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The Last Child

Hart, John Author

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Winner of the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Novel

John Hart’s New York Times bestselling debut, The King of Lies, announced the arrival of a major talent. With Down River, he surpassed his earlier success, transcending the barrier between thriller and literature and winning the 2008 Edgar Award for best novel. Now, with The Last Child, he achieves his most significant work to date, an intricate, powerful story of loss, hope, and courage in the face of evil.

Thirteen year-old Johnny Merrimon had the perfect life: a warm home and loving parents; a twin sister, Alyssa, with whom he shared an irreplaceable bond. He knew nothing of loss, until the day Alyssa vanished from the side of a lonely street. Now, a year later, Johnny finds himself isolated and alone, failed by the people he’d been taught since birth to trust. No one else believes that Alyssa is still alive, but Johnny is certain that she is---confident in a way that he can never fully explain.

Determined to find his sister, Johnny risks everything to explore the dark side of his hometown. It is a desperate, terrifying search, but Johnny is not as alone as he might think. Detective Clyde Hunt has never stopped looking for Alyssa either, and he has a soft spot for Johnny. He watches over the boy and tries to keep him safe, but when Johnny uncovers a dangerous lead and vows to follow it, Hunt has no choice but to intervene.

Then a second child goes missing . . .

Undeterred by Hunt’s threats or his mother’s pleas, Johnny enlists the help of his last friend, and together they plunge into the wild, to a forgotten place with a history of violence that goes back more than a hundred years. There, they meet a giant of a man, an escaped convict on his own tragic quest. What they learn from him will shatter every notion Johnny had about the fate of his sister; it will lead them to another far place, to a truth that will test both boys to the limit.

Traveling the wilderness between innocence and hard wisdom, between hopelessness and faith, The Last Child leaves all categories behind and establishes John Hart as a writer of unique power.

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About the Author:

John Hart is the New York Times bestselling author of Down River and The King of Lies. The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John has also won the Barry Award and England's Steel Dagger Award for best thriller of the year. He was born and raised in North Carolina. For a time he practiced criminal defense law, but left to focus on his writing.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Last Child, The
CHAPTER ONE Johnny learned early. If somebody asked him why he was so different, why he held himself so still and why his eyes seemed to swallow light, that's what he'd tell them. He learned early that there was no safe place, not the backyard or the playground, not the front porch or the quiet road that grazed the edge of town. No safe place, and no one to protect you. Childhood was illusion. He'd been up for an hour, waiting for the night sounds to fade, for the sun to slide close enough to call it morning. It was Monday, still dark, but Johnny rarely slept. He woke to patrol dark windows. He rattled the locks twice a night, watched the empty road and the dirt drive that looked like chalk when the moon rose. He checked on his mom, except when Ken was at the house. Ken had a temper and wore a large gold ring that made perfect oval bruises. That was another lesson. Johnny pulled on a T-shirt and frayed jeans, then walked to the bedroom door and cracked it. Light spilled down the narrow hall, and the air felt used up. He smelled cigarettes and spilled liquor that was probably bourbon. For an instant, Johnny recalled the way mornings used to smell, eggs and coffee and the sharp tang of his father's aftershave. It was a good memory, so he drove it down, crushed it. It only made things harder. In the hall, shag carpet rose stiff under his toes. The door to hismother's room hung loose in its frame. It was hollow core and unpainted, a mismatch. The original door lay splintered in the backyard, kicked off its hinges a month back when Ken and Johnny's mother got into it after hours. She never said what the argument was about, but Johnny guessed it had something to do with him. A year ago, Ken could never have gotten close to a woman like her, and Johnny never let him forget it; but that was a year ago. A lifetime. They'd known Ken for years, or thought they had. Johnny's dad was a contractor, and Ken built whole neighborhoods. They worked well together because Johnny's dad was fast and competent, and because Ken was smart enough to respect him. Because of that, Ken had always been pleasant and mindful, even after the kidnapping, right up until Johnny's dad decided that grief and guilt were too much to bear. But after his dad left, the respect disappeared, and Ken started coming around a lot. Now he ran things. He kept Johnny's mother dependent and alone, kept her medicated or drunk. He told her what to do and she did it. Cook a steak. Go to the bedroom. Lock the door. Johnny took it in with those black eyes, and often found himself in the kitchen, at night, three fingers on the big knife in its wooden block, picturing the soft place above Ken's chest, thinking about it. The man was a predator, pure and simple; and Johnny's mother had faded down to nothing. She weighed less than a hundred pounds and was as drawn as a shut-in, but Johnny saw the way men looked at her, the way Ken got possessive when she made it out of the house. Her skin, though pale, was flawless, her eyes large and deep and wounded. She was thirty-three, and looked like an angel would look if there was such a thing, dark-haired and fragile and unearthly. Men stopped what they were doing when she walked into a room. They stared as if a glow came off her skin, as if she might rise from the ground at any moment. She could not care less. Even before her daughter vanished, she'd paid little attention to the way she'd looked. Blue jeans and T-shirts.Ponytails and occasional makeup. Her world had been a small, perfect place where she'd loved her husband and her children, where she'd tended a garden, volunteered at church, and sang to herself on rainy days; but no more. Now there was silence and emptiness and pain, a flicker of the person she'd been; but the beauty lingered. Johnny saw it every day, and every day he cursed the perfection that graced her so completely. If she were ugly, Ken would have no use for her. If she'd had ugly children, his sister would still sleep in the room next to his. But she was like a doll or something not quite real, like she should be in a cabinet with a lock on it. She was the most beautiful person Johnny had ever known, and he hated that about her. Hated it. That's how much his life had changed. Johnny studied the door to his mother's room. Maybe Ken was in there, maybe not. His ear pressed against the wood, and breath caught in his throat. Normally, he could tell, but sleep had dodged him for days, and when he finally crashed, he crashed hard. Black and still. Deep. When he did wake, it was with a start, like he'd heard glass break. That was at three o'clock. He stepped back from the door, uncertain, then crept down the hall, and the bathroom light hummed when he flicked the switch. The medicine cabinet stood open and he saw the pills: Xanax, Prozac, some blue ones, some yellows. He picked up a bottle and read the label. Vicodin. That was new. The Xanax bottle was open, pills on the counter, and Johnny felt the anger fill him up. The Xanax helped Ken come down after a night with the good stuff. That was his term. The good stuff. Johnny closed the bottle and walked out of the bathroom. The house was a dump, and he reminded himself that it was not really theirs. Their real house was clean and kept up. It had a new roof that he'd helped to install. He'd gone up the ladder every day ofspring vacation, passed shingles to his dad, and held nails in a tool belt that had his name scratched into it. It was a good house, with stone walls and a yard that boasted more than dirt and broadleaf weed. It was only a few miles away, but felt farther, a different neighborhood with cared-for homes on big, green lots. The place was steeped in memory, but the bank owned it now. They gave his mother some papers and put a sign in the yard. This was one of Ken's rentals. He had about a hundred, and Johnny thought this was probably the worst, a crappy dump way out on the edge of town. The kitchen was small, with green metal and scuffed linoleum that turned up in the corners. A bulb burned above the stove and Johnny turned a slow circle. The place was disgusting: butts in a saucer, empty bottles, and shot glasses. The mirror lay flat on the kitchen table and Johnny saw how white powder residue caught the light. The sight of it spread cold in his chest. A rolled-up hundred dollar bill had fallen to the floor. Johnny picked it up, smoothed it out. He'd not had a decent meal in a week and Ken was snorting coke with a hundred. He picked up the mirror, wiped it off with a wet towel, and hung it back on the wall. His father used to look in that mirror, and Johnny could still see how he worked at his tie on Sundays, his fingers large and stiff, the tie unforgiving. He only wore his suit for church, and he'd get embarrassed when he caught his son watching. Johnny could see it: the sudden red flush and then the reckless smile. "Thank God for your mother," he'd say, and then she'd tie the knot for him. His hands at the small of her back. The kiss and the wink that came after. Johnny wiped the mirror again, then straightened it, tweaked it until it hung just right. The door to the front porch moved stiffly, and Johnny walked out into the damp, dark morning. A streetlamp flickered fifty yards down the road. Headlights crested a distant hill. Ken's car was gone, and Johnny felt a shameful, sweet relief. Ken lived across town in a big house with perfect paint, large windows and a four-car garage. Johnny took a deep breath, thought of his mother bent over that mirror, and told himself that she was not that far gone. That was Ken's deal, not hers. He forced his hands to unclench. The air was scrubbed, so he concentrated on that instead. He told himself that it was a new day, that good things could happen; but mornings were bad for his mother. There was a moment when her eyes opened, a flash before she remembered that they'd never found her only daughter. Johnny's sister. His twin. Alyssa was born three minutes after Johnny, and they'd been as similar as nonidentical twins could be. They had the same hair and face, the same laugh. She was a girl, yeah, but from twenty feet it was hard to tell them apart. They stood the same, walked the same. Most mornings, they woke at the same time, even in different rooms. Johnny's mom said they'd had their own language when they were small, but Johnny didn't remember that. He remembered that for most of his life, he'd never been alone; there was a special sense of belonging that only the two of them had ever understood. But Alyssa was gone, and everything with her. That was truth, unavoidable, and it had carved the insides out of his mother. So Johnny did what he could. He checked the locks at night and cleaned up the mess. Today it took twenty minutes; then he put on coffee and thought about the rolled-up bill. A hundred bucks. Food and clothing. He made a last check of the house. Bottles, gone. Signs of drug use, gone. He opened windows to let the outside in, then checked the refrigerator. The milk carton rattled when he shook it. One egg in the carton. He opened his mother's purse. She had nine dollars and change. Johnny left the money and closed the purse. He filled aglass with water and shook two aspirin out of a bottle. He walked down the hall and opened his mother's door. The first raw light of dawn pushed against the glass, an orange bulge beyond the black trees. His mother lay on her side, hair across her face. Magazines and books covered the bedside table. He made room for the glass and placed the aspirin on the scarred wood. For a second, he listened to her breathe, then looked at the stack of bills Ken had left by the bed. There were some twenties, a fifty. Maybe a few hundred dollars, wrinkled and smudged. Peeled off a roll. Discarded.  
The car in the driveway was old, a station wagon that Johnny's father had bought years ago. The paint was clean and waxed, tire pressure checked every week, but that was all Johnny knew how to do. Blue smoke still belched from the pipe when he turned the key; the passenger window did not go up all the way. He waited for the smoke to turn white, then put the car in gear and rolled to the bottom of the drive. He was nowhere close to having a license, and looked carefully before edging into the road. He kept the speed down and stayed on the back roads. The nearest store was only two miles away, but it was a big one, on a major road, and Johnny knew that people there might recognize him. He added three miles to the trip and went to a small grocery store that catered to the low end of things. The gas cost money and the food was more expensive, but he didn't really have a choice. Social Services had already been to the house twice. The car blended with those already there, most of which were old and American. A dark sedan rolled in behind him and stopped near the entrance. Sunlight mirrored the glass and a lone man sat faceless behind the wheel. He did not get out, and Johnny watched him as he walked to the store. Johnny had a great fear of lone men in stopped cars. The cart wobbled as he went up one aisle and down another. Just the basics, he decided: milk, juice, bacon, eggs, sandwich bread, fruit. He bought more aspirin for his mother. Tomato juice also seemed to help. The cop stopped him at the end of aisle eight. He was tall and broad, with brown eyes that were too soft for the lines in his face, the hard angle of his jaw. He had no cart, stood with his hands in his pockets, and Johnny knew at a glance that he'd followed him inside. He had that look, a kind of resigned patience. And Johnny wanted to run. "Hey, Johnny," he said. "How you doing?" His hair was longer than Johnny remembered, same brown as his eyes, shaggy and curling over the top of his collar with a bit of new silver threaded in at the sides. His face had thinned out, and some part of Johnny recognized that the year had been hard on him as well. Big as the cop was, he looked pressed down, haunted, but most of the world looked like that to Johnny, so he wasn't sure. The cop's voice was deep and concerned. It brought back so many bad memories that, for an instant, Johnny could neither move nor speak. The cop stepped closer and brought with him the same thoughtful expression that Johnny had seen so often, the same look of gentle worry. Some part of Johnny wanted to like the man, to trust him; but he was still the one who let Alyssa fade away. He was still the one who lost her. "I'm good," Johnny told him. "You know. Hanging in." The cop looked at his watch, then at Johnny's grubby clothes and wild, black hair. It was forty minutes after six on a school day. "Any word from your father?" he asked. "No." Johnny tried to hide the sudden shame. "No word." "I'm sorry." The moment stretched, but the cop did not move. The brown eyes remained steady, and up close he looked just as big and calm as the first time he'd come to Johnny's house. But that was another memory, so Johnny stared at the man's thick wrist, the clean, blunt nails.His voice cracked when he spoke. "My mother got a letter once. She said he was in Chicago, maybe going to California." A pause, eyes moving from hand to floor. "He'll come back." Johnny said it with conviction. The cop nodded once and turned his head away. Spencer Merrimon had left two weeks after his daughter was grabbed. Too much pain. Too much guilt. His wife never let him forget that he was supposed to pick the girl up, never let him forget that she would not have been walking down the road at dusk if he'd only done what he was supposed to do. "It wasn't his fault," Johnny said. "I never said it was." "He was working. He forgot the time. It wasn't his fault." "We all make mistakes, son. Every last one of us. Your father is a good man. Don't you ever doubt that." "I don't." Sudden resentment in Johnny's voice. "It's okay." "I never would." Johnny felt the color fall out of his face. He could not remember the last time he'd spoken so much to a grown-up, but there was something about the cop. He was old as hell, like forty, but he never rushed things, and there was a warmth to his face, a kindness that didn't seem fake or put on to trick a kid into trusting him. His eyes were always very still, and some part of Johnny hoped that he was a good enough cop to make things right. But it had been a year, and his sister was still gone. Johnny had to worry about the now, and in the now this cop was no friend. There was Social Services, which was just waiting for an excuse; and then there were the things that Johnny did, the places he went when he cut school, the risks he took when he snuck out after midnight. If the cop knew what Johnny was doing, he would be forced to take action. Foster homes. The courts. He would stop Johnny if he could. "How's your mom?" the cop asked. His eyes were intent, hand still on the cart. "Tired," Johnny said. "Lupus, you know. She tires easily." The cop frowned for the first time. "Last time I found you here, you told me she had Lyme disease." He was right. "No. I said she had lupus." The cop's face softened and he lifted his hand from the cart. "There are people who want to help. People who understand." Suddenly, Johnny was angry. No one understood, and no one offered to help. Not ever. "She's just under the weather. Just run down." The cop looked away from the lie, but his face remained sad. Johnny watched his gaze fall to the aspirin bottle, the tomato juice. From the way his eyes lingered, it was obvious that he knew more than most about d...

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