More than two dozen men sat inside a large room at the front of a long horizontal table. They drank cups of coffee or tea in an uneasy silence as they drummed their fingers on the tabletop, only to refill the cups again once they had been consumed. The air was thick and cloudy from cigarette smoke, piles of ash filling every tray in the room like glacier-tipped mountain peaks.

As the seconds ticked by on the clock above the door where three guards stood, a sense of restless apprehension began to creep into their eyes.

Then the door opened.

Watkins hurried inside. He looked at them with tired eyes and an unshaven face.

“What is the situation?” one of them asked emotionlessly.

“We have a dozen confirmed deaths.”

A short pause.

“What of Barrett?” someone asked.

“Still at large.”

“And Savage and Trent?”

“They were last seen in his company as they left the hotel.”

The men grumbled as they reached for freshly delivered packs of cigarettes. Watkins tried to leave, but was called back by one man with the subtlest wag of his finger.

The specific man in question sat side by side among the other members of the room, but he still managed to stand out among them by his mannerisms and appearance. As they smoked cigarettes, he smoked a cheroot. As they consumed tea or coffee, he drank brandy. As they turned to one another with worrisome expressions, he seemed completely nonchalant as he leaned back in his chair.

He gazed at the operative with a small grin, addressing him with a smooth voice that seemed to calm them. Nevertheless, it carried an unmistakable hint of power.

“I am rather perplexed,” he said to the operative. “We assigned two teams to ensure they would not escape. Operatives were told to monitor their movements. Am I correct?”

Watkins held himself lowly, as if bowing to a king or man of nobler stature. “Yes, Senator Kessler.”

“Could you kindly explain to us what happened precisely?”

“A team of inexperienced operatives were sent to the Silversmith. They were supposed to observe and report their movements. Instead, they confronted them in the lobby. There was a fight. All of them were killed.”

“This is a damned mess!” someone said. “Tell me more is being done.”

“My men and I were able to retrieve the bodies before the police could obtain them. We left behind empty casings and other evidence that will incriminate local gangsters. We’ve had one of our allies in the police force contact the newspapers and provide them with information. Ideally, the whole mess will be chalked up to more mob warfare. Overall, damage to our organization is minimal, aside from the casualties we sustained.”

“And what of our operatives stationed in Chicago?”

“All of them have been placed on alert and activated. They are currently engaged in the search. Their leader is providing me with hourly updates.”

Another pause. Then a cascade of voices overflowed the room as the men talked over one another.

“This is unacceptable.”

“This is the last thing we need!”

“I knew these new operatives needed additional training! We put them out in the field too early!”

“This is going to come back to haunt us!”

As the room fell into chaos, Kessler remained composed and relaxed as he smoked. He waited for the room to quiet down before he raised his hand to speak. Almost instantly, the voices ceased as though out of respect for him.

“I warned you these new recruits were not adequately trained,” he said. “I warned you all they were not up to the quality of the older operatives. It was an unofficial policy to create a rift between those loyal to us and the ‘unknowns,’ but instead it created pride. Of course, none of this explains why Savage and Trent kill Barrett on sight.”

“They seemed suspicious from the beginning,” Watkins said. “Some of you were in the room when they received their instructions.”

Kessler shook his head. “They would obey orders…unless those orders were changed. But who would give such an order?”

“Are you saying Executive 1 is working with Barrett?” someone asked.

“Would it surprise any of you? He’s been difficult to work with the moment we took over this organization. He’s resisted every change we’ve attempted to introduce.”

“What are you suggesting we do about it?”

“It’s a problem we will have to ‘cope’ with, I suppose.”

The room was quiet.

“Are we really going to do that?” another said. “Has it truly come to that?”

“He’s a festering wound in our side, a remnant of a bygone era. I’d say it’s time he retires, forcibly.”

When no one argued with him further, Kessler addressed Watkins. “I want you to go pay Executive 1 a visit.”

There was the slightest of pauses as Watkins gazed at the other members in the room. Some appeared more supportive than others. But no one shook their head in dissent. He then gestured obediently to Kessler.

“I will inform you when it has been done.”

After he left, Kessler turned to the rest of the committee. “With him gone, we can replace him with a new executive who shares our ideology.”

“Regardless, the theft of Dr. Archon’s samples can’t be ignored,” someone said. “The bolder we grow, it seems, the more information becomes suddenly exposed or stolen.”

In the back of the table, a tall man dressed in the dark green army uniform raised his hand patiently. On his chest was a general’s insignia. He had a disciplined yet callous glimmer in his eyes. His entire façade, cold and emotionless, looked as though it had been chiseled out of stone.

Kessler nodded towards him. “General Villard, you have a comment?”

Villard cleared his throat, speaking in a deep, calculating voice. His features conveyed little as to his thoughts. His authoritative tone had the lifeless quality of a robot. “Recovering the samples must be our highest priority. The three operatives may be a liability, perhaps. But based on the reports we have received, they are not in league with Dr. Archon’s assistants. Therefore, the two incidents are mere coincidences despite appearances to the contrary. As such, the operatives are of less importance, at least for the time being. We must recover the samples as soon as possible. If those samples fall into the wrong hands, they will not only have the culmination of millions of dollars and years of research at their disposal, but they will have a purified, concentrated form of the drug, which could have catastrophic consequences if administered to a significant population.”

Kessler nodded. “Good point, General. Any proposals?”

“Yes,” one member said. “We’ve had some men combing through the assistants’ records and files. We found that they had some ties to a bootlegging operation in 1924. The operation was run by a ship captain who is scheduled to make port in Massachusetts. Our analysts within the IG sector believe the assistants intend to bring the samples to the captain for transport.”

Kessler snuffed out his cheroot in an ashtray.  “Excellent work. What would you recommend, General?”

“This must be done thoroughly. We have some of our field operatives in Washington go to the fallback house and burn all records. They then track down the ship captain and intercept him when the two assistants make contact. If they fail to do so, they can still find out where it makes port next. Follow it from there. Ideally, we would want them to recover the samples without any more incidents or causalities. This means discretion must take precedence over brute force.”

“Agreed. Have it done.”

The door flew open as a stunned Watkins rushed inside. “He’s gone!”

All but Kessler and Villard jumped out of their seats. Responding coolly, Kessler looked at Watkins inquisitively, but displayed no signs of shock. Villard treated the news with equal expectation as he flicked dust off his sparkling clean military uniform.

“Have you alerted security?” Kessler asked.

“No, sir. I thought this was to be handled quietly.”

“I think that has passed now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did he manage to kill the guards?” Villard wondered aloud. “I would like to know so we can teach their replacements what to look for.”

“What did you find in his office?” Kessler asked Watkins.

“Nothing. He was gone, along with all his files, books, and personal effects. It’s like he vanished.”

“He didn’t vanish,” one of the members said. “He just demonstrated very clearly he’s not an old fool. I told you who we’re dealing with.”

Kessler turned to the member, considered his statement thoughtfully, and then offered a reply. “We can’t change it now. In the meantime, let us focus on the recovery of the samples. The old man may do whatever he pleases.”

“What if he comes back?”

“Well, by the time he does, the project should be completed, shouldn’t it?”

No one bothered to answer.


John glanced at the living room floor, barely visible beneath the layer of books and papers thrown onto it from the shelves. In the kitchen, Marlon and Barrett cleared the final section of the house, which they had found abandoned. The operatives who had been there prior hadn’t been well trained, or didn’t care.

Over by the fireplace, John crouched down and grabbed the poker, which he used to sift through the soot.

The warm ashes indicted they were only a few hours old. He found small pieces of burned documents buried underneath the black soot, weak ambers still flickering. The operatives had come, searched the premise, and then burned all files. He wondered why they hadn’t burnt the house.

Back inside the kitchen, Barrett approached the stove. He lifted the metal piece, revealing a hidden phone underneath.

“Making a call?” John inquired. “You sure the line is clear?”

“It’s a separate line.”

Someone on the other line answered. The voice was muffled, and all John could hear was Barrett’s response until he handed the phone to John. He hesitantly took the receiver. Hearing Ewen’s ghostlike voice left a smile on his face.

“It’s good to hear you are alive, sir. Where are you?”

“Afraid I can’t reveal that, even to you.”

“What is going on, sir?” John asked. “Why did they send us to ‘cope’ with Barrett? Why are they trying to kill us?”

“He found out what they were working on. I myself suspected it for a while, but had no proof. Not much I could do. I couldn’t very well turn against them, especially since they held all the power.”

“What are they doing?”

“I’m afraid I can’t explain much right now.”

“What do we do now, sir? We need to reorganize if we’re to stand a chance. These men on the committee must be removed.”

He heard Ewen sigh sadly. “The organization is dead, Savage.”

John’s eyes fell as he struggled to find words appropriate to convey how he felt. But none came. Anything he said would sound pathetic.

“What took its place?” John asked.

For the first time, Ewen seemed uncertain of himself. “I don’t know. At least I didn’t know until now. Whatever it is, it is our enemy, and it does not have the same objective as STIGMA. It does not have the same enemies or allies. It is its own creature.”

John had to ask; he didn’t want to. Not in front of Marlon, and especially not in front of Barrett. But he knew he would not have another opportunity. It would probably his last chance to speak with Ewen, privately or not.

“You are still a free man,” Ewen said.

“Free to do what?”

“That is for you to decide. But I would lay low.”

“That’s not my way of doing things.”

“Nor mine. But that’s what I intend to do.”

A heavy sensation fell into John’s stomach. “Take care, sir.”

“Godspeed to you all.”

John kept the receiver by his ear after Ewen had hung up. He finally put it down and faced the wall.

“What did he say?” Marlon asked.

“You should go,” Barrett said. “I’m leaving whether you stay or not.”

“Where are you going?” John asked.

“Don’t worry about me.”

“But what’s the plan?” Marlon asked.

“There are no more plans,” John said. “There are no more missions, no more assignments. It’s all done.”

As serious as he had ever been, Marlon turned away. He instinctively went for a cigarette, and when he had smoked a portion of it he tossed it into the sink. “So that’s it? We’re done?”

“We can’t go back to our homes,” John said. “We will have to start afresh.”

Barrett seemed pleased as he placed his fedora on his head. “Starting fresh; it seems to be my lot in life.”

As they exited the house, they walked up to the front of the picket fence bordering the lawn. There, Barrett turned around, faced them directly, and offered a hand. Marlon accepted it first, while John took his time before he allowed himself to do it.

“What are you going to do with yourself?” Marlon asked Barrett.

Barrett flicked the brim of his fedora as he smiled. “I have the strangest feeling you will find out someday.” Then, placing his hands in his pockets, he stepped out onto the sidewalk like a man who had no care in the world, no problems to solve, and no enemies to pursue.

John and Marlon didn’t move. They stood at the fence like twin dogs waiting for their master to come home from a long day at work. As the sun dipped down further and further in the horizon, they remained still.

“I didn’t think this was how it would end,” John said.

“How did you think it would end?”

“We’d die gloriously on some assignment and get a five-minute moment of silence before everyone would go back to their lives.”

“Such optimism.”

“It was an easier way than this. Now what?”

Marlon lit a cigarette and slapped John on the back. “Whatever comes next, we’ll be fine.”


“Have the samples been recovered?”

“Yes, sir. All except a shipment headed north; some small port city in Massachusetts.”

Loosening his tie, Alexander Shukhov leaned back in his seat. He removed the cufflinks from his shirt sleeves, a smile slowly growing on his face.

“They are not to leave your sight,” he instructed. “Bring them back to headquarters as soon as possible.

“As per your orders, sir. Our men are returning it as we speak.”

“General Villard has been instructed on how to handle them when it arrives. What of our other operations?”

The man on the other side of the line paused.

“It seems Ewen alerted most of the operatives within STIGMA before we could act,” he answered. “They abandoned their posts by the time we arrived.”


“Excellent? But, sir, this means they got away.”

“Either way, it serves our purposes. Had they remained, they might have stood their ground and fought for control of the organization. Such a fight would have cost us men, resources, and money. But since they have left voluntarily, we now have total control over it.”

“But they left nothing for us to trace. We won’t find them anytime soon.”

“Patience, Watkins. They are on alert for now. But given time, they will lower their guard. And such men are not so hard to find.”

“Yes, sir.”

With the phone conversation concluded, he selected a nationalistic symphony by Shostakovich for the phonograph. Listening to the beautiful, patriotic chorus, he stared at a painting of the rugged Ural Mountains hanging on his wall. It was his small portal back to his homeland—the homeland he could never return to.

His door opened. In stepped General Villard, who took his cap off respectfully.

“Do you have a moment, Senator Kessler?”

Alexander Shukhov’s eyes darkened as he greeted his guest. “Of course, General. I have all the time in the world.”


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
  9. Part 2: Excerpt 3