The Program

by Gregg Hurwitz


Called back into the fold of the U.S. Marshals Service, Tim Rackley is tasked with retrieving Leah Henning, the daughter of a powerful Hollywood producer, from a mind control cult. As Tim winds his way deep undercover inside an insidious operation called The Program, he confronts a brand of mind-warping manipulation beyond his worst expectations.

Becoming enmeshed with a diverse band of characters – from the charismatic, messianic leader T.D. Betters, to a cult reject burnout, to the intelligent yet highly vulnerable Leah herself – Tim finds himself caught in a shadowy landscape of lies, manipulation, and terror. At stake, innocent minds – maybe even his own.

Sample Chapter


To the bemusement of the tourists and a third grade class shepherded by a portly teacher, the woman crouched naked near the fourteen-foot mammoth and urinated. Her hands gripped the kinked-wire fence encircling the vast Lake Pit, the La Brea Tar Pits’ main attraction. Her face was smooth and unlined; she could have still been a teenager.

A few of the children laughed. A stout man in a white Vandyke and a pinstripe shirt ceased his lethargic tapping on a set of bongos, gathered up the bills he’d accrued in an overturned boater, and scurried off. A golden-years tourist clucked disapproval, clasping her strap-held camera to her side. Her husband gazed on, mouth slightly ajar, as if unsure whether the vision before him was real or a preview of senility.

Heedless that her ankles were getting splattered, the young woman stared through the fence at the fiberglass family of Columbian mammoths, life-sized props for the prehistoric death trap. The baby mammoth stood in its father’s shadow on shore, watching its mother mired in the hardened surface a stone’s throw out. The mother stayed snapshot-frozen in her sinking terror, her upper legs mid-flail, trunk extended.

Farther into the lake, the tar crust gave way to a murky brown liquid that fumed and bubbled with eruptions of methane. The sludge beneath the surface housed the world’s richest deposit of Ice Age fossils. A thick, oppressive smell pervaded the area—equal parts sulfur dioxide and baked Nevada highway.

The woman turned to face the crowd and it froze, as if this rail-skinny girl were wired with explosives. Her inside-out panties lay where she’d kicked them off, crowning the heap of clothes to her left. The backs of her arms were purple, contused from elbow to shoulder.

“Why isn’t anyone helping?” the naked woman implored the onlookers. “Can’t you see? Can’t you see what’s going on?”

The teacher blew into the whistle dangling around his neck, withdrawing his class to the picnic area near the restrooms. A two-man security team motored up on a golf cart, cutting through the thickening mass of gawkers. The driver hopped out, face shiny with sweat. His partner stayed in the cart, fingers drumming nervously on the security decal; dealing with a naked woman pissing on county property was a far cry from tending to sun-strokes and graffiti.

Backhanding moisture off his forehead, the driver spoke into his radio. “Is LAPD on the way?”

From the burst of responding static resolved a few security catch phrases. “…backup en route…crowd control…subdue the perpetrator…”

He plucked at the front of his blue shirt. “Ma’am, please put your clothes back on. There are children present.”

An appeal to common decency wasn’t the most shrewd approach when facing a naked crazy person.

Cars had backed up on Wilshire Boulevard, parallel to the fence on the lake’s south side; spectators were standing on top of a bus shelter for a better vantage. Onlookers streamed over to the scene. At the west edge of the park in the café of the neighboring County museum, the windows were all but blotted out with faces wearing blank expressions of morbid curiosity. A sprinting KCOM cameraman tripped over a cable and went down, cracking his lens and bloodying his palms.

The girl’s head pivoted frantically as she suddenly became aware of the commotion. Her chest heaved. When she spotted the four blue-uniformed officers cutting through the crowd, she sprinted along the fence, to a proliferation of gasps and shrieks from the crowd. At the south edge of the lake, a break in the fence accommodated a low cast-iron bridge. She vaulted deftly over its side, landing on the strip of dirt, and scurried back near her previous post, this time just inside the enclosure.

Three of the cops froze on the other side of the fence; the fourth followed her route and paused with one black boot up on the bridge’s rail. The girl’s eyes darted, terrified pupils held in crescents of white. “Can’t you help? Why won’t you help?”

One of the cops, the oldest, eased forward, gesturing down the fence line for his partner on the bridge to stay put. “We’re here to help.”

She walked down the slope to the father and baby mammoth at the shore’s edge, treading on yellow flowers.

A note of alarm found its way into the veteran cop’s voice. “Ma’am, just hold up now. Please don’t go any nearer.”

The girl rested an arm on the baby’s side, staring out at the doomed mother who remained sunk in the sludge, rocking slightly in her perennial grave. The girl was crying now, shoulders heaving, wiping tears off her cheeks with the back of a slender hand. The air was filled with an electric charge, the anticipation of something horrific about to occur.

The other officers were fighting to calm the spectators, who were shouting advice to the cop and demands to the girl. She remained lost in herself.

“Get them back,” the veteran cop shouted. “Get up a perimeter. Let’s get this girl some space.”

His hand was still extended, holding his partner on the bridge in place. He tried to keep his voice calm and reassuring while speaking loud enough for the girl to hear him over the commotion. “My partner there, his name is Michael. He’s gonna wait right there until you’re ready for him to come down. Then, when you decide, we can come help you take care of that mammoth.”

A burst of bubbles broke through the thick tar near the female mammoth, creating a momentary pool before the crust reformed. The girl turned back to the lake. The cop on the bridge tensed like a retriever at the edge of a duck blind.

“Wait!” the officer shouted. “Talk to me. Tell me what I can do.”

She stopped and gazed at him. Her face held a sudden calm, the calm of determination. “The Teacher says to exalt strength, not comfort.”

She turned and strode out onto the lake’s tar surface. The cop on the bridge leapt down, but he was a good thirty yards away. The older cop was yelling, veins straining in his neck, and the spectators went mad with a sort of frenzied, hypnotic motion like concert viewers or soccer fans. The girl’s bare feet slapped the black surface, which started to give as she neared the enormous female mammoth twenty yards from shore. The crust gave under her next step with a wet sucking sound and she screamed. Her arms shot up and out, and she struck the thin layer of congealed tar with her right knee and elbow, both of which immediately adhered to it.

The crowd surged and ebbed, drawn and repulsed.

The girl tried to pull herself up, a gooey sheet forming between her trapped arm and the lake’s surface, but then her hip stuck and she rolled to her side, the tar claiming her hair. One of her legs punched through the crust into the brown liquid below and her body shifted and started a slow submersion. Still, she struggled toward the mammoth.

The cop from the bridge was standing on shore and the veteran cop was still shouting—”Get a rope. Throw her a goddamn rope!”—both meaty hands fisting the wire rectangles in the fence so tight his fingers had gone white.

The girl strained to keep her face free and clear, pulling against her entangled hair so hard it distorted her features. Aside from her panicked eyes, she seemed weirdly calm, almost acquiescent. Both of her arms were mired now, her lower body nearly lost, and the crowd watched with horrified apprehension as she sputtered, a quivering, sinking bulge. Her face, the sole oval of remaining white, pointed up at the midday sun, sucking a few last gasps before it too filled and quieted, enveloped beneath the surface.

The crowd was suddenly silent, deflated. From the throng emerged the sound of one person sobbing, then another. Within seconds, a chorus of cries was raised.

The veteran cop was on the radio, sending for an aerial ladder truck from the fire department, shouting across the receiver between transmissions for security to retrieve a garden hose. He’d sweated through his undershirt and uniform, the dark blue turned black in patches. When his partner reached him, he was still staring at the dented ring of tar where the girl had disappeared.

His lips barely moved when he spoke. “What the hell could make a person do something like that?”

The tar slowly constricted around the spot where the girl had sunk until it again formed an oblivious smooth sheet.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Program by Gregg Hurwitz. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Awards & Accolades

Los Angeles Times Bestseller
September 2004 Booksense Pick
Featured Selection of Book-of-the-Month Club, The Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Mystery Guild

“Fascinating… Intriguing… Filled will well-drawn characters, meticulous research and pulse-pounding action, The Program is easily one of the best thrillers of the year.”

“Hurwitz has been tapped as a younger, hipper Grisham… he certainly delivers in terms of pure, propulsive readability.”

“The Program is a white-knuckle journey into the dark heart of a mind-control cult. A compelling, riveting, dead-smart thriller, it explores one girl’s descent into a psychological underworld, and the deputy marshal who risks everything to save her. Tim Rackley is the best new series character around. If you haven’t discovered Gregg Hurwitz yet, get to a bookstore!”

“Tough, true, well-written, and memorable as Hell, which, I hear, is memorable. Dray and Tim Rackley are uniquely believable and sympathetic heroes.”

“Grounded in character and believable detail, Hurwitz’s thriller engages on every level.”

“Extraordinarily satisfying… A gripping read from start to finish.”

“In The Program Hurwitz again shows that he is a remarkable crime fiction writer, a solid member of the genre’s top echelon.”

“Thriller writing at its best. This is taut, energetic prose that sucks you in and holds you till the very last page. Gregg Hurwitz goes on my list of must-read authors.”

“The Program is pure nail-biting, stay-up-all-night suspense. Gregg Hurwitz rocks.”

“Finally! Intelligent writing mixed with nerve-tingling suspense. Another gripping read from an author who redefines the thriller. Gregg Hurwitz handcuffs you to his story and holds your emotions hostage. Once you enter The Program, there’s no leaving.”

“Gregg Hurwitz takes us on a rip-roaring thrill ride through the internecine workings of an evil cult. Tim and Dray Rackley are back and never better, as Rack navigates this dangerous river of darkness to save a young girl. A stick to your fingers read by a novelist at the top of his


Gregg recently did an interview with Crimezone, a thriller website in the Netherlands, where Gregg’s books have found a wide readership. He talks about the Rackley series in general, and of course, The Program.


Did you always wanted to be a writer and when and why did you decide to become one?

As long as I remember, I wanted to be a crime writer. I have mysteries that I wrote when I was in third grade that I bound between cardboard covers. When I went to Harvard, I chose my major(s) based on what I thought would be the best combination for a novelist.

Was it hard to get your first novel published? And how did you manage to get it published?

I was very lucky. I had done an internship with a film producer (Cary Woods, who produced Swingers, Scream, Kids, Godzilla) when I first started writing The Tower. Cary produced Night Shyamalan’s movie just before The Sixth Sense. When I finished my book, a producer at the film company got the manuscript to Night’s attorney. The lawyer loved it and flew me to New York, and got me an agent, who promptly sold it to Simon & Schuster.

You started with writing stand alones before you started writing the series about Tim Rackley? What’s the difference between writing stand alones or a series, what are the advantages and the disadvantages?

That’s a very interesting question. I love to explore new worlds, and that’s one of the reasons I started with stand-alones, and one of the reasons each Rackley book deals with a new dark underworld for Rackley to fight his way out of. For The Kill Clause, I went out with the US Marshals ART team, fired an MP5, and learned how to pick locks like the Stork. For The Program, I went undercover into cults to do research so I could build my own cult. I love writing both stand-alone and series books, but I would say one advantage of starting with stand-alones is that it helped me to really view each book as its own world, that has to work on its own terms.

How did you create the character of Tim Rackley. What consideration played a role in creating the character?

I had a rough idea for the plot of The Kill Clause, but I never wrote it. Until one day, I started thinking about a law officer – an ethical, upstanding man with a background in Spec Ops (to pull off some of the missions he creates). I heard the Marshal Service was great, so I went in and talked to the Marshal for the central district, LA. And so Tim’s career came to life that way. As for his personality, he evolved in my mind mostly in relation to his wife, Dray, and his daughter, Ginny. Once I placed him in the context of his family, he came to life.

Was it always the plan to write more books about Tim and make him a series hero?

No. I wrote The Kill Clause as a stand-alone, but then Tim decided to stick around.

How would you describe the character of Tim Rackley for the readers of Crimezone Magazine?

He’s a strong, ethical man with a background in the Army Rangers, which makes him extremely capable when it comes to missions. He’s very courageous, and a man of action, but he sometimes is too quick to act. His wife, Dray, provides an excellent balance for him. As a Sheriff’s deputy, she’s extremely tough and smart, and she’s capable of showing him the sides of issues he’s yet to consider. Tim was crushed by the death of his daughter, Ginny. He finds out about her violent murder in the first sentence of the first book – that’s where I pick up his story.

Did you put something from yourself in Tim’s character? What are the similarities between you and him and what are the differences between the two of you?

Yes – there’s something of me in every character I write. Tim is tougher than me. He’s a better shot, and better trained. He’s smarter than I am, but perhaps I’m more intellectual. I wouldn’t want to fight him, though!

Does the series about Tim differ from your former books and in what way? Could you describe your former books to me (They are not yet translated in Dutch).

My former books are The Tower, a serial killer novel that opens in an underwater prison; Minutes to Burn, a Navy SEALs/creature science thriller set in Galápagos; and Do No Harm, a medical thriller that takes place in LA, and opens with a nurse stumbling through the ER doors after a vicious attack just outside the hospital. They are different in that they are all stand-alones, and aren’t procedural thrillers.

When do you think is the time to stop the series about Tim Rackley? Do you think you can ever say goodbye to him?

As soon as he stops talking to me.

What was the inspiration for The Kill Clause?

I always had an idea lurking in the back of my mind: What if there was a group of people out there determined to deal with criminals who had slipped through the cracks of the justice system? During my research in the field, I always asked cops and prosecutors what bothered them most, and they said when a criminal got off due to loopholes in the justice system, even when the evidence clearly showed they were guilty.

Did you do a lot of research for The Kill Clause? Could you give me some examples?

I followed a locksmith and learned how to pick locks. I shot MP5s with the Marshals’ Arrest Response Team. I shot a sniper rifle. I went with Navy SEALs to a demolition range to blow up cars (while researching Mitchell’s character). I spent a lot of time with prosecutors and defense attorneys.

What do you think about/ how do you look at people who take revenge on a perpetrator (like the people in The Kill Clause) when the law releases them while you know they are guilty.

I think it’s a losing cause. Violence doesn’t solve the problem, or fill the loss. That’s one of the things Tim discovers.

Was there a message for your readers in The Kill Clause? For example, did you want them to think about good and evil and moral dilemmas?

Yes – at the center of each of the Rackley books is an ethical dilemma. Early in the book, Tim is handed a gun by a cop and allowed to go into a garage, alone, to confront his daughter’s killer. I want readers to wonder – what would I do in that situation?

What was the inspiration for The Program?

A friend lost his sister into a cult and told me all about it. I found it fascinating.

Did you do a lot of research for The Program? Could you give me some examples?

I went undercover into mind-control cults. I submitted to cult testing. I got ahold of bootleg copies of indoctrination tapes for various cults. I interviewed former cult victims. I studied the history of mind control.

Do you understand people who join a cult? What kind of people are they in your opinion?

Yes, I do. They tend to be normal, healthy people, caught during a time of transition. That’s one of the reasons why cults recruit on college campuses and at airports.

What do you think people hope to find at a cult?

Acceptance, community, understanding.

I read you went undercover to cult meetings? Could you describe your experiences to me? Was it hard to stay neutral and not be influenced by the things they told?

I’d done a lot of research, so I knew how to stay less involved. And I was careful not to eat any food offered, and not to spend the night at a cult center. I was kept in a room with others, and subjected to indoctrination in the form of testimonials, speeches by leadership, and group pressure. One place hooked me up to machines to test my “responses.”

Was it hard to create the character of Terrance Donald Betters and make him a credible cult leader?

No – it was so much fun. He’s one of the most fun – and stimulating – characters I’ve ever written. He’s much smarter than I am.

What do you think is more important, characterization or plot and why?

Both, and more importantly, the intersection of character and plot. I had a rough idea for the plot of The Kill Clause in my mind for a long time, but it wasn’t until Tim Rackley came along that I had a book.

How would you describe the average characters in your book? What kind of people do you like to write about?

I like to write about good people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Where they have to uphold their ethics at a time least convenient to them.

What do you think are the ingredients of a good suspense novel?

Pace and plotting are essential, as are great characters. And meticulous research judiciously implemented.

Is writing very hard work for you or is it a natural kind of thing that goes very easily? What do you find the most difficult when you are writing?

I love writing more than anything. It’s the most natural thing I do, which doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes difficult. I think the hardest part is rewriting, getting every last detail right.

If I was a reader who had never read a book from Gregg Hurwitz, how would you describe your books and writing style to me and why should I read your books?

I write fast-paced, high-octane thrillers. Just read the first sentence and it’ll hook you.

What’s the best thriller you ever read until now and why/ which thriller would you recommend to everybody as a ‘must read’ and why?

I believe Red Dragon is the greatest thriller ever written. It’s terrifying, and the characterization is absolutely stunning.