“Do you want war?” yelled the Chinese Premier down the phone to the President of the United States. “Because wars have been started over far, far less!”

“With respect, Mr Premier, we had no choice but to respond after your sub sunk the Abraham Lincoln,” replied POTUS. “You had to expect a response with the whole world watching.”

“Bah! With greater respect, Mr President, I already told you that we didn’t initiate that attack,” replied the Premier, shifting uncomfortably on the chair in his luxury hotel room in Manhattan. “Why would we? What would there be to be gained? If we haven’t responded to your other provocations in the South China Sea, why would we now?”

“The missile came from one of your hunter-killers,” said POTUS, emotions in check. “That is an unmistakable fact.”

“A submarine you also sunk, which puts you ahead in casualty stakes.”

“It’s more helpful if we don’t think of things in those terms, Mr Premier.”

Which, thought the Premier, was an easy thing for the person with fewer casualties to say. “In any case, we think the sub missile was launched by one of those ninjas running loose.”

“Chinese ninjas, by all accounts. Trained by your military.”

Alleged Chinese ninjas.”

“Alleged, then.” Both men had an archness in the voices, unaccustomed as they were to being so directly challenged. POTUS continued: “I’m sorry, Mr Premier, but I have to answer to my people and my military. Action was required.”

“That action was unjust,” said the Premier, still angry. “Many other ships were destroyed besides the Sun Wu.” The Premier recalled the scene of the wreckage, now being played side-by-side on the world’s TVs with the footage of the downed American carrier. The images enraged him – how dare the Americans kill his people? – but the death toll and the mysterious manner in which the Chinese aircraft carrier was destroyed produced in him not a little awe.

In the end, perhaps death was the only thing not overrated in life.

But back to the duplicitous American on the other end of the phone.

The Premier continued: “Now I have to answer to MY people. They’re furious, too. Our national prestige has been assaulted. There’s an angry mob outside your embassy in Beijing.”

“Matched by an equally angry mob outside your embassy in New York. But to answer your previous question, no, we don’t want war. I want to do everything possible to avoid that.”

“Attacking our navy is a poor way to start, then.” The Premier glanced over at the armed bodyguards in the room. “What exactly did you use, anyway? God’s own gun?”

His people had told him the attack had come from space, which is why the Chinese military was readying its anti-satellite missiles and searching for a target. The Premier had heard that the Americans had cancelled Project Thor, its secret project to deliver a kinetic orbital strike from space . . . but maybe they had mothballed Thor to create a newer, better weapon. So much for the Outer Space Treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from space.

But the US President wasn’t giving anything away. “The weapon system is classified, Mr Premier. What is not classified is my sincere desire to sit down with you and talk this over.”

The Premier paused and leant back in his chair, thinking furiously. He was already ensconced in his hotel ahead of tomorrow’s UN meeting when they had learnt of the sinking of the aircraft carrier. He was now in enemy territory. His security people had quickly taken over all the floors of the hotel – rudely evicting VIPs from the top floor – and turned the building into a fortress. A fortress filled with giant TVs and marble spa baths, but a fortress still.

More armed Chinese agents were outside, maintaining a wide perimeter around the hotel.

The Americans let it happen, maintaining a respectful distance. Such efforts had been anticipated by the home forces.

For now, there was an uneasy stalemate.

And it was going to take a lot more than the ritualistic exchange of pandas to solve this political problem.

The Premier hadn’t lied. The Chinese people were demanding a response. His military wanted to respond as well, anxious to shake off the “peace disease” that had afflicted and weakened their ranks. Escalation was in the air. The US and Chinese navies were facing each other, commanders with fingers on triggers waiting for the order to fire. Rival jets were flying so close to each other it was a miracle none had collided. Citizens both East and West were baying for each other’s blood, humiliated by the blows to their national prestige.

“Why should I meet with you tomorrow? How do I know you don’t have more outrages planned?”

“Because the criminals behind this are pushing us towards conflict . . . conflict neither of us really want. The world is holding its breath, just like it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mr Premier, this is our Cuban Missile Crisis. A show of unity at the UN would be the best way to show everyone that we’re jointly determined not to be cowed or coerced by terrorism.”

“By all rights, I should just leave. Your actions prove you are a poor host.”

“I implore you to stay, Mr Premier,” said POTUS, soundly deeply sincere. “This is a time for unity. For diplomacy. Not for leaving the negotiating table. We need to unclench our hands.” And our sphincters, perhaps, thought the Premier. Then the other man added: “I can guarantee your safety.”

For a moment the US President sounded like a Mafia godfather, guaranteeing a rival’s security at a sit-down where the rival would be assassinated.

The Chinese Premier paused for a long time. Many thoughts swirled through his head. The sinking of the carrier. His own domestic political situation. The military posture of the Americans. The risk of his own assassination, just like that of the American Vice President, a secret his security forces had winkled out. The possible repercussions if he did leave.

What was the right thing to do? What would be gained by staying? Was “POTUS” planning further attacks?

The American President was supposedly a “good” and “honest” man. But how “good” could any leader that sent men to their deaths be? And how “honest” was any leader who would give the order to suddenly blow an aircraft carrier out of the water with a secret, undeclared weapon?

The Chinese Premier often found the Americans inconsistent. Whereas the Chinese stated their intentions and kept their word – the benefits, perhaps of having a one-party system – American policy and intentions sometimes varied between Presidents and administrations. That made them unpredictable, prone to about-turns and policy changes based on personality and public opinion.

And they called the Chinese inscrutable.

But POTUS wasn’t completely off the mark. They had both lost aircraft carriers. There was a delicate balance of sorts as the two navies stared down at each other on the South China Sea.

“Mr Premier?” prompted POTUS.

The Chinese Premier paused again. He needed to make the right decision here, particularly after the early “retirement” of his predecessor. The stakes for him – personally – were high. Perhaps he needed to play for time. Perhaps staying put was the wise move.

And above all else he needed to make the wise move. His predecessor had made “unwise” moves. And look what had happened to him.

And so the Chinese Premier eventually said: “I will stay, Mr President. But there had better be no more surprises. No more sunken ships or death from above. Because then we might be faced with circumstances neither of us will be able to control.”

Continue the story with Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out now as an ebook and paperback. And see how the story started with the first book, The Spartan, out now.

The inside of the elite retirement home boasted the sort of wood-meets-marble-meets-money look that rich retirees and Bohemian Grovers drooled over. Judging by the level of comfort and the contented demeanor of its occupants, the casual observer would never think that the mighty USA was suffering outside. This was a port from the storm, an oasis of calm in the surrounding scorched earth.

Garin shuffled along the blond wood floor past patients, nurses and doctors, keeping his face hidden under his sailor hat, until he came close to the door he wanted. Checking to make sure no one was watching, he silently let himself in.

Inside, the room’s single, white male occupant – a man in his mid-80s – was sleeping lightly, snoring under the blankets, his nose making a whistling noise.

Looking at him, he seemed like just another old coot . . . hardly the man behind one of the 20th century’s most terrible crimes.

Garin recalled images he’d seen of his suspect: first as a vital young Turk, then as a middle-aged powerbroker with his face blacked out in secret photos, and finally as he was today, thinned out, face like sandpaper. Yes, it was him. Eyeball confirmation. Target is green.

The colonel pulled a chair from the corner and brought it near the bed, the chair complaining with a squeaking noise. As he moved closer, Garin looked at the cross above the patient’s bed. He smiled a wry smile, briefly remembering his own holier-than-thou youth. It had been a long time since he had heard His voice. And he probably never would again . . . regularly coveting his neighbor’s ass was the least of his trespasses against the 10 Commandments.

Meanwhile, the asshole in the bed kept snoring.

Garin grabbed the vase, threw out the flowers and tossed its water into the man’s face. A second or two later he spluttered. Joe Patient’s eyes came to life.

“What? What?”

“It’s time for your sponge bath, sir,” said Garin merrily.

“Who are you?” said the other man, eyes blinking rapidly. “What are you doing in here?”

“What, you’re not buying the sponge bath story?” said Garin conversationally, removing his hat, folding his legs and taking a seat. “Anyway, who am I is classified. I could tell you who I am, but then I’d have to kill you.”

The patient stared at Garin warily. “I don’t know you. Get the fuck out of here.”

“And here I thought all men were brothers.”

“To hell with this,” said the patient, reaching out for the control with the “nurse” button on it. Garin gently removed it from his liver-spotted grasp.

“Ah, ah. Don’t be naughty.”

“If you want money there’s some in the drawer,” said the man, now afraid.

“It’s not about money.”

“Then what do you want? Get to the point, then get out,” said the man in the bed, pointing his eyes at the door.

“No foreplay? Fine. Why am I here? JFK.” Three letters that hung in the air like an accusation. An accusation that travelled through the decades of history, begging for an answer that never came.

The man opposite looked like he’d just seen a ghost.

“JFK?” he croaked.

“Yes, John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States of America. Someone you know only too well.”

There was another long, fraught pause, interrupted only by the sound of the humming air-conditioner.

“Everybody knew JFK,” came the weak reply.

“Some better than others. Like you. Even if your name never came up during the Warren Commission. Even if your finger wasn’t on the trigger that day in Dallas.” Garin leaned in. “Only the rest are now horse glue. You’re the last. And I’m not about to let you get away clean.”

Garin then said the man’s real name. The patient made a strange, choked-off noise, as if he hadn’t heard those unfamiliar words in a long time. His hands shook. If it were another man, Garin might have placed a gentle hand on his to calm him. Yet he didn’t. Instead, he said: “You’re at the end of the road. So why not bare your soul?”

The man’s eyes lit up in panic again. Then, a certain acceptance came over them. Then calculation.

“You open the kimono first,” he said slowly. “Who are you?”

“My name is Colonel Garin. Lover, fighter, retweeter.”

“I’ve heard of you. What was it, special forces? SOCOM?” SOCOM being short for United States Special Operations Command.

“And Homeland Security, among other things.”

The patient fixed Garin with a malevolent look. “Are you like one of those assholes who never got over Vietnam?”

“Wrong war.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, colonel, but don’t you have better things to be doing right now? Have you looked outside the window? The country is godforsaken. FUBAR, even.”

Garin’s eyes were drawn to the window in the room, then back towards the patient. “I do have better things to do. But I thought you didn’t deserve to die peacefully in your sleep. You and your friends robbed the US of a great President.”

The patient shifted under the sheets. “Didn’t you hear? Oswald did it.”

“Very funny. But I do the jokes here.”

“Who sent you? I can’t imagine anyone giving you clearance for this.”

Garin laughed. “You’re the first person I ever met who hoped that red tape would save them. No, I sent myself. One of the benefits of giving orders. Occasionally you can give one to yourself.”

“You still can’t do this. This is America.”

“This was America.”

Garin’s target exhaled as the weight of a great secret left him. “I always wondered if someone like you was going to turn up on my door one day. For years, I used to check underneath my car for bombs. I watched for strange cars in the driver mirror. I woke up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, expecting to find a hitman in the bedroom.”

Garin nodded. “Guilty conscience, eh?”

“But after so many decades, I realized no one was coming. So, I got on with living my life. A rich, full life I may add, asshole.” Garin didn’t react to the barb. “Now I suppose you want to know why. Like every other dime-store detective out there.”

Garin nodded.

The patient sneered. “Why is a child’s question. You already know why. Because it had to be done. JFK was soft on Communism. Hell, he let the Beard install nuclear weapons on Cuba. On our very doorstep!”

“Permit me to ‘Greedo’ you here . . .”


“’Greedo’. It’s Star Wars speak for violently cutting someone off. Which is what I’m doing over your claim that the Commies unilaterally installed nukes in our backyard. Because we had our own Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Right on the USSR’s doorstep. So it was natural for the Russkies to respond by putting theirs in Cuba.”

The patient was unimpressed. “So what? That doesn’t mean Kennedy shouldn’t have backed our boys during the Bay of Pigs. JFK was losing the Cold War. The arrogant bastard was threatening our interests all over the world. He was going to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces. If we’d left it to him he would have cut off our balls and handed them to the Russians.

“So . . . we did what needed to be done. We acted. With the help of our friends.”

“Your friends . . . I know all about those ‘goodfellas’ of yours,” Garin said with disdain.

“You hypocrite,” spat the patient. “Are your hands clean? What have you done for God and country?”

Garin nodded his head slowly, finally agreeing with the cur on something. “You’re right. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. But I’ve never had a President assassinated.”

“The world is full of sin,” came the reply. “Is this what you’ve been reduced to . . . avenging one sin at a time?”

Garin carefully considered this surprising riposte. Eventually he said: “In the end, every man draws a circle around himself and says, ‘Everything inside this circle, I accept. Everything outside this circle, I cannot accept.’” Garin pointed his finger at the other man. “And you, I cannot accept.” Garin then stood up, reached over and removed the man’s pillow from under his head. “Anyway, you seem uncomfortable. Let me fluff up your pillow.”

The JFK conspirator knew what was coming. In Garin’s experience, men could be divided into two categories at this point: those that attempted to beg, plead or rationalise at the end; and those that said “fuck you” in the face of oblivion.

The JFK conspirator was the latter.

“Damn you to hell!” he shouted. “It was 50 years ago! No one cares any more!”

“I care,” said Garin sadly.

“Who do you think you are, some kind of hero? Who will ever know what you’ve done here?”

I’ll know. And in some strange way, history will know.”

The prone figure laughed bitterly. “History won’t know dick.” He laughed again, then shook his head. “Whacking a senior citizen in a retirement village . . . they’ll give you the Medal of Honor for sure!”

“Hush now.” Garin loomed over him, holding the pillow above the man’s head. “Incidentally, the pillow’s not for your benefit. It’s for the maid’s.”

“I regret nothing!” yelled the conspirator with his last ounce of strength. “I’m a patriot! I did my duty!”

“I’m doing my duty, too.” Garin bunched up the pillow, feeling feathers in his fingers and the rush that always came before the kill. “JFK sends his regards.”

The pillow descended.

Continue reading with Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out now as an ebook and paperback. Then read the first instalment, The Spartan, out now as an ebook.