But it wasn’t yet midnight, and it wasn’t clear. Snow whispered down, a cold powder that reflected colorful lights hanging on adobe buildings beyond an intersection ahead. Even the traffic lights appeared festive.
“What a perfect Christmas Eve,” a woman marveled, proceeding with the crowd on Alameda Street. The Spanish word alameda referred to the poplars that had rimmed the street years earlier when it had been only a lane. Although cottonwoods had long since replaced those poplars, the street remained narrow, the sidewalk barely accommodating the crush of people coming from mass at St. Francis Cathedral or from the ice sculptures in Santa Fe’s four-hundred-year-old wooded square, known as the Plaza.
“You think the lights in the Plaza are something?” the woman’s companion told her. “Wait’ll you see Canyon Road. A mile of decorations. You’ll be glad you came to visit for the holidays. People travel from all over the world to see Santa Fe at Christmas. You know what it means, don’t you? ‘Santa Fe’?”
“At the hotel, I heard somebody call it the City Different.”
“That’s just its nickname. Santa Fe was settled by the Spanish. The name means ‘Holy Faith.’ It’s perfect for this time of year.”
“Peace on Earth, goodwill to men…”
Moving with the crowd, the man in the black ski jacket didn’t care about peace or goodwill. He was forty-five, but the effects of his hard life had made him look older. He had big shoulders and creased features, and he saw with the tunnel vision of a hunter so that objects on each side of him registered only as blurs. For him, sounds diminished as well. The carolers, the cathedral bells, the exclamations of delight at the holiday displays—all of these lessened as he focused solely on his quarry. There were only fifteen people between them.
The target wore a navy parka, but despite the falling snow, he had the hood shoved back, allowing a cold layer of white to accumulate on his head. The pursuer understood. A man on the run couldn’t allow the sides of a hood to obstruct his view of what lay on each side. Desperate to find an escape route, the fugitive saw differently than a hunter, not with tunnel vision but with an intense awareness of everything around him.
The killer kept his hands in the pockets of his ski jacket. Inside the pockets were slits that made it easy for him to reach the two pistols he had holstered on his belt under his jacket. Each weapon had a sound suppressor. One was a 10-millimeter Glock, chosen because of its power and because the rifling in Glock barrels blurred the striations on bullets fired from them. As a consequence, crime-scene investigators found it almost impossible to link those bullets to any particular gun.
But if everything went as planned, the force of the Glock wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, the second pistol—a .22 Beretta—would be chosen for its subtlety. Even without a suppressor, the small-caliber gun made little noise. But with a suppressor, and with subsonic ammunition designed for Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet of altitude, the .22 was about as quiet as a pistol could be. Equally important, its lesser power meant that the bullet it fired wasn’t likely to jeopardize the mission by going through the target and hitting the precious object hidden under his parka.
“…to hear the angels sing.”
At the intersection, the traffic light changed to red. As the snow kept falling, the crowd stopped and formed a dense barrier that prevented the hunter from moving closer to his target.
Suddenly, a man’s voice blurted from an earbud concealed beneath the black watchman’s cap that the hunter wore over his ears.
“Melchior! Status!” the angry voice demanded.
The hunter’s name was Andrei. His employer, a former KGB interrogator, had given him the pseudonym “Melchior” to sanitize the team’s radio communications in case an enemy accessed their frequency. The seemingly nonsensical choice had puzzled Andrei until he’d learned that, according to tradition, Melchior was one of the wise men who’d followed the Christmas star to Bethlehem and discovered the baby Jesus.
A microphone was concealed under the ski-lift tickets attached to the zipper on Andrei’s coat: tickets that were commonplace in this mountain resort. To avoid attracting attention when he replied, he pulled his cell phone from a pants pocket and pretended to talk into it. His breath was white with frost. Although his origins were Russian, his American accent was convincing.
He pressed the microphone to transmit his message.
“Hey, Uncle Harry. I just walked up Alameda Street. I’m on the corner of Paseo de Peralta.” The Spanish name meant “walkway of Peralta” and referred to Santa Fe’s founder, a governor of New Mexico in the early 1600s. “Canyon Road’s across the street. I’ll pick up the package and be at your place in twenty minutes.”
“Do you know where the package is?” The gruff voice made no attempt to conceal its Russian accent, or its impatience.
“Right in front of me,” Andrei pretended to say into his cell phone. “The Christmas decorations are amazing.”
“Our clients will be here any second. Get it back!”
“As soon as my friends catch up to me.”
“Balthazar! Caspar! Status!” the voice demanded.
The unusual pseudonyms were the names that tradition had given to the remaining wise men in the Christmas story.
“Almost there!” another accented voice said through Andrei’s earbud, breathing quickly. “When you grab the package, we’ll block anybody who gets in the way.”
“Good. Tomorrow, we’ll watch football,” Andrei said into the microphone. “See you in a bit, Uncle Harry.”
He wore thin leather shooter’s gloves that provided only brief protection from the cold. As the traffic light changed to green, he returned the phone to his pants pocket, then shoved his hands back into his fleece-lined jacket, warming his fingers.
The crowd proceeded across the street, continuing to shield the target, who was about six feet tall, slender but with surprising strength, as Andrei knew firsthand from missions they’d served on together.
And from what had occurred fifteen minutes earlier.
Dark hair of medium length. Rugged yet pleasant features that witnesses otherwise found hard to describe. In his early thirties.
Andrei now realized that these details were the extent of what he knew about the man. The thought intensified his anger. Until tonight, he’d believed that he and his quarry were on the same side—and more, that they were friends.
You’re the only person I trusted, Pyotyr. How many other lies did you tell? I vouched for you. I told the Pakhan that he could depend on you. If I don’t get back what you stole, he’ll have me killed.
The man reached the opposite side of the street and turned to the right, passing star-shaped lights strung along the windows of an art gallery. Andrei shifted a little closer—only thirteen people away now—avoiding sudden movements, doing nothing that would disrupt the flow of the crowd and cause his prey to look back. Although the man’s gait remained steady, Andrei knew that his left arm was wounded. It hung at his side. Shadows and trampling footsteps concealed the blood he left on the snow.
You’ll soon weaken, Andrei thought, surprised that he hadn’t already.
Red and blue lights flashed ahead, making Andrei tense. Despite the holiday surroundings, it was impossible to mistake those lights for Christmas displays. Reflected by the falling snow, they were mounted on the roofs of two police cars that blocked the entrance to Canyon Road. Large red letters on the cars’ white doors announced: santa fe police.
Andrei’s shoulders tightened. Are they searching for us? Have they found the bodies?
Two burly policemen in bulky coats stood before the cruisers, stamping their boots in the snow, trying to keep warm. Stiff from the cold, they raised their left arms awkwardly and motioned toward oncoming headlights, warning cars and pickup trucks to keep going and not enter Canyon Road.
Ahead in the crowd, a woman pointed with concern. “Why would the police be here? Something must have happened. Maybe we’d better stay away.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” her companion assured her. “The police form a barricade every year. Christmas Eve, cars can’t drive on Canyon Road. Only pedestrians are allowed there tonight.”
Andrei watched Pyotyr walk around the cruisers and enter the celebration on Canyon Road, taking care to avoid eye contact with the policemen. They paid him no attention, looking bored.
Yes, they’re only managing traffic, Andrei decided. That’ll soon change, but by then, I’ll have what I need and be out of here.
He wondered why Pyotyr hadn’t run to the police for help, but after a moment’s thought, he understood. The bastard knows we won’t allow anything to stop us from taking back what he stole. With their weapons holstered, those two cops wouldn’t have a chance if we rushed them.
Staring ahead, he noticed how the increasing narrowness of Canyon Road made the crowd even denser. Santa Fe was a small city of about 70,000 people. Before beginning his assignment, Andrei had reconnoitered the compact downtown area and knew that Canyon Road had few side streets. It reminded him of a funnel.
Things will happen swiftly now, he thought. I’ll get you, my friend.
Whoever you are.
Andrei’s vision narrowed even more, focusing almost exclusively on the back of Pyotyr’s head, where he intended to put his bullet. Pretending to marvel at the Christmas decorations, he passed the flashing lights of the police cars and entered the kill zone.
© David Morrell 2008