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Authors: James Rollins

Tags: #Mystery, #Adventure, #Thriller

Tracker

 

T
RACKER

James Rollins

 

TRACKER

March 4, 5:32 P.M.

Budapest, Hungary

H
e knew she was being hunted.

Seated at a chilly bistro table, wrapped in a woolen jacket, Tucker Wayne watched the woman hurry across the icy medieval plaza known as
Szentháromság tér
, or Trinity Square. The blonde, early twenties, glanced over her shoulder one too many times. She wore sunglasses even though most of the plaza was already thick with shadows as the sun set. Her crimson silk scarf had been tugged too high over her chin, not because she was cold; such thin material offered little practical protection against the chilly gusts that swept the plaza. Also, she walked too fast compared with the others ambling around the heart of the city’s Royal Castle District, a major tourist hub for Budapest.

The army had trained him to maintain such diligence, to watch for the unusual amid the ordinary. When he’d been a captain with the army rangers, he and his partner had served as the unit’s trackers through two tours in Afghanistan—for search-and-rescue operations, for extraction, for hunting down targets of acquisition. In the outlying districts and villages of Afghanistan, the difference between life and death was not so much about rifles, Kevlar, and the latest risk assessments as it was about noting the rhythms of the environment, the normal ebb and flow of life, and watching for anything out of the ordinary.

Like now.

The woman didn’t belong here. Even the brightness of her clothing was out of place: the ivory knee-length coat, the red shoes that matched her scarf and hat. Among a winter crowd dressed in browns and blacks or tans and grays, she stood out.

Not wise when you were being hunted.

As he watched her nervous progress across the square, he cradled the cup of hot coffee between his palms. He wore a pair of gloves with the fingertips cut out of them. Other patrons of the pastry shop gathered inside the small space, where it was warm and crowded at this hour. They were bellied up to the counter or perched at small window-side tables. He was the only one banished to the outdoor patio at the edge of the cold square.

He and his partner.

The compact shepherd, known as a Belgian Malinois, lay at his feet, the dog’s muzzle resting on the tip of his boot, ready for any command. Kane had served alongside him through two tours in Afghanistan. They’d worked together, eaten together, even bunked together.

Kane was as much a part of his body as his own arm or leg.

When Tucker left the service, he took Kane with him.

Since then, Tucker had been adrift in the world, intending to stay lost, taking the occasional odd job to support himself—and then moving on. He liked it that way. After all he had seen in Afghanistan, he needed new horizons, new vistas, but mostly, he had a drive to keep moving.

With no family attachments in the States, he no longer needed a home.

It came with him.

He reached down and ran his fingers through the dog’s dense black-and-tan fur. Kane’s muzzle lifted. Dark brown eyes, flecked with gold, stared up at him. It was one of the unique features of domesticated dogs—
they studied us as much as we studied them.

He matched that gaze and gave a small nod—then flicked his eyes to the square. He wanted his partner to be ready as the woman crossed toward them, about to skirt past the outdoor patio.

He scanned the flow of humanity into and out of the plaza as it wound around the towering statue in the center of the square. Its Baroque façade was covered in marble figures, climbing skyward, toward a brilliant gold star. It represented those in the city who had escaped the Black Plague during the eighteenth century.

As the woman neared, he kept a close eye on anyone staring toward her. There were a few. She was a woman who naturally turned heads: slender, curvaceous, with a fall of blond hair to the middle of her back.

At last, across the plaza, he spotted her hunter—or rather,
hunters
.

A mountain of a man, flanked by two smaller figures, entered from a street to the north. They were all dressed in trench coats. The leader was black haired, well over six feet, hugely muscled, and, from the prominent pocking over his face, a chronic abuser of anabolic steroids.

Tucker noted bulges under the trench coats that suggested concealed weapons.

The woman didn’t notice the group, her eyes glancing right over them.

So she knew someone might be looking for her, but she didn’t have the skill or knowledge to pick them out. Yet she had the instinct to stay around other people.

She hurried past his location, a whiff of jasmine left in her wake.

Kane tilted his nose up to her scent.

She headed toward the doors of the massive Matthias Church, with its towering stone-laced gothic spire and fourteenth-century reliefs depicting the Virgin Mary’s death. The doors were still open, waiting for the last of the day’s tourists to straggle out. She headed inside, casting a final look around before ducking past the threshold.

Tucker finished his coffee, left a tip, and stood. He grabbed Kane’s leash and exited just as the trio of hunters swept past. As he followed them, bundled in his jacket and coat, he heard the tallest of the three give quick orders in Hungarian.

Local thugs.

Tucker shadowed the group as they moved toward the church. One of the three glanced back at him, but Tucker knew what he would see.

A man in his late twenties, taller than average, sandy blond hair worn a little shaggy, walking a dog outfitted in a brown sweater. Tucker hid some of his muscled height by slumping his shoulders and hunching down. His clothing was already nondescript: worn jeans, a battered olive green coat, a wool cap tugged low. He knew
not
to avoid eye contact—that raised as much suspicion as staring. So he merely nodded politely back and showed disinterest.

As the other turned around, Tucker touched his nose and ticked his finger toward the mountain of a man in the middle.

Acquire that one’s scent.

Kane had a vocabulary of a thousand words, understood a hundred hand gestures, making the dog an extension of himself. The shepherd trotted forward, sniffing behind the man, close to his heels, nose near the edge of the trench coat.

Tucker pretended to ignore his partner’s efforts, staring off across the square.

Once Kane secured what he needed, the dog dropped back and waited for the next command. His ears remained stiff, his tail high, expressing his alertness.

As the trio reached the church, more orders were passed brusquely in Hungarian, and the group split up, spreading out to cover the exits.

Tucker stepped over to a park bench, crouched down next to Kane, and tied the end of the leash loosely around its iron leg but unclipped the other end. He merely tucked it in place behind Kane’s collar, making it look as if the dog were secured there.

Next, he slid his fingers under the brown sweater to the camouflaged K9 Storm tactical vest. It was waterproof and Kevlar reinforced. His fingers flicked on the built-in camera and snaked up its fiber-optic lens, smaller than a pencil eraser, hiding it between the dog’s pricked ears.

“Stay,” he ordered.

Kane sat in the deep shadows of the church, just another dog waiting for the return of its master.

With a final scratch at his partner’s ear, ensuring the Bluetooth earpiece was secure, Tucker leaned forward, bringing his face close to his dog’s. It was a ritual of theirs.

“Who’s a good boy?”

Kane reached his cold nose forward and touched his.

That’s right. You are.

A tail thumped good-bye as Tucker straightened. Turning, he watched the huge man stride toward the church’s main entrance with the full confidence of a hunter whose prey had been trapped.

He followed, freeing his modified cell phone—courtesy of the military, as was the tactical vest, both stolen when he had left the service. For that matter, so was Kane. But after what had happened at that village outside Kabul . . .

He shied from that painful memory.

Never again . . .

His whole unit had helped him escape with the dog.

But that was another story.

He switched on the phone, tapped a few icons on the screen. Then a video appeared: of his backside, walking away, the feed coming from Kane’s camera.

All was in order.

Tucker pocketed the phone and followed the tall hunter through the doors of the church. Inside, massive spiral pillars held up a cavernous space. All around, the plastered walls displayed a frenzy of brilliant golden frescoes depicting the deaths of Hungarian saints, brought to life by the flickering of candles throughout the nave. Farther down, a series of chapels opened off to the sides, containing a few sarcophagi and a museum of medieval carvings. The entire place smelled vaguely of incense and mildew.

Tucker easily spotted the target, again standing out in her ivory coat. She sat in a pew halfway down the length of the nave, her head bowed.

The hulk of a man took a post near the entrance, leaning against the wall, preparing to wait her out. Clearly, the group was afraid to nab her in front of witnesses and was biding its time before making a move. With the sun almost down and the church emptying out, it would not be a long wait.

Unless Tucker did something about it.

He slipped past the wide bulk of the man, noting the earpiece in his left ear, then continued into the main church. He moved down to the pew where the woman had parked herself and slipped in next to her. She moved a few inches farther down the bench, barely glancing his way. She had taken off her hat and sunglasses in respect for the church. He reached up and did the same with his cap.

Her hair shone like gold in the candlelight. Her eyes, as she glanced at him, were a watery blue. In her hands, she fondled a cell phone, as if unsure whom to call—or maybe she was hoping for a call.

“Do you speak English?” he asked softly.

Even the whisper made her flinch, but after a long pause, she answered curtly, “Yes, but I prefer not to be bothered.”

She spoke the words as if she had said them countless times before. Her accent was distinctly British, as was her reserve as she slid a full foot away from him.

He knelt down in the pew, offering a less intimidating pose, bowing his head to his hands as he spoke. “I wanted to warn you that three men are following you.”

She tensed, looking ready to bolt.

“I think you should pray,” he said, motioning her down.

“I’m Jewish.”

“And I’m only here to help you. If you want it.”

Again that calculating pause, but she slipped gently to her knees.

He whispered without facing her. “They are watching each door out of here.” When she tried to glance back, he tightened his voice. “Don’t.”

She bowed her forehead to her hands. “Who are you?”

“Nobody. I saw those armed men following you. I saw how scared you looked—”

“I don’t need your help.”

He sighed. “Okay. I offered.”

He began to stand up, knowing he had done as much as his conscience demanded. He couldn’t help those who were too proud or stubborn to accept it.

She reached low and pinched the sleeve of his jacket. “Wait.” When he settled back to his knees next to her, she asked, “How do I know I can trust you?”

“You can’t know for sure.” He shrugged. “Either you do or you don’t.”

She stared at him, and he met her gaze. “I remember you. You were sitting at that patio with a dog.”


That
you noticed. Not the armed thugs trailing you.”

She turned away. “I like dogs. She was pretty.”

He smiled into his raised palms, warming up to this woman. “
His
name is Kane.”

“Sorry. Then
he
was handsome.” She moved a little closer, sounding calmer. “But what can
you
do?”

“I can get you out of here. Away from them. What you want to do from there is up to you.”

That was one of his specialties.

Extraction.

She glanced over to him, swallowing hard. “Then please, help me.”

He held out his hand. “Then let’s get out of here.”

“How?” she asked, surprised. “What about—?”

His hand closed over hers, silencing her. Her palm burned like an ember in his. “Just stay close to me.”

He drew her back out of the pew, letting go of her hand but motioning her to stay behind him. In his other hand, he held a black KA-BAR fighting knife hidden alongside his leg. He had slipped the blade out of its ankle sheath as he knelt. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it.

He led her away from the main entrance toward a smaller exit on the south side of the church. He glanced sidelong toward the tall man. The hunter was already swinging away, touching his ear, plainly alerting the man guarding this door. Then his hulking form vanished out of sight as he swung around the church to join his comrade. They were likely planning on ambushing her once she stepped outside.

Once he was gone, Tucker abruptly turned, caught the woman around the waist, and swung her around.

“What are you—?”

“Change of plans,” he said. “We’re going out the other way.”

Without letting go of her waist, he hurried her toward the
north
-facing portal, hoping that the radioed message from the big man was drawing all eyes to the south, expecting her to exit there.

Once at the door, he paused. He held her back and checked his cell phone. Video bloomed to light on the tiny screen. Though the sun had set by now, the view through the night-vision camera was grainy but bright. It showed the plaza and the main entrance to the church as Kane stared toward where his partner had vanished, waiting patiently.

Good boy.

Satisfied, he stepped toward the exit, hoping the guard posted out there had been tricked into retreating to the other side of the church, along with their leader.

And apparently his ruse worked, unfortunately not to his benefit.

The door swung open as Tucker reached for it.

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