The enigmatic Hancock has been both opponent and ally to the KGI teams for as long as they’ve known him. Always working a deep game, Hancock’s true allegiance has never been apparent, but one thing is for certain—he never lets anything get in the way of duty.
But now, his absolute belief in the primacy of his ultimate goal is challenged by a captive he’s been ordered to guard, no matter how much she suffers in her prison. She’s the only woman who’s ever managed to penetrate the rigid walls surrounding his icy heart, but will he allow his perplexing feelings for the beautiful victim to destroy a mission he’s spent years working to complete or will he be forced to sacrifice her for “the greater good.”
“You want me and my men to do what?” Hancock asked mildly, not betraying his feelings of What the f**k.
Guy Hancock, or Hancock as he was generally known, although not many knew his given name, faced Russell Bristow, his incredulity over Bristow’s stupidity not showing, but there nonetheless.
Hancock’s identity changed with the winds, and at times it was hard for him to keep up with who he currently was. It was a tired existence, one he grew wearier of all the time. But at least he had a purpose. Or at least he had at one time. Now he wasn’t as sure has he’d been earlier on. Time had robbed him of that strict code of honor until he wondered just how close to the line he was and how close he’d come to becoming the very thing he worked so tirelessly to extinguish and protect the innocent from. He knew no other life except killing. Manipulating. Mastering the masters of evil and exacting justice in his own cold, methodical way that had nothing to do with any established legal code.
He’d long ago forgone any semblance of a conscience. He had an unwavering and deeply ingrained sense of honor, but not everyone would agree that with honor came a conscience. And his personal code was just that. Personal to him. He didn’t see in black and white. His world was steeped in grey. Great looming shadows that threatened to consume him. At times he felt hunted-and he was-but it was as though he knew his time was limited. The urgency of taking down his target, one he’d waited a very long time to get close to, was like a ticking time bomb. Success had eluded him, and now time had run out. Hancock would never get this close again. He knew it. His men knew it. They felt, too, that they would all likely die carrying out their mission. And yet none turned their back on their duty. They embraced death as the result of victory. Nothing more.
Russell Bristow’s lips curled in distaste, anger flaring in his eyes. The stupid bastard wasn’t smart enough to mask his emotions or control his temper. It would get him killed, and Hancock mentally shrugged. It would mean one less asshole in the world and one less person he had to take out himself in the end. But until his ultimate goal was achieved, he needed to keep the stupid bastard alive, though he’d love nothing more than to break his neck and rid the world of his foul presence. Bristow was a means to an end, and so Hancock had to rein in his utter distaste of the man until he served his purpose. Then he would die, because Hancock would never let such depravity live.
“Don’t you mean my men?” Bristow snapped.
Hancock lifted one eyebrow and simply stared the other man down, pinning him with a gaze he knew others feared and were intimidated by, until a mottled flush worked its way up Bristow’s neck and he fidgeted like a bug under a microscope. He looked away and then back but didn’t meet Hancock’s eyes this time. His fear was a stench in the air that offended Hancock and disgusted his men. Courage came in many forms, shapes and colors. Courage wasn’t always necessary to succeed. Determination was. But fear bred stupidity. Fear caused mistakes. Fear could lead men to betray themselves, their cause and anyone impending one’s goal of others.
Bristow was loyal to none save himself, and Hancock never made the mistake of thinking otherwise or of misjudging him-or anyone else, for that matter. Bristow would sacrifice Hancock and all his men if he felt at any time his life was in danger. And it was. It was Hancock and his men’s job to ensure that Bristow felt safe and invincible. To feed his natural arrogance and desire for power. If he knew just what he was up against, he’d crawl into a deep dark hole, terrified, and Hancock’s last link to his objective would be forfeit. No, he needed Bristow in all his stupidity and vainness. Maksimov knew what he was dealing with as well. A puppet. A man who thought he was in control and yet was easily controlled by others. In a game of chess, the most important match of Hancock’s life, he had to make it appear that Bristow was easily manipulated by Maksimov and yet move him in such a way that it positioned Maksimov as Hancock, wanted. So that in fact, Hancock manipulated both men without either being aware.
“As you are all on my payroll and take orders from me, that makes all of you my men,” Bristow said, his voice not as commanding as it had been a moment earlier. But then he was a coward, always employing others to do his dirty work for him. If his options were to stay and fight with his men or abandon them and run, he’d run. His kind always did. It was precisely why Hancock had his own team here under the guise of having vetted and employed them for Bristow. Bristow had no knowledge of the fact that Hancock’s team had worked together for years and that their loyalty to one another ran deep. That they answered to Hancock and no other. Ever.
In a world where Hancock trusted none but a precious few, his trust was given to Titan, though it was no longer Titan. It wasn’t…anything. The very government who’d created them, faking their deaths and then raising them from the ashes like the phoenix, had given them new identities and they were to have no ties to the outside world. The mission was all that mattered. Not people. Not politics or the delicate dance of diplomacy.
The government had created…monsters. Killing machines without mercy or conscience, trained to carry out orders at all cost. The good of the many always outweighed the good of the few. And when Titan grew too powerful, when they began to question their orders, their objective and how it aided the greater good, when the missions seemed to grow too personal, too inconsequential for a group of Titan’s training and abilities, they’d been disbanded, branded traitors, loose cannons, murderers. Even terrorists. They’d been labeled the very thing they hunted and it still burned a hole in Hancock’s gut. After living so many years with no feelings, no emotions turning them off at will and doing his job with cool efficiency, he learned true rage. Not since his foster mother, a woman who’d made Hancock feel that he had worth and had given him the first and only sense of family, had been murdered in retaliation for her husband’s mission, had Hancock felt anger and overwhelming rage. That mission had been personal. The only one. Big Eddie, the man who called him son, had come to him for help. Revenge. And even if Big Eddie hadn’t asked, Hancock would have hunted Caroline Sinclair’s murderer.
But things had changed since then. That was years ago, when Titan operated under the authority of the U.S. government, though only a select few even knew of Titan’s existence. They had much freedom then to ferret out those who were at threat to national security, to take out any threat at will. And then, their own government turned on them, thinking them expendable and easily disposed of.
Even now the hunters had become the hunted, and any number of classified military groups had orders to kill on sight. Having gained access to a shadowy CIA operative’s computer filed, Hancock had learned a hell of a lot about the country he swore his allegiance to.
No, not everyone charge with defense of America and its people was evil and self-serving, betraying the trust of the citizens they were sworn to protect and defend. There were men and women who tirelessly took up the charge. But any one of those would kill Hancock on sight, thinking him a traitor to the principles they followed, lived, and would die for.
Titan had refused to die. They had evolved far beyond what their trainers in the beginning had taught them, And now, they not only fought to protect even those who’d betrayed them and countless innocent American lives but they had expanded their reach into a world filled with the same good and bad reflected in the U.S. government and military.
Innocence had no boundaries. No one nationality. One wasn’t good or bad simply because one was a certain nationality or held a different belief system. Innocents died every day simply because there was no one to fight for them. Not even their own governments. Titan couldn’t save the entire world, but they saved pieces of it. One piece at a time.
Taking out Maksimov-finally-would save a lot of lives. The sheer time it would take for someone else to pick up the remnants of his empire, to pick up the reins and take over operations, would enable other countries, other special ops groups to infiltrate and shut it down before it ever got back off the ground.
Because after Maksimov…Hancock shut his mind down, returning to the issue at hand, before Bristow truly understood the depth of Hancock’s lack of respect and the fact that he in no way feared this man, that he was so confident of his superiority that he knew he could get to Bristow at any time and end his miserable existence. Despite his attempt to silence the many voices in his head, all replaying past events and ensuring his absolute focus on this mission above all else, a whisper slid insidiously through his mind, tracing each pathway so he had no choice but to hear it. It settled deep within him, taking root as it had done so many times before, and this time Hancock didn’t even bother to uproot it, push it away, force it free so he could forget it was ever there.
After Maksimov you will be free of this life. It will be time for you to rest.
He nearly gritted his teeth. The whisper bothered him when so little else did. When so little else had the power to affect him. Rest could mean many different things to a man like him. But the one prevailing thought, the suspicion that took hold when nothing else would, was that in this case, rest meant eternal rest. And worse than the thought of it being final was the fact that he didn’t fear it, didn’t feel sadness or regret. All he felt was…anticipation. He didn’t share his acceptance of this with his team or with the four people he considered family, the only people in the world who mattered to him. The only people he felt real emotion for. Love. Loyalty. Respect. And the knowledge that he’d die for any one of them. No, if they knew, they’d make it much harder for him. They’d never understand. They’d want him away from this life. They’d want him to life. For them. With them. They’d never understand that he could never adapt to civilian life-normal life. He didn’t even know what normal was. He didn’t fit into a world where everything was black and white, where grey wasn’t accepted. He couldn’t live or exist in a life where if something happened to someone he loved he couldn’t go after the people responsible, couldn’t make them pay. He would be expected to rely on and trust law enforcement and then the justice system to get justice for the person he loved. How f**ked up was that?
He was a law unto himself, and that would never change. God help him, he didn’t want it to change. Never would he sit back and allow someone else to do what was his duty alone.
Bristow was seething with impatience, taking Hancock’s prolonged silence for disdain and insubordination. As much as Hancock wanted to tell him to get f**ked, there was a higher purpose at hand, and Bristow mattered only as much as a pawn used to achieve that higher goal. Hancock wouldn’t get rid of him yet. But he would allow the man to know who was really in control. Bristow would know not to cross Hancock, even as he wouldn’t be certain why. It would be nothing Hancock said-directly. But Bristow would know absolutely.
“You pay men.” Hancock said mildly. “I hired and pay my men. They follow my orders. Never think otherwise.”
Though the statement seemed bland, a simple truth, there was a soft warning that Bristow didn’t misunderstand. For a brief moment fear flashed in the career criminal’s eyes before he visibly chased it away with a shake of his head, a scowl replacing any hint of intimidation. He hated the feeling of inferiority. That Hancock, so rough around the edges, hard and unyielding, not handsome or appealing by anyone’s standards, could possibly make a man like Bristow feel so subservient. And yet he was too aware of Hancock’s power to challenge the man who worked for him. He was…afraid…of him. And that rankled him most of all.
Hancock almost smiled, but he was too disciplined to do so. He wanted the little bastard afraid of him-of his men. And he damn sure wanted the power-hungry warlord to know just where his men’s loyalties lay. It wasn’t with Bristow, and he’d be a fool to ever believe so.
“Now, about this woman,” Hancock said, deliberately bringing them back to the original subject. “What could be so important about a lone woman that you would risk pissing off one of the most powerful men in the world?”
Once again, anger flashed in Bristow’s eyes. Impatience caused a twitch to his right eyelid, and he was barely maintaining a grasp on his temper. With anyone else, he would have already acted. He would have ordered the person who dared to question him and suggest he wasn’t the most powerful man in the world to be killed. And it wouldn’t be a quick merciful death either. Hancock had witnessed Bristow’s depravities firsthand. He’d been forced to participate in order to prove himself. To enter Bristow’s inner circle, gain his trust-and confidence-and position himself as Bristow’s second in command.
The man was foul, and only the knowledge that when Hancock brought down his primary target he would then take out Bristow and dismantle his entire organization had kept him from killing Bristow on the spot. But he needed this man-or rather pawn, as loath as he was to admit it. Any idiot with Bristow’s connections would do. It wasn’t personal to Bristow or any greatness he perceived on his behalf. Maksimov, the primary target, the end goal, was a cagey bastard, and Hancock had come close too many times to count, only for the Russian to elude him.
He was determined that this was his final chase. It would all end here. He would bring down every kingpin in this macabre chain of evil. They preyed on the innocent, providing all the necessary tools for anyone with the money and the means to wage war on the innocent. They were the cause of so much bloodshed. Rivers of it. Hundreds of thousands of deaths could be attributed to the links in the chain, but all pieces led back to the same man, Maksimov. He had his fingers in every imaginable pie there was. If there was a way to profit from pain, suffering and terrorism, he found it.
Ironically, Maksimov provided equally to opposing factions, no doubt finding it amusing to see groups waging war against one another with weapons he provided, his pockets fat from the veritable monopoly he held on arms, explosives, every imaginable military weapon and even the necessary components to build nuclear weapons.
He was on every civilized country’s most-wanted list. He was the most-wanted man in the world, and yet on one had succeeded in taking him down. Over the years, Hancock had tasted failure more times than he wished to remember as he relentlessly pursued Maksimov. Took advantage of avenues to him. Cultivated partnerships with those high up in the chain leading to Maksimov. Were it not for an attack on the very thing he swore he didn’t possess-a conscience-he’d have nailed the bastard twice over.
He’d mentally berated himself a hundred times, and yet he couldn’t find it within him to have true regret over the choices he’d made. The only thing he’d been able to summon was the iron will to never again put the good of the one over the good of the many. The price was too high. He’d sacrificed his objective for a single innocent. On not one, but two occasions. And when he imagined how many thousands of innocent people had died-were still dying-because he saved two innocents, two people who were nothing but good-everything he wasn’t-it only hardened his resolve to never forfeit his honor, his belief system. He understood that the loss of the two women he’d chosen to forfeit his mission in order to save would have been a travesty. The world needed people like Grace and Maren. But he had no choice but to once again embrace the emotionless existence he’d lived for so many years and wrap himself deep in the layers so he would feel nothing but the burning drive to complete his mission at all costs.
He would not feel guilt over sacrificing the few for the many. It was a choice no one should ever have to make, but it was what he had been made into. His skills honed by fire. Taught by the best. The knowledge that completing the mission at all costs was necessary and that failure was not an option had been so solidly ingrained into him that hit had become a part of him. No, not a part.. It had become all-consuming, the whole of his existence. So deeply rooted in his soul that it became who he was. What he was. Until there was nothing left of the person he’d once been, and in his place a ruthless warrior had been born. Forged by fire. Resolve of steel. No hesitation to do his sworn duty and uphold the only honor and code he adhered to. His own.
“You think me a fool,” Bristow hissed, some of his earlier fire once again flashing in his eyes, his temper quick and churlish. “I don’t pay you to judge me, I pay you for absolute obedience. If you can’t handle that, then show yourself-and your men,” he added snidely, “to the door.”
Hancock did smile then, but it was mocking, meant to demonstrate contempt for Bristow and his utter lack of respect or fear of a man used to inspiring both.
“No, you pay me to do your dirty work. You pay me to save your ass. And you pay me because you fear that the many enemies you’ve made over the years will get to you, so you sought to hire the best and you did. By all means, if you are so confident in your abilities to see to those matters yourself, then my men and I will go elsewhere. There is always someone looking for one with my capabilities and who will certainly be more appreciative of them. I’m sure you will sleep just fine at night, confident in your safety.”
Fear didn’t merely flicker in Bristow’s eyes, like a shadow chased away nearly soon as it appeared. His entire face whitened and he swallowed visibly. Hancock felt confident calling the coward’s bluff because above all things, Bristow feared death. His own, that is. He had no regard for the death of others and liked being the instrument of death. It made him feel godlike and powerful, that he could decide whether another lived or died. And he loved others to have that knowledge of who and what he was so they’d fear him, acknowledge him and placate him, even worship him.
And there was the reason he despised Hancock so much. Because not only had Hancock proven himself invincible and impervious to death, but he held Bristow in no esteem whatsoever. He was confident in his own abilities and would never have to hire others to do his bidding. And he was a man others instinctively feared and deferred to. Bristow saw everything he craved-and lacked-in the man he’d hired, and he hated Hancock for it.
Not waiting, Hancock made a motion to his men as if to go, and he simply turned his back on Bristow, making sure at least two of his men had Bristow in their sight line so he didn’t do something stupid like pull a gun and shoot Hancock in the back. Which would be completely in keeping with his character, because Bristow was both a coward and not one who could control his temper.
“Maksimov will want her,” Bristow blurted out. “You have no idea how much. You don’t know who she is, only that I told you I wanted her.”
His tone was beseeching. He hoped to get Hancock and his men to stay without begging outright. He knew better than to command them to stay. And it tore at his already tattered pride to beg, to allow Hancock to know how much Bristow did need him and feared his world without Hancock there to be a barrier between him and his enemies.
It wasn’t Bristow’s desperation that stopped Hancock and his men. It was that one magic word. Maksimov.
Hancock slowly turned so he didn’t tip his hand. He leveled a stare at Bristow.
“Maksimov wants a lot of things,” he said matter-of-factly. “What makes the woman so special?”
“It’s not her,” Bristow said impatiently. “I mean it’s not personal to her. You don’t understand. She escaped from an attack on a relief center where she and many Westerners worked. She was the only survivor, and the militant group took no chances. They recovered all bodies and compared it to the list of people they knew worked there. They were the target. Once they discovered the woman wasn’t among the dead and was nowhere to found, they launched a search for her. So far, she’s evaded them and hasn’t been discovered.”
Hancock made a motion for his men to stand down and take their places in the room once more. A protective formation so Bristow was watched from every angle, though Bristow wasn’t smart enough to know that his every action was being monitored and that he’d be taken out immediately if he made one wrong move.
Hancock crossed his arms over his stomach in a deceptively relaxed and inquisitive mode.
“And why would this woman be of interest to Maksimov? So much so that you want me to track her and be the one to capture her before this group finds her? I doubt you have any interest in protecting her or saving her life, as surely when her pursuers find her—and they will—she’ll be dead. Or wish she were dead.”
Bristow seated himself behind the ornate desk he used for his business dealings. It reeked of wealth and opulence, but then Hancock would expect nothing less from a man who made certain everyone he came into contact with knew of his wealth and imagined power.
His eyes gleamed with . . . excitement. There was obviously something about the woman that gave Bristow an edge, imagined or not. His entire body bristled with impatience and anticipation.
“Because a New Era, the terrorist cell turning the country upside down hunting the woman, is well known and ruthless. They are feared by many. Entire nations fear them, and in fact even enemy nations have joined together in a summit to focus their combined efforts to stop them. They grow more powerful every day. They have unlimited resources and operate using fear and intimidation to achieve their agenda.”
“And what is their agenda exactly?” Hancock asked.
“That’s the question, isn’t it? What does any fanatical terrorist cell truly want? They want power, reverence. They want people to not only fear them but to respect their capabilities. They want to rule the entire region, not just a single country or territory. They want nations to fear them and concede that they are superior to any military force. Their numbers grow steadily. They recruit far and wide. Men and women of any ethnicity, nationality. They are very persuasive and promise ultimate wealth, power and domination. And so far, no one, no army, no country, no organized effort has been able to get close to them. They have few casualties and are unaffected by them. Everyone who joins feels it is a great honor to die for their cause, and that makes them even more dangerous because they have no fear of death. They are . . . unstoppable.”
“What is Maksimov’s connection to this group and why would the woman be of interest to him?” Hancock asked impatiently, tired of information he deemed useless.
There was no shortage of independent cells all seeking dominance in an already war-torn region. So what made this one any different than the others? But he’d detected a hint of fear—and respect—for this group he spoke of, and Maksimov neither feared nor respected anyone, though it made him a fool because he was weak, and without strong, ruthless people to do his bidding, he was nothing.
“They owe Maksimov money. He is their main supplier of arms and explosives. They believe themselves untouchable by anyone and have no fear of Maksimov, the fools. If Maksimov has something they want very badly, then that gives him an edge. And they do want this woman. Already word has spread through the region of a lone woman, a defenseless American woman who has evaded capture, and it makes them look weak. Like fools who can’t manage to find a woman. They are furious, no doubt, and if they do find her and I have no doubt they eventually will—their reach is too far, their power too great—she will not die quickly. They will seek to make an example of her. They’ll use her to demonstrate just how ruthless they are, and they’ll use her to send a message to all who oppose them. I have no doubt Maksimov would not only pay much to have her in his possession but he would be indebted. To me.”
He said the last with supreme satisfaction, arrogance and greed lighting his eyes. So this was his goal. To dangle something Maksimov wanted desperately in front of his nose and to be the one to deliver the woman to Maksimov. It would elevate Bristow’s status with Maksimov, which would bring him more power and wealth. It would set him up for years to come, and when he was under Maksimov’s protection as one known to be in his inner circle, Bristow’s enemies would hesitate to strike at him, knowing that whatever was done to Bristow would be taken by Maksimov to be an insult—an attack—on Maksimov himself. And few dared to take on Maksimov, which allowed Maksimov to grow in power, expanding his already enormous reach and his empire into something truly frightening. If Hancock wasn’t successful in taking him down this time, he knew his time had run out. He had firsthand experience with how ruthless Maksimov could be. He still bore the scars of his last run-in with the man, but thankfully, Hancock had been in deep cover and his appearance had been altered such that it was doubtful Maksimov would recognize the man he believed to be the minion of the man who’d gone against Maksimov. It was his only up close and personal contact with the man he’d hunted for years, and by the time Maksimov had gotten close to Hancock, his already disguised features were bloodied, bruised and swollen, so Hancock felt confident the man wouldn’t recognize him. He planned to get very close to the man this time, and perhaps this woman Bristow spoke of would afford him just that chance.
He glanced at Bristow with interest, no longer viewing the task Bristow had ordered him to do as a delay he couldn’t afford, a pointless endeavor that would only lessen his chances of striking at Maksimov at the first opportunity.
“So you want me to go after this woman, intercept her before the men hunting her find her and bring her to Maksimov?”
Bristow frowned and shook his head. “No. Not immediately. Bring her to me. I won’t simply hand her over to Maksimov before gaining what I want from the exchange. And that will take time. Maksimov is reclusive and cagey. Not much brings him to the surface. If he really wants her, and I’m positive he will, I plan to make him wait and grow restless to the point he’ll give me whatever I want. It will be a negotiation. If I don’t get what I want from Maksimov, then I will bargain with the militants who want her so desperately. Either would give much to have the woman. Perhaps the militants would give me even more so they save face,” he added with a shrug.
It was a stupid, dangerous game to toy with and attempt to manipulate Maksimov, but Hancock didn’t warn Bristow of that fact. If the woman lured Maksimov into a personal meeting where he’d take possession of the woman, then that fit perfectly into Hancock’s agenda, and he didn’t particularly care what the consequences to Bristow were.
And it was equally stupid to bargain with a fanatical group because after giving Bristow what he wanted in exchange for the girl, they’d simply execute Bristow in very bloody fashion and take back not only what they’d given as payment for the woman but everything Bristow possessed, which would only add to their considerable wealth and power.
Anticipation licked through Hancock’s veins and his pulse sped up, the taste of victory in his mouth. If all it took was capturing a single woman who was running and hiding from a terrorist group to enable him to achieve his objective, then he’d do it without hesitation. He’d have to ensure that Maksimov took the bait because it did him no good for Bristow to turn to the terrorist cell to get what he wanted. It had to be Maksimov.
He glanced up at his men and saw answering resolve in their eyes. They wanted to take down Maksimov every bit as much as he did. And like him, they grew weary of their existence or rather nonexistence. To the world, they were dead. To their government they were traitors and had been given a death sentence. To their prey, they were angels of death, without mercy or compassion. They were feared by all and they mattered to no one. To even the strongest, unfeeling soul, such a life eventually wore on them. They were all ready to step down from their cause and allow others to do the work they’d done without thanks or regard for over a decade. And make whatever kind of life was left to them, knowing that even after they stood down, they’d always be hunted.
“Give me what intel you have,” Hancock said to Bristow, determination and resolve Bristow couldn’t possibly miss in his tone. And Bristow had seen him in action long enough to know he didn’t offer his assurances lightly. “I’ll find the woman and bring her to you.”
Amazon Mass Market Paperback: http://tinyurl.com/nb6ll6p
B&N Mass Market Paperback: http://tinyurl.com/q2eum4f
Maya Banks is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 50 novels. A wife and mother of three, she lives in Texas. Visit her website at www.mayabanks.com.