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Authors: James Patterson

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1st Case (10 page)

BOOK: 1st Case
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CHAPTER 33

I LOOKED UP at Keats from the pages on my lap.

“The Cummings poem,” I said. “It’s the same one he sent Gwen Petty. ‘Love Is a Place.’”

“Good memory,” Keats said.

I didn’t even bother asking how they’d found this, because I knew he wouldn’t tell me. It had to be some kind of targeted SMS search, but that meant scanning an unfathomable mountain of raw data. Then again, I had no idea
how deep the resources went on this thing. In terms of the FBI, I was the smallest possible cog in a machine that was bigger, and reached further, than I’d probably ever know in my entire career. For all I knew, they had some kind of mega team working this thing from every angle, and from any number of locations around the world.

That’s one of the upsides of cyberforensics. A significant amount
of the work can happen from just about anywhere. Though of course that cuts both ways. The bad guys are just as mobile as the good ones, and that makes them harder to find, if they know what they’re doing.

So it was possible that the Bureau had found these text strings, like some kind of needle in a haystack, through sheer workforce numbers. But on the other hand, they may have just gotten astronomically
lucky. It happens all the time. The number of high-achieving coders who take credit for their own good luck as if it were something they built from the ground up is … well, impossible to know. But it’s a big number.

And speaking of teams, Keats had a local crew already on-site by the time we pulled up in front of Boston Latin. Half a dozen personnel were gathered outside. I recognized three agents
from the field office, including Adam Obaje, who was just coming out through the school’s main entrance.

We got out of the car and met them all halfway. Keats didn’t stop me from joining in as we huddled there on the sidewalk.

“So?” he asked.

Obaje’s expression was dark. “She was in homeroom but didn’t show up for first period,” he said.

“Goddamnit!”

“Ten minutes earlier and we would have
had her. She’s not answering her phone, either.”

“I’m not losing this girl,” Keats said. “I want at least one agent on every floor inside, right now. Parker, get some crime techs here, just in case, and I want cruisers on every corner, checking cars. What about the family?”

“Contacted,” Obaje said. “Everyone’s fine, and the mom’s on her way here, but she’s coming from Attleboro.”

As far as
I knew, all of the previous murders had gone down in private family homes. But clearly, Keats wasn’t taking any chances.

“Where do you want me?” I asked.

“Take this.” He handed me a radio on the fly. “I want you thinking like a high school girl. Where would she go?”

I started to answer, but he’d already turned to head inside. There was no time for chitchat with the intern. I was just an extra
pair of eyes, at best, and a second later I was standing alone on the school steps. I wasn’t even sure if I’d just gotten folded further into this thing or shut out of it.

But I did have some idea about where to look.

Based on what I’d read in the file, Nigella Wilbur didn’t much like school, loved weed, and wasn’t afraid of taking risks, either. That’s what had gotten her onto our radar in
the first place. Opening the app was a risk in and of itself, whether or not she knew it; but then on top of that, I had the distinct impression that a little bit of danger wasn’t such a bad thing to Nigella.

When I was in high school, I was fairly straight and narrow, but I did know plenty of girls like her. And I knew a little something about how they operated. My first thought was that Nigella
might have gone out for a little wake-and-bake to help her face the day. And to do that, she’d need to be outside.

It was just an educated guess, which was as much as I had to work with. I didn’t actually expect to be right.

But as it turned out, I was.

CHAPTER 34

BOSTON LATIN SCHOOL has no campus to speak of. It’s just one huge building in the middle of the city, with alleys and parking on either side. The Fens was only a few blocks away and a likely spot for stoners, given all the woods, paths, bridges, and other good hiding places over there. I figured I’d start with a quick lap around the school and work my way out from there, depending
on what I saw, then maybe head to the park after that, if nobody found Nigella in the meantime.

I headed up the north alley first, scanning every nook and cranny along the way. From there, I moved down Palace Road behind the school and back up the other side. I was almost all the way around and had pretty much written this off when, sure enough and to my own surprise, I got a whiff of marijuana.

It didn’t take long after that to hone in on Nigella’s little smoking party. There were four of them, two boys and two girls, passing a vape pen around. Nigella was wearing a huge pair of sunglasses, but I recognized the blond dreads right away.

They had a pretty decent hideout, too. It was a three-walled
alcove in the parking lot, meant to shield two dumpsters from view. Anyone inside the school
wouldn’t have been able to spot them. But from there in the alley, I had a clear sight line.

I stepped back and radioed Keats.

“This is Hoot,” I said. “I found her. She’s with some friends in the parking area on the south side of the building.”

Some part of me felt bad for busting them. That’s not what I was there for. But they definitely had a serious buzzkill headed their way.

“Keep an eye
on her, but do not approach,” Keats came back. “I’ll be right out.”

“Got it,” I said, trying to sound calm. I’d been wishing to get thrown back into the pool, and now here I was, swimming alone in the deep end. I wasn’t afraid of high schoolers, but by the same token, I hadn’t been left to my own devices like this before. Not with the stakes as high as these were.

A second later, Nigella’s group
was on the move. One of the boys chirped open a RAV4 with his clicker and they headed toward it.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

“Keats, where are you?” I radioed.

“On our way,” he said.

There was no time. And no way I was going to be the rookie who found and lost this person of interest before Keats could catch up to her.

“Nigella!” I called out before I could even consider it either way.

All four of
the kids turned to look at me. The other girl let out a little half scream, followed by a nervous laugh. I had to remind myself that I was the grown-up here. It still wasn’t intuitive for me.

“Hold up a second,” I said, hurrying over.

Nigella lowered her shades to give me a raised eyebrow as I approached. “Do I know you?” she asked. Her lipstick was bright red, but her clothes were all downscale
funk. Old army jacket, Rolling Stones tee, and hand-ripped leggings over oxblood combat boots.

“I’m Angela Hoot,” I said, “and—”

“Hoot?”
one of the boys said, and they all cracked up at once. Clearly, they’d had enough to smoke. Not that I hadn’t been mocked for my last name pretty much all my life.

“Listen,” I said. “I’m with the FBI—”

“Yeah. Sure you are,” Nigella said. “Do you have some
kind of badge or something?”

“I don’t have my credentials on me,” I said, which was embarrassingly true. I’d left everything in the car. “My supervisor will be here in a second—”

“Bridget? Get this on your phone, ’kay?” Nigella said, still eyeballing me.

“Annnd we’re rolling,” Bridget said, pointing her iPhone our way.

“You’ve got the wrong idea,” I told them. “This is for your protection,
Nigella.”

“Sure,” she sniped. “Because the cops are so good at ‘protecting’ people these days.”

When she started to get in the car, my patience officially ran out. There were all kinds of feelings running through me now, but none of them stopped me from grabbing that car door and holding on to keep her from pulling it closed. I think it took Nigella by surprise. I’d kind of surprised myself,
for that matter.

“What the hell?” she said. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you need to step off—”

“Let me put this another way,” I interrupted. I was on a
roll now, no stopping. “In about thirty seconds, you’re going to have half a dozen federal agents out here, all of them wanting to speak with you. If
I
were stoned, I’d want to be ready for something like that.”

“Whut?
” one of the
boys grunted out. The other one looked around nervously.

But Nigella stayed icy. “Who said anything about stoned?” she asked, meeting my gaze.

I didn’t want any trouble here. Not the wrong kind, anyway, and I was this close to saying a thing or two I might have regretted. Lucky for me, I could just see Keats and a few others rounding the corner.

And I was starting to think that a little buzzkill
was exactly what this girl needed.

CHAPTER 35

TO MAKE THINGS worse—much worse—Nigella Wilbur refused to let us examine her phone. Ironically, the school could (and did) take it away, but we weren’t allowed to touch it without her permission, unless we could get a warrant or parental consent. And her mother was still a good half hour away.

Right now, the phone was sitting in a drawer in the principal’s office, which was just as
well. Given what we knew about the app’s listening capabilities, we couldn’t afford to interview Nigella anywhere near that thing. So we holed up with her in the detention room, appropriately enough.

“This is extreme bullshit,” she said for the fourth time. “You can’t intimidate me.”

“We’re not trying to intimidate you,” Keats said. “We’re trying to protect you.”

I could tell he was straining
for patience. The longer this conversation went on, the colder our trail was getting.

“We’re also trying to protect whoever else might be at risk,” Keats went on.

“By illegally tapping my phone?” Nigella asked.

“That’s not what happened,” Keats tried again. “If you’d just listen—”

“Save it,” she said. “I’m not interested in enabling your right-wing NSA crap. This is exactly why people like
me don’t trust people like you. Don’t you see that?”

Ironically, she had a grain of a point in all this. I had plenty of friends of my own whose trust of American law enforcement was at an all-time low, for reasons I could understand, if not agree with. But by the same token, a lot of that knee-jerk resistance was based on equal parts information and misinformation.

In any case, we seemed to
be at a kind of standstill.

Billy took a beat. Then another. I could just see the gears turning in his mind and wondered if he was trying to use the silence to make Nigella uncomfortable. But as it turned out, it wasn’t that at all.

“Angela,” he said, “tell Nigella about your first night on this case, will you?”

“Excuse me?” I wasn’t expecting him to pivot like that, but now they were both
looking at me.

“Tell her what you saw in the house that night in Lincoln,” Keats said. “All of it.”

So far, he hadn’t disclosed any details about the other murders. For a second, I was shocked that he’d go there. But then I realized where he was taking this—and why. Every minute counted right now, and he was pulling out all the stops.

I took another few beats to gather the memory of that night
in my mind. The bodies. The dried blood. The smell.

Then I started talking.

“It was my first crime scene,” I told her. “And the first dead bodies I’d ever seen, too.”

Nigella stood up right away. Her chair tilted back and crashed
onto the floor. “Are you kidding me with this? I don’t have to listen to you!” she said.

“Yeah, you do,” Keats said, righting the chair for her. “Sit down and shut
up.”

When she didn’t move, Billy nodded at me to go on anyway. I had no idea if this was the right thing to do, but that wasn’t my call. I just followed his lead.

“They found the father in the kitchen, shot through the chest,” I said. “All the others had been killed in their rooms upstairs. There was a mom, two little boys, and a girl about your age.”

Nigella had gone completely still now.
It was either a show of defiance or fear. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but I was getting the impression that Billy knew exactly what he was doing. The more I went on with this, the more I felt like I was moving the needle in the right direction. At least this was a chance to use Gwen Petty’s death to try to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to someone else.

“She’s the one who had been using
this same app,” I went on, talking about Gwen now. “I never actually saw her. I only saw the body bag they carried her out in.”

“That was the third family in this case,” Keats said. “We’ve been working as hard as we can to make sure there’s not a fourth.”

Nigella’s eyes rolled up and to the side now, fighting tears. I didn’t know if she cared about some nameless other family, but I did think
she was finally doing the math on what she might have wandered into herself.

“It’s just an app,” she said softly.

“That’s what you’re supposed to think,” I told her.

“I don’t understand how it could be that dangerous …”

Suddenly, she seemed much younger. I wasn’t going to
lecture her. We’d already rounded the corner we needed to get around.

“Nigella,” I said. “Can we
please
get a look at
your phone? I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to face another night like that last one.”

I had to stop there. My voice was thinning out and I was starting to choke on the lump in my own throat. I hadn’t even realized the last part until I’d said it out loud. As much as I couldn’t let go of this case, I was also terrified of what else I was going
to have to see along the way.

My body felt hollow, like I’d just let go of something I could never get back. And the look on Nigella’s face told me she was feeling something similar. The first real tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“Fine,” she said. “You can do what you need to. But I’d better get my phone back when you’re done.”

Keats was on his feet now. This was good news, but we had to
move fast.

“Believe me,” he told her on our way out the door. “You don’t want that one anymore.”

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