Max checked his weapon. The .22 caliber Walther P22 subcompact pistol was right where it was supposed to be, in a custom holster inside the waistband of his jeans. The pistol’s suppressor made it impossible for him to sit; a small price to pay since the summer heat prevented him from wearing a jacket.
Even at midnight, July in Rome made for a gritty, humid time for the throngs of tourists packed into the city like sardines. Max stood at an outside bar nursing a beer, watching the melting pot of tourists laugh, smoke, and drink their way through the night. A smattering of European dialects reached his ear. Max was fluent in each. Most of the revelers were watching the World Cup finals match between Spain and Netherlands that played on televisions in the various cafes. From his vantage point, he could see across the cobblestone street to a bar filled with a younger set of partygoers.
Max’s attention was focused on one corner of the outdoor bar, where a tall, lanky man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and long wavy hair sat hunched close to a young woman. The man wore round spectacles, sandals, and linen pants. The woman had on a tight-fitting T-shirt and rested her hand on the man’s knee. Max checked his watch. Three minutes.
At the appointed time, the woman rose and tugged on the man’s hand. He resisted, leaning back in his chair.
Go on, Max muttered under his breath.
The woman smiled, biting her lip. Finally, the man with the goatee rose and followed her out of the cafe and into the street. The girl clung to her companion as they strolled away from the bar. Max gave them a minute, then drained his beer, and left the cafe, following at a safe distance. The pair rounded a corner and disappeared down a side street. Max kept his pace slow. He knew their destination.
At the entry to the side street, Max stopped and lit a cigarette. Here, several blocks away from the string of outdoor cafes, the street was quiet. He knew that if he continued down the main street, he’d eventually reach the Pantheon, the hulking ancient Roman building historically used as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. He hoped what he was about to do wouldn’t create a new martyr for ISIS. The mark was a prolific recruiter of Western teenagers for the cause of the Islamic State and was also responsible for directing several terrorist bombings around Western Europe that had killed scores. Known only as the Chameleon, the target was on the kill list of several Western nations. The Chameleon had remained anonymous, hiding in plain sight, until Max’s client had identified him. Max sucked in one last drag, then stubbed the cigarette out on the side of the building and pocketed the butt. He saw no one.
Max walked down the alleyway until he reached the door he’d been looking for. He tried the handle and found it unlocked, just as planned. He entered, pulling the door shut behind him. A small entryway opened in front of him with a narrow flight of steps going up. Max removed a thin balaclava from his pocket and pulled it over his head, slid on a pair of black latex gloves, then removed the .22 from its holster. He stole up the stairs, holding the gun in front of him. As he neared the top, he could hear the sounds of frantic lovemaking coming from the room to his right.
Max preferred to work alone. This partnership had been mandated by his client, and Max had reluctantly agreed on the condition that the woman not know his identity or physical description. The fact that she’d spent the last six months undercover as a student in the professor’s class and had successfully seduced him into an affair had impressed Max, and he’d agreed to work with her. Max didn’t know what hatred motivated the woman to sacrifice her body in this way. Whatever it was, she had executed her part of the job perfectly.
He entered the room with his pistol at the ready. The scene had been orchestrated just as planned. The woman was on the bed naked, kneeling face down. The professor was behind her with his back to the door, also naked, sweating and straining with exertion. His long hair was plastered to his head with sweat. Max could smell a strong scent of bleach. He took two quiet strides into the room, aimed the muzzle at the man’s head, and pulled the trigger.
The small .22 caliber bullet caused the gun almost no recoil. Max chose the .22 because he wanted a compact, reliable, and accurate pistol for the job. He also wanted minimal mess. The bullet entered the rear of the man’s skull and tore through his brain before it came to a rest lodged in the interior of his front skull. The professor went silent and pitched forward over the woman’s back. The young woman let out a yelp and tried to roll away. Max pulled the man’s body off her and rolled it onto the floor, then put another bullet into the base of his skull. Insurance.
Holstering the gun, Max walked into the tiny bathroom and pulled a gallon-sized jug of bleach from beneath the sink. When he returned, the woman was pulling on her clothing. Shock registered on her face. Her hands were shaking but she was moving, and that’s what mattered. Max rolled the body onto its back and dumped half the contents of the jug onto the man’s front, paying particular attention to his genitals, hands, and mouth. Then he rolled the body over and dumped the remainder of the bleach on the man’s back, buttocks, and legs. Bleach, Max knew, was effective at covering up DNA. From the smell of it, Max could tell the woman had sanitized the room earlier that night. She wouldn’t be coming back to this place.
The woman began shoving a few belongings into a duffel. Max looked around the bare room for any remaining items. Finding none, he grabbed her arm and led her down the stairs. In the tiny entryway, Max moved to open the door, but she grabbed his arm. Turning back, Max felt her bury her face in his chest. She was sobbing. He hesitated, then put his arm around her.
After a moment, he said, “We have to go.”
She nodded, face still pressed into him.
“What you did was a brave thing,” Max said.
For a moment, she didn’t speak. Then finally she pulled away, stifled the sobs, and said, “Revenge is a powerful motivator.”
She wiped her eyes and nodded. “Yes.”
“You remember the details of your exfiltration?”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. You did the hard work.”
“My name is Naomi,” she said, looking at him with big, brown eyes.
Max shook his head, put his finger to his lips, then ducked out the door. When he looked back, he saw her walking in the opposite direction, head bent, eyes on the ground.
Max lit a cigarette as he walked south. He kept a steady pace and walked past the Parthenon, then stayed to the west of the Colosseum. He threw the balaclava in a dumpster, then tossed the gun into a public trash can. Holding his hand in front of his face, he noticed it held steady. Your hand is your retirement indicator, his father would often say. For now, Max was still in the game. No easy feat in this profession, especially at age forty.
He walked up the incline away from the Colosseum and entered the neighborhood of Monti. Historically the home of beggars and prostitutes, Monti was now full of trendy bars, fashion boutiques, and hip restaurants. Max found the doorway he was looking for and pushed into a bar. The low-ceilinged room was illuminated by red-tinged light, and soft Russian music came from hidden speakers. The u-shaped bar was nearly empty, and Max found a stool at one end. When the bald, barrel-chested bartender appeared, Max spoke in Russian and ordered a tumbler of vodka, chilled. This place had been Russian-owned since long before the neighborhood had gentrified, and was one of the few places in Rome where Max could get a proper drink. An annoying buzzing sound came from a small TV that showed Spain playing the Netherlands in the World Cup. As Max sat down, the bartender thumbed the mute button and grumbled, “I hate those fucking vuvuzelas. Leave it to the South Africans to ruin a good football match.”
It wasn’t until Max was well into his fourth chilled vodka that she walked into the bar. Tall and balancing on heels, wearing a form-fitting black dress, the woman came in alone and perched herself on a barstool directly across from Max. She pushed her hair behind one ear and smiled at the bartender, ordering something Max didn’t hear. He watched as she scanned the room, her gaze lingering on Max before looking away. The bartender put a martini glass in front of her containing a clear liquid and a skewer of olives.
When she’d walked in, Max’s heart had dropped into his stomach. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear he was looking at Maren, the woman he’d fallen in love with a year ago. He still had the ring; it was too painful to part with. His mind reeled. This couldn’t be his ex-girlfriend – she was dead. He was looking at the haunting image of her double.
He downed his vodka and signaled for another.