Chapter 2

May 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm (The Job)

One week later Parker sat in the Devil’s Head Diner, just a short jog from the Atlantic coast. It perched at the side of a major highway about halfway between Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Several days spent dipping her toes into the warm waters surrounding the Florida Keys had increased her need for a vacation rather than lessening it.

The diner was one of those places that probably hadn’t changed in forty years. The vinyl seats were patched with duct tape. The grey tape did nothing for the faded yellow checkered design. The tables were plastic with a two-inch metal rim. The surface was scratched and worn. A cluster of condiments were corralled into a metal-fenced caddy and shoved to the far end of the table, near the window.

The diner had six booths across the front window. The sides of the building were solid walls, providing no view. A bar with backless stools ran almost the full length of the diner, opposite the front windows. It stopped about five feet shy of the end, allowing the waitress to pass between the service area and the kitchen.

Four booths were occupied and three lone diners sat at the bar. The breakfast rush was long over and the lunch rush was yet to come. None of the customers appeared to be in any hurry. The waitress wasn’t exactly hustling. Parker had ordered a coffee and opted for the Devil-sized bacon and eggs. She didn’t bother to wait for her guest to arrive before ordering. Waiting until they could eat together wouldn’t have made their meeting look anything like normal. Not that her guest would remain long enough to eat breakfast.

The coffee was good. She had already sucked back one full cup and hailed the waitress for a refill. She hated waiting. Not that she’d had any choice. The agency told her where and when the meet would take place and Parker showed up. It wasn’t the usual way of doing things; to get a new job, the agency would send her a text with the code she needed to unlock the information on the target. She didn’t need to interact with anyone for that. There was no question that she would meet them. To do otherwise could prove fatal.

Parker tapped the side of her coffee cup as she looked out the windows. She didn’t know who to expect, but that wouldn’t matter. They’d know what she looked like and they would approach her. Her fingers tapping faster, she speculated about the reason for the meeting. They could be there to give her a new job. Or they could be there to eliminate her. The people in the diner could all be agency personnel sent to lend credence to the feel of the diner. The longer she thought about it, the less ludicrous the idea sounded to her.

The loud scraping of a chair on the worn linoleum floor startled her out of her thoughts. To still her fingers and center her mind, she grasped the cup in both hands and took a long swallow. She had little control in this situation and it was a foreign feeling for her. Reaching for the bag beside her, she removed one of two guns she’d tucked inside. A Sig Sauer P226 with a 15-round magazine, the gun felt comfortable in her hands. Pulling up a strip of duct tape from the seat, she secured the gun, safety side down, beneath the table. She worked a little give into the tape, allowing her to adjust the aim for one or two people sitting across from her.

It was a small gesture of control, but it smoothed out most of her nerves. Now she only had the worry of the new job left to distract her. If Jacob was right, they wanted to give her a job that would be more difficult in planning and execution. Something a lot higher in profile. With the big money came big risk. Parker didn’t want a higher profile. She didn’t want to stick her neck out and have law enforcement agencies all over the world hunting her down. She was confident in her skills, but she wasn’t overconfident in them. She knew exactly what she was capable of and she knew what was out of her league.

Parker sensed that the agency was going to blast her out of her comfort zone, her preferences be damned.

***

They arrived in one car, five men all dressed in dark suits with dark sunglasses. They looked ridiculous and yet, at the same time, dangerous. They dressed like CIA spooks, but they weren’t. They were something altogether more powerful. The CIA still had to answer to the President. These guys pulled the strings that made the President walk and talk.

Not these specific guys that Parker was about to meet with. They were grunts by comparison. Powerful, yes, but they didn’t make the decisions. Parker had never met the men behind the agency. There was a president, whom she had met, and there was a board of directors, nine in all, whom she had never met.

One man moved ahead and grabbed the door. He allowed everyone to enter after him, defining the pecking order. The first man to come in was expendable. Any danger inside would be visited upon him first. The second man was there to eradicate any danger that took out the first man. The third man was the head of this little operation. She couldn’t make him out; he was shorter than the others and remained hidden by the second man’s shoulders. The fourth man was there to take a hit from behind. The last man remained outside to guard their exit.

Parker watched as the first man remained near the door. He didn’t draw a weapon, but the few patrons in the diner who bothered to take notice knew he carried one. The second man crossed the room, scanning each of the patrons as he went. He stood at the far end of the diner, behind Parker’s booth. The head guy turned and faced Parker.

“Fuck me,” she muttered quietly. Now she knew she was about to get screwed over. She recognized her guest and she saw the smirk on his face as he removed his sunglasses and approached her booth. He slid in opposite her and set his sunglasses on the table between them.

“Hello, Parker. It’s been a while.” Mike Ingram enjoyed the discomfort he misread in her expression.

“Fuck you, Ingram. What do you want?”

Ingram’s smirk fell. His eyes narrowed and he shifted a little uncomfortably in his seat. The waitress arrived and brought him a cup of coffee without asking if he wanted it. Ingram tore the tops off two packets of sugar and dumped the contents into the cup. He picked up his spoon and slowly stirred.

Parker waited him out. It was his meet and he would get to the point in his own time. She wouldn’t waste any nervous energy on him. She took another sip of her coffee, leaning back in her seat to get comfortable. She kept her left hand free to reach for the gun under the table. Now that she knew who her contact was, her hand itched to pull the trigger.

Ingram cast a quick glance out the window. Parker thought maybe the wide pane of glass concerned him, because it offered no cover. Across the road, between the diner and where the ocean started, stood a large grouping of trees. Easy cover for a sniper. Perhaps, if there was a signal to take her out, Ingram was worried he’d get caught in the crossfire.

Parker had received a text detailing the location for the meet the day before. She had scouted the area in the middle of the night, at dawn and again about an hour before the meet time. She had placed sensors in a few key areas, because there were no booths that weren’t completely visible to the outside. Nothing had triggered her sensors, so far. Hers wasn’t a foolproof security system, but it offered her a small bit of comfort.

“We have a special job for you to do,” Ingram said.

Parker didn’t bother to ask who we were. The only reason he’d phrased it that way was because he didn’t have the authority to order a job on his own, and she knew it. She was already cursing herself for not listening to Jacob’s advice. She’d gotten cocky and complacent and now it was about to bite her in the ass.

When she remained silent, Ingram reached a hand inside his jacket. Parker sat up straighter and slipped her hand under the table. It was a noticeable movement, but his guards weren’t paying attention. Her finger flipped the safety and settled on the trigger. Parker waited to see if Ingram would offer her the opening she was looking for.

He pulled an envelope out of his jacket and tossed it on the table. It slid across and bumped into her coffee cup. Parker ignored it and picked up her coffee once again. Her left hand relaxed on the trigger. After another moment, she let go of the gun and placed her hand on the seat beside her. She wallowed in the disappointment for a minute before shutting it down and staring impassively at Ingram once again.

“We want the job done on March 15th.”

“Done by March 15th?” she clarified.

“No, we want the job to be executed on the 15th. Not the 14th, not the 16th, but the 15th.”

“Got a fixation with Caesar, do you?” Parker said, mentally rolling her eyes. The Ides of March. How unimaginative. But that thought aside, the fact that they’d given her a specific date on which to complete the job concerned her. She had never been given a precise deadline before. They’d asked her to have jobs completed before a certain date. That wasn’t uncommon. But this job would put her in a known location on a known date. The whole thing stank of a trap. The problem was, she didn’t have many options. In fact, she had just one option, to do the job.

The smirk was firmly back in place on Ingram’s face. He knew he had her over a barrel and he’d waited several years for this day. He was still smarting over their last encounter. He’d only seen her a handful of times since she’d been in his class and each time she’d given him a stone-cold look that annoyed him because it intimidated him.

Parker recalled their last meeting just as clearly as Ingram did. She’d been mentoring, only six months on the job, when she’d gone in for training as a Cleaner. She’d never intended to do it as a job. All assassins had to learn it. It just made sense. The more you knew about leaving a scene clean, the less likely you would get caught.

Every job was professionally ‘cleaned’ after the hitter left. Teaching the hitter the basics was designed to make the cleaner’s job easier. Also, if a cleaner couldn’t get to a scene before the local cops did, a hitter had to hope they’d done a decent enough job of sanitizing the scene.

Mike Ingram had taught the class she’d taken. At the end of the first class, he’d requested that she remain behind. Once the others had left, Ingram proceeded to hit on her. Parker kept it professional, until he’d suggested that her good performance in his class required a little hands-on work. Parker had played dumb until he’d spelled out what he meant. If she didn’t get down on her knees in front of him, after each class, he would see to it that she didn’t pass the class. It wouldn’t have hindered her job, much, but it would have meant a repeat of the class.

Parker had kicked him solidly in the nuts. As he’d gasped for breath, she’d gotten a two-handed grip on his throat and squeezed until his eyes had nearly popped and his face had turned an ugly shade of purple. Dragging him to his knees, she’d leaned over him and whispered in his ear.

“I am trained to get to you before you even know I’m there. Fuck with me and I will hunt you down. Before you register my presence, you’ll register my blade in your belly. I will dispose of you and no one will ever miss you.”

Then she’d slammed his face into the ground, shattering his nose. Ingram had spent three weeks in the hospital, recovering from the damage to his windpipe and his face. Parker’s class had been taught by another instructor. Any time she had come across Ingram he had given her a wide berth. She’d never been reprimanded for her conduct, but then neither had he.

Ingram’s dark brown hair was slicked back in a style that had gone out when guys stopped rolling their cigarette packages into their shirt sleeves. His skin could benefit from some oil free cleansing products. He had good eyebrows and thick, dark eyelashes. He was tall and fit, but it was the kind of fit you got at a gym, not from real life. If push came to shove, Ingram would let his entourage do all of the heavy work.

Ingram sat there, watching her watch him. He couldn’t read her and that annoyed him. He had firsthand experience of just how cold she could be. He wasn’t afraid of her, not with his men surrounding the place. However, he was cautious enough not to be alone with her. If he’d known about the gun taped beneath the table, aimed a bare inch above his dick, he might have been a little more than just cautious.

“You have twenty-four hours to make your decision about this job,” Ingram said. Sliding out from the booth, he turned his back on her and walked out of the diner. His men funneled out after him, returning to their car.

Parker watched as they disappeared down the road. Signaling the waitress, she ordered more coffee.

That twenty-four hour window was bullshit.

She didn’t have a choice in the matter. Either she accepted the job or she would be hunted down and exterminated. She had heard rumors in the past, about hitters who had been plucked from the ranks to fulfill a tough job. There was a catch to this job, otherwise it would have gone to one of their high profile guys.

Parker needed to figure out that catch before she tripped on it and got herself killed.

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