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CHAPTER ONE

The first thing he felt was the pain.

Being that there was rather a lot of it, it took awhile to feel it all.

Squinting through the shimmering haze of blood loss, Pik Van Cleaf
gingerly slid his large hands over his equally large torso, cataloguing
the damage, fingers probing the holes the hail of bullets had torn
through his black sweater before imbedding deeply in his Kevlar body
armor.  He looked like the fashion victim of homicidal moths, he'd been
shot in the thighs at least three times, and, judging by the crimson
stains he kept coughing up, he'd suffered some internal injuries from
the rib-cracking impact of the gunshots hammering his chest at
point-blank range, although none of the bullets had actually penetrated
his protective vest.  As the cherry on top of the pain sundae, he'd hit
his head hard when he'd gone down, a livid purple knot swelling up right
beside the black widow's peak of his severely short military haircut.
Still, he was breathing.  All things considered, that qualified as doing
well.

After all, no one else had been that lucky in their various encounters
with Chance Boudreaux.  Otherwise known as "Fat Chance of Beating *Me*"
Boudreaux, an opponent remarkable for thinking with his feet and fists
far better than his brain.

Ironically, Pik and his employer, Fouchon, had once engaged in a lively
argument concerning the propriety of bulletproof vests in their
mercenary profession.  Fouchon, ever the nobler-than-thou purist, had
condemned them as a sign of weakness.  "If you believe in yourself,
Pik," he'd snarled in that scratchy bourbon-and-cigarette wheeze of his,
"if you truly believe in your own invincibility, the bullets can't touch
you.  If you *don't* believe in yourself, the vest won't do a damn
thing."   Indulging in a tiny, bitter smirk, Pik fervently hoped Fouchon
had somehow survived the recent firefight.  He wanted one last chance to
say "I told you so."  Then he wanted to shoot him right between his
beady little eyes.  Exactly how well would intense self-confidence
deflect hot lead at close range?

Rubbing his aching face with bloody hands, he instantly regretted the
action.  "Son of a bitch."  Slowly, painfully, the professional killer
dragged himself up to his full imposing height, wiping uselessly at the
quickly clotting layers of gore which now smeared the stark white
death-mask of his face, caked his eyelashes, and stung his eyes with
salty needles.  "Son of a bitch!"  His voice echoed deep and resonant
over the quiet crackling of fire in the burning Mardi Gras warehouse,
every syllable exquisitely enunciated and viciously deliberate.
Distinctly Dutch, his accent evoked a postcard panorama of windmills,
cheese, and tulips -- always provided, of course, that the windmills
were on fire, the cheese had been poisoned, and the tulips had been
cleverly rigged to explode in your face.  It was the voice of Death,
flown in from Amsterdam on holiday.  It was a voice which would *never*
be adding Mardi Gras to its future vacation itineraries.  It was a voice
which, quite frankly, was probably not very fond of gumbo, gators, or
even Emeril Lagasse anymore.

It was a voice which held a grudge in one hand and a gun in the other.

Lurching and limping his way through the choking smoke towards the
nearest exit, Pik eyed the carnage in a state of numb disbelief.
Overall, it looked as if they'd chosen "Armageddon" as the festive theme
for this year's parade, heavy on the Wrath of God motif.  Framed in
flame, decrepit floats of hulking clowns and jesters jeered mockingly at
the devastation, their unholy fusion of three ring circus and ninth
circle of hell underscoring the absurd indignity of his defeat; only a
burning paper-maché mime provided a slightly cheerful reminder of
happier times (Pik had once killed a mime using only a backyard barbecue
-- but that's another story).  In the many years he and Fouchon had
worked together to organize their highly profitable human safaris,
offering jaded rich men a chance to hunt ex-military vagrants for the
sake of a forbidden thrill, he'd never seen anything remotely close to
this.  This New Orleans hunt had looked to be no different than most --
perhaps even a bit routine and boring, truth be told, aside from the
great fun he'd had performing Van Gogh-style aural surgery on the
hapless smut-peddler and professional pond scum known as Randall
"Randall, Randall" Poe.  Then, out of nowhere, a psychotic homeless
Cajun with a nobility complex and Special Forces kickboxing training had
shown up and defeated them all at their own game.  He hadn't just ripped
them a new orifice -- he'd installed entirely new anatomical ventilation
systems.  By the look of things, Fouchon had been the most
well-ventilated of all; it didn't take a tracker of Pik's caliber to
trace the trail of the grenade to its grisly source.  Chance Boudreaux
had beaten every single last damn one of them.

If he wasn't so busy bleeding, Pik would have been soundly embarrassed.

Stoically ignoring the strident protests of the flesh wounds in his
thighs, he crouched down beside the mangled mess which once had been
Fouchon, both his boss and, in an odd, unorthodox arrangement, his
friend.  It had been a relationship based on mutual respect for one
another and mutual contempt for everyone else, all the weaklings of the
world who existed merely to be used, ruthlessly exploited for both money
and amusement in the adrenaline exhilaration of the hunt; actually,
aside from all the heavy artillery involved, it had been a lot like a
conventional Wall Street corporate partnership, a sort of "Dead Veterans
'R' Us."  They'd struck an ideal balance, Fouchon and Pik, a strange
complementary complicity in dealing life and death.  Other than their
skill with weapons and their strikingly self-centered moral codes, it
would be difficult to imagine two more dissimilar men, masters of
overstatement and understatement, respectively. 

In essence, Fouchon had been the manager, the maniacal mastermind,
preening and emotionally intense, every hair and every variable smoothed
down with the absolute fanaticism inherent in the sort of control freak
who secretly aspires to conduct the very weather ("No!  I said *more*
thunder, dammit!").  Pik had played the role of cool and quiet henchman,
sleek and minimalist in clothes and voice and manner, and possessed of an
extraordinary grace for one so tall, a consummate professional who
nonetheless enjoyed his job with rather more enthusiasm than was healthy
for the short-lived targets of his sadistic sense of humor (Pik had been
the sort of kid whose first thought upon receiving any gift -- slinkies,
hula hoops, tinker toys -- was: "How can I use this as a weapon?"  The
yo-yo scars he'd inflicted on the suburban youth of Amsterdam were the
stuff of legend).  The smaller-built Fouchon intimidated with a wealth
of rant and bluster, screams and snarls, while the massive, looming Pik
had only to smirk or raise an eyebrow, let alone a fist (or even a
yo-yo), to reek a tangible charisma of sheer menace.  In the
grade-school playground of life, Fouchon had been the one picked on
enough to register for a lifetime adult membership in the "I'll Show
Them All" Club, while Pik had always been the one who'd *done* the
picking, and emerged, hands thrust cheerfully in his pockets, bearing a
pocketful of everyone else's milk money.  No wonder, then, the way
Fouchon had been obsessed with proving his superiority no matter what
the cost, an eternal Ernest Hemingway hopped up on speed.  Although
possessed of ample confidence in his own abilities, Pik ultimately
placed the highest value on his own self-preservation.

Even more than Kevlar vests, perhaps that final difference held the key
to Fouchon's fate.  Pik had believed in himself enough to want to walk
away from this last Waterloo, while Fouchon, engaged in a Napoleonic
cycle of testing his own limits, allowed his anger and his ego to
obscure his judgment; he'd drowned in his own bile long before he choked
on his own blood.  Equating any caution with emasculation, he'd dragged
the unwilling Pik along on a suicidal quest into the treacherous
no-man's land between the personal and the professional.  Fouchon had
been the arrogant philosopher, the insecure aesthete; Pik had been the
simple pragmatist.

It looked like pragmatism enjoyed a longer life expectancy, not to
mention lower odds of emasculation by grenade.

Withdrawing a small knife from his pocket, Pik extended the blade with
an oddly elongated thumb, slicing quickly and cleanly through the
blood-soaked recesses of Fouchon's one remaining trouser leg to retrieve
a set of car keys.  Backlit by the blaze, both hand and weapon merged
into one streamlined silhouette, the image of a predatory beast
unsheathing a single, perfect, taloned claw.  Every smooth, efficient
gesture proclaimed his fluency in the grim kinetic language of the
hunter and the trapper, skinning his latest victim with the detached
concentration of familiar expertise.  As the throbbing stiffness of
ruptured muscle once again suffused his battered body, he rose with
visible difficulty, thrusting both keys and knife into his own pocket.  

"Fouchon, Fouchon, Fouchon."  Paired with the somber shaking of his head
and the contrasting curve of his sardonic smile, Pik's words stood as an
epitaph, an accusation, a bemused farewell.  And that was all; this
time, the corpse had retained no eyes for him to close.

Cautiously, rifle at the ready, he scanned the sunlit field outside the
warehouse.  No life, no sound, no movement.  No vehicles save the ones
their ill-fated hunting party had driven to the scene.  Gritting his
teeth into a scowl, he eased himself into the driver's seat of Fouchon's
black four-wheel-drive, taking a savage satisfaction in the knowledge
that he was bleeding all over his prized leather interior.  Just *try*
to get that stain out.  Although, considering the fact that Fouchon was
now not much more than a stain on the concrete himself, it was rather a
moot point.

If only the stubborn bastard had taken Pik's advice and let him shoot
Chance from the helicopter . . . or failing that, if only Fouchon had
seen the wisdom of cooling their heels in Mexico for awhile, a tactical
macarena of a retreat.  But no; Fouchon had to have his trophy, and have
it on his own uncompromising terms.  Pride.  He'd been turned into a
human colander by *pride,* of all things.

And by Chance Boudreaux, of course.

Gunning the engine, Pik tore out of the parking lot in a furious hail of
dirt and gravel right before the warehouse burst into an all-out
conflagration.  In the grand tradition of bad action films everywhere,
his car was, of course, silhouetted against the explosion.

*************

The first thing she felt was the pain.

To be precise, Vaughn felt a solid iron sliver of pure nausea which less
deserved the name of "headache" than "brain surgery with blunt
instruments." Every synapse screamed as if a hot nail had been pounded
through her skull directly in between her eyes, forging avant-garde
frontiers in body piercing.  Tentatively, she touched her forehead to
discern if that was indeed the case.  After all, everything else had
gone wrong with this mission. A nail-gun-toting lunatic would pretty
much provide the finishing touch.

No evidence of death by Black and Decker met her questing hand, but the
movement triggered waves of concentrated pain in protest, the kind of
stabbing pain that almost caused her to regret regaining consciousness.
However, Vaughn was not the sort of woman easily given to regrets. She
was the sort of woman who gave regrets to other people, wrapped up
neatly in a ticking package and delivered C.O.D.  Perversely charitable
in the manner of all hired killers, she vastly preferred giving rather
than receiving -- except where money was involved.

Half-sitting up upon her elbows, she brushed one hand through her
cropped blond hair and grimaced at the sticky, fluid warmth which coated
all her fingernails in lurid red, the closest thing to conventional
polish they'd ever encountered.  In response to her sudden movement,
fresh rivulets of blood seeped down her neck and shoulders, plastering
her black sweater to her shapely body like some macabre wet T-shirt
contest hosted by the Marquis de Sade.  Being given to dark humor,
Vaughn let herself enjoy a brief inward laugh at the notion that at
least her headache was distracting her from the intriguing assortment of
injuries she'd sustained in the car crash.

In truth, both she and Major Brynner had been very lucky.  Although
they'd totaled their vehicle after narrowly outracing the explosion that
collapsed the tunnel entrance and trapped them inside, their bodies had
fared better.  Both had been able to walk away from the wreckage with
little worse than relatively minor injuries and a newfound passion for
seatbelts. Unfortunately, Vaughn had still been bruised and battered
enough that Tim Mason, one of the punks who had caused her so much
trouble, had actually managed to deck her. She had always taken so much
pride in her professional status as one of the world's most elite
mercenaries, a status that she'd earned at a remarkably young age in a
field distinguished by its scarcity of youth and beauty almost as much
as by its overabundance of dead men.  In lieu of affirmative action
policies, she'd shot the chauvinists, and found it served her well.
Now, here she was, laid out flat on her back, looking like Susan Powter
in the aftermath of a workout gone horribly awry. Seething with rage,
she found herself forced to admit that she'd been bested by a mere rank
amateur, a whiny little self-important slacker with delusions of
grandeur.   Without a doubt, this moment represented the nadir of her
illustrious (if blood-spattered) career.

She struggled to her feet awkwardly, her usual crisp and catlike grace
undermined by the aches proliferating in her arms and legs.  Thankfully,
there were no broken bones, and no internal injuries other than a
hemhorraging ego.  Her usually cool amber eyes blazed with unaccustomed
anger as she once again recalled Tim Mason and his lucky sucker punch.
She hoped that the Major hadn't killed him yet.  She desperately wanted
to do that herself, in the least "professional" and most painful way
humanly imaginable.  As she pondered the various creative execution
options available, a cruel smile formed upon her beautiful face.

A sudden noise from above drew Vaughn from her musings. She looked up to
see none other than the despised Mason, scrambling up the maintenance
ladder in the main ventilation shaft, the only remaining exit. 

*What? Where's the Major?*  Perplexed and enraged, Vaughn surveyed the
shadowed tunnel until she caught sight of her employer. He was kneeling
not far from the burning wreckage of their car, his attention
unwaveringly fixated on a small object in front of him.  Ironically
enough, the diminutive size of the vial seemed a fitting symbol for his
future lifespan.

"Oh, God!" Vaughn gasped, realizing exactly what that object
represented. That knowledge, coupled with the fact that it was so close
to the heat of the blazing fire, spurred her to action. Ignoring all
pain, she raced to the maintenance ladder and scrambled up as fast as
she could.  High above her, she could see that Mason had almost reached
the top. It was obvious to her that the bastard was going to make it.

She didn't know if she would.

Fear drove her to climb even faster. It wasn't that she was terrified of
dying, really.  In her military schooling, Vaughn had long ago been
voted Most Likely to Have a Short Life and Violent Death (and would
probably also have been voted Hottest Babe had the voters not so valued
the safety of their various vital organs). Nonetheless, there were
particular *ways* of dying that she had always hoped to avoid. And at
the moment, the demise she had the strongest aversion to was 'death by
having one's flesh burn, boil, and then melt from one's body.'
Unfortunately, a chemical compound that could do just that was about to
be activated in the tunnel beneath her.

As she pushed herself desperately, seeking hidden reserves of strength
to propel her up the ladder more quickly, part of Vaughn's mind replayed
the events of the recent past. Major Andrew Brynner, disgraced and
dishonorably discharged, had hired her and other mercenaries to help him
steal a classified chemical compound that was undoubtedly the most
devastating weapon ever devised. When heated above a certain
temperature, the chemical's explosive reaction destroyed any organic
lifeform unlucky enough to fall within its range -- and that range was
staggering.  If released into the open air, the small amount below could
wipe out half of North America. That was, of course, why the military
forces pursuing Brynner had taken no chances. When they knew the
chemical had entered this roadway tunnel in the Rockies, their
helicopters had launched missiles at both ends, ensuring that tons of
rock would keep a cloud of death from killing countless innocent
millions.

Those same tons of rock had probably sealed her not-so-innocent doom.

*Why did I get involved in this?* Vaughn berated herself ruefully as she
kept climbing, fearing that any second she'd start to feel her skin
tingle and then burn. Of course, she knew the answer to her own
question:  an ungodly amount of money. The plan had been to sell the
chemical to the highest foreign bidder.

"One hundred million dollars," Vaughn spat through gritted teeth as her
ascent continued, quoting the fatally seductive words that Brynner had
used to entice her into this insanity. "No, not to split. Your share
alone will be one hundred million dollars."  Only now did she realize
that greed and overconfidence had blinded her to the man's significant
shortcomings. He might have been a great military leader at one time,
but somewhere along the line he'd lost his judgment, his abilities, and
quite possibly his mind. Too many times during the operation he'd issued
orders that flew in the face of common sense. He'd already cost the rest
of Vaughn's partners their lives, and now looked about to cost Vaughn
hers.

Above her, Vaughn saw Tim Mason reach the top of the ladder and engineer
his escape. By this time, Vaughn herself was over halfway to the top,
and beginning to nurse a faint glimmer of hope that she'd escape as
well.  After all, she'd already come much farther than she'd expected.
The ice that the deadly chemical had been packed in must not yet have
lost its battle with the fire down in the tunnel. "Come on.  Come on,"
she pleaded, to herself and to the chemical and ultimately to the
universe itself.  She only needed a little more time, and she was damned
if she was going to let Mason beat her again in this ultimate battle.

Being so focused on escape, however, Vaughn overlooked one glaring
detail. Given the extreme effectiveness of the chemical once activated,
it would easily be able to send its deadly pestilence straight up the
air shaft in her wake, escaping into the atmosphere to kill millions.
This thought didn't occur to her until she saw a shadow briefly blot out
the sunlight above her. Something, seemingly a sort of backpack, had
been thrown down into the shaft and now was falling toward her.  In the
narrow confines, it was quite easy for Vaughn to catch and recognize the
falling object.

A bomb.

She knew its purpose instantly. It would transform the hard granite
surrounding her into an impenetrable mass of rubble, and turn the tunnel
into an airtight tomb. She also knew she'd never make it out before it
detonated.

For the briefest of moments, she considered giving up her fight for
life. The explosion would be quick and merciful compared to the living
hell promised by the poisoned air. But even as she clutched the
explosive to her body, literally embracing her fate, her eyes saw the
metal hatchway.

Inexplicably, there was a door in the side of the air shaft. A door!
She blinked in pure astonishment, a battered Alice espying the
long-sought entrance to the rabbit hole.

With no time to question, she dropped the bomb and grabbed the side of
the hatch. Although old and rusted, the door was no match for arms
surging with the strength of desperation. Vaughn leapt through the
opening and closed the door behind her just as the explosion shook the
floor beneath her feet, knocking her backwards.  When her head struck
the ground, the woman who had never fainted in her life faded to
unconsciousness for the second time in a single hour.

*I'm getting damn well sick of this,* was her last conscious thought.

*************

"Authorities believe at least half a dozen bodies have been burned
beyond recognition in the warehouse fire . . . ."

Pik's head snapped up, eyes narrowing, as he left off ransacking
Fouchon's office and concentrated on the breaking television news
bulletin.  His heavy, brooding eyebrows raised in amused incredulity as
he saw that "authorities" translated to "the three overworked
incompetent cops remaining on the skeleton crew of the striking local
police force."  This did not bode well for forensic thoroughness,
particularly since Pik had recently shot the local coroner through the
eye.  Hurrah for serendipitous foresight and terminal optometry.  For
all intents and purposes, he would be considered just as dead as Fouchon
and the others.

Of course, if he didn't get some medical attention soon, he'd probably
just be dead.

Pocketing the last of Fouchon's ready cash, he turned to leave the
mansion and enter an uncertain future.  A doctor lived three houses
down, if he remembered correctly.  He guessed his gun would serve quite
well in lieu of an appointment, and to destroy the evidence (i.e., the
unfortunate doctor) afterwards.

Passing by Fouchon's beloved piano, he paused, remembering how the man
had played for hours at a sitting.  He'd favored Wagner, Liszt, all the
really bombastic composers, pounding the keys with the relentless
passion and perfectionism he devoted to all things, transforming the
music itself into a hunt.  Pik slid one long-fingered hand over the warm
wood, a muscle twitching in one taut cheek, recalling the vibration of
the strings.  His pupils fully dilated until his already dark eyes
blotted out into absolute voids, hollow and deadly as the barrel of his
rifle.

Then he stood back, aimed, and shot the crap out of the piano,
shattering the instrument into a discordant Sonata for Pissed-Off Maniac
With a Gun.

Sometimes, even professionals get angry.

Hands graceful as any musician, Pik shouldered the rifle with a jaunty,
deft flick of the wrist, the prominent angles of his face splitting into
an exuberantly wicked, almost boyish grin.  He felt better already.

The need for vengeance would come later.

*************

When Vaughn awoke, the only thing she knew for sure was that she was
still alive.  Either that, or being dead was far more painful than it
ought to be.

Reaching into her pocket and pulling forth a small flashlight, she
checked that the metal door in front of her looked none the worse for
wear. Cautiously rising to her feet, she looked around to see exactly
where she'd ended up. When she saw the aged, faded sign on the wall, a
tiny laugh of disbelief escaped her mouth.

"'Civil Defense'? Christ, I'm in a bomb shelter!"

That time warp did make sense when she thought about it, given that the
highway tunnel dated from the late 1950's.  Treading cautiously around
the cartons of Tang and pyramids of Spam cans, Vaughn wondered if this
was a standard feature for all tunnels built at the time, or if it was
just the indulgence of a particularly paranoid engineer. Either way, it
had kept her alive. Now the question was whether or not she could get
out.  *If not, I'll be drinking a hell of a lot of Tang.  If there's
even any water.*

Returning to the door, Vaughn opened it and indulged in a victorious
smile when she saw a still-intact ladder instead of tons of rock.
Looking down, she confirmed that the explosion had sealed off the air
shaft at a point below her, just as she hoped it would, allowing her to
climb out to the chemical-free -- and Tang-free -- world outside.

Light from the stars in the clear night sky allowed her to see clearly
as she ascended, confirming that she'd been out cold for hours. When she
neared the top of the air shaft, she began to hear muffled voices and
scattered sounds of activity.  Risking a furtive peek over the top edge
of the tunnel, she saw two nearby men in environmental hazard suits
engaged in conversation.

"All the readings are clear," one said, his voice high and weak with
sheer relief. "No contaminant escaped the tunnel."

*Duh,* Vaughn sneered. *If any had, we'd all be dead by now. Those
little yellow clown suits of yours would have been useless.*

"That's it then," the other man agreed, sighing wearily. "We just need
to finish sealing this shaft with cement and then this whole incident
can be forgotten."

"Officially forgotten," the first man shakily replied, "but I think I'm
going to be having nightmares for weeks."

"Oh, come on," the other said as they began to walk away. "Everything's
fine.  Just keep telling yourself, nothing dangerous is coming out of
that tunnel . . ."

Vaughn couldn't hear the rest of their conversation, but it hardly
mattered. She had already seen that the rest of this military cleanup
team was a good distance away from the shaft entrance. More importantly,
all their attention was focused *away* from her direction. They were
obviously concerned with preventing any civilians from approaching the
area, and had no reason whatsoever to expect anyone to emerge from the
air shaft.

As a result, Vaughn had no trouble at all climbing out and racing to the
nearby trees. Hiding silently, she watched and waited as a cement truck
backed up to the shaft and filled it to the brim. As far as the United
States government knew, she was now a corpse sealed in an improvised
mountain grave.

*Nobody's going to look for me,* Vaughn realized. *I'm free and clear.*

Trudging away from the site, she headed for the nearby highway, wincing
at the thought of having to play the helpless femme.  "Sir, I've been in
a car crash, could you *please* give me a lift?"  Smile, bat eyelashes,
swallow bile, wait for the chance to break the driver's neck.  Fun,
fun.  Ah, well, things could have been worse.  Could have been a *lot*
worse.

She may not have been rich, but she was alive. At the moment, that was
enough.

The need for vengeance would come later.

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