By Roger Vallon


Vallon


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KILL FACTOR: SERPENT HEAD—PROLOGUE: WAKE UP CALL

San Diego, California
Friday, 12:53 a.m.

Angie Hunter walked softly over to the couch and rejoined her husband, Scott Hunter, who was in the middle of a DVR recording. He chugged a beer to the last drop and set the empty can down on the coffee table when she snuggled up to him.

“He fell back asleep,” she whispered, her mouth close to Scott’s ear. “Can you turn that down some?”

Scott snatched the remote from the arm of the couch and adjusted the volume. “What about Cassie?”

“She’s out like a light. Tim didn’t wake her. Good thing I closed her room door tonight.”

Angie looped her blonde hair over her ear, revealing a beauty mark above her jaw line. Scott looked across at her, ran a thumb over the mark, and smiled. She smiled back, and they watched the recorded movie in silence for a few minutes, relishing the opportunity to spend time together alone. Given the demands of caring for a two-year-old and six-year-old, those times were rare. Tim, the two-year-old, had awakened from a bad dream, but Angie had picked him up and soothed him back to sleep. She hoped that would be the last interruption for the night, but the telephone that sat on the end table next to her husband had other ideas. Its ring broke the agreeable stillness, and Scott answered it before it could wake his children.

“Who is this?” he asked, annoyed that someone would call at such an hour.

A male voice on the other end of the line uttered a single sentence, a French proverb: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As the line was disconnected, something clicked inside Scott Hunter’s brain, and a metallic taste washed over his tongue. He was no longer himself. His mind was now bent on fulfilling a predefined directive, and he felt a burst of adrenaline course through him. Gone were the mundane strictures that composed his life. In his current mental state he had no obligations to a wife or children; his sole purpose was now implanted in his head: he was to kill a high-value target. He could also access a mental map, pinpointing the exact location of his objective, or “ghost mark,” as his programmers called the victims of their proposed hits.

“Who was it?” Angie asked, though her eyes never left the television screen.

“Wrong number,” Scott said in a monotone voice as he got up from the couch, failing to take note of Angie’s indifference. He walked to the kitchen, grabbed his keys from a hook on the wall that faced the breakfast counter, and headed toward the front door. “I’m gonna pick up some cigarettes.”

“At this hour?” Angie said, without much conviction, as though the exchange were part of a stale routine.

“I won’t be long,” Scott said, and he closed the door behind him.

He drove out of Rolando and cut a zigzag path till he hit M.L. King, which accounted for the majority of his route. As he drove, a series of images flashed through his mind—faces, names, snatches of exotic locales he’d probably visited in some forgotten past. One name in particular registered. It was his name, or the name he was known by, Trajan Cobalt. He knew that was who he was.

Trajan pulled up to a club on Fifth and had no difficulty getting through the entrance. Once inside, he made his way through a crowd of sweaty teenagers gyrating and grinding to the generic pop song blaring in the background. Dim blue and purple lights flashed around the room, and skinny girls in hot pants and miniskirts had their hands in the air as they moved to the music. A couple of them eyed Trajan as he glided past, but neither of them saw the Glock he palmed as he slinked through a throng of dancers.

The beat was pumping, and he felt it coursing through him, the bass almost in time with his heartbeat. His adrenaline was gushing. He spotted his target in the distance, a slender Saudi Arabian leaning against a wall near the DJ booth, three giggling blondes and a curvaceous brunette lending ear to whatever he was selling.

Trajan raised his weapon and fired three shots in rapid succession. The room erupted with screams as the Saudi collapsed to the floor, bleeding from three fatal chest wounds. The crowd of club-goers moved as a single entity, driven by an overwhelming impulse to get out. They surged toward the exits like a herd of gazelle panicked by a forest fire. Screams and curses rang out as people tripped over one another and were trampled.

Trajan kept the Glock in full view, pointed toward the ceiling, as he calmly walked toward the same door through which he had come in. Somehow, despite its all-consuming panic, the crazed mob parted for him, and he left the club as easily as he’d entered. He drove home without a thought or care, not even bothering to make good on his cigarette alibi.

Angie was asleep when he slid into bed next to her. The moment he closed his eyes, he remembered nothing, save the reality that firmly fixed him as Scott Hunter, midlevel manager at a water bottling company called EvrHEALTH, a division of Redrum Industries.