Alex Coburn is dressed to kill. Literally.

He feels very grown up for his 23 years, urbane, sophisticated, wearing Armani for the first time, no less.

Well, there is a first time for everything, and this first time also includes his red test. When this is over, he will be a real spy. Not just a hired gun for the U.S. Marines but a trained assassin for the NSA, charged with the most important and most secret of tasks by his beloved government to protect its citizens and all the glorious things his nation stands for.

Shifting a bit on the café chair and rustling the newspaper he is holding up to shield his face, he reminds himself sharply that it's John Casey now. There is no more Alex Coburn. Coburn died during maneuvers in Honduras. It's official. There is paperwork to prove it.

Casey pictures the front door of a house in a nice neighborhood, painted a tasteful cream. A soldier rapping on that door. The door opening. His beautiful Kathleen answering, her expression welcoming and curious until the Marine delivers his prepared speech and a copy of the telegram with the sad news. Her face crumpling in disbelief, then anger, then tears. Her mother rushing to hold her as her body sags to the floor. The messenger saying he's sorry.

I'm sorry, Kathleen, I'm so sorry, Casey repeats as he darts his eyes around the edges of the newspaper, searching for his target. But Alex was dead even before that. I died the last time I talked to you on the telephone, when Keller cut us off. What were you about to say to me? I guess I'll never know now.

Suddenly, his target appears. Casey makes sure he gets a good look at the man's face so he can confirm that it matches the photograph he received earlier that day in a green bubble envelope. It does.

He carefully folds his paper, reaches into his pocket, and pulls out coins to toss onto the table for his cup of espresso. He stands, leaving the newspaper on the table too, and moves to shadow his target, close enough to keep him in sight but not close enough to be made. The man walks alongside the canal, brushing by tourists still out for a late-night stroll in the summer air, moving towards a district where tourists usually don't go. Good.

Casey follows on silent feet, using darker places for cover where he can, until they are the only two left walking along beside the gently lapping water. The gondolas tied against the edges are empty now, their gondoliers at home with their families and friends, eating their suppers and drinking local wine.

The target is approaching an alley, and Casey makes his move, speeding up so he's just behind the man at the mouth of the passage. It's almost too easy. Casey has a good foot in height on the guy and wraps an arm around his neck, dragging him to one side and into the alley. His gloved right hand reaches under the lapels of his coat and suit jacket for his piece. The man struggles a bit and tries to cry out but can't because he's been silenced by the steel band of taut muscle compressing his trachea, and when Casey releases him inside the alley, he spins around to face his executioner.

Finally, the man finds his voice.

"Non, signore!" he rasps, one hand to his throat, the other extended in front of himself, palm out and splayed fingers pointing straight up, as though he would stop the bullet that will issue from the barrel and silencer now aimed directly at his brow.

Casey doesn't frown, he doesn't smile, he doesn't hesitate. His finger squeezes the trigger and – pop! – a scarlet blossom appears just above the bridge of the man's nose. He falls backwards and down, rag-doll slow, his contact with the cobbled pavement making almost no noise. A second bullet for insurance, just above the first one, and the job is done.

Still expressionless, Casey makes his way out of the alley and back onto the empty footpath beside the canal, back to the district of lights and cafés and hotels and tourists. He walks for another half hour through the thinning crowds, blending in with the other men – rich men with models and film starlets on their arms and Armani on their backs – looking like just another wealthy American tourist wandering through Venice at night.

Except he's alone. He expects he'll always be alone from now on.