On an otherwise normal morning, former Special Forces operative Sam Dryden is the target of an unsuccessful attempted abduction. Using his attacker's cellphone, he learns that another person, a woman named Danica Ellis, is also being targeted. Dryden arrives just in time to save Danica from the assault team sent after her. But neither of them recognize the other, or have any idea why they are being targeted. The only clue is a heavily redacted, official-looking document given to Danica by her stepfather before he was killed.
Dryden immediately recognizes it as a "scrub file." A scrub file is a record of what a subject knew before their memories were chemically destroyed. The redacted document refers to witnesses to a secret military site in Ashland, Iowa in 1989. Both Dryden and Danica Ellis lived in Ashland in 1989, when they were both twelve years old, though neither of them has any memory of the other.
Switching back and forth between the present day, when Dryden and Danica try to elude the forces that are after them, and the past in Ashland, Iowa, when both were twelve, making a discovery that forever changed their lives, this latest Sam Dryden novel proves yet again that Patrick Lee is one of the most original, compelling thriller writers today.
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The last decision Danica Ellis made in her ordinary life — the life in which stress meant playing chicken with the rent due-date, and wondering if going back to school was another slow-motion train wreck of a mistake — was whether to buy sixty-watt or hundred-watt light bulbs. As choices went, it wasn't exactly roads diverging in a yellow wood. The prices weren't a hell of a lot different, and probably the electric bill wouldn't be swayed much, either — a few dollars per month, maybe. But a few dollars could matter. It had come to that once or twice already this year, and probably would again before she had her new degree and — fingers and toes crossed — some kind of career related to it. She grabbed the sixties off the shelf and tucked them into her cart beside the ninety-nine-cent white bread.
It was two in the morning and she had Kroger almost to herself. She'd passed a single bored cashier on her way in, and had seen no more than three other customers making lazy rounds among the aisles. Even the stocking crew had finished up and gone home for the night.
Danica moved on from the light bulbs. She rolled her cart into the broad lane that ran the length of the store's back wall. At this hour the open refrigerated displays seemed to radiate a deeper chill than they would have during the evening rush. Maybe it was the absence of dozens of warm bodies.
Just ahead, a man stood looking over the orange juice racks. Danica had seen him browsing paperbacks a few minutes earlier. He apparently hadn't found one to his liking; he had nothing in his hands now, and no cart, either. He was lean and attractive, and well-dressed for someone buying groceries in the middle of the night. Maybe he'd just come from a party; he was thirty, give or take.
Ten years closer to the cradle than you are, sweetie.
Jesus, since when did checking out a thirty-year-old make her feel like a leering pervert? Being forty-one didn't qualify you as ancient, did it? Especially if everyone said you were a young forty-one, and everything that had been perky in your twenties was still pretty damned perky, thank you very much.
Tell yourself whatever keeps your confidence up.
As Danica passed the man, he glanced at her and acknowledged her with a quick smile. She returned it, then found her eyes going to his left hand to check for a ring. He wasn't wearing one. Past him now, heading for the produce section at the far end of the store, she wondered if he'd seen the glance and understood its meaning. The notion made her cheeks flush, the feeling distinct against the cold rolling off the open cases.
You're out of practice at all this. Way out.
No argument there. Before now, the last time she'd been single she'd been thirty-give-or-take herself. A lot had happened in the intervening decade. Very little of it had been good.
She took a head of lettuce from produce and made her way to the checkout. She'd just finished setting everything on the conveyor when the same young man stepped into place behind her with a small bottle of orange juice. It crossed her mind to wave him ahead of her, but then the scanner beeped as the checkout girl passed the first item over it.
Danica glanced at the man again. He reminded her of Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles, a reference that made her want to cry. Though she'd only been seven when that movie came out, this guy would have been, what, negative four?
After the glance, she kept her eyes on the groceries on the belt, though in her peripheral vision she took note of the guy's body language. Something about it gave her the sense that he was nervous. He kept turning his head just slightly, maybe halfway toward her, like he wanted to say something but couldn't quite do it.
The implication — the possibility, anyway — hit her like a drug. Was he interested? It wasn't entirely unthinkable. She really did look young for her age. How many times had her friend Carrie told her she looked thirty, with just enough angst behind the compliment to give it credibility? The thing was, Danica did feel pretty good about her looks. Even these days, grinding along at rock bottom in terms of self-esteem, she was happy with the picture in the mirror. She liked her eyes — big and brown and unable to hide anything she felt. Anime eyes, Carrie called them, with that same angst. She liked her hair, too; she had spent the last twelve months growing it long again, ditching the pixie cut she'd worn for years. She got compliments on the new look all the time. So why shouldn't this guy be interested? And what if he looked younger than he was? What if he was thirty-five? What if he didn't care about the difference, anyway? Not every guy was obsessed with —
A woman's voice — more like a girl's voice. It came from somewhere behind and to Danica's left. The Jake Ryan lookalike turned, and Danica turned with him. The newcomer could not have been older than twenty-five, and she could've posed for any of the fashion magazines lining the rack above the conveyor. She had a plastic bottle of Midol in her hand. She crossed to the young man, reached past him to set the bottle next to his orange juice, then shut her eyes and leaned into him, seeming to block out the whole world beyond the shirt fabric covering his chest.
He kissed the top of her head and spoke softly. "You'll feel better by the time we get home."
The girl nodded against him. She put her arms around his waist and held on tightly. To Danica's right, the cashier scanned the sixty-watt bulbs and stuffed them into a bag.
* * *
The parking lot was seventy degrees and heavy with a night mist that wasn't quite fog. Beyond the lot's edge the land dropped away in shallow steps to the Pacific, three miles west of Kroger. Spread out across the sloped terrain between them lay the western expanse of Brookings, Oregon, its pink-orange streetlights spectral in the haze. Danica liked seeing the town from up here at night. Working double shifts and getting her groceries at two in the morning was almost worth it for this view. Even now it was helping her mood — a little.
She angled to her car, at first hidden by a full-sized van someone had parked beside it. She popped the trunk and set the grocery bags inside. Twenty yards behind her she heard the store's automatic door slide open — the young couple coming out. She finished stowing her things, pushed the empty cart to the corral two spaces away, and got back to her car just as the couple reached the van. There was an awkward instant when all three were clustered at the mouth of the channel between the vehicles. The young man, a pace ahead of the girl, halted and left the space open for Danica.
"You were first," he said.
Danica thought of letting them go ahead anyway, then just shrugged. Losing three seconds wouldn't ruin their night. She stepped past them, went to her door and put her key in the lock, and felt an explosion of pain beneath her ear as the man's fist slammed into her neck.
Her knees gave. She dropped. She thought to grab her side mirror for support, but her arms and hands were useless. The punch had hit some kind of pressure point, like a kill-switch between her brain and her limbs. She landed on her ass, the impact jarring her spine and clacking her teeth together hard. Her body pitched forward until her head thumped lightly against her door, and then she tipped all the way over on her side, on the damp pavement.
They were both standing over her now, crowded and hunched in the space between the van and car. The young man dropped to a knee and leaned in close above her.
"Don't fight," the man said. His tone was calm, as advising as it was threatening — as though he'd done this before. "Don't fight, you'll be fine."
Danica saw a gun in his hand, not quite aimed at her. He braced his other hand on the asphalt, pushed himself back up to a crouch and withdrew. He spoke to the girl. "Get her wrists. I'll cover."
The girl dropped into Danica's field of vision. She no longer appeared overwhelmed by menstrual cramps. In spite of her youth, she showed none of the vulnerability she had displayed a moment before. Her lean features only made her look hard now. She looked like a soldier.
It occurred to Danica that the van was blocking all of this from the cashier's view in the store. The same probably went for the security cameras. None of which was an accident.
"Do it," the young man hissed.
The girl pivoted on her ankles, reached up and slid open the van's side door. As she did, Danica felt the nerves in her arms and legs begin to reawaken, the skin of her hands tingling with little pinpricks. She risked just enough movement to confirm to herself she had control of them again. The girl reached into the van and took out a pair of plastic zip-tie handcuffs, the kind some police departments used. She held them in both hands and turned to face Danica again.
"Lie flat," the girl said. "On your stomach."
Danica stared up past her at the van's interior. Even with its dome light on, it seemed darker inside than the night air above the lot. Like a cave. Or a tomb. No question about it: whoever they were, whatever the hell they wanted, if she let herself be dragged into that darkness, nobody would ever see her again.
"Lie flat," the girl repeated.
Danica considered her odds of getting away if she struggled right now. They weren't good, but they were better than they would be in another five seconds, or at any point beyond that.
The girl made a face that said she was done threatening; she reached for Danica's shoulder to force her down flat on her chest.
The moment the girl took hold of her, Danica threw her own hand up, grabbed the girl's forearm and pulled her downward, off balance. In the same movement, Danica rolled to free up the arm beneath her, made a fist with that hand and swung it hard at the girl's face.
For a fraction of a second, she thought the punch would connect. Then the girl jerked her head to the side and Danica's fist only grazed her jaw. An instant later they were fighting, hands grabbing wherever they could, elbows hitting every boundary of the confined space between the vehicles.
"Fuck," the young man said, "let me in there."
"I've got her."
The girl was trying to hit her, but couldn't manage it in the cramped space. It was all she could do to keep her balance, squatting like that while Danica still gripped her other arm, pulling her down as hard as she could. The girl kept having to use her free hand to brace herself against Danica's car.
"Get out of the way," the man said.
In the weird, adrenaline-spiked clarity of the moment, Danica found her focus snapping to every detail that might matter. The man's tone of voice struck her now.
He was afraid.
More specifically, he was afraid for the girl.
Danica thought of their intimate display in the checkout lane. The PMS may have been bullshit, but the affection between the two had been real.
Hurt her. Badly. Make him tend to her while you escape.
Danica had just enough time to be jarred by the ugly thought, and then the girl pulled her forearm free of her grip, and drew back to lob a punch Danica couldn't possibly dodge.
Danica threw one hand out sideways, beneath the near edge of the van, and pressed it to the vehicle's underbody. She knifed her other hand upward and grabbed a fistful of the girl's hair just above one ear. The unexpected move startled the girl; her cocked-back arm faltered, as if she had some sense of what was about to happen to her. If so, she didn't react quickly enough to stop it.
Danica wrenched her hands toward each other — one braced below the van, the other clutching the girl's head — as if she meant to bring a pair of cymbals crashing together. The girl, off-balance in her crouch, arms in no position to catch herself, plunged sideways. Her body followed her head down through a tight little arc; her temple slammed against the steel framing at the bottom of the van's open doorway. The impact made a double sound — a dull thud and a sickening crack — and seemed to knock the life right out of the girl's body. She sprawled atop Danica like a cut-down scarecrow.
"Emma?" The young man's voice had more panic than fear in it now. Danica heard him scrambling in the darkness near her feet, pressing forward, still hampered by the narrow space. She drew her legs up, knees to her chest, got both feet against the girl — Emma, apparently — and heaved her toward the man. She heard him curse as the girl's body knocked him back, and heard the gun clatter on the pavement. She didn't wait to hear anything else. She twisted, got her feet under her, pushed against both vehicles and got upright, and a second later she was sprinting away across the parking lot.
She dismissed the store as a refuge almost at once. It would've worked fine at six in the evening, crawling with customers and staffed with two dozen employees. Right now it held fewer people than the young man's gun held bullets.
The better option lay south of the broad parking lot: an undeveloped tract of woodland covering at least three acres. Danica had driven past it every time she shopped here; on the rare occasions she'd done so in daylight, she'd seen thick cedar bushes and ferns beneath the boughs of dense pines.
She looked back as she ran. Her car and the van were a hundred feet behind her, and in the darkness between the vehicles, the young man was still crouched over the girl, trying to rouse her. His fear-soaked voice carried across the asphalt, the words indiscernible but the meaning clear. The girl wasn't responding.
Danica kept running. Another three hundred feet to the woods now. She drew her phone as she sprinted. She would punch three little digits, and then simply hide until an army of police cruisers descended on this place. She had just switched the phone on when she heard the roll and slam of the van's door being shut, far behind her. She threw another look over her shoulder: neither the man nor the girl's body were outside the vehicle anymore. Through the van's windows, backlit by the glare of the parking lot, she saw the man's silhouette as he clambered into the driver's seat. An instant later the vehicle roared to life.
Danica faced forward again, still sprinting. For an ugly second she expected the van's headlights to swing around and wash over her from behind, casting her shadow out ahead as the vehicle ran her down. That thought made the distance to the forest look like a mile; the van could reach her long before she got there.
She heard its tires bark on the wet blacktop. Heard the motor rev and the power steering whine.
Then nothing — just the sound of the van's engine fading away fast, even as it accelerated.
Danica looked back again.
The vehicle was racing for the street exit. It crossed the lot in bare seconds, took the turn too fast and fishtailed, and then it was gone, speeding away down the two-lane road into the night.
Danica stopped running. She stood there on the wide open tundra of the outer lot, listening to the receding drone.
Her heartbeat felt like someone's knuckle rapping against her ribs. Her breathing kept pace with it, ragged and uncontrollable. She raised the phone again, and found her hand shaking so badly she couldn't tap the icon she wanted. After a few seconds she managed it; the phone's number pad came up on screen. She pressed nine, then one —
She stared again in the direction the van had driven. Even the sound of it was gone now. She stood listening to her pulse beginning to ease. She stared at her car, far away in the milky light from the storefront, its tires bald and its paint faded.
"Why me?" she whispered.
The tone of the question surprised her a little — not petulant or even scared, but simply analytical. Why had they wanted her?
They had put careful planning into their attempt. The placement of the van, meant to conceal the abduction from any witnesses in the store. The timing of their exit, with their simple purchases, ensuring they would leave the place just moments after she did. They must have followed her here to begin with.
She pictured the couple again: young, attractive, non-crazy — they had been perfectly rational at every step. The idea that they had simply felt like abducting some random person, for no good reason, was ludicrous.
What explanation did that leave?
That they were professionals?
That someone had sent them to kidnap her? Someone with a reason? Did that make any more sense?
She wasn't a star witness in some prosecutor's case against a crime outfit. There was nothing like that going on in her life. She had no enemies that she could think of. She had no relatives with enemies, either, or with the kind of wealth that might inspire a ransom plot — she had no living relatives at all. Even the collapse of her marriage had drawn little in the way of bad blood. It had simply ended — two people with washed-out careers and washed-out feelings toward each other, decoupled and drifting. There had been nothing to fight over, in the end. No kids, not even alimony; Jason was as hard up as she was. He was living in Boston now, working at his parents' restaurant, dating someone named Cammie. Danica was still friends with him on Facebook.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Site"
Copyright © 2019 Patrick Lee.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: WITNESSES SEPTEMBER 2018,
PART TWO: ECHO HOUSE JULY 1989,
PART THREE: THE MAN IN SHIPROCK FOREST SEPTEMBER 2018,
PART FOUR: THE CLOUD CHAMBER JULY 1989,
PART FIVE: IN THE RUINS OF ASHLAND SEPTEMBER 2018,
PART SIX: LOS BAILARINES TERRIBLES JULY 1989,
PART SEVEN: THE TUNNEL JULY 1989 / SEPTEMBER 2018,
Also by Patrick Lee,
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