The door of the black SUV opened.
Tubeec Hirad stepped out, then glanced up at the Global Exchange Building. Slipping the cell phone into the inner pocket of his tailored Armani suit, he dodged a group of young aspiring corporate types as he made his way to the revolving doors.
The call had gone as he’d expected. Tubeec marveled at the unwillingness to take his threats seriously. He had a reputation for never bluffing, yet time and again, he was forced to exact a toll on unsuspecting targets because their loved ones refused to comply with his demands.
Passing through the modern chrome lobby, Tubeec waved to the security guards who’d grown accustomed to seeing him enter and exit the building at various hours over the past two months.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Henderson.” The guards greeted him. They believed he was Mitchell Henderson, as his security badge indicated. Just another hard-working investment banker with the private equity firm housed on five floors of the building.
Stepping into the crowded chrome elevator, Tubeec reached past a woman dressed in a short mini skirt and pressed the button for the sixth floor. She recoiled, her eyes locked on his scarred hand. She didn’t turn to look at him. A pity. She would have been surprised to see that he was still a relatively handsome man. The fire had ravished over eighty percent of his body, but his disfigured skin was mostly hidden underneath his expensive suit.
As the elevator stopped on each floor, ushering workers on and off, Tubeec inhaled the flowery stench of the woman’s perfume. He regarded her flat ass in the tight skirt. She had a pretty face, but her body would do nothing to arouse anything more than mild interest in him.
The computerized voice announced “sixth floor.”
“Excuse me,” Tubeec said, brushing past the young woman, glancing at her breasts as he exited the elevator. She gave him a seductive smile, no doubt relieved that his face wasn’t as grotesque as his hand. Another day, Tubeec would have made her pay for her relief, making her wish she’d never laid eyes on him. Today, he had more pressing business.
Alone in the hallway, he proceeded to the stairwell and took the stairs, two at a time, up the four flights to the tenth floor. Maneuvering through thick plastic covering the open doorway, Tubeec walked into the construction zone, a large, empty space.
Fading late afternoon sunlight stretched across the floor from the box windows lining the walls. The Global Exchange building had been the right choice, although Tubeec had been skeptical at first. Utilizing the space currently being renovated for the Deputy President of Kenya, Kipsang Rono, was risky. Tubeec had taken advantage of the delay in construction as the government shifted focus to the political primaries that would begin in the next few months.
His dark wingtip shoes, powdered with the dust of construction debris, were silent against the concrete floor. The thirteen men were oblivious to his approach, lost in the thunderous cacophony of preparation for their roles in the final stages of his plan. The militants had posed as businessmen, entering the building dressed in expensive business suits similar to his own. Each held a suitcase containing a change of clothes and the equipment and weapons they’d need to complete the delicate operations.
Snippets of conversation reached Tubeec’s ears. The trained killers bragged about last week’s conquest. Each man insisted he’d pleasured the innocent teen girl the best as if the necessary sacrifice had brought her any pleasure. Tubeec felt no guilt for his part in the gang rape of the young woman. She was a means to an end. A way to control the boy and make him do what Tubeec needed.
As he passed each member of his specially assembled team, a hush fell across the large room. Movement ceased as the men engaged in a synchronized salute, then took an at-ease stance waiting for a sign from him. Tubeec scrutinized them. Each man had been chosen not only because of superb skills but also because of the discretion shown in numerous operations in the past.
But this wasn’t a typical operation.
In fact, it was one of the most complex assignments Tubeec had ever orchestrated. A brazen endeavor he couldn’t resist. Targeting one of the richest and most powerful families in Africa could cost him his freedom.
Originally, he’d had no plans to complicate this mission, preferring instead to keep things simple. The universe had other ideas, presenting him with an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying went.
Completing the inspection of the men, Tubeec stalked toward an empty corner of the room to a window that overlooked the Tribal Museum and Irungu Center across the street. He could feel the eyes of the men tracking him as they resumed preparation for the job.
Tubeec wiped the sweat from his face. The rough texture of his scarred hand against the only smooth skin on his body was a welcomed reminder of the past. Today was the anniversary of the worst day of his life. The day he’d been transformed from a scientist into one of the most dangerous men in Africa.
Some said he was insanely treacherous and unpredictable. Others whispered that he had no soul and had never felt remorse for the atrocities he’d performed.
They were wrong. His soul had died ten years ago today, January 13th, when he watched his twin sons hacked to death with machetes and his wife gang raped by government-sanctioned soldiers. He’d tried to beat them away from his family, but his efforts were futile. The soldiers bound him to a nearby tree, sprayed his body with gasoline, and tossed a match onto the brush underneath his feet. Squirming and screaming as the fire climbed up his body, he’d somehow managed to free himself. Howling his anguish, he’d staggered and stumbled toward his wife and twin sons, left to die in a nearby field. His wounded screams pierced the still air as he gathered their mutilated bodies in his arms.
In his grief, he’d become a monster.
Making others suffer as much as he’d suffered became his addiction, his reason for living. Until he was reunited with his family again, he would kill and destroy. Never would anyone make him feel helpless and afraid. Instead, he would be the one to wield fear as a weapon, daring anyone to try to hurt him again.
The success of this mission would give him what he most desired—revenge. The power to destroy those who’d destroyed the life he’d had before.
“Cangrejos!” Tubeec commanded, his voice echoing through the room.
Frantic footsteps thundered across the concrete floor, stopping mere feet behind him.
Tubeec turned and glared at his second in command, a loyal foot soldier he’d rescued from a Panamanian mafia hit a few years ago.
“Who’s on the strike team?” Tubeec asked.
“Yasir, Bashiir, Liban, and Zahi,” Cangrejos responded, his arms clasped behind his back as he stared at the ground, not meeting Tubeec’s eyes. “They are equipped and ready.”
Cangrejos said, “Dalmar, Harbi, Xirsi and Suleymaan.”
“Were the explosives created to my specifications?” Tubeec asked.
“Yes, sir. Bombers will be deployed to the designated areas inside the Tribal Museum on your command.”
“Who’s left?” Tubeec asked, although he already knew the answer.
“Rahim, Assad, Geesi, and Nadifa. They will accompany you into the Irungu Center. I will personally serve as the lookout and drive the truck once the mission is complete, as you requested,” Cangrejos said.
“Are all of the targets still inside the building?” Tubeec asked.
Cangrejos confirmed, “Yes, we have visuals of Wangari Irungu, Isaac Gatobu, Grace Kadenge, and Mena Nix. All four targets are in the building and expected to remain there until five o’clock.”
“And the flower delivery truck?” Tubeec asked.
“Left the shop two minutes ago and will be arriving in ten minutes.” Cangrejos’ answer came.
Pleased, Tubeec said, “Wrap up the preparations.”
Cangrejos nodded, then turned and rejoined the rest of the militia, issuing final instructions to the team.
In a matter of minutes, terror and destruction would be unleashed onto an unsuspecting group of presumably innocent people at the Tribal Museum in downtown Nairobi. No one would expect another attack so soon. Three days ago, a suicide bomber had disrupted a private fundraising dinner for President Noah Thairu on the museum rooftop. His source within the police department confirmed that no group had claimed responsibility.
Tubeec knew that no group would.
The suicide bomber hadn’t been trying to kill the beloved Kenyan president. The attack had been part of Tubeec’s complex plan to observe and assess the Kenyan police’s response to terrorism. Critical information that had allowed him to finalize the plans for today’s mission.
Tubeec surveyed the men, now standing at attention in a straight line dressed in green trousers and long-sleeve green shirts. Ammunition belts crossed their chests. Black scarves hid noses and mouths of the men as they stared into the distance, dark paint smeared under intense eyes.
After changing into the green shirt and trousers, Tubeec put on the black combat boots that rested against the wall. He reached into his pocket and squinted as he pulled out his black scarf. Tying it around his head, he lifted the fabric over his nose and mouth, then glanced at his watch.
A surge of energy spiked in the air.
At his cue, the men sprinted to the back wall, grabbing the M4 Carbine assault rifles.
Tubeec would remain unarmed.
He never thought of his own safety.
Why protect a life that wasn’t worth living?
They waited for his signal.
Tubeec’s words were almost a whisper.
“Is this the part where I’m supposed to carry you across the threshold?” Julian Montgomery asked, gliding the two oversized suitcases down the hallway.
Mena Nix turned, her eyes wide. She mouthed “no” in his direction then placed the cell phone back to her ear as she headed toward the dark gray steel door at the end of the corridor.
Julian couldn’t help but smile as he followed Mena toward the condo they’d been sharing for the past six months, a two-bedroom, one and a half bath, property in one of Nairobi’s newest high rise complexes. He would’ve pinched himself if his hands weren’t already full. Readjusting the duffel bag on his left shoulder and the smaller backpack on his right, Julian brought the roller bags to a stop. He leaned against one of the overweight bags, stuffed with Mena’s impulse purchases from their trip to Florida for the holidays.
His eyes drifted up the length of her body, from the strappy heels tapping on the lacquered, distressed concrete floor to the skin-tight jeans covering her muscular legs as her hips swiveled seductively with each step. The lacy edge of her thong peeking through the opening between her halter top and the band of her jeans teased him, causing his cock to stir. He settled on watching her round, tight ass and wished his hands were gripping that instead of the handles of the two suitcases.
Mena stopped in front of their door, 12C, and faced him. Rolling her eyes, she whispered, “Do not encourage her.”
Julian smiled at the crinkled frown forming in between Mena’s eyebrows. The sensual furrow ratcheted her sex appeal toward the top of the charts. Despite what his father believed, Julian had no regrets about leaving behind his life in St. Basil to follow Mena to Kenya for her fellowship at the Tribal Museum.
Julian barely recognized himself anymore. Long gone was the guilt-ridden man who’d exiled himself for the mistakes of his past, living alone and miserable on a yacht in the marina of one of the most beautiful islands in the world. The life he’d had wasn’t worth much before he’d met Mena. Because of her, he’d been able to move beyond the pain of his past.
“Yes, Mother. We are at the condo now,” Mena said, her voice echoing in the hallway.
A smile played at the corners of his mouth as he watched her bend over to pick up the newspaper resting against the bottom of the door.
“The flight was fine. We both slept most of the way,” Mena continued, fumbling through her purse for the key card.
Would he ever get used to how beautiful she was?
Her deep brown skin was just a hint darker after a few days basking on the beach. Visions of Mena in her string bikini laying on top of him as the ocean waves crashed over them brought a flush of heat to his face. The trip to Miami had been a whim, his feeble attempt to make up for the disappointment of the trip she’d dubbed “Holidays with the Parents.” It had been more like “A Jacked-up Jacksonville Christmas,” but he didn’t want to think about the miserable, failed attempt to introduce Mena to his father. In fact, he’d be perfectly fine if Mena never met the bastard at all.
He should have talked her out of the plan when she’d first presented it to him, but how could he say no to the woman who owned his heart? He hadn’t wanted to let her down, but a part of him knew he was just delaying the inevitable. Any Christmas dinner that included Julian and his father in the same room was bound to be a disaster. It was for the best that neither of his parents showed up.
Despite Julian’s best efforts, he hadn’t been able to salvage the dampened holiday spirit until he suggested spending New Year’s Eve in South Beach.
“Yes, I know you love Julian,” Mena said, finding the key card and waving it at him with a big smile. “He’s pretty alright with me, too.”
“Just alright?” Julian asked, grabbing Mena’s hand and pressing his lips against her open palm. The tantalizing scent of sandalwood and orange seduced him, sending a jolt of excitement through his body.
“More than alright, babe,” Mena whispered. Opening the door with the key card, Mena held wide for Julian to enter. As he pulled the roller bags into the spacious foyer of the condo, Mena slapped him on the butt, giggling as he passed in front of her.
Twenty-one hours of air travel had both of them horny as rabbits, and it was only a matter of minutes before he’d have her naked in his arms.
“No, you are not hearing wedding bells!” Mena screeched, stepping out of her heels and walking past him.
Julian studied the luggage, lining it neatly against the living room wall as he struggled to swallow past the sudden dryness in his throat. His back muscles tightened as he slowly removed the duffel bag and backpack from his shoulders and placed them against the floor.
“It’s way too soon for bells to be ringing. But, if that changes, you’ll be the first to know, I promise. I gotta go. Love you, bye,” Mena said, tossing the cell phone onto the round ottoman before free-falling back onto the caramel-hued leather couch.
“Can you believe her?” Mena said, closing her eyes and exhaling slowly. “She just met you, and she’s already trying to force us down the aisle. Why can’t she just stay out of it?”
The subject of marriage was an IED that he had no plans of stepping on. Despite the tugging at his heart, Julian knew he had to take things slow with Mena. She’d gone through a bad marriage and an even worse divorce. Both of which he couldn’t seem to get her to open up about. He couldn’t blame her for being wary about entering into the institution of matrimony again. Mena would come around eventually, but until then, he needed to keep a wrap on his hopes for their future.
Julian stepped away from the luggage and walked over to Mena, leaning down to kiss her soft lips. “Nothing wrong with your mom wanting you to settle down with a handsome ex-Navy SEAL, you know. But we’ll have plenty of time to focus on that in the future. No need to rush into things.”
“Exactly. I’m so glad we’re on the same page. Just because we’re in no hurry to get hitched doesn’t mean we’re not madly, passionately in love with each other,” Mena said, placing her hands on the sides of his face and pulling him close to her. His lips found hers again, indulging in a hot kiss that aroused all of his senses. Her sweet mouth was like candy, and he couldn’t get enough of her.
Mena broke the hypnotic spell of the kiss far too soon for Julian’s liking.
“You hungry?” Mena asked as her stomach growled.
Julian laughed. “Only for you, but I guess I should feed you before I ravish your body.”
“A snack would be good. I have a feeling you aren’t going to get much sleep tonight,” Mena teased, biting her bottom lip.
Reluctantly, Julian pulled away and headed into the kitchen. Opening the drawer, he lifted a stack of take-out menus and placed them on the counter. “What’s your pleasure?”
“Pizza, maybe? Something with lots of carbs,” Mena said as she scooted off the couch and headed toward the luggage.
Julian watched her rummage through one of the bags, his eyes locked on the backpack nearby. He should have taken it into the bedroom and placed it in the closet out of her sight. After the “why rush marriage” talk, he didn’t want her to find what was hidden inside.
“Why can’t people just let us be happy like we are? What’s the big deal about getting married anyway? I’ve done that, and believe me, it’s not the fairytale that you dream about growing up,” Mena said, digging an arm deeper into the suitcase as she maneuvered the contents around.
“Not always,” Julian said, thinking about his parent’s marriage and then about Dawn and Broman. The love between both couples was evident, but there was enough dysfunction in those relationships to make anyone hesitate about getting married. But now that he’d found Mena, he wanted everything with her—marriage, kids, dog, white picket fence.
“There are people who have good marriages. Take Omar and Charlie, for instance. Perfect love, perfect marriage, the type any couple would kill to have. But are they just the exception? Is that a realistic expectation for the rest of us?” Mena asked, moving to the other luggage. Unzipping it, Mena let the contents fall out, and she began rooting through the clothes and shoes inside.
Julian rubbed the knot tightening in his shoulder. “Every couple is unique. Comparing us to any other couple is pointless. We don’t need to be like anybody else.”
“True, but it’s good to have role models. Did you know Omar and Charlie dated for years before they got engaged? Like five or six years! You and I haven’t even been together for a full year yet. There’s so much that we still need to learn about each other,” Mena continued.
“What’s wrong with learning and exploring more about each other while we’re husband and wife? Do we really need to wait until we hit some arbitrary length of time as a couple before we get married?” Julian asked, a hint of edge to his tone.
Mena paused, looking up at him with a raised eyebrow.
Damn, he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. He wondered what she thought of his outburst. Was she surprised? Concerned? She had to know how he felt about her. He would do whatever she needed him to do, even if that meant putting aside his own desires for their future.
“Just saying, you know, hypothetically speaking. I’m not in a rush for you to slap a ball and chain on me,” Julian said, slipping his cell phone from his pocket.
“Oh, really? Don’t want to give up your bachelor card for me?” Mena asked, pressing her hands against her hips as she stared up at him.
“I’d give up everything for you. You wouldn’t even need to ask. But, marriage is a big step and not one we have to think about right now. Pepperoni and bell peppers?” Julian asked.
“What?” Mena stammered.
Julian responded, “On your pizza? Just pepperoni and bell peppers, right?”
Mena nodded, a smile curving at her lips. “Yeah, that’s what I want.”
Julian placed the delivery order, then walked over and grabbed his backpack from the floor.
“Wait, I think I may have put something in there,” Mena said, reaching for the backpack.
“What are you looking for?” Julian asked, keeping it out of her reach.
“The receipt for the mask Wangari bought me,” Mena said. “I got an email saying it was ready when we were in Jacksonville and printed it out at my mom’s house.”
“Why don’t you just print another copy?” Julian asked, remembering how he’d had to babysit the team of artisans hired by Wangari Irungu, the Director of the Tribal Museum. The pretentious artists had damn near taken over their condo between Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas, visiting six times to evaluate the décor and proposed placement to get inspiration for the commissioned artwork, a welcome to Africa gift from Mena’s boss.
“Because I’m hungry and horny, and I don’t feel like going back downstairs to the business center to use the printer,” Mena leaned forward and grabbed the bottom of the backpack, pulling it toward her. “Wangari was so kind to commission a one-of-a-kind mask just for me. I don’t want it sitting in the gallery one more day, which is why I need you to pick it up Monday morning.”
“Monday?” Julian asked, frowning, taking a step toward the backpack. He watched as Mena unzipped the bag, reaching her hand inside.
“The gallery is closed this weekend for a private event. Monday is the earliest I can get it,” Mena explained, lifting his belongings out of the backpack one by one. A hitch caught in his throat as he took another step toward her. He had to do something. Now before it was too late. It was only a matter of minutes before she found the box.
Mena turned the backpack over. Julian scrambled forward as he watched his belongings, littering the floor around her. Squatting next to Mena, Julian extended his leg, blocking her view of the robin egg blue box.
“I’ll get it on Tuesday. I don’t want to miss your presentation,” Julian said. He sat across from Mena, absently rearranging the contents of his backpack, hoping to bide his time until he could sneak the box into his pocket.
“You’re not going to miss my presentation because you are going to get to the gallery first thing when it opens. That will give you plenty of time to pick up the mask and bring it back to the condo before heading to the museum,” Mena said, straining her head to see around him.
“I don’t know. I think that may cut things to close. Don’t you?” Julian asked, stretching forward to conceal his attempt to grab the box. Fumbling it in his hand, Julian held on tight as he stood up and walked toward the kitchen island.
Mena leaned over as she looked up at him. “What are you hiding over there?”
Julian licked his lips slowly. He gripped the box in his left hand, tucking his arm behind his back to shield it from Mena’s view. He wasn’t ready for her to see what was inside, but he’d be hard-pressed to avoid it now. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“I have ways of getting the information out of you,” Mena said, rising from the floor. She walked over, stopping inches from him, then slipped a finger along the inside of his waistband. Her soft touch triggered his arousal. Julian took a deep breath as he watched Mena’s hands move slowly toward the button of his jeans, pushing it through the hole as she rested a hand against his abs.
“You’re not being fair,” Julian said. As much as he liked this game, there was no way he wanted her to find what was inside the box. It was too soon. He didn’t want to do anything to freak her out or cause her to shut down emotionally. He wanted things to go back to normal first. The synchronized cadence of domestic bliss they shared as they built their life together in Nairobi without any stress or strain.
“Life ain’t fair,” Mena said, reaching inside his boxer briefs and wrapping a hand around his cock.
Julian let out a low moan as the backpack slipped from his arm.
In a quick motion, Mena tugged at his left arm and slipped the box from his grasp, then rushed across the living room, cackling with laughter.
Panic struck Julian as he lunged for her, stumbling over the ottoman and falling to the ground.
“Mena, wait, don’t— “
“What’s this?” Mena asked, holding the Tiffany’s box tied neatly with a white ribbon.
Julian slumped onto the couch, staring back at her. “Open it and see.”
“We said we weren’t exchanging Christmas gifts. We agreed that we would give each other the gift of togetherness, nothing more,” Mena said, a challenge in her tone.
“It’s not a Christmas gift …” Julian said.
“Then what is it?” Mena asked.
“Not until you tell me what’s inside,” Mena said, her voice hitting a higher octave.
“Calm down,” Julian said, a wave of sadness washing over him. “It’s not an engagement ring.”
Not this time.
Mena plopped down onto the couch next to him, a hint of excitement glinting in her eyes as she peeled the ribbon off the box slowly then opened the lid.
Gasping, her hand flew to her mouth as she looked inside the box.
He couldn’t have dreamed of a better reaction. The emotion etched across her face was pure elation and unconditional love.
Julian wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling his lips against her neck. “It’s a charm bracelet. Each year, I’ll give you a new charm to add to it. Something to remind you of me … of us.”
Mena fingered the single heart-shaped charm attached to the rose gold thick chain. “It’s engraved. J & M. Julian and Mena.”
“I could have done something cheesy and put 4ever underneath,” Julian said, lifting up four fingers. “But thought I might lose you if I did.”
Turning to face him, Mena said, “You could never lose me. This is stunning. I can’t believe you got this for me. It’s so beautiful.”
“Just like you. May I?”
“Please,” Mena said, holding out her wrist.
Julian secured it onto her arm. “Now, every time you look at this bracelet, it will be a reminder of how I feel about you.”
“I love this, and I love you, Julian.”
Julian pressed his lips against hers, his heart about to burst.
“And I love you, Mena.”