Gatekeeper by Philip Shelby | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble


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by Philip Shelby

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The author of the spine-tingling thrillers Days of Drums and Last Rights has written his most complex tale yet, that of an innocent caught in the vortex of international political intrigue. Powered by characters whose ambition and cunning make them intolerant of any threat to their conspiracies, Gatekeeper also features a labyrinthine stage --


The author of the spine-tingling thrillers Days of Drums and Last Rights has written his most complex tale yet, that of an innocent caught in the vortex of international political intrigue. Powered by characters whose ambition and cunning make them intolerant of any threat to their conspiracies, Gatekeeper also features a labyrinthine stage -- from the chambers of the American embassy in Paris and the North African ghetto of Marseilles to the glittering avenues and back alleys of New York City. Hollis Fremont has recently arrived in Paris to begin her job as a "visa slave" at the American consulate. Her return to the City of Light forces her to revisit tragedy: the mysterious assassination of her parents by a sniper's bullets fifteen years earlier. Hollis, an unprepossessingly beautiful young woman, soon attracts the notice of Paul McGann, deputy chief of mission, whose ardent attention to Hollis is matched by his violent temper and calculating treatment of anyone who crosses his path. Hollis's involvement with McGann will accidentally reveal to her the elaborate and clandestine paragovernmental alliances colluding to create a new world order -- one in which certain high-level officials and unfortunate individuals, including Hollis herself, are set in the sights of a hired gun. This implacable killer is called the Handyman. His relentless, and anonymous, pursuit of Hollis sends her on an international flight. As she struggles to elude the Handyman and his colleagues, it becomes evident that she can trust no one, not even those whose confidences she holds most dear. From the opening scene in an assassin's hideout to the cataclysmic climax at the Statue of Liberty, Gatekeeper is electrifying. Like Mitch McDeere in The Firm, Hollis Fremont becomes snared in the carnage of a zero-sum game that is hopelessly beyond her control. In the face of murder, betrayal, and desperate ambition, her only weapon is her desire for vengeance and justice.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Clever, atmospheric and adroitly paced, Shelby's new thriller (after Lost Rights) features yet another plucky heroine caught in the toils of intrigue.

Hollis Fremont, a functionary at the American embassy in Paris, is duped by her superior and boyfriend, Paul McGann, into accompanying a man she believes to be a small-fry criminal back to the States for country-club prison incarceration. In fact, the rumpled expat turns out to be "the Handyman," a freelance assassin on a mission. At Kennedy Airport the Handyman bolts and disappears, and Hollis falls under the protective wing of Sam Crawford (the Gatekeeper of the title), who is an agent for the mysterious Omega group. While the Handyman stalks his quarry around the Statue of Liberty, Hollis and her "friends" (Crawford, gruff NYPD officer Harry Jacoby, longtime surrogate father Dawson Wylie and McGann) try to track him down. As the Handyman closes in on his victim, Hollis learns more truth than she's prepared for about the death of her father, and about her family's ties to Omega and the Handyman himself.

Shelby's intelligence insiders are a throwback to the heyday of le Carr and Forsyth (albeit a simpler, less polished crew). With its transatlantic, high-speed Day of the Jackal chronology and sympathetic heroine, an ordinary woman of extraordinary resilience playing her small part on the world stage, this thriller is just the ticket for readers with international-conspiracy paranoia.

Library Journal
Hollis Fremont has been at a dream job in Paris at the American Embassy for three months. She's also having an affair with a high-ranking embassy official, the attractive, mysteriously powerful Paul McGann. Hollis's early years were marred by death and violence. As a child she witnessed the deaths of both her parents, also stationed in France, by an assassin's bullets. She won't learn why they were murdered until a simple last-minute mission to the States, thrust upon her by Paul, turns into a race for her life. Thanks to Hollis's unwitting help, the "Handyman," a lethal assassin, is loose in New York City. He is pursued by the "Gatekeeper," dashing secret agent Sam Crawford. Well-defined characters, compelling intrigue, and a crisp-paced plot whisk the reader along. And Hollis Fremont is no wimpy damsel in distress. Although there are a few predictable scenarios, overall this is another enjoyable thriller by the author of Last Rights (LJ 1/97). Recommended for most collections.
--Shirley Gibson Coleman, Ann Arbor Distribution Library, MI
Kirkus Reviews
The best thing about Shelby's latest thriller (Days of Drums, 1997, etc.) is his dewy-eyed heroine, who almost, but not quite, saves the day.

Hollis Fremont, 26, is intelligent, brave, and beautiful, though certainly more trusting than is good for her. She works for the American Consulate in Paris: works hard, works diligently at what she acknowledges is foreign service drudgery—until suddenly her low-echelon job spews ramifications that no one could have predicted. Thank the thoroughly base Paul McGann for that. McGann, who never met a man (and can't conceive of a woman) he wouldn't feel superior to, is chief of mission at the American embassy, reporting only to the ambassador. He also happens to be Hollis's love, although 'exploiter' would be the more appropriate term. McGann is one of those oily thriller-villains who exude amorality from every pore. To cover up a rare operational gaffe, he sends Hollis out on a trumped-up operation. As a result, she's shot at, suspected of being a terrorist, incessantly double-crossed and, overall, robbed of her innocence. On the other hand, she does meet a nice guy. Nothing oily about Sam Crawford, the regional director of Omega, an elite, hush-hush counterterrorist group, who is every ethical thing that McGann isn't. And a hunk to boot. It's Sam who restores Hollis's faith in men, as together he and she "reach a place in time and space that was meant only for themselves."

Purplish prose and an overfamiliar master-criminal 'the kind who intuits the zag before his victims even dream of the zig—consigns this one to the middle of the pack. Still, likable Hollis will probably keep reader interest from flagging until past thehalf-way mark.

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Chapter One

It was too early in the season for the sirocco but the wind dashing against the fortress harbor of Marseille was hot and dry. It carried a North African legacy of grit and dust, the odor of persimmons and decaying ocean catch. It glazed the eye and embedded splinters of homicidal thoughts in a population that moved like an uneasy, suspicious herd.

Rue de la Colombe in the east harbor was a shabby affair, narrow, with overflowing gutters and dog-turd-stained, slippery sidewalks. The peeling facades of the buildings gave the impression of industrial leprosy.

Most of the market stalls belonged to Algerians and Tunisians and were shuttered for the midday respite. Cutting through the stink of cat piss and rotting produce was the sweet smell of burning hashish. The high-pitched wall of Arab songs on radios drifted through the cracks of doors and windowsills warped by the sea air.

There was only one caf - on the street, a dark hole with a bar by the door and five tables in the back. The owner-bartender was an old harki, an Algerian who had fought with the French against Algerian independence. His one good eye was focused on the small television perched above the bar. Olympique de Marseille, the local soccer team, was humiliating the visiting English team.

The only customer was also watching the game. Not because he followed the team or even the sport but because the young waiter, a Kabyle, was pouring th - de menthe. The teapot, filled with sugar-laden boiling water and mint leaves, was held four feet above the cup. The waiter dipped its narrow spout and deftly poured a stream into a glass decorated with faded gold trim. The customer remained motionless until the ceremony was concluded.

The waiter set down the teapot, slipped the bill across the table, andtook one step back, waiting. The customer made as though to look up, then hesitated, and instead dug into his coat pocket and produced a fistful of greasy coins. He set them down on the table and carefully counted out the francs, setting aside the centimes. He added up the francs, then pushed a few of the centimes into the pile.

The waiter swept the coins off the table and walked away. A few seconds later the customer heard the ring of his tip being tossed contemptuously into a glass jar.

The customer leaned forward and cupped the glass of tea like an old man would, with both hands. Hunched over, he looked even older than at first glance. His hair was long, iron gray, streaked with scalp oil. His face was the color of rotting pomegranate, a brown sheen to the skin that had worked itself into the wrinkles on his cheeks and forehead. The glass shook slightly as he brought it up to tobacco-stained teeth.

In spite of the heat he wore a coat, the frayed cloth cut long with wide lapels. Over the left breast was a tattered three-colored service bar. Only in Marseille would men of his generation and experience recognize it as the symbol of active duty in Algeria.

Except that Algeria was one of the few places on earth where he hadn't fought, because he detested it and the whole of North Africa.

The customer reached for the newspaper he had set aside while the waiter had served tea. His hands were large and fine boned, the fingers long and delicate but powerful. But all anyone ever noticed was the dirt under his cuticles.

The customer opened the conservative Parisian daily Le Figaro. The rustle of newsprint could not be heard over the blare of the television.

Nor could today's edition of the International Herald Tribune, tucked into Le Figaro's centerfold, be seen.

He bought the paper every day and always kept it hidden away in a French paper because it wasn't in his interest to let people know he read or understood English. That English was, in fact, his mother tongue. Every day he came to this caf - for a late lunch, assured that other patrons would have come and gone. He always took this table in the corner, his back to the wall. Ordered couscous or merguez, a lamb dish, drank his tea, and read his paper. He'd overheard speculation between the bartender and the waiter as to what he was. The former said a vet, the latter insisted he was a clochard, a bum who panhandled enough coins for one meal a day.

The customer took no offense since both were wrong.

The Tribune was open to the international page. The lead -- and only -- story was about a U.S. foreign aid bill that was deadlocked in the House of Representatives. The rest of the page was devoted to the international real estate market and classifieds.

The subheadings in the classifieds began with Announcements, which included the times for upcoming Rosh Hashanah services to be held at the Mouvement Juif Lib - ral de France Synagogue; several prayers would be recited in English. Legal services in Huntington Beach, California, offered one-day certified divorces. Isle of Man trustees had 750 nameplate companies to shelter income. Funding problems for upstart companies would be a thing of the past if one were to contact Bancor of Asia.

After fifteen years the ads had become depressingly familiar. The names changed; the scams and false promises, never.

Employment: German native, 29, fluent English, official qualifications, seeks challenging position in export, sales...

Trades wanted: Handyman sought for special renovation. Must have 15 years experience. References essential. Call 001-1-202-555-1647.

The customer blinked, sat back slowly. He was intensely aware of everything -- the crinkle of the newsprint, the crackle of his wooden chair, the nasal drone of the soccer commentator. The air was filled with fat motes of greasy lamb. The roar inside his head was an avalanche.

Handyman sought...

Fifteen years he had waited for this.

Fifteen years to be contacted by a man who had wished him dead.

Fifteen years to be forgiven.

Or could it be a trick to draw him out so that he could finally kill him? He thought not. He would not call him by his name, the Handyman, or give him a contact number. There were other, more subtle ways to lure the goat.

He needs me. Again.

The Handyman's fingers trembled as he reached for the tea glass. A burst of light from a television commercial reflected off a well-worn ring on the third finger of his left hand, its signet deliberately left dirty, the figure in the seal obscured by grit.

The Handyman stared at it, contemplating how great a fool he was to wear it. Even sullied, it was much too grand a possession for one who appeared so poor. But he allowed for this single flaw in his elaborate disguise because it was his only connection to a life that had been frozen in time. It was the wellspring of his hope, the bedrock of what was left of his sanity.

Three blocks away, in the Rue des Jardiniers, four Moroccan children were kicking a filthy soccer ball up and down the street. It caromed off the parked cars, rolled into the gutter, was kicked again, leaving dirty blotches where it had smacked against the vehicles' fenders.

The eldest boy was passing the ball from foot to foot, deciding which friend to kick it to, when he spotted the Handyman ambling down the street. The boy recognized him. He'd been a fixture in the neighborhood ever since he could remember. A silent, smelly old man who shuffled along like a gimp, never said a word to anybody. As a child the boy had been afraid of him. Now on the cusp of adolescence, he wondered why none of the older kids had ever beaten up the old man, or set him on fire, just for fun. Grinning, he waited for the old man to reach an open space between two parked cars.

The boy's eyes never wavered from their target. Here came the old man, his coat almost dragging on the sidewalk, head bobbing like that of an ancient turkey. The boy licked his lips and drew back his right leg. He was scrawny but strong in the way children become when they grow up on the street. His leg shot out like a piston, his foot connecting with the ball perfectly. It rocketed away on a low trajectory directly toward the old man's head.

The boy ran toward the sidewalk, thinking how fast he could go through the old man's pockets while he was down. And maybe he wouldn't stop at that. Maybe he'd hurt him a little, for fun.

The ball should have taken the old man's head off. There was no way he could have seen it coming. Yet suddenly the old man dipped his shoulder, spun, and threw both arms up in front of his face.

Six feet from the sidewalk, the boy froze. The old man lowered his hands, holding the ball he'd plucked in midflight, and stared at him. The boy gasped. He had never really seen the old man's eyes before. Now they would not let him go, cold, black eyes, shiny and opaque like coal.

They never wavered as the Handyman tossed the soccer ball in the air, spread his arms, and brought them together.

The boy shrieked as the soccer ball exploded between the old man's hands. What was left of it fell into the street. And still the old man's eyes were on him.

The boy backed away, skidded on the cobblestones, and fell hard on his bottom. He scrambled up, skinning his knee, and tore past his friends, who were still staring at what had happened. Then they too turned tail.

The street became quiet again save for the Arab music drifting out from the windows above. The Handyman continued along the street. What he had just done would have been foolish -- even fatal -- an hour ago. Now it didn't matter. Now it was a tiny payback for all the years of taunts and jeers and veiled threats.

It felt good.

The Handyman's apartment building was a nineteenth-century pile of limestone built around a central courtyard. Long ago gilded carriages and prize horseflesh had passed through the big double doors that opened onto the street. Now the courtyard was strewn with broken appliances and furniture and soiled, gutted mattresses. Above the debris that no one wanted and no one would ever come to haul away, clotheslines crisscrossed the courtyard, running from balcony to balcony.

The Handyman climbed the narrow steps easily, stopping at each of the landings to hit the time switch on the staircase light. The hallways under the rafters smelled of cumin, rosemary, and coriander. A baby was bawling somewhere in the recesses.

The Handyman lived on the sixth floor, in what had once been the servants' quarters. The rooms were cramped; the ceilings sloped so that near the windows even a child had to crouch. The Handyman's apartment was no different from the other ten on the floor: a single room with a waist-high partition that created a cooking area, consisting of a cupboard, counter, two-burner electric hot plate, and sink. There was a bed and an ancient dresser, and a scarred desk and chair by the slanted, grimy window, which was the only source of ventilation. The floorboards were buckled and worn; the walls were covered with seepage-stained wallpaper, the floral design eaten away by cockroaches and filth.

In one corner was a closet fashioned out of raw drywall slabs framed by two-by-fours. The Handyman opened it and removed a small old hard-shell suitcase and a hanger draped with dry cleaner's plastic.

He put these on the bed, then filled the kettle and set it on the hot plate to boll. He stripped and carefully went through all the pockets of his clothes, arranging coins, keys, and fake ID papers neatly on the desk. His body was surprisingly lean and muscled for one who looked so old. Now his movements were precise and economical, with none of the hesitation of age.

He poured the boiling water from the kettle into the sink, mixed it with cold water, and lathered a bar of soap. After refilling the kettle, he scrubbed his face and hands with a rough sponge, rinsed, then did it again. When he looked at himself in the small mirror above the sink, the face of the tramp had disappeared.

The Handyman washed the rest of his body, working the sponge carefully between his toes and under his groin. He drained the water, cleaned the sink, and filled it with more hot water. He dipped his head and worked a cheap shampoo into his scalp.

He dried himself with a coarse towel and opened the suitcase. He brought out clean socks and underwear, a necktie, and a pair of oxblood brogues. He pulled the plastic wrap off the hanger, removed and slipped into the shirt, pants, and tweed sports jacket. Because he was out of practice, it took him three tries to knot the tie correctly. He picked up a comb and carefully ran it through his hair, then looked in the mirror again.

The image was that of a teacher, maybe an untenured professor who could not afford to dress with the times. The sports jacket lapels were too narrow, the pants baggy at the waist and hips. The sturdy brogues were impervious to fashion swings.

It was perfect.

The Handyman kneeled and with one hand lifted the bed by one of its round steel posts. Gripping the leg with his other hand, he gave it a hard twist. The threads in the leg yielded reluctantly, sprinkling rust over his palm as it came loose, then free. He lowered the bed gently to the floor.

The Handyman turned the pipe upside down and tapped out its cache: a roll of money -- French and Swiss francs, American dollars -- and a phony birth certificate whose name matched the one on a genuine Canadian passport. The passport had expired but could be renewed quickly enough. The staff at the Paris consulate was predominately French-Canadian and the Handyman's birth certificate led one to believe he was Qu - becois.

The last two items in the bedpost were a slip of paper with a phone number on it, fifteen years old -- 001-1-202-555-1647 -- and a slim bundle of very old pages the texture of papyrus.

He placed the contents on the desk, rescrewed the bed-frame leg, and burned the paper in an ashtray. The ashes went into the sink, down the drain. The money, including the coins from his old coat, was pocketed along with the birth certificate and passport. The clothing he'd been wearing was stuffed into the small suitcase, which would be disposed of later.

Almost ready now, the Handyman sat down on the edge of the bed and carefully peeled back the pages, dry and yellow with age, the black ink having faded to blue. There was no title or publisher's imprint; the language was Mandarin.

He could read the text easily enough but his skills of interpreting horoscopic elements -- the stars and other portents -- had dulled. Horoscopy, like its sister divination geomancy, required constant practice at the feet of a master. For the last fifteen years, the Handyman's fate had been ruled by a single, overpowering factor that had denied him his studies, one that even the stars, in perfect alignment, had not been able to release him from. Now that factor had shifted. The Handyman badly needed to know why. Even though he could not help himself, he was aware of one who could.

Geomancy, the study of one's orientation to the natural world and its elements -- fire, water, metal, wood, and earth -- was more accessible. Focusing on interpretations written three millennia ago and passed down the ages like forever-drifting leaves, the Handyman concluded that the force oppressing him was not at all in harmony with these elements. It had been disturbed. There was discomfort and uneasiness within it. Even a hint of fear.

Which makes the oppressor vulnerable. All the more so because there is an acknowledged need for me.

The Handyman stifled the thrill his conclusion stirred in him. He knew from experience how dangerous it was to seize the answer one desired. His interpretation was sound -- as far as he could take it. More and deeper meanings would have to be coaxed forth before he was absolutely certain that his intuition wasn't merely whispering what he wanted to hear.

The Handyman was not surprised that almost two hours had elapsed since he'd first opened the book. Long ago, when he was working, he would easily lose an entire week in this kingdom of the unseen where his were the only footprints. He took a deep breath, returned his thoughts to the present, and carefully rolled up the pages and put them in the inside pocket of his jacket.

The Handyman rose to the door and appraised the room. His eyes touched on everything, missed nothing. He knew his absence would go unnoticed. The rent was paid until the first of the month. The landlady wouldn't come by until next week. She'd see the empty closet and figure he'd left. Not a problem, since everything that belonged in the room would still be there. Renting out the garret to another pensioner would be no trouble at all.

The Handyman was not concerned about fingerprints. His had never appeared in any police file in the world. Nor was there any reason for anyone to connect him to this room.

He gripped the doorknob, then looked at the room one last time. He'd spent fifteen years in places like this -- most of them worse -- moving frequently at first, then settling in when he'd found this neighborhood, where he was invisible, too poor to prey upon, too weak to be a threat, too old to merit even a glance.

For the first time in a very long while, the Handyman smiled. It was an unfamiliar sensation. He thought that if the biblical Lazarus had ever existed, this was how he must have felt when his grave had been thrown open onto the world.

Shops were reopening and traffic filled the street when the Handyman stepped out. He had to move quickly to avoid being struck by a garment trolley wheeled by a young black.

He gave the street a cursory glance and fell in behind a group of gossiping women, all carrying empty string bags on their way to market. He never noticed the man who stepped out from under the awning of a butcher shop and watched him fade into the crowds farther down the street. The Handyman had no reason to suspect that he was under surveillance.

The watcher's name was Sam Crawford. He was in his late thirties but looked younger. He was tall and lean, with a tanned, outdoors face and a shock of white blond hair. He could have been a fading ski bum or a hand-to-mouth print model. In the right clothes, maybe a gigolo.

Until one looked a little closer, watched him as he crossed the street to the Handyman's building. His movements were fluid, as if he were skimming the surface of the road, not walking on it. And when he walked, he silently cut the air around him, instead of pushing against it. He was the kind of man who could perch on your conscience and you'd never even feel his breath.

Crawford took the steps two at a time, up the staircase the Handyman had descended just moments ago. At the top landing he paused, then moved down the hall.

The Handyman's door had an old-fashioned lock, the kind that opened with a long, double-tongued key. Crawford had no problem with this.

When the lock clicked, he moved back against the wall, slowly pressing his palm to the door, letting it swing open. He counted to five, allowing for a time-delay trigger to activate an explosives-laden booby trap. The smell of soap and shampoo drifted out into the hall.

Crawford let out his breath. The Handyman hadn't left any trip wires behind. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. His eyes panned the room but he already knew what he was looking at: abandonment.

The bed was neatly made, the thin blanket stretched military tight at the corners. But there were rust particles on the floor by one of the legs.

The sink was still wet but the few dishes stacked in the rack were dry. The hand towel was dry but the larger bath towel was damp. The soap smell was shampoo, not dishwashing detergent.

The Handyman had cleaned himself up.

The closet was empty, but one of the wire hangers had a shred of paper attached to its neck. The remnants of a dry cleaner's logo.

Which accounted for the Handyman's atypical attire when he'd left the building...

Crawford would have the room combed, though he was sure that the search would prove fruitless. The Handyman had not survived this long because he overlooked details or was careless. If Crawford had known nothing about him, the room wouldn't betray the man who'd lived there.

Crawford felt a slight vibration just above his right kidney. He reached around to touch the silent beeper, then pulled back his jacket lapel, where a microtransmitter was nestled in the seam.

He pressed his finger to the flesh-colored plastic receiver in his ear.

"Talk to me, Wally."

There was static, like someone was crumpling aluminum foil. Then: "He's at the train station. Just bought a ticket for the express to Paris."

"And he's not coming back. Stay with him. Tell Paris to throw a full blanket over him."

"Confirm full blanket. Sam, he made a couple of phone calls."

Crawford cursed. "Was anybody close enough to hear?"

"No. He made it at the train station, from inside a booth. Even if we'd been set up, it would have been a long shot."

"How long was he on?"

"You're not going to like this. Dialing the first one took about fifteen seconds. The second took longer, and it lasted a good five minutes."

Crawford didn't like it. The time frame indicated that the Handyman had made a regional call, probably to Paris, and an international one. Those connections always took longer to complete. Staying on-line for five minutes plus meant that the Handyman could have received detailed instructions.

"I'll see you up in Paris," he said.

Crawford took one final look around the room. Its silence and poverty seemed to mock him, revealing no more than he already knew: The Handyman was on the move.

To Paris.

From there he could fly to anywhere in the world.

Copyright © 1998 by Philip Shelby

Meet the Author

Philip Shelby is the author of Days of Drums and Last Rights. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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