Today sees the release of Panic: The Ultimate Edition by Jeff Abbott! Read on to see an extract from the book. Jeff has also recorded two videos for us – he's chatting about the book here, and reading an extract here.
[WARNING: This extract is not suitable for younger readers.]
FRIDAY MARCH 11
‘Evan, what are you working on?’ Mrs Crabtree’s voice jerked Evan Casher out of his long stare at the computer screen. His fingers went to the keys on the school computer that would make his Internet browser vanish, but it was too late. Mrs Crabtree was leaning over his shoulder, and he could feel the gaze of the rest of study hall falling on him.
She looked at the website, which read, ‘FilmzKool,’ in bold red letters at the top, and said, ‘This doesn’t appear to be your history paper.’
‘What is that?’ She pointed at the film running on his screen, its sound muted.
‘A short movie a kid wants to post on my site. He’s from Japan. It’s about his dad being a professional skydiver. He jumped out a plane with his dad and filmed it.’
She watched the images unfold, a boy and father plummeting through the sky, their mouths working silent words.
‘How can you understand what’s being said? It’s not subtitled.’
‘The pictures should be enough to tell me if the story’s good.’
Mrs Crabtree sighed. ‘Evan. Study hall, weirdly enough, is actually for studying. Get back to your assignment.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Evan said. ‘Sorry.’
Mrs Crabtree gave him a stern stare to show she meant business and walked back to her desk.
‘Busted,’ Carrie said, sitting across from him, working through her math homework, trying hard not to smile, and failing.
‘Yes. For the moment.’
‘Running that film in class – not clever. And you’re normally all about the clever.’
‘I thought I would just see if some of the movies I’m expecting have been uploaded yet.’ Evan smiled back at her as she made her face very serious and zoomed through a trigonometry problem. He opened up the computer’s word processor, plugged in his homework flash drive, and opened his history-paper file: ‘In 1969, something happened. Blah, blah, blah.’
Not really a great start.
‘Kids,’ Mrs Crabtree said, ‘I’ve got to run up to the principal’s office for a few. Keep doing your work.’ The study hall, about fifteen kids in total, glanced up at her. ‘Evan’ – she pointed a finger – ‘stay off your website.’
At another table, Evan saw Dezz Germaine smiling at him. He was a new kid, sixteen like Evan and Carrie, with hair dyed snow-white and cut into a rough buzz cut. He had a vaguely European accent; Evan had heard rumors that he’d moved to Austin from Germany, or France, or Sweden. The best gossip was, he’d been kicked out of every creatively oriented school in Western Europe and his father had shipped him off to relatives here in Austin. Dezz smiled a lot at Evan, and Evan couldn’t decide if he was being friendly or mocking. Carrie said the guy probably just wanted a friend; Evan thought Dezz was odd. He put his fingers back on the keyboard and started typing out his paper, just trying to outline it at first, get every idea down, the way he did his short films.
Thirty seconds later, everything changed.
The phone’s ringtone startled Evan; he wasn’t supposed to have his cell on in study hall, but he’d forgotten to turn it off. Carrie, sitting across from him, racing through her math homework, laughed. ‘Web-surfing and a phone. You’re lucky Crabtree’s not here.’
He fumbled for the phone, was about to power it off when he saw it was his mom calling. It couldn’t be against the rules to talk to his own mom, right?
Carrie pointed at the vibrating cellphone. ‘You better answer it before Crabtree comes back.’
Evan answered. ‘Hello.’
His mother said, ‘Evan, I need you to come home. Right now.’ She spoke in a low whisper.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Not over the phone. I’ll explain when you get here.’
‘Uh, okay, but you’re not supposed to call me, phone the school office and they get—’
‘Evan, I don’t want to talk to the school office.’ Her voice went tight, like wire. ‘Don’t tell anyone you’re leaving. Just come home.’
Evan thought he must be dreaming. He turned away from the other tables and whispered into the phone, ‘You want me to cut school?’
‘It’s your study-hall hour, right?’
‘Just get up and walk out. Don’t tell anyone you’re leaving school. Just leave. If anyone tries to stop you’ – and here she took a breath – ‘then I want you to run. Get home. Don’t let anyone see you.’
This did not sound like his mother. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Yes!’ She lowered her voice. ‘Do as I say, Evan. No argument. Don’t even tell Carrie.’ A weird kink in his mother’s voice. Something so not right.
‘Is this like one of those Punk’d-style shows? Is this a joke for TV?’ he whispered.
‘No, Evan, this is life. Not everything is filmed.’ She sounded odd, like she might be about to . . . cry.
He got up and went to the corner of the study hall, away from the other students. ‘Is Dad all right?’ he asked softly. His father, a computer consultant, had left Austin three days ago for a job in Australia. He designed databases for big companies and governments. Australia. Long flights. Evan had a sudden vision of a plane scattered across Sydney Harbour, ripped metal, smoke rising, and fear clutched his throat. ‘What’s happened?’
‘I just need you here now, okay?’ Calm but insistent. ‘Evan’ – he heard his mother take another steadying breath – ‘please.’
The naked, almost frightening neediness – a tone he had never heard in his mother’s voice – made her sound like a stranger to him. ‘Um, okay.’
‘Hurry, Evan. As fast as you can.’
‘Okay.’ He fought down a rising panic.
‘Thank you for not asking questions right now,’ she said. ‘I love you and I’ll see you soon and explain everything.’
He turned off the phone and glanced at the clock. Twenty more minutes of study hall and then five minutes to get to trigonometry. Mrs Crabtree was still gone at the principal’s office. He could be home before he was missed, and then Mom could call the school so he didn’t get into trouble. But this wasn’t like her. Not at all. He felt a tightness in his chest. What was wrong?
Carrie moved a lock of her honey-blonde hair out of her eye as he sat back down. Evan was about to pick up his backpack and pull his flash drive from the school computer when he remembered his mother’s words: Just get up and walk out.
Carrie was staring at him. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘No, of course not. My mom’s clueless, you know that. She got confused about if I was working at the film lab today.’ Evan stood.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked. ‘Bathroom. My stomach hurts.’ Better for Carrie to think that he wasn’t feeling well if he didn’t return in a few minutes. ‘Will you tell Mrs Crabtree I’ll be right back?’
‘Evan’ – Carrie leaned forward and he felt his heart shift in his chest – ‘are you okay?’
Don’t tell anyone. Why would his mom say something like that? It made no sense. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
He left his books and his backpack on the table and the flash drive in the computer. He glanced over at Dezz, who was watching him, tapping a pencil against his cheek, then glancing at Carrie, now sitting alone. Dezz liked Carrie; Evan was sure of it. He kept looking at her all the time.
Evan walked down the empty hallway to the boys’ room. He passed hallways, heard the teachers lecturing about Jane Austen and calculus and cellular division. Penrod was a small school, but a good one, strong in the arts, and he liked it here. He didn’t want to get kicked out.
The bathroom was deserted. He hesitated for a moment. He had never cut school before, ever, but the tone in his mom’s voice urged him onward. Her orders had been so unexpected, so unlike her, that there must be a good reason for it.
He hoped she was being honest about his dad. What if something had happened to him? Maybe if Dad was . . . dead . . . his mom couldn’t bear coming to the school and telling him in front of all his friends. Because he would lose it, totally, if his dad was . . . Don’t think that, Evan told himself.
The windows were above the stalls. He took two steps toward them and the door behind him opened. He turned and saw Dezz Germaine walking into the boys’ room. Dezz didn’t exactly walk; it was more of a loping strut. He was taller and thicker-built than Evan, his short hair white as sugar, spiked.
‘Hey, Evan,’ he said.
‘You all right?’
Okay, this was weird. ‘No, not feeling well.’
‘You sure that’s all there is, Evan?’
‘You’re just not setting a good example to all of us in study hall. Getting caught working on your little film projects. Taking phone calls. Leaving without permission.’
‘I don’t need a pass to go to the bathroom. I mean, I guess you would know that if you’d been a student here longer than a week.’
Dezz gave an icy smile. ‘Sure. Fine. Just wanted to be sure you were all right.’
Evan fake-swallowed hard. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m gonna go barf.’
He went inside the stall and shut the door, then leaned over the toilet like he thought he might be sick into it.
Hurry and leave, he thought. What is your problem, weird kid?
The door to the boys’ room opened and closed and he heard the sound of Dezz’s footsteps walking down the hallway.
Evan climbed onto the toilet and opened the window. He was a tall, wiry kid and it was easy to wriggle through the window feet first; he then kept his grip and dropped to the grass. Penrod’s bike rack stood at the side of the school. He unlocked his bike, jumped on, and pedaled fast for home.
The morning sky hung gray like a faraway mist and promised rain; springtime in Austin often meant storms. He got round the corner of the street, then stopped and tried his father’s cellphone. No answer, not even voicemail picking up. But his dad’s phone might not connect in Australia. He jumped on his iPhone to a news site: no disasters reported in Australia. He put the plane-crash scenario out of his mind.
He clicked on his email, shot off a message to his dad saying, Call me ASAP, then downloaded his awaiting emails, in case his father had sent him a note. His inbox held only an email from an old friend in Los Angeles and a pile of music files along with a couple of his mother’s latest digital photos, all sent by her late last night. Mom, whose musical tastes were a lot younger than her years, thrived on obscure bands and tunes, and she’d found three great songs for his film projects from unknown bands that might not charge him a fee, though he couldn’t tell his friends that his mother found songs for the movies he wanted to make, even if she had great musical taste.
He bore down and pedaled hard.
Ten minutes later, he jumped off his bike, leaving it on the grass of the front yard, and raced to the door.
The front door was locked.
He opened it with his key and stepped inside the tiled entryway. ‘Mom?’ he called out.
No answer. That was weird. He had expected her to meet him at the front door, given her tone.
He walked toward the back of the house, toward the kitchen. ‘Mom, if I get in trouble for this, you got to tell the school that you told me to—’
Evan turned the corner and saw his mother lying dead on the kitchen floor.
He froze. He opened his mouth but did not scream. The world around him went thick with the sound of his blood pounding in his throat, in his temples.
He took two stumbling steps toward her. Her face was purpled, her tongue distended, and the kitchen air held the unmistakable stink of death. He saw a silver gleam of wire wrapped around her throat. An empty kitchen-table chair stood next to her, as though she might have been sitting on it before she died.
Evan made a low moan in his throat, knelt by his mother, brushed a tangle of her blonde hair from her face. Her eyes were wide open and swollen, unseeing.
‘Oh, Mom.’ He put his fingers over her lips: stillness. Her skin was still warm.
‘Mom! Mom!’ His voice shattered in grief and horror. It wasn’t happening; it couldn’t be happening; he’d just talked to her . . .
Evan stood. A wave of dizziness buckled his legs. The police. He had to call the police. He staggered round her body to the kitchen counter, where the remains of her breakfast still sat: a coffee cup with a lipsticked rim, a plate dotted with plum-jelly drips and a scattering of muffin crumbs. Evan reached for the phone with a shaking hand.
Metal hammered the back of his head. He dropped to his knees, his teeth biting into his tongue, the tang of blood a bright taste in his mouth. The world started to crumple into darkness.
A gun pressed against the back of his head; the perfect circle of the barrel was cool in his hair. He tried to jerk away, but the gun cracked hard against his temple.
‘Be still, boy,’ a voice said, ‘or you’re dead.’ A man’s voice, raspy and cold. A foot pressed against his throat, pushing his cheek to the floor. His mother’s dead face stared into his eyes, half a meter away.
‘I have a question for you, Evan, and I want you to be a good boy and answer it.’
‘You killed my mom!’ The foot on his throat stamped down hard and Evan couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe.
‘I don’t want to hear anything else from you except answers to my questions.’
He heard another set of footsteps on the stairs, coming from his room. Someone else was entering the kitchen. Two killers. How could he get away from two of them? He wasn’t going to get away. They were going to kill him, same as his mom. He was going to die, right here in the kitchen where he ate breakfast and he and his parents made cookies and he’d messed up the last Christmas turkey trying to carve it just like Dad did. Right here. Die. Now.
Then his laptop’s powering-up chime sounded, louder than his own ragged breathing. Then long seconds of silence, fingers tapping on the keyboard, then the grind of the hard drive.
The foot eased slightly on his throat. ‘Your computer. Do you back it up other than on to your extra hard drive?’
His computer? His mother lay dead and they were asking him about his computer? This just could not be happening to him.
‘No, just to the hard drive.’ He closed his eyes; he couldn’t bear to look into Mom’s face any longer.
‘Already erased, boss, and the woman’s computer, too,’ he heard the other voice say. Another man, with a slightly European accent.
‘Please . . . why? Why?’ Evan heard himself ask. No answer, but the foot lifted off his throat, and a strong hand grasped his hair, the gun hard against the back of his head. Now his face was above his mother’s and a hard cry broke out from his chest.
‘My mom, you killed my mom—’
‘Hush now. It’ll all be over soon.’ The raspy voice of the boss sounded almost soothing. Evan wanted to twist round, see the man’s face, but he couldn’t. The man released Evan’s hair. Then a loop of rope went over his head.
A noose. It tightened, digging savagely into Evan’s throat.
‘Got it,’ the European voice said. Then the whisper of fingers on the keyboard. ‘All gone off the laptop.’
‘You do it, please,’ the boss’s voice said. ‘I can’t bear to kill him. I can’t bear to watch. I’ll finish searching upstairs.’
He heard footsteps on the stairs. Then steel cracked against Evan’s head. Black circles exploded before his eyes, edging out his mother’s blank, dead stare. He fell into darkness.
Then Evan awoke. Dying.
He couldn’t breathe because the rope scorched his throat and his feet danced in empty space. A plastic trash bag covered his head, making the world milky-gray and indistinct. He grabbed at the rope, choked out a cry as the noose strangled him.
‘You took breathing for granted, didn’t you, now, sunshine?’
The European voice, cold and mocking. Evan kicked his feet. The countertop had to be there to take his weight, to save him. He scissored his legs with what strength he had left because there was nothing else he could do.
‘Kick twice if it hurts bad, little boy,’ the European voice said. ‘I’m curious.’
A blast filled his world. Shattering glass. Gunfire. A second of silence. Then the European man screaming in pain.
The rope swung. Evan attempted to inch his fingers under the choking, killing cord. Then another rattle of gunfire boomed huge in his ears and he fell, hit the floor, plaster and splintered wood dusting him. The loose length of the gunshot-torn rope landed across his face.
Evan tried to breathe. Nothing. Nothing. Breathing was a forgotten skill, a trick that he no longer knew. Then his chest hitched with sweet air. Drinking in oxygen, drinking in life. His throat hurt as if it had been skinned from the inside.
Evan heard another eruption of shots, the sound of weight crashing into shrubbery outside the window, feet running, the back fence door creaking open. He lay on the cold tiled floor.
Then an awful silence.
Evan tore the plastic trash bag from his face. He blinked, spat blood and bile. He heard someone coming back into the kitchen. A hand touched his shoulder; fingers prodded him.
He looked up. A man stared down at him. Pale, bald, tall, maybe in his fifties, but trim and strong.
‘They’re gone, Evan,’ Bald said. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Ca-call . . . ’ Every breath was fire in his mouth. ‘Call . . . police. My . . . mother. He—’
‘You’ve got to come with me,’ Bald said. ‘You can’t stay here. They’ll be hunting you now.’
Evan shook his head, kicked away from the man. Bald reached down, worked the broken rope off Evan’s neck, hauled him to his feet, herded him away from his mother’s body.
‘I’m a friend of your mom’s.’ Bald held a wicked-looking shotgun. ‘Gonna get you out of here.’
Evan had never seen him before, and most of his mother’s acquaintances did not walk around with shotguns. ‘My mom!’ His voice, barely above a whisper, broke.
‘Look at me, Evan.’ Bald shook Evan’s shoulders, forced Evan’s gaze to his eyes. ‘Your mother is gone. Gone. There is nothing you can do to help her, except listen to me. And live. That’s what she wanted. You, safe. We have to go. We have to run. Now.’
Evan shook his head. ‘The police. Call the police. There were two men . . . ’
‘They’ve run. We’ll call the police,’ Bald said, ‘just not here.’ He propelled Evan fast toward the back door with a shove.
‘Who are you?’ Evan said, fighting the panic rising in his chest. A man he didn’t know, with a gun, who didn’t want him to call the police. No. No.
‘We’ll talk later. Can’t stay. I need your—’ But he didn’t finish. He had hold of the collar of Evan’s jacket and Evan shrugged free of the jacket, running.
Evan ran out the front door he’d left unlocked.
‘Evan, no! I’m trying to save you! Come here!’ Bald yelled.
Evan bolted into the damp spring air. The pounding of his sneakered feet against the asphalt was the only sound in the quiet of the oak-shaded neighborhood. He glanced behind him. Bald sprinted from the house. Shotgun in one hand, Evan’s jacket in the other, jumping into a weathered blue Ford sedan parked on the street.
Evan tore across the manicured yards. He saw an open garage door and veered into the yard. Please be home. He jumped onto the front porch, leaned against the bell, pounded the door, shouting to call 911. An elderly man with a military buzz cut opened the door, cordless phone already in hand.
The blue Ford sped past him. Evan ran back into the yard, yelling at the neighbor to call the police, trying to catch the number on the Ford’s license plate.
But the car was gone.