Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
THE ENGINEER, OR whoever he was, wasted no time re-taping my wrists. He was big, and way too strong for me. With no trouble at all, he got me sitting up and lashed to a tree before he took the tape off my mouth again.
The sun was all but gone now. Twilight was turning into night, and I could hear spring peepers nearby.
We were deep in the woods, I realized. Somewhere far enough out
that he didn’t care if I made any noise or not.
“Did you like the British accent?” he asked just before a flashlight beam seared into my eyes. I squinted hard, trying to see around it. “We’ve got a million of them. Southern, German, whatever. Not that it matters. Just a little something to muddy the water.”
When I tried to speak, a wave of nausea stopped me. I heaved, but nothing came up.
“That’s the propofol,” he said. “It’ll wear off.”
I could hear the other one—the Poet?—moving around in the dark. A van door opened and closed. Music came on,
muted from inside the vehicle. Some kind of guitar rock. The kind I hate.
“What about Eve?” I said, trying again. I couldn’t see her from where I was, but it didn’t seem as though they’d moved her, or even paid her any attention yet.
“She’s down for the count,” he said from the other side of the flashlight. “I like to take things one at a time.”
“You told me you’d let her go,” I tried.
”—he took three fast strides toward me—“said you’d play by the rules. So I guess neither of us got what we wanted.”
He was standing over me now. The gun was still there, close enough that I could see the black nib of a sight on his
I didn’t know how he’d intercepted me, but I could think of a few ways. It had been days since I really took stock of that app. For all I knew, he’d spotted my malware before it could ever pose a serious threat. Maybe I’d been shortsighted, or careless. It was hard to say anymore. But what choice did I have?
“You were never at that address on Condor Street, were you?” I asked.
we were there,” he told me. “We lost a perfectly good apartment, thanks to you. The cops are all over it now. I should shoot you just for that.”
“So that’s it? You’re going to kill me?” I asked. I’m not sure why I wasn’t incoherent, because I
“Nah,” he said, and stepped back again. “Not my department.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
The music from the van bumped up in volume
as the Poet stepped outside again.
“You all set?” the Engineer called over his shoulder.
“Yep.” The other’s voice came out of the dark. I could hear him walking closer better than I could see him. “I was just
putting Angela’s picture up on Twitter. Hey, Angela, guess what? You’re famous now!”
The Engineer turned toward his partner. As he did, the flashlight beam swung out of my eyes and gave
me my first real look at the Poet.
Justin Nicholson had described his shooter as a short man with, he thought, a Southern accent. Presumably, this was him. The accent had been a fake, for sure. But now I wasn’t so sure about the “man” part, either.
This kid was impossibly young. He didn’t look any more than eighteen, and probably wasn’t even that. Hell, he barely looked old enough to drive.
“Ready for me here?” he asked.
“She’s all yours, little brother,” the other one said, handing off the flashlight. “I’ll just be in the van, if you need me.”
“I won’t,” the Poet said.
“I know,” answered the other as he disappeared into the dark and left us alone.
Dear God, what had I fallen into?
“SO … HI,” HE said, putting down the case he’d carried over. As he sat cross-legged on the ground facing me, he seemed like any other average white kid. Baggy pants, ring tee, and a mop of shaggy hair. The kind you hide behind when you don’t fit in.
Everything about him was young. Exactly as young as I thought he’d been
to be online.
“How old are you?” I asked.
do you think?” he said.
My impulse then was the same as it would have been for any boy this age: round up. Don’t offend him by shooting low.
“That’s exactly right,” he said, but I knew he was lying.
“And you two are brothers?” I asked.
“That’s not important right now.”
Oddly enough, he was right.
He opened his case and took out a pistol, then set it on the ground. That was followed
by a large hunting knife, which he set next to the gun. The flashlight was on the ground, too.
The details of everything were sketchy there in the dark, but he seemed to be putting on some kind of show. I could tell he wanted me to see this, one bit at a time. Like maybe he had something to prove.
Finally, he took out a phone and started texting something.
“Did you really think that piece of
crap malware was the way to go?” he asked without looking up. “It was pretty rookie for someone like you. We’re not idiots, Angela.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t think you were.”
“You had six hours. I could have coded something better from scratch in half that. You probably could have, too. Maybe even gotten away with it.”
He wasn’t wrong. The truth of it cut into me. I hadn’t thought this through.
And then, another realization.
“Is that your app?” I asked. “Did you write it?” I’d assumed all along that the other guy was their coder.
The kid smiled down at his screen, thumbs still busy. “Duh,” he said. “What do you think of it?”
“I think anyone would love to have fifteen million copies of their work out there,” I answered honestly.
“Seventeen million now,” he said. “And don’t tell me
you’ve never wanted to hack at that level.”
“The difference is, I never wanted to kill anyone,” I said.
“Are you sure about that?” He stopped and looked up from his phone for the first time since he’d taken it out. “What about Darren Wendt?”
The name hung there in the air. I wasn’t even sure how to respond.
“Oh, yeah,” he went on. “I know all about you. Ever since that day at Boston Latin.
You completely changed the game then. You should be proud.”
I was processing everything as fast as I could. There was a lot to take in. When he went back to his phone, I thought he was still texting, but then he held up a picture for me to see.
It was an image of Billy and me standing outside Mass General, taken from across the street. “Ever wonder how we got the number of
that burner phone?”
“I assumed you hacked Justin Nicholson’s account,” I said. “He was one of the only people I gave it to.”
The kid’s face lit up. There was an odd innocence to his smile, like he was genuinely happy to be sitting here, talking to me.
“I love that you know that,” he said, already navigating to the next image. When he held this one up, I saw a picture of myself getting into
George’s car outside the Bureau field office.
“Poor George,” he said. “You may have changed the game, Angela, but George paid the price.”
It was a struggle to keep my anger down. “You didn’t have to kill him,” I said.
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” he told me. “There are lots of people we didn’t
to kill. But George? He was in the way.”
“Of what?” I said. “Of me?”
The kid rocked his
head side to side. “That’s a bit simplistic. But as a binary question, let’s say yes.”
It was all coming together, in its own twisted way. As far as I could tell, he’d created that app just to see if he could. Then he killed those girls and their families because they were there.
Now he’d turned his micro attention span on me. Which begged the question,
How do I keep this kid distracted?
long could I survive?
THIS GUY WAS the genius of the future. He seemed to know a little bit about everything, and everything about nothing.
I hated people like him. Even the sane ones.
He scooted closer then, coming onto his knees. From there, he leaned in so his face was practically touching mine. When he put a hand on my leg, I shuddered, imagining the worst.
“Do you want me to kill Darren for you?”
he asked. “Because I will, you know.”
“I don’t want you to kill anyone,” I said. “Including Eve. Or me.”
He squinted and tilted his head, like he was trying to figure me out. When his hand slid farther up my thigh, I bucked, trying to shake him off.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” I said.
He froze for an almost imperceptible moment. Then a smile hit his face and he rocked back to sit on his heels.
“You know, my one disappointment is that you’re not as good-looking in person,” he said. “You don’t have much of a body, either.”
It was bizarrely typical. Yes, he was probably insane, and definitely homicidal. But he was also like any number of other guys I’d known in my life. The ones who are all bluster until they get cornered and have to perform. Then suddenly, it’s nothing but fumbling,
excuses, and, with the real assholes, blame.
He was back on his phone now, looking at something else, like our little exchange hadn’t even happened.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said. “When did you know you were a genius?”
That actually gave me pause. I’d been asked a million things about my IQ, my brain, and my academic chops over the years, but no one had ever put it that way. And since
conversation was the least threatening thing I could hope for out there, I rolled with it.
“I guess it depends on what you mean by
” I said. “I’ve known I had a high IQ as long as I can remember.”
“But when did you know you were different?” he asked. “Special.”
“Fourth grade,” I said. “That’s when they started separating me out from kids my age.”
“Not until fourth?” He seemed genuinely
surprised. He even looked up from his phone again. “Was your family supportive? Did you get special classes, or whatever?”
I nodded. “I took high school calculus that year.”
“And are your parents smart?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“But not like you.”
I had to pause, even though I knew the answer.
“That’s right,” I said. Instinct was driving me to be as honest as I could. It seemed obvious
he had some history of his own with this kind of thing. Maybe it would help humanize me in his eyes. I’d heard somewhere that that’s the first thing you
should do with a captor of any kind. Never let them forget you’re a person, as opposed to some object or plaything.
Meanwhile, the phone still had at least half of his attention. He wasn’t texting, though. It looked like he was watching something
now. For what little time I’d been around him, I had yet to see him settle and focus on one thing.
“My parents didn’t know what to do with me,” he said, his eyes still on the screen. “But I sure knew what to do with them.”
The question started out of my mouth before I thought better of it, but then I shut up just as quickly.
“I sure did,” he said anyway, and looked at me again.
“You know, we can’t all grow up in perfect little suburban homes—”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said.
“—with just the right Mommy and Daddy—”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to—”
“—and two perfect little sisters,” he added.
“Wait … What?” I said.
The realization of what he’d been leading up to settled over me now, like a horrible, heavy weight.
“What did you just say?” I asked again
as he tooled endlessly with that goddamn phone.
“What’s the matter, Angela?” he asked. “I thought you were proud of your family.”
“No,” I said, as it all fell into place, and I saw exactly where this was headed. “No … no …”
“We just want to meet them,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s sweet?”
“NO, NO … NO …”
It was all I had, like some kind of infinite loop in my brain.
“Hey, Mikey!” the kid shouted.
Mikey? Mike? Michael? The name cut through my panic and registered, just in case.
A second later, the older one got out of the van and came over.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I just told her where we’re going,” he said.
“You can’t do this,” I said to them, focusing on
the Engineer now. “Be reasonable. He’s your brother, right? Your younger brother. Talk some sense into him! Don’t you need to get away? Just … leave. Go. For your own sake.”
“I agree with you,” he said. “But tell that to him.” He thumbed at the Poet. “This is his operation. He calls the shots.”
“Wait,” I said, looking from one brother to the other. “He … what?”
It wasn’t an impossible idea,
but it was so opposite what I’d been assuming, it seemed almost nonsensical for a second. This
was the one in charge? Really?
“Oh, yeah. Once he gets his mind set on something, there’s no talking him out of it. He’s the genius, not me. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
“Of course she did,” the kid said confidently. He’d started repacking his case, going about his business as if I weren’t
right there, freaking out.
“Any other day, and you’d like him,” the older one said. “Swear to God. He’s very much your type.”
“Well, intellectually, anyway,” the Poet added, and stood up next to his brother. “Ready to go?”
A scream ran through my mind, but I kept it where it was. “This is crazy!” I said instead. “Neither of you are thinking straight. You can’t go to my house.”
“It’s a done
deal, Angela,” the kid told me. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”
But the words kept spilling out.
“My family won’t even be there,” I said. “You have to know that. They’re off at some safe house by now.”
“In fact, they’re not,” the Poet said.
He was right. I was flailing for anything to say—and then doubled down on the lie, too, because there was no reason not to. “I’m telling you, they’re under federal
protection. I swear!”
I didn’t expect it to get me anywhere, and it didn’t. All he did in response was turn his phone around to show me what he’d been watching all that time.
It was a video feed of some kind.
From my family’s house, I realized all at once.
There, on the screen, I saw my sister Sylvie. She was slumped on the couch at home, leaning over the camera in her own phone, obliviously
texting away or playing a game. The app had been watching her, too. All this time.
“And let’s not forget Hannah,” the Poet said. He ticked something on his screen and the view switched. Now I saw my other
sister from the vantage point of my mother’s laptop, which usually lived on the kitchen counter.
Hannah was in her pjs, eating a bowl of cereal at the table. She always ate cereal before bed.
“Looks like everyone’s hunkering down for the night,” the Poet said. “Think they miss you? Not that it matters. You’ll all be together again soon enough.”
His words blurred in the air. What little I could see in the gloom around me seemed to blur, too. And that scream I’d been holding down came up before I could stop it.
“Someone, please help me!”
“Don’t do that,” the older
one said, but I couldn’t stop. It was like falling down a hole with nothing to grab on to. I knew it wouldn’t matter, but I had to try.
“There’s no way I’m going with you!” I told them. “You can just kill me right now and get it over with. Go ahead! Shoot me, you asshole! Do it!”
The words were coming with a clarity I didn’t even know I had. I wasn’t afraid to die anymore. Not in that moment.
The thing that scared me most now was getting in that van and letting them take me where they wanted to go.
The older one leaned down and pressed both of my shoulders against the tree. I tried to push back, but it was an impossible situation.
I screamed again.
Then another stab of pain ignited under my arm, just like the last time. My mind fired up with a fresh wave
of panic, mostly because I knew what was coming. It wouldn’t be long now.
The drug took hold almost right away. It started with the fuzziness around the edges. I think I might have mumbled one last protest, but then came the gray blur. The slipping away. And finally, the black.