In a CIA safe house, a reluctant interrogator and his subject find that they are the next targets on a ruthless assassin’s hit list
Psychiatrist Louis Finney is still haunted by nightmares stemming from the work in mind control and psychological conditioning he helped to pioneer for the US government years ago. But when he is asked by his dying mentor to help with the questioning of Ali Zattout, an al-Qaeda operative, Finney finds he cannot refuse.
Charismatic, intelligent, and unexpectedly cooperative, Zattout possesses information his masters in the Middle East cannot allow him to reveal. As Finney tries to determine if the terrorist is telling the truth or spinning a web of lies, a relentless killer closes in on the secret location where the two men are trapped together. Too late, Finney realizes that he is a pawn in a conspiracy whose dimensions stretch deep into the corridors of power.
A provocative suspense story that peers into the dark corners of the war on terror, John Altman’s The Watchmen depicts the murky world of twenty-first-century espionage with thrilling style and fascinating psychological depth.
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By John Altman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 John Altman
All rights reserved.
Finney's breath caught in his throat.
He took a moment to steady his hands, then swept the binoculars back across the path they just had followed—over the dilapidated fence, past the stables, to a tangled thicket near the edge of the forest. There.
The Bachman's warbler.
He found it perched on a low branch, seeming to look directly back at him. The Bachman's warbler was the rarest songbird in North America. From the black cowl, Finney knew that it was a male.
As he watched, the bird gave its distinctive call: a low, grating bzz-bzz-bzz.
Then it took wing and vanished from his field of vision.
He lowered the 804 Swift Audubon binoculars. His heart was pounding. He hadn't yet remembered to start breathing again. That brief glimpse, he knew, was all he would get. But he was not complaining. In seven years of combing these woods behind his farm, he never before had seen a Bachman's warbler.
For another few moments he stood, trying to hold on to a sense of pleasure that already was slipping away. Then he remembered to take a breath. He consulted his watch. It was ten minutes before noon. His visitor would be arriving shortly.
He spent one last minute looking in the direction of the thicket, hoping against hope that the warbler would reappear. Then Dr. Louis Finney turned and headed slowly back to the converted farmhouse that he called home.
He knew upon opening the door that Arthur Noble was not well.
The last of his hair had gone; the sides of his head gleamed smoothly beneath the brim of a felt hat. He was supporting himself with a cane, using both hands. His face, which always had been somewhat suggestive of a basset hound, had hollowed, the folds drooping lower than ever. Yet he had managed to drive himself, Finney noted; and now he managed a crinkle-eyed smile.
"Louis," Noble said.
"Arthur," Finney answered stiffly.
After a moment he turned and led Noble through the foyer, to his study.
The study was furnished with two Windsor cherry sack-back armchairs, a burnished Queensleg desk, and much evidence of Finney's interest in ornithology: calendars, posters, and photographs representing flickers, bluebirds, pheasant, and shrike. The window was open, letting in the sluggish drone of bumblebees from the garden. A gray-cheeked thrush was perched on the rim of the copper birdbath, looking off grandly into the distance.
Finney gestured at one of the armchairs. Noble sat gingerly, without removing his hat. The man seemed ten years older than his age, Finney thought. He wondered, with sudden self-consciousness, if he was making a similarly decrepit impression on Noble. His gray-threaded beard was likely windswept after his morning spent in the pasture; his posture was no doubt as stooped as ever. He tried to stand up straighter as he moved around the desk, and then to slip with some grace into his own leather-upholstered chair.
For a few moments, the men considered each other in silence. Then Noble gave another smile.
"It's good to see you," he said.
Finney only nodded.
"Is Lila here?" Noble looked around as if she might have been hidden somewhere in the room.
"It's been too long. It would do these old eyes good to see ..."
Finney shook his head.
Another moment passed.
"It was a blessing," Finney said gruffly. "By the end."
Silence, except for the distant, plaintive call of an oriole.
Finney's eyes were drawn to a spot on Noble's throat. A mole, or something like it. In the next instant, Noble had produced a dark handkerchief and pressed it against the spot.
Then he coughed, and the handkerchief moved reflexively to cover his mouth. Finney saw that the mole on his throat was bleeding. Except it wasn't a mole, he understood suddenly.
Noble coughed again; his color rose. He looked up and saw the expression on Finney's face. He smiled darkly, lowering the handkerchief into his lap.
"Kaposi's sarcoma," he said.
"Good Christ," Finney said.
"They give me a month."
"I'm glad you agreed to see me today, Louis. I'd like to ... not have enemies, when I leave this world. Especially not enemies who once were counted as friends."
From the hallway, the grandfather clock ticked solemnly.
Noble was talking again—but Finney was no longer listening.
Instead, he was remembering.
He remembered a young woman who refused to meet his eyes.
She was looking at her own hands, clasped tightly in her lap. The room was furnished only with the plain wooden chairs in which they sat. Except for the one-way mirror through which they were being observed, the lemon-colored walls were bare.
Finney watched, waiting.
At last, the woman stirred. When her eyes raised, they were not the eyes of Susan Franklin—the young woman's primary identity. They were the eyes of Robin, her strongest alternate identity.
Those eyes locked onto Finney's, and glimmered.
Then she was covering her mouth. Nauseated, Finney understood. In Susan/Robin's mind, her personalities lived in her belly. When one came to the forefront, the other submerged. It was understandable that the transference might involve some upsetting of the stomach.
She gagged for a moment, then swallowed. Her eyes found his again. Those eyes were bright, intelligent, accusatory.
The face around the eyes was drawn and cadaverous. To access the personalities, they had subjected Susan Franklin to a harsh treatment that had lasted six months. The treatment involved sleep deprivation, sodium Amytal, electric shocks, Thorazine, and hypnosis—one reinforcing another. They were ruining her, Finney understood. The Hippocratic Oath had been thrown cheerfully over the side by the doctors involved in this project. Yet they had done it, wrapping themselves in the exalted cloak of national security as an excuse....
"Would you excuse me?" Finney muttered.
He moved out from behind the desk without waiting for an answer, stepped into the hallway, and then came to an abrupt stop.
There was no point in holding grudges. Particularly not against the dead, or the soon-to-be-dead. And particularly, as Noble had said, when one's enemies once had been counted as friends.
Yet he couldn't bring himself to say the words that would confer forgiveness. Saying the words might imply that Noble had not fully been responsible for the things they had done together. And if Noble had not fully been responsible, then the burden of responsibility would have to shift somewhere else.
Onto Finney's own shoulders, perhaps.
But he had been so young, when they had started working together. He had trusted Noble as a student trusts an accomplished teacher. Perhaps he had been ... complicit ... in the things they had done. Of course he had been. But he had been too young to know better. The fault was Noble's. Not his, not theirs; just Noble's.
But what was the point of this meeting, if he wasn't prepared to offer forgiveness?
He stood for another moment, his brow furrowed. Then he threw back his shoulders and returned to the office. Noble's eyes followed him as he moved around the desk. There was something implacable in the man's gaze, and something vaguely pitying.
Finney took his seat again. He opened his mouth; and again he paused.
The things he wanted to say were not things that two grown men said to each other. Or perhaps they simply were not things that these particular two grown men could say to each other: both flinty, both proud, neither given to suffer fools gladly.
I trusted you, he might begin.
I followed your lead—and as a result I've had nightmares that only recently have begun to leave me in peace.
Or something less accusatory, and perhaps more honest. If I accept your apology, Arthur, I'm also accepting responsibility. And I'm not convinced that's right.
But had Noble offered an apology? Not in so many words.
The handkerchief pressed back against the throat. Now Noble was looking at him with the thinly disguised impatience of a man who hasn't a moment to waste.
"I shouldn't feel the need to make excuses to you," he said suddenly.
"I shouldn't," Noble repeated. "But I do. I haven't accepted a government contract in fifteen years, Louis. But the nightmares still come."
"I trusted you," Finney heard himself saying.
"And I led you down some difficult roads. For that, I apologize. Whether or not you accept my apology is up to you."
The oriole gave another call: tee-dee-dee, tee-dee-dee.
Two moments passed. Finney was on the verge of answering when Noble continued:
"In any case. I've got another reason for being here today. I haven't accepted a government contract in fifteen years, I said. But that's not strictly true. Last week I received a call. And I've decided, despite everything, that the call is too important to ignore."
Finney couldn't conceal his surprise. "Are you in any shape to ...?"
"Hardly. This may take a few weeks, or a few months. Possibly even a year."
His eyes twinkled, almost mischievously.
"I'm in no shape," he agreed. "But you ..."
The driver pulled up to the freight elevator and then found Al Guhrair's eyes in the rearview mirror.
Al Guhrair licked his lips. Around the car, the echoes of engines off concrete reverberated through the underground garage.
"Five minutes," Al Guhrair said, and reached for the door.
Two steps brought him into the elevator. He punched the penthouse suite button and then hit the door close button. Nothing happened. He kept pressing. At last the doors began to drift shut. In the next moment, the elevator was carrying him up.
He reached into his coat and withdrew the Heckler & Koch P7 pistol from the inside pocket. This was the first time the gun had left the drawer of his office desk for nearly three years. Al Guhrair had never fired the gun. He wondered if he would be able to fire it now, if the need arose. The mechanisms seemed simple enough—a clip was already loaded, and the safety could be switched off with one thumb. Yet he was hardly a gunslinger. He was a sixty-four-year-old man with a bad heart and a fairly serious case of arthritis, and gunslinging was not for him.
But he would manage—if the need arose.
The doors opened.
Before stepping into his apartment, Al Guhrair paused to listen. The place was quiet and dark, smelling faintly of Lemon Pledge. For the past twelve years, ever since his second divorce, he had lived here alone.
Yet if the assassin was here, he would not be making a sound. Had he made a sound when he had killed the others in the cell? Those men had been years younger than Al Guhrair—decades younger, in some cases—and some had had military experience. Yet the man had dispatched them with no apparent difficulty. He was not the type to make unnecessary sound.
Or perhaps the apartment truly was empty.
Al Guhrair licked his lips again, and stepped forward.
Through the vast polished windows on his right lay Central Park at night. Beyond the park was the scintillating East Side, bejeweled with lights. To his left, a hallway led past the kitchen, past the foyer—where the front elevator was located, the elevator he had avoided—to the bedroom.
He moved down the corridor slowly, holding the gun with both hands.
The bedroom was deserted.
He stood in the doorway for two full minutes before reaching for the light switch. Then he flipped it, moved to the closet, and looked inside. He crouched, with some effort, to look under the bed. He pushed open the door to the bathroom and ran his eyes over the marble and brass. No sign of an intruder.
He set the gun on the bed, tore a suitcase from the closet, and hastily began to pack.
When he had finished, he closed the suitcase, zipped it, and picked up the gun again.
Now the safe.
He returned to the darkened living room. If the man was here, how would he attack? Two of his other victims had been knifed; the third evidently had died of a heart attack. Poisoned. All of the deaths had been camouflaged to appear explicable—one stabbing, a mugging, the other a failed burglary.
But Al Guhrair knew the truth: The ghost wind was eliminating the very men who had hired him. During the twelve days since the meeting at the Marché Rue Mouffetard, every member of the cell besides Al Guhrair had met his fate.
He clutched the gun a bit tighter, and sent his eyes across the room.
The long, low, L-shaped sofa. The dusty bookshelves, the baby grand piano. He looked at these objects every single day, yet felt as if he were seeing them for the first time. He remembered the marketplace in Paris, the assassin's striking smallness. The ghost wind might be hidden behind any of these objects, or none of them.
Al Guhrair crossed the room. He put the gun into his pocket, then took a painting off the wall—a lesser-known Hopper, but one of his personal favorites. He set it on the floor and spun the combination on the safe.
Inside were four fat envelopes. He pocketed them, closed the safe, and turned.
Would he ever return to this apartment? It was a question for the future. For now, all that mattered was getting away—far, far away.
After fetching his suitcase, he returned to the freight elevator. There had been a time when servants would have used this elevator to take away trash and bring up deliveries, so that the resident of the penthouse never was forced to witness the realities of his consumption. Now, however, times had changed. Now the deliverymen and the maids used the front elevator. Only especially cumbersome or embarrassing items were delivered by this back door; the freight elevator almost never was used.
And yet it wasn't waiting. Someone had called it away.
Al Guhrair frowned.
His thumb moved to the safety of the gun and clicked it off.
A minute passed. He could hear the gears grinding as the elevator rose. He was beginning to perspire, although the penthouse was carefully climate-controlled.
The doors opened.
The elevator was empty.
He heaved a sigh, picked up the suitcase, and stepped inside.
The assassin repositioned himself atop the elevator.
Now gears were ratcheting; they were beginning to descend. Through the cracked-open hatch, he watched his quarry. The man had not yet looked up. He was not as capable as the assassin had assumed. A strike inside the apartment would have sufficed. Yet he had erred on the side of caution, as he had been taught.
The target was holding a gun—but even so, it would be almost too easy.
The assassin slipped his fingertips farther beneath the edge of the hatch in the elevator's ceiling. Then he lifted it, slipping his legs down in the same, fluid motion.
As he fell, he sharpened his knees, making his body into a dagger. He caught his target on the left side, riding the body down to cushion his own impact.
He whipped his left forearm around the man's throat. He pressed his right palm against the man's skull, just below the left ear, pushing forward. A careful application of pressure separated the skull from the spinal column.
Death was instantaneous.
The assassin straightened. His hands moved over the corpse, exploring the pockets. He found the four envelopes and transferred them into his own tunic. Then he stopped the elevator on the third floor, opened the doors, and listened.
A kitchen: quiet and deserted. To his left, a television was playing. To his right, a polished hallway led to a front door.
He moved silently, back against the wall, using a cross step. Once he was outside the apartment, he raised a hand and drew back his hood. He tucked it into his collar, then straightened his tunic and headed for the front stairwell.
When he walked out through the main lobby, he nodded at the doorman. The doorman nodded back and returned his attention to the newspaper in his lap.
They were entering a small town.
The main street looked like a slightly updated version of an old-fashioned Saturday Evening Post cover. Finney saw a red-bricked school, a church, a bait-and-tackle shop, a pizzeria, and a store selling glass. None of the buildings was more than two stories tall; the little town evidently enforced strict zoning laws.
Excerpted from The Watchmen by John Altman. Copyright © 2004 John Altman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Read this book in two days. It is a real page turner. As I was reading, I could picture this book being made into a movie
Dr. Noble and Dr. Finney are unfogettable characters in this page turner . A shadowy assasin has targeted a terrorist who is so heavily guarded that more than stealth is required to infiltrate his holding cell. The details will make you squirm.
This timely thriller about an Al Quada operative in custody being stalked by an assassin is provocative and entertaining. From an Arab marketplace to remote upstate New York, the author sets atmospheric scenes filled with complex characters. I highly recommend this book.
'.... For years, I've waited for a thriller with the depth and texture of John Le Carre's Little Drummer Girl. Now, I've found it.... This is perfect pleasure. Altman has not had a bestseller for reasons I can't fathom. But you will love him. Yes, I've said this before, about The Way the Crow Flies and The Enemy. I meant it then, and I mean it now. It's the texture of The Watchmen (see page 6) that gets me. The terrorist at the center is so well drawn, you almost root for him (God forbid). There's a scene with the daughter of a motel owner that is simply one of the most affecting and terrifying scenes I've ever come across. The people in Altman's world are three-diminsional, original, completely outside the stereotypical cardboard of most suspense these days. So, once again, if you like the occasional thriller, if you long for something that will not insult your intelligence as it fixes you to the edge of your seat, read The Watchmen....' Victoria Skurnick, Editor-in-Chief, Book of the Month Club.
Dr. Louis Finney has not been in the game for over two decades, ever since he saw the results of his mentor Dr. Arthur Noble¿s research on people that were expendable like mentally ill human beings. Their research was instrumental in creating the techniques used today to get a spy to open up their minds and spill their secrets without breaking them entirely..................... Unexpectedly, Noble calls on Finney to observe the techniques that are being used on Ali Zattout, a terrorist in the Al Qaeda organization. Noble is rushed to the hospital leaving Finney to be the only watcher to judge the effectiveness of the techniques. There is a mole in the unit that the prisoner is in and when he is killed, Dr. Finney takes over the interrogation. Louis has more to worry about than breaking one terrorist for Al Qaeda is worried about the secrets he could reveal. They send over an assassin who systematically kills everyone in the prison¿s terrorist cell before he makes a daring move on the command center where Zattout is held......................... John Altman fills the place that John Le Carre has held for so many years and has made it uniquely his own. The prose is stark and gritty reflecting the claustrophobic cell in the compound. The actions takes place on two levels: the authorities try to run the assassin to ground while the doctors need to break the subject mentally so he can spill their secrets. THE WATCHMAN is a spy story for the twenty-first century...................... Harriet Klausner