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- Spot the difference between two crime scenes
- Reassemble the skeleton in Blake’s bathtub
- Join the dots to make a police sketch of Fred
- Try out Blake’s recipe for Texas spiced “chicken”
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Keep reading for a sample of Hideout:
Eject my skin so it won’t be found. What am I?
‘The other guys?’ I say.
‘Sure.’ Fred smiles. ‘You didn’t think it was just me out here, did you?’
That’s exactly what I thought. The plan was simple: kill Fred, then myself. But my only weapon is the hammer tucked into the back of my pants. If Fred has friends in this house, I’m in a whole world of trouble.
‘Great,’ I say. ‘Can’t wait to meet them.’
Fred is looking at the car I arrived in. A midnight-blue sedan with supple leather seats and a stereo still playing light jazz even though the engine is off. Blood on the passenger’s seat, mud on the driver’s. A bullet hole low on one of the doors.
Fred looks at the hole for a strangely long time. A shadow crosses his face.
‘Nice ride, Lux,’ he says finally.
‘Not my car.’ Not my name, either.
He nods, unsurprised. ‘Anyone looking for it?’
‘I’ll tell Kyle to take care of that.’ He holds out a hand for my keys.
If I give them to him, I’m trapped. If I don’t, he might realise I’m not Lux.
‘You don’t need to do that,’ I say.
Fred waves this off. ‘It’s no trouble.’
Hesitating any longer would look suspicious. I pass him the keys. He slides the car key off the ring and tosses the rest back.
‘It’s fine for tonight, though,’ Fred says. ‘No one will see it. We’re miles from anywhere.’
He’s not wrong. The house is in the middle of the woods, at the end of a long driveway off a dirt road. None of my contacts at the FBI know where I am. I don’t even have a phone. If I die out here, no one will ever know what happened to me. That was the point.
‘Come on,’ Fred says. ‘You must be freezing.’
‘Yeah.’ My tattered white shirt, suit jacket and thin socks offer no protection from the night air, and I’m still getting used to having a shaved head. My ears hurt. Hunger burns in my gut, or maybe it’s fear. I broke my nose in a car crash two days ago—I can still taste blood pooling at the back of my throat.
Fred locks the car with the key remote. The music and the interior lights fade out, like in a cinema when the movie’s about to start. We crunch across the gravel towards the house.
Fred is white, lean and younger than I expected. Late twenties, maybe. Fair skin, scruffy hair, friendly wrinkles at the edges of his brown eyes. He has the voice of a venture capitalist or a junior lawyer. He doesn’t look or sound like he runs the most violent porn site on the dark web.
The house is made from many kinds of wood, carefully arranged. Pale slats around the foundations, darker beams up top, with a gradient in between, like a sunrise. Recycled timber, maybe, like in one of those expensive eco homes. The windows on either side look double glazed, the light inside dampened by thick curtains. The second level is smaller than the first, maybe just an attic.
It’s a fusion of the Old South and the New. Texans used to march into the wilderness with nothing but a hatchet and build a house to live in. If anyone else settled within a half mile of them, they’d abandon the house and build another somewhere even more remote. That urge is still there—but now people want their isolated homes to have solar orientation and heated towel rails.
Fred is unlocking the front door, even though he only just walked out of it. ‘Automatic locks,’ he explains. ‘Can’t be too careful. There are some bad people out there.’
‘Oh?’ I say.
He welcomes me into the warmth of a short hallway, two mirrors gleaming on either side, like in an elevator. I can hear a fire crackling somewhere. The downlights are painfully bright, making me feel as though I’m in a dentist’s chair, about to be poked with something sharp.
Fred hangs his jacket on an old-fashioned coat stand. The door locks itself behind us with a crisp beep.
‘Come on.’ Fred leads me through the hallway, which opens out into a spacious living area. Two white men in muscle shirts drop their Xbox controllers and get up off a grey sofa. A refined-looking woman in a slinky dress appears at the far end of the room holding a glass of white wine. A young man—maybe a teenager—sits on a beanbag in a hoodie and a baseball cap, looking at his phone. A skinny guy in a suit turns away from the fireplace and looks at me through glassy eyes.
I worked hundreds of cases at the FBI and studied thousands of mugshots, but I don’t recognise any of these people. Am I supposed to? Lux never met Fred in person, but he might have met Fred’s friends. If he did, I’m screwed. I don’t look anything like him.
But everyone is giving me polite smiles. My cover is intact, for now.
‘Guys,’ Fred says, ‘this is Lux.’
Heads nod all around. The two muscle men each raise a hand in a small wave. The young guy says, ‘’Sup?’
‘These are the Guards.’ Fred points to each person. ‘Donnie, Samson, Zara, Kyle and Cedric. Now, repeat all that back to me.’
He’s kidding, and everyone laughs.
‘Sure.’ I point. ‘Donnie, Samson, Zara, Kyle, Cedric.’
Fred raises an eyebrow. ‘Not bad.’
Memorising names is easy. Sometimes I use celebrities—Donnie, one of the two brawny Xbox players, looks a bit like Mark Wahlberg, and I know Mark has a brother named Donnie, so that’s easy. The other player, Samson, has shoulder-length hair. I visualise him as the Samson from the Bible, a servant girl hacking off his locks as he sleeps.
Other associations also work. Zara, the elegant woman in the cocktail dress, has the same name as an upmarket shoe store in Houston. I used to beg for change on a nearby street corner. I imagine this Zara as the owner, shooing me away, threatening to call the cops.
The more emotional the connection is, the better it works. After my parents were shot, I was put in a group home, and one of the other orphans was named Cedric. We weren’t friends, but no one adopted either of us, so I knew him for longer than most of the other kids. We both knew that when we turned eighteen, we’d be kicked out. The day before his birthday, Cedric hung himself with the cord of his bathrobe.
That Cedric was a white, heavy-set teenager, while this Cedric is in his mid-thirties, thin and Black. But if I picture a ring of bruises around his throat, the association is there.
I don’t know any Kyles, so I go for a rhyme. This Kyle, the teenager on the beanbag, has a Hitler-youth kind of look. Pasty, square-jawed, keen to follow orders. I imagine him at a rally, yelling, ‘Sieg Kyle!’
I don’t need any memory tricks to remember Fred’s name. The human brain has evolved to remember dangerous people.
This isn’t the first time I’ve assumed someone else’s identity. Once I dressed as an electrician so I could sneak into a half-constructed house for a shower. Another time I donated sperm for cash using a borrowed ID, because I was too young to do it legally. But now the stakes are higher. If there’s one thing rural Texans love, it’s guns. I might be the only person in this room who isn’t carrying. A single word wrong, and I could get a bullet in my skull.
Donnie, the bulkier of the two gamers, holds out his hand. I shake it. His grip is crushing.
‘Cold hands,’ he says.
‘Cold hands, warm heart,’ I say.
Donnie smiles. ‘My mom used to say that.’
‘What do you bench, bro?’ I don’t know what this means, but I’ve heard gym junkies say it to each other like a greeting.
He shrugs modestly. ‘Two hundred, back in the day.’
I give a nod that could be interpreted as impressed or encouraging, depending on whether two hundred is high or low.
No one else tries to shake my hand.
Fred is unwinding his scarf. ‘Lux made some of our most requested videos.’
There’s an awkward round of applause, like after singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a work colleague.
‘But he has to lie low for a while,’ Fred continues, ‘so he’s gonna stay with us.’
‘What happened?’ asks Cedric, the skinny guy in the suit. He gestures at his own face to show what he means.
‘Car wreck.’ I swallow some more blood.
Fred crosses his arms. ‘Where’s the FBI guy? Timothy Blake?’
It’s jarring to hear him use my name. How much did Lux tell him about me?
‘It’s all right.’ Fred has misread my hesitation. ‘They’re cool. I mean, you know what we do here.’
Some images flash through my head. Blood, chains, screaming.
‘I sure do.’ I should be mimicking Lux’s voice, in case one of these guys has talked to him on the phone. My Texas accent is broader than his was. Too late now.
‘So what happened to the cop?’
‘Blake’s not a cop. He’s a civilian consultant.’ I clear my throat. ‘Was, anyway. I put a bullet through his head. Left him in Huntsville State Park under six feet of dirt. No one will ever find him.’
It’s Lux buried out there, not me—murdered by one of the young women he raped. The story sounds fake coming out of my mouth.
But the people around me are visibly relaxing. If I’m a cop killer, I must be okay.
‘You hear that, Donnie?’ Cedric says. ‘Six feet.’
Everyone laughs except Donnie and Samson. I chuckle, pretending to get the joke. Donnie looks about five foot eleven—maybe Cedric is making fun of him for being short, even though he’s the tallest person in the room.
‘Blake was trying to shut us down, right?’ Donnie asks. He’s a bit older than the others—late-thirties—with shaggy hair and a silver chain around his neck. No cross on it.
‘He was trying to shut me down,’ I say. ‘Me and Fred. He didn’t know the rest of you existed. At least, I don’t think he did.’
Fred nods slowly. ‘Well, we can get you a driver’s licence in a new name. It’ll take five, six days.’
I’m not going to last five or six days. These people may not have met Lux, but they communicated with him on the dark web. I don’t know enough about him or them to pull this off.
‘That’s really kind of you,’ I say. ‘But I can’t stay long.’
Fred looks surprised. ‘Why not?’
‘The cops are searching for me.’ I wish this was true. ‘I don’t want to put the group in danger.’
‘You don’t need to worry about us,’ Samson says.
Fred pats me on the spine, just above the handle of the hammer.
‘We got your back,’ he says.
Zara speaks for the first time. ‘Can I get you a drink, Lux?’ Playing the host. Maybe this is her house, not Fred’s. Her black hair shines like a grand piano. She has access to expensive shampoo, which might mean regular trips to Houston. Maybe I can join her on one of them. Escape that way.
‘No thanks.’ For all I know, Lux didn’t drink and this is a test. ‘But I could use an aspirin.’
She beams. Dazzling white teeth appear between bright red lips. ‘Coming right up.’
She walks away, with just enough sway in her hips that I feel like I’m supposed to watch. Her high heels make hardly any sound on the wooden floor, as though she’s coated the soles with felt.
‘While you’re waiting,’ Fred says, ‘you want to see where the magic happens?’
The young guy, Kyle, still hasn’t opened his mouth. He looks like I did when I aged out of foster care—dishevelled, tense, watchful. He forces a smile at me and then turns back to his phone screen.
‘Sure,’ I say…