Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
DR. ANN L. JOHNSON had an easy, chic kind of vibe going on, with her pleated pencil skirt, three-quarter-sleeve cardigan, and a beautiful floral print scarf that would have made my mother jealous. I could easily imagine her as the headmistress at some tony New England boarding school.
After some initial chitchat that I figured was meant to put me at ease—like that was ever going to
happen—we sat down at my little kitchen table for the psych evaluation I assumed she was there for.
She asked how I was feeling about George, about Eve’s disappearance, and about the case in general. I answered honestly but superficially, never forgetting that someone else could be listening in. The whole thing was as uncomfortable as it was unavoidable.
And then, inevitably, Dr. Johnson wanted
to talk about my least favorite subject: me.
“I’ve spoken a bit with your superiors here,” she said. “It sounds like you’re quite an eager learner.”
“Is that a euphemism?” I asked.
“It is, a little bit,” she acknowledged.
I’m not a fan of shrinks. I’d been sent to a few in my adolescence, probably to make sure I wasn’t child-geniusing my way to a career as a psychopath. And while I’m sure
they were all perfectly good docs, they always made me feel like an animal in a zoo.
Still, I knew what Dr. Johnson was looking for. So I cut to the chase for both of us. The sooner we got this over with, the better.
“What can I say? Some people overeat. Some people gamble or drink,” I told her. “I over
. I overthink, and always have. But that’s also part of what’s gotten me this far, especially
for someone my age.”
“It’s true. Your resume is extraordinary,” she said.
“That wasn’t a dig for compliments,” I told her. “What I’m saying is that I wouldn’t walk away from that part of myself, even if I could.”
She only smiled at that, which made me want to scream.
“Angela, let me start over with you,” Dr. Johnson said. “You tend to go all in, on just about anything. Am I right?”
enough,” I said.
“Has anyone ever spoken to you about impulse control? Or prescribed any medication for that kind of thing?”
I paused, actually taking it in. Impulse control? Medication?
“I thought we were supposed to be talking about George and Eve,” I said.
“I’m merely suggesting that it’s possible you’ve succeeded so spectacularly in
of these tendencies, not because of them,” she
went on. “In which case, just imagine what you might accomplish without them.”
I couldn’t argue with that and wasn’t going to. Her logic
wasn’t the problem. It was her timing. I just didn’t want to be having this conversation.
She went on. “I’m not telling you to pretend there’s no crisis,” she said. “But maybe this sequestration will help you pull back on the throttle a bit. Just take a conscious
breath or two. Give your mind some space to process all of this.”
“Do I have a choice?” I asked, looking around my little cave. “I’m in the ultimate time-out here.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s lost time,” Johnson told me. “It’s just a matter of what you want to do with it.”
On that we agreed fully. I couldn’t wait for her to leave.
She stayed a little longer anyway, offering something to help
me sleep (no, thank you) and asking about a convenient time for her to “drop by” again. Like I was going anywhere soon. The fact that I got all the way to the end without completely losing my shit felt like as much of an accomplishment as I could hope for.
Finally, she got up to go. I walked her out to the hall and promised that I’d think about everything she’d said. Then I shut myself up in
my room and turned back to the real task at hand:
Hacking my way out of this corner I’d gotten myself into.
ANOTHER STRING OF messages was waiting for me after my session with Dr. Johnson.
The first one just read
Then came a screen capture from a Twitter account under the name JustCuz.
Hey @FBI! Any luck finding #EveAbajian? Didn’t think so.
The tweet, stamped for five thirty that morning, had been posted with the picture of Eve they’d sent me the night before, mouth taped and
eyes wide. It gave me the same hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach as it had the first time I saw it.
And there was more. The third message was a link to a CNN story with the headline
FBI ABDUCTION TWEETED BY ALLEGED KIDNAPPERS.
Authorities are following up on a disturbing tweet that appeared briefly online Wednesday morning. The single
posting, from an account held under the username JustCuz,
referenced the unconfirmed kidnapping of a Boston-area FBI employee and included a graphic picture of the alleged victim. The tweet has since been taken down by Twitter.
CNN has learned that the victim in question is Eve Abajian, a cybersecurity analyst and consultant with the FBI’s Boston field office. Witnesses confirmed that police were called early this morning to the street outside of Abajian’s
home in South Boston, where the body of retired federal agent George Yates was found in his car, following an apparent execution-style shooting. Calls to the FBI for comment were not immediately returned.
My little safe house was starting to feel like a bomb shelter. Everything was blowing up out there and I was stuck inside, listening to the explosions.
These guys knew exactly what they were
doing. They knew the tweet would be taken down, and they knew it wouldn’t matter. Once it got out, the media machine would treat it like the catnip it was meant to be.
What do you want from me?
I messaged back.
I didn’t expect a quick answer, but I got one.
We want you to help us disappear.
Disappear? What did that mean?
Cable this phone to any networked computer at the FBI.
We’ll take care of the rest.
That’s when I knew I was talking to the other guy. The one I’d started to think of as the Engineer, as opposed to the Poet. This one was all business and no chat.
What about Eve?
You do your part and she walks away
Why should I believe anything you say?
Not my problem,
They had to be making this up as they went along.
They couldn’t have known ahead of time where I’d be taken. But now they were trying to capitalize on it.
Or at least this guy was.
Were the two of them even talking to each other at this point? Were they deliberately trying to confuse me? Playing me off of each other?
For that matter, were these two even in the same location? I had no way of knowing.
The only sure thing was that I couldn’t
give in to this latest demand. Not even for Eve. It was one thing to compromise my own safety. It was another to allow them access to the Bureau’s servers. That would put far too many other people in jeopardy. And if I knew Eve at all, I knew she’d back me up on this. There was simply no way.
But the Engineer didn’t have to know that.
I’m stuck here,
How do you suggest I do this?
You have six hours,
he answered. Already, that damn timer of his had popped up again and started counting down.
I need more than that,
This is not a negotiation,
he told me.
In six hours, we find our own way to disappear. Then Eve stays put and she can starve to death while you look for her. Think on that.
A bolt of rage shot through me. I forced myself to set down the phone rather
than hurl it across the room. Then I picked up the mug I’d been drinking from and threw that instead. It smashed into a shower of blue shards and coffee, dripping down the wall by the door. And no, I didn’t clean it up. Or care.
I took up the phone again.
Please give me more time,
Hello? We need to talk about this.
Still nothing. He’d said all he was going to say, and I
was left there with no more than the sound of my own shaky breathing. Clearly, the next move was mine to make.
But I had no idea what it was going to be.
AT AROUND TEN, Billy came by. He had an FBI duffel full of my clothes, along with my bike, my indoor trainer, and everything else on my list, with one exception.
“No laptop?” I asked.
“You’re officially off-line as long as you’re here,” he said. “I know that’s like cutting off your oxygen, but you understand.”
There was so much I couldn’t say, and even more on my mind. I wasn’t
even sure if I should feel guilty for hiding so much from Billy. It was like a complex moral equation and I didn’t have the skills, much less the presence of mind or the time, to balance it out. All I could do was take this one thing at a time.
“What about my family?” I asked.
“I went by your folks’ place this morning. They’re concerned, of course, but they’re doing okay,” he said. “What about
you? How are you holding up?”
“Never better,” I said. Billy didn’t even try to smile at that. “Okay, I’m horrible,” I told him. “I’m going crazy in here. I want to cry and kill someone at the same time.”
He nodded with the calm understanding of a Bureau vet, even if he didn’t know all the particulars of my personal hell that morning.
“Listen,” he said, “I can’t tell you much, but since part
of this has gone public, there’s no reason to keep it from you.”
He navigated his phone to a page and handed it to me. What I saw was the
’s website, with their own version of the CNN story from that morning. The headline this time was
TWEETED FBI KIDNAP CONFIRMED
“Oh, my God!” I said. I tried to seem genuinely surprised and took a minute to scan the article for anything I didn’t already
know. Apparently, the FBI had held a press conference to confirm Eve’s kidnapping, but they weren’t sharing any details about the case.
“We figured we might as well own it,” Billy said. “It wasn’t a bell we could unring.” Then he thumbed toward the door. “But come on. I can at least show you around before I go.”
“Really?” I wasn’t even expecting to get out of the apartment that day.
get too excited,” he told me. “It’s the world’s shortest tour.”
The hall outside my room was as empty as it had been the night before. All the closed doors looked exactly alike except for the fire exit, which had an alarmed crash bar and a surveillance camera mounted above.
“Your ID card will get you into your apartment, and into the admin office during business hours,” Billy said. “Other than
that, you’re not to go anywhere.”
“Admin office?” I asked.
He pressed his own card to the reader on the door directly opposite mine. The little red light clicked to green, and Billy pushed the door open.
“Welcome to the end of the tour,” he said.
I followed him into a cramped, windowless office. A woman was sitting alone at a U-shaped workstation, and she stood up as we came in. I couldn’t
help noticing her desktop computer, as well as the ASUS laptop sitting on her return. I wasn’t sure what that might mean for me, but it was something.
“Angela Hoot, this is Rena Partridge, one of our operations coordinators,” Billy said.
“Angela, hi.” She shook my hand with a reassuring smile. “If there’s anything you need—drugstore run, a message for Billy Boy here, or even just some kind of
favorite foods—I’m your gal.”
With her short salt-and-pepper hair and the red glasses on a chain, she seemed like someone’s elderly babysitter, not a high-security-clearance FBI employee. I liked her right away.
“I’ll probably have to take you up on that,” I said. “Thank you in advance.”
If I needed to get online without the Android, this office opened up some possibilities, I thought. Maybe
not with Rena’s desktop, which would be hardwired into the building’s network. But the laptop was an option—
“Angela?” Keats said.
I snapped back to attention. They were both looking at me like I’d missed something. Which, for all I knew, I had.
“Hon, you should get some sleep,” Rena said. “You look exhausted.”
I didn’t argue with that. I just thanked her again and followed Billy back out
to the hall. He wasn’t kidding about the world’s shortest tour, either. Three steps later, we were standing outside my door like it was the end of some strange date.
Our night together in Portland seemed about a century ago.
A past lifetime. Maybe a future one, too, but I couldn’t think about that right now.
“I’ve got to run,” Billy said.
“Of course,” I told him. “Thanks for bringing my stuff.”
He hesitated and tilted his head to catch my eye. “You know this isn’t your fault, right?” he said.
“That’s a complicated question,” I told him. “Maybe one for another time.”
“Right.” He looked at his watch. The clock was ticking for both of us. “I’ll check back when I can,” he said.
And one tick later, he was gone.
NORMALLY, THE BEST way for me to get my head on straight is by hitting the trail with my bike. But “normal” was off the table right now, so I set up my trainer in the middle of the room and started riding in place.
I left the Android where I could see it, in case anything new came in. Then I got a good crank going, put my head down, and tried to synthesize everything I knew into a
cohesive plan of attack.
As I turned the various factors over and around in my head like a Rubik’s Cube, I kept coming back to the same idea:
If I could sneak the right kind of self-loading program onto one of the devices these guys were using on their end, I could get back an IP address, and from that a physical location.
Which meant there was a possibility that I could
actually find Eve without ever leaving the building.
The real question was how to get this done without them noticing, much less in the next four and a half hours.
I thought about what Eve said to me once:
Sometimes you have to look past the code and into the coder
. With people like Darren Wendt, that was easy. Darren had all the intellectual depth of a
kiddie pool. He couldn’t have been more
oblivious to the hacks I sent his way.
These guys were different. Maybe they were typical ego cases for hackers, but they were also smart as hell and well resourced.
Lucky for me, I was smart as hell, too.
I downshifted several gears and cranked the trainer’s resistance until I was riding up a virtual thirty-degree incline. It put an exquisite kind of pain into my quads and glutes, and I told
myself there was
until I’d figured this out or reached pure muscle failure, whichever came first.
Sticking with the malware idea, it made sense to target the Poet, not the Engineer. He was the one I knew for sure was in the same location as Eve, since he’d recorded her voice and sent it to me. He also seemed more human. Less focused. More distractible.
I hated to think about what
it was going to take to distract him. As he’d said himself, I knew what he liked. But I’d deal with that when I had to.
In the meantime, I focused on the tech aspects of this hack, laying out contingency plans like a flowchart in my mind.
I don’t know how many miles I covered. My thoughts were spinning as fast as those pedals, and I barely noticed as I went from smooth, even strokes to jerky,
sporadic pulls. When I couldn’t manage one more rotation, I eased back the resistance and coasted into a cooldown, arms overhead and sweat streaming.
I knew what I wanted to do now. Or at least I knew what I wanted to try. There were no guarantees, but as that ticking timer made abundantly clear, I couldn’t afford to sit around on my ass, waiting for a better idea.
Ready or not, it was time
to flip this game.