Alex Tempest leaned on a dirt-crusted stone wall,
head lowered, trying to control his breathing and
ignore the pain. His legs felt like gelatin and sent
sharp, stabbing jolts of agony into his hips; his
head spun with a sudden wave of nausea. Every
muscle was bowstring tight and his heartbeat
ragged—every sound brought a flinch and a shift
of disoriented senses.
The sun had begun to set over the Mexico City
skyline, but the heat continued to roll off the streets
in waves. On the floor of a villa just outside of
town, Vincenzo Carrera lay dead in a pool of
blood. His men hadn’t stopped to clear away the
body, the blood or any of the evidence. They hadn’t
even disposed of the kilo-sized bag of cocaine,
blown to bits and strewed across the inlaid mosaic
of Carrera’s garden. The powder floated about like
fine drifts of snow. Carrera would never spend the
money he’d expected to make on that sale. He
would not make his reservations at La Villa
Cordoba, nor his date with his wife and young
daughter the following day at the beach.
All that remained of Carrera was his well-oiled
organization, designed to sell drugs and kill or
destroy anything that got in its way. It wasn’t
supposed to have mattered. In, remove the target
and out. That was the plan. That was always the
plan. Alex wasn’t known as “the Chameleon”
without good reason. He had worked his way into
incredibly tight spots, killed and disappeared
countless times. This wasn’t even one of his more
But something had gone wrong. Something had
been going wrong for some time, in fact, and
though he’d tried to ignore it, it only grew worse
as each day passed. This time it had nearly cost
him both the success of his mission and his life.
As he waited for the shadows to deepen and
his legs to stop shaking, he went over the mission
again, trying to see if there was anything he
could have done differently, trying to see where
he’d gone wrong. Somewhere there was an error,
a stupid error and he hated stupidity almost as
much as he hated the trembling in his normally
The earlier stages had gone exactly as he’d
foreseen. It wasn’t his first trip to Mexico City and
his old contacts were in place. He’d managed to infiltrate
the lower levels of Carrera’s organization
without incident, had marked his time and his
place. It had taken two weeks of careful watching
and listening to be certain he had it right.
Carrera had been too arrogant to distance himself
from his business and his organization was too
dangerous to be left without close control. It had
only been a matter of time until a deal went down
and Alex was close enough to the center of the operation
to pin it down. They weren’t secretive in
their activities once inside the walls of Carrera’s
villa. Whom did they have to fear? Enough of the
local policia were on the take to ensure secure operations
and no business ever took place on the
streets or in an unsecured location. Again, what
would be the purpose?
Alex had slipped into the deep center of the
garden shortly before the deal was set to go down,
his tan skin darkened with a touch of makeup and
his clothing already a perfect match to what the
guards of the villa were wearing. There were five
posts along the villa’s wall and he’d placed himself
very near one of these. The guard hadn’t seen or
heard him—he was searching for threats from
outside the villa, not from within.
Just before 5:00 p.m., he’d slipped up behind the
guard, slit his throat and took his place, watching
the streets beyond the walls carefully. He moved
and acted exactly as the guard would have—a professional
doing his job. There was no reason
anyone would look at him twice and no one had.
The damned plan was perfect.
At five o’clock sharp, Carrera appeared in the
garden. He sat where he sat every afternoon, and
a young girl brought refreshments. He ate fruit,
and he laughed with the two bodyguards who were
never far from his side. They were short, squat
men with dark hair, dark glasses and no smiles.
They made a quick sweep of the garden. They
glanced up at each guard post. They didn’t take any
special notice of Alex. He paid no attention to
them, willing them to see only what he wanted
them to see—a guard on duty.
At half past five, a long white sedan wound its
way up the long driveway to the villa. It stopped
just shy of the iron gates. Men poured out of twin
guard shacks on either side of the gate, scanning
the passengers, opening the trunk and searching
quickly, checking the engine and sweeping beneath
the undercarriage with mirrors. Slick, quick
and efficient. Alex appreciated that—under other
circumstances he might have admired it.
The gates opened and the car slid in, moving at
a leisurely pace. Alex watched, lost sight of the
vehicle and turned his attention back to the streets.
For the moment, his duty was to protect. He kept
his rifle, a modified Russian SVN-98, with the
barrel tipped toward the street, but low enough that
anyone watching from beyond the fence couldn’t
see it. They knew, of course. The police knew, the
locals knew, everyone knewbetter than to approach
the fence, but that was no reason to let down the
guard. He knew what was expected, and that was
what he became. It was how he operated, how he
The Chameleon absorbed his environment, took
on its colors.
The deal went down moments later. There
were no formalities. Carrera’s men escorted a
small party from the villa to the garden. There
were three men. One carried a banded metal
case. The other two were mirror images of
Carrera’s men—short, squat, expressionless.
They didn’t glance around, but Alex knew they
were aware of every detail. Their lives and the
life of their leader depended on it. It was all like
clockwork, and that was what was supposed to
make it simple.
The money was counted. The drugs were presented
for inspection. Carrera lounged in a chair,
indifferent to the proceedings. The man who had
carried the case moments before scooped a small
sample onto his finger, tasted it quickly, then
pulled a smaller case from his pocket. He took out
a glass bottle, dropped a bit of the powder into it,
added liquid and shook. That was the moment.
Alex knew that no one would be able to resist
watching that bottle. Either the drugs were good,
and the white sedan would glide back out the gates
the way it glided in, leaving Carrera to count the
cash, or it was a setup, an ambush meant to send
some message to a lesser dealer or a competitor. It
mattered little to Alex. Every set of eyes was
locked on the bottle, and in that moment, he struck.
He shifted the rifle in the blink of an eye and
sighted in on Carrera through the integrated scope.
There was no time to hesitate, but Alex was a crack
shot. It was thirty feet down the opposite side of
the wall, but he’d already rigged a line. The entire
operation should have taken, by his calculation,
about forty seconds.
The crosshairs rested on Carrera’s heart, and
Alex curled his finger around the trigger, preparing
to gently squeeze off the single round that
would end Carrera’s life. Except, at that moment,
his hand began to shake. Not a small tremor, but
an uncontrollable spasm that wrenched his fingers
into a locked claw. He fought to control it, and
pulled the trigger instinctively. The slug slammed
into the bag of cocaine and sent a cloud of powder
into the air. In that momentary confusion, cursing
to himself, he resighted, pulled the trigger again,
and blood spouted from Carrera’s temple—the
only part of him that was visible above the
Carrera was dead, but the damage to the mission
was done. Men were already on the move.
Alex dropped the gun and grabbed at his line.
He slid down quickly, rappelling down the sheer
stone face. The muscles of his hand clenched
again, so tight that he nearly cried out. He dropped
too quickly and fought for control. He heard voices
calling out in the distance. He heard gunfire,
probably the buyer’s men crossing with Carrera’s
in the confusion. He heard the roar of an engine,
and he knew they’d seen him. He hadn’t gotten
over the wall quickly enough.
He hit the ground moving far too quickly. He
braced, released the line and rolled, but pain shot
through his legs—more pain than there should
have been—and it was all he could do to keep his
feet. There was a hundred yards before he’d be
near any sort of cover. The first side street consisted
of lines of small houses, all the same, most
of them uninhabited. The few that weren’t empty
held Carrera’s men and their families. It was a
small demilitarized zone, more for camouflage
Behind the second house on the left side of the
street, he’d parked a Ducati dirt bike, small,
powerful and maneuverable. He heard sounds of
pursuit, too close. As he ran, he tossed aside his
jacket and shirt. Dangling from the handlebars
he’d left a dirty serape that many of the natives
here wore. He whipped it over his shoulders, slid
his arms in and dropped heavily onto the bike. His
legs tingled as though they’d fallen asleep, and ice
picks stabbed at his hips. His vision darkened for
a moment from the sudden pain, and he nearly
blacked out. He gritted his teeth, punched himself
in the thigh repeatedly and kicked the engine to
He spun out and around the corner as the first
wave of Carrera’s men swept out the gates and
into the streets, searching for likely targets. It was
five miles to the center of the city, where the streets
would be busy with people and tourists and where
the police would have to make at least an attempt
to pay attention. Alex blinked and gripped the handlebars
tighter, his hands like talons. His eyesight
blurred and it was all that he could do to keep the
For a time he operated on pure instinct, and the
bursts of gunfire and the roar of engines at his
heels became the sounds of dreams on awakening—
distant and unreal. He was the Chameleon,
and he needed only to disappear.
He dumped the bike at the edge of a small
market, running between carts overladen with
fruits and vegetables, and ducking in and out of
alleys. At six feet one inch, he wasn’t small enough
to remain unseen in a doorway or tucked behind
some clutter in the alley. He kept moving, ignoring
the protests of his body, knowing that it didn’t
matter where he ended up, only that they not find
him. The crowded streets were his best chance of
blending in and eventually disappearing.
A car roared by the mouth of the alley where he
stood. There was no way to know for sure if it was
one of Carrera’s. He had to assume that it was.
Alex took a deep breath, steadied himself and
pushed off the wall. He stumbled at first, then
found his stride and, hanging close to the wall,
stepped confidently into the street. Just ahead was
a small cantina with tables looking out onto the
street. He lowered his head and stepped inside.
The urge to turn and scan the street was strong,
but he ignored it, walking into the shadows near
the rear of the bar and taking a seat. Anything he
did that might bring attention to himself would be
a mistake. He needed to become what he appeared
to be—a tired worker in from the fields, looking
for a place to wait out the last heat of the day and
enjoy a drink. His clothing, the makeup he wore
and even the contact lenses that turned his
normally pale blue eyes a dark brown color would
all serve to make him look more like a native. He
ordered beer in fluent, unaccented Spanish and
slouched over it. Occasionally, he turned toward
the door and glanced at the street, but he was
careful to make such motions inconspicuous and
innocuous. There was nothing to be gained by
moving now. His best bet for survival was staying
put, and the way he was feeling, the rest was a
blessing. There was no way to deny it—something
was wrong. He had to get out of Mexico and back
home. He had to see a doctor. There was no longer
any way to deny the sudden, excruciating pains or
the uncontrollable trembling in his hands. His
physical conditioning had not slacked off, and yet
he seemed to spend most of his energy trying to
concentrate, or fighting the pain in his legs.
Something had gone horribly wrong and his life
too often depended on the skills of his body. A
mistake in his line of work could easily prove fatal.
And, if he was honest with himself, the missions
were often too important to the safety of the world
for him to fail.
The bartender polished the copper-and-brass
beer taps. He paid no more attention to Alex than
he did to the tables or the chairs. Alex looked into
the mirror on the other side of the bar, his eyes
mocking him in the reflection. There was nothing
in the image to indicate that something was wrong
with him, but he stared at the image as if it were a
puzzle, as if maybe, if he stared long enough he
could make the pieces fit back together.Alex sipped
his beer and thought quietly.Ayoung boywandered
in, looking for an easy mark or a free meal.
The boy looked sidelong at him, but didn’t
approach immediately. Alex met the boy’s gaze
and nodded him over. With a quick glance at the
bartender, who seemed not to notice, the boy
In a disinterested voice, Alex asked if he was
hungry. The boy didn’t answer, but instead glanced
at the floor. Alex spoke quickly, explaining what
he needed. He slid a few pesos across the table.
The boy eyed them for a moment, considering.
It had to be one of the strangest requests he’d
heard, but he wanted the money. He reached out,
and as he did, Alex caught his wrist in a snake-fast
He held the boy’s gaze, and studied him. There
was fear, and a bit of pride, but they weren’t the
dead, street eyes of one of Carrera’s boys. Maybe he
was just out for an evening’s adventure, or maybe
his parents worked late and left him to fend for
himself. Whatever the story, he would do as he was
told for the money, and that was enough. Alex
released him and nodded again. The boy disappeared.
Alex rose, slouched over the bar and ordered a
second beer. He took the chance to glance out at
the street, but he saw nothing out of place. They
weren’t going door to door searching for him. Not
yet anyway. But it was time for another change,
and then it was time for him to disappear.
Despite the problems, the mission could be considered
a success. The head of the snake had been
removed, and Carrera’s businesswould be taken over
by someone else. Fights and power struggles would
cause a shift at the top. And whoever ended up
running it would have to rebuild. It would be a long
time before they managed to work up to the threat
Carrerra had become to the government, if they ever
did. More than likely, wars would erupt among the
underlings; lieutenants and street gangswould vie for
control of their little parts of the business until it
fractured. Most of the drug gangs were held together
by violence, the threat of violence and fear of one
leader.Whenthat leaderwas gone, the disintegration
was almost always just a matter of time.
He finished his beer, marking the time the boy
had been gone. Just as he began to think he’d
slipped up again, the boy ducked back into the
cantina. He carried a package wrapped in brown
paper and moved a little uncertainly. He dropped
the parcel on the table in front of Alex, who tore
open the corner, looked inside, smiled thinly and
nodded. Alex reached into his pocket and pulled
out a few more coins. He slid them across to the
boy, who took them quickly. For the first time
since the two had met, Alex saw a toothy grin
emerge from the lonely shadows of the young face.
Then the boy turned and exited so quickly and
silently he might never have been there at all.
Nonchalantly, Alex took the package and
walked through the beaded curtains at the rear of
the building and entered the men’s room. Less than
five minutes later he emerged wearing a bright red
T-shirt with the Union Jack flag emblazoned
across the front. His dark hair was tousled. The
contacts were gone, returning his eyes to their
natural blue color, and the makeup had been
washed off his face, lightening his skin tone by
several shades. He wore cheap mirrored sunglasses
and in all respects now looked like a tourist rather
than a native.
Without even glancing at the curtain, he entered
the kitchen, crossed to the rear exit and slipped out
into another alley. He was feeling better, and his
thoughts had returned to the mechanical, clockwork
efficiency of his art. There were streets at both ends
of the alley. One was busier, and he chose it. He
stopped just inside the mouth of the alley andwaited.
Moments later, a brightly colored taxi rolled
slowly by. There were religious icons on the dashboard,
bright, reflective stickers on the bumpers
and enough chains dangling from the rear-view
mirror to obscure half the windshield. Alex sauntered
out of the alley, picked up his pace and raised
his hand. The taxi was moving slowly, and the
driver caught sight of him, pulling to the curb.
Alex slipped open the rear door.
He heard quick footsteps behind him and heavy
breath. He didn’t turn. He slipped into the backseat.
“Airport,” he said softly. “Quickly!”
As the taxi rolled into traffic, Alex heard frustrated
shouts behind them. Once again, the
Chameleon had disappeared.
The taxi shot through traffic and rounded the
first curve, nearly rolling up onto two wheels in the
process. Alex had two lockers waiting—one at
each end of the airport. Depending on what he saw
when he arrived, he’d go to one or the other,
change again, take his tickets and board a flight for
the United States. He wanted a hot meal and a
long nap. Maybe something stronger to drink than
a cheap Mexican beer.
In his lap, his hand trembled, and he frowned,
staring out into the growing darkness.