Tracker

Page 1

March 4, 5:32 P.M.

Budapest, Hungary

He 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.

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