The Knock: A Novel (Preview)

This is a preview of some prose I wrote about a year ago related to a novel I was starting. These pages were written between July 4, 2013 and July 31, 2013. I sat down and wrote these pages during one or two early morning writing sessions. The words were mostly written from start to finish with a limited amount of editing. I have written more than a few fiction based pages throughout the years, but most of the fiction based prose I write tends to end up as a false start. More than a dozen half finished novels litter my archives. This preview may be a false start or it might get be a novel that gets finished at some point… I’m sure something from the Robert Heart series will make it at some point.

The Knock: A Novel from the Robert Heart Series
Chapter 1 (Preview)
Los Angeles, California

Matthew O’Connor had barely been able to sleep during the flight that took off from the Tokyo International Airport to LAX. People sleep during Boeing 767 flights every day. Matt was never one of them. He mostly people watched or read a paperback book. He loved David Baldacci novels. The Camel Club series had really resonated with him. After the flight, hotel arrangements had been made at the downtown JW Marriott. The facility was nice enough. Check in was not until later in the afternoon. Matt was lingering at an LAX restaurant that served drinks. Matt did not know it yet, but Tina had been on the same flight and had been waiting for the waitress to bring a second round before making her approach. In the game of spy-craft a good approach can mean the difference between establishing a good cover ID and failing a mission. Tina was one of the best in the business of privately funded espionage teams. Her brand of winning involved cleaning up the loose ends that other agents left free in the wind.

Matt had made a clean entry and exit from the People’s Republic of China. His visa had been legally issued as part of an approved group of graduate students from various American universities. The mission and objectives were simple enough. Matt worked as a data mule. He had done these types of jobs before. While visiting Shanghai, Matt listened to a lecture held at Fudan University. The lecture provided everyone involved with the right time and place. At the end of the lecture the camera bag Matt carried everywhere had two extra 16 gigabyte secure digital flash cards. A student had simply sat down next to Matt during the lecture and placed the cards into the bag while Matt had been taking photographs of the speaker. The most critical part of the entire mission took about two hours. The speakers lectured in English. Occasional questions were asked in Mandarin, but for the most part Matt could follow along. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. Matt purchased a custom tailored suit from a very overzealous vendor. The suit was made out of a linen fabric that seemed nice. When the driver dropped off the suit to his hotel in Shanghai he had received a business card with a barcode on the back. Matt did not carry a phone or any electronics other than a Nikon D5200 (with an extra 300 mm lens) and a detachable self-powered flash. Figuring out what the barcode said would have to wait.

Within seconds of the waitress delivering Matt’s second Johnny Walker Black on the rocks, Tina sat down at the table. She was a young strikingly beautiful five foot five dirty blond with an athletic build and a Midwest accent. The waitress dropped by before the two could introduce themselves. Tina ordered a margarita on the rocks with salt. Matt was unsure of the entire situation. He had been well trained and this scenario caught him off guard. Tina was wearing some type of UCLA sports shirt. Matt had seen a few groups with the same shirts in the airport.

“What sport do you play?”

“Softball and I row crew. I’m in the water a lot. Just about every day. Hey — this place is pretty crowded do you mind if catch a meal with you? I’ll be in and out. I’m starving.”

“Why me?”

“Call me adventurous. You’re cute and this was the first table had the first open seat.”

Tina stood up and earnestly pointed to the front of the restaurant and looked all around. Sadly enough, Matt would never realize that she had purchased the UCLA Bruins women’s rowing shirt from a girl 30 minutes earlier. They talked for about an hour and eventually they walked together toward the taxis. They did not really talk about the situation. Tina just got in the taxi. Matt told the driver they were going to the downtown JW Marriott. Tina just smiled and reached out to hold Matt’s hand as they drove. When they got up to the room Tina threw her bag into the bathroom and told Matt she was going to take a quick shower.

Matt laid down on the bed. He turned on ESPN news and read the ticker for a few minutes. NBA free agent season was in full swing and commentators seemed really passionate about it. Matt loved the Boston Celtics, but he was just too tired to care about who was going where. The sound of the shower running was somewhat soothing. He should have found some time to sleep before boarding an 11 hour and 28 minute flight. Tina knocked on the bathroom door. He woke up to see Tina emerging from the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel. She walked toward him with confidence. Before what he thought was about to happen actually happened. She ran her still somewhat wet hand across his face. Her hand smelled like flowery lotion. The fragrance was floral. It smelled vaguely like a lotion shop he had walked by at the Staten Island Mall. That memory was the last thing that he would ever remember.

Tina was methodical and calculating. The toxin she had applied was extracted from a very rare flower. When it was mixed with hand lotion it actually smelled ok and could keep for about a week before breaking down. After the flower extract was refined to weapons grade it was extremely deadly. The dance was always the same. She was very predictable. She had taken a double dose of the small grey antidote pill then jumped in the shower for ten minutes. At the point she was washing her hair with the shampoo and conditioner the hotel provide it was only a matter of time before Matt’s career as an agent ended. She rationalized things as either the beginning or the end.  For Matt the end was near and he was sleeping in his clothes on top of a hotel bed.

The coroner would later report that a combination of sleep deprivation and dehydration had contributed to heart attack. The records sent over from Matt’s doctor had indicated a history of sleep apnea and several warnings about high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The cleaning crew found the body early in the afternoon the next day. With no obvious signs of foul play the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office processed the case. A thorough investigation might have found video of Tina entering and existing the JW Marriot. The Los Angeles Police department would have had to do a lot of work to figure out what happened. Ever since the L.A. homicide wave of 1993, politicians have worked hard to condition just about every civil servant to want to limit the murder rate within the City of Los Angeles. Tina had always relied on an obvious cause of death to cover her tracks. Occam’s razor always seemed to be on her side.

The Knock: A Novel from the Robert Heart Series
Chapter 2 (Preview)
Aspen, Colorado

Walter K. Wilburton was the most prolific recruiter in agency history. The clandestine service Walter worked for had two branches. The branch that Walter worked for existed in the shadows. Walter managed a stable of about twelve assets with no known ties to any organization or group. They could go places and do things that no government would ever be able to sanction. Most of the time they smuggled data or helped defectors. Walter spent almost all of his time traveling. He owned a small business that sold different things at different times of the year. Most of the time he sold people time share condominiums near ski resorts. He still lived in one of the time shares. It was his permanent residence, but it was one he only visited a few times of year. The condo had an exterior maintenance agreement that worked out well for him. The view from his second floor deck was of trees. Condos with actual mountain views were more expensive. About a year ago, the deck had been redone with durable composite Trex decking. It was nice, but it never really looked right up close. He always thought the Trex material did not look like real wood.

Walter had an iPad 2 with a pretty standard data plan from AT&T. He mostly read newspapers and responded to emails about condos. He was sitting in one of the large Adirondack chairs that occupied his deck enjoying the morning and putting the iPad 2 to work. He paid a company to run his booking services online. They maintained his website, but he had to answer emails from time to time when people had questions. One of the emails was from Matthew O’Connor’s brother. Matt’s brother wanted to cancel their condo for ski season, “Walt: I attached the obituary link. I know you and Matt were close. We lost Matt recently and I just don’t feel right about doing a ski trip without him. Please help me get my deposit back. Thanks. Richard.”

The digital age had changed everything. Spy-craft was a different game. Walter could no longer conduct searches, pull records, and contact people about Matt’s death. All of those searches would become part of a big data pile that would eventually betray him. This was a situation where Walter would have to decide if foul play was involved. He either needed to let it go or forward the issue to his handler for review. When Walter lost an agent his handler could investigate the circumstances. They had a privately funded research team and decent resources. Walter decided to sit on the email, but he booked a flight to New York City. Somebody had to pick up the flash drives. The longer Walter waited the great the chances that somebody would format them or give away Matt’s Nikon D5200 camera.

Matt had lived near an Outback Steakhouse restaurant not too far from the Staten Island Mall. Walt had eaten at Outback with Matt a few times over the years. A few years ago, when the name Matthew O’Connor came across his desk he had not thought much about it. He made the approach and gave Matt the speech about love of country and dedication to service. Matt had wanted to be a part of a higher calling. He wanted to part of the clandestine service. It gave him a sense of purpose that drove him a way that no Faustian bargain ever code. Matt had trained and studied to learn his spy-craft. He took Krav Maga classes at different places throughout Staten Island and Manhattan. He had done Parkour training before it gained popularity.

The recruitment process had been pretty straightforward. Walter sold Matt a time share condo and booked one at the same time. The two of them spent a week a year together training in close quarters. Initially the training process was more intense and eventually Walter would almost completely back off. Well trained agents could be entirely self-sufficient. They lived independent lives that involved real jobs and sometimes families. They worked spy craft into their daily lives. Any investigation into their lives would uncover a disturbing pattern of normality. Working a normal job and living a normal life provided an incredible cover identity. Even the best government or private sector surveillance and big data mining algorithms would never identify this branch of the clandestine service.

The Knock: A Novel from the Robert Heart Series
Chapter 3 (Preview)
Staten Island, New York

Walter’s flight landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. Walter remembered reading something about one of the terminals having been dedicated by Amelia Earhart in 1935. Somehow he did not find that fact comforting. Walter had an odd fascination with history, but he knew that if he was successful at what he did his name would never appear in a newspaper or history book. That was the price of his contribution. He could live a meaningful life, but he would never have a legacy. Walter had a few photos Matt had taken up in his condo, but that was as far as his personal interactions went with anyone. The last twenty years were a blur of a never ending string of mission objectives.

Walter rented a car at the airport and drove to the Staten Island Mall. The mall was close enough to walk to Matt’s apartment. With his bags stashed in the rental car he was ready to do some old fashioned reconnaissance work. Matt had given him the alarm code and a key to the apartment. The unit had a deck and a sliding glass door in the back. Walter walked up the steps while slipping on a pair of thin blue latex gloves. They would serve their purpose and still had a pretty decent grip.

The apartment was pristine. Everything was exactly where Matt had left it before his trip. The deck door opened into the master bedroom. A door straight ahead was open. Walter could see the front door, two guest room doors, and the guest bathroom door. The main apartment area had an open kitchen. The main area seems to be entirely Ikea catalog products. Walter would never figure out that Matt had actually stopped by the 1000 Ikea Drive store in Elizabeth, New Jersey to see a clerk named Amy. She would never know why Matt had stopped visiting.

It was obvious that nobody including Matt’s brother had stopped by the apartment. The Los Angeles Country Department of the Coroner or the police department must have shipped Matt’s camera bag to Matt’s brother or they still had it. Matt’s brother lived near Cupsoque County Park. People would notice if Walter started wondering around Dune road. Matt’s brother would probably be suspicious if Walter showed up to his Fire Island home.

Walter thought for a brief moment about burning the interior of the apartment. He could have easily opened the gas line and walked away. Matt had always been so careful, but Walter wondered if he had left a journal or notes or anything that could be compromising. Walter knew he would have to call this one in to his handler. Somebody was going to have to locate the camera bag. He spent about an hour poking around the apartment, but did not see anything that might be a journal. As he left the apartment, Walter now had a very low profile messenger bag. Matt must had packed his cellular phone, computer, and a few other things into the bag before his trip.


***** This has been a preview look at a few chapters of “The Knock: A Novel from the Robert Heart Series” *****

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