But one of the books that is on the top of my reading pile as soon as my mojo comes back (hopefully before my week off work in August!) is Last to Die by Arlene Hunt which is published tomorrow so I'm delighted to have been asked by her publisher Bookouture to share an extract from the book with you all.
He watches. He waits. He kills...
When Jessie Conway survives a horrific mass high school shooting, in the aftermath she finds herself thrust into the media spotlight, drawing all kinds of attention. But some of it is the wrong kind.
Caleb Switch, a sadistic serial killer, has been watching her every move. A skilled hunter, he likes his victims to be a challenge. Jessie is strong, fearless, a survivor, and now… she is his ultimate prey.
As Caleb picks off his current victims one by one, chasing, killing and butchering them with his crossbow, he’s closing in on Jessie... But will Jessie defy the odds and escape with her life? Or will she be Caleb’s final sacrifice…
Jessie Conway fanned herself ineffectually with her hand and wished for the umpteenth time that the relentless heat would let up a little. She was thirty-eight years old, tall but evenly proportioned, with shoulder-length hair, the shade of which was the envy of every bottle red-headed woman in Rockville.
‘What can I do for you, Riley?’
‘It’s really hot. I’m really hot. It’s really hot today.’
‘Would you like me to open the window, Riley?’
‘Use your words please.’
‘Open the window.’
‘What else should you say?’
Riley scrunched his face, thinking. Jessie waited while he figured it out. Riley was fourteen and one of the smarter pupils in her class. Certainly, he had the potential to live some kind of productive life when he left school behind. Manners were crucial in this. Jessie hoped the universe treated him a little better in the future than it had thus far.
‘Very good, Riley.’
Jessie rose from her desk, crossed the room and grappled with the sash window. Despite being pretty strong, she could barely raise it an inch. This section of Rockville High was old and in need of care and attention. Something it rarely received.
‘That child is never happy unless he’s complaining about something,’ Tracy Flowers, her Teaching Assistant muttered, sliding in beside Jessie to help her wrestle with the window.
‘He’s right though, it is hot.’
‘Don’t see how this will help; it’s as hot out there as it is in here.’
Tracy was twenty-four years old. She had joined Rockville High the previous September and was without doubt the best Teaching Assistant Jessie had ever worked with. She liked to grumble, but she was tough, kind and, most importantly, she was scrupulously fair with the children. That day she was wearing a yellow sundress the colour of buttercups. Jessie thought it looked very pretty and would have liked to have said so, but Tracy did not take a compliment well and she did not enjoy people drawing attention to her.
Between them, they managed to force the window up by about a foot. Jessie leaned her hands on the ledge, savouring the slight breeze and the comforting drone of a lawnmower somewhere in the distance. It truly was a beautiful June day.
Only one more week until the holidays, she thought, smiling. She wondered if Mike, her husband, had called the realtor on the rental cabin like he had said he would that morning. Knowing Mike, he had probably forgotten. She decided she’d call him during recess to remind him.
As she turned back towards the class, Jessie caught a glimpse of a dark green Toyota cruising slowly along the ring road that encircled the campus. The windows were tinted and closed tight. Air conditioning, Jessie thought, something else the school board claimed they could not afford to repair. The car slowed, turned into the main parking lot normally reserved for staff and disappeared from view.
Jessie moved away from the window and went to help a sweet-natured girl named Martha Fisk stick glue to the card she was working on. Martha’s tongue jutted out to the side as she concentrated on her task. There was glitter just about everywhere.
‘This is very pretty, Martha.’
‘Who are you making this for, your mom?’
Martha shook her head.
‘Well it’s very—’
Jessie leaned over the child’s shoulder. Martha had glued six tinfoil stars to her card and one to the desk.
‘That’s okay Martha. We can peel it off. It’s okay. Look.’ Jessie lifted the star and wiped the tiny smudge of glue with her thumb. ‘See, all gone.’
Martha offered Jessie a painful, pathetic grin. Her gratitude broke Jessie’s heart. Martha was missing her front teeth. No one had ever received a satisfactory answer from her about what had happened to them, only that they had been gone a long time and she didn’t like talking about it. Questions put to Martha’s mother, the only time she had bothered to show up to a parent teacher meeting, had been met with a bored shrug. ‘Probably she banged ’em. You see how she is, that damn kid’s always fallin’ and floppin’ all over the place.’
‘What can I help you with, Austin?’
‘I need to go pee, Miss Conway.’
Jessie pointed to the big plastic clock hanging behind her desk.
‘See the big hand, Austin? Remember we talked about this? When that big hand reaches the number six you can go.’
‘I need to go real bad, Miss Conway.’
‘Tracy, would you show Austin to the bathroom?’
‘Sure. Come on, Austin.’
‘I don’t want her to go,’ Austin said, shrinking back from Tracy. ‘I don’t want her.’
Tracy’s expression remained neutral; she was used to this reaction, but Jessie felt a flash of anger and shame. Austin’s father disliked and mistrusted ‘coloreds’ and was more than happy to say so to anyone who might listen. He spent much of his limited time outside prison terrifying his youngest son with stories about what the ‘coloreds’ might like to do with soft, small-boned boys like Austin, should they get the chance.
‘Austin,’ Jessie said, ‘remember we spoke about this? You do not shout in class – if you shout in class you will lose your yard privileges.’
‘I heard you.’
‘Do you still want to go to the bathroom?’
Austin looked at her sulkily and shook his head. He bent to his work, pink with temper and Tracy went on about her business, stoical.
Jessie glanced at the clock again. She would be glad when this day was over. On paper, Jessie’s pupils were described as ‘marginalised’, which was nothing more than politically correct claptrap for ‘extremely messed up’. Most of the children in Jessie’s class were the product of appalling neglect, both mental and physical, and abuse, also both mental and physical. They were the children of alcoholics and drug-addicted parents, of parents who spent half their lives in jail, the rest of the time trying to spend their welfare on booze, weed and crystal meth. That was if they even had parents to speak of. Many of Jessie’s pupils were being reared by their grandparents; sad, tired, ill-equipped people whose hearts were in the right place, even if they did not have the wherewithal to help their grandchildren in ways other than to feed and house them.
Jessie lifted a pop-up picture book from under a desk and slotted it into what they romantically called ‘the library’, though it was little more than two shelves of tattered books bought and paid for by the profits from fundraisers and raffles. The bell finally rang. Her pupils collected their belongings and hustled their way to the door. Some said goodbye; most did not.
‘What a day,’ Tracy said, when the last child left. ‘I swear, I don’t think I can face another week of this.’
‘Nobody ever said Special Ed was easy,’ Jessie said, tying her dark red hair into a ponytail.
‘No, I guess they didn’t.’
Jessie rested her hand on Tracy’s shoulder. ‘You’re doing great.’
Tracy offered her a wry smile that said she thought differently. ‘I’m going to go get some strong coffee. You coming?’
‘Be with you in a few minutes. Save me a dessert if there is any. I think I heard talk of Key lime pie earlier.’
‘Aw man, how can you eat that stuff and never put on a single pound? If I even look at pie my hips expand.’
‘It’s a secret; if I told you I’d have to kill you.’
Tracy laughed and left.
Jessie wiped the board clean and began to write up the assignments for the next class. When she finished, she picked up her handbag and was about to exit the room when she heard popping sounds. They were loud and they were close.
Jessie opened the door and stepped out. Children milled about the hall, a number of them looked curious.
‘What’s going on?’ Jessie asked a heavily built boy she recognised from eight grade.
The freckle-faced girl with him looked scared. ‘Sounds to me like gunfire.’
‘Nah, no way,’ the boy said. ‘Probably a cherry bomb or some shit.’
Then the fire alarm went off, filling the halls with deafening wails.
‘Okay, okay,’ Jessie clapped her hands to get attention. ‘You know the drill. Everybody make their way outside to the basketball courts. No running, no shoving please. Nice and easy now. Use the nearest exit please.’
Jessie pushed her way through the children and followed the corridor until she reached the main foyer. Rockville High was a single-storey building, built around this double-height space, off which were four ‘wings’. To Jessie’s immediate left was the staff room and to her right the cafeteria. Children spilled into the space from three separate hallways. Some of them laughed and hooted, others seemed more anxious. There were a number of students by the lockers opposite the cafeteria doors, changing books and emptying contents into backpacks as though the alarms were not going off at all.
Jessie caught sight of Adam Edwards, the Vice-Principal, striding to the foyer from the B wing. He was trying to get people to make their way to the A Wing, pleading with them to remain calm and to move quickly but without running. Jessie was puzzled as to why he was not shepherding them towards the main doors. She turned her head and saw that there was a chain strung through both door handles, with a heavy padlock hanging from it. She immediately made her way towards the Vice-Principal.
‘What’s going on?’If you want to know what happens next, you'll have to pop back later this afternoon to read the second part of this extract from Chapter one of Last to Die.