Extract: Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz
Evan Smoak used to be known as Orphan X: a figure as elusive as a rumour, until he came to the rescue of those who most desperately needed his help. The kind of help no one else could provide. The kind that caused concern in the corridors of power.
As a boy he’d been plucked from a foster home and trained as an off-the-books assassin inside a top secret US government programme. Which is why, even forced into early retirement, he dare not trust the phone call. Nor the caller claiming to be his mother, asking him to protect a complete stranger who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
None of it stacks up – yet it bears the tell-tale signs of the secret world that made him. And from inside it, a deadly new threat to the nation’s security. But this time the danger is more personal than he could have ever imagined. Because blood runs deep…
Read on for an extract from Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz!
Neon rolled across the laminated armor glass of the windshield as Evan steered through the Hollywood night toward the Wilshire Corridor, one hand clamped on top of the steering wheel. He stared down at the flap of dry skin lifted from the knuckle of his trigger finger. The windows of his Ford F-150 didn’t roll down due to the Kevlar armor hung inside the door panels, but cold leaked in through the vents, tightening his skin, making him feel alive. The taste of adrenaline lingered in the back of his throat, the bittersweet aftermath of the fight holding on.
A keenness always amped his senses in the wake of a confrontation.
He tried not to focus on how much he missed the sensation.
He’d placed the RoamZone with its missed call on the passenger seat as if he needed to keep an eye on it. The preposterously encrypted phone, with its hardened rubber-and-aramid case, used to be his tether to another life.
At the age of twelve, Evan had clawed his way out of poverty. He’d been given a new identity by a man named Jack Johns, his father figure and handler, the closest thing to family he’d ever known. Jack had taught him everything from Slavic languages to ancient Greek warfare. Had shown him how to top off bank accounts in nonreporting territories and how to live like a ghost. Had brought in subject-matter experts to drownproof and interrogate him, to teach him how to zero a sniper rifle, where to nick a femoral artery with a box cutter.
Jack had turned him into Orphan X.
For years Evan operated in a black program so covert that even denizens of the Capitol Building knew it only through whispers and rumors. He required no backup, left no footprint. Every mission was illegal under US and international law.
He did not exist.
There was only one complication: Jack had raised him not just to be a killer but to remain human.
At a certain point, Evan had to choose.
And just as he’d once escaped the foster-care system, he’d left the Orphan Program behind, going off the grid, hunted by the very government that had created him.
He’d turned his skills to a new venture, one more aligned with the ethics embedded in him by Jack. As the Nowhere Man, Evan remained on call 24/7 for people who were being terrorized, people who found themselves under the heel of a crushing predicament, people with nowhere left to turn. After a decade and change spent leaving a trail of dead high-value targets across six continents, he figured he owed something to the universe.
He also figured he owed something for getting out where others had not. Out of the foster system. Out of East Baltimore. Out of the Program.
But recently he’d been ready to discharge his duty as the Nowhere Man and the awful, awesome responsibilities that came with it. He’d reached a tentative truce with no less an authority than the president of the United States. She’d granted him an unofficial pardon – but made clear that it would be withdrawn the instant he conducted any extracurricular activities as the Nowhere Man. It wasn’t just that what he did on behalf of his clients was illegal; it was that he was too sensitive an asset to have his operational capabilities put on display. If he didn’t wish to be neutralized, he had to remain on the shelf.
So he’d agreed to leave his work as the Nowhere Man behind.
He was ready to try to lead an ordinary life, whatever that was. A life he’d never thought he could have, never thought he deserved. One without knife wounds and concussions. Without a threat around every corner, the reek of death one wrong turn away.
People would have to go about helping themselves the ways they had before he’d come along. Or the ways they hadn’t.
The RoamZone should have stopped ringing with any more missions. And yet he’d received a series of calls from the same number.
The first time, he’d picked up and found a woman on the other end. She’d addressed him by name.
And claimed she was his mother.
He’d hung up immediately, figuring her for a lure designed to draw him out.
And yet – who’d sent her?
How did she know his name?
What did she want?
Her voice was unfamiliar, of course, and yet something about it had tugged the thread of a memory. No, not a memory, exactly. More like a wisp of a forgotten dream.
Evan. It’s your mother.
After severing the connection, he’d stared at the phone in his hand, a box of silicon chips, amplifiers, and microprocessors that had conveyed the feminine voice across two continents.
It was an effective little ploy, sinking a hook into the soft part of his heart, jabbing a vulnerability he didn’t even know he had. An uncomfortable sensation, like he’d been ensnared by a strand of a much bigger web. The feeling had proved hard to shake.
He wasn’t sure why.
He’d dealt with his share of psychopaths and tyrants. This was just another variation on the theme; the woman was either delusional or conniving.
Or perhaps both.
Refocusing his thoughts, he arrived at his residential high-rise, Castle Heights, and left his truck in its spot between two concrete pillars on the subterranean parking level.
In the lobby he detoured to the bank of mailboxes and confirmed that his was empty; one of the great benefits of not existing was receiving no junk mail.
He crossed the marble floor, clearing his throat to awaken Joaquin, who’d dozed off in his chair behind the reception console.
Joaquin snapped to, smoothing down the front of his guard uniform. ‘Mr Smoak. I was just resting my eyes.’
‘Good technique to lure the bad guys into a false sense of security.’
Joaquin smiled sheepishly and thumbed the button to summon the elevator. ‘Fun night, huh?’
‘Took some clients out to dinner.’ Here at Castle Heights, Evan was known as a bland importer of industrial cleaning supplies.
‘They wanted to go clubbing. What adults want to go clubbing?’
Joaquin said, ‘You’d be surprised.’
The elevator arrived with a ding, and Evan stepped aboard. The penthouse button was already lit, and he rode up, enjoying the silence.
His condo, seven thousand square feet of concrete and glass, was sparse and spotless. The workout stations were buffed to a high sheen, unmarred by fingerprints. The brushed-nickel kitchen appliances gave a catalog-clean sparkle, even in the semidarkness. Behind a freestanding fireplace, a spiral staircase wound its way up to a reading loft where he’d actually found time these past few weeks to lounge. There was a black suede couch he’d sat on maybe a dozen times in the years since he’d moved in, most of those times in the past month.
Several evenings ago he’d even raised the retractable flatscreen TV from its slit in the floor and watched a Buster Keaton movie.
That was him now. Mr Ordinary.
Especially if you overlooked the bullet-resistant laminated polycarbonate thermoplastic resin composing the windows, the discreet armor sunscreens made of a rare titanium variant, the motion- and shatter-detection sensors rigged in the frames, the base-jumping parachute stowed behind the inset panel of the planter strategically positioned on the south-facing balcony.
He stood in the stillness of the gunmetal-gray plain of the great room. The penthouse was unlit and lifeless. A heavy bag dangled from its chain like a suicidal ghost. The dumbbells slumbered on their rack, turned precisely so the weight labels were aligned north. Ambient city light glowed through the lowered sunscreens, throwing a sheet of pale gold across the poured-concrete kitchen island, illuminating neither crumb nor smudge.
He stretched luxuriously, felt his spine crack at the base. Then he crossed to the open kitchen, passing between the Sub-Zero and the island to the newest addition to his penthouse. A glass- walled mini- room, the back seated against one of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Century City. He tugged at the door, freezer mist swirling out as he entered. Rows of shelves, also glass, held bottles of the finest vodka the world had to offer. They were positioned equidistant from one another, three inches of clearance on either side. A small stand-alone bar in the center held accoutrements – a variety of crystal glasses, steel martini picks, a trio of shakers.
Another indulgence of retirement. The time to build, to spend, to direct his restless focus on pleasure. It struck him now that freezer rooms and late-night trysts had their limits. They helped broaden the hours but didn’t add much depth to the days and nights.
The chill air put a burn in his lungs. His nightly drink was a ritual of sorts, the purest alcohol, the coldest air, a calming anesthesia to wash away the filth of his past. Did he deserve this? The wealth? The calm? A carved-out sanctuary in which he could seek to dispel his sins?
He reached for the slender bottle of Ao. Distilled from rice and clarified through bamboo filtration on Kyushu island in the shadow of an active volcano, it took its name from the Japanese word for ‘blue.’ He popped an ice sphere from its silicone mold, dropped it into an old-fashioned glass, poured two fingers of vodka, and exited into the warm embrace of the kitchen proper.
Vegetation fluttered on the living wall, a vertical drip-fed garden at the kitchen’s edge. Evan plucked off a mint leaf, floated it on the clear liquid, and gave the glass a swirl. The mint would enhance the sweet undertaste of coconut and banana leaves.
Padding across the great room toward his bedroom, he took a sip, closing his eyes, letting the freezing warmth wash across his palate. The melody of flavors harmonized into the faintest note of rice pudding on the finish.
His bedroom was as bare as the rest of the condo.
Bureau. Nightstand. Window.
Even the bed was minimalist, a mattress resting on a floating slab of metal. The metal was at once propelled into the air by steroidally powerful neodymium rare-earth magnets and tethered to the floor by steel cables, a ceaseless push-pull that mirrored Evan’s own vacillation between chaos and order.
That missed call had tipped him out of alignment.
Evan. It’s your mother.
Were he inclined to sneer, he would have now.
He stripped to his boxer briefs, knocked back his vodka, and set the glass down on the nightstand.
Then he lifted it and looked at the faint condensation ring. He wiped the ring off with the hem of his shirt, then wiped the bottom of the sweating glass and set it back down. He checked again.
Another ring of moisture, albeit fainter.
Cursing physics, he wiped off the nightstand again and then set the glass on the floor just to have some peace and quiet.
He sat on the bed crossed-legged, straightening his back, making microadjustments, stacking vertebra on vertebra. He veiled his eyes, letting the lids grow heavy until the room blurred into a play of light and shadow. Focusing on the precise point that each inhalation began, he breathed until breathing was all he was doing, until it was all that he was.
A few minutes into the meditation, he became aware of his bones, his muscles and ligaments, his skin wrapping him into an embodied whole. The boundary between him and the room blurred until he felt of a part with the space around him, the air itself, until he –
The RoamZone vibrated on the bed beside him.
Aggravated, he rolled off the bed onto his bare feet and picked it up. He’d upgraded the screen recently from Gorilla Glass to an organic polyether-thiourea that was able to self-repair when cracked.
He was tempted to shatter it himself now when he saw the caller ID.
Same number. Same Argentina area code.
Glaring at the digits, he felt an uncharacteristic rise in body temperature. He argued with himself.
Looked away from the screen.
Clenching his jaw, he thumbed the green virtual button and answered.
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