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Chapter Nine

Russell Vicec always looked out of place at the Naval Research Laboratory. In a super-clean, usually super-white laboratory environment, surrounded by white-clad scientists with – amongst the Caucasians at least – pasty-white skin from their rare forays out in the daylight hours, Vicec’s healthy, sun-baked crust gave him the aspect of an old sea-dog on shore leave. He never missed an opportunity to get out in the open air, better still on the water; and even though his duties as Head of Department and key researcher in Electronic Warfare kept him in the lab more than he would want, his deep tan somehow never faded.

Vicec always wore a red-and-grey-streaked van Dyke beard on his chin and a twinkle in his blue-green eye; the patch over its missing twin bore the NRL’s emblem proudly. He was in his seventies now, though anyone meeting his strapping limber gaze would never guess it. His parents hailed from the small seaport town of Piran on the Slovenian coast, but he was born during their emigration to the United States at the start of the Second World War. Being born on board an American vessel he had been granted dual nationality, but he liked to boast that his homeland was actually a homesea and, starting life on the ocean wave, he had never felt more comfortable than when riding a fresh swell with the spray in his face.

As he clattered down the front steps of the administration building towards Brawn his gold-plugged grin glinted in the morning sun. Brawn could only return it in kind, then was embraced in a bear-like hug that threatened to crush the wind from his lungs. Vicec slapped him manfully on the back and, unashamedly, Brawn hugged his old friend just as tight.

Eventually they broke, and Vicec held Don out at arm’s length, looking him up and down. He shook his head, then slapped his own right thigh and set it ringing like a bell.

“Don, my lad, it’s good to see you again,” he lisped with a smile.

“Thanks for seeing me, Russ. I could use some confidential help.”

Vicec narrowed his eye, the eyebrow above his patch arcing inquisitorially. “What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into this time, Don?”

Brawn smiled thinly with no amusement. “Only the usual. Some friendly stranger with a gun pointed at my back.”

“An ex-stranger now, I’ll bet.”

“Singing with the choir invisible. Or not finding out there isn’t one.”

Vicec squinted up at the sky. “This must be a Thursday,” he sighed reflectively.

“Well, this particular Thursday is a Tuesday and it features an unidentified dead man lying in the Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery.”

“How convenient.”

“He didn’t look Jewish. I’d prefer to keep my reasons for being there quiet for now, but whatever I’m into here this isn’t the first death attached. I’ve got some digging to do and -” Brawn flashed a warning glance at Vicec’s growing smirk “- and, as you know I don’t have access to the usual tools these days. Think you can help?”

Vicec put away his grin at last, considering the situation with seriousness. “Well, I have to tell you that electronic warfare research laboratories tend not to have fingerprint kits in the desks or criminal profilers hanging out by the coffee machine – but my mind’s still sharp, Don. I’ve not forgotten all the lessons learnt in this sorry excuse for a dark past I’ve so enjoyed these long years.” There was a misty look in Vicec’s eye for a moment, then he focussed on the problem at hand again. “We both know shooters sans ID tend to remain that way, alive or dead – but more so dead. There’s rarely much you can offer them by way of persuasion. Nothing at all we can work with?”

“I’ve got his face on file.” Vicec looked optimistic until Brawn tapped his own temple ironically. “Just up here I’m afraid. I can sketch out a likeness, but to be honest I was always mightier with the sword myself. Better would be to get face to face with a photo fit database, but my clearance level right now looks like a limbo dancer’s personal best.” Vicec playfully massaged Brawn’s shoulder sympathetically, resting it there comfortably.

“I’ll see what I can do, but maybe you should send me that artwork as well. Might be easier to get that where it will make a difference than it would be you. What else?”

“His guns are in the car. A Heckler & Koch USP Compact and a spotless Baretta 9000 D40. I’m holding onto the Baretta, but if you want to have someone run the other through ballistics for me that would be handy. Just in case.” The two men exchanged a knowing look; no killer of a professional nature would be so clumsy as to casually reuse a known weapon, but mistakes do get made and it would be one not to check.

“If that’s all you’re sitting on things are thin on the ground, old pal,” muttered the old man.

“It isn’t, not quite.” Brawn smiled evasively. “I’ve a few cards I’m keeping close to the chest for now. Now listen, Russell. There’s something significant moving here. Someone is trying to manoeuvre me, someone powerful, and to do what and for why I don’t yet know. I don’t like it, but I sense very strongly that we are going to want our kind of people represented when things come to the crunch. If you can root around for me, it’s appreciated – but watch your back and don’t stand out where you might get noticed.”

Neither man was smiling now – they both knew how high the stakes could rise. Vicec nodded tersely, his mouth twisted into a pugnacious pucker.

“Aye-aye, Mister Brawn,” he said. “Let me walk you back to your car, pick up those few favours you’ve got waiting for me.”

On the pretext of admiring the Tesla, Vicec climbed in alongside Brawn for a moment. Don quickly recovered the H&K from the hidden compartment, then draw a blank-sheeted notepad from the glove box proper and quickly sketched out the gunman’s face and profile from memory. Handing both over, he and Vicec shook hands solemnly.

“Keep yourself safe, Don,” the older man said gruffly. Brawn nodded his thanks, then a thought occurred.

“One more thing,” he said. “Satellites and surveillance are more your department – think you can find out what has been overhead in central Spain during the last, say, three days? Sharpest eyes available, and maybe who’s been looking through them?” Vicec considered, nodding with growing enthusiasm as he did so, tucking the sketch into his jacket.

“Maybe I can, boy. Maybe I can.” He clapped Brawn on the shoulder, then hefted the handgun.

“What are you going to do with that – no metal detectors going in these days?” Vicec grinned his golden grin again and rapped the gun’s butt against his thigh – clunk.

“Always were, always will be. But some of us round here get special treatment.” Rolling up his trouser leg, he unveiled the artificial leg that had taken the place of his own, lost at sea under circumstances that grew more elaborate and – often – downright contradictory every time he told the tale. Below the knee the limb was a narrow titanium “bone”, but above it was of normal dimensions, partly to house the mechanisms controlling its swing.

With a few practised moves Vicec opened the casing, revealing the mid-thigh stump of his missing limb – and a reasonable gap below the padded base. He withdrew a fair-sized hip flask, inserting the gun in its place. Closed again, no-one would ever know the difference. He uncapped the flask and took a quick slug, then reluctantly handed it to Brawn with a pained sigh of satisfaction.

“Best brandy on dry land there, youngster. Don’t waste it.” He opened the door, swung himself out and shut it behind him. Two raps on the roof and he was gone, crossing the grass towards the entrance without so much as a glance back.

Brawn watched him enter the building, then pulled away and headed the Tesla back to the interstate. His next stop would have to be home again – but if he had been followed to the cemetery there was little doubt in his mind that someone would be watching there as well, if not waiting for him.

The only question would be, who?

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Chapter Eight xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Chapter Ten

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