As Cross catches the scent of a far-reaching conspiracy, he realizes that it all connects to an unexplained event in his past: a massacre from which he emerged inexplicably unscathed, save for the blue mark on his face that pulses when danger is near. That scar has been throbbing more frequently of late. . . . If he's reading the signs accurately, Cross might find himself again facing a terrible menace that is not altogether human.
FROM: Captain Nathan Lancaster, Chief, Gang Surveillance Unit
TO: All Precincts, Focus Near-North
ALERT: Incoming Threats to Cross Crew, Situation Highly Unstable
DETAILS: “Cross” and known associates clearly organizing response to perceived pattern of threats. Gang Intelligence indicates high probability of pre-emptive strikes. Report any suspicious and/or unusual activity in Badlands area immediately, gang violence alert level RED.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||5 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
If the men known as Cross, Ace, and Rhino had other names, no one in Gangland had heard them. So no informant ever spoke them.
Buddha, by contrast, routinely used enough names to fill a small hard drive.
Tiger was infamous for a number of things—-her outrageous figure and thick mane of gold and black stripes only a small portion of that list. Tracker presumably had a name, but the only one he answered to was tribal, and that appeared on no birth certificate.
Both were freelancers who had worked with the Cross crew many times, including a “down south” job that cost Rhino the tip of one finger and added a teenage death--match veteran who came to be called Princess.
All this preceded an off--the--books government unit tasked with capturing a “specimen” of some entity that could apparently kill without leaving a trace of its own presence . . . although the skull and spine torn from the bodies of the victims had become its terrifying signature.
If being imperiously questioned by the slender, ice-eyed blond man seated in a captain’s chair at the front of a rolling motor home made him nervous, the unremarkable man wearing a grayish urban duster gave no sign. Cross was good at waiting.
To the blond man’s left was a large console controlled by a young Asian woman, displaying various screen inserts as she manipulated a joystick. To his right sat a slab-faced man whose oversized chest easily accommodated a pair of shoulder holsters. Behind Cross, the two operatives who had brought him in: an expressionless Indian and a voluptuous Amazon with a long tiger-striped mane.
“You’ve seen this kind of thing before?” the blond demanded as the console popped up images of stylized slaughter. “Where?”
“Africa. We came back from patrol, found the whole sweeper team hung up, exactly like that.”
“What did you think it was?”
“By then, we all knew what it was. A message from the Simbas. That’s the way they did things over there: kill your enemy, and heads on stakes. Discourages anyone else from coming around.”
“Did it work on you?”
“Sure,” Cross replied, surprising the blond man.
“Then look at these. . . .”
More images. All same-signature corpses, but the settings were vastly different. A penthouse apartment, a hunting lodge, an abandoned warehouse. No individual bodies, all multiple kills.
“They look alike,” Cross said, neglecting to mention that he had viewed an exactly similar scene only a short while ago. In Chicago.
“Those scenes are not—”
“Not the scenes—the bodies of the losers.”
“Don’t you mean ‘victims’?”
“Fighters aren’t victims. These are all some kind of battle sites. And a C-note to a dime says it wasn’t civilians who got taken out.”
“By . . . ?”
“I told you. The Simbas.”
“Wanda . . . ?” The blond man turned to the Asian woman. She was already busily tapping away at the computer keyboard with one hand, clicking a silver pen against her teeth with the other.
“Simbas . . . Got it. None ever captured alive. Some of the intel says they’re a myth. Not really a tribe at all. There’s no—”
“A myth?” the Indian interrupted, surprising everyone else on the team. “Like those so-called Seminoles in Florida? They set up base in the Everglades, down where Stonewall Jackson wouldn’t go after them. Bad propaganda—so the government started calling Cherokees who refused to walk the Trail of Tears by something other than their true name. It was Jackson who named them Seminoles—that way, he could tell the government that all the Cherokees were accounted for. Same as those Vietnam body-counts.”
Ignoring a sharp glance from the blond man, the Indian continued, his tone making it clear that he was not inviting a response. “We were here before Columbus,” he said coldly. “Maybe the Cherokee word for ‘blanket’ should be ‘smallpox,’ too.”
“That does fit the Simbas,” the woman at the console said, gently breaking into the silence that followed.
“Yeah?” the heavyset man with the shoulder holsters rasped. “How’s that make any sense, Wanda?”
“Start from here, Percy,” the Asian recited, tapping her scrolling screen. “Allegedly, the Simbas are the only known tribe of mixed Africans. . . .”
“Black and white?” he asked, now genuinely curious.
“No, tribal-mixed. That almost never happens. And, when it does, it’s usually a war-rape. But with Simbas, they eventually accumulated enough people to form their own tribe. Ample reports of this phenomenon from the Congo over the past sixty years. Yoruba with Hausa, Watusi with Pygmy, Kikuyu with Bantu. And so on. Some of them were allegedly part of the Mau Mau, but that wasn’t so much a tribe as a movement. All the database shows is a thematic legend.”
“A what?” the blond man spat out, annoyed at the lecture.
“Thematic legend,” Wanda snapped back, more annoyed at the interruption. “One that retains its characteristics regardless of jurisdiction. Essentially, this one was that, originally, the Simbas were freedom-fighters who had to flee to the bush when the invaders had them outgunned.” A quick glance at the Indian. “Tracker would know this: that term probably originally meant ‘colonialists,’ but its usage has changed over time—probably because of mercenary raids on specific targets.” She turned in her chair, looked meaningfully at the man being questioned, then returned to her narrative: “The Simbas were classic hit-and-run guerrillas. They can be distinguished from the modern version easily enough. Unlike, say, the FARC in Colombia or the Shining Path in Peru, or the Maoists in Tibet, they—”
“We don’t need to know what they’re not,” the blond man said, now fussily impatient.
Wanda continued as if no one had spoken. “They do not recruit, they permit no looting, rape is punishable by death, and there is no enforced membership. Their minimal requirement—and this is only a rough translation—is that a prospective member must bring a ‘hard’ part of their enemy as an offering.”
She ran her right hand over her hair, as if to smooth it down. “Even the deranged creatures created by that witch doctor Joseph Kony—the Lord’s Resistance Army—even those kidnapped and drug-crazed children fear the Simbas.” She turned to look at the man they had brought in for questioning: “Their trademark never varies. It . . . Well, you’ve seen the pictures.”
“I wonder . . .” the blond mused. “Could that be the link?”
“Africa?” the Amazon asked.
“Why not? They had to start somewhere. Maybe they started killing for what they thought was a good enough reason and just got to like it. That does happen.”
“Yes. I have seen it myself,” the Indian said, coldly eyeing the blond.
“Come on,” Cross said, in a tone somewhere between tired and bored. “Started in Africa, huh? Wasn’t that what you government clowns were saying about AIDS? I mean, before everyone found out it was a lab experiment gone wrong in Haiti?”
“We have confirmed signature kills all over the globe,” Wanda answered, looking straight at the mercenary. “I don’t see how it would be possible for unacclimated Africans to strike in the Arctic Circle. Do you?”
“Maybe they evolved,” Cross said. “Same way we all did, right? Humans, I mean. Some seeds grew in the sun, some in the ice. Or we all started in the Cradle, like a lot of scientists think. Places get too crowded, people move on. Especially when they get a lot of encouragement. When’s the first confirmed kill?”
“That is difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy,” Wanda acknowledged. “We have references to similar multiple slaughters throughout history. Cave paintings of Neanderthals staring up at hanging corpses, looking puzzled, as if the killings weren’t their work. Egyptian pharaohs left what could be records of something similar, unearthed by tomb robbers. Hannibal kept a journal on his way over the Alps. And there are a number of references in futhark—”
“Scandinavian runes—probably dating back to early Viking times,” she said to the blond man, now seriously irritated at still another interruption of her report. “The references go as far back as we can reach. But, with so many other myths and legends disproven, it’s impossible to tell for sure. No way to come up with authenticated facts.”
“So those ‘Seminoles’ . . . they could be from the same root?” the Amazon wondered aloud.
“Of course,” Wanda replied.
The motor home went silent.
“Junkyard dogs,” Cross finally said. “By now, they’ve probably formed into their own species.”
“This is the place. You sure?”
“You askin’ what I’m sure of? Me? You looking at a professional here, youngblood. I been putting in this kinda work before you stole your first candy bar, and I’m still doing it. Not to prove I got the heart for it, that part’s been done. Now I get paid.
“A pro, he can’t make but one mistake. This business, you make a mistake, you out of business. And on that paper is the address the boss said. I wrote it down. See for yourself—-it’s right here on this little paper . . . the one you gonna be putting a match to while I’m inside.”
“It don’t look right to me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It looks just like a regular house. You’d think—-”
“What? That a hit man don’t have to live someplace? He’d just float around in the air, waiting to pounce? Live in a different place every night? You watch too many of those movies.”
“Listen! Can’t you hear it?”
“You really making me tired, boy. I don’t hear nothing but—-”
“Kids! Playing in the yard, right behind that same house there.”
“It just don’t seem . . . I don’t know . . . I mean, kids?”
“You a long way from being a pro, boy. That’s why it’s you driving the car. That’s why it’s you gonna be waiting in the car while I go up, knock on the front door, or push the bell, or whatever. You watch me ’stead of those stupid movies, you might learn something.
“I’m dressed for the part. Got my sample case and everything. One of Hemp’s specials. . . . See his mark, right on the flap? Bitch opens the door, sees a man selling . . . whatever—-it don’t matter what. I push her inside. Not with my hands, just keep stepping forward until she steps back. I kick the door closed behind me, put a couple in her head before she can make a sound. And what I got in this here case, it won’t make a sound, either.
“See how it works? In and out, less than a minute. I ease on back to the car—-no running, moving slow—-and you drive away. Some nosy bitch, got nothing else to do all day but look out her window, she writes down the plate—-so what? This ride, it’s gone inside an hour. The crusher don’t just swallow the plates, it takes everything. So we don’t gotta worry about fingerprints, or fibers, or DNA . . . any of that CSI crap.”
“What if one of those kids comes in? Like, to get a soda or something?”
“What I got in this sample case is what I’m selling, okay? It’s got a nine--round clip, plus one in the chamber. The boss said no witnesses. Anyone inside, it’s a blackout call. You got a problem with that?”
“Me? No. I got no problem. But . . . you see the way that house is set up? There’s no way for kids to get to the backyard without trampling all those flowers out front. So there’s got to be a back door, right?”
“All them kinda houses got back doors. So what?”
“So see that driveway? You could just walk up the driveway, and that back door, it’ll be open. So the kids can come in and out. You know, like kids do?”
“Yeah, I know. Thing is, you don’t. They’d see me and—-”
“They wouldn’t see you. See a man in a suit, wearing a hat. They remember the man had dreads showing, even better—-that wig you’re wearing goes into the crusher same as everything else we got on, right?
“The way they’re carrying on back there, probably wouldn’t even see that much. You walk in the back door, like you was expected, see? Then you do the work, walk out the front door, and it plays the same way.”
“So you’re the expert now? Ain’t done even a single one of these yet, but you gonna give me tips?”
“I don’t gotta be no expert to know that people, they got peepholes and things like that in their front door. The bitch in there sees you, maybe asks what you want through one of those speaker things. There ain’t no guarantee she’s even gonna open that door.”
“You know a lot about all this, huh?”“The boss said, ‘Watch Antoine.’ Watch and learn, is what he said. I’m gonna be where you is, cuz. Not today, not tomorrow, I got that. I’m just saying—-”
“You said enough, rookie. We already been sitting out here too long.”
Antoine slid from the passenger seat and strolled casually up the driveway, as if that had been his intention all along.
The sound of raucous children reached his ears just as he turned left, looking for the back door.
A huge Akita, all white except for its black head, lay on its belly, watching the children. It sensed Antoine: whirled, snarled, and launched in the same motion.
Antoine froze. The 9mm in his sample case was miles away—and death was much closer.
A mass of chartreuse and tangerine flew across Antoine’s vision, snatched the dog, and wrestled it to the ground.
“Sweetie, no!” some cartoon--muscled monster shouted, holding the dog squirming against his chest. “He’s probably a friend of Sharyn’s.”
Antoine blinked, twice. When his eyes focused, he saw that the monster was human . . . sort of. It wasn’t just the insanely overdeveloped physique, or the anaconda arms embracing the dog. It wasn’t just the shaved head, or the veined muscles covering his upper body like a coat of armor. No, it was the slathered lipstick, the outrageous eyeliner, and the rouged cheeks that riveted the hired killer in place.
“Hi!” the monster said, grinning.
Antoine took off. He reached the car, flung himself into the opened door, and screamed, “Go!”
The silverfish Infiniti sedan pulled smoothly away.
“You not gonna believe what was back there, man!”
The driver was silent, calmly waiting for Antoine to finish his story.
“First this dog—-some monfucious thing with a black head—-it shoots right at me like a damn missile! Then this . . . Man, I don’t know what to call that thing—-all muscled up like those iron freaks in the joint, but he’s a stone sissy! Makeup and all, I’m telling you. He flies over the dog, picks him up like he’s a little puppy. Saved my life, no doubt!”
“Yeah! I don’t know what was inside that house, and I don’t ever wanna know. The boss . . . I don’t know how this could be, but he must’ve got the address wrong.”
“Hemp don’t make mistakes, you said. And you had it written down, too, remember?”
“Hey! I’m saying this to you, bro; it ain’t for broadcast.”
The driver slashed his right index finger across his lips.
“You got it,” Antoine said, sealing their pact.