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A community comes together when threatened by someone with a thirst for revenge in this stunningly intricate, tautly plotted novel of rich psychological suspense from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell mysteries.
Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School: A day given to innocent hopes and youthful dreams. A day no one in attendance will ever forget.
A year ago, Principal Linda McDonald arrived at Guadalupe determined to overturn the school’s reputation for truancy, gang violence, and neglect. One of her initiatives is Career Day—bringing together children, teachers, and community presenters in a celebration of the future. But there are some in attendance who reject McDonald’s bright vision.
A principal with a secret. A husband with a murky past. A cop with too many questions. A kid under pressure to prove himself. A girl struggling to escape a mother’s history. A young basketball player with an affection for guns.
Even the school janitor has a story he dare not reveal.
But no one at the gathering anticipates the shocking turn of events that will transform a day of possibilities into an explosive confrontation.
Tense, poignant, and brilliantly paced, Laurie R. King’s novel charts compelling characters on a collision course—a chain of interactions that locks together hidden lives, troubling secrets, and the bravest impulses of the human heart.
Praise for Lockdown
“[Laura R.] King delivers, providing both a drama-filled anatomy of the school and a chance for its community to show its best by the way it confronts the worst Career Day imaginable.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Shocking.”—New York Post
“A riveting story of suspense and tragedy out of the most seemingly mundane ingredients: kids and adults preparing for a day at school. The violence doesn’t explode until we’re well into the book, but the lead-up to the explosion has the feel of a brewing storm: we know something is going to happen, even if we don’t know what it is. A fine thriller, as timely as it is gripping.”—Booklist (starred review)
The award-winning novels of Laurie R. King are . . .
“Sharp, inventive and rewarding.”—The Seattle Times
Brendan dropped to one knee in the dim alley, watching for motion at the far end. He’d already been hit once. Plus that, he was low on ammo—but his pulse was racing so fast his finger wanted to jerk down on the trigger, spraying the filthy bricks and Dumpsters with his last bullets. (And that would be the end of everything.)
The Enemy darted from left to right, bringing a compulsive twitch that wasted a couple of rounds, but Brendan forced his finger to pull back. The guy’d have to come out to fire, and when he did, crimson splatter would fill the—
“Brendan? Brendan James Atcheson, if you’re still playing that goddamn game . . .”
The alley vanished into black screen as Brendan leapt in the direction of bed. But as he moved, his foot brushed the basketball sitting on the floor. He nearly went back for it—the thing was rolling directly toward the door—but he couldn’t risk it, just dove under the covers and jerked them to his ear like a child. As if blankets could be armor against the approaching threat.
He forced his face to go slack, struggled to control his breathing. When the light from the doorway spilled against his eyelids, his heart beat faster than when he’d been facing death in the alleyway. He waited: for Sir to step inside, lay his hand on the warm game console, spot the basketball in motion. For Sir to . . .
Tom closed his son’s door quietly. He knew perfectly well Brendan wasn’t asleep. He probably should have gone in and forced a confrontation, in spite of the hour. But if Tom had to deal with the boy’s attitude on top of everything else—well, even a reasonable man had his limits. And that “goddamn” he’d let slip just now . . .
Only the desperate swore.
Yes, a confrontation with Brendan was necessary—and soon: the boy was getting way too full of himself. Just not tonight.
Tonight he simply needed Brendan to go the hell to sleep, so he could focus on tomorrow. Conquering adversity was what Thomas Atcheson did, the thing that had carved him a place at the top of a cutthroat industry. Give him a locked door, he’d find another way. Show him a dead end, he’d chisel a path through it. Present him with strikes, incompetence, and a Byzantine permit process, and he’d still manage to build a campus that won awards.
His competitors had learned that, to their detriment; his former partner, even his ex-wife. The current situation was no different, no matter how high the stakes. There was sure to be a loose end in this maddening tangle of emergencies, threats, and frustrations. Absolutely had to be. All he needed was to find the end of that thread, and it would lead him to the solution.
The boy didn’t know how good he had it, being able to sleep.
Sleep was proving every bit as elusive as Linda had feared. She’d thought about the pills—but the previous three months had taught her that on a day like tomorrow, chemical grogginess would be worse than mere fatigue. At least there was a mix of lacerations keeping her awake tonight, in place of the usual haunting regrets. It was almost a relief to stare at the dim ceiling and anticipate the things that could go wrong, letting her thoughts toss and turn instead of her body.
Paper cups will be fine, right? Nobody expects proper cups and glasses—and lunch itself will be off real plates. Wait: did I warn the speakers against wearing gang colors? Like that substitute who’d turned up in a blouse made of red bandanas and—oh, yes: that made it into the letter, after talking to Mrs. Hopkins about the Taco Alvarez trial.
What about the typo in the flyer—had she corrected that? Her leg twitched with the impulse to get up and check—but no. Mrs. Hopkins had caught it, too.
Praise the heavens for school secretaries! And for the teachers (most of them) and the volunteers that Señora Rodriguez (I do wish I could like that woman more) had commandeered to help with Career Day. And the Social Studies department for the grant they’d got, and the old hippie who’d finished restoring the mural just in time—and not to forget “Tío” (was he actually anyone’s “uncle”?) because, oh, what a difference a good janitor made in a school’s life. (Ridiculous to be suspicious of the man: he lived to keep Guadalupe running smoothl—)
Dear God, had she been about to use the word smoothly about Guadalupe Middle School? A school bubbling with hormones and suppressed rage, with threats all around it and a huge, suppurating wound at its—
Linda snatched desperately at the downward spiral of her thoughts before the name Bee Cuomo could surface, and forced her mind back onto minutiae.
That loose button on her blouse! The blessed thing was sure to pop off at the worst possible moment. Like during school assembly, fifty minutes that was already filling her with dread—and not only because she’d have to give a speech. The gym would be packed to the rafters with seven hundred–plus adolescents on the brink of boiling over, into impatience, mockery, even the violence that was never far away. A pressure cooker waiting for a perceived insult or a slip of the tongue . . . or a display of their principal’s bra.
Do not forget to wear the blue blouse tomorrow!
Linda would bet that Olivia Mendez never went to work with a loose button. Ever-competent Sergeant Mendez of the San Felipe Police Department, watching Gordon walk across the distant playing field the other day, that too-intelligent, endlessly speculative gaze of hers . . .
As if she’d said it aloud, Gordon shifted on his pillow. “You’re not sleeping.”
“Oh hon, sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. I’ll go make myself some tea.”
“Worried about tomorrow?”
“You could say that. I can’t help thinking I’ve set us all up for a . . . a catastrophe.” She didn’t even like to say the word aloud. “There must be something I’m overlooking.”
“Linda, I cannot imagine you’ve overlooked anything.”
Her laugh was forced. “Compulsive, right? When I was small, I’d lie awake and invent horrible scenarios. My parents dying, the neighbor’s dog biting me. I must’ve heard someone say it’s always the unexpected that creeps up on you, and figured if I could imagine a thing . . .” Her voice faded away.
“Dear heart, you have it all under control. You’re prepared to the hilt, with good help, competent volunteers, a responsible team of guests. There’s nothing to worry about. Tomorrow will go fine.”
His calm voice almost made Linda . . . believe. There’s no restlessness in him, is there? You’ve been imagining problems, like you always do. This is Gordon, the most trustworthy man you know. There’s no reason whatsoever to think—
His arm came out then, to stroke warm fingers up and down her arm. Up, and down. Wordless, and hypnotic. Before long, her nerves ceased their rattling. Paper cups and loose buttons, vanished children and gang rivalries, bulldog police sergeants and too-efficient janitors and all the rest gathered together in a narrow stream, circled around a hole, and poured away into the darkness.
This little time between taking the pill and falling into it was the best. A melting time, warm and dark and comforting.
At school, Sofia stuck to half pills. They softened the edges without making her groggy. But at night, after everyone went to bed, she could let go. Here, in these slow minutes as the pill worked its way into her, there was no murdered sister, no Alvarez brothers looking hate at her, no pressures for grades or looks from Mina or missing sixth-graders or boys or . . . nothing.
Just the melting, rich and warm and delicious, tingling along the ends of your nerves, making the world soft and deep.
Some nights—not always—she was aware of a last, juddering breath, sucked into her chest just before she tipped into the dreams. Like a relieved infant settling into its mother’s arms.
The fingers on Brendan’s hand twitch when he dreams of guns.
One gun in particular: the Smith & Wesson 380 Bodyguard. There are loads of bigger ones, but Brendan suspects that big handguns are a sign of insecurity. (As in, big gun, small dick—something he’d never say to Sir, whose weapon of choice is a monster Glock 40.) And anyway, the Bodyguard speaks to Brendan. The way it looks, with the ruggedness of a revolver folded into the sleekness of an automatic. And a laser sight, which is just plain slick.
More than looks, he loves how it feels. The very first time he held it, the Bodyguard’s twelve ounces of polymer and steel nestled into his palm like a puppy’s head. Its sights seemed precisely engineered for his eyes alone, for the exact length of his arm, the trigger waiting for the touch of his finger to send the rounds, powpowpow—dead center into the man’s outline at the far end of the range. Perfect as dropping one in from the three-point line.
But now the dream is turning, as Brendan’s dreams so often do. The weapon in his hand shifts, all on its own. The laser dot jerks away from the paper silhouette to track along the wall, forcing his elbow out, fighting his wrist into an impossible angle. The red spark travels across the other people in the gun range, people with no right to be there—Principal McDonald, Mina Santos, Jock. All of them oblivious to the danger. And still the sharp red light crawls, to the floor, up Brendan’s body, touching his neck, his face.
Until he is looking straight at the Bodyguard’s perfect mouth (knowing that there is one round still in the chamber). The red dazzles his eye. In the dream, his forefinger twitches—
And Brendan jerks upright in the sweaty sheets, throat raw with the fading cry.
Tom Atcheson looked up at the ceiling. Brendan?
He should have gone in and dragged the boy out of bed when he went to check on him two hours ago. Control was a tenuous thing, whether with a company in turmoil or a rebellious son. At least the boy was set for the academy next September: a real school would straighten him out.
Depending on others to solve the problem wasn’t a sign of weakness or cowardice. Was it?
No: a man had to prioritize. He’d been right to shut the door and walk away.
True control—with work, with family—sometimes required an appearance of weakness. Vulnerability could be the leaves covering a trap.
Tom picked up his pen again.
He wasn’t entirely happy with his plan for the 9:00 a.m. board meeting, but he had to admit there wasn’t much more he could do about it now—other than fire the entire board, of course, which according to his useless lawyers he was no longer in a position to do. And no way would he be maneuvered into surrender! What, turn over his business—to say nothing of that gorgeous campus he’d put his heart and soul into building—and take “early retirement”? He’d rather shoot himself.
Sleep might help, but he could tell that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, he turned to his notes for the talk at Brendan’s school. “Career Day.” What an exercise in futility! Urging ill-trained children to become entrepreneurs was like telling finger-painters to aim for the Sistine Chapel: those with drive required no encouragement.
But the boy’s principal had asked, and when Thomas Atcheson made a commitment, he kept it, no matter how pressed his day had become or how pointless the exercise might be.
Advice for young people? Obviously he had advice—for people of any age.
Don’t trust your partners.
Don’t marry a harpy with lawyers in her family.
Don’t have a son who fights you at every turn.
And never, ever let people screw you into a corner.
Chaco put his head around the dark corner of A Wing, filled with . . . what was the word? Foreboding. Yeah, so the janitor made him nervous. Gave Chaco misgivings.
Scared the shit out of him.
Far as Chaco knew, Tío wasn’t nobody’s uncle, wasn’t even from Mexico like everybody Chaco knew. Sure, he talked Spanish, but his accent was, like, exotic—from somewhere else. Nicaragua, maybe? El Salvador? Tío was just the limpiador, walking up and down in his dirt-colored uniform and cleaning the floors. Big thrill for the old guy was the day he got to shut off the water in the girls’ baño, stop it running all over the floor. Real hero, man.
Maybe the reason Tío made him nervous was ’cause the dude was so pinche quiet. Tío talked quiet, he didn’t turn on a radio the minute the bell rang—even his cart with all the mops and brooms, the same one the last janitor used, didn’t rattle and squeak so much. And, like, the other day when one of the substitutes shouted some question down the breezeway at him? Tío didn’t just shout back an answer. Instead, he put away his broom and walked over, all polite, to see what the guy wanted.
Funny thing was, the teacher looked a little . . . Not embarrassed. More like he thought maybe Tío coming at him so quiet (like Angel) meant the old guy had a knife. Edgy, maybe? Wanting to edge away?
Anyway, yeah, Chaco felt a little edgy tonight himself, crouching in back of A Wing, away from the all-night floods, a can of spray paint in his hand. He really, really didn’t want to turn around and find Tío there, looking at him.
Which was stupid. Or—what was that word he’d found the other day?—ludicrous. (Chaco had a private collection of perfect words—words he’d never, ever use out loud.) Tío didn’t spend the night at school, and no way could he just guess who’d done a tag. Chaco knew all about crime labs and forensic science and stuff, so he was wearing a set of his uncle’s overalls he’d fished out of the trash, and his most beat‑up pair of shoes, and he’d dump it all on his way home. He’d take a shower in the morning so he didn’t smell like paint. How would Tío know?
Besides, there wasn’t really much choice. He was almost thirteen—and he was family to Taco Alvarez.
So now, at near to three in the morning, Chaco the Tagger crept down the A Wing breezeway, the old rubber on his shoes making a kissing sound against the smooth concrete. Nothing moved, no cars went by. Under the main breezeway, into the entrance arch—and there it was, all shiny and new-looking, hundreds of little chips and tiles with pictures of school things and people on them. He hesitated, just a little, ’cause really, it was kind of dope. Intricate, like. And a man didn’t tag someone else’s art unless it was enemy action. But this was a school, and in the end he had to prove himself to Taco (and Angel) and yeah, to Sofia Rivas. Though she’d probably just give him one of her looks, all arrogant, or maybe condescending.
Laurie R. King is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen Mary Russell mysteries, five contemporary novels featuring Kate Martinelli, the Stuyvesant & Grey novels Touchstone and The Bones of Paris, and the acclaimed A Darker Place, Folly, Califia’s Daughters (written under the pen name Leigh Richards), and Keeping Watch. She lives in Northern California.