In a midweek reading slump? Here’s a top pick from our YA collection:
Murder Board by Rosie Somers
About the book
A new home, a shiny new code name, and a spot in an elite black-ops training program aren’t Infinity’s ideal way to start the week—or the next six weeks, as it turns out. Yet, here she is, competing against twenty-five other recruits in a cutthroat competition known only as The Program, for one of five spots on a super-secret intelligence and counter-terrorism team. And she might actually have a shot at making it. Until someone starts killing off the top performers.
Now, the only way to stay in The Program—and alive—is to find the sweet spot between scoring too high or flunking out. Relying on her faith and instincts, Infinity needs to find out who’s snuffing out the competition, or she could be next.
A COLD AND UNSETTLED FEELING takes up residence in my chest. I mute my TV and set my sketchpad and pencil on the bed next to me. Then I sit up straighter and strain my ears for sound. Any noise anywhere in this small house echoes in even the corners farthest from the source. Like the current scraping of metal slipping into the lock in the kitchen door, not a key… something clumsier, something that wasn’t made as an exact fit for those specific tumblers. I try to attribute it to my imagination, but I can’t deny the truth.
Someone is trying to get into my house.
Panic swirls in my chest like a tempest. What am I supposed to do? Staying home alone when my mother is out of town for work has never been a problem before, never been a threat to my well-being. We live in a safe neighborhood. All my neighbors have known me since I was born; they’re supposed to be keeping an eye on things here. It’s what they do. I have no contingency plan for a break in. Nothing beyond panic and pray.
“Dear God, protect me,” I whisper as I visually scan my room for something, anything, that I can use to defend myself. I come up empty. I change tacks and reach for my phone. I dial 911 with shaky fingers, hit send. The call drops with a cheery, three-note chime. My hope drops with the call. I try again with the same result, then check my service. Zero bars. The walls of my house are paper thin. I’ve never had less than full bars anywhere on the property. My stomach tightens into a solid lump in my throat, threatening to cut off my air supply.
And then the back door creaks open. I all but fall out of bed, praying the sound isn’t crashing thunder in the virtual silence, giving away my location. Even if I am already on the move. With every step I take toward my open bedroom door, a heavy boot step answers in my kitchen. Closing in on me. I make it to my door before the intruder makes it to the hallway, but his shadow looms at the other end of the passage as I slam my door shut and lock it. The soft steps turn into a pounding thump, thump, thump, thump—a solid mimicking of my racing pulse—as the intruder kicks into a jog across the hardwood floor. He stops just outside my room. The locked door offers little protection. One good kick and that thing’s probably coming down. My fear rages like an ice storm, chilling the blood in my veins. My hands shake with adrenaline as my pulse spikes even more, swishing in my ears with a heavy whir, whir, whir, whir. I sprint to the other side of my small room and tug up the window blinds with clumsy fingers. My front yard is empty and still and looking so much like a blessed haven compared to the danger in my house right now. As I fumble with the window lock, still clutching my useless phone, my doorknob jiggles forcefully. A heartbeat later, something solid and heavy thuds against my door, and the whole house shudders from the impact. I yelp in surprise, but don’t let it deter me from my task.
I finally manage to push my window up high enough to slide through, and I drop into a crouch in my mom’s favorite flower bed. The November cold tickles my cheeks and the tip of my nose, and mulch and other plant debris digs into the soft soles of my bare feet like tiny icicles, but I don’t let it distract me. I push off from the ground in a runner’s start, or what I imagine one to look like. In seconds, I’m halfway across the lawn in aim of the Fergussons’ house.
My feet sink into the grass, and soft dirt squishes between my toes with every step. Twenty more feet and I’ll be at the Fergussons’ front door.
I shoot a frantic glance behind me, but no one is chasing me. In the midst of my panting breath is a soft sigh of relief. My chest loosens from short, panicked gasps to a deeper, cooling lungful with every new inhale. Refuge is almost close enough to touch.
The Fergussons’ living room light seeps through the cracks in their curtains to spill out over the space between our two houses in soft yellow streaks. As I round my garage, I open my mouth to call out. Before I can make a sound, a hard body slams into me. The impact knocks the wind out of me, and I can’t even scream. My phone skitters across the driveway, and suddenly, I’m face down on the ground. The concrete scrapes my skin, abrading the layers off like a cheese grater. The sting is sharp, and tears well in my eyes. Someone’s full weight rests heavy on my back.
I inhale sharply and cry out. The person holding me down shoves a coarse cloth into my mouth. It tastes like dirt and gasoline. I choke on the aroma and try to spit it out, but a cloth bag drops over my head. Drawstrings pull tight around my neck, cutting off my sense of the outside world. The ties are dangerously tight; if I move wrong, it could end very badly.
But I don’t stop struggling, bucking and twisting and fighting for freedom. Not when he ties my hands behind my back so tight the tendons in my arms stretch painfully, and I think my shoulders might pull from their sockets. Not when he lifts me by the arms and sets me on my feet like I weigh little more than a toddler. Not when strong arms grab me in a suffocating grip around my middle and my captor starts a forward progression that, even without my sense of sight, I’m certain is toward the road. My heel connects with his shin, and pain radiates into the sole of my foot and up my calf. But the guy holding me only grunts in response and doesn’t let me go. I try again and again but get nowhere. My muscles are weak from exertion already, and try as I might to get free, my movements are becoming sluggish and unsubstantial. The human vice grip carrying me must be made of steel.
An engine rumbles closer, then idles next to us. Metal scrapes against metal, and the person holding me tosses me into the back of what must be a van. My shoulder crushes painfully against the floor. I take longer than I should righting myself, wincing in pain as my muscles stretch to accommodate positions my limbs are not supposed to bend into. As soon as I’m up on my knees, I scramble across the gnarled carpeting in the direction of the opening. The door slams shut before I get there, and I fall against it, slumping in defeat. The metal is cold against my skin even through my T-shirt.
I voice a prayer for help, for protection, for rescue, but every word is a garbled mess behind my gag. Somewhere to my right, the sound of a car door opening is muffled, as if the back of the van is separate from the front. The vehicle bounces with the weight of someone large climbing into the cab. Before the door shuts again, we’re speeding away from my house.
Did any of my neighbors notice the commotion? Did anyone see me trussed up and thrown into the back of a kidnapper’s van? God, please let someone have seen what happened and called the police. But deep down, I harbor the suspicion that no one did. It all happened so fast, how could they have seen? My mom’s not due back from Seattle for two more days. By the time she gets home, I’m going to be lost forever, disappeared without a trace.
We drive for a hundred years. My fingertips have long ago started to go numb, and all of my extremities burn from being stuck in the same position for too long. The twists and turns and stops and accelerations are too many to count. I try at first, but I lose track after a while. Eventually, the ride becomes bumpier, underscored by the crunch of gravel under the tires. The van slows to a crawl, then stops with a jolt, and I’m on high alert, fatigued muscles tense, before the engine shuts off. Both cab doors open, and two men engage in conversation as they climb out. But I can’t make out their words.
The door I’m leaning against moves, shifting out from behind me. I’ve been in this position for so long, my muscles are weak and slow. Before I can catch myself, I fall backward through the opening. But I don’t hit the ground. Instead, a pair of strong hands catches me under my arms and lifts me to stand. Gravel prickles the undersides of my feet, and I wince against the pain. My legs ache as blood suddenly rushes back into them. Whoever caught me continues to hold me upright until I’m able to bear my own weight. Then he unties my wrists and moves my arms so that they’re joined at my front instead of my back. Just as the feeling starts to return to my fingertips, he ties my wrists back up.
The space around me is accented by distant movement, the rustling of foliage, and the sounds of night, but nothing that might tell me where we are or if anyone might be close enough to hear me scream. But scream I do. It’s mostly pointless with my gag absorbing most of the sound and my hood absorbing even more, but I wail at the top of my lungs. Until something hard jams solidly into my gut, forcing the last of the air from my lungs. I’d vomit, but I’m almost positive the blow has ripped me open and left my stomach flattened against my spine. Also, vomiting against a gag and into a bag over my head feels like a really bad idea. I double over, gasping for breath, and do my best to will away the wrenching pain in my abdomen.
There’s a tug at my wrist, and a second later, another more forceful jerk. It pulls me forward like a tether. I have no choice but to follow where my lead takes me. Each step is like walking on sharp glass, and by the time I step onto thick, soft grass, I’m certain I’ve left a trail of bloody footprints behind me. But I don’t whimper or cry. I don’t make a sound. As scared as I am, I won’t give these brutes the satisfaction of seeing my pain.
They lead me onto pavement and then up four stairs, two of which I stub toes on before I realize a step is there. Thanks for the heads up, guy. Then I’m standing on a landing, maybe a porch. The wood beneath my feet is smooth and finished, and I send a silent thank you skyward. At least God is looking out for the tender flesh on the soles of my feet. Even if He did let me get kidnapped.
A door squeaks open, and my tether pulls tight, encouraging me forward again. In two steps, I’m inside a building. The air inside is cooler, and a soft doormat cushions my battered feet. Until a body shoves me from behind, almost knocking me on my face. “Move, recruit.”
Recruit? I get my balance and begin a tentative progression forward. My lead isn’t taut anymore. Is there still anyone on the other end? Maybe not, but there is, for sure, an impatient jerk behind me, probably just waiting for the next opportunity to shove me. So I continue forward. And slam into a wall.
The impact reverberates up my left shoulder, and the side of my head makes contact a heartbeat later. I swallow a muffled oomph. From the feel, I’ve just walked into the side of a doorframe. And the guy behind me snickers quietly. Thanks again, jerk. I correct my trajectory and enter a room. The noise here is different. The sounds of tense breathing, from several directions, is muted only by rustling fabric. There are multiple people in this room, but no one is speaking. How many people are here? Are they dangerous foe or innocent victims like me?
The flooring in here is different, too, padded but not carpet, smoother. I take several steps. Then a gentle hand grips my arm and leads me farther in. When we stop, the hand at my elbow glides down to my wrists and begins working at my ropes.
No way this is the same guy who almost shoved me on my face and watched me slam full-force into the doorframe. This one’s touch is benevolent, almost… careful. As soon as my hands are free, I rub at my aching wrists, caring more about the blood flow to my fingers than the abraded skin there. And he sets to work on the sack covering my head and tied around my neck.
When it’s gone, bright light is my new enemy. I have to close my eyes against the pain and slowly squint them open to adjust to the brightness. By the time my eyes acclimate, my gag is off, too. I lick parched lips to wet them, but my tongue is like sandpaper after sucking on that gag for so long. And never mind the prickling needles in the back of my throat. I would give my right pinky toe for some water right now.
Without moving from where I stand, I turn my head to take in my surroundings. Floor to ceiling mirrors cover the long wall in front of me. And reflected in it are twenty-plus other teens. The room is large, longer than it is wide, and set up like a home gym. Free weights and kettle bells are stacked in a corner.
Everyone is dressed in various states of casual, from jeans to sweats—to pajamas, like me—and every face reflected in the mirror matches my shell-shocked expression. Except for the guy on the far end, who was apparently abducted in nothing but a pair boxer briefs. I avert my gaze to give him some privacy, but he doesn’t seem too bothered by his lack of clothing. He seems more interested in the mirror, more specifically, the handful of people haunting the space behind our reflections. Like guards on patrol.
In front of us is a tall woman with exotic features, a tight black bun, and slender frame. If it weren’t for the fact that she is apparently the end of the line in this little abduction game and dressed head-to-toe in burglar black, I’d peg her for a model.
She takes a moment to survey each of us, and when she gets to me, her stare gives me the heebs. I try to hide a shudder, and she continues down the line to the end. Then she looks at our group as a whole. “Hello, recruits,” she says in a clear, crisp voice. “Welcome to The Program.”