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Authors: Andrew Vachss


BOOK: Signwave
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The Burke Series



Blue Belle

Hard Candy



Down in the Zero

Footsteps of the Hawk

False Allegations

Safe House

Choice of Evil

Dead and Gone

Pain Management

Only Child

Down Here

Mask Market


Another Life

The Aftershock Series



The Cross Series


Urban Renewal

Other Novels


The Getaway Man

Two Trains Running


The Weight

That's How I Roll

A Bomb Built in Hell

Short Story Collections

Born Bad

Everybody Pays

Mortal Lock

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Vachss

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House, Ltd., Toronto.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Vachss, Andrew H.

SignWave : an Aftershock novel / Andrew Vachss.

pages; cm

ISBN 978-1-101-87044-0 (hardcover).

ISBN 978-1-101-87045-7 (eBook).

I. Title.

PS3572.A33S54 2015           813′.54—dc23            2014043378

eBook ISBN 9781101870457

Cover photograph:
Grave of Abelard
by Paul Thulin

Cover design by Evan Gaffney Design



who walked his last Vertical Patrol
to the topmost floor


lways an icy realist, Olaf knew he was too badly wounded to move, even if any of our team had remained behind to help. And the medic had been so panic-stricken that he'd forgotten to drop his kit before running for his life.

“Those who manage to return to base, each will have his own story to tell, but they all will match. Lying is the Esperanto of cowards.”

Olaf spoke as he always did, in the confidently commanding tone of a surgeon ordering a nurse to hand him a scalpel. He never needed volume to get others to listen—if you had any sense, you just moved closer.

Even now, sprawled on the jungle floor with his life bleeding away, his voice was devoid of anger or bitterness. Assuring me he knew how to die quietly—it wouldn't be
screams that would bring the enemy closer.

All terrorists operate off the same premise: People can never find answers in the center of their own fear. Stampeding sheep will follow those ahead of them, even if it's into a waiting slaughterhouse.

But not all human minds are programmed the same way. An injection of terror will cause an instant response in us all, but that response runs full-spectrum. Some will run; some will freeze in place, closing their eyes as a child would: “You can't see me if I can't see you.” It's not that people can't think when they're frightened, it's that they can't think

This knowledge is not useful unless a fear injection takes you
beyond reasoning. Some of us respond as we've been trained to respond.
“Ne pensez pas!”
our instructors would scream at us, again and again, over and over. They knew fear was inevitable; their task was to make certain it would not control us—shooting a running man in the back is not much more difficult than shooting one too terrified to run at all. So they drilled the “correct” response into us until we became Pavlovian dogs of war.

“La peur, c'est votre alliée. C'est elle qui vous titille gentiment les nerfs pour vous signaler l'approche de l'ennemi. Elle ne cherche pas s'installer, mais si vous lui ouvrez la porte, alors c'en est fini de votre alliance.”

I could translate that easily enough:

“Fear is your friend, lightly tapping on your nerves to warn you the enemy is approaching. It does not seek entrance. If you invite it in, it will no longer be your friend.”

La Légion wasn't teaching us to protect ourselves; it was protecting its investment. We were none of us individuals. We were, all of us, disposable. But to create such disposables was time-consuming, labor-intensive work. The fewer of us they had to replace, the more value they got from their investment.

Their method was to program us as you would machines. To instill in us a sequence of reactions that left no room for thought. The better the soldier was programmed, the more reliable he would be considered. In a
, “reliable” and “valuable” were one and the same.

A distant sniper, a foamy-mouthed lunatic swinging a machete, the sound of an approaching vehicle…all the same. A trained soldier's response to danger is as instinctive as a mother's when her child is threatened.

Some mothers, anyway.

But the medic wasn't a former
, just another hired hand. Maybe he didn't drop his kit because he was too frightened
to realize that the extra weight would slow his retreat. Or maybe he was thinking he might need it for himself if he wanted to

Whatever his reasons, the result was the same: there were no more morphine syrettes to ease the dying man's last minutes—he'd used all of his immediately after the first bullet dropped him. I'd waited until the pain became deadlier than any bullet before I'd plunged all of mine high on his arm, just past the collarbone.


e started with eight men,” he said. “I don't know how many they had. It doesn't matter—each side will tell the same lies.”

I didn't interrupt him; he was using his inner calm to open his receptors to the fading morphine, and I didn't know how much mileage was left on his life's odometer.

“Three of us survived. If the other two get back to base, they will report dozens of the guerrillas attacked us.”

I didn't want to correct him, but I needed to make sure he wasn't already out of his head from the pain: if he lost control, he might scream, and then I'd have to finish him myself. “Four survivors,” I reminded him. “Four dead. Two ran, leaving the two of us behind.”

“There will be only one of us,” he said, his tone telling me that he wasn't talking to himself. “Were I not so certain the enemy will report we had
trapped—perhaps three separate squads working a triangle kill—I would have told you to follow the cowards.”

“I don't—”

“You understand perfectly.” The blade of his quiet voice easily separated the tissue of the lie I was about to weave. “I will die here, right in this spot. No rescue team is coming. Our
commanders are not back at base. To the men with the money, we are all the same. To risk an entire squad to save a pair of us—especially if one could not be moved without extra equipment—that would violate their basic rule.”

He was an educated man, much older than me. Too old for this life.

“Then why am I still here?” I asked.

“That, I do not know. But for that gift, I am in your debt.”

“Gift? I am only—”

“Stop! No man wants to die alone. You know this. To stay, that is your gift to me. I do not question your motives; do not question my logic. Just listen to the truth; it is all of value I have left. We are what the world calls ‘mercenaries.' Professional soldiers. We fight not for country or cause—we fight for pay.

“For us, ‘fight' and ‘kill,' those are the same. Whatever you fail to kill will not fail to kill
. So we keep killing until the paymasters have achieved their objective—whatever that may be. Then we are discharged.

“You understand, yes? A rifle is discharged until its magazine is empty. Then another magazine is slapped into place. But when there are no more magazines, the rifle itself is discarded. When all you can do is flee, weight becomes still another enemy. As mine is now to you.”


laf turned slightly away from me, to release some of the blood pooling inside his body.

“I speak English because I know you could not be an ex-
and a native Frenchman both. I know you are not following that fraudulent ‘code' of theirs…that sworn oath to never abandon your dead, your wounded, or your weapons. You left them, so you must have learned why that ‘code' was drilled into you. Who it was
meant to protect.

“We are hired killers, but to kill is nothing. It says nothing; it means nothing. No skill is required. Not even intent.”

He twisted his body once again, a reaction to pain that never reached his face or changed his voice.

“To be paid for your work does not make you a professional. Amateurs are everywhere among us. They confuse the capability of their tools with capabilities of their own. They shoot their rifles, launch their missiles, drop their bombs. Their targets are some amorphous ‘enemy.' They do not interview the dead, they count bodies. And one body's value is the same as another's.”

I showed my palm, telling him to stop talking—every word would only shorten his time. Either he didn't see my gesture or he ignored it: his voice never changed tone, as inexorable as his forthcoming death.

“If the amateur survives enough of these little wars, others will regard him as a professional. And they take care to never call him what he is: another tool, manipulated by hands he will never see, the hands of men seated at a table where no chair is reserved for him.”

There was something in his voice that told me I would not have wanted to be one of those who had manipulated the man dying next to me. Especially not
close to him—Olaf was a walking cobra, never without snap-out spikes taped to the underside of both wrists. The spikes were not much thicker than a pencil; they had a black-anodized sheath with a knurled handle, divided near the top so a thumbnail could send the venom-tipped fang on its mission. The fangs themselves were works of death-art: triangular to provide three cutting edges and a ripsaw effect when twisted, so no need for blood grooves. Why he called them his “scribes,” I never knew.

“Outside these wars we are paid to fight, there are those who kill for other reasons. Some noble, some justified, some in self-defense. And some to quench their own repulsive needs. Such foul creatures are never satisfied, no matter what they do
to the helpless. For them, a kill is a meal…some more satisfying than others.

“Those kind, they take trophies; they leave signatures. When captured—and they always are—they talk. Some are cowards, who fear pain as much as they loved inflicting it. In some countries—‘civilized' countries,” he said, hardening his voice to be sure I didn't miss the sarcasm—“they might trade what they know for less time in prison. Some talk because that is the only gratification left to them: they count their victims in their heads as others would count money in their hands.”

“Not here.”

“No, not here. We are soldiers. If you heed my words, you will remember this, always: A soldier is paid to take orders. An assassin is paid to take lives.”

“What we are called—”

“Not the names we are
, no. Those are as false as the mythic reasons we are given to come to places like this. You know I am Norwegian—do you think I fight for the glory of Odin?”

Blood was bubbling around his mouth, but I knew that he wasn't really asking a question, so I let him go on.

“Soldiers and assassins. Both kill. Both are paid. But only the assassin—the
assassin—understands his place in the universe.

“You might think this jungle is a lawless place, but laws are only words on paper. The assassin understands that mathematics is the only true law…always present, no matter the situation. Physics and kinetics are intuitive to the assassin—the inverse relationship between certainty of success and certainty of escape. Not merely to escape the scene of the act itself, to escape its consequences.”


could see life ooze out through the field bandages I had pressed against his wounds.

I had acted quickly, with precision and skill…but without faith. I had been taught both sides of that lesson years ago, when I was still a boy. Still the property of La Légion.

“Escape is
a three-stage process,” he said, still as soft-spoken as if he was using a microphone inside a lecture hall instead of lying in a blood-leeching jungle, awaiting his last visitor. “First, not to be caught in the act; second, not to be discovered by an analysis of evidence; third, not to be betrayed.

“Betrayal may be as focused as a sniper's bullet, or as blind as a bomb dropped in darkness—they are equally lethal.

“Evidence of assassination has no meaning. All this nonsense about disguising death—cutting a brake line so a car will crash, faking an accident—that is for the cinema. Worse, if it fails, it warns the target. And the payment for an assassin who fails is not money.

“In Asia, natives will come upon the torn body of one of their comrades. They may look closely enough to say with certainty, ‘A tiger did this.' But they cannot say

“So if a known tiger is missing a claw, or a tooth, they can analyze the evidence more closely. They may even name the killer: ‘Old One-Fang did this.' But that knowledge brings them no closer to his capture.

“Why? Because tigers do not answer to names. And tigers always work alone. A tiger's motive is not to kill; it is to feed. A tiger will always be a tiger—any other belief is superstitious babble. The tiger is as indifferent to an analysis of what it has left behind as it is immune to betrayal. It can detect a target without being seen. It carries no weapons—it
a weapon.

“The assassin has learned from the tiger—all martial arts came from the study of animal behavior. So the assassin knows:
The closer to the target, the greater the possibility of success. But also the greater the chance of capture at the scene. And the greater the distance to safety. Polar opposites.

“Are you listening?
The assassin need not be close to his target. He may leave no trace of his presence. But he always remains vulnerable until he reaches the highest evolution of his profession—the point where he has no comrades. The finest assassin always works alone. He works outside those deadly snares of emotion and personal need. Like the tiger, an assassin kills only to feed…not his belly, his bank account.”


shifted position slightly.

No tigers roamed this jungle, no assassins threatened us. But my habits were too deeply ingrained to be abandoned. Just as darkness could impair my vision, it would sharpen my hearing—only certain creatures moved in the night.

And I knew I would always
the presence of others. So I knew we were still alone—what I couldn't know was for how long.

“The assassin's ranking is measured by his longevity. And the single factor most determinant of longevity is to be anonymous,” the man said.

He did not reach for my hand, as some would have done. He used both of his to push against the bandages, as if he could prevent his life from escaping. Not to stay alive longer, to finish his lecture: Olaf was a man who paid his debts.


he assassin understands misdirection. He knows that to use the same tools—or even the same method—will eventually attract the attention of those who hunt by pattern recognition.

BOOK: Signwave
6.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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