The Assistant

The Assistant

4.5 2
by J. Patrick Law
     
 

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A young Washington lawyer whose parents were mysteriously killed in an alleged hit-and-run accident, Ben Poltarek finds himself faced once again with sudden tragedy -- and unwittingly becomes a player in a deadly game of global intelligence. When a dying special agent crashes into his life, Ben is plunged into the secret underground world of the "Assistants" --

Overview

A young Washington lawyer whose parents were mysteriously killed in an alleged hit-and-run accident, Ben Poltarek finds himself faced once again with sudden tragedy -- and unwittingly becomes a player in a deadly game of global intelligence. When a dying special agent crashes into his life, Ben is plunged into the secret underground world of the "Assistants" -- American Jews who place their skills, and their lives, in service to Israel. Now, pursued by Arab assassins who want to silence him, manipulated by agents of the vaunted Mossad, and targeted by his own government, Ben must navigate the explosive and chaotic worlds of power, terrorism, and controversial politics.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
Pitched as "in the tradition of best-selling author David Baldacci," this "stale and hohum" thriller takes readers deep inside the world's greatest intelligence agencies in a global race that could change the world. "Let me count the ways this plot has been done before," said most.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
What's at stake in Law's first book, a fast-paced thriller, is nothing less than peace in the Middle East, and it rests on the shoulders of Ben Poltarek, a young American Jew who doesn't immediately realize he's a crucial link in a legacy of assistants, or sayanim, who make up "part of Israel's secret army abroad, soldiers who held no rank, wore no uniform, received no recognition...." Ben's father has been a sayan for 40 years, and the night he and his wife are killed in a hit-and-run, a bleeding man stumbles into Ben's house, delivers sensitive information meant for Ben's father and promptly dies of multiple bullet wounds. It takes many pages of background information to explain the events leading up to this deadly and mysterious case of mistaken identity, which boils down to two hunters, each hunting the other. Jamal is a psychotic Palestinian terrorist obsessed with carving a Palestinian state out of Israel, whatever the cost. Landau is his Israeli archenemy, determined to destroy Jamal and restore peace to the long-embittered negotiations. Working alone, the madman Jamal has scripted Palestine's path to sovereignty. His plan involves manipulating the president of the U.S., the president's son, and the wife of a murdered Palestinian diplomat--and it's into this danger that Ben wades with the help of his devoted fianc e, Rachel, secretly a sayan herself. Though fast-paced and exciting, the narrative suffers from an excess of action without the psychological character building required to make the reader care about the targets of all the bullets pinging around. The key characters strain credulity when they repeatedly make guesses that are too conveniently accurate. Nonetheless, Law successfully moves his narrative from Washington, D.C., to the Middle Eastern desert, to Paris and back to D.C. with barely a pause for breath, and his complicated, clever plot makes for an authentic page-turner. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
School Library Journal
What's at stake in Law's first book, a fast-paced thriller, is nothing less than peace in the Middle East, and it rests on the shoulders of Ben Poltarek, a young American Jew who doesn't immediately realize he's a crucial link in a legacy of assistants, or sayanim, who make up "part of Israel's secret army abroad, soldiers who held no rank, wore no uniform, received no recognition...." Ben's father has been a sayan for 40 years, and the night he and his wife are killed in a hit-and-run, a bleeding man stumbles into Ben's house, delivers sensitive information meant for Ben's father and promptly dies of multiple bullet wounds. It takes many pages of background information to explain the events leading up to this deadly and mysterious case of mistaken identity, which boils down to two hunters, each hunting the other. Jamal is a psychotic Palestinian terrorist obsessed with carving a Palestinian state out of Israel, whatever the cost. Landau is his Israeli archenemy, determined to destroy Jamal and restore peace to the long-embittered negotiations. Working alone, the madman Jamal has scripted Palestine's path to sovereignty. His plan involves manipulating the president of the U.S., the president's son, and the wife of a murdered Palestinian diplomat--and it's into this danger that Ben wades with the help of his devoted fianc e, Rachel, secretly a sayan herself. Though fast-paced and exciting, the narrative suffers from an excess of action without the psychological character building required to make the reader care about the targets of all the bullets pinging around. The key characters strain credulity when they repeatedly make guesses that are too conveniently accurate. Nonetheless, Law successfully moves his narrative from Washington, D.C., to the Middle Eastern desert, to Paris and back to D.C. with barely a pause for breath, and his complicated, clever plot makes for an authentic page-turner. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
A debut thriller in which Arab and Jewish superspies have their climactic shoot-out not in the Middle East but in the good ol' US. First, though, begin with likable young Ben Poltarek: lawyer, amateur magician, devoted son, fond lover. American as apple pie, he's pretty good at minding his own business. He's also got a nice girlfriend, Rachel, a doctor. Unbeknownst to Ben, however, Rachel once worked for Israel's spookiest intelligence agency, the Mössad, reporting to superspy Landau. Landau's worst enemy is Arab superspy Jamal, an authentic crazy. Landau wants to kill Jamal. Jamal wants to kill all the Jews and become prime minister of Palestine. Furious plotting and counterplotting ensue, and what with one thing and another, naïve Ben finds himself wandering the killing fields, definitely in harm's way. Jamal nabs him. When Rachel tracks them down, Jamal nabs her, too. Landau pursues, catches up. Jamal and Landau go one-on-one—fur flies, blood flows. Cookie-cutter stuff.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780671013936
Publisher:
Pocket Books
Publication date:
06/26/2001
Pages:
528
Product dimensions:
6.80(w) x 4.22(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The unseasonable spring storm crashed down from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. Its tail clipped the distant Alleghenies, but it saved its brunt for the city. Black skies, shot through with green and purple, churned over Washington, D.C., the lightning cracking and roaring like the voices of dueling gods of some long-dead planet.

"I am the Mighty Shazzam and you will never catch me!" a deep, ominous voice called out.

Over a timpani drumroll of thunder, another voice trumpeted, "Yes, I will catch you. For I am Sir Elmo, a knight pure of heart and noble of mind!"

Sir Elmo, outfitted in aluminum foil that passed for a suit of armor, dashed after the sorcerer, caught him by the trailing ends of his black robe, and sent him tumbling to the ground.

"Where is the Lady Lucy?" Sir Elmo demanded.

"I will never tell you," the Mighty Shazzam gasped. With that he rolled over and lay still.

"Elmo...Elmo, is that you?" came the plaintive cry.

Elmo raced across the floor where, in the corner, the Lady Lucy had mysteriously appeared, leaning against the wall, one hand on her brow.

"Oh, Elmo, you have saved me from the Mighty Shazzam."

"And I promise he will never come between us again."

At which point the Lady Lucy stood on tiptoes and planted a demure kiss on her hero's cheek.

Benjamin Poltarek let three beats go by, then dragged his right foot along the floor. A simple construction of string and pulleys slowly brought down the navy blue curtain on the puppet stage.

Now came the moment of truth. Like any good magician, he had an almost physical connection with his audience, could feel their awe andappreciation crackling in his palm. But these twenty-four spectators, seated in a semicircle around his velvet-draped table, were the harshest critics. You could walk a giraffe past most adults and they'd never see it. Try that with this bunch of four- to nine-year-olds and they would hand you your head.

"Gol-lee!"

It was the wheelchair-bound little girl in the third row, with hair like spun corn silk and eyes as blue as cornflowers. Her exclamation broke the spell; all the kids started clapping and yelling for more.

Ben removed his top hat, with THE GREAT ELMO inscribed in gold glitter, and, with a flourish, bowed. The hat was the only unusual piece of his wardrobe. Whether performing for children or adults, Ben always favored dark, conservatively cut suits that hung perfectly on his tall, lean frame. They should have because even after custom tailoring, Ben always added the little touches indispensable to his act: secret pockets, pockets that could be tugged open, seams that hid invisible nylon thread, sleeves that could be stuffed with coins or silks. The teacher who'd introduced him to the magic arts over twenty-five years ago, when Ben was only ten, had insisted that he learn to sew. Over time, a "tailor's notch," a groove, had worn into his left incisor from biting thread.

Instead of a regular shirt, beneath his suit jacket he wore a dancer's blouse with a billowy front and puffy sleeves. The sleeves not only allowed him a wide range of motion, they were necessary to the sleight of hand he was performing as he moved among his young audience. Silks -- the more colorful the better -- always captivated children. Since ultimately any magic show takes place in the viewer's mind, Ben used his audience's perception to heighten the effect of his tricks. He stopped in front of a six-year-old boy with braces on his legs, and, using an emerald green silk, performed the "Hay poke-through vanish," making it appear that the material he'd poked into his left fist with his right forefinger had disappeared -- only to reappear when he slipped his hand around the boy's head and made the silk come out his ear.

As Ben wended his way through and around his audience, his movements, agile and graceful, seemed totally random. They were, in fact, deliberate. He stopped in front of a redheaded girl seated in a soft chair, with an oxygen tank beside it, and watched her eyes shine as he revealed the secrets of his color-changing handkerchief. Two rows away, a boy in a torso cast was mesmerized when the "breakaway fan" opened one way, seemed perfectly ordinary, only to fall apart -- much to the magician's embarrassment -- when opened in the opposite direction.

"Who wants to help me bake a cake?"

A chorus of "I do!" drowned out the pounding of driving rain against the windows.

Ben went over to a second table that he'd set up before the children had been brought into the playroom. Since he'd focused their attention on the big front table, this smaller one, eighteen inches square with four sturdy legs, had been ignored.

First, Ben removed his hat and set it on its top.

"Recipes, recipes," he muttered, patting his pockets, finally coming up with a piece of paper that he unfolded beside the hat.

"Now, three eggs." He looked around his audience. "Anyone?" Two dozen heads shook solemnly. "Well, let's see. Maybe in this pocket..."

One by one, he pulled the eggs out of his right pants pocket -- where they'd nestled in three individual, carefully sewn sheaths -- and deftly cracked them over the hat.

"Now we need a little flour." Which came out of a jacket cuff. "And some milk." Courtesy of a plastic tube taped to the underside of his forearm. "And..." He looked at the kids, puzzled. "Chocolate or vanilla?"

"Chocolate!"

"Chocolate it is." Squirted out from the hollow of a large cuff link.

"Now we have to cook it."

Picking up his hat, Ben retraced his steps to the redheaded girl.

"Your hair is so beautiful, just like a rosy campfire. Do you think I can use it to cook my cake?"

The child giggled. "No!"

"Well, I think I can. Let's see."

Humming, Ben moved his hat around and around over the girl's head, as if he were handling an omelet pan. He peeked inside.

"Oh, yes. This will be delicious. Can you smell it yet?"

The children bobbed their heads enthusiastically.

Geez, I hope so. Ben had dropped a few odor pellets -- gelatin capsules filled with chocolate fragrance -- down his pants leg, and carefully crushed them underfoot.

Ben peered into his hat. The ingredients were all gone, having disappeared into the outer pan of a tried-and-true prop called a Cake Pan. Nestled in the smaller inner pan was the cake, which Ben had baked only hours before his performance. Since he had to wear his hat and keep the cake in it at the same time, the mix of choice was always angel food or sponge.

"Looks like we're almost ready..."

Ben moved back to the larger table, where a pile of paper plates and plastic forks had magically appeared. He frowned. Over the scent of warm chocolate, he caught the hint of another fragrance. The sight of the woman standing with her back to the door almost made him lose focus.

"One and two and three and..."

With a flourish, Ben turned over his hat, catching the cake as it slipped out of the smaller pan. He set it down on one of the plates, produced a Swiss Army knife, and cut off a small piece to taste.

"I think it's pretty good," he told his audience. "Who wants to try some?"

The woman at the door was Dr. Rachel Melman and she smiled when the clamor went up. Watching Ben cut the cake into bite-size pieces and pass them around on the paper plates, she felt a rush of love. A bachelor, he was nonetheless a magnet for children and pets, who tended to adopt him on sight. He had the ability to make every child feel special, as though he or she was the sole focus of his attention at that moment. It was this rare gift, above all his other qualities, that had tapped the deep, almost inaccessible wellspring of her love.

Rachel dropped her hands into the pockets of her hospital smock. Her eyes took in the large, pleasant room, with its cheerful colors, cartoon cutouts, and finger paintings on the walls, the huge bin of child-safe toys and games. It was a special place in the Children's National Medical Center, both to its young patients and to its staff. It wasn't unusual for the room to stay open after visiting hours and children's bedtime; doctors, nurses, orderlies, and other staff slipped in here for a quiet moment, to contemplate Barney's goofy grin or absently play with Disney lions, dalmatians, mermaids, a temporary relief from the grim realities just outside the door.

Ben came to the Center twice a month. He did not seem affected by what magicians called hospital performances, the Heartbreak Circuit. He said he came to practice in front of a conjurer's most demanding audience, an audience that, unlike adults, demanded to feel that it was their show, mostly. Whether silk, sponge ball, cake, or even a simple piece of string, the magic that sprang from the prop was only for their thrill and excitement. Rachel thought that Ben fibbed a little about his reasons.

"The Great Elmo wanted me to give you this."

Rachel looked down at the blond girl holding up a plateful of cake. "Why, thank you, Cheryl. Will you say thank you for me to the Great Elmo?"

"Sure."

"Do you think he'll do any more tricks for you?"

Cheryl scrunched up a frown. "They're not tricks, Dr. Melman. They're ill-ooo-shins."

Rachel shook her head. "I'm sorry. Of course they are. I guess I don't know enough about these things."

"Well, you should," Cheryl said primly. "Everyone knows you're the Great Elmo's girlfriend."

Having put the pediatric surgeon in her place, Cheryl rejoined the group.

God help me, thought Rachel. This from a child who, just four days ago, had been rushed into the trauma unit suffering from heart palpitations. After stabilizing her, Rachel had discovered that Cheryl Pulaski had a pinprick of a hole in her heart. Surgery was scheduled for five o'clock tomorrow morning. Rachel had a meeting later tonight with the specialist she'd be assisting, who had flown in from Los Angeles.

She looked at Ben, surrounded by faces that seemed to have lost some of their hospital pallor. Faces that, for the moment, were devoid of the fear and pain the children lived with but did not understand; faces belonging to children suffering from AIDS, sickle cell anemia, or leukemia but who could say only that it hurt here, or there, or all over.

Rachel knew that the end of the show was the hardest time for Ben. It was almost impossible to make a graceful exit, with the applause created by small hands, and eyes that silently pleaded with him to stay. Which was why Ben always ran over his allotted time.

"Gosh, what's that? Did you see something?"

Rachel did. The movement was almost imperceptible, but then she knew what to look for: Ben's fingertips in his pants pocket, tugging one end of the nylon string that had been trailing behind him. Whose other end was connected to one of the puppets behind the curtain of the marionette stage.

"It's the Mighty Shazzam," one of the children squealed. "He's alive!"

From behind the curtain came the Mighty Shazzam's deep bass, thrown by Ben, whose ventriloquism skills startled Rachel even now.

"Sir Elmo. Where are you? We are not finished, you and I."

Rachel watched Ben crouch so that he was eye-level with his audience.

"What should we do?" he whispered.

"Save Sir Elmo!" was the chorus. "Sir Elmo and the Lady Lucy!"

The curtain went up and he pulled all of them into the world behind it. There was the Mighty Shazzam bearing down on Sir Elmo, the children shouting warnings at the knight. At the last instant, Sir Elmo deftly sidestepped the onrushing sorcerer and, as though swept along by the cheers of his supporters, dashed up the castle steps to await the Mighty Shazzam's next attack.

* * *

Thirty blocks way, Yossi Tarnofsky clutched the rubber rail of the escalator gliding up from the Red Line subway platform to Union Station.

Tarnofsky was a young man, twenty-eight, battle-tested and very fit. He could admit to himself that the two bullet wounds, one in the fleshy part of his right thigh, the other in the lower abdomen, were serious injuries. He refused even to countenance the idea that he might be dying. Landau had given him strict orders to the contrary: Nobody dies before the assignment is complete. Word in the Institute was that if you pissed off Landau, he would make it his business to follow you to hell, and then you'd wish the Devil had gotten to you first.

In a burst of savage grief, Tarnofsky wondered if that's where Rothman and Bernstein were now, trying to explain to Landau how the Arabs had managed to shadow the tactical incursion team, drop on it like a scythe across wheat. Tarnofsky recalled his last image of his two partners and then he couldn't stand to remember them at all.

Tarnofsky leaned heavily on the rail. He'd always had a problem with tunnels, even in training. The huge concrete-lined cylinder that linked the subway to the train station was, to him, a giant sarcophagus. His breath came in jagged rasps, not so much from the pain of his wounds but from the fear that he might never again see the sky before he died.

The mission...Tarnofsky pushed the claustrophobia away, pushed away the pain. He checked behind him. There were five other people on the escalator, all of whom had gotten off his train. Three office girls, a businessman, a student with a backpack. None belonged to the Arabs. He'd have smelled them if they had.

The storm had drenched him so completely that his jacket, sweater, and pants, dark to begin with, were now black, effectively hiding the blood that had seeped into the fabric. Passengers in the subway car had looked at him once, then away. Tarnofsky saw himself through their eyes: a derelict or an addict, doubled over, clutching his stomach. He'd hoped there wasn't a good samaritan in the car and hadn't been disappointed.

The top of the escalator was coming up. Tarnofsky did inventory, starting with his face. Despite the coolness of the tunnel, his forehead was hot. Fever and blood loss, a potentially lethal combination.

His right arm was still numb where the Arab bullet had cut through it. Every team member carried five small army-issue pressure bandages; Tarnofsky had had to use up three on that wound alone. That had left two for the jagged tear in his abdomen. From the color of the blood, dark and rich, he knew that the bullet had, at the very least, nicked his liver. If the damage was greater than that...

There was nothing Tarnofsky could do about the wound in his thigh, but he did not curse his luck. The Arabs had been shortsighted using steel-jacketed ammunition instead of hollow points, which expanded on impact and created an exit wound the size of a child's fist. The bullet had passed through fat and muscle without touching the femoral artery. Each step Tarnofsky took was excruciating, the pain hobbling him, stoking the image of his helplessness. But at least he could keep moving. Because Landau had to know what he knew.

The words branded into Tarnofsky's memory were meaningless to him, but they had been bought at a terrible price, from a man who'd been quite ready to die rather than part with them. Tarnofsky was certain that in the end, the man had given up the truth. Now it would be up to Landau, whose mind was a Rosetta Stone, to decipher the inexplicable and the arcane. No code, no cryptography, no secret pattern or system yet devised was beyond his ability to crack it.

So Tarnofsky willed himself to keep moving, to exist only for that moment when Landau, the high priest, could make him understand the meaning of what burned within him like an unfulfilled prophecy.

He saw the Arab just as the steps of the escalator brought him eye-level with the wide corridor that led to the train station. He was a slim young man with quick, darting movements. Right now he was standing at an angle to Tarnofsky, by the tall, heavy doors to the concourse, looking in the opposite direction. From his vantage point, Tarnofsky could see the angry welt of a scar that ran from the back of the Arab's jawbone and disappeared up toward the eye.

It was an immutable law of nature, Landau's law: Arabs never operated alone. If you saw one, others were close by.

How close? How many?

And how did they know I would be coming to this train station?

The last question unnerved Tarnofsky. After the attack on the safe house, the butchery, and his escape, he had had choices: to make a run for the Israeli embassy or to head for one of two other destinations. The Arabs would expect him to run to the embassy. Tarnofsky didn't know how many of them there were, but it was a given that they would concentrate on the embassy, create a gauntlet that even an uninjured man could not survive. He might get close, but they would tag him and kill him even as he was within hailing distance of his goal.

Nor had Tarnofsky telephoned the katsa, the senior Mossad officer at the embassy. That would have gone against standing orders, in effect since the Pollard affair. A Jewish U.S. citizen working at the Intelligence Support Center of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Jonathan Pollard had been apprehended and exposed as an Israeli spy. Stung by the incident, American counterintelligence had placed the movements of all Israeli diplomats under close scrutiny. This included electronic eavesdropping and surveillance. It was still safe to talk within the lead-lined concrete walls of the embassy itself or on hardened lines, but no matter how sophisticated the internal communications system, calls coming in from a pay or cell phone could be picked off as easily as a sharpshooter drills a bull's-eye.

"Stay anonymous," Landau had said in the briefing. "The Washington katsadoesn't know about this operation. He doesn't know about you. Keep it that way. But if you must make contact, do so in person. Don't even let them know you're coming."

Dragging his wounded leg behind him like a stroke victim, Tarnofsky moved as the Arab moved, always staying in his blind spot. At the same time, he kept scouting the entrances to the train station. So far, only the last straggle of commuters and tourists arriving back from day trips outside the city. No other Arabs. Yet.

Tarnofsky leaned against one of the massive, polished granite pillars. The cold stone felt good against his feverish cheek. He had gotten off at the Union Station stop because here he was virtually guaranteed of finding a cab. He could not afford to expose himself by trying to flag one down in the street -- not in this weather when taxis would be scarce, not knowing who might be coming up behind him.

The Arab continued to pace in front of the great glass doors, a sentry guarding his assigned perimeter. He continued to scan the travelers passing him but did so in an almost cursory fashion.

He knows what to look for, Tarnofsky thought. Someone who is injured. The rest don't matter.

But still the question: Why here? Had the Arabs seen him disappear into the subway at the Takoma station? Possible, though not likely.

Still, the Arabs had managed to find the safe house. Maybe they recognized the car, too. When Tarnofsky had abandoned that, they had automatically assumed he would use the subway. So they had contacted the rest of the team, strung out a picket fence of agents at the most likely stops. Union Station was an obvious one, as was Van Ness, close to the embassy. Metro Center, where the lines converged, would be another. Tarnofsky doubted that the Arabs could cover more than those stations. Under other circumstances, he might have eluded them, but he was moving so slowly that they had had time to position their intercepts. Still, there was always room for luck.

Decide.

Tarnofsky would go through the Arab, no question about that. It was what came after that he had to be sure about. Landau had given the team two sayan contacts -- names, addresses, telephones. Both were equally good, places where Tarnofsky could get medical attention, rest, and shelter until Landau came for him. But the key was to avoid leading the Arabs to the sayanim. The sayanim were civilians. It was a golden rule that never, ever were they to be put in harm's way.

Because of that rule, the choice was clear.

Tarnofsky fell in behind an elderly couple clucking about the miserable weather and used them as a shield to move in on the Arab. His left hand was in his jacket pocket, fingers curled around the butt of the short-barrel .38 Smith & Wesson, threaded for a two-inch silencer. The weapon was American-made, untraceable, as generic as laundry soap.

Tarnofsky felt the hairs on the back of his neck push against his shirt collar. He was vulnerable and exposed. The Arab was twelve feet away now, the elderly couple struggling to pull open the heavy door, the woman looking to Tarnofsky for help.

He ignored her, slipped across the face of the doors just as the Arab was turning to walk toward him.

"Aiwa!" Tarnofsky whispered.

The slang salutation made the Arab whirl around. Hearing his mother tongue, he naturally expected a comrade. His eyes widened and his upper lip curled back when he saw Tarnofsky.

It was much too late. Tarnofsky reached out and gripped the Arab just beneath the elbow, squeezing down on a cluster of nerves. The Arab grimaced and in a reflex action, reached for Tarnofsky with his other hand, exactly as the Israeli had anticipated. The move left the Arab's chest exposed. Tarnofsky, his gun already angled in his coat pocket, fired three quick shots into the Arab's heart.

Tarnofsky shielded the Arab with his body, propped it up against the wall until he had a chance to glance over his shoulder. The elderly couple had already gone through the doors. The nearest civilian was more than fifty feet away, standing on the escalator, reading a newspaper. A threesome in army uniforms were buying subway tickets from an automatic dispenser. A pair of giggling teenage girls skipped out from around the corner, their eyes sliding across him as quickly as water over stone. There would not be a better time.

Tarnofsky stepped back slowly, allowing the body to slide down the wall until the Arab was sitting on the floor with his legs splayed. Tarnofsky walked away, not looking back. He gripped the door handle and pulled. When he stepped through, he saw the Arab tilt and collapse to one side, as if drunk.

The glass behind him exploded, pebble-size pieces showering Tarnofsky as he was flung forward. Pain seared through his leg and abdomen but his training took over, making him roll along the cold stone floor until he no longer felt the crunch of glass beneath him. He scrambled to a column and slipped around it.

Tarnofsky heard screams behind him, saw the three servicemen looking around with dazed expressions. But he couldn't see the second Arab, the shooter. The bullet had come from behind him, but at what angle, how far away? Maybe the Arab was a poor shot. Maybe he had been shooting from too great a distance or from a bad angle. Tarnofsky had been a slow-moving, unwary target. He should have been dead.

More commotion now as people strolling in the arcade slowed to look. The three soldiers were hollering for someone to call 911, the transit police, an ambulance. Tarnofsky knew he still had a chance. With more and more people crowding into the kill zone every second, the Arab had lost the advantage of surprise, he could not try another shot without giving himself away. Tarnofsky picked a knot of onlookers, steadied himself, and plunged ahead.

"Hey! Hey, buddy. You hurt?"

And another voice: "Geez, man. Is that blood?"

Tarnofsky moved as rapidly as he could, cursing the leg he was dragging. He used his shoulders to break up the groups of people, felt them brush him, shrugged them off. He was in the arcade now, stumbling past brightly lit shops that would be closing in a few minutes. A knife thrust of pain sent him sprawling against the plate glass of the Great Train Store. Tarnofsky slapped his palm against it to keep his balance, never saw the bloody streak he left in his wake, like some grotesque rainbow.

His breathing was ragged, each inhalation burning a hole in his chest. Glimpsing a pair of transit police rushing down the concourse, Tarnofsky veered into a Sam Goody record store. He didn't comprehend why the clerk, a pimply youth with tattoos and pierced facial parts, kept staring at his hands. Tarnofsky glanced down and saw blood welling from between his fingers where he was clutching his abdomen. The pressure bandages had been soaked through and had fallen away.

"Hey, man, this ain't my scene, you know? Just keep walkin'. Please."

Two things registered at the same instant in Tarnofsky's mind: the youth's desperate plea and the movement he caught in the polished metal disk mounted in the corner where the wall met the ceiling. An antitheft measure. What Tarnofsky saw wasn't a shoplifter but a figure in a dark coat, raising one arm. He shifted his weight onto his bad leg and went down in a heap just as the Arab fired. The bullet passed through where Tarnofsky had been standing and slammed into the clerk. The Israeli never heard the boy fall. He had his gun out, firing, his aim compromised by the waves of pain that cascaded over him. Glass, stone, and wood were splintered, but not flesh.

Tarnofsky pushed himself along the floor to the counter, seeking cover in case the Arab made a frontal assault through the door. Instead, he heard more gunshots, most of them coming from heavier-caliber weapons. Nine millimeter handguns, common American police issue. The transit officers.

Tarnofsky edged his way out of the record store. The firing boomed down the concourse, followed by a high-pitched scream, then its echo. Over the stink of hot loads came radio chatter, one of the officers calling in a ten-thirteen.

Tarnofsky cursed silently. How could the Americans have failed to hit their target?

Tarnofsky scrambled out of the arcade and into the main concourse. The vaulted ceiling with its Beaux-Arts dome and rows of stylized Greek and Roman statues stared down sightlessly at the unfolding nightmare. Now the giant space was completely deserted. Tarnofsky knew that Washingtonians, like New Yorkers, lived amid random, sudden violence. They recognized gunshots when they heard them, knew that the only thing to do was to take cover and wait until people with bigger guns arrived. Tarnofsky picked them out, crouching behind giant stone slabs that passed for benches, using overturned tables belonging to the Coco Pazzo Café as shields.

Tarnofsky understood that he had almost no time left. The firing had picked up again. The odds had shifted in favor of the Arabs taking down the police instead of the other way around. When that happened, they would come back for him.

Tarnofsky looked into the recesses of the main hall. The closest doors were below an enormous half-moon window with an inset clock. He estimated two hundred feet of open space. It seemed like miles.

The blood from the wound in his abdomen was no longer seeping but trickling. He couldn't feel his left leg above the knee. If he didn't make it out of there, the Arabs would kill him before any emergency crews arrived. And if by some miracle he survived, there would be the gun and the wounds to explain. Since he was working without diplomatic cover, the Americans would mend him and hold him for as long as they liked. They would have many questions for him. Too many complications. Tarnofsky remembered that Landau's loathing of complications was legendary.

Concentrate on the doors. Two hundred feet to the doors. Beyond them, taxis, cars, a way to get out of here. Without leaving your guts all over the floor.

Tarnofsky pulled out his gun. A woman who'd been watching him from behind a café table shrank back. He scuttled past her, over to one of the stone benches, then zigzagged to another. His next goal was a small information stand. Beyond that, a porters' station. Stepping-stone to stepping-stone, he'd reach the doors that opened up to the night and the storm, and from there he could escape, reach a place where he could hide until Landau came for him and lifted the terrible knowledge from his heart.

* * *

Ben Poltarek stood under the awning, the rain sluicing down, spattering the tips of his shoes. In his left hand he held the larger suitcase, containing the dismantled marionette theater and the puppets; in his right was a smaller case, scarred leather with tarnished brass hardware, that held his magic.

"We'll never make it," he muttered. "Never."

Rachel laughed. "The car's right over there. Come on." She fiddled with a flimsy telescopic umbrella and finally managed to open it. "On three. One, two, three!"

Rachel was as tall as he and held the umbrella so that he didn't have to crouch. On his fourth step he placed his foot squarely into a deep puddle.

"Shit!"

A gust of wind tore the umbrella from Rachel's grip just as they reached her venerable, lovingly cared for BMW. Rachel fumbled with her keys. The locks popped; Ben shoved the suitcases into the trunk and jumped into the passenger seat.

Rachel, already behind the wheel, reached out, her soft, long fingers cupping his cheek. There was nothing Ben could say or do. She had an ability to make his world stop completely at the most unexpected moments. The wash of the anticrime lights sculpted her face in alabaster, dramatically setting off her thick red hair. He could not let go of her eyes, blue like a glacier under a full moon. Crusader's eyes, he called them, for although she had been born in Israel, he liked to imagine that they belonged to some long-ago knight-errant who had made the holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem and there had lain with a Hebrew noblewoman.

"You're looking at me that way."

"Which way?"

"Like you're going to ask me something and as much as I want to, I'll have to say no."

Ben pushed levers to get the heater going. "We'll talk on the way home."

Rachel knew her side streets and they made good time to Connecticut Avenue. She listened to Ben talk about the show, occasionally stealing a sidelong glance at the slight ridge where he'd broken his nose as a child, the full lips she knew had touched no other woman in the last three years, the long eyelashes and heavy eyebrows that could, in the right light, lend him a mysterious air.

Which was, she thought, perhaps the greatest illusion of all. For there was nothing remotely mysterious about Ben Poltarek. Although his stock-in-trade was mystery, he was utterly without guile or affectation. When they'd first started seeing each other, she had been on the alert to discover the real man, the personality that lay beneath the skin and would, sooner or later, rise to the surface like a brass rubbing. But that had never happened, and slowly Rachel had come to believe that there were men other than the kind she'd attracted before. The kind who loved only to use, whose cool and poise were nothing more than brittle lacquer over dead nerves and a mummified heart.

Ben Poltarek, on the other hand, was one of those rare beings who loved unconditionally, needed to change nothing, accepted any gift that came his way as blessing, not due.

Yet, as much as Rachel loved him, he sometimes gave her pause. The world had taught her that it could be dangerous to get too close to people. You might catch their dreams and in the end their dreams could alter you forever, destroy you.

"Where are your folks tonight?"

"Right about now Sid and Rose should be arriving at the Kennedy Center." Ben often referred to his parents by name, as if they were old buddies, which, given the family dynamics Rachel had witnessed, was virtually the case.

"How are they putting up with you?"

"You make it sound like I'm the houseguest from hell."

"You snore."

"No more than you."

She elbowed him in the ribs.

"The contractors tell me another week."

"That's what they said before you and Sid left for Paris."

"And before that, too."

Ben's townhouse in upper Georgetown, on the fringe of the university, was in the last stages of remodeling. He'd moved into the Poltareks' spacious four-bedroom condominium on Connecticut near the National Zoo for the duration, an arrangement that played havoc with his and Rachel's sex life.

"Have dinner with me tomorrow," he said suddenly.

Rachel was startled by the quiet intensity of his words. There was something behind them, something she couldn't divine.

"Ben, I have surgery tomorrow. Cheryl..." She touched his hand. "Ben, what is it? Is there something you want to tell me?"

He sighed. "It'll keep, I guess."

"Tell me about Paris," Rachel said, quickly changing the subject. "What I missed. What you'll take me to see one day."

She loved to hear him describe things. He had the gift of making her see through his eyes, believe that one day she would see everything he was describing through her own.

The pleasure she experienced was not without cost. Not in terms of promises she'd made him and failed to keep, not the experiences she delayed or deferred, not the time she could not offer him and that could never be replaced. All these things, Rachel believed, would come their way one day. It was the tapestry of secrets that kept her postponing that day.

Rachel had never lied to Ben. Not overtly. True, she had been born to an American father and a Sabra mother. The family had returned to the United States when Rachel was five. By the time she entered college, all vestiges of her Israeli heritage had melded into American Jewishness.

The family's circumstances were comfortable until Rachel's father died of a sudden heart attack. Poor investment advice quickly depleted the Melman coffers. Rachel attended Smith on full scholarship, but the money ran out by the time she was accepted at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

With student loans falling short of covering tuition and no collateral to offer banks, Rachel turned to the sponsor of last resort: the government. Specifically, the army. In return for its picking up the balance of her tab at Johns Hopkins, she agreed to give them four years of her life after graduation.

Rachel completed her studies just shy of her twenty-seventh birthday. The next week she found herself at the army's medical training center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. been born to an American father and a Sabra mother. The family had returned to the United States when Rachel was five. By the time she entered college, all vestiges of her Israeli heritage had melded into American Jewishness.

The family's circumstances were comfortable until Rachel's father died of a sudden heart attack. Poor investment advice quickly depleted the Melman coffers. Rachel attended Smith on full scholarship, but the money ran out by the time she was accepted at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

With student loans falling short of covering tuition and no collateral to offer banks, Rachel turned to the sponsor of last resort: the government. Specifically, the army. In return for its picking up the balance of her tab at Johns Hopkins, she agreed to give them four years of her life after graduation.

Rachel completed her studies just shy of her twenty-seventh birthday. The next week she found herself at the army's medical training center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Six weeks after that, she was assigned to a frontline unit with the Bosnian peacekeeping force.

With ten months' experience to her credit, Rachel was rotated back stateside where she was offered a tour of duty that would knock one year off her military commitment -- if she enrolled in the Special Warfare Center and School.

Rachel began her twelve months of training at the Fort Bragg medical lab, where better than half the medics in training washed out in the first few weeks. Rachel, with childhood memories of kibbutz animal pens and ritual slaughter, concentrated on the reason why the baby pigs and goats were wounded in specific areas by a sharpshooter. She and her team then ministered to these animals, learning to treat combat trauma, practicing military emergency medicine, even conducting battlefield surgery. The next day the sharpshooter would shoot fresh animals in different places and the exercises would begin all over again.

By the time Rachel earned her honorable discharge she'd been responsible for saving the lives of three Special Forces officers wounded by friendly fire during training. Off the coast of Sudan, she'd fought to keep two members of her team alive as the unit evacuated the country after a successful attempt to free an American diplomat being held hostage. She finished out her tour at Fort Bragg as an instructor, teaching recruits how much more difficult it was to hold the human body together than to tear it apart.

Ben knew all this, even about the Sudan raid, which the Pentagon had declassified and made the centerpiece of a trumpeting PR campaign. He knew that she'd finished her residency at Georgetown Medical Center and then, because of her experience, had been assigned to the emergency room trauma team. It was there, one night three years ago, that she'd literally bumped into him as he was on his way to perform for the children.

Rachel transferred into pediatric surgery, where she could help those who were most in need of her nimble hands, quick mind, and dearly paid for experience. Once, Ben had said she would make a wonderful mother, and Rachel hadn't dared reply that the prospect terrified her. Ben saw all the joy that a child could bring into their lives; she saw only the dangers, dreaded the day when she would confront something that she could not defeat. Then a child would die. Maybe her child.

Whenever Ben spoke of children, Rachel felt her guilt most keenly. There was a part of her life she had successfully hidden from him -- the eight months she'd rolled into her Georgetown residency that actually belonged somewhere else. It was not a place she often visited, and she understood that by refusing to take him there she was betraying him.

But only a little. And for his own good.

Flimsy excuses in the face of the love and trust he lavished on her. Excuses that were barbs on her conscience.

Sometimes, Rachel asked herself what Ben would do if she took him down that road. He would be confused -- angry, too. Press for explanations where none could be given. Sickened and overwhelmed, he might retreat from her life. Rachel didn't think she could survive that, not only the shame, but because she didn't know of a single way to bring him back. In the end, it always came down to this: It was better to betray him than to risk losing him.

Through the rapid motion of windshield wipers Rachel saw the flatiron building where the Poltareks lived. She turned off Connecticut, made a U-turn, and parked in the street instead of under the canopy.

"Does this mean you don't want the doorman to overhear you propositioning me?"

"Propositioning you in your dreams. Come here."

Rachel wrapped her arms around Ben, her mouth finding his, tongue probing. She kissed him as though she needed to fill herself with him, to make him remember her, always want her.

"You know Sid and Rose always go to supper after the opera," he murmured.

"I know Rose eats like a bird and they'll be home a half hour after that."

"Still leaves us an eternity."

"Don't do that." Ben was nuzzling her neck, just behind her ear, making her flush. "Honey, please. After Thursday night I'm off for four days. Do with me what you will."

"Words you'll regret."

"I hope not."

Rachel inched the car into the circular drive and under the portico. A uniformed doorman opened Ben's door.

"I'll call you tomorrow," Ben said, getting ready to slide out.

"Love me?"

"So much."

She waited until the doorman retrieved the suitcases from the trunk, then hit the accelerator. The tires spun and the rear end fishtailed, but Rachel regained control of the car. She couldn't say the same about the tears that stung her eyes, washing away Ben's kisses.

* * *

The Poltareks' apartment took up the top two floors of the building, which were connected by a sweeping semicircular staircase.

Ben had taken back the room he'd had as a boy. His mother, for reasons she never explained, had changed nothing since the day he'd left for college. Posters of the Four Kings of Magic -- Nate Leipzig, Harry Blackstone, John Mulholland, and Thomas Downs -- hung on papered walls. Bookcases smelling of lemon-scented wax held his collection of conjurers' texts; award statuettes and framed citations rested on shelves above his bed. The only thing out of place was the framed law diploma from Yale, hung to catch your eye as soon as you opened the door. His mother's small expression of pride.

And the picture of Samuel, his older brother, at seventeen, big and strapping like their father and even taller. Samuel, who had relished contact sports, was good enough to have won a Golden Gloves competition; "the tough son of a bitch Jew," he called himself.

As much a friend as a brother, Samuel had spent hours helping Ben build his magic props, and though his thick fingers could never quite master the strings of illusion, he'd been proud of Ben's abilities. Eighteen years dead, yet as alive today as his last day. Whenever Ben came to that thought, he carefully folded up his memories and made them disappear into that secret place in his heart.

"I miss you, Sammy," Ben said aloud.

Ben deposited the suitcases in their proper place in the closet and padded into the en suite bathroom. He stripped off his costume and stepped under the hot shower spray. Through the hot mist and the shower's glass door, Ben glimpsed the box he'd left on the nightstand, a small, black velvet jeweler's cube whose contents were immediately obvious.

He'd been doing what amused the French most about American tourists: jogging at first light, when the streets of the First Arrondissement were still, devoid even of the ubiquitous street cleaners. He was coming back into the place Vendôme, running lightly past some of the most expensive boutiques in the world, when something caught his eye. Behind thick shatterproof glass was a jeweler's display case, empty save for one mannequin hand in the corner, as though it had been forgotten. On the fourth finger was a wedding band, a small marquis diamond accented by a pair of sapphires. The sapphires reminded him of Rachel's eyes.

Now, like found money, the ring was burning a hole in his pocket. He had come up with and rejected a dozen ways to present it to Rachel. The place had to be just right, the timing perfect.

Somewhere over the drumming of the shower Ben heard the telephone. He wrapped a towel around his waist and went into his bedroom.

"Is this Benjamin Poltarek?"

The voice was cool, detached, and unfamiliar.

"Who's this?"

"Detective Priestly, Fifth Precinct. Are you Mr. Poltarek?"

"Yes, I am. Is this about one of our clients?"

"I'm afraid not. It involves your parents."

Ben sat down on the bed. "What about my parents?"

"Mr. Poltarek, I'm very sorry. There was an accident. Happened right outside the Watergate. Look, this sort of thing is hard over the phone."

"I'll be right down. The Watergate..."

"No, sir. That is not a good idea. There's nothing you can do here. The paramedics tried their best, but..."

Priestly's sigh whistled through the jagged hole in Ben's soul. "You're saying they're dead. My mother and father are dead."

"I'm sorry. Death was instantaneous."

Ben knew that police and emergency teams always said that. It was a gentle lie. Rachel had told him that instant death didn't exist. There was always at least a split second of consciousness, the awful realization of what was about to happen, what was about to be taken away.

"I want to see them."

"I understand, Mr. Poltarek. They're being taken to Georgetown Medical -- "

"I'm on my way."

"Sir. Sir! Listen to me. I'm going to come and get you, okay? It's a lousy night out there. I don't want you behind the wheel. Do you understand?"

Ben was holding the receiver away from his ear. He didn't want to hear any more. He said something before hanging up, wasn't sure if Priestly had heard it, didn't care.

He stood up quickly and was immediately seized by vertigo. He steadied himself on a bookcase. His eyes found the photo of Samuel.

"They're dead?" he asked his brother. "How can they be dead?"

Then he remembered that those were almost the exact words his father had uttered when Ben had told him that Samuel had been in an accident, that he was dead. He saw himself in the mirror, tried to remember if his father had looked like that.

Ben dressed quickly and headed downstairs, collecting his wallet and keys, which he'd tossed on the table in the vestibule.

The doorbell startled him. It had to be the detective; he'd called from his car.

Ben threw the bolts and the door pushed hard against him as a figure staggered inside.

Tarnofsky slapped a bloody palm on the wall to keep from falling. He turned so that his back was supported by the vestibule table and he was facing the young man who was staring at him, his mouth agape.

"Are you Poltarek?"

Ben took a step toward him, then saw the gun. It wavered in the stranger's grip as though he could barely hold its weight.

"I'm Benjamin Poltarek. Who are you? What happened?"

"Close the door." Ben hesitated. "Close the door."

"You're hurt -- "

Tarnofsky pushed himself off the wall and staggered to Ben, falling heavily against him.

Ben gripped him under the shoulder, half-led, half-dragged him to the bottom step of the staircase. The wounded man leaned back against the edge of the stairs, blood pooling on the carpet.

Ben made a move for the phone.

"Don't!"

He turned, saw the barrel of the gun. "I'm calling an ambulance."

"Too late. Come here."

"You're bleeding!" Ben shouted. "If you don't get help -- "

"Closer. Come closer." Tarnofsky's breathing was very rapid. He could feel the siren song of his life in his veins, feel his heart labor as it tried to keep pumping what blood remained. He knew there wasn't much.

He grabbed the young man by the hair, jerked his ear to his lips. "This is for Landau, only him. Understand?"

"Landau?"

"Tell him they are bringing in an American. An American. Landau will know what to do."

The gun fell from Tarnofsky's fingers, clattering along the steps to the floor. He couldn't keep his grip on Ben, and now his head rolled to one side.

"What American? What are you talking about?"

"Rothman...Bernstein, dead. El-Banna too, I think. But he talked before they hit us. Bringing in an American." Tarnofsky summoned up one last fistful of courage. "Tell Landau it will be an American!"

Tarnofsky began to shake violently as his heart skipped and sputtered. Strong arms embraced him and held him up and he was grateful for the comfort. He was dying in a land far from his own, but he believed, needed to believe, that these arms would eventually transport him back to Israel, where there would be someone to say Kaddish for him.

Ben felt the blood paste his shirt to his skin. He could not tear his eyes away from this stranger, with his fluttering eyelids, soundlessly moving lips, and rapid, shallow breathing. He heard the doorbell again but could not let go, hugging and cradling the stranger the same way as, years ago, he had held his brother.

The door to the apartment opened and a figure cautiously stepped in. Ben saw the detective's shield hanging over the breast pocket of his jacket, heard the sharp whistle of his breath through the space between his large, square teeth, like Scrabble tiles.

Priestly was moving fast toward him, one hand pulling out his radio.

Ben wondered how his voice could be so calm, how strange his words sounded: "He never even told me his name."

* * *

Ben Poltarek could not have known then that it would be impossible for him to core out answers to the questions raging within him.

He could not have known that such answers lay not in the broken body that had plunged into his life, but within himself. Or that the first thread of the tapestry of knowledge had not been woven there in Washington, but in an ancient capital five thousand miles away.

Most of all, he never suspected that the truth, and he, were now caught in the gears of the immovable, implacable law of unintended consequences.

Copyright © 2000 by J. Patrick Law

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The Assistant 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
good book if u're looking for action involving terrorism and spy stuff. Not a lot of non-sense talk witch iz good. over all a good page turner
harstan More than 1 year ago
Washington DC attorney Ben Poltarek feels he lives a great Yuppie life. He enjoys his work and loves his girlfriend Rachel. Ben is looking forward to seeing his parents who are coming for a visit, but they are killed in a shoot-out near the Watergate Hotel. Ben races over to the scene, only to be accosted by a dying Russian Tarnofsky who provides him secret information that needs to be given to superspy Landau.

Ben¿s world, already crumbled by his parents¿ deaths, completely shatters as he is now involved in the Middle East crisis here in America. Arab terrorists led by the dangerous Jamal want him dead; his girlfriend¿s connection to the Mossad haunts him at every twist and turn as they expect him to work for them; finally, his own government simply wants to eliminate him. Not knowing friend from foe, Ben ends up toiling as an ASSISTANT for an underground Jewish-American group working for the betterment of the State of Israel.

THE ASSISTANT is an exciting, by the book, espionage thriller that will excite fans with its premise of who is an innocent person¿s ally and enemy. The story line is crisp, fast-paced, and filled with excitement from start to finish. Ben and Rachel are a warm couple, but he steals the show with his reactions to the nightmarish journey he now travels. Though a bit too formulaic in nature, espionage readers will find J. Patrick Law¿s tale very entertaining.

Harriet Klausner