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.

For the Young Adult book market, the biggest event is the release of a new Harry Potter novel. For the adult literary market – particularly for those with a taste for the historical – the release of a new Hilary Mantel novel is perhaps its equivalent.
The Mirror and the Light, the third and final instalment to Mantel’s superb, million-selling Thomas Cromwell trilogy, was released last month. Critics are already enthused about the Booker winner’s latest offering, calling it a masterpiece.
I have already ordered my copy and blocked out time to pore through its 912 pages with glee. I regard Mantel’s story about the rise and fall of King Henry the Eighth’s Chief Minister as the most enthralling historical work since I, Claudius (or, as many a schoolboy called it, Roman letters included, “I, Clavdivs”). The TV series starring Claire Foy, Damian Lewis and Oscar winner Mark Rylance as Cromwell also rivals the television adaptation of I, Claudius.
Yes, I admit it: I have “Mantel mania”.
Yet is saddens me to think that others will turn their back on the new book, not only for the number of pages, but also because it is “historical”. I noticed a disdain way back in high school for modern and ancient history, a lack of interest in the tales of the Greeks, Tudors and Romans but also Australia’s own history. As for myself, I was so fascinated by the Spartans they have influenced my own books.
Sadly, this disdain has made its way into society. History is “fusty” and “boring”. Statues and memorials are Airbnbs for pigeons, not opportunities for reflection.
Yet without history, how do we understand where we are now? How will we appreciate the eternal battle between church and state? How will we mark the many wars, the many sacrifices, the many inventions that helped create today’s society? How will we avoid the mistakes of history if we don’t know what they are, such as “the Thucydides Trap”?
If we don’t read and understand history, we won’t appreciate it, either in books or in our landscape.
We will condemn our history to the wrecking ball, as we seem to be already doing in our major cities.
Then there is my current fear: that the terrible memories of the recent bushfires will be forgotten. That amid new events and catastrophes, COVID-19 or otherwise, we will forget the smoke in the cities, the terrible toll in the bush, and be surprised if and when it happens again.
For those who don’t learn history are in danger of being continually surprised.
Or, even worse: they are doomed to repeat it.

Keep the reading going with my military thriller The Spartan, out now as an ebook. Then enjoy the sequel, Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out now as an ebook and paperback.

The Chinese Premier had learnt how to handle unexpected phone calls from the US President. Typically his American opposite asked him to address the vast difference in their balance of trade, to let the yuan appreciate or to do something about Chinese protectionism. Or, most tiresome of all, he would lecture him about human rights like he was addressing the White House press gallery in public and not the Chinese Premier in private.

The premier would listen politely, promise to look into it – and then, just like the Japanese had done with the Americans decades before, when they were at the height of their powers, do nothing. He wasn’t about to hamstring China for winning at a game that the Americans themselves had help create. The Americans had forgotten one of the rules of international diplomacy: never ask for something you don’t have the strength to take.

The latest G20 summit, where the heads of Europe had offered him and China’s money a rock star welcome while the US President sat fuming on the sidelines, should have told the Americans everything they needed to know about the new global realpolitik.
Yet it was with great alarm that he heard the president rage about the presence of biological weapons of mass destruction on American soil. Worse, that he had proof of Chinese involvement in bringing them to the States, and plans to detonate them. The furious president said that if even one went off he would hold China responsible, and he couldn’t guarantee what would happen next. America had invaded Iraq on the strength of suspected weapons of mass destruction. They were stone-cold paranoid about WMDs. If they had proof of real ones on US soil …

Now coldly angry, both at the threat and the idea that someone had planned this attack behind his back – he would never have authorised something like this during China’s catch-up phase – the premier promised he would do everything in his power to assist the president. That as soon as he got off the phone he would launch an immediate investigation, starting with the background of the assailant that had been caught, now dead. (Did the Americans torture him to death, he wondered.) He would send some of his best men to assist in the investigation. The premier offered the US President China’s full co-operation, and he meant it. The president said he’d phone again soon and that he hoped they could avert catastrophe together.

When the call was ended, the Chinese Premier slammed his fist on his desk. He did not need this kind of headache. He did not want any disruption to the status quo, anything that might make the people restive and question their leaders. He did not want an Arab Spring sweeping his country, where the West hypocritically turned on its former partners and installed new leaders. The lesson of Colonel Gaddafi, that strutting buffoon, was that any country without weapons of mass destruction could be invaded and overthrown by the West. China would never make that mistake. Its leaders would never allow themselves to be pulled out of a drain pipe and shot in the head by rebels like the late Libyan dictator. They would not die suspiciously of “exhaustion” on military trains like the late Kim Jong-il. There would be no Chinese Spring.

He knew that some of his generals had talked about war with America – seemingly welcomed it, even, yearning to embrace China’s glorious military heritage. The military was always pushing the civilian establishment, jostling for position, seeing how far it could go and how much ground it could win from the soft civilians. The premier knew how the military thought: they viewed politicians as weak, corruptible. Yet the premier and his cohorts were far from weak. And corruption was a country-wide problem, from the lowest villager to the most powerful general.

The Communist Party as a principle was firmly against such a war with the US. Not until China’s economy rivalled America’s, along with its army, would they consider such a step. And it wouldn’t be a full-scale war: more like a lesson. Such as seizing the recalcitrant Taiwan and fending off the inevitable US response. Or discouraging American warships in Asia with patrols of their own. No, with trillions of Chinese yuan pumped into the US economy and millions of Chinese working in factories making products to sell to the US, China didn’t want to destroy the US. You don’t destroy your best customer. But China did hope to supplant it, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa.

The Chinese Premier picked up the phone. “Get me everyone,” he said.

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


Bad news comes in threes, and for those enlightened few still paying attention to the big picture, news that China had overnight banned all flights to and from the US was a shock. The Chinese publicly blamed a potential SARS-like virus emanating from the US. Privately, they were preparing themselves in case one of their rogue agents succeeding to letting off one of the plague bombs. And they were putting all their chips on the bet that at least one would succeed.
The public, being information poor, knew little better – as long as there was still NASCAR, the Lingerie Football League, soap operas, movies about boy wizards battling evil sorcerers, celebrity miracle diets and medieval-themed chain restaurants, life went on as normal. Yet the rich and powerful were alert and alarmed, antennae up. The smart money was short-selling American companies on the stock exchange. Important IPOs were mysteriously delayed. More than one American billionaire had tried to flee the country on “business”. Garin had had his men stop their Gulfstreams at the airport, cars with flashing lights blocking take-off, telling them they had to stay for reasons of Homeland Security. They had kicked up a stink – “don’t you know who I am?” – but to hell with them, Garin thought. You made your billions here, you dodged taxes here, you can die here along with everyone else if it came down to that.
Meanwhile, the nation’s finest content providers and establishment print media who sniffed Pulitzer material were pursuing the virus story with vigour. Were the Chinese right? Was there evidence of a SARS-style virus on American soil? If so, where? Was there a link between a potential virus and the raising of the terrorism threat level? What was the reasoning behind all military leave for soldiers stationed in the US being cancelled? Why won’t the president clarify the situation?
The President couldn’t clarify anything, knee-deep as he was in apocalypse planning. In the halls of US power, grim cogitations were taking place in secret rooms behind closed doors. (In the past one would have described those rooms as “secret smoky rooms”, where general puffed on cigars as they plotted nuclear trajectories, but now even the Pentagon was a non-smoking area. Smoking while discussing the apocalypse was a health hazard, apparently.)
Preparations for containing a civilian outbreak were continuing. A quick check of the plot space in the nation’s graveyards proved that they were woefully inadequate for the type of mega-casualties expected in the case of mass biological outbreak. Garin wondered if they’d end all up in a Doctor Strangelove-type world, living in mineshafts 100 feet under the ground, 10 women to every man, having mandatory sex to create babies and bring the population and GDP back up.
Plans for isolating entire cities in case of outbreak were finalised. Police were reminded to read their manuals for dealing with terrorist threats. News of the directive quickly leaked to the net: more fodder for the conspiracy theorists and Armageddon scaremongers. Beat cops were pulled away from handing out tickets and attending domestic disputes to search for the terrorists.
Meanwhile, the American empire busied itself protecting its overseas interests. Luminaries important to the US economy on the ground in China were quietly advised to leave the Communist state and return home, by private jet, boat or other means. Sprout wings if you have to, but get out of Dodge. Explanations had been suitably vague and dire. Other VIPs across Asia were told to be on a high state of alert.
Uncle Sam’s armed forces changed their posture accordingly. Nuclear-armed submarines were sent into position in South East Asia, missiles in range of the Chinese heartland. American aircraft carriers headed en masse into the region for “training exercises”. An express delivery of armed democracy. Spy satellites were diverted to orbit above China. Long-range bombers were given new orders, new flight paths. Allied countries were quietly tapped on the shoulder, reminded of long-dormant security treaties and commitments. You got rich on our watch, we protected you from the commies, now it’s time to pay Uncle Sam back. Important people around the world were shadowed by operatives: some with orders to protect, others with orders to neutralise if worst came to worst. The country’s defence readiness condition quietly slipped to DEFCON 2 – one step before DEFCON 1, or imminent war.
America suspected – in fact, knew – that China was mirroring many of its own actions. Its submarines had been tracked approaching the US east coast. Red satellites changed course. Critical members of the Chinese diaspora  were warned. Nuclear weapons were tested for readiness. Sleeper agents were activated. The drums of war beat louder. And if those plague bombs went off, it would only take a small push, or a regrettable incident, or an overzealous commander with his finger on the trigger for the world to go up in flames.

Keeping reading with The Spartan, now available as an ebook. Then follow the story in Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out as a paperback and ebook.