Broken Crown, Part IV


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Also Featuring:

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Scene Title Broken Crown, Part IV
Synopsis No plan survives contact with the enemy.
Date March 27, 2021

Nearly a full day has passed since Nick and Rue set their sights on the Enfant du Soleil parked in the Tigris River. Nick’s foray into the river hadn’t yet come to pass. Instead, caution ruled the day. The morning and afternoon was instead spent surveilling the river, watching for Confederated Guard river patrols—of which there are precious few—and observing the movements of strange, quad-rotor drones that buzz like migratory birds through the Baghdad skyline. Operating in shifts, Rue and Nick were able to cover significant ground and gather a prodigious amount of intelligence on the vessel.

With this intelligence, they would be better able to assess the risk of boarding the Enfant du Soleil, and hopefully avoid any unnecessary risks…

…or loss of life.

Dijlat Al Khair Hotel

Khadra, Baghdad

March 27th
5:17 pm

Back at the hotel, with the sun creeping toward the horizon and long evening shadows stretching out across the city, they go over photos from the freshly-developed rolls of film, clothespinned to a length of twine crossing the bathroom.

The Enfant du Soleil is photographed from all sides, identified as a Sunseeker 115 Sport Yacht. It’s a mid-sized but fast Yacht designed for international oceanic travel. A deck layout is taped up on the bathroom wall in what is becoming a growing evidence board. While there was no publicly accessible crew manifest, Rue and Nick’s surveillance identified five passengers throughout the day:

Royden Melanson (Registered SLC-N), French private military contractor for Durandal International. Non-Expressive, former military and served three tours of duty in Iraq back before foreign armed forces were pushed out around a decade ago. Royden was dishonorably discharged from the French military for his conduct in Iraq. He knows the terrain and the people.

Therese Boisclair (Registered SLC-N) Former olympic Taekwondo competitor. Lost both of her legs in a car accident in 2013 and was offered a chance at testing prototype prosthetic replacements by Crito Corporate in 2018. To pay off her debt Therese joined PYRE, a private military contracting company that specializes in cybernetically-enhanced people. Therese has a husband and two children back in Paris.

Roger St. Germain (Registered Non-Expressive) Chief Investments Officer of Davignon Corporation. St. Germain was purportedly a driving force behind the ousting of the late Remi Davignon’s estate management from the Davignon Company and the board of directors’ subsequent dissolution in favor of naming a new CEO, Arnaud Rouze, the company’s former Chief Counsel. St. Germain seems like a financially-motivated opportunist already under investigation by Interpol’s Financial Intelligence Unit for alleged money-laundering.

Sergeant Major Jakob Tafero (SLC-E Status Unknown, Presumed SLC-N) US Marines. Born Pretoria South Africa. Enlisted USMC April 17 1986. Obtained Naturalized US Citizenship Sept 7 1993. Tours of duty in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom. AWOL October 18 2010. Believed radicalized by Mazdak. Suspected in connection with bombing of US Army Base Montero in Baghdad July 4 2011. Suspicion of involvement in disappearance of Canadian citizen Brandon Patenaude. Possible recruitment vector.

Then there was the doozy:

James Woods (Presumed Non-Expressive) Former Company agent assumed dead as far back as 2008, found alive during a Wolfhound operation in January of 2019, transferred to the custody of the Department of Homeland Security where he awaited trial at Liberty Island for crimes committed during his tenure at the Company. Disappeared during a targeted attack on Liberty Island by Mazdak in December of the same year. Missing ever since. British citizen, former RAF inducted into the Company in the late 1990s. Officially transferred to the United States to serve in the Company’s NYC Branch in 2000. His presence here is a gigantic question mark, but based on his attire he appears to be working security.

The Enfant du Soleil was still anchored in the middle of the Tigris, but no guests had yet come and gone during daytime hours. Something was going on, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the answers might be aboard that ship.

“I hate this presumed bullshit,” Rue mutters while she goes over their dramatis personae one more time. “I wouldn’t assume anything.” She taps the photograph belonging to Jakob Tafero twice. Her wrist turns out as she points across to the image of James Woods with a shake of her head. “And that one…”

Dearing’s screams are still ringing in Rue’s ears when a hail of gunfire comes blasting out of the hallway, it tears through the door and slams square into the blonde brit she swore to get out of the hell that was Sunstone. Her breath catches in her throat. As he is assaulted with a barrage of high-caliber gunfire, he’s launched off of his feet and thrown into the opposite wall. Colette Demsky lets out a yelp of fright while James Dearing, the battery pack of his armor depleted, pivots, trying to duck away from the sound. Through the doorway into the warehouse, a limping and blinded machine fires wildly through the hall.

Similarly to her partner, Rue Lancaster is without the reactive component to her armor, having it drained entirely in an effort to keep her chest from being crushed by the unstoppable force at the end of the hall. When it sweeps its gun down toward where the three Hounds are standing, Rue doesn’t have enough time to react, to shove her friends down and out of the way when it opens fire—

—and shoots James Woods again.

Having hurled himself back into the line of fire, the Institute prisoner holds his arms out to his side, bullets ricocheting off of them and his chest, tearing through his clothes, but leaving him unscathed. “Un-fucking-believable!” Woods shouts, looking just as surprised as the others at this turn of events. “Go! Bloody go! Apparently they fucking gave me Superman powers or something!”

“Nuh uh.” Rue shakes her head. “I’ve seen it.” It answers a question that she had pushed down, disallowed from gnawing at her gut. Whatever happened to James Woods? After the attack on Liberty Island, she assumed he was dead, like so many of the others. That, at best, the ability given to him was taken away again and he got a bullet in the skull.

Is this worse? Lancaster crosses her arms under her chest, leaning to one side with a serious and thoughtful expression while she considers. She’d like to believe he’s not there willingly, but maybe it’s better for him if he is just an opportunistic bastard.

“It’s like deer. Where there’s one, you know?” More will follow. “Either they’re all wannabes, or we’re in for a lot more than we should be bargaining for if we go just by this list.”

Still, she knows a weak link in a chain when she sees one and the right side of her mouth hooks up just the faintest, barest bit in the ghost of the thought of a smirk. It shows more in the shrewdness of her eyes than anything else her expression could be doing. “I think I can do a lot with that one.”

Nick’s bridge of his nose and his cheeks are a little red from spending the day in the sunshine, though not so much as to give him a pale raccoon mask from his sunglasses, hopefully. He rubs his nose a little absently as he studies the photos — it’ll peel in a couple of days.

“They do tend to cluster,” he says with a small smirk, thinking of antebellum New York, before they were forced to cluster in ghettos or safehouses or on Pollepel Island.

“At least these lads should be speaking French or English at the party, and we’ll be able to understand that,” he adds, given the plan to bug the yacht to listen in on the conversations.

He nods to Woods; he’s unfamiliar with the man. “What’s his flavor?” Nick asks curiously, glancing at Rue before reaching for the small cup on the counter and turning on the tap — he’s thirsty, sure, but if there’s a bug in the room at all it might obscure the answer, though they tend to speak in vague, generic terms to be safe.

“Thank goodness for that,” Rue remarks about the shared language. Her French vocabulary now consists of maybe ten words. Most of them used to express the fact that she does not speak French, but bullets and fists are a universal language, so she expects she’ll be fine.

When asked about Woods’ ability, Rue lifts one hand up to her chest, her fingers closed together in a claw. She taps them against her breast and has the fingers splaying outward like a small explosion as they bounce off of her. Her voice is low even as she explains. “Impenetrable. Impervious.” Her honey blonde head gives a shake. “He shielded me. I shouldn’t be here right now.”

At a more conversational volume, she says, “Let’s say rainbow sherbet. Not too sweet, not too heavy…” She’s just looking to fill her dance card. Given that she was seen at the bar the afternoon before flirting up a storm her commentary should match well with the persona she’s been building since they stepped off the plane. And if one of those gentlemen lucky enough to attract her attention happened to work at the waterfront and tell her about the rich weirdo and his yacht, that’s just coincidental. She was hardly discriminatory in sharing her smiles and her coquettish laughter.

Nick lifts a brow at Rue’s intel, squinting at Woods’ photo a little more closely, studying the man’s features like he could see what lies underneath in his psyche.

“That one, and these,” he taps Therese’s, then Royden’s, “different flavor than the others, possibly?”

No one is a friend in this strange land, but he’ll take a possible ally or double agent, so long as it works to their benefit, and those two seem to be there for financial reasons, or just doing a job. Whether they believe in the Mazdak tenets and philosophy or not is another issue.

With a glance toward the window, the shadows on the street, Nick turns back to Rue. “Pre-party dinner?” he suggests. There’s time to kill yet.

Rue’s eyes follow Nick’s movements, studying the photographs he indicates in turn and mulling over the possibilities in her mind. “Hard to tell if you’re gonna get vanilla or cheesecake sometimes,” she laughs quietly.

Then, she sighs. “Nice work on getting the headcounts, by the way. Makes planning the party a lot easier. I know you worked your butt off last night.” And here they are, poised to go out again. She had the easy job, physically speaking. Emotional exhaustion can be recovered from with moments of companionable silence, which Lancaster and Ruskin have been able to share in spades.

And she shares a meaningful look with her partner. They’re going to make their move. This isn’t just watching from afar, making their bricks from clay. Now they’re taking those stepping stones they’ve built and climbing into the danger.

“Yes. Let’s indulge a little, hm?” If it’s going to be potentially the last one, they should make it a good one. For a moment, she lets the trepidation show in her face. She promised they won’t lie to each other.

But at the end of the day, everyone lies a little.

Four Hours Later

The waters of the Tigris river at nearly seventy degrees, even after dark. It’s soothing to swim in, surprisingly clean for being a river in an industrial city. Mazdak had done more than clean up the streets, they’d cleaned up the city’s pollution.

The Enfant du Soleil rests delicately under a nearly full moon under a clear night’s sky. Stars are reflected in the river’s surface like diamonds strewn across a black glass plate. Rue Lancaster can see all of these details and more down the scope of her rifle from the roof of a five story, riverside tenement building. She sits nestled between blades of solar panels, tucked away from sight. Far less exposed than the man in the water her scope is tracking.

Nick Ruskin cuts through the water like a knife, approaching the hull of the yacht as little more than a mop of hair cresting the water’s surface. The wetsuit he wears isn’t a military-grade one, but a simple, matte black civilian issue picked up from a shop in town. But it serves its purpose, keeps his silhouette low profile.

As he reaches the hull and stays tucked out of sight against the side of the ship, he can hear two of the security team—Royden and Therese—on the rear deck, speaking to each other in French.

“«Means fuck of nothing, though.»” Therese says. Nick wasn’t there soon enough to hear the full context.

Royden scoffs. “«Why’s that?»” He asks.

“«If this doesn’t turn out, we’ve got nowhere to go. You think our employers will forgive and forget?»” Therese continues, finishing a cigarette that she then throws into the river. “«More likely they’ll come after us. Because nobody here’s going to cut us a break.»”

“«You’d think with all that steel they packed you with,»” Royden remarks with a snide tone, “«they would’ve thought to add a fucking spine.»” He starts to walk away from the back of the ship, and Rue has a clear line on him as he does. Therese too.

“«Fuck you,»” Therese says at Royden’s back, following him inside the cabin.

It’s quiet on the rear deck now, but across the water Rue can see the party has moved inside. Royden and Therese are inside the cabin talking to Tafero, St. Germain is with them. He’s drinking, no one else is.

Nick waits a few moments to be sure no one else is coming out of the yacht once Therese and Royden go into the cabin. The few words he catches are intriguing ones, given his theories on the mercenaries of the group, but for now he tucks that aside.

Sticking to the blind spots he’s memorized from studying the photos and blueprint of the boat, he moves to the stern to creep aboard. The plan is to hide the bugs in each of the outside lounge decks — the yacht’s like a three-tier wedding cake with a few of them, some better for having the small, discreet conversations like the one he just eavesdropped on. If no one’s in the cockpit, he’ll leave one there as well. In a perfect world, he’d like to leave some inside, but with at least three people awake inside, that will likely be a pipedream.

Silently, he pads on wet feet to climb the few steps that take him to the lower of the rear decks, pulling out the waterproof bag that’s been tucked inside his wetsuit. He waits at the top of the steps, crouched, to watch through the glass windows of the cabin and to survey the deck for an ideal spot to hide the device.

The movements required to track motion aboard the yacht are so minute. Rue is as adept at holding her breath in this situation as Nick is below the water.

«Looking good so far.» Her voice is a quiet assurance in his ear. The softer she can speak, the less chance for that noise to bleed around him and alert anyone else, even if everyone else seems to be accounted for.

So far.

That notion winds a tension between Rue’s shoulderblades. In one ear, she has Nick. In the other, she’ll be able to confirm the devices he plants are transmitting signals. A small box sits in front of her, a snap of a dial to cycle through the channels. Isolated here, for this purpose, where it’ll be something more aggregate at their homebase set-up.

Content that he’s made it to deck without incident, her scope doesn’t stay on him, but sweeps to the places he’s not. The places where trouble can spring from.

«Four out of five accounted for. Don’t have eyes on Captain Invincible.»

Back on the boat, Nick can overhear the conversation happening in the cabin.

“«Typical, though. No one is punctual.»” St. Germain grouses, setting an empty beer bottle down beside two more. “«Go downstairs, make sure Princess is ready,»” he says to Royden and Therese. The two nod and walk through the cabin living room to the midship stairwell, descending out of both Rue and Nick’s field of vision.

“«You drink us dry?»” Tafero asks St. Germain, his French isn’t great.

St. Germain scoffs and pushes himself up from the sofa, wobbling a little as he does. “«No. And fuck you for insinuating that.»” He turns to the same direction Royden and Therese went, but walks past the stairwell.

“«I don’t—really think you need any more?»” Tafero says, following St. Germain down the narrow hallway to the captain’s cabin at the front of the ship, leaving the main cabin empty. Given the time it looks like they all spend in there, it’s the perfect place for one of the listening devices.

«Trouble in merc paradise,» the agent murmurs for Rue’s sake, but Nick doesn’t explain more than that — it’ll take more words to explain that conversation he overheard between Royden and Therese than Nick dares to speak. It’ll keep for debriefing once he’s back on dry land.

Tucking a device on the underside of one of the lounges on the back deck, Nick waits, crouched by the door for a few counts after Tafero disappears to make sure no one turns back suddenly for a forgotten drink or cell phone. Once he’s satisfied, he steps into the cabin himself, immediately dropping down behind furniture, using it as a shield, in case anyone comes up from below or down from a higher level.

From behind the sofa, Nick pulls another of the devices out of his baggy; this one he presses into the corner joint of a side table from below. «Two should be live now.»

Rue can extrapolate some from body language, but she can’t hear their voices — and even if she could, she wouldn’t understand the French, even if tone does go a fair way — so Nick’s confirmation is worth the moment spared for it.


Holding her breath, she watches her partner move forward, continuing to scan the points of entry. Blindly, she reaches forward to where she knows she left her control box exactly, flipping switches and listening to Nick’s movement as her indication that the listening devices are operational.


Signal received and clear.

But then, things get complicated.

Rue catches movement on the back deck one level below the cabin, where James Woods emerges from the lower hold. He stretches his arms over his head, then runs his hands through his hair and looks out across the river. She sees tension in his posture, uneasy on his face through the scope. Nick’s exits are cut off. But there’s something about the way Woods is looking across the river…

Nick notices it first by his vantage point from the cabin lounge, a light on the water. It flashes twice in rapid succession and that’s when Rue gets a glint of it in her scope. There’s another boat approaching, a smaller matte-gray US military surplus security patrol boat repainted with Iraqi Republican Guard insignias.

There’s a soldier at a mounted gun placement at the front of the boat, two more people in the small cabin, and someone seated on the back deck with a fucking black bag over their head, hands bound behind their wrist. The patrol boat is making a steady approach to the yacht.

Woods retrieves a flashlight from his windbreaker and flashes back to the patrol boat twice.


Rising from the crouch, Nick turns to make his way aft, and moving as silently as he can on his bare feet, still wet with river water. Unaware of Woods’ arrival on the lower deck, Nick pauses just before stepping out on the mid-level deck, frozen when he sees that flash of light.

Immediately, he drops back down to use the walls of the ship as cover. He presses himself into the corner of the cabin, trying to see out the windows without having his head in full view of whoever might be outside.

«Catch that light? Can you find the source?» The question accompanies the responding blinks of light from Woods’ beam.


Yeah, Rue sees it.

«Stay down. I’ve got eyes on Invincible. He’s signalling back and you have incoming.»

On the rooftop, Rue’s heart is hammering in her chest and almost too loudly to hear Nick in her ears. She’s already sweeping gear into her bag by feel alone, letting her tripod handle the balance for a moment. She’s done this dance more than a few times before.

«Patrol boat. One man on the gun, two in the cabin, and a prisoner. I can do observation from here, but you need to get out.»

Through what exit, Lancaster? Think. She could tell him to bail off the side while she creates a distraction, but in the chaos, would he be spotted? Any hope of getting clean intel would almost certainly be wrecked if she kicked up dust now.

«He’s on the deck below. I can take out their lights, pick off their gunner, wing a couple off Woods…»

With everything swept up for a quick and easy teardown and retreat on her part, her hands are back on her rifle, finger resting comfortably on the guard, ready to switch to the trigger on Nick’s word. Rue pulls a deep breath into her lungs and holds it.

Things get worse when Nick hears footsteps coming up from below deck back into the cabin. “«We’re all ready down there!»” Therese yells on her way up the stairs. She passes right past Nick without noticing him, instead turning toward the front of the ship where she hears Tafero and St. Germain bickering.

“«Hey!»” Therese yells, her back to Nick, “«Sounds like they’re here!»” She says, motioning behind herself with a thumb.

At the same time, Rue can see the patrol boat come up against the back of the yacht and Woods offers out a tow line to one of the two crew members who begins tying the ship off. The other goes to hoist the bag-headed prisoner onto their feet.

Royden didn’t come up from below decks, so there’s one down there, and four up here with him, and more in the new boat. The window to make a choice rapidly narrows as Therese starts to turn around…

There’s no time to reply to Rue, not without giving away his own location, and Nick finds himself trapped between Scylla and Charybdis — not for the first time in his life. In those scant few seconds before Therese turns around, he considers his options, limited as they are. The odds of getting out of the cabin without being seen from within or without are slim to none

As Therese turns, Nick vaults into action, springing forward to grab a crystal tumbler from one of the side tables. This, he hurls to explode against the low ceiling of the cabin on the far side of Therese, to draw her attention back that way — maybe buying him a few seconds to get out of the cabin unseen by those on the water-level deck below. Even if it works, the element of surprise is no longer in their favor.

«Go! I’ve got you!»

If she takes out their targets, they lose their intel. Those in-roads? Gone. Durandal, however, is not on that list. Even if that means they’ll re-double security later, it’s better than losing it entirely. They can work with that. They can work with…

Over the years, Airmail! has been heavily modified, piece by piece. Some of those modifications have been completely legal. The recoil reduction, for example. The right muzzle break and suppressor and now she’s reduced that by 75% compared to the mule kick she used to get to her shoulder every time she pulled the trigger. Years of practice have reduced the instinct to flinch. The barrel tuner helps with the harmonic resonance, improving the accuracy of her shots. The stock has been adjusted over the years to allow the weapon to feel like an extension of her body.

Others are not so above the board. The extended magazine holds fifteen rounds. The trigger’s been adjusted so it pulls far easier than the lawyer trigger that comes standard. These things make her job easier. Will make this easier.

Rue fires. First on Therese.


The round punches through the window between Rue and Therese, then punches through Therese into the floor, then punches into the floor and it’s unclear where the round goes from there. Her light body armor does nothing to stop the round from Airmail! and Nick is close enough to be spattered with a fine spray of blood from the exit wound.

Next, on the far window of the yacht, intent on blowing it out and creating a distraction for Nick.


Therese’s body is hitting the ground in the same moment the window over Nick’s head blows out in a spectacular shower of glass. Now the entire starboard side of the cabin is open. Shouts erupt from the front of the ship, from the back, from below; Nick can hear Royden shouting a curse as well as a woman screaming for help in English.

Rue swivels back to the deck. One for Woods. Ignoring him means giving away that she believes it won’t do anything. All the same, she only aims for his arm.


Woods is an odd reaction. He spins like a top. The impact is like a car clipping a cyclist and he’s twirled straight off of his feet. He hits the side of the ship and tumbles to the deck, gripping his arm in shock more than anything else.

The next bullet is for the newcomer on the inbound ship. She doesn’t go for the one with the prisoner. “Move, move, move.


The Republican Guard takes the round and pitches over the side of the ship into the water with a splash. The soldier restraining the prisoner lets them go and moves back toward the cabin, toward the radio. He’s shouting something, Rue can’t make it out at the distance and Nick doesn’t speak whatever he’s screaming in.

The soldier manning the turret-mounted gun pivots, flicking on the searchlight that starts scanning the water looking for a boat. They don’t know where the gunfire is coming from yet.

Fuck. Nick keeps quiet, not wanting to give away his location to anyone else on the boat that might be listening below. As it is, they might think they’re just being hit by, well, a sniper, and not realize he’s on board. With the bugs in place on the deck outside and the cabin inside, they can still get out of this without anyone knowing they were ever there.

He rushes for the now-open (demolished) starboard window — there’s not much he can do about the fact he’s in a black skinsuit that doesn’t offer any camouflage against the stark white exterior of the yacht. He can only hope that Woods and their incoming guests are scanning the water and the shore for the source of the gunfire, rather than looking for someone climbing out the window.

Using the neoprene sleeve of his suit to sweep clear any remaining broken glass first, Nick then hauls himself to sit on the window ledge, then gets his bare feet up beneath him next. In a crouch, he reaches for the ledge of the next level, to pull himself up and over in the most important pull-up of his entire life.

From her sprawl on the rooftop, Rue’s eyes go wide when she realizes she miscounted men on the boat. They’re looking for another vessel first and foremost, so she leaves the light for the moment. The one manning that light is her first concern. She sucks in another deep breath, holds it, and pulls the trigger, aiming for the man’s head, where the light and the gun won’t protect him.

A plume of red erupts from the back of the soldier’s head, catching moonlight in the dark.


She fires a second shot at his chest for good measure anyway.

He disappears out of her scope with that shot and into the water with a splash. The small gun turret spins idly like a desk chair someone got out of too fast.


Keeping their attention away from where Nick is on the move is absolutely paramount. She doesn’t hiss anything in Nick’s ear. No directions given. Her silence will keep him safe. Now she shoots out the light. They need to think there is a boat that doesn’t want to be spotted.

The light explodes with a shower of sparks.


Next, the Guard member on the radio. He’s already been shouting for too long. She should have accounted for him sooner. Should have risked his prisoner. She should have— Well, she’s pulling the trigger now, and it’s all she has.

The bullet punches through the window, the Guard’s chest, then out the other side of the small cabin and into the water. He collapses out of sight leaving a red smear down one of the walls.


Rue exhales hard and watches for more movement. Silently begs Woods to stay down so she doesn’t have to waste another bullet on him.

Rue can see Nick scrambling up the side of the yacht onto the neck level of the deck at the same time Tafero is exiting into the cabin. He only pops into her field of view for a second, enough to see Theresa’s body, before he ducks back out of sight. Nick can hear him shouting from inside: “Sniper!

Royden doesn’t come up from below decks, but as Nick climbs he can hear him and Tafero shouting back and forth at each other.

“Boisclair is down!” Tafero shouts. “Stay with the VIP!”

He’s not thinking straight enough to speak French.

“Where the fuck is the shooter?!” Royden shouts back in heavily accented English.

Nick pulls himself up onto the top deck, there’s a moment of calm amid the chaos. No one is moving on the patrol boat. If he can jump clear, he could use the boat to pull away. Rue’s cleared him an exit.

Unfortunately, there’s one obstacle left between him and escape. James Woods pushes himself up onto his hands and knees, rubbing at his arm where his sleeve is torn away by gunfire but there is no visible wound.

Fuck!” Woods curses to himself, barely audible to Nick. But then, louder, “Got hit in the left arm! Came from—from the left. Starboard.” He considers. “Tribord.” French, just in case.

Nick presses himself into another corner where he can see both what’s aft and what’s forward, facing starboard and, somewhere in the darkness, Rue. He takes a moment to catch his breath and appraise the situation — normal, all fucked up, as expected.

«Someone’s screaming for help. Below I think, a woman,» he says, barely above a whisper. French accent is long gone. She can hear the tension in his voice. «You haven’t gotten eyes on her? Nice shooting by the way. Thanks for the backup.»

Glancing over his shoulder at the drop portside, it’s probably clear to Rue watching through her scope that Nick is thinking of planning on swimming soon, rather than going through Woods to get to the other boat.

«No. Doesn’t matter. She’s not our target. Get out.»

Her voice is low in Nick’s ear so as not to risk giving him away. She can thank him for the compliment later. From the lower deck, James Woods is staring into the dark, in her direction. They’ll never find her. Before they can get from the water, she’ll be long gone, and they can’t assemble a rifle fast enough. Probably. Regardless, she has the advantage. Rue’s fears are not for herself.

«I’m going to fire on Woods again.»

How many bullets was that? Gunner. Light. Radio.


«Three shots. Jump after the first.»

Nick can hear her draw in the deep breath. On the bipod, Rue guides her rifle, stares at Woods through the reflex sights. There’s only the smallest pang of guilt. Maybe he did make this choice. The first bullet is fired at his right arm this time.

Woods is spun around again, this time he grabs the side of the boat to stay standing. Nick can hear him curse.

Eight. Seven.

«Copy.» There’s not enough time for longer conversations. No time to think about a better plan.

To prepare for the jump, Nick swings one leg and then the other over the gunwale as he waits for the shot. He turns to look to the starboard side again, blue eyes narrowed in concentration — as if looking in her direction will help him know the second Rue’s finger presses in on the trigger.

When she takes the shot, Nick takes the leap, dropping down as noiselessly as he can into the cool river water below.

A shot at the left leg below the knee.

He buckles, dropping to a knee on the deck. It’s amazing how much punishment he can take.

Seven. Six.

In the dark water, Nick flattens himself against the hull of the boat, with only his nose and eyes above the water level as he looks toward the back of the boat, to see if he’s been spotted by Woods — it’s impossible to see what’s happening from this angle, with the straight length of the yacht separating him from Rue’s target. He knows her aim will be good, but she doesn’t know if it’ll do anything to stop the man, given his power.

One shot for the center of his chest, even as Woods starts to crumple.

This shot knocks Woods back and he slams against the side of the yacht, arms draped over the railing. “Southeast, rooftop!” Woods says, breathlessly. He’d seen the muzzle flash this time. She can’t hear it, but Nick can.

Six. Five.

«You’ve been made.» Nick’s voice is a soft warning. «Rendezvous.» He trusts her to get herself out of her hiding spot long before they can find her.

Warning delivered, he sinks below the surface of the water to make his own exit, making his way silently underwater a few yards in the opposite direction of his partner. They’ll be looking to starboard — he swims toward the opposite bank. Eventually he has to break the surface to breathe.

Rue’s attention turns back to the cabin, waiting to see if anyone’s brave enough to try poking their head out again. She breathes out. It’ll be just like whack-a-mole.

But with far more blood and bone fragments and brain matter.

And less—Oh, fuck.

Woods’ eyes glow a bright gold and a moment later he disappears in a thunderclap and a flash of light. Rue feels the hairs on her arms start to rise and she realizes what else is going on as a second thunderclap erupts just to her left, followed by a strong rush of air and a hissed curse as Woods materializes on the rooftop ten feet away.

«Fuck me sideways.»

It means more than she’s been made. It’s a code to Nick to let him know she’s been grabbed. Or is about to be, at any rate.

“I’m taking my finger off the trigger,” she announces to the man at her side. True to her word, she eases her finger away and, “I’m setting the gun down.” She lifts it slowly from the bipod, one hand on the barrel and one on the stock at her shoulder. It’s laid carefully on the rooftop. Next, “I’m removing my hands from my gun, and I’ll place them behind my head.” She’s not afraid yet. Fear is what will come after she finds out how far her compliance gets her. Maybe not then either.

No. It will come to her when she starts thinking beyond this immediate moment and her mind decides to wander to the last time she was captured by her enemies, and what scars that left her with.

“If it’s all the same to you, Mister Woods, I’d like to be seated for whatever conversation we’re about to have.” Slowly, her hands move from her weapon and come toward her head. En route to that position, her breathing starts to grow shaky, little notes vocalized on the end of each breath, growing in volume. By the time her hands reach the sides of her head, she lets out a sob.

Goodbye, Nick.

It covers the sound of digging the small bud out of her ear with the nail of her fourth finger and crushing it in her palm. Her fingers stay curled into fists over both ears for a moment as she lets out another mournful sound, resuming her motion to bring her hands to the back of her head. The broken device is pushed deep beneath waves of her bushy mop of blonde hair.

Rue sniffles noisily. She can get her shit together. She can stop crying now.

Woods exhales a sigh out his nose, lifting a hand up to one ear, tapping his finger on an earpiece of his own. “Sniper is detained. Orders?” His brows furrow together, and he nods to whatever the voice on the other end says.


A Short Time Later

Dijlat Al Khair Hotel

Fuck me sideways.

The words ring in Nick’s ears as he rounds the stairs up to the hotel room, duffel bag over his shoulder. He’d stripped out of the wetsuit, changed into plain clothes, and kept up on the bugs planted in the ship. They hadn’t been found. This was at least a partial win.

Most of the chatter has been confusion, frustration. Theresa Boisclair was dead, the three Republican Guard officers on the patrol boat were dead. But St. Germain retrieved whatever prisoner they were bringing over and radioed to the people they were making a deal with. Whatever as going on was still on.

But the worst part was, they got Rue.

Fear that she was dead subsided with the horror that she’d been taken and is now aboard the Enfant du Soleil. This was rapidly turning into a rescue mission. Wouldn’t be his first. As he closed in on the hotel room door from the hall, he still had hope that it wouldn’t be either of their lasts.

As he pulls out the key card to open the room to the hotel, Nick considers what he needs to do, what resources he’ll need from his agency in order to pull off a rescue. He doesn’t like his chances on his own, considering how sideways everything just slid with two of them.

Every choice he made replays in his head like a terrible montage in a bad movie. Should he have gone up first instead of into the cabin? Should they have tried earlier, later? Should he have gone to the boat instead of into the water? There are no definitive answers to the seemingly infinite “what ifs” in his head, and wallowing in them isn’t going to solve the problem.

Inserting the key card into the slot until the lights flash green, Nick notices a smear of blood juxtaposed against the white rectangle. He glances down at his fingers to see one of the small lacerations from the broken glass has started bleeding again. He wipes his fingers on his jeans as he pushes the door in and steps into the hotel room.

And he’s not alone.

There is a man standing at the back of the hotel room by the window, dressed in loose clothes with a wrap around his head. He turns, looking at Nick, holding a hand-woven cloth shawl over his right arm, fingers of the opposite hand tracing the patterns in the weave.


Nick does not recognize Ra’id Abdul-Jalil Sabbagh. He doesn’t say anything. And in the end, none of that matters.

Because Nick Ruskin never hears the gunshot from his left.

He never hears every bird in Baghdad cry out at once in horror and grief.

Because Nick Ruskin is dead.

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