Invisible - James Patterson

1

THIS TIME I know it, I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.

This time, it’s too hot. This time, it’s too bright, there’s too much smoke.

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window, the only part of the bedroom still available. The enemy is cornering me, daring me, Go ahead, Emmy, go for the window, Emmy—

This is my last chance, and I know, but don’t want to think about, what happens if I fail—that I have to start preparing myself for the pain. It will just hurt for a few minutes, it will be teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony, but then the heat will shrivel off my nerve endings and I’ll feel nothing, or better yet I’ll pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Nothing to lose. No time to waste.

The flames hit my flannel comforter as my legs kick over to the floor, as I bounce up off the mattress and race the one-two-three-four steps to the window. A girlish, panicky squeal escapes my throat, like when Daddy and I used to play chase in the backyard and he was closing in. I lower my shoulder and lunge against the window, a window that was specifically built to not shatter, and ringing out over the alarm’s squeal and the lapping of the flames is a hideous roar, a hungry growl, as I bounce off the window and fall backward into the raging heat. I tell myself, Breathe, Emmy, suck in the toxic pollution, don’t let the flames kill you, BREATHE—

Breathe. Take a breath.

“Damn,” I say to nobody in my dark, fire-free room. My eyes sting from sweat and I wipe them with my T-shirt. I know better than to move right away; I remain still until my pulse returns to human levels, until my breathing evens out. I look over at the clock radio, where red fluorescent square numbers tell me it’s half past two.

Dreams suck. You think you’ve conquered something, you work on it over and over and tell yourself you’re getting better, you will yourself to get better, you congratulate yourself on getting better. And then you close your eyes at night, you drift off into another world, and suddenly your own brain is tapping you on the shoulder and saying, Guess what? You’re NOT better!

I let out one, conclusive exhale and reach for my bedroom light. When I turn it on, the fire is everywhere. It’s my wallpaper now, the various photographs and case summaries and inspectors’ reports adorning the walls of my bedroom, fires involving deaths in cities throughout the United States: Hawthorne, Florida. Skokie, Illinois. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Plano, Texas. Piedmont, California.

And, of course, Peoria, Arizona.

Fifty-three of them in all.

I move along the wall and quickly review each one. Then I head to my computer and start opening e-mails.

Fifty-three that I know of. There are undoubtedly more.

This guy isn’t going to stop.

2

I’M HERE for the Dick. That’s not what I actually say, but that’s what I mean.

“Emmy Dockery for Mr. Dickinson, please.”

The woman parked at a wedge of a desk outside Dickinson’s office is someone I’ve never met. Her nameplate says LYDIA and she looks like a Lydia: cropped brown hair and black horn-rimmed glasses and a prim silk blouse. She probably writes sonnets in her spare time. She probably has three cats and likes Indian food, only she would call it cuisine.

I shouldn’t be so catty, but it annoys me that there’s someone new, that something has changed since I left, so I feel like a stranger in an office where I faithfully labored for almost nine years.

“Did you have an appointment with the director, Ms.…Dockery?”

Lydia looks up at me with a satisfied