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Department Thirteen: An Aleksandr Talanov thriller

Department Thirteen: An Aleksandr Talanov thriller

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Department Thirteen: An Aleksandr Talanov thriller

Length:
432 pages
6 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Mar 12, 2020
ISBN:
9781734476903
Format:
Book

Description

Department Thirteen – the assassination and sabotage unit of the KGB – never officially existed. But former KGB colonel Aleksandr Talanov knows that it did, and it's but one of the many secrets he's worked hard to forget.

Now living in Australia, Talanov and dozens of dinner guests are suddenly the target of assassins. On a midnight stroll to the beach, Talanov and his wife are mistakenly spared, but soon find themselves running for their lives: hunted by the killers, blamed by the police, increasingly pivotal to an invisible network of death about which they know nothing.

But someone thinks they know.

For in 1983, a second Department Thirteen was created, and Talanov discovers they have but one purpose: to kill him, whatever the cost.

Publisher:
Released:
Mar 12, 2020
ISBN:
9781734476903
Format:
Book

About the author

James Houston Turner is the bestselling author of the Aleksandr Talanov thriller series, as well as numerous other books and articles. Talanov the fictional character was inspired by the actual KGB agent who once leaked word out of Moscow that James was on a KGB watch-list for his smuggling activities behind the old Iron Curtain. James Houston Turner’s debut thriller, Department Thirteen, was voted “Best Thriller” by USA Book News, after which it won gold medals in the Independent Publisher (“IPPY”) Book Awards and the Indie Book Awards. A cancer survivor of more than twenty-five years, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Baker University and a master’s degree from the University of Houston (Clear Lake). After twenty years in Australia, he and his wife, Wendy, author of The Recipe Gal Cookbook, now live in Austin, Texas.

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Department Thirteen - James Houston Turner

NOTE

PROLOGUE

MOSCOW: 1983

Colonel Aleksandr Talanov of the KGB was trained to keep other people safe. It was his job, and he was good at it. Unfortunately, the people he was protecting tonight were not the targets. He was. And not in a way he could ever have imagined.

Earlier that day, Talanov had driven from KGB headquarters – the Center, as it was called – and cordoned off the street with an invisible net of eyes and ears. It was late September, and the industrial feel of the neighborhood was made drearier by overcast skies and barren trees.

Without question, the building was not bugged. It was an ordinary butcher shop closed for the night, and it had been thoroughly scanned.

Arranging use of the shop had not been difficult. Talanov’s KGB identification had easily convinced the owner to cooperate. As an added incentive for lips to remain sealed, one of Talanov’s more muscular agents – a weight lifter named Pavel – was told to escort the owner back to his flat where he would stand posted until dawn, his pistol a visible bulge under the black leather of his jacket.

It was now two in the morning, and the smell of hacked meat still permeated the shop.

Talanov checked his watch. It was time for their final arrival. He clicked off the lights and stood silently by the back door. In less than a minute, a knock of two raps, then five, could be heard. He opened the door to a shadowed figure who stepped quickly inside. The three armed guards outside gave Talanov quiet assurances that no one had followed, after which the door was closed and locked and the lights were switched on again.

Talanov did not recognize the man in wire-rimmed glasses, and he knew most, if not all of those in Andropov’s inner circle. His facial structure was not Slavic, and his hair was blond and short.

Department Thirteen? Talanov wondered. Many of those agents had identities so deep and dark that no one outside the department knew who they were. If indeed he was from Department Thirteen, what was he doing here? Who was he planning to assassinate?

Without a word, the man seated himself with the seven other men already gathered around the rectangular table. Shaded bulbs threw harsh circles of light on each man and cast overlapping shadows on the floor.

With everyone now present, Talanov stationed himself against a thick, wooden cutting block, arms folded, his eyes continually scanning each face in the room for signs of danger.

He’s good, the man in wire-rimmed glasses thought, recalling the accuracy of Talanov’s profile: six-foot-one, brown hair, 172 pounds, an early-morning runner, a black belt in Combat Sambo. Such a list, however, does not – and cannot – capture the nuances of a man. His projected confidence. His capability. Or lack thereof. That can be determined only by seeing the man in action, by experiencing his presence. And what he saw confirmed what he had read, that Talanov was the best. Small wonder he was the youngest colonel in KGB history.

At the far end of the table, an aging Yuri Andropov began to cough. Talanov approached the table and poured him a glass of mineral water. Andropov took a drink amid the thick swirls of smoke exhaled from several of the men.

Comrade Talanov is to be commended for selecting a location even I would not suspect, Andropov said.

General Vladimir Timoshkin was not in uniform but sat forward as though he were. He was a large man with square shoulders and a broad face that had been lined by decades of harsh Russian climate. Commended? For choosing a filthy butcher shop? He glanced around at the shabby features before crushing out his cigarette. Not even the Americans could know about this group.

Beneath his neatly combed white hair, the gentle features of Yuri Andropov grew taut.

The Americans are not our concern, he said.

Then why must we meet in this stench?

Because I ordered it!

Timoshkin sat back, unwilling to challenge the authority of the Soviet president.

Andropov glanced up at Talanov. General Timoshkin does not appreciate your precautions, Aleksandr. Would you care to tell him why you chose this location?

Talanov looked directly at Timoshkin. Because, General, you have allowed your office to be infiltrated.

What?

Electronic intercepts have been discovered on your telephones, thanks to a fondness your Senior Lieutenant Gagarin has for a woman with a drug addiction. An addiction cultivated by Western agents.

Timoshkin exploded out of his chair. That is impossible!

Sit down, General, ordered Andropov.

Comrade President, there is no way these accusations can be true. I know Gagarin. Know his wife! Have known them for years.

Andropov slammed his palm on the table. "His wife is that woman! Now sit down."

Stunned, Vladimir Timoshkin obeyed.

So you see, Andropov said, his gaze scanning the others, tonight’s precautions are not without merit, just as this situation is not without parallel. The eyes of betrayal are everywhere.

But Gagarin? I’ll have him shot.

You’ll do nothing of the kind.

Timoshkin looked disbelievingly at Andropov. But . . . why not?

As I have said, we have other concerns.

You refer to Operation RYAN? asked another man at the table.

Talanov recognized the heavyset man as the Soviet Union’s former ambassador to the United Nations. Once feared as a tough, inflexible negotiator, he was now a weaker, less intimidating man in his seventies.

Operation RYAN is doomed, Andropov replied.

How can this be? General Timoshkin asked. Operation RYAN is the most successful intelligence operation in Soviet history. It has given us extensive information on American military expansion throughout the world.

A fleeting smile appeared on Andropov’s tired face. As well as data on research projects being conducted by the CIA regarding our currency reserves, requirements for imported grain and produce, needs for credit and investment, and foodstuff handling procedures at all ports. Yes, General, all of that has come from RYAN.

Then why do you say it is doomed?

"Because our vision must look to Perestroika."

I have heard you speak of this program, said Timoshkin with an affirming nod. But why restructure what is already working? What is giving us the edge?

Signal intelligence has its limitations, as does the monitoring of civilian installations and communications. Nothing takes the place of the spy. We know it. The West knows it, which is why many of you are strangers to one another. It is for your protection and the protection of our purpose, which will be detailed to you shortly. Further, based on your specific fields of expertise, I have instructed each of you to fulfill certain assignments.

Which I, for one, have completed, although not without complications, announced a young man in a fitted Italian suit. Seven million American dollars is not easily kept quiet, even for an experienced banker like me who knows Western procedures and ways around them.

With the exception of the stranger, who eyed the banker coldly, those around the table stared at him with bewilderment before looking back at Andropov. Where did this banker – whoever he was – get $7 million? What was its purpose?

Complications? asked Andropov.

As instructed, I opened an account in Switzerland. Publicity was difficult to avoid, for it seems the Swiss can smell a Soviet as easily as someone from NATO. The banker sat forward, his combed brown hair and handsome face illuminated under the direct wash of the lights. To be specific: anticipation of our deposit appears to have preceded me. I determined as much from numerous subtle references, including use of my name prior to my having provided it. Likewise, deposit procedures were much too swift – particularly for the Swiss – especially for a double-alpha account. Without question, they were expecting me.

You suspect someone alerted them?

The banker shrugged, leaving the obvious deduction unspoken.

Perhaps someone connected to one of us? Andropov asked, glancing around at the others.

Again, the banker shrugged.

"If it was Gagarin, I will have him shot," growled General Timoshkin.

The banker slid a large, brown envelope across the table. What I have just told you, plus receipts and the signature code, are included in my report.

The Soviet president watched the envelope come to a stop in front of him.

You have done well, comrade, he said. Your completion of this assignment will enable us to survive.

Survive? asked General Timoshkin. On $7 million? The border guards drink that in vodka. How can a restructuring of the Soviet Union be accomplished with such an absurd amount?

Andropov turned toward the stranger. "Perhaps our latest arrival would care to answer that. He is the man I have chosen to direct Perestroika."

Startled, the banker sat forward. But I thought . . . he began, then hesitating.

That another was to be chosen? Andropov said, completing the banker’s sentence.

But what about Comrade Gorbachev? Naturally, I had assumed there was a degree of truth to what we’ve been hearing.

As had I, agreed General Timoshkin.

Restructuring has many dimensions, just as it has many enemies. The man I have chosen is someone whose qualifications and training are dedicated specifically and entirely to the fulfillment of our vision.

"What exactly is our vision? asked Timoshkin, extinguishing one cigarette and lighting another. And who is this man you have chosen?"

The blond stranger stood. He was an inch shorter than Talanov, and his blue eyes came eagerly to life when he pulled a pistol with silencer from under his coat. Three muffled spits sent the banker arching backward out of his chair before the stunned Talanov could withdraw his gun.

Put that away, Colonel! commanded Andropov.

Pistol in hand, Talanov stared with incredulity at the Soviet president.

You heard me, said Andropov. Put it away.

Reluctantly, Talanov complied.

To those in this room, the blond stranger began as though nothing had occurred, "Perestroika refers to a deeper, more comprehensive restructuring than has been presented even to the presidium."

With Talanov watching his every movement, the stranger walked over to the door and opened it. Two guards entered and dragged the banker’s body out of the room, leaving a smear of blood on the floor. The blond stranger then closed and locked the door.

Our vision is not merely one of reform, but of acquisition and control on a global scale. No longer will we be dominated by the West. As one might expect with a project of this importance, any breach of security will not go unpunished!

He stopped beside General Timoshkin, whose cigarette fell from his mouth.

The blond stranger laughed and walked on.

You have nothing to fear, General, he said. You see, while our comrade’s Swiss banking skills proved quite useful, his flirtations with becoming a rich double agent did not. It is of no consequence that each of you knows of our deposit in Switzerland. What matters is that our comrade was willing to sell us out. The stranger’s smile faded into an icy sneer as his inflection climbed like an excited dictator reprimanding subordinates. Such treason will not be tolerated!

Who is this stranger? thought Talanov. Why is he here? Talanov wondered whether the banker had succeeded in his betrayal. Andropov had barely reacted to the killing, obviously because he knew what was to occur or because he had personally ordered it.

Yet something else definitely seemed odd. Although cultured and flawless, the stranger’s Russian was spoken with an almost-indiscernible foreign accent. He was not from any of the standard directorates, that much was obvious. Where, then, had he received his training? How did Andropov know him? And why was Andropov bypassing tested political figures in favor of this man?

Suddenly Talanov realized the stranger was looking at him. He had been concentrating so hard on his analysis that he had missed what the man had said. Silence filled the room as the stranger stood poised, as if waiting for a reply. All heads began to turn.

Did I miss something, Comrade? asked Talanov.

Your thoughts are elsewhere? asked the man.

Talanov stepped away from the cutting block. Indeed they are, he said. If we are to achieve our goals, then problems must be anticipated – must be solved – before they appear.

What problems do you envision?

What I envision is unimportant. It’s the unexpected that can kill us.

You refer to our banking comrade and who he may have been working for?

Indeed I do. But then I’m not able to question him now, am I?

A broad smile appeared on the killer’s face. "Colonel Talanov’s excellent reputation is deserved! He whirled toward the group and, circling the table, continued praising Talanov’s insights with a sequence of supporting logic. He finally came to a stop at the opposite end of the table from Andropov. If I am not mistaken, Colonel Talanov has been, and still is, vitally important to you at the Center."

The Soviet leader nodded. He is without fear, and his loyalty to me is unquestioned.

Without emotion is how you described him.

A brilliant mind with excellent training. It is why he was promoted so quickly. That and his ability to see potential threats before they occur. He once saved my life.

With his hands folded behind him, the stranger smiled and again wandered casually around the table describing Talanov’s background, which began as a teenager at Balashikha, the secret KGB special operations training center near Moscow.

After several courses at the Surveillance College in Leningrad, Comrade Talanov was appointed to the analysis section of Directorate Seven, where his skills in the areas of surveillance and security led to his promotion to Directorate Nine. There he was chosen by the great Dmitri Lazovic to coordinate the physical protection of important installations as well as the personal safety of party leadership. It was in Directorate Nine that he came to your attention, Comrade President, and it was your influence that rewarded him entrance into the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, where he excelled. This, of course, resulted in his eventual selection to the First Chief Directorate, where he continues to provide analytical support to various sub-directorates and services, as well as invaluable service on assignments of the most sensitive nature, such as our meeting tonight. He is unmarried and, therefore, unattached. Colonel Talanov speaks several languages and has no addictions or indiscretions worthy of mention.

The stranger glanced across the table. Did I forget anything, Colonel?

The number of fillings in my teeth, replied Talanov icily.

Which, of course, is on file.

The stranger rounded the end of the table and stopped beside Talanov.

Comrade President, should anything go wrong with tonight’s plans – we recall how Colonel Talanov has already uncovered a breach in General Timoshkin’s office security – his continued influence at the Center must not be compromised. As you yourself have said, the eyes of betrayal are everywhere.

This is true, Andropov agreed.

I therefore request Comrade Talanov be excused.

What? Talanov shouted.

For his own protection, the stranger hastened to add. "This in no way reflects mistrust. Should Perestroika prove successful, then his services will again be required."

No, said Talanov, his eyes on Andropov. You yourself have chosen me for this task.

And I alone will determine your part in it, Andropov declared. He turned to the stranger. It is an odd request in light of your statement about Colonel Talanov providing me with exceptional service. He is my eyes and ears, and his loyalty to me is unquestioned.

Precisely my point. If opposition has been mounted against us, it would be coordinated through the Center. If that happens, Colonel Talanov would undoubtedly hear of it and pass a warning on to you. If, however, he is identified with our plans, then your eyes and ears would be lost.

But I am identified already, said Talanov. I am the organizer of this meeting!

Highly secret and known only to us, the stranger replied quickly without losing eye contact with Andropov. "In the unlikely event that word of tonight’s meeting has been leaked, no interrogation could endanger – indeed, no chemicals could extract – what is not known. Up to this point, Colonel Talanov has acted entirely within the boundary of his responsibilities as one of your most trusted agents, thereby preserving his reputation and ability to detect any threat."

Our comrade’s arguments are sound, Andropov said, nodding thoughtfully. We must not lose your presence at the Center.

But we speak only of dangers imagined, Talanov said, his eyes locking briefly with General Timoshkin’s.

Imagined? Andropov repeated with a thin smile. "Are you so quick to forget? I have known you for many years, Aleksandr, and I know how loyal and dedicated you are. ‘An idealist,’ I think you are called. I know also how persuasive you can be, cleverly manipulating the truth, as you’re obviously trying right now. Remember what happened earlier? Comrade Vaskin may have caused us much harm. In light of this, I find myself in agreement with Comrade Cherniak. If we have been betrayed, then word of it will be heard at the Center. As you can appreciate, I must do everything within my power to prevent such an occurrence. Our vision must be preserved, for if we are compromised, the world will still see Perestroika, but not as we have designed it. And if we fail, then the glory of Russia will vanish."

Recognizing what was about to happen, Talanov drew himself to attention, the soldier before his superior. You have decided then, Comrade President?

But while Andropov was voicing his reply, Talanov’s mind was focused on how Andropov had inadvertently revealed the identities of two key figures: Vaskin, the murdered traitor, and Cherniak, the man who had killed him. It would not be hard to find out who these men were. As he was thinking about where to look first, he again noticed the room had gone silent. He refocused on the Soviet president, who was scrutinizing him carefully.

Colonel? Andropov asked.

Merely trying to formulate something which might alter your decision, Talanov replied.

Andropov chuckled. I thought as much. No, Aleksandr, the dismissal stands. But I ask you to not judge this moment too harshly. My decision may well spare your life, just as your eyes and ears may spare ours.

Nearby, his head lowered slightly, the killer named Cherniak smiled.

CHAPTER 1

LOS ANGELES: MODERN DAY

With his hands in the pockets of his slacks, Talanov stared past the mannequins in the front window and watched the crowds outside. The plaza was normally bustling this time of the day, but the southern California sun had cast a languid spell and people seemed content to be taking their time.

Talanov wished he were out there with them, but he was not. Instead, he was standing in another boutique watching his wife, Andrea, try on yet another dress. Was this what retirement was all about? Was this what marriage was all about?

That color looks stunning, the sales assistant gushed as Andrea stepped out of the fitting room in a single-shoulder, sapphire cocktail dress. What’s the occasion?

Farewell party in Sydney next week with some diplomats and their wives. We just bought a home in the Hollywood Hills, so we’re flying back to say goodbye before we start packing.

How long is the flight to Australia?

Fifteen hours, give or take. Thankfully, we’re flying business class, so the time is spent comfortably.

I love Australians, especially that spunky chef I saw on Oprah. The sales assistant, a forty-something blonde with a Cleopatra-style haircut, then made a growling sound, like a tigress on the prowl.

Can a thirty-year-old wear something like this? Andrea asked, viewing herself in the full-length mirrors.

Honey, with that figure, you could wear liquid vinyl. What’s your secret?

Salads and kickboxing lessons. My husband insisted that I learn, so I punch it out three days a week with one of his black belt friends.

Well, it’s working. You look gorgeous.

Andrea smiled, made a full turn to look at the fit, then looked over at her husband. Alex, what do you think?

About what? asked Talanov.

The dress.

It’s nice, he said.

Nice? Is that all you can say?

What more do you want me to say?

‘Great’ I can take. Even ‘bloody awful.’ But not ‘nice.’ Honestly, Alex, you can be so indifferent at times.

Annoyed at the insecurities of his wife, Talanov glanced at his watch. I think I’ll go buy a paper.

And with a polite nod to the sales assistant, he walked out the door.

Men, the assistant confided once Talanov had departed. You can’t live with them and you can’t shoot them.

Andrea tried to smile, but the attempt faded as she again viewed her profile in the mirrors. Alex is one of the most charming men I know. But beneath the surface, he’s a block of ice.

Doesn’t that drive you mad?

More than he’ll ever know.

Outside, Talanov descended a flight of steps to Hollywood Boulevard, where he lifted his face toward the sun. Los Angeles definitely did not have the class of San Francisco. But it had warm water and sun, and lots of it.

He had once thought about settling in San Francisco after the Soviet system had been dismantled. Bill Wilcox, his contact at Langley, had said he could arrange citizenship as a gesture of thanks for the risks he had taken during the Cold War as November Echo, the deep cover informant who had helped the CIA.

But Wilcox had been wrong. It seemed the Americans were not all that keen to have a former KGB agent running around on the loose. Wilcox tried telling them he was one of the good guys, but old prejudices die hard, even though there was a possible American connection through his father. Wilcox tried investigating the connection, but let it drop when it didn’t pan out.

So he settled in Australia.

Several others had followed, most notably General Timoshkin, who chose South Australia for its weather and wine. The last he’d heard, though, was that the old warhorse was in an Adelaide hospital with cancer, and by now could even be dead.

Talanov wondered if the general had managed to find peace. He hoped so, wishing that he too could escape the residues of his past, not so much for what he himself had done, but for what the Soviet system had perpetrated. A system he once trusted and to which he had dedicated his life.

Until, that is, he began to see through communism’s peeling veneer. And not before his heart had been irreparably scarred in the corridors of Balashikha. Passion, intimacy, love: these were weaknesses and  dangers against which he had been vaccinated by his instructors.

And he had fed upon their words like a carnivore feeds on flesh, convinced they would keep him alive. Except they had now become a curse that was insulating him from the woman he wished he could love, and perhaps in his own way did love, but certainly not with passion. And who could blame him? His father had been killed when he was an infant, after which his mother found solace in drugs. By the time he was four, she had died from an overdose. He was then placed in the care of her elderly parents, who couldn’t cope, living as they did in a tiny ninth-floor flat in one of the massive concrete deserts as the featureless high-rise blocks of apartments in Moscow were called. Before long, he was a ward of the state. It was in the care of state minders that he first learned about happiness and how it came not from the fleeting illusion called love, but from achievement, discipline, and excellence.

Not much had changed in the years since. Sure, the desire to love was there. But how does one give what one does not feel? What one does not understand?

With his tie flapping lightly in the wind, Talanov headed west against the current of tourists in oversized shirts and broad-brimmed hats. Most were carrying maps to the homes of the stars. Many were photographing the Walk of Fame’s large, brass stars of pink terrazzo in the shiny, gray sidewalk. Exclamations were flying everywhere. Here’s Greta Garbo! There’s Groucho Marx. Where’s Mickey Mouse? Others were being photographed in the yawning gullet of the Kodak Theater – where the Academy Awards were held – or placing their hands or feet inside the imprints of famous actors at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

At the end of the block, Talanov came to a side street. It was lined with cheap storefronts and metal roll-up doors. Above the shops were the dirty windows of a second-story parking lot.

Talanov entered a small market advertising ice cream and sandwiches. Once inside, he went immediately to the cooler to browse for something to drink. At the front counter, an Asian man with a sprinkling of gray in his shaggy, black hair accepted money from a mother buying an ice cream bar for her ten-year-old daughter. Behind her, an elderly man with gaunt cheeks waited to pay for a quart of milk.

Thanks, Chang. See you tomorrow, the mother said, accepting her change.

Chang smiled and nodded politely.

The rattling of metal drew Talanov’s attention as two men in ski masks pulled down the roller door when entering the store. The leader held up a snubnose .38 and said, No alarms! Nobody move!

The mother grabbed her daughter and pulled her close. The gunman looked at her and grinned.

Oh, God. Don’t hurt us, begged the mother.

Ain’t God you gotta be worryin’ about, the gunman replied. His grin revealed a row of yellowed teeth that hadn’t seen a brush in who knows how long. He yanked the girl away from her mother.

No! the mother screamed, grabbing for her daughter.

Shut your fucking mouth! The gunman jammed the pistol in her face then pointed it at the girl’s head. Or she gets it. You understand?

With a hand over her mouth, the terrified mother nodded.

The gunman stared down a defiant glare from the old man before handing the girl to his companion, a big guy with meaty hands. The big guy pulled out a hunting knife and held it beneath the girl’s chin.

Anybody try anything and my buddy starts slicin’, he warned. To Chang: Empty the register.

Chang nodded and began stuffing cash into a plastic shopping bag.

The gunman suddenly spotted Talanov rising from a squatting position near the cooler.

Hey! he yelled, jumping nervously away from the counter and aiming his pistol at Talanov. "Where the hell did you come from?"

Talanov studied the man.

Get up here with the others! shouted the gunman.

Talanov raised his hands in a pacifying gesture and did as he was told.

Hurry up with that cash! the gunman told Chang. And while you’re at it, fill another bag with cigarettes and candy.

You do know smoking is bad for your health, don’t you? said Talanov, stopping beside the old man. Haven’t you seen those ads on TV where they take you inside the lungs of a smoker?

Shut up!

Talanov took a small step forward and smiled reassuringly at the young girl. She was frightened but remarkably composed. Not so was her mother, who was now on her knees sobbing, hair tangled, hands covering her face, a complete wreck.

"Of course, neither is going to prison. Now, that can be hard on your health. I’ve heard what they do to newbies when they first arrive. Can’t walk straight for weeks."

Quit provoking him! said the old man.

Just trying to be helpful, replied Talanov with an exaggerated shrug while taking another small step forward. You see, our visitor hasn’t thought through the consequences of his actions.

He looked at the second masked man and saw him shifting uneasily in place. You can walk away from this, you know. Just release the girl and leave. Before the police arrive.

Police? said the second masked man, glancing quickly at his companion.

I said, shut up! yelled the gunman, sniffing several times, his nostrils flaring. He then stabbed the gun at Chang. Cash and cigarettes. Now!

Nervous behavior, jerky movements, the pressure of committing a crime: it was a volatile mix compounded by the gunman’s sense of bravado. But a pistol at close quarters could actually be a disadvantage, especially in the hands of an amateur whose focus was in the same direction as his gun. And yet, so long as the weapon was aimed at Chang, Talanov knew he could make no move. He would not risk the man getting shot. The solution, of course, was getting the gunman to aim in another direction.

Easy there, hotshot. Keep it calm, said Talanov.

Shut the fuck up!

Come on, hotshot, watch the swearing, said Talanov with a sarcastic snort. It shows a lack of intelligence. And there’s a young girl in the shop.

A series of involuntary reactions occurred over the next few seconds: the gunman’s fingers tightened on the pistol, his body tensed, his jaw clenched, and his nostrils flared.

The gunman was not conscious of these movements, but Talanov saw them all. So when the gunman swung the pistol toward Talanov, he was ready.

Sliding behind the gunman’s arm as it swept toward him, Talanov grabbed the man’s hand, ducked under his arm and wrenched the gun upward and out of his hand. He then hammered an elbow into his chin. The gunman’s head snapped back, his yellow teeth making a loud clacking noise before he crumpled to the floor.

The whole maneuver took roughly three seconds.

Talanov stared at the unconscious body for a long moment before leveling his gaze at the other masked man, who tightened his grip on the girl.

I’ll kill her! the masked man swore.

And get the needle for murder? Let her go and you can walk free.

Give me the gun. Then she goes free.

I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.

I’ll kill her, I swear I will!

For God’s sake, do what he wants! begged the mother.

He said he’d let her go! said

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