“You’ll not read a more suspenseful or better-crafted novel this year.”—Plain Dealer, Cleveland
The Programby Stephen White
They promised you’d be safe.
They were wrong.
It started with a convicted killer’s first threat of revenge...
“For every precious thing I lose, you lose two.”
DA Kirsten Lord saw her husband gunned down before her eyes. Now Kirsten is living in fear, telling her secrets to psychologist Alan Gregory ... and hiding deep in the Witness… See more details below
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They promised you’d be safe.
They were wrong.
It started with a convicted killer’s first threat of revenge...
“For every precious thing I lose, you lose two.”
DA Kirsten Lord saw her husband gunned down before her eyes. Now Kirsten is living in fear, telling her secrets to psychologist Alan Gregory ... and hiding deep in the Witness Protection Program,where every stranger is a threat, every phone call is a menace.
Until she realizes ... The Program is the deadliest place of all.
Trauma Within the Witness "Destruction" Program
The Program is Stephen White's ninth novel, and it offers a slight but effective departure from the main line of his career. Like his previous eight novels, The Program features White's recurring protagonist, clinical psychologist Alan Gregory. Unlike those earlier books, this one casts Gregory as a supporting player in a larger drama, a drama involving a woman on the run, an assortment of professional hit men, and the unnatural pressures of day-to-day life in the Witness Protection Program.
The woman on the run is Kirsten Lord, a New Orleans-based D.A. who successfully prosecutes a local drug dealer for a series of rapes, then finds herself threatened with violent reprisals. "Remember this," the dealer tells her on the day of his conviction. "Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two." Several weeks later, that grim prophecy begins to come true, as Kirsten's husband is shot to death. Shortly afterward, when an unknown woman nearly succeeds in abducting her daughter, Kirsten enters the Witness Security Program (WITSEC) and attempts to establish a new, anonymous existence in Boulder, Colorado.
White excels at conveying the tension, trauma, and sense of dislocation inherent in shedding the remnants of an old life and beginning a new one. Kirsten Lord (now Peyton Francis) finds herself facing a particularly complex set of circumstances. To begin with, her previous history as an outspoken critic of WITSEC's policies has earned her a number of enemies within the program itself. In addition, her belated efforts to halt the execution of an innocent man -- a man she helped convict -- make her the target of a vicious killer with an undisclosed agenda of his own. Throughout all this, the initial threat that drove her into hiding remains in force, looming relentlessly over the narrative.
The Program recounts, with considerable authority, one woman's struggle to make her way through this minefield of possibilities to a place of potential safety. Along the way, she finds a number of unexpected allies, including Alan Gregory, her program-appointed therapist; Lauren Crowder, Alan's very pregnant wife; and Carl Luppo, a retired Mafia hit man who takes Kirsten under his wing and saves her life on more than one occasion. White handles these various elements with an easy, understated mastery and treats his heroine's dilemma with intelligence, humor, and sympathy. The result is an incisive, psychologically acute thriller that successfully illuminates a little-known corner of the criminal justice system. It clearly represents a large step forward for a gifted, underrated writer.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has recently been published by Subterranean Press .
Read an Excerpt
ALMOST FAT TUESDAY
"Remember this. Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two."
The man was a good target.
Tall, six-five. Wavy blond hair that shined almost red in the filtered February sunlight. Ivory skin that refused to tan. Green eyes that danced to the beat of every melody that radiated from every tavern on every street corner in the always-tawdry Quarter. Even during a crowded lunch hour in the most congested part of New Orleans, you could spot him a block away, his head bobbing above the masses. On the eve of Fat Tuesday the Quarter was flush with tourists, and each of them was flush with anticipation of the debauched revelry that would only accelerate as the Monday before stretched into the Tuesday of, as almost-here became Mardi Gras.
The other man, the one with the gun, knew that in a crowd like this one he would have made a rotten target. He was five-eight with his sneakers on. What hair remained on his head was on the dark side of brown. His creeping baldness didn't matter much to him, though, because the Saints cap he was wearing shielded his scalp from the sun as effectively as the distinctive steel-rimmed Ray-Bans shaded his eyes. The khakis and navy-striped sweater he was wearing had been chosen because they comprised the de facto uniform-of-the-day among the male revelers wandering to join the crowds on Bourbon Street.
The late morning had turned mild, and the man's windbreaker was draped over his right hand and arm, totally disguising the barrel of his Ruger Mark II as well as the additional length of the stubby suppressor. His left hand was shoved deep in the pocket of his khakis. He had been briefed on the tall man's destination in advance and kept his distance as he followed him. At the intersection where Bienville crossed Royal the man with the silenced .22 would begin to close the gap on the man without one. That would give the assassin a little over a block to get close enough to do his job.
The tall, blond man had come from his office near City Hall. His wife had wanted to meet him downtown and accompany him to the restaurant. But he'd declined her offer. He'd made prior arrangements to stop on his way to their lunch date at an antique store on Royal to pick up a nineteenth-century cameo he knew his wife had been coveting. The cameo was a surprise for their anniversary.
The errand on Royal hadn't taken the man long, though, and he was turning the corner from Bienville onto Bourbon ten minutes before he was scheduled to rendezvous with his wife. With an athlete's grace and a large man's strides, he dodged slothful tourists with their to-go cup hurricanes and quickly covered the territory to the entrance of Galatoire's. Briefly he scanned the sidewalk and the teeming street in front of the restaurant. His wife wasn't there. He didn't even consider looking for her inside: Kirsten had a thing about sitting alone in restaurants. He hoped she wouldn't be too late; the line for lunch at one of New Orleans legendary eateries was already growing.
They had been in New Orleans for six years and this would mark the sixth time that they had celebrated their anniversary at Galatoire's. He was the one who insisted on returning year after year. She would have preferred going to a restaurant that actually took reservations. But he prevailed. He was the keeper of the traditions in the family. He was the romantic.
The man with the windbreaker on his arm window-shopped two doors down from Galatoire's, using the storefront glass to reflect the position of his prey. He didn't worry about being spotted. There was no reason that anyone would focus on him. He was a middle-aged guy loitering on Bourbon Street just before lunch hour on the eve of Mardi Gras. One, literally, of thousands. Finally, the beeper in his pocket vibrated. With his fingertip he stilled it and began to scan the street for Kirsten's arrival. His partner up the street had paged him from a cell phone. The page was his signal that she was approaching.
She, too, would have been a good target. Like her husband, Kirsten was tall. And she flaunted it. Two-inch heels took her above six feet, and the skirt of her suit was cut narrowly to accentuate her height. The jacket was tailored to pinch her waist and highlight her hips. Her hair was every bit as blond as her husband's although the sunlight reflected no red. Kirsten was golden, from head to toe.
She carried a small gift box, elaborately wrapped. In it was a key to a suite at the nearby Windsor Court Hotel and a scroll with a wonderfully detailed list that spelled out all the erotic things she planned to do to her husband's lean body between check-in that evening and dawn the next day. She'd had the list drawn on parchment by a friend who was a calligrapher.
The man with the windbreaker spotted Kirsten down the block. As he had been told to expect, she was approaching down Bourbon from Canal. A moment later her husband spotted her, too, but he was reluctant to leave his place in line at Galatoire's. He waved. She waved back. Her smile was electric.
The man with the windbreaker on his arm moved closer to the tall blond man, simultaneously lifting his left hand from his pocket and placing it below the jacket. His right hand was now free. He stuffed it into the pocket of his trousers at the same moment he spotted his partner moving into position behind the woman.
Timing was everything. That's what he'd been told. This wasn't just about the hit; it was also about the timing. Timing was everything.
Kirsten Lord was fifty feet away when the man with the windbreaker stepped into position no more than two yards to the left of her husband, Robert. The position the man took was slightly back from Robert's left shoulder. Kirsten dodged tourists and closed the distance between herself and her husband to twenty feet. Impossibly, her smile seemed to grow brighter.
The man raised his left arm, the one shielded by the windbreaker, so that it extended across his chest. Below the jacket, the barrel of the sound suppressor was now pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle toward his right shoulder.
Kirsten's eyes left her husband's for only an instant, just barely long enough for her to notice the small man with his oddly held windbreaker. She met the man's eyes as they danced from her to Robert and back. She noticed the awkward way he was holding his arm, perceived the evil in his grin, and in a flash, she processed the peril that the man presented. The bright smile she was wearing for her husband left her face as though she'd been slapped. The gaily-decorated box flew from her hand. Instinctively, her tongue found the roof of her mouth and the beginnings of a horrified "No" left her lips just as the man in the Saints cap pivoted his hand and wrist at the elbow so that his silenced weapon emerged from below his jacket.
Out toward Robert Lord's head.
With the voices from the throngs on the street mixing with the music coming from the myriad clubs mixing with the rest of Kirsten Lord's plaintive "NOOOOO," the hushed shots from the silenced pistol were barely discernible, even to Kirsten. She thought they sounded more like arrows than bullets. Another witness later described them as two drumbeats.
Both shots found their marks. The first slug entered Robert's head just below his ear, the second higher, in his cranium. The load in the Ruger was .22 caliber. The slugs possessed neither the mass nor the velocity to find their way back out of Robert Lord's head after they pierced his skull. No grisly hunks of cranial bone cascaded against the plate glass of Galatoire's front window. No bloody gray matter fouled the clothes of the locals and tourists standing in line for lunch. Instead, the two slugs banged around inside Robert Lord's head, mixing the contents of his skull the way a ball bearing blends the contents of a can of spray paint.
The hit was supposed to be clean. And it was.
The timing was supposed to be perfect. And it was.
Kirsten fell to her knees at Robert's side just as his legs were collapsing below him. One of the two shell casings was still dancing on the concrete, finally coming to rest near the crook of Robert's neck. Kirsten seemed oblivious to any danger she might be in. No one around her seemed to be aware that her husband had just been shot. She no longer recalls what she said to the strangers who stared down at her with shock and pity on their faces.
When she looked up to identify the shooter, to confront the shooter, to accept the next bullet, he was gone. There was no way she would have known it, but by then his Saints cap was off his head, his pager was down a sewer, his sunglasses were off his eyes and he was around the corner, walking placidly down Bienville toward Dauphine. That's where the third member of the team was waiting with a car.
The band in the bar on the corner was playing some better-than-average Zydeco, and he decided that the longer he was in New Orleans the more he liked it.
His instructions had been to make sure that the lady saw the hit. He knew he'd done well.
She'd seen the hit. No doubt about it.
"Remember this," he'd said, pointing at me over the defense table. "Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two."
Less than a month after they slid my husband Robert's body into the only empty slot left in his family's tomb in the Garden District's Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, I packed up my daughter and moved what remained of our life north to a little town called Slaughter, which was bisected by Highway 19 about halfway between Baton Rouge and the Mississippi state line.
We made the move in the middle of the night. In homage to my paranoia I'd driven all the way to Picayune, Mississippi, before I backtracked into Louisiana and charged north to Slaughter. My old boss in New Orleans, the district attorney, had arranged for a Louisiana State Trooper to tail my car all the way to Picayune and then all the way back as far as Baton Rouge. I bought the trooper a cup of coffee at a truck stop outside Baton Rouge, and he finished two pieces of pie, one apple, one lemon meringue, before I allowed myself to be convinced that we had not been followed.
Somewhere between the outskirts of Baton Rouge and the town limits of Slaughter, I stopped calling myself Kirsten Lord and started calling myself Katherine Shaw. I chose the name at my husband's funeral. The inspiration? The name was written in pencil inside the prayer book that was in front of me in the pew at the church. "Katherine Shaw" it read. The name was written in a child's hand, neatly, in pencil, and I prayed that the Katherine Shaw who'd sat in that pew and sung the hymns in that church and who had spoken the prayers wouldn't mind that we now shared her name as we had shared that holy book.
Trying to make the urgent move to a new town a game to my ever-cool daughter, I'd allowed her to choose her own new name, too. Her class in school had been studying the Olympic Games in Sydney, so my daughter was now Matilda. I wasn't fond of the name but consoled myself with my glee that her class hadn't been studying the Nagano Games or Salt Lake City.
Together, Matilda and I danced off to Slaughter. . . “You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me. . . ."
When I agreed to go into what I told myself was temporary hiding under the protection of the State of Louisiana, one of the reasons I'd chosen to move to Slaughter for our new home was because it was the kind of town where strangers were noticed. Where unfamiliar cars earned a second glance. Despite my still raw grief over Robert's death I did everything I could to befriend our neighbors and I quickly became known as the mother who watched her daughter enter school each morning and who was waiting outside the door ten minutes before the end of classes each afternoon. The routine I followed didn't vary despite the fact that the upstairs window of the house that I was renting had a pretty good view of the front door of the school. For my state of mind those days, a pretty good view wasn't good enough. A half-block away was a half-block too far.
School ended for Matilda on a much-too-sultry-for-early-June day. But the kids didn't notice the heat. They were energized and intoxicated by the prospect of their upcoming summer of freedom.
Matilda was planning to go home from school with a friend, the first social invitation she'd received since becoming the new kid in class so late in the school year. Upon learning of her plans, I invited the new friend's mother over for coffee and sprinkled the conversation with a manufactured concern that my estranged husband might try to abduct Matilda. A custody dispute, I implied. The new friend's mother said not-to-worry, she'd keep a close eye on the kids. She pressed for some dirt about my estranged husband and as I struggled to invent details to satiate her I wished I'd come up with a different story.
Eight, almost nine-year-old Matilda sensed my apprehension about her visit to her new friend's house and informed me that she could walk all the way there without a chaperone.
"Really," I said, feigning surprise, though I'd expected to hear words a lot like those from my much-too-independent daughter.
"You won't wait for me outside school?"
I raised a hand in honor and stated, "I promise."
"Mom, you promise?" There was a time in the not-too-distant-past that she stomped a foot every time she used that tone of voice.
I asked, "Will you call me when you two get to your friend's house?"
"Do I have to?"
"Yes, you do."
"Then I will."
"Matilda, you promise?"
The phone rang at eighteen minutes past three on that last day of school. "Hi, Mom," said Matilda. "We're having lemonade and those little cookies just like the ones that Grandma used to make. With the jam in the middle?" "Grandma" was my mother. She'd died the previous April. My unfinished grief over her death had already been trampled over by the brutal pain I felt trying to absorb the responsibility and loss I felt over Robert's murder.
What People are saying about this
(Lorenzo Carcaterra, bestselling author of Sleepers)
(Iris Johansen, bestselling author of And Then You Die)
(Stanley Pottinger, bestselling author of The Fourth Procedure)
Meet the Author
Stephen White is a clinical psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of Cold Case, Manner of Death, Critical Conditions, Remote Control, Harm's Way, Higher Authority, Private Practices, and Privileged Information. He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and son.
- Date of Birth:
- August 20, 1951
- Place of Birth:
- Long Island, New York
- B.A., UC Berkeley, 1972; M.A., University of Colorado, Boulder, 1975; Ph.D., 1979
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Another masterful Stephen White mystery but with a different twist. Alan Gregory is present, not as the principle character this time. Stephen White excels again!
Great fun fast read that keeps you on your toes the whole book. I did not want to put it down!
New Orleans District Attorney Kirsten Lord watches helplessly as her husband is assassinated moments before they are to celebrate their anniversary at a posh New Orleans restaurant. A condemned man¿s mother is killed in a car accident. He blames Kirsten because if she didn¿t prosecute him and win, his mother would have never been traveling on that road to visit him in jail. Kirsten suddenly remembers how he threatened her as he was being sent away to jail. ¿Every precious thing I lose, you will lose two.¿ .The first had been her husband. The second has to be her little girl. Now she and her daughter must enter the Witness Protection Program, the antithesis of everything she believes in...the very program she has publicly assaulted during her years as a prosecutor. ¿The Program¿ may now be the only thing that can keep her and her daughter alive. She soon meets and befriends program veteran Carl Luppo, a mob assassin turned good guy, who tells her that someone may be leaking Kirsten¿s whereabouts to the wrong people. Now the only people she can trust are Carl, and her program-appointed psychologist Alan Gregory. Before this story is over people will die and many lives will be changed. Once I muddled through the very shaky beginning, which included random changes of perspective, lackadaisical plotting and other languid unmentionables, I found this book to be quite a page turner. Stephen White offers a story chock full of spicy dialog, engaging characters, and great little tidbits of information. I enjoyed witnessing the interplay among the characters, and Dr. Gregory¿s psych sessions were fascinating. A different type of work for this author that is nicely done, albeit the rocky start. Stay with it and enjoy. Cris
Even at her young age, Sandra Burr is a veteran performer who first walked on a civic theater stage at the age of six. She gives an appropriately menacing reading to this frightening story of a woman and her nine-year-old daughter who seek refuge in the Witness Protection Program. After New Orleans District Attorney Kirsten Lord's husband is murdered by a hit man, she soon discovers that her own life and that of her daughter's is threatened. Feeling she has no other valid choice she agrees to be hidden in Colorado. However, once in the program she meets another who is being protected, Carl Luppo. He is a lone mob hit man very much, she suspects, like the man who killed her husband. Sensing her danger, Luppo befriends Kirsten; he appoints himself her guardian. Kirsten's chaotic life is in stark contrast to the relative tranquility enjoyed by a psychological consultant to the Protection Program and his wife who are preparing for the birth of their first child. There's both darkness and light in this suspenseful tale, and Sandra Burr reads it superbly.
Sentenced drug dealer Ernesto Castro warns New Orleans Assistant District Attorney Kirstin Lord that for every thing he loses, she will lose twice. A few weeks later, Kirstin goes to meet her spouse Robert at the Galatoire restaurant, but sees the hitman wearing the Saints cap assassinate her husband. Though grieving her loss, Kirstin realizes that Castro said ¿twice¿ and worries that her eight-year old daughter Amy will be next. Ironically, Kirstin, a vocal critic of the witness protection program hiding killers from justice, enters the Federal witness security program. She becomes Peyton Francis and Amy becomes Landon, and they relocate to Boulder. Needing psychological help to cope with the upheaval and tragedies of her life she begins to see Dr. Alan Gregory, whose other WITSEC patient is former hitman Carl Luppo, a killer of at least 15-20 people. Carl realizes that something is not right with Peyton¿s disguise and takes the two females under his personal protection whether it is from Castro or someone more sinister. THE PROGRAM is an exciting thriller that provides an insightful look into the pros and cons of the witness protection program. Kirstin and Carl are intriguing characters hiding for different reasons. The return of Dr. Gregory is always a reason to rejoice, but in all honesty his role is a secondary catalyst to the fast-paced main plot starring Kirstin. Still, he plays a pivotal role and his sessions with his two patients seem very real, making the story line feel genuine. Best-selling author Stephen White may have written his best novel to date with this tremendous taut tale. Harriet Klausner