"Raspel, his back pressed against the wall of the Paris hotel's dim hallway, screwed the silencer onto the .38 caliber automatic. From inside Room 51, he could hear the low voices of the Moroccan diplomat and his Russian spyhandler. Raspel's first shot would be through the Moroccan's heart - that was the kill he'd been hired for - it was the second shot, at Kaborasov, that Raspel had anticipated for five years. Ever since Berlin. And before Kaborasov died, he would hear two words: "Monique Tristan," and he would realize who was about to kill him - and why. Raspel eased off the safety and kicked open the door to Room 51."

Louis Gates, sitting in Row 22, Seat A, put down his pen and reread what he'd written. Should somebody else be in the room, he wondered, someone who hadn't spoken? That would make it tougher on Raspel. He would still shoot the Moroccan first, maybe need two shots to finish the unexpected third person, and, by then, Kaborasov would have his gun out. Gates couldn't make it too easy for Raspel.

Suspense and danger were the foundation of espionage novels, but, of course, he wouldn't kill off his lucrative legend in The Return of Raspel. A four-book contract for $20 million guaranteed that.

Outside the window next to Gates, there was nothing to see. It was night, and the cloud cover was so thick he didn't even try to look for lights below. Instead, he glanced at his watch. The time was 8:15 p.m. GMT, which meant the airliner must still be over the Continent; the English Channel was at least another 10 minutes away.

As usual, Gates was traveling alone, though as a former foreign correspondent, he was used to it. What he wasn't used to anymore was traveling in coach, but first class was sold out.

In his mid-50s, Gates was just under medium height with thinning gray hair and humorless eyes. The face that had appeared on the back of several million books could have been handsome in a stern way but for his mouth's natural expression of peevish irritability. Gates' clothes were expensive, especially the Italian silk sportcoat tailored to hide his paunch. Five best-sellers allowed him to indulge his vanity.

In the late 1980s, Gates was working as the European correspondent for a Chicago newspaper when he wrote his first book. Nine publishing houses turned it down. At the tenth, an editor bluntly told him that he wasn't much of a writer and that he lacked imagination. But she said that in the morass of his words, there was one memorable minor character.

"I don't know how it happened in your book, Mr. Gates, but this Raspel is intriguing. He makes his living killing people, and yet the reader somehow ends up rooting for him. I wanted to know what he was thinking and why, where he'd been and where he was going. Except for him, your book's about as interesting as a doorstop."

Ten months later, Gates had completed a new thriller, this time using Raspel as the central character. The day he signed the book contract, he quit his job; six months later, the movie offer made him a millionaire.

In each of Gates' best-sellers, Raspel was the hero/villain, an assassin whose self-devised code of ethics set him apart from the world he operated in. Raspel became so popular that the roguish French actor cast in the role needed only two films to jump from anonymity to worldwide fame.

And yet, despite Gates' own success, he knew that the publishing-house editor was right: He was basically a lousy fiction writer who had stumbled upon a great character, though his ego prevented him from admitting this to anyone. A second truth was common knowledge - that Raspel wasn't Gates' creation. In the late 1970s, there had been a legendary assassin-for-hire from Israel, an elusive lone operator named Raspel who was ingenious in his methods, earned half a million dollars per kill, and reportedly turned down any job if he admired the target.

Then, after seven years, Raspel disappeared. The ruler of a small, oil-rich country in the Middle East, believing that he was Raspel's next target, had placed a $4 million bounty on the assassin's head. Although the bounty was never publicly claimed, the ruler ceased to fear for his life, and nothing more was heard of Raspel.

Fifteen years later, the myth, polished and embellished by Gates, had spread around the world. So few facts were known about the true Raspel - including his real name - that the best-selling version had to be invented. Gates decided that Raspel was fluent in half a dozen languages, that he had been trained by the Mossad and in the Orient, and that he could change his appearance to suit an opera house or an alley. And even though Raspel was a man of no distinctive characteristics, he did possess one remarkable trait - an intense life force, an almost tantalizing energy that women were keenly aware of.

Gates picked up his pen again. He could grind out a few more paragraphs before the jet reached Heathrow. Then he'd have a 35-minute taxi ride to his house in Belgrave Square, where he'd drop off his bags before continuing on to Claridge's for a late dinner. What was his date's name? Oh, yes, Alissa. Beautiful and not too bright. That's the way he liked them.

"Pardon me," said a voice close by. Gates looked up at the man sitting next to him, who had been asleep since takeoff. "Aren't you Louis Gates?"

(End of excerpt)