Monday, July 27, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Monday, July 13, 2009
I snapped awake at 2:18 a.m., the bloodshot numerals staring at me from the nightstand. For years on end, I woke up at this exact time every night, regardless of what time zone I was in. But after seventeen years I had just started sleeping through the night. I had finally outrun the old fears. Or so I had convinced myself.
Remote sirens warbled in the night. At first I figured they were in my head, the sound track to the dream. But the distant wail got louder instead of fading. I hadn't awakened on my own.
I ran through what I remembered from the previous evening—the presidential debate had closed out prime time, and after the commentariat finished yammering, I'd fallen asleep watching a high-speed chase on the news. A guy in a beat-to-shit Jeep Cherokee, hauling ass down the 405, a legion of black-and-whites drawn behind him like a parachute.
I blinked hard, inhaled, and looked around. Same Lemon Pledge scent of my third-floor condo. My sweat imprint on the sheets and pillow. Breeze rattling palm fronds against my balcony in the next room.
And a watery blue light undulating across the bedroom ceiling.
I sat up.
The TV, across the room on the steamer trunk, was off. But the distant sirens continued.
And then, along with the light on the ceiling, the sirens abruptly stopped.
I threw off the sheets and padded across the carpet, stepping over a discarded Sports Illustrated and sloughed-off dress shirts from the job I'd left a week ago. In my plaid pajama bottoms, I ventured into the all-purpose living room, heading for the balcony. The police lights had flickered through the locked sliding glass door. Halfway to it I froze.
A thick black nylon rope was dangling from the lip of the roof, its end coiled on my balcony. Motionless.
No longer groggy, I opened the sliding glass door and stepped silently out onto the balcony, rolling the screen shut behind me. My balcony with its Brady Bunch orange tiles overlooked a narrow Santa Monica street populated by other generic apartment buildings. Streetlights were sporadic. I confronted the rope for a quiet moment, then looked around, expecting who knows what.
Bulky shadows of cars lined the gutters. An SUV was double-parked, blocking the street. No headlights, no dome light. Tinted windows. But a huff of smoke from the exhaust pipe. A sedan, dark and silent, wheeled around the turn and halted, idling behind the SUV.
Terror reached through seventeen years and set my nerves tingling.
I squinted to see if I could make out a police light bar mounted on either roof. In my peripheral vision, the tail of the rope twitched. The roof creaked. Before I had a chance to think, a spotlight blazed up from the SUV, blinding me. A zippering sound came from above, so piercing that my teeth vibrated. Then a dark form pendulumed down at me, two boots striking me in the chest. I left my feet, flying back through the screen, which ripped free almost soundlessly. I landed on my shoulder blades, hard, the wind knocked out of me. The blackclad figure, outfitted with a SWAT-like jumpsuit and an assault rifle, filled the screen frame with its bits of torn mesh. Even through the balaclava, the guy looked somehow sheepish—he hadn't seen me beneath the overhang before he'd jumped.
"Shit," he said. "Sorry."
He'd made an expert landing, despite the collision, and was aiming the rifle at my face.
I guppied silently, a knot of cramped muscles still holding my lungs captive, and rolled to my side. He stepped astride me as I curled around the hot pain in my chest.
A hammering of boots in the hall matched my heartbeat, so forceful it jarred my vision, and then the front door flew directly at me, knocked from the hinges and dead bolt as if a hurricane had hit the other side. It skipped on end, landed flat on the carpet with a whump, and slid to within an inch of my nose.
As I writhed between the assailant's boots, fear gave way to panic. Three men flipped me and proned me out, my face mashing carpet, my front tooth driving into my bottom lip. Gloved hands ran up my sides, checking my ankles, my crotch. More black-clad forms hurtled through the doorway, aiming assault rifles in all directions, a few men streaking off to the bedroom. I heard my folding closet doors slam back on their tracks, the shower curtain raked aside.
"Nick Horrigan? Are you Nick Horrigan?!"
My chest released, and I finally drew in a screeching breath. And another. I rolled onto my back, stared up at the one face not covered by a hood and goggles. Lean, serious features, a slender nose bent left from a break, gray hair shoved back from a side part. The salt-and-pepper stubble darkening the jaw matched neither the neat knot of the standard-issue red tie nor the high and tight haircut.
"Are you Nick Horrigan?"
I nodded, still fighting to draw in a proper breath. A warm, salty trickle ran from my split lip down my chin. The other men—fifteen of them?—had spread through the condo, dumping drawers, knifing open the couch cushions, overturning chairs. I heard flatware tumble onto the linoleum. My clock radio blared on—a jingle for antifungal ointment—and then I heard someone curse, and it abruptly cut off.
The gray-haired man frowned at me, then surveyed the others, radiating authority. "The hell's the matter with him, Sever?"
"I hit him in the chest when I rappelled from the roof." A faint southern accent—Maryland or Virginia, maybe. The guy tugged off his hood, revealing a square face further accented by a military-looking flattop. He was much wider than the boss man crouching over me. Younger, too—probably in his mid-forties, though his creased tan aged him up a bit. His bearing suggested he was the alpha dog among the jumpsuits.
The boss returned his gaze to me. "Nick Horrigan, born 6/12/73? Son of Agent Frank Durant?"
"Stepson," I managed.
He shoved a photograph in my face. A man shown from the chest up, wearing a blue blazer and the scowl of the unphotogenic. A wide mouth and slack lips lent him a slightly wild quality. His blond hair was slicked back, the camera catching furrows left by the comb.
"What's the last contact you had with this man?"
"I don't know this guy," I said.
"Then you've been in phone or e-mail contact with him."
I caught a worm's-eye view of a man with tactical goggles peering into the empty Cup o' Noodles I'd left on the kitchen counter. The photo moved abruptly in front of my nose again. "I told you," I said. "I don't know who the hell he is."
The boss grabbed my arms and tugged me to a sitting position. Over his shoulder I could see my framed Warner Bros. still, sitting shattered at the base of the wall. Yosemite Sam was looking back at me with an expression of matching bewilderment. Glancing down, I stared numbly at the boot-size red marks on my bare chest. "Who are you?" the man asked, pulling my focus back to him.
My voice still sounded tight. "You already know. I'm Nick Horrigan."
"No, I mean what do you do?"
"I just left a job at a charity group," I said.
One of the guys behind me guffawed.
Another appeared in the doorway of my bedroom, holding my now-empty nightstand drawer by the handle. "I got nothing."
The boss swiveled to face a guy wanding the kitchen with a magnetometer. The guy shook his head. "Sorry, Mr. Wydell."
"Okay." Wydell ran a hand through his gray hair. It fell back precisely into the side part. His exacting demeanor fit his professional bearing—the sole suit among rugged operators. "Okay. Get him a shirt."
A T-shirt flew from the vicinity of my bedroom, hitting me in the head.
"Put this on. Let's go."
My Pac-Man shirt. Great. I tugged it on, and two guys hoisted me to my feet. Figuring I'd want ID wherever I was going, I grabbed my money clip from the kitchen counter and stuffed it into the floppy pocket of my drawstring pajama pants.
"Let's go, let's go," Wydell said. "You got sneakers, something?"
I stopped moving, and the two men commanding me to the door stumbled into me. "Can you please show me a badge?" I said, though I pretty much figured.
Wydell's lips pinched. His hand darted behind his lapel, withdrew his commission book with its recessed badge. Hunched eagle and flag, rendered in gold. U.S. SECRET SERVICE. His commission was behind plastic inside the leather book. JOSEPH WYDELL, SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE. He was from the Los Angeles Regional Office, which meant he wasn't on the protection detail of a particular politician but oversaw general intelligence in Southern California. Why was the head of the Secret Service L.A. office on site at a raid instead of waiting back in his air-conditioned office?
"What do you think I did?" I asked.
Someone handed him my sneakers, and he thumped them against my chest. I took them. He hustled me out into the hall, Sever in front of us, another agent behind, one at each side. They held the diamond formation as we barreled toward the stairs.
Mrs. Plotkin stood in her doorway in a white spa bathrobe, her copper hair heaped high, showing off white roots. She looked worried—one of her favorite expressions.
"Get back in your apartment, ma'am," Sever said, the accent more pronounced now.
We were approaching fast, but she held her ground. "Where are you taking him?"
"I'm okay, Evelyn," I said, wiping blood from my chin.
"What did he do?"
"Out of the way, now."
We reached her, and Sever straight-armed her back into her apartment. Her head snapped forward, and the glasses she wore around her neck on a beaded chain flew up, trailing her fall like the tail of a kite. As we whisked past, I caught a flash of her lying shocked on her fuzzy rug, glasses tangled in her hair, the door pressing against her side. It was just a shove, nothing drastic, but even a portion of a man's strength applied brusquely to a woman in her sixties had a certain grotesqueness to it.
I tried to stop, but the agents propelled me forward. "Hey," I said to Sever's broad back, "let me at least make sure she's okay."
The agents kept moving me along. No time for retorts or even threats. That scared me even more.
I stumbled down the stairs, trying to keep pace, nearly dropping my sneakers. The lobby was empty save the vinyl couches and smoky mirrors, and beyond, the street was lit up like day. Police cars, spotlights, men in dark suits talking into their wrists. A few spectators, hastily dressed, stood on the opposite sidewalk, straining on tiptoes, waiting to see who would emerge.
We burst through the doors and stopped. I hopped on one foot, then the other, pulling on my Pumas.
"Cut the goddamned spotlights," Wydell said. "This isn't a fashion shoot." The spotlights clicked off with a bass echo, and suddenly the night was darker than it should have been. Wydell grabbed the arm of another agent. "Where is it?"
"It needs to be here now."
I said, loudly, "Are you gonna tell me what the hell is going on?"
All of a sudden, a bass thrumming filled the night, as much a vibration as a sound, and then a Steven Spielberg glow came over the rooftops, turning the palms a fiery yellow. On the sidewalk a little girl white-knuckled her father's hand, her mouth open in sleepy disbelief.
A Black Hawk loomed into view, massive and somehow futuristic in this context, on my street. The wind from the rotors buffeted the crowd, snapped at the bushes, pasted my clothes to me. Wydell's tie pulled clear of his jacket and stood on end. The helicopter banked and set down magisterially on the asphalt. The spectators stared at me in expectation.
Wydell grabbed my arm in a vise grip and started moving me toward the helicopter. The sight of that waiting Black Hawk finally broke me out of shock, or at least helped me catch up to myself, to what was happening. I jerked free. "Wait a minute. You can't just take me. What's happening here?"
I had to follow him closely to hear his words over the noise of the rotors.
He was shouting. "A terrorist has penetrated the nuclear power plant at San Onofre and is threatening to blow it up."
I felt a sudden hollowness at my core, that rushing emptiness I'd felt only twice before: clutching stupidly at Frank while he died and watching live footage as that second plane hit the tower.
"Okay," I said. "Jesus. But what's that got to do with me?"
Wydell stopped, poised, one leg up on the skid of the chopper. "He says he'll only talk to you."
The foregoing is excerpted from Trust No One by Gregg Hurwitz. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from St. Martin's Press, 175 5th Avenue NY, NY 10010.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
I’ve remarked from time to time that doing research for my books is my form of continuing education. But it’s the kind of education where you’ve already fulfilled all your core requirements and now you get to choose whichever electives you want. Ever been interested in Pop Art? Sure. How about speaking !Kung? No problem—there’s an eleven a.m. seminar–you can even sleep in. And after lunch, you can take that old standby, underwater basket weaving (I know it’s proverbial and all, but was it ever real? And for that matter, why introduce the water? Is it not accomplishment enough merely to weave baskets?).
But we digress.
The point is, one aspect of writing books that I love is that I get to chose any topic that’s ever interested me—no matter (especially?) how perverse and off the beaten path, and dive into it. Here’s my top ten hit list for some notable adventures I’ve had in pursuit of a plot twist.
10. I’m not a biker dude. I don’t have the facial hair for it (after the Don-Johnson phase, I get too itchy; I’ve been told that this complaint doesn’t go over well on one’s application to the Bandidos). But for Troubleshooter, I knew that if I were to create my own outlaw biker gang, I’d have to know what I was talking about. I flew to Miami to meet with one of the only guys who has gone undercover into outlaw gangs for a long spell (almost a decade) and lived. And in talking to him, it was evident how much he loved bikes. I realized I’d have to get on one of those things—not just a motorcycle, but a big ole Harley hog—to get the vibe down. So I had a buddy with proper licensure rent one for me (let’s just keep that little detail between you and I, shall we?) and wobbled my way around the block. After a few goes, I took to the open road, zipping along the biker runs in the Malibu canyons and hitting the biker stops that ultimately appear in the book.
9. Last Shot opens with a classic locked-room prison escape from Terminal Island. I had one of my deputy marshal buddies drive me down there so I could poke around the prison and plan my escape. But when we arrived, the place was on a security lockdown. So we snuck around the perimeter (at times, when we were feeling more precise, we even sneaked) with me jotting notes and poking sensors. It didn’t take long for security to pull up on us. I was glad one of us had a badge.
8. A bunch of my SEAL buddies were teaching a SWAT entry course out in the hills of Ontario (not that Ontario, the other one). And I’d wanted to get on semi-automatic weapons for a while. So they invited me out. I rolled up on the range and hopped out—there were two SEAL instructors dressed in jeans and skull T-shirts and about three hundred guys in full SWAT gear pointing their tactical goggles my direction. Needless to say, I felt put on the spot. So I got on an MP5 and my buddy had one of the SWAT guys show me the proper form, sighting, etc. And everyone was snickering at the poor guy until I finally asked what was up. They thought—because of my poor attire and disheveled appearance—that I was actually another SEAL who the instructors had brought in just to mess with the SWAT guys. So everyone thought that I was faking not knowing how to operate the weapon. Holding an MP5 and having hundreds of SWAT-geared men urging you—“Come on. Quit messin’ around. Just fire the thing already”—is the kind of peer-pressure one isn’t taught about in junior high school pamphlets.
7. Working on the Tim Rackley books, I became pretty close with the US Marshals Service crew in downtown LA. The deputies have been terrific, taking me to the range, on ride-alongs, introducing me to the Explosive Detection Canine Team (which, in my rough draft, I referred to as the Explosive Canine Team, which calls to mind lobbing exploding dogs at fugitives). I’d finished a long day of pestering everyone with various questions and we’d wound up down in the basement where some of the guys were practicing hand-to-hand combat. And one of the deputies (who was slightly and understandably chaffing at that point about my intrusion into his work day) asked if I would volunteer. Volunteer. Sure. It’s a learning experience, right? Let’s just say that I had a roommate in college who was 6’6”, 280, and a wrestler (an Ohio wrestler for those of you who know what that means). And when said roommate played let’s-make-Hurwitz-a-ragdoll, his facility at tying me into knots paled in comparison to the indignities visited upon me in that basement. By the end, it felt like a V.C. Andrews novel.
6. My second thriller, Minutes to Burn, takes place in Galápagos. And I had to get some very specific data about a species of praying mantis that is prevalent there (don’t ask—it beats underwater basket weaving). The esteemed Darwin Station located just outside of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz was pretty much the only place that had what I needed. But access can be a bit tricky. So I became a visiting scientist for the day, talking my way into the place on fake credentials so I could pore over a few of their studies. Great fun and the easiest Ph.D. I ever didn’t earn.
5. For Do No Harm, I had to get into some nitty gritty cadaver details with a lab tech at the UCLA Medical Center. But the only time slot he had was—literally—as he was carving up a body, parting it out for various departments (“joints to Ortho, feet to Podiatry.”) So I stood there, notepad in hand, interrogating away as he lowered the Sawzall reciprocating blade again and again. I wish I’d worn different shoes.
4. I was trying to work up a particular explosion and despite numerous conversations with my consultant in demolition breaching, I was having trouble visualizing it. Finally, frustrated, he said, “I’m coming over.” He brought a few other SEALs, wedged me hidden in the back of his truck, and drove me onto a demolition range. At which he promptly blew up a car. “There,” he said, pointing. “See?”
3. In one of my screenplays, I have a scene that takes place in a stunt plane. Only problem: I’d never been in a stunt plane. Other problem: I’m not a bad flyer, but I wouldn’t exactly say I love flying. I have been known to grab an armrest from time to time during bouts of rough turbulence. So stunts planes were something I considered a little out of my area of interest. But I wanted to get the sensation down. So I hooked up with a friend of a friend and wound up on the tarmac at the Santa Monica Airport, listening to elaborate instructions for bailing out in case of emergency. (One thing you don’t like hearing pre-boarding? “Put one foot here and one foot there and then jump.”) Doing barrel rolls out over the Pacific, I have to say, was a brand of beauty greater than what I would have imagined.
2. For The Program, I did a great deal of research into mind control. It’s one of the most fascinating topics I’ve covered, and a perfect example of using books to explore something I’d always been darkly curious about. I read everything I could get my hands on—techniques used during wartime (technically brainwashing, not mind-control, but the same principles apply), talking to survivors, interviewing psychologists. But I got to a certain point where I realized that I had to experience all this first-hand. So I went undercover into mind-control cults. (People often ask, “How ever did you find a cult?” and those people inevitably live outside of Los Angeles). I participated in an eight-hour lock-in, and underwent some cult testing. Of everything I’ve done, it’s the only experience I had to pull back from in my fiction because if I wrote the personalities and techniques the way they really are, the suspension of disbelief would be too great.
1. With The Crime Writer, I had something of a shift in the tone of my books, from a more action tech-heavy approach to one geared primarily toward suspense. Taking a common experience or setting and turning it slightly on its head creates a different type of drama, anxiety, and paranoia, and that’s a direction I’ve been increasingly interested in heading. In keeping with my new approach, in Trust No One, there is a unique and bizarre restaurant that Nick Horrigan visits. I don’t want to say what makes it such a crazy culinary experience since that would give away too much, but I will say that my wife took me there and—like Nick—I had no idea what I was getting into. Until I was in. It was very fun and prodigiously cool, and I hope the reader has the same experience of surprise and excitement as I did when she enters the restaurant and prepares to dine.