Out of the Dark (Orphan X #4)
To my intimidatingly astute copyeditor,
Who for sixteen novels has raised my game
and saved me from countless embarrassments
with razor-sharp wit and feather-soft nuance
Prologue: Perennial Rain
Evan is nineteen, fresh off the plane, trained up, mission-ready. And yet untested.
His first assignment as Orphan X.
He adjusts rapidly to this foreign place, a city with drizzly rain, imperious ministry buildings, and men who kiss on both cheeks.
His backstop is impeccable, endorsed by visas, a well-stamped passport, verifiable previous addresses, and phone numbers that ring to strategically placed responders. Jack, his handler and surrogate father, has built for him a suitably banal operational alias—enterprising young Ontarian, recently separated from his equally young wife, eager to shepherd his family’s home-siding business into territories unknown. He and Jack worked the identity, kneading it like dough, until Evan was aligned with it so thoroughly that he actually felt the sting of his domestic setback and the fire of ambition to expand into this brave new market. Evan has learned not to act but to live his cover. And he does his best to stash away the part of him that does not believe his alias until the point at which he will require it.
He moves frequently around this gray city to prevent degradation of cover. Now and then in the streets, he comes across others his age. They seem like creatures of a different species. They don backpacks and trickle in and out of hostels, drunkenly recounting school tales in foreign tongues. As always, he remains separate—from them and everyone else. The United States has no footprints in this country. There will be no rolling-car meetings, no physical contacts from an embassy. If he fails, he will expire in a cold prison, alone and forgotten, after decades of suffering. That is, if he’s not fortunate enough to be executed.
One night he is meditating on a threadbare blanket in a hotel seemingly as old as the country itself when the mustard yellow rotary phone on the nightstand gives off a piercing ring.
It is Jack. “May I speak to Frederick?” he says.
“There is no one here by that name,” Evan says, and hangs up.
Immediately he fires up his laptop and pirates Internet from the travel agency across the avenue. Logging in to a specified e-mail account, he checks the Drafts folder.
Sure enough, there’s an unsent message.
Two words: “Package waiting.” And an address near the outskirts of the city. Nothing more.
He types beneath: “Is it a weapon?”
Hits SAVE .
A moment later the draft updates: “You’re the weapon. Everything else is an implement.”
Even from across an ocean, Jack casts arcane pearls of wisdom—part koan, part war slogan, all pedagogy.
Evan logs off. Because they communicated within a saved message inside a single account, not a word has been transmitted over the Internet, where it could be detected or captured.
On his way out of the rented room, Evan freezes, hand wrapped around the wobbly doorknob. He has been tasked. Once he goes through that door, it is official. Seven years of training has brought him to this moment. His body is gripped by a comprehensive, bone-crushing fear. He doesn’t want to die. Doesn’t want to crack rocks and eat goulash in some labor camp for the rest of his days. Doesn’t want his last moments to be the pressure of a Tokarev nine-mil at the base of his skull and the taste of copper. The perennial rain streaks the window, a tap-tap-tapping on his nerves. He’s sweated through his shirt, and yet the tinny doorknob remains cool beneath his palm.
Like a prayer, he hears Jack’s words in his ear as if he were right beside him: Envision someone else, someone better than you. Stronger. Smarter. Tougher. Then do what that guy would do.
“Act like who you want to be,” Evan tells the stale air of the hotel.
He vows to leave his fear behind him in that room. Forever.
He opens the door and steps through.
The bus out of the city reeks of body odor and sweet tobacco. Sitting in the back, Evan applies a thin sheen of superglue to his fingertips to avoid leaving prints. He prefers this to gloves because it looks less conspicuous while allowing him better tactile sensation.
Uneven asphalt erodes into a winding dirt road carved into a mountainside. Eastern Bloc municipal rigor dissolves into hamlets in shambles. Bedsheets flap in the wind. Buildings lean crookedly. Riding a wet gust, a muezzin’s call to prayer. It is as though they have traversed not communities but continents.
The address belongs to a walk-up apartment overlooking a cart-congested road. Evan mounts the curved stucco staircase, padding across blue-and-white Turkish tile, and knocks on a giant arched door, its wood embellished with rusting metal straps. It creaks open grandly to reveal a round man in loose-fitting clothes of indeterminate style.
“Ah,” he says, wireless spectacles glinting. “I trust your journey was safe?” A sweeping gesture of arm and draped sleeve accompanies his softly accented English. “Come in.”
The ceiling is high, churchlike. A Makarov pistol rests in plain view on top of a television with rabbit-ear antennae. The man and Evan pass through clattering bead curtains into a cramped kitchen and sit before shallow teak bowls filled with figs, dried fruits, and nuts.
The man produces a small plastic bag with EYES ONLY Magic Markered on the label in Cyrillic. Inside the bag is a single bullet casing Evan examines it through the plastic. A copper-washed steel cartridge from a 7.62 × 54mmR round.
It dawns on him that this shell holds a fingerprint, that it is to be left behind to direct blame elsewhere for what Evan will be instructed to do.
He thanks the man and moves to rise, but the man reaches across the table, wraps his brown fingers around Evan’s wrist. “What you hold in your hands is dangerous beyond what you can imagine. Be careful, my friend. It is an unsafe world.”
The next morning Evan takes to the city neighborhoods he has been scrupulously exploring for the past few weeks. He knows where to make inquiries, and these inquiries land him in the back of an abandoned textile factory, speaking to a trim little Estonian over an industrial weaving loom on which Sovietski rifles are laid out at fastidious intervals.
The preserved shell in Evan’s pocket requires a round that fits a limited range of guns. He looks over the Warsaw Pact offerings, spots a surplused-out Mosin-Nagant with a PSO-1 scope. He points, and the Estonian, using a clean gun cloth, presents it to him. As he observes Evan examining the Russian sniper rifle, his smile borders on the lascivious.
The gun will give Evan a two-inch grouping at a hundred meters, which is all he needs, but he affects a negotiator’s displeasure. “Not a world-class rifle.”
The man folds his soft pink fingers. “It is not as though you are going to the National Matches at Camp Perry.”
Evan notes the reference, tailored for him, a North American buyer. He lifts a wary eye from the scope, regards the little man in his ridiculous suit and pocket square.
The Estonian adjusts his tie, dips his baby-smooth chin toward the rifle. “And besides,” he says “three million dead Germans can’t be wrong.”
“Alvar?” A weak feminine voice turns Evan’s head.
A beautiful young girl, maybe fifteen, stands in the office doorway, naked save for a ratty blanket drawn across her shoulders. Her eyes sunken and rimmed black. Bones pronounced beneath her skin. Behind her, Evan spots a filthy mattress on the floor and a metal cup and plate.
“I’m hungry,” she says.
Evan catches her meaning through his grasp of Russian, though he presumes she is speaking Ukrainian. He makes a note to add this linguistic arrow to his Indo-European quiver.
The Estonian seethes, an abrupt break in his middle-management demeanor. “Back in your fucking bedroom. I told you never to come out when I am conducting business.”
She doesn’t so much retreat as fade back into the office.
Evan hefts the rifle, as if he will be paying by the ounce. He flicks his head toward the closed door. “Looks like she keeps you busy.”
Alvar grins, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “You have no idea, my friend.”
To the side a pallet stacked with crates of frag grenades peeks out from beneath a draped curtain. The Estonian notices Evan noticing them.
“My friend, 1997 has proven good to me,” he says. “It is the Wild West here now. Orders coming in faster than I can fill them. High quantity now. These are the kinds of movers who move nations.”
“For which side?” Evan asks.
He laughs. “There are no sides. Only money.”
At this prompt a wad of bills changes hands.
Out of the Dark (Orphan X #4)