Cut Off, With Time Running Out

Guest Blogger: Meg Gardiner

Thriller writers grumble that in the twenty-first century, it’s tough to create suspense by isolating a character in dangerous circumstances. For decades, authors could easily strand their heroes in a dark alley, or cast them alone onto a deserted shore, and force them to face down evil forces on their own. It’s a classic way to ratchet up the tension in a story.

But today, everybody has a cell phone. CCTV cameras are everywhere. How could a hero ever find himself alone and out of touch? Characters are never more than two feet from a device that will instantly contact the police, the CIA, or air traffic control, so they can call SWAT for help, expose the terrorist cell, or keep those jumbo jets from colliding.

Yeah, right.

Recently I was scheduled to speak to a local arts group. The group meets at a community center in a neighborhood that’s a fifteen-minute drive from my house. On the day of the talk, I set off early and reached the neighborhood with thirty minutes to spare. I pulled up to the address the arts group had emailed me.

It was a vacant lot.

I doublechecked the street signs. River Street. This was the place. But the place wasn’t there.

And despite having an iPhone in my pocket, despite having the switchboard number for the community center and the cell phone number for the head of the arts group, I couldn’t reach anybody. Nobody answered my calls. And despite having satellite navigation in my car, a Google Maps printout, and an old-fashioned paper map on my lap, all of them telling me I was in the right spot, the community center didn’t seem to exist.

And the street was empty. No cars. No pedestrians. The shops weren’t open yet. The woods beyond them were dense and deserted. It felt like a scene from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

I drove up and down the street, looking for the community center. Looking for a sign, or a demon-possessed child, to tell me what had gone wrong. After twenty-five minutes, with the clock ticking down, I managed to get online via my phone and grab a GPS signal. That’s when I learned that the neighborhood had both a River Street and an Old River Street. Old River was not the address I had been given, but by then I had nothing to lose. I pulled a U-turn and took off for it.

Three minutes later I screeched up in front of the community center, where a lovely woman stood at the curb watching for me, clutching a cell phone. The cell phone that, it turned out, was waiting anxiously for my call, but had a dead battery.

I ran inside and launched straight into my talk to sixty people. All I could say was: Honestly, I didn’t mean to keep everybody in suspense.

Luckily, they laughed. Later, the episode got me thinking. How quickly can we be thrown into a situation where we’re not only out of contact, as I was, but in grave danger?

That becomes a nasty twist in THE NIGHTMARE THIEF.

In the story, a twenty-first birthday “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. The mock crime spree weekend is supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime for birthday girl Autumn Reiniger. It’s a high priced version of cops and robbers, played with fast cars and fake guns on the streets of San Francisco. And Edge Adventures alerts the SFPD ahead of time that a “crime simulation” is underway, so the cops can ignore the game—and any emergency calls.

Which is exactly what some very bad people are waiting for.

A gang of kidnappers hijacks the game and grabs Autumn and her friends. They want a huge ransom from her wealthy father. And they’ve timed it so that the police will never suspect that the kidnapping is for real.

Meanwhile, forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett and her boyfriend, combat medic Gabe Quintana, are investigating the death of a lawyer whose body has been found in a remote part of the Sierras—and they end up on a collision course with Autumn’s party.

After a car wreck, they and the kids end up trapped at the bottom of a gorge. Nobody knows where they are. They have no way to call for help. Some of the kids are badly injured. And killers are closing in on them.

California is America’s most populous state, but its wilderness can be shockingly rugged. And even today, it’s possible to get in serious trouble only a couple of bends away from lattes and wifi. It’s a prospect that scares me. How about you? If you found yourself cut off from the outside world, with danger closing in, how would you protect yourself?

Edgar Award winner Meg Gardiner is the internationally bestselling author of two thriller series set in California. CHINA LAKE won the 2009 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB was named one of Amazon’s top 10 thrillers of 2008 and won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Procedural Novel of the year. Gardiner practiced law in Los Angeles and later taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s three-time Jeopardy champion, recovering mime, and mother of three. Originally from Oklahoma, she lives in London.



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