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ASSASSINS

Nick Neumann sat stiffly in the corner booth, back pressed against the leather banquette, shoulders pinned in the finest Swiss tradition. He was tired and hungry, and he wished the dinner would come so he could get on with the job. He placed his hands on the tablecloth, willing himself not to adjust the cutlery or examine the stemware. The heavy sterling knives and forks and spoons were, he noted, perfectly placed. The glasses were made of Austrian crystal, and absent the slightest smudge. Whenever he wondered how he had survived so long, the answer always came back the same. Details.

Turning his head, he let his eyes wander the restaurant. At a few minutes past seven, the Kronenhalle was nearly full. It was a Friday, and the weather had been unseasonably cool for early October. He had always thought of the Kronenhalle as a cold-weather restaurant. The tightly placed booths, the bold lighting, the crisp tablecloths, the bustle of waiters across the hardwood floor, the chef guiding his gleaming wagon down the narrow aisles, and of course, the hearty cuisine. All of it conspired to create a cozy formality, a warm and convivial antidote to rain and snow and biting wind.

Expertly, he scanned the dining room for a familiar face. The men were ruddy, well fed and prosperous. The women were elegantly dressed, and, if not as beautiful as their Parisian or Roman counterparts, as immaculately coiffed. He recognized no one and admitted to relief. Anonymity was a cornerstone of his profession.

Neumann checked his watch. He had ordered eleven minutes ago and his appetizer had not yet been served. Not long by any measure, but he was more nervous than the assignment demanded, and anxious to see it to its completion.

Zurich.

Years ago, he had lived in this city. He had worked at a prominent bank. He had fallen in love. He had killed a man and put another in prison. His stay had been short-a few months, no more-but his memories of it had proven long-lived. It was those memories that made him restless and antsy. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should have turned the job down.

Just then, the table rocked slightly as the chef arrived with his wagon. A wineglass teetered and Neumann rushed to stop it from overturning. Point against.

"Gerstensuppe?" The name on the smock read "Stutz." Wrong man.

"Bitte," said Neumann, not caring to meet his gaze.

With ceremony, the chef dipped his ladle and poured a generous cup of soup. The aroma of beef stock and barley tickled Neumann's nose. The brass stockpot was polished as well as a symphony instrument. Point in favor.

Neumann picked up his soupspoon and began to eat. He noted the broth's consistency, the pleasant aftertaste of sherry and mark. The temperature was ideal. The flavor full bodied but clean. Invariably, he dined alone. It was one of the challenging aspects of the job. Still, if he must dine by himself, at least he dined well. He never arrived in a city without having laid out his culinary itinerary in advance.

Details.

Tonight, the gerstensuppe would be followed by a warm nus-sli salad with chopped bacon and crumbled Stilton cheese, and as an entree, the specialty of the house, zurigeschnetzltes mit rosti. For dessert, there would be chocolate mousse and coffee. Besides an aperitif of champagne, he did not drink. A man in his profession was wise not to dull his senses.

It was then that he saw him.

There, across the room, removing his trench coat and hanging it on the rack, was Milos the Greek. He was grayer, his posture bent more than in the past, but it was him, all the same. There was no doubting the sharp nose, the tortoiseshell glasses, the hair combed and parted with military precision. Neumann had taught himself never to stare, but for a moment he couldn't help himself.

The Greek was in Zurich.

Calmly, he continued with his soup. He tore off a roll and buttered his bread. He sipped his flute of champagne. But all the while he kept a discreet eye on the Greek who, like him, was seated alone at a table in the main salle, back to the wall with a view on the entry and exit. Another man with a past. A fugitive unsure where and when an enemy might appear with retribution foremost on his mind. A professional who did not welcome surprises.

When Neumann looked up from his soup, the Greek was smiling his sly smile, his hard gray eyes locked on his own. He had been spotted, too. A shiver passed through him. Recognition was a constant risk. Some wore disguises: wigs, mustaches, spectacles. Some even tinted their hair and dressed against type. But not the Greek. He'd never made his identity an issue. Neumann had decided he wouldn't either. For better or worse, his face was a liability to be factored into his assignments.

Neumann raised his eyebrows and gestured toward the empty seat across from him. For a moment, the Greek hesitated. There was no etiquette governing what two men in their profession were to do should they meet. They had never been formally introduced, yet by reputation they were well acquainted. These days it was a small world, and in their rarefied circles, smaller yet.

The Greek was renowned for his hawk's eye. It was said that he was able to spot the smallest slipup, the split-second lapse that led to a target's demise. When he found the killspot, he was merciless.

Neumann knew his own reputation, as well. They said he had an uncanny ability to pinpoint the larger flaws, the structural weaknesses that would compromise the target. Bravado was his strong suit. Even the long-entrenched Capos, protected by their armies of minions and bully boys, were not safe from his reach. Some questioned his abilities, claiming an American didn't possess the finesse for the work. Not in Europe. They said he was best left to the gunslingers in Las Vegas and Miami Beach. The loudmouthed impresarios in Manhattan. And the braggarts in Beverly Hills. Six years in the trade said they were wrong.

The Greek shrugged, rose from his table and ventured across the room. "Finally, we meet," he said, offering an arthritic hand.

Neumann stood. "A pleasure. Won't you join me?"

The Greek sat down and spent a long moment placing the napkin in his lap, adjusting his necktie, pulling the cuffs from his sleeves. Finally, he looked up. "I trust you ordered the specialty of the house."

"Each year I think of choosing something else, but can't quite force myself to do it."

"In summer, I prefer the Dover sole. I ask them to grill it, then add lemon juice. Never any butter."

"I'll make a note of it." But Neumann was sure to keep his hands away from his jacket for fear of upsetting the uneasy truce.

The Greek leaned forward, beckoning with his trigger finger. "I've heard rumors."

Neumann shifted uncomfortably. "Oh?"

"They say that you enjoy your work as much as I do."

Neumann considered this. "It's a living."

The Greek laughed richly. "A paltry one for the services we provide. We cull the weak from the strong. I think of it as 'natural selection.' Tell me one thing. Are you satisfied?"

"More or less. You?"

"After so many years, there can only be one answer. However, I find that it's hard on the soul. I only think of the bad ones. I feel as if my hands were covered in blood. So many dreams destroyed. I sleep poorly."

The waiter arrived. The Greek made sure to hear the specials, then said, "The same as my friend."

"And the champagneVeuve Clicquot is acceptable?"

"Eminently." The Greek measured Neumann with a respectful eye. "You're here on assignment."

"Unfortunately. And you?"

"I can't afford to quit. A tip.Rome.Sabatini.the trout isn't bad."

"Beirut.Alfredo's.minced lamb and couscous. Passable." "You travel to Beirut?"

"The region's a bit unstable, but if you know your way around, it can be lucrative."

The Greek motioned toward his jacket. "May I?"

Neumann studied the cut of the coat, then said, "Yes."

"My memory isn't what it used to be." The hand dug out a small notepad and jotted down a few words. "Did you hear about Yuri? He let one off the hook."

Neumann didn't bother hiding his shock. Yuri's reputation was second to none. He was ruthless, daring, and always relentless. A master. "Was he terminated?"

"There are no second chances in this game. At least, he can be thankful it was quick."

"What happened?"

"They lured him back to the head office in Paris. The Boss likes to do it in person." To make his point, the Greek made a grotesque pantomime of slashing his own throat. Despite himself, Neumann winced. The Greek removed his glasses and spent a long moment polishing them with his napkin. "And now you and I together in Zurich?" he said absently. "After the same target. Hardly a coincidence, I imagine."

"Probably not."

"Contract or freelance?"

"Contract. You?"

"Same as ever."

"And so?"

"We do what we must do. It is our calling. May I wish you luck."

"Likewise." Neumann smiled to himself, viewing the assignment with added relish. He'd always enjoyed competition, the zest of going face-to-face with another as well trained.

The meal arrived. Heaping portions of sliced, infinitely tender veal bathed in a delicate cream sauce were portioned onto generous wedges of lightly fried potatoes. He picked up his knife and fork, hesitating at the last instant. "A Bordeaux? After all, for one of us, it is to be his last meal."

"The LaTour '79 would be suitable."

"Eminently," said Neumann.


Afterward, the two men strolled across the Limmat Bridge. The rain had frozen to sleet. A stiff wind blew off the lake. Winter was near.

"And so?" asked the Greek.

"One star," declared Neumann. "Very good in its category."

"Two," said the Greek. "Worth a detour to visit."

"Never!" Neumann looked at Milos, bent, satisfied, content, and in that instant, knew that his own skills were superior, that he would triumph, and that the Greek would make the lonely trip to Paris and give up his badge as an inspector for the Miche-lin Guide Rouge.

"It's true, then, what they say," Milos whispered, his tired voice hardly audible above the wind.

"What's that?" asked Neumann.

"You're an assassin."


Christopher Reich | Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night | Brad Thor