Always the First to Die

A Novel

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For fans of Riley Sager with a classic slasher twist, Always the First to Die follows a former horror movie actress as she returns to the set of her most iconic film, only to find that the strange circumstances begin to resemble the plot of her most famous film.

After her husband’s death, Lexi has refused to return to the Pinecrest Estate on the Florida Keys, too many hard memories on that strip of land. Memories of meeting her husband on the set of an iconic horror movie. Of being cast as an extra, of watching herself get killed on screen. And of scoffing at the rumors of the Pinecrest Estate “curse,” until she witnessed a cast member die that very summer. But when her daughter sneaks away to visit her grandfather, legendary horror movie director Rick Plummer, Lexi is forced to face her past. That’s when a Category Four hurricane changes course, and hits the southern coast.

Unable to get through to her daughter, Lexi drives to the Keys in the wake of the storm. What she finds is an island without cell service, without power, and with limited police presence. A desolate bit of land, with only a few remaining behind- the horror director, the starlet once cast as the final girl, the young teenager searching for clues of her father, the mother determined to get off the island, and…the person picking them off one-by-one.

Soon enough Lexi’s life begins to resemble Rick’s most famous horror film, and she must risk her life to save her daughter before someone, or something, destroys them all.


Copyright © 2022 by R. J. Jacobs

Cover and internal design © 2022 by Sourcebooks

Cover design by Lauren Harms

Cover images © FotoKina/Shutterstock

Internal design by Holli Roach/Sourcebooks

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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

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Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Jacobs, R. J., author.

Title: Always the first to die / R.J. Jacobs.

Description: Naperville, Illinois : Sourcebooks Landmark, 2022.

Identifiers: LCCN 2022006651 (print) | LCCN 2022006652 (ebook) | (trade paperback) | (epub)

Subjects: LCGFT: Novels.

Classification: LCC PS3610.A356486 A79 2022 (print) | LCC PS3610.A356486

(ebook) | DDC 813/.6--dc23/eng/20220225

LC record available at

LC ebook record available at


Front Cover

Title Page



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen


Reading Group Guide

A Conversation with the Author


About the Author

Back Cover

This book is dedicated to you, the reader. To quote Carl Jung, "The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable."

"Every love story is a ghost story."

—David Foster Wallace

"The fundamental truth of existence is fear, nothing else compares. To experience terror is to live with no illusions. Try it sometime."

—Rick Plummer


The air buzzes with silence while I listen at your door. Soon, faint sounds emerge within the silence: the groan of truck tires on US 1, a woman laughing hysterically in the distance, the hush of waves rolling onto the beach. But nothing from inside your room.

Part of me hates that you'll never know what I'm about to do. It's a plot too intricate for you to have dreamed it up yourself, one so brilliant you'd be proud. Waiting for it to begin has been agonizing.

And I know better than to rush. I've waited long enough for it to begin.

Are you afraid? Like the others? Of the legend of the ghost haunting your estate?

You give fans of your films "a promise of fear."

"The fundamental truth of existence is fear."

That's your famous quote, right? You're so proud of it all. The irony makes me smile.

Once, I caught your eyes on me, your gaze lingering just a second too long. I wondered if you understood the truth. But suspecting is different than knowing, right? If you really knew what I am, your expression would have betrayed you. I would have seen something in your eyes besides the foggy confusion that washes over you all too often now. For a supposed genius, you can be painfully dense.

But you'll be happy you know me soon enough, I'm sure of it. You'll cling to me when this is all over.


You'll have to.

Now my sunburnt skin tingles as an eerie calm comes over me. The faint light from the hallway enters your room before I do, and I wonder: Should I be more nervous than I am? I close the door behind me as I quietly slip inside, listening for movement as the latch falls, and I let go of the knob. The rich scent of the aftershave you used earlier hits my nose—part leather, part citrus. It smells like wealth. It smells like exclusion.

No, it smells like vanity.

It makes me want to slit your throat, right this second, as my face warms with rage. I grind my teeth and swallow to choke it down.

Now I face you. I shake my head and clench my fists, and I step closer. Moonlight pours in through the window on my right, turning everything pale blue. The light shimmers, just slightly, from being reflected off the bay.

My shadow falls across your bed. I reach into my back pocket for the metal scissors, warm and heavy in my palm, their blades so sharp they threaten my thumb's skin each time I test them. The blanket covering you rises gently then falls. Your eyeglasses rest on the nightstand beside your glass of water. In the washed-out light, I study the curve of your cheek, the angle of your jaw, the three wrinkle lines gashed across your forehead while you rest in almost heartbreaking peacefulness.

You are seventy-two years old, and your life is nearing its end.

But your legacy, the films you made, are immortal. Your legions of fans, still strong even after all these years (guys in black T-shirts, film students, midnight moviegoers), made you a star.

And your box office sales made you incredibly wealthy.

None of it would have been possible without the terror you stoked in your actors.

None of it possible without the ghost haunting your estate.

You encouraged people to believe in it, and they did!

And the money was fun, wasn't it?

You said in an interview once money gave you incalculable convenience. That phrase stuck in my mind, like a vague sense of nostalgia for things that never happened.

I lean over you now, so close I can hear you breathe. I could count your eyelashes from this distance. I open the scissors and cut, here and there. You barely twitch when the blades scrape, then take what I need and tuck it safely away.

Now, that wasn't so bad, was it? I should have been a surgeon, not a specter, I think, smirking as I move toward the door, just as silently now as on the way in. The doorknob is cool against my palm when I grasp it. But now, I hear the rustling of your sheets and your bed creak as you sit up behind me.

I stop, hold still. The ceiling fan casts a faint, slowly rotating shadow on the floor. I watch it as I carefully pivot toward you, holding my breath as my hand finds the blade again. I don't want to kill you now, but I will. Oh, how the things I should say to you fly through my brain.

You rub your hand over your face then fumble for your glasses, knocking over the water glass beside you.

My heart pounds as you curse at the shattered glass and watch the spill spread, mirroring the moonlight farther and farther as it creeps outward.

I open the door, and a sliver of lights cuts across the room.

"Who's there?" you call out.

But I am already gone, running down the hallway, my pulse jackhammering in my neck and chest.

I'm laughing.

I'm a monster now, like the ones you created.

I'm here, a real ghost, my steps echoing in the stairwell, then disappearing as I rush into the night and the hush of sand.

I heard genuine fear in your voice a moment ago.

Fear like you've promised everyone, like the fear that made you.

You'll reassure yourself by thinking I'm imaginary, that there are no such things as ghosts. You'll tell yourself I'm something you made up.

But that's just vanity.

You're about to learn, Rick Plummer, just how real I am.

Chapter One

October 31st


I toss my suitcase in the backseat of my Volvo and drive. The tires splash through puddles while the radio blares the music I listened to yesterday, late Beatles, a song meant to cheer everyone up. The knob clicks as I quickly switch it off. I glance at the fuel gauge—I have just enough to get me halfway into the Keys and back to Miami, where there may still be a radio station functioning.

I hope.

But I don't want to stop for gas. Stopping will only let worry in. Even more worry and fear than I already have coursing through me.

I squint at the sun rising in the direction of my seventeen-year-old daughter, Quinn, who I need to get to as quickly as possible.

What Quinn did is what teenagers do. She fibbed, I tell myself. It doesn't make her a terrible person. It makes her human.

Except this time, it's more than a simple fib, more than a neglected homework assignment or having "forgotten" to mention that a friend's parents wouldn't be home to supervise during a party.

What Quinn did was lie.

Boldly and cunningly, and with chilling ease, if I'm being honest with myself, which I'm not sure I'm ready to do. Honesty would mean recalibrating how I think of her (still somewhat innocent, too close to me to do something so hurtful). I need to make sure she's safe first, and then I can question how she's capable of creating such a deceptive story about where she went.

I play our last conversation over and over in my head as I drive. I hadn't heard from her at all yesterday, nor had I seen anything of hers on social media. Quinn had told me she would be on a school trip for dates that were slightly too specific—the exact dates of the visit with her grandfather I'd forbidden her to take. How could I have been so utterly, stupidly naive? I tried her phone two times yesterday afternoon, and the call went to voicemail.

Then, she called me, and the second she answered, I knew what had happened. The nagging intuition I'd been ignoring evaporated, and the vagueness of her cover story sharpened. Is that how a lie is recognized? Gradually, then all at once? I heard the ripping wind in the background, and my gut told me exactly where she was. Suddenly, all I needed was confirmation.

Her voice, hoarse and afraid. "Mom?"

"Quinn, tell me where you are."

But inside, I already knew. In the background, there was a crashing sound, like a vase hitting a floor. She screamed, and my stomach knotted. "You're with your grandfather right now, right? In the Keys?"

"Mom, I'm sorry." She didn't have to say "yes."

I realized the screen of my phone hadn't turned blurry. It just looked that way because of how my hand shook. I pictured Quinn tucked into the enormous living room, probably beneath his shadow-box-framed dive knife from his movie Red Sky, and could hear the thump of the wind batting against the wooden sides of the estate.

My mind had been a sluggish detective, but it became a whirlwind, assessing Quinn's safety and the sequence of events that put her in the Keys with google-like speed. All the facts were clicking.

She started to deliver some explanation, but I cut her off abruptly. "Put your grandfather on the phone," I said.

A second later, Rick came on the line, out of breath. "I'm sorry, Lexi. We got caught off guard by this."

I could have screamed a million questions at Rick about how Quinn got down there in the first place, but I forced them all aside for the time being. The exasperated words that did escape my mouth were, "How did you not see the news?"

Rick explained they'd been deep in the mangroves when the sky began to turn.

Of course, I thought, they had no idea. The weather had probably been perfect, the way it is just before and after a major storm. I know how time melts away on the water, just like I remember the sinking, emptying feeling of a plummeting barometer. Rick's excuse was believable, reasonable, and extremely unlucky. He mumbled something like, "…your permission to come." The line cut in and out. At least he sounded sober, I thought, which was a relief. "I'm not sure we can leave now," Rick continued, eventually.

"Can't leave?" I asked.

But I knew he was right. Evacuations have windows. Once one closes, it's better to stay where you are than risk driving to the mainland. Rick was getting his news from the same meteorologists I'd been watching for three hours, except now it was too late.

"The eye is going to pass over us in a few hours," Rick said.

There was another crashing sound in the background, louder than the first. I scurried around collecting my things into a bag, even as I heard the TV announcer say that no one would be going in or out of the Keys until morning.


I could hear the same broadcast echo distantly in the call's background.

I knew boats and channels and weather as well as anyone. Even now. And I knew this storm was going to be dangerous.

Even deadly.

I pictured the darkening horizon and imagined the delicate sound of thunder in the distance. Unrealistically, I thought I would have known when to evacuate. I would have triple-checked the storm track, or would not have gone far from shore, or would have returned a faster way. I wouldn't have allowed Quinn to come to the Keys in the first place—the last place on earth I wanted her to be.

If I'd been there, I would have gotten her out.

"Here's Quinn," Rick said before passing the phone off to her.

"Everything's going to be okay, Mom." Her optimism terrified me. Of course, she thought the storm would turn out okay. She was seventeen and felt invincible. To her, a hurricane seemed like an adventure, something she could tell stories about later to her friends or maybe post about on Instagram. I wanted to scream that she had no idea how not okay Hurricane Stephen was about to make everything. She'd never lived through a Category 4 storm. But I had, and Rick had, too. That's why he sounded scared. She'd never seen a building blown to bits or seen someone die at the Pinecrest Estate like I had.

The sun was going down.

Stop. Think.

I asked Quinn, "Are you in the main house?"

"Yeah, on the first floor."

Despite everything I'd seen happen there, I felt a tiny flutter of relief. The Pinecrest was more than a century old and had withstood hurricanes that had blown away more modern buildings. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the estate's layout, estimating the safest space within the interior. The estate spread over fifteen acres, with the main building facing westward toward the Gulf. It was three stories tall, the top two consisting of mainly guest rooms with multiple windows. Rick had always maintained what looked like a lobby on the first floor, including the original front desk. A large, ornate staircase with a carved wooden banister led upward. Beneath it was the center of the house and the most protected place. "Quinn, listen, I want you to find the door below the staircase, the storage area. That's where I want you to ride out the storm. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, okay."

"I want you to find some empty containers and start filling them up with water."

"Granddad's already doing that. There's more water than we'll…"

"Then go to the pantry and find some food—things you may need to eat for the next twelve hours. Then candles and matches. Are there oil lamps?"

"Oil lamps?" She asked as if I'd just asked the dumbest question in history. I heard the echo of Rick's voice in the background. Behind her came the shrieking howl of one of the estate's shutters being blown off by the increasing winds. That caught Quinn's attention. She paused before saying, "Yes, Granddad is holding up a lamp right now. He says we're going to the interior storage room like you said. No windows."

"Good. Stay on the phone with me."

"Mom, we'll be fine, I promise."

I wanted to believe her.

"But there's something else, Mom. I need to tell you something…"

The broadcaster talking on my TV said, "It's going to be a long night for residents. Let's just hope and pray for whoever didn't make it out."

I heard another violent gust of wind, then something heavy slamming down. Terror squeezed my insides as I glimpsed the possibility of losing her, a feeling almost as strong as love itself. The world, I saw just then, would be unrecoverable if she was gone.

The call was breaking up, but I heard her voice say, "Mom, I found something here. Something strange."

The wind gusted again. "What? Quinn?"

"…Dad's. I found…something is happening here."

Then came a sound like a car crash.

Quinn screamed, and then the line went dead.


I'd tried to stop her from going.

Two months ago, when Quinn walked into the kitchen holding her phone ready to make a "proposal," I was semi-prepared for the conversation. I'd read online Rick was going forward with developing a sequel to Breathless, but I probably would have guessed what Quinn wanted anyway from the mischievous smile on her lips. She sharply inhaled as she sat across from me, the way she did before asking for favors. "Mom, you know how you said I should take some risks and put myself out there? You know how you've said before that no dream was too big if I worked at it?"

Teenage manipulation skills can be predatory. "I think I was talking about taking AP Lit at the time," I said.

"Right, but there's more to life than just school? Right? There's being book smart, and then there's real-world experience."

Your father was a writer, and I'm a librarian. Stick to book smart.

I bent to pet Phoebe, her soft fur brushing against my calf as I looked over the bridge of my glasses at Quinn. "What are you asking?"

She cleared her throat, tucking her hair behind her ears. "You know the room in the estate where Dad was working still has all of his things in it. I have to get them, Mom, especially his typewriter. But it's more than that—I want to learn how films get made. I always have. And now's my chance. I just finished FaceTiming with Grandad, and he offered to let me help with the movie he's about to start making. He said production starts during my fall break and that I could help with other parts over some weekends and maybe during Thanksgiving break. And maybe a filmmaking story might look good on college application essays. He said there could be a small part for me. It's a tremendous opportunity."

Tremendous, I thought. Rick's word, surely. Imagining the faux kindliness of his pitch to her made my blood boil. And now here I was, positioned as the bad guy, the killer of fun, the dreaded responsible parent. Quinn pressed her elbows into the tabletop as the morning light paled her skin. Her blue eyes seemed so incredibly young.

"No," I said simply.

She pushed away from the table as if I'd slapped her. "What?! Are you serious? You can't stand in the way of this chance! Mom, it could make me…"

Famous, she was thinking, clearly.

Like the fame that destroyed Breathless's star, Marla Moretti. Or the fame that made Rick so very rich.

Or fame I'd tasted years ago, however briefly.

No, I knew better than to let her admire fame. I'd watched it literally set lives on fire.

I could, and I would stand in the way. The Pinecrest Estate's creepy relics and leftover props alone could have been enough for me to nix Quinn's trip. I could easily picture the estate decked out with Rick at the helm of a new production, new sets constructed, and the crew striding purposefully around. The scaffolding raised against the south side of the main building where the light rigs could shine down through the palms at night, and the bathrooms would all be covered with tarps to protect the grout from being stained red with fake blood. The props lined up in the trailers would look prepped for a serial killer convention. And Rick Plummer would be standing with his arms folded over his chest, leaning back on his heels while he scared the shit out of everyone, relishing every cry, every scream coming from the cast and crew.

No, I would never let my daughter set foot near that place.

"You just don't want me to spend time with Grandad. Do you?"

She had me there. She looked in my eyes and could see she'd hit the mark.

"You promised not to be a helicopter parent, remember?"

"This one's actually a pretty easy call," I said, willing myself to stay calm. "No way you're taking part, sorry."

"Oh, I get it, you got to star in a movie, but now are threatened that I might get the chance, too?" She coughed.

"Hey!" I said, feeling the sting of a verbal slap, myself. "I know this isn't a 'cool' decision, but I have to protect you."

"Yeah, right. Well, you're doing a great job, that's for sure. I'm completely and totally protected. I'll just tell Grandad, no, I'm not allowed."

"Fine with me."

"Or maybe you can explain. Oh, never mind, you're too scared to even have a conversation with him."

It was a low blow, and she knew it.

Even if "scared" was probably the right word. I hadn't spoken to Rick since Cam—his son, my husband—disappeared more than a year earlier. Rick had reached out several times, but I'd angrily ignored his calls, blaming him for the senseless loss—blame that only made sense in the twisted logic of grief, but that I'd stubbornly held on to anyway. I deleted all of his voicemails, but I listened to one twice. He'd had too much to drink and was rambling. "You and Quinn are all I have left. I want to make sure you're were taken care of in the future," he'd stammered. Maybe it was his sincerity that caught my attention, tugging at my heartstrings. I nearly called back but wasn't ready to have a conversation with him. Either way, Quinn and I were busy moving and moving on, and the pace of life then was so incredibly fast. I had other things to think about.

And now Rick and I were estranged. I'd allowed, I suppose, or didn't disrupt his continuing relationship with Quinn, except that it led her and me to this moment—one that I could've navigated better because it was so predictable.

I rubbed the back of my neck.

I might have let her comment go if I'd been less upset and let Quinn go be "in her feelings," stewing over not having my permission to go back to the Pinecrest. But I knew that sharp barbs covered proportionate hurt when it came to teenagers. If she'd walked away right then, we'd have ended up resenting each other over the exchange.

And I knew she wanted to go to the Keys for other reasons but didn't want to say them.

I put my hand on her forearm before she could leave the table. "I know…what that place means to you, but you have to trust me. I'd let you go if I thought it was at all safe, believe me."

Her eyes brimmed with tears when she looked up. "Would you? You never did let me go, even when they searched. I wanted to see for myself because how could Dad have just…" She made a motion with her hands of air dispersing. Vanish, was what she meant. "Maybe they missed something he left there."

"I wish they had."

"How do you know, Mom? You don't."

Did I? Know he was gone? Or was I so tired of us both hurting last year that I'd needed her to move on?

On Sale
Sep 13, 2022
Page Count
304 pages