Assassin’s Game: New Excerpt

Assassin's Game by Ward Larsen is the 2nd international thriller featuring David Slaton, a retired Israeli assassin who is forced back into duty to eliminate a man at the head of the nuclear tinderbox that is Iran (available August 26, 2014).

David Slaton has a good life. He has a new wife and a house in the Virginia suburbs. But he also has a dark past. Slaton is a former kidon, the most lethal Israeli assassin ever created.

After decades of work, a brilliant scientist has taken Iran to the threshold of its dream—a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. Mossad must eliminate the man, but with a spy lurking high in its ranks there is only one option: bring back Slaton. The kidon has vowed to never kill again, but when his wife is attacked and forced to flee across Europe, events force his hand.

Slaton plots to assassinate one of the most closely guarded men on earth. Success is improbable. Survival unlikely. Only when he learns the labyrinthine truth does Slaton see one high-stakes chance. A chance for an assassin’s game . . . .

ONE

Three days later

Anton Bloch walked briskly along King George Street, leaning into a stiff wind that had swept in over the course of the morning. In most of the world, autumn winds brought change. Cold fronts to separate leaves from branches, gunmetal gray skies, and the breaking out of mothballed winter gear. In Tel Aviv, the last Friday of September did little more than stir the dust of yet another heat-stricken summer.

Had Bloch gone for a walk a year ago, it would have been a very different project. He would have been shadowed by two armored limousines and a dozen bodyguards, every street on his route mapped in advance and monitored. Even now, long removed from office, he generally warranted two men. But not today. The unusual request had come this morning, a handwritten note delivered by his successor’s aide de camp: 9:15, Meir Garden. Come alone. So, for the first time in recent memory, Anton Bloch was walking by himself on a public street. He found it oddly liberating. Were he more of a pessimist, he might imagine Arab assassins around every corner. But then, no man who has served as director of Mossad can exist as a pessimist.

Bloch rounded a corner and turned left into the main entrance of Meir Garden. He spotted a familiar face—or rather, a familiar silhouette. A massive man with a flattop haircut materialized to greet him. He was wearing a suit and tie, cheap material but nicely pressed, the jacket either two sizes too small or fitted in a way to accentuate his muscular arms and shoulders. Bloch suspected the latter.

“Good morning, sir.”

On hearing his voice, Bloch remembered a first name. “Hello, Amos.”

Bloch had clearly gotten it right—Amos produced a smile that was at odds with his intimidating appearance. He spoke again through a tightly clenched jaw, “The director is expecting you, sir. Straight ahead, then the first path on your right.”

Bloch did as instructed.

He found the incumbent director of Mossad feeding peanuts to an obese squirrel. If the human form could have a generic equivalent, it would be Raymond Nurin. He was average in height and build, hair thinning but not bald, a trace of gray at the edges commensurate with his fifty-something years. His facial features were completely unremarkable, no hooked nose or brilliant eyes or distinguishing marks. The clothing was in line with the man, neither expensive nor cheap, neither bright nor drab. Raymond Nurin was the man you would meet at a cocktail party whose name escaped you ten minutes later. For an insurance salesman or an actor, a certain detriment. For a spy chief? He was the model of somatic perfection.

Nurin had taken over Mossad when Bloch was forced out. They’d had a few meetings in the weeks after the transfer of command, sessions intended to cover ongoing operations and facilitate a smooth transition. Bloch had barely known the man going in, and he’d expected little. Nurin had surprised him with an intellect that belied his unexceptional appearance. Since those initial meetings they’d had no contact whatsoever. Consequently, Bloch had no idea what sort of empire his successor might have built. Even less an idea of what he wanted today.

“Good morning, Anton.”

“Raymond.”

The two exchanged a polite handshake.

“Thank you for coming,” Nurin said. “I know it was short notice, but I can assure you my reasons are sound.”

Bloch said nothing. He looked idly around the park and saw no one else. No widows with grocery sacks or spandex-clad mothers pushing strollers on a trot. Bloch hadn’t spent much of his career in the field, but enough to recognize a sterile perimeter that reached at least two hundred yards. Even the bodyguards—there had to be an army—were keeping out of sight. Not for the first time, his opinion of Nurin shifted slightly, and in the same direction it always seemed to.

Nurin tossed his bag of peanuts into a trash can and began strolling the pressed gravel path. Bloch kept pace.

“How do you like the job?” Bloch asked.

“I would expect that question from anyone else.”

Bloch allowed a rare grin.

Nurin said, “Tell me, did you ever call on your predecessor for advice?”

“Is that why I’m here? Advice?”

“Of course not. That would imply certain inadequacies on my part.” It was Nurin’s chance to grin, but he passed and said, “Tell me what you’ve heard about our recent failure in Iran.”

“Qom? Only what was in the newspapers.”

“Come, Anton.”

Bloch paused on the path. Nurin turned to face him.

“All right,” Bloch said, “I still have a few friends, and we talk over a Guinness now and again. It was a disaster. We lost four good men, two of whom I knew well. Hamedi was untouched.”

“Four of our best, I won’t deny it. A terrible loss. It would have been six, but two were forced to abort the mission and return due to an injury.”

“What really happened?” Bloch asked.

“Essentially what you’ve read in the papers, a botched attempt at Hamedi. There was little hard evidence in the aftermath, of course. The men had no identification and we’ve denied all involvement. Still—”

“The world does not believe it.”

“Would you?”

Bloch didn’t bother to answer.

“Iran, as you would expect, has been gloating over the entire affair. Much like the attack in Tehran six months ago.”

“And that catastrophe was also as reported? Two assassins on motorcycles, both shot dead by security forces before they were within a mile of Hamedi?”

“Yes,” Nurin said.

“And so his legend grows.” Bloch mused, “One such failure and I think it is bad luck. Twice, however—” the old director’s voice faded off.

They began walking again, silence prevailing. A whirl of dust stirred over a nearby playground, sweeping past like a miniature tornado.

“You have a leak,” Bloch finally said.

“Clearly.”

“It happens—with some regularity, I fear, although usually at lower levels.”

“The missions against Hamedi were kept very high, exclusive need to know.”

Bloch nodded.

“It is the first such problem under my watch,” Nurin said. “I’ve begun a quiet investigation, but these things take time.”

“Yes, and always more than you think. Worse yet, there is no guarantee you will ever find your traitor.”

Nurin led them to a bench.

Bloch settled beside him, put an index finger to his temple, and said, “It is too bad you missed him. Yet I find myself wondering—if you did succeed would it really change Iran’s timetable? Is one man so important?”

“Hamedi is their Oppenheimer. Since taking control of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, two years ago, he has become our worst nightmare. Prior to his watch, the program had fallen into complete disarray. In order to mask the program from international inspectors, the Iranians divided the program, burying twenty facilities deeper than ever. Missile components and stockpiles of nuclear material were shuffled like a deck of cards. The result was that each working group knew little about what the other was doing, and progress suffered. There was a time when our Stuxnet and Flame viruses brought things to a virtual standstill. Centrifuges were destroyed by the thousands, and their entire network of software controls ruined. It was wonderful. But Hamedi has brought great change. On one hand, he is a raving anti-Semite whose speeches parrot their former president, the lunatic who denies that the Holocaust ever occurred. But Hamedi is also a brilliant engineer and an organizational genius.”

“As with Hitler and his oratory prowess,” Bloch reflected. “Why does God grant madmen such gifts?”

“Hamedi has publicly stated that Iran’s ballistic nuclear capability, should the country be so blessed, will be aimed squarely at Israel.”

“When I resigned, the estimate for Iran mating their first weapon to a Shahab-4 ballistic missile was three years. Has this changed?”

“We have only a matter of months. The critical components are being gathered at a new facility outside Qom. The Iranians long ago cleared the hurdle of distilling uranium to weapons-grade purity. That is the only reason they came to the negotiating table, agreeing to slow the program if sanctions were removed.”

“How much material do you estimate they have?” Block asked.

“Enough for a half dozen warheads, possibly more. Yet putting this material to use, achieving a scaled-down device that can be mounted atop a ballistic missile—that is a more elusive challenge. Hamedi, unfortunately, has nearly brought success.”

“Will there be a demonstration? An underground test?” Bloch asked.

“Of course, just as the North Koreans performed for the benefit of America. To test an efficient, small-scale weapon in the ground is like issuing a birth certificate, an announcement of your new child.”

“Our defenses?”

“Upgrades to our Arrow ballistic missile defense system will not be ready soon enough. The engineers can’t guarantee it will ever be capable of defending against such a long-range weapon. They talk about percentages and probabilities, not the kind of measurements one wants to hear with regard to the annihilation of Tel Aviv.”

Nurin fell quiet, and Bloch eyed him more closely. “Am I to take it that you wish to make another attempt against Hamedi?”

Nurin nodded.

“Surely you realize your problem. These two failed missions have not only caused great embarrassment, but they spoil the chance for further attempts. With a target pinned on his back, Hamedi will be more cautious than ever.”

Bloch waited, but Nurin did not speak. The new Mossad director was allowing his predecessor to work things through, perhaps as a test to his own ideas. To see if the same conclusion was reached.

Bloch looked skyward and whispered aloud, fashioning a path as he would have a year earlier, “You need to eliminate a man who is very well guarded. You have a security leak in your organization at a high level, one you cannot cut out in time to make a difference. Given this, I’d say your only option is to use an outsider. A solo operator, I think. Someone reliable and certainly discreet. There are such men for hire in the world…” Bloch hesitated, “or so I’ve heard.”

Nurin remained silent.

“Yet the chance of failure is high. Escape would be difficult, and even if achieved the assassin would have to disappear completely. You would need a man who is—” Bloch stumbled for a moment, and when the answer fell he understood why he was here. He looked at Nurin with a piercing glare.

“There—you see it, Anton. What more perfect assassin than a man who is already dead.”

Nurin again went quiet, allowing Bloch to consider every aspect. In the interim, he produced a pack of cigarettes and selected one. He made no offer to Bloch, so Nurin knew he’d recently quit. The director lit up, took a deep pull, and exhaled a steady stream of smoke that was instantly carried away on the breeze.

“No,” Bloch said. “It would never work.”

“I disagree. He is perfect, Anton. His new life was facilitated by the Americans, but even they do not know his true background. Only three people in the world know what David Slaton once was. Two are seated on this bench. The third, of course, is immaterial. Slaton died one year ago—I can even show you a headstone in a quiet cemetery outside London. He does not exist. Not on paper, not in computers. Many years ago, Mossad made sure that his past was wiped clean. He became our most lethal kidon, an assassin who existed for years as no more than a shadow. Now that shadow itself has disappeared. He is an apparition, I tell you, as pure and absolute as can be.”

Bloch did not respond.

“More to the point, he is the most effective, lethal kidon we have ever created.”

Those words returned Bloch to an uncomfortable place, a long-buried sense of conflict. The appraisal of Slaton was more accurate than even Nurin could know. Still, Bloch had never decided whether Israel should find pride or shame in having created such a killer. What did it say about his country? What did it do to the man? “He is an assassin second to none, I grant you that. Or at least he was. But there is one overriding flaw in your plan, Director—he would never do it. He has a new life. No patriotic plea, no amount of money will pique his interest, I assure you.”

“He is still a Jew. We are his people.”

Bloch did not reply.

Nurin hunched forward on the bench and seemed to inspect the brown gravel. He took another long draw, then dropped his cigarette to the earth and crushed it under the heel of his nondescript Oxford.

“Anyway,” Bloch said, “what makes you think he would be more successful than the others?”

“Our internal security has been compromised, that much is clear. Slaton would operate outside the organization. He would report only to me, thus isolating the leak. The larger problem, the one that has vexed us all along, is that Hamedi remains in Iran. However, a singular opportunity has arisen.”

“He is going abroad?”

Nurin nodded.

“Where?”

“That is something only Slaton and I should know, Anton. I’m sure you understand. It will be public knowledge soon enough. But I can tell you that our chance will come in just over three weeks.”

“Three weeks? Not much time to plan a mission.”

Nurin gave him a plaintive look.

Bloch met his gaze, then turned away to look across the park. “That is the very same look I used to get from the prime minister. I am a fountain of the negative, am I not?”

“You are—at least that’s what everyone on the third floor tells me.”

“And what else do they say?”

“They say you will always do what is best for Israel.”

Bloch said nothing.

“There is a way to bring Slaton back, Anton.”

For twenty minutes Bloch listened. At the end, he wished he had not.

“So it begins in Stockholm?” Bloch asked.

Nurin nodded.

“And Slaton? Where will he be?”

Like a good spy chief, Nurin had that answer as well.

 

TWO

Two weeks later

Clifton, Virginia

Earl Long steered his Ford F-150 up the service path to the estate, wet gravel crunching under the truck’s tires. On the trailer behind him was the morning’s third pallet of rock, which was considerable headway for having a work crew of one. The big new home came into view, a colonial monstrosity. It sat high on a manicured hill, framed by rows of freshly plugged chestnut and elm saplings. Long wasn’t a landscaper, but he imagined the trees must have set the owners back two or three times the fifteen thousand they were blowing on his hundred-foot retaining wall. It would all look stately in about fifty years, he thought. Some people just pissed it away.

The job site was on the far side of the house, and Long kept to the service road as long as he could, not wanting to damage the new lawn that had to be soft after last night’s rain. He spotted his lone employee at the base of the hill hauling an eighty-pound block of cut granite. Just as he’d been doing all summer.

Edmund Deadmarsh had answered the Craigslist ad back in June. Long had lost an entire crew overnight—deported to Honduras—and he’d hired Deadmarsh for the usual twelve bucks an hour, reckoning he’d still need two more replacements. On the first day the man had moved four tons of rock. Not only that, he’d put it down with a set and finish that was nearly a work of art. After a week, Long had bumped his new man up to fifteen an hour and pulled the ad. Deadmarsh had been showing up for three straight months now, working through the height of summer when crews rarely lasted more than three jobs. The man just kept going, day after sweltering day, never slowing or asking for help. It was almost as if he was punishing himself.

Long backed the truck into place and stepped down from the cab. He nodded at Deadmarsh and got one in return. Cranking the Bobcat, he pulled the pallet off the trailer and placed it as close as possible to the wall. Gotta give the man some kind of help, he thought. He parked the machine, then went back in his truck and began fiddling with invoices as he sipped his Starbucks. Soon, however, Long found himself watching Deadmarsh. It was the damnedest thing, the way the guy moved around a worksite. He was quick, but never rushed. Never slipped in the mud or lost his balance setting a stone into place. And the strangest thing of all—he did it in near silence. No huffing or grunting or shuffling over the ground. Only yesterday, a surprised Long had turned around to find Deadmarsh right behind him with a boulder in his arms. Never made a sound. The damnedest thing.

Long got out of the truck when his cup ran dry. “Looks good,” he said, sidestepping down the embankment.

Deadmarsh slid a block into place, and asked, “Is the height what you wanted?”

“Looks about right. Did you measure it?”

“You took the measuring tape when you drove off for that last load.”

Long fished into his pocket and felt the metal square. “Oh yeah, so I did.” He took it out, pulled four feet from the reel, and set one end at the base of the wall. “Yep, right on.”

Deadmarsh nodded, but there was no apparent satisfaction. He just turned for another stone.

“You’re pretty darned good at this,” Long said. “You been in the line of work long?”

Deadmarsh pulled a stone from the pallet and turned smoothly. “About three months.”

Long grinned. “What’d you do before that?”

The stone slid perfectly into place. “Government work.”

“Civil service?”

“Yeah. You could say that.”

Long nodded. “My wife wanted me to get into that a few years back. I had a buddy who said he could hook me into a nice desk job with the county—building code administrator.” He shook his head. “Couldn’t do it though. You know, sitting in one of those damned cubicles all day.”

Deadmarsh grabbed another block of granite and turned on the mud without the slightest waver. “Benefits might have been good,” he said. “You’ve got two kids to look after.”

“Yeah, that’s what my wife said. But guys like us are born to work outside, right? Blue sky and green grass.”

Deadmarsh said nothing. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat, clinging like a second skin. Long remembered thinking the man had been in good shape when he’d started—wouldn’t have hired him otherwise—but after a summer spent humping granite slabs up and down hills he looked like a cruiserweight boxer. Thick, lean muscle, not an ounce of fat anywhere.

“So just what part of the government did you work for?” Long pressed.

Deadmarsh dropped another block into place, and turned to look at him. He seemed to think about it, then said, “The part that worked.”

Long stared for a moment, then began to chuckle. “Ain’t no such thing.”

Deadmarsh’s phone chirped, and they both looked toward his motorcycle. The phone rarely went off, but when it did Deadmarsh always dropped what he was doing and checked the call. He vaulted up over the wall and went to the bike, a big BMW that somehow didn’t seem right to Long. He’d once asked Deadmarsh how he could afford a bike like that, and gotten the answer that his wife was a doctor. Long had nearly laughed out loud, thinking, Yeah, and that’s why you’re out here busting rock in ninety-degree heat.

Deadmarsh picked up the phone and checked the screen. He went very still, then typed a reply and waited. After less than a minute, he pocketed his phone and said, “I’ve got to go.”

That was all. No explanation or timeframe. Without another word, he swung a leg over the BMW and reached for the key.

“Go? What do you mean, go?”

Deadmarsh said nothing.

“I need you back in an hour to finish this pallet. I told the irrigation guy we’d be done this afternoon.”

“You’ll have to do it.” Deadmarsh cranked the engine and the big bike purred to life.

Incredulous, Long strode over and got in his face. He pointed to the pallet of rock. “You think I’m gonna haul that? To hell with you, mister! If you want your paycheck next week, you’d better be back by—”

“Look! I’m sorry to put you in a bind, but I quit. Keep the paycheck.” Deadmarsh leaned the bike straight and kicked up the stand. He reached for a helmet that was hooked onto the back.

“Quit? Now hang on a minute!” Long reached out and grabbed the handlebar.

That was when it happened. A sharp pain in the back of his legs, as if a club had swept in just below his knees. Before he knew what was happening, Long was on his ass in the gravel and staring up at Deadmarsh.

Earl Long was a big man, and not unaccustomed to physical challenges. On and off the job he’d seen his share of confrontation, and usually with favorable results. At six-five, two-sixty, he had three inches and at least forty pounds on the man hovering over him. Even so, Long didn’t move. There was something in the stare that kept him planted right where he was. He’d seen men full of hate and whiskey. Even craziness. This was none of those things. He was looking at eyes that were hard and impenetrable, like a steel-gray sky on the coldest winter day.

Long sat still.

The big bike jumped and a fountain of stone spewed behind, peppering his face. Long heard the engine wind up to the redline, then shift. It happened again, and again, until the motorcycle and its rider became a collective blur. Earl Long just sat on the ground and watched, and from that vantage point he predicted—quite correctly, as it turned out—that he would never see Edmund Deadmarsh again.

Copyright © 2014 Ward Larsen.

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Ward Larsen is a two-time winner of the Florida Book Award. His work has been nominated for both the Edgar and Macavity Awards. A former US Air Force fighter pilot, Larsen flew more than twenty missions in Operation Desert Storm. He has also served as a federal law enforcement officer and is a trained aircraft accident investigator. His first thriller, The Perfect Assassin, is currently being adapted into a major motion picture by Amber Entertainment.

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