Read by Ellen Archer
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She used to work for the U.S. government, but very few people ever knew that. An expert in her field, she was one of the darkest secrets of an agency so clandestine it doesn’t even have a name. And when they decided she was a liability, they came for her without warning.
Now she rarely stays in the same place or uses the same name for long. They’ve killed the only other person she trusted, but something she knows still poses a threat. They want her dead, and soon. When her former handler offers her a way out, she realizes it’s her only chance to erase the giant target on her back. But it means taking one last job for her ex-employers.
To her horror, the information she acquires only makes her situation more dangerous. Resolving to meet the threat head-on, she prepares for the toughest fight of her life but finds herself falling for a man who can only complicate her likelihood of survival. As she sees her choices being rapidly whittled down, she must apply her unique talents in ways she never dreamed of.
In this tautly plotted novel, Meyer creates a fierce and fascinating new heroine with a very specialized skill set. And she shows once again why she’s one of the world’s bestselling authors.
Today's errand had become routine for the woman who was currently calling herself Chris Taylor. She'd gotten up much earlier than she liked, then dismantled and stowed her usual nighttime precautions. It was a real pain to set everything up in the evening only to take it down first thing in the morning, but it wasn't worth her life to indulge in a moment of laziness.
After this daily chore, Chris had gotten into her unremarkable sedan—more than a few years old, but lacking any large-scale damage to make it memorable—and driven for hours and hours. She'd crossed three major borders and countless minor map lines and even after reaching approximately the right distance rejected several towns as she passed. That one was too small, that one had only two roads in and out, that one looked as though it saw so few visitors that there would be no way for her not to stand out, despite all of the ordinariness she worked to camouflage herself with. She took note of a few places she might want to return to another day—a welding-supply shop, an army surplus store, and a farmers' market. Peaches were coming back in season; she should stock up.
Finally, late in the afternoon, she arrived in a bustling place she'd never been before. Even the public library was doing a fairly brisk business.
She liked to use a library when it was possible. Free was harder to trace.
She parked on the west side of the building, out of sight of the one camera located over the entrance. Inside, the computers were all taken and several interested parties were hanging around waiting for a station, so she did some browsing, looking through the biography section for anything pertinent. She found that she'd already read everything that might be of use. Next, she hunted up the latest from her favorite espionage writer, a former Navy SEAL, and then grabbed a few of the adjacent titles. As she went to find a good seat to wait in, she felt a twinge of guilt; it was just so tawdry, somehow, stealing from a library. But getting a library card here was out of the question for a number of reasons, and there was the off chance that something she read in these books would make her safer. Safety always trumped guilt.
It wasn't that she was unaware that this was 99 percent pointless—it was extremely unlikely that anything fictional would be of real, concrete use to her—but she'd long ago worked her way through the more fact-based kind of research available. In the absence of A-list sources to mine, she'd settled for the Z-list. It made her more panicky than usual when she didn't have something to study. And she'd actually found a tip that seemed practical in her last haul. She'd already begun incorporating it into her routine.
She settled into a faded armchair in an out-of-the-way corner that had a decent view of the computer cubicles and pretended to read the top book in her pile. She could tell from the way several of the computer users had their belongings sprawled across the desk—one had even removed his shoes—that they would be in place for a long while. The most promising station was being used by a teenage girl with a stack of reference books and a harried expression. The girl didn't seem to be checking social media—she was actually writing down titles and authors generated by the search engine. While she waited, Chris kept her head bent over her book, which she had nestled in the crook of her left arm. With the razor blade hidden in her right hand, she neatly sliced off the magnetic sensor taped to the spine and stuffed it into the crevice between the cushion and the arm of the chair. Feigning a lack of interest, she moved on to the next book in the pile.
Chris was ready, her denuded novels already stowed away in her backpack, when the teenage girl left to go find another source. Without jumping up or looking like she'd rushed, Chris was in the chair before any of the other lingering hopefuls even realized their chance had passed.
Actually checking her e-mail usually took about three minutes.
After that, she would have another four hours—if she wasn't driving evasively—to get back to her temporary home. Then of course the reassembly of her safeguards before she could finally sleep. E-mail day was always a long one.
Though there was no connection between her present life and this e-mail account—no repeat IP address, no discussion of places or names—as soon as she was done reading and, if the occasion called for it, answering her mail, she would be out the door and speeding out of town, putting as many miles between herself and this location as possible. Just in case.
Just in case had become Chris's unintentional mantra. She lived a life of overpreparation, but, as she often reminded herself, without that preparation she wouldn't be living a life at all.
It would be nice not to have to take these risks, but the money wasn't going to last forever. Usually she would find a menial job at some mom-and-pop place, preferably one with handwritten records, but that kind of job generated only enough money for the basics—food and rent. Never the more expensive things in her life, like fake IDs, laboratory apparatus, and the various chemical components she hoarded. So she maintained a light presence on the Internet, found her rare paying client here and there, and did everything she could to keep this work from bringing her to the attention of those who wanted her to stop existing.
The last two e-mail days had been fruitless, so she was pleased to see a message waiting for her—pleased for the approximately two-tenths of a second it took her to process the return address.
Just out there—his real e-mail address, easily traceable directly to her former employers. As the hair rose on the back of her neck and the adrenaline surged through her body—Run, run, run it seemed to be shouting inside her veins—part of her was still able to gape in disbelief at the arrogance. She always underestimated how astonishingly careless they could be.
They can't be here yet, she reasoned with herself through the panic, her eyes already sweeping the library for men with shoulders too broad for their dark suits, for military haircuts, for anyone moving toward her position. She could see her car through the plate-glass window, and it looked like no one had tampered with it, but she hadn't exactly been keeping watch, had she?
So they'd found her again. But they had no way of knowing where she would decide to check her mail. She was religiously random about that choice.
Just now, an alarm had gone off in a tidy gray office, or maybe several offices, maybe even with flashing red lights. Of course there would be a priority command set up to trace this IP address. Bodies were about to be mobilized. But even if they used helicopters—and they had that capability—she had a few minutes. Enough to see what Carston wanted.
The subject line was Tired of running?
She clicked it open. The message wasn't long.
Policy has changed. We need you. Would an unofficial apology help? Can we meet? I wouldn't ask, but lives are on the line. Many, many lives.
She'd always liked Carston. He seemed more human than a lot of the other dark suits the department employed. Some of them—especially the ones in uniform—were downright scary. Which was probably a hypocritical thought, considering the line of work she used to be in.
So of course it was Carston they'd had make contact. They knew she was lonely and frightened, and they'd sent an old friend to make her feel all warm and fuzzy. Common sense, and she probably would have seen through the ploy without help, but it didn't hurt that the same ploy had been used once in a novel she'd stolen.
She allowed herself one deep breath and thirty seconds of concentrated thought. The focus was supposed to be her next move—getting out of this library, this town, this state, as soon as possible—and whether that was enough. Was her current identity still safe, or was it time to relocate again?
However, that focus was derailed by the insidious idea of Carston's offer.
What if . . .
What if this really was a way to get them to leave her alone? What if her certainty that this was a trap was born from paranoia and reading too much spy fiction?
If the job was important enough, maybe they would give her back her life in exchange.
Still, there was no point in pretending that Carston's e-mail had gone astray.
She replied the way she figured they were hoping she would, though she'd formed only the barest outline of a plan.
Tired of a lot of things, Carston. Where we first met, one week from today, noon. If I see anyone with you, I'm gone, yada yada yada, I'm sure you know the drill. Don't be stupid.
She was on her feet and walking in the same moment, a rolling lope she'd perfected, despite her short legs, that looked a lot more casual than it was. She was counting off the seconds in her head, estimating how long it would take a helicopter to cover the distance between DC and this location. Of course, they could alert locals, but that wasn't usually their style.
Not their usual style at all, and yet… she had an unfounded but still pressingly uncomfortable feeling that they might be getting tired of their usual style. It hadn't yielded the results they were looking for, and these were not patient people. They were used to getting what they wanted exactly when they wanted it. And they'd been wanting her dead for three years.
This e-mail was certainly a policy change. If it was a trap.
She had to assume it was. That viewpoint, that way of framing her world, was the reason she was still breathing in and out. But there was a small part of her brain that had already begun to foolishly hope.
It was a small-stakes game she was playing, she knew that. Just one life. Just her life.
And this life she'd preserved against such overpowering odds was only that and nothing more: life. The very barest of the basics. One heart beating, one set of lungs expanding and contracting.
She was alive, yes, and she had fought hard to stay that way, but during her darker nights she'd sometimes wondered what exactly she was fighting for. Was the quality of life she maintained worth all this effort? Wouldn't it be relaxing to close her eyes and not have to open them again? Wasn't an empty black nothing slightly more palatable than the relentless terror and constant effort?
Only one thing had kept her from answering Yes and taking one of the peaceful and painless exits readily available to her, and that was an overdeveloped competitive drive. It had served her well in medical school, and now it kept her breathing. She wasn't going to let them win. There was no way she would give them such an easy resolution to their problem. They would probably get her in the end, but they were going to have to work for it, damn them, and they would bleed for it, too.
She was in the car now and six blocks from the closest freeway entrance. There was a dark ball cap over her short hair, wide-framed men's sunglasses covering most of her face, and a bulky sweatshirt disguising her slender figure. To a casual observer, she would look a lot like a teenage boy.
The people who wanted her dead had already lost some blood and she found herself suddenly smiling as she drove, remembering. It was odd how comfortable she was with killing people these days, how satisfying she found it. She had become bloodthirsty, which was ironic, all things considered. She'd spent six years under their tutelage, and in all that time they hadn't come close to breaking her down, to turning her into someone who enjoyed her work. But three years on the run from them had changed a lot of things.
She knew she wouldn't enjoy killing an innocent person. She was sure that corner had not been turned, nor would it be. Some people in her line of work—her former line—were well and truly psychotic, but she liked to think that this was the reason her peers were not as good as she was. They had the wrong motivations. Hating what she did gave her the power to do it best.
In the context of her current life, killing was about winning. Not the entire war, just one small battle at a time, but each was still a win. Someone else's heart would stop beating and hers would keep going. Someone would come for her, and instead of a victim he would find a predator. A brown recluse spider, invisible behind her gossamer trap.
This was what they had made her. She wondered if they took any pride at all in their accomplishment or if there was only regret that they hadn't stomped on her fast enough.
Once she was a few miles down the interstate, she felt better. Her car was a popular model, a thousand identical vehicles on the highway with her now, and the stolen plates would be replaced as soon as she found a safe spot to stop. There was nothing to tie her to the town she'd just left. She'd passed two exits and taken a third. If they wanted to blockade the freeway, they'd have no idea where to do it. She was still hidden. Still safe for now.
Of course, driving straight home was out of the question at this point. She took six hours on the return, twisting around various highways and surface roads, constantly checking to be sure there was no one following. By the time she finally got back to her little rented house—the architectural equivalent of a jalopy—she was already half asleep. She thought about making coffee, weighing the benefits of the caffeine boost against the burden of one extra task, and decided to just muscle through it on the vapors of her energy supply.
She dragged herself up the two rickety porch steps, automatically avoiding the rot-weakened spot on the left of the first tread, and unlocked the double dead bolts on the steel security door she'd installed her first week living here; the walls—just wooden studs, drywall, plywood, and vinyl siding—didn't provide the same level of security, but statistically, intruders went for the door first. The bars on the windows were not an insurmountable obstacle, either, but they were enough to motivate the casual cat burglar to move on to an easier target. Before she twisted the handle, she rang the doorbell. Three quick jabs that would look like one continuous push to anyone watching. The sound of the Westminster chimes was only slightly muffled by the thin walls. She stepped through the door quickly—holding her breath, just in case. There was no quiet crunch of broken glass, so she exhaled as she shut the door behind her.
The home security was all her own design. The professionals she'd studied in the beginning had their own methods. None of them had her specialized skill set. Neither did the authors of the various novels she used as implausible manuals now. Everything else she had needed to know had been easy to pull up on YouTube. A few parts from an old washing machine, a microcontroller board ordered online, a new doorbell, and a couple of miscellaneous acquisitions, and she had herself a solid booby trap.
She locked the dead bolts behind her and hit the switch closest to the door to turn on the lights. It was set in a panel with two other switches. The middle was a dummy. The third switch, the farthest from the door, was patched into the same low-voltage signal wire as the doorbell. Like that fixture and the door, the panel of switches was newer by decades than anything else in the small front room that was living area, dining room, and kitchen combined.
Everything looked as she'd left it: minimal, cheap furnishings—nothing big enough for an adult to hide behind—empty counters and tabletop, no ornaments or artwork. Sterile. She knew that even with the avocado-and-mustard-vinyl flooring and the popcorn ceiling, it still looked a little like a laboratory.
Maybe the smell was what made it feel like a lab. The room was so scrupulously sanitary, an intruder would probably attribute the pool-supply-store scent to cleaning chemicals. But only if he got inside without triggering her security system. If he triggered the system, he wouldn't have time to register many details about the room.
The rest of the house was just a small bedroom and bathroom, set in a straight line from the front door to the far wall, nothing in the way to trip her. She turned the light off, saving herself the walk back.
She stumbled through the only door into her bedroom, sleepwalking through the routine. Enough light made it through the mini-blinds—red neon from the gas station across the street—that she left the lamp off. First, she rearranged two of the long feather pillows on top of the double mattress that took up most of the space in the room into the vague shape of a human body. Then the Ziploc bags full of Halloween costume blood were stuffed into the pillowcases; close up, the blood wasn't very convincing, but the Ziplocs were for an attacker who broke the window, pushed the blinds aside, and shot from that vantage point. He wouldn't be able to detect the difference in the neon half-light. Next, the head—the mask she'd used was another after-Halloween-sale acquisition, a parody of some political also-ran that had fairly realistic skin coloring. She'd stuffed it to roughly match the size of her own head and sewn a cheap brunette wig into place. Most important, a tiny wire, threaded up between the mattress and box spring, was hidden in the strands of nylon. A matching wire pierced through the pillow the head rested on. She yanked the sheet up, then the blanket, patted it all into shape, then twisted together the frayed ends of the two wires. It was a very tenuous joining. If she touched the head even lightly or jostled the pillow body a bit, the wires would slip silently apart.
She stood back and gave the decoy a once-over through half-closed eyes. It wasn't her best work, but it did look like someone was asleep in the bed. Even if an intruder didn't believe it was Chris, he would still have to neutralize the sleeping body before he went on to search for her.
Too tired to change into her pajamas, she just stepped out of her loose jeans. It was enough. She grabbed the fourth pillow and pulled her sleeping bag out from under the bed; they felt bulkier and heavier than usual. She dragged them into the compact bathroom, dumped them in the tub, and did the bare minimum of ablutions. No face-washing tonight, just cleaning the teeth.
The gun and the gas mask were both under the sink, hidden beneath a stack of towels. She pulled the mask over her head and tightened the straps, then clapped her palm over the filter port and inhaled through her nose to check the seal. The mask suctioned to her face just fine. It always did, but she never let familiarity or exhaustion make her skip the safety routine. She moved the gun into the wall-mounted soap dish within easy reach above the bathtub. She didn't love the gun—she was a decent shot compared with a totally untrained civilian, but not in the same class as a professional. She needed the option, though; someday her enemies were going to figure her system out, and the people coming for her would be in gas masks, too.
Honestly, she was surprised her shtick had saved her this long.
With an unopened chemical-absorption canister tucked under her bra strap, she shuffled the two steps back into the bedroom. She knelt beside the floor vent on the right side of the bed she'd never used. The vent cover grille probably wasn't as dusty as it should be, the grille's top screws were only halfway in, and the bottom screws were missing altogether, but she was sure no one looking through the window would notice these details or understand what they meant if he did; Sherlock Holmes was about the only person she wasn't worried would make an attempt on her life.
She loosened the top screws and removed the grille. A few things would be immediately obvious to anyone who looked inside the vent. One, the back of the vent was sealed off, so it was no longer functional. Two, the large white bucket and the big battery pack probably didn't belong down there. She pried the lid off the bucket and was immediately greeted by the same chemical smell that infused the front room, so familiar she barely noted it.
She reached into the darkness behind the bucket and pulled out, first, a small, awkward contraption with a coil, metal arms, and thin wires, then a glass ampoule about the size of her finger, and, finally, a rubber cleaning glove. She positioned the solenoid—the device she'd scavenged from a discarded washing machine—so that the arms extending from it were half submerged in the colorless liquid inside the bucket. She blinked hard twice, trying to force herself into alertness; this was the delicate part. She put the glove on her right hand, then pulled the canister free from her bra strap and held it ready in her left. With the gloved hand, she carefully inserted the ampoule into the grooves she'd drilled into the metal arms for this purpose. The ampoule rested just under the surface of the acid, the white powder inside it inert and harmless. However, if the current running through the wires that were attached so tenuously atop the bed were to be interrupted, the pulse would snap the solenoid shut, and the glass would shatter. The white powder would turn into a gas that was neither inert nor harmless.
It was essentially the same arrangement that she had in the front room; the wiring was just simpler here. This trap was set only while she slept.
She replaced the glove and the vent cover and then, with a feeling that was not quite buoyant enough to be called relief, lurched back to the bathroom. The door, like the vent, might have tipped off someone as detail oriented as Mr. Holmes—the soft rubber liners around all the edges were definitely not standard. They wouldn't entirely seal the bathroom off from the bedroom, but they would give her more time.
She half fell into the tub, a slow-motion collapse onto the puffy sleeping bag. It had taken her a while to get used to sleeping in the mask, but now she didn't even think about it as she gratefully closed her eyes.
She shimmied herself into the down-and-nylon cocoon, squirming till the hard square of her iPad was nestled against the small of her back. It was plugged into an extension cord that got power from the front-room wiring. If the power fluctuated along that line, the iPad would vibrate. She knew from experience that it was enough to wake her, even as tired as she was tonight. She also knew that she could have the canister—still in her left hand, hugged tight against her chest like a child's teddy bear—unsealed and screwed into place on the gas mask in less than three seconds, despite being half awake, in the dark, and holding her breath. She'd practiced so many times, and then she'd proved herself during the three emergencies that had not been practice. She'd survived. Her system worked.
Exhausted as she was, she had to let her mind tick over the evils of her day before it would let her be unconscious. It felt horrible—like phantom-limb pain, not connected to any actual piece of her body, just there anyway—knowing they'd found her again. She wasn't satisfied with her e-mail response, either. She'd come up with the plan too impulsively to be sure of it. And it required her to act more quickly than she'd like.
She knew the theory—sometimes, if you ran headlong at the guy holding the gun, you could catch him off guard. Flight was always her favorite move, but she didn't see a way out of the alternative this time. Maybe tomorrow, after her tired brain had rebooted.
Surrounded by her web, she slept.
As she sat waiting for Carston to show, she thought about the other times the department had tried to kill her.
Barnaby—Dr. Joseph Barnaby, her mentor, the last friend she'd known—had prepared her for the first attempt. But even with all his foresight, planning, and deep-rooted paranoia, it was just dumb luck in the form of an extra cup of black coffee that had saved her life.
She hadn't been sleeping well. She'd worked with Barnaby for six years at that point, and a little more than halfway through that time, he'd told her his suspicions. At first she hadn't wanted to believe he could be right. They were only doing their job as directed, and doing it well. You can't think of this as a long-term situation, he'd insisted, though he'd been in the same division for seventeen years. People like us, people who have to know things that no one wants us to know, eventually we become inconvenient. You don't have to do anything wrong. You can be perfectly trustworthy. They're the ones you can't trust.
So much for working for the good guys.
His suspicions had become more specific, then shifted into planning, which had evolved into physical preparation. Barnaby had been a big believer in preparation, not that it had done him any good in the end.
The stress had begun to escalate in those last months as the date for the exodus approached, and, unsurprisingly, she'd had trouble sleeping. That particular April morning it had taken two cups of coffee rather than the usual one to get her brain going. Add that extra cup to the smaller-than-average bladder in her smaller-than-average body, and you ended up with a doctor running to the can, too rushed to even log out, rather than sitting at her desk. And that's where she had been when the killing gas filtered through the vents into the lab. Barnaby had been exactly where he was supposed to be.
His screams had been his final gift to her, his last warning.
They both had been sure that when the blow came, it wouldn't happen at the lab. Messy that way. Dead bodies usually raised a few eyebrows, and smart murderers tried to keep that kind of evidence as far removed from themselves as possible. They didn't strike when the victim was in their own living room.
She should have known never to underestimate the arrogance of the people who wanted her dead. They didn't worry about the law. They were too cozy with the people who made those laws. She also should have respected the power of pure stupidity to take a smart person completely by surprise.
The next three times had been more straightforward. Professional contractors, she assumed, given that they'd each worked alone. Only men so far, though a woman was always a possibility in the future. One man had tried to shoot her, one to stab her, and one to brain her with a crowbar. None of these tries had been effective because the violence had happened to pillows. And then her assailants had died.
The invisible but very caustic gas had silently flooded the small room—it took about two and a half seconds once the connection between the wires was broken. After that, the assassin was left with a life expectancy of approximately five seconds, depending on his height and weight. It would not have been a pleasant five seconds.
Her bathtub mixture was not the same thing they'd used for Barnaby, but it was close enough. It was the simplest way she knew to kill someone so swiftly and so painfully. And it was a renewable resource, unlike many of her weapons. All she needed was a good stock of peaches and a pool-supply store. Nothing that required restricted access or even a mailing address, nothing that her pursuers could track.
It really pissed her off that they'd managed to find her again.
She'd been furious since waking yesterday and had only gotten angrier as the hours passed while she made her preparations.
She had forced herself to nap and then drove all the next night in a suitable car, rented using a very weak ID for one Taylor Golding and a recently obtained credit card in the same name. Early this morning, she'd arrived in the city she least wanted to be in, and that had turned her anger up to the next level. She'd returned the car to a Hertz near Ronald Reagan National Airport, then walked across the street to another company and rented a new one with District of Columbia plates.
Praise for The Chemist:
"This espionage action story will no doubt tighten Meyer's grip on her devoted readers. Its main character is much like Jason Bourne, to whom the novel is dedicated affectionately.... Meyer knows how to control dramatic tension as skillfully as any of the Bourne movies. The pages turn themselves."—Keith Donohue, Washington Post
- "Engrossing.... A terrific ride.... The Chemist is consistently fast-paced fun, especially the way that Alex's scientific genius gives her an array of potions-she's small, but you don't want to get within swiping distance of the rings on her fingers-that verge on the magical."—Charles Finch, USA Today
- "Fans will likely tear through The Chemist, just as they did with the Twilight novels and with The Host.... Our heroine is very good at staying alive.... The book hit on an appealing theme. Chris is an expert in her field, one that happens to be male dominated. Her peers are out to get her. She has to watch her back constantly.... With so many popular novels out there featuring unreliable female narrators stuck in various suburbs, it was nice to read about a woman who gets out and has a lot to do."—Meredith Goldstein, Boston Globe
"[Meyer has] an unusual ability to turn genres inside out. The characters in the novel are motivated by love of family rather than by duty to country or abstractions like saving the world. Love gives the adventure meaning, rather than just being a subplot off to the side. Spy fans can be assured that in most respects, The Chemist functions in much the same way as a Bourne or Bond story, complete with mounting body count, cool explosions, stakeouts and betrayals. But changing the proportion of gender in the genre gives the concoction a renewed, and welcome, rush."
—Noah Berlatsky, Los Angeles Times
- "A tale of skulduggery, bodice rippery, and shoot-'em-up action unfolds, complete with help from a luscious mistress of disguise who could have stepped right out of a James Bond novel. Rated B for badass."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The Twilight mogul moves from blood-sucker romance to heart-stopping drama with a thriller about a kick-ass scientist and ex-government agent on the run."—Angela Ledgerwood, Cosmopolitan
- "Here, an exciting heroine (see: female Jason Bourne) knows too much, is a threat, and has one last chance to clear her name."—Steph Opitz, Marie Claire
- "It's nice to see a heroine whose greatest asset is her brain, one who can fell brawny hitmen with tiny syringes and weaponized jewelry. Meyer is still a skilled pace-setter, and The Chemist's 518-pages fly by."—Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly
"Twilight fans will find another romantic couple to root for, plus the most supernaturally intelligent guard since Rin Tin Tin."
"[A] gripping page-turner."
—Ali Ehrlich, Good Morning America
- On Sale
- Nov 8, 2016
- Hachette Audio