Authors: Brian Freeman
Lisa was wet and cold, and she needed a shower. She peeled off her clothes, kicking off her boots, unbuttoning her flannel shirt, unzipping and stepping out of her messy jeans, and wriggling out of her soaked underwear. Naked and shivering, she padded to the cold wrought iron staircase that twisted up to her bedroom, which took up most of the second floor. She went straight into the bathroom, still not turning on any lights. She had a walk-in shower made of opaque glass blocks, and she stood under the hot water, pummeled by body sprays that washed away the dirt and pinked up her skin. The warm, wet darkness enveloped her, and she inhaled steam as if it were fine whiskey spreading fire through her whole body. She lost track of time as she stood there.
When she finally returned to her bedroom, she wandered to the wall of windows overlooking the highway. There was no letup in the rain. Seeing the ghost of her reflection in the glass, Lisa Power stared at Lisa Power. She was bony and not too tall. She had shoulder-length brown hair that usually had a mind of its own, like an unruly nest. Her face was pretty, but she’d always believed that her nose was a little bit too big for the rest of her features. Her pale lips were slightly open, as if she were always deciding what to say next. The faint creases in her forehead reminded her of her age, thirty-nine years old. But everyone who met her talked about her eyes, those big, wide, impenetrable brown eyes. As a writer, Lisa had always believed that she could look at someone’s eyes and know exactly what they were hiding, but that wasn’t true of her own. Right now, the woman looking back at her in the window was a stranger.
The time on her bedroom clock finally registered with her. It was after ten o’clock in the evening in Minnesota. That meant in California it was now after eight o’clock.
“Oh, crap,” she said. She was late.
She rushed to put on clothes and then dried her wet hair as best as she could. She had to turn on lights to do so, and the brightness sharpened the pain behind her eyes. When she was as put together as she was going to be, she hurried downstairs to the finished basement. She had a specially constructed theater there, with a large custom screen and a row of plush movie seats. Near the screen, she kept a whiteboard where she’d written down the dates, times, and phone numbers for her call-in book clubs.
Tonight’s discussion was right there on the list.
October 10. Palo Alto, 8:00 pm PDT, contact Aria Dhawan.
Lisa booted up a laptop and loaded the video software that connected to the oversize screen. She dialed the number she’d written down for the California book club, and as the phone rang, she took a seat in the centermost chair of the theater. She forced herself to relax. She did these discussions several times a month with book clubs around the country, and they were always the same: the same questions, the same women, the same wineglasses, the same jokes, the same compliments. No one invited her to a book club if they didn’t enjoy her books, and yet these things always made her cringe. She could see her image on camera in a little box in the corner of the screen, and she had to remind herself:
Seconds later, a high-definition image of a Palo Alto living room filled the screen. Seven thirty-something women, fit the way only young Californians could be, erupted with happy smiles when they saw her. They were spread across modern furniture in a high-rise apartment that overlooked San Francisco Bay, and they already had their glasses of chardonnay in hand. In the middle was the hostess—smart, jet-black
hair; red glasses on her face; a woman with the upscale look of a young executive at a tech giant.
“Ms. Power?” the woman said. “Welcome. I’m Aria Dhawan. It’s so kind of you to join our book club tonight. I have to tell you, we all just loved
Thief River Falls
. We don’t typically read thrillers in our group, but we made an exception for this book because of the recommendation from Reese, and we’re very happy we did.”
“I’m so glad,” Lisa replied.
“The ending made me cry, but there was something uplifting about it, too. When the boy Purdue comes back as the woman is dying? That was so moving. I don’t have children myself, but it was definitely a mother’s book.”
“Yes, believe me, I cried when I wrote that scene, too.”
“Well, we have a lot of questions for you, but I know it’s late there, so we promise not to take up too much of your time.”
“That’s okay. This is what I do. When I’m not writing, that is.”
One of the other women put down her wineglass and jumped into the conversation. “The setting of your book is so remote! And the name of the town is very romantic. Is Thief River Falls a real place? Is that where you live?”
Lisa forced another smile. Always the same questions.
“Oh, yes, Thief River Falls is a real place. It’s located in far northwestern Minnesota, not too far from the Canadian border. And yes, I lived there my whole life until very recently. I purchased a house about an hour north of town last year, but you’ll still find me in Thief River Falls several times a week.”
“You must be famous there,” one of the other women said.
“Or infamous. I was a little nervous about bringing so much mayhem to my hometown, but my neighbors didn’t seem to have a problem with it. I’m not so sure about the chamber of commerce, though.”
The women laughed. They always did.
Lisa knew which laugh lines to use and which stories tugged at people’s heartstrings. For nearly every question at a book club or library visit, she had an answer memorized, because she’d talked to so many readers over the years who all wanted to know the same things.
Where do you get your ideas?
“I wish I could tell you. I see the world—people, places, whatever—through the lens of thrillers. I always have, since I was a girl. To me, everything in my life is about plots and characters. It’s a little scary sometimes.”
Was it hard to break through as a writer?
“Incredibly hard. It took me years to sell my first book. I didn’t make a living at it until
Thief River Falls
, which was my fourth book. That’s only because of Reese and the movie deal. Until then, I was working full time as a nurse at the local hospital.”
Where do you write?
“Well, I built a little writer’s cottage for myself at my new place. I used to live in a very small two-bedroom house next door to my parents, and there wasn’t much room. So either I’d take my laptop up to the attic and hang out with the spiders, or I’d be out in the backyard working next to the kiddie pool and the jungle gym.”
She didn’t need to think about the answers she gave. They just rolled off her tongue. Sometimes she had to stop herself to let them get the questions out of their mouths before she began answering.
And then there were the questions she hated. The personal ones.
“Are you married?” one of the Palo Alto women asked.
Lisa got that question every time. She wondered if male writers did, too. As always, she had a throwaway line ready to be delivered.
“No, I’m not married. That’s one downside of living in a remote area. There are a lot of farm animals around here, but not much in the way of single men.”
They were a good group. She could feel their intelligence. She thought about telling them the truth:
I was engaged once, but Danny died more than ten years ago. That was two months before our wedding
. She thought about pouring out her soul and confessing everything that had happened to her in the past two years. About the Dark Star and how it had taken away her family. But people didn’t want to hear those things, and Lisa didn’t need the sympathy of strangers. She wanted to be done answering questions for the night. All she wanted now was to go to bed and sleep.
She grabbed a hardcover copy of
Thief River Falls
from the theater seat next to her. She kept the book there for these moments, because it was always a good way to hurry the video chats along to their conclusion.
“Would you like me to read a little from the book?”
The women on the screen murmured their enthusiastic approval. People liked hearing her read. Lisa enjoyed it, too, because it gave her the opportunity to act out the characters. It helped make the people in the books real to her. Human, three dimensional, full of emotion, not just creations on a page.
She turned to the prologue, which was where she always started. But before she could begin, a voice interrupted her.
“Actually, I have a question for you.”
Lisa looked up at the screen in surprise. The voice belonged to a man, but she saw only women in the Palo Alto condo. “I’m sorry; who’s that?”
Aria Dhawan glanced sideways at someone standing out of camera range. “Oh, that’s my husband. Sometimes he lurks at our discussions. You should be honored—I don’t think he’s ever asked a question of one of our authors before. Come on, Rohan; if you’ve got something to say, at least let the woman see you.”
Lisa waited, and Rohan Dhawan wandered into view. He had red wine where the others drank white. He was older than his wife, well into his forties, with thinning black hair that left only a few tufts on
his forehead and a neatly trimmed beard. He was tall and thin, wearing a black sport coat that fit him loosely, a black T-shirt, and tan khakis. The clothes were casual but expensive. He had thick, inquisitive eyebrows, and his dark, unblinking eyes bored through the screen. Even two thousand miles away, those eyes, combined with a condescending little smirk, made Lisa uncomfortable.
“Ms. Power,” he said politely.
“Mr. Dhawan. What’s your question?”
“I wanted to know if you have ever been afraid that someone will bring your books to life.”
Lisa blinked with surprise. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“I mean your books are about violence. Killing. Terrible things happen. Aren’t you concerned that some deranged person might be inspired to do evil by what you write?”
Lisa’s head throbbed. The brightness of the screen made her want to close her eyes. Her migraine was back. “Actually, my thrillers
about violence, Mr. Dhawan. There’s violence in them, but that’s not the point of the books. They’re about people.”
“And yet they could be considered a road map to murder, could they not? In the wrong hands, that is.”
“Rohan,” his wife murmured, disapproval in her voice.
“No, it’s a fair question,” Lisa replied, straining to keep a smile on her face. “I guess I’d say that if someone’s inclined to do evil, they don’t need me or my books to carry it out. They can get plenty of inspiration from the real world.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Power, but isn’t that a bit of a cop-out? You titillate people with the reality of what you create. That’s the point of a thriller, isn’t it? You want us to think your plots could really happen. Would it be so surprising if someone took it too far? It has happened to other writers, has it not? What would you do if some copycat killer came along and decided to bury a child alive because of something he read in your book?”
his wife interjected.
“Truly, Ms. Power,” the man went on, grilling her like a prosecutor with a hostile witness, “is that something you could live with? Wouldn’t you feel at least partially responsible?”
“No. No, I wouldn’t.” Lisa stood up. She felt dizzy and short of breath. “I hate to cut this off, but I’m afraid it’s late, and I have a terrible headache.”
“Ms. Power, I’m very sorry,” Aria began. “Please excuse my husband—”
“That’s all right. My apologies for ending so abruptly. Good night.”
Lisa reached down to the laptop with trembling fingers and ended the call. The video disappeared immediately, and all she could see in front of her now was the huge bright-white screen, so white that it hurt her eyes. She felt herself breathing quickly, hyperventilating.
She tried to walk, but the whole world spun like a carousel, and she found herself collapsing to her knees.
Down, down, down . . .
Lisa awoke sometime later in bed, dreaming that someone was outside her front door. It was after midnight. The last thing she remembered was getting up off the floor in the basement theater and coming upstairs and changing into her nightgown. Outside, through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the bedroom, she could see that the rain had finally stopped. The clouds had cleared out, leaving an open sky, and the moon was a bright searchlight, casting its milky glow across her body. She lay atop the heavy blankets. The house was so silent that she felt lonely.
Then it happened again.
Downstairs, someone pounded heavily on her front door. She realized that the noise hadn’t been part of a dream; it was real. She heard a muffled voice shouting her name from the porch.
“Ms. Power! Are you home? We need to talk to you.”
Lisa didn’t recognize the voice. It wasn’t anyone she knew, and strangers typically didn’t show up here unannounced in the middle of the night. She slipped out of bed, but she stayed away from the windows, where the curtains were open. She had never felt a need to close them for privacy, because her nearest neighbor was two miles away. But right now, she was conscious of the white moonlight that would make her visible to anyone outside. Until she knew who was there, she didn’t want to announce the fact that she was home and alone.
She crept to the bedroom wall and nudged just far enough past the edge of the window frame to look down. The slant of the roof made it impossible to see who was on the porch, but she could see a vehicle parked in her gravel driveway. It was a black SUV, and she could make out large gold lettering on the doors. Someone from the county sheriff’s department was paying her a visit.
But not the sheriff in Kittson County, where she lived.
The SUV was from south of her in Pennington County, where the county seat was Thief River Falls.
As she watched, a police officer stepped down from the porch. She could hear the crunch of his boots as he walked into the middle of her front yard. He wore a deputy’s uniform, but the wide brim of the man’s hat made it impossible to see who it was. He turned around to stare up at the house, and Lisa instinctively backed away to make sure he didn’t see her. She didn’t know why she was hesitating about opening the door to the police. She knew most of the deputies in Pennington County, and they knew her.