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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Force of Nature

A Novel

Jane Harper

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


“Don’t panic.”

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.

“Okay.”

“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.

“Giralang?”

“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.

“Corporate retreat.”

“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.

“I know.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“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?”

“Nothing.”

“At all?”

“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…”


Copyright © 2017 by Jane Harper