Extract: Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
To some he was Orphan X. Others knew him as the Nowhere Man. But to Jack Johns he was a boy named Evan Smoak. Taken from an orphanage, Evan was raised inside a top-secret government programme and trained to become a lethal weapon. By Jack. And yet for all the dangerous skill he instilled in his young charge, Jack Jones cared for Evan like a son.
But Jack knew too much about a programme that had gone rotten – he was a loose end that needed to be dealt with. But if you go after the only person who ever treated him like a human being, you can guarantee that the Nowhere Man will be coming for you. Hellbent on making things right…
Read on for the first chapter of Hellbent!
Evan’s scuffed knuckles, a fetching post-fight shade of eggplant, ledged the steering wheel. His nose was freshly broken, leaking a trickle of crimson. Nothing bad, more a shifting along old fault lines.
He inspected his nose in the rearview, then reached up and snapped it back into place.
The Cadillac’s alignment pulled to the right, threatening to dump him into the rain-filled roadside ditch. The seat springs poked into the backs of his thighs, and the fabric, dotted with cigarette scorch marks, reeked of menthol. The dome light housed a bare, burned-out bulb, the brake disks made a noise like an asphyxiating chicken, and the left rear brake light was out.
He should have stolen a better car.
Rain dumped down. That was Portland for you. Or – if he was being precise – a country road outside Hillsboro.
Big drops turned the roof into a tin drum. Water sluiced across the windshield, rooster-tailed from the tires.
He sledded around a bend, passing a billboard. A moment later smeared red and blue lights illuminated the Caddy’s rear window.
The broken brake light.
That was inconvenient.
Especially on this car, since a BOLO had likely been issued. The cop would be running the plate number now if he hadn’t already.
Evan blew out a breath. Leaned harder into the gas pedal.
Here came the sirens. The headlights grew larger.
Evan could see the silhouette of the officer behind the wheel. So much like a shooting target – head and chest, all critical mass.
Hillsboro prided itself on being one of the safest cities in the Pacific Northwest. Evan hoped to keep it that way.
As he popped the brakes and jerked the wheel, the heap of a car rocked on its shocks, fanning on to an intersecting road.
Two more cop cars swept in behind him from the opposite direction.
Three patrol cars lit up like Christmas, sirens screaming, spreading out across both lanes and closing in.
That was when the thumping from the trunk grew more pronounced.
1. No Version of Being Too Careful
Evan moved swiftly through the door to his penthouse suite at the Castle Heights Residential Tower, his RoamZone pressed to his ear. The phone, encased in hardened rubber and Gorilla glass, was as durable as a hockey puck and essentially impossible to trace. Every incoming call to 1‑855-2-NOWHERE traveled in digital form over the Internet through a labyrinth of encrypted virtual-private-network tunnels. After a round-the-world tour of software telephone-switch destinations, it emerged through the receiver of the RoamZone.
Evan always answered the phone the same way.
Do you need my help?
This time, for the first time, the voice on the other end was a familiar one.
Jack had plucked Evan from the obscurity of a foster home at the age of twelve and placed him in a fully deniable black program buried deep inside the Department of Defense. Jack had turned Evan into Orphan X, an expendable assassin who went where the US government would not and did what the US government could not. Jack had fought for Evan to stay human even while teaching him to be a killer.
The only father Evan had ever known was calling this line now, a line reserved for those in mortal danger. And he had answered Evan’s question – Do you need my help? – with a single syllable.
Evan and Jack had an elaborate series of protocols for establishing contact. Never like this.
For Jack to call this number meant that he was up against what others might consider world-destroying trouble.
All Evan had gotten over the phone so far was that one word. Static fuzzed the line infuriatingly, the connection going in and out.
He was gripping the phone too hard. ‘Jack? Jack? Jack.’
Eight years ago Evan had gone rogue from the Orphan Program. At the time he’d been the Program’s top asset. Given the sensitive information in his head, the bodies he’d put in the ground, and the skills encoded into his muscles, he could not be allowed to exist. The most merciless of the Orphans, Charles Van Sciver, had taken over the Program and was hellbent on tracking down and eradicating Evan. Vanishing was easier when you already didn’t exist. The Orphan Program lived behind so many veils of secrecy that no one except their immediate handlers knew who the Orphans were. They were kept in separate silos and deployed through encoded comms that preserved plausible deniability at every level. Double-blind protocols ensured that even the handlers’ whereabouts were often unknown by higher headquarters.
And so Evan had simply stepped off the grid, keeping only the operational alias he’d earned in the shadow service, a name spoken in hushed tones in the back rooms of intel agencies the world over.
The Nowhere Man.
He now helped the desperate, those with no place left to turn, people suffering at the hands of unrepentant and vicious abusers. His clients called 1‑855‑2‑NOWHERE. And their problems were solved.
Antiseptic. Effective. Impersonal.
Evan’s tense steps echoed around the seven thousand square feet of his condo. The open stretch of gunmetal-gray floor was broken by workout stations, a few sitting areas, and a spiral staircase that rose to a loft he used as a reading room. The kitchen area was equally modern, all stainless steel and poured concrete. The views up here on the twenty-first floor were dazzling, downtown Los Angeles shimmering like a mirage twelve miles to the east.
Despite all that space, Evan was having trouble breathing. He felt something wild clawing in his chest, something he couldn’t identify. Fear?
The reception crackled some more, and then – finally – Jack’s voice came through again. ‘Evan?’
It sounded as if Jack was in his truck, an engine humming in the background.
‘I’m here,’ Evan said. ‘Are you okay?’
Through the receiver he could make out more road rolling beneath Jack’s tires. When Jack spoke again, his voice sounded broken. ‘Do you regret it? What I did to you?’
Evan inhaled, steadied his heart rate. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Do you ever wish I’d never taken you out of that boys’ home? That I’d just let you live an ordinary life?’
‘Jack – where are you?’
‘I can’t tell you. Dollars to doughnuts they’ve got ears on me right now.’
Evan stared out through the floor‑to‑ceiling, bullet-resistant Lexan windows. The discreet armor sunshades were down, but through the gaps in the woven titanium chain-link he could still see the city sparkling.
There was no version of being too careful.
‘Then why are you calling?’ Evan said.
‘I wanted to hear your voice.’
Over the line, tires screeched. Jack was driving fast, this much Evan could glean.
But he couldn’t know that Jack was being pursued – surreptitiously, yet not so surreptitiously that Jack didn’t notice – by five SUVs in rolling surveillance. Or that a Stingray cell-tower simulator was intercepting Jack’s signal, capturing his every word. That within five minutes the thwap-thwap-thwap of rotor blades would stir the clouds and a Black Hawk attack helicopter would break through the night sky and plummet down, fanning up dust. That thermal imaging had already pegged Jack in his driver’s seat, his 98.6‑degree body temperature rendered in soothing reds and yellows.
All Evan knew right now was that something was terribly wrong.
The static rose like a growl, and then, abruptly, the line was as clear as could be. ‘This is looking to be my ninth life, son.’
For a moment Evan couldn’t find his voice. Then he forced out the words. ‘Tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you.’
‘It’s too late for me,’ Jack said.
‘If you won’t let me help you, then what are we supposed to talk about?’
‘I suppose the stuff that really matters. Life. You and me.’ Jack, breaking his own rules.
‘Because we’re so good at that?’
Jack laughed that gruff laugh, a single note. ‘Well, sometimes we miss what’s important for the fog. But maybe we should give it a go before, you know…’ More screeching of tires. ‘Better make it snappy, though.’
Evan sensed an inexplicable wetness in his eyes and blinked it away. ‘Okay. We can try.’
‘Do you regret it?’ Jack asked again. ‘What I did?’
‘How can I answer that?’ Evan said. ‘This is all I know. I never had some other life where I was a plumber or a schoolteacher or a… or a dad.’
Now the sound of a helo came through the line, barely audible.
‘Jack? You still there?’
‘I guess… I guess I want to know that I’m forgiven.’
Evan forced a swallow down his dry throat. ‘If it wasn’t for you, I would’ve wound up in prison, dead of an overdose, knifed in a bar. Those are the odds. I wouldn’t have had a life. I wouldn’t have been me.’ He swallowed again, with less success. ‘I wouldn’t trade knowing you for anything.’
A long silence, broken only by the thrum of tires over asphalt.
Finally Jack said, ‘It’s nice of you to say so.’
‘I don’t put much stock in “nice.” I said it because it’s true.’
The sound of rotors intensified. In the background Evan heard other vehicles squealing. He was listening with every ounce of focus he had in him. A connection routed through fifteen countries in four continents, a last tenuous lifeline to the person he cared about more than anyone in the world.
‘We didn’t have time,’ Evan said. ‘We didn’t have enough time.’
Jack said, ‘I love you, son.’
Evan had never heard the words spoken to him. Something slid down his cheek, clung to his jawline.
He said, ‘Copy that.’
The line went dead.
Evan stood in his condo, the cool of the floor rising through his boots, chilling his feet, his calves, his body. The phone was still shoved against his cheek. Despite the full-body chill, he was burning up.
He finally lowered the phone. Peeled off his sweaty shirt. He walked over to the kitchen area and tugged open the freezer drawer. Inside, lined up like bullets, were bottles of the world’s finest vodkas. He removed a rectangular bottle of Double Cross, a seven-times-distilled and filtered Slovak spirit. It was made with winter wheat and mountain springwater pulled from aquifers deep beneath the Tatra Mountains.
It was one of the purest liquids he knew.
He poured two fingers into a glass and sat with his back to the cold Sub-Zero. He didn’t want to drink, just wanted it in his hand. He breathed the clean fumes, hoping that they would sterilize his lungs, his chest.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Fuck.’
Glass in hand, he waited there for ten minutes and then ten more.
His RoamZone rang again.
Caller ID didn’t show UNIDENTIFIED CALLER or BLOCKED CALLER. It showed nothing at all.
With dread, Evan clicked the phone on, raised it to his face.
It was the voice he’d most feared.
‘Why don’t you go fetch your digital contact lenses,’ it said. ‘You’re gonna want to see this.’
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