The Follower is the breathtaking new thriller by Koethi Zan, bestselling author of Richard and Judy book club pick The Never List. Perfect for fans of Clare Mackintosh, Paula Hawkins and Sharon Bolton, it’s a hugely creepy read about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim.
Julie has the perfect life – a kind boyfriend, loving parents and good grades. She has everything ahead of her. Cora’s life is a nightmare – she has a psychopath for a husband, a violent father and a terrible secret. There’s no way out.
But one night, their worlds collide. Locked in an isolated house together, they must work out what has happened – and who they can trust to set them free.
Read on for an extract from The Follower!
Julie Brookman’s life was absolutely fucking perfect. She turned the rearview mirror of her brother’s car toward her face and wiped a stray smudge of mascara from the corner of her eye. Admiring her long reddish-gold hair, she smiled at herself the way she knew made her green eyes sparkle.
She’d finished her paper on the transcendental poets four days early and would turn it in to her professor in the morning. Professor Greenfield was her favorite. She may have even had a slight crush on him, but that had nothing to do with it. Julie always did things ahead of schedule, always made sure her work was better than anyone else’s.
For this paper, she’d stayed up at her parents’ place in Westchester because she believed she wrote best in her childhood bedroom. Routine was crucial to success. That was one of her maxims. She’d decided to take the late train back, and give her essay a final proofread first thing in the morning before hitting send.
Ryan pulled into the station parking lot.
‘Okay, kiddo,’ Julie said, turning to the backseat to grab her computer bag. ‘This will be just fine.’
‘I can wait with you,’ he said, but only after a conspicuous hesitation.
Julie took out her phone.
‘We got here early. It would be silly for you to stay. I got it.’ She nodded toward the train station. ‘Look, Kurt’s in there. You go meet Janie.’
He looked at her uncertainly, but it was obvious he wanted to go.
‘Come on. It’s totally fine.’ She rubbed her hand over his hair, so long it would have hidden his eyes but for the natural upward sweep it took at the ends. He was adorable. ‘You’ve got good cover now. Mom won’t even ask where you’ve been. Get your precious time in before they ground you again.’
Ryan rolled his eyes.
‘Listen –’ he paused, still looking unsure – ‘just wait inside, okay?’
Julie nodded as she slung the strap of her bag over her shoulder and pulled twice on the tiny silver heart medallion hanging from the clasp. Her good-luck charm.
‘Yep. Me and Kurt, best buds.’
Julie got out of the car and peered through the window into the station. Kurt’s outline was just visible as he stood behind the counter going through the receipts. She knew he’d be there until one a.m. She’d taken this late train a hundred times.
She glanced back as Ryan was pulling his car onto the road, his tires spinning out in the gravel at the edge of the turn. She waved half-heartedly but knew he wouldn’t even look back. Kids today. She smiled.
It was a beautiful late-September night. The air was still warm. The stars, such as they were this close to the city, shone with full force. She took out a pack of cigarettes and knocked it against the post of the wooden porch that encircled the building. Instead of going in, she sat on the bench just under the windows, lit a cigarette, and took a long slow drag. Her parents disapproved of the habit and she agreed with them technically, but, this, her first cigarette in two days, was going down beautifully.
She blew out a long puff of smoke and absentmindedly rubbed the zipper of her bag. This paper was better than anything she’d done last year. She wondered if she should submit it for publication. Professor Greenfield would know the best places for it. Even if she didn’t publish it, this was one more step toward the J. Burden Senior English Award next year.
She stood up and walked over to the steps that led to the tracks, took a final hit on the cigarette, and dropped it on the sidewalk. She rubbed it out with her shoe and then lifted her foot to check underneath. She had this thing about cigarette stubs. Bad luck if they stuck to you. But her sole was clean. She laughed to herself. Yes, she thought, her soul was clean.
She took out her phone, checked the time. Twelve minutes until the train would arrive. She opened Instagram, scrolled through some posts, liked a couple. Boring. She checked the New York Times. Sent a text to Mark. Luv u.
She waited. He didn’t text back. Must not have his phone on him. She watched for a couple more seconds waiting for the dots to appear. Nothing.
Should she read on the train or try to doze off? It was always a gamble as to whether she could sleep on the Metro North seats. She was so sensitive to smells and that horrid faux leather stuck to her skin whenever she moved. She could always read that New Yorker article she’d emailed herself.
Suddenly, the lights inside dimmed. She turned around, puzzled. Was Kurt leaving early? She leaned in toward the glass, but the interior office door was closed. She walked over to the side door and pulled hard but it was stuck fast. Locked. He’d gone home. She would have expected him to have said goodnight before he left or even to have waited with her. Unless he hadn’t noticed her out there. She glanced at the parking-lot exit, and, sure enough, a car was turning out onto the road. But why would he leave now? Did they change the train schedules?
Damn it. This had happened to her once before. She took a step toward the board to check the timetable, but suddenly felt the eerie sensation that she was not alone.
She turned to see who it was, but before she’d gone full circle, a leather-gloved hand smothered her face and forced her head back.
All she thought of at first was the pain.
That fucking hurts.
She was too disoriented to understand what was happening until he was dragging her by her head and neck across the parking lot. Her feet struggled to keep up, to stay planted on the ground; otherwise the arm squeezing her throat would strangle her.
She couldn’t breathe. Her mind buzzed with confusion. She had to get some air into her lungs right now.
Her assailant loosened his grip slightly, just in time. She gasped at the air in great gulps while trying to get her bearings as her eyes darted around for an escape route. In a split second, she took it all in. They were in the parking lot on the far side of the station, not a soul in sight. Headlights flashed by from the highway through the trees – too far away to make a difference.
Then suddenly her body was airborne. She landed – hard – in the back of a semi-truck trailer. It knocked the wind out of her. She tried to scream, but nothing came out. A metal roll-up door slammed down behind her, cutting her off from the world. It clanked shut. The locks turned and the engine roared to a start.
As it did, her voice returned and she yelled with all her might. At first only a foreign, guttural sound she’d never heard before, didn’t even know she could make. Then the useless words came.
‘What the fuck is this? Let me out!’
She scrambled her way along the empty, cold floor of the trailer. The truck lurched and she flew sideways, slamming into the sidewall, which was covered in thick Styrofoam padding. She clawed at it with her fingernails. Little bits came off in her hands and stuck to her fingers.
‘What is this shit?’
She wiped them off on her jeans and dropped down, crawling her way in the pitch black to the end of the container, searching for a handle.
She finally found one on the far right edge and struggled with it, pulling with all her strength. The door creaked loudly but went up only half an inch. Through that tiny crevice she could see the road passing swiftly beneath her in the moonlight. They were going fast, but not fast enough to draw anyone else’s attention.
Julie let go and the door latched shut again. She beat her fists on it.
‘Help me, please. I’m in here! I’m in here,’ she screamed until her throat went raw, but she could tell from the way the sound refused to bounce that the foam was doing its job. She stepped away from the door, balancing with one hand on the sidewall as the truck bumped along the road.
‘Okay, Julie, keep it together. Think.’
Except she couldn’t think. Her mind flew from one thought to another, none of them helpful.
‘This is not happening. This is not happening,’ she moaned as she felt around in the vast emptiness of the space, trying to focus, trying to get a grip. She patted herself up and down searching for anything that might help.
Her phone must have gone flying when he grabbed her. They’d find that tomorrow. At least that would raise an alarm.
Her computer bag. Gone. She didn’t remember losing it in the struggle, but he must have ripped it off her shoulder. The thought of her paper flitted across her mind.
‘Come on, that’s the least of your problems,’ she muttered, rubbing her face with her hands in frustration.
She thrust her hands into her jacket pockets looking for something – anything – to use as a weapon. She pulled out a gel pen. It wasn’t much, but she could go for the eyes or the groin. All the soft spots she knew were vulnerable. She wouldn’t go down easy.
She crouched in the corner, clutching her pen, her heart pounding in her chest. She was as ready as she could be, but her breathing was too loud in her ears. It was impossible to concentrate. Impossible to keep the panic from taking over.
It was a long time before anything else happened. Hours sitting in that truck, imagining every possible scenario that could occur when that door was raised up. Hours trying to focus her jumbled thoughts, to sort out the shock from the anger and fear, to force herself to accept that she had to face this horror utterly alone.
‘I want my mommy,’ she whimpered to herself. ‘I want Mark. I want to go back in time and make Ryan wait with me. I’m such an idiot. No, I can’t think like that. No crying.
‘Come on, Julie. Come on. No one will realize you’re missing until tomorrow and tomorrow might be too late. You have to get out of here as soon as he stops. Come on, you can do it, buck the fuck up.’
Then without warning, her body was thrown again hard to one side. They were turning. It must have been a tight one because the truck struggled to make it, lurching back and forth as the driver changed gears to get it up the hill. Eventually it reached level ground and then slowed to a stop.
Julie stood up and ran her hands along the side of the trailer until she reached the end. She hugged the right wall, hoping he wouldn’t see her at first and she could jump out, get past him, and make a break for it.
As he hoisted the door open, she saw his form in shadow, a bright light shining from behind as his outline was revealed to her inch by horrible inch. His face was familiar, but she had no time to puzzle it out. She screwed up her courage, hunched over, and launched herself out of the truck bed.
She bolted sideways, determined to slip around the side of the truck and back down that hill. He’d anticipated that, of course, and he was fast. She never had a chance.
He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her around to face him. Her eyes met his – his squinting, terrifying pale eyes, full of suppressed rage. She went for them, jabbing at his face with her pen but he pried it effortlessly from her hand. She tried to twist out of his grip, to kick him in the groin. He shook her so hard her feet came off the ground and her head whipped back and forth.
He pushed a pistol to her face.
She froze, staring at the barrel, at his hands clutching it.
‘Please,’ was all she could muster up to say.
She’d never seen one this close up, didn’t even know anyone who owned a gun. She stood there, in the cold, in the dark, shivering with fear and blinking back tears. Her mind had gone entirely blank when she saw that hunk of metal. No one had ever prepared her for this.
‘Please let me go. I know it was just a mistake. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll tell them I ran away. I swear I won’t tell them if you’ll just let me go right now.’
He didn’t even appear to register her words.
Then she heard a door slam and turned toward the sound. Her heart leapt, though she could hardly believe what she saw. For there, just a few hundred yards away, was a farmhouse all lit up. A plump, middle-aged woman headed straight toward them. She looked like someone’s favorite aunt, wearing a loose-fitting housedress, her wispy brown hair pinned up messily.
It was surreal, unfathomable, yet there she was, walking across the moonlit yard filled with scrubby brush, past an overturned wheelbarrow and a clothesline where shirts twisted precariously in the wind, the cuffs of the sleeves nearly touching the ground.
Julie thought at first it was a hallucination, but no, she was real. Hope welled up in her. It’s so hard to kill hope.
Her abductor still had her by the arm, with the nose of the gun now pushed into her back, but she took a chance that he wouldn’t kill her in front of a witness.
‘Help me! This man kidnapped me. Call the police. Run! He’s dangerous. He has a gun!’
In that moment she felt a rush of relief. Help was here. Maybe there were even others inside who had heard her scream.
But the woman didn’t react. She just walked toward them, calm and unhurried.
‘Do you hear me? This man abducted me! I need help!’
Everything began to unfold in slow motion. The woman’s lips were pressed tightly together, her eyes fixed steadily on Julie’s captor. There could be no mistaking the situation. She had to get it. But her expression wasn’t right.
If anything, the woman’s eyes glistened with a kind of adoration. She ignored Julie, who stood there frozen. Julie realized at that moment that this woman was not appalled or outraged or terrified. She wouldn’t be her savior, delivering her from evil.
No, she wouldn’t help her.
She was in on it.
The basement of the Stillwater public library was always deserted and that suited Adam just fine. He’d been down there for three hours already and hadn’t seen a single person except the assistant librarian who checked on him religiously every forty-five minutes. She pretended, without much success, that she had some administrative task involving the abandoned card catalogue shoved over in the corner. He must have looked suspicious, but he didn’t owe her an explanation.
Adam turned the knob on the microfilm machine, watching the front pages of the Stillwater Herald spin past him. He wondered if the time would come when even these documents would be online and he’d be able do this work from the sanctity of an impersonal hotel room. He doubted it would ever happen for these stories. Not these leftover bits of history, important to no one. Forgotten tragedies, blips in time. Not worth uploading.
‘Finding everything okay?’
‘Fine, just fine.’ The screen was too big to cover with his hands. It sat there in front of them, the words blown up to twenty-four point. She leaned toward it, squinting despite her bright bluerimmed glasses.
‘Oh, the Fairmont Street murders. Wow, haven’t thought about that in a long time.’
Adam flipped the knob to change the page. It landed on a Sears advertisement for riding lawnmowers.
She glanced down at the small white boxes he’d pulled from the drawers.
‘You’re looking at the wrong years though.’
‘I know. I’ve read all the original reports a thousand times over. Trust me. Now I’m looking for follow-up stories. Thought maybe there’d be an anniversary piece. You know –’ he picked up one box – ‘ten years later.’ Then the other – ‘Twenty.’ He noticed for the first time that she was kind of pretty. She was about his age, late twenties, and her long hair was a little darker brown than his.
‘Writing a book?’
‘Nope. Investigating.’ He couldn’t help but say it with a hint of pride.
She sat down next to him, clearly intrigued, and rolled her chair close to his.
‘You don’t look like a cop. You look more like the bad guys.’ She winked. Was she flirting with him?
‘I do a lot of undercover.’ Used to, anyway.
‘As what? A grad student? Look at you, jeans, hoodie, what is that, four-day stubble? You don’t look like you’ve slept in days.’ Definitely flirting. Adam suddenly felt uncomfortable. He’d been so focused on this case for so long that he’d forgotten what normal human contact was like.
‘You’ve been here every day this week. Working hard, I guess?’
He glanced up at her. So she had been checking up on him.
She blushed. ‘Not a lot of people our age in here. You stand out.’
‘Are you from Stillwater?’ he asked, mostly to break the awkward silence.
‘Born and raised.’ She didn’t seem too thrilled by the fact.
‘Maybe you can help me out then. I could use some local insight. You know, where do the kids hang out – that sort of thing.’
‘Sure, I’d love to.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Actually, Tuesday nights we close early. You wouldn’t want to grab a bite to eat later, would you? Savoy isn’t half bad. It’s just a few doors down. I could give you the rundown over dinner.’
He glanced back at the microfilm machine, thinking of all those articles he’d yet to search, then looked over at her shiny red lips curled up into a half-smile. He was tempted to go, he had to admit.
But that’s what a lesser man would do. Someone without a mission. It might not seem like it, but he knew he was getting closer. He felt it. He couldn’t stop now, not even for a minute.
‘Maybe next week?’ He started gathering up the pages he’d printed out. ‘I’m close to a breakthrough and I’ll probably have to work all night tonight.’ Just like most nights.
‘All night, huh? Your dedication is admirable. It must be awfully important.’ She pointed to the boxes. ‘Do you think it’s a serial killer? That always happens, right? Like, the guy was in jail for twenty years and then when he gets out the same kind of murders start happening again.’ She shivered, playing it up. ‘There’s not a serial killer around here, is there? If that’s the case, you should definitely walk me home.’ She grinned.
‘I think you’re probably pretty safe.’ He smiled back. ‘Really though, I have to get through this.’ He pointed to the stack of papers. ‘I’ve been working on this for a long time and I finally have a lead.’
‘Does that mean you’ll be here in Stillwater for a while?’
‘Maybe. I’m searching for a man and a woman who passed through this town twenty years ago. That’s going to take some digging. I don’t know where they went from here. Disappeared without a trace.’
‘Oh, you’ll find them. People don’t really disappear without a trace. You should know that, officer. Humans leave their marks on things. You just have to look . . .’ She rolled her chair toward him until their knees were touching. He could smell her floral scent. ‘Really. Close. Up.’
He pulled back. Now he was the one blushing.
‘Bye for now,’ she said, standing up. ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow. And be sure to put that microfilm in the return tray, will you? The yellow one, by the copier.’ She smiled.
Slightly dazed, he watched her sashay away from him, thinking only, ‘She’s right. I just have to look harder.’
Cora hauled a black garbage bag out of the pantry and went back to the kitchen. One by one, she withdrew the contents and carefully placed each item on the rickety wooden table. James had done well to collect her belongings.
There they were: the tiny black T-shirt and dark skinny jeans, the light brown leather jacket, size two, brand new hi-top sneakers, size seven and a half. Cora didn’t bother folding anything, but she paused to stroke the smooth leather on top of the pile.
She dug around in the bottom of the bag again, fished out a smashed iPhone, and laid it next to the clothes, then took out a heavy black case and balanced it on its edge as she unzipped it. Hanging from a metal beaded chain was a silver medallion in the shape of a heart. She unclasped it and slipped it into her pocket. There couldn’t be any harm in keeping such a small thing.
She lifted the slim computer out of its snug padded compartment. She’d never held such a beautiful object. What must it have cost? Rubbing her flattened palm across its cold surface, she imagined that it belonged to her and felt the envy flare up inside. She must keep her mind clean as James had taught her, must focus on her duty. Yes, she must take heart, be strong and purposeful. She would reap her rewards.
She flipped it open and ran her fingers across the keyboard. Even this had to go. It was part of the plan.
Under the front flap of the computer case was a shimmering pink wallet, jammed with credit cards and worn receipts. Cora unsnapped it, pulled the cash out of the fold, and counted. Nearly thirty dollars. She tucked the bills into her dress pocket. Perhaps James hadn’t bothered to check it. She’d store it in her cash box until he asked for it and maybe he never would. He didn’t understand the household expenses.
She sighed again, more deeply this time, and lined up the girl’s effects in a neat row, her fingers tickling over each one. From the drawer by the sink, she withdrew her latex gloves, slid them on, and took out a clean towel to wipe everything down.
When she had finished, she opened the garbage bag and threw everything back in, then lugged it out into the yard behind the barn. The skies were mostly blue, but storm clouds were brewing off to the west. She’d better get this job done before the rain came. Leaning the bag against the wall, she built a fire in the pit a few feet away and soon enough had it roaring.
She took the computer out, set it on the ground, and went to the barn for her safety goggles and a sledgehammer.
It would be good to obliterate this thing she so coveted. Coveting was evil.
The fire grew hot behind her, flickering and spitting out sparks. The wind picked up. She raised the hammer, preparing to throw her whole weight into it, to dash this object of temptation into a thousand pieces and then burn them in the pit with all the rest.
But something stopped her.
She didn’t want to do it.
She took a deep breath. There was no choice, obviously. James had been very clear in his instructions, and there would be hell to pay if she didn’t heed them.
Why was she plagued with these urges to disobey? They were going to get her in trouble.
She put down the sledgehammer and paced a few feet away, glancing over at the boarded-up window of the house. She hated the way it marred the building, like an eye poked out. She bit her lip absentmindedly as she thought hard about what to do.
Walking back to the hammer, she lifted it up a second time. It felt heavier than before.
She swallowed. Then, without thinking – as if her body were not under her complete control – she flung the tool away. It clanged against the side of the tractor, the sound echoing across the valley.
She rushed over to check the damage, terrified that she’d broken something else, but it had only made a tiny dent. James wouldn’t notice such a thing.
She let out her breath with relief.
Everything was fine. It was all fine.
She glanced around as if someone could be watching her, ready to report to James. Moving fast, she shoved the computer back into the garbage bag and bunched up its edges in her hand. Running full tilt, she flung open the kitchen door and flew up the stairs to her bedroom. On her knees in the closet, she pushed aside a heavy clump of camphor-smelling dresses and shoved the bag all the way to the back.
James would never look there.
She sat down on the bed, panting, and slowly lifted her eyes to her reflection in the mirror above the bureau. She was flushed, shocked by what she’d done. She’d never disobeyed him so directly before.
But she had to have these things, these treasures from a different world. She knew it was a sin to keep them, but it seemed so insignificant. As long as no one ever found them.
Especially not James.