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“CRACKLES WITH SUSPENSE.”A. J. FINN, AUTHOR OF THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
When five female office workers are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path. After all, this retreat is all about taking them out of their comfort zone. It’s supposed to be a bonding experienceone designed to build trust. But it doesn’t work out that way. One of the women never comes out of the woods. And each of her colleagues tells a slightly different story about what happened.
Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest caseand, without her, there’s no way he can win it. Now, in an investigation that takes him deep into isolated bushland, Falk discovers dark secrets lurking in the forest and a tangled web of loyalty, betrayal, and suspicion among the hikers. Still, a question remains: Is Falk on a search-and-rescue missionor is this a case of murder?
“COMPELLING…INTENSE PLOTTING.”ASSOCIATED PRESS
“EXCEPTIONAL.”THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
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Federal Agent Aaron Falk, who until that moment had had no plans to do so, closed the book he'd been reading. He swapped his mobile phone to his good hand and sat up straighter in bed.
"Alice Russell is missing." The woman on the other end said the name quietly. "Apparently."
"Missing how?" Falk put his book aside.
"Legitimately. Not just ignoring our calls this time."
Falk heard his partner sigh down the line. Carmen Cooper sounded more stressed than he'd heard her in the three months they'd been working together, and that was saying a lot.
"She's lost in the Giralang Ranges somewhere," Carmen went on.
"Yeah, out in the east?"
"No, I know where it is," he said. "I was thinking more of the reputation."
"The Martin Kovac stuff? It doesn't sound anything like that, thank God."
"You'd hope not. That'd have to be twenty years ago now, wouldn't it?"
"Going on for twenty-five, I think."
Some things would always linger, though. Falk had been barely a teenager when the Giralang Ranges had dominated the evening news for the first time. Then three more times over the next two years. Each time, images of search teams tramping through overgrown bushland with sniffer dogs straining at their leads had been projected into living rooms around the state. They'd found most of the bodies, eventually.
"What was she doing all the way out there?" he asked.
"Are you joking?"
"Unfortunately not," Carmen said. "Turn on the TV; it's on the news. They've called out a search crew."
"Hang on." Falk climbed out of bed and pulled on a T-shirt above his boxers. The night air was chilly. He padded through to his living room and turned to a twenty-four-hour news channel. The anchor was talking about the day in parliament.
"It's nothing. Just work. Go back to sleep," Falk heard Carmen murmur in his ear, and realized she was talking to someone at the other end. He'd automatically pictured her in their shared office, squeezed behind the desk that had been shoehorned in next to his twelve weeks earlier. They'd been working closely since, quite literally. When Carmen stretched, her feet knocked his chair legs. Falk checked the clock. It was after 10:00 P.M. on a Sunday night; of course she would be at home.
"See it yet?" Carmen said to him, whispering now for the benefit of whoever she was with. Her fiancé, Falk assumed.
"Not yet." Falk didn't need to lower his own voice. "Wait —" The ticker tape scrolled across the screen. "Here it is."
SEARCH TO RESUME AT DAWN IN GIRALANG RANGES FOR LOST MELBOURNE HIKER ALICE RUSSELL, 45.
"Melbourne hiker?" Falk asked.
"Since when has Alice —" He stopped. He was picturing Alice's shoes. High. Pointy.
"I know. The bulletin said it was some sort of team-building exercise. She was part of a group sent out for a few days and —"
"A few days? How long has she actually been missing?"
"I'm not sure. I think since last night."
"She called me," Falk said.
There was a silence at the other end of the line. "Who did? Alice?"
"Last night." Falk pulled his cell phone away and scrolled through his missed calls. He put it back to his ear. "You still there? Early this morning, actually, around four thirty. I didn't hear it. Only saw the voice mail when I woke up."
Another silence. "What did she say?"
"There was no one there. I thought it was a pocket dial."
The TV bulletin put up a recent picture of Alice Russell. It looked like it had been taken at a party. Her blond hair had been pinned in a complicated style, and she was wearing a silvery dress that showed off the hours she spent in the gym. She looked a good five years younger than her true age, maybe more. And she was smiling at the camera in a way she never had for Falk and Carmen.
"I tried to call her back when I woke up; probably around six thirty," Falk said, still watching the screen. "It rang out."
The TV cut to an aerial shot of the Giralang Ranges. Hills and valleys rolled out to the horizon, a rippling green ocean under the weak winter light.
SEARCH TO RESUME AT DAWN ...
Carmen was quiet. Falk could hear her breathing. On screen, the ranges looked big. Enormous, in fact. The thick carpet of treetops appeared completely impenetrable from the camera's vantage point.
"Let me listen to the message again," he said. "I'll call you back."
"Okay." The line went dead.
Falk sat on his couch in the semi-dark, the blue light of the TV screen flickering. He hadn't drawn his curtains, and beyond the small balcony he could see the glow of the Melbourne skyline. The warning light on top of the Eureka Tower flashed, regular and red.
SEARCH TO RESUME AT DAWN IN GIRALANG ...
He turned down the TV and dialed his voice mail. Call received at 4:26 A.M. from Alice Russell's cell phone.
At first Falk could hear nothing, and he pressed his phone harder against his ear. Muffled static for five seconds. Ten. He kept listening, right to the end this time. The white noise lurched in waves; it sounded like being underwater. There was a muted hum that might have been someone talking. Then, out of nowhere, a voice broke through. Falk jerked the phone away from his ear and stared at it. The voice had been so faint he wondered if he'd imagined it.
Slowly, he tapped the screen. He closed his eyes in his quiet flat and played the message one more time. Nothing, nothing, and then, in the darkness, a faraway voice spoke two words in his ear.
"— hurt her ..."
Dawn hadn't yet broken when Carmen pulled up outside Falk's flat. He was already waiting on the pavement, his backpack on the ground. His hiking boots felt stiff from lack of use.
"Let's hear the message," she said as he climbed in. She had the driver's seat pushed back. Carmen was one of the few women Falk had met who was tall enough to look him in the eye when they stood face-to-face.
Falk put his phone on speaker and pressed a button. Static filled the car. Five, ten seconds of nothing, then the two words emerged, tinny and thin. A few more muffled seconds, and the call cut out.
Carmen frowned. "Once more."
She closed her eyes, and Falk watched her face as she listened. At thirty-eight, Carmen outranked him by only six months both in age and experience, but it was the first time their paths in the Federal Police had crossed. She was new to the financial investigation unit in Melbourne, having moved down from Sydney. Falk couldn't work out if she regretted it. Carmen opened her eyes. Under the orange glow of the streetlight, her skin and hair both looked a shade darker than usual.
"'Hurt her,'" she said.
"That's what it sounds like to me."
"Could you hear something else right at the end?"
Falk turned up the volume to the maximum and hit Replay. He found himself holding his breath as he strained to hear.
"There," Carmen said. "Is that someone saying Alice?"
They listened once more, and this time Falk caught the faint inflection in the muffled noise, a sibilant hiss.
"I don't know," he said. "It might be static."
Carmen started the engine. It roared loudly in the predawn. She pulled away and onto the road before she spoke again.
"How confident do you feel that that's Alice's voice?"
Falk tried to recall the timbre of Alice Russell's tone. Her voice was fairly distinctive. It was often clipped. Always decisive. "There's nothing to say that it's not her. But it's hard to hear."
"Very hard. I'm not sure I could even swear that was a woman."
In the side mirror, the Melbourne skyline was growing smaller. Ahead, in the east, the sky was turning from black to navy.
"I know Alice is a pain in the arse," he said. "But I really hope we haven't landed her in the shit."
"Me too." Carmen's engagement ring caught the light as she turned the wheel to join the highway. "What did the state cop have to say? What was his name?"
Falk had hung up from Alice Russell's voice mail the previous night and immediately dialed the state police. It had been half an hour before the senior sergeant leading the search had called back.
"Sorry." Senior Sergeant King had sounded tired. "Had to get myself to a landline. The weather's stuffing up the reception worse than usual. Tell me about this voice mail."
He'd listened patiently while Falk spoke.
"Right," King said when he'd finished. "Look, we've run a check on her phone records."
"What did you say your relationship was with her?"
"Professional," Falk said. "Confidential. She was helping me and my partner with something."
"And what's his name?"
"Her. Carmen Cooper."
Falk could hear the rustle of paper as the man wrote it down.
"Were either of you expecting her to call?"
Falk hesitated. "Not specifically."
"Are you particularly skilled at bushcraft?"
Falk had looked down at his left hand. The skin was still pink and strangely smooth in patches where the burns hadn't healed quite as well. "No."
"Is your partner?"
"I don't think so." Falk realized he didn't really know.
There was a pause. "According to the phone company, early this morning Alice Russell attempted to get through to two numbers," King said. "Triple zero emergency line and you. Can you think of a reason why that would be?"
It was Falk's turn to pause. He could hear the sergeant breathing down the phone.
"I think we'd better come up there," Falk said. "Speak in person."
"I think that'd be a wise move, mate. Bring your phone."
DAY 4: SUNDAY MORNING
The woman could see her own fear reflected in the three faces staring back at her. Her heartbeat thumped, and she could hear the others' rapid breathing. Overhead, the pocket of sky carved out by the trees was a dull gray. The wind shook the branches, sending a shower of water down on the group below. No one flinched. Behind them, the rotten wood of the cabin groaned and settled.
"We have to get out of here. Now," the woman said.
The pair on her left nodded immediately, united for once by their panic, their eyes wide and dark. On her right, the briefest hesitation, then a third nod.
"What about —"
"What about what?"
"What about Alice?"
An awful hush. The only sound was the creak and rustle as the trees watched down over their tight circle of four.
"Alice brought this on herself."
When Falk and Carmen stopped after a couple of hours, the sky was fully light and the city lay far behind them. They stood by the side of the road and stretched as the clouds threw shifting shadows across the paddocks. The houses and buildings were few and far between. A truck carrying farming supplies roared past, the first vehicle they had seen for thirty kilometers. The noise startled a flock of galahs, sending them scattering from a nearby tree, flapping and screaming.
"Let's keep moving," Falk said. He took the keys from Carmen and climbed behind the wheel of her battered maroon sedan. He started the engine. It felt instantly familiar.
"I used to have a car like this."
"But you had the sense to get rid of it?" Carmen settled into the passenger's seat.
"Not by choice. It got damaged earlier this year, back in my hometown. A welcome-home gesture from a couple of the locals."
She glanced over, a tiny smile. "Oh, yeah. I heard about that. Damaged is one way to put it, I suppose."
Falk ran his hand over the steering wheel with a pang of regret. His new car was okay, but it wasn't the same.
"This is Jamie's car, anyway," Carmen said as he pulled away. "Better for longer distances than mine."
"Right. How is Jamie?"
"Fine. Same as usual."
Falk didn't really know what the usual was. He had met Carmen's fiancé only once. A muscular guy in jeans and a T-shirt, Jamie worked in marketing for a sports nutrition drink company. He'd shaken Falk's hand and given him a bottle of something blue and fizzy that promised to enhance his performance. The man's smile seemed genuine, but there was a touch of something else in it as he took in Falk's tall thin frame, his pale skin, his white-blond hair, and his burned hand. If Falk had had to guess, he'd have said it was mild relief.
Falk's cell phone beeped from the center console. He took his eyes off the empty road to glance at the screen and handed it to Carmen. "That sergeant's sent an email through."
Carmen opened the message. "All right, he says there were two groups on the retreat. One men's group, one women's, both doing separate routes. He's sent the names of the women in Alice Russell's party."
"Both groups from BaileyTennants?"
"Looks like it." Carmen took out her own phone and opened the BaileyTennants website. Falk could see the boutique accountancy firm's black-and-silver lettering on the screen out of the corner of his eye.
"Okay. Breanna McKenzie and Bethany McKenzie," she read out loud from his phone. "Breanna is Alice's assistant, isn't she?" Carmen tapped her screen. "Yep, here she is. God, she looks like she could advertise vitamins."
She held out her phone, and Falk glanced at the beaming staff headshot of a girl in her midtwenties. He could see what Carmen meant. Even in unflattering office light, Breanna McKenzie had the healthy glow of someone who jogged each morning, practiced yoga with intent, and deep-conditioned her glossy black ponytail religiously every Sunday.
Carmen took her phone back and tapped. "Nothing's coming up about the other one. Bethany. Sisters, do you think?"
"Possibly." Perhaps twins, even, Falk thought. Breanna and Bethany. Bree 'n' Beth. He rolled the sounds over his tongue. They sounded like a pair.
"We can find out what the deal is with her," Carmen said. "Next is Lauren Shaw."
"We've come across her, haven't we?" Falk asked. "Middle management something?"
"Yeah, she's — Christ, that's right, strategic head of forward planning." Carmen held out her phone again. "Whatever that means."
Whatever it was, Lauren's thin face gave nothing away. It was hard to estimate her age, but Falk guessed mid- to late forties. Her hair was a medium shade of brown, and her light-gray eyes gazed straight into the camera, expression as neutral as a passport photo.
Carmen turned back to the list of names. "Huh."
"It says Jill Bailey was out there with them."
"Really?" Falk kept his eyes on the road, but the bead of worry that had been lodged in his chest since the previous night pulsed and grew.
Carmen didn't bother pulling up Jill's photo. They were both familiar with the chairwoman's heavyset features. She was turning fifty that year and, despite her expensive clothes and haircuts, looked every day of it.
"Jill Bailey," Carmen said, scrolling further through the sergeant's message. Her thumb stilled. "Shit. And her brother was in the men's group."
"Are you sure?"
"Yep, Daniel Bailey, chief executive. It's here in black and white."
"I don't like that at all," he said.
"No. I don't like any of it."
Carmen clicked her fingernails lightly on the phone as she thought. "All right. We don't know enough to form any conclusions," she said eventually. "That voice mail is completely without context. In every sense — realistically, statistically — it's most likely that Alice Russell has come off a trail by mistake and got lost."
"Yeah, that is most likely," Falk said. He thought neither of them sounded convinced.
They drove on, the radio stations dwindling to nothing as the scenery whipped by. Carmen fiddled with the knob until she found a crackly AM wavelength. The news on the hour faded in and out. The Melbourne hiker was still missing. The road gently swung to the north, and suddenly Falk could see the hills of the Giralang Ranges on the horizon.
"Have you ever been out here?" he said, and Carmen shook her head.
"No." He hadn't, but he had grown up in a place not unlike it. Isolated terrain, where trees grew thick and dense on land that was reluctant to let anything escape.
"The history around here puts me off," Carmen went on. "I know it's silly, but ..." She shrugged.
"Whatever happened to Martin Kovac in the end?" Falk asked. "Is he still locked up?"
"I'm not sure." Carmen tapped at her phone screen again. "No. He's dead. Died in jail three years ago, aged sixty-two. Actually, that rings a bell, now I think about it. He got into a fight with an inmate, hit his head on the ground, and didn't wake up again, it says here. It's hard to feel too sorry about that."
Falk agreed. The first body had been that of a twenty something-year-old trainee teacher from Melbourne, enjoying a weekend of fresh air in the ranges. A group of campers had found her, days too late. The zipper on her shorts had been wrenched apart, and her pack with hiking supplies was missing. She was barefoot, and her shoelaces were tight around her neck.
Excerpted from "Force of Nature"
Copyright © 2017 Jane Harper.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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