I’m alive.

It was the first thought to go through John’s mind when he regained consciousness, the sound of some rag band playing on the radio. His eyes were still closed; feeling returned to his body. No pain, except for a slight headache; a side effect of the drug. It would vanish after a few minutes. His back was brushed up against a hard, yet smooth surface, most likely the bed.

He tried to move his hands held behind his back by tight rope. As he opened his eye, he saw Marlon tied up beside him in a similar manner. Still asleep, he snored loudly. There were no physical signs of abuse or injury. Over by the window, morning sunlight bled through the shades. They had slept through the night.

Barrett sat next to a table in front of John, a small seashell in his hand. He rubbed carefully with some kind of oil. After checking for any perceived imperfections, he covered it and placed it in a small case before giving John a devious grin as he turned up the radio volume.

“In case others may care to listen,” he said.

John tried to speak. “How…”

“Barbiturate. Effective, but not nearly as entertaining as other methods I’ve employed.”

“Through the cigarettes?”

“No. I anticipated you would order the cider with your meal. All I had to do was pay the waiter to bring over the right bottle.”

Barrett then got up and approached Marlon, slapping him twice in the face. “You’ll both want to be awake to hear this.”

Marlon’s eyes opened, but when he tried to call out, Barrett covered his mouth for a moment, putting a finger to his own lips. Meanwhile, John suddenly remembered his small razor tucked inside his back trouser pocket. He assumed Barrett had searched them both before he had allowed them to awake. But the razor was thin and small, slipped within a hidden space inside the trouser lining.

Cautiously, he lowered his hands as he searched for it, sighing in relief when he found the razor. Barrett hadn’t discovered it, proof he wasn’t as clever as he thought.

He needed some sort of distraction. It couldn’t be subtle or irrelevant. Barrett would pick up on it instantly. It had to be legitimate.

He eyed Marlon, who picked up on the cue.

“If we’re waiting for me to say how impressed I am, you’ll be here for a while,” Marlon said to Barrett.

“You’re the one kneeling before me.”

Behind his back, John got the razor between his fingertips. Timing his breaths, he pulled it out of his pocket. He then adjusted the razor on his fingers for a better grip. He eyed Marlon that he still needed more time.

“What’s the plan now?” Marlon continued. “I can only imagine what’s in store.”

“I truly doubt it.”

Barrett took out a pistol and slipped a silencer onto the barrel; he twisted it into place. The next few seconds were not what they expected. Instead of shooting them, he placed his pistol on the table. There was a trace of nervousness in his voice.

“Do you know why they’re after me?

“We were briefed,” John said.

Barrett paused. “I imagine they didn’t mention the fact that they’re experimenting on STIGMA operatives.”

John was genuinely speechless. He had accepted the assignment while suspecting Barrett had his own story to tell of one kind or another; this wasn’t quite what he had anticipated.

“Go on,” John said.

“A few weeks ago, I was told to report to the medical examiner in the hospital area,” Barrett said. “When I was at the medical center, I noticed there were few doctors. Most were scientists. One of them subjugated me to a lengthy interview.”


“After the ‘interview,’ they informed me of an unknown, indescribable ‘illness’ I had. They refused to say what it was, but they insisted I submit to an injection to render it innocuous. When I demanded a more thorough explanation, they called for guards and attempted to incarcerate me. As I was being escorted to one of the holding cells, I took out the guards and escaped. However, before I did, I managed to steal one of the files from a scientist’s desk.”

“What did it say?”

“The project is headed up by a man named Dr. Henry Archon. I followed him here from New York. Shortly after he arrived, two of his assistants stole the initial samples of the injection and deserted him. From what I have ascertained, the assistants plan to sell it on the black market. That should tell you what kind of ‘medicine’ it is.”

The name echoed in John’s head, like a verse from a nursery rhyme. Kessler. Villard. Archon.

“You want to intercept them and obtain this substance yourself?” he guessed.

“I planned to do so, until I realized what they intend to do.”

“What is that?”

Barrett retrieved the file from the table. “This is a list of all the test subjects they wanted for this project.”

He cleared his throat and read from it. “Based on previous tests, subjects are not expected to survive. The primary objective of further experiments should be to determine the maximum dosage which can be safely administered. Therefore, subjects should be chosen based on not only their physical condition and psychological health, but their position within STIGMA based on our plans for eliminating operatives who would oppose our planned revision to the organization’s programs, policies, and overall objectives.”

Blowing a thick cloud of cigarette smoke into the air, Barrett eased his posture as he threw the file at their feet. Meanwhile, John was almost finished cutting through the cord. Only a few more seconds.

Marlon bent his head down as he scanned the file. His eyes widened in horror as he mouthed both their names. “God in Heaven. Half our sector is on this list.”

Barrett smiled. “Now you know what they plan to do. You’ll be lucky if you live long enough to experience these tests. As far as you know, they have already sent operatives out to ‘cope’ with you once you’ve finished with me.”

“Ewen would never be involved in this.”

“Who said he is?”

With a slight tap of his blade, the cord broke around John’s wrists, freeing his hands. John jumped up from his kneeled position. He correctly anticipated Barrett’s first instinct; the pistol swerved upward as he aimed it at John. He struck lightly at Barrett’s chin, but the man easily dodged it as he threw himself out of the chair. John retrieved a pistol from the table and aimed it at Barrett, ordering him to drop his gun as he gave Marlon the small blade to tear through the rope.

“Let’s not waste any more time,” Marlon said to John as he stood up.

John stared at Barrett. The man should have been humiliated. Instead, he appeared defiant, his arms crossed as he stared into the muzzle with unwavering eyes. “If I had wanted to kill you, I could have done it yesterday when you arrived in the hotel. Instead, I let you live and told you the truth. At this point, who do you trust more: me or them?”

John glanced at Marlon. “What say you?”

His friend was unusually reserved. “It’s up to you.”

John aimed at Barrett. To kill him would not be difficult. Barrett had a haughty arrogance he found intolerable, made him suspect and unpredictable. He might be as likely to kill them later as help them.

But a name kept repeating itself in his head. Archon.

Wayne had hunted Archon. John had then been ordered to eliminate Wayne. Now Barrett had come after Archon. The committee had ordered he be eliminated, too.

John lowered his pistol. Ignoring Marlon’s disapproving look, he offered his hand to Barrett. Hesitant at first, he then accepted the gesture.

“I hope you’re ready to fight for your lives,” Barrett said to them as he walked over to the window at the end of the room and glanced down. Marlon and John cautiously approached the window as well and looked down. At the entrance to the hotel, a Lincoln stopped; several men stepped out. Lincolns were a trademark STIGMA vehicle; the true indicator was the distinct antennae on the back.

“Who are they?” Marlon asked.

“Fresh recruits from the MA sector,” Barrett said. “There are only two sides to this. You chose mine. They won’t hesitate.”

“I trust you had a plan beyond this point,” John asked.

Barrett opened a briefcase, tossing them Remington pistols as he snatched additional magazines and shoved them into his pockets.

“Grab what you can,” he advised. “No telling when we can rearm.”

As they gathered the rest of the spare ammunition in the briefcase, Barrett ran over to the door to the room. Carefully, he opened a small crack in it, peering through it with one eye closed.

“Are they already onto us?” Marlon whispered to Barrett.

“Of course,” Barrett said. “They’ve been stalking you since you first arrived and monitoring this room since we entered last night.”

“Their surveillance was minimal at best, last we saw,” John commented. “They spied on our hotel room. They must have been the ones who I saw at the restaurant. What were they there for?”

“They remained in the lobby to see if we would attempt to leave.”

“Are they going shoot us outright or try to be discreet about it?”

Barrett looked back at them from the door. “Assume the worst.”

He opened the door a little bit, paused, and then motioned to them to follow him. They trailed him closely as he entered the hotel hallway.

While Marlon watched their rear, John scanned the doors. “It’s a setup.”

“Of course it is,” Barrett said. “If it wasn’t, somebody back at headquarters would have not done their job.”

Barrett jumped to the right so that he faced one of the doors. His pistol raised at chest level, he fired two silenced shots through the door. He kicked the door open and entered while John provided cover.

Inside, two men lay on the floor with bloodied chests, Remington pistols in their hands.

One of them stirred a bit. Barrett seemed to enjoy himself too much as he fired a round into the man’s face.

“We need to get to the fallback house,” John said. “You know where it is?”

“Don’t even bother. The location was compromised days ago.”

“Then our first priority is finding an alternative location.”

“I know just the place.”

Barrett led them to the hallway and down the stairs. They reached the lobby to find seven men standing together in a cluster near the front door. One of them with his hands in his pockets.

“Mitchells at your service. How has your stay at the Silversmith been?”

Barrett answered. “I’ve been having problems with the other guests staying in the room next to me. They kept trying to watch me everywhere I went. Rather than bothering the hotel staff, I spoke to them myself. They won’t be making any louder noises ever again, or any other noise for the rest of their lives.”

“The situation has changed,” John said to Mitchells. “I highly recommend that we leave here and rendezvous at a better location to discuss the matter. Barrett has some information I feel you should see before you draw any conclusions.”

“Why don’t you surrender your arms and come with us?” Mitchells asked, waving to the front door. “No more people have to get hurt.”

John turned his head to the side. “Does this mean you agree to my terms?”

“No. It means you either surrender your arms now or we will be forced to take them from you.”

Barrett replied with a flat palm at Mitchells’ throat, then stabbed him with a knife drawn from his coat. Reacting, John grabbed went for the nearest man and threw him over his shoulder. The impact knocked him unconscious.

On his left, an operative had his gun drawn; John struck him with an elbow, offsetting his balance. The man managed to get off just two wild shots from his Thompson before John grabbed the barrel and cracked a section of the man’s rib cage with a hard blow. He feebly reached for his spare sidearm, but dropped like a doll as John killed him with a swift thrust of his fingertip into his neck, breaking it instantly.

To his side, Marlon had brandished his Remington and shot at the operatives near him, then killed another with a rabbit punch before grabbing the bell from the receptionist’s counter and throwing it at a third with deadly effect. The last remaining operative fled. By the time he got out of the entrance, Barrett brought out his Mauser and shot him in the back three times.

John stared at the corpses. They were supposed to have been the future of STIGMA. All that was undone, gone in a few moments. Refusing to think of it further, he ran to join Barrett and Marlon outside, hiding his gun as a horrified crowd had gathered around the last dead operative.

“We’ll take my car,” Barrett said. “We’ll use it for now. It isn’t registered under any STIGMA checklists for ownership. They won’t be looking for us in it.”

He eventually led them to a parking garage. In the most remote corner, he uncovered a polished emerald green Buick. Barrett opened the driver’s seat, scooting himself inside. John got in the front passenger seat, while Marlon got in the back, pulling out their pistols again.

“We need to contact Ewen,” John said. “Does he know about this?”

“Yes,” Barrett said.

“Then it is critical we get in touch with him and see what his next orders are.”

Barrett laughed as he drove out of the garage. “Our orders are to stay alive. I don’t think you realize the mess we’re in.”

“What do you mean?”

“If they came after us, they’re going to come after him, too. You won’t find him. No one will find him. If he wants to contact us, he won’t have any trouble finding us.”

As they drove down South Wabash Avenue, Barrett kept the car underneath the subway tracks that ran on an elevated platform above the street.

“Nice Buick,” Marlon remarked. “Where did you get it?”

“Right off the assembly line. I know a few people in the industry, and they gave me a good deal. I let them live, and they gave me the car.”

“You stole it?” John said.

“Don’t tell me you’re offended.”

“I’m not. Just disgusted.”

“Your problem, not mine. We stay on Wabash until we get to 18th Street. There is a railroad junction there. We leave the car there, get on a boat I left in the water, and then go over to the Canadian side of the border, where we can plan our course from a safe distance.”

“And where will we be going?”

“Anywhere but here would do nicely.”

John viewed the sideview mirror; a vehicle was quickly accelerating towards them, the men inside armed with Thompson submachine guns.

“Targets to the south,” John said as he grabbed his pistol.

“How many?” Barrett asked.

“Only one, but I anticipate more will arrive. Once they radio in our position, further reinforcements will arrive.”

“Then we’ll need to make a few changes to our route,” Marlon remark as he looked out the back.

“You have any additional weapons in here?” John asked Barrett.

“Check underneath the seat in the back.”

Marlon reached under it and brought out a Beretta submachine gun, stacking the extra magazines beside him.

“All I have is my Remington,” John stated. “You have a more appropriate weapon?”

Barrett revealed a hidden cache box underneath his own seat containing a Colt pistol and five magazines. Satisfactorily armed, John turned around and positioned himself so that he could see the Lincoln out of his window. It had come within 30 feet of them, apparently close enough for the men inside to commence firing.

Unprepared for the opening shots, Barrett swerved to the opposite side of the road, narrowly missing a truck laden with fruit before he jerked them back into their lane. He then performed several violent maneuvers to throw off the opposing driver.

For the moment, the tactic worked brilliantly. The driver in the Lincoln slowed down to avoid missing a potential turn, and the operatives in the back lacked the skill needed to strike the Buick. Meanwhile, Marlon plugged holes into the Lincoln with ease, the barrel rested on the top of the backseats.

The gunfire, however, made it impossible to hear each other, forcing them to wait until it was relatively quiet again before they could verbally communicate. Hand gestures and signals replaced words and voices.

A stray bullet from the Lincoln went through the back, skimming across Marlon’s cheek. He fell back, dropping the Beretta. John’s eyes widened as he looked down at his friend, afraid he might have been shot, but returned to firing when he saw it was a small flesh wound.

“I don’t like being killed during a chase,” Marlon said to Barrett.

“I’m sticking to my plan.”

“You call this a plan?”

John ignored them as he fired, killing a man as his body slumped back into the inside of the car. Just as the dead man’s face vanished, another Lincoln pulled out of an alleyway on East 13th Street ahead of them. John immediately fired at it as the driver tried to slam into them and force them off the road.

Barrett, infuriated at the damage to his car, returned the favor by jerking the Buick to the right. The heavy weight of the vehicle almost sent the Lincoln straight into a lamppost, but the driver compensated seconds before. By then, frightened pedestrians had fled the street.

“We need to get off of this road,” Marlon said. “We should try to get onto East 14th Street and ditch the car.”

“We can discuss this later,” John said. Reloading his pistol, he fired at the Lincoln ahead of them, aiming for the tires.

“Take East 14th Street,” he said. “We can wait for a train to pass by. We’ll hop onto it and let it take us wherever it is heading to.”

“What if it takes us the opposite way of where we want to go?” Barrett asked.

“Then we’ll be that much better off,” John said. “They won’t be able to guess where we are going to be at any given time. Not having a plan for a contingency sometimes is better than having one that can be tracked.”

Barrett swore as the side of their car was rammed by the Lincolns. He reached into his jacket and yanked out his Colt, unloading it on the driver to his left. The Lincoln slid off the road and smashed into the side of the building like an accordion. The last Lincoln closed enough distance or the operatives to resume firing with their Thompsons. Bullets smacked against the Buick like heavy balls of hail.

Above Barrett’s muttered cursing, John heard police sirens in the distance. It was a faint sound, but as he listened harder, it grew louder and louder. The local cop had finally responded.

Estimated time before the first police vehicle intercepted them: Five minutes maximum.

They would have to abandon the Buck by then, leave no traces for either the police or any STIGMA operatives left in the area.

“This is not good,” Marlon said as he too heard the police sirens. He wiped the dirt off his face, brushing strands of dangling hair out of his eyes.

Barrett slammed on the brakes, bringing the Buick to an instant stop. John and Marlon fell forward in their seats. Moments later, the Lincoln rear-ended them. No one inside of it moved.

John tried to move, but stopped as he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He concentrated harder as he blocked out the pain. There was no blood or open wound.

He stumbled out of the car, still off-balance. He glanced at the road, realizing East 13th Street was only about a thousand feet away from the railroad tracks. They could make it if they hurried.

On the driver’s side, Barrett tried to open the door. Crushed beyond practical use, he kicked it off its hinges and stepped out, seemingly unscathed. Marlon moaned in the backseat, but quickly excited the car as Barrett cut through the driver’s seat cushion with a knife. He then reached inside and pulled out a package and a small attaché case.

“What’s that?” John asked.


“Of what?”

Barrett turned to shoot down a survivor crawling near the Lincoln. Bystanders arriving at the scene quickly scattered as he grabbed John’s arm. “Want to live? Then no more questions for now.”

The three ran across the road, ready to head for the tracks to the right of them, straight down East 13th. A convoy of Chicago police vehicles greeted them at the intersection. With a hasty motion from John, they scrambled for cover as the police cars stopped beside the tracks. His head still aching from the collision, John attempted to put proper context to their situation.

He noticed the entrance to a curbside storm drain. Calling to Barrett, he ran towards it. They hastily pulled the cover off the storm drain, then dropped down inside before closing the hole just as the sounds of high-pitched sirens appeared on the streets above.

Up to their ankles in water, they moved further into the darkness. Putting his pistol away, John listened to samples of conversations above to form a picture of the situation. The cops were in a state of confusion. They had initially figured the hotel fight as another mobster shootout, only to find the bodies gone by the time they arrived.

“We need to find another way to the surface,” John said. “We can then take an alternative route to the train.”

With Marlon at point, John taking the rear, they used the walls to guide them to the nearest opening. When they reached it, Barrett stood beneath the cover, but didn’t open it.

“I don’t like this.”

“What about it?”

“If I were hunting me, this would be a perfect place to take the shot.”

“But they’re not you.”

“Any way to prove it?”

“One of you got a piece of glass?”

Barrett took out a blade and handed it to John. It was small, but clean and reflective enough. John held the blade at an angle, just above the storm drain opening that led out into the street from the gutter. With an eagle eye, he studied the dozens of pedestrians. He kept searching, then caught sight of a homeless man sitting over by one of the alleyways. At first, the man seemed innocuous, but John caught a telltale sign of guilt; the brief flash of a muzzle hidden in his coat.

He recognized the device, intended for urban stealth; with it, a person could sit down on the ground, with a tripod and periscope hidden by clothes. With the rifle placed inside the coat, attached to the tripod, the periscope would allow the user to aim without having to hold it up to his eye, making it more discreetly. When fired, the tripod would absorb the recoil. A passing car or train would cloak the sound and vibration.

“Target north of our position,” John said to Barrett. “He’s near an alleyway.”

“What kind of rifle?”

“Carcano, the standard.”

“What else is beside him?”

He’s next to an old oil drum.”

“Range to target?”

“200 feet, maybe 150.”

Barrett licked his lips. “Perfect.”

“I think you enjoy this way too much,” Marlon said.

“All the more reason to have me on your side.”

“I take it you have a plan?” John said.

“Got a light?”

John flicked open his lighter and held it near Barrett as he opened his attaché case, taking out a disassembled Mauser C96. He handed the case to Marlon as he took the pieces out one by one, piecing it together. It was also custom designed for a 24-inch barrel, the same length as a Springfield.

“Can it actually shoot that far?” Marlon asked.

“It uses a special cartridge STIGMA developed.”

Barrett loaded the gun as he spoke. “This is going to happen within a single second. Trent, take off your fedora. When I tell you to, lift it up so that the crown can be seen above the storm drain. Savage and I will go to the next opening. Savage; when we do, keep that blade close to my face. I want to know the moment my target turns his rifle towards it.”

“And that’s when you’re going to shoot him,” John said.


Marlon groaned as he took off his fedora, then squatted under the opening. John and Barrett walked down the 20 feet to a similar drain opening. Barrett placed himself against the wall, while John positioned himself with the blade held close to the surface. Barrett pulled out a small telescopic sight, adding it to the rifle.

“You don’t need it for this distance,” John said.

“I don’t. I want to look into his eyes as I kill him.”

John said nothing as he turned the blade so Barrett could get a proper look at his target. They waited until the walls rumbled as an elevated train came passing overhead.

“Do it,” Barrett called to Marlon.

Marlon slowly raised his fedora so that the crown appeared above the opening.

“Move it more, or he’ll know it’s a trick!” Barrett said.

Marlon obeyed. John saw Barrett’s eyes glisten as a sadistic smile formed on his face. He took a long, deep breath in, then brought the Mauser out of the gutter. With one eye closed, he squeezed the trigger gently.

John watched through the blade’s reflection as the operative’s head snapped back violently. His body lay crumpled against the oil drum. No one would know he was dead for several hours; he would be assumed a drunk or asleep until a beat cop had the nerve to confront him.

“You got him,” John said.

Barrett hastily took apart his pistol and placed the pieces back into his attaché case. “Let’s go, shall we?”

John scanned the street before they emerged. The pedestrians seemed wholly unaware of the dead operative. As they returned to the sidewalk, however, John pushed his fedora farther down on the corpse’s head, buttoning up his overcoat as he attempted to disguise his face as much as possible.

He sighed in relief as they reached the railyard with no further enemy in sight. Down the tracks, a massive train raced across it with a long trail of cargo cars.

“Are we ready to leave Chicago now?” Marlon said. He didn’t wait for an answer as he ran after the car and leaped onto it. Barrett tossed his attaché case and additional possessions up to Marlon before jumping up onto the side.

John moved as fast as he could, but his chest wound ached each time he drew a heavy breath. Terrified he wouldn’t gain enough speed, he found himself trailing further away. Desperate, he lunged for the end of the car. He fell just short of it, but was saved when Barrett seized him and dragged him onto the car.

“Like I said, it’s good to have me on your side.”

John avoided his gaze as he took out his crumpled pack of cigarettes from his coat, slipping one between his aching fingers.

“Do you know how to get in touch with Ewen?” John asked Barrett.

“Washington, D.C.”

“Is he still alive?”

“I’m sure. He knew they were coming.”


Barrett chuckled. “He and I have been working together. Why do you think he picked you two for this assignment?”


For all installments from The Shadow Men, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1: Excerpt 1
  2. Part 1: Excerpt 2
  3. Part 1: Excerpt 3
  4. Part 1: Excerpt 4
  5. Part 1: Excerpt 5
  6. Part 1: Excerpt 6
  7. Part 2: Excerpt 1
  8. Part 2: Excerpt 2