Behind the Book

About a year ago, I got an out-of-the-blue call from Robert Ludlum’s agent.  He’d read Darkness Falls and thought I might be the right novelist to fire up Ludlum’s excellent Covert-One series again.  Needless to say, I was pretty surprised and also really flattered.  Like so many other people, I grew up devouring Ludlum’s books, and he was one of a number of writers who inspired me to do what I do.

You’d think I’d have just accepted on the spot, but the idea of stepping into the shoes of one of the fathers of the modern thriller was a little unnerving.  So I said I’d call back after I’d had a chance to study the series and make sure I could create a novel that Mr. Ludlum would have wanted to put his name on.

As luck would have it, I’d had an idea bouncing around in the back of my head for a few years about a parasitic infection that drives people insane.  It turned out to be a perfect platform for the complex twists and edge-of-your-seat action that made Ludlum a household name.

In the end, the book turned out even better than I’d hoped.  The Covert-One characters had rich backgrounds that made them fun to work with and after more than a decade of writing, I discovered that I could still learn a few tricks from one of the genre’s masters.

Excerpt One

Northern Uganda

November 12 1739 Hours GMT+3

The winding, grassy track that Lt. Craig Rivera finally stopped at the edge of was a good fifteen feet wide, but seemed to have been created specifically to be difficult to spot from the air. He slid fully beneath the bush next to him and looked down the path to the south, seeing nothing but a lone cow grazing on a small patch of flowers.

“I found the road,” he said quietly into his throat mike.  “We’ll parallel it heading…  Wait.  Stand by.  I’ve got activity.”

A young girl appeared around the corner, naked except for a three-foot long chain hanging from her neck. Her breathless wailing was shockingly loud as she ran and Rivera tried unsuccessfully to make sense of the words she got out between sobs.

The cow broke from its daze as she passed, but instead of watching her, it looked back the way she’d come.  Dust billowed from its back as it stamped and bucked nervously, seemingly uncertain what to do.

Rivera remained completely motionless, wanting the girl to be well out of sight before he broke cover. Instead of passing by, though, she crashed into the jungle less than ten feet from him and began desperately pulling back the edges of bushes as though she was searching for something.

A moment later, what she had been fleeing materialized around the bend in the road about a hundred yards to the south.

It looked like the entire population of one of the tiny local villages, each person sprinting so desperately that they could barely stay upright.  Blood coated their faces, mixing with sweat and fanning out across their clothing and skin.  Adult men and women were in front, with children and the elderly lagging a bit—physically slower, but apparently just as motivated.

“Hostiles coming from the south,” Rivera said quietly into his radio.

The leaves above him parted and he grabbed the girl, pulling her to the ground and clamping a hand over her mouth. She squirmed beneath him, but her size and exhaustion made her easy to control.

Using his free hand, he touched his mike again. “Thirty-five, maybe forty total.  No weapons visible.  Pull back.  We’re going to try to walk away from this fight.”

He began sliding from beneath the bush but then froze when he saw the cow bolt for the jungle.  At least five of the people coming up the road changed their trajectory and hit the frightened animal broadside, knocking it off its feet. Rivera barely noticed when the girl squirmed from beneath him and started pulling on his sleeve, trying to get him to run.

The cow struggled, trying to get back to its feet but the weight of the people on top of it kept it pinned on its side.  They screamed in rage and frustration as they tore into the helpless beast with fists, feet, and teeth.  A man wearing nothing but camo shorts got kicked powerfully in the face and Rivera assumed he was dead when he collapsed in the dirt.  A moment later, though he was crawling unsteadily back toward the weakening animal.

Rivera leapt to his feet, grabbing the girl and starting to run back the way he’d come.  They hadn’t made it more than ten yards when he heard the unmistakable crash of people entering the jungle behind.

A muzzle flashed in front of him and then another and another.  The reassuring crack of gunfire drowned out the otherworldly screeching of his pursuers and he felt the hint of panic that had overtaken him dissipate.

His boys never missed.  Never.

Finding a defensible position between two large trees, he stopped and turned, taking in the entire scene through the sights of his AK.

No one was chasing him anymore—they had been distracted by the more obvious fixed positions of his men and were going down left and right as they ran into withering fire.  Their compatriots didn’t seem to notice, running past—and sometimes over—the fallen, focused only on the men shooting at them.  In some cases, the people who had been hit didn’t seem to understand what had happened.  They tried repeatedly to get up before finally succumbing to a wound that should have dropped them like a sack of potatoes.

His second in command had four people bearing down on him from fifteen yards away.  One was a child no more than six years old and another a woman with what appeared to be a badly broken arm. Rivera ignored them and trained his gun on one of the two uninjured adult men in front, taking a gulp of air and holding it before pulling the trigger.  The target went down but the other three got through, colliding with his old friend in an impact that reverberated through the trees.

Rivera tried to get another clear shot, but it was impossible—all he could see was a jumble of flesh, the flash of a knife, the color of blood. There was nothing he could do. His friend—a man he’d fought and trained with for more than five years—was never going to leave this place…

Excerpt Two

Outside Kampala, Uganda

November 21 1626 Hours GMT+3

Peter Howell smiled casually at a group of comically over-armed men staring dumbfounded at them as they cruised by. Ahead, an elaborate archway led through the stone wall they’d been paralleling for the last few minutes.  By the time they stopped in front of it, there were at least three mounted machines guns and no fewer than thirty small arms trained on the aging taxi. A man in fatigues came cautiously toward them, looking over the sights of an Israeli made Tavor assault rifle and screaming unintelligible instructions.

They were forced from the vehicle and Smith grabbed Sarie’s arm to keep her from being dragged away, trying to position himself so that she was shielded between him and the car.

“Is there a plan here?” Smith shouted over the hood, not sure if he was more angry with Howell or himself.  “Or did you just pick today to commit suicide?”

“A bit of shopping,” came the Brit’s enigmatic answer.

A young man in a tattered Smurfs T-shirt gave Smith a hard shove and he pushed back, sending the man to the ground.  “Back the hell off!”

The African jumped to his feet, clawing for the machine gun hanging across his chest and Smith lunged for him.  Someone to his left threw an elbow and he swung around it, keeping his eyes locked on the compact Heckler & Koch lining up on him.

Then it all stopped.  There was a brief shout from the direction of the archway and the young man backed away, careful to keep his hands well away from his weapon.

The crowd began to disburse and the guards lost interest in them, going back to surveying the people moving back and forth in the dusty road.

“Peter!  My good friend,” came a heavily accented voice.  What remained of the mob scurried out of the way of a tall African striding toward Howell.

“It warms my heart to see you again,” he said, pumping the Brit’s hand.  “I never dreamed I would.”

“Good to see you, too, Janani.  I’d like to introduce you to my friends Sarie and Jon.”

The African motioned toward them.  “Come.  We must get out of this horrible sun.”

Smith looked over at Sarie and shrugged, taking her arm before following the two chatting men through the arch.

“You’ve gotten fat,” Howell said.

“And you’ve gotten old, my brother.  I live a good life.  I have many wives and children.  How many sons do you have?”

“None.”

Janani shook his head sympathetically as they turned down a narrow alley lined with storefronts dedicated to merchandise built around the theme ‘things that can kill you.’  There were numerous gun dealers, specialists in various types of explosives, and a shop with a canary yellow awning advertising Africa’s best selection of handheld SAMs.

Janani led them through an unmarked door that opened up into a surprisingly large and well-equipped machine shop.

“Janani makes custom guns,” Howell explained, waving a hand around him but not looking back. “The best in the world.”

“You flatter me, Peter.  Do you still have the pistol I made you so many years ago?”

“I’m afraid I lost it.”

“But not before it killed many men.”

Howell nodded, his voice suddenly sounding a bit distant. “Many men.”

They passed through an open door at the back and came out onto a covered patio containing a dizzying assortment of guns lined up in racks.  A lush butte started about twenty-five yards beyond, sloping gently upward with targets spaced at measured intervals.

“Jon,” Janani said, spinning to face him. “What do you normally carry?”

“A Sig Sauer.  Sometimes a Beretta.”

An unimpressed frown crossed the African’s face and he pulled a pistol from a neat foam display.

Smith accepted it, but barely had his hand around it before Janani snatched it back with a disgusted scowl.

“Completely wrong,” he muttered, selecting one with a slightly thicker grip.  “Tell me how this one feels.”

He had to admit that it felt good—the same confidence-inspiring solidness of the Sig Sauer without the weight.

“Do you mind?” Smith said, pointing to the range.

“Please.”

He fired a round at the fifty-meter target, putting it dead center in the human silhouette.

“It seems to agree with you,” Janani said, a craftsman’s pride audible in his voice.

“Fits good, shoots nice.  But will it stop anything? The recoil feels light.”

“You’re firing a 170 grain ten millimeter round with a 1,300 foot per second muzzle velocity.”

“Come on…  Really?”

The African dipped his head respectfully.

“So what’s the verdict, mate?” Howell said.

“If it’s reliable, it’s the best thing I ever shot.”

“Of course it’s reliable!” Janani whined. “Certainly more so than anything theItalians are involved in.”

“Alright,” Howell said.  “We’ll take it and another one like it for me.  Then I’ll need a couple assault rifles.  Something maneuverable along the lines of a SCAR-L, but I’ll leave the final decision to you. No point in traveling light, so say a thousand rounds for the rifles and a hundred each for the handguns.  Three spare clips a piece.”

“Of course.  We can have them ready by morning.  Can I interest you in anything else?  Perhaps a portable rocket launcher?  I have a prototype that I think you’d find very compelling.”

“Tempting, but we’re trying to keep a low profile. You wouldn’t happen to know anybody in the car business would yo—”

“Excuse me!”

They all turned toward Sarie, who was waving a hand irritably “Are we forgetting someone?”

The African was clearly confused.  “I’m sorry.  Are you making a joke?”

“I think she’s serious,” Smith said.

Janani shook his head miserably.  “Women have become so… What is the word you use?  Uppity.  It’s this new feminism.”

He walked over to a chest of drawers and pulled out a miniscule chrome .32.  “This looks very nice with a handbag.”

Even Howell managed a laugh, less at Janani’s joke than at Sarie’s deadly expression.

“I was thinking of something more like this,” she said, walking up to a row of scoped semi-automatic rifles.  She grabbed one and pulled the bolt back, confirming that it was loaded before starting for a table piled with sandbags.

“That’s not a toy,” Janani said as she laid the gun down and knelt behind it.

When she didn’t acknowledge his warning, he turned back to Howell and Smith. “My first wife behaves like this.  I blame Oprah.  We get—”

All three of them ducked in unison as an explosion rattled the rickety thatched roof above them.  There were shouts from inside the building and a number of armed men ran out, only to find Sarie joyfully clapping her hands.  “You put dynamite behind them?  I love that!”

The African frowned, looking at what was left of his plywood target cartwheeling through a distant cloud of dirt and shattered rock. “Only the ones at eight hundred meters.”

“Do you mind if I shoot another?”

Janani walked over and snatched away the rifle.  “Out of the question, Madame. This weapon is far too heavy for you and the stock is all wrong.  I’ll have something more suitable when you and your friends return.”

Excerpt Three

Northern Uganda

November 24 1001 Hours GMT+3

Mehrak Omidi ran alongside Bahame, trying to stay close but occasionally having to dodge around trees and other obstacles.  They and the armed guards surrounding them were moving as quickly as they could without making undue noise, paralleling the road at a distance that provided an intermittent view of it.

Most of the infected had outpaced them but two stragglers remained visible through the leaves.  One was a child of no more than four—too young to understand his own rage and how to exercise it.  The other was even more disturbing:  An old man with a severe compound fracture of the lower leg that he didn’t seem to be aware of.  He repeatedly stood, lurched forward a few meters, and then collapsed with a spurt of arterial blood. Omidi slowed a bit, transfixed by the man’s struggle as he finally became resigned to dragging himself forward with his elbows.

It took another five minutes to reach the village and Bahame grabbed his arm, pulling him to a place that provided sufficient cover but still afforded a partially blocked view of what was happening.

Again, Omidi found himself stunned.  The village men were fighting desperately—with sticks, with machetes, with farm implements. One man had an old rifle but was taken down while he was still trying to get it to his shoulder.  The infected were everywhere—their speed and strength making them seem like a much larger force than they actually were.

A fleeing woman crashed into the trees directly in front of them, causing Bahame to pull Omidi beneath the bush they were crouched behind.  She barely made it ten meters before a young boy drenched in blood chased her down and dove on her back.  It took only a few moments before she succumbed to the brutal beating, but he didn’t stop.  The dull thud of his fists mixed with the screams and panicked shouts coming from the village until he finally collapsed. Whether he was unconscious or dead was impossible to determine.

One of the huts was on fire now and Omidi glanced at Bahame, seeing the flames reflected in eyes glazed with power.  It was at that moment he realized the African wasn’t playing a role or pandering to his followers. He truly believed in his own godhood.

The wails of an infant began to emanate from the burning hut and an infected man ran in like a savior.  A moment later the child went silent.

When he reappeared, the long, blood stained robe he wore was burning.   Despite the increasing intensity of the flames, he rejoined the fray, sprinting toward a woman trying to find refuge in a corral full of panicked goats.  He fell just short of reaching her, collapsing with his hands on the rickety fence as he was consumed.

Omidi slipped from beneath the bush as the remaining villagers were run down.  He no longer saw rural Uganda, though.  He saw New York, Chicago, Los Angeles.  And it was magnificent.