Barry, good to have you here with an excerpt from The Detachment on the day it goes on sale.
Barry: My pleasure, MJ, and thanks for having me.
MJ: As you know, I love your books. I've read them all. From the beginning, I've thought the quality of your writing has made you stand out. You write in pictures. Now to The Detachment. It's terrific. Great action, a terrifyingly real political backstory, exotic locations, strong and well developed characters.
But there's one thing I wanted to ask you whether it was on purpose. As your guys drive nonstop coast-to-coast trying to elude the government forces hunting them, there were all these wonderfully evocative scenes of American small towns and major cities -- all in various states of decay. Some big things, some little, but it added up. Abandoned buildings. Unemployed men. Weeds poking up through the cracks in the pavement of unused commercial parking lots. Here's one example I loved, where your character Larison is looking for a place where he can make an extremely anonymous phone call:
He paused with his back to the brick façade of a recycling center and looked around. The skyscrapers of the downtown jutted up into a faded blue sky a mile or so behind him. Absent those distant monoliths, he might have been almost anywhere. An old mill town, a dying burg in the rust belt. There was no panic buying here. There was nothing to buy, and no money to use to buy it. It was the last place politicians would ever care about, the last place security forces would ever be sent to protect. He felt anonymous. He felt secure.
Anyway, it added up, and in the end felt like an image system to me. And I wondered, was this unconscious? Or deliberate?
Barry: It was actually a little of both. It started out unconsciously, although given some of the themes of the book, I think my unconscious knew exactly what it was doing. And at some point I started to notice it, and to exploit it, hopefully to good effect. I don't want to give too much away here, but what's going on in the story is, things are falling apart. My guys get brought in to stop an attempted coup, and wind up becoming part of it. A series of rolling terror attacks hits America, my guys are on the run and trying to make things right… and things just keep falling apart, or being torn apart, around and beneath them. Some of which, in the end, can be fixed. And some of which can't.
So yes, I am trying to create a kind of backdrop of images in the book intended to heighten the emotional reaction of readers. Thanks for noticing, and now we'll see if it works!
Thanks. So here’s Chapter 3 of Barry’s new thriller, The Detachment, available today exclusively from the Amazon Kindle Store (and in paper in bookstores everywhere on October 18).
You can read other chapters, and Q&A with Barry on other topics, at the following blogs:
Chapter 1 – Truthout: The Politics of The Detachment
Chapter 2 – A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing: The book’s unusual path to publication
Chapter 4 – Jungle Red Writers: Combining the series worlds of Rain and Treven
Chapter 5 – A Newbie’s Guide to Writing: Publishing a book with Amazon
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When I left the Kodokan, I knew someone would be waiting for me. Most likely it would be the pair of giants I’d seen twice inside. Possibly they were just recon, and someone else would be set up outside, but if whoever it was had more manpower, the sensible thing would have been to rotate different members of the team to deny me the chance to get multiple IDs. Of course, it wasn’t impossible that I was supposed to see the two I’d already spotted—after all, their bulk was hard to miss—so that I’d keep searching for them when I went outside and consequently overlook the real threat. But if that had been the game, they would have stayed longer that evening, to be sure I had a chance to see them again. My gut told me it was just the two of them, handling both recon and action.
I kept to the left side of the exit corridor as I left the building, using the book and souvenir kiosk as concealment until the last moment to deny them additional seconds to prepare for my appearance. I doubted they had guns—firearms are tightly restricted in Japan, and anyone with the connections to acquire them would likely have fielded a larger and less conspicuous team. A sniper rifle would have been even harder to get than a pistol, and even if they’d managed to procure one, what were they going to do, rent an apartment overlooking the entrance of the Kodokan? Too much trouble, too much paper trail. There were better ways.
As I hit the glass doors, I kept my head steady but let my eyes sweep the sidewalk and street within my field of vision. Nothing yet. The night before, I’d gone left and taken the subway, and though I hadn’t seen them at the time, I now assumed they’d been lurking somewhere and had logged my movements. So if they were hoping to follow me tonight and introduce themselves on terrain they found more favorable, they’d set up to the right. If the plan was for me to walk into them, they’d be to the left. No way to be sure, but other things being equal, I prefer to see what’s coming. And why not let them see me repeating the pattern I’d established the night before? It would give them a little more data to rely on in underestimating me. I turned left onto the sidewalk, my eyes still moving, checking hot spots, my ears trained for footfalls behind me.
I spotted the first instantly, leaning against one of the pillars fronting the building. He was bigger even than I’d estimated from seeing him in the stands. His hands were visible and one of them held a cigarette. Not the best cover for action in Tokyo. The country is a little behind the times on the nonsmoking front, and with the exception of smokers visiting Starbucks and hospital intensive care units, no one goes outside for a tobacco break, especially in the wet summer heat.
I passed him and hit the stairs of Kasuga station, keeping my head down to conceal my face from the security camera staring down from the ceiling, my footsteps echoing along the concrete walls. Ordinarily, I found the cameras a hindrance if not an outright threat, but for the moment, their presence was cause for comfort. No one wants to do a hit in the Tokyo metropolitan subway system, where the number of closed circuit video cameras could make a Las Vegas casino blush. In the past, the cameras had never been a particular concern, but then again my specialty had always been the appearance of natural causes—one of the advantages of which is that no one examines security tapes afterward, trying to find out what happened. The Mossad team that did the Hamas official in Dubai, for example, had likely been planning on the appearance of a heart attack, and so wasn’t worried about the hotel and airport cameras that filmed them. But they’d blown the job, and what was obviously an assassination led to an investigation. I wondered at the time why they hadn’t called me. Maybe Delilah had told them I was out of the life. I smiled bitterly at the notion, and the memory, and kept moving down the stairs.
I turned the corner into the station proper and there was the second guy, standing under the florescent lights in front of the ticket vending machines, looking at the wall map above like an extra-large, extra-confused tourist. Kasuga isn’t a main thoroughfare, and the area was mostly deserted—just a glassy-eyed ticket puncher in a booth, looking about as sentient as a potted plant, and a couple of high school kids who were testing their English trying to help my new friend find whatever it was he was looking for. I heard him grumble that he was fine as I moved past and could almost have sympathized—having a civilian address you when you’re trying to be invisible is always a bitch. I slid a prepaid pass into the ticket machine and went through to the platform.
I strolled slowly along, the grimy tracks below me and to my right, the white tiled wall gleaming to my left. I passed a few Tokyoites standing here and there—a girl with tea-colored hair and garish makeup texting on a mobile, a sarariman absently practicing his golf swing, a couple of people I recognized from the Kodokan—but no one who tickled my radar. About two thirds of the way to the end I stopped and stood with my back close to the wall. But for the hum of an air conditioning unit, the platform was silent. From somewhere inside the tunnel to my left, I could just hear dripping water.
I might have glanced back, but doing so would only confirm what I already knew: they had fallen in behind me. They’d keep well down the platform, and when a train arrived they’d get on it, two or three cars away. At each stop, they’d check through the sliding doors to see if I was getting off, and follow me when I did. When they’d tailed me to a venue they found sufficiently dark, or isolated, or otherwise suitable for the business at hand, they’d do what they came for and depart.
But that’s the problem with dark, isolated, and otherwise suitable venues. Like tracer rounds, they work in both directions.
I felt a rumble approaching from far down in the tunnel to my right, and a voice over a public address system announced the arrival of a Meguro-bound train. The rumble grew louder. I glanced to my right and glimpsed the two giants, pressed against the wall about halfway down the platform—the spot I’d most likely overlook if I glanced in the direction of an approaching train. Not too close to alarm me; not so far that they’d get picked up in the natural angle of my vision. I didn’t know who I was dealing with, but the positioning showed some experience.
It wouldn’t have been hard to lose them. I doubted they knew the city well at all and they couldn’t possibly have known it the way I do. But I didn’t see the point. A long time ago, in another context, a man I considered dangerous told me the next time he saw me, he would kill me. I took him at his word, and prevented him from carrying out his promise. It was the same now. If these guys wanted to meet me, we’d get the meeting over with tonight. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my days looking over my shoulder, wondering when they’d show up next. And I wasn’t going to look for an opportunity to politely ask them about the nature of their interest, either. When you’ve spent a lifetime in my former line of work, and when two guys this big show up at your only possible known locale and start following you, it’s time to assume the worst, and to act accordingly.
The train hurtled out of the tunnel and began to slow, its brakes hissing, its wheels screeching against the metal tracks. It shuddered to a stop and the doors slid open. A few passengers stepped out. I walked into a mostly empty compartment and stood facing the doors, just in case. No one else got on. After a moment, a loudspeaker voice warned passengers the train was leaving, and then the doors hissed closed and the train jerked into motion.
I thought I’d take them to Jinbocho, two stops away on the Mita line and best known for its numerous antiquarian book shops. I liked the area, too, for a coffee shop not far from the station, appropriately enough called Saboru, the Japanese word for lounging, loafing, playing hooky, or otherwise taking a timeout from the world. Though I would only take the giants past the coffee shop, not inside. And the timeout I had in mind for them was going to be longer than what saboru ordinarily implied.
When the train stopped at Jinbocho station, I got unhurriedly off and headed for the A7 exit. I didn’t look behind me. I didn’t need to. They might have been sufficiently familiar with Tokyo to know how quickly you can lose the subject of surveillance in the shifting nighttime crowds, the unmarked, narrow alleys, of a section of the city as old and labyrinthine as Jinbocho. Or they might not have been even that familiar, in which case they’d lack the confidence to let anything more than a short gap open up between us. Either way, they would stay close now until their first opportunity.
When I was a kid, I had to learn to deal with bullies. First in Japan, where small half-breeds like me attracted the righteous attentions of larger children for whom cruelty and joy were indistinguishable; later, after my father died, in small town America, where I was an exotic half-Asian kid with limited English and a funny accent. During my first week at the American public school in which my newly-widowed mother had enrolled me, I’d noticed a much larger kid eyeing me, a meaty, crew-cut blond boy the other kids called the Bear. The Bear had acquired his nickname, apparently, because his favorite thing to do was to grab his victims in a frontal bear hug, squeeze them senseless, then throw them to the ground, where he could hurt and humiliate them at will. I saw one hapless kid get the treatment—the Bear sucked him in; the kid tried to push away but then his arms crumbled; the Bear threw him down and beat the crap out of him. I figured everyone he’d ever grabbed must have reacted the same way: if someone is trying to draw you in to squeeze you to death, you’d naturally resist. So it stood to reason that the Bear might not be prepared for someone who failed to resist his embrace. Who, instead, embraced him back.
It didn’t take long for my turn to come. Though I lacked the frame of reference at the time, I recognized the behaviors—the looks, the comments, the accidental-on-purpose hallway shoulder slams—that for bullies on both sides of the Pacific constituted a kind of foreplay. And I instinctively understood that the little signs were all a tactical weakness, too, because they informed the intended victim of what was coming, and when. I resolved never to display such warnings myself, and I never have.
It was on a grass berm behind the school’s weedy baseball field that the Bear decided to consummate our incipient relationship. I’d studied him enough, and was experienced enough, to recognize even before he did that this would be the place and time. So when he nudged his friends and pointed at me, it was almost comforting, like watching an actor dutifully playing his part in a drama the conclusion of which I already knew. He swaggered over to where I was standing and demanded, What are you looking at? It was so much what I’d expected, I think I might have smiled a little, because although I didn’t respond, for an instant I thought I saw doubt pass across his features like the shadow of a fast-moving cloud. But then it was gone, and he was again accusing me of looking at him, the one line of inquiry apparently having exhausted his creative capacity, and he threw out his arms and lunged at me, just as I’d hoped he would.
As his arms circled my back and he started to pull me in, I shot my hands forward and dug my fingers into the back of his neck, my elbows braced against his chest. I felt him jerk in surprise but he only knew the one move and it had always worked before, so he didn’t stop—he locked his hands and started to squeeze, but now I was squeezing, too, my biceps tightening with the effort, my forearms corded, bringing his head alongside mine, and as our left cheeks connected I dug my face in, bit into his earlobe, and ripped it free with a jerk of my head. He screamed, suddenly trying to push me away, but I was clamped onto him like pliers and I bit him again, this time on the back of the ear. Cartilage crunched and tore loose and my mouth was filled with hot, coppery blood, and a primal frenzy swept through me as I realized how I’d made him bleed. He screamed again, lost his balance, and fell onto his back with me on top of him. I spat out what I’d chewed off, reared up, and started raining punches down on his face. He covered up blindly, in a panic. Someone tried to grab me but I slipped free and darted in for another go at his ear. This time I couldn’t find it—there was too much blood, and not enough ear—but just the feeling of the renewed attack made the Bear shriek in terror and scramble from beneath me as the other kids pulled me loose.
We both stood, the Bear crying now, his eyes wide in disbelief, his left hand groping shakily at the mutilated stump on the side of his head. The two kids who were holding my arms let me go and stepped warily to the sides, as though realizing they’d been standing too close to a wild animal. I looked at the Bear, my fists balled, my nostrils flaring, and felt a bloody smile spread across my face. I took a step toward him, and with a hitching, anguished squeak, the Bear turned and fled for the safety of the school.
The Bear’s parents made a fuss, threatening a lawsuit and excoriating my mother for raising such a wanton, savage child. The school held disciplinary proceedings, and for a while it looked like I might be expelled. But the hearings turned to a discussion of previous incidents in which the Bear had been involved, and of how he was so much bigger than I was, and I sensed in the official expressions of disapproval something pro forma, something with the aroma of a whitewash. Eventually, I realized that some cabal of frustrated teachers and outraged parents had been secretly pleased at the Bear’s comeuppance, and had used the hearings as the means by which they could achieve an outcome that had already been decided. It was the first time I’d seen such a thing, but later, I came to understand the dynamic is common, occurring, for example, every time some government appoints a blue ribbon commission to investigate the latest scandal. In the end, my run-in with the Bear blew over. Surgeons were able to save what was left of his ear. He grew his hair long to cover his deformity, and he never came near me again.
I learned two things from my encounter with the Bear. First, the importance of surprise. It didn’t matter what size, skills, or other advantages your enemy had if you didn’t give him a chance to deploy any of it.
Second, that there’s always an aftermath. Following the fight, I was lucky not to have gotten in more trouble with the authorities. Meaning it was better to take care of such matters in a way that couldn’t be attributed to you. Winning the fight itself wouldn’t mean much if you lost more afterward, legally or otherwise.
At the top of the stairs, I turned left onto the nameless narrow street fronting Saboru, with its eccentric mountain hut façade and profusion of potted plants around the door and under the windows. The light hadn’t yet entirely leached from the sky, but the area was already thick with shadows. A few knots of pedestrians passed me, probably heading home from work, or perhaps for a beer and yakitori in nearby Kanda. I knew my pursuers were close behind me, but they wouldn’t be comfortable yet—the pedestrian density wasn’t quite right. They’d be waiting for an especially congested area, where there would be so many people and so much tumult that no one would notice what had happened until several seconds after the fact. Or for an especially empty area, where there would be no witnesses at all.
I had a knife, a Benchmade folder, clipped inside my front pants pocket. But I would use it only for contingencies. Knives make a lot of mess, all of it laced with DNA. Guns, too, create an evidence trail. For sheer walk-awayedness, there’s really nothing like bare hands.
Past Saboru, the neighborhood grew more residential; the yellow streetlights, fewer and farther between. Within a block, the sparse clusters of pedestrians had evaporated entirely. Over the incessant background screech of cicadas I could just hear a set of footfalls from ten meters back. Coming, no doubt, from whichever of them was keeping me in visual contact. The secondary guy would be about the same distance behind the first, needing only to maintain visual contact with him. If they narrowed the gap between them, it would mean action was at hand. I wasn’t going to give them that chance.
There was a small parking lot on the left side of the intersection ahead. I had noted it on one of my periodic tactical explorations of the city’s terrain, and liked it because among a cluster of dim vending machines to its rear was the entrance to a series of alleys, more like crevices, really, leading back to the street we were walking on now. In fact, I’d just passed a gate that led from one of the alleys, though I doubted my pursuers would notice it, or, even if they did, would understand its current significance. From the sound of the lead guy’s distance behind me, I estimated that I could make it through the alley to the inside of the gate at about the same time the first guy would be pausing at the parking lot’s corner, trying to figure out where I’d gone, and the second guy would be passing the gate.
I made a left into the parking lot, and then, the instant I’d turned the corner, accelerated and turned left into the entrance to the alleys. Another left, past a row of garbage cans, and I was at the inside of the gate I’d just passed. I paused, my back to the wall, enveloped in darkness, and watched as the secondary guy passed my position. I waited several seconds before gripping the metal rail at the top of the gate and moving it back and forth to confirm solidity and soundlessness. Then I hopped up, eased my belly over, put a hand on each side, and rotated my legs around, landing catlike on the street side. There was the second guy, just a few meters ahead, approaching the edge of the parking lot. He was moving so slowly, it seemed he was aware his partner would have stopped just around the corner to look for me, and was trying to give him time. I wondered for an instant how he could have known his partner had paused—maybe just a sensible precaution when turning a corner?—but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was closing in on him, and that for the moment I had his back.
I traded stealth for speed, knowing I had only an instant before he might check behind him, and in fact as I reached him, he was just beginning to turn. But too late. I leaped into him, planting my left foot in the small of his back as though trying to climb a steep set of stairs. His body bowed violently forward and his head and arms flew back, and a startled grunt, loud enough, I was aware, for his partner to hear from around the corner, forced itself from his lungs. As he plunged to his knees, I wrapped my left arm around his neck, trapping his upturned face against my abdomen, secured my left wrist with my right hand, and arched savagely up and back. His neck snapped as easily as if it had been made of kindling, and with a similar sound. I let him go and he crumbled to the ground.
His partner appeared instantly from around the corner. He cried out, “Oh, fuck,” the vernacular, and the accent, I was distantly aware, both American, and lunged at me. I had no time to get out of the way, but neither the inclination. Instead, I held my position, extending my torso away from him so he was forced to reach for me, and twisted slightly counterclockwise as we came to grips. I extended my left leg, planted the sole of my foot against his right knee, grabbed both his biceps, and used his momentum to spin him counterclockwise in hiza-guruma. He was overbalanced and couldn’t get his legs out to correct because of the way I was blocking his knee. There was an instant of resistance, and then he was sailing past me, perpendicular to the ground, trying to twist away from me and turn his body toward the coming impact. But he was moving too fast for that now, and I was assisting his rapid descent, applying pressure to his shoulders to make them fall faster than his feet, wanting his cranium to bear the brunt.
He hit the pavement with a thud I could feel as well as hear, his shoulders connecting first, then the back of his skull as his head snapped back. I dropped to my knees next to him but he wasn’t out, and even shocked and dazed as he must have been, he managed to turn into me and go for my eyes with his left hand. I grabbed his wrist with my left hand, slamming my elbow into his face on the way, snaked my right arm under his shoulder, secured my own left wrist, extended my body across his chest, and broke his elbow with ude-garami. He shrieked and tried to buck me loose. I scrambled back, reared up, and blasted a palm heel into his nose. The back of his head bounced into the pavement and I hit him again the same way. He rolled away from me, trying to get up, and I launched myself onto his back, throwing my left arm around his neck, catching my right bicep, planting my right hand against the back of his head, and strangling him with classic hadaka-jime. He struggled and thrashed and I kept an eye on his remaining good arm, in case he tried to access a concealed weapon. The choke was deep, though, and his brain was getting no oxygen. In a few seconds he was still and, a few more after that, gone.
I released my grip and came shakily to my feet, my heart hammering. I wiped sweat from my eyes with my sleeve and looked around. There had been that single scream, but I saw no one, at least not yet. Not likely either of them was carrying identification, but I felt I could afford a moment to check.
I knelt and pulled the guy I’d strangled onto his back. He rolled over with liquid ease, his broken arm flopping unnaturally to the pavement next to him. I patted his front pants pockets. A folding knife in the right. Something hard and rectangular in the left—a cell phone? I pulled it out and saw that it was a phone, as I’d hoped. But there was something else in the pocket. I reached back in and felt something metallic. I pulled whatever it was out and stared at it. It took me a moment to realize what I was holding: a small video camera.
A wire extended from the unit, disappearing beneath his clothes. I slipped my fingers between the buttons of his shirt and tore it open. The wire ran to one of the buttons. I leaned in—it wasn’t easy to see in the dim light—and looked more closely. Shit, it was no button at all, but a lens. And I was staring right into it.
I tore the wire free and stuffed the camera and phone into my pockets, then scrambled over to where the other guy lay. He was similarly equipped. I pocketed the second phone and camera, too, then walked off, keeping to the quiet streets paralleling Yasukuni-dori. I would take the batteries out of the phones to make sure they were untraceable and examine the cameras when I was safely away from the bodies. If the two giants had been using the equipment only to monitor each other, I would be okay.
But I had a feeling they weren’t just monitoring each other. And if I was right, I was in for another visit, and soon.