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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The First Family

A Novel

Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer; read by Fred Berman

Macmillan Audio

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER 1


FRIDAY, APRIL 7

The terror never went away. It should have by now. After all this time, she should not have been so afraid. Her long legs shook beneath the silky fabric of an elegant red gown. She inhaled deeply to calm herself, but perspiration coated her fingers anyway. That could be a problem. Her ears picked up each twitch, rustle, and breath in the cavernous room. They were watching her every move. Her delicate face stared back at them with a blank expression that hid her mounting anxiety.

The concert hall was sold out. Thunderous applause for her had just died down, and this was the brief interlude before the music began. Her heart beat so loudly she feared the microphone would pick up the sound. She stood alone in the center of a large stage, a spotlight targeting her as if this were a prison break. In her right hand she clutched a violin with a bright amber finish and stunning marbled flame, expertly antiqued.

Scanning the hall, she searched for the rangy man with square shoulders and the slender woman who was an older version of herself. There they were in their usual location, third row: Doug and Allison Banks, her parents. Her name was Susie Banks, and she was their only daughter, their pride and joy. Without their support Susie would not be standing on the stage of the Kennedy Center, chosen from hundreds of hopefuls to open the National Symphony Orchestra’s evening performance with a solo piece.

This moment had seemed inevitable from Susie’s earliest days. She was two years old when she played her first song on the piano—a ringtone from her mother’s cell phone she had replicated by ear. Soon she began plinking out melodies she heard on the radio. By the age of five, Susie could play Bach’s Minuet in G Major, never having taken a lesson. Words like “prodigy” and “special” got bandied about, but Susie did not understand what it all meant, nor did she care. She had found this amazing thing called music, and the music made her happy.

The day her mother put a violin in her hand, Susie’s whole world came into even sharper focus. She felt a kinship with the instrument, understood it in a profound way. One year into her study she flawlessly performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 during a student recital. For Susie, the notes were more than dots on the sheet music. As she played, she could see them dance before her eyes, swirling and twirling like a flock of starlings in flight. She would practice daily, hours passing like minutes, her joy unfettered and boundless. She did not have many close friends growing up, always needing to practice, or rehearse, or perform. Yet she never felt lonely, or alone. Music was her constant companion, her first true love.

Now nineteen, Susie was poised for a professional career. She had taken a gap year between high school and college to work on her craft. With hundreds of concerts on her résumé, she had hoped her stage fright would be a thing of the past. But it was present as always and would remain with her until she played the first note.

This was a hugely important showcase. The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in the audience specifically to hear her play. If all went well, it was possible she would be moving to Chicago.

Susie set her chin on the smooth ebony chin rest and pushed the conductor from her thoughts. All sound evaporated from the room. She had no sheet music to follow. She had long ago committed the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin to memory.

She took one last readying breath, drew the bow across the strings, and conquered the powerful opening double stop like a pro. The audience, the hall itself, seemed to vanish as she drifted into the other place where the music came from. Her body swayed to the rhythm and flow as Bach’s notes poured from her instrument.

The bow and her fingers became a blur of movement. Susie kept her eyes open as she played, but she saw nothing while she felt everything. A brilliant shrill wafted from the violin, a melody sparkling and pure in triple time, followed by an austere passage of darker, more muted tones. Years of dedication, all the things she had sacrificed, were worth it for this feeling alone, such indescribable freedom.

She had reached measure eighty-nine, near the halfway point. Drawing the bow toward her, Susie geared up for the next variation, where the bass became melodic and the diatonic form resumed. Up to that point her playing had been perfect, but suddenly and inexplicably came a terrible screech. Susie’s arms jerked violently out in front of her, the bow dragging erratically across the strings. Her chin slid free of the chin rest as her violin shot outward.

A collective gasp rose from the audience. Shocked, unable to process what had happened to her, Susie repositioned the violin. Her professionalism took over. Her reset was more a reflex than anything. She drew the bow across the strings once more, but only a warbling sound came out. The next instant, her arms flailed spastically in front of her again in yet another violent paroxysm, as if her limbs had separated from her body, developed a mind of their own. She tried to regain control of her arms, willing it to happen, but it was no use. The wild movements occurred without her thought, like those body starts she’d been having before she fell asleep: first the sensation of falling, followed by a jarring startle back into consciousness. Only this time she was wide awake. No matter how hard Susie strained, she could not stop her arms from convulsing. It was the most terrifying, out-of-control sensation she had ever experienced.

When the next spasm struck, Susie’s fingers opened. The violin slipped from her grasp and hit the stage floor with a sickening crack. Another gasp rose from the audience, this one louder than the first. Susie was helpless to do anything but stand facing everyone with her arms twitching like two live wires. As suddenly as those seizures came on, her limbs went still, as if a switch had been turned off. She raised her arms slowly, studying them with bewilderment. Then, she directed her gaze to the violin at her feet. For a moment she could not breathe. Murmurs from the audience reverberated in her ears.

Bending down, she gingerly retrieved the broken instrument, fearing another attack was imminent. She stood up tall. The violin dangled at her side with a gap in the wood like a missing tooth. She searched the audience for her parents, but could not see them through the haze of lights and the blur of tears.

Frozen in the spotlight, her cheeks red and burning, blinking rapidly, Susie gave one sob as she backed away. A voice in her head howled: What happened to me? She stumbled into the back curtain, fumbling for an escape, pawing at the fabric, desperate to get away. Realizing her mistake, she reoriented to the right and dashed offstage.

The quiet concert hall carried only the echo of Susie’s heels, tapping out a fast, unsteady beat.

* * *

ROW EIGHT, center seat.

His name was Mark Mueller, but those who knew him well called him Mauser—a reference to his favorite weapon, the German-made Mauser C96 semiautomatic pistol, last manufactured in 1937. Mauser kept his thick blond hair combed back to expose a wide and flat forehead. The green shirt he had picked out for this concert covered his tattoos and fit snugly against a body that bulged with muscles from years of pumping iron in the yard.

Calmly, Mauser watched Susie come unglued. His gray eyes sparked and his top lip curled, putting an arch in his bushy blond mustache. When people in the audience got up from their seats, Mauser did the same. He strode into the foyer with his cell phone out.

“It happened,” Mauser said. He described what he’d seen.

It was all the information Rainmaker needed to mark Susie Banks for death.


Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Palmer