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Prodigal Son / (by Gregg Hurwitz, 2021) -

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Prodigal Son /   (by Gregg Hurwitz, 2021) -

Prodigal Son / (by Gregg Hurwitz, 2021) -

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Prodigal Son / (by Gregg Hurwitz, 2021) -
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2021
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Gregg Hurwitz
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Scott Brick
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upper-intermediate
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13:19:57
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Prodigal Son / :

.doc (Word) gregg_hurwitz_-_prodigal_son.doc [3.12 Mb] (c: 46) .
.pdf gregg_hurwitz_-_prodigal_son.pdf [2.34 Mb] (c: 42) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Prodigal Son

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1 A New Brand of Danger A stir moves through the Pride House Group Home, and seconds later adolescent faces pig against the muggy front window. Evan, at twelve, still has not hit his growth spurt. He jockeys for position and loses, Charles Van Scivers elbow knocking him to the rear of the pack. A tiny gap opens between Tyrell and Jamal, and Evan catches a fleeting glimpse of a slender man disappearing around the fence of the cracked basketball courts across the street. The conversation wafts back at him. Well? Was that the guy? I dunno, Charles. Looks like him. Real helpful, shitbird. The herd is unsupervised, which is never good. Papa Z, the sturdy Polish-American house father, has retired to the bathroom with the Baltimore Sun. The fact that its a Sunday edition, paired with his chronic and oft-referenced constipation, means he could be missing for hours. Van Sciver leads the way, naturally, as they spill out of their gone-to-hell row house in the shadow of the high-rise Lafayette Courts projects. They reach the asphalt park and spread out, only seven kids today because Danny got yanked into juvie and Andres been missing since Friday, no doubt on another fantasy quest looking for the parents he never knew. Nothing to see but brick and concrete, sweaty in the August humidity, and the usual junkies and corner boys. Cookie-cutter row houses stare back from all sides like crooked teeth. I swear it was him again, Tyrell says. The boys are adrenalized by the Mystery Mans reappearance. He materializes at intervals, eyeing the boys as they strut and roughhouse in the park, the sun glinting off his gold watch. Masked by black Ray-Bans, he smokes through his pack with conveyor-belt efficiency, and when he finally moves, he walks at a leisurely pace, his fingers skating along the chain-link. The theories are endlesshes a weenie-wagger; hes a real-estate tycoon from Streeterville looking to adopt; hes a cannibal who subsists on young flesh. Van Sciver circles them up. Get over here. Everyone over here! The blue bandanna is cinched around his forehead as always, his reddish blond bangs falling over the band of fabric. Hes a head taller than everyone except Ram?n, but Ram?ns built like a skeleton so the height doesnt get him much respect. Van Sciver wears a sleeveless Washington Redskins shirt to show off his biceps, which bulge enough to have grooves in them already. His upper lip sports a few scraggly hairs and a dried smear of the protein muscle drink he downs religiously every morning, mixed powder from the canister he painstakingly saves up for each month, the canister the other kids dare not touch. Though hes just two years older than Evan, they might as well be different species. Theyve tangled only twice, Van Sciver bloodying Evans nose when Evan stood up to him for cheating at blackjack, and splitting his lip for backing Tyrell, whose sister is a whore but who probably doesnt need to be reminded of it as often as Van Sciver thinks he does. Van Sciver came into the home when his dad got nailed for a bank heist, which makes him royalty in this zip code. A few coveted photographs and a yellowed newspaper clipping confirm his provenance. Evan on the other hand is without the benefit of a rousing lineage. He simply appeared like something mythicalMoses in a basket of pitch-darkened bulrushes, Athena springing fully formed from the brow of Zeus. From various social workers, hed gleaned only the barest facts about his origin. That his birth mother had traveled from out of state to turn him over for adoption in Maryland when he was six days old. That his first adoptive mother had been debilitated by a series of strokes shed kept secret, right up until she and her overwhelmed husband had dropped Evan back into the system. Since Evans birth mother had retained the right to select the adoptive family, his fate was frozen while social services tried to locate her. But young women who travel out of state to relinquish newborns dont want to be identified, let alone found. By the time the bureaucracy had unsnarled itself sufficiently to declare him abandoned, hed knocked around a series of homes. Even by the time he was four years old, his face had grown guarded, no longer a blank slate upon which a couple could project their dreams. He had a whiff of inferiority about him, another kid fit for the damaged-goods bin. Papa Zs group home is the latest stop on the merry-go-round. Five to fifteen kids on perennial rotation, graduating to trade school or jail or jobs involving wrenches and name-patch coveralls. The choices are few, the outcomes predetermined, the tracks laid pointing to a dismal future. That is what is so intriguing about the Mystery Man and his gold watch, no matter how awful his intentions may be. He does not belong to this world, to these city blocks. He represents not just a new brand of danger but a new road to a new place, and any route out of East Baltimore is a good one. Van Sciver says, I talked to Eddie in Pacos garage who talked to his cousin who said the Mystery Man takes kids and turns them into something. Turns them into something. But what? The only point of reference Evan has for this comes from the army recruiting office across from the arcade in the mall. In between rounds checking the video-game change slots for forgotten quarters, he and Tyrell watch the slouchy teenagers go through that glass door bearing the decal of the American flag. They always come out a little straighter. They come out men. Ram?ns voice cuts through Evans reverie. Turns them into sex-slave dicksuckers, he says, and a few kids risk snickers. But Van Sciver continues, undeterred. Eddies cousin? He said he knew a guy came up in a Westside homeNew Beginnings?and that guy said the Mystery Man picked another kid, the best kid, out of the group. The tallest. The fastest. The strongest. And that kid? One day he just vanished. He draws out the pause, the boys huddling closer, still breathing audibly from their dash across the street. Now its no longer a story but an urban legend, a campfire ghost story, and somehow that makes it more real. Evan senses some dark truth in the spaces between the lies. Van Sciver has let the cliffhanger linger long enough. Conspiratorially, he looks left, right, then back at the group. Four years later he came back. For a day. A block or two over, a car is blaring Run-DMC with the bass cranked up high. The sound fades. Tyrells sneaker scrapes the asphalt as he leans in even closer. And? He was built, Van Sciver says. Muscles like this. And badass. Had a scar across his cheek. And a Porsche. The details are delicious, tantalizing. Evans stomach pitches with excitement, as if hes in roller-coaster free fall. A wino shuffles by tangentially, and Van Sciver shoots him a hostile glare. Get the fuck outta here, Horace. Back to his captive crowd. This guy, he said he went to a housebest house ever. A real home. Hot meals three times a day and Nintendo and a pool. You get your own room. Said they trained him. To do what? Evan asks. Van Sciver has to look down to meet his eyes. No one knows. 2 Serious Business Sixty-five motherfucking dollars. Thats all it costs to jar your life off track. Nonot just off track. Pile-driven into the side of a mountain like a locomotive blasted off the rails. Thats why Andrew Duran was here working the midnight shift at an impound lot on the East Side, crammed into a booth not much bigger than a doghouse, breathing in the overpowering scent of Old Spice deodorant from Juan, who worked the shift before him. Minimum wage put Duran at $420 a week, but by the time federal, state, Social Security, Medicare, and wage garnishment took a bite outta him, it looked more like $300 out the back end. Which was about $500 less than what he needed to pay for child support and food and a roof over his head, but then again he could be a broke-ass beggar selling smoked-down cigarette butts in Calcutta, so he tried not to complain. Perspective. Thats what they talked about on all them self-help podcasts. Thats what they talked about in the meetings, too. There but for the grace of God. One day at a time. Nothings so bad a drink wont make it worse. Clich?s, sure, but hed lost enough already not heeding them. Hed lost everything. He sighed and stared through the grease-smudged window, king of all he surveyed. Which at the moment was a labyrinth of smashed-to-hell impound vehiclesrusting VW Bugs, wrecked Ferraris, twisted American muscle. Some had blood spatter on the headrests. Others had claw marks scouring the paint jobs at the trunks where the drug dogs got after it. A few, missing wheels, had been hauled in here on the back of a trailer and left for dead. Durans job was to watch over them and sign off on a confusion of forms when cops or tow-truck drivers or beleaguered owners came to claim them. Cerebral work, this. How hed gotten here from owning his own homeeven a shitty-ass one-bedroom in the city of El Serenohed never know. Wait, scratch that. He did know. Sixty-five motherfucking dollars. For a motherfucking parking ticket he got in the twenty seconds when he ran inside a liquor store to get change for the meter. Hed stopped for lunch in Bakersfield on his way to visit his homey in Kern Valley State Prison eighteen months back. Twenty seconds was all it took. Duran couldnt pay it cuz hed promised Brianna hed hit the child-support mark that month for Sofia, who was turning eleven and needed better clothes for middle school. Which she deserved, cuz, shit, she drew the short straw when she got him as a daddy, so the least he could tryn do was help Bri get her some shirts from Walmart instead of the Salvation Army so the kids wouldnt make fun of her the way he got made fun of his whole damn childhood. So hed spent the sixty-five bucks on his daughter instead of on the Bakersfield Department of Transportation. And a few weeks later when he was pulled over for a broke taillight ($25 fine, $2 surcharge, $35 court dismissal fee, $115 parts and labor to actually fix the piece of shit), he got another surprise when the cop ran the plates. An outstanding warrant. Turned out that Johnny Mac, Durans supervisor on the roof-inspection gig, had put on a half dozen parking tickets when hed borrowed Durans car for lunch runs, and hed torn up every last one like the Irish fuck he was. On top of that shit, Duran learned hed already missed a court date he didnt even know he had, and failure to appear was serious business, even if it was for Johnny Macs tickets. The cop wrote up every last late fee, every penalty assessment, every vehicle-code infraction, the accrued fines tripling and tripling till they had more zeros than the national deficit. Duran felt himself slumping in the drivers seat, a punch-drunk boxer on a ring-corner stool. This is some bullshit, he muttered. I was on my way to fix it. Youre one of those, huh? the cop said. Nothings ever your fault? Nope, Duran said. I make plenty of mistakes, just like everyone else. But guys like me dont catch a break when they need it. The cop tore off the sheaf of tickets, handed them through the window, then breathed out a breath that smelled like Tic Tacs. Ah, he said, smiling with his shiny white teeth. Lemme guess. Im a racist, right? No, Duran said, Im thinking youre enough of a asshole to do this to rich white dudes, too. That didnt go over so hot. The courtroom was packed to the gills, all body heat and working-class weariness, the judge hammering through her docket. Durans was the seventeenth case that hour. He had some scrawled notes hed prepared from late-night online searches, but ever since childhood courthouses had made him nervous. His hands were sweaty enough to make the ink run, and the judge was exhausted and impatient, and he couldnt really blame her, cuz he was stuttering like a idiot and she had a million more cases to get through before lunch. Shed imposed a civil judgment, the statute getting an upgrade from an infraction to a misdemeanor, and his only real option to clear the warrant was to go to jail. Turns out it was pay-to-stay up in those parts$100 booking fee, $50 each day inside. A week to get out meant a fat hotel bill and enough missed appointments for Johnny Mac to fire his ass, and in the meantime them parking tickets kept gobbling up interest and penalties like Pac-Man snarfing him some dots. When Duran hit the outside, he scrambled for work, took whatever he could find. They garnished his wages, but he swore hed only let that eat into him and not Sofia. For the income he sublet his tiny little house in El Sereno to a Korean businessman who was barely ever in the country but whose checks never bounced. Then Duran sold his car for more cash and rented a not-to-code room above a Chinese kitchen. He mailed a check every month to Brianna with a note to use it well for his little girl. Who he was too ashamed to see. Living where he was in a place no social worker would approve for visitation. Dressing like he did. Smelling like he did, the stink of General Tsos chicken seeping up through the floorboards at all hours. He could hardly stand to look in the mirror. He couldnt imagine what he would look like to Sofia. Hed been through a lot, but he thought if his little girl looked at him with disgustor worse, pityit just might break him for good. Sofia begged to see himBri angrily recounted every last tear for him in their monthly call. And he wanted nothing in the world more than to see her. But something stopped him. An invisible hand on his shoulder, keeping him from stepping forward. That familiar voice in his ear, whispering, You aint good enough. You dont deserve it. Not until he paid off the last $775 he owed in fines. Till he moved back into his house like he was his own man and fixed up a proper bed for his little girl to sleep in. Till he saved enough to show up with a properly wrapped toy and take her out for a meal and not worry about if she ordered a soda or got a appetizer, too. Six months had turned into a year and now a year and change, and he caught himself wondering if hed be able to face his little girl at allif she even was still a little girl. Wondering if his shame and pride had already cost him everything. She couldnt know he was scraping by and washing his sheets in the sink with hand soap so he could honor his child support. She couldnt know he thought about her every waking minute of the day. She probably felt abandoned. And rightly so. He knew that feeling, too, knew it in his gut. It was an old song, calling to him from shore, luring him into the jagged rocks. His stomach grumbled. A Three Musketeers bar from the cabinet cost fifty cents. He kept most of his money in a zippered pouch because fuck ATM fees. He unzipped it now, counted out the change, and left it in the dish. He knew by heart how much he had in the pouch$147.85 minus one Three Musketeers bar with the employee discount would leave him with $147.35. He chewed the chocolaty nougat and thought of the smell of Sofias head when she was a newborn. How hed held her in the hospital first cuz Bri was whacked out from the C-section. Sofia had fit right in his arms, that warm tiny body snug between his elbows and wrists when he held her out before him on his lap. Looking down at her, he thought hed finally done one right thing in this life. All at once the security monitors on the north wall of the doghouse kiosk turned to fuzz. Theyd never gone out before. He slapped the side of the nearest monitor a few times as if that might help. Then he leaned over and checked the cord connections, but they all looked good. He was so distracted that he didnt notice the two people who had walked up to the service window till they were standing right in front of him. The dude had a thin manicured beard and a high-fashion suit like you wouldnt believesome kind of not-quite-velvet with dark blue strips lining the lapels and a handkerchief to match. Durans two-sizes-too-big security uniform, made more humiliating by the contrast, itched as he regarded the man. Homey looked like he belonged on a red carpet somewhere instead of a East Side impound lot. He was built toonot a swole prison body but like he spent plenty of time in one of them CrossFit gyms where they jump around and swing kettlebells like circus monkeys. The woman at his side looked equally out of place here, all shiny and new. The organizing principle of her life seemed to be the color red. Red nails, a red hair scrunchie, red pumps, red lipstick, red buckle on her satchel briefcase. Fluffy blond hair like cotton candy. Duran was so taken aback he needed a moment to find his voice. Help you? I hope so. The mans voice was slightly too high, almost feminine, and it sure as shit didnt match his alpha-dog bearing or the way he filled out that suit. Were trying to find the man who belongs to that truck. He spoke properly, but there was a street cadence beneath the words that Duran knew all too well. It was like the guy had listened to a bunch of rich people on TV and was doing his best to imitate them. Dude gave a nod to a Bronco at the end of the nearest row. Crumpled grille, bashed front panel, wires snarled out from the shattered mouth of the headlight. Duran hoisted his eyebrows. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the black-and-white dots dancing on the security monitors. You dont look like no Marshals Service. I know, the woman said sympathetically. Thats the point. She had a full face of makeup and was attractive at first glance, but Duran got the sense that she looked like a different human when that mask was wiped off. Jake Hargreave is his name, Mr. Slick said. The man who belongs to that Bronco. There was a shoot-out on the 110, and he crashed and abandoned the vehicle. You can see why its a necessity for us to talk with him. The man produced a badge and held it out for Duran to see, but Duran didnt know what he should be looking at, so he just tugged at his chin and frowned as if this answered everything. The woman unbuckled her briefcase and removed an envelope. We pay our confidential informants, she said. For tips. She counted ten hundreds from the envelope onto the counter, fanning them like a casino cashiers cards. Duran could feel his eyes bulging. A grand meant hed be out from under those loans. Free and clear. That he could find his way back to his house. And then to his daughter. The woman gathered up the bills, tapped them once on the counter to align them, and slid them into the envelope again. Neat little magic trick, making all that cash disappear. The man ran his thumb and forefinger around his mouth, smoothing down the glistening chestnut facial hair. Owners require an appointment to claim their vehicle, is that correct? Duran said, Dont know if they require it, but pretty much everyone calls first to make sure their cars here, yeah. When the man sets up his appointment to claim the car, wed appreciate a heads-up, the woman said. She raised the envelope, gave it a shake for emphasis, and put it back in her satchel briefcase. We can take it from there. Why dont you just pull the files? Duran said. If youre Marshals Service. Track him down your own selves? We have, the man said, that thin, reedy voice unexpected each time out. Hes gone to ground. But he needs his truck. He was smiling again, like he was the most pleasant guy in the world. And we need him. Duran realized he was sweating. Like his body knew something his mind couldnt grasp. The man cocked his head. Not meeting Durans gaze, but focusing lower, the just-missed eye contact unsettling. You broke your jaw, he told Duran. When you were a child. Durans hand rose reflexively, touching the spot where a punch had cracked the bone. It was just a hairline, treated with a bag of frozen peas and a paper cup to drool into, and it had left no visible imperfection. At least thats what Duran had always thought. A closed fracture, the man continued, his eyes lasering in. Up by the temporomandibular joint. Mustve hurt something awful. Duran didnt like the look in the guys eyes. Like he was hungry. Duran forced a swallow, his throat suddenly dry. The man finally broke off his gaze, jotted down a phone number on a blank slip of paper, and handed it to Duran. Carrot or stick, he told Duran with that amicable smile. You get to choose. They turned and walked out of the yard. As soon as they cleared the outer fence, the security feeds blinked back online. Either those deputy marshals had some mage-level government tech skills or it was a helluva coincidence. Duran looked at the monitors, showing nothing now but the empty lot and the midnight mist creeping in. It thickened up until the city lights winked off, until the cars barely peeked out like boulders on some desolate mountaintop. He chewed his lip and thought about the bizarre woman and the guy staring at his jaw with that odd expression. He thought about what the U.S. Marshals Service could do to him if he didnt cooperate. He thought about that thousand dollars. They needed his help. Notheyd demanded it. Okay, he thought. Why not? he thought. Whats the worst that could happen? 3 Whittled Down to Uselessness A week later Evan is awakened by a foot in his chest. It is nothing personal. As the smallest kid, he sleeps on the mattress between the bunk beds, and this is what happens. His eyes open to a slow-motion stampede. Andre, back from another fruitless parent search, is the only one who bothers to whisper an apology. The others are rushing quietly to the doorway, peering around the jamb with a sort of thrilled terror. The frame itself is crosshatched with countless height markers that Papa Z notched with his pocketknife this summer, another endeavor whittled down to uselessness given the turnover rates of the boys. Evan crawls over; the only space left at the doorjamb is floor-level. From his snails-eye view down the long hall, he catches a partial angle of Papa Z embedded in his venerable armchair, one meaty fist clamped around a Coors tallboy. His face and neck are splotchy red; it is not the first beer of the evening. A hushed voice emanates from the space across from him, over by the shit-brown corduroy couch with the missing cushion. can only take one right now. Sure its a way out. But he needs to show an ability to perform. Charles has that, Papa Z confirms. He draws again from the sweating can, his tree-trunk throat glugging up and down. Van Sciver has gone stiff in the doorway. Evan can sense him above, as tense as a dog pointing to prey. Jamal whispers, Is that? The Mystery Man, Ram?n confirms before Van Sciver hushes them viciously. Charles seems the most likely, the hushed voice says. Or the other one. Andre. Andre pulls his head back slightly. Down the hall Papa Z wipes his lips. What about Evan? They strain to make out the Mystery Mans voice. The little one? Yup. Too small. But willful, Papa Z says. So willful. Nah, Mystery Man says. The little ones no good. Muted sneers rain down on Evan. Then cease instantly as the weary floorboards of the living room creak. Mystery Man steps into view, a facial profile over bony shoulders. Two slender fingers clamp a business card, extended to Papa Z. That gold watch glints. The Ray-Bans are on, even inside, even at night. Have Charles Van Sciver call, he says. The boys creep back to bed, buzzed on adrenaline. Whispered theories and dirty jokes fly back and forth. Im gonna do it, Van Sciver says. Whatever the fuck it is, Im gonna do it. How bout Andre? Ram?n asks. Mystery Man got his eye on him, too. Oh, no, sir, Van Sciver says. Andres gonna move in with his mom and pop. Just as soon as he finds em. Aint that right, Andre? What do you say, Dr. Dre? Tyrell says. You find your daddy this time? Assorted guffaws. Andre doesnt bother to look up from his spiral notebook, the one he draws in constantly, sketches of superheroes and soldiers and curvy girls. He hates being called Dr. Dre, almost as much as he hates being called Dre-Dre or his middle name, some crazy-ass biblical word written on his birth certificate that even he doesnt know how to pronounce. The home is a perpetual testing ground, every insecurity exposed, every vulnerability jabbed until it broke you or you broke it. Least my sister aint no whore, Andre says. Tyrells eyes widen, white against his shiny dark skin. Least I know who my family is, bitch. Ram?n laughs, claps his hands quietly, his skinny arms so thin they look like they might snap from the impact. Always good to know zactly who dont want you. You wait and see, fools, Andre says, his hand never slowing, the pencil scratching calmingly against paper. Mystery Mans gonna choose me, cuz he got some taste. Then Ill drive a big-ass Cadillac and move to Cali. They got palm trees and shit and blond girls with juicy booties who Rollerblade in bikinis all day long. Evan thinks about Cali and palm trees and Rollerblading blondes, Andres fantasy weaving into his until its one big tapestry way up out of reach. He waits silently until the voices quiet, until the sounds of breathing turn uniform, until the room is still. Then he creeps out of bed and down the hall toward the blaring TV. Papa Z is snoring operatically, his last Coors nestled in his crotch. Evan peers at the business card balanced on the arm of the chair next to the remote. At first he does not understand. The card is solid black. But then a commercial interrupts the Doogie Howser rerun and the changing glow casts the card in a different light. Visible only now, matte black against glossy black, are ten digits. A hidden phone number. Leaning for a better angle, hands on his knees, Evan commits it to memory. He swivels back toward the hall, his face nearly colliding with Van Scivers chest. The bigger boy stands perfectly still, arms crossed, blue bandanna perfectly in place. Dont even think about it, he says. His lips move, but his teeth stay clenched, and a snakelike vein swells in the side of his neck. Papa Z stirs. Boys? Whats the problem? Van Sciver offers a wide grin. No problem at all, sir. Who is this? Not Charles Van Sciver. I figured that. What do you want? What do you want? Whered you get this number? On the card you left. I told him not to give it to anyone else. He didnt. I sneaked a look. Silence. Then, The park around the block with the outdoor handball courts. Last one on the south side. Behind the wall. Tomorrow at noon. Click. Evan rounds the handball wall, the weight of the shade falling across him. The Mystery Man is over at the fence, smoking, those slender fingers tangled in the chain-link. He looks up, and his face flickers with disdain. You? He strolls over. Suddenly Evan is acutely aware of how isolated they are here behind the last court on the south side. They face a glass-strewn alley and a burned building, the one that went down when Jalilahs nana fell asleep smoking a blunt. The only sign of life is a black sedan parked at the edge of the asphalt plane, angled directly at them. The windows are tinted. All of them, even the windshield. Evan figures it might be the Mystery Mans car, though no one has ever seen the guy drive. Then again, no one has ever seen the Mystery Man this close. Sallow features, wispy hair, face unshaven enough that it seems a statement, not an oversight. He flicks his cigarette butt with a practiced air as he nears Evan. Evan feels his heartbeat tick up a notch, his rib cage bump-bump-bumping against his worn-thin T-shirt. In the approaching Ray-Bans, he sees his twinning reflections, small and pathetic. He clears his throat to speak. The Mystery Man backhands him. Not with full force, but not holding back either. The blow snaps Evans head on the stalk of his neck, spins him down onto all fours, a cord of crimson-lined drool connecting his lower lip to the asphalt. The voice comes from behind and over him. Lesson one. Be ready. Now, get the fuck outta here. The static clears from Evans vision by degrees. He stands up, wipes his lip. Whats lesson two? Mystery Man swallows, surprised. He glances over at the dark sedan, and for the first time Evan senses nervousness in his body language. And Evan realizes: The car doesnt belong to the Mystery Man. The Mystery Man hesitates, as if trying to read the dark windshield. Then he shakes his head with disgust. All right. You want another shot? Tomorrow. Same time, same place. As Evan runs home, the shame burns out of him at last, hot tracks down his face. Van Sciver is waiting in the bedroom and no one else. Word has spread. He holds his belt, looped once, the ends clenched in his wide fist. He says, We never finished that conversation last night. 4 Next-Level Deep Shit Two weeks later Duran had almost forgotten about the pair of deputy marshals whod breezed in at the midnight hour and asked him to keep tabs on the owner of that banged-up Bronco. Built dude with the squeaky voice and that woman done to a turn, all long red nails and fluffy hairit was like he dreamed them up. But the call jogged his memory. Jake Hargreave phoning up to ask about his truck. He had a husky voice and a shifty temperament, and Duran could understand why he had the Marshals Service on his tail. And yes, he wanted to come now, at half past two in the morning, which seemed a sketchy time for a dude to want to reclaim his ride. Duran reviewed the paperwork. Okay, he said. But I dont see how youre gonna drive it outta here, condition its in. Why dont you let me worry about that, Hargreave said, and cut the line. Duran unzipped his pouch$128.95and took out that phone number the deputy with the high-pitched voice had scrawled down. Staring at it, he chewed his bottom lip. Something felt wrong. But it felt just as wrong to not call. For all Duran knew, Hargreave was a Ten Most Wanted fugitive, and contacting the authorities right now was the only way to stop him from shooting up a mall or Silence of the Lambsing some lady in a basement well. Plus, the thousand dollars. Which was pretty much all that was standing between him and his little girl, who was becoming less little every day his sorry ass couldnt get his shit together. He dialed. A woman picked up. U.S. Marshals Service. In the background he could hear music playing, Rihanna asking some lucky fool to stand under her umbrella, ella, ella. Hi uh. I was asked to call this number Rihanna cut off abruptly. Then the woman said, Yes, that was us. Now he recognized the voice: Ms. Red. It occurred to him that neither of the deputies had given him their names. Looking down at the scrap of paper, he wondered why they hadnt left an official business card. But the conversation was already proceeding without him. Well? she repeated impatiently. Sorry, he said. What? I said, did the owner of the Bronco call? Duran thought about how the security feeds had gone to static when the deputies made their appearance and then magically restored themselves after theyd exited the yard. Mr. Duran, she said firmly. He felt himself sweating. He hadnt given her his name. Ms. Red had clearly done some digging in the federal databases. Yeah, he heard himself saying. Yeah, he did. Hes coming in to get it now? Thats right. The line clicked off. Perspiration cooled on the side of Durans face. He set the phone down on the counter and stared at it. The chill of the yard crept into the kiosk, fogging the window. The November wind kicked up, howling through the hull of a burned-out Mustang. From its spot in the nearest row, the Bronco stared back at him. He recalled the male deputys words: He needs his truck. And we need him. Why did Jake Hargreave need his truck? Duran got out of the kiosk, stepping onto ground crusted with broken glass. The toe of his sneaker caught a smashed bottle cap, sent it skittering across the asphalt. Approaching the truck, he shone his flashlight through the spiderwebbed windshield. A scattering of safety glass across the dashboard. A plastic parking permit hooked over the rearview mirror, along with a bouquet of Little Tree air fresheners. A dark smudge on the black webbing of the seat beltdried blood? The drivers door was caved in, but the rear gave with a creak. Duran searched the backseat, the cargo area, the floorboardsnothing but a few more glass pebbles and a stray quarter. He crawled through to check the glove box. Totally empty. Someone had been thorough. Duran backed out and squatted, chewing his lip. He felt out of alignment, a snow-globe storm of instincts and impressions flurrying inside him, refusing to settle. Every time he reached for a thought, it twirled away, lost to the squall. Rising, he cracked his back and decided to patrol the property to clear his head. He passed a motorcycle with a pancaked front wheel that had undoubtedly cost a life or two. He passed a forty of King Cobra, a crumpled paper bag slumped around the bottles midsection like a skirt. He passed the hole in the chain-link that the possums were fond of sneaking through, pale vagabonds with marble eyes. Behind him the motion-activated light in the kiosk clicked off, bathing the lot in semidarkness. He pulled the company Maglite from his pocket and clicked it on. Weaving through the dark outer edges of the labyrinth, he let the flashlight pick across all those vehicles. Cracked windshields fragmented the beam, sent it kaleidoscoping across the rows of battered cars. Atop the chain-link fence, security cams peered down at intervals, robots noting his progress. The whole scene felt eerie and otherworldly, an urban landscape from a dystopian future. He wondered what kind of deputy marshal was up at 2:30 A.M. listening to Rihanna. No business cards. The woman whod answered the phone generically, still not giving up a name. The dude with the crazy voice and the crazier suit. Duran had seen plenty of deputy marshals, but never one who dressed like that. He finally pinned down the suspicion fluttering beneath all the noise. What if they werent deputy marshals at all? He stopped at the far edge of the lot. Clicked off his flashlight. Stood in the darkness to let the full weight of his misgivings land. He cursed himself for not digging deeper before now. Had he not wanted to admit that something felt wrong? After all, theyd offered him a thousand reasons to deceive himself. He took the slip of paper from where hed crammed it in his pocket and stared at the digits. He didnt want to check. Not at all. But he had to. He called information, asked to be put through to the Marshals Service office downtown. Dispatch answered, a woman with a pack-a-day voice who sounded not entirely awake. Yeah, hi, he said. I was given a phone number by a deputy who uh, might not have been a deputy. If I read it to you, can you tell me if uh, if its real? I cant disclose any phone numbers of federal employees, she said. Right. I get that. Im giving you a number. He rattled it off quickly, before she could cut him off. I just need to know if its someone impersonating one of you guys. Before I give up any classified information. She grunted. Said nothing. But he could hear the keyboard rattling away. In the ensuing pause, a set of headlights swept into the lot way across the maze of wrecked cars, throwing wild shadows over the twisted metal. He couldnt see the vehicle, not directly, just the refracted beams needling through the gloom. He felt his heartbeat kick up a notch, fluttering the side of his neck. The vehicle crept toward the heart of the yard. Im sorry, sir, but that number isnt registered to the Service, the woman said. And its not listed in the database as a personal number for any of our He hung up. Sucked in a lungful of frigid night air. The headlights eased toward the kiosk. Halted. A dinging announced an open door. Duran edged out from a row of cars and peered up the makeshift aisle. A Prius was parked by the wrecked Bronco. The drivers door was open, the dome light throwing a globe of yellow. At first Duran didnt see anyone. Then a movement brought his attention to the Bronco. A broad-shouldered guyHargreave?had ducked through the passenger door of the truck and was leaning over the dashboard. Hey! Duran shouted. Hey! The guy slid out of the Bronco, took a few steps in front of the Prius, and stood backlit by the headlights glow, a perfect black cutout. His hands were at his sides, his head cocked with either curiosity or concern. Duran jogged a few steps toward him. You should get out of here. These guys are after you. They fooled meIm sorry, but The faintest hum reached his ears. About thirty yards away from Hargreave, safely back from the throw of light from the kiosk, Duran halted. Hargreave turned, half his silhouette catching the headlights blaze, a vertical seam splitting his body. The hum grew louder, rising in pitch. Hargreave twitched once, violently. There was the briefest moment of calm. And then a jet spurted from his neck, two feet high. It took Duran a moment to assemble what he was seeing, to make the pieces fit. Blood. Carotid. As if Hargreave had been jabbed by a scalpel. Except there was no scalpel. And no hand to hold it. Hargreave clamped a palm to the side of his neck. His fingers trisecting the jet, three streams spraying through. His knees buckled. He sagged to the ground. He curled up in a loose fetal position. His knees twitched on the asphalt once, twice, and then stilled. A wet circle dilated beneath his head, as mesmerizing as an oil slick. The headlights laid a blanket of light over his hunched form. No one had been near him. Nothing had touched him. Thered been no gunshot, no projectile, no pop of a mini-explosion. It was impossible, and yet Duran had seen it with his own eyes. He was the only person in the lot. He was the only person on the security footage. Which meant hed be the only person to blame. From the darkness he stared at the limp form, his flesh prickling. It was incredible how quickly a life could be extinguished. A jerking inhale shuddered through him. His senses had revved into overdrive. His skin on fire. The breeze chilling the wetness in his eyes. Even at thirty yards, he swore he could smell blood, taste the iron in the air. He pictured the two fake deputies with their well-dressed confidence, how the security monitors had fritzed out in perfect concert, a display of tech genius or dark magic. And now Hargreave lay emptied out on the ground thirty yards away, felled by an invisible hand. Duran could barely hear the humming over the white-noise rush in his ears, but he sensed it clearly, a vibration in his teeth. It was still present in the air, thrown like a ventriloquists voice, hovering over Hargreaves body, then buzzing around the kiosk. And then, inside, a faint sound amplified between the tight walls. Searching. Searching for him. He took a step forward. Crumpled the piece of paper in his fist, his palm slick with sweat. The next few steps came with excruciating slowness, his wobbling legs threatening to give way. Peering out from behind a dismembered minivan, he gasped in a few breaths. The faint disturbance in the air still seemed to be moving inside the kiosk. He sprang forward, darted to the kiosk, and slammed the door closed. Fighting the key from his pocket, he jammed it halfway into the lock, then reared back and kicked the shiny metal head. It snapped off, pinging around in the darkness. Already he was running for the perimeter. He braced for the sound of the hum pursuing him but heard nothing aside from his breath thundering in his ears. Sliding into the rear fence, he skinned his palms, tore the knee of his shitty security slacks. He shoved through the hole the possums used, stray spikes of chain-link gouging his spine. Squirming free, he shot a look over his shoulder but could make out nothing more through the diamonds of chain-link than the dark expanse of the lot. Theyd seen his face. They knew his name. He was in some next-level deep shit. He careened into the nearest alley, his shoulder scraping the rough brick. His mind whirled through options and outcomes. He was starting to grasp just how utterly screwed he was. Tied to a murder. On the run. No one to turn to. 5 A Killing Tool Sweat cooling across his bare chest, Evan watched her doze off, running his fingers through her curly hair. Lying naked, bathed in the pale blue glow, she looked like a painting. The moonlight spill through the window painted her skin a flawless gold. One leg was drawn to the side, putting her hips on a slight tilt, the tilde of her waist dipping beneath the strokes of her ribs. The sheets gathered around her swirled like cake frosting. Her shoulders bore streaks from where hed clutched her. From this particular angle in the uneven light, with her face turned away, she might have been someone else. For a moment Evan let his eyes feed him the lie. Then she lifted her head and nuzzled into his touch, her features coming clear, wide-set eyes, caramel skin, broad ski-jump nose. Not Mia Hall, the single-mother district attorney who lived in his building and occupied an outsize space in his thoughts. But Jeanette-Marie, a woman hed met earlier that night at the Beverly Hills Hotels Polo Lounge. Shed been sipping C?roc, a perfectly acceptable choice of vodka, and when hed sat next to her and ordered Jewel of Russia Ultra, hed caught her attention. Like him she was nicely into her thirties, and she had the poise and grace to show for it. A grin pulled her mouth to one side. That was gymnastic. She blew a corkscrew sprig of hair out of her eye. Whats your name again? Evan said, David. Are you gonna call me? He kept stroking her hair lazily, the back of her neck hot against his fingertips. No, he said, not unkindly. Thats fine. She stretched, catlike, content. Im so sick of bullshit. Thanks for being honest. Thank you for letting me spend time with you. She cocked her head. Youre a funny one, David. Polite and hmm, formal, I guess. I mean, dont get me wrong, I dig it. She slid up and pulled on a lace camisole, which had landed slung over her headboard. Can I make you something to eat? No thank you, he said. I can show myself out. You sure? You want an espresso, something? She caught herself. Im sorry. Ugh. Its justwomen, were used to making ourselves useful. You dont need to. Youre delightful doing nothing. He was on his feet now, hunting for his boxer briefs on the white Carrara marble floor. His RoamZone, discarded near an overturned high heel, showed a missed call. Same number as the last three calls, starting with the country code of Argentina. The one time hed picked up, he hadnt liked what hed heard. There was a time when a missed call to 1-855-2-NOWHERE would have been cause for concern. But hed moved on to a normal lifeor at least a simulacrum of what a normal life could be. A life that allowed for the Polo Lounge, women with broad ski-jump noses, and evenings that didnt bring with them the promise of violence. He exhaled deeply, cracked his neck, breathing in perfume and sweat. Stretching his shoulders, he took in the warmth of the decor. The luxury bungalow floated above the Hollywood Hills, the massive bed centered in the great room between two pillar candles, each the width of a tank guns barrel. The open kitchen was modern-chic with a Moroccan-tile backsplash, sage-green cabinets, and a rough-sawn farm table. A white plastic trash bag, neatly knotted, leaned against a wood-paneled refrigerator. A substantial picture window looked down at the Sunset Strip, alive with traffic lights and tall-wall billboards displaying It Girls and Boys like larger-than-life jewels. Or perishables. He was distracted by that missed call. The woman behind it was proving to be persistent. What the hell did she want? Who had sent her? Jeanette-Marie studied him, her eyes glinting. Okay. Lemme guess. Youre a sous-chef. Amused, he said, Sure. Evan had an average build, the better to blend in. Just an ordinary guy, not too handsome. He kept his muscles toned but not pronounced. When he was dressed, it was hard to discern just how fit he was. But he wasnt dressed now. Jeanette-Marie had certainly seen him up close, but she scanned him once more with the benefit of greater perspective. Nowait. She snapped her fingers. A trainer! Hang on, no, like a physical therapist? He said, Sure. Okay. A sous-cheftrainerphysical therapist. Well leave it at that. Her smile was radiant, youthful. What do you think I do? I think youre a painter, educated at the Royal College of Art. You prefer to work in oils, and you teach part-time at UCLA. Her lips pressed together, her brow furrowed with incredulity. Um. How? He found his boxer briefs beneath a throw pillow that had lived up to its name. You have calluses on the side of your left middle finger near the joint from holding a thin brush. Your shirt had paint stains on the cuff. Acrylics are water-based, so they wouldve washed out by now. So: oil. At the Polo Loungeafter you wouldnt let me buy you a drinkyou paid with a Bruin faculty credit-union card. She pursed her lips, taking a moment to catch up to this. Okay, fine. But the Royal College? You mentioned a favorite caf? on Prince Consort Road in London, which is right around the corner. She was sitting perfectly upright now on the mattress, her hands in her lap. Wow. You actually pay attention. He unearthed one of his boots from beneath her flung-aside jacket. Some people are worth paying attention to. God, Jeanette-Marie said. You are the opposite of my ex. Youre the un-ex. Given how things ended with him, youre exactly who I needed for the night. It didnt end well? Lets see. I got the house, so thats good. But he got the bank accounts. Which were numerous. Hes an I-banker, Harvard asshole. You know the type. Quite different from us Royal College assholes. Her grin lightened her face once more. Opposites attract. Until they dont. Evan thought of the scattering of freckles across Mias nose. That birthmark at her temple. The smell of her neck. He said, Right. But when you fall for someone, its gonna be different, right? Every time. And then its not. Its always not. She pulled her curls up in the back, the moonlight striking the side of her neck. Evan paused to admire her. Im the common denominator, though, she continued. So I shouldnt blame Donnie. I mean, on paper? Hes really good. I think I fell in love with my image of him, which is even more powerful than being in love with a real person, because, man, what it takes to knock the shine off an image. She shook her head. Hes harmless enough. Just a cheater and a dick. I knew it for longer than I wanted to know it. But being alone? It gets old, right? Evan said, Right. Thats what I miss. Even more than the sex. Someone to you know, cook dinner once in a while, take out the trash. Before he could respond, he heard the metallic purr of a key sliding into the front-door lock. Oh, shit, she said. The dead bolt retracted loudly, and the door swung open. A guy in a rumpled suit sauntered across the threshold. Three men at his back with flashing eyes and bad energysimmering hostility tempered by a whiff of sheepishness. They looked well lubricated, their movements loosened with alcohol, and they stank of tequila. An inferior spirit. Goddamn it, Donnie, Jeanette-Marie said. This isnt your place anymore. Get out now. And give me your key or Im changing the locks. Donnie threw his arms wide. Well, look what we have here. My fucking wife in my fucking house with a naked fucking guy. He spoke with the careful articulation of the very drunk. She said, Bad night at the strip clubs? He glowered at her. I said give me the key, Donnie. Now. Still he didnt answer. The front door was open, the wind carrying the thrum of a bass guitar from a club way down on the Strip. The smell of stale cigars came off the mens clothes, poisoning the scent of night-blooming jasmine. She looked at Evan, and he watched the concern on her face migrate to fear. Im really sorry. Evan shrugged. Dont you apologize to him, Donnie said. You look at me. Look at me, you fucking whore. Evan grimaced. So much for evenings that didnt hold the promise of violence. Listen, Jeanette-Marie said to Donnie, more cautiously now. Hes just leaving. Let him go, and you and I, well talk in the morning. Donnie frowned, considering. Okay. You know what? Youre right. He held up his hands, retreated to the front door. Paused. His jaw flexed a few times, the shiny, clean-shaven skin of his cheek rippling. Fuck it, he said, and flipped the door shut. He swung back around to face them, his mouth shifting left, right. Jeanette-Marie appealed to the others. Eric? Jim? Richcmon. This isnt you guys. You know that. What are you gonna do? Beat up some guy you dont even know? Whats that gonna accomplish? Evan flipped aside a corner of the duvet with a bare foot and found his jeans. He usually wore cargo pants but had upgraded to dark 501s as a concession to the Polo Lounge. Hey, motherfucker, Donnie said. Hey, you. You enjoy being in my bed? You enjoy being in my wife? Evan picked up his jeans and sat down on the bed. You really want me to answer that? Donnies laugh turned into a sputter. He took a step forward, his friends fanning out behind him. Youre an idiot. There are four of us. I see that, Evan said. Need me to wait while you get more? They blinked at him. The biggest of the quartetRichstripped off his suit jacket. Well be enough. Evan pulled on his jeans, one leg, then the other. One more irritated glance at the missed call with that 54 country code before he shoved the phone into his pocket. He finished dressing calmly, the men staring at him in disbelief. He buckled his belt and then held out his hands, palms up. Okay, he said. Make an example out of me. Rich struck a boxing stance, shifting his weight from side to side. Donnie dropped his right foot back, which along with the watch on his left wrist signaled that he was right-handed. He gave a target glance at Evans chin, telegraphing where he intended to strike. The two beta males filled out the semicircle at the edge of Evans peripheral vision. Jeanette-Maries bare feet hit the floor with a thump. Donnie, you call this off right The big guy led first as Evan knew he would, a haymaker, all force, no nuance. Evan slapped the fist aside with an open-hand deflection, placed his insole behind Richs heel, and jerked the guys loafer sharply two feet forward. Rich went airborne, landing hard on his shoulder blades. His lungs expelled a grunt, the wind knocked clean out of him. Already Donnie was angling for the cheap shot, but Evan stepped aside and flicked his knuckles at the looming nose, shattering it neatly, a healthy spurt painting the front of Donnies designer shirt. Jim came in halfhearted, his body already registering his fate, though his booze-addled brain was too slow to catch up. Evan smacked both sides of his head, boxing his ears and putting a concussive barb straight through his brain. As Jims hands rose protectively, Evan grabbed his dress shirt in the back and raked it up, a prison-yard move that trapped his arms. Then he kicked out Jims front leg, dumping him on the marble next to Rich, who was still sucking for oxygen. By that time Donnie was reentering the fray, bellowing and swinging blindly. Evan grabbed his wrist in a bong sau/lop sau trap, sliding into an arm control. Locking Donnies elbow, he spun him around in a half turn and slammed his forehead into the farm table, bouncing him onto the floor next to the other two. Then he turned to face the last man standing. Frozen in place, Eric stared at him, panting, eyes rimmed with a good show of white. Giving Evan wide berth, he eased around the others and ran out, leaving the front door swinging in the breeze. Jim untangled himself from his shirt and hustled out after Eric in a limping run. Rich lay on his back, as exposed as a flipped turtle. Evan offered his hand, and Rich flailed for it, missing once before Evan hauled him to his feet. Richs face had purpled, his lips still wavering in search of air. Lean over, Evan said. Its just a diaphragm spasm. Slow deep breath in through your mouth, push out your stomach. Okay. Good. Once more. Now door, please. Evan gave the big guy a gentle prod. Bent over, he hobbled out. Donnie gripped the table and pulled himself up, his face awash in blood and snot. He made a wheezing sound, choked with sobs. His shirt was little more than a rumpled rag, and his pants had torn at the knee, his wallet twisted inside a front pocket. He wiped at his watering eyes, holding up his other hand to fend Evan off. Evan pulled out his Strider folding knife, snagging the shark fin atop the blade on the edge of his pocket so it snapped open with a menacing click as it emerged. Aside from a Zippo, a Strider was the only item one hundred percent made in the United States with a lifetime guarantee. Unlike a lighter it couldwith a modicum of skill and intentturn a human being into a velociraptor. One side of the handle was made of G-10, a high-strength, acid-resistant, nonconductive fiberglass and epoxy synthetic. Titanium, ridged for a better grip, constituted the other half. The blade itself was S35VN, a refined-grain metallurgy comprising a precise mixture of carbon, chromium, vanadium, molybdenum, niobium, and iron. The knife was as finely made and precise a killing tool as anything earth, man, and science had conspired to manufacture. Donnies mouth was open, emitting silent cries, his spine curled in submission. Evan stepped forward and flicked the knife at his crotch. There was a tear, a yielding of fabric. Donnie stared down, his eyes swimmy. An instant later his wallet and keys dropped from the slit in his pants pocket and struck the floor. Evan crouched, picked up the key ring, and flipped it around a finger into his palm. Then he removed the most likely suspect. Turning, he held the key up for Jeanette-Marie. This one? Her mouth slightly ajar, she nodded. He clicked it down onto the farm table. Donnies knees went out, and Evan caught him. Okay, pal. Tilt your head back. Pinch here. Lean on me. There you go. Lets get you on the other side of the door. Donnie clutched at Evans shoulder, dragging his legs, still finding his feet. Evan said, Youre gonna want to get some ice on that. He paused, looked back to Jeanette-Marie. You good? Sweet Jesus, she said. Thank you. And um, also? Thank you? He gave her a little nod. Maam. As he helped Donnie to the door, Evan reached down, grabbed the knotted white trash bag, and took it out with them. 6 A Suicidal Ghost 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 didnt 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. Hed 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. Hed been given a new identity by a man named Jack Johns, his father figure and handler, the closest thing to family hed 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 U.S. 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 hed once escaped the foster-care system, hed left the Orphan Program behind, going off the grid, hunted by the very government that had created him. Hed 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 hed been ready to discharge his duty as the Nowhere Man and the awful, awesome responsibilities that came with it. Hed reached a tentative truce with no less an authority than the president of the United States. Shed granted him an unofficial pardonbut made clear that it would be withdrawn the instant he conducted any extracurricular activities as the Nowhere Man. It wasnt 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 didnt wish to be neutralized, he had to remain on the shelf. So hed 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 hed 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 hed come along. Or the ways they hadnt. The RoamZone should have stopped ringing with any more missions. And yet hed received a series of calls from the same number. The first time, hed picked up and found a woman on the other end. Shed addressed him by name. And claimed she was his mother. Hed hung up immediately, figuring her for a lure designed to draw him out. And yetwhod 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. Its your mother. After severing the connection, hed 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 didnt even know he had. An uncomfortable sensation, like hed been ensnared by a strand of a much bigger web. The feeling had proved hard to shake. He wasnt sure why. Hed 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, whod 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. Late dinner. They wanted to go clubbing. What adults want to go clubbing? Joaquin said, Youd be surprised. I was. 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 hed actually found time these past few weeks to lounge. There was a black suede couch hed sat on maybe a dozen times in the years since hed moved in, most of those times in the past month. Several evenings ago hed even raised the retractable flat-screen 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 accoutrementsa 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 didnt 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 kitchens 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. Delightful. 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 Evans own vacillation between chaos and order. That missed call had tipped him out of alignment. Evan. Its 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. Hed 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. Looked back. Clenching his jaw, he thumbed the green virtual button and answered. 7 Cookie-Cutter Psyops Normally as the Nowhere Man, Evan would ask, Do you need my help? But now he just waited. He could hear her breathing on the other end. Who are you? he said. I told you. Her voice was regal and touched with age, a slight huskiness that put her in her late fifties, maybe early sixties. She spoke with no accent and enunciated well, as if shed had training in theater. No, he said. No. I heard you help people. Im retired. Curiosity flared, a fuse burning down. How did you hear that? I know someone who needs your help. Who are you? The call, routed through fifteen encrypted virtual-private-network tunnels on both hemispheres, crackled in the silence. The pause felt dramatic. She was thinking. He was, too. I left you with Rusty and Joan Krauss, she finally said. A stalwart couple. Or so I thought. Joan was medically compromised, though I didnt know it at the time. He felt a drop of sweat trickle down his temple. Who are you? Id driven through the night, she said. Across the border from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You could have looked any of this up, he said. I know your middle name. Well, I dont, he said. So that doesnt help us any. After after I left you, I got two blocks away from the Krausses house and I pulled over. And wept. He swallowed. I didnt want to leave you there, but it was a different time. It wasnt easy being an independent-minded young woman. I dont mean to imply hardship, but you take my meaning. Its just important to me His legs felt numb, his bare feet insensate against the cold concrete. If this was a gambit, it was a superb one, playing all the right notes on the bars of his ribs, coaxing an emotional response into resonance. He heard himself say, what? His voice sounded different than it had in decades. Smaller. She said, Its important you know that you were wanted. He cut the connection, threw the phone onto the bed, and stared at it, breathing hard, his shoulders heaving. It hadnt occurred to him to want to be wanted. The phone gazed up blankly, the screen dark. He wasnt sure if he hoped shed call back. He reached for the fourth of the Ten Commandments that Jack had handed down to him: Never make it personal. Its bullshit, he told the phone, the room, himself. Cookie-cutter psyops. Clear your head. You know better than that. No answer save the gentle whisper of the vent overhead. Dont be an idiot, he said. Youre being played. He snatched up his glass and the phone and walked into the bathroom. He nudged the shower door hanging on its barn-door track, the frosted-glass pane vanishing into the wall. Stepping inside the stall, he gripped the hot-water lever. An embedded digital sensor read the print of his palm, allowing him to twist the lever in the wrong direction. An inset door, seamlessly camouflaged by the tile pattern, swung inward, and he stepped through into a hidden space. The Vault. An armory, a workbench, and an L-shaped sheet-metal desk crammed into an irregular four hundred square feet of walled-off storage space. The public stairs to the roof zigzagged the ceiling overhead, an optical illusion that made the room appear to be shrinking. He circled to the desk, sank into his chair, and flicked the mouse on its pad. The three walls horseshoeing the desk illuminated. A mosaic of heretofore invisible OLED screens, each less than three millimeters thick, awakened to cloak the rough concrete walls. Right now the front wall displayed pirated feeds from the Castle Heights surveillance system, the same footage Joaquin would be watching at his security station downstairs right now if he were managing to stay awake. The north wall was plugged into a variety of state and federal databases, Evans personal hijacked portal into the computing power of the agencies. And the south wall displayed the call log of his RoamZone. Hed already captured the callers IMEI and pegged the location using advanced forward-link trilateration, which forced the network to automatically and continually report the womans phones position between cell towers. Based on the phones movements and resting times, it seemed she was staying in the affluent Recoleta neighborhood on the northeast slant of the city. Hed been to Buenos Aires only twice, once to garrote a visiting Venezuelan dignitary on the D line of the underground, the other to sit surveillance on a cartel leader whom hed eventually dispatched in the parking lot of El Gigante de Alberdi, a f?tbol stadium in C?rdoba seven hundred kilometers to the interior. When hed tried to backtrack the user identity on the SIM card earlier, hed run into a dead end. It was a prepaid Movistar, available at pretty much any kiosk, supermarket, or pharmacy. This was suspicious, but not as suspicious as it might be in the U.S., especially if the woman was traveling. He stared at the blinking GPS dot just off the Plaza Francia, watching her in real time. He drummed his fingers, an uncharacteristic fidget. Then he looked down at the pinecone-shaped aloe vera plant resting on the desk in a glass bowl beside his mouse pad. His sole companion was named Vera II. Hed killed her predecessor with neglect, a sad statement as she required nothing more than an ice cube dropped in her dish once a week. The edges of her serrated spikes were browning now, and she was glaring up at him from her bed of cobalt glass pebbles, clearly displeased. Look, he said, Im sorry. Ive been trying to move on. Its not you. Its me. She was unmoved. He fished the diminished ice sphere from the old-fashioned glass and rested it atop her spikes just to shut her up. The trace of vodka wouldnt hurt either. He sensed movement on the front wall of monitors. Mia Hall entering the building from the parking level, struggling under the weight of her nine-year-old son, Peter, who was slumped in her arms, comatose. Small for his age, he wore a Mickey Mouseear hat cocked to the side, his cheek smudged pink and blue from some sugary indulgence. Theyd just come through a traumatic stretch, and Mia had vowed to spend more time with him, which evidently included hooky days at Disneyland. Evan wondered what Disneyland was like. And pink-and-blue candy. Hed never indulged in either. But hed carried Peter asleep a time or two as Mia carried him now, and Evan recalled the warmth of the boys cheek against his shoulder, his sweat-sticky blond hair against his chin. Those few episodes when his life had stitched together with Mias and Peters lives represented his closest brush with what normal might feel like. If she werent a district attorney sworn to uphold the law and he hadnt been raised an assassin sworn to break it, perhaps the road ahead might have felt like a solid possibility rather than a tiptoe across land mines. Mia didnt fully know what Evan did, but she knew enough to know that heand their affiliationwas less than safe. Evan switched his focus back to the south wall, concentrating on the blinking GPS dot of a phone in Argentina. His supposed mother. Vera II stared at him. Theres no way, he told her. Its impossible. She cant be. Vera II stared at him. What are the odds? And how the hell would she have found me? Found me? Vera II stared at him. He leaned back and crossed his arms. It was the longest of long shots. But still. He needed to know. On the front wall, Mia bundled Peter across the lobby and waited for the elevator. The overheads caught her spill of wavy brown hair, highlighting gold and chestnut. Her bare arms flexed under the weight of her son. Her lips were moving. She was murmuring a lullaby. He tore his eyes from the lobby feed, refocusing on the beacon of the prepaid cell phone. He couldnt operate as the Nowhere Man anymore. Not without jeopardizing his informal presidential pardon. One move deemed insufficiently discreet and hed have the full force of the United States government back on his tail. Which would mean no more leisurely evenings at the Polo Lounge. No more sipping Japanese vodka for the sheer joy of it rather than to take the edge off the operational wear and tear on his body and mind. No more nights with oil painters from the Royal College of Art. And no more hope of maybe, just maybe, having a shot at nights more meaningful than that. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted the elevator doors open downstairs. Mia and Peter stepped inside, vanishing from view. There was so much to recommend normalcy. And yet. He thought about the drive home from Jeanette-Maries. The taste of adrenaline. The sharpness of the night air. All five senses alive, and maybe even a sixth. I dont miss it, he told Vera II. I really dont. Already his hand was moving the mouse, bringing up an incognito search engine. Im not breaking the agreement, he said, keying the number of one of his forged passports into the airline website. Its not a mission. Its just a trip. He risked another glance at Vera II, but shed already made her position clear. She assimilated carbon dioxide disapprovingly. He clicked purchase. 8 Sucker The next day at noon, the dark sedan is back, and so is the Mystery Man, both in the same place. Evan rounds the handball wall and stops, holds his fists up as hes seen boxers do on TV, a technique the boys mimic in street fights to questionable results. His ribs ache from Van Sciver, and beneath his shirt his back hosts a collection of scarlet abrasions from the belt that look like half-formed question marks. But he is here and he is ready. The Mystery Man throws his hands wide and does something wholly unexpected. He smiles. Good. Thats a good stance. He starts toward Evan. Look, kid. Sorry about yesterday. Sometimes I can be a little overzealous. I mean, what the hell was I thinking? A grown man He sucker-punches Evan again. Too late, Evan realizes hes been disarmed, that hes let his arms drift south. The fist connects with his cheek, grinding flesh into bone. Not a hard punch, but perfectly placed, and again Evan goes down, and this time he stays down, crouching on one knee, trying to breathe. The Mystery Man leans over him, hands on his thighs. The cigarette is still there, jutting from between two fingers; he didnt even bother to put it out before swinging. Look at you, he says. Do you honestly think you have what it takes? Evan forces the words through the pounding in his skull. Ill get bigger. You think thats all it takes? Bigger? Its all Im missing. At this the man laughs. Look, I get it, kid. Grit and drive and all that. But you gotta understandtheres nothing you have that I want. Youre not gonna surprise me. The kid I want? Charles Van Sciver? Hes got it. Were just about done vetting him. And if he fails, next in linell be that husky kid, Andre. Youre not even on the list. Now, go home or whatever you call it and get on with your life. Evan stands up, wipes his bloody mouth roughly. He looks at the tinted windows of the sedan, back to the Mystery Man. I want to try again. Theres no trying again. The man points at Evans face with the red cherry of the cigarette. Get the fuck out of here. Or I promise you this: Youll find out what a real punch feels like. Jogging home this time, Evan feels the pain in his ribs anew, the reality pounded into him by Van Sciver. It feels like defeat. At dinner Van Sciver spoons extra mac and cheese from the pot, then flicks the wooden spoon at Evan across the table, landing a few stray noodles on his shirt and his swollen lip. What happened to your face? What happened to yours? Its not the wisecrack so much as the covered laughter from the others that lets Evan know he will pay for this later. Papa Z is across on his armchair, massaging his lower stomach as he does when his bowels wont cooperate. Van Sciver points at Evan with the spoon. Wait till you fall asleep. But that night Evan does not fall asleep. After bed check there is a face-off, Van Sciver staring at him from his bed across the room, Evan staring back from the mattress on the floor, neither wanting to drift off first. By the time Van Scivers eyes stop glinting through the darkness, the inside of Evans thigh is purple where hes been pinching himself to stay awake. Evan creeps across and watches the rise and fall of the bigger boys chest, watches the blue bandanna around his head, the bandanna he wears at all times, even sleeping. Then he sneaks down the hall, finds the cordless on the kitchen counter, dials the ominous ten digits. The Mystery Mans voice sounds tired, cracked from sleep, a human vulnerability that seems discordant with what little Evan knows of him. Yeah? Hello? Hello? Okay. I get it. Ill never be Van Sciver. Im not what youre looking for. But I have something you need to know about him. What? Tomorrow. Same time, same place. Now its Evan who hangs up. 9 The Woman Buenos Aires felt like a European city plunked down at the edge of the wrong continent. December was Argentine summer, heat leaking up through the cobblestone street through the soles of Evans Original S.W.A.T. boots. Dusk had come on fast, the sun bleeding into the horizon through the endless blocky rise of the skyline. Evan sat at an outdoor table sipping an arabica coffee worth its weight in rhodium. Hed been ranging around the plaza for seven hours, rotating surveillance positions among the proliferation of caf?s. In the center two performers danced a tango wearing outfits straight out of a guidebookglossy black fabric with fiery red trim. A few distracted German tourists ambled by, tossing pesos into an upended top hat resting next to the retro boom box. It was 7:53 P.M., which passed for morning in a city with a nightlife that found its feet around midnight. Three million souls rousing themselves after a long day of working and siesta-ing, ready to dance and drink and dine on entra?a, a skirt steak capable of eliciting rapture. The residential buildings hemming in the square presented a cacophony of styles, charming and intricate. Municipal smudges of pollution shaded the stone and concrete fa?ades. But Evan wasnt here for the mercenary tango dancers or the celestial steak or the grimy old-country charm. He was here to confront the woman who had claimed to be his mother. The woman whose prepaid phones GPS signal blinked steadily in the screen of his RoamZone, pinning her down inside the ornate apartment building kitty-corner from the rickety chair he currently occupied. Her red dot blinked on his screen, an uncertain warning signalstop, stop, stop. And thenat lastit was moving. He watched the stone face of the luxury high-rise. A doorman waited outside, anachronistic in his brass-buttoned jacket, white gloves, and impassive visage. At a movement inside, he animated, his shiny heels clicking against the pavement. He swung the door open with a flourish and a Victorian quarter bow that was promptly ignored by the emerging foursome. Three large men, richly tailored suits, in a triangle formation around a woman. Bodyguards. Curious. Despite the hour the woman wore a sleeveless black dress and an oversize black summer hat with a white satin scarf tied around it, draped across her face alluringly or strategically. She flashed into view between the bodyguards bulky shoulders and then was lost behind a sea of navy wool gabardine as her men closed ranks. When they turned to head for Avenida Pueyrred?n, he caught a glimpse of white cheek and smoky eye shadow. She looked to be in her late fifties and exceptionally well preserved. Evan dropped a few Eva Per?n banknotes on the table and followed. The tango music blared, accompanied by an overlay of speaker static, as the couple twisted and dipped. Evan cut through the sparse crowd at the plazas edge, maintaining a half-block distance behind the mysterious woman and her men. Was she of such substantial wealth as to require constant security? In witness protection? Had she crossed a local crime lord? Ormost likelythe bodyguards were there to ensnare Evan if he answered the call. The men gave the woman more stand-off room as they crossed the boulevard, but from Evans perspective he could make out little more than the back of her hat and the swaying of a single toned arm. He spooled out more line, letting them stretch to a block and then a block and a half. Having scouted the area extensively, he knew the pedestrian ebbs and flows of the neighborhood. The Third Commandment: Master your surroundings. They rimmed the border of the park, nearing the Gomero de la Recoleta, a massive rubber tree that was a planet unto itself. The centuries-old tree spread its tentacles across a distance wider than half a football field, some of the meter-thick branches swooping low to the ground. To remain aloft many of them required metal posts; one even rested across a statue of Atlas, who bore his load stoically on a welded steel shoulder. Children flitted along the branches, swinging and climbing. The woman paused to watch them, her back to Evan, a breeze riffling the white scarf. Evan turned to face a vending machine offering oranges and apples, the fruit arrayed in neat rows behind a shiny pane, the glass providing a useful reflection of the woman behind him. He watched her through the grainy cloak of dusk. She turned partway, her gaze seeming to hitch on him. But then she continued, strolling through the grand entrance of the cemetery, the well-heeled muscle moving in orbit around her. He waited a few minutes and then followed, passing through neoclassical gates bookended by Doric columns. A security guard warned him that theyd be closing soon. The Recoleta Cemetery was one of the worlds great necropolises. Nearly five thousand mausoleums in various states of disrepair were crammed into fourteen acres, rising like miniature houses along miniature neighborhood blocks. Street signs denoted each tree-lined lane, lending a Disneyesque touch to the diminutive town. The tombs ranged from art nouveau to baroque, simple to opulent, single-story to three-tiered. Some rose like Greek temples, others were embellished with statuesa beatific robed elder, an eternal sentry brandishing a sword, a loyal dog long oxidized, its nose rubbed to a bronzen shine. Beyond the tall cemetery walls, sleek high-rises soared, striking a surreal contrast with the ancient stone. As darkness overtook the tombs, the last sightseers drifted toward the entrance, stray cats flossing between their ankles. Evans boots crunched across shards, broken bits from shattered stained-glass windows that once adorned a set of grand decorative doors. He kept the woman barely in viewthe sway of her hips rounding a corner, a stiletto-heeled foot disappearing behind the edge of a tomb. Her men branched out wisely, minding the lanes around her. For a time they all cat-and-moused through the venerable gridiron. Evan found a deserted pocket and paused, pretending to admire a sitting room visible through a crumbled tomb wall. On marble shelves inside, coffins lay beneath long-rotted casket veils. A rusted chain had been strung haphazardly across the gap, but the front door remained intact, dried flowers protruding from the keyhole. A perfectly symmetrical spiderweb framed the doorknob, a backplate of glistening silk. He closed his eyes, letting the warm air press into his skin, opening himself to vibration and movement and sound. One of the bodyguards creaked the stone just behind the mausoleum; another coughed, a single ragged note coming from two lanes over. Evan smelled the faintest hint of lilac riding an easterly breeze. The woman. The third man would no doubt be at her side, close-in protection. Evan edged east, sourcing the tinge of perfume. Night had come on hard, the jagged mausoleums framed in shadow and ambient light from the distant streetlights. The three monkeys of lore, rendered in gray marble, crouched at gargoyle readiness atop a slab of funereal stone, their shadows stretched grotesquely across the ground. Listening for the two roving guards, Evan eased around a small-scale cathedral with caskets slotted into its rear wall. At the end of the lane, bent in the thickening darkness, the woman reached for a marble statue at the foot of a tomb. As his eyes acclimated to the night, the age-old statue came into focusa baby swathed in cloth, the newborns likeness preserved in marble. The womans head was angled mournfully, her face lost behind the wide brim of the hat, her hand resting on the babys stone chest as if feeling for a heartbeat. Evans inhalation hitched ever so slightly in his throat. He became aware of a hike in his heart rate, the hot night air wrapping itself around his neck. As he breathed himself back to steadiness, he admired the womans tradecraft. A grief-steeped mother paying respect to a lost childa clever ruse designed to turn a key inside him, to access some long-buried vulnerability. It almost worked. More important, it meant they suspected he was watching. As he drifted back out of sight, he sensed movement mirroring him on either side behind the mausoleums. Sure enough, as he came to the next intersection, the two roving bodyguards stepped into view to his left and right. 10 A Dogs Breakfast Evan faced ahead, favoring neither side, keeping both bodyguards in his peripheral vision. Hello, friend. The guy to his left spoke in a voice that was theatrically low, with an excess of patience that a large, dangerous man could afford. Lightly accented Englisheither hed gauged Evans gringo skin or knew who he was. Is there some reason youre following the lady? Evan stared straight ahead at the darkness. Neither man reached for hip or lapel; they assumed this could be handled without firearms. Too bad they didnt have an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the First Commandment. Evan said, She asked to speak with me. Did she, now, the man said. Not a question. I find it unlikely that Ms. Veronica would ask anything of you. I think you shouldnt be stalking women around cemeteries after hours. I understand your opinion on the matter, Evan said. But it doesnt interest me. The other spoke up. We have encountered many men who werent interested in our opinions. Their broken bodies are now at the bottom of the R?o de la Plata. You will see them soon enough. He took a step forward. His counterpart paralleled him on the left side. Evan said, This isnt a good idea. The second man chuckled, leaned back on his heels. They each had at least four inches and fifty pounds on Evan. You dont look like much. Evan said, Thats why this isnt a good idea. The man sidled forward, resting a firm hand on Evans shoulder. The clenched grip was supposed to be intimidating, but it accomplished little more than making the mans limb available. Evan said, Were really gonna do this, then? We are. Evan said, Okay. He grabbed the mans hand and rolled it outward, snapping wrist and elbow with two percussive pops. A savate piston kick staved in the guys knee from the side, and he grunted and sank a few inches, evening out the height differential. Before the bodyguard to the left could react, Evan reached across the injured mans broad back, gripped him beneath the armpit, and pinwheeled him into his partner. Hurled sideways, the man hit his colleague at mid-leg, hyperextending both knees with a pleasing crackle. They tumbled into a stone edifice, the first mans head smacking the wall from the momentum of their fall, the seconds after Evan clipped his chin with a well-placed jab, driving his skull into the granite. They werent unconscious, but they couldnt manage anything more than breathing, wet rasps and shudders. Evan looked down at them, doing his best not to consider how satisfying it felt to knock the rust off his fighting-muscle memory. It had all the dark deliciousness of giving in to a bad habit. He knew too well the costs of surrendering to it and yet couldnt shake the sense right now, with the night air keen at the back of his throat and the rush of blood in his veins, that this was in fact the thing he was meant to do. The greater the gift, the greater the curse. Evan patted the men down, finding on each a Bersa Thunder .45, the predictable choice for an Argentine strongman. The corroding door of the mausoleum had wedged halfway open, exhaling a faint waft of rot and mold. Evan rolled the men through the gap, letting the dank interior swallow them. Their pained exhalations floated out, ghostly echoes. Evan dropped the magazines from both guns, cleared the rounds in the chambers, and tossed the pieces into a nearby trash can. Then he started back toward the spot where the womanVeronica?had posed in feigned vigil over the childs tomb. The third bodyguard stood in the middle of the next lane, perfectly backlit, the glow from the distant high-rises bleeding around his silhouette. His gun was out, aimed at Evan. They confronted each other a few feet apart. Evan said, Bersa Thunder .45, huh? A nicely weighted gun. I always found it lacking. The trigger-return spring gives out after a few hundred rounds. The man shifted his weight. He was barrel-chested, the glow of the streetlamps limning the side of his face, highlighting muttonchop sideburns. I hadnt noticed. His accent was thicker, with the Italian lilt that qualified the Spanish here. He kept the pistol aimed at Evans heart. Slide-lock issues, though. He made a clucking sound to voice his disapproval. He took a slight step forward. His gun hand stayed steady. Not his first rodeo. Evan eyed the frame-mounted safety at the rear of the pistol. It was off. The mans thumb was under the safety lever, not riding on top of it, a tell that he was not as experienced an operator as he projected. The .45s heavy recoil could cause the thumb to slip on the grip and accidentally engage the safety. The man flicked his head at the darkness behind Evan. My men? Theyre alive. The man sidled forward a bit more, bringing the muzzle within a few feet of Evans chest. With its mishmashed frame angles, oversize levers, and aggressively angled trigger, it was a dogs breakfast of a pistol. Which made it a nice match for the mans face. He smiled, revealing beautiful square teeth inside a dense beard. My name is Ra?l. I am in charge of Ms. Veronica. I am under specific orders not to let anyone near her. Were those orders given by Ms. Veronica? This is not your business. And you are unarmed. I understand you got past my associates, and that has given you confidence. But they are boys. You are about to find out what happens when you meet a man. Evan nodded, chewed his lip. Let me be clear. Im a nice guy by choice. Ra?l grinned again. You are a nice guy who is about to Evans hand flashed out, slapping Ra?ls thumb upward, engaging the safety an instant before Ra?l pulled the trigger. Ra?ls eyes dropped to the Bersa, and Evan drove a wing chun bil jee finger jab into his larynx. Ra?l clutched at his throat, releasing the pistol. As it fell, Evan caught it by the slide, his hand rising in an uppercut, the metal curled in his fist like a roll of quarters. When he struck the jawbone, he heard those beautiful teeth splinter. Ra?l went down, shoulder blades slapping concrete. His hands pressed to the bottom of his face, which was no longer the shape it had been an instant prior. Evan stepped over him carefully and turned the corner. The woman was still before the tomb with the babys carved likeness. But she was standing now, staring directly at him. She was poised, exceptionally so, shoulders back, swanlike neck, her hands at repose at her narrow waist like those of a ballerina in first position. Given the gloom and the eclipse of her black summer hat, he could see nothing of her features. And at this distance he was confident that she could see nothing of his. Unsure what to expect, he started for her. Moonlight glossed the edges of the mausoleums. The air was heavy with the sweet-rot scent of dead flowers. She didnt move as he drew near. And then her arms straightened nervously, one hand picking at the hip of her dress. A resonance in his chest caught him off guard; it was as though shed teleported her trepidation to him. But how did he know she was apprehensive? And more to the point, why was he? He was aware of his arms swinging heavily at his sides, the distance closing one painstaking step at a time. And then he was standing before her. Her breathing had quickened, her chest rising and falling, her collarbones and the hollow of her neck pronounced. Trace of lilac. The faint pressure of her breath in the air. The total black of her face. She reached tentatively for his cheek and then seemed to lose her nerve. Her hand froze, wobbling in the air. An exhale escaped her, putting more slack in her posture. Averting her gaze, she looked down to one side. A straw-yellow glow from a streetlight beyond the cemeterys wall caught half her face, mascara-laden lashes casting a shadow down her cheek, doubling the smoky look of her eyes. He looked at her wide cheeks and dark shimmering eyes. And knew it was her. Something beneath the surface of her pale skin, something deeper than an expression or even bone structure, a physical resonance no less profound than the one that had transmitted her apprehension to him. Ms. Veronica. The woman whod given birth to him. In the pit of his gut, he felt something knot and release simultaneously. It was a yielding and a hardening, though into what and against what he did not know. His face felt hot, an uncharacteristic flush creeping north from his throat. Moments before, hed engaged three large men without so much as an uptick in heartbeat, but now he sensed his breath moving irregularly in his throat. She lowered her hand all the way. Evan, she said. He nodded. She removed her hat, and he looked at her. She was so much more attractive than he was, her age showing only in the textured skin of her neck and hands. She looked keenly vulnerable, almost lost, and he sensed it was not an expression she wore often. For a moment they regarded each other. And then the sky above exploded, a police helicopter swooping down and laying a spotlight across them. Even through the glare, Evan could make out the lettering on the side: POLIC?A DE LA PROVINCIA DE BUENOS AIRES. Rotor wash flapped the summer hat in Veronicas hand as a second helo banked into view to the east, quickly joined by a third. All around the cemetery, he heard tires squealing, sirens blooping, brakes whining. He glanced back at Veronica. Any trace of seriousness had evaporated from her face. She looked around with cynical amusement, her mouth tugged to one side in what would have been a smirk had she bothered to put more effort behind it. Oh, dear, she said, her voice like a sigh. I forgot Ra?l already called for backup. 11 Just Fucking Perfect They stood for a moment in the wash from the helos overhead. Veronica had to raise her voice to be heard over the thump-thump-thump. What happened to my men? They threatened me. Im sorry about that, she said, lacing her arm in his and heading calmly for the exit. Mat?as is a bit excitable. Mat?as? The minister of foreign relations. She seated the hat back on her head. Id wager that youll meet him in a moment. How do you know the minister of foreign relations? Im dating him, dear. At least when Im in this hemisphere. Well, Evan thought, thats just fucking perfect. Her arm stayed woven around his, their flesh touching. Evan pulled free, rested his hand on her back, and steered her to the neighboring lane to dodge the spotlight and the wreckage of the bodyguards. Control. Whats your last name? he asked. LeGrande. French? Oh, honey, Im a mutt. She cast a sideways glance at him. Though not as much as you. She pressed her lips together, smoothing the lipstick veneer. It was an Ellis Island botch job that my grandfather renovated into something swankier than the original. Im sure it was actually Legonski or something appalling. A loudspeaker out front was blasting directives in Spanish, but the crackle of static blurred it to unintelligibility. The gate drew into view up ahead, sets of headlights blaring through the black iron bars, fuzzed by the creeping mist. He halted. She turned to face him. How did you get my number? he asked. Years ago I tried to find you. How did you know where to start? Id always kept track from afar. Every few years or so. Id found out belatedly that the arrangements Id made for you with that couple in Silver Spring had fallen apart. The Krausses. And that youd been moved from placement to placement, and I used some of my relationships to intervene. And get you to a more stable environment. The Pride House Group Home, Evan said, was certainly a stable environment. One had to consider the alternatives. He just looked at her. She looked away. So you knew where I was, he told her. All those years. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldnt muster the nerve to see you. But two years ago I realized that I wanted to I suppose I needed to meet you. He could smell the perfume of chardonnay on her breath. She laid her hands on his shoulders, feeling his muscles, the mass of him. It was so odd to be touched that way, a sensual experience that wasnt the least bit sexual. Her face radiated a kind of maternal pride as alien to him as the red dust of Mars. He shook himself free. She seemed neither wounded nor deterred. Then what? he said. I started prying around the foster-care system for records. And someone caught wind of it and called me back. A man. John? Heat crawled beneath Evans scalp. Jack. She nodded. Thats it. His throat clutched. When? he said. When was this? It was Thanksgiving Day, she said. Easy to remember. Despite the nighttime chill, a wash of heat moved through Evan. That day was impossible for him to forget as well. The day Jack was killed. Which meant Jack had called her when he knew he was heading to his death. Minutes left to live and hed reached out to Veronica. Why? Was Jackever the father figuretrying to set things right? Was this setting things right or a colossal mistake? Overhead the helos darted like hummingbirds, trying to pick them up again. Veronica was talking. He told me that you were chosen out of the boys home. To do good. Some sort of pilot program. He said you were very successful. I was so proud. He told me you help people. I need you to help someone now. Evan almost fed her the rote answer, that he was retired, but he stopped himself, taking a moment to find his bearings. What else did he tell you? That based on the demands of your job, you prefer to stay off the radar. I wasnt sure what that meant. Some sort of State Department analyst? A war-crimes attorney who has to keep a low profile? Hostage negotiator? She was beaming, and he realized that this was a story shed carried with her like a precious stone, that shed polished in her minds eye until it gleamed with potential. The promise of her lost boy having turned out to be something so much better than what he was. It was a kind of discomfort hed never experienced, a cramping at the base of his skull that reached down through him, pulling strings in his spine, his chestand perhaps even deeper than that. She was watching him still, that prideful shimmer in her eyes, and he felt a sudden horrible weight descend on him. Hed never had the experience of having someone elses hopes wrapped up in him. Of knowing that hed come up short of the imagined mark. That hed be found lacking. Everything was moving so fastthe rattle of SWAT gear beyond the gate, the choppers veering above, the spotlights scanning the tombs, the cascade of unfamiliar sensations setting his nerves on fire. And the awful responsibility of deflating this womans expectations. The loudspeaker blared again, staticky Spanish demanding that they come out, but they both ignored it. He wanted so badly to tell her that yes, he was a cyberterrorist analyst, a prosecutor at the Hague, a hostage negotiator capable of defusing situations with a talking cure. His mouth was dry from the wind hammering down from the rotor blades, or maybe from something else. No. It took a moment for him to work up the words. I was trained to kill people. She recoiled. Took a halting step back. Painful as it was, he held eye contact so she could see who he was. He watched revulsion and fear ripple beneath her features, barely visible through the cracks in her tough fa?ade. And then she closed ranks within herself and it was like looking at any other face in the world. The smell of dust and stone intensified. Lights strobed through the gate, muted by the thickening fog. The loudspeaker commands sharpened, telling them to exit immediately. The choppers swooped above, their beams searching the tombs all around, throwing wild shadows. They were standing in full view, and yet no spotlight had found them. The gate clanked open, and four men entered, pistols drawn. They spread out, darting up separate lanes, one heading directly for them. Wed better show ourselves, Veronica said, before someone gets shot. She reached down and took Evans hand. Stepping forward, she ushered them into the faint light of an antique lamppost. Releasing his hand, she waved an arm. Over here! The man zeroed in on them, melting from the mist, leading with his gun muzzle. Military bearing, pressed police uniform, requisite mustache. Broken English. Ms. Veronica, are you all right? Of course. Mat?as is overreacting as usual. The barrel swung over, aimed at Evans center mass. It jerked upward twice. Manos. Manos. Evan showed his palms, a nice excuse to raise them into an approximation of an open-hand guard. This really isnt necessary, Veronica said. The policemans gaze shifted to her and then back to the space where Evan had just been. Evan was behind the man now. Controlling the cops gun hand from behind, Evan palmed his left ear and knocked his head gently against the lamppost. He crumpled. Evan turned to Veronica. If she was shocked, she covered it well. Hed give her this: She was quick to acclimate. It struck him that he owed some of his own disposition to her. How novel to consider that parts of him had been inherited in the twisted ladders of his DNA. The thought undressed him, peeling away a lifetimes worth of armor he hadnt known hed been wearing. He walked out. She scurried to keep at his side. They exited the gates into the embrace of a semicircle of police vehicles, headlights aimed at them like cannons. The mist thickened, swirling like white dust in the beams, flowing over the shoulders of the men. The air tasted of rain. Evan looked down the bores of countless guns. The stakes were real once again. If he were caught, his informal presidential pardon would be voided, which meant he would spend the rest of his life consigned to a dank cell in some rendition-friendly country. Or put down in a quiet field somewhere, his flesh burned, his bones powdered and spread to the wind. He settled himself and started forward. One man stood apart and slightly ahead of the phalanx, his uniform advertising him as the deputy commissioner. Leaving Veronica behind, Evan strode up to him, keeping his hands in sight. The fog swelled, cutting visibility even more. By the time Evan reached him, only the deputy commissioner and nearest two policemen were in view. All three aiming at him from close quarters. Look, Evan said. I dont want to injure anyone and start an international incident. What do you say we just part ways amicably? The deputy commissioners mouth twitched as if hed tasted something and found it not to his liking. Handcuff this man, he said. We will deal with him in interrogation. 12 People Skills One of the cops stepped behind Evan to cuff him, and Evan allowed it. As he was steered to the nearest police car, he stumbled, brushing against the guy. He was deposited roughly into the backseat. As the door swung shut, he slung the seat belt aside, flopping it out. The vinyl strap caught in the frame when the door slammed, wedged beneath the latch. Mist rolled across the vehicle with car-wash intensity. The car might as well have been underwater. The commotion of excited voices escalated outside, arguing in Spanish. Then a voice cut above the others. ?D?nde est?n mis pinche llaves? By then Evan had used the key to unlock his cuffs. There was no inside handle, so he shouldered into the door, and it unstuck from the jammed seat belt with a soft click. He fell outside, rolled under the car, and flattened against the asphalt. Then he waited. A few seconds later, the expected outcry arose. Various department-issue shoes shuffled into view, a colorful bouquet of Spanish curse words issuing from above. Then there was running and more swearing, which quickly gave way to recriminations. Evan relaxed, pressed one cheek to the cool ground, watched wisps of mist furl and unfurl in his slivered view. At one point the exasperated deputy commissioner passed into sight, close enough for Evan to catch a whiff of his spicy cologne. One flap of his blue uniform shirt was untucked, the back spotted with sweat, and his inexplicably brown socks sagged down by the polished black leather of his boots. Someone was screaming at him through his radio. He vanished back into the mist, his head ducked with defeat. At long last, cars started up around Evan and tires peeled off into the night. The vehicle above him erupted as the engine turned over, laying a soothing blanket of warmth across his shoulders. It pulled forward and drove off, leaving him alone lying in the middle of the park. He stood and brushed off his knees. The branches of the Gomero de la Recoleta ranged and twisted overhead, cloaked in mist like the cobweb-draped arms of a skeleton. It was mostly silent, just the gentle whoosh of the wind and the sound of a couple bickering in Spanish somewhere in the soupy air. He recognized the calmer of the two voices. He strolled over, their words coming clear. Veronica had switched to English. your jealousy isnt nearly as charming as you think it is. Evan walked up to where they sat on a low bench near the base of the behemoth tree. The man at her side was exceedingly handsome, late fifties, a curl of thick black hair laid across his forehead with timeless matinee-idol aplomb. He rose abruptly. His posture, ramrod-straight, compensated for the fact that he was not as tall as he seemed to think he was. This is him? he said, showing his teeth. This is the puta madre who injured my men? He stepped toward Evan. Give me one reason not to have you thrown in prison and leave you to rot. Veronica rose and rested a hand on the ledge of Mat?ass shoulder. Youll have to forgive him, Evan, she said. Hes been working on his people skills for years, and hes gotten them to the point where theyre merely terrible. Mat?as took out his phone, dialed, and pressed it to his cheek. Veronica said, Hang up the phone. His dark eyes swiveled over to her. Or what? Or youll never see me again. His jaw clenched, bone rising at the hinges. Through the line a voice said, ?Hola? ?Hola? Mat?as took a breath, then said into the phone, Perd?n. Estaba tratando de llamar a Francine. He hung up and clenched his mouth with irritation. Veronica said, Evan, this is Chancellor Mat?as Quiroga. Mat?as, this is my friend, Evan. Mat?as glared at Evan. Hes a former f?tbol star, she told Evan. You know how they get. No, Evan said. Not really. She turned to Mat?as. Give us a minute. I am not leaving you alone with this man. Im not asking, she said, giving him a nudge to get him moving. Mat?as strode a few paces off, lit a cigarette, and glowered over at them. She flicked her hand at him, and he ambled a few steps farther away. Evan said, Are you always like this? No, dear, she said. Sometimes Im assertive. You two fight a lot? He does. I dont show up to every argument. What are you doing here? Argentina? She sighed. Im here on a lark. She shot a glance at Mat?as, who was locked onto them and smoking aggressively. I bore easily. Who do you need me to help? She lowered her voice. His name is Andrew Duran. Youll have to find him. Who is he to you? I made a promise to someone, his mother, to look after him if anything ever Mat?as called over. I need to know what the hell is going on. She ignored him, and Evan followed her lead. Evan asked, Why should I help him? You just need to. Go. Youll see. She reached to shake his hand. He felt something pressed between their palmsa scrap of paper. This is a starting point. Hes somewhere in Los Angeles. That struck Evan as a hell of a coincidence. He glanced down at the paper, saw an address scrawled in a feminine hand, and slid the scrap into his pocket. After this little fiasco, Id imagine that airport security will be a problem, she said. Get down to Saladillo Airport, Paramount Jets. I have a private charter standing by. Its a Bombardier Global 6000, but youll make do. And you? Theres a bit to untangle here after all this, so Ill be coming a few days behind you. I have a gentleman friend with an estate in Bel Air. Another gentleman friend, Evan said, in a tone he did not recognize. Is he as much of an asshole as Chancellor Mat?as? Of course. She blinked once, indulgently. No one wants to have polite sex, darling. She took in his reaction, amused. What? Im trying to figure out what to say that wont make everything worse. And? I cant think of any good options. She leaned forward, perched on her toes, and kissed him on the cheek. He pulled away, the lipstick imprint of her lips cool on his skin, the scent of lilac lingering. Mat?as was storming over, brow twisted, face red. She turned calmly to receive him as he came at her with pride-bruised grievances. Evan took two steps back, vanishing into the haze. 13 A Test The handball court and the dark sedan lurch into view as Evan rounds the corner, sprinting, feeling much younger than his twelve years. The Mystery Man jerks around from his languid pose by the fence. Listen, listen Evan stops, panting, leaning over. I know you want Van Sciver, but theres stuff about him thats thats He shakes his head, agitated. The Mystery Man walks toward him, annoyed. Whats this about? Whats wrong with Charles? Van Sciver is currently doubled over on his bed, clutching his gut. Late last night Evan emptied two bottles of Papa Zs Ex-Lax onto the kitchen counter, crushed the pills, and mixed the residue into Van Scivers protein powder. The cramping set in a half hour after Charles downed his morning shake, and hed since alternated between toilet and bedroom, awash in a cold sweat. This some jealousy thing, kid? Believe me, you dont want to fuck with me. I told you. Youre not good enough. Youre not strong enough. Youre not gonna surprise m As the Mystery Man nears, Evan sinks to his haunches, pivots, and kicks the back of the guys lead ankle with as much force as he can, sweeping the leg. Mystery Man goes horizontal and lands hard, cigarette ash scattering across his face as his head audibly strikes the asphalt. Evan pulls himself up, all five feet and three inches, and drops the blue bandanna on the Mystery Mans chest. You surprised now? In a flash the Mystery Man is on his feet, fist twisted in Evans collar, knuckles grinding Evans chin. His other hand draws back, blotting out the sun, and Evan realizes for the first time just how much he is willing to be hurt. To the side the dark sedans headlights flare. Just once. But its enough to freeze that fist in midair. The Ray-Bans are off kilter from the fall, dangling off one ear, and Evan sees now why the man wears them day and nighthe has a lazy eye. The left pupil, slightly misaligned, peers past Evans shoulder even as the right lasers a hole through his forehead. The Mystery Man shoves Evan away, adjusts his shades, and walks over to the sedan. The drivers window eases down with an electric purr, but Evan can see nothing and hear nothing from inside. He stares at the tinted windshield as if it might magically turn transparent. But hes too small. The Mystery Man is doing his best to keep his voice hushed. He rubs the back of his head gingerly, notices Evan watching, and lowers his hand. You want to waste two years waiting on him to grow? I can get you dozens who are better than him. Whys this one worth it? A pause, and then he draws his head back sharply. Maybe he did, but I still wouldve beat the shit out of him after. He listens intently for a moment, then shrugs. Its your life. The Mystery Man walks over, passing Evan without slowing. Well, he says, without looking behind him. You coming? Evan keeps at his heels across the handball courts. You wanna go home, say good-bye to your friends, your Papa Z? Evan pictures Van Sciver dragging himself along the wall to the bathroom, his hands balled into fists. Nah, he says. You got stuff? Nuthin I need. A few blocks away, they reach a beige Crown Victoria, and the Mystery Man says, Get in. Evan obeys. The heavy door shuts behind him. He reminds himself to keep breathing. The engine shudders to life, and they loop back through the neighborhood, passing Mr. Wongs dry cleaner that has the dish of Tootsie Pops the boys plunder with regularity. Mystery Man cuts around the corner, and Evan realizes with a stab of fear that theyre going to pass right by Pride House and its big front window. And sure enough there they are, crowding against the pane just as Evan himself has done so many times. Even though they are partially lost in the reflection, Evan identifies them by posture and silhouette. Ram?n looming tall like a stick figure, bony arms poking out from his knockoff Timberland shirt. Tyrell stooped in that way of his, eyes lowered, hand swiping the wisps on his chin. Andres head craning as he watches the Crown Vic coast by, looking lost, left behind, as far from those California Dreamin roller-skating girls as ever. Evan slumps down in his seat. The Mystery Man looks over with a sadistic smile, eases his foot off the gas a bit more to prolong the torture. Evan risks one last glance before the row house slides out of view, just in time for him to make out Charles Van Sciver staggering to the glass, elbowing the others aside. He looks pale and sickly, his Redskins jersey askew, as if hed pulled it on hastily. While Evan stares back in horror, Charles slams his palm against the window hard enough to make Evan wince inside the air-conditioned sedan. At last the Crown Victoria drifts away. Charless face, twisted in anger, remains like an imprint on the backs of Evans eyelids. His lips pursed with contentment, the Mystery Man focuses on the business of steering. They drive out of the city, heading north, passing drab concrete overpasses and interstate exits Evan has never seen. His excitement morphs into terror and then back again. The line between opportunity and ruin seems wafer thin. They pull off the interstate. Evan can no longer hold his mouth. Where are we going? The Mystery Man earns his moniker. He keeps his fist atop the wheel, a cigarette protruding from his knuckles, an endless ribbon of smoke sucked out the crack of the window. They pull in to a gas station, but rather than head toward the pumps the Mystery Man idles behind the convenience mart near the air hoses. Evan eyes the meter, notes that the tank is still three-quarters full. Mystery Man reaches for Evan, and Evan jerks back, but the hand continues past his thighs to the glove box. The lid thuds open. Inside, a gleaming handgun. The man removes it, the barrel jogging loosely toward Evan. He has gone board-stiff in the passenger seat, his hamstrings and calf muscles turned to piano wire. He tells himself to exhale, and a moment later he does. The man smirks, enjoying this, then reverses the gun in his hand with an expert flip. Offering it to Evan. Take it. Evan does. Go inside, the Mystery Man says. Aim it at the checkout clerk. Then what? Oh, he says with knowing amusement. Thats all youll need to do. Evan feels the heft of the gun, this neat metal contraption that contains the power of the universe. This is a testit must bebut for what, he does not know. Is it a test he even wants to pass? If he does, will that make him the golden boy or a calf ripe for slaughter? For the first time, his nerve deserts him. I, um I cant. I cant do this. Okay. Lets get you back home. The Mystery Man slots the gearshift into drive, and the tires creep into motion. Evan pictures his mattress on the floor of the crowded bedroom. Mac and cheese from the pot five or six nights a week. Ram?ns brother, who left Pride House two years ago and now works at the mall, mopping floors and hauling trash. The size of Van Scivers clenched fist. They pull out onto the main road when Evan says, Hang on. The brakes chirp. Evan feels Mystery Mans eyes on him, and a moment later he gives a little nod. The man drives him back. Idles again in the same spot. Evan takes two deep breaths, then two more. Well? the man says. Evan finds his voice. Can you take the bullets outta the gun? Another smirk. The man drops the magazine, pops the round from the chamber, hands back the weapon. Reaching across Evans waist, he flings the passenger door open. Evan gets out. His blood thunders in his head. He holds the gun low at his side. The glass door approaches in a haze. A grating chime announces his entrance. The man behind the counter looks up. Middle Eastern maybe, or Indian, with kind eyes. He looks like someones father. Evan approaches the counter. Sorry, he says, and lifts the gun. The man rears back, knocking packs of Dentyne from the display. His hands go up in front of him, fingers wavering. Please, please, just take. Just take. Before Evan can react, the front door smashes open and two cops barrel at him, guns drawn. Hands! Hands! On the floor! He sees them approach as if in a dream. His gorge presses up through his throat. And then his cheek is smacking the floor, his arms wrenched back so hard he thinks the shoulder sockets might pop. Metal cinches his thin wrists. Hes hauled out, his head lolling weakly, and hurled into the rear of the squad car. The beige Crown Vic is nowhere in sight. 14 Wildly Out of Context The house matching the address Veronica had palmed off to Evan was a shade of green that was better suited to peppermint frosting. The xeriscaped front yard featured little more than a few dead cacti and some square concrete blocks embedded in a sea of wood-chip mulch. The place was tiny, nestled between other Mid-Century houses, most of them Spanish style, heavy on stucco and adobe-tile roofs. A ladder, a few buckets of paint, and a bundle of detached rain gutters rusted by the side of the house, evidence of a remodel that had run out of steam. A collection of take-out menus had gathered on the doormat, a few weeks residue. After retrieving a backup vehicle from one of his safe houses, Evan had circled the El Sereno block a few times, checking for strategically parted curtains, lookouts in parked cars, or binoculars flashing from neighboring roofs. Once he was convinced that the approach to Durans home was clear, Evan had left his silver Nissan Versa four blocks away in a parking garage beneath a strip mall and strolled back. He dressed generically as alwaysgray long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and an Angels hat pulled low enough to shadow his face. A spin through the databases in the Vault had given him some insight into the man Veronica wanted him to find. Andrew Duran was of average build, not unlike Evan, and hed checked Some Other Race on the last census form. From his record he seemed like another hard-luck guy who couldnt get his act together. Information on his childhood was sparse, but his sealed juvenile records showed the usual small-time busts in his late teenspossession of pot, vandalism, truancy. Hed seemingly cleaned up around the time most young men go to college or to prison, knocking around a number of jobs, the kind that put grease under the nails. Since then hed collected an ex-wife, Brianna Cruz, and an eleven-year-old daughter named Sofia. A credit report showed a canceled Mastercard and a bank account that had hovered between seventeen and thirty-two dollars for a few months before it was closed. Hed struggled with debt and traffic fines, but the DCSS database showed no issues with his paying child support. He was currently an attendant at a parking lot for impounded vehicles. Currently meaning up until a month ago, when a murder was committed at his workplace and he went missing. It was the kind of shocking news thatgiven how Evan had arrived at his doorstepwasnt shocking at all. The impound lots security footage had been conveniently knocked out for seven minutes around the time of the attack, which had taken place at 3:09 A.M. In the wake of the killing, the city had begun to shutter the lot after six at night, a precautionary response to stave off potential lawsuits. The Los Angeles Times suggested that the murder might have been an inside job. Duran was wanted for questioning in connection with the death of Jake Hargreave, but law enforcement had failed to locate him. Evan had perused the reports and the crime-scene photos. Hargreaves body had wound up sprawled on the asphalt, eyes open in an unnerving stare. As hed fallen, his wrist had snapped under his weight, the hand swan-necked down as if Hargreave were displaying his fingernails. A bulky guy, air force, lots of gym muscle. A cross pendant had snagged on the collar of his shirt, caught in a nest of thin gold chain. One pant leg was hiked up, revealing the smooth-shaved calf of a triathlete. More blood had leaked from the gash in his neck than seemed possible, darkness spread beneath his body like a blanket. A BOLO had been issued for Duran through multiple agencies, but nothing had trickled in. Evan had also checked his credit cards, banks, and cell-phone number, but Duran had done a fine job keeping invisible. Or he was already dead. The cops had presumably checked his house already, but Evan wanted to nose around himself. He paused at the end of the walkway now, staring at the path of stones leading to the front door. So many questions. Why had Jake Hargreave been killed? Had Andrew Duran killed him? Or had Duran witnessed the murder and fled Hargreaves killers? And the big question resting beneath the others: Who was Andrew Duran to Veronica? Starting up the front walk, Evan reminded himself that he was just looking into the matter informally. Hed not done anything except fly to Buenos Aires and have a conversation with a long-lost relative. Hed yet to cross any lines that would put him back on anyones radar and void his presidential pardon. Like, say, breaking and entering at the house of a murder suspect in a high-profile case. Reconsidering the consequences, he veered off from the front door to the side of the house. Hed just check the backyard, peek in a few windows, nothing invasive. Blackout shades protected the panes, giving up nothing. The small backyard was a work in progress, too, the crumbling patio replaced at one corner with new tiles. The remaining tiles waited in a lowboy dumpster puddled with rainwater. A jungle gym, half assembled by the rear fence, collected spiderwebs. As with the rain gutters, these projects had been halted abruptly sometime agocertainly well before Duran had disappeared. What had caused him to abandon the home repairs? And the jungle gym, clearly purchased with eleven-year-old Sofia in mind? A yellowed newspaper fluttered beneath an unlit citronella candle on the patio table. It was written in a foreign alphabet rich with circles and right-angle strokes. Korean. Was Duran dating a Korean woman? Did he have a Korean houseguest? Keeping an eye on the drawn shades of the back windows, Evan stepped beneath the lattice roof of the porch and slid the newspaper free. The date at the top was rendered in both Hangul and English. Five weeks old. Beneath the paper was a junk flyer with a yellow post-office sticker forwarding the mail of Chang-Hoon Baek to this address. Evan assembled a theory. In need of money, Duran had sublet his house to Mr. Baek, abandoning his home-improvement projects when he moved out. Judging from the take-out menus accruing on the front porch and the five-week-old newspaper, Mr. Baek had been out of town since before Duran went underground. The cops wouldve already searched the house for Duran, figuring out what Evan was only now learning: that they were in the wrong place. Evan paused abruptly, sensing something amiss. Was someone watching him from the darkness at the yards edge? He looked for a crack of light beneath the drawn shades. A breeze picked up, whispering through the yellow leaves gathered at the base of the porch. They silenced. He heard it then, a telltale buzz branded into the memory center of his brain. You never forgot that sound. Not even here, wildly out of context, eight thousand miles and an ocean away. It was as faint as a bee, now a touch louder. Incoming. He stood frozen, staring up through the lattice roof at the clear night sky. Then his knees unlocked. He took three big strides across the porch and launched himself at the lowboy dumpster. A whooshing noise filled the air all around now, as if the sky itself had drawn a massive breath. He cleared the 18-gauge-steel lip and crashed down on top of the stacked tiles an instant before the house exploded. 15 A Million Pieces of Evan The lowboy dumpster rocked up nearly onto one side and then crashed back down, a cascade of tiles battering Evans shoulders. He boxed his head with his arms, blinking against the dust. The sky had turned desert brown, the air filled with flecks and splinters. He dragged himself over the edge of the dumpster and flopped flat on the ground, his head throbbing. The house was gone, a heap of tinder and flame in its place. Half a bathtub nosed up from the rubble like a breaching whale. A tangle of ducting, twisted improbably into a yarnlike ball, smoldered inside flapping sheaths of insulation. A crater dented the earth at the center where the house had taken the full force of the missile. Black smoke lingered over the site, a miasma of gloom. Shrapnel was embedded in the outside wall of the dumpster, protruding like porcupine quills. The jungle gym by the rear fence was gone, as was the rear fence itself; the wreckage of both floated in the neighbors pool. The air tasted poisonous. It smelled of burning rubber and plastic, a scent familiar to Evan. The only thing missing was the acrid reek of burning flesh. His head hummed, his eardrums throbbing distinctly enough that he could feel the pressure of each heartbeat. A drone strike. On U.S. soil. He pictured it circling invisibly two miles overhead waiting for the blossoming smoke to clear, a seamless extraterrestrial aircraft the size of a Volvo, held aloft by a modified snowmobile engine. A silver-gray assassination weapon with a smooth windowless bulb where a cockpit would be, at once eerily blind and all-seeing. Gauging the blast radius, he figured the missile to be a Hellfire launched from a Predator. Fifteen to twenty meters of damage meant they were intent on getting the job done. Even if that meant deploying a seventy-thousand-dollar missile. They could have gone with a Reaper, faster and smaller, and its Small Diameter Smart Bomb, which could kill a man in the bedroom while sparing his wife in the neighboring kitchen. But here at Andrew Durans house, they clearly didnt want to take any chances. The ultra-high-resolution infrared camera in the rotating sensor ball beneath the Predators nose would be scanning the area now, heat-sensing body outlines, while other surveillance gear searched cell-phone signals, logged SIM cards, even read license plates on the surrounding streets. At the first sign of life, a software program aptly named BugSplat would calculate the best angle of attack and analyze collateral damage. Then a pilot in a trailer somewhere would be cleared hot to deploy the second Hellfire, a sensor operator would sparkle the target with an infrared flash, and a million pieces of Evan would join the incinerated debris filling the air. Unless he moved fast. The dust cloud continued to mushroom, and Evan knew he had to stagger free before it dissipated. His shirt was torn, the brim of his baseball cap scorched. He reached into his pocket and thumbed the RoamZone off, removing any digital signature from consideration. Rather than stumble out of the splash zone, he clawed his way into the heart of the wreckage, using the smoke as cover. His palms and knees burned as he fumbled around for what he was looking for. Over the sound of his own hacking, he could hear people shouting from the street, tires screeching, car alarms shrilling all up the block. A crowd would be useful to lose himself in. Grit lodged in his eyes, tears streaming down his face. At last his hands sank into something soft and scratchy. The duct insulation. One-inch fiberglass with foil facing. He tore a massive sheet free. Wrapped it around himself to block his bodys heat signature. The fiberglass dug at his raw skin and his scalp as he hobbled across the ruins, finally reaching level ground. He moved across the backyard, through the blown-down fence, past the neighbors pool, and up the side yard. Emerging on the far street, he shot up an alley, drawing a few stares. Ditching the fiberglass cape, he tossed his baseball cap into a trash can and popped out another block over, walking leisurely up the sidewalk, keeping tight to the storefronts, tucked beneath awnings. He imagined the Predator ten or fifteen thousand feet up, watching bodies streaming around the accident site in real time, trying to locate which one was Evan. And thats when it occurred to him. They hadnt been aiming at Evan. With his hat pulled low, his long-sleeved shirt, and his average build, he resembled Andrew Duran. Theyd been watching the house from above, waiting on Durans return. And the instant hed surfaced, they hadnt been willing to delay to deploy an assassin for a controlled neutralization. They were willing to risk tens of thousands of dollars and a massive cover-up just to take Andrew Duran off the chessboard. Which prompted the question, what the hell did that guy know? Theyd no doubt watched Evan circle the house earlier and disappear beneath the roof of the back porch. It took a missile between fifteen and thirty seconds to reach its target, during which they assumed hed entered the house. Hed survived for only one reason, and that was because hed been held up on the patio, reading Mr. Chang-Hoon Baeks newspaper. Evan finally reached the covered parking garage, ducked into his low-end Nissan, and gripped the wheel. It was shaded and quiet down here. He realized he was breathing hard, his chest heaving. That his clothes were smudged with ash. That his eyes were still watering. Eight knuckles lined on the top of the steering wheel, all of them squeezed to pale. His hands trembled slightly. He stared at them. Made them stop. Any drone strike on U.S. soil had to have been ordered from within the deepest recesses of the government. It would be a full-black, fully deniable operation. He knew the drill: Tomorrows news would say it was a water-heater explosion. As if a water heater could unleash a blast wave sufficient to crush internal organs, turn a house inside out, and aerate a concrete foundation with high-velocity steel shrapnel. When General Atomics weaponized a drone in 2001, the state of warfare had been irreversibly altered. Pilots assumed a godlike power, hovering above the fray looking down, unleashing a thunderbolt from the heavens when they saw fit. For them it was a bloodless, odorless, soundless affair, more like hunting than fighting. Drones were what the DoD had hoped would make Orphans defunct, but theyd learned soon enough that human operators were still required on the ground. Those who would bear the risk and the cost. Those willing to get close enough to feel the warmth of the blood, to hear the suck of lungs through a slit throat, to smell the wreckage of voided bowels, the last hot fumes of life expiring. The only good news was that theyd taken their shota norm-destroying illicit operation on U.S. soiland they were unlikely to risk another cover-up. There were only so many atomic water heaters they could claim in the news. Evan wiped the sweat off his forehead, left a streak of blood and ash. Hed have to clean up at the safe house before showing his face at Castle Heights. Then hed regroup and figure out just what the hell was going on. He thumbed on his RoamZone and called Veronicas prepaid phone. She answered quickly. Hello, Private Caller. Are you trying to have me killed? What? Of course not. Evan made out voices in the backgrounda dinner party? He thought he recognized the sharp timbre of former f?tbol star Chancellor Mat?as Quirogas voice fussing about something. Veronica hushed whoever it was, came back to Evan. Why would you ask that? Because I went to your guys house and it blew up. It doesnt help to exaggerate, dear. But Im sorry youre finding it troubling. Then, sharply, her mouth off the receiver, I said Ill be there in a minute. Back to Evan. Im doing my best to get to Los Angeles tomorrow. She rattled off a Bel Air address. I should be there by midday. Why dont you come by around one? A little mother-son time. He could hear the smile in her voice, but he wasnt in the mood. What kind of trouble is this guy in? Evan asked. Duran? I honestly dont know, she said. He was terrified when we spoke and not making much sense. All I know is that there are people after him. And that hes scared for his life. Evan said, He should be, and hung up. 16 Outsize Monikers and Well-Honed Skills A long-term-storage shed with a roll-down orange door was admittedly an uninspired place to commit torture. But one had to work with what one had. And it was quiet enough here, with the oceanic roar of the 110 Freeway a stones throw away, to work on a human body without worrying about being overheard. The space was mostly empty. A toolkit. A sufficiently heavy chair. And the man zip-tied to it. To avoid getting blood on his slim-tailored suit jacket, Declan Gentner had removed it before entering and had left it with his sister outside as she preened in her little red Corvette. Queenie could stomach a good deal of violence, but she lacked stamina for the slowly escalating infliction of pain. While the man in the chair whimpered, Declan removed his platinum cuff links and rolled up the sleeves of his nonwrinkle royal oxford shirt. Growing up broke-ass in east Philly, he and his sister had risen through the ranks of Irish organized crime as wetwork contractors before they outgrew the operations employing themand the city itself. They both had nicknames, as was a prerequisite for working with any self-respecting East Coast outfit. Given Declans sartorial proficiency and the resonance of his surname, he earned the title of The Gentleman. And due to Queenies talent for bloodletting and her penchant for the color red, they called her The Queen of Hearts. Just another pair of unwanted siblings from Kensington with outsize monikers and well-honed skills. Their mercilessness drove their asking price ever skyward until they were renowned on both coasts. Now they didnt get out their implements for a job that paid less than seven figures. This narrowed their client base to venture capitalists inclined toward creative accounting, sociopathic scions with inadequate prenups, moguls tangled in inconvenient partnerships. It had been a long climb from the gutter, but theyd arrived, shouldering up to the trough, elbow to elbow with the elite. Local kids done good. Declan stroked the thin, meticulous lines of beard that edged his jaw. Zip-tied in the chair, Johnny Mac Macmanus shuddered. He wore his thinning hair scraped back tightly over his scalp, secured with a man-bun at the nape. It had the unfortunate effect of making it look as though he were wearing a hairnet. I wish I had anything to tell you, man. Anything. And believe me I would. I dont give a shit about him. Do I look like someone with honor? He worked with you for seventeen months. He let you borrow his car. Declan made a conscious effort, as always, to deepen his voice. He had all the musculature of a welterweight boxer, with the voice of Mike Tyson. He wet his lips, the tip of his tongue brushing the fine strip of mustache riding the bottom edge of his upper lip. I dont let anyone borrow my car. Talk to his wife, man. Johnny was sobbing now, drooling freely onto his matted T-shirt. Shed know. His wife despises him. Theyre rarely in touch. She knows nothing. And neither do I. I swear. I dont know any more than her. Why isnt she here instead of me? I trust in the predictability of angry women, Declan said. He crouched and laid the fine leather toolkit open. Johnny made a moan deep in his chest, like a cow lowing. Declan ran his fingers across the tools. Surgical steel, smoother than every last thing found in nature. And sharper. There are two hundred and six bones in the adult human body, he said. More at birth, but of course they fuse over time. He removed a tenpenny box nail, ideal for installing clapboard siding, and held it up to the streetlight glow creeping around the edges of the rolling door. The smallest bone is the stapes, the third of the three ossicles in the middle ear. Next he lifted a hammer from the toolkit. Its tough to get to. But well manage. Johnny Mac dipped his head, shadow curtaining his eyes. Oh, God. The largest bone is the femur, Declan said. But I only got to it once. And that was with the aid of an anesthesiologist. He stood, hammer in one hand, nail in the other. The more sophisticated equipment hed save for later. After all, there were 205 more bones that might need tending to. He made sure to square his posture, to pull his shoulders back. He wasnt as tall as hed like to have been, so he compensated consciously with ramrod posture, earning every centimeter. Johnnys face came apart a little then, wild around the eyes, the lips downpulled and wavering, the mouth of a tragedy theater mask. There was always this moment when they realize youre going to submerge them in the world of pain and that theres not a thing they can do. When you have them trussed so well you could put a nail through any part of them, not hard, just tap-tap-tap until their nerves start speaking in tongues. When the skin of their face tightens to show the structure of the skull beneath, a death mask presaging what is to come. Declan walked over to the rolling door, shouldered into it, and put his mouth near the edge. Queenie, he said, you might want to turn on your radio. Her voice wafted through. Okay, baby brother, and a moment later there was Prince, wondering if he had enough class. When Declan came off the door, the steel slats undulated like water. He stood over Johnny, but Johnny wouldnt lift his eyes to meet his. Johnny tried to breathe, but it just came out a series of hiccups. Wait, he said. Please, he said. Declan closed his eyes, the insides of his lids glowing bloodred. Im sorry. Theres really nothing I can do. Its not fair to you. But its not fair to me either. Johnny gagged a little. The bloodred spread from Declans eyelids through his entire body, firing him with a bone-deep heat. He no longer had to pay attention to his voice. It came as he knew it would, deep and resonant and rich. Theres a man who lives inside me. And he takes charge and does this until I get the answers I need. But what can I do? Johnnys voice now hushed with horror. What can I do? What can I do if I really dont know where Andrew Duran is? You know what, pal? Declan said, leaning in. Together were gonna find out. 17 The Social Room Despite a steaming shower at the Mar Vista safe house, Evan couldnt get the last bits of ash out from beneath his nails. Temples aching, eardrums pulsing, cheeks glowing with sunburn intensity, he trudged through the lobby of Castle Heights, heading for the elevator. He made it inside without being assailed by anyone. For once the doors closed without any chatty residents insinuating their way through the bumpers. He tilted his head to the ceiling, let out a breath through clenched teeth. A ding interrupted his momentary relief. The doors parted on the tenth floor, revealing strung-up streamers in the social room across the hall, paper-cone hats, and a banner exclaiming HAPPY TRAILS, LORILEE! embellished with a cartoon cowgirl riding off into a sunset. The banner had been lovingly assembled, formed by a row of printed computer papers pieced together. The last page sported a black crayon signature at the bottom: Peter Hall, Age 9. Ev! Lorilee Smithson, Condo 3F, squealed with delight, extracting him from the safety of the elevator by cinching two hands around his arm. She was wearing a sparkly silver tiara. You made it! I didnt have your Snapchat handle, so I wasnt sure where to send your invite! Her skin, taut from plastic surgery, took on a copper hue beneath the fluorescents. Shed had a rib resected on either side and looked as though she were perennially wedged into a Victorian corset. Evan tried to retreat into the elevator, but her French-manicured nails were unrelenting on his biceps. She dragged him into the mix. Plastic wine cups abounded. A party blower in every mouth. Oh, What a Night crackle-hissing from dated speakers. There was Johnny Middleton, 8E, ensconced in his ubiquitous Krav Maga sweat suit, teaching one of the divorc?es incorrectly how to do a hand strike. And there was the Honorable Pat Johnson, 12F, wearing a lumbar-support brace because hed thrown out his back sneezing last week. Resident elder Ida Rosenbaum, 6G, dolled up with bleeding maroon lipstick and her beloved marcasite amethyst necklace, tapped an orthotic sneaker, her trademark scowl diminished only microscopically by the celebration. Hugh Walters, 20C, had cornered a few new Castle Heights denizens by the fruit platter, regaling them with cautionary tales of HOA regulations gone ignored. There was a fucking cake. Lorilee sashayed off onto the makeshift dance floor, twirling like a Woodstock exileboth arms overhead, bracelets jangling, hips circling like she was working a hula hoop. Her age was undeterminablelate fifties? seventy?but she comported herself like a twenty-something. The effect was mildly unsettling, like watching a lizard try to crawl back into its shed skin. Evan looked around, discomfort rising through his chest, cold and claustrophobic. Evan Smoak! A blur through the crowd clarified into Peter, leaping up at Evan, clamping him in a hug. The nine-year-old was fifty pounds soaking wet, but his momentum, combined with Evans assemblage of drone-inflicted bruises, made the embrace eye-wateringly painful. Even so, Evan was surprised at the relief he felt in being with Peter, one of only two people in the building he actually looked forward to seeing. Wincing against the discomfort, Evan set the boy down and searched the party for the other. Looking for my mom? Peter asked. Evan said, No. Peter grabbed an apple from a nearby table and mashed it into his upper teeth where it remained, impaled on his braces. His voice came out muffled. Do I have something in my teeth? Evan said, A bit of spinach. Peters laugh, like his voice, was raspy. Though most of his mouth wasnt visible behind the apple, his big charcoal eyes pinched up at the corners in a smile. Evan plucked the apple from Peters braces and handed it back to him. Without missing a beat, Peter returned it to the bowl. Evan grimaced. Hows school? he asked, having a hard time taking his eyes from the spit-glistening fruit. Peter wore a mans button-up shirt that drooped to the tops of his knees. Today was crazy, he said animatedly, the cuffed sleeves swaying like the ones on a magicians robe. Sebastian? The tall kid with BO that smells like onion rings? He dropped the F-bomb in music, and Ms. Lipshutz got super mad and tripped over the brass section Conga-lining by, Lorilee plucked Peters apple from the bowl and took a hearty bite, winking at Evan. He manufactured a smile, though he had little doubt it looked pained. As she twirled beneath the HAPPY TRAILS banner, he had to admit a pang of envy at the seeming ease with which she was launching into a new life. What would it be like to feel so free to leave the past behind? Peter was still going, talking loud over the music. it was Sebbys second strike after he got in trouble in Spanish, cuz he says grassy assget it? Like thank you? And so one more and hes out, which would suck, cuz hes the only one who knows how to pitch in kickball, so Evan sensed someone approaching, the scent of lemongrass. A warm hand pressed into the small of his back, and he felt a jolt of something like adrenaline. He turned a bit too quickly, his face nearly knocking into Mias. As always, her curly chestnut hair was a bit wild. She was still dressed from worknot her court suit but a suit nonetheless. The top button of her blouse was undone, a delicate silver necklace resting across her sternum, a few freckles faintly visible against her olive skin. Her smile came, as always, unannounced, as if it were catching her by surprise. I have to say, youre the last person Id expected to see at Lorilee Smithsons farewell party. I didnt know there was a party, Evan said. I didnt even know she was moving. You just came for the boxed merlot? I got dragged off the elevator. Poor defenseless baby. Mom? Peter tugged at Mias sleeve indelicately. I have to get a poster board for that stupid family report. Mia said, Poster board. Stupid family report. Got it. And, Mom? Mom? You said we could get the Christmas tree this weekend. Christmas tree. Weekend. Copy that. And, Mom? Thats it. Youll get your poster board for the stupid family report and a Christmas tree, but thats where Im drawing the line. Moms closed. Peters lank blond hair swirled in the front, a cowlick that served almost as a side part. It gave him a bit of gravitas, though it was undercut by the smear of chocolate on his chin. I was just gonna ask if I could have a Coke. Sprite. No caffeine. He scrambled off toward the drink cooler, his shirttails swaying. Whats with the shirt? Evan asked. It was Rogers, Mia said. Peter got into my closet and started wearing them last month. Mias husband had passed away when Peter was three. Adopted by Mia and Roger as a baby, Peter had always grappled with questions about his lineage. Im not sure how to handle it. He doesnt want to talk about it. He just says he likes the shirts. Mia ran a hand through her curls, heaped them on the other side. Maybe I shouldve thrown them out? The shirts? She leaned close, put her mouth to Evans ear to talk over the music. Theres no handbook for this stuff, you know? No. What do you think? You said you never knew your birth parents, right? Evan flashed on Veronica crouching by that ancient statue of a lost baby in the cemetery, her head bowed as if in prayer. How he could see the mirror of his own features in hers. The way shed rested her hands on his shoulders. Maternally. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. No. In the background, even over the tumbao rhythm, he could hear Hugh Walters holding forth about his perplexing new symptoms of gastrointestinal distress. It was difficult to fathom that hours ago Evan had flung himself into a dumpster to avoid disintegration by Hellfire missile. I know its different, but maybe you could talk to him about whatever hes working through, Mia said. Whether its about where he came from or Rogers death or whatever. Hughs voice rose again above the music. And tuna, he said. It just moves right through me. Lorilee had stopped dancing to refill her drink. She paused over by the table, arms crossed, one hand cupping the opposite elbow, staring at nothing. She looked suddenly lost. Despite the work shed had done, Evan could see the worry lines beneath her eyes. He wondered what would drive her to alter her body continuously and drastically, to fight against time, against who she was. She looked lonely, so lonely, as if the veil had dropped and he was seeing her true self. He felt a pang of empathy. And it struck him that since looking into Veronicas face, hed felt more adrift. It wasnt a feeling of homecoming but a reminder of what hed never had. Lorilee was now studying the big going-away bannerthat cartoon cowgirl riding off into a better tomorrowwith wistfulness. And fear. Johnny touched her arm, an invitation to dance, and she suddenly snapped back into form, an openmouthed smile and a whoop as she allowed herself to be spun. How unmoored they all were, how helpless, how courageous. Lorilee struggling to present her best face to an unsure world. Peter struggling to know a father whod died before he could solidify into memory. Mia struggling to help her son. And Evan. Mia had said something. Well? What? Will you talk to him? Evan felt the slightest pressure behind his face. Sure. She reached out gently and touched his cheek. What happened here? You look scraped up. This was the plausible-deniability dance they always did, former assassin and district attorney skirting the edge of the truth. He started to answer, but she cut him off. I know, I know. You fell down the stairs, walked into a door dodged an air-to-surface missile. She laughed. Okay, Mr. Danger. Johnny spun Lorilee, and she let go of his hand, allowing herself to accidentally brush Mia aside and fall into Evan, her breasts hard and synthetic against his chest. Her perfume had been applied with biblical intensity. Lorilee beamed into Evans face. Whos a single Pringle ready to mingle? She grabbed Evans hand and spun back to dance-point at Johnny and jiggle her hips. At Evans side Mia covered her mouth in a poor attempt to hide her schadenfreude. Evan had an instant to say, Kill me, before Lorilee yanked him into a cha-cha. 18 Picking a Fight with Vodka Upstairs, Evan stripped naked and burned his clothes and boots in the freestanding fireplace that sprouted from the expanse of the gunmetal-gray concrete floor, its flue a sleek metal trunk. Despite the fact that hed already changed outfits once at the safe house, habit was habit. As the Second Commandment decreed, How you do anything is how you do everything. He clipped his nails, taking them to the quick, and used a toothpick to scrape out the last remnants of ash. Then he took another shower, scouring with a silicone scrubber. There was virtually no chance that trace evidence remained on his skin, but he found the cleansing ritual calming; it soothed the OCD compulsions coiling around his brain, squeezing like a python. He had plenty to be stressed about. He had met the woman whod given birth to him and been asked to help a man who was either a murderer or a murder witness. He had been set upon by a crew of bodyguards and half the Argentine police force. He had survived a drone attack and a cha-cha with Lorilee Smithson. He required vodka. First he dressed, pulling his usual items from the dresser. He kept ten of each piece of clothing, all identical, folded with razor-sharp precision. From the top of each stack, he peeled one fresh itemboxer briefs, gray V-necked T-shirt, dark jeans. A new pair of Original S.W.A.T. boots from the tower of boxes in the closet. A Victorinox watch fob. Then on to the kitchen. He entered the freezer room, a cool waft finding his singed cheeks. The door sucked shut behind him, the rubber seals whispering an airtight foomp. The bottles stood in perfect parallel on the shelves like cartridges on an ammunition belt. Through the wall of exterior glass, a thousand pinpoint lights glistened in Century City, the world at bay for the moment. He started to reach for the Guillotine Vodka but hesitated, his fingertips brushing the cool glass. This was not a formal missionand he was retired. He deserved to relax, take the night off, and resume in the morning. Hed offered to look into Andrew Duran for Veronica, but that didnt mean he had to devote himself to it with his usual fervor. It had already nearly cost him his life and had the potential to cost him his unofficial presidential pardon. Whatever Duran knew, it was dangerous enough that they were willing to bring a Hellfire down on his head. So what? Evan asked the chilled bottle. He thought about the next step. When he got back on Durans trail in the morning, Evan would make sure not to wear a hat so the eyes in the sky wouldnt mistake him again for the target and convert him into pink mist. But the longer he waited, the more at risk Duran was. Evan thought back to Veronicas voice over the phone. All I know is that there are people after him. And that hes scared for his life. This isnt my concern, he said. I dont owe her anything, he said. The bottle did not respond. The liquid gazed demurely back at him, delightfully clouded, impatient. He didnt know what was more pathetic, that he was picking a fight with vodka or that he was losing. He shoved out of the freezer, cursed, and headed for the front door. 19 End of the Line Sitting in the back of the police car, Evan watches the free world roll by outside his window. His cheek is swollen. Blood works its way down his slender neck, mingling with panic sweat. He feels sticky all over. His clothes cling. In his twelve years, he has never known this kind of terror, this kind of total dislocation. As they drive, the cops up front banter, arguing about how much the Orioles suck. Another day, another bust. But for Evan its the end of the line. And yet it makes no sense. Why go to all this trouble for a simple frame-up? The puzzle pieces dont fit no matter how many ways he turns them in his head. They pull off the interstate at a deserted rest stop, and he assumes one of the cops has to take a leak. But then the rear door opens and hes yanked out onto the curb. The bigger cop sidles behind him, hands low. Wait, Evan says, panic rising. Wait. But the cuffs fall free with a clink. A knee bumps his kidneys, and he stumbles onto the little patch of browning lawn beside the restrooms. The cop circles back to the drivers side, and the squad car takes off. Evan stands there alone, a breeze cooling the sweat on his back. The air smells of cleaning solution, exhaust, and sewage. Blood hardens on his cheek. He watches the cars zoom by on the interstate below and has absolutely no fucking idea what to do next. A familiar dark sedan turns off and climbs the slow arc of road to where he stands. The windows are tinted. All of them. It stops before him. The passenger window slides down, accompanied by an electronic purr. Evan cannot see the driver, not across the passenger seat and the dark interior. The voice that calls across is as smoky as a pilfered swig of bourbon from Papa Zs liquor cabinet. My name is Jack, it says. Are you ready to begin? 20 Bad Company Durans old apartment complex had gone to hell in the months since hed laid eyes on it. He lurked in the darkness beneath the sagging carport of the meth house next door, a black wave of guilt roiling through him. How could he let his Sofia live like this? How could his ex-wife not have told him how bad the neighborhood had gotten since hed left? He knew the answer to that already. Because he was unreliable. Because he hadnt shown up. Because he couldnt do much to help aside from mail most of his measly paycheck to her every month. Because he wasnt good for much and never had been. It was colder than L.A. had any right to be, even at night, even in December. He stared at the window of Bris apartment. A halogen floor lamp illuminated the living room, giving him a decent vantage through the security screens. That old-timey travel poster of Paris still hung on the wall. Bri had always dreamed of going to France but hadnt gotten any farther east than Phoenix once for a human-resources conference. Among other laundry a pink sweatshirt rested over the couch back, which was the closest hed gotten to seeing Sofia in one year, five months, and thirteen days. Shed been so little when theyd moved in. Back then the apartment smelled of fresh paint, new carpet, and promise. When hed get home from work, shed toddle out and hold her arms up to him. Shed put her bare feet on top of his shoes and they would dance in the kitchen, and the stove would smell like fresh tortillas and spiced beans, would smell like home. His throat was closing up, and he looked down and blinked till the ground stopped blurring. How far the fall from grace, from that kitchen filled with life to a rickety not-to-code room in El Sereno. One night, lubricated with a pint of the cheap stuff, hed drawn a sketch of his daughter, re-creating her features one by one, each line a love letter, every curve a memory etched into his brain. He kept it tacked to the wall as a comfort and a punishment, a reminder that hed left a mark on the planet but had been too flawed to build on that foundation. His thoughts pulled to the smooth, smooth taste of rum and the feeling when it hit the blood, how it eased the cramps in the chest and loosened his focus so that for a few precious moments everything seemed warm and touched by grace. Even him. He reached for the mantra, worn threadbare from repetition in his mind: An alcoholic alone is in bad company. There was a crash from the backyard behind him. In trying to stand up, one of the meth heads had knocked over a barbecue. The man had a beard and no visible lips, an unsettling effect, as if his wiry facial hair had sprouted teeth. Red charcoal lumps dotted the concrete of the backyard and the six or so broken spirits stared down at them as if they were tea leaves prophesying the future. The party unfroze, the people rumbling back into motion. The bearded man hit a pipe and then let a wasted girl shotgun the smoke right out of his mouth. She slumped back against a torn lawn chair, a sack of bones topped with straw hair. The other tweakers did hot rails of crushed meth, snorting it off what looked like an amputated tennis racket handle, eyes rolling white, hands jittering, tongues poking Morse-code patterns in their cheeks. It brought Duran back to his childhood, where hed seen a lot of things kids werent meant to see and some stuff beyond that. It had been like a tour of duty, his childhood, a state of mind to be endured. His senses had been alive then, that was for sure. So much unrealized potential, so many dreams of who he could be and what hed do when he got there. And here he was hunted and terrified, hiding under the cover of a meth house, looking at the apartment where his lost wife and daughter lived, a zippered pouch in his back pocket holding ninety-nine dollars and change. How was it possible to fuck up this badly? The cat-piss and paint-thinner scent of meth was making his brain hurt. He stepped out from beneath the carport, leaning against a decrepit oak tree, its bark cracked like the skin of a wizened elder. A car rolled past, deep bass bumping, the headlights illuminating a rusty knife discarded in the gutter amid scattered squares of aluminum foil. Each square had a dark patch in the middle, heroin residue staring up like a cyclopss eye. Duran wanted to cry. He wanted to vanish through his shoes into the dirt and never come back. He wanted to see his daughter and say good-bye before theywhoever they werecaught up to him. He hadnt dared to go to his house, holing up in the off-the-books sublet. And he knew he shouldnt be here either. But he couldnt help it. He didnt want to go out without looking Sofia in her deep brown eyes and telling her that having her as a daughter was the one true thing this life had given him. A flicker of movement caught his attention, and he looked across into the apartment. Sofia spun into view holding a basket of laundry, approximating a ballerinas pirouette. Her dark hair whipped across her face. She hoisted the basket onto a hip the way Bri always did and vanished through the front door into the hall. Duran had forgotten to breathe. Eleven years old and still a kid. A few inches taller, sure, but her face had barely changed. Her features hadnt yet started to shift with the run-up to the teen years. Beautiful round cheeks still padded with baby fat. Those long eyelashes. That awkward childs grace as she danced, fluid and unbalanced all at once, a glorious spinning top that could capsize at any second. Still his little girl. For a moment he forgot himself, taking a step away from the tree toward the apartment building. And then he halted, the circumstances crushing in on him. What was he thinking? If he had any contact with Bri and Sofia, that would put the fake deputy marshals on their tail. The same people whod used dark magic to open up Jake Hargreaves carotid and bleed him dry. All these long, lonely months, Duran could have swallowed his shame and shown up, couldve given Sofia a Daddy Hug, the one where he picked her up and swung her around till her Crocs flew off. And now when every last instinct tugged at him to cross the dark alley and knock on that door, he couldnt. Not without putting her at risk. Her mother, too. He started to turn away when a flicker of movement caught his eye. A man melting from the shadows along the front of the building. He stood before the very window Duran had been watching, his hands in his pockets, staring into the living room through the security screen. The man was perfectly still. Thirty yards away beneath the ancient oak, Duran stayed perfectly still, too. Then the man headed for the apartments entrance. Duran stepped forward, plucked the rusty knife from the gutter, and started after him. 21 Busted Creatures Evan kept his hat off and wore short sleeves, the better to distinguish himself from Andrew Duran in the event that a guided missile was watching from ten thousand feet above. How odd that after so many years spent flying below the radar, he now had to make himself visible for his own safety. The hardware-store Schlage on the apartment buildings front door yielded to a rake pick and a tension wrench, the pins popping into alignment with a readiness that suggested theyd been compromised enough times to know the drill. A rectangle of unpainted wood delineated where the latch-guard plate had been snapped off with a crowbar. The hall smelled of onions and garlic, someones dinner hanging heavy in the unventilated air. Laughing and gossiping issued from a lit room with a wide doorless entry up the halla lounge? a communal kitchen? As Evan neared, he heard the thump of machines, the scent of laundry detergent cutting through the stale air. The conversation became audible. Whats Jimmy up to? Twenty-five to life. Laughter. You know how to pick em, girl! Dont I, though? Lemme guess. Armed robbery. Nothing so glam. Check kiting. Seventh offense. Se-vunth. Got him on RICO or some shit cuz of his dumb-ass cousin Renny. Renny? He the peach who said LuLus diapered baby had junk in her trunk? The very one. Evan reached the doorway and peered inside at four women and a girl sorting their laundry from various mismatched machines. Brianna stood at the end, thumping a shuddering dryer with the heel of her hand; he recognized her from the DMV photo hed pulled up. At her side Sofia held a basket brimming with more clothes. Things been broke two weeks now, Brianna lamented. A woman with copper skin and well-kept hair the color of snow mm-mm-mm-ed her agreement. Busted lock on the front door, gang tags spray-painted above the garage. Another woman in an ill-fitting spandex dress chimed in. Yeah, well, the squeaky wheel dont get shit if it aint in a zip code where rich folk hear it. Language, ladies, Brianna said, giving up on the dryer. Cant you see this innocent child here? Sofia had secured one of her mothers bras over her head, the cups rising on either side like mouse ears. Who, moi? As the other ladies laughed, Brianna tugged the bra free and flopped it back into the basket. See what I deal with? As Brianna spoke, Sofia mouthed her moms words, engendering more laughter. Brianna swatted her daughter on the arm, then planted a kiss on her forehead. Evan stepped forward into a rush of warm air. Specks of lint snowflaked over the dryers, and a softener sheet remained impossibly airborne above a leaky vent, a feather riding a cartoon characters snores. Excuse me, Mrs. Duran? Brianna stiffened. Miss, she said. Ramirez. My maiden name. She took the basket from Sofia and set it on a cocked hip. Whats he done now? I wanted to talk to you about that, Evan said. Is he okay? Sofias dark eyes were wide, glazed with fear. I dont know. Im trying to help him. Brianna bulldozed at him, leading with the basket, forcing him to step aside. You can talk while I fold in my apartment. And dont get no ideas. You try anything stupid, all these ladies up in here saw your face, aint that right, ladies? Evan was treated to a chorus of suspicious glares and disapproving clucks. He said, I will be the picture of chivalry. As he followed Brianna and Sofia up the hall, he heard one of the ladies say, Chivalry, hell. My ass would settle for employed. Briannas apartment was tidy and well kept, a contrast to what hed seen of the building. Vacuum marks in the carpet, dishes neatly stacked on the kitchen shelves, photos of Sofia lined on a side table. A rickety desk held an outdated laptop and a pile of bills. Sofia, Brianna said. Go to your room. Sofia looked at Evan. Just tell me if hes okay. I dont know, Evan said. Sofia took her index finger in her opposite fist, bent it till the knuckle cracked. Did he kill that man? Brianna said, Sof. Room. Now. Im guessing its more complicated than that, Evan told Sofia. Sofia retreated down the brief hall, closed the door, then silently opened it a crack and peered out. She saw Evan looking, raised a finger to her lips, and winked. He winked back at her, returned his focus to Brianna. She dumped the laundry on the couch, got on her knees, and started folding. Talk, she said. Im a friend of a friend of Andrews. No youre not. Andrew doesnt have friends like you. Clean shirt, clean clothes, smell like soap. You need a better lie. Evan didnt rise to the challenge. Im told hes in some real trouble. She snapped a T-shirt harder than seemed necessary and folded it crisply. You think? Im trying to find him. Yeah? Good luck. I been trying to pin down that man for a year and change. Like when he used to go on them benders. Gone. Just gone. She hunted through the mound before her. How does that girl always lose one sock? Does she take it off at school? Evan had never lost a sock, though Mia had made him aware that this was a domestic epidemic. He glanced up the hall again. From behind her door, Sofia mimed dramatic remorse, pressing her palm to her forehead. He bit down a grin. When he looked back, Brianna tossed the orphaned sock aside and held a T-shirt to her face. Evan thought she was smelling it. But then he saw her shoulders trembling and understood. Ms. Ramirez? When she lowered the shirt, her protective toughness had dropped from her face, and now there was just grief, pure and simple. Hes such an idiot, she whispered. But hes Sofias father, and I still love him despite himself, and if he got himself killed, Ill never forgive him. Evan stood there quietly. I mean, no ones perfect, right? she continued, talking at the shirt. Were just these I dunno, busted creatures. And then you have a child. A daughter. And you realize youre ityoure the mold, the model, the example. God help them. And you pray so hard that theyre not doomed to fail like you. Youre so desperate for them not to repeat your mistakes. Marry the wrong guy. Wind up wind up here. Like you. She threw down the shirt and rose, knees cracking. Whats your name? Evan. Evan. Do you really think you could help him? Im willing to try. What do you need from me? You dont know where he lives? He had a house. But he sublet it. Couldnt afford it no more, I guess. And hes been living somewhere else. Wont say where. For a guy without any pride, he sure has a lot of pride. Any regular hangouts? I wouldnt know. Not anymore. Friends? She shook her head. Thats part of what goes wrong, right? You fold into yourself, your family. And then when it implodes, its just you standing there. No one at all? He did have a childhood friend. But you wont be able to talk to him. Why not? Hes in Kern Valley. State prison. Another fine influence. Whats his name? I dont know. Denny? Donnie? I wasnt exactly supportive of the friendship. She sighed, blew a lock of sleek hair out of her eye. Andrew had a tough past. And I guess I wanted him looking forward instead of backward. But what the hell do I know? Maybe we all need to do both. Do you have any way of remembering his friends name? Would it be written down anywhere? She bit her lip, shook her head. Im sorry. I wish I could help. Okay, Evan said. Thank you for your time. Im sorry to disturb your Wednesday night. No problem. Wednesday aint exactly bumpin around here. As he turned to go, he saw Sofia still spying through a crack in her bedroom door. She gave him a sad little wave, just her fingers fluttering. If I find anything out, he said, a bit more loudly than he needed to, Ill let you know. Brianna nodded. Hed just reached the door when she said, Hang on. She waved him over to the desk. As he drew nearer, he saw that many of the bills were overdue. The rickety desk looked to be garage-sale quality, scratched and chipped and marred with stray pen marks. Brianna pointed to a scrawled series of letters and numbers on the rear ledge: TG3328. He wrote this on here, she said. For when he used to log in to send a message to his friend. Its the C-something number. CDCR, Evan said. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Yeah, that, she said. The inmate number. Evan looked down at the wizened Dell laptop. Is that his computer? Hail no, she said, snatching it up and holding it to her chest. Dont get no ideas. Just bought it new off eBay. Used. But new to me. He showed his palms. Just asking. I appreciate your help. Dont know how much help it was. Plenty, he said. She showed him out. He walked down the hall, tipping an imaginary hat to the ladies in the laundry room, who side-eyed him with distrust. Hed just stepped out the front door and down the steps when he sensed movement behind him and felt a blade against his throat. 22 A Lifetime Ago The pressure of the knife on Evans Adams apple was light, unsure. A professional would have placed it to the side, resting over the stem of the carotid just before it split. Plus, a professional would be standing offset to protect his stomach and groin from a backward strike. All in all a poor showing. Evan cleared his throat. Youre gonna want to grab my head and pull it back to bare the neck, he said. Or youll get hung up in the sternocleidomastoid. The fuck? the guy said, the knife tension easing. You fucking crazy? Evan grabbed the wrist, rolled it outward, shot an elbow back into the sternum, and stepped to the side. The guy stumbled back a few steps, doubled over, coughing. To his credit he kept the knife. When he straightened up, Evan blinked twice to stimulate his night vision and make sure he was seeing correctly. It was Duran. He waved the blade in front of him. The handle was chipped, the steel rusted. Evan said, Is that a bread knife? Duran regarded it. Steak knife, I think. No, Evan said. Im pretty sure its a bread knife. That curved end is gonna give you problems unless you plan to saw me to death. Duran considered. Maybe Ill just nick you and let you die of tetanus in five months. Evan glanced up at the stars, listened for that buzz announcing impending doom, but there was nothing in the air except a few amorous crickets chirping away. He doubted that whoever was behind all this would risk another Hellfire on domestic soil, especially near a populated apartment building, but nearly having his ass incinerated had dented his confidence in his ability to prognosticate. Evan said, We should get off the street. Why? So you can stab me in private. No, Duran said. Not until you answer a few questions first. Like, why you stalking my wife and kid? Im looking for you. You with them other folks? The ones who killed Jake Hargreave? No. Regarding Duran directly, Evan experienced the same unnerving d?j? vu hed felt when hed caught his first clear glimpse of Veronica. Some flicker of recognition beneath the surface, a dreamlike recollection at once foreign and familiar. Durans handsome face looked worn beyond its years, brown skin, stubble flecked with white. An accent mark of a keloid scar punctuated his right eyebrow, a darker shade of brown than the surrounding skin. Then what the fuck you want with me? With each word Duran jabbed the rusty knife in the air. I was asked to help you. By who? Veronica LeGrande. Duran moved back, his step faltering, and lowered the knife to his side. Just then the front door hinged open and the white-haired woman from the laundry room ambled out, gargantuan purse swaying from the crook of her elbow. She labored down the stairs, grunting from the effort, and paused when she spotted Duran. Andrew Esau Duran, she said, wagging a finger. Is that you? Where you been, boy? Dont you know your daughter needs a father? Duran held his knife hand behind his back, looking exceptionally suspicious standing among the plants that framed the front of the building. Youre right, Mrs. Hamilton. Im gonna set that right. I just cant right now. Mrs. Hamiltons face made clear what she thought of that. One of these days, you gonna run outta tomorrows, son. Duran nodded sheepishly. Under other circumstances his transformation from would-be badass to humbled little boy would have been amusing. But he looked so heartbroken it was hard for Evan to find humor in it. Please dont mention to Bri you saw me here. Mrs. Hamilton held a withering glare on him for a few moments, though his eyes stayed lowered. Then she bestowed her disdain on Evan. Finally she hiked her purse higher on her arm and ambled off. Something shed said to Duran stirred a memory in Evan. Look, Duran said, jarring him back to the here and now. Ms. LeGrandes always looked out for me, but she has no idea what this is. Evan said, Im guessing you dont either. I never shoulda called her. I need to stay underground. Youre just gonna put me at risk. My family, too. You shouldnt have come here. You shouldnt have either. That seemed to hit a nerve, Durans lip curling. Lemme make this clear: I didnt ask for your help. I dont want your help. Leave me the fuck alone. Evan took Durans measure. Found no chink in the armor. Again and again his experience had proved the old adage that you cant help someone who doesnt want to be helped. From the stubborn set of Durans face, Evan realized that his little detour from retirement had drawn to a close. Okay, he said, and started off up the walk. He got two steps before a bolt of recognition pinned him where he stood. He pictured Mrs. Hamiltons wagging finger. Andrew Esau Duran. And he thought back a lifetime ago to a boy with a crazy-ass biblical middle name that no one knew how to pronounce. And to the time Danny had shoved that kid into the kitchen counter, opening up his forehead. The wound had required seven stitches and left a scar like an accent mark over the right eyebrow. Evan turned around. Duran was still there among the fronds, waiting for him to leave. Evan said, Andre? Duran didnt move, but his face rippled with emotion, his scalp shifting. He looked confused, undone. Andrew. Dr. Dre. Dre-Dre. Andre. Its Evan. Evan? Evan. His pupils dilated, the dime dropping. What the hell are you? His voice trailed off into a husky rasp, as if his throat had dried up. Why are you here? Evan wasnt sure which layer of the question to address first. I wound up in L.A. because of you, Evan said. It was, he realized, more of a statement than an answer. What? Andres forehead was shiny, sweat trickling toward his eyes. Why? The palm trees. The big-ass Cadillac. Evan could hear his voice falling into an age-old cadence he thought hed long outgrown. Did you ever find them? The blondes on Rollerblades? Andre dipped his head, his lips twitching as if he might smile, and all of a sudden Evan saw him clear as day, the boy with the spiral sketchbook and the infectious grin. Not like in my head, Andre said. I went to Venice Beach, sure. And there they were. But they smelled like weed. And they had no interest in a fool like me. What happened to you? Evan asked. Andre recoiled, amusement freezing on his face, turning hard, and Evan could see the shame beneath. Andre had mistaken the question as a judgment on how he looked, who hed become, rather than as the inquiry Evan had intended. Andres mouth twisted. You dont know me. Not anymore. You dont know shit about me. He flung the knife down at his side, where it stuck in the soil. Like I said, leave me the fuck alone. He shoved through the plants and darted up the alley. Evan pursued him. A gate clanged open and shut loudly at the end, and as Evan neared, Andre twisted a padlock back into place and sank the U shackle home with a click. Evan looked up, but the gate was topped with razor wire. They stared at each other through the chain-link, close enough that Evan could smell the fear on him. Andre was panting, more from emotion than exertion, it seemed, his face awash in fear and humiliation and confusion. He looked utterly lost. A guy whose bank account couldnt break forty bucks. Banished from his own home. A half-assembled jungle gym in his backyard, built for a daughter who never visited. So much hope, so much grief. And despair running beneath it, dimming his eyes, the eyes of a man whod fallen off the edge of the earth. Wait, Evan said. Slow down. Just talk to me. Andre stepped back, sweat gleaming at his hairline. Lozenge-shaped shadows from the fence broke his face into diamonds. You cant help me, he said. No one can. He stepped back again, darkness enveloping him, and then there was nothing but the tap-tap-tap of his footsteps sprinting away. 23 A Statue Garden of Zombies By the time Evan neared the side street where hed stashed his vehicle, his heart rate had settled no more than his thoughts. The F-150 wasnt just a truck, it was a war machine, every last security measure invisible to the untrained eye. Like the laminated armor windows. The custom push-bumper assembly up front. The run-flat self-sealing tires. The flat vaults in the bed stocked with a virtual arsenal. The vehicle had been built to spec by his trusted friend Tommy Stojack, a nine-fingered armorer who worked out of Vegas. Tommy provided Evan ghost weaponry as well: guns with no serial numbers, taggant-free explosives, innovative tech a half breath out of DARPA. The streetlights all up the block had been shot out, no doubt a tactical choice given the deals going down on various porches in the vicinity. A few guys called after Evan in Spanish, and a lady whistled an invitation through sloppy orange lipstick, but he kept his head down, hands in his pockets. His eyes picked over the surroundings, scanning for threats, but part of his brain floated in years past. The gritty taste of generic mac and cheese. Andre on his top bunk, sketch pad propped on his knees, gnawed pencil scratching on paper. Van Sciver leering down at Evan, his knuckles scraped. The taste of blood in Evans mouth, cracked asphalt skinning his palms, his knees, his chin. Hed done his best to lock himself off from the past, and yet here it was again, rearing its head, threatening to buck him like a horse. Why Andre? And how the hell did Veronica know him? He dialed her prepaid phone, but the number had been disconnected. If she were to be believed, shed be in the air now heading to Los Angeles. Hed have to wait until their meet time tomorrow to get any further information from her. As much as he was loath to admit it, the mission had sunk its fangs into him. He could see no acceptable response except to return the favor. He knew what would have to come next. Figuring out who Inmate TG3328 was in Kern Valley State Prison, which would be relatively easy. And then getting in to visit him, which would be relatively not. To do so hed require the help of the best hacker he knew. Who also happened to be an incredibly obstinate sixteen-year-old girl. Curiosity crept up on him, a tingle beneath the scalp. What had Brianna called inmate TG3328? A childhood friend. The tingle grew warmer, unpleasant, turned to an itch. The more he scratched, the deeper into his childhood this venture seemed to dig. He had no answers, not yet, just a clot of questions. He halted, shouldering against a brick wall, and called up the serviceable CDCR website on his RoamZone. As he thumbed in the inmate number, he noticed a burn in his chest, a held breath growing impatient. The screen reloaded and spit out a result. Daniel Gallo. A complete shock and totally predictable all at once. Danny who flew in and out of juvie like it was a revolving door. Danny whod play-shoved Andre into the counter, giving him that beauty gash on the forehead. Danny who last Evan had heard was serving out a ten-year term in Chesapeake Detention Facility for armed robbery. He and Evan hadnt been particularly close. Theyd moved at the periphery of the circle, Evan keeping his head low to dodge Van Scivers wrath, Danny occupied with untangling his own various strands of trouble. One time Danny had shared with Evan a Coke hed bought at the gas station using pennies salvaged from a wishing fountain in a strip-mall pupusa joint. With crystalline clarity Evan remembered the coolness of the bottle, the intoxicating fizz, how it had offered a few moments respite from the baking Baltimore sun. It had been a small act of kindness, delivered with no pomp and circumstance, but small acts of kindness were all they had to give or receive in that summer heat. A few sips of Coke might as well have been a kings ransom. The past could be so fickle, a moment boomeranging home twenty-seven years later with a palpability greater than the concrete beneath his boots. The woman whod given birth to him. Winging to L.A. Andre Duran. In the wind. Danny Gallo. Locked in a box. How would these threads knit together? Evan shoved off the wall and resumed his course, cutting between two banged-up lowriders onto the side street. As he neared his truck, he spotted the bearded meth head and his crew from the house neighboring Brianna and Sofias apartment complex. Theyd circled the F-150, peering in the windows hungrily. The bearded man bent over, plumbers crack on full display above filthy sagging jeans, and pried a loose cinder block from a low barrier blocking in a dirt yard. He held it overhead, staggering back toward Evans truck. Evan stepped into sight. I wouldnt do that. The man sneered, yellow teeth seeming to spring from the beard itself. Most of them had caved inward, but his incisors remained in place, pronounced and tusklike. His crew tittered, rippling around him. You gonna stop us? he asked. Evan paused, hands still in his pockets. He tilted his forehead to the truck. An invitation to proceed. The man smiled again, eyes glistening. Then he let the cinder blocks weight tug him toward the passenger window. He let go at the last moment. The cinder block struck the polycarbonate thermoplastic resin glass with an impotent thud, bounced back, and knocked him square in the forehead. He tripped over the curb and lay sprawled on the sidewalk, unconscious. Evan removed his key fob from his pocket and gave it the chirp-chirp. The others stood frozen, a statue garden of zombies, unblinking eyes and crooked shoulders. Excuse me, Evan said. He threaded delicately through them, stepped over the unconscious man, got into his truck, and drove away. 24 An Unusual Relationship Evan watched the peephole for a shadow, but Joey opened the door of her apartment without checking. He said, How many times have I told you to look whos at the door before you open it? How many times have I told you I have pinhole cameras installed in all the heating vents so I can watch you shuffle up here all unannounced like you own the place? She waved her Big Gulp at him. Oh, wait, thats right. You do own the place. After Joey had washed out from the Orphan Program, a series of unlikely circumstances had landed her in Evans charge. Eventually hed gotten her to California and set her up in a Westwood apartment building that had failed to meet his standards for security. Sothrough an array of shell corporationshed bought the place to make improvements and keep her safe, an arrangement he believed he could hide from her. But outwitting Joey was a virtual impossibility; shed not only deduced the chain of ownership but hacked into the legal records, intent on reassigning ownership to herself. Hed found out and threatened to ground her. Shed relented. It was an unusual relationship. She was wearing eyeliner for the first time, just a hint that made her emerald eyes pop even more. Curious. Her hair was styled with a more severe undercut than usual, shaved tight on the right side, a black-brown wave waterfalling across her cheek in an uncharacteristically styled fashion. Shed traded in her wife-beater undershirt and baggy flannel for something resembling an actual blouse. And a scent wafted off her, different from her usual fragrance of Dr Pepper and Red Vines. He said, Why do you smell like orange blossom? What? Her blink rate picked up, a nonverbal tell. Its nothing. Probably just soda. Its not soda. More flowery. Theres nothing flowery. Youre hallucinating. Cmon, X. Hugs not drugs. A Rhodesian ridgeback snout shoved between Joeys thigh and the doorframe, the dog whimpering to get at Evan. Evan had placed the dog in Joeys care thinking the companionship would be good for them both, and Joey feigned resentment at the responsibility. It was one of many dances she and Evan did around unspoken emotions and unacknowledged stakes. Can I come in? Evan asked. Im kinda busy, she said. Plans. Since when do you have plans? Since Im an independent young woman who doesnt have to answer to a controlling uncle-person type. Josephine, he said. She returned his glare. Then sighed, her shoulders rolling forward. Fii-nuh. She drew the word into two syllables. But it better be quick. She stepped back, retreating to her workstation, a pod of monitors and computers that served as her hacking nerve center. The ridgeback went crazy, wiggling against Evan, shoving into his thighs, demanding to be petted. The pup had bulked up to at least a hundred pounds, his coat looked shiny and healthy, and the scars from his bait-dog days had healed nicely. An expensive-looking fabric collar, candy-cane-striped for the holidays, gleamed against his russet-tan fur. Contented with Evans affection, he trotted away and plopped down on his plush bolster bed. He hoisted his hound eyes at Joey, who was already typing away at her station, and gave a gentle whine for her attention. Quiet, Dog, she said. Shed refused to name the dog because she didnt want to grow attached to him. Which she definitely wasnt. Attached to him. Not at all. Fancy new collar, Evan observed. Joey kept her gaze unbroken on the monitors. It was on sale. And the bed. Is that a pillowtop? Its just what some website recommended for big dogs. Cuz their joints or something. I dont know. She looked up finally to scowl at Evan. At her shift in focus, Dog the dogs tail went thump-thump-thump against the bolster bed. She went back to work. Snuck another look at the dog. Thump-thump-thump. Joeys face softened with affection. Evan pretended not to notice the lovefest. One of the many arcane rules hed learned when it came to dealing with a sixteen-year-old girl was to let her express herself in her own time. How are your courses going? he asked. One of the conditions of her living in here under his unofficial supervision was that she stay enrolled at UCLA. Shed chosen a computer-science major, promptly tested out of a raft of classes, and was struggling to slow her brain down enough to tolerate the remaining ones. She guffawed. Dull and last-gen theoretical. Theyre way outta date on machine learning, neural networks, and neuromorphic computing. The other day in lecture, the prof was going onincorrectlyabout PyTorch with some boring-ass PowerPoint, and I was, like, dying of tedium, so I thought Id, ya know, crack the staff-only Wi-Fi. I did a quick deauth attack to force a reconnect and then sent the captured key hashes to the CrackStation critters, and next thing you know Im inside the network and then into his laptop using a handy Metasploit payload, so I replaced one of his PowerPoint slides with a pic I found in his Photos of him and his wife in puppy-play sex outfits at the Folsom Street Fair. And it came up, and everyone was all like, Ah, kill that shit with fire, and then he knocked over the laptop and it broke, and then lecture got canceled. Evan cleared his throat. Staved off the ice-pick headache threatening to bore through his frontal lobe. Lets just pretend I didnt ask. Or Fingers templed like a Bond villains, she swiveled magisterially in her gamer chair to face him. We could sit here and bask in your discomfort until the heat death of the universe. You need to stay in school. Even though I could, like, teach the professors? Were not having this discussion again. Pick another major. But then Id have to do work. When we both know thatespecially now that youre in your dotagemy talents would be better spent taking over for you. Id be a way better Orphan X. Youre a middle-aged white dude. Get with the times. Cmon, X, tell me the worlds not ready for a rebrand. That ice pick made further headway, burrowing toward the brain stem. The worlds not ready for a rebrand, he said wearily. Im not even Orphan X anymore. Weve discussed this. I retired. Then what are you doing here? I just need help on a thing Im looking into. She rolled her eyes, shot a glance at the wall clock. Can we get on with whatever it is you need? I need to hack into the CDCR website Even a two-digit-IQ noob like you should be able to manage that. and get cleared as a visitor to Kern Valley State Prison. And get put on the log under one of my fake IDs to meet with the inmate. For tomorrow. She frowned. Hmm. Which ID you wanna use? He told her. As his unofficial in-house hacker, she kept files on his various identities and papers. She whipped back around in her chair and pounded away on one of myriad keyboards. A cluster of monitors hovering around her lit up with code. She went at it for a while, fingers blurring, pausing only to slurp from her Big Gulp and once to strain herself into an awkward half hug so she could massage out a knot beneath her shoulder blade. Dog the dog shifted on his bolster bed, emitting a contented groan. At last Joeys hands slowed. She tapped the mouse. Rolled the sensor ball. Tapped it again. She spun to him and chef-kissed her fingers, complete with a Muah! Done? Youre on the books for seven A.M. under the name Frank Kassel. Bring the appropriate photo ID and filled-out waivers. I sent you a link. I assume you can figure the rest out all by yourself like a big boy. Now, is that it? Her urgency caught him off guard; he was used to her prying for details, not rushing him out. He thought about the impound lot where the murder of Jake Hargreave took place. How the surveillance cameras had magically gone down during the key seven minutes. If Joey could coax some other electronic eyes out of the ether, there might be a way to piece together a picture of what happened. Can you find geotagged cameras in a specific area? She snickered. Is Putin an alpha? One straight answer would be so lovely. She did robot voice and robot arms. Yes. I can. Im so sorry, Mr. X. Her posture reverted to her characteristic slump, as if she had no bones and the chair was her exoskeleton. Ill just hack up some code to hit the Shodan device discovery API and filter results for our target area. It already comes back geotagged for every device it finds. Then we fire up five hundo Amazon EC2 instances and automate the crap out of sploiting them with pro_exploit from Metasploit again. We bust into that shit, were looking at the world through their eyeholes. I have an idea for your new major. Whats that? English as a second language. Wow. Dad joke. Maybe you could start wearing plaid shorts and T-shirts with golf puns on them. And, like, wearing shower sandals with socks. And drinking Arnold Palmers. And Joey. Fii-nuh. As he stepped into her circular work area, he sensed an immediate rise in temperature, the burned-wire smell of electronics working overtime. He commandeered a keyboard to search out the impound lots address, but the monitors were stacked three high all around and he wasnt sure which one to look at. Joey reached up, cupped his chin, and pivoted his focus to the appropriate screen. He pulled up the lot on Google Maps. A murder took place there three weeks ago, but the security system was knocked out. I need to know if there are any other cameras with a partial view of that parking lot that we can get into and grab archived footage from. I need specifics, X. Date, times. And whats the story with this? A prison visit, a murder scene. Thats a lotta shit for a retired dude instead of ya know, bingo. He stared at her, his mouth shifting. He had no one else he could talk to about something like this. Someone who had the same points of reference to understand how tricky this was for him to navigate. He mustered the words. The woman who gave birth to me contacted me. Joeys eyebrows shot up, disappeared beneath a fringe of hair. You dont have a mother. I mean, you know what I mean. No wonder you decided to risk your whole presidential immunity setup. Must be super emotional, right? He said, No. But I mean, its gotta be weird, right? Like it mustve rocked your world? He said, No. Cmon. Everything you thought you knew about yourself is different. I bet youre freaking out. I mean, internally obviously, since youre all No Affect Guy outside and incapable of expressing human emotion. He said, No. X, she said. Its your mother. Whats she like? He grimaced. Leaned back against one of the curved desks. Crossed his arms. Can we skip all that so I can read you in on the mission? Ah. It is a mission. I knew it. I misspoke. She started her next retort, but he raised his palm emphatically. Joey. Do whatever you need to do to get to those cameras. Shut your piehole. And let me fill you in. As quickly as he could, he gave her a just-the-facts intel dump. When he finished, she stared at him, eyes wide, her surprised face looking impossibly youthful. Before she could respond, someone rapped on the door, and she stiffened as if shed been hit with a cattle prod. 25 The Wide World of Fuck Evan couldnt read Joeys face. She kept her gaze at the monitors, not looking over at the door. The rapping came again, more insistently. You expecting someone? Evan said. Nah. Just ignore it. Theyll go away. Joey. Is someone harassing you? She shot him a look, her green eyes blazing, emphasized all the more by that eyeliner. Harassing me? she said. Have you met me? Im gonna answer it. Dont answer it. Already hed exited the workstation. He put his body to the left of the jamb and cracked the door. A young guy stood outside. Sagging jeans, wide-collar shirt, thumbs looped in a distressed leather belt. A tuft of rigorously mussed hair with a hard side part razored in. He was ridiculously good-looking, no doubt a future actor or a Starbucks barista. Oh, Evan said. Joeys makeup. The blouse. The orange-blossom perfume. Oh, Evan said again. Hey, man. Im Bridger. Joey here? Evan heard a thunk behind him. Joeys forehead hitting the desk. Where do you know Joey from? Evan asked. Bridger. Like, lecture class. Lecture class, Evan said. How old are you? Uh, eighteen. Eighteen, Evan repeated. You know its illegal for you to Evan. Joey was suddenly at his shoulder, tugging his arm. Behind his back she gathered his hand in a pronating wrist lock to steer him away from the door. He reached back with his other hand and deployed a countergrip, prying her hand off his. They both kept their faces pointed at Bridger, maintaining smiles as he rubbed at an honest-to-God soul patch on his chin. Dog the dog was up, growling. Seeming to sense that Evan had the situation in hand, he padded back to the Red Vines tub that served as his bowl, lapped up some water, and huffed down onto the pillowtop again. Evan kept his stare level on Bridger. I didnt catch a last name. Bickley. But I go by Bicks sometimes, ya know. He shoved his hands into his pockets, rose up on his tiptoes, rocked back on his heels. Anyhoo. Joey and I were supposed to, like, hang out. Hang out? Evan said. Its two in the morning. So its a bad time? Yes, Evan said as Joey said, No. Okay. Cool, cool. Bridger bobbed his head, managed eye contact with Evan. And you are? My uncle, Joey said in a rush. This is my uncle. Hes protectivereally annoyingly protectiveand I guess he needs to talk to me now about some stuff, so could we, like, reschedule? No worries, Bridger said. Grab you tomorrow? Like eight oclock? Surethatdbegreatthanksbye. Joey ratcheted the door closed in Bridgers nonplussed face and delivered Evan an extra-pointed glare; on the receiving end, it felt like a shiv to the chest. What the actual hell, X? At her tone Dog the dog lifted his head, collar tags jangling. Joey went on tilt, coming at Evan, driving him away from the door. Evan said, Language. I cannot believe you. Youre such a dipshit. Joey, he said. Thats offensive. Yeah, to dipshits for having to be compared to you. Hes eighteen years old. Im in college. Who am I supposed to date? Middle-schoolers? Because thats the only other option. You cant just come in here like you own the placeinsert punch line hereand be all controlling. Its not about being controlling. Its about making a few inquiries about a guy named Bicks with a soul patch who says anyhoo and wants to hang out with you at two in the morning. We were gonna go to a party! she said, again digging furiously at that muscle knot near her shoulder blade. Oh, my God. I should just give up on ever being normal and enter a nunnery. Before that can you help me with the geotagged cameras? She made a noise like a horse whinny but more rageful and then stomped off to her workstation, where she began pounding on the keyboards. Evan retreated to the bolster bed and sat on the floor next to Dog the dog, who offered him a sympathetic gaze. For a while Evan scratched at his scruff, the dog grumbling with pleasure, a sonorous groan-snore. Finally Joey said, Get over here. He obeyed. Dog the dog obeyed as well, getting halfway across the room before realizing that the command had not been directed at him. With relief he slunk off. Evan took up a position behind Joey. What am I looking at? A variety of digital footage from cameras around the block cued up and frozen the night your boy was killed. Were starting here. She pointed at a monitor behind Evans head, her fingernail barely missing his cheek, a near gouging that seemed not unintentional. An EyeSky Web-connected cam at a First Union Bank of SoCal ATM. She tapped the mouse and the frozen black-and-white scene thawed to life, a silent winter film. Leaves scuttling across a sidewalk. A city bus hogging both lanes, there and then gone. A Hasidic Jew shuffling by wearing his wisdom on his face, a twelve-inch charcoal beard, brittle and ragged. And then a Corvette drifting into the cameras purview, creeping along at a pedestrians pace. Tinted windows. Blank license plates. It eased from the frame, and Joey clicked again. The neighboring monitor picked up the Corvette from a different angle, capturing it pulling up to the curb across the street from the tall chain-link fence of the impound lot. It idled opposite the open gate. No sign of movement except fog wisping from the exhaust pipe. Nothing happened. And then more nothing. Joey nudged the footage of both screens forward, the time-stamp numbers flipping like slot-machine reels, closing in on 3:00 A.M. Back on the previous screen, a Prius darted into view on fast-forward and then swept into the new field of vision. Joey slowed down the world as the car turned in to the parking lot. In the dark Corvette, no one moved. It sat there heavily, breathing exhaust, lights gleaming across the impenetrable windshield. Joeys fingers rattled across her Das Keyboard, and then she flicked her chin at yet another screen up on the third row of monitors. A slice of a view onto the impound lot from a neighboring rooftop camera allowed them to track the Prius. It pulled up the main lane carved through the wrecked vehicles, creeping toward the kiosk. The kiosk door was ajar, the big window mirroring a fireworks burst of skyscraper lights. The Prius halted midway up the lane. A man climbed out. Jake Hargreave. No idea he was being watched. He walked over to a totaled Bronco and tried the caved-in drivers door, but it wouldnt budge. He circled to the passenger seat, tugged it open, and ducked inside. Evan sensed movement and pivoted back to the second monitor, which held the parked Corvette in view. He snapped his fingers. Look. A man and a woman finished climbing out of the car. They kept to the shadows on the opposite side of the street, holding tight to the buildings. The man wore a fine-tailored suit that seemed at odds with the sense of menace he projected. The woman, too, was done up, fluffy hair, jeans, a fitted top. They could have been heading to a night at the theater. The mans elbow was bent, a hand held out to the side as if bearing an invisible butler tray. Nothing on his palm. Together they strode a few paces up the sidewalk, presumably to gain a better vantage on Hargreave. They paused, partially illuminated by a streetlight. The man was locked on, a predators stare pointed off frame, staring through the darkness at Hargreave. But thats not what lifted the hair on the back of Evans neck. It was how the man was holding his palm up, as if it contained something incredibly dangerous and delicate. The woman gave a nod, walked calmly back to the idling Corvette, and sat behind the wheel. Ready to take off. The man remained in the outer throw of the streetlight, hand still raised. And then he lowered it to his side. Monitor Three: Hargreave backed out of the truck abruptly. He stared in the opposite direction of the coupletoward the depths of the impound lot. Whats he looking at? Evan asked. Do we have an angle there? Joey shook her head, transfixed. Hargreave stood with his back to the street, staring at someone or something. Head tilted to one side with curiosity. There was an awful calm, the breath-held moment before calamity. Hargreave turned partially. And then he seized, muscles jerking. Blood shot up from his neck. With a hand he tried to stem it, to no avail. He crumpled. And wound up in the crescent pose Evan recognized from the crime-scene photos. The man in the suit observed calmly. Then held his palm upturned in the position hed had it before. Monitor Three: The kiosk door flew shut. It was right at the edge of the cameras purview, so they couldnt see who or what had struck it. The same invisible force that had opened up Hargreaves neck? But no, the man on Screen Two lowered his arm again, frustrated. Glared into the darkness. Something had not gone according to plan. In the Corvette the womans mouth was moving. Her face strained, cords in her neck. Anger? Noconcern. The man jogged back to the Corvette and jumped in. It zipped out as if on fast-forward. Quiet street. Quiet compound lot. A black, icelike sheet spreading beneath Hargreave. Joey cocked back violently in her chair, laced her hands at the nape of her neck. What in the wide world of fuck. Evan couldnt muster the focus to give her a reprimand. Plus, shed expressed his thoughts exactly. What do you thinks up with Merlin? she said. Some super-secret CIA program to harness energy and, like, kill people with invisible rays? Tingling spread beneath Evans face, a sunburn prickling from the Hellfires afterglow. No, he said. What, then? It seemed too far-fetched and yet made perfect sense at the same time. He shook his head. Im not sure yet. We need to dig into this more. Where do we start? she asked. Can you run facial ID on the two from the Corvette? At this distance with grainy footage? She shrugged. They kept to the shadows pretty well. I dont know if well have enough sensor points. Is that a no? She furrowed her brow at the challenge. Have you heard of model-based feature extraction for GRS? No, but if you hum a few bars, I can fake it. You know the only thing missing from this social train wreck of an evening? Even more Lame Dad Humor. I mean, really, X? GRS, he said, steering her back on track. Gait-recognition software. She was typing. Chinas been kicking ass in this arenashocking what you can accomplish with, like, zero regard for privacyand I might have left myself a backdoor in case I ever She trailed off, typing in quick bursts, pulling imagery of the man and woman from one monitor to another, a virtual wire-frame encasing them as they walked. Evan admired her trancelike calm, all that brainpower churning beneath the surface. The screens to Evans right flashed up rap sheets and booking photos. Declan Gentner. Queenie Gentner. A brother-and-sister team out of Philly, laureled with requisite hard-bitten monikers. Theyd been investigated for unlawful detention, homicide, continuing criminal enterprise. A scattering of plea deals for lesser charges like tax evasion and assault. No last-knowns, no current utility bills, no phone numbers on record. They seem pleasant, Joey said. This thing keeps getting weirder and weirder. What the hell did your mom hook you into? Mom. The unfamiliarity of the word hung in the air like something tangible. He didnt have a mom. He had a woman who had given birth to him. And whod led him into a set of circumstances seemingly designed to end the life shed created. He rubbed his eyes hard, spots of light blotching the darkness. So many fronts to tackle. He had to locate Andre Duran as soon as possible. He had a prison meeting with Danny Gallo in a few hours. He had to sit down with Veronica and pry more details out of her. He had to figure out why Hargreave had been killed. He had to determine who the Gentner siblings were working for. He had to uncover who had authorized the use of a Hellfire missile on U.S. soil. Im going to head to Kern Valley Prison, Evan said. Can you look into Hargreave for me? I checked him out a bit, know hes air force. I want know more about his newer postings and deployments, but theyre behind a second DoD firewall. He rubbed his eyes some more. X? Joey sounded concerned. You look tired. Im fine. I mean, just watch out for yourself. This kind of stuffI mean, your mother, childhood shitit hits deeper than a normal mission. It breaks the Fourth. The Fourth Commandment: Never make it personal. He said, Just get me the stuff on Hargreave. She nodded and for once didnt offer a retort. He headed out. Paused outside, keeping the door cracked. Joey didnt notice. She looked over at Dog the dog, who lifted his head, tags jangling on his fancy new collar. Joey said, Whos such a good boy? Whos such a good, good, good boy? A big warm baby voice, devoid of its usual sardonic underlay. That long ridgeback tail thwapped the luxurious bed, a steady beat of affection. Joey ran over and sprawled on top of him, the dog large enough to take her weight. She buried her face in his neck. Who loves you? Who loves you the most in the world? Syrupy and embarrassing. And yet Evan found himself grinning. He eased the door gently shut, strolled to his truck, and started the long drive to prison. 26 Pick Your Poison Terror came black and dense, an oil slick. Declan Gentner woke up into it. It filled his rib cage, compressing his heart, paralyzing his limbs. Couldnt call out, couldnt lift an arm to knock on the hotel wall to beckon his sister in the connecting room. No oxygen in his lungs. Muscles strained to the breaking point. A graininess in the dead-of-night air, pixelated with hyperclarity. Eyes bulging to pop. Sheets already kicked down, briefs clinging to him, air hot-cold on his bare chest. He felt the vein squiggling across the front of his neck surge with his heartbeatstill alive, still aliveand the heat of his face purpling. He strained and strained but couldnt produce a twitch of a single muscle. Like being buried alive inside his own body. And then it began. Someone scraping on the locked door. It bulged inward like rubber, fingernails splintering through, lifting the paint. The door opened, hinges moaning. She was there as always, framed in the doorway. Those long nails silhouetted at her sides, manicured to bitter-housewife perfection. Still couldnt move. But blood was shoving through his veinsstill alive, still alive. Not real. Not. Real. Now she was over the bed, looking down at him. She didnt move, just teleported here when he blinked. A pure-black cutout. A-line dress and hair done up in a bob, even her curves somehow anachronistic. She reached out, fingers splayed. Didnt even have to touch him. She just mimed the clawing. Gouges rose on his arms, his neck. No air. Lungs nothing more than deflated bags. Muscles knotted, the arches of his feet crocheted into stitches. Her head cocked, that neat bob bobbing, the Virginia Slimssanded voice, deep and sexy and rageful: Not going to raise you to be like him. Cigarette burns sizzled to life on the insides of his thighs. Running around to prove hes still a man, and all I get left over is that little-boy temper. She leaned closer yet, those womanly cheekbones, eyes glowing white as bone. No matter how spotless a house I keep. Fingernail scrapes flared to life on his chest No money, two kids underfoot, and still looking like I do. drifting down the hollow of his sucked-tight belly, lower, lower, lower Teach you what he wont learn. At last breath came in a screech. Queenie! Declan choked out the word and then curled up, fetal and shuddering. He heard his big sisters feet hitting the carpet one room over, the connecting door flying open, the heel of her hand striking the light switch. And then he was back in the world, unclouded, the apparition gone. Panic sweat cooled across his ribs. Queenie was on the bed, cradling him, his head limp in her lap. She wore a red silk chemise, and his cheek was against her bare thigh, her breasts pressed to the top of his head, but it wasnt fucked up and weird, it was just comforting, and she was rocking him, rocking him, her lips pursed as she shushed him like shushing a child. They were Irish twins, Declan born eleven months after her, and sometimes it seemed they could communicate telepathically. Like now: Im here. Im here. Im here. The warmth of her flesh, like his own. The sway of her arms. Breathing. Oxygen catching up to his head, his bloodstream. Transforming him from child to adult. He kick-shoved himself so he was leaning against the upholstered headboard. She moved to sit at his side, both of them staring straight ahead. Her fingertips gently traced up and down the underside of his arm, calming him. The Four Seasons on Doheny was one of his favorites, with its plush furnishings and Beverly Hillsobsequious service. He stared at the fringed throw pillows, the textured cream walls, the plush bath sheets visible on the warming rack through the bathroom door and let the luxury soothe him. Let it seep into his bones and warm him back to life. He could taste his breath, sleep-stale and hot. His inhalations still came in jerks. He willed them to slow, to steady out, and finally they did. They sat in silence, breathing. After a time Queenie said, Mom? He nodded. You caught all of that, she said softly. And I caught none. Thank God for that. Sweat beaded on his chest. He smeared it across his slick skin. She wanted to make me different than him. And she did. Cant take the blessing without the curse, right? Queenie nodded. She smelled like sugar, a candied overlay to her nightly lip gloss. Mom did adore me. Declan said, Dad, too, when we saw him. But Mom, she really tucked me under her wing. Flesh of her flesh. Shaped me right down to the thoughts in my head. Shes still in there. Queenie rolled her lips. Sometimes the blessing is the curse. She was right. There was no way to get through a household like theirs without damage. Pick your poison. Pick your medicine. And bury it beneath a polished-clean veneer. Queenies hand slid down to clasp his, and they squeezed their palms together like theyd been doing for twenty-eight years, their knuckles aligned to form a single big fist, two halves of one whole as theyd always been and would always be. Theyd gotten each other through their childhood, day after terrible day. The burner phone rattled loudly against the nightstand, making him start. Never a good sign at 3:42 A.M. He and Queenie exchanged a look. Late-night call. We havent performed adequately. The doctor is unhappy. He picked up the phone, rested it on his bare stomach, clicked to speaker. Yes? Because of your inability to handle the situation, the doctor said, I had to take more drastic measures. A high-visibility strike. Declan cleared his throat. Did you get him? Andrew Duran had to be killed by Declan or Queenies hand, or they wouldnt get the back half of the payment. We couldnt determine in the immediate aftermath, the doctor said. Too much detritus for visibility and too hot for thermal imaging. But the news reported no human remains. Declan exhaled. His jaw ached. I cant risk another strike like that, the doctor said. Too much exposure. We missed our chance. Declan felt Queenies hand warm in his. Why didnt you call us in instead? We couldve handled it. Why didnt you call us in instead? Declan said. We couldve handled it. Why werent you staking out the house? Were laying pipe to get to the other name you tasked us with, Declan said. There are two of us. We cant cover every base. Why not? I do. You demanded a premium to get the job done. Can you deliver the cleanup we negotiated, or do I need to find another contractor? Queenie rustled at his side. Well need more operators. Well need more operators, Declan said. Well have to keep eyes on the wifes place, the kids school, the site of his old house The impound lot. the impound lot and any other prior places of employment. Weve already questioned a few of his former associates, and nothings yielding. We need to sit on every location we can think of till he pops up. And thats gonna take manpower. Youll have whatever you need to end this, the doctor said, and severed the line.

  • Mans Search for Meaning /     (by Viktor E. Frankl, 1946) -   Mans Search for Meaning /
  • Gullivers Travels /   (Swift, 2014)    Gullivers Travels /
  • Pollyanna /  (Porter, 2014)    Pollyanna /
  • Sycamore Row /   (by John Grisham, 2013) -   Sycamore Row /

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