Last Strike, Unknown Identities #4
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Can a single-minded assassin reclaim his humanity?
For years Last Strike has faithfully served Unknown Identities, the covert agency that saved his life. With no memory of his previous identity, he’s become exactly what the program needs him to be: an unstoppable assassin.
Dr. Daria Johannson joined a top secret scientific research team with the noble goal of preventing loss of life on the battlefield. When they used her innovations to turn her first patient into a cold-blooded killer, she vowed to make amends and expose the dangerous UI program.
When Daria becomes Last Strike’s target, her only hope of escape is reminding him of the past he’s forgotten. With her life in his hands, will he follow his training or fight for a chance to live – and love – again?
Unknown Identities – an alternative for elite soldiers and spies facing criminal charges… if they can survive the program.
“Last Strike’s revelations unfold in the midst of danger, action, and adventure. A Five Star Performance, Regan!!!!” – Tolen May, Amazon reviewer
“a suspenseful and emotional story” – Rosemary, Amazon reviewer
Colfair, Iowa March 25, 2:45 p.m.
Last Strike stood sentry on the sidewalk near the black sedan, heedless of the wind tugging at his long coat. Hands relaxed at his sides, eyes sheltered by dark sunglasses, he resembled the rest of the protection detail stationed around town.
That faulty assumption would be the last mistake of any attacker who managed to get this close to the man inside the car. Being underestimated was one of the things he enjoyed about his job. It gave him one more advantage in a deck already stacked in his favor.
“Boston in February. Yes. That is the logical explanation.”
Last Strike heard his boss’s voice through the cracked window. He didn’t bother to speculate or put the words into context. Not his job. His boss, code name Messenger, had global interests, while he had only one: do Messenger’s bidding. At the moment, that was keeping an eye out for danger in this sleepy little town.
Behind his sunglasses, he scanned the street for anyone showing too much interest in them.
About now, he wished they were in Prague or Hong Kong. This small-town slice of the Midwest oozing Americana put an itch between his shoulder blades. Give him the raw honesty of urban decay any day over this grating façade of peace and contentment. To a man, they would weep if they knew who stood on this pristine, family-value street. He experienced a rare struggle with temptation as he imagined a violent scene, allowing none of that to show as he stood, unflinching, a consistently faultless example for the other bodyguards.
“All of the evidence indicated they were dead,” Messenger said. Last Strike felt the chill of his boss’s gaze, but he would not cease his surveillance duty until ordered to do so.
His world was simple and his concerns few. He followed the orders issued by the man inside this car. Always in an expensive gray suit, his boss managed Unknown Identities (UI) a covert network of uniquely skilled operatives. To be recruited was an honor extended to those men and women who were out of conventional options, usually due to poor personal choices or some horrendous failure. The UI program had several research and training facilities hidden under layers of grants, dummy corporations, and other impenetrable smokescreens.
Last Strike’s detailed knowledge was a result of being around from what amounted to day one. As a control subject for various experiments while UI honed their techniques, he’d suffered early on, but Messenger had eventually rescued him. Only Messenger embraced the skills and personality markers the scientists and developers feared when they tagged him for termination, claiming he was too volatile to continue.
Messenger had given him a code name and weapons and put him to good use as an elite assassin for the benefit and protection of the program. Now, a trusted asset, he had extensive access because he never spoke unless spoken to. Even within secure facilities, most people were too afraid to even say hello, fearful he’d report the exchange to his boss. It was a good life. Secure and direct, he knew where he stood at all times.
His expression stony and his thoughts light, Last Strike continued to scan the street, not quite relieved by the lack of threats. He enjoyed the hunt and the strategy involved to efficiently dispatch a target. It had been several weeks since Messenger had tasked him with an assignment beyond personal security.
“We followed protocol with every washout.” Though Messenger’s cultured voice betrayed no emotion, Last Strike knew this conversation was about more than successes or failures.
Washout protocol referred to subjects who survived testing and yet managed to fail UI in other areas. Typically, they were institutionalized in private hospitals, where powerful drugs kept their resulting psychoses under control and explained away any bizarre tales of life inside the UI labs. He’d been close to that fate himself, once.
While Messenger continued his conversation, Last Strike noticed a photographer across the street. He signaled the closest man on the perimeter and kept a sharp eye on the situation as it was resolved.
The window rolled down. “Join me,” Messenger ordered.
Waiting until the bodyguard at the front of the car took his place, he rounded the trunk and opened the back door, sliding into the seat next to his boss. In the dim interior of the car, he removed his sunglasses.
“Last Strike, you told me Amelia Bennett died.”
“Yes, sir.” He nodded. “By car explosion.”
“I saw the pictures.” Messenger held his gaze. “And the autopsy report.”
He waited in silence for a question to answer. Amelia Bennett was a reporter who’d come too close to exposing an important UI connection. If he’d failed on a mission of that magnitude, Messenger would’ve already had him killed.
“Both were convincing,” Messenger continued. “The team who misplaced Bulletproof’s body was reassigned.”
Reassigned to the bottom of the nearest ocean, most likely. He was glad he hadn’t been given those targets. They would’ve presented no challenge.
“It’s come to my attention that Bulletproof and Bennett are alive. Possibly working together.”
Impossible. Then again, Bulletproof had been the cream of the crop among the early UI agents. If anyone knew how to stage his own death and evade the program, it would be him.
“A response is required, Last Strike,” Messenger said quietly.
“Sir.” He weighed his words and the consequences carefully, wondering if the life he loved, if his tenure with the man he respected and admired had reached an end. “Any chance of her survival is too small to consider valid. The car exploded. I watched it sink in the river.” His voice felt rusty as he squeezed out the string of words.
Messenger tapped his manicured fingertip on his knee. “Yesterday I might have agreed with you.”
Might? Any doubt from his boss, meant the end of his life was near. He had no fear of death. It was his stock in trade. If today was his last, he’d be honored to have Messenger deal the fatal blow.
“A woman narrowly escaped a serial killer in Boston on Valentine’s Day,” Messenger told him. “The press claims her brother came to her aid even as a Boston PD sting operation closed in.”
Last Strike nodded, recalling the report from last month. Only a handful of people knew the killer was a UI washout and two of them were in this car. The washout had been slipping in and out of confinement to indulge his compulsion to commit grisly murders.
“These siblings, touted as citizen-heroes, ducked the spotlight. It took some work to convince the sting operation to share the surveillance footage. Even so, the facial recognition wasn’t conclusive. However, the prevailing theory among my superiors is those ‘siblings’ were Bulletproof and Bennett.”
His boss hadn’t asked a question, but Last Strike understood another response was required. “You believe I failed,” he said.
Messenger plucked a non-existent piece of lint from his slacks. “It would be the first time.”
Once more, he waited out a long pause. He’d watched other agents sign their death warrants by anticipating Messenger. If death was his due, he’d take it. That didn’t mean he had to rush headlong into the process.
“It would mean we were both fooled,” Messenger admitted quietly. “Which makes it all the more difficult to accept.”
He wanted to volunteer to investigate and correct his error, though he knew from experience Messenger already had a plan of action in mind. Last Strike wasn’t an investigator or agent, he was UI classified as a Cleaner, the operative who headed off trouble and nipped any loose ends. That he had apparently left an end loose troubled him more than he cared to admit.
“Things did not go as planned in New York over the holidays,” Messenger said.
No. His last two assignments had met with unexpected interference. While UI had ultimately secured the man they were after, neither Last Strike nor Messenger considered those ops a success. Like his boss, he preferred things complete and final with no reason for lingering doubts.
Those who knew his true role at Messenger’s side referred to him by one of two names. Either the Cleaner, per his classification, or End Game because when he arrived the mission was over, no more last-second chances for a win. Only Messenger called him by his given code name.
Messenger sighed, a rare sign of frustration. “Is it possible the problems in New York were caused by Bulletproof?”
Again he gave it some thought before offering a reply. “If he is alive,” he allowed for the possibility, “he could not have interfered without intel from inside UI.”
Last Strike hadn’t felt panic in so long, he barely recognized the sensation. “I -”
Messenger cut short his protest with a raised finger. “I am well aware you are not the problem.”
“Thank you, sir.” It appeared he would live through the meeting, possibly the rest of the day. The relief was as foreign a sensation as the panic had been. He didn’t want any doubt cast on his unflagging allegiance to Messenger. He didn’t want to die with a black mark of disloyalty following him to the grave.
“We will part ways here,” Messenger said, pulling his cell phone from the inner pocket of his suit coat. “I’m emailing a plane ticket and the details of your new target.”
“Yes, sir.” While he wasn’t comfortable leaving Messenger’s safety to others, he never questioned orders. The sooner the target was terminated, the sooner he would be back protecting the one man who had set him free, the only person in the world who valued his skills.
“Plug the leak with your usual efficiency,” Messenger said. “After you identify where the intel is going.”
“Yes, sir.” He exited the car and walked down the block, around the corner and into a small, family-owned hardware store. Between aisles of paint, he reviewed the email and checked his flight information. While the destination in Maryland didn’t hold any appeal for him – even the state flag was hideous – the target certainly did. Messenger must not be entirely irritated with him, to reward him so well.
He deleted the photo. He didn’t need any reminder of that particular face, it had been burned into his memory long ago. Back then he’d thought she was an angel hiding her wings. He’d ached to touch the silk of her golden hair and he’d found her wide, brown eyes warm behind the cold lab glasses.
He’d never been a bigger fool. He’d soon learned the devil wore the best disguises. Despite her heavenly appearance, the bitch had proven herself a master at torture. His heart kicked in his chest. He couldn’t wait to return the favor in the process of carrying out Messenger’s orders.
He took a deep breath, releasing it slowly and the surge of excitement with it. Messenger used him for these tasks because his precision and detachment made him a superb killer. He wasn’t ashamed that he enjoyed his work. But not even Messenger could understand just how much gratification he’d gain by ending this particular life.
His fingers twitched against the phone in his pocket as he left the hardware store. Watching her, waiting for her to hand off UI’s secrets would only serve as anticipation and increase his eventual pleasure.