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Never Ask Me
By Jeff Abbott
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In a quiet neighborhood in the wealthy Austin suburb of Lakehaven, the body of Danielle Roberts is discovered on a park bench. Danielle was a beloved member of the community, an adoption consultant who delivered the joy of parenthood to a number of local families. Her murder shocks Lakehaven.
Perhaps no other family is as crushed as the Pollitts, who lived two houses down from Danielle and thought of her almost like family. Her death becomes the catalyst for a maelstrom of suspicion and intrigue. You have been told a huge lie, an anonymous email charges the son, Grant. No one can learn the truth now, thinks the father, Kyle. Never ask me what I’d do to protect my family, resolves the wife, Iris. I’ll do whatever it takes to save him, vows the daughter, Julia, of Danielle’s grieving teenage son.
The Pollitts always thought they’d always be there for each other. When each begins to suspect the others of the unimaginable, the strength of their bonds will be tested in extraordinary new ways. The latest from New York Times bestselling author Jeff Abbott ishis most suspenseful thriller yet: a riveting tale of the dangerous secrets one family has concealed — and what happens when the question each Pollitt hoped they’d never be asked threatens to expose their darkest truths.
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Ned Frimpong waits for Julia Pollitt on the porch, six minutes away from the terrible moment. They’re up earlier than teenagers normally are, the sun just rising above the hills of Lakehaven. When Julia walks up to his front porch from two houses over, Ned is frowning at his phone and flicking his finger across the screen, saying, “Oh, that Megabunny just cost me points.”
“Don’t you ever tell anyone we’re doing this,” she says. She gives him a smile.
He smiles back. “My lips are sealed. I have so much Megabunny shame.” He glances at the phone screen. “Oh, there’s a Shockersquirrel.”
“Those are good, right?” she says, pulling out her phone, opening the game, and frowning at her screen. “Lots of points?”
He opens the front door, leans in, calls, “Mom, Julia and I are heading out to play our game. Back in a bit.” He doesn’t wait for an answer but shuts the door. “Oh. Do you want coffee?”
She just started drinking coffee black, the same way Ned takes his, but she can’t play the game and carry a cup of coffee at the same time. Not gracefully, at least. “No thanks,” she says. She’s waiting for the game’s little digital creatures to appear on her screen so she can capture them with a flick of her thumb. She and Ned are up early, like fishermen, because with daylight the neighborhood will be full of little cartoon monsters appearing on their phone screens, and they’re both trying to move up a level in the game.
“There will be tons of them at the park,” Ned says. He turns that way; Julia follows.
She thinks that if they didn’t both have their phones out they could walk to the park holding hands. Ned walks slightly ahead of her, staring at his screen.
“This is a slightly embarrassing addiction,” Julia says. “We’re too old for this.”
“I was at the mall last week and I saw grandmothers playing Critterscape,” he said. “Bonding with their grandchildren. Nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“Telling me grandmas are playing this is not upping the cool factor,” Julia said. She sees a rare Critter wander onto the neighborhood map; a flick of her finger on the screen launches a cartoon net, and the little digital animal is hers. Hundreds of points added to her total, sparkling animation playing across her screen; she smiles.
“Hey,” he says. She turns to him and he’s holding a key. She looks at him again, and there’s that shy-yet-knowing smile that has been part of the change in looking at him, from childhood friend to something more.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Privacy,” he says. “Someplace where we can go when we’re ready.”
She opens her palm and he drops the key into her hand. She puts it into her pocket. He keeps his smile in place, then turns his gaze to the phone like it’s no big deal that he gave her that key, and she walks alongside him, playing it cool as well.
They walk in starts and stops—stopping to attempt to capture the prizes that Critterscape lays over the digitized homes and yards of Winding Creek Estates. A jogger plods past, then an older neighbor walking her two retrievers. Julia wishes she’d taken Ned up on his offer of coffee. She wouldn’t have to feel she was focusing on the game and maybe they could talk. About everything that was—and wasn’t—happening between them. She watches him stop in front of a house, fingers moving across the screen’s keyboard.
“What are you doing?” she asks. Tensing. “You’re not…?”
“No. I’m just sending a message to someone else in the game.” His gaze is steady on her.
She forces herself to relax. “I just want to catch Critters.” She starts walking ahead of him. After a few moments, he catches up to her with an apologetic smile.
They walk down Winding Creek Trail, the main street in the subdivision; it dead-ends into a park, one with a sprawling playscape for little kids and a large pool, home of the Winding Creek Salamanders, the neighborhood youth swim team.
Julia sees someone sitting on a bench, the person’s back to them as they enter the park, heading toward the pool. A woman. Long hair, stirred by the wind. Even from behind she seems familiar.
“Frustrating,” Ned says, staring at his screen. “My last two Critters have run away. Life is cruel. I swear some algorithm kicks in right when you’re about to level up.”
The woman on the bench isn’t moving. Just sitting there. Julia thinks she recognizes the coat.
“Is that your mom?” Julia asks.
“No. Mom was at home. I mean, I think she was.” Ned stops for a second, as if he doesn’t want to continue. He’s staring at the figure on the bench.
Julia keeps walking. “Ms. Roberts?” she calls. “Hey.”
The woman doesn’t turn around at her voice.
“Mom, are you trying to steal all our Critters?” Ned calls to her. He comes up behind her, touches her shoulder. She slumps to the side. Ned freezes, but Julia keeps walking and rounds the bench. And then she sees Danielle Roberts’s face, purpled, dead, dried blood on her lips and her chin. At her expression Ned pushes past her to his mother.
Ned screams first, the sound raw and broken, grabbing his mother and shaking her like he could will her back to life. Julia pulls him off; he shoves her to the ground and collapses next to her. He sobs, starts screaming the word “Mom” over and over again. Julia reaches over to touch the woman’s throat, but it’s terrible, discolored, and instead Julia searches for a pulse on the cold wrist.
It takes Julia three shaky jabs at her phone screen to exit the game, and she forgets to breathe as she texts her mother.
NEDS MOM IS DEAD IN PARK
Grant Pollitt stands in front of the tree on the greenbelt that leads down to the creek, beyond his backyard. When he was little, he used to hide his treasures in a small hollow near the tree’s roots, until his mother worried that same hole might harbor copperheads or water moccasins.
He stands there, trembling, a little scared, and not sure why.
It’s been a very weird morning.
First the email arrives, sent to him from a friend. The email contains a picture of his favorite football player, arms lifted in triumph after a win. The email reads trust me, Grant, you want to click on this. It makes him suspicious, because a virus could hide inside a picture or a link, right? But it has his name in the caption and the email wasn’t from some unknown person; it was his friend Drew’s address. He bites his lip. He has heard other pictures could be hidden inside digital photos. Maybe this is Drew’s way of sending him the kind of pictures your parents don’t like you to have. He feels guilty, but Drew would know if he doesn’t click it because he couldn’t fake his way out of not knowing. He clicks it.
His browser opens. A new picture appears. It’s a photograph of a woman caught whirling in the misty rain; behind her stands the Eiffel Tower. She’s wearing an expensive raincoat and laughing. People around her are clapping and watching in admiration. At the bottom of the photo are the words:
Some days lies fall like the rain. Go look in your tree.
That’s…incredibly odd, he thinks.
He texts Drew. Did you send me an email with a picture of JJ Watt?
The answer: Uh no why would I do that and I was asleep thanks for waking me up
Never mind, Grant texts back. This wasn’t the kind of joke that his buddies Drew or Landon or Connor typically pulled on another friend. He scans the computer for viruses. None.
Go look in your tree.
It can mean only one tree. Maybe it’s Julia, pulling a prank on him. Julia isn’t interested in computers, though, and hiding a picture inside a picture—she wouldn’t know how to do that. It wasn’t the kind of joke his parents played, either, trying to turn everything into a learning opportunity or a challenge he could write about on his college essays.
He goes downstairs and into the kitchen. Mom is making coffee, tapping her foot as if the coffee maker were delaying her.
“Good morning,” she says. She runs a hand through the mess of his bedhead hair. She’s always trying to fix his hair. He loves her, but he wishes she wouldn’t do that. Sometimes Mom looks at him as though surprised he’s there.
“Hey,” he says, giving her a quick hug and thinking: This is silly. I should tell her about this email. But then, it’s so odd, so strange, that it’s like having a special secret. So he doesn’t, and she says: “I think your sister went out playing that Creaturescape game with Ned.”
“Critterscape,” he says. He gets orange juice from the fridge, pours a large glass.
“Whatever. Do they just walk around the neighborhood?”
“It’s exercise,” he says, not looking at her.
“That’s what her dance class is for. Do you know what’s going on between them?” Mom asks.
It’s like she can’t help herself, Grant thinks. Like if Julia confides in him he will break that confidence just because Mom asks. “I don’t know,” he says.
Mom bites at her lip, unsatisfied.
“I have to go down into the greenbelt,” he says.
“Why?” Mom is always a little suspicious of the greenbelt. Kids go down there into the heavy growth of oaks and cedars and swim in the wide creek and walk the convoluted trails and sometimes smoke weed or drink. He hasn’t done the forbidden activities. But he knows other kids who have.
He realizes then he should have waited until she wasn’t around or had gone upstairs and then just gone to his tree. Now she is interested, in that Mom way.
“Biology class specimens,” he says. He’s a freshman and biology is the bane of his existence.
“Yes, Mom, in winter, biology still goes on.”
Her phone buzzes with a specific ringtone that indicates Julia is calling. The ringtone’s melody is that of a song Mom wrote about Julia when she was very young and fighting cancer—a neuroblastoma—and Julia hates that it’s a ringtone but doesn’t want to hurt Mom’s feelings. Grant keeps meaning to tell Mom to change it. Mom picks up the phone, stares at the screen.
Her face goes pale. She makes an odd little noise, like a gasp or a cough interrupted.
She keeps staring at the screen; it’s like he isn’t there. “Mom?” he repeats.
“Stay here. Stay here. Keep your phone close.”
“What is it? Is Julia all right?”
“Yeah. No. I’ve got to go to her. Stay here.”
Mom grabs her coat from the mudroom and hurries out to the garage. He hears her car start and then silence for several seconds, as if she’s forgotten how to drive, and then the garage door powering up. He stands at the kitchen window, sees her Mercedes SUV jerk down the driveway, going way too fast. Julia’s done something stupid, he supposes, and she’s gotten into trouble. Last year she was Little Miss Perfect; now she’s in some vague rebellion that makes no sense to him. He wishes she would make up her mind.
He wonders where Dad is. He goes to his parents’ room. His father is lying under the covers, snoring softly. Another late night working, Grant figures. He closes the door softly.
Go look in your tree.
He goes out the patio door, crosses the backyard, and opens the gate. The greenbelt is just beyond. It’s fed by Winding Creek, a middling tributary of Barton Creek in West Austin, which runs across a slice of Lakehaven. There’s a hiking path by the creek. He walks off the trail, listening to the hiss of water as he heads down toward the creek, and his old tree is to the left.
A rock covers the cleft near the tree’s roots. The cleft was his hiding place: small, cozy. Grant would put pretend treasure maps there, or Legos, or hide little objects he had stolen from his parents—a penknife, coins, his father’s car keys once when Kyle had an endless succession of overseas business trips. He wasn’t even sure why he took small, worthless things and hid them away: he always brought them back home, put them in plain sight, and sometimes smiled to himself when Dad or Mom would find the missing item and say, How did I miss seeing that?
Now inside the cleft, where he hasn’t looked in years, is a plain brown envelope. His breath catches in his chest.
He pulls it free. It’s thick, with GRANT written across it in block letters with black ink. He opens the envelope.
Inside is money. Cash. Crisp twenties. Bound, organized, like it just came from a bank. He counts it, stunned.
It’s a thousand dollars.
Left for him in a tree.
He looks into the envelope again and sees there’s a note inside. He unfolds it and reads it.
Grant: You have been told a huge lie. I will only tell you the truth. Keep this money hidden and please tell no one about it. It’s a gift from me to you.
Grant stands up. This is insane. Someone spoofing an email address to lead him to money hidden behind his house. He’s never seen this much cash in his life. And it’s his now. It makes no sense. Why?
Grant feels like someone is watching him. He stands. He scans the dense growth of oaks and cedar along the creek, the hiking trail. Sees no one, listens to the quiet of the wind in the trees.
He clutches the envelope close to his chest, feels the weight of the cash.
Then, on the morning air, he hears the approaching scream of police sirens.
Iris Pollitt sits in her car, in her closed garage, hands on the wheel, thinking: Danielle is dead. Really dead.
And then she thinks: Good.
It’s the worst thought she’s ever had, a horror, unworthy, and she shoves the thought away. She wants to cry; she wants to vomit. Instead she takes several deep breaths and starts the car. Music plays, the nineties channel on satellite radio, or the “Mom Channel” as Julia calls it. Britney Spears is singing “…Baby One More Time,” and Iris turns the volume down into silence.
Now she hears only the sound of her own ragged, gasping breath.
Go. Go there. Your kid needs you. Mom mode. Now.
She’s in such shock she’s forgotten to open the garage door, and she jabs the button, thinking herself lucky she didn’t rocket into the closed door. She waits for the door to power up and reverses up the driveway, fast. Going past the kitchen window, she sees Grant staring out in surprise, in curiosity.
What do you say when you get there? What do you do?
She should have woken Kyle, made him come with her. She didn’t even think of that. She is moving through this morning as if she is in a dream and she needs to be awake.
Iris floors the Mercedes GLS. She doesn’t think about Danielle being dead—she can’t. She keeps that terrible thought at bay and instead retreats to thinking about her to-do list, which now won’t get done today: organizing the final fundraiser for the Lakehaven High Music Festival (featuring band, orchestra, and choir); dropping off donated supplies at the fundraiser for a less fortunate school on the other side of Austin (a project of Julia’s, both to do good and to bolster Julia’s résumé for college applications); then a meeting with the choir parents board tomorrow, where she’ll outline the spending for the school musical and the end-of-year senior chorister trip to Houston, where the kids will see a touring Broadway show and have a private session with the show’s understudies to learn about musical theater. It’s a lot; it’s a job where she doesn’t get paid, except that then her kids have better programs and her husband thinks she’s doing something worthwhile and not pining about her vanished career all day.
Thinking about her day as if it could still be normal doesn’t keep the horror at bay. Tears now in her eyes. Oh, Danielle. Why?
Danielle is dead.
And my daughter found her.
Suddenly, in her mind, an old and precious memory: Danielle surprising her at the front door, with a smile: I got the email. They’ve matched a baby for you. A boy.
And Iris screaming in joy, and Danielle embracing her.
She blasts down Winding Creek Trail. Past one neighbor walking a pair of dogs, past a jogger. The houses are morning-quiet. All that quiet, that sense of security, is about to go away for a long time. She feels the world shift. She has to be ready for her family.
Iris skids to a stop inside the park entrance. Ned kneels by the bench, sobbing, Julia embracing him from behind, still holding her phone. Two men she doesn’t recognize, but both dressed for jogging, are standing near them, watching. One has a phone pressed to his ear, speaking quietly. The other, a tall redhead, just stares, pale and unsure.
The enormity of it all slaps her in the chest, the stomach.
Iris stumbles out of her SUV, her hand at her mouth in horror, and runs toward them. “Julia!” she screams.
“Mom!” Julia looks like she’s seen the end of the world. “We found her…we found her on the bench.” Julia doesn’t let go of Ned, her face twisted, tears on her cheeks. “She was sitting here… She’s cold.”
“Don’t look. Kids, don’t look.” It’s too late for that, but she doesn’t know what else to say. She tries to pull them both away, but only Julia goes. Ned lets out this keening cry and lies down on the ground, his hand clenching his mom’s leg. It breaks Iris’s heart. She kneels, puts her hand on the small of his back because she doesn’t know what else to do.
“I tried to get him to move,” one of the joggers says quietly. “He won’t go.”
Iris forces herself to look at Danielle Roberts. The dead woman wears a dark wool coat, jeans, loafers, a dark-gray sweater. Expensive ring on her finger. A massive bruise discolors her throat; blood cakes her mouth, her chin.
“Iris?” the jogger on the phone calls to her. He knows who she is, of course; she isn’t sure of his name in the charge of emotions. She forces herself to flip through her mental catalog of contacts and remembers him. He’s Rachel Sifowicz’s husband. Matt. They have two kids, a senior in high school who plays football and an eighth-grade girl in band. Rachel had to cut back on volunteering when Matt was briefly unemployed after being laid off. Odd rambling thoughts fighting for footing in the slippery slope of her overwhelmed mind.
“Matt,” she says. “Call the police.”
“I did. They’re on their way. I’m on the phone with the emergency operator. They said don’t touch anything.”
“Did you find her?”
“The kids did,” he says. “We heard them screaming and ran here. Is she…for sure?”
Ned found his own mother. Dead. Iris feels faint. She swallows down a tickle of bile. She forces herself to check Danielle’s wrist; she can’t bear to touch that discolored throat. No pulse.
“Yes,” she says. Mom mode. She has to get into mom mode. For both of them.
She looks at the other jogger, a brawny redhead. She doesn’t know his name. “Help me with him,” she says, and he nods.
“Ned,” she whispers. She puts her fingertips on his chin and turns his face toward hers. She has known this boy since he was a toddler. His face is gaunt, his mouth quivering, brown eyes hollow with grief. His breath smells like mouthwash. His dark hair is under a cap. He looks at her like he no longer understands the world.
“Ned, come away.” She can hear the police sirens approaching; he hears them, too, and he shakes his head. Everything is about to change. He can’t let it, she sees; he cannot accept this new world.
“Ned,” she repeats. “Ned.”
He whispers, “Mom can’t be dead. She can’t be.”
“I know, I know. The police are here. Let them help her.”
“Why would anyone hurt her?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know. Come with me. Come with us.”
She sees a shadow start to pass over his face, as if he is asking himself the question and considering the answers, and then he presses his face into Iris’s shoulder. She begins to stand, and he resists, but then the redheaded jogger gently raises the boy to his feet, and Iris guides Ned toward the police car that has just pulled up. The weight of him against her shoulder is the weight of this new, awful reality.
She hears words being spoken—Matt, remaining calm; the officer, taking command of the scene; Julia brokenly starting to tell them what happened—but she focuses on Ned, on steering him away from the horror, on holding him up, on comforting him. Another police car arrives.
Ned shudders under her arm.
Iris looks back at Danielle, an empty shell on a cold bench.
She can never tell now.
Iris hugs the grieving boy closer to her.
Transcript from Interviews for A Death in Winding Creek by Elena Garcia
Elena Garcia: How long have you lived in Winding Creek?
Matt Sifowicz: Nearly seventeen years. We bought early. I mean, some people don’t buy until their kids are school age. And all the prices do here is go up. So we bit the bullet and got in when our son was a baby. Would have cost me an extra forty thousand if we’d waited until he was in kindergarten.
Garcia: People really buy here for the school district.
Sifowicz: And everything that comes with it. The football team, the music programs, the robotics and business incubator programs, the college placement, the real estate investment…That is what sells Lakehaven.
Garcia: And low crime. Presumably.
Sifowicz: You have to realize, we’ve never had a murder in this neighborhood. Tools being stolen from a garage is a rare kind of crime in Winding Creek. Maybe one or two burglaries, or stuff being taken from cars in driveways. The most common is trespassing, people who don’t live in the neighborhood going down to our greenbelt to tube in the creek, drink beer, smoke pot. Sometimes they start campfires, which is a threat to the whole greenbelt and every home in the neighborhood.
Garcia: So Winding Creek—the actual creek and the surrounding greenbelt—is on private property.
Sifowicz: Yes, owned collectively by the home owners in the neighborhood. I’m on the HOA board. Four hundred houses. Average sale price now is eight hundred thousand. That’s twice what some people bought theirs for fifteen years ago. This is a good place to be.
Garcia: How did you feel the Pollitts were viewed here in the neighborhood?
Sifowicz: Pretty well. They were popular. Iris is kind of a force of nature. Everyone knows her.
Garcia: What was your first thought when you saw Julia Pollitt and Ned Frimpong in the park?
PRAISE FOR NEVER ASK ME:"Abbott writes in an authoritative way about the protocols, many of them maddening, of adopting a child. He also has a real understanding of the emotional roller-coaster couples going through the process must endure."—New York Times Book Review
- "No one exposes the dark, fraught underbelly of suburban America quite like Abbott, and his propulsive latest, depicting the relationships between families tied together via an overseas-adoption process, is a proper humdinger."—Boston Globe
- "Cunning and complex."—Publishers Weekly
- "[A] suspenseful novel by a master of the psychological thriller."—Booklist
- "NEVER ASK ME produces almost unbearable tension and suspense. . . Readers will be kept guessing all the way to the end and most assuredly will be flipping back to some of the previous journal entries [to predict] the future events that Abbott deftly lays out for us as only he can."—Book Reporter
- PRAISE FOR JEFF ABBOTT:
"Abbott uses his skills as a master storyteller to convey a complicated and ambitious tale that seems straightforward but is full of twists and red herrings. He also keeps the story moving without falling into clichés or over-the-top revelations. The mystery works because of the terrific characters and the beautiful road map he unveils while navigating the reader through a complex landscape. Those who enjoy unpredictable stories can never go wrong diving into the world of Jeff Abbott."—Washington Post
- "Like a stage magician, Abbott often seems to be doing one thing when he's actually doing something else, and when we realize what he's been up to, we can't help but shake our heads in admiration."—Booklist
- "Abbott is a master of misdirection."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing