The Hollow Man

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Surviving Prague (Suspense & Thriller, Book Award 2023)
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A prime minister's assassination is the key to a plot to destroy Europe’s economy. It’s impossible to stop, but one man tries. He’s no hero; not clever or capable, talented or tested. He is just trying to survive in an uncertain climate where terrorism is changing the rules of how we live.
First 10 Pages


It was a dream. I am fairly certain of that now. A shadowy sixteenth-century cathedral emerged from the mist, and I found myself waiting for a funeral procession to begin. Except for a large rat that brushed past my leg, I was alone in the darkness, although it felt like someone was watching me. The tower bell tolled sharply, and each numbing stroke sucked a little more confidence from my bones, right through the muscle, and it settled like sweat on my skin. I wanted to push the melting courage back inside to strengthen my spine, but I couldn’t move. I was getting weaker by the second, and my body would no longer support the weight of my own thoughts.

The heavy timber doors of the church swung wide, and in the winter moonlight I saw a robed priest appear at the doorway. With his head bowed over scriptures for the dead, he mumbled soothing passages as he baby-stepped down three stone stairs to the ground. Six pallbearers followed him carrying their burden, solemnly gliding along the gravel path to the waiting coach and restless horses. Their footsteps made no sound on the hard surface even though they passed so close that I could smell death on the air around them. Gaunt, hollow eyes reflected heavy hearts but the men persevered to the coach where they lowered the plain casket to the earth.

The coffin was a small mahogany enclosure made for a half-grown child. The top was covered with a pale red lace that stood out against the anemic landscape. A sudden stale breeze caught the cloth and blew it into the night. A thin pallid girl of perhaps twelve sat up in the box and began clapping in time to the tolling bell. She slowly turned, pointing in my direction and I saw blood running down the side of her face from a bullet wound near the scalp. The child beckoned me toward her.

“I can help you,” she said, not quite looking at me with colorless, blind eyes.

“I’ve already told you that you can’t. No one can help me now,” I said.

“Yes,” she emphasized.


“Come closer.” She absently wiped at the blood, but it only smeared her ashen face.

“Can you stop the bell from ringing?” The sound scraped across my raw nerves.

“You’re a strange policeman,” she smiled. “Why do you still search for him?”

“You know why. He slaughtered half the British Embassy, including you and I need to find him.”

“Be careful of Chaban,” she said. “He is a creature of evil and he’s brought you here to witness his power over you.”

She stared past me into the dark night. I turned in the direction she was looking to see if someone was standing beside me, but there was no one in the blackness that swallowed us.

“Where is he?” I asked.

She suddenly frowned.

“He’s been watching the watcher for a long time now. Look behind you, not in front.”

With vacant eyes still fixed on the dead unknown, her watery figure faded to a thin wisp and blew through me leaving cold fear in its wake. My soul parted like the Red Sea and when it closed again, there was another scar. It was always the same. I needed more but she was gone.

The sound of the bell shook the emptiness twice more before the gray-black dissolved into total oblivion and I started to wake. The telephone was ringing; it hadn’t been a church bell at all. My head was heavy, and my body was barely functioning. Unsteadily, I reached for the pillow that covered the handset.


“Status?” the voice asked in English.


“Suspend surveillance on Chaban. I need you to go to morning Mass.”

“It’s Wednesday,” I said.

“It’s Madrid. People go to church every day in Spain.”

“Who’s the mark?”

“Luis Carrero Blanco.”

“The prime minister?” I stumbled over the words.

“I’m short-handed, kid,” the voice admitted. “You’re right there. You’ll do.”

I had followed dozens over the past year but none so high ranking.

“Mass is at nine o’clock,” he said. “A dossier is in the news box next to Museo del Prado.”

A thread of moonlight filtered through the window and reflected on the clock face. Still two hours until dawn. I rubbed crust from tired eyes with both hands. It had been a long time since I’d had a full night’s sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, the little girl was there waiting for me. I desperately needed to hibernate for the rest of the winter, but for now I’d have to settle for a strong cup of coffee. December had already been a long month, and it wasn’t over yet.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco himself had hand-picked a close confidant as his successor and for the last six months Luis Carrero Blanco has served as prime minister of Spain. He had fought with the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War and had quickly become one of the leader’s closest collaborators. After the Nationalist victory and installation of Franco as Supreme Commander of Spain, Blanco’s power had grown with El Caudillo’s favor. Last June when he had been appointed prime minister, Blanco had also been named top deputy to Franco. Now that the dictator’s health was failing, it was only a matter of time before Blanco assumed control of the country.

At 8:50 a.m. on December 19, 1973, I was standing across the street from San Francisco de Borja Church on Calle de Serrano, waiting for the traffic signal to change. With its large buildings and attached park, the grounds covered a city block in the heart of Madrid. The church was at its center, standing majestically in a nondescript, middle-class neighborhood. Separated by a wide passage on the right, the monastery and office complex occupied a five-story, U-shaped structure with an inner balcony overlooking a courtyard. To the left lay an unattended tract of land with a dozen barren trees irregularly clumped amid several rough patches that I believe someone once called a lawn but it was now decayed and brown from neglect. The park had become a casualty of the dry Spanish winter and big-city pollution.

The inside of the church was not unlike a thousand other Catholic churches across Europe. The altar boasted an elaborate backdrop ornately fashioned from gold and other precious metals brought back from the New World. The nave floors and pews were made of beautiful padouk wood from Southeast Africa. But the dossier noted San Francisco de Borja’s most prized possessions were its collection of sacred relics. In the treasury lay the full body of a mummified saint in holy dress and an assortment of fingers and tongues from martyrs who had stuck out an appendage a bit too far in mixed company.

Somewhere there also had to be the proverbial strip of wood salvaged from the table at the Last Supper. Every church had one, a chunk of blackened cedar or cypress nailed to a wall where every tourist might stand in awe of its place in history. If all the pieces could have been somehow reassembled, the dinner table would have been massive. I imagined Christ yelling down a hundred-meter table to Peter or John, “I said pass the potatoes, not the tomatoes! Oh, never mind!”

I was brought back to reality and no doubt from the brink of eternal damnation for my thoughts by the short, ball-shaped figure of Luis Carrero Blanco walking along the prayer alcoves lining the side of the main hall. He wore an expensive cream-colored business suit and had a flamboyant stride but what impressed me most were his bushy eyebrows which preceded him by two paces. Accompanied by his full-time bodyguard, Police Inspector Juan Fernandez, Blanco genuflected and crossed himself before settling into the second row.

Seeing a single bodyguard with a top-ranking official was not all that uncommon these days in Europe but this pair seemed more like old friends. They sat shoulder to shoulder and spoke quietly, exchanging soft smiles. The two men had been together for many years, and perhaps a little complacency had set in. After all, the last head of state assassinated in Western Europe was back in 1934. Those were wild times. Today, the world was much more civilized, and Franco was certainly in control of his own country. With harsh restrictions on personal liberties, any disruption under existing martial law would have been unthinkable.

I turned toward a hand on my shoulder.

“Sir, I see you are English,” said an unshaven man standing over me. His speech was heavily accented but understandable. The man wore a light brown wool overcoat that would have flopped open had he not held it together with fists in his pockets. Heavy boots and a pair of loose-fitting broadcloth pants made me think he may have been a farm worker. The hair around his cap was shiny black, though flecks of gray dotted his beard stubble, and I guessed his age was close to fifty. He was uncomfortable, apologetic standing next to the pew.

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” I said.

“Ah, yes, American. My first thought,” he confirmed to himself.

I wondered why Americans were so easily identified wherever we went. I prided myself in disappearing within the thin cultural fabric of a country no matter where I found myself but obviously, I was still being schooled on exactly how to blend into the surroundings. These lessons were important for a humble government tourist like me. Be invisible or be dead. There was no in-between when one was finding people who did not want to be found, watching people who did not want to be watched, and learning from those who did not want to teach.

“Mass is beginning.” I tapped a finger to my lips.

Pushing me down the pew with his body, the Spaniard slid in beside me and crossed himself. We sat in silence, pretending to listen to the liturgy. I heard a heavy rattle in his breath above the priest’s Latin. He was a man who needed a cigarette. For some reason, that bothered me but his five-day stubble really irritated me, mostly because it took me forever to grow facial hair. Even then, my cheek would still be as barren as the top of an old pirate’s head and feel as smooth as a French prostitute’s thigh.

“I’m a poor student. I don’t have any money,” I whispered.

“I know what you are.” My eyes snapped in his direction but the Spaniard was intent on the sermon as the priest professed something in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Finally, he said, “Tell America that España will soon be free again.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know as well as me, young one. Do not make us send you home in a box.” He smiled. “We are no threat unless we’re threatened.” He crossed himself and rose to leave.

“Do you mean because Franco’s ill and he’ll die soon?”

“I thought you were smarter,” he sighed. The man stared down at me for a long time before turning away.

It wasn’t far from the truth when I said I had no idea what he was saying. Since arriving in Spain the week before, my entire focus was on tracking the man who recently held an embassy for ransom and I was so close I could smell his aftershave. But early this morning I was jerked off course and ended up in church sitting next to a misinformed lunatic. I needed time to figure out why I was now babysitting a prime minister.

Mass ended before I could feel sorry for myself or my circumstances. Blanco leisurely but deliberately moved back down the aisle toward the front of the church. Like those around me, I made the sign of the cross as I rose, pretending I knew what I was doing. But to get it right, I relied on a phrase I had been taught in the school yard as a kid, “spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch.”

By the time I reached the door, the two men were climbing into the back of a Spanish-made Dodge Dart 3700 GT. To many, a compact automobile would have been an absurd choice for an armored car on the streets of New York or Chicago, but in Europe with its narrow lanes and tight corners designed for horse-drawn carriages and pedestrian traffic, this small car was the perfect choice. While shielding its occupants against imaginable harm with more than 3,000 additional kilos of steel plating and reinforced glass, the Dodge offered both agility and speed to navigate the congested inner city.

The car pulled away from the curb and rolled down Calle de Serrano, past the one-way Calle de Maldonado that dumped out traffic in front of me. I followed lazily on foot, not really thinking about what I would do now. As the car reached the next intersection at Calle de Juan Bravo, it turned left. I thought the driver might be using the maze of one-way streets to circle back to the government offices along Av. de Burgos. On a whim, I cut over on Maldonado and ran nearly to the next block before stopping to catch my breath at Calle de Claudio Coello. I was bent over and exhaling heavily as the Dodge cruised by. Luis Carrero Blanco met my eyes for one slow-motion second, and then the vehicle was gone.


Thursday started out overcast and much chillier than the day before having dipped to 1oC overnight. I was beginning to regret not bringing my gloves and scarf as a cold gust cut through my long coat. The bitter weather reminded me of winters growing up in Chicago. No matter which way I turned, the swirling wind was still in my face. The frigid air seeped through my clothes and froze muscle as hard as bone.

I was glad to see the inside of San Francisco de Borja, not that it was much warmer but at least the sharp bite was gone. Blowing on my cold, dead fingers did little to soothe them. I felt like one of the relics near the altar and thought about lighting a few prayer candles to heat my frozen hands, but a large man was kneeling in the alcove having a serious conversation with his faith. The oversized cross on the wall above his head reminded me it was probably not a great idea to disturb him in the off chance his appeal was actually a dialogue. I pulled open my coat and stuffed numb fists into the thin warmth of my jeans pockets.

I was late for Mass and Blanco was already in his usual second-row pew with Fernandez. An early morning meeting with an informant within Franco’s inner circle had thrown off my schedule, but it had been worth it. The man had told me that because King Alfonso XIII had gone into exile without abdicating when civil war erupted, Franco has technically been ruling as Regent to the King since his victory.

Without royalty on the throne, he was only able to govern by the grace of a sovereign coalition which continued to support the Nationalists. However, the group had most recently been growing restless. It was now time to bring a Spanish king home and Blanco’s directive was to restore the monarchy to its former glory. But the new prime minister didn’t seem the least bit interested in giving up his recently acquired power and so far he had resisted the mounting pressures. This information added to what I’d already learned.

The hours had slipped away the prior day while I had examined the prime minister’s life. The dossier had been good but nowhere near complete. I had buried myself in library microfiche reading everything I could find concerning Blanco. In putting together the puzzle pieces, I had seen where his thoughts lived and I had discovered what scared him. I had been introduced to his few friends and his many enemies. As a man, he was overbearing, arrogant and dogmatic with a taste for control when it came to other human beings.

Apart from his own actions, spreading political and economic discord had further damaged Blanco’s popularity. The Madrid news agency Sabado had been printing a number of leftist bylines criticizing the lagging economy and El Mundo had just broken the story that he received threatening letters over the past week because of an upcoming trial for ten minor political dissidents. The men had been identified by a mole within their ranks as a group to be monitored. It wasn’t known how they had jumped so quickly from Spain’s watch list to accusations of civil crimes against the government but with their arraignment only two weeks away, the impending trial had attracted more than a little grassroots attention and it had all been negative.

While the priest offered communion, I moved to the aisle on the far side out of direct sight of the nave and walked closer to the altar. Blanco and Fernandez were the last to accept the sacrament and slowly walked to their seats as I reached the front. I sat in a pew opposite them and listened as the priest ended the concluding rite with a few announcements regarding the upcoming Christmas holiday and asked us to remember the poor and downtrodden during this time of year.

As soon as the priest was gone, I moved quickly into the center aisle to beat the crowd outside. I wanted to see how the common masses related to Blanco and how he responded to them. But when I looked up, the Spaniard from yesterday was standing at the back of the nave watching me. His gaze was so piercing it stopped me dead in the aisle.

A cold dread wrapped around me, sending shivers down my spine as he slowly crossed himself. A long sigh parted his thick lips. Disappointment lined his face. What are you trying to tell me, old man? What?

A heavyset woman walked into me from behind and pushed me aside, muttering to herself. She was dressed in black and walked bent over a wooden cane. Her gait and rounded back vaguely reminded me of a beetle waddling home.

I looked back for the Spaniard but he was already going through the front of the church. As the thick door slammed behind him, a cold burst of air filled the hall with a foreboding of the weather outside. Not waiting for the prime minister, I buttoned my coat, braced against the chill and pushed through the main doors.

The armored Dodge was idling at the curb and the driver waited on the sidewalk beside the rear fender. I turned left, then left again on Calle de Maldonado following the Spaniard. The space between us grew; he moved fast for an old man. I thought of yesterday’s conversation as I strained to catch up. Something had troubled me about the exchange but I couldn’t decide what it was.

I was coming up on mid-block when I heard the rattle of the Dodge’s powerful engine pass through the intersection behind me and suddenly I knew what it was. I walked faster as the Spaniard disappeared on Calle de Claudio Coello.

The prime minister’s car crossed in front of me not more than twenty meters away, moving casually around a double-parked taxi near the intersection. I started to run as a deafening explosion catapulted me backward over a row of parked cars.