The June Special Guest is Gregg Hurwitz
You can visit Gregg at: http://gregghurwitz.net/
THE REAL THING
by Gregg Hurwitz
Abbud’s head had been blown apart by sniper fire, his scalp laying beside the bone like a bad rug or a misplaced halo. Ebi Al-Mansouri stood frozen in place, bits of window glass embedded in his bearded face, his heart hammering so loudly it seemed to jar his vision. Bullets split the fifth-story flat, raining in from all sides. CNN squawked from the miraculously still-intact TV in the corner, providing horrifying helo-footage of the ambush in progress. “…terrorist cell identified on this block of Hell’s Kitchen, rumored to have biological weapons of mass…” A fresh volley of bullets chiseled chunks of plaster from the ceiling.
Ghassan was leaning propped against the wall, hands pressed to his gut, which had gone black and shiny. A crimson bubble swelled at his lips with his breath. There were bodies everywhere, blood and gray matter swathing the white walls in swoops and flicks.
Ghassan looked at Ebi. “Go,” he croaked. With the word, the bubble at his lips popped. “Take the package.” He fell over.
Ebi leapt over his fallen cell member, his foot striking one of the dropped AK-47s and sending it into a lazy, scraping rotation on the hardwood floor. He dove behind the couch, not yet aware that the onslaught had halted.
At the window, Habid returned fire from a one-knee crouch. A single crack, then a sniper bullet struck his skull with a dull thud. He slumped forward, head and arm draped out the window, his weapon dangling uselessly from his neck.
Ebi raised his head and took in the carnage. Dust danced in the shafts of artificial light, settling over the sticky corpses. An almost peaceful tableau. He crawled forward, plucked the softball-sized package from its foam nesting in a metal briefcase, and flattened against the floor. The ice-blue light of the timer, inset on the steel exterior, was in countdown. Just under twenty-three minutes until it would burst open with terrific force, sending out a deadly mist of aerosol-infectious Ebola-smallpox. A nasty little hybrid—the killer effect of Ebola combined with the communicability of smallpox. Once a pathogen like that got loose in the world, there would be no closing Pandora’s box. The package hummed and vibrated in Ebi’s sweaty hands.
There was no way to stop the countdown. Abbud, the engineer, had made sure of that.
The TV now sat on end on the floor; one of the stand’s legs had splintered out from under it. Words spat from the screen, edged with fuzz. Ebi’s cheek was mashed against the floor; from his terrified sprawl, the picture appeared perfectly upright.
“…so-called Total Containment Vessel summoned to the scene from Fort Dix, New Jersey, is stranded in the flooding at the west mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel. The tunnel has been closed since last Monday, when a suicide bomber blew out an embankment…”
Ebi’s face remained blank as the shot cut away to a six-foot metal globe, lashed with thick metal chains to the bed of a massive truck. The vehicle was stranded in a wash of murky liquid at the Weehawken side of the Tunnel. The Total Containment Vessel, with its 1.5-inch high-strength, high-impact steel, was designed for the express purpose of sustaining a massive explosion in its belly without leaking a puff of air.
America’s last hope for preventing a deadly epidemic was spinning its wheels in the sludge of a neighboring state.
Gathered around the TCV was a phalanx of emergency response vehicles, their lights flashing meekly into the thickening dusk. FBI agents gathered around the sawhorses, pacing, shouting orders into radios and barking into cell phones. A gathering of some of America’s most valuable terrorist fighters.
The building shook as the front door smashed open and legions of invading boots tramped up the stairs. The ice-blue timer near Ebi’s nose was now at twenty-two minutes.
He rolled to the door, which had been picked apart by bullets, and into the hall. The footsteps were louder now; it seemed any second a torrent of agents would round the corner and riddle him with bullets. He popped to his feet and sprinted down the hall, gripping the package tightly so the sleek ball wouldn’t slip from his grasp. In email correspondence, they’d referred to the package only by its ironically understated code name—Cherry Bomb—but someone had cracked their formula nonetheless.
The hall’s terminating window looked out on the rusty fire escape of the neighboring building. The drop stretched sixty feet to concrete. Ebi stuffed the package in the pocket of his jacket, praying it wouldn’t fall out. His hands trembled as he slid the pane open and placed one sneaker on the ledge. Agents spilled into the hall behind him, shouting and shuffling, then a cop looked up from the alley below, shouted and grabbed his gun.
Ebi was airborne before he realized he’d jumped. He felt a bullet strike him under the arm and he shrieked, spun around midair, and crashed into the fire escape across the alley. Bullets were pinging off the metal around him. He pulled himself up and through the door, running down another hallway, no time to check his wound.
Another window, another jump, another fire escape, this time with no one in the alley below. As he dashed down the corridor, a woman returning home with groceries yelped and flattened herself against her door, keys jangling unturned in the lock. Ebi half-fell, half-ran down the stairs, taking them three, four at a time. He stumbled through the lobby and out onto the street, chest lurching. A mass of flashing lights illuminated the neighboring block.
He turned the opposite direction, limping now, and ran toward 9th Ave. A stream of blood tickled his ribs, soaking his new jeans at the waistline. He reached back inside his jacket as if grabbing a gun from a shoulder holster and pressed his palm against his slick flesh. A hole in his lateral muscle, just beneath his armpit. Exit wound a few inches to the back. Not fatal, but he was losing blood fast. A passing bicycle messenger took note of his blood-drenched shirt and veered sharply out of his way. Ebi wished he could change his shirt, but with eighteen minutes on the timer, he’d just have to remember to stay cool, don’t grimace, don’t smile, just keep your head down and walk. Lessons he’d learned all too well as an Arab man in America.
A hotdog vendor had his radio cranked high. A group of drunk college kids in blazers and ties were gathered around the cart, hotdogs forgotten in their hands. Listening to the newscast.
“—report some progress draining the flooding at the Lincoln Tunnel, but little chance the biological warfare response equipment will make it through any time soon. In retrospect, the GW bridge or Holland Tunnel would have been better—”
One of them looked up, knocked his buddy with the back of his hand, and pointed at Ebi.
“—Arab guy with the blood.”
“—probably one of them who—”
One of them raised a cell phone to his head.
Ebi started jogging away, though his side had thawed from numbness and was beginning to ache. A bunch of people had gathered around an electronics store window, where twenty or so TVs were blaring diverse news coverage of the event. An attractive blonde anchor spoke from the loudest TV.
“—one cell member, believed to be injured, is at large.”
Three burly guys took note of Ebi limping by. Heads swiveled to the screens, then back to him. One of them wore a stretched T-shirt with an American flag, scruffy hair protruding from beneath a Yankees cap.
“There’s the motherfucker!” he yelled.
Ebi bolted, almost knocking over a thin-necked girl zoning out on her walkman. He turned down an alley with a maze of dripping pipes overhead. The three men were in pursuit, shouting at him; he could hear their shoes splashing through puddles.
“We’re gonna beat your brown ass.”
Big as his pursuers were, the throbbing in Ebi’s side slowed him to almost their pace. And then they were gaining, the drumroll beat of their footsteps quickening behind him.
The alley dead-ended in a chain link fence. He had only a few moments to register blind panic at the prospect of being torn apart in an unlit alley before he struck the fence hard, almost falling into it. He summoned strength from somewhere deep inside himself and climbing, yelling a wavering animal cry at the screeching pain in his side. One of the men leapt and grabbed his shoe and Ebi shrieked and yanked. His foot pulled free of the shoe. He rolled over the fence top and fell the ten feet to the ground, landing on all four, palms and knees striking asphalt. The package rolled free of his pocket, striking the fence and rebounding toward him. He scooped it up with trembling hands. No cracks. 15:23 and counting.
The men were cursing at him, their faces lit with rage and hatred. One of them was climbing the fence, which bowed under his weight. Another spit at Ebi, the gob just missing his cheek.
He thought to himself calmly in Arabic. Get up, Ebi. Keep running. The stakes are too high for you to give up. You’ll get it done, Inshallah.
He rose and limped a few yards down the alley, his wet sock slapping ground. A back kitchen door was open and he ducked through, colliding with a sous-chef who sent a tossed salad airborne. He moved through the restaurant, now grunting against the pain. Utensils clinked to plates; white faces pivoted. He made it out onto the sidewalk again. Sirens were screaming, but he couldn’t tell if they were approaching. He glanced at a street sign to get his bearings—38th.
He staggered forward, moving toward 9th, leaving drops of blood on the concrete. He’d given up any hope of maintaining low visibility; people parted before him. Most stared, all blind hate and disgust. Some had likely heard the news broadcast; some had not—it probably wouldn’t change most of their reactions to a bleeding Arab. He was deep in enemy territory; he did his best to keep to the side of the street.
He thought about his childhood, moving from Saudi Arabia to Manhattan at the age of five. The schoolyard beatings, the tauntings in bars, the rousting by cops when he crossed into the wrong neighborhood. His father, an intensely patriotic and appreciative man, kept a copy of the US Constitution on the refrigerator door; Ebi had read a line from it every time he got a soda or a snack. This is the greatest country in the world, his father would tell him. You have no idea of this country’s greatness. He’d listen respectfully, usually hiding a bruise beneath his T-shirt or the latest hate note in his school bag.
As a young man, he’d returned to Saudi Arabia, and from there, he’d found himself winding his way deeper and deeper into religious fanaticism, his journey ending at the Farmada terrorist training camp outside of Jelalabad. It had been hard winning their trust, convincing them he really was true. He’d done so at gun point—on firing ranges and obstacle courses, never letting them smell his fear. Once, he’d stood in the middle of a TV transmission of Bush and fired at the screen to a roar of spontaneous applause.
Jelalabad had been a trial and a pleasure, knowing the great events the future stored for him. Knowing how necessary he was for a great cause. He remembered his time there as a blur of images and sensations—rice with dates and raisins, brilliant gold and red sunsets, dust so thick he could feel it coating his lungs. One day the wind had whipped so hard it had caused a brown-out; he’d huddled in a cave reeking of chappali kebab, knowing that someday it would all be worth it.
By the time Ebi reached 9th Ave, he was lightheaded and knew he was close to fainting. He couldn’t run much farther. A glance at the package showed he had just under ten minutes now before the plague was unleashed.
As his breathing grew panicked, his thoughts stayed calm. You gotta make it, Ebi. You gotta catch yourself a ride.
A cab had been left at the curb, its driver a few steps away buying a knish. Ebi slid behind the wheel and pulled out. The driver dropped his food and gave chase on foot, but Ebi screeched across the street, crashed through the sawhorses blocking off the Lincoln Tunnel, and shot into the darkness.
The package’s vibrating quickened in his pocket. Overhead, great air ducts swept gusts to two states. The tunnel’s emptiness was hypnotic—nothing but the hum of the wheels, the lights flying past, abandoned construction equipment in the slow lane. His head felt even lighter and he cursed himself to stay conscious. Not much longer; his mission was almost complete.
His blood had almost soaked through the side of his jacket. He removed the package and set it on the passenger seat. The timer was now at five minutes. He started the Salah prayer, softly, in his native tongue.
His vision spotted, then cleared. Up ahead, police lights flashed off a pool of waist-deep water that claimed the whole west entrance to the tunnel. At least twenty FBI agents, six NYPD units—half a damn joint task force standing around helplessly, watching the truck’s tires spin listlessly in the mud and water.
Ebi slowed down, his sweat-drenched hands slipping on the wheel and causing the cab to skip the raised curb and smash into the wall of the tunnel. The package rolled from the passenger seat onto the floor. He reached for it, but was having trouble seeing—he realized through a cacophony of thoughts that he’d struck his forehead on the dash and was bleeding into his eyes. His fingers grasped the deadly steel ball.
He kicked open his door, pulled himself out, and found himself facing nearly fifty gun barrels across the twenty foot stretch of water. He held the package up over his head with both hands as he waded into the enormous pool, his cries drowned out by myriad shouted commands. He emerged from the water, screaming to be heard. Two agents rushed him, one striking him in the face with the butt of his gun. Ebi went to a knee, then rose, then Harry Williams appeared from nowhere like an angel, his FBI task-force windbreaker fluttering; he was yelling, “Goddamnit. Back off! Back the hell off him.”
Ebi rose and staggered toward the Total Containment Vessel, still moored to the stranded truck, shouting to the attending EOD tech, “Open the hatch!” The timer was inside of two minutes.
The tech climbed up on the truck’s bed and swung open the door in the side of the massive steel globe. Ebi limped over and tossed the package inside. It bounced twice, rattling and echoing, and the tech slammed the hatch shut and secured it. Ebi leaned over, hands on his knees. The men waited, breathing together, staring with wide eyes at the big metal ball.
A loud crack as the package detonated. The TCV rocked on its moorings, snapping one of its anchoring chains. It settled back into place. Intact.
A massive collective sigh. A chorus of celebratory cries.
Harry walked over to Ebi, and helped straighten him up. “Jesus Christ. Two years counterintelligence and you’re alive.” The two men embraced, Harry murmuring, “You made it, you made it, you made it.”
Ebi nodded, his breath starting to hitch in his throat. “Moshallah,” he managed.
Harry hugged him tighter. The cops and other agents were standing around, watching with shy smiles and budding comprehension.
Harry released him, but Ebi clung to him even tighter, knowing he would fall if he let go. Harry shouldered his weight, ducking under his good arm, and started walking him to the waiting ambulance.
“It’s good to have you back, friend,” he said.
Gregg Hurwitz is the critically acclaimed, internationally bestselling author of 10 thrillers. His 11th, YOU'RE NEXT, launches in July. His books have been nominated for numerous awards, shortlisted for best novel of the year by International Thriller Writers, nominated for CWA’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, chosen as feature selections for all four major literary book clubs, honored as Book Sense Picks, and translated into eighteen languages.
Currently a consulting producer on ABC’s “V,” he has written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and ESPN, developed TV series for Warner Bros. and Lakeshore, written Wolverine, Punisher, and others for Marvel, and published numerous academic articles on Shakespeare. He has taught fiction writing in the USC English Department, and guest lectured for UCLA, and for Harvard in the United States and around the world. In the course of researching his thrillers, he has sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs, swam with sharks in the Galápagos, and gone undercover into mind-control cults.
Hurwitz grew up in the Bay Area. While completing a BA from Harvard (’95) and a master’s from Trinity College, Oxford in Shakespearean tragedy (’96), he wrote his first novel. He was the undergraduate scholar-athlete of the year at Harvard for his pole-vaulting exploits, and played college soccer in England, where he was a Knox fellow. He now lives in L.A. where he continues to play soccer, frequently injuring himself.
COMING IN JULY 2011:
You're Next is an:
Instant International Bestseller
“A first-rate thriller.”
“Hurwitz turns in another excellent performance in You're Next, keeping Mike (and the reader) on edge, wondering what is happening to him and how far it will escalate. Highly recommended to Hurwitz’s many faithful readers and to fans of Linwood Barclay, Harlen Coben, and Lisa Gardner.”
“Hurwitz masterfully provokes feelings of extreme dread.”
“You’re Next is an emotionally evocative, page-turning exploration of human corruption at its very worst. Chilling and riveting!”
See all of Gregg Hurwitz's books