Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
Forensic Media Analysis Report
Case agent: William Keats, ASAC, FBI Field Office, Boston, MA
Evidence marker #43BX992
Media: iPhone 11, serial 0D45-34RR-8901-TS26, registered to victim, Gwen Petty
Recovered file: Unknown source mixed-media electronic message transcript. Source investigation pending.
I want to touch you. Your face, your skin, your thighs, your eyes. I want to feel
you shiver as my hands explore every part of you.
I want to hear you. Your voice, whispering my name. Your breath in my ear. Your soft moan as I give you everything you want, and so much more.
I want to taste you. Your lips. Your kisses. Your beautiful flower, opening to my touch, my mouth, my tongue.
I want to take in the scent of you. I want to smell the perfume of your hair. The musk of
your desire, bringing us closer, always closer.
More than anything, Gwen, I want to see you. Face to face. Body to body. I could pour my heart out with words forever, but words will never be enough.
It’s time we finally met, don’t you think?
Please say yes.
THEY TOLD ME ahead of time to prepare myself for the dead bodies. But nobody told me how.
When I pulled up outside of 95 Geary Lane in Lincoln, all I knew was that a family of five had been killed and that I was supposed to report to Agent Keats for further instruction. Talk about jumping into the deep end, but hey, this was exactly the kind of assignment I’d been jonesing for. On
paper, anyway. Real life, as it turns out, is a little more complicated than that.
“Can I help you?” a cop at the tape line on the sidewalk asked.
“I’m Angela Hoot,” I said.
“Good for you,” he said.
“Oh.” I’d forgotten to show him my new temporary credential. I held it up. “I’m with the FBI,” I said.
I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth. Me? With the FBI? Not something
I ever saw coming, that was for sure. I certainly didn’t look the part, and I didn’t feel like I belonged there for a second.
Neither could the cop, apparently. He eyeballed me twice, once before he even looked at the ID, and once after. But that seemed to take care of it. He handed back my card, gave me an if-you-say-so kind of shrug, and lifted up the yellow tape to let me into the crime scene.
“Watch out for the smell,” he said. “It’s pretty bad in there.”
“Smell?” I said.
It hit me on the porch steps, before I was even through the front door. I’d never been anywhere near a dead body, much less smelled one, but what else could that acrid nastiness be? A gag reflex pulsed in my throat. I switched to mouth breathing and fought the urge to run back to my safe little cubicle
What was I doing here? I was a computer jockey, not some
Up until two hours ago, I’d been a lowly honors intern at the Bureau field office, focusing on cyberforensics. Clearly, I was here to look at some kind of digital evidence, but knowing that didn’t make it any less bizarre to walk into my first real crime scene.
The house was almost painfully ordinary, considering
what I knew had gone down here just a few hours earlier. The living room was mostly empty. I saw all the expected furniture, the art on the walls, the fan of cooking magazines on a glass coffee table. Nothing at all looked out of place.
Most of the action was centered around the kitchen straight ahead. I’d noticed police officers stationed outside the house, but inside, it was all FBI. I saw
blue ERT polo shirts for the Evidence Response Team, techs in white coveralls, and a handful of agents in business attire. Voices mingled in the air while I tried to get my bearings.
“No signs of a struggle,” someone said. “We’ve got some scuff marks here on the sill, and over by the table …”
“Looks like the back door was the point of entry. Must have shot this poor guy right through the window.”
They all sounded like they were discussing the score of last night’s game, not a multiple homicide. It just added another dreamlike layer to the whole thing.
The lights were off in the kitchen, and one of the techs was using some kind of black light to illuminate spatters on the linoleum floor. It was blood, I realized, fluorescing in the dark. I could just make out a half empty glass
of milk on the table, and a sheet-covered body on the floor, next to a tipped-over chair.
I was still standing in the doorway, silent until one of the bunny-suited techs brushed against me on his way out. I started to speak and had to clear my throat and try again, just to get the words out.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for Agent Keats?” I said to him. Even then, my voice sounded so small, so unlike
me. I wasn’t used to feeling this way, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Sorry, don’t know who that is,” the guy said, and kept moving. Somehow, I’d expected for everything to make sense here, and that I would know what to do as I went along. Instead, I was left standing there with a growing sense that I’d been dropped off in the wrong nightmare.
“Hoot, up here!” I heard, and turned to see one
of my supervisors, Billy Keats, at the top of the stairs. Thank God.
He hurried down to meet me. “You ready for this?” he said, handing me a pair of latex gloves matching the ones he was already wearing. I put them on. His demeanor was all business, and his face was grim.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“You don’t look it.”
“I’m okay,” I repeated, as much for myself as for him. If I said it enough, maybe
it would come true. And maybe my stomach would stop folding in on itself, over and over, the way it had been doing since I’d arrived. “Where do you need me?”
“This way.” He led me up the carpeted stairs, briefing as we went. “We’ve got one of the victims’ cell phones in a Faraday bag. They’re just clearing the body now.”
The body. Some person who had been alive yesterday, now just “the body.”
But that other phrase—
—was like a piece of driftwood, something I could latch on to in the middle of all this unfamiliarity. At least I knew what I was supposed to do with
A Faraday bag blocks out any digital signals and preserves the device in question exactly as it was found until it can be forensically examined.
“Eventually, I’m going to want you to cover every machine in
the house, but this phone is going to be your primary concern.”
We passed two open bedroom doors along the upstairs hall. I told myself to keep my eyes straight ahead, but they didn’t obey the impulse. Instead, I stole a glance into each room as we passed.
Through the first door, I saw something truly horrendous. A woman lay on her back on the king-size bed, eyes wide-open, with a small but
unmistakable dark hole in her forehead. A halo of blood stained the pale-blue pillowcase under her hair. Outside of the few family wakes I’d been to, this was the first corpse I’d ever laid eyes on. The sight of it seemed to jump right into my long-term memory. No way I’d ever forget that moment, I knew right away.
As awful as that tiny moment had already been, it was the bunk beds in the next
room that really split my heart down the middle. Each bunk held a covered body, draped with a white sheet. On the lower bunk, I could see one small hand sticking out, spiderwebbed with dark lines of dried blood, which had also pooled on the rug.
Jesus. This just got worse as it went along. The tightness from my stomach crawled up into my chest. I didn’t want to throw up anymore: now I wanted
to cry. These poor, poor people.
“Hoot? We’re in here.” I looked over to see Keats already standing outside the last door on the hall. He stepped back to make way for two EMTs rolling out a gurney with a black zippered body bag on top. Beyond them, I could see what looked like a teenage girl’s room, with a floral comforter and an LSHS Warriors banner.
As I came closer and got a full look, one
thing jumped out at me right away. I didn’t see any blood. Not like with the others.
“What’s her name?” I asked Keats, looking back at the gurney as they moved it down the hall. Somehow, I needed to know who she was.
“Gwen Petty,” Keats said. “Mother Elaine, father Royce, and twin brothers Jake and Michael. But if anyone in this family had information we can use, it’s going to be this girl.”
I only nodded. There were no words. Or maybe there were too many, racing around inside my head. It was hard to know anything right now.
“Come on, then,” Keats said. “Let’s get you to work.”
“WHY ISN’T THERE any blood in here?” I asked as soon as we stepped into Gwen Petty’s bedroom.
I always ask a lot of questions, especially if I’m nervous. Facts are always reassuring. And if I didn’t know what I was doing, well, at least I could ask questions. Always that.
Keats ran a hand over his jaw like he was trying to decide how much to say.
“It looks like he shot the others,
but our best guess in here is asphyxiation,” he said.
“Yeah. Whoever did this had strong feelings about Gwen, one way or another.”
I could feel some kind of empathetic tightness in my chest. Did that mean Gwen Petty had been strangled? Something else? What were her last moments like?
I couldn’t help the morbid thoughts cascading like lines of code through my mind. It was force of
habit, in the worst possible way. So I tried to focus on the room instead—on what I could actually do.
I walked over to a built-in desk in the corner. A whole collage of photos was tucked into a crisscross of yellow ribbon on a gray fabric pin board. Another photo, framed on the desk, showed a family of five, smiling on the edge of what I guessed was the Grand Canyon. They all looked so happy.
“Is this them?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Keats said.
“Not important,” he told me, and pointed at the Faraday bag on the floor by the bed. That meant Gwen’s phone had already been physically fingerprinted and sequestered. Now it was time for the geek squad, a.k.a. me. All things considered, I was grateful for the distraction and listened carefully as Agent Keats went over my instructions.
“I want to know who she’s been in contact with, what she’s deleted, what someone else might have deleted—everything,” Keats told me. “Specifically, I’m looking for texts or images that are romantic or sexual.”
I stuck my hands through the mesh sleeves that would give me access to the phone inside.
“What is it, do you know?” I asked. “iPhone? Android?”
“iPhone 11,” he said. “It was powered up
when we got here.”
That told me where the port would be and what kind of cable I’d need to run a copy of the whole thing without altering any files. I dropped a connector cable into the bag, ran it through the exit port, and plugged it into the field kit I’d brought from the office.
One thing I’ll say for the FBI: they’ve got the best toys.
“Soon as you finish that, I want you in the mobile
unit outside. Any other devices we find, we’ll bring to you. But this phone is your priority.”
“What’s the hurry on the phone?” I asked. I assumed it had
something to do with the fact that Gwen Petty had died so differently than the rest of her family.
Instead of an answer, though, Keats only gave me a tight smile. “Listen, Angela. I know this is new for you, and I’m going to do my best to help
you through,” he said. “Part of that is knowing your role and sticking to it. These questions are only wasting time, and from an investigative standpoint, the clock is
ticking. Got it?”
I got it, all right. I really did. This wasn’t about me, and I didn’t need Keats treating me with kid gloves, either. If anything, I appreciated that he didn’t.
I’d deal with the inhumanly sad thing that
had happened here on my own time. Right now, the best thing I could do for Gwen Petty—and for that whole family—was to tighten my focus and IT the shit out of this assignment.
IF ANYONE HAD told me five months earlier that I’d be collecting evidence at this hideous scene, I never would have believed them. But five months earlier, almost to the day, was when it all got set in motion.
The day I was kicked out of MIT.
There we were—me, my mom, and my two little sisters, packing me out of the graduate apartments in Ashdown House on Albany Street, where I was
no longer a registered student, and therefore no longer welcome.
“Is this yours?” Mom asked, holding up a ratty old MIT crew T-shirt.
“No,” I said. “Leave it.”
I jammed shoes into a box alongside an algorithm design textbook, the world’s ugliest teddy bear, and a huge tangle of miscellaneous cables. I’m not the most organized person under the best of circumstances, much less as I was hurrying
to get out from under the dark cloud that MIT—not to mention my mother—had hung over my head. I wanted to get away from
there ASAP. I’d get myself organized when I unpacked later, at home.
“I don’t understand, Angela,” Mom said. “We’ve gone over it five times and I
don’t know what happened here. How is that even possible?”
“Because Angela’s being
” my youngest sister, Hannah, chimed
in while I kept my head down and kept on stuffing things randomly into boxes.
“Good word,” Mom said to Hannah, but with her eyes still on me. “And a good observation, too.”
My other sister, Sylvie, was too busy trying on my roommate’s perfume to get involved. Hannah was more like me, sticking her nose in whenever things got tense.
Mom pressed on. “What exactly did the disciplinary board charge
you with? Can you at least tell me that much? I mean, seriously, sweetheart. What’s with the cloak-and-dagger act?”
“Please don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s going to be fine.”
“How can you be so calm? You got kicked out of MIT halfway through your first year, for God’s sake.”
I was actually only two months into a graduate master’s program in Computation for Design and Optimization. But
I thought it better not to point that out. The less we talked about it, the sooner I’d be out of there.
Then again, my mother doesn’t tolerate being ignored any better than I do. I had to say
“I don’t think this program was right for me,” I told her.
“That’s bull crap,” Hannah blurted out. “You said this program was
“Yeah, exactly,” I said. “As in, I could teach this
That part was true. I’m not an egotist, but I’m not afraid of facts, either.
The facts were that I’d been one of the three youngest people
admitted to the Boston Mensa chapter when I was four years old. I’d graduated high school with a 4.5 GPA, and I’d sailed through my undergrad years at Carnegie Mellon. I hadn’t been retested for IQ since I was twelve, but the number back then was
180 on the nose. That doesn’t make me a better person, but it’s not something I try to hide, either.
“So you get yourself thrown out?” Mom said. “This is the solution?”
I just looked at her. She knew it was more complicated than that, even if I wasn’t sharing the particulars. I hated leaving Mom so far out of the loop. It was just that the alternative—going into all the gory details of my academic
demise—was an even more embarrassing prospect. Maybe I could come a little cleaner after the smoke had been clear for a few days. But in the meantime, I was all about making the quickest possible exit.
And before I had to manufacture anything else to fill that increasingly uncomfortable silence, the door to the hall banged open. My suite mate, A.A. Wang, was standing there now, heaving for breath
like she’d sprinted the length of MIT’s famous Infinite Corridor.
“I just heard,” she said. “What the f …” She trailed off with a flick of her eyes in Sylvie and Hannah’s direction. “Hi, girls. Hi, Mrs. Hoot.”
“A.A., thank God you’re here,” Mom said. “Could you please shed some light? My charming daughter seems to be suffering from some kind of selective amnesia.”
“She doesn’t know any more
than you do,” I lied. “Leave A.A. alone.”
A.A.’s birth name is Melanie, but she’s a gigantic Winnie-the-Pooh fan, which is also to say an A.A. Milne fan. She took the name for her own in second grade, and it just stuck. My sisters absolutely idolized her, from the tips of her tattooed eyeliner to
the toes of her fabulous shoe collection. Truth be told, I idolized her a little myself.
you just standing in the hall?” Sylvie asked.
Which is when I got the signal that A.A. had been not so subtly sending my way.
“Mom?” I said. “Can you and the girls take these last boxes down? I’ll bring my bike and meet you at the car.”
Mom begrudgingly accepted the box I held out, but her eyes were still on A.A. “She tells you
you call me,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” A.A. answered.
She and my mother were practically friends on their own, for better or worse. I loved them both to pieces. Just not always in the same room at the same time, when they could gang up on me.
“See you downstairs,
” I tried, and hip-checked her toward the door.
“A mother cares,” Mom said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
A.A. said her own good-byes then, but the smile she gave the girls never quite
reached her eyes. She just waited until Mom, Sylvie, and Hannah had cleared out, then closed the door and turned to face me again.
Here it came.
“What the hell, Angela?” she said. “You just shot your own career in the head.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
“And it’s all my fault,” A.A. went on.
“Wrong again,” I said. “Nobody did this but me. And that asshole deserved everything he got. I regret nothing.”
She looked hurt.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “I’m going to miss the hell out of you, but I’ll only be a few minutes away.”
A.A. didn’t answer. I guess I wasn’t the only one who could
wield a strategic silence, because I was feeling guiltier by the second.
“Has he texted you?” I asked.
“Only about eighteen times,” she said.
“I didn’t answer,” she said.
“Good,” I said. “Knowing
him, it’ll only take another thirty-two tries before he gets it.”
“He’s really pissed, you know,” she said. “He had to replace his whole hard drive.”
I could tell A.A. was fighting between tears and laughter at that point, but her face darkened when she met my eyes again. I stared back, waiting for the inquisition, part two.
“What’s wrong with you, Angela?” she said. “Real question.”
should I start?” I asked, but A.A. didn’t even crack a smile. “Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“No. You’re not, and don’t try to tell me you are,” she shot back. “You’re crazy like a rooster in a cage, and I don’t get it.”
A.A. knew me well. Sometimes too well. It’s the cost of a real friendship. The whole thing was like a giant paradox, because everything really was fine, and everything
really was a complete mess, all at the same time.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted. “Just not today. Okay?”
“Angela—” she said before I kissed her. Not on the cheek. On the mouth, just to shut her up. It was either that or we were both going to start crying, and one of the many things A.A. and I shared was a complete distaste for cheap drama. So I kept things moving instead.
“I’ll talk to you soon,”
I said. Then I grabbed my bike off the wall and wheeled it out the door.
“Hey!” she called after me. “You left your crew shirt.”
“Keep it,” I said just before the door swung shut behind me.