Chapter 1

 

As if to cast a spotlight on their standing in the world, the moon threw a white glow over the gleaming high-rises clustered at the heart of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The pristine pillars were as modern as they were vertiginous. Only social climbers, business moguls, and the most affluent of Addis Ababa could call these architectural masterpieces home.

Yet none could stand as tall as Pantheon Tower. Just below the top beamed a series of penthouse suites constructed of glass, the view affording the occupants the chance to look down on the world as gods.

Nevertheless, this glass box operated only as support for the uppermost dwelling, one of several impenetrable fortresses around the world belonging to the notorious Charles Gravo. A curated collection of military-trained mercenaries in black two-piece suits manned this stronghold. They lined the windows at perfect three-foot intervals, each sentry clutching a semiautomatic assault rifle and donning an earpiece that disappeared into his jacket collar. Most of them stood in earshot of their boss, a man in his mid-thirties, as he pleasured a half-naked teenaged girl.

Eyes closed, the baby-faced teenager moaned from atop the disheveled black satin sheets on the palatial bed. Her tongue mimicked the slow laps as Gravo bobbed his head between her skinny thighs.

She cracked open an eyelid to check his mood. If he were angry, she would need to work harder, but if he were content, she might live. Failure to please him, as per his exact instructions, meant she would end up dead like the others. Nobody ever talked about that. It was just understood.

Gravo soon sat up and wiped his mouth with her shirt. “Lay back and pleasure yourself,” he ordered.

Was that boredom on his face? She reacted with urgency. With playful fingers, she traced an imaginary line down her stomach until her fingers met the plaid miniskirt gathered at her hips. She made sure she had his undivided attention as she massaged her bald labia, working in methodical circles.

“Like this, Papa?” she whimpered, her hips matching the rhythm of her hands. She willed herself to keep going in the desperate hope that this would be over soon.

“Yes. Just like that.” He scooted closer and stroked himself while watching her small, manicured fingers disappear inside herself and then reappear to rub the full length of her labia.

“Come on,” she urged him. “Empty yourself inside me, Papa.”

Just then, she felt a single tear sneak out of the corner of her eye. As it streamed down her face, she turned her head and looked through the glass walls and out to the starlit sky to hide her shame. The thought of her so-called Papa discovering her disgust sent a shiver down her spine, so she forged forward with her role.

She wiped the tear into the pillow cover and peeked back at him, only to be greeted by his grimacing stare. She stopped breathing for a split second when she noticed that he was losing his erection.

“Now, Papa?” she pleaded. “Will you fuck me now?”

His upper lip twisted as he lifted the girl up to him. He knew exactly how he wanted her positioned to heighten his pleasure. But before he could do so, a deafening rumble caused him to lurch back. The clink of shattering glass echoed through the room. The lights flickered, and dust fell from the ceiling. Gunfire and explosions sent shock waves through the penthouse.

“UTA police!”

Three masked men in black military assault gear with UTA Police stamped across their chests burst through the door.

“Charles Gravo, put your hands in the air and step away from the child!” The police officer locked in on Charles with his assault rifle. A bright red pulsing dot danced across Charles’s vision, and he knew it was the rifle’s laser sight.

He cracked a menacing smile and, moving with the lithe grace of a cat, slid out of the bed. He stood still, naked and unapologetic, with his hands up. The young girl remained in his bed.

“Shale, do as they say,” Charles ordered.

The girl climbed off the bed to join Charles, placing herself in the line of fire between the officer and her Papa. She raised her hands high so her palms intercepted the path of the red dot.

“Put your hands on your head and interlock your fingers,” the officer ordered.

The smile remained on Charles’s face, and before the officer could speak again, the muzzles of two assault rifles flashed from the bedroom’s shadowy back corners amid an unholy roar. The girl flinched as bullet casings crashed and echoed off the heated marble floor. The officers’ bodies jerked forward and blood sprayed, then both fell forward, limp, dead.

The remaining members of the task force in the living room made their way toward the bedroom, crouching to find cover.

“Mr. Gravo, to the panic room!” came the voice of his security commander.

Charles grabbed the girl and pushed her ahead of him as they ran to the back corner of the bedroom. His mercenaries engaged the task force in a fierce gun battle as Charles and the girl ducked through a hidden barricaded door and slammed it shut behind them. Charles placed his shaking palm on a scanner.

“Lockdown sequence initiated,” a soft, robotic feminine voice recited, followed by the sounds of mechanical dead bolts locking into place. Everything worked exactly as designed. This wasn’t the first time Charles Gravo had been forced to escape a raid.

Inside the panic room, he and the girl hurried to the shelves where spare clothes lay waiting. Charles grabbed a black sweat suit and sneakers and pulled them on without underwear or socks. He tossed a similar but smaller sweat suit to his shale. She caught the clothes and dropped them at her feet to begin removing that night’s costume.

Charles watched her. The air-conditioned room caused goose pimples to form on the skin around her nipples and down her arms. He grew hard as she flung the schoolgirl costume to the floor, twisted her long black hair into a tight bun, and slipped into the small sweat suit.

He wanted to fuck her right there, despite the continued gunfire just outside his secure walls. He pushed the urge away and dashed over to the padded wall mounted with semiautomatic weapons. He grabbed a truncated AR assault rifle and extra ammunition clips, and quickly locked and loaded the weapon before tossing it to her. She caught it, almost dropping it, then readied herself to aim and fire it as she’d been trained to do by Charles’s mercenaries. Charles grabbed a Beretta ARX rifle and extra ammunition clips, locked and loaded his weapon, and nodded to signal it was time to exit the panic room.

He slid back a secret panel in the room to reveal another infrared palm scanner. Seconds later, a door on the other side of the panic room opened to reveal a fifteen-foot corridor with a one-way mirror at the end. From inside the corridor, Charles could see his emergency exit route flooded with task force police in a gunfight with what remained of Charles’s security detail.

He pulled his young companion in front of him to use as a shield. When she crouched in fear, he placed his hand on her thin shoulder and bent down to whisper into her ear. He could feel her trembling.

“The brave endure while cowards die alone.” He kissed her cheek just before pressing a button that caused the one-way bulletproof mirror to slide halfway into the floor, giving them a cover from which to fire upon their enemies. He nodded at her and pulled her up.

They both opened fire at the back of the nearest officer. He went down, and two of his fellow officers spun around instantly and returned fire.

Charles and the shale took cover again behind the half-raised bulletproof glass, waiting for a break in the return fire. The moment the officers stopped to reload, Charles and the girl stood again, and another officer fell dead.

Charles thought the tide was turning in his favor. Two officers sprawled in bloody pools near their exit. The few remaining UTA officers and Charles’s security team continued to exchange fire. Another UTA officer flung out his arms and went down.

“Go!” Charles yelled.

The girl stepped over the cover of the glass and moved in a crouching run toward the exit with Charles close behind. Now the remaining UTA officers were taking fire from both sides.

“Keep moving forward,” Charles told the girl.

They were only a few feet away from the flight of stairs that would serve as their exit. Before they reached that safe haven, a single bullet breached the large windows behind them and exploded the skull of Charles’s teenage human shield. She toppled to the floor, her head and face covered in blood and pinkish-gray brain matter.

Charles turned to look out the large window to see muzzle flashes from a hovering helicopter just as another bullet pierced the glass, sending large shards down onto two of his remaining security men.

“Advance!” screamed one of the UTA officers into his shoulder mic. “Yäbälay identified!”

Within seconds, another wave of officers stormed up the escape stairwell. One peered over the top of the stairs and fired two shots at Charles before the officer behind him body-checked him into the stairwell wall.

“Idiot!” barked the second officer, who had a captain’s epaulet on his shoulder. “He’s to be taken alive!”

Tin canisters hit the floor behind Charles and exploded, releasing a shock wave that sent him stumbling to the floor. Several officers rushed in to surround, disarm, and place him in restraints while others emerged from the stairwell and concentrated their firepower on what was left of Charles’s security detail, eliminating them one after another with surgical precision.

The clicking and tight grip of the metal handcuffs around Charles’s wrists infuriated him.

The UTA captain spoke into his shoulder mic. “We have the target in custody. I repeat, we have Yäbälay in custody.”

The radio crackled. “Acknowledged. Proceed with extraction plan omega, and we will meet you at the safe house.”

“You’re all dead men,” Charles said quietly before a black hood was thrown over his head from behind. He tried to shake it off, though he knew it was hopeless. Then he felt the sting of a needle in his upper arm. His legs buckled, and he slumped forward. Inside the hood, he fought to keep his eyes open. He failed.