Gambit - Tor/Forge Blog

Excerpt: Gambit by David Hagberg




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The latest Kirk McGarvey novel, Gambit, is an international thriller with non-stop action, perfect for fans of Jason Bourne.

“If you like thrillers full of international intrigue, Hagberg is a major find.” —Dean Koontz, New York Times bestselling author

An American billionaire and a Russian oligarch want Kirk McGarvey dead. First they send a South African assassin, and when Mac kills him, they commission a Canadian sniper for the kill. When Mac put him down, they hire a team of highly specialized Chinese killers called “Scorpions.” When Mac dispatches them, they send a squad of Russian special ops armed to the teeth with high-tech firepower.

Mac’s only chance of survival is to turn on the tables on the people behind this assassination conspiracy, that is, if he can find them.

Gambit will be available on April 27, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


Leonard Slatkin had never worked through an expediter in his three years in the business, nor had he ever been paid $500,000 for the assassination of a single individual.

Although the intelligence he’d been given was spot-on, it had taken him nearly two weeks to arrange for the second-floor apartment in Georgetown, and another ten days of nearly around-the-clock surveillance of the windows in the third-floor apartment slightly kitty-corner across the street and the front door to the brownstone before he was sure that he would have a clear shot.

He came and went at normal times, in a business suit, an attaché case in hand, walking to the end of the block, and taking a bus into Washington, where he spent most of his days in Union Station working on his iPhone to gather as much information on his subject as he could. He was of medium height and build, with a totally unremarkable face and outward attitude.

By the second day, he had begun to wonder if a half a million was too small a sum. Too little by a very substantial margin. But he had no idea of the name of his primary employer, nor did he have access to the expediter. He was on his own.

Sitting in the dark now at the window in his apartment, the ordinary

.223-caliber M16 military assault rifle resting on a tripod well enough inside the living room to be invisible to anyone outside, he waited patiently, just as he had the past three days since his preparations had been completed for Kirk McGarvey to return from Florida at the start of spring break and show himself at his window, five hundred feet away as the bullet flies.

The late afternoon was as bittersweet for Kirk McGarvey as it was for his wife, Pete. They hadn’t talked much on the flight to Dulles from Sarasota, where he taught Voltaire at New College for one dollar per year. His passion had always been philosophy, but his life had been the CIA since he’d been in his mid twenties right out of the air force.

“Hard to believe,” Pete said as they headed toward the ground transportation exit.

She was much shorter that McGarvey’s six feet, and slightly built next to him. But she was voluptuous with a movie star’s physique, and pretty oval face, with wide eyes and a mouth like Julia Roberts’s—a little too large—but her ready smile making her perfect.

“That Otto’s happy?” McGarvey asked. “That Louise is gone.”

It was all about history. After the air force when McGarvey had worked as an investigator for the OSI, he had been recruited by the CIA, where, after an extensive series of psychological examinations, he had been placed in the Company’s black ops division—a unit that never existed on paper.

And he was good, a natural-born killer—an operator, in the parlance. After a couple of field runs, mostly as a bagman bringing operational funds into a badland, he’d been assigned his first kill in Chile, where he took down a general who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent men and women.

He’d been married by then, and his wife objected to his too-often unexplained absences. After the Chilean op, she had given him the ultimatum: her or the Company. Psychologically battered by what he had just gone through, he chose neither. Instead, he quit the CIA and his wife and went to ground in Switzerland until, a couple of years later, the Company came looking for him with a new assignment, a thing that had to be done extrajudicially. The CIA had to be held blameless if the operation went bad. At all costs, Washington had to be kept completely out of the mix. The only fall guy would be McGarvey.

And at the time, he had become so irascible in his self-imposed isolation that he had practically jumped at the chance.

So it had begun, one impossible assignment after another, stretching back more years than he wanted to remember. Now at fifty, he wanted to step off the merry-go-round at last. He’d endured too many losses over the years— every woman he’d ever loved, including his first wife and their daughter— had been killed because of who he was.

Friends dead, isolation for long stretches, a kidney lost, bullet wounds, skin grafts on his back from a car bomb meant to kill him that had taken his left leg from below the knee.

Yet he was still in superb physical condition, some of it because of the luck of the genetic draw, but in a large measure because he willed it. He ran and swam nearly every day. Several times a year, he spent a few days to a week at the Company’s training facility—the Farm—south of Washington along the York River, where he pushed himself to the limits. And never did he let himself merely laze away a weekend, not even a day.

“Sometimes you’re like a monk in a monastery,” more than one woman had told him. “Ease up a little.”

His stock answer had always been: “I don’t know how.” The real answer was that his life had very often depended upon keeping sharp.

And now there was Pete, and he was just as afraid for her safety has he had been for the other women in his life, although she was herself a highly trained and very capable field officer who had more than once fought at his side and had even saved his life. They had become partners in every sense of the word. Able to read each other, able to sense each other’s moods, anticipate each other’s moves.

They’d brought only carry-on bags with them, so they had no need to wait for the luggage carousel. Outside, they got into the taxi queue. Pete was going directly out to Otto’s McLean house, where Mary Sullivan was waiting for her, and Mac was going to their Georgetown apartment.

It was Thursday, and Otto and Mary were getting married in a civil ceremony at the house tomorrow morning, with only Mac and Pete and Mac’s three-year-old granddaughter, Audrey, who had been adopted by Otto and his late wife, Louise, after Mac’s daughter and her husband—both CIA employees— had been assassinated.

“Memories,” Pete said. “Sometimes I think that’s all we’ll ever be left with.”

“All anyone’s ever left with,” McGarvey said a little too sharply. He’d been feeling on edge for the past couple of days, even a little morose at times. Yet he couldn’t believe that it was because his only true friend in the world had fallen in love and was getting married so soon after his wife’s murder.

Pete looked up in surprise. “Nothing stays the same, that it?” “I don’t know.”

“But everyone’s happy.”

Out of old ingrained habits, Mac watched an airport cop talking to a driver who’d pulled up in a dark green Tahoe in a no-parking zone. A windowless van passed slowly, and one hundred feet away across the several lanes of traffic, a man carrying a duffel bag was waiting at a crosswalk. In the farther distance was the possible glint of sunlight on a lens of what could have been a sniper scope.

Pete touched his shoulder. “What is it, Kirk?” “I don’t know.”

She followed his gaze. “Okay, you have my attention, sweetheart. Is this one of your premos?”

Mac’s premonitions—premos, as Otto called them—were feelings almost at the subliminal level that he’d developed over the past years as a defense mechanism. Something he’d picked up in a daily report, something he’d read in a newspaper or heard on television or online, some disconnected bits and pieces here and there that somehow made patterns inside his head, brought his awareness almost to the preternatural level. Hunches, they were sometimes called. Feelings. Inklings. Notions. Intuitions. Premos.

He turned to her, smiled, and shook his head. “Just putting myself in Otto’s shoes. He sounded nervous yesterday on the phone.”

“This is me you’re talking to,” Pete said. “Something coming our way?”

“Otto’s darlings have been clear all last week.” “That’s not what I asked.”

Otto Rencke was the CIA’s ranking computer expert. His darlings were a set of advanced programs that mined billions of data sources looking for anomalies—bits and pieces that didn’t seem to belong. Things that more often than not led to nothing. But every now and then, something buried deep rose a little above the background noise and fit with perhaps a half dozen or more other anomalies to mean something.

“I don’t know,” Mac said, because he didn’t.

McGarvey had the cabby drop him off at the corner of Dumbarton Avenue NW where it dead-ended at Rock Creek Park a half block from his apartment. It was a Thursday, and Otto had said that he was going to work, leaving Mary and Pete to work out the last-minute arrangements for tomorrow’s wedding.

“Cold feet?” Mac had asked him last night on the phone. “You’re damned right. But second thoughts? No way.”

The late-afternoon traffic was light even on the parkway along the creek behind him, and standing alone with his bag in hand as the cab drove away, he listened to the sounds of a siren a long ways off back toward the city. Somewhere closer, a horn beeped once, and church bells rang from the university campus. Normal sounds. But nothing felt normal to him, and he didn’t know why except that he was spooked.

Neither he nor Pete had brought firearms with them on the flight. They had weapons in the apartment, but there hadn’t seemed to be the need just now to carry. They were coming for the weekend, a wedding, nothing more. Nothing moved on his street. He stood for just a moment, then turned and went around the barrier and made his way down the shallow grassy slope toward the parkway, on the other side of which was the creek, holding up by a tree ten feet from the rail.

He phoned Otto, who answered on the first ring, out of breath as he often got when he was excited. The man was a genius with all the oddities and complexities that went with that level of intelligence.

“Oh, wow, Pete just called, worried about you.” “What’d she say?”

“Wanted to know what my darlings were up to. And I told her plenty, but nothing bearing down on us. Anyway, I’m the one who’s supposed to be getting nervous, not you.”

“How’s Mary?”

“I don’t know what I’d do without her,” Otto said, stumbling just a little over the last two words. “I’ll always love Lou; don’t ever think I won’t. But she’s gone, and Mary’s here.”

Tall, gangly Louise Horn, all arms and legs akimbo, narrow, angular face, and a million-watt smile, had come over to the CIA from the National Security Agency, where she’d been a chief satellite product analyst. From the moment she and Otto had met and begun working together, it was as if they’d always been a couple; almost clones of each other.

As a long-term bachelor, Otto had been a slob; his clothes usually a mess, his long, red, out-of-control hair reminiscent of an Einstein, his sneakers unlaced, his sweatshirts and ball caps with the logos of the old KGB or CCCP, dirty. His only real vice—not alcohol—were Twinkies and heavy cream or half-and-half, which he never seemed to be without. As a result, he’d been overweight and out of shape for most of his life.

Lou had changed all of that. And the people in the intel community in and around Washington who’d always been afraid of his genius coming unglued and sending just about every mainframe inside and out of the beltway crashing down around their ears had breathed a collective sigh of relief.

When she had been shot to death during an assignment last year that had gone bad, Otto’s world had come crashing down around him. Pete had been with her and had taken her death very hard, blaming herself for not preventing it. Not doing something.

“Not throwing yourself in front of the bullet?” Mac had asked her at one point.

“Something like that,” she admitted, scarcely able to choke out the words. And then Mary had come into their lives. She was an IT genius in her own right, in some ways even smarter than Otto with a higher IQ but without the oddities. She could have been a middle-grade schoolteacher in a small midwestern town; quiet, even meek. But when she spoke, softly, everyone

listened, because what she had to say was always brilliant and spot-on.

For the past eight years, she had been considered the ranking genius in what had been the Company’s Directorate of Science and Technology, so when she and Otto had found each other, no one was the least bit surprised. Lou had reined him in; now it was Mary’s turn.

“What’s got your dander?” Otto asked. “Someone on your six?” “Probably not. Just a feeling.”

“A premo?”

“Not that much,” McGarvey said, glancing over his shoulder up Dumbarton as a cab turned the corner and passed his apartment building.


McGarvey shook himself out of his funk. “Where you going on your honeymoon?”

“Honeymoon?” Otto asked after a brief hesitation, and Mac had to laugh.

Slatkin had been a loner all of his life, which had been a plus point when he had applied out of the South African Air Force Intelligence Division for a position with the Special Forces Brigade, known informally as the Recces.

The small, tightly knit counterinsurgency unit had seen combat in Rhodesia, Mozambique, and along their own border. Slatkin had been extensively trained in everything from weapons and explosives to infiltration, exfiltration, and especially hand-to-hand combat and was assigned to the Fifth Special Forces Regiment based at Phalaborwa in northern Limpopo. His specific assignment was as an assassin, a job at which he excelled, especially when he was given a target and was left to his own devices. All he’d ever required was intel. He took care of the rest.

His one weakness was money. He’d been born and raised poor in the white slums of Jo’burg, and within three years of joining the Recces and after four successful hits, he’d resigned and had gone freelance.

He’d never regretted the decision, because he was good and he knew it. One of his burner phones buzzed, and he answered it. “Yes.”

“Your subject is one hundred fifty meters away.” “What is he doing?”

“Watching traffic on the parkway. He may suspect something.”

A specialty of Slatkin’s had been reading people from their voices. Their inflections, the stress levels, the hesitations, the oftentimes outright lies or exaggerations. Most people in the hiring side of the murder-for-hire business were terrible actors. They were the moneymen accustomed to never being questioned.

But this man, an American, was a puzzle. He wasn’t money, but he spoke for it. A lieutenant who had connections. Maybe an ex-cop. But he had good sources of information.

“Is he armed?”

“We don’t think so.”

“Is his woman with him?” “He’s alone.”

“Is he aware that he is being watched?” The man hesitated for just a fraction. “Do not lie to me,” Slatkin broke in. “It’s possible.”

“Possible or likely?” “Likely.”

“Thank you.”

“What will you do?”

Slatkin thought the question was odd. “Watch for him.” “And then?”

“What I was hired to do.” The man did not reply.

Slatkin switched off the phone and took out the battery and SIM card and laid them aside.

He checked the sight picture in the M16’s scope, steady on the third-floor living room window across the street. Then, without taking his eyes off the street below, unholstered his Glock 23 compact pistol, checked the load and action against the possibility that the situation this afternoon would devolve into a close-quarters combat op, and laid it on a side table close at hand.

Copyright © 2021 by Kevin Hagberg

Pre-order Gambit—available on April 27, 2021!

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