Death Will Have Your Eyes

A Novel about Spies


By James Sallis

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Mulholland Books takes pleasure in restoring to print an acclaimed novel of espionage and suspense by the author of Drive.

David (as he’s currently known) was a member of an elite corps of spies trained during the coldest days of the Cold War. For almost a decade he has been out of the game, working as a sculptor. Then a phone call in the middle of the night awakens him: the only other survivor from that elite corps has gone rogue. David is tasked with stopping him.

What ensues is an existential cat-and-mouse game played out across the American landscape, through the diners and motels that dot the terrain like green plastic houses on a Monopoly board. Both a suspenseful novel of pursuit and a thematically rich exploration of the mind of a spy, Death Will Have Your Eyes is a contemporary classic of the espionage genre.


Chapter One

THE MAN KEPT opening his mouth, wanting something from me, but it was a language I didn't know. Not Mandarin. Not Thai or Vietnamese. Only sounds. His voice rose and fell in pitch. Shouting, demanding. I shook my head, the sour, foul smell of my own body washing up over me in waves, tongue so swollen I could not talk, could not respond. Soon the pain would start again. And I would rise, hover near the ceiling looking down. Watching. Apart.

I woke suddenly, rushing to exchange the currency of dreams for coin I could spend. Morning light fell dazzlingly through the skylight onto the futon. Those wide shadows were not bars or slats in a cage—only the leaves of plants in hanging baskets up there. That sound was only the phone.

Nothing else in the room. No windows. The futon, a painted bamboo screen against one wall, an expanse of blond wood floor—tongue and groove I'd put in myself. About as close as the real world gets to the ordered simplicity of oriental drawings.

No one else, either. Only Gabrielle and myself.

She slept crosswise on the futon, my head cradled in her lap. Trying to get away from the light, I turned over. "Oh yes, please," she said. But obviously the phone was not going to quit ringing, so I snaked along the bed to answer it. Gabrielle grabbed me as I went by and held on.

I listened for a moment and hung up. "Wrong number," I told her. "I've got your number," she said, head moving to replace her hand, but I stopped her, wrapping black hair around both my hands and pulling her up into a slow, easy kiss.

"I'm going for a run," I said. "Get the sludge out. Want to come along?"

"At six in the bleedin' morning'?"

With Gabby you never knew what accent you might get. Her features came mostly from an Irish mother and patrician Mexican father, but her extended family was pure goulash. Dad left when she was three, and she and her mother spent years shuttling from household to household, family to family, country to country. This early morning, the accent was British, a better choice than most, I suppose, for gradations of polite outrage.

"Okay, but don't say I didn't ask. So go back to sleep now, my little peasant."


"Peasant. Half an hour, tops, even with a head wind. I'll bring breakfast."

"And here I thought you were breakfast."

"Miss, have you considered taking up a hobby?"

"No time for it."

"That was my point."

She shrugged. "One stays with what one's good at. Run along now," she said, and was asleep again before I got shorts and shoes on.

I stood watching her a moment—her compact brown body against light blue sheets, breasts just a little too heavy, rib cage set high—then went into the bathroom. Turned on the radio there. It was Mozart, a serenade performed on "original" instruments which the musicians wrestled valiantly to bring into tune. Thousands upon thousands of dollars, thousands upon thousands of hours, had been expended on this bogus authenticity, these elaborate counterfeits. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then stood at the window looking out till the piece was over. One doesn't hang up on Mozart.

There were few others in the park that early: a handful of runners and dog walkers; one young mother who looked remarkably like Shirley Temple pushing a pram; another trotting along with three children at her heels, all of them androgynous looking and none over five years old; street people starting off on their day's boundless odyssey. Birds and squirrels worried at yesterday's leavings, perhaps hoping their investigations would help them understand these huge, dangerous beings that lived in their midst.

I swung around the park's perimeter in an easy jog, following an asphalt bike path, and stopped at a pay phone on the far side, the kind of old-fashioned booth you rarely see anymore. There I dialed a number I still knew all too well. It was picked up on the first ring.

"Age has slowed you, perhaps."

"As you must realize, I was in no hurry to return this call. At first, I was not even sure that I wanted to respond at all. And after eight years—"

"Actually, it just slipped over the edge into nine."

"—I believed it likely that whatever business you think you have with me could wait a few more minutes."

"Perhaps. However, your plane departs at ten or thereabouts. American, Flight eight seventeen. You are Dr. John Collins, a dentist on vacation."



"It has been, as you say, nine years. I have a career, a new life, commitments."

Silence still.

"I am no longer in your employ."

A still longer silence. Then finally: "It will be good to see you again, David."

I hung up and ran back the way I'd come, pushing myself now. A light breeze was coming up, and full sunlight struck the artificial lake at a slant, tossing off sheets of glare. Birds and squirrels didn't seem any closer to understanding us. Neither did I.

They were waiting by the benches about halfway around, in a space partially screened by trees. You wouldn't be able to see much, here, either from the street or adjacent apartments. So some thought had gone into it, at least.

One was in jeans, black sweatshirt and British Knights, twentyish, a broad, pale-complected man with bad skin. His head kept tic-ing convulsively towards his right shoulder, crossing and recrossing the same minute, almost imperceptible arc. The other was maybe ten years older, wearing what had once been an expensive suit, with a chambray dress shirt frayed to white at the cuff and loose threads at the collar, and a knit tie with the knot tugged down to his breastbone. Lank brown hair tucked behind his ears.

"Your money, sir?" the younger one said, stepping in front of me. "Don't mean to hurt you. This can all be over within half a minute, you want."

Chest heaving, heart throwing itself again and again against rib cage, I sank onto one of the benches. A placard alongside documented this as STATION NINE (9). Pictographs indicated that I was to restretch muscles and tendons, check my pulse against my own personal MHR, perform ten to twenty deep knee bends.

"… Minute," I said. Then, catching my breath: "I don't carry money when I'm running, boys. Better pick another pigeon."

"Done got our pigeon." The older one. He raked straying hair behind one ear with the open fingers of his hand. Ran his nose quickly along that coat sleeve. It was slick already from prior crossings. "Just got to fry it up now. Drumsticks."

I glanced briefly at him, and when I did, the younger one made his move.

With amateurs, it's always easier when there's more than one. Then you can use them effectively against each other, the same way you use an attacker's own momentum against him in classic judo. That's the physical part. But they also get overconfident: safety in numbers and all that. And even those who know something about what they're doing can get sloppy or, hesitating to check on the other one, let down their guard for that essential brief second.

With these guys I swiveled into a basic high-low, unwinding like a spring, low and moving inexorably rightward to take out the younger one with a sideways blow to the knee as I spun past, then on past the older one, coming in high and behind as he was looking down to see what happened to his partner, watching him crumple from an open-handed blow just below the third cervical vertebra as I went past.

I followed the arc out to its natural stop and straightened, concerned. You never lose the reflexes, but the edge fades on you. You lose the exact touch, where imperceptible gradations can mean the difference between stunning an adversary and permanently damaging him. I was afraid I might have come down a little too hard.

But apparently not. If anything, from my concern over going in too hard and fast—when I shouldn't have been thinking at all, simply reacting—I'd held back. The older guy had already climbed to his feet and was staggering towards me with a hunting knife he'd tugged out of his boot.

I felt all consciousness of self melt away, felt myself dissolving into motion, reflex, reaction.

The knife clattered onto cement and he lay in a grassy patch beside a bench, elbow shattered, face draining of color.

"Please," he said. "Oh shit. Please."

I stood there a moment. Yesterday, even an hour ago, what had just happened would not have. I'd have handed over whatever money I had, talked to them. Or simply run. And yesterday, even an hour ago, once it had happened, I would have called the police and awaited them. I'd spent years trying to turn myself off, shut the systems down, before I was finally successful. And now the switch had been thrown again: deep within myself, whether or not I wished it, whether or not I accepted it, I was again active, and on standing orders.

So I left the muggers there, knowing they were people with complicated histories and frustrated needs like my own and probably didn't deserve what had happened to them, and went home to Gabrielle.

She stumbled into the kitchen just as I was finishing breakfast, wearing one of my T-shirts, which hit her midthigh, and white socks that had started off at the knee and now were bulky anklets. She took the cup of tea I handed her, looked at my face and said, "What's wrong, Dave? Something has happened."

"Sit down." I slid a plate of buttered rye toast, fruit and cheese in front of her. Ceramic plate, thrown on a wheel near Tucson, signed by the artist, all brilliant blues and deep greens. I sat opposite her with my own tea, in a mug from the same set.

"This is going to be difficult."

"Yeah, looks that way. But we've been through a lot together. And we've always handled it."

"Nothing like this, G, believe me."

I looked at the window, wondering how the birds and squirrels were doing, then at her face. So familiar, so filled with meaning for me. So open to me now.

"Everything you know about me, everything you think you know, is false."

"No," she said.

"Yes. I have to tell you that much, have to insist on it. But for good reason I can't tell you more, not now. Now I have to ask you to do something for me, to do it immediately and without question."

After a moment she nodded.

"I want you to pack whatever you absolutely must have and I want you to go away. Not back to your apartment, but somewhere—anywhere—else. Preferably out of the city. I don't want to know where you are. In a week, a month, whenever I can, if I can, I'll come and find you."

"It would be easier if I knew why, Dave."

"Yes. It would."

"But I don't have to know."

She was away maybe ten minutes and came back into the kitchen with a huge over-the-shoulder bag and one small suitcase. I sat at the table and drank my tea, looked out the window. Heard sirens nearby, then, as though just an echo, others far away. Watched an ambulance pull up at a brownstone down the street, lights sweeping.

"Well," she said.

"You're an extraordinary woman, Gabrielle. I love you, you know."

"Yes. You do."

And she was gone.

Outside, several million lives went on as though nothing had happened.

After a while I walked through the archway into the studio. Began capping tubes and cans of paint, turning off burners and hot plates under pots of wax, soft metals, glue. It would be a long time before I came back here, if I came back at all.

At one end of the long room, by the windows, sat the piece I'd been working on, a forbidding mass of mixed materials—burlap, clay, metals, wood, paper—from which a shape struggled to release itself. You could feel the physicality, the sheer exertion, the intensity, of that struggle. I threw a tarp over it and as the tarp descended, the sculpture's form, what I'd been seeking, what I'd been trying to uncover for so long, came to me all at once: suddenly I could see it.

Chapter Two

AWAKE IN A MOTEL room at two in the morning, thinking of Gabrielle.

I'd flown straight through to St. Louis, then by connecting flight to Memphis, where at debarkation a message, and this room, awaited Dr. Collins. Ate dinner, something called a "patty melt" held in place on the plate by barricades of french fries smelling of fish, at a Denny's two blocks away, since there was nothing else close by; came back to the room with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and watched half a cable movie about a Pole who'd shoehorned his way into the KGB. Then I pulled a book out of my bag but, distracted by memory as much as by the present, finally gave that up as well.

My room was on the second floor, with a sweeping view of the approach: parking lot, street, strip of bars and second-string businesses opposite. The motel itself backed up flush against another building. Once (and still, I supposed) we had hundreds of such safe rooms spread about the continental U.S. and most of Western Europe. Its stairs were cement and steel. They rumbled like distant thunder or a muted percussion section, bass drums, kettles, gongs, whenever someone mounted them.

At this hour only an occasional truck passed outside, but the smell of auto exhaust lingered, so many olfactory ghosts. Behind that, a verdant smell, compounded of pecan and magnolia trees, stretches of bright green grass, honeysuckle, mildew, mold: Delta land was rich land. Still farther back, at some level, sensory awareness of the river itself. The bottom two inches of my window were permanently ajar, the aluminum frame immovable. Smells, sound and moonlight spilled over its rim into my room. Including, once, the hoot of an owl adrift in this city at the border of its homeland.

For many years, longer than I wanted to think about, I had lived on the edge, at the verge. I was good at what I did: fast when fast was needed, slow when that seemed to promise better results, always efficient, often surprising in my solutions both to the original problem and those inevitably developing from it. But then one day in Salvador as I stood watching a red Fiat burn, I realized that it was over for me—as though I'd stepped through an unseen door, looked up and found the world transformed in ways I could not fathom, or had blundered over borders into a foreign country where familiar words meant inexplicable things.

Not that I stopped believing in what I was doing. I'm not sure I ever believed in what I was doing; it was simply what I did, what I was programmed to do, the way I defined myself and negotiated my days. But it occurred to me there in Salvador that I was becoming what I did—that there was little else, little more, to me. And once I'd paused, even for that moment, I could never get back in step, never remember how the centipede walked.

So I climbed down off the edge I'd blunted with others' blood and my own.

And I'd spent the past nine years turning myself into a human being. Learning to care, to feel, to trust, to let go. At first it had been all form, just going through the motions, and I often felt like some alien creature painstakingly learning to pass, to give a good imitation of humanity. But in time, as it will, form became content.

Now I was reentering the old life—briefly, true, but already it began to feel familiar—and in many ways it was as though that nine years had never been. Except …

Except that Gabrielle had been a big part of my transformation. Except that I carried Gabrielle, carried my feelings for her and memories of our year together, within me now, and always would. Maybe none of us finally is anything more than the residue of those he's known and loved.

Blaise's cratered face came back to me: "You must not think. Cast away everything, David, let it go, let your spine become brain. The body has an intelligence of its own, far older than your mind's."

Blaise had trained me, trained us all. Taught us to stay alive. And if ever I had loved anyone in that prior life, I had loved him. Leaving the agency, leaving that life, I felt that I had to leave Blaise as well: one of the few regrets I allowed myself, but it was a profound one.

In my years as a soldier (for that's what we always called ourselves, among ourselves) I lived without personal identity, slipping in and out of roles and temporary lives as easily, and as readily, as others change clothing. I had been many people, known many people, taken part in many dramas and not a few (albeit unintentional) comedies. One thing I knew absolutely was that the stories we live by are as real as anything else is. As long as we do live by them. Even when we know they're lies.

Towards morning I dreamed that Gabrielle was above me, moving steadily upon me, head thrown back and black hair catching light from the window. Then something changed and my hands, reaching up, touched not flesh, but canvas, steel, the rough grain of wood. I opened my eyes again in the dark and saw it there over me. Half-formed, unalive, its weight ever increasing, it continued to move upon me: the sculpture I'd left behind, unfinished, at the studio.

Chapter Three

TOWARDS DAWN ANOTHER thing happened as well.

The old training, the reflexes, were flooding back all at once, and I don't know what cue alerted me, some minutely perceptible shift in the volume of sound outside, a muted footfall or mere sense of presence, but I was awake, waiting for the sound, before the sound came.

The sound was my door being tried.

There was a pause, a silence, then the lisp of a flexible pick entering the door lock. Senses at full alert, I could almost feel the tension as again the knob was turned hard right, till it stopped, and held there. The pick raked its way slowly, methodically, along the lock's pin-tumblers.

It had happened a few times before when I was concentrating like this, and it happened now: I was outside my self, in another self. I watched my hands (except they weren't mine) working at the lock, felt a trickle of sweat down the middle of my back, became aware of the weight of a folded paper in the side pocket of my coat.

For a moment it rippled back from there. I sat in a large rented room off a hall so narrow that people had to turn sideways to pass one another. The room smelled of canned meats and beef stew, stale coffee, the bathroom four doors away. Bedroom and living room furniture were jumbled together indiscriminately. A stack of newspapers squatted under a low window looking out onto a wall, with a sliver of morning light showing at the top.

Then the ripples spread. I was nineteen and terrified, running beneath a thick canopy of green. Minutes ago there had been a riot of birdsong; now the only sounds were my boots slapping into puddles and sucking their way back out, the staccato gabble of those pursuing me in the distance, my own thudding heart.

And, again, my heart pounding: but now when I reached out, my hand fell not against vines and undergrowth, but onto the waist of a slim, dark woman in white shorts and sandals. She stirred in her sleep.

Then, like a thread suddenly unraveling, giving way, it was all gone. I was back in my own body and mind. Back with the old training, the old reflexes.

By the time he got the door unlocked, I was out of bed and in a dark juncture of shelf and wall. By the time he crossed to the bed, pausing twice to listen closely, I was aping his own footsteps. And by the time he realized no one was there, and turned, I was behind him.

"The weather tomorrow will be fair," I said, "with temperatures in the mid-60s and a light southeasterly wind, brisker towards evening."

He started to speak, then simply shook his head. He was thirtyish, with flat gray eyes, blond hair, a tan poplin suit He wasn't new at this. He'd been at one end or another of it many times before.

"It would be terrible to miss such a day," I said. "We have so few of them."

A lengthy silence as his eyes caught my own, and held. Then: "The seasons do go on."

"Yes," I said.

Another long silence.

"I do not know you."

I shook my head. "Nor I, you. It can stay that way."

"Yes. Sometimes that is the best choice." He looked briefly about the room. "It seems the client neglected to provide me with information necessary to executing the assignment."

"There's not a lot of professionalism left."

"He failed to tell me what you were. I would have to say that such bad faith voids the contract. You would agree?"

"I would." But this man's utter humorlessness, those gray eyes round and flat and hard as lentils, still frightened me.

"Good," he said. He watched light sweep quickly along the wall, snag in a corner and momentarily brighten there, then fade, as a car passed outside. "I was to kill you, you know."

I nodded.


  • "Vivid and strange, with prose like blown glass, Death Will Have Your Eyes is somehow equal parts Borges and Trevanian's Shibumi. I was enthralled."—--Jonathan Lethem
  • "Sallis is a superb writer and this is his best novel yet!"—Michael Moorcock
  • "This is a particularly fine post-Cold War espionage yarn cum road movie, whose best surprises are not to be found in the many twists along the way, but in the human touches dropped in by one of the most alive and alert writers of his generation."—Grant Stewart, Crime Time (UK)

On Sale
Jul 29, 2014
Page Count
208 pages
Mulholland Books

james sallis

James Sallis

About the Author

James Sallis is a renowned poet, critic, essayist, editor, translator, musicologist, and novelist. He is best known for his Lew Griffin mysteries, which include The Long-Legged Fly, Black Hornet, and more. He is also the author of Drive, which was adapted into the acclaimed Nicholas Refn film starring Ryan Gosling. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Learn more about this author