Sonny Hemkar is a doctor in a rough part of Los Angeles, a resident whose days and nights are an endless parade of bullet wounds, cracked skulls, knife-wielding addicts, and innocent victims who don’t understand what’s happening to their neighborhood. Sonny is just as frightened as they are, but he can’t let it show. The son of Indian immigrants, he’s dedicated to his studies, and determined to escape this neighborhood before it drags him down. . . . At least, that’s what he tells women.
In reality, Sonny is a Libyan sleeper agent, embedded deep within the United States for a single terrifying purpose: to assassinate President George H. W. Bush. At long last, he gets his call to action, and speeds to New York to carry out his plan. As every law enforcement agent in the country works to protect the president, Sonny sneaks past them all, designing an intricate plan to turn the world upside down.
Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Ed McBain delivers a chillingly realistic suspense novel in the tradition of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. Scimitar’s razor-sharp edge cuts right to the bone.
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By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1971 Ed McBain
All rights reserved.
Tomás was talking about a head floating in a toilet bowl.
This had been years ago in Houston, in the building where he'd lived. They'd heard yelling upstairs and he'd gone up with his sister and his brother-in-law, this shabby little walkup where they were living at the time, climbed the stairs with the smell of rancid oil and stale cooking in the hallway, a whiff of marijuana drifting from one of the apartments, knocked on the door to 3C, and a woman opened the door and told them in Spanish that her husband had just suffered a heart attack. But there was a bloody cleaver in her hand.
"He's in the bathroom," she'd told them in Spanish.
In the bathroom, the man's decapitated body was lying alongside the tub, and his head was floating in the toilet bowl.
"Gross," BJ said.
Pudgy and short, with blue eyes and straight brown hair styled at a barber's college, BJ looked like a Georgia redneck farmer. Actually, he was a preppy WASP, born and bred in Connecticut, a product of Choate and then Yale where — to hear him tell it — he'd learned not to pee on his hands, although graduates of Harvard also claimed that singular distinction. He peppered his speech with teenage colloquialisms, sometimes sounding more like a Valley Girl than a man with a medical degree. He was now rolling his baby blues in bug-eyed horror at the very thought of a severed head in a toilet bowl.
Tomás relished his revulsion.
Like a dedicated sadist, he described in meticulous detail the woman in the blood-stained slip, her hands dripping blood, strings of blood in her hair, flecks of blood on her face —
"Barphsville!" BJ shouted.
— and then went on to describe the appearance of the bathroom, which to Tomás resembled the chicken market back home in Houston, Texas, where birds with their throats slit and their feathers drenched with blood hung upside down on hooks and flapped out the last minutes of their lives against white-tiled, blood-spattered walls. The pièce de résistance of his gory tale was the severed head itself, wedged into the toilet bowl, the bald scalp intersticed with chop wounds, the throat ending in a jagged tatter of torn and lacerated flesh where it had been severed from the body.
Sonny was enjoying both Tomás's story and BJ's discomfort.
The singles bar was in downtown Los Angeles, not too distant from the hospital, but far enough away to make it seem safe. Safe from what, he didn't quite know. Safe to get drunk, he imagined. Safe to indulge profligately, without any of the teaching staff accidentally wandering in to cluck collective tongues over the unseemly behavior of doctors in residence.
The Doctors Three, they called themselves.
Sonny himself, BJ, and Tomás, whom they sometimes called Tomasito because of his diminutive stature. Small-boned and thin, with straight black hair and eyes as black as midnight, Tomás moved with the grace of a butterfly, his slender fingers floating on the air now as he described in more intimate detail the anatomy of the long-ago woman in the pink slip, who kept insisting that the two-piece corpse in the bathroom had achieved its present bipartite condition via a heart attack.
"That was when I knew I wanted to be a doctor," he said.
The Doctors Three.
All of them in their second year of residency at what was known in the trade as "a busy hospital," or "a hands-on hospital," meaning a hospital with more than its fair share of broken heads and bullet wounds. Come next June, they would each and separately venture out into the wide, wide world of internal medicine. They had met at the hospital as strangers with Doctor of Medicine degrees. They were now fast friends, albeit somewhat drunken ones, BJ already half in the bag, Little Thomas not far behind him, and Sonny trying to stay sober long enough to determine whether the leggy blonde at the bar was in actuality tossing her lilting laughter exclusively in his direction.
Tomorrow would be Saturday, the twentieth day of June. Tomorrow night, the beast that was Los Angeles would bellow and roar once again, and the citizenry of this fair city on the Pacific would begin flooding into the Emergency Room, complaining of a wide variety of fractures, contusions, and wounds. Normally, the Doctors Three were on rotating duty in various and separate parts of the hospital, the better to see you, my dear. But on the weekend, all three of them were needed downstairs to breach the tide and stanch the flow of blood. This Friday-night respite was a necessary part of the process, Sonny guessed, a time to regroup and recharge, a time of merriment in anticipation of a good night's sleep before the —
The blonde's lilting laughter floated his way again.
He turned to face the bar.
Their eyes met.
No question about it. I'd Like To Know You Better, her eyes said. His said the same thing. Hers were blue, his the color of tarnished brass, an admixture of his father's brown and his mother's blue, the genes tangled over centuries of invaders in two different lands. His complexion was the color of California sand.
"See you guys later," he said, and pushed back his chair.
BJ whispered something to Tomás. Tomás laughed.
As he crossed the floor toward the crowded bar where the blonde was still in apparently delighted conversation with a girl at her left elbow, Sonny was aware of his own good looks and the stir, the buzz — or so he imagined — that accompanied his very passage through a room. His looks were what most women considered exotic, this mingling of East and West, the dusty complexion and green-grey eyes, the brown hair with its lustrous shine, the aquiline nose and sensuous mouth he'd inherited from his father, the tall muscular body that was a legacy from his mother's side of the family. The blonde turned on her stool as he approached, swiveling away from the girl on her left, welcoming Sonny by crossing outrageously long legs sheathed in an extremely brief, blue-leather mini. Blue stockings. He loved blue stockings. Pantyhose, actually, he guessed. Blue, high-heeled, patent-leather pumps. Her eyes flashed. A paler blue than the pantyhose. She was wearing a white silk blouse with little pearl buttons down the front. Long blond hair hanging loose around the perfect oval of her face. Red, red lipstick, you expected a more orangey color on a blonde. Blue eyeliner. A dazzling smile that could have kleig-lighted a Hollywood premiere.
"Hi," he said, "I'm Sonny," and extended his hand.
"I'm Corrie," she said.
"Okay to join you?"
"Sure," she said.
He took the stool beside hers. She swiveled to face him. She smelled of spring flowers in bloom, he wondered what perfume she was wearing. The bartender waddled over. He was a big fat man wearing green suspenders. He looked jolly and eager to please.
"Sir?" he asked.
"Beefeater's on the rocks, please," Sonny said.
"Lady still okay?"
"Please," she said, extending her glass. "It's ..."
"Corona and lime, right," the bartender said, and smiled, and waddled off again.
"So," she said.
"So," he said.
"Is Sonny your real name?"
"Are you ready?" he said.
"That bad, huh?"
"Try Krishnan Hemkar."
"Say what?" she said.
"Kar. Krishnan Hemkar. It's easier when you break it up."
"That's what you think," she said, and laughed. "What is it, anyway? Russian?"
"Indian," he said.
"Which tribe?" she asked.
"Not American Indian," he said. "Indian Indian. Calcutta, New Delhi, Bombay, like that. My father was Indian."
This was the lie.
The eternal lie.
"He met my mother in Rajistan. She's British."
Embroidering the lie. By rote.
"I thought maybe you were Hispanic," she said. "From a distance, you and your friend looked Hispanic."
"My friend, yes," he said. "Me, no."
"Why Sonny?" she asked.
"Lots of Indians are called Sonny. I really don't know why."
"Lots of Italians are called Sonny, too," she said. "Didn't you see The Godfather?"
"No, I'm sorry, I didn't."
"Well, Sonny Corleone. He was Italian, you know. Not James Caan, but the character he plays. In the movie. In the book, too. Sonny."
"Yes," Sonny said.
"I loved Jewel in the Crown, too," she said. "Did you see that one?" "No, I'm sorry."
"On television? You didn't see it?"
"It was all about India!" she said, her eyes widening, her face registering surprise and perhaps outrage that someone of Indian descent had not watched a show that was all about India.
"I don't watch much television," he said. "Or see many movies, either. When I'm not at the hospital, I'm home studying."
"Oh?" she said. Interest flashing in the blue eyes. Was it possible that the handsome Indian was also a med student? Or perhaps even a doctor? Half the interns in the United States of America were Indian. Press your bedside buzzer at two in the morning, you got a guy in a turban and baggy pants, wearing a little black plastic nameplate with white letters that read Dr. Vishwambhar Prakash. When you were sick, the whole world was Indian.
"I'm a doctor," he said, ending the intensely suspenseful moment.
"No kidding. Dr. Krishnan Hemkar. Sonny Hemkar."
"Well. I'm pleased to meet you," she said, and extended her hand. He took it. They shook hands. They held hands briefly. She withdrew her hand. She smiled at him.
"Beefeater's on the rocks," the bartender said, "Corona and lime. Pour it?" he asked Corrie.
"Please," she said. "With a head, please."
He poured the beer over the squeezed lime.
"Keep the tab running, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, please," Sonny said.
The bartender went off again. Sonny raised his glass.
"Cheers," he said.
"Cheers," she said.
Their eyes met again.
"What's the Corrie for?" he asked.
"Guess," she said, and pulled a face. "Corinne. Isn't that awful?"
"Actually, I like it," he said.
Another lie. Minor league, but a lie nonetheless; Corinne was possibly his least favorite name in the entire world.
"It's a diminutive of Cora," she said. "Which in Greek means 'maiden.' Which in itself is a laugh," she said, and smiled. Meaning she was not a maiden. As if any woman in her mid-twenties, which is what he guessed she was, could in this day and age be mistaken for a maiden. Nonetheless, she'd informed him. Which was encouraging. He would have to remind her, later, that she'd been the first to bring up sex, however remotely. "So were you born in India?" she asked.
"Yes, but we moved to England when I was very young."
The lie, the lie.
"How young?" she asked.
"I was eight months old."
"Then you were just a baby."
"Then, actually, you were raised in England."
"So really you could call yourself English if you wanted to, couldn't you? I mean, your mother's English, isn't that what you said ...?"
"... and you lived in England from when you — how old were you when you came to America?"
"How old are you now?"
"To go to college, or what?"
"I went to U-Mich," she said. "I wanted to be a writer."
"Do you still write?"
"Yeah, insurance," she said, and laughed.
"Would you like to sleep with me tonight?" he asked.
She looked at him.
"That was fast," she said.
"Yes," he said, smiling, nodding, ducking his head in the Little Boy manner that had worked for him on far too many previous occasions. He had never had trouble bedding any girl or woman he'd wanted. Never. At the same time, he often felt that he was at their mercy, felt that each time a seduction succeeded for him it was contradictorily he himself who'd succumbed to a force beyond his control.
"So?" he said, and smiled boyishly. "What do you say?"
"Why not?" she said.
So much for safe sex, he thought.
Shower at six in the morning, leave the apartment, dash home to douche or whatever it was they did afterward to ward off evil demons and venereal disease. In all fairness, she had asked him for a brief sexual history — he'd made it as brief as possible — and then insisted that he use a rubber, which he'd always felt was tantamount to skiing on grass. The night had been only moderately exciting, and he was not surprised to find her long gone when the alarm went off. He looked at the clock again. He had hit the snooze button at eight; it was now twenty minutes to nine. The sheets smelled of stale sex. He stretched his arms over his head, yawned, and then threw back the covers and got out of bed.
The apartment was insufferably hot.
Something wrong with the air conditioner, he'd been begging his landlady to fix it ever since the heat wave began at the beginning of the month. He went into the bathroom, performed what BJ called The Morning Rites of Passage, and then washed his hands as if he were scrubbing up for brain surgery. There was something wrong with the hot water, too, this damn apartment. He yanked a big white bath towel from the rack and, drying his hands, looked at himself in the mirror over the sink; he did not feel even vaguely positive that he could cope successfully with the day ahead. Wearing only the big towel — white against his dusty skin, the hard flat belly and dancing pecs courtesy of Nautilus three times a week — he came out into the kitchen, put up the coffee, and poured himself a glass of orange juice. The time was 9:06 A.M. by the digital clock on the countertop microwave; it felt like the middle of the night. A note was propped up against the toaster. He picked it up. In a hasty scrawl, she'd written: Adored it, I'll call you.
Don't bother, he thought.
The telephone rang.
He lifted the receiver from the wall mount.
"Hello?" he said.
A British accent detectable even in that single word. But ...
"Who's this, please?" he asked.
"Mrs. Jennings," she said.
Nothing valid yet.
"And the first name?"
"Go ahead, Mother," he said. "This is Scott."
There was a slight pause. Then she said, "Are you awake, Scott?"
His heart lurched.
"I'm an early riser," he said.
The proper response.
"I have good news," she said.
"I think I've found an apartment for you."
The proper words, the proper sequence.
"Here in New York."
"How did you find it?"
"In The New York Times."
"How much are they asking?"
More vital information.
"That sounds reasonable."
"And will you let me know when you get here?"
"You can be sure," he said.
The proper sign off.
He put the phone back on the wall hook.
His heart was pounding.
At ten minutes past noon that Saturday morning, it was still raining in New York City, a relentless summer rain that drilled the pavement surrounding the sidewalk telephone. In New York nowadays, you couldn't even go into a proper phone booth to escape a downpour. There were only these ridiculous little shells — not even those, really. Just these stingy little — Gillian was at a loss for a word to describe them. Listening posts? Narrow and constructed two abreast, with a plastic divider falsely promising privacy between them. The phone position — as good a word as any — alongside hers was still vacant. She fished in her handbag for another quarter, dialed a number, and listened to the insistent ringing on the other end.
"SeaCoast," a male voice said.
"Mr. Scopes?" she said.
"Who's this, please?"
"Go ahead, Mother. This is Arthur."
"Arthur, I'm calling about the shipment we were expecting."
"From Los Angeles."
"Yes, go ahead."
"It will be here on the twenty-fifth."
"Very good. And will you keep me informed?"
"You can be sure," she said, and hung up.
She put the receiver back on its hook, felt automatically for her quarter in the coin return chute, and then stepped out boldly into the rain. Her umbrella was one of those flimsy little folding jobs the size of a rolled tabloid newspaper when it was closed. Open, it seemed incapable of braving the unseasonably fierce wind. As she turned left at the corner, into the full onslaught of the wind roaring eastward through the narrow canyon from the Hudson, she felt certain the umbrella would either flip inside out or else be torn from her hands. The umbrella was red. She held it like a small shield, pushing it into the wind and the rain, muttering to herself about the dreadful weather. She was drenched to the skin by the time she reached her apartment building on West End Avenue.
Excerpted from Scimitar by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1971 Ed McBain. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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