Life or Death

A Novel


By Michael Robotham

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Why would a man serving a long prison sentence escape the day before he’s due to be released? Audie Palmer has spent ten years in a Texas prison after pleading guilty to a robbery in which four people died and seven million dollars went missing. During that time he has suffered repeated beatings, stabbings and threats by inmates and guards, all desperate to answer the same question: where’s the money?

On the day before Audie is due to be released, he suddenly vanishes. Now everybody is searching for him — the police, FBI, gangsters and other powerful figures — but Audie isn’t running to save his own life. Instead, he’s trying to save someone else’s.

Michael Robotham has created the ultimate underdog hero, an honorable criminal shrouded in mystery and ready to lead readers on a remarkable chase.


Life can be magnificent and overwhelming—That is its whole tragedy. Without beauty, love, or danger it would almost be easy to live.

Albert Camus


To be, or not to be: that is the question.

William Shakespeare

Life or Death


Audie Palmer had never learned how to swim. As a boy when he went fishing with his father on Lake Conroe he was told that being a strong swimmer was dangerous because it gave a person a false sense of security. Most folks drowned because they struck out for shore thinking they could save themselves, while those who survived were found clinging to the wreckage.

“So that’s what you do,” his daddy said, “you hang on like a limpet.”

“What’s a limpet?” Audie asked.

His daddy pondered this. “OK, so you hang on like a one-armed man clinging to a cliff while he’s being tickled.”

“I’m ticklish.”

“I know.”

And his daddy tickled him until the whole boat rocked from side to side and any fish in the vicinity swam into dark holes and Audie spotted his pants with pee.

This became a running joke between the two of them—not the pee, but the examples of holding on.

“You got to hold on like a giant squid hugging a sperm whale,” Audie might say. “You got to hold on like a frightened kitten on a sweater,” his daddy replied. “You got to hold on like a baby being breast-fed by Marilyn Monroe.”

And so it went on…

Standing in the middle of a dirt road sometime after midnight, Audie recalls these fishing trips with fondness and thinks how much he misses his daddy. The moon is blooming overhead, pregnant and white, creating a silver path on the surface of the lake. He can’t see the far side, but he knows there must be one. His future lies on the distant shore, just as death stalks him on this one.

Headlights swing around a bend, accelerating toward him. Audie plunges down a ravine, turning his face to the ground so it won’t reflect the light. The truck hurtles past, kicking up a cloud of dust that balloons and settles around him until he can feel it on his teeth. Getting to his hands and knees, Audie crawls through the tangle of brambles, dragging the plastic gallon containers behind him. At any moment he expects to hear someone shouting and the telltale click of a bullet sliding into a chamber.

Emerging at the edge of the lake, he scoops mud in his hands and smears it over his face and arms. The bottles knock emptily against his knees. He has tied eight of them together, lashing them with scraps of rope and strips of torn bedsheet.

He takes off his shoes, laces them together, and hangs them over his neck. Then he knots the calico laundry bag around his waist. There are cuts on his hands from the razor wire, but they’re not bleeding badly. He tears his shirt into bandages and wraps them around his palms, tightening the knots with his teeth.

More vehicles pass on the road above him. Headlights. Voices. Soon they’ll bring the dogs. Wading into deeper water, Audie wraps his arm around the bottles, hugging them to his chest. He begins to kick, trying not to create too big a splash until he gets further from shore.

Using the stars to navigate, he tries to swim in a straight line. Choke Canyon Reservoir is about three and a half miles across at this point. There’s an island roughly halfway, or maybe less, if he survives that long.

As the minutes and hours pass, he loses track of time. Twice he flips over and feels himself drowning until he hugs the containers tighter to his chest and rolls back above the surface. A couple of the bottles drift away. One springs a leak. The bandages on his hands have long ago washed loose.

His mind wanders, drifting from memory to memory—places and people, some he liked, others he feared. He thinks of his childhood, playing ball with his brother. Sharing a Slurpee with a girl called Phoebe Carter who let him put his hand in her whiter-than-white panties in the back row of the cinema when he was fourteen. They were watching Jurassic Park and a T. rex had just eaten a bloodsucking lawyer who was trying to hide in a port-a-potty.

Audie doesn’t remember much else about the film, but Phoebe Carter lives on in his memory. Her father was a boss at the battery-recycling plant and drove around West Dallas in a Mercedes when everyone else had beat-to-shit cars with more rust than paint. Mr. Carter didn’t like his daughter hanging out with boys like Audie, but Phoebe wouldn’t be told. Where is she now? Married. Pregnant. Happy. Divorced. Working two jobs. Dyeing her hair. Turned to flab. Watching Oprah.

Another shard of memory—he can see his mama standing at the kitchen sink singing “Skip to My Lou” while she washed the dishes. She used to make up her own verses about flies in the buttermilk and kittens in the wool. His father would come in from the garage and use the same soapy water to wash the dirt and grease from his hands.

George Palmer, dead now, was a bearlike man with hands the size of baseball mitts and freckles across his nose like a cloud of black flies had swarmed into his face and got stuck there. Handsome. Doomed. Men in Audie’s family had always died young—mostly in mining or rig accidents. Cave-ins. Methane-gas explosions. Industrial accidents. His paternal grandfather had his skull crushed by a twelve-foot piece of drilling pipe that was thrown two hundred feet by a blast. His uncle Thomas was buried with eighteen men. They didn’t bother trying to bring the bodies out.

Audie’s father had bucked the trend by living to fifty-five. He saved enough money on the rigs to buy a garage with two gas pumps, a workshop, and a hydraulic lift. He worked six days a week for twenty years and put three kids through school, or would have if Carl had bothered trying.

George had the deepest, softest voice of any man Audie had ever met—like gravel turning in a barrel of honey—but he had less and less to say as the years rolled by and his whiskers grew white and cancer ate away at his organs. Audie wasn’t there for the funeral. He wasn’t there for the disease. Sometimes he wondered if a broken heart had been the reason, rather than a lifetime of cigarettes.

Audie rolls beneath the surface again. The water is warm and bitter and comes in everywhere, in his mouth and throat and ears. He wants to fight for air, but exhaustion drags him under. Legs burning, arms aching, he’s not going to make it across. This is where it ends. Opening his eyes, he sees an angel dressed in white robes that billow and ripple around her as though she’s flying rather than swimming. She spreads her arms to embrace him, naked beneath the translucent cloth. He can smell her perfume and feel the heat of her body pressed against his chest. Her eyes half open, her lips parted, waiting for a kiss.

Then she slaps him hard across the face and says, “Swim, you bastard!”

Thrashing to the surface, gasping for breath, he clutches at the plastic containers before they float away. His chest heaves and water spurts from his mouth and nose. Coughing. Blinking. Focusing. He can see a reflection of the stars on the water and the tips of dead trees silhouetted against the moon. So he kicks again, moving forward, imagining the ghostly shape below him in the water, following him like a sunken moon.

And at some point, hours later, his feet touch rocks and he drags himself ashore, collapsing on a narrow sand beach, kicking the bottles away. The night air has a dense feral odor, still radiating heat from the day. Mist hangs on the water in wisps that could be the ghosts of drowned fishermen.

He lies on his back and looks at the moon disappearing behind the clouds that seem to be floating in deep space. Closing his eyes, he feels the weight of the angel as she straddles his thighs. She leans forward, her breath on his cheek, her lips close to his ear, whispering, “Remember your promise.”


The sirens are sounding. Moss tries to go back to his dream but heavy boots are ringing on the metal stairs; fists grip the iron railings and dust shivers on the treads. It’s too early. Morning count isn’t normally until eight. Why the siren? The cell door opens, sliding sideways with a dull metallic clang.

Moss opens his eyes and groans. He’d been dreaming about his wife, Crystal, and his boxer shorts are tented with his morning glory. I still got it, he thinks, knowing what Crystal would say: “You gonna use that thing or spend all day looking at it?”

Prisoners are ordered from their cells, scratching at navels, cupping testicles, and wiping grit from their eyes. Some emerge willingly while others have to be encouraged with a swinging bat. There are cells on three levels enclosing a rectangular yard with safety nets to stop people from attempting suicide or being thrown off the walkways. The ceiling has a tangle of pipes that gurgle and knock as though something sinister lives inside them.

Moss hauls himself up and out. Barefoot. He stands on the landing with his face to the wall. Grunts. Farts. He’s a big man, softening in the middle, but solid across the shoulders due to the push-ups and chin-ups he does a dozen times a day. His skin is a milk-chocolate brown and his eyes seem too big for his face, making him look younger than his forty-eight years.

Moss glances to his left. Junebug is leaning his head on the wall, trying to sleep standing up. His tattoos leap and snarl on his forearms and chest. The former meth addict has a narrow face and a mustache trimmed into wide wings that stretch halfway across his cheeks.

“What’s happening?”

Junebug opens his eyes. “Sounds like an escape.”

Moss looks in the other direction. Along the length of the landing, he sees dozens of prisoners standing outside their cells. Everyone is out now. Not everyone. Moss leans to his right, trying to peer inside the next cell. The guards are coming.

“Hey, Audie, get up, man,” he mutters.


From the upper level he hears a voice ring out. Someone arguing. A scuffle develops until the Ninja Turtles storm up the stairway and dish out a beating.

Moss steps closer to Audie’s cell. “Wake up, man.”


He turns to Junebug. Their eyes meet, silently asking the question.

Moss takes two steps to the right, aware that the guards could be watching. He peers into the darkness of Audie’s cell and can make out the rack bolted to the wall. The basin. The toilet. No warm body or cold one.

A guard yells from above. “All present and accounted for.”

A second voice comes from below. “All present and accounted for.”

The hats and bats are coming. Inmates flatten their bodies against the walls.

“Up here!” yells a guard.

Boots follow.

Two of the uniforms are searching Audie’s cell as though there’s somewhere he could possibly be hiding—under a pillow, or behind the deodorant. Moss risks turning his head and sees Deputy Warden Grayson reach the top of the stairs, sweating from the climb. Fatter than Albert, his belly hangs over his polished leather belt and more rolls of skin are trying to smother his collar.

Grayson gets to Audie’s cell. He looks inside and takes a breath, making a sucking sound with his lips. Unhooking his baton, he slaps it into his palm and turns to Moss.

“Where’s Palmer?”

“I don’t know, suh.”

The baton swings into the back of Moss’s knees, dropping him like a felled tree. Grayson is standing over him.

“When did you last see him?”

Moss hesitates, trying to remember. The end of the baton is driven into his right side, just below his ribs. The world flushes up and down in his eyes.

“Chow time,” he gasps.

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know.”

A shimmer seems to rise off Grayson’s face. “Lock the place down. I want him found.”

“What about breakfast?” an officer asks.

“They can wait.”

Moss is dragged into his cell. The doors close. For the next two hours he lies on his rack, listening to the prison buildings quiver and groan. Now they’re in the workshop. Before that it was the laundry and the library.

From the next cell, he hears Junebug tapping on the wall. “Hey, Moss!”


“You think he got out?”

Moss doesn’t answer.

“Why would he do something like that on his last night?”

Still Moss remains silent.

“I always said that sonbitch was crazy.”

The guards are coming again. Junebug goes back to his rack. Moss listens, feeling his sphincter opening and closing. The boots stop moving outside his cell.

“On your feet! Against the back wall! Spread ’em!”

Three men enter. Moss has his wrists cuffed and looped through a chain that is wrapped around his waist, while another tethers his ankles. He can only shuffle. His trousers are undone and he doesn’t have time to do up the buttons. He has to hold them up with one hand. Prisoners are whooping in their cells and hollering messages. Moss walks through shafts of sunlight and catches a glimpse of police cars outside the main gates where stars of light reflect from their polished surfaces.

When he reaches the administration wing, he’s told to take a seat. Guards on either side say nothing. Moss can see their profiles, the peaked caps, sunglasses, and tan shirts with dark-brown epaulettes. He can also hear voices inside the adjacent meeting room. Occasionally one utterance rises above the others. Accusations are being made. Blame apportioned.

Food arrives. Moss feels his stomach cramp and his mouth fill with saliva. Another hour passes. Longer. People leave. It’s Moss’s turn. Using short mincing steps, he shuffles into the room, keeping his eyes lowered. Chief Warden Sparkes is dressed in a dark suit that already looks crushed where he’s been sitting down. He’s a tall man with a mane of silver hair, a long thin nose, and he walks like he’s balancing a book on his head. He signals for the officers to step back and they take up positions on either side of the door.

Along one wall is a table covered with plates of half-eaten food: deep-fried soft-shell crab, spare ribs, fried chicken, mashed potato, and salad. The grilled cobs of corn have black skillet marks and are glistening with butter. The warden picks up a spare rib and sucks the meat from the bone, wiping his fingers with a moist towelette.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Moss Jeremiah Webster.”

“What sort of name is Moss?”

“Well, suh, my momma couldn’t spell Moses on my birth certificate.”

One of the guards laughs. The warden pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Are you hungry, Mr. Webster? Grab a plate.”

Moss glances at the feast, his stomach rumbling. “Are you fixing on executing me, suh?”

“Why would you think that?”

“Meal like that could be a man’s last.”

“Nobody is going to execute you…not on a Friday.”

The chief warden laughs, but Moss doesn’t think the joke is very funny. He hasn’t moved.

Maybe the food is poisoned. Warden’s eating it. Maybe he knows which bits to eat. Hell, I don’t care!

Shuffling forward, Moss begins heaping food onto a plastic plate, piling it high with ribs, crab claws, and mashed potato, trying to perch a cob of corn on the top. He eats with both hands, leaning over the plate, the juices smearing his cheeks and dribbling down his chin. Meanwhile, Warden Sparkes picks up another spare rib and takes a seat opposite, looking vaguely repulsed.

“Extortion, fraud, drug dealing—you were caught with two million dollars’ worth of marijuana.”

“It was only weed.”

“Then you beat a man to death in prison.”

Moss doesn’t answer.

“Did he deserve it?”

“Thought so at the time.”

“And now?”

“I’d do a lot of things different.”

“How long has it been?”

“Fifteen years.”

Moss has eaten too quickly. A piece of the meat is lodged halfway down his throat. He thumps his fist on his chest, making his cuffs rattle. The warden offers him something to drink. Moss swallows a full can of soft drink, fearing they might take it away. He wipes his mouth. Belches. Eats again.

Warden Sparkes has sucked the spare rib clean. He leans forward and plants the bone into Moss’s mashed potato where it sticks upright like a naked flagpole.

“Let’s start at the beginning. You are friends with Audie Palmer, is that correct?”

“I know him.”

“When did you last see him?”

“Yesterday evening at chow time.”

“You sat with him.”

“Yes, suh.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Usual stuff.”

The warden waits, his eyes expressionless. Moss can feel the butter from the griddled corn coating his tongue.



“We were discussing how to get rid of roaches. I was telling Audie to use AmerFresh toothpaste and put it in the cracks in the wall. Roaches don’t like toothpaste. Don’t ask me why, they just don’t.”


Moss talks between mouthfuls, eating around his mashed potato. “I heard a story about a woman who had a cockroach crawl into her ear while she was sleeping. It had babies that burrowed right into her brain. They found her dead one day with roaches coming out her nose. We fight a war against them. Some niggas will tell you to use shaving cream, but that shit don’t last through the night. AmerFresh is best.”

Warden Sparkes eyeballs him. “We have no pest-control problems in my prison.”

“I don’t know if the roaches got that memo, suh.”

“We fumigate twice a year.”

Moss knows all about the pest-control measures. The guards show up, order prisoners to lie down on their racks, while their cells are sprayed with some toxic-smelling chemical that makes everyone feel poorly, but has zero effect on the roaches.

“What happened after chow time?” asks Sparkes.

“I went back to my cell.”

“Did you see Palmer?”

“He was reading.”


“A book,” says Moss, in case any further explanation was needed.

“What sort of book?”

“A thick one without any pictures.”

Sparkes doesn’t see any humor in the situation. “Did you know Palmer was due to be released today?”

“Yes, suh.”

“Why would a man escape the night before he was due to be released?”

Moss wipes grease from his lips. “I have no idea.”

“You must have some inkling. The man spent ten years inside. One more day and he’s a free man, but instead he makes himself a fugitive. When he’s caught he’ll be tried and sentenced. He’ll get another twenty years.”

Moss doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say.

“Are you hearing me, son?”

“Yes, suh.”

“Don’t tell me you weren’t close to Audie Palmer. Don’t tell me that for a second. This ain’t my first rodeo and I know when someone is crow-hopping me.”

Moss blinks at him.

“You shared the next cell to Palmer for—what—seven years? He must have said something to you.”

“No, suh, honest to God, not a word.”

Moss has reflux. He burps. The chief warden is still talking. “My job is to keep prisoners incarcerated until such time as the federal government says they’re eligible for release. Mr. Palmer wasn’t eligible for release until today, but he decided to go early. Why?”

Moss’s shoulders rise and fall.


“I don’t know what that word means, suh.”

“Give me your opinion.”

“You want my opinion? I’d say that Audie Palmer was dumber than shit on a biscuit for doing what he did.”

Moss pauses and looks at the uneaten food on his plate. Warden Sparkes takes a photograph from his coat pocket and puts it on the table. It’s a picture of Audie Palmer with his puppy-dog eyes and floppy bangs, as wholesome as a glass of milk.

“What do you know about the Dreyfus County armored truck robbery?”

“Just what I read.”

“Audie Palmer must have mentioned it.”

“No, suh.”

“And you didn’t ask?”

“Sure, I did. Everybody asked. Every guard. Every nigga. Every visitor. Family. Friends. Every sonbitch in this place wanted to know what happened to the money.”

Moss didn’t have to lie. He doubted if there was a man or beast incarcerated in Texas who didn’t know the story of the robbery—not just because of the missing money, but because four people died that day. One escaped. One got caught.

“And what did Palmer say?”

“Not a damn thing.”

Warden Sparkes fills his cheeks with air like he’s blowing up a balloon and then releases it slowly.

“Is that why you helped that boy escape? Did he promise you some of the money?”

“I didn’t help nobody escape.”

“Are you cocking your leg and pissing on me, son?”

“No, suh.”

“So you want me to believe that your best friend escaped from prison without saying a word to you?”

Moss nods, his eyes searching empty air above the warden’s head.

“Did Audie Palmer have a girlfriend?”

“He used to talk about a girl in his sleep, but I think she was long gone.”


“He has a mother and a sister.”

“We all have a mother.”

“She writes him regular.”

“Anyone else?”

Moss shrugs. He isn’t revealing anything that the warden couldn’t find in Audie’s file. Both men know that nothing important is going to come out of the interview.

Sparkes stands and paces, his shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor. Moss has to twist his head from side to side to keep him in view.

“I want you to listen carefully, Mr. Webster. You had some discipline problems when you first arrived, but they were just kinks and you ironed them out. You won privileges. Gained them the hard way. That’s why I know your conscience is bothering you, which is why you’re going to tell me where he’s gone.”

Moss looks at him blankly. The warden stops pacing and braces both his hands on the table.

“Explain something to me, Mr. Webster. This code of silence that operates among people like you, what do you think it achieves? You live like animals, you think like animals, you behave like animals. Cunning. Violent. Selfish. You steal from each other. You kill each other. You fuck each other. You form gangs. What’s the point of having a code?”

“It’s the second thing that unites us,” says Moss, telling himself to hold his tongue even as he ignores his own advice.

“What’s the first thing?” asks the warden.

“Hating people like you.”


  • "Life or Death is a nerve-shredding thriller with the heart and soul so often missing from lesser crime and suspense novels. I couldn't stop reading, yet I didn't want Audie's story to end. Robotham is an absolute master."—Stephen King
  • "A pitch perfect plot with a stunning twist that involves a sheep in wolf's clothing. Talk about topsy turvy --- but it works --- big time."—Steve Berry, author of The Lincoln Myth and The Jefferson Key
  • "Robotham has a talent for creating fascinating and complex characters, and Audie Palmer may be his best yet."—Booklist (starred review)
  • [A] prison-break tale with a twist . . . The writing is top-notch . . . Plenty of edge-of-the-seat excitement, forcing readers to frantically turn the pages to find out how all these different strands intersect. Robotham's skill as a writer remains undeniable: He offers memorable characters caught up in an irresistible story."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Michael Robotham is the real deal."—David Baldacci
  • "Robotham is a first-class storyteller."—Associated Press

On Sale
Jan 26, 2016
Page Count
448 pages
Mulholland Books

Michael Robotham

About the Author

Michael Robotham has been an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia and the US. One of world’s most acclaimed authors of thriller fiction, he lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters.

Learn more about this author