Washington DC, Christmas Eve

Stratton checked his watch and, using the car’s side and rear-view mirrors, looked in every direction along the street. He was sharing the dark, lamp-lit residential road with several other parked cars but no other people seemed to be around. Many of the apartment buildings overlooking his position had a Christmas light or illuminated decoration in the window but otherwise there was little sign of life.

He had an uncomfortable feeling. It had built gradually since he stepped off the plane. Put simply, he was nervous. This was unusual for him while he was on a job, but he knew why he felt that way. This mission wasn’t for the SIS. It was private. Personal. That made the risk he was taking different from those he was used to. He was going to kill a man that night - with luck - and Stratton would be high on any subsequent list of suspects. He was going to punish another for that most primitive of reasons: revenge. This time he would have no safety net. No one would protect him. He was there on his own account and would be treated as a common criminal if he were caught. His plan was high-risk and he could end up in jail for a very long time.

Stratton clenched his jaw at the thought of the chance he was taking. ‘Screw it,’ he muttered resolutely. It was worth it. In fact, he could hardly wait.

It had taken several years to get the information he needed to plan the operation. In that time Stratton had continued with life as a British military-intelligence asset, using his privileged position to keep a weather eye out for that one piece of data, the clue that might allow him finally to set the trap.

The opportunity had eventually fallen into his lap thanks to Sumners, his immediate taskmaster and SIS human-resources officer. It wasn’t altogether surprising that Sumners had led Stratton to his target. The SIS man was tangentially connected to the individual Stratton was after although, luckily for him, he had played no part in the incident that had caused Stratton to embark on this personal mission. Stratton was convinced that Sumners didn’t even know what had happened all those years ago. If he had known he would never have been so careless as to leave lying around the clue that had put Stratton on the warpath.

The target was a high-ranking CIA operative, which was why he had been so difficult to track down. As a matter of routine his powerful employers went to great lengths to protect him. The man had a similar background to Stratton’s. His core expertise was in Special Forces, the American variety, and, as with Stratton, his country’s pre-eminent intelligence agency utilised those skills from time to time.

Over the years Stratton had worried that something might happen to the man before he could get to him. There were no doubt others who had the same aim as Stratton. The man was evil and had plied his trade for many years all around the world. But, much as Stratton wanted him dead, it was more important that the man knew that it was Stratton who was going to kill him because then he would know why.

The clue that Stratton had been waiting for came in the form of a discreet invitation mailed to Sumners from the USA. It was lying on the SIS officer’s desk one day when Stratton arrived at the MI6 building beside the Thames to discuss an upcoming operation. The card’s succinct inscription cordially invited Sumners to attend a rare