeling gets worse. The beams rake over family pictures, flowers in vases, neatly stacked magazines. His light beam reaches the end of the living room wall. It spills down a little hallway. It approaches an open doorway, a black tunnel.
Pop! Pop! The tunnel spits two muzzle flashes. The tunnel hurls two concussive thuds, and two 40mm slugs streak toward the person of Elliot Elliot, sometimes known as Double E, other times as Dubby.
The first slug whistles by his ear. Its shock wave kisses his earlobe as it continues out the front window and buries itself in the wall of the house across the street.
The second slams into his Kevlar vest, high on the chest. Its kinetic energy balloons into a nasty punch that puts him on his back. His weapon flies loose.
He comes to rest just as the return fire starts. Rule of the game: Anyone shoots, everyone shoots. Sparks told him that. Sparks had it nailed. Above him, the muzzles flash and the rounds fly. The noise is unbearable. The shooting stops, but the ringing in his brain continues.
And through its silver fog, he begins to hear the screaming of children.
Eighteen Months Later
The air conditioning shoved the tropics back onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur, where it hung thick and wet. The speaker on the podium droned on. Her laser pointed to the complex diagram on the big flat panel behind her. A computer model of a neutrophil going on the offensive. The audience followed the bouncing red beam. The model might do many things. The model might evoke wonders. It might become a clerk in a molecular bureaucracy, one that permitted the selective immigration of foreigners into the human body and shut down autoimmune reactions in the process.
Dr. Richard Stennis scanned the audience. A few dozed, felled by jet lag. Others squirmed. Some paid rapt attention. So it went during the Seventh International Conference on Immune Response. Stennis had hoped to mine this session for useful technology. Didn't work. All this session would do is put the speaker on the path to her next grant.
The speaker concluded. The lights came up. Applause rippled through Hall 5 of the city's new convention center. A very large room, ambitiously conceived. Plush seating, long tiers of decorative wood, spectacular display technology. The great cities of Asia instinctively understood that they were the future and planned accordingly. Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur.
But Dr. Richard Stennis didn't care about geopolitics or the sweep of history. Stennis cared about pure information. He checked his watch as he headed for the door. Becker must never be kept waiting.
The two men came forward as he emerged into the main hallway outside. One Malay, one Vietnamese. Both in subdued sport shirts, black slacks and shiny loafers. Classic security types. The pair made Stennis uneasy. They reminded him of what might happen if he violated his nondisclosure. It would never even reach the courts.
"Dr. Stennis?" A nod. "This way, please."
They cut across the wave of humanity flowing out of the halls and merged into a stream of academic types shuffling toward their next meeting. Suddenly, there was Rudolph Becker, walking beside him. Security nowhere in sight. Stennis always marveled at this. It was just like the quantum shift of electrons to higher orbits. Instantaneous.
Becker. Early forties. Slight and small-boned, with slender arms protruding from his sport shirt. Fair skin and pale blue eyes. Eyes that blazed. Eyes that never slept.
"Has the conference been productive, Dr. Stennis?"
"A few things of interest, but not as much as I'd hoped."
"This won't impact our schedule, will it?"
Stennis tensed. "I don't like the word 'schedule,' " he countered. "It implies knowledge of the future. It suggests that we know exactly how things will unfold and can build a timeline to match. In this particular case, no such assumptions are warranted."
"Ah, yes," Becker replied. "But you see, I do have a schedule in mind. One that's pretty well mapped out. Which means that you too have a schedule, whether you like it or not."
"I understand," Stennis conceded.
Becker put his hand on Stennis's shoulder. "Think positive, Dr. Stennis. You also have a fantastic opportunity. Keep your eyes on the prize, as they say." He paused. "That is what they say, isn't it?"
"Yes, that is what they say." Of course it was. Becker was playing with him.
"Good. Are you ready for the test subject?"
"Yes, we are. Where do you stand on that?" Stennis asked.
"She's being processed for transport. There's been a slight delay, but we'll soon be back on track. It won't be long."
Stennis felt a hand touch his elbow. He turned. The Vietnamese security guy. He turned back. Becker had vanished.
The man currently called Victor Korvin beheld the motor scooter covered with cats. Scrawny, desperate cats. Cats draped off the fenders, the running board, the seat, maybe a dozen. Their master sat nearby, selling photo opportunities to passersby. The first drops of warm rain fell through the night and pelted Korvin's exposed head. He stepped into an Italian restaurant that opened onto the street and sat at a table by the bar.
He ordered a simple dinner salad and a glass of bottled water. In front of him, the band worked its way through some elevator jazz. One of their friends sat at the bar and played the cowbell. Pitiful. Cheap, derivative music played by hacks. His salad came. As he ate, a squall soaked the street in a blaze of rose-colored light from all the brilliant signage along the avenue.
The squall ended. Victor Korvin paid the bill and left. Just in time. The press of people on the street and in the shops was starting to annoy him. Their collective lust for the material and the mundane showed how weak and vulnerable they truly were. He would leave this decadence as soon as possible and retreat to a place of greater purity.
He took a taxi and got out a quarter mile from his destination. He walked along a row of modest shops and mingled with the tourists. A neatly dressed man approached him. A Malaysian. The man fell in beside him and addressed him in fluent English. A man who might be of "assistance" once they got to know each other.
"Hi. How you doing tonight?"
Korvin understood him, but remained silent. The man pegged him as a westerner. The man pegged him wrong. The man demonstrated one of Victor's major assets. He was from nowhere. He possessed a bland and agreeable face, the mark of a man desirous of conformity. He wore his hair in the buzz cut made popular by American movie stars, so he left little impression of personal style. He was of medium build and possessed no physical distinctions. His age might have been anywhere between thirty and forty-five. Only his hands appeared powerful. For this reason, he displayed them sparingly.
Korvin stopped and turned to confront the man's relaxed smile. And for just a moment, he let his persona down. The man looked into Korvin's eyes and saw something indescribably awful. His smile collapsed. He spun and walked away, head hunched down, hands in pockets.
Korvin stepped into shadow when he reached the building. Public housing. Fifteen stories of subsidized despair. Twenty-five dollars a month, U.S. Laundry hung on lines across the little balconies, with hammocks pitched outside to escape the smothering heat. He pulled the little night scope from his pocket, counted up nine stories and over three. He found the girl asleep in her hammock, one leg pitched over the edge.
He dialed a local number on his cell phone. Three rings and a male voice said, "Clear." He did not respond. No need, no questions.
He crossed the street and entered the lobby, a concrete cave. A tarnished plaque extolled the virtues of public assistance. It failed to mention that the building would be demolished in a few months. He noted that the wire was snipped on the lone video camera that surveyed the scene. He pressed the button for the elevator, and scanned the graffiti in Malay scrawled on the door until the doors opened and he ascended to the ninth floor.
He got out and looked up and down an empty hallway bathed in naked fluorescent light. Cooking odors and body stink hung heavy in the confined heat. Gray metal doors with deadbolts ranged along each wall. He quickly oriented himself and went to the girl's door.
It would take him between twenty-five and thirty-five seconds to pick the lock. An acceptable interval of risk. In the early evening, the city hummed. By ten, it suddenly wilted, so he would most likely have the hall to himself.
The lock yielded in twenty-seven seconds, and he let himself inside.
The dog heard the soft click of the lock in the darkness. The sound traveled under the door and into the tiny bedroom. The dog sniffed the heat. Rhythmic pulses of air pushed through its nostrils and excited its olfactory nerves. As it swiftly sorted the odors, it encountered a novel one, a human one. Despite the presence of this interloper, it refrained from barking. Zainah had taught it to do nothing to betray its presence here in the building. No dogs allowed.
Korvin gently closed the door and remained absolutely still while his eyes adjusted. The room took shape. Tiny kitchen. Little dining table. Futon couch. The urban night drifted in through the open sliding door. The girl slept on the hammock. No blanket, just A loose-fitting cotton dress, colorless, in the shadows. He took the weapon from his pocket, a lead sphere the size of a golf ball, with a slender nylon cord attached. An ideal solution. No noise, no struggle. He measured out the required length of cord.
He stopped when he reached the girl. Beautiful skin and a peaceful mouth. The weapon dangled at his side. Her head was slightly cocked and sunk into the pillow. Her right temple was clearly accessible. Excellent. He swung the weapon in an expert and vicious arc.
The dog heard the impact—A low-pitched crack—and rose to its feet and sniffed the space under the door. A trace of the strange human scent, and then the tiny snick of the lock and the closing of the door. It smelled no more reason for alarm, so it lay back down.
Excerpted from A Breed Apart by Pierre Davis. Copyright © 2009 by Pierre Davis. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.