May 9-15, 2007

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Barry Eisler

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Requiem for an Assassin by Barry Eisler; G.P. Putnam's Sons; 356 pages; $24.95 cloth. Eisler appears for a booksigning event on May 22 at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park.

Silicon Valley Spy Game

Barry Eisler used to work for the CIA; now he writes bestselling books about an international hit man in exotic locales. But for his latest thriller, 'Requiem for an Assassin,' he's bringing the cloak and dagger intrigue home to Palo Alto.

By Gary Singh

MENLO PARK author Barry Eisler is about to unleash Requiem for an Assassin, the sixth book in a now world-renowned series about John Rain, a Japanese-American freelance killer who slithers through exotic locales and murders people while making it look like the person died of natural causes.

Eisler himself comes from a wide background that completely, overwhelmingly drives the books. For example, as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations, he studied everything you would expect someone to have studied in that branch of the CIA, and it all shows up in the novels: surveillance, countersurveillance, betrayals of relationships, interrogation, improvised weaponry and clandestine operations. He only recently changed his status and revealed to the public that he worked for the agency.

Yours truly recently hooked up with Eisler, primarily because if there's going to be a book featuring a scene where a half–Eastern half-Western assassin rampages through Palo Alto, ridicules the yuppies and brutally bumps off a corporate CEO in the dark on Old Page Mill Road, I just had to go yak with the author. So Eisler and I infiltrated Cafe Barrone and Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, both of which also appear in the new book.

METRO: In these books, you've got two things that just automatically intrigue the general public: exotic locales, and spooks. Where did the impetus for the series come from?

EISLER: I was living in Tokyo and an image came to me of two men following another man down the street ... and I started thinking about it, and I said, who are these guys? Why are they following that other guy? And I thought: They're assassins. They're going to kill him. And I thought, who are they, why are they going to kill him, who hired them, where did they come from? And it started to feel like a story, and I've always liked to write, so I started writing it to see what happened. That's how the book got started. As far as spies and the exotic locale stuff—and having spent three years in the CIA, you're naturally thinking about spy stuff—and living in Tokyo, the exotic locale presented itself.

When the series first emerged, you were somewhat evasive about what you actually did for the United States government. What did it take to change your status and come above ground?

I called a friend of mine who was in my class as a trainee, who had left the agency relatively recently, and I asked him, what do I do? He just said, send them a letter, tell them who you are, what you did and what you want, and ask to change your status from covert to overt. Surprisingly, it didn't take very long. It used to be—ike the DMV for example—you'd think that the government moves very slowly—usually it does, but in this case, it didn't take very long.

Was the change of status from covert to overt part of the marketing scheme?

When Putnam asked me if I could in fact discuss where I worked and what I did, there was definitely an eye towards marketing. The idea is, honestly, I write about spy stuff, tactics, the mind–set, surveillance, countersurveillance, things like that. So it gives me some credibility in terms of brand—I really know this stuff—I really was trained, I did it, so that's what Putnam had in mind.

In creative-writing circles everywhere, they tell you to write only the book you can write. Is that what you did?

If I hadn't been born, these books would never have been written. And that's a great feeling.

While the previous five Eisler novels about John Rain concentrate mostly on exotic locales, this new one features one particular hit job that takes place in Silicon Valley. In the following excerpt, Rain is trailing a high–tech executive named Jannick:

I got up at five o'clock the next morning, showered, shaved, fueled up on eggs and coffee in the hotel's restaurant, and went out. Unlikely that Jannick, or anyone else, would get to work this early, but still I drove past his parking lot to start with. It was deserted. Next, I stopped at a Starbucks in the shopping center at the other end of East Bayshore. I ordered a Venti Latte, wondering why they couldn't just call the damn thing a large, and dumped the contents in a drain a little ways from the store. It was the cup I needed: first, because I'd noticed that just about everyone in Palo Alto walked around attached to a Starbucks coffee, and carrying one of my own would make me look natural. Second, and more important, I didn't know how long I might have to wait for Jannick, and although no one was likely to pay attention to a quietly parked Mercedes, they might be discomfited by the sight of a man repeatedly stepping out of it to urinate on the curb.

I drove by Jannick's house. There was still no car in front, but my guess was that it was in the garage. The sun was just coming up, and the house was dark. I drove down to OPM [Old Page Mill Road] and parked in my spot. I couldn't see his house from here, but I'd catch him when he pulled onto Page Mill.

While I waited, listening to a woman named Alisa Clancy on a radio show called Morning Cup of Jazz, I wondered who Jannick really was. A guy with an aptitude for technology? And where did his ambition come from? Did he miss his home in the Netherlands, or was this place, with its yoga–supple people and clean and prosperous streets, his home now?

One thing I didn't ask, though nor could I deny it, was whether he had a family. Of course he did. The house was too big, and too suburban, for anyone to live in it alone. And his car, a Volvo S80, had kids written all over it. But the less I knew about all that, the better. It's one thing to recognize something intellectually. It's quite another to see it—no, watch it—with your own eyes. The last time I'd gotten too close to the family of a target, in Manila, I'd frozen and damn near died. In unguarded moments, I still thought of the little boy whose father I'd taken. I wasn't going to go through that again.

I waited. No one disturbed me. I had to leave the engine off because if the car were running it might have attracted attention. The interior got cold, but the parka helped. The Venti cup proved handy. At just past seven-thirty, someone on a bicycle came down Christopher and made a left onto OPM. He was wearing a white helmet and a fluorescent–yellow windbreaker, something designed both for warmth and to be visible to cars. I eased down in the seat a bit and watched through the windshield, thinking it was someone out for his morning exercise. But as he got closer, I realized Christ, that might be him. I'd been so fixated on the Volvo I was waiting for that it took me a moment to adjust. He passed me, not even giving the Mercedes a second look. I was going only on a bunch of out-of-date photos, but the shape of the face, the glasses ... I was pretty sure it was Jannick.

Shit, the bike changed everything. Was this just exercise, or was it his commute? If the latter, I didn't know what route he might take, and I couldn't tail him effectively in a car even if I did.

I thought for a moment. Follow him down OPM? I didn't like the idea. The road was really nothing but an old jug handle to Page Mill. It wasn't closed to cars, but there was no reason a car would use it. Following him directly would be too conspicuous.

I fired up the Mercedes and cut left on Page Mill, paralleling OPM. I pushed it up to fifty, wanting to go faster but holding back because of the risk of a cop. Up ahead was a turnoff on Deer Creek Road; the light was red and I had to wait for it. Come on, come on, I thought. I wanted to get ahead of him before he came out on Page Mill so I could get another look.

The light changed and I shot forward. I got to the other end of the jug handle just in time to see the bicyclist pull out onto a bike lane on the other side of Page Mill. A hundred yards ahead was another intersection and another traffic light. Good, I thought. We'll both have to stop and I'll get another look.

I was half right. While I was stopped at the light, the bicyclist made a left onto the bike path on Junípero Serra. Shit.

It was a painfully long light. When the left turn signal finally changed to green, I cut into the turning lane and made a left onto Junípero Serra. A minute later, I'd caught up to him. I glanced over as I passed, but again I couldn't be totally sure.

I pulled ahead of him, wondering whether he was going to the Stanford campus. But instead, he made a right. Damn. I did a U–turn and backtracked to where he'd turned off, a road called Stanford Avenue. I made a left and drove forward but didn't see him. There were a number of smaller, residential streets snaking off on both sides. Unless I got lucky, for the moment I had probably lost him.

I thought for a moment. Maybe he was on his way to work. He avoided Page Mill because it was a busy road and farther north it had no bike lane. He was taking a more roundabout route, both for safety and for the exercise.

It felt right. I got back onto Junípero Serra, then Page Mill, and went straight to his office. There were a few cars in the parking lot now—enough to find concealment, not so many that I had to worry about too many people seeing and possibly remembering the Mercedes. I pulled in next to a Lexus SUV, putting it between me and the parking lot entrance, cut the engine, and waited.

Ten minutes later, the bicyclist pulled into the parking lot and rode straight to Jannick's building. Bingo.

I watched him carry the bike inside, then I drove down to the shopping center at the other end of East Bayshore. Now was the time for a call. From a pay phone, I dialed his office. One ring, two, then a voice: "Jan Jannick."

"Ah, sorry ... wrong number," I mumbled, and hung up. I wiped down the pay phone and went back to the car. I drove slowly back in the direction of his house, thinking. The office was no good. The house would be difficult at best. But he was on a bike. ... That would create opportunities I hadn't considered before.

I thought about what I knew. Two locations, home and work, neither of them suitable. An unknown route in between. I considered buying a bicycle so I could follow him more closely and see what opportunities developed, but it felt too improvised, too uncertain. What I needed was a choke point. A place I could anticipate him, a place I could prepare and control.

I thought about OPM again. In a car you wouldn't bother; it would just be a slower alternative to the four lanes of Page Mill right next to it. But on a bike it would represent a shortcut. And not just theoretically: Jannick had used it this morning. There was at least a decent chance he would use it again on the way home.

I went back to OPM. I'd been on it earlier, of course, but I wanted to look again, this time through the prism of newly acquired information about how Jannick commuted to work.

I liked what I saw. The road consisted of two narrow lanes, and was obviously in disuse. Grass on either side had grown onto the shoulder, and scattered leaves that would ordinarily be swept aside by passing automobile traffic covered much of the surface. The trees crowding both sides had been pruned back to prevent dead branches from falling into the road, and the branches were now piled up here and there in large deadfalls. On the east side were trees and scrub that grew denser as the road curved away from Page Mill, until after about a half-mile the big artery was impossible to see and even the sounds of its automobile traffic had faded almost entirely. On the west side, there was a chain-link fence with signs warning, STANFORD UNIVERSITY ACADEMIC RESERVE, NO TRESPASSING. Beyond the chain–link fence, a series of empty, rolling hills, apparently the property upon which Stanford didn't want passersby to intrude.

Where the road connected with Page Mill, cars could go right, but were prohibited from turning left at rush hour—yet another reason a driver would be unlikely to bother coming this way. But the west side of the road tapered smoothly off into a bike trail that ran along Page Mill and then curved left onto Junípero Serra. Jannick's route. I looked up, and as if to prove my point, two women on bicycles came down the Page Mill bike path and rode past me. I nodded to myself. The place felt right. Now I just had to find a way to make it work.

I walked back in the direction I'd come from, dead leaves crunching beneath my feet. There was a construction site between OPM and Page Mill, accessible by a short bridge. I walked over and saw that the bridge ran over a creek that curved away under OPM and into the Stanford lands beyond. I walked down the embankment and looked back, and damned if I wasn't invisible from the road. Very nice indeed.

Under the bridge, there was a concrete wall marred with graffiti. The paint looked old, though, and in some places was only a few inches above the water line. I gathered this place was used by kids in the summer, when the nights would be warmer, the water lower or nonexistent, the area more inviting for a shared joint and adolescent fumblings or a bit of juvenile vandalism.

I walked back up to the bridge and then to the construction site. It was surrounded by a chain–link fence and full of equipment, but there were no workers and the site felt as disused as the road itself. A series of signs on the fence warned, CAUTION: GAS PIPELINE STATION 3, CITY OF PALO ALTO. In the shadows of the trees and the utter quiet, the sign and the station felt like relics, future artifacts to be encountered and puzzled over by whatever generations might discover this place long after today's drama was done.

I spent another hour walking the road, logging details, identifying backup routes, refining the plan. Then I went back to the car. It was time to go shopping.

At a place called the International Spy Shop in San Francisco, I bought a pair of Yukon Viking Pro 2x24 night-vision binoculars. At an REI sporting goods store in Mountain View, I picked up head–to–toe black Under Armour running gear—jacket, leggings, gloves; a black fleece cap; a large black fanny pack; and a roll of black photographer's tape. At a gun range called Reed's in Santa Clara, I acquired a SureFire M6 Guardian flashlight—less than eight inches long, 2.5 inches in diameter, and five hundred lumens. Finally, at a Nordstrom in a Palo Alto shopping center, I purchased a pair of Nike running shoes.

I finished at a little past three in the afternoon and, after a quick soup and sandwich at a restaurant in the shopping center, went back to the Stanford Park. I closed the drapes, turned off the lights, and checked the equipment. The night-vision binoculars illuminated everything. And the SureFire was absolutely blinding. Its light was so white and bright that even when the beam was pointed away from me, I had to squint to look at it.

I put black photographer's tape over the reflective surfaces of the Under Armour gear and the running shoes, checking it all by laying it on the bed in the dark and hitting it with the flashlight from various angles. No reflections. Then I suited up, putting the binoculars and the flashlight into the fanny pack and slipping the parka over the whole ensemble.

I drove back to Jannick's office and parked in the Ming's parking lot so I was facing Embarcadero and East Bayshore. Unless Jannick made a right on East Bayshore, which would take him in the opposite direction of his house and which was a different route than the one he'd arrived by this morning, he would pass me on his way home. But if I missed him tonight, I could always get a little more aggressive tomorrow. In fact, it was possible I'd missed him already, that he had already headed home. But I doubted it. It was only four o'clock, earlier than regular people could get off work. As for people like Jannick, with the drive and passion to start their own companies, they tend not to quit until much later. I was less concerned that he'd gone home early than I was that he might keep me waiting past midnight. But either way, again, if things didn't work today, there was always tomorrow.

Just before dark, it started to rain. That might have been good news or it might have been bad. Good, because it would make the road slippery. Bad, because maybe Jannick's wife would pick him up, or he'd get a ride home from a colleague, or otherwise leave his bike at the office. But my guess was, the weather worked to my favor. There was the windbreaker he was wearing against the cold this morning, for one thing; it would do the trick in the rain, too. And there was the determination in the personality type of an entrepreneur, for another. Yeah, something told me Jannick wasn't someone to be dissuaded by a little precipitation. The rain felt like a good omen.

It was. At just past seven-thirty, the end of a twelve–hour day, I saw the fluorescent-yellow win dbreaker and white helmet coming toward me. I checked through the night-vision binoculars to confirm. No question, it was him.

He made a right on Embarcadero. By the time I got out of the parking lot and through the light, he was too far ahead of me to see. But it was a safe bet he had stayed on Embarcadero, the same route he had used this morning. I peeled off onto the exit ramp to 101 and Page Mill. Between the car and the shorter route, I estimated I'd get to OPM ten minutes ahead of him.

I parked in an office park just north of the corner of Page Mill and Junípero Serra. I pulled on the hat and the gloves, strapped on the fanny pack, and got out. I walked for a minute, but as soon as I was clear of the car, and anyone who might have seen me leave it, I started jogging. The rain on my face was cold, and my breath fogged in the chill air, but I felt warm and insulated in the Under Armour. My heart was beating hard, not from exertion.

I got to the construction site and was pleased to find the area exceptionally dark. I could hear the patter of the rain on the road and in the creek, the white noise of it quieting the area, masking noises and reducing the distance sound could travel. I used the night-vision binoculars to scope out the road, the site, and the underside of the bridge. I was alone. I still had to be careful about an evening dog walker, or a determined jogger, or another commuting bicyclist, but overall the chances that I would have this little stretch of road to myself for the necessary moments, and that I would remain unobserved even if someone happened along, were as good as I could hope.

I set up next to the bridge by the construction site, keeping low and scanning the area through the binoculars. Everything was illuminated beautifully. The fanny pack was open, and the flashlight, like the binoculars, was getting wet, but the equipment was top quality and waterproof. I wasn't concerned.

Five minutes of waiting and scanning. And then I saw him, coming toward me on the bike path along Page Mill. I could make out his face perfectly through the night–vision magnification, all the way down to the droplets of water on his glasses. A headlight on the front of the bike showed up in the viewfinder like a glowing yellow flare.

I felt a hot rush of adrenaline through my gut, and my heart started kicking harder. I breathed in and out deeply several times and did one last scan of the area. All clear.

I dropped the binoculars into the fanny pack, pulled out the SureFire, and walked into the middle of the road. Without the night vision, I couldn't see Jannick himself, but his headlight shone like a beacon a hundred fifty yards out. One hundred. Fifty.

He slowed slightly as the bike path fed onto OPM, but he was still moving at what I guessed was close to fifteen miles an hour. More than fast enough.

Thirty yards now. I raised the SureFire to my shoulder. I closed one eye to protect it from the glare and preserve my night vision, and squinted with the other. Twenty. Ten.

Just before the forward edge of his headlight illumination reached my position, I pressed down on the flashlight's tailcap switch. Five hundred lumens hit him in the face, as momentarily bright and white as a bolt of lightning. I heard a cry of pain and surprise.

He must have instinctively hit the brakes, as I had hoped. I heard the tires skidding on the wet leaves and leaped out of the way. The headlight weaved crazily as Jannick fought to control the bike. But he was too startled, and too blinded. And the road was too wet. For an instant, the headlight gyrations grew wilder. Then the bike went over and Jannick hit the pavement.

I dropped the SureFire into the fanny pack next to the binoculars and zipped the pouch shut. I looked around, confirming once more that we were alone.

"Are you all right?" I asked, walking over. He was on his hands and knees, spitting out blood, trying to get up. He moaned, sounding as though the wind had been knocked out of him.

I walked closer, my heart hammering. "Don't try to move," I said. "You might be hurt."

He started to say something back. I didn't hear what. I stepped over him and sat down hard on his back. He grunted and collapsed to the ground. I planted my feet solidly along either side of his head, reached with both gloved hands under his chin, and arched savagely back. His neck snapped with the sound of a thick piece of dry firewood and his body spasmed under me.

I stood and immediately moved back to the bridge, where I had some concealment. I took out the binoculars again and scanned the area. No one. Then I examined the tableau before me. Jannick's bike was on its side, the headlight shining uselessly upward into the falling rain, the front wheel slowly rotating. Jannick himself remained facedown, steam rising slowly off his body, the rain continuing its indifferent patter on and around him. It looked like a freak accident: a bicyclist, going a little too fast in the dark and the wet, loses control and falls the wrong way. There was no reason to think it was anything else, and no way to prove it, either.

From 'Requiem for an Assassin,' © 2007 by Barry Eisler.

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