Today, as well as my review, I am delighted to bring you the first chapter of Last to Die by Arlene Hunt to celebrate its publication day! Many thanks to the publisher Bookouture for providing this extract.
An extract from Last to Die…
Jessie Conway fanned herself ineffectually with her hand and wished for the umpteenth time that the relentless heat would let up a little. She was thirty-eight years old, tall but evenly proportioned, with shoulder-length hair, the shade of which was the envy of every bottle red-headed woman in Rockville.
‘What can I do for you, Riley?’
‘It’s really hot. I’m really hot. It’s really hot today.’
‘Would you like me to open the window, Riley?’
‘Use your words please.’
‘Open the window.’
‘What else should you say?’
Riley scrunched his face, thinking. Jessie waited while he figured it out. Riley was fourteen and one of the smarter pupils in her class. Certainly, he had the potential to live some kind of productive life when he left school behind. Manners were crucial in this. Jessie hoped the universe treated him a little better in the future than it had thus far.
‘Very good, Riley.’
Jessie rose from her desk, crossed the room and grappled with the sash window. Despite being pretty strong, she could barely raise it an inch. This section of Rockville High was old and in need of care and attention. Something it rarely received.
‘That child is never happy unless he’s complaining about something,’ Tracy Flowers, her Teaching Assistant muttered, sliding in beside Jessie to help her wrestle with the window.
‘He’s right though, it is hot.’
‘Don’t see how this will help; it’s as hot out there as it is in here.’
Tracy was twenty-four years old. She had joined Rockville High the previous September and was without doubt the best Teaching Assistant Jessie had ever worked with. She liked to grumble, but she was tough, kind and, most importantly, she was scrupulously fair with the children. That day she was wearing a yellow sundress the colour of buttercups. Jessie thought it looked very pretty and would have liked to have said so, but Tracy did not take a compliment well and she did not enjoy people drawing attention to her.
Between them, they managed to force the window up by about a foot. Jessie leaned her hands on the ledge, savouring the slight breeze and the comforting drone of a lawnmower somewhere in the distance. It truly was a beautiful June day.
Only one more week until the holidays, she thought, smiling. She wondered if Mike, her husband, had called the realtor on the rental cabin like he had said he would that morning. Knowing Mike, he had probably forgotten. She decided she’d call him during recess to remind him.
As she turned back towards the class, Jessie caught a glimpse of a dark green Toyota cruising slowly along the ring road that encircled the campus. The windows were tinted and closed tight. Air conditioning, Jessie thought, something else the school board claimed they could not afford to repair. The car slowed, turned into the main parking lot normally reserved for staff and disappeared from view.
Jessie moved away from the window and went to help a sweet-natured girl named Martha Fisk stick glue to the card she was working on. Martha’s tongue jutted out to the side as she concentrated on her task. There was glitter just about everywhere.
‘This is very pretty, Martha.’
‘Who are you making this for, your mom?’
Martha shook her head.
‘Well it’s very—’
Jessie leaned over the child’s shoulder. Martha had glued six tinfoil stars to her card and one to the desk.
‘That’s okay Martha. We can peel it off. It’s okay. Look.’ Jessie lifted the star and wiped the tiny smudge of glue with her thumb. ‘See, all gone.’
Martha offered Jessie a painful, pathetic grin. Her gratitude broke Jessie’s heart. Martha was missing her front teeth. No one had ever received a satisfactory answer from her about what had happened to them, only that they had been gone a long time and she didn’t like talking about it. Questions put to Martha’s mother, the only time she had bothered to show up to a parent teacher meeting, had been met with a bored shrug. ‘Probably she banged ’em. You see how she is, that damn kid’s always fallin’ and floppin’ all over the place.’
‘What can I help you with, Austin?’
‘I need to go pee, Miss Conway.’
Jessie pointed to the big plastic clock hanging behind her desk.
‘See the big hand, Austin? Remember we talked about this? When that big hand reaches the number six you can go.’
‘I need to go real bad, Miss Conway.’
‘Tracy, would you show Austin to the bathroom?’
‘Sure. Come on, Austin.’
‘I don’t want her to go,’ Austin said, shrinking back from Tracy. ‘I don’t want her.’
Tracy’s expression remained neutral; she was used to this reaction, but Jessie felt a flash of anger and shame. Austin’s father disliked and mistrusted ‘coloreds’ and was more than happy to say so to anyone who might listen. He spent much of his limited time outside prison terrifying his youngest son with stories about what the ‘coloreds’ might like to do with soft, small-boned boys like Austin, should they get the chance.
‘Austin,’ Jessie said, ‘remember we spoke about this? You do not shout in class – if you shout in class you will lose your yard privileges.’
‘I heard you.’
‘Do you still want to go to the bathroom?’
Austin looked at her sulkily and shook his head. He bent to his work, pink with temper and Tracy went on about her business, stoical.
Jessie glanced at the clock again. She would be glad when this day was over. On paper, Jessie’s pupils were described as ‘marginalised’, which was nothing more than politically correct claptrap for ‘extremely messed up’. Most of the children in Jessie’s class were the product of appalling neglect, both mental and physical, and abuse, also both mental and physical. They were the children of alcoholics and drug-addicted parents, of parents who spent half their lives in jail, the rest of the time trying to spend their welfare on booze, weed and crystal meth. That was if they even had parents to speak of. Many of Jessie’s pupils were being reared by their grandparents; sad, tired, ill-equipped people whose hearts were in the right place, even if they did not have the wherewithal to help their grandchildren in ways other than to feed and house them.
Jessie lifted a pop-up picture book from under a desk and slotted it into what they romantically called ‘the library’, though it was little more than two shelves of tattered books bought and paid for by the profits from fundraisers and raffles. The bell finally rang. Her pupils collected their belongings and hustled their way to the door. Some said goodbye; most did not.
‘What a day,’ Tracy said, when the last child left. ‘I swear, I don’t think I can face another week of this.’
‘Nobody ever said Special Ed was easy,’ Jessie said, tying her dark red hair into a ponytail.
‘No, I guess they didn’t.’
Jessie rested her hand on Tracy’s shoulder. ‘You’re doing great.’
Tracy offered her a wry smile that said she thought differently. ‘I’m going to go get some strong coffee. You coming?’
‘Be with you in a few minutes. Save me a dessert if there is any. I think I heard talk of Key lime pie earlier.’
‘Aw man, how can you eat that stuff and never put on a single pound? If I even look at pie my hips expand.’
‘It’s a secret; if I told you I’d have to kill you.’
Tracy laughed and left.
Jessie wiped the board clean and began to write up the assignments for the next class. When she finished, she picked up her handbag and was about to exit the room when she heard popping sounds. They were loud and they were close.
Jessie opened the door and stepped out. Children milled about the hall, a number of them looked curious.
‘What’s going on?’ Jessie asked a heavily built boy she recognised from eight grade.
The freckle-faced girl with him looked scared. ‘Sounds to me like gunfire.’
‘Nah, no way,’ the boy said. ‘Probably a cherry bomb or some shit.’
Then the fire alarm went off, filling the halls with deafening wails.
‘Okay, okay,’ Jessie clapped her hands to get attention. ‘You know the drill. Everybody make their way outside to the basketball courts. No running, no shoving please. Nice and easy now. Use the nearest exit please.’
Jessie pushed her way through the children and followed the corridor until she reached the main foyer. Rockville High was a single-storey building, built around this double-height space, off which were four ‘wings’. To Jessie’s immediate left was the staff room and to her right the cafeteria. Children spilled into the space from three separate hallways. Some of them laughed and hooted, others seemed more anxious. There were a number of students by the lockers opposite the cafeteria doors, changing books and emptying contents into backpacks as though the alarms were not going off at all.
Jessie caught sight of Adam Edwards, the Vice-Principal, striding to the foyer from the B wing. He was trying to get people to make their way to the A Wing, pleading with them to remain calm and to move quickly but without running. Jessie was puzzled as to why he was not shepherding them towards the main doors. She turned her head and saw that there was a chain strung through both door handles, with a heavy padlock hanging from it. She immediately made her way towards the Vice-Principal.
‘What’s going on?’
‘I don’t know. I was in the science lab. Someone said there was shooting. When I got down here the front doors were chained.’ He leaned in closer and whispered, ‘So is the fire exit by the bike shed.’
‘Do you think this is real?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are all the doors locked?’
‘I don’t know. Principal Carmichael is checking the C Wing. I think we should get everyone outside.’
‘What can I do?’
‘You can help me get everyone outside and accounted for.’
She could see he was struggling to keep his voice calm. This alarmed her. Edwards was a tall man, good-natured but serious at the best of times and not one for panicking. More children were streaming in to the foyer. Jessie noticed the group she had spoken to outside her classroom.
‘I thought I told you to go outside,’ she said to the girl with the freckles.
‘The doors are locked. Someone locked them with a chain.’
Edwards raised his hands over his head.
‘Everyone, listen to me now. Stop pushing and slow down. Make your way to the rear emergency exit in a calm and orderly fashion. Come on now. I want everybody to move outside please. Everyone make their way to the basketball courts, nice and slowly. Miss Conway, can you make sure the cafeteria is empty?’
‘Sure.’ Jessie began to walk towards the cafeteria, but as she did, one of the swing doors opened and a tall youth she recognised as Kyle Saunders stepped out. He carried a semiautomatic weapon dangling from a long strap across his chest. Adam Edwards saw him; his eyes widened in surprise. He reacted fast. He grabbed the nearest child to him and shoved her towards a hallway.
Kyle Saunders raised the gun. His face was shiny and his lips were peeled back over his teeth. His eyes roamed over the teeming foyer.
‘Hey maggots! Yo! Maggots, remember me?’
‘Kyle—’ Edwards put out his hands out before him, chest high. ‘Put the gun down, Kyle. Put it down now. We can talk about this.’
Kyle stared at Edwards for a moment, smiling a weird smile. Jessie could see some doubt come into Edwards’ eyes.
‘Kyle, listen to me now—’
Kyle opened fire.
The first spray of bullets took out the glass bricks that ran the length of the wall above the lockers. Children ran screaming in every direction. Some fell and were trampled; others flattened themselves against walls, covering their heads with their hands as though this might save them. One or two stood and stared, rooted to the spot in disbelief.
The second burst of gunfire was lower. A piercing scream was cut short. A round hit Edwards directly in the chest, spinning him where he stood. He took a step and dropped to the floor.
Jessie stared at Alan Edwards’ body, her face frozen, unable to comprehend what had happened.
She took a step forward but blood was beginning to pool under him and his fingers were scrabbling for purchase on the tiled floor. Behind him, another boy lay twisted and broken, his backpack still on his shoulders.
Kyle Saunders threw back his head and whooped. He was still howling when Jessie Conway slammed into him at speed. The force of the impact sent Kyle crashing through the swing doors of the cafeteria, with Jessie practically on top of him. They smashed into a table, toppled over it and hit the ground hard.
Jessie recovered first. She slammed her knees into Kyle’s stomach and ripped the strap over his head. Before he knew what had happened, she grabbed the gun. She felt the heat of the muzzle blister the skin on her fingers, smelled cordite and sweat from Kyle’s body. She threw all her weight backwards, bracing hard against his gut, screaming as she leaned away.
Kyle was too strong and managed to reclaim his grip on the gun. He wrenched it free and snapped the stock up towards the side of Jessie’s head. He clouted her with it, but she twisted her body to one side just before he could land a full blow. Kyle scrambled to get his feet under him. Jessie rose first; she shouldered him and wedged her body between him and the gun. Spittle sprayed the side of Jessie’s face as Kyle tried to ram the gun up under her chin. She held on doggedly, keeping the weapon as close to her body as she could, the muzzle pointed up and away from her.
They tussled back and forth. Kyle loosened one hand and punched her in the back, above her kidney. In desperation, Jessie stamped down on Kyle’s foot and tried to get her shoulder into his chest and force his grip to break over her shoulder.
She kicked and kicked, aiming her heel for any spot she could reach. She landed a bone-crunching snap on his shin but Kyle punched her again, and this time it hurt, badly. Jessie’s grip began to fail. She tried one last desperate swing. As she twisted, she saw another boy standing on a table at the far side of the cafeteria near the drinks machine. He was slender and young, with a thin wispy moustache he had not yet grown into. He was dressed head to toe in black. All these things Jessie registered in the blink of an eye. There was one more detail.
He had a shotgun trained on them.
‘Shoot her!’ Kyle Saunders screamed. ‘Shoot the fucking bitch!’
There was a deafening blast. Jessie felt pain along the left side of her face seconds before she collapsed under Kyle Saunders’ full weight.
The gun was now in her hands and she blindly raised it and fired towards where she thought the other boy might be. Through the smoke, she saw him fall backwards off the table and drop out of sight.
Jessie lay still, dazed. Kyle Saunders’ lower body was twisted across her hips. She turned her head and saw that he was dead. There was nothing left of his head but a mass of bloody scalp and glistening bone fragments. Jessie’s ears fizzed and rang. She lowered the gun to the floor, crawled out from under Kyle and sat up. Blood spilled onto her chest and lap. She blinked at it uncomprehendingly. By the time she got to her feet and staggered across the floor her shirt was saturated. She fell down and landed close to two terrified girls huddled beneath an overturned table. She recognised their faces but could not remember their names.
‘Get out of here.’
The girls cringed, and huddled against each other. One of them mouthed something but Jessie could not decipher the words.
Jessie crawled across the floor to where the boy had fallen.
He lay on his back, panting. The shotgun was off to his right, out of range. One arm rested across his chest, the other curled by his side. The front of his shirt was slick with blood. His eyes were open and as she moved closer they clicked around to her.
‘Oh,’ Jessie whispered when she saw the damage she had inflicted.
He smiled, in reality a terrible grimace. A bubble of frothy blood appeared at the corner of his mouth, popped, and was replaced by another. Jessie leaned all her weight on her right hand and took his left hand in hers.
‘Why did you do this?’
But he did not answer and after a moment his eyes lost focus, his chest stopped moving and he was gone.
Jessie stared at him. She tried to stay upright, but could not summon the strength. She sank to the floor beside the dead boy and wiped the blood from her eyes. She saw Tracy Flowers lying by the drinks machine. She had lost a shoe and the back of her yellow sundress was drenched in blood.
Jessie wanted to go to her but could not. She vomited, closed her eyes and finally darkness took her.
I hadn’t heard of this author before but she is certainly one I won’t forget in a hurry! Last to Die is described as a psychological thriller and thrill it does. You are taken on an adrenaline fuelled chase throughout the plot, that once it grabs hold will be difficult to stop. It truly is a rollercoaster ride of a read and made me feel like I was struggling to escape from one of those awful “running away” nightmares!
Jessie is just the sort of female character that I like to read about. She is a strong minded individual who puts her life on the line in the opening pages of this book, she’s definitely the one you’d like around in an emergency. Her experience at the start of the book throws us in at the deep end straightaway and then we are introduced to other characters like Mike, Ace and the dreadful local reporters who are the type to give journalism a bad name! During the middle of the book there was a lot of background information and setting the scene about why the characters behaved the way they did and it wasn’t really until the last 30% of the book that things picked up again. From that point onwards it really became a race against time that I couldn’t put down.
Arlene Hunt has created a creepy villain here who exudes evil. Sometimes during the book I felt like I was in one of those movies like Deliverance where the setting of the wide open countryside is as much of adversary as the hunter himself, watching and waiting to capture unsuspecting people in its traps.
If you like books by CJ Box or Rick Morfina then this will be right up your street and I will definitely be happy to read other books by Arlene Hunt in the future!
I received a copy of this book via netgalley in return for an unbiased review.
Last to Die: A gripping psychological thriller not for the faint hearted is available to buy now from Amazon UK