Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
BEFORE WE PICKED up the phone from the principal’s office, Keats briefed me quietly in the hall.
“I want to make contact with this guy right away,” he said. “And I want you to be the one to do it. As Nigella.”
“Are you serious?” I asked. It was a stupid question, mostly just a knee-jerk bit of nerves. Obviously, Keats was serious, even if it did mean putting both of us out on a limb
here. So I quickly added, “I mean, yeah, of course. If you want me to, I’m down.”
The idea of it scared the hell out of me, but it didn’t take long to see where Billy was coming from. I was more qualified to do this than anyone else on hand, just in terms of my age, my experience, and the way my mind worked. It was the same reason he’d brought me along in the first place.
He didn’t want to change
locations, either. If we moved Nigella’s phone away from school property, the app she’d downloaded would track our movements and send that information right back to whoever was on the other end. So we stayed put.
A few minutes later, I was carefully placing the phone into a borrowed backpack to blind the camera. Then I carried it down the hall to the same room where we’d interviewed Nigella.
Keats closed the door from the outside and watched through the glass while I silently got to work. We couldn’t afford to be seen, heard, or detected here.
I took the phone and carefully laid it flat on the table in front of me. The only thing the camera would see from that angle was ceiling tiles.
Then I opened the app and typed in my first message, going for Nigella’s “voice” as best I could.
I’d read through her texts that morning. It was all the research I had time for.
Heyyyy! You still there?
For several long minutes, nothing happened. I kept looking at Keats, and he stared back encouragingly, keeping to his side of the glass until finally a little
sound told me a new message had come through.
I looked down without leaning into the camera’s range and read what was there.
This was it. Whether it was coming from a killer, or someone who hired killers, or even just one cog in a much bigger machine, it was our first direct contact of any kind. Talk about going from zero to sixty in one shot. My adrenaline was uncomfortably high, but I knew what I had to do. I carefully keyboarded in a reply, making sure I stayed out of the camera’s way.
Can’t stand this
I’m ditching. you still wanna meet?
He came back at me almost immediately.
For real? Hell yeah.
I gave Keats a thumbs-up to let him know it was progressing.
Awsome … where?
I’ll come to you,
I was just kidding,
I know what school you go to.
Sure. I know a lot about you,
he said. And then,
Like for instance, I know this isn’t you.
Right on top of that, a photo came through. It was a snapshot of the school, taken from across the street. When I pinched it open to enlarge it, I realized what I was seeing. It showed Nigella standing on the sidewalk out front, along with me, Keats, and several other agents, just after we’d found her.
My mouth literally dropped open. I heard a soft tap
on the glass and looked up at Keats’s confused expression. Then I heard one more
When I looked down, I saw that another text had come in.
You people are seriously underestimating me. Fuck off.
THEY FOUND THE corresponding phone in a trash can just up the street from Boston Latin. It was just a cheap burner, the kind of thing anyone can pick up at a convenience store or a Best Buy, use anonymously, and then ditch without any danger of getting tracked down.
Even so, it felt like a taunt as much as anything. My guess was that we were meant to find the phone, as a little reminder
of how closely we’d been observed all morning and how little we could do with that information. Keats couldn’t even put out an APB, since we had no idea who we were looking for. The whole team worked for several hours, combing the neighborhood, but it was a lost cause.
When Keats and I headed back to the field office, it was just after six o’clock. Neither of us had eaten a thing since breakfast,
so we picked up some sandwiches on the way. We got as far as the parking lot before we broke down and decided to eat them right there in the car. I guess Billy was as starving as I was.
“You really rolled with it today,” he told me. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“You know, you say that a lot,” he told me. “And the more you do, the less I tend to believe it. I saw you get pretty emotional
back there, during the interview with Nigella. I’m sorry if I put you in a tough position—”
“You didn’t,” I said, mostly because I didn’t want him to think so. However tough my position might have been, it was nothing compared to the bigger picture here.
But Billy wasn’t buying it. “Come on, Angela. It’s just us,” he said. “Don’t bullshit me.”
I nodded and stalled with a long draw on my iced
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “You’re right. It wasn’t easy. And maybe I’m not made of the kind of nails I’d like to be. But hey, I’m still here, right? And I’m still ready for more.”
Everything I’d just said was true. This thing was kicking my ass, but that’s not the same as wishing it weren’t happening. It was more like the opposite. I didn’t want to give Billy a single reason to stop bringing
me in on this case.
He took his own time responding and smiled at me over the Coke can he was sipping from. Then he sat back and stared just long enough to give my pulse a little uptick.
“What?” I said.
“I’m just going to go ahead and say it,” he told me. “You’re impressive. You really are. I know you’ve got this massive IQ, but you’re tough, too, in your own way. You’re going to be great at
this, if you want to be.”
“Does that mean I’m not yet?” I asked half seriously.
“Well,” he said with another smile, “you did almost lose Nigella Wilbur in the parking lot. But other than that—”
I don’t know what he was planning on saying, but he never got there. I’d already leaned across the seat and planted my lips on his.
There was no plan for it. No premeditation. It just
might have said. And sweet Jesus, the man’s lips were as soft as those blue eyes of his. Once I started I didn’t want to stop.
Billy didn’t pull away and he didn’t lean in. He just let me kiss him, which was its own kind of mixed message.
“What was that?” he asked when I sat back.
“Um … a kiss?” I answered.
Sometimes I like to do things just because I’m not supposed to. Or maybe there was
more to it than that. Either way, I wasn’t in the mood for apologizing.
“All right, well, that conversation’s going to have to wait,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of people expecting to hear from me at the shift meeting.”
“Understood,” I said, and we got out of the car. I wasn’t sure I needed to talk about that kiss, anyway. Not on top of everything else. But it was moot for the moment. What I really
needed to do was get out of his hair, let him get to his meeting, and be on my way.
Or at least so I thought. My bike was still in the back of his car, but when I went around to get it, he was already heading toward the office.
“Hey!” I said, and he turned around.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I need my bike,” I said. “I’m going to take it to Eve’s and drive home from there.”
coming to the shift meeting?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, too numb to be surprised anymore. “Yeah. I’m definitely coming.”
“Let’s go, then,” he said. “What are you waiting for?”
Answer: Not a damn thing, now.
THE NERVE CENTER for this case—as well as my office—had been moved down to the fifth floor to accommodate a larger team. When I got there, people were milling around, taking seats, and getting ready for whatever came next. I got lost in the shuffle and took a seat on the side of the room where I could see everything. Just as well. I literally didn’t know my place here.
was seated near the front, and Zack Ciomek from the CART was on hand, too, along with most of the expected players, plus a dozen or more unfamiliar faces. There were also six screens with alternating live feeds from various field offices around the Northeast. I saw Albany, New Haven, New York, Newark, and Philly all represented, along with whoever else might have been looping in by conference call.
This operation had bulked up considerably since the last meeting I’d been allowed into.
Keats got things started with a full briefing of the day, including some credit thrown my way, which I appreciated. Then he handed the meeting over to Zack.
“For those of you who haven’t seen this, let me give you a current snapshot of the app’s penetration,” Zack said.
He used his laptop to pull up a map
of the US on several screens around the room. Then he toggled in to show just the Northeast. It was overlaid with swaths of green in different shades, from darker to lighter. The biggest dark patch emanated from Boston, with several others concentrated around various population centers.
“Darker green indicates a denser saturation,” Zack said. “Lighter green down to white means less, or none at
all. In total, we’re estimating that the app has landed on approximately 12,300,000 devices around the Northeast. Primarily cell phones. That’s as of thirty minutes ago.”
“I’m sorry, did you say twelve million?” someone asked. It was the same question I had. That number seemed unfathomable, considering the relatively short amount of time the app had been in play.
Zack nodded. “That’s right.
Twelve point three million and growing fast. This morning, the number was eleven point nine mil.”
He tapped out a command on his laptop and the screen displays jumped to a similar graphic but with smaller clusters of every shade on the map.
“Here’s a simulation of what we’ve seen over the course of the last week,” he said. Then he hit another key to set the program into motion.
A time sequencer
ran across the bottom of the screen while the clusters darkened and grew over the course of a seven-day period. It was like watching a biological virus spreading out of control.
“How are you doing this?” I asked. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be inserting myself, but I couldn’t help it.
Zack eye-checked Keats before he answered. “One of our DC analysts found a way in,” he said. “Not by
following the app directly to individual users, but with a surrogate marker at the ISP level that allows us to see where it’s landing.”
“So you can’t tell who’s opening it, versus leaving it dormant on their systems?” someone from Philly asked.
“That’s right,” Zack said. “That’s one of the limitations. Anything more specific than that is coming through Keats’s team, which you already heard about.”
Keats picked it up from there.
“Obviously, they’re casting a very wide net in the name of picking up just a few victims,” he said. “If there’s good news, that’s it. And all of those incidents have been consolidated in the Northeast.”
“For now,” Gruss interjected.
“Yes,” Keats said. “For now. But if they find a way to activate the app without permission from individual users, then we’re going
to have a whole new shitstorm on our hands.”
We sure will,
To the tune of twelve million and counting.
WORD FILTERED PAST my desk the next morning that another incident had been linked to Keats’s investigation. Authorities in Portland, Maine, were reporting a missing girl who had either run away or been taken from her bedroom overnight.
The girl’s name was Reese Anne Sapporo. A series of suspicious texts found on her phone had been uniquely formatted with an .ras file extension. It
was like the app’s signature move, using the victim’s initials that way.
But the disappearance? That was something new.
I got my first details from Zack when he told me I’d be traveling with the case.
“You’ll be there overnight, at least,” he told me. “You can expense back a few things—”
“Not a problem,” I said. I had an unopened toothbrush and some deodorant in my desk. I’d improvise around
“Keats wants two from the CART,” Zack told me. “I’m sending you and Candace. She’ll be point of contact for the lab and you’ll assist.”
Candace Yamaguchi was a senior ITS-FE, also known as an Information Technology Specialist–Forensic Examiner, basically one step up from me. I saw her pulling together a field kit at the back of the lab and went to help.
“How much do you know?” I asked.
“Not a lot,” she said, “but we just got this. It was sent directly to Reese Sapporo’s phone about thirty minutes ago.”
Candace navigated to an image file on her tablet and turned it around to show me. “I guess the parents saw this before the police did. As if this bastard wasn’t already cruel enough.”
What I saw was a picture of a girl, presumably Reese Sapporo, in the open trunk of a car. Her
wrists and mouth were duct-taped, and her eyes were wide and wild.
Even after everything else I’d seen, that photo sucked the air right out of me. But I knew I had to make a choice. I could get emotional right now, or I could get ready to go. Not both. So I grabbed a second field case and focused on the checklist of things we’d need for this trip.
Camera, tool kit, gloves, blue tape, wire cutters,
evidence tags …
Twenty minutes later, we were in a van with Keats and the rest of our six-person team, heading to the helipad at Boston Harbor. One of the Bureau’s black Bell helicopters was waiting when we got there, and by eleven, we were lifting off for the forty-five-minute flight to Portland.
It was a surreal feeling, watching the city fall away beneath that chopper—my biggest reminder
yet that I was running with the big guns now. Which also meant no wiggle room. If the FBI couldn’t get this done, who could?
Tiny mistakes were the difference between life and death here. I was going to need to do everything I could to hold
up my little corner of this investigation. And no matter what else happened now, I just hoped we were moving on this fast enough to make sure that Reese Anne
Sapporo made it back home alive.
That is, assuming we weren’t already too late.