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The Escape Artist
By Brad Meltzer
Read by Scott Brick
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Who is Nola Brown?
Nola is a mystery
Nola is trouble.
And Nola is supposed to be dead.
Her body was found on a plane that mysteriously fell from the sky as it left a secret military base in the Alaskan wilderness. Her commanding officer verifies she’s dead. The US government confirms it. But Jim “Zig” Zigarowski has just found out the truth: Nola is still alive. And on the run.
Zig works at Dover Air Force Base, helping put to rest the bodies of those who die on top-secret missions. Nola was a childhood friend of Zig’s daughter and someone who once saved his daughter’s life. So when Zig realizes Nola is still alive, he’s determined to find her. Yet as Zig digs into Nola’s past, he learns that trouble follows Nola everywhere she goes.
Together, Nola and Zig will either reveal a sleight of hand being played at the highest levels of power or die trying to uncover the US Army’s most mysterious secret–a centuries-old conspiracy that traces back through history to the greatest escape artist of all: Harry Houdini.
“Meltzer is a master and this is his best. Not since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have you seen a character like this. Get ready to meet Nola. If you’ve never tried Meltzer, this is the one.” — Harlan Coben
Twenty years. This book marks twenty years(!) since my first novel was published. That means, dear reader, if you were there from the start, you’re old. It also means I owe you big for giving me this writer’s life.
This book is a mystery. It’s also a mission. Six years ago, I went on a USO trip to entertain our troops in the Middle East. Soon after, I learned about the heroes at Dover Air Force Base. Looking back, it seems clear I was in the midst of my own crisis, examining my life and my place in this world. The point is, I believe every book is born from a need, and it was this book that helped me realize the difference between being alive and actually living. It’s what gave birth to the two new characters in these pages.
With that said, I owe tremendous thank-yous to the following: My first lady, Cori, who opens my heart and brings me to life. She is in every single page of this novel. I love you for it, C. Jonas, Lila, and Theo are always my best blessings. With these kids, I know what I live for. Jill Kneerim, my friend and agent, is the great soul. I have been enriched by her soul for two decades. Friend and agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at WME goes to battle for us every day. Extra thanks to Hope Denekamp, Lucy Cleland, Ike Williams, and all our friends at the Kneerim & Williams Agency.
This book is about a fight for one’s life. So I need to thank my sister, Bari, who was there as we fought for ours. Also to Bobby, Ami, Adam, Gilda, and Will, for always standing with us.
I pride myself on my loyalty. Noah Kuttler takes it one step further. I trust him like no one else. He is a vault and a well of kindness. My life is better with you in it, Noah. Ethan Kline dreams the big dreams with me. Then Dale Flam, Matt Kuttler, Chris Weiss, and Judd Winick pour through my various drafts, telling me all the parts that make no sense and all the jokes that aren’t funny. They don’t realize all my jokes are funny.
With every book, a few people become so vital to the process it’s as if their souls get poured into these pages. So let me start with William “Zig” Zwicharowski. As the Port Mortuary Branch Chief at Dover, he spends every day taking care of our fallen troops, making sure they’re treated with honor, dignity, and respect. I’ve spent twenty years doing research. I’ve never been more humbled by someone’s work. I’m embarrassing him now, so let me just say this: To everyone on the Dover team, thank you for what you do for Gold Star families. In addition to Zig, a special thank-you to another of my heroes, former Dover man Matt Genereux, who kept me honest at every level. Matt and Zig are family to me—and were my moral compasses. (Heart!) Finally, my master of all things military and one of my oldest friends, Scott Deutsch. In junior high school, we went to Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour together. Today, he works in the military. I asked him hundreds of inane questions and he gave me all the right answers. I’m the one who then screws it up. You inspire me every day, pal. Thanks for all your trust.
I also need to thank everyone at Dover, including Major Ray Geoffroy, Tracy E. Bailey, Edward Conway, Chris Schulze, Mary Ellen “Mel” Spera, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Frederick Upchurch. (And yes, I know what really happened to Building 1303.) Also, much appreciation to my friend Senator Chris Coons for the hospitality in his home state of Delaware.
Even more details came from First Sergeant Amy L. M. Brown, our real-life Army Artist-in-Residence; Chris Semancik and everyone at the US Army Center of Military History, Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir; Mary Roach, whose mastery of the dead left me breathless (as you read this thriller, when I reference my “favorite professor,” I’m referencing Mary—go buy her book Stiff; it’s brilliant); Chuck Collins of Compassionate Friends (if you know someone who has lost a child, go to their site); Ben Becker, for the gun knowledge; Caleb Wilde (along with his dad, Bill, and grandfather Bud), who spent a day talking about the dead and Pennsylvania; Steve Whittlesey and Howland Blackiston, for the honeybee details; Joel Marlin for the best history of magic; Mark Dimunation and everyone in the Houdini Collection at the Library of Congress; The Amazing Mr. Ash at Ash’s Magic Shop, and the ever elusive Master of the Book, who deserves to be acknowledged but will only do it with a code name.
Extra thanks to Eljay Bowron, Bob Mayer (the godfather to Zig), Jake Black, David Howard, and Mark Ginsberg; Dr. Lee Benjamin and Dr. Ronald K. Wright, for always helping me maim and kill with authority; and the rest of my own inner circle, who I bother for every book: Jim Day, Chris Eliopoulos, Jo Ayn Glanzer, Denise Jaeger, Katriela Knight, Jason Sherry, Marie Grunbeck, Nick Marell, Staci Schecter, Simon Sinek, Eling Tsai, and David Watkins. Finally, major thanks to everyone in the military and veterans community, especially family members of those who serve. Your sacrifice is never lost on me. To that end, if you are thinking about suicide, especially in the military, call 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone. And thanks to everyone else who anonymously enriched these pages. You know who you are.
The books The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, Art of the American Soldier by Renée Klish, Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister, Houdini!!! by Kenneth Silverman, and articles including “The Things That Carried Him” by Chris Jones, “Making Toast” by Roger Rosenblatt, “What Suffering Does” by David Brooks, and the writings of Linton Weeks were all greatly informing to this process; “Last Inspection” by James Dao and “The Child Exchange” by Megan Twohey led me to both Zig and Nola; our family on Decoded and Lost History, and at HISTORY, including Nancy Dubuc, Paul Cabana, Mike Stiller, and Russ McCarroll, for bringing me Houdini; Rob Weisbach, for being the very first; and of course, my family and friends, whose names forever inhabit these pages.
I also want to thank everyone at Grand Central Publishing: Michael Pietsch, Brian McLendon, Matthew Ballast, Caitlin Mulrooney-Lyski, Kyra Baldwin, Chris Murphy, Dave Epstein, Martha Bucci, Ali Cutrone, Karen Torres, Jean Griffin, Beth deGuzman, Andrew Duncan, Meriam Metoui, Bob Castillo, Mari Okuda, the kindest and hardest-working sales force in show business, and all my treasured friends there. I’ve said it before, and I’ll never stop saying it: They are the true reason this book is in your hands. I need to add a special thank-you to Jamie Raab, who knows that no matter where she goes, she’s always family. I also want to welcome superstar Wes Miller, who has edited and pushed me in the very best ways. I’m lucky to know him. Finally, I want to thank our new master of ceremonies, Ben Sevier. Let me say it as clearly as I can: He has been the champion of this book and the classiest of class acts. I am so thankful he’s in my life. Thank you, Ben, for your faith.
1898, John Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini,
was put in charge of the United States Secret Service.
Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.
It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.
Copper Center, Alaska
These were the last thirty-two seconds of her life.
As the small plane—a twin-engine CASA used by the military—took off from the airfield, most of the seven passengers on board were staring out their windows, thinking themselves lucky. Few people got to see this side of the world, much less the private base that the Army had built out here. On maps, it didn’t exist. On Google, it was permanently blurred.
In the last row of the plane, a woman with shoulder-length black hair was convinced she was blessed, marveling at the snow-dusted tops of Alaska’s beautiful aspen trees. She loved that the roots of aspen trees often grew together, supporting each other and forming a giant organism. It was why she joined the Army all those years ago: to build something stronger, with others. She got just that when she came out here to the lush wilderness.
Definitely blessed, she told herself. Then, just like that, the plane began to vibrate.
Her initial reaction was, Fix it—straighten us out. She was annoyed that the vibrations were messing up her handwriting. On the open tray table, she was trying to write a letter—a dirty note—to her fiancé, Anthony, telling him what she was planning to do to him later that evening.
Her hope was to slip it into his back pocket, Anthony being so surprised—and horny—from her traveling all the way to Fort Campbell on his birthday, he wouldn’t notice her sliding some playful fun into his pocket. And even if he did, well…thanks to their Army schedules, she and Anthony hadn’t been alone with each other in two months. He’d have no problem with a pretty girl’s hand on his ass.
The intercom cracked to life. “Prepare for—”
The pilot never got the words out.
The plane tilted, nose down, like it was arcing over the peak of a roller coaster. The woman with the black hair felt her stomach twist. All that was left was the final drop. Suddenly, there were anvils on her shoulders, pressing her into her seat.
Diagonally across the aisle, an Army lieutenant with buzzed red hair and triangular eyes made a face and gripped his armrests, just beginning to realize how bad it was about to get.
The woman with the black hair was Army too—a twenty-seven-year-old supply sergeant—and on those first days of her Airborne training at Fort Benning, they taught her that when it comes to a plane crash, people don’t panic. They become docile and silent. To save yourself, you need to take action.
The plane jolted, nearly knocking the pen from her hand. The pen. Her letter. She almost forgot she was writing it. She thought about Anthony, about writing a will… Then she replayed those last few minutes before she got on board. Oh, God. Now it made sense. Her stomach was up in her throat. The VIPs at the front of the plane were now screaming. She knew why this plane was going down. This wasn’t an accident.
Frantically, she jotted a new note, her hand shaking, tears squeezing out from behind her eyes.
The plane jolted again. A fireball of jet fuel came in through the emergency door on her left, from outside. Her shirt was on fire. She patted it out. She could smell melting plastic, yet at the sight of the flames—
The door. She was seated at the emergency exit.
Still clutching tight to the scribbled note, she gripped the door’s red handle with both hands and started to pull. It gave way, and she slid it sideways. There was a pop. The door was still closed, but the seal was broken.
Twenty seconds to go.
She tried to get out of her seat, but her seat belt— It was still buckled. In a frenzy, she clawed at it. Click. She was free.
Still holding the crumpled note, now damp in her sweaty fist, she put her palm to the exit door and gave it a shove. It was stuck from the fire. She gave it a kick. The door opened as a rodeo of wind whipped her black hair in every direction. Papers went flying through the cabin. A phone bounced against the ceiling. People were screaming, though she couldn’t make out any of it.
Fourteen seconds to go.
Outside, the tall, snow-covered aspen trees that had looked so small were now racing at her, growing larger every second. She knew the odds. When you free-fall in a light aircraft, if fate’s not on your side, you don’t have a chance.
“GO! GET OUT!” a man’s voice shouted.
She had barely turned as the lieutenant with the triangular eyes barreled into her, fighting to get to the emergency exit.
The plane was in free fall now, a reddish orange smoke filling the cabin. Eleven seconds to go. The man was pushing against her with all his weight. They both knew if they jumped too soon—above three hundred feet—they wouldn’t survive the impact. Even if they were lucky enough to live, the compound fractures in their legs—if the bones came through their skin—it’d make them bleed out in no time.
No. This had to be timed just right.
Not until you’re at the treetops, she told herself, remembering her training and eyeing the aspens, which were closer than ever. The wind blinded her. The smoke was in her lungs as she held the lieutenant at bay with one hand and held tight to the note with her other.
“GO! NOW!” the man screamed, and for a moment, it looked like his back was on fire.
Eight seconds to go.
The plane plummeted diagonally toward the ground. Without even thinking about it, she stuffed the note into the one place she thought it might survive.
“WE DON’T HAVE—!”
She put her foot on the lip of the doorway, turned back to the lieutenant and grabbed him by his shirt, trying to pull him outside with her. This could work. She could save them both.
She was wrong.
The lieutenant pulled away. It was instinct. No one wants to be yanked from a plane. That was the end. The lieutenant with the triangular eyes would go down, literally, in flames.
With three seconds to go, the woman with black hair leapt from the plane. She would land on the balls of her feet, still trying to follow her training as she hit with a thud in the snow. A perfect landing. But also a deadly one. She’d break both legs and snap her neck on impact.
The emergency crews would find her name on the manifest. Nola Brown.
And the scribbled note—her final words—that she’d hidden so well? That would be found by the least likely person of all.
Dover Air Force Base, Delaware
Jim “Zig” Zigarowski knew the pain was coming. It didn’t stop him. He was good with pain. Used to it. Still, he knew this one would sting. Since the day Zig arrived at this remote building at the back of Dover Air Force Base, every case was wrenching. Especially this one. Hence the pain.
“I thought Lou was on call today?” asked Dr. Womack, a short Hispanic man with a weak beard and baggy medical scrubs.
“We switched,” Zig said, wheeling the gurney a bit faster up the hallway, hoping to leave Womack behind. “Lou had a dinner date.”
“Really? I just saw Lou at dinner. All alone.”
Zig stopped. This was the moment where it could all implode. Zig shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t have taken this gurney, or what was hidden below the light blue sheet that covered it. Would Womack stop him? Only if he realized what was going on.
“Huh. Guess I heard it wrong,” Zig said, flashing the same charming grin that made those first years after his divorce so eventful. With mossy green eyes, a hairline scar on his jaw, and silver-and-black hair cut like Cary Grant’s, Zig didn’t look fifty-two. But as he swiped his ID and the metal double doors popped open, leading to the heart of the military installation, he was feeling it.
A sign above the door read:
and Potential Cancer Hazard
Womack paused, turning away. Zig grinned, picked up speed, and gave a hard push to the gurney that was draped with a light blue sheet, covering the corpse underneath. In between the corpse’s legs, pinning the sheet down, was a one-pound silver bucket. The gut bucket, they called it, because after the autopsy, it held all the internal organs. As Zig would tell new cadets: No matter how fat, thin, tall, or short you are—for every single one of us—all our organs fit in a one-pound bucket. For Zig, it was usually reassuring to know we all have that in common. Though right now, it wasn’t bringing the reassurance he needed.
Automatic lights blinked on, lighting the medical suite. With a pneumatic hiss, the double doors bit shut behind him. For well over a decade, Zig had spent his days working in this high-tech surgical room, which served as a mortuary for the US government’s most top secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought here. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. Here, in Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, was America’s most important funeral home.
Be quick, Zig told himself, though when it came to preparing our fallen heroes for burial, Zig was never quick. Not until the job was done.
Readjusting his own blue medical scrubs, Zig could feel the pain inching even closer. On the head of the gurney, he reread the name scrawled on a jagged strip of masking tape:
Sgt. 1st Class Nola Brown
“Welcome home, Nola,” he whispered.
The corpse swayed slightly as he locked the wheels on the gurney.
Sometimes at Dover, an incoming dead soldier would have your same birthday, or even your same name. Last year, a young Marine with the last name Zigarowski died of smoke inhalation at a base in Kosovo. Naturally, Zig grabbed that case.
Nola, named for New Orleans, Louisiana, was different.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Zig asked the shrouded body.
Lowering his head, he said a quick prayer—the same prayer he said in every case. Please give me strength to take care of the fallen so their family can begin healing. Zig knew too well how grieving families would need that strength.
On his left, on a medical rolling cart, were his tools in size order, from largest forceps to smallest scalpel. Zig reached for the blue plastic eye caps, which looked like contact lenses with small spikes on them. Zig generally was not a superstitious man, but he was superstitious about the eyes of the dead, which never close as easily as the movies would have you believe. When you look at a corpse, the corpse looks back. The eye caps were a mortician’s trick for keeping a client’s eyes shut.
How could he possibly have let another mortician work this case? Nola Brown wasn’t a stranger. He knew this girl, even if she wasn’t a girl anymore. She was twenty-six. Even from her outline under the sheet, he could see it: strong and built like a soldier. Zig knew her from Pennsylvania, back when she was twelve. She was friends—a fellow Girl Scout—with Zig’s daughter, Maggie.
Magpie. His Little Star, Zig thought, reliving those easy days before everything went so bad. There it was, the pain that now made his bones feel like they were hollowed out, simple to snap.
Had Zig known Nola well? He remembered that night, back at the Girl Scout campout. Zig was a chaperone, Nola the new girl. Adopted. Naturally, the other girls seized on that. But it was more than that. Some girls are quiet. Nola was silent. Silent Nola. A few of the girls thought that made Nola tough. But Zig knew better. Sometimes silence is beaten into people.
When you looked Nola’s way, her black eyes with flecks of gold would beg you not to engage. Zig had been warned: Silent Nola was already on her fourth school. Expelled from the other three for fighting, one girl said. Knocked out someone’s front teeth with the blunt end of a Yoo-hoo bottle. Another of Magpie’s friends said she was caught stealing too, but c’mon, ever since the Salem witch trials, groups of twelve-year-old girls couldn’t be trusted.
“You really took a beating that night, didn’t you?” Zig asked Nola’s corpse as he grabbed the outdated iPod that sat in a SoundDock on a nearby shelf. With a few clicks, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell was playing from the cheap speaker. Even morticians needed working music.
“I owe you forever for what you did that night,” Zig sighed.
To this day, Zig still didn’t know who threw the can of orange soda into the campfire, or how long it was there. He could still see the campfire’s smoke blowing sideways. For a moment, there was a high-pitched whistle, like a shrieking teapot. Then, out of nowhere, a loud pop like a cherry bomb. Hunks of aluminum exploded in every direction. Most of the girls screamed, then laughed.
Maggie’s instinct was to freeze. Silent Nola’s instinct was to jump sideways. Nola slammed into Maggie, who was standing there, frozen in fear as shards of razor-sharp metal flew at Zig’s daughter’s face.
At the impact, Maggie crashed to the dirt, completely safe. Still in mid-fall, Silent Nola let out a yelp, a screech, like an injured dog, then held the side of her head, blood everywhere.
The metal can had sliced away a chunk of her ear. The smoke was still blowing sideways. To this day, Zig didn’t know if Nola did it purposefully, tackling his daughter to protect her—or if it was just dumb luck, the fortunate result of Nola’s flight reflex. All he knew for sure was, without Nola, his daughter would’ve taken that metal bomb in the face. Everyone agreed. On that night, Nola had saved Zig’s daughter.
Before anyone could react, Zig had scooped Nola up and drove her to the nearest emergency room. Maggie sat next to Nola in the backseat, thanking her for what she did, and also looking at her dad in a whole new way. For those few moments, on the way to the hospital, Nola—and Zig for scooping her up—were heroes.
“Thank you!” his daughter kept saying to Nola. “Thank you for what y— You okay?”
Nola never answered. She sat there, knees to her chest, eyes down as she gripped her ear. No doubt, she was in pain. The top of her ear was gone. Tears ran down her cheeks. But she never made a sound. Silent Nola had learned to take it in quiet.
At the hospital, as the doctor got ready to stitch her up, a nurse told Nola to hold tight to Zig’s hand. Nola shook her head.
Three hours and forty stitches later, Nola’s adoptive father stormed into the emergency room, smelling of bourbon and the breath mints to cover it. The first words out of his mouth were, “The Girl Scouts better be paying for this!”
As Nola left the hospital that night, head down and shuffling her feet as she trailed meekly behind her dad, Zig wanted to say something. Wanted to thank this girl, but more than that— Wanted to help this girl. He never did.
Of course, Zig and Maggie brought a huge gift basket to Nola’s house. Nola’s adoptive dad opened the door, grabbed it from Maggie’s hands, and grunted a thanks. Zig kept at it, making calls to see how Nola was doing. One night, he even stopped by to check in on her. He never got a response. Undeterred, Zig nominated her for one of the big Girl Scout honors. Nola missed the ceremony.
A year later, Zig had the very worst night of his life. It took his marriage, his life, and most important, it took his daughter, his Magpie. Nola had saved her on the night of the campfire, but all Maggie got was another eleven months. Zig would forever blame himself for all of it.
Though Zig didn’t know it at the time, Nola had moved on to her fifth school. Zig never saw her again. Until tonight.
“Don’t you worry, Nola, you’re in good hands now,” Zig promised as he gripped the surgical sheet in one hand and the eye caps in the other. “And thank you again for what you did.”
In the Mortuary at Dover, some say they do the job because they see their own children in the lives of these dead soldiers. Zig shook his head at maudlin explanations like that. He did this job for one reason: He was good at it. This was the gift God gave him. He saw every dead body as a puzzle, and no matter how bad the wounds, he could put each body back together so the family could say a proper goodbye. He did it day after day, soldier after soldier—over two thousand of them by now—and none of them had made him see those darkest days with his own daughter. Until tonight, when he saw the woman who saved her.
As he rolled the sheet down to Nola’s neck and slid the eye caps into place, shutting her eyes, his throat tightened like it was gripped by a fist. This was the pain he was dreading. Even when you’re ready for it, nothing sneaks up on you like grief.
Nola’s head was turned sideways, her left cheek flash-burned from the plane crash that killed her. Fallen #2,356.
- "This novel is like a launched torpedo slashing through 400 pages of deep water before reaching impact. Enjoy one of the best thriller rides ever."—David Baldacci
- "THE ESCAPE ARTIST has a magic trick up its sleeve. Part Lisbeth Salander, part Homeland's Carrie Mathison. One of the most memorable characters I've read in years. Look out--Nola's coming. This is Meltzer in peak form."—Lisa Scottoline
- "Highly entertaining... Meltzer keeps the action crackling... There's no escaping the solid storytelling of THE ESCAPE ARTIST."
—Oline Cogdill, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Hachette Audio