The Way I Die
By Derek Haas
Pegasus Crime, 2018
This is the fifth novel to feature the world-class contract killer Columbus, once known as the Silver Bear (the term Russians use for assassins who earn top dollar because their shots never miss). It’s also the title of Derek Haas’ tight, swift debut thriller from 2008. The Way I Die begins with Columbus living on Mackinac Island, a remote place off the northern Michigan coast. He has retreated there to mourn the murder of his beloved wife, Risina, and the son he sent away, in A Different Lie from 2015, to be brought up by someone with a less objectionable lifestyle.
Columbus has reinvented himself as Copeland and spends his days avoiding his neighbors and contemplating his death. Riddled with guilt and pain ever since losing his family, he is obsessed with all the ways he could die:
The way I die is a shotgun in my mouth, my finger on the trigger.
The way I die is a knife under the ribs, a knife in my belly, a
knife across my throat.
My cottage is in British Landing, on the northern tip of the island,
Isolated from isolation….For the darkness I brought to innocent
people, God demands pain.
The way I die is exposure. The way I die is thirty feet from the
back door of this island cottage, frozen to death, a coat, snow
pants, boots within a stone’s throw.
I had a family; I have no family. I had a son; I have no son.
I am Copeland. I am Columbus.
The way I die is forgotten and alone.
He’s tracked down by Archibald “Archie” Grant, his former fence (the person who does the preliminary research on the mark). Archie who has survived a long time in the killing game and “is the best at what he does,” offers him a different kind of job. Archie wants Columbus/Copeland to protect Matthew Boone, a tech billionaire, and his two motherless sons. Boone has developed facial-recognition software that would effectively eliminate any spy’s ability to stay under the radar, and everyone worth their salt and scary wants it. When Boone won’t sell the code, a contract is taken out on him. A friend of a friend of Boone’s has asked Archie for advice:
“What can I do about this?” He asks me.… Will I find out where it’s coming from because apparently this nerd’s got some enemies. You play in the Eastern European sandbox, you gonna get bullies kicking sand in your face…. Running and hiding ain’t an option for this guy, so I’m told. He has a business to run. ‘So what can we do?’ the acquaintance asks me. I tell him ‘What your boy needs is protection.… Your boy needs a hit man of his own…. You need a Silver Bear…. You need Columbus.”
“I’m a killer.”
“You were.… I’m offering you a chance to be a protector. Which from where I’m sitting might be exactly what you need.”
The first order of business is to get rid of Boone’s current security “expert” Max Finnerich, who Archie knows is woefully inadequate. Columbus is to fly out to Boone’s lair in Portland to protect Boone and his family more proactively, to put a fine point on it, than Finnerich and his crew are doing. It doesn’t take long for Columbus to penetrate Finnerich’s desultory defenses and mercilessly embarrass him. He talks himself into Boone’s confidence and earns his trust when he shows off his deadly set of skills in a real, life-threatening situation. He kills two armed men who turn up at Boone’s house. He also bonds, so to speak, with a very attractive Irish lady, Peyton Martin, an ex-cop who is the only savvy member of Boone’s security detail.
Columbus comes to realize that the only way he’ll ever truly protect Boone and his kids is to identify and neutralize the assassin and the client who hired him in the first place. He knows he can’t do it without Archie who is going to do what he excels at: ferret out the hit man aimed at Boone:
“How bad is it? Who is coming for him?”
“I’m working on that. In the meantime, he needs someone looking out for him and those boys. Keep everyone alive until I backchannel this shit, Copeland. That’s what he needs. It’s what you need too.”
I don’t know how long he lets me shake my head, but eventually it melts into a nod…. Archie is the original smart bomb. I know he’s manipulating me but he’s impossible to resist.
Meanwhile, through Archie, Columbus gets to confront the fence the job went through, Ezra Loeb. It doesn’t take much persuasion for him to give Columbus what he needs to know—two names. He does so because the client is evil personified and the contract killer is psychotic. Loeb is terrified of them.
Archie and Columbus come up with a plan to take out the contract killer and “meet” with the client. The client has a mansion in London, so Columbus heads there. He can’t carry weapons on the plane but of course he knows a guy:
A scrounger named Olmstead. An expert at finding whatever a contract killer needs to complete his job, from counterfeit money to forged art work to perfect replicas of uniforms, IDs, licenses, badges. The little pieces of a plan that gets an assassin through a door, past a guard, into a hallway, invisible, undetected, free to make his kill and escape…. His collection is like a museum of deception… He’s kept this business thriving by his ingenuity and his dedication. He’s the best scrounger in the world.
In a novel with a roster of intriguing characters I must admit that Olmstead is one of my favorites. As all the pieces in play come together: they uncover a mole in Boone’s organization that is the final nail in the client’s coffin. It’s all they need to eliminate the threat at its source.
The Way I Die is a hard-hitting, gripping, thriller. “You’re not going to like me when this is over,” Columbus warns his readers. Don’t count on it, you won’t be able to avert your eyes from a single riveting scene and you’ll be thoroughly charmed by him in the process.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.