Into the Fire: New Excerpt
The industrial sliding doors heaved open to a burst of bitter alpine air, a dizzying flurry of snow, and a barrage of hoarse cries. “Hello—goddamn it—somebody help! He’s bad. He’s really—Oh, Jesus, wake up, Grant. Please, just—Someone help!”
From the blurry white, Terzian emerged, lugging his injured companion into the waiting room. Grant’s head lolled to one side, and the arm slung over Terzian’s neck was limp. The toes of his rubber boots dragged across the hospital tiles, squeaking at intervals.
The intake nurse bolted off her stool, already reaching for the intercom to rouse Dr. Patel from her cot in the on-call room. The urgent-care facility was a one-doc shop—six beds, two nurses, a single ER physician now at the midpoint of her forty-eight-hour shift. Strategically positioned on the steep mountain road between the lake resorts of Big Bear and Arrowhead, the skeleton-crew operation serviced adventuresome souls damaged by the vicissitudes of weather or their own basic human stupidity. Torn ACLs from unyielding skis, ulnas shattered by lost footing on black ice, collar bones obliterated against steering columns—these were the bread-and-butter afflictions mended within the facility’s weather-battered walls.
Grant’s injury looked much more severe.
The intake nurse flew out from behind her station, and Jenna, the staff nurse, was running up the hall toward them with a gurney. Dr. Patel jogged behind her, flattening her stethoscope to her chest with a palm to keep it from bouncing. Though her eyes were heavy with sleep, she looked ready to work, her teal scrub sleeves hiked up over her shoulders.
“Let’s get him horizontal now,” she said, digging in her breast pocket for a penlight.
The nurses stepped to the patient, and he slipped from Terzian’s shoulder into their arms. They puddled him onto the gurney. Though the doors had slid closed again, November air still swirled in the lobby, tasting of pine.
Dr. Patel rapid-fired questions: “What’s his name?”
“Grant. Grant Merriweather.”
“And you are?”
“Terzian. His friend.”
“He was driving, lost control—the slush—and . . . and . . . next thing I knew, we were over the edge, right out there—” With a wobbly finger, he pointed through the wall. “We hit a tree, and he was like this. I had to pull him out. Thank God you were so close. It’s like a miracle.”
“Left pupil blown and unreactive.” Patel clicked off her pen-light. “Epidural hematoma.”
“Wait— what? What’s that mean?”
“He’s got a bleed in his brain. There’s too much pressure. We need to CT him—now.”
“You have to save him. You have to save him.”
The gurney wheels rattled as the three women, trailed by Terzian, sprinted into an adjoining room and fed Grant Merriweather’s body into the massive white tunnel. He started posturing, his muscles stiffening, limbs straining. His dilated pupil looked un-human, the halved marble of a stuffed animal’s eye.
As the machine whirred calmingly, Terzian tore off his jacket. Sweat darkened the cuffs of his long-sleeved T-shirt. He stomped from foot to foot, yanking at his sleeves, his untucked shirt swaying. Sweat filmed his forehead, and he was breathing hard, the air thin here at seven thousand feet above sea level.
Jenna placed a hand on his back. “ We’re gonna take good care of him.”
Dr. Patel was over by the monitors, reading the images. “We got midline shift, the brain pushed to the right side. Sheila, call for a medical airlift. We have to get him to a brain center—Cedars or UCLA.”
“Wait, you can’t take him,” Terzian said. “You can’t just take him.”
Patel ignored him. “Jenna, get me the surgical drill.”
Jenna hesitated. “ You’re gonna drill a burr hole? Are we set up for that?”
“No. But if we don’t get some of this pressure relieved, he’s not gonna make it to the city.” Patel’s dark eyes darted to Terzian. “And get him outside. Sir, I need you outside.”
But Jenna was already gone.
“Is this gonna wake him up?” Terzian asked
“It might. Outside, please, sir. We have to take care of your friend.”
Terzian backpedaled through the swinging door as Jenna rushed in with the surgical drill. She handed it off and then slid trauma shears up the front of Grant’s sweatshirt, getting access to his chest in the event they’d have to jump him. She pulled up one leg of his jeans before Patel said, “Wait. It’ll have to wait. Hold his head.”
The doctor readied the cranial perforator, then placed the drill bit three centimeters above the left ear, revved up the motor, and punched a hole through the parietal bone.
Blood drooled out, and then Grant’s eyelids fluttered. He moaned and moaned again. “P-please . . .” he mumbled.
Jenna peeled back Grant’s shirt, and her hand went to her mouth. “Doctor? Doctor?”
Patel looked down at the wounds puckering Grant’s chest and stomach. More knots of shiny, angry flesh dotted the visible part of his thigh.
They heard the rasp of the door, and then Sheila breezed in. “The medevac’s en route from—” She read Patel’s face, went up on tiptoes to peer at the patient, the words sucked from her mouth.
“This man wasn’t in a car crash,” Patel said slowly. “He was tortured.”
Then they turned in concert.
Terzian’s suppressed pistol pipped three times.
A hat trick of head shots.
The women collapsed, jerked down as if pulled by unseen hands. They hit the floor at once, clearing Terzian’s view to Grant Merriweather.
Terzian’s affect had changed entirely. Not a ripple of distress stirred the surface of his face. He held the barrel steady, sighted now at Grant’s groin. Half-moons of sweat darkened his shirt beneath either arm; controlling a grown man while wrangling electrical cables and clamps required a fair amount of exertion.
Terzian’s cuffs had ridden up past the bulges of his forearms, revealing where he’d carved patterns into his skin, the scarification process leaving his flesh textured elaborately. Rose-colored divots scalloped the rich brown skin where Old English lettering spelled out his nickname: THE TERROR.
He spoke now with his true voice, the accent seeping through, rounding the vowels, rolling the r’s.
“Give me the name,” he said calmly. “Or it begins all over again. But worse.”
Grant cupped his hand to the side of his head with disbelief. He looked at his palm, sticky and dark.
“The name,” Terzian said once more.
Grant blinked against watering eyes. A shuddering breath left him, the sound of defeat. “My cousin,” he said. “Max Merriweather.”
Terzian put a round through the hole Dr. Patel had conveniently drilled for him.
Unscrewing the suppressor from the threaded barrel, he pocketed it. Then he stooped to pick his jacket off the floor. In the far distance, the sound of the medevac came barely audible over the moan of the wind.
Pulling on his jacket, he stepped over the bodies and shouldered out through the swinging door.
Puzzles He Didn’t Know How to Solve
At the Fuller Street trailhead of Runyon Canyon, Max Merriweather stitched his hands together behind him and leaned forward to stretch out his lower back, where thirty-three years of wear and tear had taken roost. Hikers were out in force, gay couples and aggressively fit moms, dog walkers and the occasional celebrity in oversize sunglasses and a don’t-notice-me slouch beanie. To the west the sun coasted down behind a bank of clouds, fuchsia embers warming up into a sunset.
The older he got, the more life seemed to present him with puzzles he didn’t know how to solve. Holding down steady work. Stashing away money. And Violet.
Two years and seven months later and he still couldn’t think of Violet without feeling it in his chest, a ping to the soft tissue.
He knew he wore the weight of it in his face, in the knots of his shoulders, in the stiffness of his back. These days people looked at him like they didn’t want him to rub off on them. He couldn’t blame them. He didn’t want to rub off on himself.
Oh, well. As his old man said, A whole lotta folks do better with worse.
The breeze blew sage and chaparral, the dusty scent of the Santa Monica Mountains when you got away from the asphalt and car exhaust. Max started up the trail, nearing a homeless guy five layers deep in rags. The man seemed to grow out from the base of the fence, an organism composed of tattered cardboard, scraps of bedding, and dirt-caked flesh. Swollen legs protruded from a shabby blanket, the skin the same color as the fabric, the dirt. His feet were bare, the soles cracked like shattered plastic. A pit-bull mix was curled up beside him, his snout scarred like the hull of an old ship—probably a dogfight rescue.
The man rattled some coins in a chewed Fatburger cup. “Help a guy out?”
Max said, “We all got it rough, pal.”
The man nodded sagely. “Ain’t that the truth.”
Max jogged up the trail, weaving through the post-workday rush. Designer mini-dogs trotted on bejeweled leashes. Rihanna blared from Beats headphones. A few young guys moved together like a pride of lions, their hair cut in Mad Men parts, negotiating deals too loudly on their phones. A silver-haired husband and wife held hands and looked as content as anyone Max had ever seen outside a TV commercial.
He reached Inspiration Point and took in the downtown skyline miles to the southeast. The scrubby trail brush in the foreground framed the urban sprawl beyond, a snapshot of Los Angeles in all its rangy glory.
Violet had always loved this view. And now this was the closest to her he could get.
A mom nudged up beside him with an off-road stroller rugged enough to have been designed by the United States Army. Behind dark mesh a baby cooed, and Max turned quickly away.
He ran back down even harder.
As he passed through the gate, he heard the homeless guy rattle his few coins and call out to the pride of young men.
The loudest of the bunch muted his phone against his chest. “Quit bugging every one, dude. You’re a joke.”
The homeless guy said, “Then help me not be a joke.”
The young man laughed, white teeth flashing, and pointed at him. “Nice try, bud. Nice try.”
Max walked up the street to where he’d left his truck, a Trail-Blazer with rust patches eating through the wheel wells. He had to climb in across the passenger seat because a tap- and- run months back had dented in the driver’s door.
He sat for a moment, hands on the steering wheel. He thought of the homeless guy back by the fence, those painful deep cracks running through the soles of his blackened feet. Help me not be a joke.
He turned the truck on but couldn’t bring himself to tug the gearshift into drive.
A whole lotta folks do better with worse.
Defeated, he cut the engine and climbed out over the console. He headed back toward the trailhead.
Three minutes later he returned.
From the truck bed, he pulled out a dirty pair of socks and his work boots, worn from his by-the-day construction gig. When he crawled back behind the wheel, his phone chimed in the glove box.
He popped open the antique clamshell he’d been using ever since he fell behind on the payments for his iPhone.
A text from his father waited: YOUR COUSIN GRANT WAS KILLED LAST NIGHT. FIGURED YOU SHOULD KNOW.
Max lowered his face, took a few deep breaths, his hand clammy around the phone. Then he shoved the truck into gear, the trans-mission complaining, and headed into what ever the day held.
As Max drove up to his apartment on the last street in Culver City still unclaimed by gentrification, he reminded himself: He didn’t know anything about anything.
This seemed true in general. But specifically it meant that he didn’t—shouldn’t—have to worry about the nonsense that Grant had saddled him with two months ago.
He recalled the scene with the clarity reserved for painful memories. Golden Boy Grant, the pride and joy of the Merriweathers, paying his first visit to Max’s shitty second-floor apartment, standing on the worn carpet in a thousand-dollar suit so he wouldn’t have to sit on the stained couch. Grant, whose exploits and accomplishments Max heard about at every infrequent brush with a family member. Grant, the forensic accountant, certified in internal auditing, business evaluation, fraud examination, financial forensics, and God knew what else, the licensure initials appended to his signature even on the family fucking Christmas card. Grant, caped investigator of misfeasance, who scoured the books at the behest of insurance companies, police departments, attorneys, banks, courts, government regulatory bodies, and the occasional private citizen. Grant of the rugged good looks, the strong chin, of the spit-shined wing tips and high-precision haircut. “Exactitude is my business,” he’d told Max on more than one occasion. And indeed, sprawled on his inferior couch, Max noted that he could probably cut himself on the crease of his cousin’s slacks.
Grant had handed him a canary- yellow envelope and said, “If anything ever happens to me, call the number inside.”
Max said, “You serious with this Hitchcock routine?”
Max swallowed dryly and said, “Whose number is it?”
“A reporter at the L.A. Times. Don’t trust this to anyone but her.
“What’s up with you, Grant?”
Grant laughed. “Nothing. Nothing’s gonna happen to me. Look, I deal with some heavy hitters. And I’ve taken down my share of shady characters. I just want to make sure I have . . .” He paused, no doubt selecting his next word with that legendary exactitude. “Insurance. In case one day I kick over the wrong rock. It’s not the kind of thing you’d come across in your . . .” Another exactitudinous pause. “Line of work. But as you said, you’ve seen stuff like this before in the movies.”
In the movies, Max thought, this shit always worked out. The hero prepares his in-the-event-of-my-death file to disincentivize anyone from whacking him in a dark alley. Then he wades brashly into the conspiracy and outs the bad guys, saving the day. And no one has to waste a single thought on the schmuck holding the insurance envelope.
But this wasn’t the movies, and if Max had learned one thing from real life, it was that it didn’t go as well as cinematic bullshit.
He looked down at the holes worn through the knees of his jeans, sawdust still caught in the white harp strings of denim. “I don’t know, man. This cloak-and-dagger stuff isn’t really my thing.”
“Come on, Max,” Grant said, like he was talking to a kid or a dense customer-service specialist. “For once in your life, maybe step up, shoulder some responsibility.”
A stiletto to the gut. It took Max a few seconds to breathe again. He kept his eyes lowered, not wanting to let Grant see how devastatingly effective his neat little salvo had been. He imagined that Grant had rehearsed it a time or two in the mirror at his health club.
Max studied his hands. “What about Jill?”
“My wife’s not exactly a safe distance removed from me. Or my family. The thing with you is, no one will ever know. I mean, no one would ever think of you.”
Max said, “Right.”
“You know what I mean. Now, please, Max.” Grant considered his Breitling. “I have to get back to the office. Can I count on you?”
Max picked at a ragged edge of thumbnail where he’d nicked it in a band saw. Without looking up, he held out his hand. “I promise.”
“Great. Thanks so much.” Grant almost seemed sincere. “Thanks, Mighty Max.”
That brought him back. Five years old at a family picnic at Point Dume, and Max had built the tallest sand castle. Then he’d Godzilla-stomped his way through it, and every one had laughed and pointed, even his old man, and Grant had bestowed on him the nickname. A brief, shining moment when he’d been the pride of the Merriweathers.
Grant stepped forward and slapped the stiff canary- yellow envelope into Max’s palm. Something jangled inside, small but solid.
A waft of expensive cologne and Grant was gone.
Nothing’s gonna happen to me.
Parked at the curb now, Max recalled how long he’d sat there holding the envelope. How he’d duct-taped it behind his toilet tank before leaving to line up with the hardworking Hispanic day laborers outside Home Depot, hoping to be picked.
He pulled out his clamshell phone and read the last text ex-change once again in case it had magically rewritten itself in the past fifteen minutes.
Me: How’d he die?
Dad: Guess he was shot. Prob’ly one of the bad guys he had under the magnifying glass. A damn shame. Always the good ones who go young.
Pocketing the phone, Max started to climb out of his truck, but then he looked up and halted on all fours on the passenger seat. Upon the second floor of his building, the perennially unshaven and surnameless Mr. Omar had just emerged from his apartment to head to Max’s place next door. He shuffled through the jaundiced beams thrown from the outdoor hallway’s overhead lights.
When he reached Max’s door, he knocked with considerable force.
“Max, Max, Max. You’re late again. Max? I can hear you in there. Don’t make me keep being a bother, my friend. I have more important matters to handle, believe me.”
Mr. Omar rapped a few more times, sighed audibly, and returned to his apartment. Through the big front window, Max watched him settle back into his Barcalounger, bathed in the aquarium light of his television.
Tomorrow’s shift would put Max over the top for this month’s rent—he’d beeline straight from work to Mr. Omar and settle up then.
Crawling from the truck, he closed the door as quietly as he could manage. Rather than risk the stairs and walk past Mr. Omar’s window, he headed for the telephone pole at the edge of the building. Convenient U-shaped steps studded the pole.
Up he went, getting one foot on the convenient gutter ledge, and then in through the bathroom window he kept unlocked for moments like this.
He stepped down off the closed toilet lid and reached for the door when he heard it in the bedroom.
A tearing sound.
Shush shush shush.
He paused, not trusting his ears.
There it was again, a trio of unsettling rasps.
His lips felt suddenly dry. When he reached for the doorknob, his hand trembled ever so slightly.
He turned the doorknob slowly. The hinges were mercifully silent. The apartment lights were turned off, but a two-inch strip of pale yellow from the outside hall fell across his eye when he put it to the crack.
In his bedroom.
Working in the dark.
Wife-beater T-shirt. Prominent arm muscles oiled with sweat and marked with something else: Tattoos? Henna ink? Scars? One of them at the triceps was swirled like a pinwheel. The man’s back was turned, his shoulders rippling, his hands set to some unseen task. The smell of him hung heavily in the unvented air, a pungent musk like meat on the verge of turning.
Max’s drawers had been emptied, his few possessions strewn across the floor, the bureau tipped away from the wall. The TV was upended, holes punched in the drywall.
The man straightened up and armed his brow, his fist coming clear, clenched around a combat knife with a serrated edge.
Letters on his forearm resolved from the shadows sufficiently for Max to piece them together: the terror. Visible past the man’s thighs, beneath the stripped- aside sheets, the mattress had been sawed open at intervals, the ticking bulged out intestinally.
The man spun the knife in his hand with a skilled proficiency, bent over the mattress once more, and punched the blade into a virgin spot. It made a thwack as if puncturing flesh.
And then the nightmare grating came once again: shush shush shush.
A thought blinked through Max’s brain. If he hadn’t walked back to the homeless guy at the trail, he would’ve been three minutes earlier, which meant he wouldn’t have seen Mr. Omar, which meant he would have strolled right through his front door into the teeth of this nightmare.
The rising burn in his chest demanded he ease out a breath. Painstakingly, he inched the door back into the frame and rotated the doorknob to its resting place. The click when he released it might as well have been a clap of thunder.
He backed to the toilet, crinkling his eyes as the blistered linoleum compressed with a click. One room over he heard a throat-muffled grunt, another thwack, and then the shush shush shush of the blade.
Max couldn’t help but imagine the knife working its way through sinew and tendons. His vision speckled, and a wave of light-headedness swept through him. He firmed his legs, blinked himself back from the edge.
Move, he told himself. Quick and quiet. You can do this.
He patted blindly behind the toilet tank, tore free the canary-yellow envelope, and wormed back out through the window.
On the twenty-first floor of the high-end but somewhat dated Castle Heights Residential Tower, there is a door.
It looks like an ordinary door, but it is not.
The thin wood façade, which resembles every other residential door in the building, disguises a steel interior, which in turn houses an elaborate network of security bars. The core is filled with water, a new measure designed to disperse heat from a battering ram. A ram will buckle before it will breach.
On the other side of the door is a pent house.
It looks like an ordinary pent house, but it is not.
If you wander the seven thousand square feet of gunmetal-gray floor, you will see a variety of workout pods, from heavy bags to racked kettlebells. You will see a freestanding fireplace, a few rarely used couches, a spiral staircase winding up to a reading loft. The open design gives you a clear view into the kitchen with its poured- concrete countertops and brushed-nickel fixtures. You will encounter a living wall from which sprout mint, chamomile, and a potpourri of other culinary herbs. What you won’t notice is that the panoramic glass walls that gaze east to downtown Los Angeles and south to Century City are composed of bullet-resistant polycarbonate thermoplastic resin. Or that the retractable sunscreens, shaded an innocuous periwinkle, are made of an exotic titanium composite woven tightly enough to stop any sniper rounds that might penetrate the bullet-resistant panes.
At the back of the clean, minimalist space, you can walk down the sole hall. You might enter a master bedroom suite. To the right is a bathroom.
It looks like an ordinary bathroom, but it is not.
If you nudge the frosted-glass shower door, it will roll back silently on barn-hanger carbon-steel wheels. The hot-water lever hides invisible sensors, keyed to the palm print of one person only.
Concealed expertly in the tile pattern is a secret door.
The bedroom is as sparse spotless as the rest of the house—bureau, floor, bed.
It looks like an ordinary bed, but it is not.
At second glance you might notice it is floating in the air. The mattress sits on a slab that is repelled from the floor by neodymium rare-earth magnets strong enough to anchor a small ship. Steel cables hold the slab suspended three feet off the floor. Were they severed, the slab would fly up, smash through the ceiling, and go airborne above the Wilshire Corridor.
A man sits on the bed, legs crossed, spine straight, so still that he might be carved from marble. He lives by a set of Commandments, and this act of meditating embodies the Second: How you do anything is how you do everything. His eyes are closed, but not all the way. His open hands rest on his thighs. He is nowhere, but precisely here. He is nothing more than his breath. He is doing one thing and one thing only. This is the opposite of multitasking.
He looks like an ordinary man. He is not.
Within the top echelon of intel circles in nations of influence and instability, Evan Smoak was known as Orphan X.
At the age of twelve, he’d been pulled out of a foster home in East Baltimore and raised in a full black covert operation buried so deep inside the U.S. government that virtually no one knew it existed. His upbringing consisted of relentless physical, emotional, cultural, and psychological training, a grinding wheel that honed him into a razor-sharp implement. His handler, Jack Johns, raised him not merely to be a top-tier assassin but also a human being—two reactive elements that, if put under enough pressure, might combust.
And then Jack had taught him to integrate those pieces. To balance on the tightrope dividing yin from yang. To not combust.
It was a lifelong challenge.
When Evan had gone rogue from the Orphan Program, he’d kept his other alias—the Nowhere Man—and devoted himself to helping people in dire circumstances who had no one to turn to. His clients reached him by calling a little-known number that had become the stuff of urban legend: 1-855-2- NOWHERE. Each digitized call traveled over the Internet through a maze of encrypted virtual-private-network tunnels, circling the planet before reach-ing Evan’s RoamZone phone.
He answered the same way every time: Do you need my help?
And then he stepped in to protect the innocent because no one else would, to shield them from those who would do them harm. To hunt a monster, the shopworn proverb went, you must become one. But to Evan’s ear the saying had always rung hollow.
He had been monstrous once, a weapon sharpened to a singular point. His role as the Nowhere Man was an undoing of that. Every time he helped someone, he regained some tiny part of his soul.
And when he was done, he asked his clients to pass the favor along. To empower themselves by finding someone else in untenable circumstances.
Evan had last helped a young man with a gentle demeanor and a special brain, who had been terrorized by an entire criminal enterprise. Like every client before him, Trevon Gaines had his assignment—to find Evan the next person in desperate need. To give the Nowhere Man’s phone number to that person. And Evan would be waiting once more on the other end of the line, ready to pick up and do it all over again.
“Redemption” was an imperfect word for what he was seeking. Confronting the world with his own code, illuminating the darkness with the guttering light of his own morality—that was a process of becoming.
Becoming less sharp. More human.
The more life he let in, the more he could sense the dawn of a different existence shimmering miragelike in the distance. He’d been on a single trajectory since the age of twelve, launched from a slingshot into all the menace mankind had to offer. As the Nowhere Man, he’d shifted his bearings, sure, but not his fundamental direction.
In the past year, he’d resected the cancer of his past. He’d vanquished the corrupt Orphans pursuing him. And the man at whose direction they’d been acting—the president of the United States. The plan to wipe out the innocent Orphans had been stopped and the survivors scattered to the wind.
Now that Evan was no longer running from something, he’d started to wonder where he was running to. Lately he felt worn down, bone-tired. More and more, questions were arising from some deep-buried place.
How much atonement was enough?
How much longer could he forge through the refuse-choked alleys of cities, staring down eyes as black as the abyss, souls clouded with sick intentions?
Would he just keep going until he was holding down a slab at the morgue?
At some point had he earned enough of himself back to deserve something better?
He didn’t know. But he’d decided nonetheless.
The next adventure would be his last.
One more ring of the durable black phone that he kept on his person at all times. One more time he’d shatter through into the underworld and—if he could make it back alive—carry someone out of damnation. One more time sacrificing a pound of his flesh to win a piece of his soul.
One last mission and he was out.
Copyright © 2020 Gregg Hurwitz.