Extract: Hunted by Abir Mukherjee

In a race against time, the greatest threat may be your own child...

Prepare to be gripped by this pageturning new thriller from an award-winning author.

Abir Mukherjee


Chapter 1: Yasmin

Nothing good comes without pain.

The chiffon scarf dances around her in the breeze. Yasmin shifts it casually to her shoulders while the world beyond the windshield melts: the carboniferous ghosts of trees yielding to the sprawl of settlements and, in the distance, the contours of the city, its dark lines and needlepoints etched out in the smoke-blue haze of the horizon.

Los Angeles.

The sight of it prickles the soft hairs on the back of her neck as the fear rises within her once more.

She tries to bolster her courage, drawing on a lifetime’s worth of anger. That’s why she’s here, after all: to make a stand for those who can’t.

Beside her, Jack takes a sip of soda – that’s what they call it here – and in her head she plays with the novelty of the word. He places the can in the hollow of the armrest between them and she reaches out, touching his bronzed fingers with hers, tracing the faint blue outline of the rough tattoos. Jack glances over; her all-American white boy, his eyes hidden behind Oakleys and his hair under a Patriots cap, but he says nothing. How she wishes he would. A sentence, a word, anything, just to reassure her or . . . to show her that he too might be scared. His glance though sends a shiver through her. An act that feels illicit. She breathes in the tang of his cologne and turns once more to look out at the vista.

The landscape changes. The dead gradually giving way to the living. Taller buildings now, drawing closer to the freeway; packed in tight like matches in a box.

Billboards and yard signs sprout like weeds: Vote Costa and Take Back America; or Greenwood for President and A Better Tomorrow. Make your mark. Take your choice.

Jack signals, and she feels the car lurch across four lanes of traffic, pitching onto an off-ramp before she’s even had a chance to read the destination on the overhead sign. The soda rocks in its holster, a splash escaping, falling onto cheap black plastic.

‘Slow down,’ she says. ‘What’s the hurry?’

Jack looks over and she feels that frisson again. The power of his stare. He brakes for a red, takes a left when it shifts to green and then just cruises, between golden-stemmed palms along a sun-blessed boulevard that stretches on to forever. If this were a movie, she’d have lit a cigarette. Instead she lets the window all the way down and rests an arm on the door sill, fights her rising fear and tries to lose herself in other thoughts.

Everything will change today.

A young mother in faded T-shirt and frayed dungarees propels a buggy along the shaded sidewalk and for a moment Yasmin dreams.

Maybe a kid one day. Maybe even a house.

She shakes the thought from her head. In a few hours’ time, the world will be different and she and Jack will never see each other again. It has to be this way. Miriam has told them so.

They have hardly spoken this morning. Not since leaving the safe house. She, dumbstruck by fear and the incomprehensible magnitude of what lies ahead, and he? Maybe he is being stoic. Or maybe he is just as terrified as her. Two hundred miles and barely a word between them, but now, from nowhere, the impulse wells up inside her, the urge to ask him: What the fuck are we doing?

But it is too late now. They have made their decision; decided it together and reaffirmed it in bed last night. Miriam would freak if she knew.

Jack is already pulling into the covered parking lot, taking a ticket at the barrier, pulling off his shades, driving up the ramp.

Too late.

Eighteen years old and already it’s too late.

Jack drives the car nose first into a space and kills the engine. He looks at her and this time she doesn’t flinch. This time it is his turn to place his hand on hers.

‘You okay?’ the words like balm upon her skin.

No,’ she wants to tell him. ‘I’m really not.’ But that too is impossible. Where she is from, you learn to keep your demons hidden. Instead she nods and consoles herself with the currency of his smile. She is, she realises, doing this for him. She might have started on this journey out of conviction for the cause, but she is completing it because she’s falling in love with him.

Jack slides off his seat belt. He reaches for the door handle and Yasmin follows suit. She gets out and ponderously pushes the door shut. Jack is already retrieving the trolley cases from the trunk. He pulls up the handle on one, passes her the other, and places his shades back on his face.

He takes her hand.

They follow the signs: up stairs, through brushed metal doors, along walkways, passing from parking-lot concrete to the bright, white marble of the mall; crossing the boundary between utilitarian and aspirational. Ahead lie JCPenney, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and myriad other stores packed with shoppers seduced by discounted prices and refrigerated air.

She watches them: the sandal-clad parents, eyes flitting between shop windows and hyperactive kids; the tribes of teenagers – the golden ones and the trench-coated goths – loitering near the fountains and attentively ignoring each other; the leather-skinned pensioners in big shirts and sensible sneakers doing laps of the mall like athletes unable to shake the habit; the small-time political surrogates peddling buttons and bumper stickers and politicised baseball caps. Yasmin watches them all with a pang of perfect regret.

Everything will change today.

She passes the window displays, barely registering the high fashion or high heels that once she might have gazed at longingly.

Jack squeezes her hand.

‘You want a coffee?’

She wants a vodka.

What she wants is something to obliterate the doubts screaming inside her. But that isn’t about to happen. She purges the thought and instead looks at him and nods, not quite trusting herself to speak.

He smiles back.


The question is irrelevant. Their route and actions have been planned in advance. The question is part of the routine and the routine is for the security guards and CCTV cameras.

He leads the way, as confident in his direction as though he were walking home from the bus stop, through an eddy of kids and into the glass-domed atrium, joining a stream of shoppers ascending golden escalators toward the gates of the food court. He lets her step on first, standing behind her and encircling her waist with one strong arm as the stairs rise, and for the smallest of moments she wonders whether that arm protects or constricts. She turns round, the extra step negating his extra height, and for once they are level. A wave wells up within her, a bitter-sweet rush that encompasses everything from love and exhilaration to pain and pitch-black fear.

She clutches the escalator belt and feels like throwing up.

The landing appears ahead, bright and white. Jack takes the lead and once more she follows him, dutifully.

She wonders what he is thinking.

Does he too have doubts? How could he not?

Jack orders lattes while she waits for a table, loitering close-but-not-too-close to an old couple who sit hand in hand in front of empty cups. They are silent, yet Yasmin senses that a whole world of words passes between those thin, mottled fingers. By the time Jack returns, the table is hers. Instinctively she lowers her gaze, just as Miriam would want it. He places the black plastic tray on the table and takes the seat opposite. A cookie sits alongside the lattes. A gingerbread man with glazed eyes of icing sugar.

Last chance.

What was it they said at Christian weddings?

Speak now or forever hold your peace.

But she can’t speak. She certainly can’t look at him, fixing her gaze instead on the china mugs and the oversized biscuit.

Too big.

Everything in this country was too bloody big.

She reaches out, searching for the warmth of his hand and finding nothing but bare table.

What is he feeling? Surely he too must be scared?

She feels his touch, his fingers upon hers, and looks up at him and sees the nervous energy in his face, the electric charge ripple across his shoulders.

He is, she decides, dealing with his fear in his own way.

‘It’s okay,’ he says. ‘We’re nearly there.’

He lifts the gingerbread man from its saucer, breaks it in two and holds one half out to her. She takes it and stares at it: a head and half a torso.


He looks up from a sip of coffee and her confidence evaporates.

‘Do we have to . . . you know . . . ?’

‘Baby,’ he says, rising from his chair and taking a seat on the bench beside her. She feels the strength of his thigh against hers. ‘You know we have to. It’s the right thing to do. And when it’s done, we’ll be together. Don’t matter what Miriam says, we’ll make it happen.’

His words soothe her, but they don’t silence the screams that swirl in her head. And he’s right, of course. They need to keep going. Someone has to. Someone has to strike a blow.

Jack takes another sip and places the cup back on the table. She watches as he clenches and unclenches his fists.

‘It’s okay to be frightened,’ he says. ‘I’m scared myself. But it’s like Miriam said, we need to hit back at these bastards.’

She looks down, her eyes falling on the trolley case beside her. She thinks of its contents which she has never seen.

She picks up her cup and sips, swallowing hot coffee and registering only the burnt, bitter aftertaste. She contemplates a bite of her half of the gingerbread man but doesn’t have the appetite.

‘You clear on what to do?’

She nods.

‘Good,’ he says, then rubs the back of his neck and reaches over. She feels him thread his arm with hers. He squeezes her fingers, then kisses her and she doesn’t know what to feel.

‘It’s time,’ he says softly.

The kiss seems to renew her courage. Suddenly she is on her feet, going through the checks as though on autopilot. She knows the drill. They have practised it. Jack is already heading out into the mall. She will wait. Two minutes only. Enough time so that he can lose himself in the crowd. She spends the seconds clutching the handle of the trolley case, wheeling it forward and back.

Two minutes. It had seemed longer during the tedium of the dry runs, but now it is over too quickly.

She pulls the case behind her and sets off, joining the sea of bodies making for the escalator. She heads down, past carefree faces going the opposite way. It hurts to look at them, so instead she stares at her feet.

Three minutes to reach the prearranged location: the landing outside the radio station; the shock jocks broadcasting their poison into a million minds. Odd that the station should be in a mall, but then its positioning is one of the reasons Miriam has chosen it as a target.

‘It’ll send a powerful message.’

Jack will be inside by now, in the reception area. At least that is the plan.

She is not to enter, just plant her bomb in the hall outside and wait among the crowds for him to plant his and return. They will make their way back to the car and drive a safe distance and then phone in the warning.

‘No innocents will get hurt.’ Miriam has been categorical about that, and she has faith in Miriam; absolute faith.

But then she triggers the sensors on the automatic doors.

They open. Jack is not there.

She hesitates, hovering on the threshold, peering into a different world from the throng of the mall beyond: a world of white, antiseptic light; of sofas and flat screens and blonde receptionists behind a gleaming desk. She stands there, a stone in a stream, as crowds of shoppers brush past, their voices crashing in on her, drowning her own thoughts. A security guard is already assessing her for signs of threat. But there is no sign of Jack. Where is he?

She steps back and collides with an old woman in sunglasses and sneakers. She mumbles an apology but with one eye still scanning for Jack. Her heart is pounding. She needs to keep calm. He must have been waylaid. The mall is packed after all. But long minutes pass and still there is no sign of him.

She tasted salt on her upper lip.

Is he lost?

But Jack would never make that sort of error.

Maybe she is in the wrong place?

She turns, frantically scanning the floor for another entrance to the radio station, but there is none.

The black fear begins to well up again, threatening to overwhelm her. She keeps looking for Jack, searching for his dumb shades and his stupid baseball cap.

Has he been arrested? Is it all over before they’ve even started?

But she has watched the videos, the clips on YouTube of screaming onlookers and their panicked, herd-like stampede away from trouble. If they have got him, then where is the commotion? Where are the shouts of frightened shoppers, and where are the cops with their guns?

As one thought recedes, another takes root: darker, more pernicious.

Has he had a last-minute change of heart?

Has he decided that, after everything, this wasn’t what he wanted? But then, why wouldn’t he tell her? An electric panic seizes her.

Where the hell is he?

Her breath comes fast and shallow. She tries to force those last, terrible thoughts from her mind, but they flood back like storm water bursting a levee. She gulps at the suddenly thin air and feels the stares of passers-by boring into her soul, sensing her fear. Knowing her guilt.

She reaches into her jeans, takes out the phone Miriam has given her and dials his number from memory. No saved phone numbers. They have been strict about that. She waits for it to connect, agonising seconds spent in the hope that he will pick up, but it just keeps ringing till she hears the computerised lilt of the phone company’s voicemail, asking her to leave a message.

Fuck that.

She cancels the call and slips the phone back into her pocket. Something is clearly wrong. The plan is quite specific: plant the bombs and leave together. She cannot get out of here without him.

She doesn’t understand.

Frantically she searches for somewhere she can dispose of the case: an exit, a toilet, even a bin for fuck’s sake.

Then she remembers the corridor, the concrete stairwell to the parking garage. It would do. She runs, wheeling the case behind her, fighting through the crowd, ignoring their protests as she barges past.

She can see them now, the brushed metal doors just a few hundred metres away. She runs on, closing the distance: four hundred yards, three hundred. She feels her phone vibrate.

Jack. It must be Jack.

She slows to a walk, pulling her phone from her pocket. She does not recognise the number, but it doesn’t matter. Whoever it was has ended the call and suddenly she knows it’s too late. She hears another phone begin to ring. It is inside her trolley case. She doesn’t know what it is and at the same time knows exactly what it means. Yasmin Malik drops the phone in her hand. She thinks of her brother and begins to recite the declaration of faith. ‘There is no god but God and Mohammed is his –’

And then the bomb in her case explodes.

She shouldn’t be here.

Chapter 2: Shreya

Shreya Mistry longed for a cigarette. A nicotine punch to numb the shock of the carnage, but she’d tossed the last pack months ago, and anyway, it was out of the question on account of gas leaks.

There was no logic to it. At least none that she could see. No rhyme. No reason. Just victims dead and dying.

The air tasted of charred plastic and industrial solvent; of sackcloth and ashes. No more flames now, just smoke that billowed thick and black and impenetrable and mushrooming into charnel-house clouds.

She threaded her way through the cordon of emergency vehicles; lights on their roofs dancing kaleidoscope red and blue, triggering that familiar fizzing in her head. She looked down at the ground and centred herself. Around her the first responders: firefighters, police, paramedics; all just bystanders and stretcher-bearers now, traversing a parking- lot no man’s land of twisted metal and crystalline shards of glass; ferrying the dead like battlefield orderlies.

She shouldn’t be doing this.

She should be keeping her distance like they were told to, like the others were doing – the ones who didn’t obsess the way she did, the ones whose careers were still moving forward.

Good for them.

She kept walking, heading for the entrance, past the painless faces of the dead lined up in rows on the ground. As for the injured, the bloodied, the traumatised, she avoided their eyes. Behind her, sirens wailed and people cried. She shut out the noise and filled her head with numbers. Sixty-three
dead. A hundred and fourteen injured. Fifteen years at the Bureau. Fifteen years, and four months. Yet this was a first.

What sort of people bombed a mall?

A mall, in the middle of the day, when it was full of nothing but old folks and kids and store assistants working for minimum wage.

And it was a bomb, confirmed now, though obviously she’d anticipated
it from the start – as soon as the alert had reached the Bureau; fears that had festered and brooded, that had sat in her stomach and multiplied as she and half the field office had sped to the scene.

What sort of people bombed a mall?

The question wasn’t just rhetorical. She listed the candidates.

Hard left and far right. The Global Action folks, saving the planet by blowing up bits of it, or the American Redemption fanatics, looking to bomb America back to greatness.

In a sense it didn’t matter. The dead didn’t care and most everyone else would utter thoughts and prayers and then believe whatever post-truth palliative they wanted.

She donned a mask and latex gloves and approached the entrance.

‘You can’t go in.’ A thick hand, shoved in her face by a sweaty cop. ‘Building’s structurally compromised. Whole place could come down at any minute.’

She showed him her badge. Held the photo ID close to her own head in case he was one of those who had trouble telling one brown woman from another.

The cop gave a shrug.

‘No one goes in till the engineers say so. Don’t matter who you are. I got my orders.’

‘And I’ve got mine,’ she told him.

A lie. It made the hairs at her neck prickle. Lying was difficult, though she was getting better at it. The trick was to shut down your brain and try to look people in the eye as you said it. But then eye contact was another challenge, in its way just as problematic as lying. She steeled herself, then stared at the officer, gazing at him with the zeal of a Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep till he backed down and stepped aside.

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘It’s on your own head.’

She hoped not.

The first couple of yards inside, it was hard to tell what had happened. The place appeared untouched; outlets and convenience stalls pristine and desolate as though just waiting for opening time.

Only shattered glass and the litter of bags and backpacks – the detritus of the fleeing – pointed to what might lie ahead.

Yellow tape presaged the route. Her colleagues would have been in here already, hot on the heels of the first responders; gathering what evidence they could before being evac’ed out once the structure had been deemed unsafe.

She shouldn’t be here.

The story of her life.

The noise, the chaos of the parking lot faded, yielding to a singular
silence. It struck her as odd that the pain and the grief out there had been born in here, conceived in terror, a malign force that had migrated, leaving behind it a wasteland. She kept going, the only living thing in a world of mannequins, her footsteps echoing on polished floor tiles.

She closed her eyes, savouring the peace for a moment, before abruptly opening them again, reminding herself that that was not a fitting reaction.

She turned a corner and everything changed: sharp, ordered white dissolving to chaos and charcoal black and the stench of charred flesh and rubber; a jagged, bloodstained mess of twisted metal and tangled electrical cables; of dust and rubble and the ghosts of lives cut short. She closed her eyes and counted. It often helped. Safety in numbers. One, two, three . . . A ten count was normally enough.

Today it took close to thirty. She took a breath and opened her eyes to a different world; the Third World. Iraq or Libya maybe, but with sneakers in place of sandals.

Ground Zero.

She knelt to recover a child’s doll, a Raggedy Anne type thing like the one Nik had told her to buy for Isha years ago, when the girl was still a baby. She turned it over and stared at its charred and puckered face then placed it back on the floor and considered the blast radius.

Large. A sophisticated device.

She took her bearings. A service entrance nearby. No stores particularly close, no obvious target, at least not that she could see. A strange place to set off a bomb. A couple hundred yards away, a more central location, and the casualties could have – would have – been far higher. Whoever had done this had been . . . inefficient.

Her lungs burned, bronchial tracts constricting from the fog of bomb debris and asthma. She raised a hand to her mask as the coughing fit bent her double; a febrile twenty seconds that felt like life-sapping minutes. She beat back the panic, visualised what was going on in her chest just like she’d been taught, till the fit passed, then straightened to ringing ears and wet eyes and dancing pinpricks of light. She wiped them away and stared up at the ceiling: at the small blinking light on the black dome of a security camera.

The building groaned. An iron gasp of despair. She should leave now. Before the whole place decided to come down.

That camera.

It might have caught something . . .

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more