Picking up the pace to push a jog into a run, his muscles groaned as the additional effort was exerted. He berated himself for having taken that day off from the exercise routine, but jet lag was something he could never overcome.
The flight to Lisbon had been uneventful and it felt good to be back on European soil after being assigned to the Middle East. There were days when he seriously regretted his career choice, and today was one of them as he lamented the lack of sleep and blandness of European food as compared to the fiery Afghani cuisine. His years of covert operations in Kabul with the Special Forces had come to an abrupt end when the UN Peace Keeping Forces took over. Those had been glorious high-adrenalin action days, but was glad to be out of now that only a handful of his teammates were still alive. The money had been great, with obscure bank accounts in various countries under different identities, but he was exhausted, emotionally drained, and tired of running from himself and living life in a Tube, with no family or people he could really call friends.
Lady Luck had been on his side when several lucrative positions found their way to his doorstep upon returning home, mostly in private investigation and security. The uncertainty of the outcome and the endless flirt with danger had an irresistible appeal that gnawed at something deep-seeded, leading him right back to government service. There was No Convenient Way of combining his passion for guns and operative talents in a “normal” career, not even an honest relationship. Anything less would have driven to madness, and with no one to bring him back from it.
Lisbon was exactly the way he remembered it, with the addition of new high rises and the Expo Park. Otherwise, the sultry air and the tinge of that glorious Portuguese red wine lurking around every corner was a welcome assault on the senses. As he waited in the shadows of the underground station Gare do Oriente, his sharp eyes scrutinized the commuters in the perimeter. Everyone was a suspect, and since the mark was a known master of disguises, there was no room for faulty assumptions. It could well be the old man sitting on the bench, or the middle-aged woman with the shopping cart, even the young college student with the scruffy dreadlocks. There was no current file photo of the mark, simply because not a single agency around the world had ever seen the real face, only picked up the remnants of the violent work.
After six months of dead ends and insignificant clues, he had finally picked up a trail that led him through Iceland and now Portugal. Keeping a discrete distance to the executive in the Armani suit who alighted from the train and proceeded to the Vasco da Gama Commercial Complex, it became crystal clear to him today why nobody had spotted this criminal mastermind before. The refined and well-groomed man had entered the fitting room in one of the department stores, but it was a stunning redhead who emerged a few minutes later and threw a non-descript shopping bag into the garbage. Peering unobtrusively into the trash, the suit was there, and so were the wig, mask, false teeth and chest binder that had suppressed all traces of femininity beneath the suit. Cursing softly but violently beneath his breath, he realised this was going to be harder than he thought.
A million thoughts raced through his mind that night as he lay in bed at the cheap Motel. The fact that the mark was a woman changed the entire game plan and he was forced to re-strategise on a level he was not comfortable with at all. Wining and dining women was definitely not among his top skills. He could shoot a target from the top of a tall building or infiltrate a rebel village in the mountains of Kashmir, but charming a woman was a mystery. For the first time in his career, he was scared.