“May I smoke?” John asked.

The two guards eyed him. No pleasantry, total seriousness, a nervous stick in their eyes. He didn’t recognize either of them.

“Can you wait?” the younger guard replied.

“It’s no problem. I was just wondering.”

“It’s better if you wait,” the other guard replied. “You understand why, I’m sure.”

Putting his cigarette case away, John eyed the meager furnishings in the room; a green sofa with a missing cushion, a chair with its lining torn, three tables that had been dragged from outside during rough weather. The air in the room had that distinct smell of subversive influence.

When he had approached the house, he had spotted the two obvious sentries pretending to be bums on the street corner. Their shaded eyes had followed him too closely. After knocking on the door, there had been an extended delay before it had opened. The guards standing in front of him now had offered no small talk as they had frisked him.

Despite his reservations, John couldn’t turn back. If what he had been told was correct, they were former STIGMA operatives. Their leader had contacted him using one of their old codes to request a meeting. No details on why.

“Do you know who I am going to speak with?” John said.

“We’re not allowed to discuss it,” the guard answered. He motioned at his partner. “Our job is just to make sure nobody touches the guy on the other side of the door.”

“Of course.”

Someone on the other side of the door knocked four times, with a short interval in between each knock. The guards snapped to attention as they opened the door, waving John inside.

“He’ll see you now.”

John took off his pea coat and fedora as he entered the small room. It was an old study converted into an office for “wartime” purposes; the bookshelves were packed with ciphers and coded messages. A radio transmitter was on the right side of the room, sitting on a small table.

At the back of the room, an eager-looking man with black hair sat at a desk. When he saw John appear, he smiled and approached him as though they were old friends. The man’s handshake was eager and stiff.

“Mr. Savage,” he said, “I am glad you could come and visit me on such short notice. My name is Frank Cowen. I’m somewhat in charge of this little ad hoc organization.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

John sat in the chair on the other side of the desk. Cowen went back to his desk and opened a chestnut brown box on his desk, revealing a row of imported tobacco. “Would you like one?”

“I would. Thank you.”

Cowen handed one to John, who took it curiously, holding it under his nose as he breathed in the leaves. It had a different flavor than his regular tobacco; a bit sweeter. He preferred them bitter, but he wasn’t going to insult his host.

After they had smoked for a moment, Cowen then opened one of the drawers and took out a folder, and put it on the top of the desk.  “You’re probably wondering what kind of job I had inside the organization.”

John held his cigarette between his fingers, his hands clasped together in front of him. “Not at all. I know what you did.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“You acted as the head of the Intelligence Gathering sector. The radio you use over there is for transmitting, but not for receiving messages, the same type our analysts use. You also have a unique British-made teletype in the upstairs bedroom, which also transmits messages but does not receive. The piles of ciphers you have next to your cigarette case are for interpreting the various coded signals sent from spies working in uptown.”

Cowen seemed pleased by John’s response. However, there were other telltale signs John noted. Cowen had the appearance of a top intelligence commander. He was too sophisticated to do the rough jobs; his fingernails were too clean, his hands too gentle, and his frame too light.

“You are every bit as clever as I have been told,” Cowen said.

“There are others who are as clever as I am.”

“I have been informed that you were…well, how do we gentlemen put it? Well, let’s say that I heard you haven’t strayed far from your original profession. Am I correct?”

“Perhaps,” he said.

“I understand you may be less than talkative. I sympathize, considering what happened. A part of the business is who to trust and who to always keep in front of you and not behind you. But I ask for a very important reason. They say you are good with a rifle. In fact, I’ve been told you were one of the best in the organization.”

“Depends on your standards, I suppose.”

Cowen laughed, snuffing out his cigarette. He grabbed the folder and flipped it open. Inside was a photograph of a man. “I can tell you are a man who appreciates conciseness, so I will be as concise as I can be. My men and I are alive today because we received messages from an individual who still works for the organization. He informed us of the assassination plans before they were carried out.”

“Sounds very kind of him. Why did he stick around in the first place?”

“He was an analyst, spent his entire life inside the archives. He didn’t know much about the politics and all that. It wasn’t until recently he discovered how much it has changed. Additionally, when he did, he realized he could do better by remaining there than by leaving. He has provided us with critical information as we got organized. He’s helped us stay one step ahead of the enemy, which in our situation is vital to survival.”

“But now he’s in trouble, right?”

“Yes. We just received word from him a day ago. The organization planned to detain him and torture him until he disclosed our location and other vital information. He wants to flee, but there is an operative tracking his every movement.”

“I’m sure you can find a way to bring him back here safely,” John said.

Cowen leaned over his desk; his deviousness showed in his smile. He had his own conspiracy, his own plot that he had hatched.

That was it. A plot had already been conceived.

“Let me guess,” John said. “It’s an opportunity to take revenge that you can’t pass up. And to send a message.”

“Again, what I have heard about you is true: You’re a man who comprehends things quickly.”

Cowen handed John the photograph. He immediately noted the man’s hawkish features, sharp nose, crisp golden brown eyes, pointed chin, and high cheekbones proclaimed his predatory disposition.

“The shooter, I presume,” John said.

“Yes. Henry Bickford. He was recruited into STIGMA shortly after we departed.”

“You want me to ‘cope’ with him.”

“That would be the idea. Here’s the plan. There will be a Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the Rockefeller Center. Our contact will be there, and we presume Bickford will follow him there.”

“An exfiltration operation would have far less complications than using the prey as bait.”

“Bickford is the sort of man we can’t afford to have around. It’s us he’s after. As it is, we have the time and resources to set up a plan of action. We are entering familiar territory with advanced knowledge about the enemy’s strategy. I’d say it would be a fairly stupid move to pull our contact out of harm’s way and not use the opportunity to remove a threat.”

John nodded subtly. “You sound like you have this all laid out.”

“It’s my job.”

“Is you contact aware that you plan?”

“No. He would be adamantly opposed to it.

“But if I should fail? What if Bickford does get his shot off?”

Cowen leaned forward. “That’s why I’m asking for your assistance. I can’t risk involving any of my normal men. Besides, they’re analysts. They weren’t trained to think like a killer does.”

“You’re risking a lot, Mr. Cowen.”

“It’s a part of my job, Mr. Savage. I think that you will find Bickford to be someone who needs to be removed sooner or later.”

John stood up, buttoned up his suit, and took the folder from Cowen’s desk. He slapped it shut, then shook his hand with assurance. Something about the situation didn’t sit well with him, but he couldn’t turn it down.

“Consider my services at your disposal,” he said.

Cowen smiled excitedly. “Excellent. We’ll be in touch.”


Inside a neglected corner of their hideout, John sat at a makeshift table, where a kerosene lamp’s small glow illuminating the dossier he had prepared. Marlon was elsewhere, probably scrounging for more hooch and fresh fruit. He was aware of the job, but not directly involved. For now.

It had been years since John had worked alone; he had only done one assignment solo at STIGMA, his first. An assignment the cigarette now wedged between his fingers helped keep off his mind.

He set down his cigarette—his second for the day—and picked up the dossier. Scanning it slowly, he began imprinting the information into his memory.

Name: Henry Charles Bickford, nickname “Falcon.”

Background Information: Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1902. Father’s name, Gerald, served as a sniper with the 69th Infantry Regiment, participating in Operation Michael in 1918; had over 58 confirmed kills. Mother’s name, Caroline Baldwin, a seamstress. Henry Bickford was educated at home until seventh grade, where he attended a local junior high school. Dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and never graduated. Records beyond there are sketchy; a few reports from basic training in the Army, but no concrete evidence he ever advanced beyond boot camp. Recruited by STIGMA in November 1930 for the Military Action sector.

Physical Description: A complete detail is unavailable, but height believed to be 5 ft. 7 in. Weight is estimated to be around 160 pounds. Race mixture of English and French. Build, slender and lanky. Hair, short, thin, brown. Voice, harsh and deep. No known scars or birthmarks. A tattoo is rumored to be on his left forearm that reads “THRILL OF THE HUNT” in black boldfaced letters.

Personal Information: No foreign language fluency. Right-handed. Considered to be expert with most weapons, including daggers, knives, swords, rifles, pistols, machine guns, explosives, bows, and other tools. Favorite method of assassination is the Winchester Model 54 rifle with the .270 Winchester cartridge. New York Police Department archives contained six unsolved murder cases involving a victim shot with a .270 Winchester; ballistics proved the same gun was involved in all of them. Notoriously reclusive. Apolitical.

Current Status: Residence unknown; works exclusively in New York. No bank accounts have been connected to him under his name. Bulk of wealth presumed to be hidden in home or stashed away in a solitary location.

John set the file down and studied the few photographs available of Bickford. One of them was of him running across a street. It only got a side swipe of his face, but it was enough for John to notice certain distinct features.

The other photo wasn’t of Bickford; it was of one of his victims. The dead man lay on the floor of a house, a clean entry wound in his forehead. At the bottom of the photo, someone had written in ink “October 16, 1927: Bickford assassinated John Powers, a local racketeer. Distance: two thousand yards.”

John shoved the photo off to the side, skeptical of that claim. Unless they found the exact spot where the shot had been fired, there was no way to know. What intrigued him more was the man’s psychology, evidenced by the tattoo. Men like Bickford were primarily motivated by the chase, not the kill; they sought out the hardest targets, not weaklings.

But this would offer none of that. Cowen’s contact offered no suspense.

Maybe that was it. He wasn’t thinking like a falcon or a hawk. It was more akin to a fox. He’d kill his chicken, alert the farmers, and then run for his life. After he killed this man, every single members of Cowen’s enclave would be after him.

Dissatisfied with those conjectures, John left the table, squeezing his cigarette between his fingers. So far, it was all theory. He had to test it in the open.


Pulling the up the collar on his pea coat, John took his pair of field glasses and surveyed the extended area surrounding the place where Christmas tree lighting ceremony would be held. He had taken cover under an oak tree, worried their limbs would snap from the heavy weight of the snow.

Although he had grown up in New York, he had never been to the Rockefeller Center. Looking at the empty street, he envisioned what the scene would be like with hundreds of people packed into such small dimensions. The Center itself was still under construction and not entirely completed, but people would still be on the street. He assumed the nearby buildings would also be occupied by onlookers.

Bickford had one underlying problem: the defector would be standing shoulder to shoulder with dozens, maybe hundreds of people. Even if he could manage the shot without hitting someone else, the target would be impossible to identify in the darkness.

John pulled the field glasses from his eyes. There was only one possibility. He would be told in advance by someone on the inside.

There was no point in alerting Cowen. It would only complicate the situation.

Noting a premade path of footsteps in the snow, John traced it over to another oak tree where the Christmas tree would be placed, lavishly decorated, and eventually lit in a night-long celebration. He surveyed the surrounding buildings; the Christmas tree would make any rooftop placement unfeasible. Additionally, Bickford would have to account for the tree’s lights blinding him. He would have to be inside a building focusing his eyes elsewhere. But no one could maintain their gaze permanently.

Suddenly, a destitute-looking man appeared and walked up to John. His face was covered by a large scarf, a big fedora on his head. A thick, heavy overcoat covered his body from his neck down to his worn shoes.

“Got a cigarette?” he asked.

Sensing no danger in the man, John reached for his pack and offered one. “Cold weather we have, eh?”

“I’ve seen worse. Far worse.”

“Lived here long?”

“No, but I hope to.”

Some time passed silently. John continued making observations. The homeless man coughed violently, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nose as he lurched over. He then laughed, looking at John with bright eyes as he offered a hand. “The name’s McCoy. Harry McCoy.”

“Call me John.”

McCoy gave him a strange look as he inhaled more of his cigarette. John had seen that face before, but he couldn’t recall where.

“You here ‘cause Cowen sent you?” McCoy said with a grin.

John reacted nonchalantly. The man might be one of Cowen’s operatives. Yet he seemed much older than the others seen in the headquarters.

“What’s it to you?” he said.

McCoy put his hands up. “I didn’t mean nothing by it. I just wondered.”

“Who are you?”

“We’re from the same organization.”

“Which sector?”

McCoy smiled deviously. “We didn’t have a sector.”

“Everyone belonged to a sector.”

“Not the ones tasked with uncovering double agents and spies.”

“They come after you, too?”

“My home was burnt to the ground.”

They started to walk together down the street, pacing around the center. John felt an air of familiarity about the man, yet something about him was unsettling.

“How did you know I was working with Cowen?” John asked.

“I saw you outside their building. What did he tell you?”

“They had an insider giving them information; he’s been found out and wants to defect. The only problem is they have someone tailing him.”

“Who did they say the assassin was?”

“Henry Bickford.”

McCoy was apprehensive. He hastily glanced over their shoulder, as if checking to see they weren’t followed. He then took John by the arm over to the entrance to an alleyway.

“Henry Bickford was killed two miles away from my house,” he said quietly. “I was supposed to rendezvous with him, but they attacked his residence and butchered him; he killed a lot of them first.”

John exhaled solemnly as he cast his eyes back on the empty street. He felt like a rug had been pulled out from underneath his feet. “Why should I believe you?”

McCoy shrugged. “Why would I lie?”

“You want to turn us on each other and have us do the dirty work for you.”

McCoy chuckled. “Take my word for it: You give the organization too much credit.”

As they approached a subway tunnel, McCoy stopped and shook hands with John again. “This is where I leave you.”

“Let’s say I believe you,” John said. “Any way to stay in touch?”

“Place a note against the belly of the bench at the intersection of Forsyth and Delancey. I’ll be back later to check. I’ll leave my response within twelve hours.”

At that, McCoy descended the tunnel and vanished.

John shook his head. Another unexpected turn of events. He didn’t like it. McCoy seemed honest, but he was clearly hiding something. Pacing with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, he saw a large gray poster with a hefty airship dominating an idyllic New York City skyline.


Reading the words repeatedly, a vague curiosity in the back of his mind. He then glanced down at the list of events. When he got to the bottom of the list, he saw a Christmas Eve flight for lighting ceremony at 7:30 p.m. sharp. It would hover over the Christmas tree while it was lit, low to the ground, where the wind factor would be diminished and the people highly visible.

Laughing softly under his breath, John tossed the cigarette as he walked away.


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
  10. Part 2: Excerpt 4
  11. Part 3: Excerpt 1
  12. Part 3: Excerpt 2
  13. Part 4: Excerpt 1
  14. Part 4: Excerpt 2
  15. Part 4: Excerpt 3