Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review - HEART-SHAPED BOX, by Joe Hill

Judas Coyne is an aging heavy-metal rock god who seems to be the very cliche of the over-the-hill rock star, from the requisite dead band members, to his interest in the bizarre and the freakish, to his succession of doomed relationships with female groupies whose ages are getting farther and farther removed from his own.

Jude lives on a farm in upstate New York. His "career" now consists of writing and recording songs for his own benefit - hiding them away like he hides himself away, letting his personal assistant handle the minutiae of real life.

When his assistant mentions he's run across the opportunity online to purchase a dead man's ghost - by way of the corpse's suit - for a thousand dollars, Jude jumps at the chance. What else would he do? What else would his fans have expected him to do?

The suit arrives at Jude's door a few days later, and almost immediately, strange occurrences begin happening. Frightening visions. Trance-like states of hypnosis, with blackouts and worse. Then things move quickly from bad to worse, and before you know it, Jude and his girl - a flavor-of-the-month goth chick nicknamed "Georgia" - are running for their lives, trying to outdistance an angry spirit.

I'm not going to run down the plot any further, partly because so many other reviewers already have, and partly because by now you've already decided whether HEART-SHAPED BOX is your cup of tea or not. In some ways it's a very traditional ghost story and in others, not so much.

HEART-SHAPED BOX was originally published in 2007, and I never bothered reading it because, quite simply, I didn't give author Joe Hill a chance. The fact that he was Stephen King's son was supposed to be some kind of big secret, but it was about the worst-kept secret since, well, some other really badly kept secret.

I figured here was the classic example of a guy making money and gaining fame off his father's name, and the fact that he was writing under a different name made it somehow worse. More cynical and calculated, or something.

Boy, was that a mistake, and not just because it shows what a shallow asshole I can be at times.

Joe Hill can really write. He takes a story that's been told around a million campfires and lifts it above the commonplace and into something special, developing a gauzy, southern-gothic atmospheric tension when the story moves from New York State to Georgia, on to Florida, and finally ending in Coyne's boyhood home, a dilapidated farm in Louisiana.

While I resisted reading Joe Hill's work because of his family name, it seems almost comically ironic to note that HEART-SHAPED BOX contains much of the stuff that made me such a die-hard fan of Stephen King's early work, most notably 'SALEM'S LOT and THE SHINING:

- The ability to create characters we may not like but can't help rooting for, maybe because we see ourselves in these people who so often act out of self-interest and personal greed, but who - we hope - have the chance to redeem themselves in the end, perhaps because we hold out the same hope for ourselves.

- The ability to insert humor into the narrative in the unlikeliest places and at the unlikeliest times, without taking away from the suspense, and even, as impossible as it seems, enhancing it.

- The ability to draw the reader into the world he's created, so by the end of the book you're not just watching Judas Coyne and Mary Beth try to fight their way out of the mess they're in, you're right there with them, experiencing the horror that is the relentlessly vengeful Craddock McDermott and his smoke-blue pickup truck.

If you're smarter or more perceptive than I am, maybe you'll see where the book is going before it gets there, and if so, good for you. But I didn't see it coming, so when Hill wraps up the mystery of why Judas Coyne had been chosen - and he was chosen - for haunting, it's a satisfying resolution.

Of course, there's still the pesky question of how - and even whether -the aging rock star and his troubled, three-decades-younger girlfriend will survive, but if you haven't read the book yet, you're going to have to do so to get the answer to that one.

I owe you an apology, Joe Hill. I'm sure you don't care one way or the other, but I didn't give you a chance, and it was my loss missing out on one outstanding horror novel for six years.

Great book. If you love horror - not blood and guts and gore, but real psychological horror - and you haven't read HEART-SHAPED BOX yet, go get it. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Ten:


May 30, 1987

2:35 p.m.

Ramstein Air Base, West Germany

The back of the envelope was sweat-stained to a murky off-brown from being plastered to Tracie’s skin in the stifling heat of the East German dance club. The front, where was scrawled, “President Ronald Reagan,” by Mikhail Gorbachev, if her handler was to be believed—and Tracie believed him—remained undisturbed.

After fighting her way out of the dance club, Tracie had snuck out of East Berlin uneventfully—it was never a problem if you had the right contacts—and driven as fast as she dared back to Ramstein Air Base in West Germany in a waiting CIA-supplied automobile. By the time she arrived at Ramstein it was approaching six a.m., and she crashed, exhausted, in an empty apartment maintained just off the base by the CIA. After just a few short hours of sleep, she was awakened by telephone and advised her flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland would be departing at eleven p.m.

Tracie showered and dressed, reveling in the luxury of a little time to herself and the added bonus of an unlimited hot water supply. In many of the locations she had worked as a CIA field operative there had been no water at all, much less hot water.

During her shower, Tracie placed Gorbachev’s envelope atop the ceramic toilet tank, less than four feet from where she stood soaping and rinsing. Her assignment had been to retrieve the letter, spirit it out of East Germany, and then accompany it to Washington, never allowing it out of her sight until its delivery to the President, and that was what she intended to do.

She had slept with the letter hugged to her chest, cradling it like a tiny baby. She slept fitfully, but then she always slept fitfully, awakened by the slightest hint of a sound, a disruption in the room’s air currents, a barely perceptible noise outside her window. Her supersensitive perception, even while asleep, had kept her alive in some of the most dangerous locations in the world.

Tracie had performed missions in Asian and Middle Eastern countries where being female meant you had no rights, possessed no intrinsic value other than what the men around you were willing to bestow upon you. You could disappear without warning at any time and for any reason, and no one would ever question why.

The United States government would be no help, either, as her missions were almost always off the books and so highly sensitive that if she was captured, rather than fighting or negotiating for her release, the government would deny her very presence in the country, all the way up the official channels.

This was the life of a CIA Directorate of Operations agent. It was Tracie Tanner’s life, and a career she had never once regretted undertaking. It was a solitary, often lonely life, but as the daughter of a four-star U.S. Army general and a career State Department diplomat, Tracie had been groomed for it. After graduating Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, with a degree in linguistics, Tracie had been recruited into the ranks of the CIA. She had trained for three grueling years, initially at The Farm and then in the field, under a crusty old badass veteran of a quarter-century of covert operations whose real name she still did not know. Then she began working solo missions under her mentor and direct supervisor at CIA, Winston Andrews. Despite her inability to share even the broadest of details about her career with her parents, she knew they were proud of her decision to devote her life to the cause of freedom and service to her country.

But right now, all Tracie cared about was the steaming-hot water blasting out of the shower in the small apartment. She washed the sweat and grime of the mission off every inch of her body, then rinsed off and started again, scrubbing until she felt completely refreshed, regenerated and ready to begin the second half—the easy half—of the job. She would accompany Gorbachev’s letter to the White House, bypassing all official and diplomatic channels before hand-delivering it to its recipient, President Ronald Reagan.

The mission would end with an official debrief at Langley. Tracie hoped she might then be fortunate enough to wrangle a few days off to visit her folks in suburban Washington, but knew that was probably a pipe dream. Too many things were happening in too many hot spots around the world for the agency to allow one of their most valuable resources to hang out like a normal twenty-seven-year-old single woman.

In any event, the rest of the trip should be a cake walk. Tracie calculated the length of the flight and the time difference between West Germany and Washington, D.C. Eight hours in the air, more or less, and a six-hour time difference meant they would touch down at Andrews around 2:00 a.m. local time.

The 11:00 p.m. departure time was not exactly a typical flight schedule, but then Tracie had long ago adjusted to the unusual hours the job entailed. After being advised of the critical nature of the mission, the Air Force would have needed time to prep an airplane and get a flight crew together.

Tracie stepped directly under the shower nozzle, rinsing shampoo from her luxurious mane of red hair, enjoying the warmth of the water, always keeping one eye on the innocent-looking envelope propped against the wall on top of the toilet tank just outside the shower.

Finally, reluctantly, she twisted the faucets, sighing as the blast of water slowed to a trickle and then disappeared entirely. She stepped from the shower, dried off and dressed, and then quickly blow-dried her hair. With the extravagance of the hot shower out of the way, she wandered the apartment, the time passing slowly as she waited to leave Europe behind.


May 30, 1987

10:10 p.m.

Ramstein Air Base, West Germany

Tracie woke with a start and checked her watch. She had drifted off to sleep, stretched out on a small couch while watching a soccer match on the apartment’s black and white television, and now worried she may have missed her flight.

Ten-ten. Shit. She’d have to hurry, but would probably make it. If she timed it right, she might even manage coffee. Dinner she could take or leave, but the thought of departing Ramstein for a long flight to the States without an invigorating jolt of caffeine was unacceptable.

She threw her clothing into a small canvas bag—traveling light was second nature to Tracie Tanner after seven years of CIA service—and slid Mikhail Gorbachev’s letter carefully into the interior breast pocket of her light jacket. Then she rushed out of the apartment, jumped into her car, and drove onto the base.

She dumped the CIA car outside a small commissary adjacent to the airfield, hid the keys under the front seat, and hustled inside. She passed a pair of young airmen who made no attempt to hide their admiration of her running figure. She ignored them. They didn’t have coffee. Besides, she had long since gotten used to men staring at her. Also ogling her, leering at her and propositioning her.

Tracie checked her watch. Twenty-five minutes until her flight’s scheduled departure. She choked down her coffee. It was scalding hot and almost undrinkably strong, just the way she liked it. Then she grabbed her bag, checked for her precious cargo—the letter was still there—and then double-timed to the airfield. Someone would retrieve the car later.

Tracie had been instructed to check in at Hangar Three, and now she slowed her pace about a hundred feet from the door, walking onto the tarmac at precisely 10:55 p.m. Outside the hangar, a gigantic green U.S. Air Force B-52 towered above her, the eight-engine high-wing jet appearing almost impossibly large. It had to be close to two hundred feet from wingtip to wingtip, and the fuselage soared high above like some kind of fabricated metal dinosaur. The notion of the huge hunk of metal ever getting airborne, much less staying that way and flying all the way to the United States seemed outlandish, some kind of magic trick or optical illusion.

Tracie had logged endless hours aboard dozens of different aircraft, from medevac helicopters to Boeing 747’s, during her tenure as a CIA covert ops specialist, but had never been aboard a B-52. The sheer enormity of the aircraft was staggering. From where she stood, it looked like every other aircraft she had ever flown aboard could fit inside this behemoth. The wings thrusting outward from the top of the aircraft’s fuselage seemed to go on forever, swept back and hanging down slightly, as if the weight of the eight jet engines hanging in clusters of two was simply more than they could bear. The fuselage itself stretched off into the distance; to Tracie’s eye it appeared nearly as long as the wing span was wide.

She froze in place, marveling at the engineering miracle perched atop its tiny-looking wheels. She could feel her jaw hanging open and closed it, embarrassed. She felt like a country bumpkin on her first visit to the big city.

Standing directly in front of—and far below—the nose of the huge aircraft was an officer, probably late-thirties, handsome in a grizzled, seen-it-all way. He had obviously been awaiting her arrival, and he smiled at her reaction to the B-52. “May I see your ID, ma’am?” he asked.

Tracie handed it over, shaking her head in mute admiration of the aircraft.

The officer said, “We get that a lot from people who have never been up close to a BUFF before. It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?”

“That’s an understatement,” Tracie answered.

The officer handed Tracie’s ID back and said, “I’m Major Stan Wilczynski, and I’ll be Pilot in Command for today’s flight. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew shortly.”

She returned the Major’s smile. “I’ll bite,” she said. “What’s ‘BUFF’?” Other than you, she wanted to add, wondering how long it had been since she had enjoyed any male companionship outside of official duty status and realizing she couldn’t remember. She kept her remark to herself, though, noting the Major’s wedding ring.

He chuckled. “BUFF’s our nickname for the B-52. Stands for ‘Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.’ And they are all of that, but these babies have served with distinction for a quarter-century, with plenty more years to come. Some say the new B-1 will make the BUFF obsolete, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Tracie nodded, noting the reverence in the pilot’s voice as he talked about the plane. “How long have you flown the B-52, Major?”

“It’s Stan to my friends, Miss Tanner. And I’ve been involved with these Big Ugly Fuckers almost since my first day in the Air Force. Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent my whole life inside one of these beasts. Can’t imagine a better way to serve my country, to be honest.”

Tracie grinned. The man’s enthusiasm was infectious, and went a long way toward breaking down her caution, a trait she came by naturally and one that had served her well over the course of her seven-year CIA career. But there was no need for it now; it was clear she was among friends.

“Anyway,” Wilczynki continued, “I’ve bored you long enough. I just can’t help bragging when the subject is my baby.” He gestured affectionately toward the aircraft’s nose. “Whaddaya say we climb aboard and get ready to leave this continent behind?” The Major turned and indicated a metal ladder hanging from an open hatch in the bottom of the aircraft.

“I’m not bored at all,” Tracie answered, starting up the ladder. “I love hearing a professional discuss his passion.”

Major Wilczynski paused. “You know, I’ve never really thought about it in those terms before, but you’re right, I do have a passion for these old birds.” He started up the ladder behind Tracie and they disappeared into the B-52.


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Nine:


May 30, 1987

12:15 a.m.

Ramstein Air Force Base, West Germany


“Is this Mitchell?”

“Who wants to know?”


“Yes, it’s Mitchell.”

“You are alone, yes? You can speak freely?”


“Good. Because we have an assignment for you. An item has been taken out of Russia through the GDR and is being flown to the United States from your air base.”

“So? Stuff flies out of here to the States all the time.”

“Not ‘stuff’ like this. It is critical this item not reach its intended destination. You will ensure that it does not.”

“What is the item?”

“An envelope addressed to your President Reagan. We believe the envelope contains a handwritten letter from Mikhail Gorbachev betraying his country.”

“I’m supposed to intercept a letter? In one small envelope? I don’t know anything about mail delivery. It’s not possible.”

“It is possible, Major. And it will be done. We have been paying you good money for many years and you have provided little return on our investment. Now it is time for you to earn those tens of thousands of American dollars we have deposited into your bank account.”


“This item is far too valuable to be left unguarded. It will be placed on the first available military flight leaving Ramstein and will be carried personally by a member of your CIA. We believe that representative will be a young woman, red-haired and beautiful.”

“A beautiful, red-haired CIA spook?”

“That is correct. We have two witnesses who saw such a young woman execute one of our men in cold blood. We are certain she is in possession of the item. The airplane she boards for the United States is the airplane the envelope will be on. You will ensure that plane never arrives at its destination.”

“Crash a U.S Air Force jet? Are you out of your mind? Why can’t I just steal the letter and deliver it to you through a contact?”

“You propose stealing a Top-Secret document from a CIA professional? It would never happen. You would be dead before you got within three feet of her.”

“But if I can?”

“You do not understand. This item could conceivably change the entire balance of world power. It is imperative it be destroyed. We cannot risk you being caught trying to steal it. You will crash the airplane and thus destroy the letter. Those are your orders. They will be followed. Period.”

I already told you, it’s impossible. It can’t be done!”

“You will find a way, Major.”

“You’re a fucking crackpot. Forget it. I’m out. Find someone else to do your dirty work.”

“Major, you will never guess the report I received today.”

“Report? What are you talking about?”

“One of our operatives followed Roberta as she drove little Sarah to dance class this afternoon. He tells me, Major, that your young daughter is getting quite beautiful. Growing like a weed, as you Americans like to say.”

“He what? Roberta and Sarah? Listen here, you psychotic bastard, you leave my family out of this, do you understand?”

“The roads, Major, they are so dangerous in your country. Automobile accidents are a daily occurrence, often fiery crashes where the victims, sometimes mothers with their young children in the back seat, they crash their cars and burn to death in the fiery aftermath. They may survive the initial accident but then literally cook to death inside the burning vehicle. So sad, Major. So painful for the victims. So avoidable.”


“Are you still with me, Major? Are you paying attention?”

“I’m here, you sick son of a bitch.”

“Good. You will ensure the airplane carrying the item of which we spoke never reaches your country. If you do not accomplish this assignment, well, let us just say I hope you have many photographs of your beautiful little family to keep their memory alive. Do not think about alerting the authorities, either. We will get to your wife and child if you do. Please believe that. Do you believe that, Major?”


“Do you believe that, Major?”

“Yes. I believe that.”

“Then get going. You have a lot of work to do and very little time. The item is either already on the base or will be soon. It won’t be long before the plane carrying it will be lifting off, likely with the CIA operative as the sole passenger.”

“God damn you.”

“Oh, and Major? One more thing.”


“Good luck. And goodbye.”

PARALLAX VIEW, Chapter Eight

My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Eight:


May 30, 1987

Time Unknown

Location unknown

Aleksander regained consciousness slowly. He was sitting on a hard chair, probably in a basement or storage room of some sort. It was cold and dark and damp and smelled of rotting vegetables and something vaguely sinister. Copper? Aleksander wasn’t sure.

He could hear voices muttering somewhere nearby. Two people, it seemed. He was afraid to open his eyes to check. His hands and arms ached. He tried moving them but they were secured tight to the chair, arms pulled behind his back, wrists shackled together.

Tried his feet next. Same result. Each ankle had been affixed to a chair leg with something heavy and solid, probably a length of chain.

Aleksander felt queasy and weak. He knew he had been drugged into unconsciousness inside the tiny East German automobile and wondered how long he had been out. Was he even still in the German Democratic Republic? Was he back in Russia? Somewhere else? He concentrated on the voices, trying to pick up enough of the conversation to determine what language they were speaking and how many people were inside the room with him.

No luck. The voices were too quiet.

He risked opening his eyes, just a sliver, and moved his head very slowly to look around. In the dirty yellow light of a single bulb he could see a pair of shadowy figures huddled together in a corner of the room. The image blurred and doubled, then cleared. The lingering effects of whatever drugs he had been given, Aleksander guessed.

The men were sitting around a rickety table drinking something hot out of mugs—Aleksander could see the steam rising into the air even from here—and his stomach clenched and rumbled.

He wondered how long it had been since he had eaten. He wondered whether he would ever eat again. The terror of his predicament struck him like a wrecking ball and Aleksander puked all over the floor, the vomit burning his gullet on the way out. Cheap German vodka. Aleksander sobbed, then quickly stopped himself. His eyes widened in mounting panic as the men pushed their chairs back and began walking across the room.

The men stopped directly in front of him. One was tall and thin, skeletal. The other was completely bald. Aleksander looked up in fear, feeling like he might be sick again. He hoped when the vomit erupted from him it wouldn’t splatter all over his captors.

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Comrade,” the bald man said in Russian, which meant nothing, since his East German contact had spoken Russian, too. “Time is of the essence, so let us skip the preliminaries and get right down to business, shall we?”

Aleksander’s terror was nearly overwhelming. His stomach rolled and yawed. He was afraid to speak for fear of vomiting again.

But as terrifying as this situation was, he knew he possessed the ultimate trump card—provided he had been kidnapped by Russians. If these two weren’t citizens of the USSR, he didn’t know what he was going to do.

“Where is it?” the bald man said. So far skeleton-man had not spoken.

Aleksander had no choice but to answer now. He hoped he wouldn’t puke on the men, but they were standing perilously close. He swallowed hard. “Where is what?” he croaked. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until just now.

“Do not play games with us. Doing so will only cause you pain,” the bald man said, and skeleton-man drew back his foot and kicked Aleksander in the shin, hard, with his steel-toed boot. The pain exploded, racing up and down Aleksander’s leg like an electrical current.

He screamed in agony and fell forward, desperate to cover up, to protect his injured shin, but could barely move with his wrists shackled to the chair behind his back. He hadn’t heard anything crack but couldn’t believe the bone hadn’t shattered.

“Where is it?” the bald man repeated, his voice slashing like a knife.

“I don’t know,” Aleksander gasped. “I passed it along just as I was instructed to do. Where he went with it after he left the club I have no idea.”

“You know him,” the man said. It was not a question. “You have done business with him in the past.”

“No, never. I swear. I’ve never seen him before.”

“You were laughing and joking like old friends, Comrade Petrovka. Do not insult our intelligence.”

“I was just doing what I was told to do by my contact, to blend in, that’s all. I’ve haven’t been to East Germany since I was a teen, I swear. You can check my travel records if you don’t believe me.”

“Oh, we will, don’t worry about that. Next question: What was the item you delivered?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you, traitor.”

“Traitor?” Aleksander looked up at his tormentors, sweat dripping into his eyes. His shin throbbed with every beat of his heart. He knew now was the time to play his trump card. It might be his only chance. “No,” he said, “I am not a traitor. I was doing exactly as ordered by General Secretary Gorbachev. I am here on official state business.”

“Official state business?” the man said, his voice mocking and cruel. He turned to his partner. “Did you hear that, Vasily? He is here on official state business, representing Secretary Gorbachev himself.”

The man turned his attention back to Aleksander. “Well, I have news for you, Comrade Aleksander Petrovka of Ivanteyevka. Mikhail Gorbachev is just as much a traitor to his homeland as you are. We care nothing for Mikhail Gorbachev’s orders. If Gorbachev’s reckless stupidity is not checked, he will be the downfall of the Soviet Empire, and Vasily and I are just two of many who refuse to see that happen.

“Betraying your country under the orders of a fellow traitor is no excuse, Comrade Petrovka. So I ask you again, for the last time: what was the item you delivered to your contact?”

Terror flooded through Aleksander’s body. The terror overwhelmed the pain so his throbbing shin did not even exist. The terror overwhelmed his queasy stomach so he no longer felt he was about to puke. The terror was everything.

These men were Russians, but it did not matter. They were Russians, but the word of Mikhail Gorbachev meant nothing to them. They were accusing him of treason, but they were traitors. The irony struck him like another kick to the shin. Aleksander realized he was breathing heavily, forcing air in and out through his mouth like a panting dog. He was hyperventilating but could not stop himself.

This was bad. This was worse than bad. This was a nightmare come to life.

“WHAT WAS THE ITEM YOU DELIVERED TO YOUR CONTACT?” the bald man screamed in Aleksander’s face. Spittle sprayed out of the man’s mouth as if from a fire hose. A fat gob of saliva splattered the side of Aleksander’s nose and dripped slowly into his mouth.

Aleksander sobbed, “I don’t know! Secretary Gorbachev gave me a sealed envelope. Inside was some kind of document, I don’t know what. He forbade me to look at it.”

His tormentor stepped back and looked at his comrade. He seemed genuinely shocked. “You risked your life to deliver a document and . . . you don’t even know what it was?”

Aleksander hung his head and shook it miserably. He would never see Tatiana or his children again. He would never see the sun rise over the eastern edge of the Moscow skyline. He was going to die here in this dirty, dark torture chamber at the hands of two people he had never seen, two people who believed him a traitor to his country. And there was nothing he could do about it.

A wrenching sob shook his body and pain flared in his shin. “The envelope was sealed. I could not have opened it even if I wanted to.”

His two captors laughed as though he had said something funny. Then his interrogator switched gears. “Your contact, he was a German, was he not?”

“Yes, that is what Secretary Gorbachev told me, and I don’t know why he would lie about it.”

The two men grunted and his interrogator spit on the floor. “Yes, why would he lie?” the bald man said. “He is destroying his ancestral homeland, the land Russians have spilled blood to protect for generations, but surely he would not lie.

“Now, getting back to the document the traitor Gorbachev asked you to pass along to this German, what was it?”

“I already told you, I don’t know.”

The man waved his hand like he was brushing a fly away from his face. “Don’t take me for a fool, please, Comrade. There is no one alive who would not look inside the envelope the first chance he got. What was it?”

Aleksander raised his head and looked at the man beseechingly, but said nothing. What could he say? It was clear another denial would be ignored.

And then, out of nowhere, inspiration. His contact! “If you were watching me, you must have been watching my contact, too,” he said, speaking quickly, enthusiastically. “If you can find him, you can take the envelope away from him and see for yourselves what it contains.”

“Thank you for your very helpful advice,” his tormentor replied with exaggerated politeness. “Your German collaborator claims to know nothing as well, and he passed the envelope off before we were able to intercept him.” The man shook his head in disgust and spit again on the floor. “We are getting nowhere and time is passing quickly.”

He smiled at Aleksander, his lips a thin bloodless slash. “I would like to say I am sorry for what is to come next, but, alas, I cannot. I have little patience for traitors, but would have gladly ended you quickly had you only given me the information I require. Now, I am afraid you are in for a rather unpleasant little while. I can’t be more specific because, you see, I don’t know how long it will take you to die. One can never predict these things, but the time will probably seem much longer to you than it actually is.”

The other man walked away and began dragging equipment across the concrete floor, placing it next to Aleksander’s chair. He didn’t seem sorry, either. He whistled a tuneless ditty as he expertly clamped a set of booster cables to a series of automobile batteries stacked atop a wooden pallet on wheels. A cable ran from the batteries to a small box fitted with dials, switches and a couple of grimy meters. To Aleksander the box resembled the transformer from the small electric train set he and Tatiana had given his son, Aleksander Junior, for his fourth birthday last year. It had taken months to save up enough money to buy the toy, but the look on his son’s face when he opened his gift had been worth every bit of sacrifice.

Tears spilled down Aleksander’s cheek at the memory and mixed with the spittle drying on his face. The quiet man continued working and whistling. Two cables extended from one side of the transformer-like box, snaking across the floor, terminating at Aleksander’s shackled feet. At the end of each of the cables was a shiny copper connector, spring-loaded and fitted with sharp teeth. A feeling of dread wormed its way through Aleksander’s gut and he no longer suspected he was going to throw up again, he knew it.

The quiet man unbuckled Aleksander’s belt and pulled it completely free of his trousers. He unsnapped the pants and unzipped the fly and motioned impatiently for Aleksander to lift his ass off the seat. Numbly, Aleksander did as he was instructed, and the man yanked his trousers and underwear down to his ankles.

Aleksander puked, barfing up the acidy-tasting remnants of the East German vodka, not caring this time that it splattered all over the quiet man. He began babbling, begging for his life.

The quiet man continued, unaffected. He attached the copper ends of the two cables to Aleksander’s bare scrotum, tugging lightly on each one to ensure it was fastened securely. Then he walked behind Aleksander’s chair, returning seconds later with a bucket of foul-looking water. He splashed some on Aleksander and on the cables.

He looked at Aleksander, his eyes hard and remorseless. “Goodbye, Comrade,” he said. They were the first and last words Aleksander ever heard him say. Then he walked to the small table on wheels upon which the transformer-like box was placed, and he flipped a switch. Then he turned a dial. Then Aleksander’s situation changed for the worse.

It took a long time for him to die.

PARALLAX VIEW, Chapter Seven

My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Seven:


Berlin, GDR

May 29, 1987, 11:25 p.m.

After his contact had departed, Aleksander savored the relief he now felt. He took a deep pull on his vodka and smiled. It wasn’t up to Russian standards, but it was better than he had expected to find in Germany.

He wondered how long he should wait before departing. His contact had said “a few minutes,” and Aleksander wanted nothing more than to leave this club behind and get on with his life.

He tried not to think about the envelope, but couldn’t help it. General Secretary Gorbachev had indicated it would eventually be delivered to the Americans, of all people, which was strange, but Aleksander didn’t claim to know anything about international diplomacy. Didn’t want to, either. If Comrade Gorbachev wanted the Americans to have the envelope, and was willing to go to such great lengths to conceal its contents from the KGB, who was Aleksander to question the decision?

He shrugged. It was no longer his problem to deal with. The damned envelope was out of his possession. He had done what was asked of him, had performed admirably, he hoped, in service to his country and the Communist Party, and could finally relax. He looked at his watch and decided enough time had passed for his contact to have disappeared into the night.

Aleksander finished his vodka—was that his third or fourth glass? Fifth?—and slammed it down on the tiny table before struggling to his feet, swaying unsteadily. The German vodka may have been a poor substitute for the real thing, but it still packed a satisfying wallop. He placed some of that phony-looking GDR money under his glass and staggered through the crowd, unnoticed and unimpeded, just another Friday night drinker on his way home to face the wrath of his frau.

Aleksander pushed through the door into the cool German night. The stars glittered overhead and a light breeze caressed his flushed face. He felt light-headed, more than he should after just a few glasses of vodka, and decided it was due to lack of sleep and the tremendous strain he had been operating under. But that didn’t matter now. He had done his duty and was in the clear.

He turned right and staggered unsteadily along the dimly lit sidewalk, occasionally sidestepping an onrushing pedestrian or couple walking arm-in-arm. Tomorrow he would take a cab to the airport and fly home to Moscow and the reassuring monotony of his bureaucratic life. Tonight, though, he walked unhurriedly, enjoying the fantasy he had constructed in his alcohol-addled mind. He was a superspy, a man counted on by all of Mother Russia, indeed, all of the USSR, to keep the empire safe. He felled all enemies of the state and was treated like royalty by the Supreme Soviet. He was James Bond, only on the proper side of the equation.

It was an enjoyable fantasy, and Aleksander was lost in it when two men overtook him from behind. They were on him before he knew what was happening, and when they reached him, each one grabbed an elbow in a vice-like grip and propelled him forward. “Do not say a word,” the man on his right side whispered fiercely into his ear in Russian, and Aleksander did not say a word.

He risked a quick glance to his right and then his left. The two men were dressed identically—black overcoats, black slacks, black shoes, even black Homburgs covering their heads. They escorted him directly past the entrance to his hotel, walking him roughly half a kilometer along the main road, still busy with pedestrians at this relatively early hour. None of them paid any attention to him or to the men dressed in black. Aleksander’s heart was racing but he tried not to panic. One call to Secretary Gorbachev’s office and this misunderstanding would be cleared up.

The strange threesome continued, moving so far down the sidewalk that they left the flickering, pre-World War Two-era streetlights behind. They turned a corner into a secluded alleyway, walking Aleksander to an East German-made Trabant automobile parked in the shadows. The car was ancient, tiny. They shoved him wordlessly into the back seat. One of the men leaned over and lifted a foul-smelling cloth from a well-sealed plastic bag in his pocket and pressed it to Aleksander’s face. Aleksander willed himself not to panic and tried not to breathe.

Eventually he did both, in that order, and everything went black.


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Six:


Tracie Tanner lifted the envelope effortlessly from her East German contact and slid it down the front of her blouse. The heat generated by all the bodies crammed together inside the tavern was stifling, and Tracie thought the envelope might have to be peeled away from her skin with a chisel when she finally made it to safety. She felt naked without her weapon, a Beretta 92SB, but her skimpy attire left no room for it.

Tracie had nursed her glass of soda water and loitered on the other side of the room, watching out of the corner of her eye as her contact received the envelope from an extremely nervous Russian bureaucrat, all the while rebuffing a succession of young East German men doing their best to capture her attention.

The moment her contact—she had never met him, had been told only that he was an East German citizen committed to reunification of his country—shook his companion’s hand and turned toward the door, Tracie offered a dazzling smile to the young German currently chatting her up and gave him a little wave. “Nice meeting you.”

The kid blinked in surprise, jaw hanging open, his disappointment obvious. Tracie turned and left him behind, striding across the room to intercept her contact.

The exchange went off without a hitch, and the moment Tracie had secured the envelope, she turned on her heel and began working her way through the dense crowd toward the back of the club. The bass track thumped and the people shimmied as Tracie headed for the swinging door behind the bar leading to the back exit.

She breezed around the open end of the bar, where three bartenders struggled to keep up with their drink orders. As she barged through, the one closest to her raised his eyebrows. “Hey! You’re not allowed back here.” His voice was gruff and insistent.

Tracie smiled brightly and blew him a kiss and continued on. She pushed through the swinging wooden doors as if she owned the place and moved straight toward the service entrance in back. To her right, dozens of silver beer kegs gleamed dully in the washed-out lighting. To her left, far off in the distance at the end of a narrow corridor, she could see people hard at work in a small kitchen. The smell of stale beer and spoiled meat hung in the air, heavy and thick.

Aside from those kitchen workers, Tracie was alone in the storage area, at least for the moment. She had thought the bartenders would be too busy to follow her and she was right. She breathed a sigh of relief, wondering how in the hell it had failed to occur to the KGB to cover this potential escape route. Apparently they considered the possibility of a switch remote, given that they were dealing with a frightened Russian bureaucrat.

She kicked it into high gear now and broke into a trot. As she neared the rear exit, a stern voice from behind her growled, “Stop right there!”

Tracie cursed under her breath as she gauged the distance to the door, calculating the odds of surviving a headlong dash for freedom. It was just a little too far. The Russian secret police were not used to being ignored, and neither were the Stasi, and Tracie knew the operative behind her would be expecting full and immediate compliance, regardless of which organization he represented.

No choice.

She stopped and turned slowly, holding her arms out at her sides, away from her body, spreading her fingers to show she was unarmed. She hoped the envelope resting against the sweat-soaked skin of her belly was hidden by her blouse. If not, she would probably not survive beyond the next few seconds.

The man who had stopped her wore the forest-green camouflage summer field uniform of the NVA, East Germany’s National People’s Army. Tracie took in the uniform and breathed a sigh of relief. The KGB had indeed thought to cover the back entrance, but had used a People’s Army lieutenant to do so, rather than a KGB or Stasi operative.

She might still get out of this.

“What’s your hurry?” the man said, his weapon trained on Tracie. She said nothing and he took a couple of aggressive steps toward her. She willed him to take a couple more.

A loopy grin spread across her face and Tracie wobbled unsteadily forward a step, then back. She allowed her eyes to glaze over. “What’rr you doing in the ladies room?” she said, intentionally slurring her words. “You shou’nt be in here.” Then she giggled, hoping she wasn’t overdoing it.

The tension in the lieutenant’s posture relaxed slightly and the look of suspicion creasing his face eased a bit. Tracie thought she saw him stifle a grin. The gun, however, remained pointed at her midsection. If he fired now, the slug would probably punch a hole right through the envelope. He took another couple of steps forward, this time moving with more swagger and less aggression, lowering his gun and sealing his fate. He was almost close enough.

As he took another step, Tracie stumbled to one knee. He was eighteen inches in front of her. Any closer and he might conceivably be too close. It was time to act.

She shot to her feet, propelling her body forward, grabbing her captor’s gun with her right hand. The man took a step back in surprise, and Tracie yanked his hand hard, jerking his body toward hers as he squeezed the trigger reflexively. The sound of the gunfire was loud and Tracie hoped the thumping bass beat out in the club had covered most of it. The people working in the kitchen down the hall would have heard, but she wasn’t worried about them.

He clubbed her on the side with his left hand as she used his momentum against him, flicking her head forward, the movement tight and compact. Her forehead impacted the man’s nose and she could hear the bones shatter even above the damned disco music and the ringing in her ears from the gunshot.

He crumpled immediately, blood streaming over his mouth, which he had opened in a scream of pain. It gushed out, spilled down his face, and splattered onto the dirty floor. It looked like Niagara Falls. She grabbed the soldier’s weapon and yanked it away from him. His finger jammed in the trigger guard and Tracie felt it break.

The man staggered, splattering blood onto her leather pants and boots. He was practically out on his feet. She pivoted her hand to the side, like a hitchhiker trolling for a ride, and then reversed direction and slammed the butt of the pistol against his temple. His eyes rolled up into his head and he dropped straight down. She flashed back to her encounter with the security guard in the Ukraine less than ten days ago. All my dates end badly.

She hoped she hadn’t killed the man but couldn’t afford to take the time to find out. By now the KGB agents monitoring the front of the club would have discovered the man they had followed was empty-handed, and it wouldn’t take long before they realized they had been victimized by the oldest trick in the book, the bait-and-switch. Within minutes, maybe less, this place would be blanketed, locked down, and if Tracie was still here when that happened she would never get out alive.

The sound of pounding footsteps told her the soldier’s gunshot had been heard. She dropped to one knee and turned, raising the man’s gun. An elderly man and woman—they each had to be seventy years old if they were a day—burst out of the hallway and into the storage area. They were undoubtedly the pair she had seen working in the kitchen, although they had been too far away to identify for sure. “One more step and you die,” she said in German, pointing the gun in their direction, hoping her voice hadn’t carried into the bar.

The pair skidded to a stop, the old woman banging into the old man in front, sending him careening helplessly toward Tracie. He fell to the floor and then scrabbled backward, almost knocking the old woman over in the process. It looked like a Three Stooges routine, and under other circumstances might have been funny.

Right now, though, the only thing on Tracie’s mind was escape. She had already been inside the building far too long. She rose to her feet and said, “Go back to the kitchen and stay there for at least ten minutes. If you move before ten minutes has passed, I’ll come back and kill you both. Do you understand?”

The pair nodded at the same time, then turned and hurried back down the narrow hallway. They moved quickly, but did not scream or yell into the front of the club for help, as Tracie had been afraid they might. She waited until they had reentered the kitchen, then sprinted for the door.

She burst into the night, the oppressive heat of the club vanishing in an instant. The service entrance opened into a narrow, trash-littered alley. A row of frost-covered garbage cans had been lined up next to the doorway and the rank stench of spoiled food hung in the air around them like smog over L.A. The alley was deserted.

She slowed to a fast walk along the crumbling pavement, moving south, knowing their East German collaborator had been instructed to turn north after leaving the club—not that he would have gotten far before being intercepted by the KGB. The alley opened onto a quiet street one block south of the bar. A pedestrian glanced at her suspiciously but kept walking. If he noticed the blood staining her leather pants he kept it to himself. Your lucky night, pal, Tracie thought grimly.

She turned a corner and walked a hundred yards. Parked at the curb was a battered Volkswagen, at least two decades old. Tracie yanked the door open and eased into the driver’s seat. She sank into the worn fabric and rested her head against the steering wheel, breathing deeply in and out, adrenaline still coursing through her body. Then she started the car. She flicked the headlights on and drove slowly away.


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Five:


Klaus Hahn slipped the envelope into his breast pocket and picked his way through the crowd. American disco music blasted through tinny speakers in the background, and the temperature had skyrocketed inside the densely-packed tavern. He was sweating profusely, and not just from nervousness.

A veteran of more than a decade of service to the American CIA, Klaus looked forward to a time when his beloved Germany would be reunited. No more East and West, with the ugly concrete and barbed-wire barriers splitting the country arbitrarily and needlessly, in some cases literally tearing families apart, half living on the side of freedom and opportunity and half on the side of repression and paranoia. Klaus Hahn’s dream was to one day see the elimination of the fear and forced servitude on the eastern side of that wall.

Klaus had not hesitated on that day years ago when co-opted by his CIA handler, a man known to him only by his alias, “Mr. Wilson.” He had made no secret of his willingness to work in the name of freedom, and when approached by Mr. Wilson, had enthusiastically accepted the opportunity to contribute, even in some small way, toward a unified and free Germany.

The majority of the tasks Klaus had handled over the years were relatively small and risk-free. Most often his assignments had involved nothing more than funneling the names and addresses of hard-line Communist sympathizers to Mr. Wilson, or the names and contact information of other freedom-seeking individuals like himself.

Tonight was different, though. Mr. Wilson had approached Klaus with the offer of something much more substantial. Something big. So big, in fact, that Mr. Wilson had said this would be the last job Klaus would ever do for the CIA. Klaus would be toxic after this.

“Toxic.” That was the exact phrasing Mr. Wilson had used. If the job was completed successfully, Klaus could expect an uncomfortable night of questioning by local authorities and, quite likely, the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s feared secret police. If unsuccessful, well, Mr. Wilson had not spelled out any details under that scenario, but elaboration had not been necessary.

“Stick to your story when you’re questioned,” Mr. Wilson had told him. “Do not deviate from it. You stopped off at the club for a few drinks after work. You ran into an old friend from school, quite by accident. You do not even remember his name. You shared a drink and discussed sports, women, whatever. Then you left. They will not believe you, but there will be nothing they can do about it. After several hours of intense questioning, they will reluctantly release you. But you will be watched, and we can never meet again. Your work for us will be finished.”

Klaus had reluctantly agreed. He was not afraid of a night of questioning, by the police or by the Stasi. He was disappointed his work toward the cause of a reunified homeland was coming to an end, but he had no choice but to accept the assignment when Mr. Wilson stressed its importance. He wiped his brow with his sleeve, weaving through the crowded tavern, moving steadily toward the door.

Halfway across the floor, he turned sideways to allow a pretty young woman to pass by. It was his contact, and she was dressed provocatively, in skintight black leather pants and a silk blouse that did little to hide her considerable assets. She caught his eye and flashed a smile before rubbing her body up against his out of necessity—the crush of thirsty bar patrons crowded them from all sides.

They squeezed past each other. Klaus felt a brief tug and then the envelope was gone and so was the girl. He continued toward the door as he had been instructed by Mr. Wilson. He had been told not to look back but couldn’t help it—he took a quick peek behind as he exited the front door. The beautiful young girl was nowhere to be seen.

Klaus strolled into the cool Berlin night, glad to be free of the claustrophobia-inducing, sweat-soaked, sexually charged atmosphere, not to mention the annoyingly loud music. He turned left and began walking toward his car, moving faster now. Before he had made it five steps, a hand gripped his elbow. Attached to the hand was a tall, skeletal man dressed in a dark suit. An unbuttoned overcoat flapped in the chilly breeze.

The man said, “Where is it?”

Klaus answered, “Where is what?”

“Don’t play stupid. Where is the envelope?”

Klaus wrenched his arm free and turned, staring directly into the man’s eyes. The street lighting was dim and shadows running from the man’s hook nose across his face gave him the appearance of a vulture. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“You’re coming with me,” the man answered, and Klaus knew his night of questioning had begun.


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Four:


Berlin, German Democratic Republic

May 29, 1987, 10:20 p.m.

The vodka burned in a familiar and not unpleasant way as it rolled down Aleksander Petrovka’s throat. He gulped down his first glass in a matter of seconds and realized he should have ordered two at once from the heavy-set barmaid when she had made her first pass by his table. He shrugged. She would return soon. Any good barmaid could recognize the heaviest drinkers in a crowd instantly. Her livelihood depended upon it.

Aleksander knew it was critical that he keep his head clear and his wits about him during the upcoming rendezvous. This was only his second trip into the GDR, and every face appeared hostile, suspicious of the Russian interloper. But the prospect of getting through the next hour—indeed, the rest of his life—without the fuzzy reassurance provided by a liberal dose of vodka was unthinkable. The enormity of this mission was not lost on Aleksander, nor was its potential to destroy his life, and for the thousandth time since yesterday afternoon he questioned his commitment to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nobody defied the KGB and got away with it.

And Aleksander knew that by carrying out the instructions Gorbachev had given him, he was defying the KGB. There was simply no other way to look at it. The very circumstances of their meeting this morning were enough to convince him of that fact.

No office.

No aides.

Just him and the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.

Aleksander forced his thoughts back to the present and the raucous East German club. He maintained a continuous watch on the crowded discotheque, eyes darting, searching for potential threats. The notion that the Undersecretary for Domestic Affairs, the very definition of an anonymous apparatchik, would recognize a threat even if it stood before him and announced itself, was laughable. Aleksander knew this, yet he could not stop himself.

In his obsessive concern for security, Aleksander almost missed the blocky figure of the barmaid approaching his table. She asked him a question, which was lost in the din of the club and the uncertainty of a foreign language, and Aleksander nodded, handing her his empty glass. He assumed she must have asked if he wanted another drink, which he most certainly did. What else could it be?

The barmaid took his glass and clomped away. Standing directly behind her, completely hidden by her bulk until she stepped around him, was a smallish, unassuming-looking man, dressed casually, with a receding head of buzz-cut sandy hair and a pale face dominated by black horn-rimmed glasses. And a jagged scar running diagonally down his right cheek. In his hand he clutched a glass of clear liquid, presumably vodka.

The man nodded at Aleksander, then sat across the small table without waiting to be invited. “It has been a long time, Dolph,” he said with a tight-lipped smile.

Aleksander stared at the man, nerves tightening. He was supposed to respond. Call the man by a code name. What was it? He had been rehearsing it a moment ago and now it was gone.

The man’s eyes narrowed at him and sweat broke out on Aleksander’s forehead. He felt as though he might suffer a heart attack. Then he remembered. “Henrik!” he burst out. “It is wonderful to see you, Henrik.”

The stranger relaxed and leaned across the table, waiting to speak until Aleksander had leaned forward as well, then said softly, “Do you have the item?” His Russian was flawless.

The barmaid returned with his drink and Aleksander remained quiet while she dropped the glass onto the table, vodka slopping over the side. As her hefty form plowed back through the crowd toward the bar—Aleksander could not help picturing a gigantic Tupolev airplane steaming down the runway for takeoff—he turned his attention back to his new friend. The man sat drumming his fingers.

Aleksander nodded. “Da. I have it.”

He reached into his breast pocket for the envelope before realizing how conspicuous it would look for him to withdraw the item here in the tavern and pass it across the table to his contact. Although no one seemed to be paying attention to them, Aleksander knew someone would remember once the KGB started questioning people. The KGB could be very persuasive.

Suddenly terrified, Aleksander froze, hand on the envelope sticking out of his pocket. What should he do? How could he avoid becoming the object of everyone’s attention and still complete the mission Mikhail Gorbachev had entrusted to him? The Soviet leader was not someone to be trifled with. In his own way he was as imposing and intimidating as the faceless killers of the KGB. One didn’t rise to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party without possessing an iron will and a ruthless efficiency.

The contact saved him. He smiled reassuringly, rising and leaning over the table, clapping Aleksander on the shoulder with one hand and deftly plucking the envelope from Aleksander’s pocket with his other. The envelope disappeared in an impressive sleight of hand, one worthy of a professional pickpocket. “You’re doing fine,” the man said, again in Russian, as he eased back into his chair. He had clearly been briefed he would be dealing with a novice.

Then he continued, speaking quietly. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “We’ll share a drink and light conversation, just a couple of old friends catching up. Then I will get up and leave the club. You will wait a few minutes, then follow.”

The contact leaned back and began laughing uproariously, as if Aleksander had just said the funniest thing he had ever heard. Aleksander stared, surprised by the man’s sudden outburst, before realizing he was supposed to join in. So he did, feeling silly. The he took a big pull on his vodka, emptying the glass. The fuzzy reassurance he had been waiting for began to tingle through him and Aleksander welcomed it with enthusiasm.

He waved the barmaid over to their table—she hadn’t gotten any better looking, even after two tall vodkas—and ordered another round for himself and his new friend. After all, it was what the man had just said he was supposed to do, right? The shroud of fear and uncertainty that had been hanging over Aleksander since his meeting with the General Secretary began to lift. For the first time Aleksander began to believe things might actually turn out all right. He was almost finished with this frightening business, and then he could return to Moscow and get on with his life, safe and secure in his bureaucratic anonymity.

His contact made small talk for a few minutes, and Aleksander returned the conversation with inanities of his own. They laughed now and then, just two men reconnecting after time apart. They could be friends, brothers, co-workers. Still no one appeared to be watching. Aleksander’s concern continued to melt away. He knew it was probably due to the effects of the alcohol but didn’t care.

At last, Aleksander’s contact pushed his chair back on the dirty floor and stood. Aleksander stood too and the man with the scar reached across the small table, shaking his hand and drawing him close at the same time. “Remember,” he whispered in Aleksander’s ear. “Go nowhere for the next few minutes. Have another drink, relax. Allow time for me to slip away. Then you should disappear. Good luck.” Then he laughed again, smiling and nodding at Aleksander.

He turned on his heel and melted into the crowd.

PARALLAX VIEW, Chapter Three

My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Three:


The Kremlin, Moscow

May 29, 1987, 10:10 a.m.

Aleksander Petrovka was suspicious and nervous—Mikhail could see that the moment the man entered his office. Petrovka worked in the Kremlin as a member of Mikhail Gorbachev’s personal staff, but his status within Gorbachev’s inner circle was not so lofty that he had ever had occasion to take a private meeting with the general secretary.

“Aleksander,” he said, rising and extending his hand. It was critical he put his underling at ease.

Petrovka shook his hand uncertainly. “You wished to see me, sir?”

“I did,” Mikhail said, smiling. “Let us stroll the grounds.” He knew this development would arouse further concern in Petrovka, but it could not be helped. His office was certainly under surveillance, with listening devices as well as cameras, so broaching the subject here would get them both arrested for treason before an hour had passed.

The men remained silent until they had exited the building. Mikhail could feel Aleksander’s discomfort. It was rolling off him in waves. As they strolled through flower gardens just beginning to bloom in the dank Moscow climate, the secretary spoke in a near-whisper to avoid detection by ubiquitous KGB listening devices. “You are being entrusted with a great honor,” he began. “A patriotic duty. You are being given the opportunity to perform a service to your country far beyond any you may previously have imagined possible.”

Aleksander remained silent and Mikhail removed an innocent-looking envelope from his suit coat. He held it up for Aleksander’s inspection, but kept it close to his body, hoping to conceal it as much as possible from view of surveillance cameras. “You are to leave immediately—we will provide you with a change of clothes for your overnight stay in the GDR. You will be driven straight to Tushino Airfield and fly via private plane to Berlin, where you will pass this envelope along to an operative at the location specified in your paperwork. Please note the envelope has been sealed in wax with my personal insignia, and its contents are classified Top Secret, not for your eyes or anyone else’s except its intended recipient. The consequences of opening it would be severe and immediate. Do you understand, comrade?”

Aleksander nodded slowly. Mikhail could see that he understood. Severe consequences in Russia meant only one thing.

“How will I recognize the envelope’s recipient?” Aleksander asked.

“I am told he suffered facial disfigurement in an automobile accident years ago. A long scar on his right cheek. But you needn’t worry, I have passed your description along and your contact will be watching for you. He will address you as ‘Dolph’ and you will respond, ‘Hello, Henrik.’”

The secretary continued. “After delivering the envelope to your contact, your mission will be complete. You may enjoy the rest of your evening in East Berlin and then fly home tomorrow. Simple, yes?”

Mikhail knew Aleksander wanted to question him. Hell, he could see the man wanted to refuse the assignment. But he also knew he would do as asked. His place was not to question. He was a bureaucrat and had been given an assignment by the most powerful man in the USSR. What else could he do?

Aleksander reached out reluctantly and took the envelope. “Remember,” Mikhail said. “No one is to open this letter.”

“What if…” Aleksander’s voice trailed off.

“What?” Mikhail asked, annoyed. The lack of sleep was catching up to him and he still had a long day ahead.

“Well, what if I am challenged, you know, by the authorities?”

Mikhail reached into his pocket and removed a pen and a small pad of paper. He jotted something down and handed it to Aleksander. “The authorities would have no reason to challenge you, but if you encounter any difficulties, this is my personal telephone number. Anyone wishing to question you can call me, any time, day or night, and I will be happy to explain the situation.”

It was clear to Mikhail that Aleksander was not pleased, but that did not matter. He placed the envelope in the interior breast pocket of his suit coat and the men began walking toward the building. Mikhail knew he had just passed the point of no return. He hoped Aleksander Petrovka was up to the challenge.


The Kremlin, Moscow

KGB monitoring station

May 29, 1987, 10:30 a.m.

Viktor Kovalenko squinted, his eyes glued to a tiny black-and-white monitor. The screen was crammed into a metal rack mounted on the wall next to his desk, alongside eleven similar monitors, each transmitting a different view of the exterior of the Kremlin.

The image was small, but he could see enough to know something unusual was happening. General Secretary Gorbachev was speaking with one of his assistants, something he did regularly throughout the day. But normally the men would be surrounded by aides and secretaries and assorted party apparatchiks. This meeting was being conducted one-on-one, almost an unheard-of scenario with a low-level bureaucrat like Aleksander Petrovka.

The men were engrossed in an intense conversation, Gorbachev doing most of the talking, Petrovka’s body language suggesting he would rather be almost anywhere else in the world. Gorbachev removed something from his pocket and after stressing a point, finger waggling, handed the object to Petrovka.

Kovalenko glanced at his watch and jotted the time down on a small pad of paper, along with a notation regarding Gorbachev’s odd behavior. He squinted, watching the small Russian-made Ekran television monitor closely as he lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. Tried to determine the relative importance of what he was seeing. Decided to play it safe. He picked up a telephone handset and dialed a number from memory.

The call was answered on the first ring, as Kovalenko knew it would be. It always was. He laid out the details on the phone for the KGB watch commander: The virtually unprecedented change to General Secretary Gorbachev’s routine. The seeming reluctance with which Aleksander Petrovka received what Gorbachev had to say. The secretive passing of an object, perhaps an envelope, between the two men.

Despite his familiarity with Gorbachev—he had been assigned to this post for over three years—Kovalenko could not guess what the General Secretary might be up to. Something was definitely amiss, though.

Colonel Kopalev listened without comment for five minutes or more as Kovalenko reported his observations. Finally, when Kovalenko had finished, the colonel said, “Continue observing Secretary Gorbachev. When he leaves his office for the day, I want it thoroughly but discreetly searched. Have your men look for anything unusual and then report back to me with your findings.”

Kovalenko grimaced. “Colonel, the object was passed to Petrovka. I seriously doubt any evidence will remain in Secretary Gorbachev’s office by the end of the day. There’s probably none in there now. If I may suggest following Petrovka—”

“Thank you for your assessment, Major. Of course we will follow Comrade Petrovka. But it changes nothing as far as you are concerned. You have your orders. I will expect to hear from you immediately if your search turns up any useable information.”

“Yes sir,” Kovalenko replied, and the connection was abruptly broken at the other end. His boss had just slammed down the receiver. He replaced the handset in its cradle and lifted his middle finger at it, fully aware that he might be under surveillance as well, that his insolence was probably being observed, but was annoyed enough not to care.

He lit another cigarette and resumed observing the activity in and around the Kremlin.


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter Two:


The Kremlin, Moscow

Mikhail Gorbachev’s residence

May 28, 1987, 11:15 p.m.

Mikhail Gorbachev trudged into his den. He was exhausted and felt like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Raisa had gone to bed hours ago, but sleep would be elusive for Mikhail tonight. He eased into his plush leather office chair, selected a sheet of custom stationery, and got to work.

This might be the most important letter he would ever write, and it was imperative he compose it here, at home. Working in his office, filled as it was with monitoring equipment, would risk his words being seen by the wrong set of eyes.

KGB eyes.

So he began writing, taking his time despite the fact he had put in a full day already and had another long day planned for tomorrow. He paused every few words to rub his chin and think. It was critical every word be phrased to convey the proper sense of urgency. Mikhail knew full well the letter’s recipient would be suspicious, if not outright dismissive, of the veracity of his words and the motives behind them. And that was assuming the letter even reached its intended destination.

Mikhail realized he was probably under surveillance here, too, but working at night in his home office was not an unusual occurrence and should not elicit undue suspicion. More importantly, the quality of the surveillance cameras here was likely a step below those in his executive office. It was a risk, but a calculated one, and one worth taking.

He had long-since grown accustomed to being watched. Clandestine KGB surveillance was ingrained in the consciousness of Soviet society, accepted as just as much a part of the late-twentieth century Russian experience as exquisite vodka and blisteringly cold winters. Still, he hunched over his work, shielding the letter to the maximum extent possible with his body’s bulk. The KGB might not be able to read the specifics of what he was writing, but they could probably guess the subject. And that made this communique one of the most dangerous pieces of paper in the world.

Once he finished crafting the letter, the next step would be to enlist a trustworthy courier to make delivery. That would be a tricky and dangerous proposition, and where his plan could easily fall apart. A contact well-versed in espionage techniques would be the obvious choice, and as Soviet General Secretary, Gorbachev could take his pick of the skilled KGB operatives in their considerable arsenal.

But there was a problem. This assignment would require personal loyalty, and a career spy would have no reason to offer such loyalty to Mikhail Gorbachev. In theory, Russia’s espionage service existed to support the Communist party, of which he was titular head. The reality, however, was much different. KGB officials enjoyed tremendous power and were accustomed to wielding that power to their own benefit. Mikhail knew if he entrusted this mission to the KGB, the document would not be out of his hands thirty minutes before it would be undergoing intensive scrutiny. And the consequences of that could be dire.

But Mikhail Gorbachev had not risen to power through the cutthroat ranks of the Soviet political system by being timid—or by being stupid. He wielded power and influence, too, and his inner circle was filled with men fiercely protective of him. Not only because he was their friend and confidant, but also because their livelihoods depended upon his maintaining power. Were he to be overthrown, the new Russian leader would bring in new lieutenants, disposing of the old power brokers in whatever manner he saw fit.

Including making the most knowledgeable—and thus most dangerous—of them disappear.

Gorbachev knew the courier would have to be a man inside his inner circle, but it could not be someone so close to the General Secretary that he was indispensable, because the odds of the man completing the mission successfully and also returning alive were slim. Practically nil, he thought grimly.

The Soviet leader took a break from composing his letter and flipped it face down, then stretched out in his chair. His eyes were tired, burning from the exhaustion of a full day followed by the stress of tonight’s illicit work. Tomorrow he would have to carry on as though he had gotten a good night’s sleep. It would not be easy, but then nothing was easy in a world where Mother Russia’s hold over the rest of the Soviet republics was slipping steadily away.

The world was shrinking, and people who at one time were easily controlled via intimidation were beginning to demand freedoms unthinkable just a decade ago under Russian rule. No one inside the Kremlin wanted to admit it, but the burden of repressing the citizens of so many nations, all yearning for freedom and self-government, was stretching the Soviet Union to the breaking point. The largest military in the world was not going to be enough. Things had to change, and they had to change soon, but most inside the ruling body of the USSR refused to see it. They buried their heads in the sand and pretended the year was still 1962.

Mikhail Gorbachev knew better. The Soviet Union was headed for disaster. It was inevitable, and would tear his country apart. The KGB had set a plan in motion that would cause a massive shift in global conditions, allowing them to consolidate their own hold on power, and he could not allow that plan to happen. It was too extreme. It would trigger World War Three.

So he would do what must be done. But to challenge the KGB openly would be foolhardy and likely considered treasonous. He would disappear without a trace in the middle of the night, just like millions of his countrymen had disappeared under Josef Stalin. The KGB could make it happen, his status as Communist Party General Secretary notwithstanding, and no one would question a thing. A new leader would be installed and the system would lurch along toward its own demise.

This was why he worked in exhausted solitude at his desk while the rest of Moscow slumbered. This was why he risked everything. For his beloved country. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. He whittled down the list of potential couriers in his mind. He chewed on them endlessly until he decided on the perfect candidate.

Aleksander Petrovka’s official title was Undersecretary for Domestic Affairs. Aleksander would do as instructed, particularly if properly motivated. He was fairly intelligent for a party apparatchik, maybe even intelligent enough to pull off what Mikhail needed of him.

Tomorrow they would talk, and Mikhail would put his own plan in motion, the one which would, with any luck, negate the KGB’s. He would dispatch Petrovka to East Berlin on the first available plane. The KGB would know something was up but would not have time to stop him, provided Mikhail acted quickly and decisively.

He nodded, alone in his office. Having decided upon a courier, Mikhail felt a great weight lifting from his shoulders. The plan would either work or it would not, but solidifying things, even if only in his mind, made Mikhail feel better, like he was accomplishing something of significance. He straightened in his chair and got back to work.


My brand-new thriller, PARALLAX VIEW, is now available. I'm very excited about this book and will be posting several preview chapters over the course of the day. Here's Chapter One:


Nikolayev South Shipyard, Ukraine

May 20, 1987 – late in the Cold War

2:25 a.m.

Tracie Tanner carefully eased one drawer closed and opened another in the dented, World War II-era metal filing cabinet wedged behind the desk of the general manager’s office at Shipyard No. 444. Where’s that damned file? She’d been searching for nearly half an hour already with no luck, unable to decipher the Soviets’ Byzantine filing system.

Her eyes burned from the strain of reading reports typed in Cyrillic on substandard Russian-made typewriters, and she could sense time ticking away—surveillance reports indicated the guards’ patrol patterns included a walk-through of this very office every forty-five minutes or so.

The darkened office smelled sour, its cement block construction retaining the unpleasant fishy stench of the Black Sea combined with old sweat. She clenched a small penlight between her teeth to free up both hands for the search, and she worked methodically, flipping through file after file under the most likely tab headings.

Tracie, a CIA clandestine ops specialist, had been assigned to remove the guidance system software specs for the Soviet aircraft carrier Buka, scheduled for commission later this year, and replace them with bogus specifications. Construction had been completed on Buka years earlier, but bugs in the ship’s sophisticated software had delayed commissioning ever since.

Four years ago, in a successful nighttime operation, another CIA clandestine ops specialist had broken into this very office and replaced the proper specs with useless, CIA-generated data. Now the goal was to repeat the scenario and delay launch of the Buka for several more months, if possible.

Tracie worked quickly but thoroughly. Next to the office door the Soviet bureaucrat in charge had placed a large aquarium filled with exotic fish, and the steady drone of the water filter motor began to lull her into drowsiness. She blinked hard, closed the filing cabinet drawer, and opened another. She had worked her way through nearly two-thirds of the file cabinet and had found nothing.

And then, there it was. The first folder in the new drawer. It was blue, filled with several dozen sheets of numbers, diagrams and specifications. Tracie lifted out the folder and compared some of the sheets inside it to corresponding sheets of paper in the dummy file she had brought into the office. They appeared identical. The differences in the specifications were so minute it would take a team of engineers months to decipher the problem, and that was after they had discovered there was a problem.

She smiled in the darkness and removed the original specs, sliding the forged documents into the file folder in their place. She rolled the drawer closed, slowly and quietly, and then stood, glad to be finished. She placed the original software specs into a small briefcase and snapped it shut.

Padded quietly across the office.

And dropped her flashlight. It slipped out of her hand and clattered to the floor, rolling to a stop against the door.


Tracie froze, waiting to hear a shouted challenge or footsteps pounding down the hallway.


She waited fifteen seconds. Thirty. Then breathed a silent sigh of relief and picked up the flashlight. Be more careful, dummy.

She eased the door open and stepped into the hallway. And walked straight into a Soviet security guard’s Makarov semiautomatic pistol.

Tracie stepped backward instinctively, calculating the odds of reaching her Beretta 9mm inside the shoulder holster under her jacket. Result: not good.

The guard said, “Stay right where you are,” in Russian, and Tracie moved back another three steps, hoping he would follow her into the office. He did.

She stepped back and he moved forward. Stepped back again and he followed, still holding the gun on her. She backed into the general manager’s desk, studying the guard. He was barely more than a kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen, and he wore a threadbare Red Army uniform that had probably been handed down from soldier to soldier two or three times, maybe more. His hands were shaking, just a little, and he said, “You’re coming with me.”

I don’t think so, Tracie thought, but raised her hands to chest level in submission. “All right,” she answered in Russian, hoping her slight English accent would be undetectable. “This is a simple misunderstanding. I can explain.”

“Not my problem,” the guard said. “You will explain to my superiors.” He gestured with his head toward the door. “Go,” he told her, “and do not try anything stupid.” The Makarov stuttered and jumped and Tracie hoped he wouldn’t shoot her by accident.

The guard stepped aside to allow Tracie to pass him into the hallway. He brushed up against the table holding the aquarium, and as she moved past him, she pushed hard, a blur of sudden motion in the semi-darkness, and smashed his hands, gun and all, straight down into the side wall of the aquarium.

The glass shattered and the guard gasped, the sound almost but not quite a scream. He pulled the trigger reflexively and the gun fired, the slug whizzing past Tracie’s head. A wave of water and fish flooded out of the tank, soaking Tracie and the guard. Even in the dim light she could see the razor-sharp glass had ripped a gash in the guard’s forearm. Had she been sliced, too? No time to worry about that now.

The guard stumbled forward and Tracie ripped the gun out of his hands and slammed it against his temple. He sank to his knees, stunned. She hit him again and he dropped to the floor. He didn’t move. She prodded him with her foot and he lay unresponsive. He was out.

But now she had another problem. The shipyard was patrolled at night by a team of two guards, and if the other man was anywhere near he would have heard the gunfire. He could be rushing here right now. He could be on her in seconds. Tracie unlatched the briefcase and dropped the guard’s Makarov inside, then snapped it shut and eased out the door, her Beretta drawn, alert for any signs of the second guard.

He was nowhere in sight.

She made her way out of the building and through the shipyard, moving between concrete and aluminum structures like a wraith. At the edge of the shipyard property, she turned toward the Black Sea shoreline and an inflatable boat which would take her to a U.S. submarine stationed nearby. She disappeared into the black Ukrainian night.

Virtual release party all day long for PARALLAX VIEW!

My brand-new thriller is titled PARALLAX VIEW, and is available NOW exclusively at Amazon for three months, then elsewhere. I'm really excited about this book, it was a lot of fun to write and I'm thrilled with how it turned out.

Here's the quick back-cover text:

It's spring, 1987, late in the Cold War, and CIA Special Operations agent Tracie Tanner is tasked with what should be a relatively simple mission: deliver a secret communique from Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

After smuggling the document out of East Germany, Tracie believes she is in the clear. She's wrong. There are shadowy forces at work, influential people who will stop at nothing to prevent the explosive information contained in the letter from reaching the White House.

Soon, Tanner is knee-deep in airplane crashes and murder, paired up with a young Maine air traffic controller and on the run for their lives, unsure who she can trust at CIA, but committed to completing her mission, no matter the cost...

C.J. West, author of THE END OF MARKING TIME and other suspenseful thriller, calls PARALLAX VIEW "A sexy, sophisticated Cold War thriller with all the intensity of THE LONELY MILE."

Ian Graham, author of the upcoming VEIL OF CIVILITY, says ""Bringing back the days of the Cold War like a Best of Tom Clancy flashback, Parallax View is a rocking read from start to finish!"

I'm holding a PARALLAX VIEW virtual launch party/giveaway all day long at Facebook, from noon ET until 10 p.m. tonight, and I'd love it if you stop by and say hello, and maybe even win some stuff. Here's a list of what's being given away:

10 Kindle (or PDF) copies of PARALLAX VIEW, one per hour

2 print copies of THE LONELY MILE, my Amazon overall Top 25 bestselling thriller

2 print copies of REVENANT, Book two of my Paskagankee horror series

2 print copies of DRUNK ON THE MOON, the very cool Roman Dalton anthology, featuring my story "The Darke Affair," plus stories from Paul D. Brazill, Richard Godwin, BR B.r. Stateham and many others

2 print copies of NIGHTFALLS, the brand-new charity anthology to benefit at-risk children in the Los Angeles area, featuring my story "The Dogs on Main Street Howl," plus stories from Patricia Abbot, Matthew C. Funk, Nigel Bird, Chris Rhatigan and many others

1 print copy of INTRIGUE, the thriller/mystery anthology featuring my story "Faces," plus stories from Dave Zeltserman, Paul Levine, Robin Parrish, Vincent Zandri and many others

1 print copy of Needle Magazine's Fall 2011 issue featuring my story "The Ticket," plus stories from Ray Banks, Keith Rawson, the late Gil Brewer and many others

All of the print books/magazines can be signed/personalized if you'd like, or not...your choice!