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Whether Zack keeps the phone or ditches it, Joey will kill him for what he now knows. In cat-and-mouse twists, turns, and continually mounting terror, one thing is clear: Zack is next on the hit man’s list.
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At a crowded downtown GreenGirl Coffee, Zack threads his way through tables of patrons in their own little worlds. Hunched over laptops, earbuds in, Times or Journal or work files spread out around them, checking their smartphones obsessively.
Zack finds an empty stool at the counter by the window and sets down his muffin and his Americano Grande. The cute Latina barista had flirted with him a little as she took his order. “I’m calling you Red,” she said with an impish smile, writing it on his cup before he could give his actual name. No mystery there. His wildly curly red hair. His calling card all his life. Along with a warm, unguarded smile, which he deploys at the barista in return.
Zack takes a deep sip and looks out, waiting for his pal Steve, due in about twenty minutes.
Snippets of conversation rise above the GreenGirl din. A girl behind him gushing to her friend about her date last night. Two bearded techies discussing coding—like switching between English and a foreign language. Zack watches the businessman on the stool next to his dialing his cell phone to make a call and then turning his back to keep the conversation private.
When the businessman ends his brief call and sets his phone down by his newspaper, Zack sees that he has the same phone Zack does. A black iPhone. Same gray cover. Thousands in this city, Zack figures. He double-checks his own phone, there on the counter next to him, and sees no new texts while he sugars his coffee a little more, puts his napkin in his lap, and breaks his muffin in two.
He digs in. Mmmm. He’s soon so deep into its cranberries and chocolate chips—a surprisingly tasty combo the barista had persuaded him to try—he is barely aware of the businessman slipping out, but he does notice and welcome the sudden extra space on the counter beside him to spread out a little himself.
He reaches to shift his iPhone over.
It’s not there.
He looks where the businessman was sitting. The businessman’s iPhone is still on the counter.
Christ! No! Guy took the wrong phone!
Zack jumps up and runs to the door to try to catch the businessman. No one there.
He looks back. His muffin is on the floor, knocked over when he jumped up.
He goes back to the counter and picks up the guy’s iPhone. Yeah. Identical to his.
But without the guy’s four-digit password, this one’s pretty useless.
Except for one thing. One crazy, ridiculous thing.
He knows the guy’s four-digit code.
Jesus. He knows the guy’s code!
Because Zack happened to see him enter it when he made his call.
2 5 8 0
Because at that moment, seeing him stab in the code and being kind of a numbers guy, Zack had the passing thought that it’s the only four-digit all-number code you can enter in a straight line down. He’d had the thought—vague, passing—that maybe the guy couldn’t remember numbers? Had cognitive issues? So that’s what you’d do, just make it visual, a row going straight down.
Zack wouldn’t have caught the code otherwise. He’d thought no more about it because it wasn’t his phone.
But now, temporarily, maybe it is.
The businessman, wherever he’s heading, is getting farther away from the GreenGirl every second.
Straight down, Zack thinks.
He punches in each digit.
He’s suddenly looking at the home screen.
All those familiar colorful icons.
Holy shit. I’m in!
A flush of victory.
Only for a moment.
Zack takes a deep breath. He dials his own phone. Luckily you don’t need a passcode to answer a phone; if the businessman hears it ring, he can just swipe and talk.
Zack can tell by the quick answer. The guy doesn’t yet realize it’s not his phone.
“Hello, sir, my name is Zack Yellin…Uh, were you just at the GreenGirl at Cross Street?”
The businessman is silent. Careful. Then, “Do I know you?”
“Sir, we swapped phones. By mistake. You’ve got mine, and I’ve got yours.”
Silence. A pause. The businessman obviously trying to process this. Maybe holding Zack’s phone out in front of him to look at it, seeing it’s indeed identical. “But…you’re not calling from my phone, are you?” the businessman asks. Still confused. “You’d…you’d have to know my code.”
Zack feels a flash of shame. The impulse to hide. To simply hang up right now.
He sees no alternative but to tell him.
“Look, sir, I…” No way around it. “I happened to see you enter it.” He doesn’t say how dumb it is to use that code. How easy to see. Or all his passing thoughts about cognitive issues, memory problems, or just the arrogance, the sense of invulnerability, in using that code. Zack keeps all that to himself.
More silence on the other end. Alarm? Fury at being spied on? A silence Zack feels compelled to jump into, to push past the moment. “But…look…I mean, now we can each get our phones back, right? Sir, I’m still at the GreenGirl. I can come meet you with it somewhere if that helps—”
The businessman cuts Zack off. “No. Stay there. I can be back there in…twenty minutes. Maybe less.”
“I can wait. No problem.”
“Just sit tight,” says the guy. Kind of aggressively, Zack notices. Then, sounding suddenly a little warmer and more appreciative—or at least trying to be—“And, hey, if I get delayed or have some problem, what’s your code so I can call you?”
Zack pauses for a moment. But what’s really on his phone that’s so private or important? Goofy texts from his new girlfriend and his old pals. Dumb pictures of him and his friends you can see on Facebook anyway. Nothing so special. And they’ve got each other’s phones anyway. It’s a moment of human trust, of common humanity, human connection. Each other’s phones, each other’s private lives, that they’re returning to each other in twenty minutes. The guy is just some straight-laced New York businessman, after all, who only wants to get his phone back.
So Zack gives his own code. “Oh, and hey, what’s your name?” Zack asks.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. See you soon.”
So Zack has about twenty minutes to cool his heels before the businessman gets back to the GreenGirl. No big deal. He’s waiting for Steve anyway. Who’s always late.
What’s he gonna do while he waits?
Twenty minutes to kill.
Zack feels naked without his own phone.
Of course, he’s got this guy’s phone, to fill up the time a little.
He knows he shouldn’t really look around in it. But what’s the harm? A quick little peek at a stranger’s life. What’s the big deal? Who’s it hurting? He scrolls through a few of the guy’s texts. Not very chatty. Just some street addresses and rendezvous: 12th and Broadway. Apartment 3C. Southwest corner. Some addresses and meeting places in different cities. Super businesslike. Not a lot of fun in this guy’s life. Or not on his phone anyway.
So Zack goes a little further, where he told himself he wouldn’t, but now he’s more curious based on texts that tell him nothing.
He starts to look at the photos. Organized into folders with just a single name on each.
Huh. Not a single selfie.
Huh. Photos of buildings. Some photos of random streets. Almost like planning a route or something.
Some shots of people on the street. Who don’t know he’s taking their picture. A little creepy, thinks Zack.
And then a series of photos that changes everything. That makes him grab suddenly at the counter, to steady himself there in the GreenGirl. That makes him feel instantly dizzy. Close to retching.
A lifeless body on the sidewalk. Photographed from close up.
Several photos of different bodies, photographed from various angles. And something in him knows—instantly, instinctively—what a series of photos like this must be.
Proof of what?
But something in him already has the answer.
He suddenly understands what the other photos are. Street corners. Buildings.
Research before a hit.
His heart is drumming hard against his chest. He blinks repeatedly to try to steady himself. To clear his mind a little.
Twenty minutes until the “businessman” gets here.
He can stay here with the guy’s phone and pretend he hasn’t seen any of it and innocently, cheerfully, hand the phone back to the guy.
But a guy like this—is he gonna take that risk? A professional killer, who knows that a kid who’s nosy enough to watch him entering his passcode has been sitting here with his dead-body-filled phone for twenty minutes? Suddenly the kid’s not nosy? Come on.
And by now the guy might know a lot about Zack. He might have used his twenty minutes and Zack’s phone to learn a lot about Zack, and his friends, and the details of Zack’s life.
Should Zack use the twenty minutes to race to a police station? Try to get to someone of authority and in a rush try explaining this crazy turn of events of the last half hour? A story about switching phones with a killer? Just by chance seeing the killer’s passcode? They’d never believe him. They’d think it’s some kind of prank.
And Zack also realizes that all this evidence, all this proof, will be gone in twenty minutes, gone forever when he hands the phone back to this guy. And no one will ever believe him. And the guy will never be caught. And when and if anything happens to Zack after he returns it, no one will ever know why.
Zack’s no hero.
But he knows what he’s got in his hands.
He looks at the phone. He sees his own hand holding it actually start to tremble.
The trusty little black device he knows so well. Suddenly transformed. Suddenly something entirely different.
It’s not an iPhone.
It’s a diePhone.
As Joey rides the subway back to the GreenGirl, the fury in him is so explosive, so uncontained, he feels like shooting someone.
That stupid-looking cow of a nurse across from him with all her blue veins mapping her fat white legs. Those two skinny kids with glasses and buck teeth coming from some fancy school uptown. That gray-bearded black janitor, sweating like a pig.
Pop. Pop. Pull the Glock with the Evolution suppressor out from under his coat, a couple of pops, and hop off at the next stop, feeling much better, calmer, more relaxed. Joey is surprised at how close he feels to doing it. How out of control he feels. And that makes him even madder. Even more pissed at the world and at himself.
You’re supposed to be in control in this job. And he always has been. But look how easily he gets out of control. Look what it takes. Just one smart-alecky phone call from one smart-alecky kid. Hey, dude, you left your phone.
Yeah, he feels like killing someone right here.
Someone else, that is. Someone additional.
He is so pissed at himself. How could he leave the goddamn phone at the coffee shop? What was he thinking? Well, he was thinking about some big stuff. Important stuff. Job stuff. It makes sense that he was a little distracted. But still, part of doing this is the care, the planning, with every step.
He’s pissed at himself. But he’s more pissed at this kid. Why couldn’t the kid notice it a minute or two sooner? Catch up to him before he got in the subway? A kid who saw Joey enter his code—his dumbass code. He knows how dumbass it is but what can he do? Couldn’t the kid see it was the wrong phone just a little sooner? Or did the kid not come running out on purpose? He saw Joey enter the code, right? So did he wait a few minutes just so he could look around in Joey’s phone? Have a little fun. Not knowing what kind of “fun” he would discover.
If the kid hadn’t seen the code, that would have been a lot better, of course. Just a useless piece of hardware. Tossed into a landfill somewhere. The phone would be forever dead. Instead of it now having to make more people dead.
And even though Joey’s pissed—pissed at and focused on this kid—he also knows the deeper reality of the problem. And the deeper reality is that he’s a fuckup. He’s always been a fuckup. Whenever he has everything going right, running smoothly, that’s when he throws something in to fuck it up. That’s the pattern he’s noticed about himself. How he always undercuts himself at the worst moment. Something in him wants to fuck it up. Likes to fuck it up. Something in him, some weird, dumb, fuckup part of him, didn’t turn his phone away from some kid sitting right next to him, just a second or two sooner, when he entered his code.
As he rides the subway back to the GreenGirl, Joey starts to cruise around the kid’s cell phone. It’s exactly what he knew he would find from the kid’s happy, upbeat voice. He didn’t even need to look in the phone to know. Lots of photos of friends. Fun parties. There’s the kid in these selfies, obviously. Big smile. Curly red hair. Zack, he said his name was, Zack something or other. Good-looking. Surrounded by people. Look at all these text conversations. Let’s meet here. Let’s meet there. Not a care in the world. Until now, thinks Joey. Until now.
Let’s see, got a girlfriend? That’s got to be her, right there, in the most recent photos. Pretty cute. I wouldn’t mind a piece of that. Maybe I might get me a piece of that.
And this kid here. This little runt. Lots of pictures of him too. Must be a best friend.
Joey doesn’t have a best friend. Or a worst friend. Or any friend, really.
Joey feels the rage rise in him again, boiling up, just glimpsing this kid’s life. Zack. Looks like everyone loves Zack.
He’s still not sure what he’s going to do about Zack when he sees him at the GreenGirl. He tries to calm down and think clearly. The kid is such a Boy Scout, calling him to return his phone. Maybe he’s enough of a Boy Scout that he didn’t look in Joey’s phone.
But Joey realizes he can’t risk it. The phone is too full of darkness. Of evidence. Unfortunately for this kid Zack and for Joey, he just can’t risk the fact that the kid may have seen what’s on the phone. The problem being, there’s not a lot on that phone so if he’s seen anything on it—an address, a text, a photo—he’s seen too much.
What a fuckup. The rage rises in him again.
He has to control it.
Sometimes he can’t.
No, he doesn’t know yet what he’ll do about this Zack kid.
But he knows there’s nothing he won’t do.
Story of my life, thinks Joey cynically.
Calming down a little.
Getting ready to deal with this. This little problem. This kid Zack.
Zack scurries down the crowded street. An assassin’s cell phone in his hand.
Not wanting to draw attention by breaking into a full run. But wanting to. Wanting to run. With no idea where to run to.
He’s moving fast.
His brain is moving faster.
He wants to throw it away. Toss it in a trash can. Just get rid of the thing. Get away from it. Why not? The guy doesn’t really know who he is or what he looks like. Well, yes, he does. He’s seen him in pictures by now. He knows Zack’s whole life by now. If he’s a professional assassin, he has almost certainly looked around Zack’s phone, figuring out who and what he’s dealing with.
Normally if your phone is taken, you’d get to a computer, log into your iCloud account, go to Find My iPhone to see where it is, and wipe all your data. But Zack had been so excited about using his new iPhone—downloading Facebook, Instagram, all the fun apps—he never activated Find My iPhone. It was just some security app.
And normally your phone isn’t taken by a professional assassin, who has probably already been exploring Zack’s phone, taking mental notes, maybe even copying contacts and data in case Zack does try to wipe it.
And as for discovering his own phone’s location—well, he’d only want to know it in order to stay as far from it as he can, considering who’s carrying it and what would happen if Zack “found” it. The reverse of what the app was meant for, Zack realizes—keeping the phone as far away as possible.
But wait. Couldn’t this guy use Find My iPhone to see where Zack is? So maybe he should just toss it in the trash, get away from it.
But even if Zack tosses the phone in the trash, and even if Zack tells the “businessman” what trash can it’s in, where to find it, it won’t matter. Because now Zack knows what’s on that phone. And that’s not going to be acceptable to a businessman like this.
Zack no longer cares if he gets his own cell phone back. But this guy cares very much, intensely, if he gets his phone back.
Zack hurries down the block. Walking as fast as he can. A block he knows so well. A block where everything suddenly looks different. Strange. Tilted.
His brain is spinning. Has he misread the situation entirely? Is he just overthinking it somehow, overreacting, overly alert? The same over-alertness that got him into this guy’s phone in the first place—was it now just going into overdrive? It seems absurd that there even is such a thing as an assassin for hire. Doubly absurd that he has photos of victims on his cell phone. Triply absurd that he’s hanging around at a GreenGirl—what, between appointments?
Zack has learned to trust his instincts, but this time maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe this time he should trust logic, not instincts. Logic says the odds against accidentally swapping cell phones with an assassin in a coffee shop are astronomically high. Against all reason. So maybe Zack is wrong about something here. Maybe there’s something he’s missed.
Those photos. Maybe the guy is just a death fetishist. Listens to the police radio and gets to crime scenes before the police do. Sells the photos online in some sick little club. Maybe this guy’s not the assassin. Maybe he just takes the proof pictures and doesn’t actually commit the murders. So maybe he needs his cell phone back because, if he doesn’t get it back, he himself could be killed. That would change things, wouldn’t it? Hey, I’m just the photographer. Please, please give it back, or I’ll be killed. The assassin I work for doesn’t have to know. That would be an ingenious ploy on the part of the businessman, wouldn’t it, saying something like that, to get Zack to come back to the coffee shop? So ingenious that Zack can tell it’s only his own ingenious imagination working overtime. I’m just the photographer. Wishful thinking. No basis in reality.
Maybe the photos are all staged. Some kind of weird, dark performance art project thing. Maybe once the photos are snapped, the victim gets up, brushes off, and peers over the photographer’s shoulder to see what they got. Maybe the photos are an exhibit in some edgy downtown gallery Zack’s never heard of. Hey, it’s New York.
Maybe he should turn around, go back to the coffee shop, and tell this guy that he knows it’s performance art. Or that it’s a perverse hobby. Hey, to each his own. Here you go. Here’s your phone back, you weirdo. There’s a lot of weird hobbies and perversions out there. I’m not judging. And I’m not saying anything to anyone. See you later. Have a good day. Let’s forget this little phone exchange ever took place. Would the businessman buy that? Would he risk that?
Zack can tell that he’s looking for any excuse, any story, to make this not what it is. To turn it into anything else.
Maybe he should delete all the photos. Delete them all and then call his own phone, let the guy know he’s deleted all the photos. But he has no idea if that would make the situation better or worse. And his instincts tell him worse.
Zack can tell already, with those same instincts, that if this is a professional killer, these photos might exist only on this phone. They’re probably not backed up to the Cloud or anywhere else. Because the killer can’t risk them somehow ending up elsewhere. It’s this phone, and this phone only.
The problem for the “businessman,” Zack realizes, isn’t really the existence of the photos. It’s the fact that Zack has seen the photos.
The guy’s problem isn’t the existence of the phone.
The guy’s problem is the existence of Zack.
Zack’s instincts told him what he was seeing. And his instincts got confirmed in the brief conversation with the guy—he had a toughness, a lack of education, at odds with his business clothing. Something immediately wasn’t right. Zack had noticed the tattoo on the back of the guy’s hand when he reached for his coffee. A youthful exuberance before joining the workforce, Zack figured. No, stay there, I’ll come to you. My name? Oh, let’s not worry about that. The guy wanting to control the situation. Needing to control the situation.
The formula forms in Zack’s mind in a dark math, a bleak, deadly calculation: the longer he keeps the phone, the longer he stays alive, because the guy needs to get it back from him. But the longer Zack keeps the phone, the angrier the guy is going to be.
The phone in Zack’s pocket.
It’s his bargaining chip.
It’s his death warrant.
Without thinking, Zack heads toward his apartment. As he tries to picture his contact list, he realizes, with a little beat of thanks, of momentary lift and elation, that his own name isn’t anywhere on the contact list. Zack did say his full name when he called the guy, trying to be forthright, polite, project honesty, and now he might pay the price for his politeness. But maybe the guy missed Zack’s last name in the confusion of that first call—lots of people miss a name the first time—or maybe this is a guy who doesn’t miss anything.
And yes, sure, lots of photos, to know exactly what Zack looks like, and sure some of the old texts from his friends might say “Zack,” but his full name is nowhere on that phone, and without a full name, there’s no finding his apartment, and his apartment should be safe.
Zack slows down. Realizing, he moans aloud. No, his phone’s contact list doesn’t say his own last name but it’s got all the Yellins of his family listed—his parents, his grandparents, his uncle Saul and aunt Jenna. If you look down that contact list, it’s pretty obvious what his last name is. Yellins all over the place.
And as far as his address, all you have to do is go to his Google Maps app or his Uber app, look at his previous destinations, and you’ll see his home address stored there, and pretty obvious. That nice, convenient little one-button home address, to help navigate subway lines or road trips—now giving him away.
But wait. It gives the street address. Not the apartment number. Two hundred apartments in his building. Can he head over there safely? Slip into the building, tell the doorman not to say what apartment he’s in if a businessman in a trench coat shows up and asks for him.
- "A book that calls to mind the novels and stories of Jeffery Deaver and the films of director Alfred Hitchcock, Stone's latest successfully exploits many proven tropes of the thriller genre.... A sly commentary on our modern obsession with phones and celebrity, Die Next is truly a high-octane thriller, one that will keep you madly flipping pages, defying your expectations at every turn, as Stone delivers handily on, not only one, but two "high concepts" in one very well-crafted adventure."—Mystery Scene magazine
- "Die Next will keep you on your toes, turning pages and wrestling with that pesky grey area between good and evil."—BookTrib.com
"Die Next is the model of a brilliant and stylish thriller! Rich with character development and it's-like-I'm-there settings, the novel is an adrenaline rush between covers. Bravo!"
—Jeffery Deaver, author of The Bone Collector and The Goodbye Man
- "A roller-coaster ride that never ends. From the first page through the last, Stone takes us on a wild ride through Manhattan and Brooklyn. What happens when a hitman leaves his phone at a coffee shop is the beginning of a terrific read that never lets up until the tense and nerve-wracking conclusion."—GreatMysteriesAndThrillers.weebly.com
- "Stone plays cruel and cunning mind games."—The New York Times Book Review
- "Stone belongs with the elite of current mystery writers... He should not be missed."—Publishers Weekly
- "Crisp, elegant prose distinguishes this exceptional crime thriller from Stone."—Publishers Weekly, starred review, on Moving Day
- "Stone creates the kind of people who can make a reader turn pages."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review, on The Heat of Lies
- On Sale
- Apr 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing