The Hunter – Chapter 2

July 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm (The Hunter)

Venice, Italy

July 15

Milo sat at a cafe, overlooking the water. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do, to enjoy the view of the water when in Venice. St. Mark’s Square, at the far end of the Grand Canal, opened up into an enormous space full of performers, tourists, and locals. People came from all over the world to have their pictures taken with armloads of pigeons. Once the birds flew off the tourist was covered in bird shit. She didn’t understand the appeal. Piazza San Marco led from the square out to the edge of the canal, where Milo sat. She kept half her attention on the tourists and the other half on her target. He was oblivious, as most of them were. He was following another man who was equally as oblivious.

Her target, Tony Hano, was a hit man who worked for The Network. He wasn’t a typical contract for Milo. Her end goal was the same, she would take the target down. It was what came before that that was unusual. They wanted Hano watched. They wanted to know where he went, who he talked to, who he watched, and they wanted to know if he killed anyone. Apparently Hano wasn’t contracted for anyone right now, which made it curious that he was following someone so closely.

Milo had caught up with Hano in Palermo, when he was leaving town. She’d just gotten off a plane and had to turn around and get right back on one. She’d followed Hano to Venice where he’d spent several days outside an apartment on the opposite side of the Grand Canal. He didn’t have a camera and wasn’t playing the tourist. He spent an inordinate amount of time staring up at one place in particular. Milo had watched as the occupant of the top floor flat under Hano’s intense scrutiny had leaned out the window at one point, to see his visitor. Unlike Hano, Milo had taken a number of pictures.

Her satellite phone looked like the latest iPhone, but it wasn’t. It came with far more gadgets and power than the best computer civilians could currently buy. The camera was powerful, but it still only saw what was within her current range. Milo had assistance from one of the techs back at The Network. He’d hacked into several camera feeds from nearby businesses and was recording everything they saw. She would review the footage later for anyone else paying that particular flat too much attention.

Two days later, Hano had received a phone call. He’d abruptly left the table from which he’d spent the better part of a week and walked off toward the canal. Hano had hired a water taxi that had taken him around the south side of Venice, then west, and finally north, to Marco Polo Airport. Milo had watched as a plane from Palermo arrived and Hano hung around the gate waiting for the passengers to enter the terminal. Half an hour later she was in a car following Hano who was in a car following a middle-aged Italian man in a beautifully tailored suit.

The convoy returned to Venice, letting their passengers out at the Tronchetto parking area, where Milo then followed Hano to a hotel a few short blocks from the Piazza San Marco. That morning the Italian man had left his hotel wearing clothing better suited for the warm weather. Milo sipped her cappuccino, eyeing Hano over the rim of her cup.

Hano had a gambling problem. Not the kind that depleted his bank account, but the kind that got him killed. He wasn’t cautious enough. It never occurred to him that he might be followed by someone else. He didn’t look around, assess his surroundings. He wasn’t the target, in his mind. Milo was more paranoid than that. She had a sixth sense for people watching her. She could tell the difference between typical male interest and someone paying her too much attention. That sense had kept her alive on more than one occasion.

Standing, Milo took one last sip of her coffee before slipping from the cafe and heading after her target. Hano’s quarry had taken a phone call and then immediately headed into the crowds of people packed into the square. Hano followed his target down a side street off the square, heading for a labyrinth of passageways that branched off to roadways that led all over the island. Striding toward the darkened passage, Milo checked her map. Her phone came with a real-time map of the area, with a flashing pin slowly moving away from her. Because her quarry didn’t know he was a target, he’d kept his phone. The phone had a tracking device in it that gave him away.

If he’d dumped the phone, the tracking device that The Network had placed under his skin would have given him away. Each hit man had one. They were buried just under the skin of the forearm. To remove it was to be marked for termination. The agency expected to know where their operatives were at all times. Milo had gotten used to the complete lack of privacy. She assumed the others had as well.

She’d expected her target to head for the canal, but when his quarry turned toward the square, he’d followed. She had no idea who controlled the strings that compelled Hano to follow the Italian man. She couldn’t guess where Hano’s target was going or who he was there to meet. It added a certain amount of uncertainty to the job, which Milo liked. She didn’t enjoy run of the mill hits. She’d rather have a job go south and be chasing guys while dodging bullets.

The Network frowned on that sort of thing. If they could, the agency would have all of its hitters wear a tracking device with a bomb in it, so they could detonate it whenever they needed to. It would save time and money on people like Milo, but if the other assassins ever found out that The Network had done something like that, there would be hell to pay.

No one at The Hive could escape an enraged assassin. The Hive, where all of the computer geeks and men who called the shots at The Network worked, was housed in the middle of DC, with too many access points to truly remain hidden. The Network chose to hide in plain sight since their budget was black and very few people knew they existed. It had to be that way. The American public wouldn’t take kindly to their government creating a spy network of assassins who operated outside the purview of any oversight committee. Thus, if an assassin, or a group of them, became disenfranchised with their employer, that employer would be on very dangerous ground.

Hano had six years in the agency. He’d taken down several high-level targets recently, any one of whom could have had a relative who didn’t appreciate their work. The Network wasn’t above taking money for one hit and then taking money from a grieving family member to carry out another. The money would have to be good enough, because it wasn’t cheap to train an assassin. Or the client had to be well-connected enough that pissing them off would have far-reaching complications for The Network. But this didn’t feel like a revenge hit. Hano had an agenda and he was taking orders from someone, it just wasn’t from The Network.

Milo stepped across a stone bridge that spanned a narrow side canal. She was exposed to anyone who cared to look, but no one did. No one, that was, outside of the usual melange of tourists and locals who tended to watch attractive women. In Italy, that was a fair number of people. Walking at a steady pace for close to ten minutes, Milo found herself along the north side of the islet. Boats ferried people between the main islets of Venice and the outlying islands, Murano, Burano, and beyond. The tourist crowd wasn’t as dense here as it was closer to the Grand Canal, but it was far from empty.

Milo closed the distance between her and Hano. She wasn’t worried that he’d get away from her, but she was too far away to do the job. She wasn’t equipped for a long-range shot and she liked the up close and personal stuff. He was passing by a ticket booth outside of a ferry terminal and his quarry had just stepped into line to board. Now her target had a choice to make. Did he get on the same boat as his quarry or did he catch the next one. The next boat wasn’t for another half hour and this boat made more than one stop along its route. There would be no way to tell where his target would get off.

Milo knew Hano would have to chance it, so she got in line ahead of him. She had a ticket that allowed her to ride the ferries all day, without having to do more than tap her pass against the electronic reader. She swept  past her target’s quarry without a second glance, heading for the far side of the ferry. Her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, Milo casually scanned the deck. Several men tried to get her attention, but she ignored them. She wasn’t in Italy looking for a date. At least, not until her job was done.

Hano barely made it onto the ferry. He took a risk by cutting off several older Italian ladies who let fly with a spate of curses aimed at the back of his head. Several hand gestures accompanied their ire, but he blithely ignored them. With the gate closing the ladies off from boarding, he wouldn’t have to worry about them accosting him on the ferry ride. He drew some attention to himself, but his quarry either didn’t care what the ladies were saying, or he was too engrossed in his own business to notice the commotion.

The ferry crossing was smooth; very little wind blew in off the Adriatic. Milo observed her target in her peripheral vision. She knew to the second when he’d decided to do the job. The ferry was crowded enough that anything short of a gun blast would likely go unnoticed. She waited, watching the unsuspecting victim for any sense that he knew he was about to die.

He had no idea. Hano moved in behind him as the man stood at the rail, looking out over the expanse of water before them. The Italian man leaned against the railing, his chin propped in his hands. The wind blew through his hair and the sun warmed his face. It wasn’t a bad last day, if one got to choose.

The ferry pulled into the first port and passengers jockeyed for position near the opposite side of the ship. Several passengers near the target got up from their seats. Once the boat docked, Milo watched Hano move in and slide a blade between the man’s ribs, placing a hand gently over his mouth. It was already too late for him. Hano settled the man into a chair, positioned him as though he were sleeping, and then headed for the gangway.

Before Milo could go after Hano, a man approached the deceased gentleman sitting in the chair. Milo waited for him to call out the alarm, but the man simply rifled through the inside pocket of the dead man’s suit coat and pulled out his wallet. Milo snapped several photos of his actions. Turning toward the ramp, he pushed through the throng and exited the boat. Milo also approached the dead man and extracted his cell phone from his left front pocket. She expected that the techs back at The Hive could pull user information from it. She was curious to know who the dead guy was.

Milo waited until Hano and his shadow had moved off the boat before following after them. Several other ferries would be by the island before this boat made its return journey. If the boat crew found the body quickly, it might not make the return. Milo didn’t expect the man’s death to go unnoticed for long. The rocking of the boat would eventually tip him over, out of his seat. People would rush to help before realizing that the man was beyond their care.

Walking up the gangway to the dock, she watched as her target continued to move through the town, never once looking back toward the ferry. The job was done, the body would eventually be reported to the authorities, and he would get his money, as expected. He hadn’t collected evidence of the hit, so would have to wait for the police to do it for him. In fact, several people on the boat would likely take photos of the dead guy before police even made it to the ferry. Those photos would be posted to the internet as soon as they had a Wi-Fi connection.

Milo waited until Hano’s shadow had turned out of sight before racing down the street, to the corner. Peering around it, she spotted Hano heading straight through the centre of town while his shadow ducked into doorways to limit the chances of his being spotted. Milo was familiar with the island and knew that the ferry was the main mode of transportation for most tourists, but several locals had boats they’d be willing to rent out. If her target got to the marina before she got to him, she’d lose him on the trip back to Venice. If he chose to head straight for the airport, which was located just to the north of Venice, she’d definitely lose him.

He would only be temporarily lost, of course, because she had her tracker, but she wasn’t willing to chase the guy across Europe. And she didn’t know if his shadow would continue to follow him, or eventually take him out. Milo would get paid either way, but her boss wanted information first and Milo still had more questions than answers.

Tucking in behind the nearest building, Milo sprinted towards the far end of the island. Each time she came to a side street, she confirmed that her target was still heading the way she expected him to. As she neared the last building on the block, she cut her pace down to a brisk walk. Between the last building and the marina was about two hundred yards of open field. She would be visible to her target as she moved to intercept him.

Stepping out from behind the building, she glanced to her left, expecting to see him walking on the path from the town centre. He was nowhere to be found. Milo checked her phone, but the tracking pin she’d come to rely on was gone. She had service; her phone was synced to a satellite. Her quarry had destroyed his phone. Setting up her phone to track the secondary signal from the beacon in his arm, Milo waited for two precious minutes as the satellite searched for the signal. Instead of the tracking pin on a map, she got an error. No signal could be found.

Milo growled at the phone before shoving it into her pack. She’d have to do her job the hard way. Entering the path leading to the centre of town, she made her way back to the side street where she’d last seen her target. Between the street and the open field leading to the marina were two buildings. One was an old glassworks that didn’t look like it had seen life in over a century. The other was a newer structure, made within the last thirty years, a three-storey warehouse that had its doors boarded up and most of its windows smashed.

As she neared the building, she noticed a shift in the shadows within the warehouse. Someone had crossed in front of a window on the second floor. Milo crept over to the side of the building, carefully peeking in through the window. The warehouse was mostly falling down, with only a small part of the second floor remaining intact. The entire middle section of the upper floor had crashed through to the second floor and again to the first floor. Holes in the roof filtered light down into the building, but it wasn’t enough to dispel the gloom. Hano’s shadow was nowhere to be seen.

Milo moved down the length of the building, to the back. A high fence blocked it from the neighbouring street, unless someone was in one of the upper floors. Returning to the side, she crept over to a broken window and examined the area directly below it. The glass was all on the inside. Carefully placing her hands on the sill, she hoisted herself up and swung her right leg inside. Pulling her left leg in next, she slowly lowered herself to the floor. Glass crunched, but the voices from the upper floor masked the sound.

Pulling her gun from her pack, Milo worked her way toward the front of the building. Each step was tested for creaking floorboards and snapping glass before she put her full weight behind it. As she neared the stairs, the murmur of voices resolved itself into a quiet conversation.

“… sit out front of that building?”

“We needed to keep an eye on the occupant of the top floor flat, in case he had any unexpected visitors.”

“Yeah, well he only had the one. That other old guy.”

“What do you mean ‘other’?”

“Well the guy living in the flat was old, too. Not like almost dead, old, but he was up there. Early 60’s I’d guess.”

“You saw him?”

“Sure, he hung half out the window when that other guy showed up. The whole neighbourhood could have seen him if they’d been looking.”

Light cursing drifted down to her. Milo rolled her eyes in sympathy. The guy’s boss had obviously hired Hano to watch the area around the flat and inform them if anyone saw the occupant. Hanging out the window would have qualified as something Hano should have mentioned sooner. If a hitter needed everything spelled out for him then he wasn’t worth the effort it took to train him. She didn’t know how Hano had managed to remain alive for six years with shoddy work like that.

“I need all of the pictures you took of the area while you were sitting there drinking your fucking coffees. I need to know who else might have seen Falchi hanging out the fucking window.”

Milo tried to place the name, but it eluded her. She made a mental note of it, so she could Google it later. It rang a distant bell.

“I didn’t take any pictures.”

Milo waited for the explosion. She didn’t know who Hano was meeting with, but she’d already guessed the guy had a formidable temper. He sounded like the type who would punch first and then ask for clarification later.

Sounds of a light scuffle drifted down through the ruined ceiling. The warehouse creaked and groaned as the movement on the second floor tested the limits of the rickety structure. She heard the man murmur something indecisive before she heard him heading for the stairs. Making sure her hiding place was decent, she watched as feet appeared on the steps, slowly descending into the glare of the sun.

The man appeared on the ground floor, moving directly toward the main entrance. As he passed through the light, she saw his face clearly, but it wasn’t one she knew. Still, she captured it as best as she could with her phone. Designed to take photos in the worst of conditions, she still only half hoped that it would turn out.

Once he was safely away from the building, Milo headed for the stairs. Hano’s shadow still hadn’t made an appearance, but she didn’t know how long that would last. She knew what she would find upstairs, but had to confirm. She slipped the safety off her gun and climbed to the second level. As her head cleared the floor above, she scanned the perimeter until she found him. Slumped over in a heap, Hano wasn’t moving. Milo kept her weapon trained on him as she continued up the stairs. A large pool of blood had already expanded out from the body, dripping between the cracks in the floorboards.

She nudged him with her foot, but he didn’t move. Reaching down, she felt for a pulse, but there was none to be found. Grabbing him by the shirt, she stretched him out on his back. There were no stab wounds on his chest. The blood was coming from lower down in the body. Tucking her gun in the waistband of her pants, Milo pulled gloves from her pack and shifted his clothing around until she could see the cut that killed him.

His attacker had shoved a knife into Hano’s groin, slicing through the femoral artery. His pants had stopped the spray of blood from arcing out and coating the other man. Death hadn’t been instantaneous, but it had come quickly. He would have felt a few moments of intense pain before the loss of blood would have numbed his mind. Unconsciousness would have come swiftly, followed by the last few beats of his heart as it worked to push the blood from his body.

Though she couldn’t say why, his death worried her. If the mystery man had left him alive, she would have killed him herself. The fact that he’d been eliminated after having done his job, albeit in a half-assed way, suggested that either someone else was working the same job as she was, or she was being set up. She didn’t like either of those options. Pulling her phone from her pack, she took a quick snapshot of her target’s face as proof of death and left the body there to cook in the moist heat.

She exited the building at the back, not wanting the mystery man to see her if he was still in the town. If Hano’s shadow was still in the area, Milo couldn’t sense him. Heading for the marina, she scanned the open field, ready to duck behind a tree or a bush if the mystery man appeared. She didn’t spot him and didn’t sense anyone spying on her as she made her way down the nearest dock.

She briefly thought about showing the men gathered around a speed boat the picture she’d taken of the mystery man, but decided against it. Bartering for the price of a one-way trip to the airport, Milo soon left the island behind. Sitting at the back of the boat, with her pilot in front of her, Milo slipped her gun from the waistband of her pants and let it fall into the water behind the boat. Another minute or so later, she tossed away the extra magazine.

At Marco Polo International, she synced her phone to the secure site that The Network provided for uploading sensitive data. Once connected, the program automatically searched through every folder on her phone for changes. Any file that appeared altered was uploaded for inspection. Once the sync was complete, Milo tucked her phone away and headed for the British Airways ticket window. With a little luck she could be at Heathrow by dinner and on a flight back to Canada before night fell. She wanted to be on her home turf as quickly as possible.

Her sense of dread increased when she spotted the mystery man heading down a wing of the airport that led out to the private airfield. Whoever he was, he commanded his own transportation. Milo barely rated business class. Abandoning her plan to buy a ticket home, she followed him down the hall, keeping a couple dozen people in between them. He never looked around, but he could have had spotters placed in the crowd. Milo stopped at a nearby newsagents and picked up a copy of The New York Times and a candy bar.

Following the mystery man’s progress with her eyes, she unwrapped the chocolate and took a bite. Heading down the hallway at a slower pace, she kept half her gaze on the paper and half on the way in front of her. At the door leading out to the airfield, Milo exited the building and then stood off to one side, near the garbage bin. Eating the last of her candy bar, she tossed the crumpled wrapping into the bin and adjusted the pages of her newspaper.

Her mystery man headed for a plane several hundred yards away. The markings on the side were quite small from this distance, but she was just able to make them out. Memorizing them, she watched until the man entered the plane and the stairs were lifted up. Flipping through a few more pages of her paper, Milo tore off a small corner near the top of the front page and then tossed the rest into the garbage bin and went back inside.

Using a pen from one of the luggage tag desks, she wrote down the markings from the private plane and tucked the piece of paper into an inside pocket of her coat. Figuring that her boss might not be fully satisfied with what she’d learned in Venice, Milo decided to return to the city and check in. The pieces of the puzzle she had turned up weren’t fitting together very nicely, and that frustrated her. Who had killed Hano and why? Her boss had wanted it done, eventually, but the fact that someone else beat her to it made her wary. Feeling a bit like she had a target on her back, Milo hailed a cab.

 

In DC, the information received from Milo’s phone was collected by a low-level grunt with very specific orders on what to look for. Anything that was outside of those orders was immediately flagged and sent “upstairs”. The grunt assigned to Milo downloaded the pictures of the shadow man from the boat, as well as those of the mystery man and the dead guy. He flagged the first few photos and sent them off. The picture of the dead guy was put into the system to check for facial recognition against the known target.

When the confirmation came back that the target was down, the funds were transferred to Milo’s account and her file was updated with the latest kill. The grunt never read the note on her file stating that anything pertaining to the Hano job was supposed to bypass her handler.

Due to the grunt’s screw up, the pictures of the shadow man and mystery man landed on Milo’s handler’s desk. Jim Becker was a careerist, having joined The Network directly out of college. He had no military experience and he’d never killed anyone; not directly, anyway. Still, he considered himself an expert on death.

When he saw the photo of Milo’s mystery man, he knew he was looking at his own death. The shadow man meant nothing to him, but the photo of the mystery man was a problem that was going to explode in his face. Pushing that thought aside, he made the call he knew couldn’t wait. When the call connected, he heard the distant hum of an aircraft coming through his earpiece.

“We have a problem,” Becker said.

“What sort of problem?”

“One of our hunters was in that warehouse in Venice when you took down Hano. She got a photo of you.”

Several moments of tense silence followed the statement. Finally, the man on the phone spoke. “Why was she there?”

“No idea, but I’ll look into it.” Becker ignored Luboff’s cursing. He didn’t want to let Luboff in on the real problem. If Milo was out on a job and he hadn’t sent her on it, then someone higher up was using her as a snoop. Question was, how much did they know and how much was pure speculation?

Luboff grunted. “What could she know?”

“That would depend on several things. If she recognized Hano’s target, or any of the people he was in contact with while she was following Hano. Anything that was said in her presence, like your conversation with Hano before he died.”

Another silence. “She will have to be taken care of.”

“She’s one of the best we’ve got. It won’t be easy.” Never mind the red flags her death would raise if one of the big bosses was controlling her.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

The line disconnected and Becker cursed silently. Milo’s presence in Venice was a concern, but he would figure out a way to turn it around. He would have to keep an eye on her actions. If she appeared to be investigating Falchi or anyone else connected to him, she’d have to be eliminated.

Becker hesitated to sanction a hit on his best operative. He wasn’t close to her; Milo didn’t welcome overtures of friendship from her coworkers. She never knew when she’d be staring down the length of her gun at them. He understood that, but he also knew they wouldn’t have been friends if she’d been less prickly. She didn’t trust him.

Becker knew that Luboff expected the hit to be a done deal, but Becker needed to find out who she was reporting to, first. Her death could have greater repercussions than Becker could account for.

They needed to get Falchi to the hospital so he could undergo plastic surgery. He was supposed to go under two days ago, but their surgeon had had a personal emergency and hadn’t left the States yet. Falchi wouldn’t be sedated until the afternoon of the twentieth, at the earliest. Once under, however, he wouldn’t ever wake.

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