Stephanie Maddox is an FBI agent assigned to internal affairs who has worked for nearly twenty years to establish herself and cement her reputation within the organization. She’s a single mother to Zachary, her teenage son, who has sacrificed, like Steph, for her career. She has missed school functions, birthdays, and other events. Despite that, Steph believes that she and Zachary have a close relationship, and Steph is certain that she knows her son better than anyone else possibly could. She is devoted to him and would do anything to protect him from the terrible secret she carries with her.
But Zachary has secrets of his own.
One day Stephanie is rattled when she finds a gun hidden in Zachary’s closet. A loaded gun. Then comes a knock at her front door — a colleague on the domestic terrorism squad utters three devastating words: “It’s about Zachary.”
Thus begins a compulsively readable thriller of deception and betrayal. When Zachary is accused of an unimaginable crime, Steph fights to clear his name and, in the process, exposes a shadowy conspiracy that threatens to destroy them both — and bring a country to its knees. Packed with shocking twists and intense family drama, Keep You Close is an exploration of the shattering consequences of the love that binds — and sometimes blinds — a mother and her child.
Steph knows her son isn’t perfect. But is he dangerous?
Karen Cleveland’s debut novel, Need to Know, was dazzling, a fast-paced, exhilarating thriller. And there is no sophomore slump for this talented author. Her new release, Keep You Close, further establishes Cleveland as one of the most powerful current voices in American fiction.
The focus is on a woman forced to confront her internal sense of right and wrong when the one person she cherishes most in the world is accused of a brutal, unimaginable crime.
At the outset, Steph can’t imagine how a loaded gun got into her son, Zachary’s, room. But as a trained, experienced FBI agent, she is well aware of the possibilities, each of which is too horrible to contemplate. She is stunned and frightened to her core when Scott, an agent with whom Steph had a two-year relationship, a member of the domestic terrorism squad, suddenly turns up on her doorstep and announces, “It’s about Zachary.” Her son is an honor student. Scott briefs her about the activities of the Freedom Solidarity Movement, an extremist group that the Bureau has been monitoring since it received a tip that the organization planned to target government officials. If the tip proved accurate, the Bureau would elevate it from an anarchist to full-fledged terrorist group, “a critical difference.” Anarchy is an expression of free speech protected under the Constitution. But terrorism is something else entirely.
“Zach’s wrapped up in it, Steph,” Scott tells her. But Steph knows it’s simply not possible that Zachary has gotten involved in such a group. And is convinced that if he did, he had to have been tricked or gotten caught up with the wrong crowd the way kids sometimes do. She is confident there is no chance that her boy could have willingly and knowingly agreed to be part of a group plotting the murders of several high-profile government officials. “He wouldn’t be involved in that,” she tells Scott.
As an agent working in internal affairs, Steph is held to an even higher standard of ethical, transparent behavior than other agents. After internal affairs agents police the other members of the organization, ensuring that employees who violate the Bureau’s code of conduct face the consequences. Scott has come to Steph on an informal basis to warn her, but he refuses to expound upon precisely what evidence the FBI has uncovered that implicates Zachary. He knows what a diligent, determined investigator she is. “You’re his mother,” he reminds her, “but you’re also a federal agent.” Steph knows all too well that withholding evidence or information from the Bureau could spell the end of her dream career.
From there, Keep You Close moves at a relentless, compelling, and sometimes terrifying pace. Cleveland, a former CIA analyst, again demonstrates her command of her subject matter. And, via Steph’s first-person narrative, showcases the struggle of a mother desperate to learn what she doesn’t know about her teenager while still believing that her child must be wrongly accused. But Steph is not just any American mother. She is a trained, experienced agent with integral knowledge about exactly how far terrorists groups will go to recruit, indoctrinate, and manipulate unwitting citizens. After all, ordinary mothers don’t get greenlighted — the term used when the mob puts a hit out. But Steph as been and she investigates whether her past handling of high profile cases — one, in particular, that mandated her to transfer to the office where she is currently assigned — figures into Zachary’s predicament.
The truth is a very dangerous thing, Agent Maddox.
It soon becomes clear that neither Steph nor those closest to her are safe. Whoever is masterminding what is happening will stop at nothing to keep Stephanie from discovering and exposing the conspiracy. Planting evidence to make it appear that Zachary is guilty — if, in fact, the mounting evidence is contrived — is only a benign beginning.
Steph is a sympathetic character. A mother will risk most anything to save her child. But does that include her integrity and the possibility that she will lose the career she loves? And what if she is wrong about her child? Steph’s doubts are plausible, particularly in light of one troubling incident that took place when Zachary was younger. Because Cleveland has crafted the character so skillfully, readers will cheer her on and, like her, hold on to hope that her child is innocent.
Cleveland injects numerous plot twists and revelations, and a few heartbreaking developments, that propel the story forward to an explosive climax that will leave most readers’ jaws on the floor and keep them awake at night. The storyline is sophisticated, riveting, and eerily timely. It is also frighteningly credible and believable, especially in light of the expertise Cleveland brings to her writing. When Steph finally learns what is actually happening, it is apparent that the truth could be the lead story on any American news broadcast.
Years ago, Zachary asked Steph, “Are we safe, mommy?” to which she replied, “I’ll always keep you safe.” Will she be able to keep that promise? And is the country safe, as well? Keep You Close is another tautly-constructed, must-read thriller and, like 2018’s Need to Know, sure to be lauded as one of the best books of the year.
Excerpt from Keep You Close
Nighttime’s always been my favorite time to run. I like the stillness. The quiet streets, empty sidewalks. It’s not the safest time to be out, sure. But in running gear, it’s not like I have much to steal. And as far as assault: I’m tougher than I look. Trained in defense tactics, able to hold my own. It’s the nonrandom crime that worries me more. But if someone’s coming after me, they’ll find a way to do it, regardless.
The Reflecting Pool’s off to my left, dark and glassy. Mile six of a planned ten, all under seven and a half minutes so far. A solid pace tonight, better than usual. It’s the looming storm that’s spurring me on. We’ve had a week of early spring, unseasonably warm temperatures, the kind that coax buds from bare tree branches, tulip stalks from the soil. But the weather—it can turn on a dime here in the District, and the forecast says we’re due for one last blast of winter. Wind’s already picking up.
I pass the World War II Memorial, start up the incline to the Washington Monument. I’m in my element here. Muscles working, stretching, strengthening. Pushing myself. I’m in a light jacket, running pants that hit mid-calf. My head’s bare, hair pulled back, tied up away from my neck. Eighties rock in my earbuds, but quietly. Soft enough that I’d hear someone approach, that I’m fully aware of my surroundings.
At the top, I catch a glimpse of the White House. Off to my left, glowing bright. Still gives me a thrill to see it, even after years in the city. A constant reminder that I’m close to the highest reaches of power. And where there’s power, there’s a need for what I do.
Past the monument now, heading down the incline, picking up speed. The Capitol dome is ahead, illuminated against the night sky.
A memory fills my mind, just for an instant. Me, in that wood-paneled office, all those years ago. Him, standing up from behind his desk, coming toward me . . .
It’s that damned case at work that’s doing it, making me think of the past. I force my legs to work harder, push harder, move faster. Listen to the slap of my feet hitting the pavement, the staccato rhythm.
The National Mall stretches out in front of me. A straightaway, a chance to test my speed.
My legs are straining. There’s pain in my knee, but I push through. Not giving up now.
The dome looms large ahead. I see his face in my mind, once again. I can feel his hand on my arm, squeezing tight. . . .
Faster still, almost a sprint.
I can’t change the past, can’t do anything about him, not without jeopardizing everything that matters. But I can do something about the future. I can stop someone else.
I glance down at my wrist. Five-and-a-half-minute mile. I can feel the smile come to my lips.
I’ve got this. Tomorrow power gets policed.
Excerpted from Keep You Close by Karen Cleveland. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Cleveland. All rights reserved.
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