Winner of the Military Writers Society of America Founder’s Award
- One retired military spy
- Six assassins from the old Cold War days
- Saddam Hussein’s missing billion-dollar fortune
Six master assassins—each a legend in the dark corners of international espionage—band together to steal a fortune from the middle of a war zone. But the mission goes tragically wrong, and they retreat into the shadows.
Now the assassins are back.
Former military spy Judd Ryder is walking to his D.C. home when he spots a man coming out of his row house who looks like Ryder and is wearing his clothes. As Ryder slows to follow, the imposter is killed in a hit-and-run that’s no accident. Was the man the intended victim, or was it Ryder himself?
Soon Ryder learns that the key to the mysterious events of the past and to his double’s murder is an infamous Cold War assassin, the Carnivore. Two of the last people to see the Carnivore were Ryder and CIA trainee Eva Blake, and someone is using them to lure him out.
From Washington D.C. to Marrakech and Baghdad, the assassins wage a final battle – this time against one another – fighting for their reputations and a missing billion-dollar fortune. In the end, only one can be left standing.
Caught in the crossfire, Judd and Eva go on the run while desperately unraveling the tangled past and battling not only for their lives, but for their destinies.
Death was not something the six men talked about. Instead they used phrases like “the job” or “the assignment.” They were acquaintances, not friends, just like workers in any industry requiring initiative, independence, and travel.
Each had been at it more than two decades, thriving in a career notorious for high attrition. They were the best. They had never collaborated, until now.
Night gave Baghdad little relief. Electricity was fitful, garbage rotted along the boulevards, and clean running water was a memory. Gunfire crackled across rooftops as looters carried off computers, chairs, and crates of canned goods. Since the invasion, there was no more dictator and no more law.
In earlier, better times, the country was known as Mesopotamia, a rich land where the wheel and writing were invented. It was all documented in the National Museum of Iraq, which contained priceless antiquities dating back a hundred thousand years.
International law forbade anyone to use cultural sites for military purposes, or to attack them. But the museum was strategically located on eleven acres in the heart of Baghdad, protected by a tall security wall, and dotted with towering turrets perfect for snipers. So the Republican Guard took it over, and when the American soldiers invaded, the Guards blasted them with machine guns and AK-47s. The Americans fired back, and they kept coming. Finally the Guards brought out their big guns — rocket-propelled grenades, RPGs — and sent a firestorm down on the foreign troops.
A U.S. tank responded with a single round from its nosebleed 120-mm main gun, taking out the RPG position but leaving a gaping hole in the façade above one of the museum’s reconstructed Assyrian gates. Under the laws of war, the Americans were entitled to defend themselves, but they had also seen how easily they could destroy the museum. So the task force commander ordered the tanks to remain in the intersection in front of the museum — Museum Square — but out of range of the Iraqis.
This was the tense situation near midnight on April 10, 2003, when six international assassins made their ways individually through Baghdad’s back streets toward the museum. They were in Baghdad because Saddam Hussein owed them money, and when the Americans won the war, his wealth would be confiscated. This was their last chance to get what was theirs.
The night air stank of oil fires. Gunfire crackled in the distance. Watchful, the assassins waited in the night shadows at the museum’s rear security wall. They were dressed like locals, in loose shirts, Western trousers, and ghutrahs — cotton scarves — wrapped around their heads and across the lower parts of their faces. Only their eyes showed. They checked their watches.
At precisely 12:10 A.M. the door in the wall opened, and General Mulh Alwar appeared. A tall blade of a man with refined features, he wore the uniform of the Special Republican Guards, but his shirt was unbuttoned, he was capless, and his eyes were over-bright. His Kalashnikov dangled carelessly from one hand.
“Mierda. Ha perdido el juicio!” snapped the Basque. Shit. He’s lost it!
The Russian shoved the general back into the compound, and the others rushed after, weapons up, ready for trouble. The last man bolted the door in the security wall.
The general shook off the Russian and stared anxiously around at their scarf-hidden faces. “Show me you are here, Burleigh Morgan. I need to be certain it is you and these are your people.”
“You bloody wanker, it’s us all right.” Morgan unpeeled his ghutrah, revealing corrugated skin, a fighter’s broken nose, and a neatly trimmed silver mustache. Morgan was the oldest, in his early sixties, but he still had a tough look about him, as if with the crook of a finger he could hollow out the eye of any of them.
The general stood a little straighter and gave a deferential nod. “Aash min shaafak, Morgan. B-khidimtak.” It’s good to see you. At your service.
Although there was no trust in the venal business of international wet work, occasionally there was respect, and Burleigh Morgan was respected. Other top independent assassins would accept a job from him, which was why Saddam Hussein had hired him to put together a team for a series of particularly sensitive international terminations. Besides Morgan, the Basque, and the Russian, there was a former jihadist, a retired Mossad operative, and a peripheral member of La Cosa Nostra. They had executed their assignments perfectly. The problem was, Saddam had never paid the second half of what he owed them.
“Which direction, General?” Morgan prodded.
With a nod, the general trotted off.
Watching their flanks, the contract killers followed, passing weed-infested lawns and gardens. Lights from lanterns and flashlights moved occasionally behind the dark windows of the buildings towering around them.
Off to the right, a side door opened and slammed back against the wall. Two soldiers stripped down to their trousers and combat boots burst out onto a stone patio. Rifles slung over their naked shoulders, each carried an armful of plastic boxes. They spotted the general and the assassins.
The general bellowed at them in Arabic, “La’a! Qof!” No! Halt!
But they bolted, their legs pumping, heading off across the grounds toward the northwest gate, the gate farthest from the American tanks.
“Dogs and thieves! Deserters!” The general squeezed off two volleys from his AK-47.
The rounds hit the soldiers in their backs, slamming them to the ground. Blood rose like black tar on their skin. One lay silent and motionless; the other moaned, his feet twitching.
The general ran over to them and scooped up a handful of little gemlike tubes that had fallen out of one of the boxes. He held them up for the assassins to see. “These are cylinder seals. Our ancestors, the ancient Mesopotamians, carved pictures and writing on them and then rolled them across wet clay for their signatures. Just one of these can be sold for fifty thousand American dollars — ”
The Basque had had enough. “Maria José Cristo!” he exploded. “Who gives a fucking damn!”
Morgan agreed. He stepped in front of the general. A highly respected line officer, the general had just shot his own soldiers in the back because of a bunch of tiny tubes that looked like crusty cigarette holders. The general was probably not barking mad yet, but his priorities were circling the toilet.
Morgan stabbed a finger into the man’s chest. “You stupid arsehole, remember why we’re here. You’re digging your family’s graves!” He had tracked down the general’s wife and children in Tahiti and sent him chilling photos of how easily they could be wiped.
The general paled. He was a close friend of Saddam’s half brother Barzan al-Tikriti, who had managed part of Saddam’s clandestine financial network. If anyone could get to Barzan and Saddam’s money, it was the general.
Without a word, the general jogged off. They ran close behind.
Morgan noted hundreds of 7.62-mm shell casings embedded in the weeds and dirt, the bullets used by AK-47s, not by U.S. assault rifles. “How many men do you have here, General, and where are they?”
“About 75, stationed around the compound.”
Morgan knew 150 Republican Guards had been onsite at five P.M., so the general had lost half his force. In the distance, a clutch of men wearing only T-shirts and undershorts and carrying cardboard boxes rushed northwest, in the same direction the two half-naked soldiers had been heading with the cylinder seals. It looked to Morgan that the general’s troops were ditching their uniforms, grabbing antiquities, and deserting.
His face tight with anger, the general slowed and glared after them.
“Forget it.” Morgan jammed his bullpup rifle into his side.
With a grunt, the general ran again. The little group pounded past a pile of sandbags toward a long, three-story building. The general yanked open the door, and they slipped into a vast exhibit hall. Moonlight shone down from high windows, illuminating shattered glass display cases, fallen shelves, and empty marble pedestals. It had the feel of a graveyard.
Cursing the thieves, the general led them across the room toward an arched entrance. There was no door.
“It looks bloody dark ahead,” Morgan said. “Light your torches, lads.”
Switching on their flashlights, the six assassins and the general raced down the hall past corridors and doors until they reached another large gallery decorated with wall friezes glorifying larger-than-life Mesopotamians slaughtering much smaller foes.
Slowing, the general gestured around. “This is the Assyrian Gallery.” Then he turned to a glass case attached to the wall. “And your tablet is here.”
The assassins converged. Inside was a brown clay tablet about twenty-four inches square, but instead of Roman or Cyrillic letters, it displayed the wedge-shaped characters of civilization’s first form of writing — cuneiform.
The assassin who had once been Mossad focused his flashlight on an engraved sign in Arabic beside the display cabinet. Excited, he said, “This tablet dates back 3,000 years and describes our father, Abraham. He came from Ur.” The founder of Judaism, Abraham grew up in Ur, an ancient city in what was now Iraq.
The former jihadist gave him a sharp look. “The Prophet Abraham, yes.” In Islam, Abraham was considered one of the religion’s five prophets, along with Muhammad and Jesus.
Impatient, Morgan aborted the never-ending religious quarrel: “The only thing that bloody matters is getting our money.”
He pulled out the key he had picked up in an Amsterdam drop box two days before, and the general handed over a second key. Morgan inserted them into the double lock, turned them, and pulled open the glass door. The general stepped forward and pressed what appeared to be a small blemish inside the frame. There was a soft clicking sound, and the entire display swung away, disclosing a recessed safe with two more locks. A safe within a safe.
Again Morgan inserted the keys, turned them, and pulled open the door. Another tablet lay on the floor of the second safe. Everyone leaned forward.
His pulse accelerating, Morgan slung his bullpup across his back and with both hands reached inside and lifted it out. About twenty inches long and eighteen inches wide, it was not clay but limestone, pale, slightly grainy, about two inches thick. The cuneiform script was carved deep and clean. Morgan felt emotion well up in him, not for the beautiful artifact, but for the castle in Yorkshire he planned to splurge on.
“Here’s our $12 million, lads.” That was the total amount Saddam still owed them. The general had guaranteed the tablet was worth at least that much. Morgan tilted it upright for the others to see. “Let’s get the hell out of here. I’ve got a man in London panting to flog it.”
Suddenly a thundering crash sounded in the stairwell. The walls seemed to shudder. Voices quarreled loudly above them, then an arm and head in pink granite thudded down the steps.
“More thieves!” The general dashed inside the stairwell and aimed his AK-47 upward. “Come down here, you dogs!”
Before the general could shoot, automatic fire rained down. Rounds exploded through the general’s head and shoulders, spraying blood and bone. He dropped to his knees then pitched forward.
“Kill the torches,” Morgan snapped. “We’re gone.”
The limestone tablet clasped close to his chest with one hand, the bullpup rifle in the other, he ran back through the dark gallery, the others close around. In seconds, bullets followed, slicing past, the noise echoing loudly. A sharp pain burned across his gun arm, telling Morgan he had been hit. He hurtled around the corner, down a corridor, around another corner and through a door.
They were in another exhibit hall. Breathing heavily, he dropped to his haunches. The others squatted beside him. The gunfire behind them had stopped. They peered through the shadows across the long room to where two Republican Guards appeared in a doorway. One was talking on his radio, repeating to his cohort that intruders had arrived and they must be killed.
Morgan swore silently. All his carefully arranged plans had gone to hell. He could hear the noise of running boots behind them. They were trapped, but he was not done yet. He pointed at the Basque and the Israeli and then indicated the two Guards across the room.
The Basque slid his knife out from under his shirt. It was slender, tapered, and doubled-edged. Keeping low, he padded off past an upended display case. At the same time, the Israeli aimed his M14 modified sniper rifle with sound suppressor.
The two Guards seemed to see or hear something. They lifted their weapons, looking for targets.
The Israeli’s M14 gave off a single pffft, but both Guards staggered and went down.
The assassins rushed across the exhibit hall. One Guard was dead, a black hole in his forehead. The other was dying, stabbed up under his ribcage to his heart.
The group took off, passing through one doorway then another until at last they blasted out into the cool night air. But as they accelerated away from the building, a dozen Guards chased, firing their AK-47s. The orange-colored flash points flamed into the night.
The assassins lowered their heads and pounded toward the children’s museum. Morgan staggered, a pain burning across his scalp. A bullet had grazed his head. Hot blood soaked his ghutrah.
The Israeli grunted — a round had pierced his shoulder.
The Basque stumbled — he was hit in the calf.
Finally they made it through a towering arch, past giant statues of Babylonian lions, and around to the lee of the building. They had managed to lose their pursuers, at least for the time being.
“We can’t stay here. Let’s go,” the former Cosa Nostra killer ordered.
Morgan wiped sweat and blood from his face. His head ached like someone had bashed it with an axe. “Yeah? And where to, dipstick?”
“Out there.” He gestured with his Walther past a wrought-iron fence to Museum Square where a platoon of U.S. Abrams tanks was stationed. There was no way the Guard would follow them into all of that weaponry.
Morgan hesitated. Unless they were being employed by a government, and sometimes even then, governments were a professional assassin’s enemy. Still, he stared thoughtfully at the American tanks. It was not as if anyone there would know who the assassins were.
“Brilliant,” he decided, “if we survive that long.”
“I’ll carry the tablet, Morgan,” the jihadist offered.
“I’m not crippled, you greedy bastard.” Morgan glared at him. “Let’s go.”
With the building as a shield, the assassins hurried past palm trees. The Israeli gripped his shoulder. The Russian held his side. The Basque limped badly. The air erupted with the piercing noise of another fusillade — the Guards had rounded the building and were pursuing.
The jihadist grunted and staggered. Blood appeared on his hip.
The ex mafia killer was out front. He shot open the museum gate, and the others rushed for it. That was when Morgan felt pain explode in his back. He had been shot, but it felt as if a bloody lorry had rammed him. The cuneiform tablet slipped from beneath his arm, and he heard it crash onto the paving stones. His legs would not move. He could not feel his hands. He fell hard.
Vaguely he realized his team was down beside him, picking up the pieces. He could hear someone talking to him, swearing at him, saying his name. Were they going to take him or dump him? An assassin could never be too careful with his friends.