Face Off: New Excerpt

Face Off

David Hagberg

Kirk McGarvey Series

October 9, 2018

New York Times-bestselling author David Hagberg’s acclaimed Kirk McGarvey series continues with another compelling and timely thriller in Face Off.

Kirk McGarvey is lunching in the Eiffel Tower when terrorists attempt to bring the Paris icon down. He springs into action to stop the attack, only to find there’s a much larger plot at stake. One that aims to force the incompetent US President out by pitting him against Russia.

But Putin himself is eager to avoid World War III. When a Russian nuclear weapon goes missing and is found heading to the US, Putin enlists McGarvey’s help in stopping it.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the outcome couldn’t be more in doubt. Only McGarvey stands a chance of intervening before it’s too late, in a race against time across Paris, Istanbul, Moscow, and Washington, D.C.


Karim Najjir, a former midlevel Saudi intelligence officer, easily made the circle around the Arc de Triomphe exactly on schedule at eleven in the morning, the Peugeot 308 anonymous in the heavy July traffic. Next month most of the country would all but shut down, because August was when the French took their vacations. But for now the City of Light, arguably the most famous metro area in the world, was brimming with tourists from just about everywhere.

It was exactly the condition that the tall, slender man with narrow pinched features and wide, dark, interesting eyes, who traveled under the work name Giles Worley, had trained his people for, over the past six months.

An old Chinese curse hurled at your enemies said, “May you live in interesting times.”

These past several years, ISIS attacks against Western cities from here in Paris to London, New York, Munich, Berlin, and even Toronto and Mexico City, had steadily brought the message that these indeed were interesting times.

Today would be the most spectacular of them all.

New York had its twin trade towers—a symbol of American decadence. London had its Eye on the Thames. Berlin its new house of parliament. Toronto its needle into the sky. And Munich its Hofbräuhaus. Not to mention the downed airliners, the attacks on places such as train stations, gay nightclubs, marathons, football stadiums, and even magazines that published cartoons and articles about the Prophet.

And this morning the Eiffel Tower, at the height of a tourist season that no one would ever forget.

Miriam Halabi, a girl whose record showed that she was from Jeddah—though she was actually Russian—and whose parents had immigrated to Britain when she was very young, had supposedly been radicalized at a madrassa in London’s East End. She had come to Najjir’s attention almost from the moment he’d begun recruiting soldiers for this mission. She was of medium height and slender, with wide dark eyes, thick black hair, and a beautiful face—good looks that were spoiled whenever she spoke in a thick cockney accent that most people took for a sign of stupidity, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I’m not strapping on a fucking bomb vest for you or any other martyr to the fucking cause,” she’d told him after they’d gone to bed with each other for the first time and he’d explained a little of what he was planning. “No matter how good a lay you are.”

“You’ll be my misdirection,” he’d told her.

“You’re going to bomb the shit out of something. Means you’re recruiting grist for the fucking mill. Cannon fodder.”

“That’s right.”

“And what’s my role?”

“You’ll be my well-dressed, well-jeweled mistress who in the middle of everything will suddenly get angry with me and start such a public row that the tourists will appreciate the circus and flics will have to escort us off the premises.”

Her smile had been avaricious. “What happens then, love?”

“You keep the wardrobe and enough money to get you back to London first class, plus what’s already been put in the bank account I set up for you. You won’t be wealthy, but you’ll be well off.”

“And the ice?”

“You keep the jewelry.”

“London’s expensive. I’ll hock the fuckin’ bling.”

“Fine. But just don’t open your mouth in public until we start our row.”

She had batted her eyes at him. “Pull a Lisa Doolittle, that it?”

Najjir, whose formal education had mostly been in Switzerland, his final year at Harvard for his MBA, caught the reference. “Transformation, indeed,” he’d said. Not unlike his own, from a minor royal cousin to an off-the-books—but nevertheless paid—special ops arranger for Saudi intel, the GIP.

His own transformation had come during the second major oil crisis, which had been going on now for nearly five years. Saudi Arabia’s economy, which had always been more than generous for its people, had gone to hell. Even muscling the OPEC signatories into restricting output in an effort to drive up prices had not really worked in the long run.

The country had been sliding into its own desert nomad past the entire time. Its voice at the UN was mostly ignored. Oil was cheap—compounded by the US role as an exporter—and the Chinese had taken over as the heavy hitters at the casinos in Monaco, Singapore, Sun City in South Africa, and the Kurhaus in Baden-Baden.

Only a very few of the still wealthy Saudi royal princes showed up at the gaming tables—and then their stakes tended to be a shadow of their former glory.

And so the pressure was on to bring Saudi Arabia back into the champion’s circle by identifying the ISIS leaders and planners and eliminating them.

It was a delicate plan, and Paris was only the first, and smallest, step.

*   *   *

They crossed the river at the Place de la Concorde and started along the Quai d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower coming into view.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Miriam said, suddenly getting it. “You guys are totally bug shit, do you know that?”

“I’ll drop you off at the next corner and you can get a cab back to the hotel,” Najjir lied to her.

“But at least I get to keep the bling?”

“What do you think?”

She looked away and after a moment she shook her head. “I’m not going back. So I’m in.”

They’d bought her designer slacks, strappy high heels, and a couple of expensive silk blouses at Givenchy, and her rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklace at Chez Nana on the rue d’Hauteville in the tenth. The transformation from a cockney broad to what she looked like now was nothing short of stunning.

In the end, of course, none of it would matter. She could keep the clothes and the jewelry all the way to her grave here in Paris.

*   *   *

Najjir pulled in to the Parking Pullman ramp on the avenue de Suffren, just down the block from the Eiffel Tower. He had bought a twenty-four-hour pass online last night. It was just past eleven in the morning, so the rental car would not be noticed until tomorrow, by which time the three martyrs, plus Miriam, would be dead and he would be well on his way back to Riyadh via his twenty-four-hour layover in Cairo.

He parked on the third level, and down on the street Miriam linked her arm in his and they sauntered to the Quai Branly, where they descended to the river walk to join the other lovers strolling arm in arm.

Their reservation at the restaurant Le Jules Verne on the third level in the tower was for noon. Najjir wanted to be exactly on time, because at one o’clock precisely, powerful explosives would detonate at the south pillar at that level. If their German engineers had done their CAD modeling correctly, the Eiffel Tower would collapse and fall across the length of the Parc du Champ de Mars, with hundreds in the tower and perhaps as many as one thousand or more tourists on the ground.

“It’s pretty here,” Miriam said.

“Each time I come here it gets better.”

She looked at him. “Seems a shame.”

“Depends on how you think about the outcome and the reasons.”

“Just following orders, is that it?”

More than that, he wanted to tell her, but he didn’t think that she would understand. He didn’t know if he did.

Politics? He spouted the GIP line he’d been fed since the academy. Saudi Arabia stands alone with Allah. But of course that was nonsense. In the forties Germany and Japan had been the enemies of all of Europe, Great Britain, and the US. Now they were the West’s major trading partners. And even Tel Aviv had made peace with Berlin.

So then why? What was the answer to her question?

He didn’t honestly know, because he’d never asked himself at a deep enough level to reveal his own truth.

I am what I am, he wanted to tell her.

But she wouldn’t understand that answer any better than he did himself.


Kirk McGarvey handed Pete Boylan into the backseat of the taxi in front of the boutique hotel Le Pavillon de la Reine in the Marais district of Paris a little before 11:30, the morning stunningly beautiful.

The doorman closed the door after Mac got in. “La Tour Eiffel,” the man told the driver.

“I’ve been to Paris a half dozen times but never to the Eiffel Tower,” Pete said, a huge smile on her pretty round face, which was framed with fairly short-cropped red hair.

Before he’d taken on the role of what was being called at Langley a “special circumstances troubleshooter,” McGarvey—Mac to his friends—had worked as a field officer for the CIA, briefly rising to head the Company’s Clandestine Service Directorate, and even for a very short time serving as the director of the entire agency. All that before he’d turned fifty.

He was a well-built man, a little under six feet, with an athlete’s physique and gray eyes that in times of trouble took on a green hue.

A couple of years ago his wife and only daughter had been killed in a car explosion meant for him, and until very recently he’d held back from any sort of a romantic relationship.

Pete, who was almost ten years younger than him and never married, had worked as a special agent/interrogator for the Company, and she’d been pulled in to the tail end of an assignment with McGarvey and had gotten wounded. Wasn’t long after that she had begun to fall in love with him. It had taken him much longer to feel the same for her.

“A honeymoon without benefit of the clergy,” she said, as the cab headed away from the hotel.

“Do you mind?”

“Not terribly. I got ninety-nine percent of what I wanted.”

And that’s what bothered McGarvey. Every woman who’d ever gotten close to him had been murdered because of who he was, what he had done. A Swiss undercover cop who’d fallen in love with him had been assassinated here in Paris. Another had been killed in an explosion at a restaurant in Georgetown. And then his wife and daughter. He was afraid now for Pete, because despite himself he’d fallen in love with her. And almost from the moment they’d began working together she had come under fire—nearly losing her life on more than one occasion.

Sooner or later the odds would swing against her, and he didn’t know what he would do in the aftermath to keep from taking out every single person who had even the slightest connection with her assassin. He was afraid of himself.

“I’m working on it,” he told her, keeping that part of his feelings from showing. He absently rubbed his left knee where his prosthesis was attached.

“Sore?” Pete asked.

“My foot itches. Damnedest thing.”

Two months ago a kilo of Semtex had been placed in his ’59 Porsche Super cabriolet parked in one of the lots at New College in Sarasota. He taught Voltaire there to some seriously bright kids. And on a Friday afternoon after class he’d gotten behind the wheel, but something had felt wrong, and he’d bailed out moments before the powerful explosion sent pieces of sheet metal fifty feet into the air. His back had been so badly burned he’d needed skin grafts, and his left leg had been taken off just below the knee.

His past had caught up with him again, and as soon as he was ambulatory he had been thrown into one of the most bizarre operations of his career, which had pitted him against the newly elected president of the United States.

Pete had been at his side throughout the entire ordeal, and this trip to Paris was a much-needed vacation for both of them.

The only problem so far was that neither of them was carrying, and McGarvey felt vulnerable walking around unarmed. But he had a history with the French intelligence service, not all of it especially good. And it had taken a phone call from Marty Bambridge, the current deputy director of the CIA, to the number two at the DGSE, promising that McGarvey and Ms. Boylan would behave themselves inside France, and that under no circumstances would they bring firearms into the country.

They had been sitting in Marty’s office on the seventh floor of the Original Headquarters Building as he made the call.

“I’m counting on both of you to stay out of trouble,” he’d warned them. He looked more like a banker than the number two chief spy, but that morning he’d taken off his jacket and loosened his tie. It was something he’d once admitted that he did when he was telling a lie.

“Disinformation,” McGarvey had said, and they’d laughed about it.

This morning, riding toward the Eiffel Tower, Mac’s radar was up and humming. As he talked with Pete and rubbed at the phantom itch, he was watching the traffic ahead of them on the rue de Rivoli.

It seemed like every time he’d come to France, and especially to this city, he’d wound up in the middle of trouble.

Pete picked up on it. “Penny.”

He gave her a smile. “Nothing.”

“It’s me you’re talking to, Kirk. What’s on your mind?”

“An itchy foot.”

“That why all of a sudden your interest in traffic?”

“Old habits, I guess. But there’s been a lot of stuff happening in this country over the past few years. Saint-Denis, Nice, Charlie Hebdo.”

“But none lately, and that’s what’s worrying you?”

“Like I said, old habits.”

“Give Otto a call.”

*   *   *

It was 6:30 in the morning when Otto Rencke’s number rolled over to his office on the third floor of the OHB in Langley.

“Oh, wow, Mac,” he answered on the first ring. “What’s up?”

Rencke, who was the CIA’s ranking odd duck computer genius and McGarvey’s closest friend for more years than either of them wanted to count, was considered by just about everyone anywhere in the world in the know to be unequaled in the business. No one had a neutral opinion about him: everyone was either grateful for his expertise or frightened out of their wits, or both.

He’d designed most of the computer programs for the CIA as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the office of the National Director of Intelligence, and even the FBI and Pentagon. The one notable exception was the State Department, whose system had always leaked like a sieve.

His encryption systems, including the backscatter method that could scramble both sides of a telephone conversation even if one of the phones was not protected, was so state of the art that even Russian, Chinese, and Japanese engineers had been unable to duplicate them.

“Anything looming on your threat board?” McGarvey asked.

“You got a case of the premos?”

McGarvey’s premos were his premonitions, which had almost always been right on the mark or close to it. Willies, he called them. The feeling at the base of his neck. Something just slightly out of kilter for him. A man in the blue sweater who didn’t seem to belong. The odd glint of light from a pair of binoculars or the lens of a sniper rifle’s scope on the roof of a building. The miscellaneous car or windowless van here or there with an odd-looking antenna. An SUV with tinted windows that seemed heavy on its shocks and was probably carrying armor. But its license tags were civilian, not government or military.

“Nothing specific.”

“An explosion last night at a construction site in Aleppo. A sixty-five percent probability that Iran is reactivating one of its nuclear enrichment centrifuges. A possible theft of a tactical nuclear warhead from a depot outside of Saratov.”

“What’s your confidence level on the Russian thing?”

“Fifty-fifty. I sent it upstairs last night.”

“Anything brewing here in Paris?”

“Nothing my darlings have picked up,” Rencke said. His darlings were a set of sophisticated computer programs that searched and analyzed inputs from every electronic source on the planet that he was able to hack into. They found possible connections, from which they made predictions with varying degrees of confidence.

“Dig deeper, just for the hell of it,” McGarvey said.

“Already on it. Shit starts to go lavender and you’ll be the first to know.”

Lavender on his monitors meant trouble.

Copyright © 2018 David Hagberg.

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