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Authors: James Patterson

Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller

1st Case (19 page)

BOOK: 1st Case
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CHAPTER 68

WHEN WE GOT back to the street outside Eve’s house, an unmarked black van was waiting to take me wherever I was headed next. I assumed that meant some kind of safe house. What little I knew about these kinds of things told me I’d be unreachable for the foreseeable future. But that was just a guess.

“Can I at least call my parents?” I asked Billy. “I can’t just disappear on them.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Billy said. “Of course. But just one call, and it’s going to have to be quick.”

It felt like I was getting arrested as much as going into protective custody.

“Hello?” Mom answered. It was nearly 1:00 a.m. I could hear the confusion mixed with concern in her voice.

“It’s me, Mom,” I said. “I’m on Agent Keats’s phone.”

“What is it, sweetheart? What’s wrong?” she asked.

I took a
deep breath and my chest shuddered. Everything that had just happened was too much to think about at once.

“We’ve had a situation at work,” I said, trying to sound as
level as possible. “All I can really tell you is that I’m okay. They’re taking me somewhere safe.”

“What?”
Mom said, her voice rising. I’d given her too much, too fast, I could tell. “Who’s putting you up? For how long? What happened?”

“I’m so sorry,” I told her. “I can’t say any more than that, and I don’t have time to talk. But I
promise
you I’m safe. That’s all you need to know for now. I’ll be in touch just as soon as I can, I swear.”

“At least tell me where they’re taking you,” Mom demanded.

“I don’t know,” I said. “And it’s actually better if you don’t know, either.”

Keats was motioning at me to wrap it up. I could
tell he hated having to hurry me, but this transfer wasn’t a whenever kind of thing. We had to go. And meanwhile, I’d just stoked every fear Mom had ever had about me and this job.

“Angela …” She was crying now and running out of words, which was unusual for anyone in my family.

“I love you, Mom,” I said. “Please tell Dad and the girls that I love them, too.”

There was no easy good-bye. No
good way to finish that call. So I told her I was going to hang up, and then handed the phone to Keats to do it for me. I just couldn’t. Not with my own mother still crying on the other end.

Billy seemed to understand. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “The work is goddamn heartless sometimes. But I promise you, this is for the best.”

“I know,” I said, and I did, but it was still overwhelming.
I felt horrible for what I was putting my family through, on top of everything else.

Billy opened the van’s sliding door for me so I could get in the back. I assumed the woman in the driver’s seat was my assigned
agent, Lisa Konrad Palumbo, but there were no introductions. I wasn’t even sure what to call her.

“I’ll check in with you tomorrow,” Billy said. “Try to get some sleep.”

My mind was
flying. All I had was more questions. What about Justin Nicholson? Who was going to look in on him at the hospital? And George’s family—what about them? Would they be taken care of?

Most of all, though, I was thinking about Eve. What was the investigative plan there? How much in the loop would Billy be able to keep me? And what came next?

I couldn’t afford to ask any of it. The more I said,
the more information I’d be passing to whoever might be listening through that Android in my pocket. Chances were I’d have to come clean, maybe sooner than later, since there was no real hiding from them anymore. But until I could think through this more clearly, my default remained the same:
Keep Eve alive.

“I’ll talk to you soon,” Keats told me. When I didn’t answer, he gave me a tight smile.
Then he slid the panel door closed and banged on it twice from the outside. Agent Konrad Palumbo hit the gas, the van lurched, and we took off into the night, heading for “somewhere safe.”

Whatever that meant anymore.

CHAPTER 69

WHEN I THINK
safe house,
I think about remote cabins in the woods and unassuming little places tucked deep in the suburbs. But that’s probably because I’ve seen too many movies and bad TV shows.

In fact, Agent Konrad Palumbo took me to the last place I expected.

As we pulled into the sally port behind the federal building where I worked, I thought maybe we were stopping to change
vehicles.

But no.

“Here we are,” Konrad Palumbo told me.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, even though she obviously wasn’t.

In fact, this was good news. I still hadn’t worked out what to do about the de facto tracking device in my pocket and whoever was now following my every move. But if there was one place they couldn’t physically get to me, it was going to be here.

Once the inner garage
door had closed behind us, we got out of the van and onto a freight elevator. Konrad Palumbo took us up to the sixth floor, one story above my own office and the CART.

“So, Agent Konrad Palumbo,” I said on the way up. “Is there—”

“Call me Lisa,” she said with a reassuring smile. I didn’t think she knew about my specific circumstances, but I appreciated that she was trying to make this as easy
for me as possible.

“Lisa,” I said. “Can you tell me anything about what’s about to happen here?”

“I’ll do better than that,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

The elevator doors had just slid open and she gestured for me to go ahead of her.

It was coming up on 2:00 a.m. by now, but the checkpoint just off the elevator was staffed with two uniformed guards. It was exactly like the station I passed
going to work every day on the fifth floor, usually with a flash of my ID. This time, though, we had to empty our pockets, walk through the metal detector, and get a hand scan and a pat-down from one of the guards.

Immediately, my pulse ticked up. I knew I didn’t have a choice about the phone. I’d have to take it out of my pocket, but I also couldn’t afford to tip my hand here. Was this the end
of the charade, before it had barely begun?

I waited for Agent Konrad Palumbo—Lisa—to go through first. When she wasn’t looking, I dropped the phone into an empty gray tub and covered it with my keys, ID, and jacket, then set it all on the moving belt, along with my bag.

I barely breathed during the pat-down. One guard searched me while the other watched the monitor, scanning my things on their
way through.

Please, please, please—

“Okay, you’re good to go,” the first guard told me. “Grab your stuff and follow the agent inside.”

I kept my poker face and slid the phone into my pocket. Then I followed Konrad Palumbo onto the sixth floor’s main hallway as they buzzed us through.

Just inside, she swiped her ID to get us past yet another security door. This one led to an enclosed staircase.
It was just a single flight, up to the seventh floor and back out again.

We came into a much shorter corridor than the one below. I counted five beige steel doors on the left and four on the right, with an alarmed fire exit at the far end. It was easy to imagine this little wing as a kind of secret compartment within the much larger federal building. I didn’t even know that the Bureau had offices
on seven.

I followed Konrad Palumbo down to the last door on the right. She held her ID up to the card reader. The little red light turned green with a click, and she pushed the door open.

“This is you,” she said. “Home sweet home … ish.”

Inside, there was a carpeted space with a platform bed, a couch, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen, including a full bag of groceries on the counter. It was
basically a little studio apartment, minus the windows.

“More like cave sweet cave,” I said. “How long am I going to be here?”

Konrad Palumbo shrugged. “I’m not going to lie. You’re going to get bored.”

I wish,
I thought, and fingered the phone-shaped bulge in my pocket.

“Write me up a list of things you’d like from your apartment,” she said. “Support staff will check in with you about incidentals,
and psych services will be by first thing in the morning.”

“Psych services?” I asked.

“It’s protocol, with the death of an agent,” she said. “And listen, I’m really sorry about George. It’s a horrible thing that happened to him.”

“Whoever did it deserves to die
a slow, painful death,
” I said for the benefit of whoever was listening in through that phone. “I’d kill them myself if I could.”

Agent Lisa Konrad Palumbo narrowed her eyes at the intensity in my voice. She was trained to pick up on small changes like that, I’m sure, but she didn’t call me on it, which I appreciated.

I started scribbling down a quick list for her. Clothes, shoes, a few toiletries, laptop …

“Can this include my bike and indoor trainer?” I asked.

“I don’t see why not,” she said.

It was the one thing I
knew I’d want, if I had to be cooped up. Without some kind of exercise, I was going to go completely mental in there.

“Now try to get some sleep,” she said.

“I will,” I told her.

But that was just another lie. I had no intention of getting any sleep. Just the opposite, in fact.

This was going to be the all-nighter of my life.

CHAPTER 70

AS SOON AS I’d locked the door behind Agent Konrad Palumbo, I took out the phone and checked for messages. There were none.

Anyone home?
I tried.

There was no immediate answer, and no reason to wait around for one, either. They knew how to reach me, obviously, and they were taking their time doing it. I had no idea what to expect from them, or for that matter, when to expect it.

My best move was to get as much done as I feasibly could in the meantime. That meant not letting myself get overwhelmed with worry about Eve. Yes, there was sufficient cause to be afraid that the very worst could happen—that she wouldn’t be coming back again. That was possible for any number of reasons, including the ones I could think of and, even more frighteningly, some endless number of reasons
I couldn’t even begin to foresee.

But obsessing about all that wasn’t going to do a thing to up Eve’s chances of getting through this. Logically speaking, Eve
and I would both be better off if I kept myself focused and productive.

So I moved on to the next thing I knew how to do. I went looking for Hermes.

The Android was fully functional, which meant I could get online as much as I wanted.
I just had to do it consciously. I was living in a virtual fishbowl now, but if these guys were as smart as they seemed, this was exactly what they’d expect me to do.

I worked from memory, going back to every technology board, every chat space, and every seamy little dark net hangout I could think of where I’d seen signs of Hermes before.

The last time I’d tracked him, he’d all but advertised
himself as a key player in this case. There had been signs of him everywhere I looked.

Now it was just the opposite. I spent a tedious three hours going page to page without finding a single indication that Hermes had ever existed. It was like someone had gone around scrubbing out every footprint and eating every bread crumb that had been all over the trail before.

Which meant one of two things
to me: either our killers had pulled up stakes and moved their operations yet again, or the supposed connection between these sext murders, Hermes, and the Free Net Collective was just an elaborate bit of fiction.

My money was on the latter. Hackers do it all the time, laying down false leads as a smoke screen while they go about their real business elsewhere.

And Hermes hadn’t just been some
garden-variety smoke screen, either, I realized. He’d been a trap. One that I’d fallen for, just like the half-baked wannabe they’d probably pegged me for.

I hated myself for the position we were in. Eve never would
have fallen into this if it hadn’t been for me. Her words came filtering back into my mind now.
If it’s this easy, it means they wanted you to find them,
she’d told me. And she’d
been right. Devastatingly so.

With any luck, Keats’s team was way ahead of me on all of this. Maybe by dawn, they’d have Eve home again and the killers would be in custody—or dead, for all I cared.

But until I knew any better, this little covert operation of mine was full steam ahead.

CHAPTER 71

I DIDN’T MEAN to fall asleep.

When I jerked awake, it took me a second to recompute where I was, and why. Everything flooded back in a nasty rush. The phone, set to vibrate, had woken me up. A new message had just come in.

Hey Angela. Wanna talk?

They’d been watching me sleep, hadn’t they? It was a disgusting feeling. But I also knew that any contact was better than none.

I’m here,
I wrote back.

Any luck finding Hermes?
he asked.

No,
I answered.
But you already knew that, didn’t you?

You were pretty obvious.

I wasn’t trying to hide. I was trying to get you to talk to me.

Well here I am. Did you get much sleep?

Where is Eve?
I wrote.

I asked you a question first.

According to the Android, it was just before 9:00 a.m. The last
I remembered, it had been coming up on
seven. I could feel the last forty-eight hours dragging on me like a literal weight.

I slept a little, ok? Where is Eve?

She’s right here with me. Safe and sound.

WHO ARE YOU?
I pounded out. If we’d been talking on the phone, I would have been screaming at him by now.

I’m nobody!
he wrote.
Who are you? Are you nobody, too?

A chill razored up my back. Even I recognized that line. It was from
an Emily Dickinson poem.

This wasn’t the cold, authoritarian voice of whoever had sent me running around the city the night before. This was the poetry lover. The chameleon who had seduced Gwen Petty, and Nigella Wilbur, and Reese Sapporo by becoming whoever they needed him to be online.

We’d known for a while that there was more than one of these guys. Now the picture was becoming clearer.
This was the chatty one. And the other guy was … what? The engineer? The executioner?

What do you want?
I asked.

Send me a pic,
he said.
I’ll make it worth your while
.

This app is programmed to take a picture every 10 seconds,
I wrote.
Why do you need me to send another one?

Don’t play dumb,
he said.
That’s not the kind of pic I mean. You know what I like.

It was getting seedier by the second.
He was right. I did know what he liked. I’d seen more than enough of it in the leering, predatory sexts he’d traded with his young victims.

At the same time, I thought, if that’s what got this guy off, it meant there was something he wanted that I could control. That meant leverage, and even a tiny bit was more than I’d had up to now. So I tried to work it.

I need proof that Eve is still alive,
I said.
Then we can keep going.

What kind of proof?
he asked.

Let me speak with her.

That’s not going to happen. But since you’ve been good, hold on.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, waiting to hear back. I thought about what Billy had told me on my very first day with this case.
The clock is
always
ticking,
he’d said.

It had never felt truer than it did just then. Every minute that passed
now was one more minute Eve had to spend in hell.

Finally, just when I started to wonder if he was playing me—was he ever going to come back?—I got word. Instead of a text or a photo this time, an audio file scrolled into the Android’s chat thread, and I hit Play right away.

What I’d received was a recording of Eve, her voice flat and emotionless as she read back the most recent text exchange.

“‘I need proof that Eve is still alive. Then we can keep going.’ ‘What kind of proof?’ ‘Let me speak with her.’ ‘That’s not going to happen. But since you’ve been good, hold on.’”

That was it, only eight seconds long. But it meant she was alive! Just hearing her again filled me with the energy I needed to keep going.

I listened to the recording three more times, straining for any background
noise that might give me some clue about where they’d taken her. There was nothing to extract, and before I could try a fourth time, the screen refreshed, the audio file disappeared, and a new text took its place.

Satisfied?

Why are you doing this?
I asked.

Not so fast. It’s your turn.

For what?
I asked, even though I knew.

It’s called show and tell,
he wrote.
You show, I tell. Every pic
buys you a new question. Fun, right?

I could feel my desperation, rising inside me like mercury. I
didn’t want to go down this path, but I had to be able to say I tried everything, for Eve’s sake.

Before I could respond either way, a sharp knock came at my door. I flinched, then went to look through the peephole. A woman I’d never seen before was standing in the hall.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Angela, I’m Dr. Ann L. Johnson,” she called back. “I’m here from psych services.”

Dammit! I’d forgotten she was coming. And it wasn’t like I could send her away, as much as I would have liked to.

“Just a minute!” I said as a quick series of new messages scrolled onto the phone in my hand.

Sounds like you have company

We’ll play later

This is just getting interesting

Don’t blow it now, Angela

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