Lester Gravenholtz stood beside an old-fashioned red phone booth, stood there in the Florida sun waiting to kill the Aztlán oil minister and get back into some air-conditioning. Sweat rolled down his bare scalp as a tour bus filled with tourists drove past, their voices going silent as they caught sight of him. He scratched his nose, fingers bumping up against the mottled blue prosthetic that covered half his face. He couldn’t remember what kind of genetic disorder he was supposed to have, but the plasti-flesh molding was so realistic that when he checked himself out in the mirror he wanted to puke. Sweat burned his eyes. The Old One had insisted on his head being shaved, leaving only a few tufts of reddish hair sticking out at odd angles to complete the picture. He looked like a hyena with mange.
Over six feet tall, fish-belly white, with a heavily muscled torso and huge hands, Gravenholtz wore a filthy, oversize coat that concealed his powerful frame but left him steaming hot, itchy and miserable. Thirty-nine years old and this is what it had come down to. Two days he’d been standing out here—if he hadn’t wanted to kill somebody before, he sure wanted to do it now. Actually…he was always ready to do some damage. That’s what the Old One liked about him. A natural aptitude, that’s what he called it. Gravenholtz had killed a dozen men in the last year, here, there and everywhere the Old One had sent him. He shifted in the sun, wished this Mexican oil minister would show up so his aptitude could kick in, and he could get back to his air-conditioned suite and those frosty rum drinks that Baby had introduced him to. He rubbed the fake pustules dappled across his forehead, wanting to tear his face off.
Don’t fret, Lester, Baby had said after the makeup techs had finished with him. You’re going to be as handsome as ever when this is over.
Maybe handsome enough to throw a fuck to, that’s what Gravenholtz had thought. Ever since they had shown up at the Old One’s Miami hideaway, Baby had stayed in her own bed. Turns out the old man was her daddy, which was some big dark secret, and since the Old One was Muslim, and Baby was still technically a married woman, that was that. Last night, while the two of them watched the beach from her veranda, she had given him a perfunctory jerkoff, not even taking his dick out of his pants, laughing as he popped his cork within moments. Ha-ha.
The Old One. What a crock. Baby tried to tell him that her father was at least 130 years old, but the geezer wasn’t a day over seventy, tops. Gravenholtz played along—guy was a billionaire with his own private army, he could call himself fucking Methuselah for all Gravenholtz cared. He remembered hearing some big news about how it wasn’t the Jews dirty-bombed New York and D.C. and Mecca thirty years ago—it was the Old One and his crazy-ass master plan. The Muslim messiah come to bring on the Caliphate, which was evidently dancing girls and flying carpets from sea to shining sea. Truth be told, Gravenholtz didn’t give a shit if the Jews toasted New York, or if it was the Old One or the Sugarplum Fairy. That was ancient history and somebody else’s bad luck, not his.
One thing for certain, the old man had enough enemies for more than one lifetime. Not that it seemed to concern him much. Baby said the only one he was really worried about was Rakkim Epps. That was all it took to convince him to sign on with the Old One. Gravenholtz would have paid money for the chance to kill Rakkim.
Gravenholtz squinted in the sun, amazed at all the sky tattoos. He had seen them in the Bible Belt a few times, a baby Jesus in the manger sketched over Atlanta at Christmas, and the stars and bars on Independence Day, but here…there were all kinds of ads plastered across the sky here, offering everything from time-share underwater condos to sex drink specials at the beachfront nightclubs. One of the largest tattoos looked just like the ocean, a full-on underwater scene up there in the clouds, manta rays and dolphins swimming in perfect unison.
He changed position, his pants sticking to him in the heat so he had to adjust his pecker, and he thought about the hump-girl in the pigtails last night. The old man might be territorial about his daughter, but he didn’t mind importing pussy for Gravenholtz. Every night a new one appeared at his door. All colors and ages, from young to younger. Slim ones and big ripe ones with hungry eyes and soft mouths. Some of them spoke English and some didn’t speak at all, which was just as well. Gravenholtz let them in, gave them the best workout they had probably ever had and sent them on their way. It didn’t help. They weren’t Baby. He requested ones that looked like her—long-legged Southern girls with honey hair, all pouty and pink as far as the eye could see…. He would close his eyes and pretend they were her, but he didn’t really have that kind of imagination. He got mad sometimes, busted a few of the girls up pretty bad. That helped, but it didn’t last.
A party bus drove by, music blaring out this chunky Latin beat that he could feel running up his thighbones. People danced on the top deck of the bus, hoisted pastel umbrella drinks, women shaking their bare brown titties for all the world to see. Nueva Florida, where the world comes to cut loose. Bonerama, nonstop.
Say what you want, the Cubans who ran Nueva Florida knew how to have fun. The couple hundred miles of white-sand beach fronting the Atlantic were covered with luxury resorts: Alligator Ballet, the Fountain of Youth, Everglades Under Glass…but it was Viva Libertad! that drew the most tourists, Viva Libertad!, a thousand acre thumb in the eye to that bearded commie prick who ruled Cuba once upon a time. No fun in that Cuba, just work work work and rationed toilet paper. Viva Libertad! was all glitz and glamour, a theme park development of manicured beaches and luxury hotels. At the center of the resort was Castroland, a run-down slum modeled after old Havana, a crumbling facade of cheap buildings, falling-apart cars and beggars hustling handouts.
He watched the legless teenager across the street, saw him hop over and take a beer from a cooler hidden in an abandoned sofa. Stumpy popped the beer—his fourth of the afternoon—and finished it in two long swallows. He smiled at Gravenholtz as his belch echoed, tossed the empty bottle against a brick wall, sprayed broken glass. Happiest dead man Gravenholtz had ever seen, probably already thinking about the virgins waiting for him in Paradise, ready to do a dance on his dick. The Old One had the assassination of the oil minister all worked out, but he forgot to ask Gravenholtz how he felt about being Stumpy’s decoy. Where’s the fun in that? No, if there was anyone going to get his hands dirty, it was going to be Gravenholtz. If the Old One didn’t like it…well, they could discuss that when he got back to the hotel.
Gravenholtz sweated as the buses and limos rolled past, thinking how much he missed the Belt. He had been happy working for the Colonel back in Tennessee. The Colonel was the most powerful warlord in the Belt, Gravenholtz his special enforcer, keeping the shitbirds in line and loving every minute of it. Yeah, it was one sweet situation, until Baby gave him the look that one afternoon, the Colonel’s young wife back from horseback riding, sitting up on that white stallion like the queen of Sheba. How you doing, Lester? she said, staring down at him with those green eyes, the top button of her blouse undone so he could see the beauty mark between her breasts. The Colonel had been gone that day, and when Baby shook out her hair it was like a golden net he couldn’t escape. I’m bored, Lester Gravenholtz.
If he had said no to Baby that day Gravenholtz would still be the Colonel’s chief ass kicker. Instead…he waved at the gnats that buzzed his mouth…instead, he was standing under a phony banyan tree while tourists hurried past, crossed themselves and thanked God that they didn’t have whatever the fuck he was supposed to have. Welcome to Castroland. Stumpy across the street did a flip, walked around on his hands to applause from the small crowd gathered around him. Gravenholtz squeezed out a dry fart.
A South American tour group walked past Gravenholtz, Brazilians with their emerald jewelry flashing, hurrying now as they got a good look at him. A little girl with short black hair started crying, buried her face into her mother’s hips, was quickly lifted into the señora’s arms. The elephant man prosthetic scared off normal folk, but according to the Old One it was just the thing to reel in the oil minister, make him go all gooey inside.
Gravenholtz watched the helicopters fluttering overhead, hotel guests heading out to what was left of the Bahamas. A year ago, he and Baby had stolen the Colonel’s prize Chinese helicopter and flown to Florida, along with three of Gravenholtz’s men. Supposed to sell the bird for enough that they could all live high and easy for a while. Good plan, but Baby changed it.
She had them set down the chopper in the Everglades. They barely got out before Baby shot his boys in the head, one-two-three, just like that. You’d think she’d been waiting forever to do it from the look on her face. Come on, Lester honey, she had said, tugging on his earlobe, I want you to meet my daddy. Good thing Baby hadn’t tried shooting him—bullets just stung, but the betrayal might have pissed him off so bad he forgot himself.
He watched a barefoot mamacita waddle out of a shanty and start hanging clothes on a line. Bright colored tops with frayed sleeves, shorts with holes in them. He could hear her huffing and puffing from where he stood, raising herself up to pin the clothes.
The Islamic Republic had the Fedayeen, best fighters in the world maybe, so to counter that, twenty years ago some generals in the Bible Belt set up a secret project. They brought over this Jap scientist to build their own supersoldiers, augment the raw human material, so to speak, the psychos and sadists used for the experiments. Jap jobs, they called them, like that name might keep them in their place. Turned out the Belt generals were afraid of the Jap jobs almost as much as they were afraid of the Fedayeen.
Took at least thirty operations to make a Jap job, painful too…not that he remembered much about it, just dreams of bright lights and sharp knives peeling him open layer by layer like a pink onion. The Jap scientist had done something else to them…tweaked their frontal lobes a little bit, removing some moral governor that most human beings had. You ask Gravenholtz, there wasn’t more than a smidge in him anyway.
Gravenholtz inhaled as he spotted a dark blue limo approaching. It looked just like the other hotel limos, but this one rode a little low from the added weight, one of the VIP German models, fully armored, top, bottom and sides. He kept his head down as the limo slowed…slowed…finally came to a stop in front of him and stayed there, idling softly.
Gravenholtz shuffled closer, edged his begging basket ahead of him with the toe of his shoe. The sun burned the back of his neck, heat rippling through him clear down to his fingertips. He could see the legless kid reflected in the security glass of the limo, the kid swinging along on his hands, begging basket clenched between his teeth.
The passenger door of the limo opened and a slender, light-skinned Mexican got out, a machine pistol swinging from a shoulder rig. Gravenholtz glimpsed the driver looking over at him, disgusted, before the door thudded shut.
He stared blankly ahead as the Mexican wanded him, taking his time. Explosives, metal, nuclear or biologic toxins, the wand screened for everything…but there wasn’t any metal in Gravenholtz. None of those other things either.
The Jap scientist had used biologic body armor on Gravenholtz. Flexible body armor with hardly any seams. Made of some unique material where the more it was compressed, the stronger it got. The early jobs relied on their reinforced fists and feet, their heavy-density joints, but Gravenholtz was the prototype for the new model. New and improved, just like laundry detergent and mouth rinse. Might have made a real difference if they were ever put into full production…might have ended the stalemate between the Belt and the Republic, but something happened. Gravenholtz was on a solo training mission, doing what he did best, and when he came back to the lab complex everyone was dead. All the other Jap jobs, the head scientist and his team. Must have taken a full Fedayeen strike force. Gravenholtz had been shocked at first, then he thought, maybe it wasn’t so bad to be the last of his kind. Made him even more special.
The light-skinned Mexican had him raise his shoes so he could test the soles, and when the man bent forward, Gravenholtz could see a tiny bald spot on the crown of his head, right there among that nest of fine brown hair. Would have been a problem for him in a few years…so there was that to thank him for. Not that anyone ever did. In the smoked glass, he could see the legless kid hovering nearby, keeping just out of range of the wand.
The Mexican nodded to somebody inside the limo, then pivoted, the machine pistol making a slow arc. He jerked his chin at the legless kid, ordered him back.
Stumpy did a one-armed push-up.
The Mexican laughed.
The rear door of the limo slid open, another bodyguard in the doorway, beckoning. “Andale!”
Gravenholtz moved closer, dragging one foot. He stepped into the limo, swayed in the doorway.
At that moment, the legless kid bounded toward the limo.
Gravenholtz was supposed to hold the door open just long enough for the kid to fling himself inside, then step out and slam it shut. The blast would pulverize everyone inside the limo, leaving Gravenholtz free to kill the remaining bodyguard and escape. He and Stumpy had practiced the move for the last two days until it was perfect. Kid never said a word the whole time, just had that same weird little smile like he had now as he launched himself at the open door, bullets ricocheting off the pavement.
The bodyguard tried to shove him aside, but Gravenholtz held his ground inside the limo, his eyes on the kid and the smile that got bigger and bigger as he shot through the air…until Gravenholtz slammed the door in his face.
The blast rocked the limo, the light blinding for an instant, even through the security glass. Gravenholtz fell back against the bodyguard, the man cursing as the limo raced erratically down the street, tires squealing.
“Jefe…Jefe, está usted bien?” gasped the bodyguard, pulling himself to his feet. He looked out the back window for pursuers. There were none. “Jefe?”
“Estoy bien, Esteban. Muy bien.” The oil minister nestled in the plush leather bench seat facing Gravenholtz, his hands gripped together to hide their trembling.
The bodyguard sat back down, one hand resting on his pistol.
“Hablas español, señor?” the oil minister said to Gravenholtz.
Gravenholtz watched a police helicopter circling the blast site.
“Do you speak English, sir?” said the oil minister without a trace of an accent.
Gravenholtz cocked his head at the tooth lodged in the pitted blast-proof window. His mollusk mouth twisted, plasti-flesh flapping around his gums. He tapped the glass. “If you put that under your pillow tonight, the tooth fairy will leave you money.”
“Yes…yes, I’ve heard that,” said the oil minister. “Thank you for saving my life.”
Gravenholtz scratched at his matted hair. “I didn’t want to let the cold air out.”
“Of course. It’s very hot outside, isn’t it?” said the oil minister.
“I like cold air,” said Gravenholtz.
“Jefe, por favor—” started the bodyguard.
The oil minister silenced him with a glance, pressed a finger to his ear, listening. “I’m fine. No, that won’t be necessary.” His eyes stayed on Gravenholtz. “I don’t want an escort, is that clear?” He settled back in his seat. “What is your name, señor?”
“Do you know who I am, Lester?”
“A man with air-conditioning,” said Lester.
The oil minister smiled. “Yes, Lester, I am a man with air-conditioning.” He had eyes like gray pearls, smooth brown skin and a trimmed mustache. Shiny black suit and a necktie of woven platinum. “I am also a man with a son who looks very much like you.”
“There…there ain’t nobody like me,” said Gravenholtz.
“My son feels exactly the same way. He’s twenty-four years old next month…and very lonely.” The oil minister plucked at the crease in his slacks. “I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time with him. Hardly anyone even knows of his existence. A man in my position…” He winced. “Are you lonely, Lester?”
“I see,” said the oil minister. “Do you have family?”
Gravenholtz shook his head.
“Well, then, perhaps you could do me a favor. Would you like to come live with my son? Keep him company? Be his friend?”
Gravenholtz pondered the questions. “Will there be air-conditioning?”
“Cold as you want, Lester. I’ll fly in a mountain of snow for you two to sled down if you like. My son has never had anyone to play with…no one who really wanted to play with him.” The oil minister leaned forward slightly. “You could have anything you ask for.”
Gravenholtz nodded. He was tired of the game. “Anything?”
Gravenholtz pointed at the bodyguard. “Could I kill that pissant ’fore I kill you?”
The bodyguard was already raising his pistol when Gravenholtz chopped him across the bridge of the nose, the armored edge of his hand driving the facial bones deep into the man’s brain.
The oil minister must have hit the emergency button, because the driver braked hard, the limo skidding across the road, knocking oncoming cars aside as if they were made of aluminum cans. They finally came to rest after crashing through a billboard advertising canned banana daiquiris that froze to a perfect slush when you opened the top.
Gravenholtz grabbed the oil minister by the necktie, jerked him close, close enough to smell the huevos rancheros the man had had for breakfast. “I ain’t nobody’s playmate, Pancho,” he said, twisting the necktie, platinum links breaking off between his fingers as blood leaked from the oil minister’s tear ducts. Gravenholtz jerked forward as the driver unloaded into his back. He broke the oil minister’s neck and threw open the door.
A Hotel Viva! van on the way back from the beach had pulled over, tourists in bathing suits standing around ready to help. Until they saw Gravenholtz get out.
Gravenholtz tore open the door, dragged the driver out, the man still clutching the machine pistol, crying out for somebody, Mama, Papa, Jesus H. Christ or the presidente of Aztlán, it didn’t make no difference. Gravenholtz drove his fist into the man’s chest, ribs splintering like a bag of sticks, then tossed him aside and slid behind the wheel.
He backed out of the daiquiri billboard and peeled out into traffic. The front end wobbled a little bit, but it was a good ride. The old man and Baby would be pissed at him for changing the plan, but too bad. Hold the door open for Stumpy? Yaz, boss. Like Gravenholtz was some hotel doorman with gold brushes on his shoulders.
Gravenholtz maxed the air-conditioning, basking in the cold air. His back itched where the driver had shot him, the seat soaked with blood. No big deal. Only man who had ever really put a hurt on him was Rakkim. He had slipped a Fedayeen blade into Gravenholtz at the Colonel’s base camp, found a seam in his armor and cut through to the soft parts like he had X-ray vision. Done it right in front of Baby too. Rakkim almost killed him, which was reason enough for Gravenholtz to go looking for him, prove to the man that he had just gotten lucky. It was more than that, though. He had seen the way that Baby looked at Rakkim, heating things up. Gravenholtz accelerated, one hand on the wheel. Revenge or jealousy, it didn’t matter. Either way, that shit couldn’t stand.
Heart of the Assassin
2045: The Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt—the warring nations that arose after the apocalyptic and economic collapse of the United States—are rife with intellectual and social decay, and to the south, the Aztlán Empire threatens encroachment. For genetically enhanced soldier Rakkim Epps, reuniting the factions and regaining America’s former global standing rests on the discovery of a sacred relic lost in the contaminated ruins of Washington, D.C. In this deadly wasteland of diseased zombies and daring treasure hunters, Epps will ultimately face his archenemy, a dying Muslim fanatic who has brilliantly drawn Epps into an explosive showdown, with Epps’s own survival and the fate of the world at stake.