7 Steps to Midnight by Richard Matheson (1993)
You're not paranoid if they are really out to get you.
7 Steps to Midnight is a fine suspense novel about paranoia, menace, and possibly alternate realities.
Chris Barton is a theoretical mathematician, a very minor cog in a government program based in the Arizona desert. He is one of many assigned to work on a turbulence problem with a proposed laser weapons system. His work has stymied him for several months, forcing him to put in very long hours with little sleep. It's late and he decides to go home and catch a couple of hours sleep but, going to the parking lot, he finds his car missing. How it got missing it a puzzle. It's a gated parking lot and the guard swears Chris' car did not leave the lot.
Borrowing a car from a co-worker, a very puzzled Chris heads for home. He sees an old man walking the dark and lonely desert road and stops to give him a lift. The man introduces himself as Albert Veering and soon begins a strange conversation about the nature of reality. Verring makes a strange wager: "I wager you the security of your existence against your assumption that you know what's real and what's unreal in your life." Humoring the old man, Chris agrees. He drops Veering off and heads home.
The car -- the missing car -- is parked in his driveway. When Chris tries to enter his home he finds the doors and windows locked. He sees a light go on in his bedroom. But Chris, unmarried, lives alone. Determined to confront whoever is inside, whoever had taken his car, he rings the doorbell. A woman he had never seen before answers. She claims to be Mrs. Chris Barton, She claims she and her husband have been living here for eight years. She claims to have no idea who Chris is. A man claiming to be Chris Barton comes to the door, telling Chris to leave or he'll call the police. But this is Chris' house, his furniture, his car in the driveway...
A man in a black suit shows up and tries to take Chris with him. Chris slips, falls out of the man's grip, and the man falls down. The stranger who claims he is Chris Barton fires a gun at Chris. chris hops into the borrowed car and takes off. Unsure of what to do, Chris drives for a while, pulls over, and spies a small card on the floor by the passenger seat. On the card is printed the name Albert Veering; on the back is written the words "Are you sure?"
He drives to his mother's house in Tucson. She is still at work so he lets himself in with a key. Using her phone, Chris calls his sister, the one person he has been close to all his life, but his sister doesn't know him -- she knows the false Chris and the false wife. To strange men come to the door and peer in the windows, looking to see if there is anyone inside. They leave and after a while Chris' mother comes home. She, at least, knows him and has no knowledge of the the false Chris and the false wife.
Stopping to get gas, two men confront him. One is the man who had tried to hold him at his house. The other gets into the passenger seat and orders Chris to drive. It soon becomes clear that he knows that Chris is the real Chris Barton and says that the same mysterious things have happened to mathematicians before. He pulls a gun and tells Chris that he must die. Chris slams on the brakes, The gunman hits his head on the dashboard. Chris opens the doors and pushed the unconscious man out of the car just as two shots ring out at him. In a panic, Chris drives off.
What to do? Who to call? He has little cash and two credit cards. He checks into a motel and calls a local reporter he knows. The man is shocked to hear from Chris. In an urgent voice, he tells Chris to get out of the country at once. The reporter tells Chris he'll meet him in the morning and hangs up. Confused, Chris falls asleep. When he wakes up, there's and envelope by his bedside with cash and a ticket to London. A story on page five of the morning paper tells him that his reporter friend was murdered that night.
The nightmare keeps getting nightmare-ier. Chris is led by unknown forces and through cryptic messages to leapfrog through Europe, being chased by a number of groups -- to perhaps, perhaps many more, most of whom want Chris kidnapped or murdered. Bodies are piling up. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful spy who may or may not be be the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian. He is told that he is the most important person in the government program in which he had been working. He is told that there may be some "reality slippage." He is told to solve his problem by thinking it through. He is told there is a vast conspiracy to replace government scientists with imposters. He is told nonsense. He is told lies. Perhaps, he has been told the truth. He cannot tell which groups are out to harm him and which are out to help him. As the international aspects of his dilemma grow, so does his confusion. And what is the meaning of the message he encounters: "7 steps to midnight"?
Chris Barton is no hero. He is no spy-guy. He is stumbling through a nightmare not of his choosing. The only thing he knows for certain is that he must somehow rescue the beautiful woman he has fallen in love with.
Is there a logical explanation for all that's happened to him, or has his reality truly fallen apart? And, in the end, does it really matter? Richard Matheson has taken us on a roller coaster of suspense and intrigue as only he could.
7 Steps to Midnight is a fast, entertaining (and terrifying) read. It is not as well-known as many of his other books and short stories, but it really should be.