The thing I’m just coming to realize about the writing game is that a novel is never carved in stone until the final bell has rung, and THE END has been written in giant, bold letters on the final page. Even then, changes happen. It’s taken four novels for me to realize that releasing an excerpt of the beginning of these books well in advance of actually finishing said book is ultimately an exercise in futility. Now that the novel is complete and just about ready to hit stands, however, I feel comfortable releasing the prologue and opening chapter of BEFORE THE AFTER with the relative certainty that this is what you’ll find when you read the book. Stay tuned for the official release date. Enjoy!
Behind her, somewhere close, Kat hears boots pounding on the frozen ground. Sharp, icy pellets of sleet sting her cheeks as she crouches in the brush, heart thundering.
They’re coming for her—there’s nowhere else to hide. No way to protect herself anymore.
No way to protect any of them.
There’s a ravine on the far side of the island; Kat remembers seeing it before. She runs for that, through groves of dying pine trees and over slick island trails, the ground blurring at her feet. Voices behind call to her, order her to stop, but she drives herself further. She has a bottle clutched in one hand, a knife in the other.
If she’s going to die, it sure as hell won’t be on their terms.
She thinks of Erin, suddenly: At Adam’s funeral, her pale face blank, her hand clutched in Diggs’. Mother and daughter barely spoke that day… Like it was Kat’s fault, somehow, that the Payson Church burned and Adam was weak and then, in the end, hanged himself and died without a word to his only daughter.
As if Kat could somehow change that reality, for either husband or child.
As if she could ever change a damn thing.
By the time she reaches the ravine, Kat can’t hear anyone on the path behind her. Can’t hear anything, really, beyond the pounding in her ears and the racing of her blood. The island is dark, the air cold and wet, but somehow in that mess she finds a path among rocks and the thin layer of slush now coating the ground. Head down, focused on every step, she makes it to the bottom.
And there, exactly as she’d feared, she finds them. Curled in close, silent and rotting and ended, they huddle together: Women and children she knew; a man she’d met years before.
“Kat! Come on out—you can’t hide from this,” the woman calls from somewhere close.
Kat grinds her teeth and fights back fear and nausea and a marrow-deep weariness she’s been denying too long.
She lays down among the others, her head down, holding tight to the bottle…
And she waits.
Two mostly empty plates sat on the coffee table in my mother’s house in Littlehope, Maine, set aside in favor of my laptop and a stack of illegible notes. Tonight the house was unoccupied, since Kat and Maya—my mother and her girlfriend, respectively—were doing some kind of puffin-related project on an island up the coast. If puffins had been a passion of my mother’s in the past, she’d never shared it with me; now, however, she was braving a late-season snowstorm to catalogue the damn things. Which meant that for the past few days, I’d had the dubious pleasure of returning to my hometown to keep the home fires burning in Kat’s absence.
Not that it was all bad, mind you.
At the moment, I was settled on the couch with Daniel Diggins, aka Diggs: rogue reporter, longtime best friend, and… Well, we were working on the third thing. He sat just behind me looking over my shoulder, his breath distractingly warm on my neck. My mutt, Einstein, lay on the floor with his chin on his paws, not remotely impressed with the seating arrangement.
“This makes no sense,” I said, nodding toward the computer screen. “I’ve done everything I can think of, and nothing’s working. What idiot decided to make encryption so freaking effective?”
It had been two weeks since Diggs had nearly been barbecued in a barely-averted apocalypse in western Kentucky. Since then, most of our spare time had been devoted to trying to decrypt a memory card he had literally pried from someone’s cold, dead hand, just before the place went up in flames.
So far, it wasn’t going that well.
Diggs rested his chin on my shoulder, his hand sliding up my side as he studied the screen.
“What did Jesse say?”
I tried to focus on the question, rather than the fact that Diggs’ hand had come to rest just under my breast, his body warm and solid behind me. With tremendous restraint, I removed said hand, set it back on his own leg, and scooted to the edge of the couch to retrieve my notes.
Jesse was a high school buddy of Diggs’ who’d moved back to the area a few years before. Once just as much a degenerate as the rest of Diggs’ old gang, now he was a semi-respectable family man… who happened to be a computer whiz consulting with the government on some of the most cutting edge technologies in modern surveillance and national security.
“Honestly?” I said. “He said like three things I understood, followed by forty-five minutes when I just smiled and nodded and tried not to look like an idiot.”
“I told you—you should have let me come.”
“Because your manly brain would be able to sort through all that techno-babble, whereas my lesser, pea-sized woman’s brain can barely handle anything more elaborate than a meatloaf recipe?”
“More or less,” he agreed. He kissed my neck; I elbowed him in the stomach. “Ow. Jesus—it was a joke, woman. First off, I would never trust you with a recipe of any kind, meatloaf or otherwise. And secondly: the only reason I might have been more effective is that I would have actually taken notes.”
“I took notes,” I said, picking up my battered notebook as proof.
Diggs took it from me, giving up on seduction for the moment. “The only thing I can even read here is ‘Hackers’ in capital letters and… I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that’s a very bad rendering of the Washington Monument.”
“It’s the Eiffel Tower.”
“That’s what they all say.”
He tossed the notebook back on the coffee table. “We could just bring the card to Jesse—that would be a hell of a lot easier than explaining some hypothetical code that he never gets to see.”
“Are you nuts? He’s got a wife and two gorgeous kids—no way am I dragging him into this thing. We’ve got enough blood on our hands as it is. No. There has to be a way to do this on our own.”
He sighed. “Fine. You know, if I’d realized this was why you were inviting me over, I might not have been so eager to come by.”
Einstein hopped up from his spot at our feet and loped into the other room, ears and tail up. Since Stein is forever chasing beasties invisible to the human eye and ear, I ignored him.
“What did you think I was inviting you over for?” I kept my eyes on the screen, very determinedly ignoring Diggs’ hand as it slid up my thigh.
“I don’t know. Your mother’s not home; we have the place all to ourselves.”
“You don’t think if I was seducing you I might have chosen something a little sexier than my mom’s house and my best flannel pj’s?”
“Works for me.” He lowered his head to that spot between my neck and shoulder that tends to obliterate all reason for me.
“We’re grown ups, Diggs,” I said. It came out a little more Marilyn Monroe than I’d intended. I took a breath. “If we wanted a house to ourselves, we could go to yours—or my place in Portland, for that matter—any time.”
“And why haven’t we done that, again?”
At the moment, that reason eluded me. Since getting back from Kentucky, Diggs and I had been in kind of a holding pattern, for very good reasons. For one, he was still recovering from that whole nearly-being-blown-up thing; for another, I had just broken up with someone else; and, finally, we had made the mutual decision that we were going to venture into the treacherous world of dating slowly, with eyes wide open.
All of which was a lot easier to keep in mind during the light of day with a few miles between us, when Diggs’ clever fingers weren’t creeping up my inner thigh. He pulled me back toward him, his legs spread so I was cradled between them.
This time, I didn’t push him away. Sensing weakness, he moved in for the kill. “You should put the computer away. You work too hard.” He said the words into my ear, his breath hot on my neck before his teeth scraped my earlobe and he began to work his way down my neck.
I tried to suppress a low moan, but gave up when his hands got in on the act. He found the hem of my T-shirt, the feel of his callused palms on my cool skin ultimately what sent me over the edge. When he puts his mind to it, Diggs is one persuasive son of a bitch.
I twisted backward to meet him, my eyes sinking shut when his lips met mine. The kiss started slowly, but neither of us seemed satisfied with that. I turned around on the couch and Diggs lay back, pulling me on top of him in a single, fluid move. His hands moved under my shirt, up my back, holding me closer as the tension I’d been hanging onto gave way to desire.
Diggs is a powerful man: six feet tall, a lifelong athlete who spent his youth playing hard and living fast. At forty, he’s slowed down a little, but there’s still something slightly dangerous about him—some reckless passion that takes my breath away, forever keeps me guessing. I felt that power, that passion, as his hands spanned my back and pulled me closer.
“You said in Kentucky you were going to sweep me off my feet,” I said breathlessly, my forehead tipped to his.
“I thought that’s what I was doing.” His blue eyes were dark, a trace of the devil in them. When I rolled my eyes, he got marginally more serious. “I’m sweeping you off your feet when we go out tomorrow night. Tonight, we’re working.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s only one profession where what we’re doing right now qualifies as work.”
His hands shifted to my hips and he gave me a lazy, seductive grin as he arched up, hard and hot against me. My breath hitched; rational thought faded to gray. “You’re right… we should probably stop.”
I leaned back down and kissed him again, harder this time, my tongue moving against his before we broke apart and he pushed my shirt up over my head. That was about the time that Einstein came tearing back into the room, a growl rumbling in his throat. The growl escalated to high-pitched barking as he bolted back into the kitchen.
“Should we check that out?” Diggs asked unhappily, his mouth already moving with definite purpose along my neck and down to my collarbone.
“Mmm,” I murmured, though more in response to the feel of his knuckles moving over the sheer fabric of my bra than in answer to his question. Einstein kept barking. I closed my eyes and pretended he didn’t.
Diggs stopped working his magic. “I think we should check it out.”
Normally, I would have told him to ignore the mutt, but things had been far from normal for the past several months. Instead, I nodded reluctantly. Diggs and I got up, his blond hair mussed and his torn jeans noticeably tighter. I wasn’t feeling all that put together myself, in flannel pajama bottoms and my best bra, but any annoyance I might have felt at the interruption quickly gave way to uneasiness the longer Stein kept up the racket.
“You have your gun?” Diggs asked.
“Just a second.” I pulled my t-shirt back on, then went to an antique writer’s desk against the far wall, unlocked it, and nearly pulled the top drawer off its runners in my haste. Inside the drawer was the Ruger LCR I’d purchased three days before, after an extensive internal debate.
When I had it loaded and in hand, Diggs nodded. “Good. Now, go on upstairs and call Chris. I’ll grab Einstein and meet you there.”
“I’m not calling the sheriff until I know there’s actually something out there,” I said. Diggs frowned. I ignored him and crept toward the kitchen, where Stein was still barking. His nails clicked on the linoleum as he raced back and forth beside a picture window that looked out on my mother’s backyard.
It was just past midnight on a Thursday night in April, but at the moment the only thing I could see out there was snow. Because this was Maine, and in Maine you can’t actually count on spring until you’re well into summer, at which point you wake up and realize you’ve been gypped out of the whole damn season yet again.
While the snow was annoying, however, I didn’t consider it life threatening.
Einstein and Diggs weren’t so easily convinced, though. Stein pushed past me and continued to stare outside, body tight, though he’d finally canned the barking and returned to a continual menacing growl. Diggs stood beside me at the window with a Glock that had become his constant companion of late.
I was just about to tell him we were being idiots when a shadow moved along the perimeter outside my mother’s garden shed, low to the ground and moving slowly. My heart rumbaed halfway up my throat. Einstein started barking again. I grabbed his collar and dragged him away from the window, back toward the living room.
I dimly registered the fact that Diggs had his phone out. “Get Einstein and go to the bedroom,” he said again, in that this-isn’t-a-debate voice he only seems driven to when I’m around.
“Only if you come with me,” I said.
A garbage can clattered out back. Einstein tore away from me, headed straight back to the window. I heard glass shatter outside.
I didn’t actually lose bladder control entirely, but we were on shaky ground for a few seconds.
Diggs was dialing the sheriff when the intruders finally stepped into the light and revealed themselves.
All three were fat, masked, and clearly looking for trouble.
“Diggs,” I said. He was on the line with Sheriff Finnegan, so I had to repeat his name a couple of times before he came back to me. “Call him off,” I said once he had. “We’ve got three masked bandits here, but I don’t think they’re armed.”
He stared at me blankly, phone still in hand.
“Raccoons, Diggs,” I said, feeling every inch the idiot I knew I was. My hands were shaking—not exactly what you’re hoping for from someone locked and loaded. “I’m fine. Look: It’s just a trio of varmints getting into the trash.”
“We should get Chris out here anyway. Just in case.”
“Just in case what? The coons start rioting? Diggs—come on.”
He looked out the window as though to confirm my story, and nodded before he returned to the phone. “I think we’ve got it under control, Chris. Sorry to wake you.”
After he’d hung up, he returned to my side. “You okay?” He looked shaken, all the light and humor I’d seen earlier gone.
“It was just raccoons, Diggs,” I reminded him. “I think we’ll all survive.”
He didn’t look so sure. He double checked to make sure the back door was locked, and turned off the outside light while I finally got Einstein back in hand.
“I won’t feel safe until everyone behind whatever you’ve stumbled onto in the past year is behind bars. Or better yet, wiped off the planet.”
Diggs is a reporter, not a soldier—those aren’t the kind of declarations he makes lightly. I took his hand and pulled him back toward the living room.
“You want to catch these guys? Then stop distracting me and help me figure out this fucking encryption.”
An hour later, the house was still. Diggs snored softly on the couch while I sat on the floor in front of the coffee table, eyes burning, and stared at the computer screen.
During our consult, Diggs’ pal Jesse had steered me toward a few decryption programs created by friends of his in the business. So far, I had tried almost all of them without success. Einstein lay with his head in my lap, fuzzy white belly in the air, while I continued to torture myself.
This was all we had: a memory card that may or may not hold the key to an alleged mass suicide nearly twenty-five years ago; to the motivation and people behind the near-apocalypse in Kentucky; to a serial killer who had nearly claimed Diggs and me as victims last summer. Otherwise, I had nothing to show for the past year of work—a year that had almost killed Diggs and me multiple times over. A year when I’d learned that my father’s supposed suicide the summer of 2000 was staged and he was alive; a year when all the things
I’d thought I knew about my childhood, had turned out to be lies.
There had to be something on this card that could explain why.
I rubbed my eyes, took a deep breath, and returned to the computer. Diggs’ hand settled on my shoulder and I heard him shift behind me.
“You should get some sleep,” he mumbled. “Start fresh tomorrow.”
“I just want to try one more thing. You can go on home if you want, though.” Absently, I hit a couple of keys on the computer, then gave the okay for the program to run.
“I can stay,” Diggs said. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
He sat up, stretched, and began massaging the knots from my shoulders. “I know I don’t. I’d feel better, though.”
“So you can save me from any wildlife gone rogue?”
As if on cue, Einstein righted himself and sat up, ears perked. Diggs and I both ignored him when he raced to the kitchen this time.
“Maybe,” Diggs said. “Or maybe—shit.” His hands stilled on my shoulders. “Erin.”
I’d been focused on the incredible things Diggs was doing to my tensed muscles, but at his tone I looked up. “What?”
For a split second, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Then, I looked at the computer.
What had been a screen scrolling miles of meaningless symbols suddenly transformed, replaced by line after line of data—mostly alphanumeric entries, between ten and fifteen characters long. I still didn’t know what they stood for, but they were at least legible.
“Do they mean anything to you?” Diggs asked, nodding toward the numbers.
I looked at the first entry: 40N85W64589051466JJ. “Not really, but it looks a hell of a lot easier to break than what we were dealing with before.”
Einstein raced back into the living room, barking furiously at Diggs and me.
“Tommy’s down the well again,” Diggs said dryly. “I hate to break it to you, ace, but I think your dog needs sedation. Or intensive therapy.”
“He’s just oversensitive since Kentucky. Can you blame him? Stein—seriously, chill. We’re all right.” I returned my attention to the computer screen. “What do you think this means?” I asked Diggs.
Before he could answer, my cell phone rang. It was after one a.m. The number came up as Private Caller.
Nothing good comes from calls after midnight, in my experience.
One look at Diggs told me he was thinking the same thing. Einstein gave up on rallying the troops and raced back to the kitchen.
I answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Get out of the house.” If the words themselves hadn’t scared the bejeezus out of me, the voice did the trick.
Fear climbed my spine and rattled my heart. “What? Who is this?”
“You know who it is. Damn it, Erin, get out of the house. Now.”
Diggs looked at me curiously. “Mitch Cameron,” I mouthed to him. He was on his feet in an instant, looking just as unnerved as I felt. For more than twenty years, Mitch Cameron had shown up at all the wrong places at the worst possible times in my life. I happened to know for a fact that he was a murderer several times over… And yet, more than once, he’d been Diggs’ and my saving grace.
“What’s happening?” I asked Cameron.
“I don’t have time to explain,” Cameron said. “But you’re in danger. The evidence your mother has been holding over my people was just destroyed—there’s no more leverage. Jenny is coming for you.”
My heart thundered in my chest, Diggs looking at me frantically. “Where the hell are we supposed to go?” I asked Cameron.
“I’ll contact you; just don’t go to the police. That’s the first place Jenny will check—and they won’t slow her down, if that’s where you are. Lie low until you hear from me. I need to try and find your mother before they—” There was the distinctive pop of rapid gunfire on the other end of the line.
The phone went dead. Before I could even contemplate that, I heard glass shatter on the second floor. The house alarm blared as the lights went out. Fear seized me like a fist. There was no time to hesitate—no time to think.
“We have to get out of here,” I said to Diggs. “Grab the laptop and your gun; I’ll get Einstein.”
He didn’t ask questions, just closed the computer and shoved it into my backpack. Einstein cowered beside me, all bravado now gone.
“Through the garage,” Diggs said before I could figure out the next step. He pulled me toward the door, Stein on my heels. Less than ten seconds after we’d heard the glass break, we bolted through the side door into the attached garage. I hoped like hell that someone wasn’t in there waiting for us to make exactly that move.