MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
What He Needs to Know
A naked selfie.
It starts with that.
Hector Contrell sends a seventeen-year-old kid to troll middle schools in East L.A. The kid, improbably named Addison, makes for fine bait. Seedily handsome, starter mustache, pop-star cheekbones, dirty blond hair flipped just so. He wears a hoodie and rides a skateboard, the better to look like he’s fifteen. He says he’s a pro skater with a contract. He says he’s a rapper with a deal at a major label. He’s really a pot-smoking dropout who lives in a rented garage with his older brother and his friends, spends his nights playing Call of Duty and hitting a green glass water bong named Fat Boy.
He hangs out near campuses at lunch, after classes, his skateboard rat-a-tat-tatting across sidewalk cracks just barely past school-ground limits. The girls cluster and giggle, and he chooses one to peel off the herd. He tells her to snap pictures. He tells her to get a secret Facebook account, one her parents don’t know about, and upload them there. He tells her that everyone does this in high school, and he’s mostly right, but not everyone is hooked into a scheme like this. He targets Title I schools, broke girls, easily impressed, looking for a dream, a romance, a way out. Girls whose parents lack the resources to do much if they disappear.
The secret Facebook page links go to Hector Contrell.
The genius of it is, the girls create the sales catalog themselves.
From Contrell the links go to all sorts of men with unorthodox tastes. Austrian industrialists. Sheikhs. Three brothers in Detroit with a padlocked metal shed. Online they can peruse the merchandise discreetly and, if need be, ask for more product information—different photographic angles, specific poses. They make their selections.
Given immigration confusion, gang influence, and splintered family trees, disappearances aren’t rare when you’re dealing with broke ethnic girls. They’re a renewable resource.
Hector Contrell comes in the black of night, and another girl vanishes off the streets and wakes up in a stupor in Islamabad or Birmingham or São Paulo. Some of the girls are kept. Some are designated for onetime use.
Anna Rezian is the next prospect. Her father is a plumber, works hard, comes home late and tired. Her mother, a cocktail waitress, comes home later and more tired. Only fifteen, Anna takes care of her younger brothers and sisters, tries to remember to look at her textbooks after she gets the kids down. It’s a hard routine for a girl her age.
One day after school, Addison’s blue eyes peer out from beneath his scraggly bangs and pick her and only her. That night she touches up her eyeliner, sheds the flat-front Dickies with the worn knees, checks the lighting. This choice, this moment, is going to be a portal to a Whole New Her.
But after she uploads the selfie, nothing magical happens. Staring at the image she has released into the world, she feels an unease begin to gnaw at her.
She decides to stop after the one photo. But Addison needs more; they’ve been requested from a buyer in Serbia. In a ganja haze, he catches her in the alley outside her family’s one-bedroom apartment. When his low-rent hipster charms fail him, he tells her what she’d better do. Big-shotting in the Crenshaw night, he lets fly that he works for someone who will hurt her and her family if she turns off the tap.
She stays up all night, trembling in the glow of her ancient laptop, clicking her way through the infinity of Facebook and chasing threads. Friends of friends have heard of friends who have disappeared. Over the top of the screen, she looks at her sleeping siblings and contemplates what it will feel like if harm befalls them because of her stupidity. She looks at her sleeping parents, exhausted after their long workdays. The chasm of guilt inside her widens by the second, pushing her further and further away until she is on an island of her own making, until her family members seem like specks on the horizon. Something awful is coming, either for them or for her. She makes the choice.
She sends new photos.
She stops sleeping. She starts plucking out her hair in patches. She cuts herself at school, hoping the pain will wake her from this nightmare. Maybe it’s a cry for help instead, each crimson line across her forearm a smoke signal released in hopes that someone will ride to her rescue.
Someone does see the signal. One of her classmates’ fathers, an older man with a cane and a fresh limp, finds her sobbing in the bathroom of a 7-Eleven when she’s supposed to be in homeroom. He gives her a phone number: 1-855-2-NOWHERE. A magical fix-it line.
Evan Smoak picks up.
“Do you need my help?” he asks.
That’s how it works.
* * *
Fourteen hours later Evan is standing outside Addison’s rented garage. The air tastes of car exhaust. The streetlights are broken, the stars smeared by smog, the night dark as tar. Evan is a wraith.
Addison’s brother, Carl, and his crew of friends are out scoring black tar at a park in Boyle Heights. Evan knows this. Addison is alone. Evan knows this, too.
He has done his research.
The First Commandment—Assume nothing—demands it.
The wraith raises a single knuckle, taps the garage door.
A moment later it creaks upward.
Stooped, Addison emerges from an effluvium of day-old bong water. He rocks on his heels, gauging Evan.
By design, Evan is hard to gauge. Thirty-something. Fit but not muscly. Somewhere around six feet. An average guy, not too handsome.
Addison underestimates him.
This happens a lot, also by design.
The kid’s lips twitch to the side. He jerks his head, flips his hair out of the blue eyes that have landed many a young woman on a container ship heading for uncharted waters.
“The fuck you want?” he says.
“Hector Contrell’s address,” Evan says.
The pretty-boy lashes flare, but Addison covers quickly. “No idea who that is. And no fucking way I’d tell you if I did.”
Evan looks through him. This tends to make people uneasy.
Uncertainty washes across Addison’s face, but he blinks it away. “I know people, you tool,” he says. “People who can make you disappear like that.” The snap of his fingers, sharp in the crisp air. “Who the fuck you think you are anyways?”
“The Nowhere Man,” Evan says.
The kid’s Adam’s apple jerks once. Up. Down.
The moniker is not widely known. But dark rumors have spread through certain streets like trash blown down graffitied alleys.
Addison takes a quick step to the side to stabilize himself. His voice comes out husky, pushed through a constricting throat. “That’s just a bullshit story.”
“Then you don’t have to be scared, do you?”
Addison doesn’t say anything.
“You do know what happens to the girls,” Evan tells him.
It takes a moment for Addison to relocate his voice. “They disappear.”
“I don’t know. Guys.”
“Who use them for…?”
The kid shrugs. Actually muffles a snicker. “Whatever guys do.”
“I can’t tell you. Hector will kill me. Literally kill me.”
Evan’s gaze is steady.
Addison falters. “No,” he says, a new realization dawning. “Oh, no. Look—I’m just a kid, man. I’m seventeen. You’re not gonna kill me, are you?”
There is a punch Evan was taught in his early teens by a gruff marine close-quarter-combat instructor.
It is called the palate breaker.
A nonlethal blow that fractures the bridge of the nose, the sinus bones, and both orbital sockets, splitting the skull horizontally temple to temple. It leaves the upper jaw floating, unattached.
Evan’s gaze narrows. He picks his spot.
You wouldn’t have thought the kid could keep his feet, but there he is, upright on the curb. Something like drool leaks from his lips, the holes of his nose.
“No,” Evan says. “I won’t kill you.”
Addison makes a wheezing noise. With his new face, it will be hard for him to troll for girls anymore.
“The address,” Evan says again.
What is left of the mouth tells him what he needs to know.
Copyright © 2016 by Gregg Hurwitz