Dead Man Switch


By Matthew Quirk

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Undercover operators are being hunted down in their homes — and the prime suspect is one of their own. 

A deadly fall on a rugged stretch of California coast. A burglary gone wrong in Virginia. These incidents seem unrelated, but the victims were living undercover, their true identities closely held secrets. They are members of a classified team, the last line of defense against foreign threats. Now, someone is assassinating them, one by one, taking out family members and innocent bystanders to make the deaths seem like accidents.

Captain John Hayes, a special operations legend, has left the military to settle down with his family. But when he pieces together a pattern behind the murders and discovers that his protégée Claire Rhodes, a brilliant assassin, is the prime suspect, he returns to duty to unmask the attackers.

With every success, the killers grow bolder. Their ultimate goal: Lure Hayes and his remaining fellow soldiers to Manhattan, to eliminate them all in a single devastating strike. To save his teammates and thousands of innocent lives, Hayes must find a way to stop a seemingly unstoppable weapon.

Dead Man Switch delivers nonstop twists, turns, and action in a high-stakes thriller about what happens when the fight abroad follows our covert operators home — and their painstakingly constructed double lives are shattered.


Chapter 1

JOHN HAYES STEPPED from the rear door of the two-and-half-ton truck. Four gunmen covered him, their Kalashnikov rifles braced against their shoulders.

He ignored them and looked to the sky. It was a good night for an execution, summer in the high alpine. The snow was soft, and the crevasses in the ice spread wide enough to make a man’s body disappear.

He’d spent nine hours crammed in the back of the truck, and his legs were rubber. They had switchbacked up the valleys all night on a gravel path so narrow and pitted by old shell craters that the rear of the vehicle hung over empty space through each hairpin turn.

The highest pass had been well above fourteen thousand feet. They were slightly lower on the southern slopes now, and Hayes felt the blood that had frozen while trickling from his nose starting to melt again. He wiped it off, a long smear on the back of his hand.

“Let’s go,” the driver barked in Pashto, and the slanted muzzle brake of the rifle jabbed into Hayes’s ribs just beside his spine. The cold burned his face as they marched him through a rolling door set in the hillside. They entered through a thick concrete portal into an underground garage. He climbed the steps, feeling the blood flush in his legs, the muscles regain their strength, the relatively rich air revive him.

A steel door opened at the far end of the garage, and they walked into an open courtyard. He had expected a mud-walled hut, or even a cave complex, but not this: an interior courtyard paved in marble with Moorish arches.

A man strode toward him, his hair gleaming. At first Hayes assumed the shine was due to the pomades popular among the officers in this country—he was wearing his regimental dress—but then Hayes realized that it was simply wet.

“I hope I didn’t keep you,” the man said as he stretched his right shoulder. “I was finishing a game.”

Squash. It was a fetish among Pakistani military commanders. Imran Kashani was formerly ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, an uneasy ally of the United States that still kept close ties with the Taliban and militant groups. But Kashani had gone to work for himself and become a power broker—a warlord, essentially—in the ungoverned lands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He commanded a militia the size of a small army.

“Come in,” he said.

This man had killed dozens of Americans. Hayes was here to make a deal with him.

They stepped through a long parlor into an office lined with books. Huge mirrors dominated one wall, windows with closed red drapes the other.

“English is okay?” Kashani said.

“That’s fine.”

“Excellent. I spent a year in college in the States. Arizona State University.”

He sat back down at a desk at the front of the room, and Hayes stood between two guards on the carpet before him.

“Are you hungry? Tea?”

“No,” Hayes said. He wasn’t going to waste time on ceremony in this guano-reeking mansion. Kashani shrugged, and a moment later a third guard placed a glass cup of tea on the desk next to him. Kashani took a sip and examined Hayes.

“All business. Very American. I’ll get to the point. What do you know about Cold Harvest?”

Hayes knew it well. It was a small group, culled from the U.S. military’s classified special operations units and the CIA’s paramilitary forces. They were kill teams, in essence, run as independent contractors with no official relationship to their home government. They pursued the gravest threats to national security in countries, most of them American allies, where the U.S. would never be allowed to perform lethal missions. They were a last resort.

Hayes had once been a leader, a legend in those elite tiers of American special operations, but he had spent years in exile, hunted by his old teammates.

“What do you want to know?” he asked Kashani.

“I want to know their names. I want to know where they live.”

“Their outposts? Safe houses? Covers?”

“No. I want their addresses inside the United States. Their homes. We have some, but not enough.”

Hayes considered it, ran the back of his hand along his chin, felt the stubble scratch.

“I can get you that information.”

“For how many?”

“All of them, give or take a few of the most recent additions.”

Kashani let out a short, startled laugh, like he’d just won something. The two men had no idea that from a hilltop a kilometer and a half away, they were being watched.


At the top of a glacial cirque overlooking Kashani’s compound, Connor Burke slammed his gloved hand against his thigh, trying to warm up his fingers. After a minute he could feel pain buried somewhere in all the cold numb flesh. He huddled against his partner, Bryan Sanders. They were both former SEALs, senior chiefs in Team Six, but now they worked as contractors for the CIA. That allowed them to operate in the borderlands of a country like Pakistan, a nation with which the U.S. wasn’t technically at war.

Sanders held the laser microphone steady and aimed it at the window of the formal office so he could pick up the conversations in the compound while Burke kept watch. They each had an earbud in and could hear everything Hayes and the other man said.

“I can get you that information.”

“For how many?”

“All of them.”

Sanders looked to Burke, eyes wide. Burke recognized the voice. He brushed the accumulating snow from his earpiece and raised the volume. Like most seasoned operators, they were half deaf from the tens of thousands of rounds they expended every year. But it was unmistakable. It was John Hayes. Burke had fought with him in Fallujah. It was Burke’s second deployment, and Hayes had led the team through a baptism by fire in urban operations. Burke had since heard the rumors: Hayes had gone over to the enemy.

But Burke couldn’t believe what he was hearing now. The flurries built into a steady fall, cutting through the laser’s path and interfering with the microphone’s operation. The audio broke up into static.

“Is Hayes going to sell them the names of our operators?” Sanders asked.

“More than that. The homes. The families. Jesus Christ. It’s a kill list.”

“It can’t be. He was a good man.”

“Was,” Burke said.

Sanders looked over the compound, well defended and built into the side of the slope.

“I don’t like it. Do we have the authority to kill an American if it comes to that?”

The batteries in the radios were dead. The cold drained them at twice the normal speed. They had been in the field for three days. There was no way to get authorization from above.

“You do the math. One life for how many? We’ve got to stop him.”

Sanders nodded.

Burke slammed his hands together and flexed open his fingers. He lifted his rifle and started down the ridge.


In the office, Hayes waited for Kashani to absorb the full measure of what he was offering: a trove of intelligence that would allow him to destroy, root and branch, America’s most effective defense against asymmetric threats.

Kashani’s cool pose disappeared. He started blinking quickly and leaned forward.

“All of them? That information wouldn’t be trusted to one man, or even put on one list.”

“It’s my business to know. They have been trying to kill me for a long time.”

“Where is it?”

Hayes gestured to his temple.

“Memorized? All the names? Addresses?”


Kashani laughed again, regaining some confidence. “I guess you think that means I can’t kill you?”

He said something in a dialect Hayes didn’t understand, then waved a finger to the guard to Hayes’s right, who approached Hayes from the side. Hayes’s hand shot out, seized his wrist, and twisted it, wrenching the shoulder. A piece of black-and-tan-patterned fabric fell from the man’s hand and landed on the floor. It was a shemagh, an Afghan scarf often worn by fighters over the head and neck.

The other two raised their rifles, but Kashani called them off.

“What is this?” Hayes demanded.

“Have you read Kipling?”

“It’s been a while.”

“It seems appropriate, given the circumstances. A test of your memory, to see if you can offer what you claim. Kim’s Game,” Kashani said. “Our instructors at the Farm used to use it.”

Kashani had been trained in intelligence work by the CIA at its facility in Virginia, thirty years ago in this never-ending war. He had shaken hands with the vice president of the United States.

Hayes reached for the scarf. Kim’s Game was a standard training exercise for spies and special operators. They would be flashed images of objects and told to recall them, or they’d simply be blindfolded for a quiz at random moments. They practiced until their senses were hyperaware and they could retain photographic memories of their surroundings at any time, recording every threat and exploitable piece of intelligence. It came from an old spy novel by Kipling called Kim, set not too far from these mountain passes.

If Hayes failed, they would most likely kill him. He folded the fabric into a long strip and tied it over his eyes.

“Arches in the courtyard?” Kashani asked.


“Weapons on the guard to your right.”

“AK-74M rifle. Beretta pistol on his hip. SOG dagger on his chest.”

“Fruit on the table?”

“Four apples.”

“Which direction are you facing?”


“The red book on the shelf behind me. Is it to my left or my right?”

“There is no red book.”

“Very good. And where are you?”

Nine hours driving in the dark, and Hayes had spent the entire time fixed on navigation: land speed, altitude, and the twisting azimuths of the stars that served as an endless unerring compass over his head.

When he stepped out of the truck he saw the Spin Ghar Mountains silhouetted against the sky: Sikaram, Barkirdar Sar, Tarakai. They might as well have been street signs as he lined them up and fixed his location.

He knew where he was down to a few kilometers. Enough for an air strike. And he suspected Kashani knew he knew it too. The test was not only to evaluate his memory but to see how observant he was, to determine if he could identify this compound. If this deal fell through, there was no way he was going to make it out of here alive.

“You understand, I want the names of everyone in Cold Harvest.”

“I’m not going to give them to you.”

Kashani’s jaw tightened.

“I’m only going to deal with whoever you’re working for.”

“There is no one above me.”

“You’re a go-between. This is too big for you to handle on your own.”

Kashani rolled his cup between his hands. “John Hayes,” he said, shaking his head. “I have to say, you live up to the stories. Follow me.”

The guards led Hayes back through the hallway, underground, and down a long concrete corridor. Then they left him in a room with a simple table and chair lit by a dim desk lamp.

Chapter 2

HE SAT THERE for forty-five minutes, wondering what the odds were that this gamble would work, that he might be about to meet the real power behind Kashani.

Finally, the door opened, and the bright light from the corridor blinded him for a moment. Kashani stepped in. “This way,” he told Hayes. “There’s someone you should see.”

Hayes followed Kashani and two guards toward the underground garage. He wondered if they were moving him again or if the leader was there, in a safe room. A guard pushed open a heavy steel door.

Hayes peered inside. There was no chief here, only two soldiers sitting against the wall bound hand and foot. They wore pakols—round-topped wool caps—and loose-fitting robes in the local style, but their gear was clearly American special operations’.

Under the glaring fluorescent light overhead, Hayes could see blood trailing from the ear of one of the men, and judging from the cuts on his cheek, Hayes guessed he’d been injured by a grenade frag at just outside of the lethal range.

“Who are they?” Hayes asked.

“Some of your American killers. We found them closing in on the house. Good tactics. We wouldn’t have seen them coming, but they triggered a slide of snow below the peak.”

“They came to kill you?”

“We think they came to kill you.”

Kashani took a handgun from a guard and entered the room. He kicked one man, knocking him over, then stepped on his neck, driving his face into the floor, and aimed the pistol at the back of his head.

Hayes followed him in, and the guards posted up in the corners.

“If you are what you say you are, surely you won’t mind,” Kashani said.

Hayes said nothing. He had expected a test of faith.

He recognized the American that Kashani was threatening with the gun, a man with a reddish-brown beard and a few minor cuts on his face. His name was Burke. Hayes had fought with him in Fallujah, back when Burke was a SEAL, a kid on his second deployment; he had trained him in house-to-house fighting, and Burke had gone on to Green—the special operations shorthand for the unit commonly known as SEAL Team Six.

“Hayes?” Burke said. “Jesus. It’s true. You son of a bitch.” Hayes knew that if he tried to stop Kashani, the Pakistani would kill them all.

Kashani put his finger on the trigger.

“Wait,” Hayes said. He stepped toward Kashani, who was smiling like a man who had called someone’s bluff. The guards lifted their rifles.

Hayes gestured for the pistol. “How does the saying go? It’s better that I kill my brother than a rival take him.” It was a tapa, a two-line Pashtun poem often sung by soldiers or grieving wives.

“I’ve heard it,” Kashani said. “Keep it in the family, you would say.”

Hayes nodded. “Let me take care of this.”

Kashani smiled and stepped back, then offered the pistol to Hayes. The guards kept their rifles at low ready, and Hayes traced the tendons standing tense along the backs of their hands.

Hayes stood over his former student. Burke arched back to look him in the eye as Hayes lined up the shot.

“I never believed what they said about you. Until now. Go ahead. You’ll burn for this.”

Once, things had been simple for Hayes. There were commanders and rules of engagement, opposing forces and friendlies. But now he was on his own, and he understood the terrible weight of choice, of his own calculations of the greater evil, of trading lives like coins.

“You don’t know me. What they put me through.” He cracked Burke in the mouth with the slide of the pistol and put his foot on his back.

He wrapped his finger around the trigger and brought the gun before him, facing away from Kashani.

He raised it, and pulled the trigger.

The light blew out with a pop and a rain of glass. The room went black. But in his mind, Hayes could still see where each man stood. Kim’s Game. He ducked to the left and aimed the pistol at the first guard.

Burke felt the hot glass scratch his neck as the lightbulb exploded, and he rolled onto his feet. The images came like strobes in the orange flash of Hayes’s firing pistol: one guard flinching back, struck by gunfire, then the other. Hayes sidestepped left to right, and six shots flared in the dark. Kashani spun with a pistol and shot. The muzzle flame reached out toward empty space and lit up Hayes behind him, his knife out.

The dark returned. A body hit the ground. A flashlight cut through the room, then came the cinching and popping of the cords as someone cut Burke’s hands free, drawing the knife a half inch from the skin on his wrist.

Hayes pulled the injured soldier’s arm over his shoulder and helped him up. He was dazed.

“Burke,” Hayes said. “Sorry about the jaw. I had to sell it. Are you good to walk?”

Burke fought back against the shock. “I think so,” he said.

“I’m here undercover. I was trying to find out who he was working for, who wants those names.”

Hayes aimed a flashlight that he’d pulled from one of the guards at the ceiling. “We’ve got to roll before they get backup.”


Hayes grabbed Sanders’s sniper rifle and rucksack, and Burke took his carbine. They exited into the garage. There were two Pinzgauer 6x6s parked along the back wall. A Swiss-built mountain truck, the Pinz was an ugly green box on six wheels that could climb a 100 percent slope. Hayes and Burke took the cockpit seats, and Sanders, conscious but still unsteady, got in the back.

Hayes gunned it up the ramp leading out of the underground garage. The vehicle rose high on its springs and was nearly airborne when it came off the ramp onto the long driveway.

Burke pointed to the passes to the east.

“We make it through there, and we’re out of the badlands.”

Hayes watched the mirrors while Burke cycled through the radio he’d pulled from the room.

“We could have killed you back there,” Burke said.

“You couldn’t have known. No one in the command knew I was here.”

Burke looked at the house. He didn’t see anyone coming.

“You have a QRF?” Hayes asked. A quick-reaction force: a team of soldiers ready to come in to back up the smaller special operations units.

“No. We have to get through the pass on our own,” Burke said. “There’s an extraction point ten kilometers out. But if we get there after twenty-one-hundred hours, we’re done. They won’t be back until tomorrow.”

That was in an hour, and they wouldn’t survive if they were stuck here overnight. The notch in the mountains loomed closer and closer as Hayes fought the wheel. He looked through his side window. To call it a jeep track was generous; it was more like a goat path. It was so narrow, he couldn’t see road, just his side panel hanging over a ravine that dropped away two hundred feet.

The snow grew thicker as they rose toward the pass, and the Pinz smeared through the turns, kicking debris off the cliffs.

“Almost there, Sanders,” Burke said.

The pass opened high to their right as the path curved toward it. The black of the peak gave way to a blanket of stars to the north, but weather was moving in fast from the other direction. Sheets of white snow blew across Hayes’s sight lines like static.

Over the grind of the Pinz’s diesel, a deep rumble echoed through the pass. It loosed a curtain of snow high above them, and chunks of ice slammed into the side of the vehicle. Hayes forced the wheel toward the steep bank.

“Get out!” Hayes said.


“Out! Now! Incoming!”

Only Hayes had identified the source of the noise, but it became clear a second later. A helicopter, banking hard, crossed the pass and disappeared behind the far peak.

“They’re circling back.”

It was a Bell Cobra, an older American-designed and -built attack helicopter with a 20-millimeter Gatling gun and a weapon pod on either side.

“We need to disperse and draw them in. Drop down the ridge ten or twenty feet. It’s our only shot.”

He grabbed the sniper rifle, opened his door. “Take the M4,” Hayes told Burke. The carbine had a 40-millimeter grenade-launcher attachment under the barrel. “Hit the tail rotor or the pilots through the side glass. Wait for it to come over us. If they use the Gatling guns only, we might survive.”

He left a blue light stick glowing in the cabin of the Pinz and climbed out. Burke and Sanders flailed down the snow on one side of the ridge. Hayes dropped six feet down the steep hill on the other and then cut wide across for cover. He dug in, the snow up to his waist, with a boulder between himself and the helo, then raised the rifle, snugged it hard against his cheek and shoulder, and took aim.

The chugging blades grew louder and louder. He watched the white snow blown by the rotor wash come at him like a band of storm clouds.


The helicopter swept overhead, the rip of the Gatlings tearing the night in two as they shot up the Pinz. Hayes heard a low pock as Burke launched a grenade. The helo banked and flared to avoid it, and as it slowed, Hayes put one round, two, three, into the tail rotor. Fluid blew out in a spume, and from the other side of the ridge, Burke sent a hail of bullets through the Plexiglas into the cockpit.

It spun as it came over, out of control, losing precious altitude in that thin air. Hayes dove for cover. The ground shook, and he knew the helo was down.

He put his leg forward and postholed it in the deep snow. Another blast shook the hillside, and before he could even register relief at having taken the helicopter, the snow beneath his feet fell away. He dropped with it, clawed against it, but the whole hillside was liquid now, pouring into his mouth and down his shirt, tilting him over. The mountain peaks spun in his vision as he rag-dolled down, helpless.

High up, near the pass, a red light filled the night. A boom echoed along the range, but it was lost to him as blows came to his head and his body kept falling. He didn’t know how long he tumbled, but it seemed like forever. And then he hit, and he was buried in a bank of snow.

His hands shot to his face and he clawed away the powder. Snow can melt and refreeze around the face, asphyxiating the avalanche victim in what’s known as the mask of death. After he cleared the snow from around his head and shoulders, he started to dig himself out.

He hauled himself out of the bank, and after the dizziness passed, he was shocked to feel okay. His pack was six feet above him on the steep slope. The snow was too deep to walk in normally, so he crawled up, gaining only inches as he dragged the snow on top of him. He took time to pack down the powder and then tried to stand. His leg crumpled, and he fell to the side. He tested that leg again, putting weight on it, and it collapsed under him once more. Between the cold and the adrenaline, he felt no pain, only the queasy sense of his limb bending the wrong way. He’d torn something.

The driving snow scoured the exposed skin of his neck and cheek, becoming heavier and heavier until it was a whiteout. The flakes flew past him, down and to the left, a shimmering curtain so total that vertigo set in, and he couldn’t fight the feeling that he was flying up and away, as if the snow were still and his body was in motion.

He shut his eyes, and the wind closed around him; snow drifted to his chin, spilled down his collar, filled his ear.

His first movements only dug him in deeper, but then he climbed deliberately, raising himself with his good leg and driving his bad knee into the steep snow to brace himself for another step. Remaining calm was the only way to survive. When he reached the pack, he pulled off part of the frame and two nylon straps and splinted his knee as best as he could.

Hayes had spent a lot of time in the mountains, and every fifteen minutes or so the blood flushed his face and hands—the hunter’s response, an acquired physiological reflex to keep frostbite at bay.

He continued up the slope but knew he wasn’t going fast enough to warm himself. And as the minutes turned to hours, the cold moved from outside in. The shivering began, crescendoed into a violent tremble, rattling his teeth in his skull. His muscles numbed and tightened, refused to obey. And even his brain slowed down, the thoughts of survival running in frantic, confused loops.

He didn’t know how far he had traveled. The world was a white sphere. All he wanted was sleep. There was no ridge, no extraction point, no helicopter, only the fog of his breath turning into ice on his skin.

It didn’t make any sense to work so hard when he could just sit down. He stopped and stared into the blizzard. He hadn’t thought about how beautiful it was. He let his mind drift into the white.


  • "This zippy book has the feel of a print version of an episode from Homeland. . . . The narrative moves with the speed of light."—Jack Batten, Toronto Star
  • "Matthew Quirk has created a tale that provides absolute nonstop action."—Suspense Magazine
  • "Matthew Quirk is a big-thriller-writing maniac. With his hallmarks of crisp prose, riveting research, and stunning action, he crafts his books so they're nearly impossible to put down. When it comes to Quirk, I follow a simple three-step plan: Buy, cancel plans, read."Gregg Hurwitz, New York Times bestselling author of Orphan X and The Nowhere Man
  • "A tour de force. Dead Man Switch turns the intelligence community's 'wilderness of mirrors' into a high-speed racetrack, delivering twist after twist toward a literally explosive conclusion. More than that, Quirk shows us the human cost of living-and dying-on the gray edges of national security, and creates characters whose choices feel powerful and real."—Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of Paranoia and Guilty Minds
  • "Dead Man Switch is a one-sit read that hops from one action-filled vignette to another from first page to last. As exciting as most of the book is, the last quarter is a no-brake roll against the guard rails, and one member in particular is the subject of a revelation no one will see coming."—BookReporter
  • "Dazzling . . . Right up to the tense finale in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza, Quirk never strikes a dull or off-key note."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Quirk's deft plotting and superior action scenes are what make the book tick. But the author also has a nice way of getting the most out of his characters and his varied locales without falling back on clichés. An excellent follow-up to Cold Barrel Zero, this is a standout thriller."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "A fine thriller . . . Quirk is a master at organizing details--smoke, a chill wind, a splash of water--to create suspense. . . . Fans of special-ops thrillers will devour this latest entry in Quirk's fiery action series."—Booklist
  • "Thriller fans who enjoy a fast-paced, action-packed story with plenty of twists will be rooting for Hayes every step of the way."—Library Journal
  • "Dead Man Switch is an intriguing premise, perfectly executed. Matthew Quirk writes like his heroes operate: no missteps, no mistakes, just nonstop deadly action."—April Smith, author of the Special Agent Ana Grey thrillers

On Sale
Jan 22, 2019
Page Count
320 pages
Mulholland Books

Matthew Quirk

About the Author

Matthew Quirk studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic, reporting on a variety of subjects, including crime, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He lives in San Diego.

Learn more about this author