The novel opens with a bucolic scene, the annual Fourth of July parade in Jericho Falls, N.H. To Maeve Sinclair, just shy of 30, the parade is a melancholy reminder that she’s moving on to a new job in Boston. Her entire family is here: Maeve’s amicably divorced parents; her younger brother, Logan; her sister, Rose; and Rose’s girlfriend, Priya. There’s also an old flame of Maeve’s, as well as Tim, the guy who took her to the junior prom.
But before Maeve can begin saying her farewells, in a scene reminiscent of the opening of Stephen King’s 2014 novel “Mr. Mercedes,” a BMW careers onto Main Street, killing several revelers. Maeve’s alcoholic father, Ted, pushes Rose and Priya from its path before he slams into and over the car’s hood. When Maeve rushes to his side, she finds him alive. It may seem like the worst is over, but then Maeve witnesses something horrific.
“Tim plants a hand, fingers splayed, on the driver’s bloodied T-shirt. The driver reaches out and grabs Tim by the face, shoves him backward. As Tim takes one step back, Maeve is sure she sees the imprint of the driver’s hand flare red on Tim’s skin before it fades.”
Within seconds, Tim is dead, blood streaming from his eyes and nose. The driver staggers on through the street, grabbing onlookers, all of whom die in moments. When the driver lunges for a father and young child, Maeve goes after him with a baseball bat. Unthinkingly, she grabs his wrist as he reaches for her throat. At her touch, the man perishes. Maeve does not, and her mother and brother run to her. As they embrace Maeve, both family members convulse and die, and Maeve sees the telltale red imprint of her hand on Logan’s cheek.
What follows is a frightening journey into the neighboring White Mountains, as Maeve flees from her surviving family members lest she unwittingly kill them, too. Consumed by guilt and dread, and unsure of what she’s become, or why, Maeve grows increasingly debilitated by whatever has infected her.
Worse, Ted, Rose and Priya aren’t the only ones trying to find Maeve. Oscar Hecht — Patient Zero, the driver of the BMW — had been a research scientist at a top-secret, government-funded research facility. His job centered on Project: Red Hands, a tactile bacterium infection being developed as a bioweapon. For reasons that remain slightly murky, Hecht injected the bacterium into himself, thereby becoming the project’s first human subject: one who was seemingly immune and a carrier, like Maeve.
Yet as Maeve begins to hear a voice inside her head, urging her to touch others, it becomes evident that she is not, perhaps, a random vector of disease, but someone who’s been chosen as its host — but by what? Millions have now viewed recordings of Hecht’s attacks, and many people are intent on tracking down Maeve. Among them are Alena Boudreau, a steely Helen Mirren-like character, and Ben Walker, a former DARPA investigator, who team up to find Maeve before she’s turned into a bioweapon.
Tautly written, “Red Hands” — the third in a series starring Walker — excels not just because of its scare factor (which is high), but also its humane depiction of grief, isolation and fear, growing mistrust of government and even one’s own neighbors. This potent novel’s most haunting image isn’t so much the gruesome infection generated by a touch, but of loved ones pressing their hands against opposite sides of a glass wall, longing for connection.
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel is “The Book of Lamps and Banners.”
By Christopher Golden
St. Martin’s. 310 pp. $28.99