- Published: 29 March 2022
- ISBN: 9781760896805
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 480
- RRP: $19.99
From where she sat at the back of the bus, the driver’s death was a confusing spectacle to Emily Jackson.
She had a good view down the length of the vehicle from her position, leaning against a window smeared with the fingerprints of happy children. Her seat was elevated over the rear wheel axle, so as she rode she could see youngsters jumping and crashing about the interior, playing games and teasing each other across the aisle, occasionally throwing a ball or smacking a catcher’s mitt into a rival’s head. Half of the other parents on the bus were ignoring their children’s activity, gazing out the windows at the Nevada desert, some with AirPods in their ears and wistful looks on their faces. Others were making valiant attempts to dampen the chaos and noise: confiscating water bottles, phones and toys being used as weapons, or dragging wandering toddlers back to their seats. Forty minutes of featureless sand and scrub beyond the garish structures and swirling colours of Vegas was a lot for kids to endure. When the bus bumped over a loose rock on the narrow road to the prison, Emily saw all the other passengers bump with it, the bus and its riders synchronised parts of a unified machine.
She didn’t have to nudge her son, Tyler, as they approached the point at which Pronghorn Correctional would come into view. Tyler had been coming to the annual pre-Christmas softball game at the facility since he was a kindergartener, and had only missed one year, when his father strained his back fixing the garage door and couldn’t play second pitcher against the minimum-security inmates as he usually did. Tyler’s familiarity with the journey seemed to give him a sixth sense, and she watched as he flipped his paperback closed, shifting upwards in his seat. No landmark out there in the vastness told mother and son they were approaching the last gentle curve in the road. Hard, cracked land reached plainly towards the distant mountain range. Then the pair watched through the bus’s huge windshield as the collection of wide, low concrete buildings rose seemingly out of the sand.
‘Who’s your money on this time?’ Emily asked the teen. A five-year-old in the seat in front of them started pointing and squealing at the sight of the prison up ahead. Tyler considered his mother’s question, watching the boy in front of him with quiet distaste, as if he hadn’t once been just the same, so excited to see Daddy at work.
‘I’m betting inmates,’ Tyler decided, giving his mother a wry smile. ‘Dad says they’ve been practising during yard time for months.’
‘Traitor.’ Emily smirked.
‘How ’bout you?’
‘Officers,’ she said. ‘If you’re going for the cons, I’ve got to go for the correctional officers or your father won’t sp—’
A thump cut off Emily’s words.
It was a heavy, sonic pulse, not unlike a firework exploding; a sound Emily both heard and felt in the centre of her chest. Her brain offered up a handful of ordinary explanations for the noise even as her eyes took in the visual information that accompanied it. A blown tyre, she thought. Or a rock crunching under the bus’s wheels. Some kind of spontaneous combustion in the vehicle’s old, rickety engine, a piston or cylinder giving out due to the rugged terrain and the desert’s usually blinding heat.
But none of those explanations aligned with what Emily saw.
The driver slumped sideways out of his seat, caught and prevented from falling into the stairwell only by the seatbelt over his shoulder. A fine pink mist seemed to shimmer in the air before dissipating as quickly as it had appeared. Emily grabbed the seat in front of her and held on as the bus swung off the road and slowed to a stop in the shrubbery.
Her eyes wandered over the scene at the front of the bus. The passengers in the first two rows were examining their hands or touching their faces as though they were damp. Hundreds of tiny cubes of glass lay over the driver, the dash and the aisle, the side window having neatly collapsed and sprayed everywhere, exactly as it was designed to do. Emily recognised Sarah Gravelle up there rising unsteadily from her seat and walking to the driver’s side. Emily could see, even from her distant position, that half of the driver’s head was gone. Sarah looked at the driver, and everybody watched her do it, as if they were waiting for her to confirm what they already knew.
Sarah stumbled back to her seat and sat down. Emily’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, her body suddenly covered in a thin film of sweat.
Sarah Gravelle started screaming.
And then everyone was screaming.
Grace Slanter put down her pen and pressed the speakerphone button to answer the phone that was ringing on her wide desk. Few calls came to the warden’s office without first being channelled through her assistant’s office in the room down the hall, so she was expecting someone familiar on the line: her husband, Joe, or the director of Nevada corrections, Sally Wakefield, a woman she spoke to almost daily. When the line connected, there was a second click she’d never heard before, and her own voice gave a ringing echo, as if it was being played back somewhere. Robocaller, she thought. But that was impossible. This was an unlisted line, not the kind that could appear on a database in some sweaty underground scam-mill.
‘Hello, Grace Slanter.
‘Pay attention,’ a voice commanded.
Grace felt a chill enter her spine, high between her shoulders, as though she’d been touched by an icy finger. She looked down at the phone on the desk as though it held a malevolent presence, something she could see glowing evilly between the seams in the plastic.
‘There’s a bus stopped in the desert half a mile from the prison walls,’ the voice said. It was a male voice. Soft, clipped. Confident. ‘If you go to the window behind you and look out, you’ll see it sitting on the road.’
Grace stood. She did not go to the window. The warden had been trained to respond to calls like this one, and though she’d never before had to put that training into action, the first thing she remembered was not to start following the directions of the caller until she had a grasp on the situation. She went to the door of her office instead, the furthest point from the window, and looked down the hall. There was not a soul to be seen.
‘Are you looking at it?’ the voice asked.
Grace stepped up onto the couch against the wall, to the left of the desk. She could see the bus out there, a distant white brick in the expanse of land beyond the concrete walls and razor wire of the prison. It had one wheel off the road, the vehicle tilted slightly, leaning, as though drunk.
‘Okay,’ Grace said. ‘I see it. What’s your name? I want to know who I’m talking to.’
‘On that bus are twelve women, eight men and fourteen children,’ the voice said, ignoring her questions. ‘They’re the families of guards inside the prison. Your employees. Your people.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ Grace said. The annual softball game. Inmates versus officers. The families always came to watch. It was an event designed to appease the prison staff stuck minding vicious criminals during the holiday season while their families gathered at home. The peacemaking gesture usually lifted the dismay after the rosters for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s were drawn up, so that officers went into those shifts with at least half a smile on their faces. After the game there were lunch and drinks for the unlucky families in the conference building outside the prison walls.
Grace staggered down from the couch and gripped the edge of the desk. Her training was forgotten, her senses blurred. She went to her chair and fell into it, relieved by the familiar feeling of her own warmth on the seat, something comforting in the chilling seconds that passed.
‘The driver of the bus is dead,’ the voice on the phone said. Grace tried to remember the location of the panic button on her desk, the one that would send an alarm to her colleagues inside the building, and an automatic ‘assistance needed’ call to the nearest law enforcement agencies. All she had to do was remember where that single button was. But her mind was spinning, reeling, and for a long moment it was a struggle just to breathe.
‘Are you listening, Grace?’
‘I’m . . . I’m listening,’ she said. Grace drew in a deep breath and then let it out. She found the button under the desk by her knee and pushed it. A red light came on above the door to her office, but no sound issued. In seconds, her assistant, Derek, was there, huffing from the run up the hall, two guards right behind him. It only took one look from Grace to send them sprinting away again.
‘What do you want?’ she asked.
‘I want you to let them out.’
Grace had known the words were coming long before they were spoken. She drew in another deep breath. Across the two decades she had been in senior management at Pronghorn, she’d run over this scenario in her mind a hundred times. She knew what to do now. She was regaining control. There was a procedure for this. She grabbed her pen and started jotting down notes about the voice and the time of the call, keeping an eye on the window as she sat twisted sideways in her chair.
‘Which inmates are we talking about?’ Grace asked. ‘Who do you want me to release?’
‘All of them,’ the voice said.
BookShots are short, high-impact stories by James Patterson and other writers that can be read in one sitting.
She was perfect. And so rarely the perfect ones came, fluttering out of the darkness like moths into golden light. Swift and uncatchable.