She was born to love then taught to kill. She has become everything but is no one.
Known only as Bullet, she was long ago forced to shed the name her parents gave her. Changed, molded, and trained to kill with sharp-shooting efficiency, she is one of The Collective’s most valuable assets. In a cadre of killers, Bullet is death waiting, but her time for vengeance has come.
He was loved, and then he lost. He has become a hunter in search of revenge.
Everything was taken from Rand the day a bullet ended the lives of his beloved wife and daughter. He has searched for their killer seven long years and may have her in his hands. Rand has suffered, but now the time has come to make The Collective pay or die trying.
Twenty-two years ago
They’d been tasked with quiet, told not to allow even their breathing to be heard. Bullet had tried so hard. Then night had come, and as her teeth chattered, she’d worried they’d return for her, put her back in the water pit. After a while numbness had crept in, and the tic-tic-tic-tic of her teeth knocking together ceased.
Wind whistled, and sometimes the snap and pop of a twig breaking underneath a scurrying animal damaged the silence. Her ears strained to hear the sounds of the other girls, but through the darkest part of the day, as her Mama called nighttime, she’d mostly heard nothing but her own heartbeat. Now there was only the boom of the stillness, loud and deafening.
She opened her eyes and they burned. She tried to swallow, but her tongue, thick and dry, stuck to the roof of her mouth. Pale pink and orange light streaked the sky to her right, but the promised warmth of the breaking dawn was nowhere to be found. She’d once gathered sand dollars on the beach with her parents, and they’d watched the sun rise over the ocean. It had been warm there, beside the waves—so, so warm. She didn’t remember how long ago that had been. It seemed forever.
“The sky’s very blue, Gretchen. Why do you think the sky’s very blue?” The tiny girl’s voice was weakening, yet it rang like a clear bell in the stillness of the early morning.
Fear pinched and pulled her stomach into a tight knot. Bullet stretched but could get no more than a fingertip on the girl’s leg. The contact wasn’t enough. The girl was so cold. “I’m Bullet now. Remember?”
“You’re not supposed to use names, Ninka,” another girl scolded, her whisper sibilant in the endless, unbroken quiet.
“She wasn’t talking to you, Blade,” Bullet chastised in a low voice, alarm pulling at her heart, making her breaths come faster in the cold air.
She was making noise. She’d be punished.
“That’s why we’re out here, though, Bullet. She used our names and we all got tasked,” Blade said.
Silence reigned another few minutes; how many, Bullet didn’t know. The minutes, hours, and days had ceased to be different. They all ran together now.
“Bayu-bay, all people should sleep at night,
“Bayu-bay, tomorrow is a new day
“We got very tired today,
“Let’s say to everyone ‘Good night’,
“Go to sleep
Bullet’s body trembled with more than the cold that had ushered them through the night. Ninka’s voice was soft as she sang the Russian lullaby. Bullet struggled to hear it. It whispered across her ears, much like the fog that crept in with the dark, and slipped back to the ocean beyond these mountains when the sun rose.
“She’s dying, isn’t she?” Arrow asked, her heavily accented tone sighing of death.
“Stop talking!” The fifth girl, the one called Bone, spit out. “Stop talking!” she demanded again.
“Gretchen, the sky is turning very blue,” Ninka whispered louder now.
Bullet strained to see the blue Ninka spoke of, but it was hidden by the colors of the dawn. “Hold on, Ninka. This task is almost over,” Bullet croaked out from her dry, sore throat.
“She’ll get herself killed and the rest of us punished. Shut up, Ninka, please,” Blade whined.
Bullet’s sister had sounded like that a lot when she didn’t get what she wanted. She’d been a year younger than Bullet, and a big crybaby, but Bullet had loved her so much. She was dead now. Just like Mama and Daddy.
Her breath snagged, and her tears were cold as they fell down her temple and into her hair. She missed her sister.
Bullet tried to block out the others and focus on Ninka. This task had some meaning, but it was beyond her. Staked to the ground, naked, through the night, and forced to maintain silence for fear of punishment? Her mind struggled to process what the lesson was, but it eluded her, like the butterflies did when she and Mama went to catch them.
“Shut her up, Bullet. She’ll get us all back in the water pit,” Bone whispered furiously. All of them had been staked out except for Bone. They’d tied her to a tree and gone so far as to wrap her long, curly brown hair around the trunk of it. She couldn’t move her head and she’d had to stand all night long.
“The sky is blue, blue, blue,” Ninka sing-songed, the beautiful purity of her little girl’s voice like nails on a chalkboard to Bullet. Her heart wrenched in her chest, and chilly bumps popped out on her body.
“They come,” Arrow’s voice was like the wind, biting and cold. She was the same size as them, but she always seemed so old.
“Ninka, hush poupon, don’t say a word,” Bullet pleaded. She even used the name her mother and father had called her, little baby. Bullet had been their beautiful little baby.
“Bayu-bay, Bayu-bay, tomorrow is a new day,” Ninka trilled out, making no effort to be quiet. “Gretchen, my mama is calling me. Do you hear her?”
Bullet was five years old, but she wasn’t stupid. Ninka’s mama wasn’t calling anybody. She stayed silent and prayed like her mama had taught her to the person named God. She prayed Ninka would shut her mouth and be quiet.
“Yes, Mama, I am here. . ." Ninka cried softly.
Bullet closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. The sound of earth crunching beneath solid boots rebounded in the clearing where they’d been staked. She turned her head. The sun’s rays climbed over the mountain ridge they were on, silhouetting the big tall men who were coming to make sure they’d stayed silent.
The really big one with black eyes made Bullet sweat in the chill of the morning. Her muscles cramped as her blood rushed. She was scared. Her backside was numb, but pinpricks of pain made her gasp. She swallowed the sound before it could escape her.
“Come to me, Mama, from the very blue sky,” Ninka said in a fading, hoarse whisper.
The others were quiet. They’d each defied the task, but the men need not know that.
The black-eyed man walked to stand over Bullet, his gaze moving over her naked frame, appraising. He looked at her like her doctor used to, like he was looking for sickness or boo-boos.
“She’s tiny, Minton, but she’s survived.” His gaze had moved over his shoulder, but it returned and he asked her, “Tell me, dove, did you stay silent?”
She almost spoke aloud but remembered the task and cut it off. She nodded her head. This seemed to please him as he smiled slightly and nodded in return.
The other man, the one called Minton, walked over and gave her but a passing, dismissive glance before he jerked his head toward Ninka. The poor girl continued to sing her mother’s lullaby, lost to the danger that had come into the clearing.
The black-eyed man stared at Bullet, watching her, gauging her reaction to Ninka’s singing. Every movement she or the others made was watched and recorded. Any reactions to their own or other’s pain and suffering was written down in the man’s little red book. He never stopped watching them.
He bent down, and she couldn’t control her fear for a moment. Wetness leaked from her bladder and ran down her bottom into the ground beneath her. His eyes flickered away for a second, features tightening in disgust, but then he smiled and looked back. “Sometimes fear is good,” he said in a whisper before he began to release the ropes that tied her to the stakes in the ground.
He released the last one; still she didn’t move. She’d learned not to do so until he spoke and allowed it. She continued to stare up at him, the backdrop of Ninka’s blue sky startling to her.
For a few moments, nothing moved. Her eardrums quivered in the complete absence of sound. Even Ninka had quieted. His gaze cut into her, drilled into her head, and she tried so hard to push the panic down deep inside her like Arrow had been teaching her. He didn’t take his eyes from hers as he said, “Minton, have Julio take care of little Ninka, would you?”
“She’s such a waste,” the other man spat toward Ninka. “Julio, you heard him.”
The black-eyed man stood back and murmured, “Get up, Bullet. There’s work to be done.”
She lowered her eyes from his and kept her gaze trained on his legs. He was wearing a long brown leather coat, and his breath made smoke in the air. Hands at his side, he shifted, and she saw the gun holstered on his hip. In her periphery she saw Julio untying Ninka from her stakes. The girl didn’t move and her eyes were closed. Bullet moved to her knees and almost fell as the blood rushed to her legs. On all fours now, she peered through long pieces of her red hair, trying to stay aware of her surroundings.
“Stand up, child. You’ll be needed soon,” the black-eyed man said and finally took the weight of his gaze from her, passing it to Julio and Ninka.
Bullet wondered who needed her, but the thought flitted away as the gun caught her attention. Her palms itched. These weapons, more than any other, fascinated her. When the black-eyed man had first put one in her hand, she’d grasped the handle and felt the rightness of the connection between her and weapon radiate up her arm.
She practiced every day. He praised her and she got extra rations if she hit all her targets. If she missed, she went to the water pit. Even when the targets popped up on her out of nowhere she had to hit them. She imagined they were the men who had killed her mama, daddy, and sister. She hit them in the middle of the forehead every time now.
A broken cry drew Bullet’s attention from the gun. Julio had grabbed Ninka by her hair and pulled her up. She couldn’t stand, and her tiny body was like a cooked spaghetti noodle. Bullet’s gaze found the other girls. They lay there immobile, eyes closed, all except for Bone, whose eyes were narrowed on Julio. The ropes Bone had been tied with dug into her body, and though she’d struggled against the bonds all night, she’d done nothing more than scrape her skin raw.
Another cry, this one of pain as Ninka began to flail in Julio’s grip. He shook her hard by the shoulders, then harder, and her head bobbled on her tiny body, back and forth. Her bright, wheat-colored hair had been like the yellow crayon in Bullet’s Crayola box at home. Now it was dirty and matted to her head, nothing but the ends swinging as Julio continued to shake her.
“You’re such a stupid child! Why can’t you learn to be quiet?” he demanded in broken English. His voice was like the devil.
Ninka wasn’t making a sound anymore. He stopped shaking and threw her on the ground. She collapsed at his feet, laid there unmoving. Bullet wondered if she was dead, and the thought made rage move like a thunder storm through her.
Ninka sang sweet songs and always snuck into Bullet’s bed at night. She liked to hug close to Bullet in the cold dark, her soft hands folded between them as if in prayer. Bullet’s mother had prayed exactly that way.
Bullet wondered if the person named God had ever answered. She’d asked Ninka if she was praying and the other little girl always replied she wasn’t, her hands were just cold.
Bullet’s gaze flew to Ninka’s hands. They were open on the dirt, not folded but probably freezing. Bullet should warm them.
Julio reared back and kicked the little girl. Bullet’s hands clenched. She wished for a gun. Ninka coughed after he kicked her, spit up blood. It was bright red on her pale lips. Her eyes lifted and Bullet was caught in their blue depths. Like the ocean she’d picked sand dollars beside, Ninka’s eyes were deep.
“Help me, Bullet,” she cried out and reached for the one she clung to in the night.
Julio kicked her again and she squealed in pain, her back bowing under the onslaught.
“No,” Bullet whispered. She was so cold. Why had they taken her clothes?
Over and over he kicked until the sounds of his boot meeting the small girl’s body were more than Bullet could bear. Ninka was all that was sweetness and light. And he was hurting her so badly.
“Do it, child,” the black-eyed man taunted.
“Stop,” she whispered unable to tear her eyes away from the evil man hurting her friend.
Julio leaned down and grasped Ninka’s head. He looked at Minton, who simply nodded. The expression on Julio’s face was happy. Then he began to squeeze her little head. He squeezed until her cheeks nearly met each other and still her gaze remained on Bullet, pleading. He began to twist Ninka’s head, it seemed slow motion to Bullet, and then a hole blossomed in his forehead.
The feel of the weapon in her hand, the tang of gun powder in the air, made her smile, and so did the sound Julio’s body hitting the ground.
But Ninka fell too. Silent and unmoving, her head at an odd angle, eyes sadly dim. Bullet didn’t breathe, feared the noise would cause punishment. Julio wasn’t holding Ninka anymore, wasn’t kicking her. Why wasn’t she moving? Singing?
“You are an amazing shot, child. You’ll have extra rations for hitting the target,” the black-eyed man said and the note in his voice made her brain shriek. “In fact, you did so well, I won’t punish you for making the loud sound. Now give me the gun, Bullet, and untie your sisters. There’s training to do.”
She’d not put on the thing called a silencer. And he was giving her a pass. Bullet stilled inside, recognized the magnitude of her error. She’d do better next time so there’d be no chance of messing up. Extra rations were good. Sometimes she even got the bitter chocolate.
“The gun, Bullet. Give it to me.” His voice was hard now, mean.
She looked up, back down at the gun, and then handed him the weapon as she bowed her head.
“Good, child. Now do as I’ve said and get back to camp.” Then he and Minton were gone.
She untied the others, taking care not to hurt them. The knots on the cuffs were tight, and her hands were cold so it took her a long time. She eventually got them free. All of them banded together to pull Julio’s heavy dead body to the edge of the clearing, and then they walked back to Ninka.
“She’s dead. Why wouldn’t she shut up?” Bone asked as she sat down beside Ninka’s still body.
“She was breaking,” Arrow answered.
“We can’t break,” Bullet said as she wiped wetness from her cheek.
“She was a stupid girl and we are already broken,” Bone replied in a tired voice.
Blade bent over Ninka’s head, lifted it, and placed it in her lap. “We can bend. Like the steel that is used to make my long blades, we can bend.”
“We have to hide her so nothing can hurt her anymore,” Arrow said as she sat down too and began to stroke Ninka’s dirty hair.
“Then we’ll have to say a death prayer, but the God of my fathers doesn’t listen to my prayers anymore, so someone else will have to,” Bone replied.
Bullet rubbed her chest. Her heart really hurt. She wanted to fold her hands and pray, talk to the person named God so he could take away the cold in her bones. Instead, she kneeled beside Ninka’s body, moved in close, and grabbed her hands, flattened them between her own, and bowed her head. Blade stroked Bullet’s hair, too.
Time passed, and there was a shadow of warning in Bullet’s brain—they should hide Ninka and get back to the camp before the black-eyed man came for her and took away the rations she’d earned a few minutes ago. Arrow whispered in a foreign language. It sounded like the same thing over and over, but Bullet didn’t speak like Arrow did, so she didn’t know what the other girl was saying. Bone stared at the ground, but her hand was on Ninka’s arm, squeezing and letting go, squeezing and letting go.
They were all there, but Ninka was gone from them. Five had become four. Bullet looked up at the sky, the very blue color so bright it pierced her eyes, made them water again. Then she leaned over the girl’s head which still rested so peacefully on Blade’s lap, placed a kiss on her brow, and whispered, “I’ll kill them, Ninka. I’ll kill them all.”
Remi watched the rain dance and slide along the barrel of her rifle, and lowered her eye to the scope. She’d been on this observation deck for five days, waiting. Her target was due to leave in another hour. He’d depart from the front entrance of the Columbia Center along Fifth Avenue, and attempt to enter a limousine that had been scheduled two days ago to take him to the airport.
He wasn’t going to make it to the airport. He wasn’t even going to make it to the limousine. She toyed with the phone at her side, breathed deeply. Once the kill was made, she’d have roughly six minutes to get out of Smith Tower. She’d be cutting it close, but there was no way the men with her target would sit around and wait on the cops. They’d come for the shooter.
She pulled the tarpaulin tighter around her. It’d rained every minute she’d been in this city. The sky wept, but surely it wasn’t for the man she’d come to dispose of. She was stiff with the waiting. The only time she moved was to use the bathroom in a little container she’d brought for just that purpose. Eating had been put on hold the last two days though she kept hydrated with her camel-pack.
She’d give most of what she owned for the rain to stop. Most. But not all. She shifted her weight to her left hip, settled the rifle, and once again peered through the scope.
She’d studied Rand Beckett for a year. The man had a very interesting past, but the bottom line was he was an enemy to her employer. His company, Trident Corporation, had been a thorn in The Collective’s ass for nearly eight years. Remi would have thought the loss of his wife and daughter would have ended the man’s mission to destroy The Collective.
It hadn’t. If anything, it had made him more tenacious. He and his brother-in-law were both slated for termination. It’s why she’d been sent here to begin with. She sighed, Mr. Beckett’s face floating through her mind. Rough-hewn features, strong jaw, high cheekbones, and the most startling shade of indigo eyes she’d ever seen. They’d taken her breath when she’d first seen his picture seven years ago. Joseph had watched her closely, as he always did when he gave her an assignment, and in his pitch black eyes there had been a flash of interest at her reaction. She’d masked it quickly, but with Joseph it was hard to hide everything. Not that it mattered this time. Bastard.
Her left hand clenched and she felt the phone. She had a four-minute window from the time it rang with confirmation of the target’s departure before she’d make her shot. She’d have one of those minutes to set her objective in motion.
She closed her eyes, felt the rain glide against the exposed skin of her right wrist. It was cold, bitterly so, but she’d endured worst. Five days of waiting and scoping had given her time to come to grips with her decision. Too many deaths weighed on her soul now. It had ceased to matter that those deaths were warranted, that the people she’d killed were more-than-likely rotting in hell.
She’d pulled the trigger and sent them there. The heaviness of that was staggering. She’d recently begun to falter under its load. It was time to make sure old wrongs were righted, and then she could rest. The others agreed.
The phone vibrated against her hand.
“Your four minute window is confirmed,” a woman said in a calm voice.
“Affirmative,” she replied and disconnected.
She moved back to her stomach, settled in, and gazed through the scope once more, making infinitesimal adjustments so her range wasn’t off.
Movement behind the large glass doors of the Columbia Center gave credibility to her caller’s information. Remi lifted the phone and punched in a number she’d memorized a week ago for just this moment. One minute more and she’d press dial, give him the only warning he’d ever get from her.
She breathed in deeply, felt the cold air move through her body, settling all the places that needed to be cold for this moment.
“Bayu-bay, all people should sleep at night,” Remi whispered and smiled to herself. “I see you. . ."
Rand’s phone rang, and he glanced at the readout. It was a number he didn’t recognize.
He answered it anyway. “Yes?”
“I would suggest you duck,” a woman’s lyrical voice said through the phone. Her voice stroked him from the inside out.
“Who is this?” he demanded as he walked out of the building. Two members of his security team were with him, one in front and one behind.
“That isn’t important. What is important is that you duck,” she responded, and in the tone was a touch of frustration now.
He wanted to smile for some odd reason. “Look, whoever this is—”
“Fine,” she huffed. “But I’m only making one shot and if I take you out with him, it’s on you.”
The hair on the back of his neck prickled. He was in the crosshairs. Rand turned swiftly, pushed the man behind him down, and ducked. In the next instant a shot rang out. Had the bullet been meant for him, he would have been way too late. As it was, Donnie Parker’s head exploded in front of him, and the man fell lifeless to the ground.
“Fuck!” He took cover behind the limo. “Dobson, get back in the building and call Ken,” Rand instructed the other security man.
“Yes, sir!” Dobson yelled, and raced back into the building.
Rand looked around, and in a split second made a determination of where the shot had come from. “Get in the building and call the police,” he instructed the shocked limo driver. The man just sat there, dazed and confused.
“Call the fucking police, goddamn it!” Rand yelled to get the man’s attention, and then he gave up.
The shot had come from somewhere southwest of his location. He began to move, calculating distance and looking for anything out of the ordinary. She’d said one shot. He obviously hadn’t been the target, which made zero sense. Parker hadn’t been with him long, but he’d been clean.
Rand made it across Fifth Avenue, making sure to keep cars between him and any straight line of site. He zigzagged, narrowly avoiding a city bus, the entire time feeling the sting of adrenaline course through his body. Everything sharpened, tapered. His breath quieted, though his lungs expanded to draw in more air. His every aim and intent was to get to the towered building a block north of his location. There were sirens in the distance but no other shots split the late morning. He ran once he reached the cover of the buildings across from Columbia Center.
He came to Smith Tower and halted against a column outside the entrance. People milled to and fro, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a man had just had his head blown to kingdom come a street over. His gaze searched for anything out of the ordinary. It had been less than five minutes since the shot. He reached for his phone and dialed Ken.
“What the fuck’s going on, Rand?” Ken’s voice was controlled, but a vein of fury wound through it.
“They made a play. You need to get to Seattle now,” Rand responded as his gaze explored every shadow and corner. The rain continued to fall, though he was shielded from the drops by the building’s overhang.
“I’m on my way.” Just that, nothing more.
A cab pulled up to the front just as Rand zeroed in on the corner of the building farthest from him. A woman, petite with striking long red hair, walked out of the far entrance, umbrella in hand and a large handbag on her shoulder.
Something about the way she walked, so fluid and relaxed, nothing out of place on this cold, rainy day, made everything in Rand go on alert. She was too calm, too composed. But her eyes—they never stopped moving, touching on her surroundings ceaselessly. When her gaze landed on him, it skimmed and returned. Something sliced through the brilliant blue orbs. An infinitesimal widening of her eyes, a small moue of her lips, and the feeling of alertness inside him ramped up to dangerous levels.
Rand tensed as his body hardened in a rush, every muscle drawing tight in preparation for a fight. The nameless something was veiled as quickly as it appeared, and their moment of connection was broken as she stopped and stepped into the taxi.
Rand hit the last number that had shown up on his phone. The one that had called and offered the warning. He waited while it rang.
The woman, a beautiful sliver of light in the abysmal conditions, settled into the cab, and Rand was offered a tantalizing view of pale, slim calf before the door closed.
The woman spoke to the driver, and he began to pull away. Then lightning struck Rand as she lifted her phone and looked directly at him, beautifully painted red lips moving, drawing his gaze.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”