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If She Wakes
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Nineteen minutes before her brain and her body parted ways, Tara Beckley's concern was the cold.
First night of October, but as the sun set and the wind picked up, it felt like midwinter, and Tara could see her breath fogging the air. That would have been crisp New England charm on another night, but not this one, when she wore only a thin sweater over a summer-weight dress. Granted, she hadn't expected to be standing in the cold, but she had a commitment to deliver one Professor Amandi Oltamu from dinner to his keynote presentation, and the professor was pacing the parking lot of the restaurant they'd just left, alternately staring into the darkness and playing with his phone.
Tara tried to stay patient, shivering in that North Atlantic night wind that swept leaves off the trees. She needed to get moving, and not just because of the cold. Oltamu had to arrive at 7:45, and precisely 7:45, because the Hammel College conference was coordinated by a pleasant woman named Christine whose eyes turned into dark daggers if the schedule went awry. And Professor Oltamu—sorry, Dr. Oltamu, he was one of those prigs who insisted on the title even though he wasn't a medical doctor, just another PhD—occupied the very first position in the program of Christine with the Dagger Eyes, and thus he was worthy of more daggers. It was, after all, opening night of the whole silly academic show.
"We have to go, sir," Tara called to the good doctor. He lifted a hand, asking for another minute, and studied the blackness. Pre-speech jitters? Couldn't he at least have those indoors?
Conference coordinator Christine and every other faculty member and student who'd attended the kickoff dinner for Hammel's imitation TED Talks were already long gone, leaving Tara alone with Dr. Oltamu in the restaurant parking lot. He was an odd man who seemed like a collection of mismatched parts—his voice was steady but his posture was tense, and his eyes were nervous, flicking around the parking lot as if he were confused by it.
"I don't mean to rush you, but we really—"
"Of course," he said and walked briskly to the car. She'd expected him to ride shotgun, but instead he pushed aside her yoga mat and a stack of books and settled into the back. Good enough. At least she could turn on the heater.
She got behind the wheel, started the car, and glanced in the mirror. "All set, Dr. Oltamu?" she asked with a smile intended to suggest that she knew who he was and what he did when in truth she hadn't the faintest idea.
"All set" came the answer in the chipper, slightly accented, but perfectly articulated English of this man who was originally from…Sudan, was it? Nigeria? She couldn't recall. She'd seen his bio, of course—Christine made sure that the student escorts were equipped with head shots and full bios of the distinguished speakers they'd be picking up throughout this week of grandeur, when Hammel College sought to bring some of the world's finest minds to its campus. The small but tony liberal arts school in southern Maine was just close enough to Boston to snag some of the Harvard or MIT speakers looking for extra paid gigs, and that looked great in the brochures to donors and prospective students alike. You needed to get the big names, and Hammel managed to, but Dr. Oltamu wasn't one of them. There was a reason he was batting leadoff instead of cleanup.
This was Tara's second year serving on the student welcoming committee, but it was also her last, because she was close to an exit. She'd taken extra classes in the summers and was set to jet in December, although she could attend the official graduation day in May. She hoped to be immersed in bigger and better things by May, but who knew, maybe by then she would want to return. That wasn't hard to imagine. In fact, she was already nostalgic about Hammel, because she knew this was her last taste of it. Last autumn in Maine, last parties, last midterms, last of a lot of things.
"We are good on time, yes?" Dr. Oltamu said. He checked an impressive gold watch on his left wrist, a complement to his fine suit, if only the fine suit had actually fit him. It seemed he'd ignored tailoring, and as a result he would be presenting his speech in the sartorial equivalent of an expensive hand-me-down from a taller, leaner brother.
Presenting his speech about…
Damn all, what does he do?
"We'll be just fine," she said. "And I can't wait to hear your presentation tonight."
She'd been hoping for a little help, but he twisted away and stared out the back window.
"There is a planned route?" he said.
"What do you mean?"
"From the restaurant to the theater. Everyone would drive the same way?"
"Uh, yeah. I mean, as far as I know."
"Can we go a different way?"
She frowned. "Pardon?"
"Give me the Tara tour," he said, turning back around and offering a smile that seemed forced. "I'd like to see your favorite places in the community."
"Um…well, I need to get you there on time, but…sure." The request was bizarre, but playing tour guide wouldn't slow her down. In fact, she knew exactly where she would take him—down to the old railroad bridge where she ran almost every morning and where, if she timed it right, she could feel as if she were racing the train itself. That bridge over the Willow River was one of her favorite places on earth.
"It is very beautiful here," Oltamu said as she drove.
Indeed it was. While Tara had applied exclusively to southern schools for her graduate program in a concerted effort to bust out of Maine before another February snagged her in its bleak grasp, she would miss the town. The campus was small but appealing, with the right blend of ancient academic limestone towers and contemporary labs; the faculty was good, the setting idyllic. Tonight they'd gone to a fine restaurant on a high plateau above town, and as she followed the winding roads back toward the sea, she was struck by her affection for this town of tidy Colonial homes on large, sloping lawns backed up against forested mountains that provided some of the best hiking you could ever hope to find. The fall chill was in the air, and that meant that woodstoves and fireplaces were going. This blend of colored leaves against a sunset yielding to darkness redolent with woodsmoke was what she loved about New England—the best time of day at the best time of year. She left her window cracked as she drove, not wanting to seal out that perfect autumn scent.
Dr. Oltamu had turned around and was staring behind them again, as if the rear window were the only one with a view. He'd been respectful but reserved at dinner, which was one of the reasons she couldn't remember what in the world he was there to speak about.
Oil? Energy crisis? No…
They wound down the mountain and into town. There was the North Woods Brewing Company on the left, a weekend staple for her, and there was the store where she'd bought her first skis, which had led to her first set of crutches, and there, down the hill and past the Catholic church and closer to the harbor, was Garriner's, which had been serving the best greasy-spoon breakfast in town for sixty years. Down farther was the harbor itself, the water the color of ink now but a stunning cobalt at sunrise. Along this stretch were the few bars that Hammel could claim as its nightlife, though to most people they were nothing but pregame venues—the serious drinking was done at house parties. It wasn't a big school, and it wasn't a big town, but it was pleasant and peaceful, absolutely no traffic tonight as she drove toward the auditorium where Dr. Oltamu would address the crowd about…
"Lovely place," Oltamu said, facing forward again. "So charming."
"It was the perfect college town for me," she said, and she realized with some surprise that she wasn't just delivering the student-tour-guide shtick. She meant it. She could see the area just as he did: bucolic, quaint. A town designed for a college, a place for young adults to bump up against the real world, every experience there for the taking but with a kinder, gentler feel than some of the large campuses she'd visited.
"It is truly excellent when one finds where one belongs," Dr. Oltamu said as Tara drove away from the harbor. The car climbed and then descended into the valley, where the campus waited across the Willow River.
Oltamu was gazing behind them again.
"I'm looking forward to your talk tonight," she tried once more. Your talk about…artificial intelligence?
"I appreciate that, but I'm afraid I'll surely bore you," he said with a small laugh.
Come on, gimme some help here, Doc. "What's the most exciting part of your work in your opinion, then?" she asked. A pathetic attempt, but now she was determined to win the war. She would figure out what he did without stooping to ask him flat-out.
He paused, then said, "Well, the Black Lake is certainly intriguing. I've just come from there, actually. A fascinating trip. But I doubt there are many creative-writing majors who are fascinated by batteries."
There it was! Batteries! He designed some sort of solar panels and batteries that were supposed to save fuel consumption and, thus, the earth. You know, trivial shit.
Tara was embarrassed that she hadn't been able to remember this on her own, especially since he'd somehow remembered her major from the chaotic introductions at the restaurant. Then again, he had a point—batteries were not an area of particular fascination for her. But you never knew. There was, as her favorite writing professor always said, a story around every corner.
"Where is Black Lake?" she asked, but he'd shifted away yet again and was staring intently out the back window. A vehicle had appeared in her rearview mirror in a sudden glare of lights and advanced quickly, riding right up along her bumper, its headlights shining down into the CRV, and she pumped the brake, annoyed. The taller vehicle—a truck or a van—backed off.
Tara drove beneath a sugar maple that was shedding its leaves, a cascade of crimson whispering across the hood, bloodred and brittle. No matter what warm and beautiful beach was within walking distance of wherever she was next year, she would miss autumn here. She understood that it was supposed to be a somber season, of course, that autumn leaves meant the end of something, but so far in her life, it had marked only beginnings; each fall brought another birthday, a new teacher and classmates, sometimes new schools, new friends, new boyfriends. She loved fall precisely for the way it underscored that sense of change. Change, for Tara Beckley, twenty-two years old as of a week ago, had always been a good thing.
She crested the hill, made the steep descent down Knowlton Street, and turned onto Ames Road, a residential stretch. The headlights behind them vanished, and Dr. Oltamu faced forward again.
She was just about to repeat her question—Where is Black Lake?—when he spoke.
"Why so dark?"
"The street is very dark."
He wasn't wrong. Ames Road was unusually dark.
"There was some fight with the property owners over light pollution," she said, a vague memory of the article in the student newspaper coming back to her. "They put in new street lamps, but they had to be dim."
She flicked on her high beams, illuminating another swirl of rust-colored leaves stirring in the road.
"I see. Now, Hammel is a walking campus, I understand? Things are close together?"
"Yes. In fact, we're coming up to a place where I run every morning. Almost every morning at least, unless there's a big exam or…something." Something like a hangover, but she didn't want to mention that to the good doctor. "There's an old bridge down here that crosses from campus into town, and it's for pedestrians and cyclists only. There's a railroad bridge next to it. In the morning, if I get up early enough, I can run with the train. I race it." She gave a self-conscious laugh.
In the darkness below, the old railroad bridge threw spindly shadows across the Willow River. Beside it, separated by maybe twenty feet, was the new pedestrian and cycling bridge, part of a pathway system that wound through the campus and town. Tara started to turn left at the last intersection above the bridge, but Oltamu spoke up.
"May we stop and walk?" he said.
It was such an odd and abrupt request that it took her a moment to respond. "I can show you around after your talk, but they'll kill me if I get you there late."
"I would very much like to walk," he said, and his voice now matched his tense posture. "It's my knee. Stiffens up and then I'm in terrible pain. Distracting pain."
"Um…" She glanced at the clock, doing the math and trying to imagine how she might explain this to Christine.
"Please," he said. In the mirror, the whites of his eyes stood out starkly against his dark face. "You said the bridge goes to campus, correct?"
"Yes, but we'd really be pushing it for time. I can't get you there late."
He leaned forward. "I would very much like to walk," he said again. "I would like to see the bridge. I will make it clear to anyone involved that this was my delay. But I walk quickly."
Even with that bad knee? "Sure," she said, because she was now more alarmed by the strange urgency in his request than by the specter of an angry Christine. "We can walk."
She eased the car down the hill, toward the old railroad bridge and the new footbridge. A dozen angled parking spaces waited beside a pillar with a plaque identifying the railroad bridge's historical significance. The spots were all empty now, but in the morning you'd see people piling out of their cars with dogs on leashes, or removing bikes from racks.
She pulled into one of the angled spaces, and Dr. Oltamu was out of the car almost before it was parked. He stood with his back to the river and the campus and stared up the hill. Everything there was lost to darkness. He'd wanted to see the bridge; now he faced the other way. He'd been worried about time; now he wanted to walk. He had a bad knee; now he craved exercise.
"Why don't we head across the bridge, sir," she said. But he ignored her, took his cell phone from his pocket, and beckoned for her.
"May we take a picture together? I've been asked to use social media. You know…for a broader reach. I am told photos are best for engagement. So may I? You are my Hammel escort, after all."
She didn't love the way he said escort, but she also wasn't going to be shy about putting an elbow into his windpipe if he tried to grab her ass or something, so she said, "Sure," and then leaned awkwardly toward him for the photo—head close, ass away—and watched their image fill the screen of his iPhone. The phone seemed identical to hers, but the camera function was different; the screen was broken into a grid of squares. He tilted the phone in a way that centered Tara in the frame, and her smile grew more pained and she started to pull away as he snapped the photo. He didn't touch her, though, didn't say anything remotely lewd, just a polite "Thank you very much," and then he turned his attention to the screen, tapping away as if he intended to crop, edit, and post the photo immediately.
"Sir, we really do need to get going."
"Yes. One moment." Head down, tapping away. Then he said, "Did you ever have a nickname?"
He looked up and smiled. "You know, something only a good friend calls you, something like that? Or were you always just Tara?"
She started to say, Just Tara, thanks, and now let's get a move on, but reflex took over and she blurted out, "Twitch."
"My sister, Shannon, called me that because I was a jumpy kid. I spooked easily, I guess. Scary movies, in particular—I always jumped."
When Tara was little, the nickname was just Shannon picking on her. But later on, it became affectionate. Shannon liked how much Tara cared about fictional characters, how emotionally invested she became in their stories.
"We really should be—"
There was a rustling sound behind them, and they whirled at the same time, Tara with a startled jerk that offered a live-action demonstration of the childhood nickname. Her response was still more composed than Oltamu's, though. He gave a strangled cry, stepped back, and lifted his hands as if surrendering.
Then Tara saw the dog in the bushes and smiled. "That's just Hobo."
"What?" Oltamu backed farther away.
"He's a stray. Always around the bridge. And he always comes out to bark at the morning train. That's how I spotted him. If you come by often enough, he'll get to know you. But he doesn't let you catch him. I've certainly tried." She knelt, extended her hand, and made a soft sound with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. Her rush to get Oltamu to the venue was forgotten in her instinct to show affection to the old stray, her companion on so many morning runs. He slunk out of the darkness, keeping low, and let Tara touch the side of his head. Only the side; never the top. If you reached for him, he'd bolt. Not far, at least not with her, but out of grasping distance. He was a blend of unknown breeds, with the high carriage and startling speed of a greyhound, the floppy ears of a beagle, and the coat of a terrier.
"He's been here for a long time," she said. "Every year people try to catch him and get him to a rescue, but nobody ever succeeds. So we just give up and feed him."
She scratched the dog's soft, floppy ears, one of which had a few tears along the edge, and then straightened.
"Okay," she said. "We've got to hurry now. I can't get you there late. So let's—"
"Hobo?" Oltamu was staring at the dog as if he'd never encountered such an animal.
"It's just what I call him. He likes to chase the train. Anyhow, we have to—"
"Stay there, please. I'd like a picture of him." He knelt. "Can you get him to look at me?" he asked as he extended his phone.
I'll tell Christine to look at his phone, Tara thought. I have exculpatory evidence now. "Do you see, Christine? He made me stop to take pictures of a stray dog!"
"His attention?" Oltamu said. "Please? Toward the camera?"
Tara raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. Oookay. Then she turned back to Hobo and made the soft clucking sound again. He looked at her but didn't move. Oltamu was a stranger, and Hobo didn't approach strangers.
"Very good," Oltamu whispered, as entranced as if he were on a safari and had encountered a rare species. "Excellent."
The camera clicked, a flash illuminated the dog in stark white light, and Hobo growled.
"It's okay," Tara told him, but he gave a final growl, gazed up the hill at the dark street beyond, then slipped back into the trees.
"All right," Tara said, rising again. "We really have to—"
"I need you to do me a favor. It is very important. Crucial."
"Please, Doctor. They're waiting on you at the auditorium, so—"
"Crucial," he said, his accent heavier, the word loaded with emotion.
She looked at his earnest face and then across the river at the lights of the campus. Suddenly she felt far away from where she belonged, and very alone. "What's the favor?"
He moved toward her, and she stepped back, bumping into one of the bike racks. Pain shot through her hip. He reached out, and she recoiled, fearing his hand, but then she saw that he was extending the phone to her.
"Please put this in your car. Somewhere secure. Can you lock the glove compartment?"
She wanted to object, or at least ask him for a reason, but his face was so intense, so worried, that all she did was nod.
"Put it there, then. Please. I'm going to walk across the bridge myself. I'll find my way."
What is happening here? What in the world is he doing?
"Please," he repeated, and Tara took the phone from his hand, walked hurriedly past him, and opened the passenger door. She leaned in and put the phone in the glove box. It took her two tries to lock it, because her hand was trembling. She heard him move behind her, and she spun, hands rising, ready to fend him off, but he was just watching to see that she'd done what he'd asked.
"Thank you," he said. "I don't mean to frighten you, but that phone is very important." He looked up the hill, then back to her. "I will walk from here alone. You should drive."
She hadn't spoken throughout this, and she didn't now. She just wanted to get away from him. Driving off and leaving him here was fine by her.
"Thank you, Tara," he said. "It is important. I am sorry you are afraid."
She stood motionless, hands still raised, watching him as warily as Hobo had.
"Please go now," he said. "Take the car and go. I will walk across the bridge when you are gone."
She moved. Going around the front of the car would have been quicker, but she would have passed closer to him, so she made her way around the back. She'd just reached the driver's door when she heard the engine behind her.
She glanced in the direction of the noise with relief, glad that she was no longer alone with this bizarre man, expecting to see headlights coming on. Instead, there was just the dark street. The engine grew louder, and with it came the sound of motion, but she saw nothing, so she just stood there dumbly, her hand on the car door. Oltamu had also turned to face the sound. They were both staring into the darkness when Tara finally saw the black van.
It was running with no trace of light. It came on down the road like something supernatural, quiet and dark but also remarkably fast.
She had only an instant to move. Her guiding thought was that she wanted to be away from the car, even if that meant going into the river. Down there, she thought she might have a chance.
She was scrambling away from the CRV when the van hit it squarely in the rear passenger door, pinning Oltamu against the side of the car, and then the CRV hit her, and though she got her wish of making it into the river, she never knew it. She was airborne when the front of her skull connected with the concrete pillar that marked the railroad bridge as a historical site, and by the time she entered the water, she wasn't aware of anything at all.
When the flight from Portland to Detroit arrived and her asset didn't walk off the plane, Lisa Boone moved from the gate to the Delta Sky Club and ordered a Johnnie Walker Blue.
"Rocks?" the bartender asked.
An overweight businessman in an off-the-rack suit with a hideously mismatched tie and pocket square turned on his bar stool and smiled a greasy, lecherous smile.
"The lady knows how to order her scotch."
Boone didn't look at him. "The lady does," she said and put cash on the bar.
"Have a seat." He moved his laptop bag off the stool beside him. The laptop bag had not one but two tags identifying him as a Diamond Medallion member. Wouldn't want your Sky Club status to slip under the radar.
"Oh, come on."
"I'm fine," Boone repeated, but already she knew this guy wasn't going to give up so easily. One didn't become a Diamond Medallion member without some dedication.
"Humor a fellow traveler," he said and patted the leather-topped stool. "I've been drinking Budweiser, but I like your style—scotch it is. Have a seat, and put your money away. I'll buy the drinks."
Boone didn't say anything. She breathed through her nose and waited for the bartender to break the fifty she'd put on the bar, and she thought of Iraq and the first fat man she'd killed. You weren't supposed to admit such a thing, but she'd always taken a little extra pleasure in killing fat men.
"I hope this doesn't seem too forward," Diamond Medallion Man said, leaning toward her and deepening his voice, "but you are absolutely stunning."
The bartender put her change down, and Boone picked up most of the bills, leaving a five behind, and turned to Diamond Medallion Man. He gave what was undoubtedly his winningest smile.
"I hope this doesn't seem too forward," Boone said, "but do you know the difference between Bud and Bud Light?"
His smile wavered. "What?"
- One of South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Best Mystery Books of 2019!
- "An edgy suspense story...that brilliantly plays on the primal fear of being buried alive."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
- "Multi-award winning author Michael Koryta again shows his affinity for smoothly melding sophisticated action with solid character development - even when one of the individuals is in a coma... Koryta is such a polished writer that his plots zip by as he delves into the amorality of Dax and the humanity of Abby and Tara, whose personality emerges, despite being paralyzed. Believable twists propel the tense "If She Wakes" as it moves to a surprising finale."—Associated Press
- "Another superb effort...a nail-biter throughout."—Chicago Tribune
- "In If She Wakes Michael Koryta gives readers not one or two but four formidable female leads...Koryta writes them with confidence, and each is someone to be reckoned with."—Shelf Awareness
- "Koryta keeps the action fast and furious, tempered with his characters' determination to persevere against all odds."—Bookpage
- "A good thriller to kick up your feet and read."—BookRiot
- "Adept at creating Hitchcockian moments, Koryta keeps the suspense high throughout."—Publisher's Weekly
- "It's a measure of how good this book is that the chilling, masterfully sustained suspense is only one of its standout achievements. Koryta never brushes off anyone's death; he makes you feel for the victims. The relationship between Tara and her sibling is beautifully nuanced, full of revealing details going back to their childhood. Koryta has never been better than with this knuckle-biting thriller."—Kirkus
- "it's the human element, the stories of two young women trying to reclaim their lives, that makes If She Wakes so compelling."—Tampa Bay Times
- "Koryta tries his hand at psychological suspense with excellent results."—Crime Reads
- "Instantly gripping, with realistic action, a breath-snatching twist, and a few untied ends that hopefully signal a sequel."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Mar 24, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Back Bay Books