Max toyed with the garrote in his jacket pocket while he waited in the dark alleyway. As the small hand on the city’s clock tower swung past one a.m., fog settled over him. A gentle drizzle started, causing the cobblestone streets to glisten in the sparse light. Max snapped the top button closed on his leather jacket, and wished he had on a more rain-appropriate coat. He tugged the brim of his hat down tighter on his head with a gloved hand. Not a soul stirred in the alleyway, and if he didn’t know better, he’d think he was in London in the late 1800s, about the time Jack the Ripper stalked his prey.
The garrote was handcrafted from piano wire and two thick, wooden dowels. For jobs of this nature, where silence was of the utmost importance, Max preferred this kind of weapon. It was clean and quick, and left little mess. An expertly yanked garrote would instantly sever the windpipe, making outcry impossible. It also left very little forensic evidence to identify the make and model of the weapon. This particular one was called la loupe, a two-strand garrote made with a double coil of wire. Even if the victim managed to get their hand in between their neck and one of the coils, they’d only succeed in making the other coil tighter. For backup, Max carried a silenced SIG Sauer P224, his favored subcompact, in a shoulder holster.
Even Brussels, the city at the epicenter of modern Western Europe, had a red light district. The area was small compared to the famous De Wallen in Amsterdam, and started just outside the Gare du Nord train station along the Rue d’Aerschot. Windows lit with red and blue lights lined the dirty street, their lithe fare advertising themselves in a silent, un-choreographed ballet. Well-heeled tourists, business travelers, and diplomats strolled through, lured by temptresses from exotic locales. The street was well known worldwide for the quality of its offerings, its safe environment, and its reasonable prices.
Just around the corner, in an alley off Rue d’Aerschot, those with discerning tastes and fat wallets shopped for the highest-quality treats. This area was known as Chique, the Dutch word for posh. There were only six brothels lining the alleyway, but these were the crème de la crème. In Chique, there were no windows displaying scantily clad seductresses. Instead, the entrance to each was guarded by a formidable iron door. There, one needed to be on a list to gain entrance. If one made it through the iron door, they were led to a small foyer where large men with expert hands searched for weapons and established bona fides. No credit cards were accepted; Chique accepted only pre-established credit lines. This was where the world’s elite came to enjoy pleasures of the choicest flesh, free from the prying eyes of the world.
It was also a place unpatrolled by the city’s Politie. This was partly to avoid the awkward sighting of a high-ranking diplomat, and partly because there had been no violence or reports of any crime in the one hundred years of Chique’s existence. Max knew this, of course. This was the reason he’d chosen this spot to assassinate the lawyer.
While he waited, Max’s mind performed a series of calculations. This was a high-value target, which would move him closer to his retirement goal. He checked the burner phone in his pocket. It was silent; no text messages. If this bloke didn’t finish with the girl soon, Max would delay the job for another time. Patience, my boy, his father’s voice echoed in his head. It will keep you alive.
His mind turned to the target. The man currently in the throes of ecstasy with one of Brussels’ Albanian beauties was a well-known lawyer who spent most of his time negotiating corporate mergers and acquisitions for large transportation conglomerates. Unbeknownst to everyone except Max’s client, the lawyer used his shipping connections to support the Islamic State by moving weapons in and out of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Max didn’t know why the man did it; perhaps for the money, maybe for the thrill, perhaps an idealistic devotion to some higher calling. Frankly, he didn’t care. Max had spent considerable time on research to confirm his client’s assertions before he’d agreed to the job. After weeks of painstaking preparation, the moment had arrived.
The burner phone in his pocket buzzed. Max removed it and glanced at the screen.
Max confirmed that no one had entered the alleyway, then positioned himself next to the exit. The door would swing out, blocking him from the target’s view. He also knew from exhaustive surveillance that the man always turned right, away from Max’s position, and toward the Gare du Nord train terminal. There, the lawyer would catch a train out of the city, back to his wife and children in the tony neighborhood of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. He wouldn’t make it tonight, Max knew. And Chique would have its first homicide in its one hundred-year history. He removed the garrote from his pocket. The double loop of wire glinted in the sparse moonlight.
The rain picked up in intensity, splattering off the cobblestones and Max’s black leather boots. He could not have orchestrated the weather any better. The heavy rain would keep people off the street, and the white noise of the rain on the cobblestones would hide the sound of his footsteps. Max waited, breathing, staying aware of his heart rate. It remained even and slow, just as he’d trained himself.
The door finally opened on silent hinges, then swung closed. Without a backward glance, a short, stout man pulled a hat on a mostly bald head and started toward the Gare du Nord. Max wondered for an instant if the man was busy concocting some tale to tell his wife.
Two strides on his long legs and Max caught up to the lawyer, resizing the garrote’s loop to account for the man’s hat. He slipped the fine piano wire around the man’s neck, then jerked with a controlled and practiced force. The wire cut into the target’s neck like a cheese slicer. The lawyer emitted a quiet gurgle as his windpipe was severed, then he stumbled forward, clutching at his throat. His hat fell off and came to rest on the wet cobblestones. Max gave another yank and the man’s head jerked back, before he fell face first to the ground. Max bent as the lawyer fell, and straddled his prone body. He tugged on the garrote again, and held on through the man’s spasms, finally letting go when the obese man stopped moving.
Max dropped the garrote, shoved his hands into his pockets, and made his way slowly out of the alley. He let the adrenaline run its course as he walked the Rue d’Aerschot, waiting for the inevitable fatigue to come. He paused at a public trash can to light a cigarette, noting with satisfaction that his hands were not shaking. Then he dropped the burner phone into the trash receptacle. He continued his stroll, letting the pulsing red neon lights wash over him, pausing often to pretend to gaze at a half-naked woman, all the while watching intently for any sign of a tail or police activity. He saw none, and knew that the body would not be reported until the following morning. No one leaving Chique would want their name on record.
As Max walked, the rain gradually let up and steam began to roll off the cobblestone streets. He left the red light district behind and walked south on Boulevard Emile Jacqmain until he reached L’Archiduc, a hole-in-the-wall bar Max knew was owned by a Russian expatriate. He pulled the door open and walked into a cloud of smoke.
Max settled on a barstool and spoke in Russian, asking the old man behind the bar for a short glass of chilled vodka. When the bartender set it down on the scratched oak bar, Max gulped it back and asked for another. By the fourth glass, he felt a warmth in his chest. By the sixth, the warmth had spread to his head. By the tenth, Max was finally able to forget for a moment that he’d just killed a man. The television over his head showed a football match between two local clubs. He asked for a cold lager and sipped it as he watched the game.
Eventually, he pulled out his Blackphone and turned it on. The phone had cost him several thousand euros, but it had security that prevented it from being tracked. When the phone had warmed up, he accessed a secure email program and typed a quick note to his client. It is done. Remit final payment. He moved to shut the phone down, but an email in his inbox caught his attention. The sender was Arina Asimov, his sister. He gazed at the email header, and his stomach dropped as he noted the subject line. It read, Mother.
It had been over a year since Max had corresponded with his sister. Back then, the emails had been about his mother’s cancer: how they were fighting it, and how good the prognosis was. Max touched the phone’s screen, exposing the body of the email. It was short, but an unexpected wave of emotion hit him.
The message was only one line. It read, She has two weeks to live.