Evan Smoak returns in The Last Orphan, the latest New York Times bestselling Orphan X thriller–when everything changes and everything is at risk.
Intrigued? Well read on to discover the synopsis and an excerpt from Gregg Hurwitz’s The Last Orphan, which is out now. Astm B466
As a child, Evan Smoak was plucked out of a group home, raised and trained as an off-the-books assassin for the government as part of the Orphan program. When he broke with the program and went deep underground, he left with a lot of secrets in his head that the government would do anything to make sure never got out.
When he remade himself as The Nowhere Man, dedicated to helping the most desperate in their times of trouble, Evan found himself slowly back on the government’s radar. Having eliminated most of the Orphans in the program, the government will stop at nothing to eliminate the threat they see in Evan. But Orphan X has always been several steps ahead of his pursuers.
Until he makes one little mistake…
Now the President has him in her control and offers Evan a deal – eliminate a rich, powerful man she says is too dangerous to live and, in turn, she’ll let Evan survive. But when Evan left the Program he swore to only use his skills against those who really deserve it. Now he has to decide what’s more important – his principles or his life.
Chapter One: Hold My Vodka
It wasn’t the first time Evan had drunk vodka atop a glacier.
But it was the first time he’d traveled to a glacier with the express purpose of drinking vodka.
Not just any glacier, but Langjökull, the behemoth nearest Iceland’s capital. Fifteen hundred meters above sea level, the air was frigid enough that Evan sensed it leaking between his teeth, even within the fireplace-warmed interior of the pop-up bar.
It had taken some navigating to get here. A connecting flight to Reykjavik followed by a journey across the tundra with sufficient four-wheel-drive turbulence to make his insides feel as though they’d been tumbled by an industrial dryer.
He’d arrived at the precise coordinates—64.565653°N, 20.024822°W—twenty minutes ago, time enough to shake the numbness from his fingertips and take his first sip from the specialty batch of handmade spirit. Its name derived from the word for “smoke,” Reyka had a barley base, augmented with water filtered by the rock of a four-thousand-year-oldlava stream, making it the purest liquid on earth.
The bar here in the middle of the desolate nowhere was little more than a sparse wooden structure composed of beams and walls. Well-loved chessboards on tables. A foursome of burly Icelanders in football jerseys. Picture windows overlooking miles of blindingly white tundra. Decorative puffins peeked out from the shelves of bottles.
Evan took another sip of the limited-edition batch he’d traveled over four thousand miles to sample. Silky mouthfeel, rose and lavender, a hint of grain on the back half. He set his shot glass, fashioned from glacial ice, down on the bar before him.
It was promptly shattered by the elbow of one of the footballers wheeling drunkenly to grab at the waist of a passing female tourist. Evan exhaled evenly and swept the ice remnants from the bar. Though the young men were rowdy, cocky, and redlining their blood-alcohol, he could sense that they weren’t awful guys. But they were on their way to becoming awful if no one provided a course correction.
On Evan’s other side, a lantern-jawed retiree was bragging to a gaggle of Australian coeds and anyone else within earshot that he’d been a member of the legendary Viking Squad S.W.A.T. Team known as Sérsveit Ríkislögreglustjórans. A handsome man a few years past his prime, he basked in the glow of the young women’s attention.
Buoyant and amused, the Australians fumbled through his pronunciation lessons. Well built, with beautiful smiles and generous laughs, they hung on his words, as pleased by the unlikely company as he was.
“—we have no standing army,” the former cop was telling them in near-perfect English. “So we’re the last line of defense when it comes to facing deadly threats.”
Evan leaned forward and flagged the bartender for another shot. As it was being poured in front of him, another of the footballers snatched it from beneath the bottle and slammed it.
Evan stared at the pool of vodka puddled on the bar between his hands. Then up at the bartender, a pale Nordic towhead. “Would you like to talk to them?” Evan said. “Or should I?”
The bartender shrugged. “There are four of them. And we’re way out here. There’s nothing to do.”
“Well,” Evan said. “Not nothing.”
The bartender gave him another shot, this time safeguarding it through the handoff. “American?” he asked. “What did you come to Iceland for? Business? Whale watching?”
Evan hoisted the shot glass. “This.”
“You flew all the way here?” The bartender’s mouth cracked open in disbelief. “For vodka?”
He’d arrived at a point in his life where he was finally capable of indulging small pleasures. To say the least, his childhood had been rough-and-tumble. Pinballed through a series of foster homes, he’d been ripped out of any semblance of ordinary life at the age of twelve to be trained covertly as an assassin. The fully deniable government program was designed to turn him into an expendable weapon who could execute missions illegal under international law. Orphans were trained alone for solo operations—no peers, no support, no backup. Were it not for Jack Johns, Evan’s handler and father figure, the Program would likely have been successful in extinguishing his humanity. The hard part wasn’t turning him into a killer, Jack had taught him from the gate. The hard part was keeping him human. Integrating those two opposing drives had been the great challenge of Evan’s life.
After a decade and change spent committing unsanctioned hits around the globe, Evan had gone AWOL from the Program and lost Jack all at once. Since then he’d committed himself to staying off the radar while using his skills to help others who were just as powerless as he’d been as a young boy—pro bono missions he conducted as the Nowhere Man.
Right now he was enjoying a break between missions. The closest thing he had to family or an associate, a sixteen-year-old hacker named Joey Morales, had taken an open-ended leave to explore her independence, whatever the hell that meant. Against every last one of his engrained habits, he’d become personally if erratically involved with a district attorney named Mia Hall, enough so that he’d been at her side two months ago as she was wheeled into a life-threatening surgery that had left her in a coma without a clear prognosis. Her ten-year-old son, Peter, another of the select few Evan felt a human attachment to, was now in the capable hands of Mia’s brother and sister-in-law. In the collective absence of Joey and Mia, Los Angeles had felt quiet enough for Evan to rediscover the fierce loneliness in freedom.
To his left, the Icelandic cop kept on. “—skydiving and port security, that sort of thing. Drugs and explosives.”
“Explosives,” one of the Australians cooed. “Cool.”
“Think of me as a real-world James Bond,” the cop continued. “But tougher.”
On Evan’s other side, the footballers shouted “Skál!” and slammed their shot glasses together, licking puddled ice and vodka from their palms. An older man escorted his wife past the rowdy crew, drawing jeers. The biggest of the foursome, red-faced and sloppy, smacked the husband on the shoulder, sending him tumbling toward the door.
That drew even more of Evan’s attention.
The big man wore suspenders, ideal for grappling leverage. Another sported a convenient wrist cast; Evan always liked when a loudmouth came packaged with his own bludgeon. The man who’d stolen Evan’s shot had a flat metal lip stud the size of a quarter, with a rune stamped on it; Evan hadn’t brushed up on his Icelandic runes in a few decades, but he believed that it was the symbol for protection in battle. And the fourth man sported glasses with solid titanium frames, ideal for denting the delicate flesh around the eye sockets.
Smashed between the two groups, Evan hunkered further into himself and took another sip. He loved drinking.
“What was the funniest thing you ever saw on the job?” The Australians gathered closer around the cop now, indulging him.
“When my partner, Rafn, accidentally shot himself in the foot while he was taking a leak. Right through the top of his boot!”
Laughter. The next round of drinks arrived for the ladies—a vomitous concoction sugared up with pink grapefruit, elderflower cordial, soda, and topped with a cherry tomato. It looked like a salad in a glass.
The banter continued. “And what was the scariest thing you saw?”
The venerable cop ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “Well, I could tell you. But then . . .”
As the Australians laughed and pleaded with him, Evan closed his eyes and sampled the specialty Reyka once more. It was unreasonably smooth, the finish short, leaving a lingering hint of spicy cedar.
He admired vodka. Base elements put through a rigorous process, distilled and filtered until the result was transformed into its purest essence.
As a scrawny boy, Evan had undergone a similar process himself. Hand-to- hand, network intrusion, escrima knife fighting, psy-ops, SERE tactics—he’d endured painstaking training to become something more than his humble origins would have suggested he could be.
As Jack used to tell him, A diamond’s just a lump of coal that knows how to deal with pressure.
In a show of aggressive amusement, one of the footballers pounded his fist into the bar, sending a glass ashtray flipping up past Evan’s cheek. It shattered at the ground near his boots.
He ignored them. Instinct drove him to peek at the RoamZone, the high-tech, high-security phone that traveled with him everywhere. After he intervened on someone’s behalf as the Nowhere Man, the only payment he requested was that that person pass on his untraceable phone number—1-855-2-NOWHERE—to someone else in need of help. He never knew when the line might ring, what sort of life-or-death predicament the caller might be in, or what he’d be required to do in order to help. The only constant was the first question he asked every time he picked up: Do you need my help?
The rugged phone showed no missed calls. To his left, the cop was warming to the fresh story. “. . . know of the geothermal pools?”
“Of course! The natural springs. We just came from the Blue Lagoon. Omigod, the color! And the mist.”
“Well, there’s a lesser-known spa an hour east of Akureyri. We pride ourselves on low crime here, but an enterprise was taking advantage of our goodwill, using us as a transport from the EU to North America. Meth. Significant loads out of Dresden.”
Evan hunched over the bar, curled the shot glass in tighter, the icy curve tacky against his palm.
“So we get called to a lava field in Mývatn at dusk. Steam thick like curtains. Water churning, heated from below. Heartbreakingly beautiful.” The former cop paused a moment. “That glacial blue, a color you can’t believe God can make. We get there and . . .”
The young women leaned closer. “And?”
“Floating like a stroke of paint in that blue, blue water was a ribbon of crimson thick as my arm. I waded in after it. Sloshing along, following the blood like a shark. And then I saw it. Bobbing against a wall of lava. Waterlogged. Head at an angle that made no anatomical sense.” The cop tented his fingertips on the surface of the bar. “The garrote had worked its way through most of the neck. Guy must’ve put up a helluva struggle.”
“Who was he?” one of the Australians asked breathlessly.
“German drug lord. The one who’d set up the operation.”
“So who . . . who killed him?”
On Evan’s other side, the footballers were stomping their feet now and chanting a drinking song. But his ear was tuned to the tale being spun by the onetime member of Sérsveit Ríkislögreglustjórans.
“Do you believe in fairy tales?” the cop asked.
The women stared at him glassy-eyed.
“There was a government assassin known as Orphan X,” he continued. “Think of him as the Big Bad Wolf. Probably American, maybe British. No one knew who he was. No one ever found out. Maybe he didn’t even exist. Maybe he was just a name they whispered to bad men to make sure they didn’t sleep well at night.”
“Do you think he was real?”
“The dead German drug lord?”
“And five of his colleagues, found in various states of disassembly in a barn at the foot of the Námafjall Mountains. Their stash house. The carnage . . .” The cop shook his head. “Matched our national death rate from the preceding decade. No one saw the assassin come or go. No footprints, no tire tracks, no eyewitnesses. They say that’s how he earned his nickname. His other nickname.”
“What’s that?” The Australians were captive now, leaning in, twirling straws in their drinks.
“ ‘The Nowhere Man.’ It’s said that he left the world of spycraft. But he’s still around. In the shadows.”
“That’s not true,” one of the women said. “That can’t be true.”
“He has a secret phone number. Or so the story goes. The number gets passed around, and when you call it, he answers, ‘Can I help you?’ ”
Evan shook his head. Barely.
The retired cop keyed to him. “What?”
“ ‘Can I help you?’ ” Evan repeated. “That sounds . . . servile.”
“This man is anything but,” the cop said.
“I’d imagine he’d say something more muscular,” Evan offered. “Like, ‘Do you need my help?’”
“Well, whatever he says, he’s not someone you want on your tail.”
“What’s he look like?” another of the young women asked.
“Like not much,” the cop said, happily directing his attention back to the clique. “There’s scant intel on him. Ordinary size, ordinary build. Just an average guy, not too good-looking.”
The cop pressed on. “He goes anywhere, they say. Capable of anything. Scared of nothing.”
“No one is scared of nothing,” Evan said.
The cop fixed him with an irritated glance. “What’s a tourist like you know of a man like that? A man who’s killed drug dealers, terrorists, heads of state? I’ve seen with my own two eyes the
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wreckage he’s left behind.”
Evan shrugged. Flagged the bartender for another pour. It would be his last. He had a long, teeth-rattling drive back to the capital and a longer flight from there.
The cop cupped his hands and blew into them. “They say he’s walked straight into the headquarters of some of the most fearsome men alive. Outnumbered twenty to one. And when they sneer at him, he doesn’t bat an eye. He just stares at them and says . . .” The theatrical pause overstayed its welcome. “ ‘Do I look like I’m someone who you can frighten?’ ”
Evan nearly choked on his sip of Reyka.
The cop wheeled to him on his stool. “What now?”
Evan wiped his mouth. “It’s just . . . It’s not very pithy.”
“Okay, Mr. American Loudmouth. What do you think he’d say?”
Before Evan could reply, the footballer with the pierced lip bellowed something into his friend’s ear, then leaned over and swiped a glass from the hand of the nearest Australian woman. He poured it down his tree-trunk throat and smashed the glass on the floor, roaring until cords stood out in his neck.
Evan swiveled on his barstool to face the foursome. “Now,” he said, “you’re starting to test my patience.”
The man looked down at him. “We wouldn’t want to test your patience.” His voice was hoarse from alcohol. He placed a hand on Evan’s shoulder. Squeezed. “Whatever should I do?”
“Apologize to her,” Evan said. “That would be fine.”
The man laughed a desiccated laugh.
His friends spread out behind him, kicking the barstools away to clear room.
Evan sighed. Extended his shot glass to the cop. “Hold my vodka.”
Surprised, the cop took it, his mouth slightly ajar.
Resting his hands on the bar, Evan leaned to the Australian women. “Will you excuse me a moment?”
In his peripheral vision, he took in the footballers, assessing the props at his disposal.
The red suspenders were heavy-duty elastic with metal clips.
Titanium eyeglasses far enough down on the bridge of the nose to punch right through the cartilage.
Wrist cast hovering in a low guard, one spin kick away from smacking up into the waiting jaw.
Evan felt the grip on his shoulder tighten.
He kept his gaze on the union of his hands set at the edge of the bar. Sensing the space around him.
Half-empty bottle arm’s length away by the beer taps.
Stool beneath him, sturdy construction, legs sufficiently thick for jabbing.
A slick of spilled booze on the floor just beyond the heels of the man crowding his space.
“I know you think you’re big,” Evan said quietly. “And having numbers and being on your home turf makes you confident.”
Behind him one of the Australians gave a nervous titter and the cop sucked in a sharp intake of air.
“But I want you to look at me.” Evan lifted his gaze to meet the man’s stare, sliding his right foot back ever so slightly to set his base. “Look at me closely. And ask yourself . . .”
He assessed the man looming over him, that rune stud floating on his chin like a soul patch. Beckoning.
Evan said, “Do I look scared?”
The flight attendant paused by Evan’s aisle seat with the drink cart. Earlier he’d requested a bag of ice to apply to his knuckles.
She mustered a pert if tired smile. “Get you something?”
“What vodkas do you have?”
Evan said, “Water’s fine, thank you.”
As she poured, an announcement came over the speakers that in forty minutes they’d begin their twilight descent to LAX. She set the drink on his tray, which, to the consternation of his seatmate, he’d scrubbed vigorously with an antibacterial wipe.
The flight attendant chinned at the pouch of mostly melted ice pressed against his hand. “Take that for you?”
Evan removed the dripping bag, revealing a wicked bruise across the knuckles of the ring and middle fingers of his left hand. Through a surrounding swell of yellow-blue, a spray of broken blood vessels formed an imperfect snowflake pattern. As he passed her the ice bag, her eyes snagged on the painful marks.
“Goodness, that looks awful. What is it?”
“I believe,” he said, “it’s the Icelandic rune for protection in battle.”
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