The first thing I did this morning was go to the gym.
That’s a lie. The rest of the world thinks I was at the gym. The first thing I really did this morning was assume a false identity and jump on a train out of Pleasanton. The truth is, no one knows where I am, but if you are reading this, I am in trouble.
You see, it’s January the second, and I have already broken my only New Year’s resolution: Don’t kill anyone.
You probably already know who I am, but just to be certain—I despise miscommunication—I’ll tell you. I am Clinton Keith, author of the bestselling Ivory trilogy and the almost-complete Darkness of Time series.
Every young novelist dreams of publishing his works and having millions of readers fall in love with his stories overnight. Every aspiring writer fantasizes that someday, maybe even in his own lifetime, his stories and characters will be so beloved that someone will turn them into astounding films. Tragically few ever realize their desires. Thinking back, I am still astounded that this happened to me. One day, I sent a manuscript to forty different publishers, fervently praying that just one of them would give me a chance. The next day, it seemed, news stations were contacting me for interviews about my novel that had just topped the best-sellers list. I was at the top of my world, living what had seemed as unattainable as reaching the end of outer space.
The next day, so to speak, was when it all came crashing down.
I took the train to the nearest big city, changed my clothes on the trip, and tried to lose myself in the Chicago crowds. Four hours later, I reach the airport, doubling back and taking the most obscure, roundabout route possible. Buying a last-minute ticket to California with cash makes security rather suspicious, but I managed to make my flight, even though I had to run until I was about to choke from panting and was the last person to board. The kid next to me kept glancing at me. I could tell he was trying to be stealthy about it, but was failing miserably. “Aren’t you Clinton Keith, that amazing writer?” he finally worked up the courage to ask.
My heart was racing faster than the airplane. With control gained from years of playing pranks with my identical twin brother, I smiled as nonchalantly as possible and drawled, “I get that a lot.”
The kid was satisfied, but my adrenaline was high for the rest of the flight.
About three months ago, I started getting weird fan mail. Everyone gets the occasional loonies, but these letters would say things like, “I like your new six-month-old Labrador Retriever. She has a sweet personality. –CKC,” or, “You really should get your car’s heater fixed. –CKC.” Always, it was something that no one could know unless they had incredibly close contact with me. Always, the envelopes were postmarked from different places. Always, they were signed “CKC.”
When I was sufficiently freaked out, my twin Hunter and his girlfriend convinced me to go to the police. Sweet little Annie, my soon-to-be sister-in-law, looked at me with her big green eyes and said, “Clint, at the very least, it’s a major invasion of privacy. It could be something a lot worse. You’re a big guy, but sometimes even you need someone else’s help.” God bless Annie.
The police laughed at me. “Mr. Keith,” the officers said, “this is just some silly fad one of your fans is going through. Fans do crazy things, but it all passes soon enough. Just keep on acting like you always do, and they’ll lose interest. CKC is probably just the fan’s initials. See, he’s too embarrassed to even sign his full name.”
Except they were wrong. I did some research when I got home. “CKC” is the name of a secret organization: The Clinton Keith Cult. Their mission statement: “We are people devoted to making Clinton Keith’s stories the best they can be.” Their means: “Anything we have to do to achieve a favorable outcome.” Anything.
In California, I hitched a ride with a truck driver to San Diego, where I boarded a flight to Seattle. By this time, I was dead tired and smelled so bad that the elderly lady next to me gave me a concerned look and offered me some spare change. That sure affects a man’s pride: From celebrity to hobo in less than twenty-four hours. I thanked her but declined, she said she would pray for me, and I promptly fell asleep for the rest of the flight.
I received the second-to-last last letter from CKC two days before Christmas. “You’re thinking about killing off your main character’s sister. DO NOT. If she dies, you will soon follow her. –CKC”
Christmas was ruined. Hunter, Annie, and I sat around our little round table with green and red placemats with twinkling lights strung overhead, as we have for the past three years, but the only sound was our forks scraping on the plates and the occasional “but maybe…” as one of us thought of a scenario in which things weren’t incredibly bleak, but realized as soon as we started to talk that our scenario was ridiculous.
When the last bite of mashed potatoes was cleaned from the plates, Hunter stood up, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “You have to do what you have to do.” That was the end of it.
So I resolved on the day after Christmas that, for the next year, I would not kill a single character.
Fourteen hours into the New Year, I broke my resolution. Cristal Kensington had to die. Her death was the driving motivation for her brother’s decision to join the fight. If she didn’t die, he wouldn’t get up out of bed and become a champion, and the villains would win. The whole book depended on her death.
I killed her. Five minutes later, my computer chimed like it does when I have a new email. The sender and subject were blank. It read, “You were warned. Tomorrow night will be your last. –CKC”
It started raining shortly after we landed in Seattle. Well, when I say “rain,” it was really just a gentle mist. It reminded me of one day when Hunter and I were five, years before the war killed our dad and cancer killed our mom. We were moving to a new house for the first time in our lives, and neither of us were very happy. It was misting just like this when mom took us in her arms in front of our new house and whispered, “Just think of all the adventures we’re going to have here.” I knew then that I had run far enough.
The nap had refreshed me enough to keep going just a little bit more. I bought a used car from a random person for probably more than it was worth, paid an exorbitant amount to fill the gas tank, and turned towards the east. For hours I drove in my dirty white jalopy through winding roads with no streetlights, lined by thousands of giant green trees. The entire world was hushed out here, and the sun lit the clouds in the sky on fire. I almost thought I was safe.
Huddled in the one bathroom in the house with no windows, Hunter, Annie, and I whispered frantically that first night of the year, trying to figure out a plan. As soon as I got the email, of course, I went back to the police, thinking maybe they would believe me now. Not a chance. I heard murmurs of “the boy who cried wolf,” “fame goes to some people’s heads,” and, “the dangers of an overactive imagination,” and received looks that practically screamed, “You made this all up, didn’t you?”
At least I was not entirely alone yet. Hunter and Annie believed me. Around ten o’clock, we finally came up with a plan.
At about six in the evening, I rolled to a stop in a quiet little Washington town in the middle of nowhere. There was only one hotel there, and it was more of a house-turned-inn than a hotel, so my choice of residence for the night was easily decided. I leaned against the heavy wood front door to open it, dropped my backpack beside the counter, and lifted my weary gaze to the matronly woman with her brown hair in a messy bun who stood behind the counter. “Please tell me you have a room open,” I begged.
“Of course we have a room open,” she nearly sang. “We scarcely ever get visitors out here.”
“How much for a night?” I asked.
She gave me a perceptive look, tilted her head to the side, and said, “Twenty bucks.”
I gave her forty.
That’s how I came to be in this room, writing to you.
I had to get out of town, that much was clear, but that CKC could monitor my every move was also clear. They would probably be able to track any transaction I made, too—I remembered that one letter, “You really could get a higher interest rate on your savings account. –CKC.” So I transferred all of my money to Hunter’s bank account last night, and we switched beds. This morning, Hunter dressed in my clothes and went to the gym, like I always do—but not before we switched wallets. I messed up my hair like he usually does, drove his green pickup truck to the bank to withdraw all my savings from his account, and headed to the train station, and I’ve been running ever since.
If I make it to tomorrow, I’ll head to Canada and try to make my way to Montreal. Then I’ll get a flight to somewhere—probably France, maybe somewhere in Central America. I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I’m trying to do the opposite of what CPC would expect me to do, but who knows if I will succeed.
As soon as I’m finished, I’ll put this in my jacket pocket. If they catch me, I’ll do my best to lose the jacket first. It is essential that this letter find you.
So, if you are reading this, I am certainly in trouble. Go to Pleasanton, Illinois, tell Hunter and Annie that Clint sent you, and have them go straight to the police with the enclosed detailed account of everything that has happened so far. There’s a chance I am still alive, and I will need all the help I can get to get out of this.
There’s also a chance that I’m already dead. That is where you come in.
You see, Cristal Kensington had to die. The story has to be finished—the last book in the Darkness of Time series. Millions of readers are depending on it, and I can’t let them down.
So now it’s up to you. I buried my manuscript beside the “keep out” sign at Signal Road in Seal Beach off of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Finish the story. Win the battle. Vanquish the hordes of the forces of evil. Good must triumph.
But be warned: The CPC is now watching you.