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Authors: Steven James

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BOOK: Placebo
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© 2012 by Steven James

Published by Revell

a division of Baker Publishing Group

P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287

Ebook edition created 2012

Ebook corrections 10.26.2013

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

ISBN 978-1-4412-4008-8

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

“From cutting-edge science to a magician's trade secrets,
by Steven James is a fascinating journey into American politics, business, and the military. The characters are utterly alive, the story memorable. Gripping and intense, it will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page.”

Gayle Lynds
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Book of Spies

“With every new book, Steven James elevates his game and lifts his readers with him.
is a winner! Highly recommended.”

Davis Bunn
, bestselling author of
Lion of Babylon

“A good novel is interesting. A great novel is entertaining. An unforgettable novel is both. Steven James's
is all that and more.”

Alton Gansky
, bestselling author of
Director's Cut

“There's no exaggeration in calling Steven James a master storyteller.
delivers a thrill ride but also emotional depth and intriguing characters you'll lock into immediately. I devoured the story.”

James L. Rubart
, bestselling author of
The Chair

“Fascinating, gripping, and thrilling—I loved this book. The master storyteller has woven another spell in
, where the lines of science, reality, and fiction blur in one compelling tale. Intelligent and absolutely un-put-down-able. You will lose sleep over this one.”

Tosca Lee
New York Times
bestselling author of
Demon: A Memoir
and the Books of Mortals series
with Ted Dekker

To Pam Johnson,
For all of your help, all of your smiles, all of your insights

Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

—Morpheus to Neo in
The Matrix

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

—Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)

Who knows but that we all live out our lives in the maze of a dream?

—Weng Wei, eighth-century Chinese poet



Title Page

Copyright Page





The Shore

Sleight of Hand

Hollow Bones


The Doll



Undetermined States

Third Floor

The Faraday Cage


Wound for Wound

The Twins

Testing Love


Dancing Pain

The Cane



The Placebo Effect


Loving Thoughts


Old Wounds



The Glass




The Photos

Bloody Soil


Project Alpha



The Footage

Family Ties


Critical Condition

Malik's Daughter

Heading East

The Needs of the Many

Production Value




The Question Behind All Questions


Complaint Procedures

Oil and Blood

Preemptive Justice

The Recruit

No Wind

The Need to Kill


The First Baby




The Embalming Room

Last-Minute Revisions

A Distraction

Collateral Damage

Three Cars

The Empty Holster


The Trocar




Another Goat

Fire and Ice


Coming Fall 2013

About the Author

Books by Steven James

Back Ads

Back Cover

Part I
The Shore

September 24
Heron Bay, New Jersey
1:12 p.m.

You are there when they recover the bodies.

The day is gray with thick, somber clouds hanging heavily in the sky. Mist lurks above the bay, circling in a breeze that comes in damp and cold off the water.

You stand onshore watching the divers position their boat at the place where the witnesses say they saw the minivan go in. As you wait for them to reappear, your heart squirms like a thick, wet animal trapped inside your chest.

It was your wife's minivan.

And she had your two sons with her.

The silence is stark and chilled, disturbed only by the wet slap of waves against the shore.

For some reason, even though the van disappeared into the bay more than two hours ago, you still hold out hope that somehow Rachel and the twins have survived, that some inscrutable miracle has drifted down from heaven and stopped the water from pouring into the van.

You try to convince yourself that the vehicle has become a safe haven filled with air, a metal bubble of life—proof that a loving God exists and cares enough to step into time and save lives; you tell yourself that someday you'll all look back at this and stand in awe of the unimaginable possibilities of divine intervention.

You tell yourself that.

But then a pair of divers surface, tugging something with them.

And you see that it is one of your sons.

The body doesn't look real, more like a mannequin or a CPR dummy—frighteningly motionless, its skin pasty gray, its eyes open and staring unblinkingly at the blank, indifferent clouds.

It's only because of his clothes that you recognize which of your two boys it is—Andrew, the oldest by three minutes. You recall seeing him in that outfit earlier in the day, before you headed to the rehearsal for the show. Yes, it's Andrew.

Five years old and now he's dead.

As they lift him into the rowboat, his head lolls your way and water dribbles from his loose, gaping mouth. His eyes still refuse to blink.

For a moment you think it's some kind of mistake, a cruel joke the universe is playing on you.

No, no, that's not really him, that thing in the boat. Andrew is alive, of course he is. Any second now he's going to come running up the shore and yell, missing his r's like always, “Daddy! I'm okay! Don't wuwy, Daddy! I'm wight hewe!”

You catch yourself gazing along the shoreline. A few emergency medical personnel and police officers stand near the pier staring quietly at the divers, but that's all. No media. The cops have kept them professionally cordoned off on the road beyond the boat landing's parking lot. Besides the paramedics and police, the shoreline is empty: just a long line of lonely sand and jagged rocks curling toward the far shore now lost in the fog that wanders restlessly across the water.

Of course Andrew doesn't appear running up the shoreline. The
body is real. Your oldest son lies dead on the rowboat, and now the divers are going back down to retrieve the rest of your family.

The pulsing beast in your chest writhes again and you find it getting harder to breathe. You want to leave, to turn away, to run and run and run forever until your heart is finally in a safe, emotionally dead and distant place and you get a phone call outside of time from the police explaining everything in objective, detached detail, but you know you have to see for yourself what happened to Anthony and Rachel.

You have to.

And so you stay.

And stare at the water rippling beside the boat, afraid to even blink. You wonder if this comes from what you do, the knowledge that so many things can be faked, that there are so many ways to make people's minds play tricks on them in that fraction of a second of misdirection, either through the gentle deception of sleight of hand or the almighty power of stage lights or camera angles. If you blink you miss everything. The old line, the clichéd standby:
Now you see it, now you don't!

But nothing is faked here today.

It isn't long before the divers bring up Anthony. It takes longer with Rachel.

You hear some whispered words through a radio that one of the officers has and realize that it was her hair. It got tangled in some branches as they were removing her from the van. Then he turns down the volume, and the rest of the words squibble away and drop out into an uneven static.

For some reason as you watch the men bring the three corpses to shore in the boat, you don't cry. You know enough about how people react to tragedy to realize that this is shock, you're in shock. But naming the condition doesn't help; in fact, it almost seems disrespectful to label the numbness, like a subtle move toward objectivity, which is the last thing you want right now.

“Mr. Banks?” A voice, scratchy and soft beside you. You turn and see that it's one of the police officers, a sturdy woman, maybe forty,
with dark eyes and a tight bun of sandy brown hair. “Is there anything I can do for you?”


“We'll have someone drive you to—”

“No. I want to see the bodies up close.”

She takes a small breath as if she's about to dispute that and you brace yourself for an argument, but she replies simply, “I'll go with you.”

You realize that letting you spend time with the bodies now, rather than at the morgue, might not be protocol, and you respect that this officer seems to care more about you than about policies and procedures. You hold back from telling her that you want to be alone with your family, and silently accept her offer.

The boat arrives at the pier and the two of you walk toward it.

None of the officers are joking around or using gallows humor like cops do on TV: “Looks like today's special is three for the price of one!” Maybe screenwriters stick those lines in the shows because treating death honestly would be too hard on viewers and ratings. Better to lighten the mood, tidy up reality, let us escape—at least for a few hours during prime time—into a more sterile kind of pain.

You arrive and look into the boat, then climb aboard and kneel beside the three corpses that used to be your family—the boys you ate breakfast with this morning, the woman you kissed goodbye just before you walked out the door.

You reach for her cheek and hesitantly touch its wet, claylike surface. You slide the snarled, wet hair from her eyes, and though you try to hold back your tears, you fail, and the rising squall of wind brushes wisps of fog across your face as if its ghostly, curling fingers are trying to wipe the tears away. Or maybe the mist is just trying to taste the pain and carry it farther ashore.


She did it on purpose. Rachel did.

Four people saw her veer off the road, drive through the parking lot beside the bay, and then accelerate as she hit the pier. Later, the
investigators found nothing wrong with the van. Neither the steering wheel nor the gas pedal had jammed; the brakes were working fine. The trip off the pier was no accident.

Rachel had survived impact. There was water in her lungs, which meant she'd been breathing when the minivan filled with water. The air bag had inflated and there were no cracks spiderwebbing across the windshield, no contusions on her head that would've indicated that she was knocked unconscious.

Still, I hope that somehow she was. I can hardly imagine her just sitting there conscious and aware, waiting for our two sons to drown, but by all indications that's exactly what she did.

The boys were strapped into their car seats and had never been good at getting them unbuckled on their own, so even if they'd known how to swim, they wouldn't have been able to get out of the van.

Though it chills me to think about it, I can't help but wonder what it was like for Drew and Tony in those final moments—feeling the minivan speed up, experiencing the momentary weightlessness as the vehicle left the pier, then the jarring impact as it hit the surface of the water.

And then.

Sinking. Slowly at first, but then more rapidly as water began to fill the van. And the questions a five-year-old might ask:
What's happening? When is Mommy gonna help me?
Or perhaps even a thrill of curiosity as the water passed the windows:
Is this what it's like for a fish?!

But then, of course, the troubling realization that this was scary and bad. And, as the instinct for survival took over, struggling uselessly to get free, crying, then screaming as the water rose.

The boys' lungs were filled with water too.

They were breathing as the water rose to their lips, passed their mouths, swallowed their cries for help. I've done hundreds of underwater escapes over the years, and I know all too well how terrifying it can be when your breath is running out and you can't find a way to free yourself from your bonds. You try to remain calm, but there
comes a moment when sheer terror eclipses everything. Six times I've passed out and had to be revived.

At least my sons only had to drown once.

And now.

Over and over I've searched through my conversation with Rachel earlier that day for any hint of what she was planning to do, any warning, however slight, of her dark intentions.

Everything had been so suburbally normal for a Saturday morning—I was slipping off to work for a few hours, then I'd be back to mow the lawn; Rachel was heading out with the boys to grab a few things at the grocery store for our dinner that night with the Andersons. Before I'd left, she'd seemed a little tired, but that was all.

I'd offered to ask her parents if they could watch the kids next weekend so we could sneak away—just the two of us—find a bed-and-breakfast in the country, somewhere outside of Atlantic City where we lived, take a little time to reconnect. To relax. Before the new season began.

“It'd be a good break for both of us before the new show opens,” I told her.

“That would be nice,” she said softly.

“That would be nice,”
“Sorry, I'll be dead by then. And so will the boys. I'm going to drown them as soon as you leave the house.”

My friends, my family, the media, law enforcement—everyone who was touched by the case—searched for a reason why she did what she did:
Did she show any signs of depression? Was she noticeably upset that morning when you left? Were you having marital problems? Can you think of anything at all that would have caused her to do this?

No, no, no.

No, I could not.

It was as if all of us were desperate to compartmentalize her actions under a specific heading—anger, loneliness, depression, despair—as if naming the motive, channeling all the terrible confusion and pain into one word, would have softened the blow, brought some sort of closure.

But we found no motive, no cause, no explanation.

A mother had inexplicably murdered her sons and committed suicide for reasons only she knew. Reasons that had drowned with her in Heron Bay.

I've tried to hate her for what she did, tried my hardest to despise her, to slice all the positive feelings I ever had for her out of my heart, but I can't make the love go away. Even after she killed my sons, even after that, I haven't been able to find a way to hate her. Part of me feels wretchedly guilty for still loving her, as if it's a failure on my part, as if it cheapens my love for the boys.

No reasons.

We found no reasons.

But something motivated Rachel to accelerate off that pier, and to make any sense of it I felt compelled to find a person to blame for not stopping her.

In the end I did. I found him. A man who'd missed a warning sign, some subtle indicator, some tiny clue as to her intentions—or possibly he'd said something, did something, without even knowing it, that'd pushed her over the edge.

He needed to be punished for his failure, and so I've reminded him of it every day for the last thirteen months.

And he has suffered acutely, just as he should, for letting his wife and his two sons die.

BOOK: Placebo
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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