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The phone awoke Evan Casher, and he knew something was wrong. No one who knew him ever called this early. He opened his eyes. He reached across the bed for Carrie but she was gone, and her side of the bed was cool. A note, folded, on the pillow. He reached for it but the phone continued its insistent shrill, so he answered.
"Hello," he said.
His mother said: "Evan. I need you to come home. Right now." She spoke in a low whisper.
He fumbled for the bedside lamp. "What's the matter?"
"Not over the phone. I'll explain when you get here."
"Mom, it's a two-and-half hour drive. Just tell me what's wrong."
"Evan. Please. Just come home."
"Is Dad all right?" His father, a computer consultant, had left Austin three days ago for a job in Australia. He made databases dance and sing for big companies and governments. Australia. Long flights. He had a sudden vision of a plane, scattered across the outback or Sydney Harbor, ripped metal, smoke rising. "What's happened?"
"I just need you here, okay?" Calm but insistent.
"Mom, please. Not until you tell me what's going on."
"I said not on the phone." She fell silent, he said nothing, and the uncomfortable tension of an unexpected standoff rose for ten long seconds until she broke it. "Did you have a lot of work to do today, sweetheart?"
"Just edits on Bluff."
"Then bring your computer with you, you can work here. But I need you here. Now."
"What's the big deal about not telling me?"
"Evan." He heard his mother take a steadying breath. "Please."
The naked, almost frightening needinesstone he had never heard in his mother's voice made her sound like a stranger to him. "Um, okay, Mom, I can leave in an hour or so."
"Sooner. As soon as possible."
"All right then, in like fifteen minutes or so."
"Hurry, Evan. Just pack and come 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 I'll explain everything."
"I love you, too."
He put the phone back in the cradle, a little disoriented with the shock of how the day started. Now wasn't the time to tell his mother that he was in love. Seriously, crazy, in Romeo-and-Juliet love.
He opened the note. It simply said, Thanks for a great evening. I'll call you later. Had early morning errands. C.
He got in the shower and wondered if he'd blown it last night. I love you, he'd told Carrie, when they lay spent in the sheets. The words rose to his mouth without thought or effort, because if he'd weighed the consequences, he would have kept his mouth shut. He never said the L-word first. Before, he had told only one woman he loved her, and that had been his last girlfriend, hungry for his reassurance, and he'd said it because he thought it might be true. But last night was different. No might or maybe; he knew with certainty. Carrie lying next to him, her breath tickling his throat, her fingernail tracing a line along his eyebrow and she looked so beautiful and he said the big three words and they felt as true in his heart as anything he had ever known.
Pain flared in her eyes when he spoke and he thought, I should have waited. She doesn't believe it because we're in bed. But she kissed him and said, "Don't love me."
"I'm trouble. Nothing but trouble." But she held him tight, as though she were afraid he would be the one to vanish.
"I love trouble." He kissed her again.
"Why? Why would you love me?"
"What's not to love?" He kissed her forehead. "You have a great brain." He kissed between her eyes. "You see the beauty in everything." He kissed her mouth and grinned. "You always know the right thing to say. . .unlike me."
She kissed him back and they made love again and when they were done she said, "Three months. You can't really know me."
"I'll never know you. We never know another person as much as we like to pretend."
She smiled, snuggled up close to him, pressed her face to his chest, put her mouth close to his beating heart. "I love you, too."
"Look at me and say it."
"I'll say it here to your heart," she said. A tear trickled from her cheek to his chest.
"Nothing. Nothing. I'm happy," Carrie said. She kissed him and said, "Go to sleep, baby."
And he did and now, in the hard light of day, she was gone, the whispers and the promises gone with her. And this distant note. But maybe this was for the best. She was nervous. And the last complication he needed was explaining a mysterious family disaster.
He tried Carrie's cell phone. Left her a voice mail. "Babe, I've got a family emergency, I've got to go to Austin. Call me when you get this." He thought, I shouldn't say it again, it scared her off but he said, "I love you and I'll talk to you soon."
Evan tried his father's cell phone. No answer. Not even voicemail picking up. But his dad's phone might not connect in Australia. He put the plane crash scenario out of his mind. He followed his clockwork morning regimen: fired up his computer, checked his to-do list, checked his news feed: no disasters reported in Australia. Perhaps this was a disaster on a smaller scale. Cancer. Divorce. The thought dried his throat.
He clicked on his email, shot off a message to his dad saying, Call me ASAP, then downloaded his emails. His in-box held an invitation to speak at a film conference in Atlanta; e-mails from two other documentary filmmakers who were friends of his; a pile of music files and a couple of her latest digital photos, all sent by his mother late last night. He synced the music to his digital player; he'd listen to the songs in the car. Mom thrived on obscure bands and tunes, and she'd found three great songs for his earlier movies. He checked to be sure he had all the footage he still needed to edit for his nearly completed documentary on the professional poker circuit. Made sure that he had the raw notes for a talk he was supposed to give at for a speech at University of Houston next week. He slid his laptop, his digital music player, and his digital camcorder into his backpack. Evan packed a bag with a weekend's worth of clothes his mother hated for him to wear: old bowling shirts, worn khakis, tennis shoes a year past their prime.
His watch said seven-fifteen. It was not quite a three-hour drive from Houston to Austin.
Evan locked the door behind him and headed to his car. This wasn't the day he had planned. He fought his way through the morning snarl of Houston traffic, listening to the music his mother sent last night. He wanted Spanish-flavored electronic funk for the opening scenes of his poker-player documentary, and no songs he'd heard yet sounded right, but this music was perfect for what he needed.
He tapped his fingers to the beat as he drove and kept waiting for his cell to ring, his father or Carrie calling, his mom calling to say all was suddenly fine, but his phone stayed silent all the way to Austin.
His mother's front door was locked. Mom kept her photography studio out in a garage apartment, and he decided she must have retreated to the comfort of film, primer, and solitude.
He unlocked the door with his key and stepped inside. "Mom?" he called out. No answer.
He walked toward the back of the house, toward the kitchen. He had bought his mom her favorite pastries, peach kolaches from a bakery she adored in LaGrange halfway from Houston, and he wanted to put up the food before he headed to her studio.
Evan turned the corner and saw his mother lying dead on the kitchen floor.
Reprinted from Panic by Jeff Abbott by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Abbott. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.