The small .22 fits perfectly into the contours of my hand. Gently sliding my fingertips over the barrel, I raise it to eye-level, and squeeze the trigger. It burns a hole dead in the center of the target. Satisifed, I take off my safety goggles and pull the plugs out of my ears.

"Very nice, Max," I hear behind me. "But your next assignment is going to require a bit of a larger weapon." I feel myself smile.

"Make sure it's not too heavy," I say, turning around. I place the colt back into its case, and stand back up to face the speaker. He's middle-aged, with a cleft chin and steely grey eyes. He's Archer, one of the world's deadliest men. Despite his reputation, he's been well educated in chivalry; even now, he's holding out his elbow. I link my own through it.

We walk back to the Center. It's a comely building, something that you could expect to find on the cover of Architectural Digest. White stucco, red terra-cotta roof, and almost fourteen rooms, the house itself is situated on a 3,000-acre ranch of rolling hills in Tuscany, Italy. The crew meets here in between assignments, to recover, rest, and relax, before leaving on the next one.

Archer opens the back door for me. This leads into the dining room, and I take a seat at the sprawling mahagony table.

My name is Maximum Ride. You may know me as the hybrid who took down Itex, who saved the world from satanic dictators. But four years later, I've changed. I no longer have a "Flock," as I so foolishly liked to call it. Instead, I work in an elite team consisting of the most intelligent, most athletic, and most dangerous people in the world.

I work as an assassin.

Archer sets down a fruit smoothie on my left and a packet of information on my right. I sip from the smoothie as I survey the packet. My next assignment is in England, a country I've "visited" only once before. Then, I was supposed to eradicate a subject who sold young women into prostitution. I finished the deed while the subject was in the bathtub.

Now, as I read, I learn that my next subject smuggles diamonds from Africa. Smuggling has never been an issue for an assassination, but apparently this subject employs the labor of young children whose parents owe make-believe debts. The children work all day, being allowed only a one-hour nap for every eight hours of labor. I'm now to assume the identity of this man's neice, a girl visiting London from the English countryside. My British accent is adequate, at best, so I hope this neice (Tara Washington) is known for being quiet.

Instead of killing just anyone, we target criminals. Not any old street criminal, mind you, but the powerful, industrious ones, the people society knows, and even sometimes loves. I like to think of my line of work as being moral. Ending a life, of course, is anything but. That's why I chose the career path of ending sinful lives.

"The subject is expecting a shipment on the twenty-third," Archer explains. "Tara's expected the day before. You'll request a lunch date with your 'uncle,' but, from an inside source, we know that he'll be picking you up from Heathrow with his business associate, a man with a police record. At the lunch, slip the cherry into his beverage."

"Cherry" is our word for "poison." On the rare occasions we discuss our plans in public, we refrain from sounding suspicious by substituting words: "Shoot" is "inject," "drown" is "lather," and "bludgeon" is "bounce."

"We don't want Tara to appear jet-lagged," Archer continues. "You'll be leaving for Chelsea in two days. A week later, you'll fly into Heathrow, London's airport. When you've accomplished the job, meet Richard in Southampton, and come back here."

Archer picks up my empty glass. "I suggest you begin packing."