Reporter Branislav Poborsky is running away from a bad marriage, when he witnesses the Czech army covering up the extermination of an entire village. Saved in extremis by the gentle-giant Mossad agent Eytan Morgenstern, he is thrown into a troubling race to defuse a larger-than-life conspiracy. After Eytan’s mentor is kidnapped, he must join forces with his arch-rival to put an end to a mysterious group that has weapons of mass destruction. Once again, the atrocities of World War II come back to haunt the modern world. What links exist between Japanese camps in China in the 1940s, a US Army research center in the 1950s, and the deadly threat Eytan faces today? From Prague to Tokyo, with stops in Ireland, yesterday’s enemies become today’s best allies and mankind seems on the verge of repeating the errors of the past. What can a lone man do against the madness that is bound to follow?
About the Author
French author David Khara, a former journalist, top-level sportsman, and entrepreneur, is a full-time writer. Khara wrote his first novela vampire thrillerin 2010, before starting his Consortium thriller series. The first thriller in the series, The Bleiberg Project, was an instant success in France, catapulting Khara into the ranks of the country’s top thriller writers.
Read an Excerpt
The Shiro Project
A Consortium Thriller
By David Khara, Sophie Weiner
Le French BookCopyright © 2011 Editions Critic
All rights reserved.
US Army Base Fort Detrick, Maryland, 1957
The loudspeakers were past their prime and certainly never intended for blasting rock 'n' roll. They gave off some static, but Elvis Presley's seductive voice filled the entire laboratory and most likely all seven floors of the building. The use of military equipment for these purposes wouldn't have been tolerated during regular hours. But late at night, when higher-ups and other old fogeys from the med school weren't around, such diversions were standard practice—especially since Dr. Philip Neville had joined the staff. The talented English chemist loved the fifties rhythms, which just begged for hip shaking and pelvis thrusting. And he never missed a chance to show off his dance moves.
At any rate, "Jailhouse Rock" enlivened the monotonous atmosphere of the research center and didn't really bother the few people present at this late hour.
Professor Jane Woodridge tolerated the rule-bending, as long as it didn't interfere with their work. The biochemist even succumbed to the music on occasion, tapping her foot to the beat when no one was looking. Away from the watchful eyes of colleagues, she could slough off some of the professional veneer and relax a bit.
For the moment, she was allowing herself to be amused by Neville, who was rocking to Elvis while leafing through the reports on experiments conducted by that day's team.
What we're dealing with here is serious enough, she said to herself. We shouldn't let it get the better of us.
Neville seemed to read her mind. He picked up a jar of pencils—his improvised microphone—held it to his mouth, and began belting out the lyrics.
The magic moment was over. The Elvis impersonation had gone far enough. Sure, Neville had the moves, but his resemblance to the King stopped there.
Jane glared at her colleague. Under the heat of her stare, Neville lowered his voice and then settled for mouthing the words without making any noise at all.
"Phil, could you please bring me the registration receipt for the new pathogens?"
Neville sauntered toward the tall metal filing cabinets, opened a drawer, and set about searching through the suspended folders.
"Sorry, I can't find it. It must be in the general's office."
Jane got up with a heavy sigh. She walked over to Neville and gave the contents of the drawer a weary look. She pulled out a manila folder and waved it under his nose with a condescending smile.
"If you're more interested in dancing than scientific research, send your résumé to Hollywood," she said, returning to her desk. "Who knows, maybe some producer out there is looking for the next Donald O'Connor."
The music ended.
"I'll think about it," her colleague replied as he dropped into his chair. "Life is short, and I don't see myself rotting away here. How can you stand working in this stronghold four nights a week, especially with a kid at home?"
"That's none of your business," Jane responded. The familiarity offended her. "I love my son, if you must know. I do the best I can to balance my career and family life. Luckily, my husband is remarkable, extraordinary even."
"He must be, seeing that he puts up with sleeping alone half the week."
"You're being rude, and I don't appreciate it. Like it or not, I care deeply about my job."
Neville raised an eyebrow. "Ah yes, we're working for the glory of Uncle Sam. Concocting antidotes for our soldiers and citizens in the event of biological warfare-quite a noble task."
"Do I sense a hint of sarcasm?"
"That's not my style. Hey, if the soviets are capable of using that kind of weapon, what makes you think we wouldn't do the same?"
"Democracy, communism. The differences seem obvious to me," Jane answered, her lips pursed.
"Of course, the nation of liberty and justice for all would never dirty its hands with methods so vile and contradictory to the Geneva Protocol, which we haven't ratified, may I remind you."
The young man leaned back in his chair, visibly satisfied with the correctness of his viewpoint. But Jane refused to let him have the upper hand.
"What are you trying to tell me? That we're not developing treatments, but weapons instead? That's absurd! Leave the politics to the professionals, and concentrate on your dancing or, better yet, on your work."
"Tell me, Jane, don't you wonder why access to certain sections of the two lower levels are off-limits to us?"
The woman gave herself a few seconds to reflect, adjusting the bun at the nape of her neck. She reinserted two pins in her blond hair and then spoke solemnly.
"We're studying the reactions of test subjects injected with agents and creating the proper countermeasures. I don't see how access to storage units with viral strains concerns us."
"The company line, as usual. I'm convinced there's a hidden agenda."
"Then go complain to the authorities. I'm not stopping you. While you're concocting your dark theories, I'll be in the lab," she said as she glanced at the clock on the wall. "Time for the daily log. The office is all yours."
"Say hi to the guinea pigs for me."
Jane left the room and headed toward the elevators. She waved to the two military police officers patrolling the hallway. They always looked so creepy, more the punch-in-your-face sort than the type inclined to give a respectful salute. The elevator doors slid open, and she scurried inside.
Neville's skeptical nature was borderline eccentric. But he was right about life being too short. And working at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases had been weighing on her since her son Sean's birth. Her husband supported her career and did his part at home. She felt privileged. Most other women were stuck being housewives, not because they had chosen the life, but because it was expected, and there were few alternatives. Jane hoped that she could serve as a role model for other women who yearned for more independence and opportunity. But she missed her son, and she could not wait for the workweek to end so that she could go home and enjoy those three days with her boy and her man.
As the elevator sank into the depths of the building, she pondered what to do about Neville. If he continued to carelessly speculate about their work, she would have to notify her superiors, because the base wasn't just conducting research; it was involved in the production of biological weapons. For now, Neville's security clearance denied him access to such sensitive information. In light of his comments, she would recommend that he be denied that access permanently and be put under heightened surveillance.
The elevator finally stopped, and the doors opened onto a long room whose walls were lined with cages. A musky smell saturated the air, and shrill screams rose from the pens, where monkeys were jumping wildly against the sides of their cages. Practically every night, she would come down to the lower levels to check on the primates and see if any were dying.
The shrieking from the cages intensified as she walked toward them.
"Don't worry, my sweethearts. I'm not coming for you this time, but for your friend," she said as she continued past the animals.
At the end of the room, there was a reinforced metal door equipped with a large handle. Jane opened a small hatch in the wall to reveal a lock. She inserted the key that she jealously guarded in her pocket.
With a loud mechanical click, the door opened. Behind it was a large room with sad green walls. Two carts holding the instruments Jane used in her experiments were waiting beside a small bed.
A man in his twenties—the reason for her visit tonight—lay there, covered in a blue sheet. He moaned faintly. The sedatives were wearing off. From the pocket of her lab coat, Jane pulled out a small notebook and a pencil. She examined the patient's face.
Pus trickled from blisters around his discolored lips. Along the sides of his inflamed nostrils were clusters of ready-to-burst boils. The exposed part of his chest was similarly disfigured.
Jane was pleased to note the normal progression of symptoms and scribbled her observations in her notebook.
"Hang in there a little longer," she said. "Two or three days from now, we'll initiate treatment."
The only response was an agonized groan.
After injecting the young man with more sedative, Jane headed back. She had what she needed. She wished her monkey sweethearts a pleasant night and found her way to the exit. Just two more hours with Professor Neville, and then her shift would be over.
Jane stepped into the elevator, eager to wrap things up. But when she arrived at her floor, the doors refused to budge. Jane cursed the incompetence of the maintenance crew. Breakdowns occurred often, too often for her liking. She was about to pick up the elevator's black telephone to tell off the orderly, when the base loudspeakers started blasting an ear-splitting siren.
Jane pressed her hands over her ears to muffle the excruciating noise. Then the wailing stopped. It was replaced by a man's voice, which Jane identified as that of the duty officer.
"Attention, all personnel. Due to a security breach in sector four, we ask that you calmly make your way toward the emergency exits."
Jane's eyes widened with surprise. She felt her heartbeat speed up and her scalp tingle with sweat. "This is no time to panic," she said to herself. "Think fast."
She took a deep breath and held it. Jane frantically pushed the button for one floor up, where her designated exit was located. The elevator didn't move, but the doors finally opened.
Then she saw the guards sprawled on the floor. Their dogs were lying all around them, vomiting and shaking. The virus was already spreading throughout the facility. The alert had been broadcast too late. There was not a moment to lose.
You breathe, you die, she told herself as she rushed toward an open door on her right. She entered the stairwell and heaved herself up the steps two at a time. An object was rolling toward her. A jar of pencils. She stepped over Phil Neville, who lay dying on the steps. He stretched out a hand in her direction but was unable to grab her ankle. Jane thought of her husband, her son, her flaming lungs and repeated over and over, "You breathe, you die."
She found the corridor. A little more effort and she'd be out of this hellhole. Jane grabbed the metal door handle and pushed. It didn't open. She thrust with both hands, using all the strength she had. Nothing happened. She couldn't hold out for more than a few seconds. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she pounded and kicked.
Those bastards had locked the exits shut! As soon as the sector had lost its airtight seal, the virus had spread, and then it was lockdown. Now the brick-and-steel building was one big tomb.
Jane Woodridge leaned against the door and slid to the floor. She closed her eyes, visualized Sean's sweet chubby face, and filled her lungs a final time.CHAPTER 2
The Outskirts of Pardubice, Czech Republic, 2011
The radio was playing a cover of a Four Seasons tune from the sixties, "Beggin'." It was a pretty decent version by Madcon, a Norwegian hip-hop duo. Branislav Poborsky pounded along on his car's steering wheel as he sang the English words—at least the ones he recognized. The catchy beat gave him a shot of much-needed energy.
He was heading into familiar territory as he drove along the narrow road that snaked through the forest—so lush and dense at this time of year. Each mile racked up on the dash took him that much farther away from Prague. This was all he needed to feel relieved. There was nothing better than a week of vacation with his parents in Pardubice.
True to form, his mother would pamper him with homemade goodies.
"With your demanding job, plus all the stress of living in a big city, I'm sure you're not eating properly," she had said to him time and again. "You're so pale and stick thin. To think you had such chubby red cheeks, like apples, when you were little."
Just for fun, he would argue a bit, but he didn't want to get into a full-fledged fight. He would never change her set-in-stone Polish opinions.
His dad, in turn, would subject him to an all-out interrogation. He would want to know everything about his pride and joy's career. It was the workaholic's way of staying connected to the demanding world he had left three years earlier. As production director at the Paramo factory, Branislav's father had provided his family with a more than comfortable lifestyle in communist Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution hadn't hurt their finances at all—just the opposite. With democracy came unbridled economic liberalism, and foreign investors rushed to a new market that offered excellent growth prospects. Vladek Poborsky had left Paramo and become a consultant for big companies that wanted to locate in the Pardubice region. It was a profitable career change. Vladek was able to buy a luxurious home for his family on the shores of Sec Dam, and because his new line of work was much more leisurely than his old one, he could relax and call himself semiretired.
Branislav couldn't dream of a better place to forget his distress. His marriage was foundering, and divorce seemed inevitable. Maybe he should have spent less time at his job and more time with his wife, who was herself caught up in a career as a television makeup artist. But in the end, what did it matter? It was obviously too late to dwell on what had gone wrong. He needed to focus on the future. Thank God they didn't have any kids. That would have made the legal proceedings and emotional recovery a whole lot messier.
Branislav glanced at himself in the rearview mirror. His thick chestnut-brown hair complemented his gray-brown eyes. At the moment, however, he looked much older than his thirty years. His eyelids were drooping, and the five o'clock shadow on his pasty white cheeks was growing darker by the mile. He sighed.
Just as Branislav was fixing his eyes on the road again, something flashed in the mirror. A headlight was looming up from behind. A motorcycle. It came within inches of his bumper before swerving over to pass. Mr. Hot Wheels slowed down a bit and then shot off without any concern for safety.
"Jackass," Branislav shouted. "You think you're invincible? You could've killed us both. Motocross season hasn't started yet, dickhead."
Branislav glanced at the dashboard clock. Another twenty minutes, and he would be at the family manse. In half an hour, he would be enjoying a nice glass of wine, lounging in a comfortable deck chair, and admiring the rippling reflection of the trees on the crystal-clear lake.
A jarring noise from above shook him out of his daydream. He leaned against the steering wheel and stared at the sky through the windshield. Two low-flying helicopters. They were large carriers displaying the Czech Republic colors: white, red, and blue. A smaller aircraft was close behind. It bore the NATO insignia.
Branislav's journalist instincts kicked in. Something was going on. He had been so intent on getting to his haven, he hadn't realized that his car was the only one on the road. Sure, he wasn't driving on a major highway, but to be so completely isolated—with the exception of that crazy motorcyclist—for such a long distance? And what about that biker? Where was he racing off to? Where were those helicopters going? Branislav slowed down and parked on the side of the road. He got out of the car, lit a cigarette, and took out his cell phone. He entered his parents' number.
The phone rang three times. Then an automated voice responded, "Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again." He tried calling the newsroom. Again, three rings and the same recorded message. He entered a bunch of other numbers, all yielding the same result.
No other wheels in sight, three military choppers, no way of making calls. Branislav needed to find out what was happening and somehow get hold of his editors. He slid behind the wheel of his car and started driving again.
Excerpted from The Shiro Project by David Khara, Sophie Weiner. Copyright © 2011 Editions Critic. Excerpted by permission of Le French Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
-How do Eytan and Elena differ in their approach to their profession? How has their respective upbringings shaped their worldview?
- Discuss the book’s theme of tragedy, whether on the level of an individual or a large-scale group of people. What is the media’s role in portraying tragedy? What are responsible ways to honor and remember victims of past tragedy?
-Discuss the difference between seeking justice and seeking revenge.
-Are there any characters you personally relate to? In what way?
-How does the book address consequentialist versus non-consequentialist theories of ethics (where the former asserts the end result of an act justifies the means, while the latter places an emphasis on the means itself)? Which characters are the voices of each side of the debate?
-Has the book changed your perspective on anything, whether it be morally, politically, philosophically, etc.?
How did you come up with the main character Eytan Morg?
It may seem strange, but I was inspired by a woman. At the age of 13, Simone Lagrange was arrested in Lyon by Klaus Barbie and deported to Auschwitz. She survived and testified at Barbie’s trial. Like her, Eytan embodies resistance to barbarity. Did the third Reich really try to make super-men? Yes, they did scientific research. In The Bleiberg Project, I extrapolated from that, but in The Shiro Project, I didn’t have to. When I was doing my research, I soon found that reality was far worse than I ever could imagine.
Why are we so fascinated by these atrocities?
World War II resulted in 50 million deaths and many things were never revealed until 1980s. Japan only recognized the existence of Unit 731 in 2002. It is very hard for the generations that did not experience this violence to imagine it. I wanted to write books that would entertain readers, but also inform them.