A while back, I shared with you just one scene from my current project with Celeste Perrino-Walker entitled Salome’s Charger, due to come out this summer. I describe it as Indiana Jones meets the Maltese Falcon. Here’s a scene where the two villains finally meet, face to face.
There’s a first time for everything.
Of course, Brassard had heard the saying before. And in his lifetime, there had been many firsts. The first time he had stolen a valuable piece of art. The first time he had spent the night with a beautiful woman. The first time he had killed a man.
But when the men appeared in his hotel room and put a bag over his head, it was a new first for him. He was not used to being surprised. He had taken his usual precautions, and no one—no one—found him unless he wanted to be found.
He had a moment of disorientation from sleep, and.then the moment was over. He felt himself being thrown to the floor and his hands zip-tied together. Rough hands lifted him to his feet, and he was walked out the door of his room.
It was a remote hotel, but he couldn’t imagine getting to a car without someone in the place seeing him with the two—yes, he had concluded there were two of them—goons that walked on either side of him. He was lifted and dropped into the trunk of a car, the top was slammed, and he felt the engine come to life.
As they bumped along the street into the night, he decided that they could have easily killed him. That left either a disgruntled former employer—or a disgruntled current employer. He didn’t fear any of the gangsters, billionaires, or shady businessmen he had worked for in the past. But he had spent his free hours in the last week researching the Nihilists—what he could discover—and they warranted extreme caution. If he was going where he thought he was going, he had reason to be afraid.
An hour riding through streets, across rutted roads, and along sections of freeway, the car entered what sounded like the country. They bumped along, with dust coming into the trunk to tell him that they were on a dirt road somewhere. Finally he heard the squeak of brakes and the car stopped. A second later, he heard doors slam, muffled voices talking to each other, and then heavy footsteps coming in his direction.
The trunk lid opened and the same rough hands pulled him from his prison. They gave him a minute after standing him up to recover some feeling in his legs. Then they marched him forward. The temperature had dropped and the cold bit right through the T-shirt and boxers he’d worn to bed. He clenched his teeth to prevent yelps of pain as his bare feet encountered rough terrain and he wrestled with a fear of being bitten by a snake. What a way to go.
Around him he heard the sounds of night: chirping crickets, cicadas crackling high in the trees around him, the unearthly howl of a distant coyote. In the far distance he detected what might be a freeway with cars and trucks rumbling past. But it sounded like it was at least a mile away.
They walked for a long minute, the dry grass brushing against his legs. They climbed a gradual hill. Finally they stopped and pulled the black hood off his face. As they cut the straps free from his wrists, he found himself facing a dark-haired, medium-tall woman in her late 40s or early 50s. She and the others were dressed in black. But their clothing didn’t appear showy, as one often saw wannabe gangsters and assassins dress, right up until they learned they were out of their league. On these people—the woman and the four young men who accompanied her—the black clothing looked natural, like a second skin.
The woman was muscular, he could see that, but not overly so. She was more like a cheetah than a lioness; slim, smooth-moving, and incredibly fast. Immediately, he concluded that she had killed before and would not hesitate to do it again.
He rubbed circulation back into his wrists and cleared his throat. “I assume you are the client.”
She looked into his eyes, and he could tell that she was sizing him up.
“I am,” she said. “Although I am having a difficult time deciding why I should continue to work with you. I brought you here to convince me. And if you can’t, to kill you.”
She said it like a statement of fact, Brassard thought with a shiver of terror and a grudging sense of admiration. She said it like there was no question of the outcome despite the fact that he himself was one of the best in his line of work. The sheer audacity she projected was unnerving.
She turned to the men who stood around them and nodded. They stepped back into the darkness. Brassard had a moment to look around him. Just as he thought, they were in a dry field, probably on one of the nearby ranches. In the far distance to the south, he could see the lights of a freeway, and farther still, the lights of Dallas beyond. Above him, the stars shone brightly, oblivious to anything that might happen here in the next few minutes.
“You can call me The Commander,” the woman said, not stepping forward or offering her hand. “That is all you need to know.”
Brassard hesitated, then nodded. “You have me at a disadvantage,” he said.
“Not very much of a disadvantage,” she said, pinning him with an intense, probing stare. “You have been exploring the Dark Net, asking around, contacting your friends in the underworld, seeing what you could learn about me and my followers. What did you discover?”
He shook his head slowly. “Not much. Your organization has been very successful in keeping yourself unknown.” That much was true, but what he had found out was more than enough to give him second thoughts about having taken this job.
She smiled thinly. “I like to think of it as keeping our business our business.” She inhaled slowly and deliberately through her nose, as if she was taking a cleansing, centering breath. “Which brings us to the business at hand. We have employed you to find and obtain an artifact for us. It is something very valuable to us, and we had heard that you were the best at obtaining these kinds of objects.”
“I am the best,” Brassard said. “But these things take time.”
“I have given you time,” The Commander said. “And what you have given me in return? You have asked for more time. That time—and my patience—are rapidly coming to a close.”
He hesitated. “I understand. You are caught in a quandary. You can trust the thorough, meticulous Frenchman and maybe get what you want. Or you can kill him right here. Be done with it. And what will you have then? Nothing? Is that what you want?”
The Commander smiled again, and Brassard felt a sense of irony falling upon them both. “Nothing is exactly what I want. But that will come. What I want now is the charger. You say you can get the charger. Can you?”
Brassard nodded quickly. “I can and I will.”
She turned her back to Brassard and paused, looking up at the stars. “You have a week. One. More. Week. After that, it will be out of our hands. And yours.” She casually glanced over her shoulder at him, not worried that he might try to attack her, he realized, simply so he wouldn’t miss what she said. Her arrogance was phenomenal. “And if you make another mess like you did at the college, believe me, I will make a mess of you.”
Then she faced him again, stepping closer to him. “I have no objection to killing people, but be discreet. J’ espère que vous comprenez.”
Brassard swallowed hard and tried not to flinch away. “I understand.”
At close proximity, he could smell sandalwood on her. She was not unpretty, more handsome than anything. But he could not see her in that way. Not her. There was something, or the lack of it, in the space behind her eyes. He thought of the famous line from the Bhagavad Gita that J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted when the first atomic bomb exploded: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
The Commander looked into his eyes one more time, then turned away and got into her car. Brassard watched the two cars drive away, leaving him alone in the field.
Yes, Death Incarnate. That’s what she was.