Thursday, April 7, 2016
Zhere Ghan took the news of his impending assassination well. “So the Seven are gunning for me, eh? Well. Someone thinks an awful lot, to spend so much and dispatch so many just to end my life. The Seven. When you care enough to send the very best. Not there,” he snapped at the gangly man in Apex Greenhouse coveralls. “By the window. They do best in sunlight. Don’t you know anything?”
Sergei watched the man silently heft the small potted tree and move it over to join the small forest growing beside the broad windows of Ghan’s office. He well understood Ghan’s desire for thick natural cover. However, the king tiger’s office was not the place for it. All the greenery would provide cover for an assailant as well. And with the Seven here, gunning for Ghan …
The delivery man arranged the tree with the others. “There y’go, mate,” he murmured to it. Sergei’s ears pricked at the accent. Australian? Not that Talbot’s Peak didn’t host a myriad of out-of-staters. He himself was living proof of that. But the Seven were an international team. He took a careful sniff and found a contradiction, a crocodile with only a thin trace of meat in his scent. Word of someone that odd would have circulated in this gossip-happy town. Perhaps he was a recent arrival? As recent as Stefanya?
Given their profession, the makeup of the Seven changed constantly. Stefanya he knew of, and that Yuri was still with her. Who were the others? He hadn’t even bothered to find out.
“I’m sorry, am I boring you?”
Ghan’s heavy sarcasm jerked Sergei’s attention away from the crocodile. “I was considering strategy,” Sergei said. “Means of defense. The Seven will not strike directly, like wolf. Stefanya is cunning. She—”
Ghan waved that away. “My guards will see to it. It’s not as if anyone can get at me, not here in the house. On to more important matters.” He strolled to the window to inspect the new arrangement. The crocodile froze instinctively. “Much better. Where are the orchids? I paid for orchids.”
“In the truck, sir. Be right back.” The delivery man sidled past him and darted out of the office. Sergei watched him thoughtfully. Ghan paid no attention.
“My agents tell me,” Ghan said, nudging a potted tree closer to the window, “that the elder Hancock’s mate has given birth.” He shot a razored look at Sergei. “Surely you remember her. I ordered you to kill her and the pup several weeks ago.”
Sergei shrugged, not as carelessly as he’d wanted to. “Is not so important. Threat of the Seven outweighs threat from baby wolf.”
“Not if the wolf is allowed to grow up. I thought I’d explained this to you. That pup is a Hancock of the old Alpha’s bloodline. That’s all wolves understand. I’ve already got my hooks in the legal heir, through my daughter Rakshasi. I want Damien Hancock to die knowing everything he’s built will pass into my hands without a shot being fired. That alone should destroy him. I don’t want another heir muddying the waters. That bitch and her whelp are going to die, and you’re going to do it.”
Ghan stiffened. “I’m not familiar with that word,” he said silkily. “Explain to me what it means.”
“Will be no point in killing pup if Seven kills you first. You should be taking precautions. Not threatening babies.”
“And there’s your problem,” Ghan said, “one of your many faults. You’re too short-sighted, Sergei. You’d think one could see further from a height as great as yours. You keep missing the bigger picture. It’s why you’re here, and why she died. I don’t understand why I need to keep reminding you of that.”
Sergei’s face remained a mask. Behind it, his guts were churning. He understood, all right. Zhere Ghan liked to play with his victims. Her death was a knife he enjoyed plunging into Sergei’s heart and twisting, twisting, twisting.
He shut his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. Genevieve’s features filled his mind. His love for her filled his soul. Another knife for Ghan to twist in his pursuit of his bigger picture.
But some things were even bigger than Ghan’s stupid pictures. More powerful than power. Zhere Ghan couldn’t see it. That was his major fault.
His eyes opened, to fix in an icy stare on Ghan. “Pup is not important,” he said.
Ghan was occupied with examining a flaw on the leaf of one of his trees. Without even looking around he said, “And what about Genevieve Bordeaux? An exotic dancer in a backwater nightclub. Not even a tiger. How important is she, in the grand scheme of things? Not very, I’m thinking. Although she may matter to some.” He glanced up at Sergei, smiling. “How would you measure the worth of her life, old friend? Against, say, the lives of some wolf bitch and her whelp?”
His growl ripped out of him before he could stop it. Too late, he cut it off. It had already betrayed his one weakness to Zhere Ghan, who had no mercy.
He could kill Ghan, here and now. Wipe that smug grin and those cruel eyes out of existence. He knew a dozen ways to do it. Ghan was strong, but not in Sergei’s league.
And yet he didn’t move. The blood debt, Sergei’s failure, stood between them like a wall.
“I’ll tell you what,” Ghan purred. “Kill Warner Hancock, his bitch and his spawn. Do that and I’ll consider your debt repaid. No strings. All free and clear. I won’t even bother with the dancer. What was her name again?”
Genevieve. He could see her face plainly. How it would twist in revulsion if he completed his mission. How it would appear in death, all light gone from her golden eyes. He felt Ghan’s blade go deep, twisting as it sank.
He ground his teeth and clenched his fists. And nodded.
The delivery man returned, with a second coveralled man in tow. This one was younger, more compact, with huge eyes behind owlishly-large glasses. Both carried pots of orchids. “On the desk,” Ghan ordered. He examined the flowers, then grunted, satisfied. “Excellent.” His dismissal included Sergei. “That will be all.”
The greenhouse workers hurried out. With a more ponderous, leaden tread, Sergei followed.
They parted in the courtyard, the Apex Greenhouse men hastily clambering into their truck. Sergei paid no more heed to them. He didn’t even watch the truck escape through the gates. He stood like a marble statue before the manor door and stared blindly in the direction of Talbot’s Peak. What would she say when she learned he’d bought her life with the murder of a helpless infant? He didn’t even need to speculate. He already knew.
His heart was cold within him. Cold and broken.
# # #
The truck sped down the drive to the main road. Alec couldn’t stop shivering, or saying shit. “Oh shit. Oh shit. They know. They know we’re here and we’re after Ghan. How did they find out? I thought we were—shitshitshit. Was that big monster Sergei?"
“Don’t worry about it,” Irwin said. “It won’t be us going in there, so who gives a fart? You get what you needed?”
Alec settled a little, back on firmer ground. “Easy peasy. He’s got an older system. I send the right signal at the right time and the whole thing goes down, just like with the Hancocks. Oh shit. You don’t think she’ll send Yuri, do you? He’s good, but Sergei—shit.”
“Stefanya knows what she’s about. Long as it’s not us.” Irwin grinned. Alec sort of smiled back. “I keep telling you, mate. No worries.”