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Authors: James Patterson

Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller

1st Case (14 page)

BOOK: 1st Case
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OUR DAY ENDED with a 6:00 p.m. shift meeting at the field office.

This time around, everyone knew who I was, partly because I’d been around the block a few times by now. But mostly, it was because of the way my name had been so suddenly introduced into the mix of this case. Word about Justin’s message to me from the killers had obviously reached the field office ahead of this meeting.
And judging from the looks I kept getting around the room, I think they were expecting me to be more freaked out than I felt.

But the truth was, we’d already been targeted by these people. They’d taken our picture. They’d sent us running up to Maine, where I had no doubt they’d kept an eye on us.

And now this. It smacked of bully tactics, going after the perceived weak link—the young female
intern. It was predictable, and in a strange way, I was losing respect for whoever was behind it. Up to now, they’d shown some real chops with
the app in a way that I couldn’t help admiring. But this move almost felt like a cheap shot in comparison.

On the other hand, I’m not stupid, and I’m not suicidal. So I didn’t say a word when Keats insisted on a security detail for me. Starting that night,
I was going to have my very own conjoined twin, courtesy of the FBI. It didn’t thrill me, but it was better than moving home and, God forbid, letting my parents know what had happened.

Meanwhile, at the meeting, we heard from all corners of the investigation, starting with Keats’s report on the last thirty-six hours.

Word from Reese Sapporo was that she’d been lured out of her room at two in
the morning, attacked, and then drugged in the dark woods behind her house. She’d told the authorities in Portland that she remembered feeling a sharp stab under her arm before passing out. Then she remembered waking up in the trunk of a car. That was it.

She never saw anyone’s face, including whoever took her picture. That person, she’d said, was wearing a ski mask. Probably because he knew
he’d be letting her go.

She wasn’t sure, either, if it had been a lone assailant or if there had been more than one of them. It was all hazy in her memory, and there hadn’t been much to see in the dark.

“We’ll be following up with Justin Nicholson as soon as his medical team lets us back in,” Keats reported. “Not sure how much of a description we’re going to get from him, though. It was dark
in that house, and his memory of the whole thing is sketchy at best.”

“Where are we on the larger picture?” one of the DC contacts asked from a screen on the wall. “Any new word on who’s doing this, or why?”

I was pretty sure I saw a twinge in Billy’s eye just then. He’d
been calm and pulled together the whole time, but this was his sore spot. He looked over to SAC Gruss, and she took it from

“Obviously, they’re well organized, with some amount of infrastructure, and certainly a high degree of technical acumen,” she said. “Not to mention funding. Beyond that, it could be some kind of snuff network, or a hacker collective, or of course a terrorist cell, domestic or international.”

“So you think there’s some kind of larger objective here?” the DC agent followed up. “That maybe
all this movement is just some kind of opening salvo?”

Keats answered that one. “We don’t know,” he said. “But it does seem like a lot of trouble to go to, just to find people to kill.”

You could feel the edge in the room. Nobody was comfortable with how little we had so far.

“Whatever they are, they’re up to fifteen million unduplicated copies now,” Zack Ciomek chimed in. “Which, again, points
to some kind of larger-scale operation.”

I wanted to speak up in the worst way. I wasn’t as ready as most in the room to dismiss the idea that these attacks might be taken at face value. Everything they’d done so far was unprecedented in hacker circles, but by the same token, it was just a bigger version of what you might expect from people like that.

There’s no hacker on the planet who wouldn’t
want to see his work duplicated on fifteen million devices. It could have easily been its own objective, just to see how far they could take it. In my mind, it all felt like giant egos run amok. The attention seeking. The showy programming. Even the murders.

But I didn’t have anything more than my gut instinct and an aborted grad school education to back me up on that one.
Presumably, Keats and
Gruss were privy to all kinds of data I hadn’t seen.

And if nothing else, I’d already gotten far more attention that day than I wanted. So I kept my thoughts to myself.

For the time being, anyway.



I put my hand on the elevator button. Keats nodded at the two security guards as he passed, got on with me, then waited for the doors to close.

“You okay?” he asked once we were heading down.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m not going to let this throw me.”

“Maybe you should,” he said. “You know. Worry a little more?”

“Where have I heard that before?” I asked.
“Oh, right. Everywhere.”


“It’s not like they didn’t already know who we were,” I told Billy and kept going before he could cut me off. “Besides, I’m meeting my new boyfriend, George, right down here in the lobby.”

George Yates was the retired agent who had the dubious pleasure of being my first security officer. He was going to be with me through the night.

“What about you?” I asked.

The elevator hit the ground floor and we stepped out into the lobby. I saw George outside by his car and held up a finger to let him know I’d be right there.

“We never got a chance to talk,” Billy said. “After last night, I mean.”

“I know.”

I think he was expecting me to be on pins and needles about it, which was sweet, in a way. But not really necessary.

“Last night was incredible,”
I said. “
were incredible. Just what I needed. But I know the deal here, Billy. I know all the reasons why it was a mistake, and I know that none of them are personal.”

Billy never would have used that word—
. In his own way, he was a gentleman. But he didn’t contradict me, either.

“I’m not sure what to say to that,” he said.

“It’s fine,” I told him. “Besides, who knows? Maybe we’ll
get to make the same mistake again sometime.”

“No, no, no,” he said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but that can’t happen again.”

“We’ll see,” I said, partly because that’s what I thought. But also because Billy was fun to mess with. It was like coming full circle, back to Office Flirtation 2.0. “I’d better get moving. My guy’s waiting.”

It could have been uncomfortable. Maybe it even should
have been. But it just wasn’t. Billy seemed to vibe with me about it, too, and my joke glanced off him without any tension.

Which of course only made him hotter. Dammit.

When we got outside, Billy stopped to say hi to George and catch up a little, before he said good night to both of us. Then as he turned away to head back inside, I hit him with a parting shot, just for fun.

“Hey, Agent Keats?”
I called out.

Billy stopped and turned. “Yeah?”

“You were a
last night,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone work a case so hard. Or so long. Go get some sleep, because you deserve it.”

Billy shook his head at me but kept a poker face.

“Thank you,
Intern Hoot,
” he said, giving back a little better than I expected before he moved off into the night. I guess I wasn’t the only one who could
roll with the punches.

And good thing, too. Because I was about to get hit with a big one before that day was over.


“WHERE ARE WE heading?” George asked.

“Eventually out to Somerville,” I said. “But I need to make a couple of stops across the river, if you don’t mind.”

“Your call,” he said. “I’m on the clock until seven a.m. Doesn’t matter to me where I spend it.”

On our way to Cambridge, I got an earful about George’s kidneys, his Dobermans, and his ex-wife, whose remarriage was saving him a
bundle. He seemed to mistake me for one of his lodge buddies, but I couldn’t really complain. I wouldn’t want to play babysitter, either.

In any case, while George chattered away, he didn’t seem to mind, or even notice, that I was texting with A.A. at the same time.

You around?
I asked.

I can be,
she came back right away.

Coming to hang with you if that’s ok? Can’t stay too long.

Pick up a bottle?

I can do that.

The truth was, I’d come out of that shift meeting thinking about five people: my mother, my father, my sisters, and A.A.

I’d already gone over every internet-connected device in my parents’ house and given them all the old “Surf safe” lecture. Twice for my sisters. But now I wanted to check A.A.’s phone. If there were fifteen million copies of this thing, what
were the chances one of them had landed with her?

I asked George to stop at the Starbucks on Mass Ave and ran in for two venti dark roasts plus two double espresso shots. After that, I picked up a pint of Jameson at the liquor store to go with the coffee. A.A. and I called it Irish Ritalin. It was just the right combination to put an edge on and take it off at the same time.

When we got to Ashdown
House, George pulled up and parked illegally right in front.

“Do you have to come in with me?” I asked.

“Take this,” he said, and handed me a radio. “It’s got a GPS on it and a dedicated channel. I’ll be right here if you need me. And don’t go anywhere else.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “I’ll be an hour, tops.”

“No problemo.”

I appreciated the personal space, whether or not he was supposed to
give it to me. And I was psyched to get a little time with my bestie, too. The night was going about 90 percent better than I would have thought, considering the ridiculous day I’d had.

So I was disappointed, to say the least, when I saw Darren Wendt coming down the building’s main stairs. It looked like he was just leaving as I was coming inside. Maybe that was why A.A. sent me on a drinks run,
I thought—to buy herself a little time with the Cro-Magnon creep himself.

Just not enough of it, apparently.

“Hoot!” Darren said before I could pretend not to see him. “As I live and sneeze.”

“Darren. What an unpleasant surprise,” I said. “Why are you still coming here, anyway? I thought you liked your women dumb.”

“Yeah, well …” He looked around, playing it up like some bad actor. “It’s MIT.
There are no dumb girls here.”

“Plenty of assholes, though,” I said.

I meant it, but he just laughed. He was obviously in a good mood and I hated to think about why.

“All right, then. Good talk. Gotta go,” I said, and kept on moving.

“You know she’s never going to be your girlfriend, right?” he called after me, loud enough for anyone to hear.

I shouldn’t have stopped. The best MO with guys
like him is always some combination of “Ignore” and “Keep walking.” But there was just something about Darren that demanded constant shutting down.

“So now you’re the only one who can hang out with her?” I said, against my own better judgment.

“Get over it, Hoot! You lost!” he yelled. People were starting to stare. “And the pathetic thing is, you don’t even know how obvious you are.”

Then he
stepped back, reached out with one hand, and dropped an invisible mic. Just when I thought he couldn’t hit the douchiness any harder, he did.

“Hey, Darren,” I called back, also loud enough for anyone to hear. “How are those small balls working out for you?” It wasn’t an empty insult. I knew from A.A. that it was true, and I waited just long enough to watch Darren’s face fall before I turned and
headed up the stairs.

I didn’t stop this time, either. At least, not until I was standing
outside A.A.’s door. That’s when I noticed how hard my heart was beating. There was a hollow thump in my chest, like someone was chasing after me. And it wasn’t from climbing stairs.

It was what Darren had said, I realized.

She’s never going to be your girlfriend.

Something about it had stuck to me. And
the reason why was just starting to light up my brain.

Was it possible? Could Darren Wendt have seen something about me that I hadn’t even seen myself? I was usually immune to his comments, but this one had gotten under my skin, and I couldn’t just shake it off. Which was humiliating.

But also—strangely enough—interesting.

No. Exciting.


Or maybe just plain … true.


A.A. TOOK ONE look at me and called it as soon as I was through the door.

“What’s up?” she asked. “You look weird.”

I set the drinks down and cracked open the Jameson. Then I took a first shot from the bottle before I poured another into each of our coffees.

Whatever was going on inside me, it was all moving too fast. I couldn’t completely deny what Darren had said. But my attraction
to Billy Keats was just as undeniable. Unless I was fooling myself about one thing or the other.

Oh, man. My head was going in circles.

All I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to say a word about Darren. If I was going to talk about this at all, it had to be on my own terms, not his.

And not right now.

“It’s been a day,” I said.

“And a half, I guess,” she said, watching me take another
swig of whiskey. It burned its way down my throat and started
settling with that warm, comforting feeling in my gut. I didn’t want to get drunk. Not right now, anyway. I just needed to slow down my system a little and change the subject—back to the real reason I’d come.

“Hey, so anyway,” I said. “If I asked to look inside your phone, no questions, would you let me?”

She gave me a squint and
I just stared back. She knew me well enough to know that I’d be asking for a good reason. And then sure enough, A.A. smirked, took her phone off the desk, and handed it over.

“Still weird, but okay,” she said. “And how flexible are we on the no-questions policy?”

“Drink your Ritalin,” I said.

I trusted A.A., of course. Hundred percent. But I was determined to maintain the case confidentiality
that was required of me at the Bureau, no matter what.

Without another word, I cabled her phone to my laptop and took a look around inside. First, I checked for any files with an .aaw extension, or .mw, accounting for her birth name. There were none. Then I searched for email attachments containing executable programs. And that’s where I found it.

As it turned out, A.A. was one of the fifteen
million people with a copy of this insidious thing sitting right there on her device. I wasn’t shocked, considering that the app’s epicenter was Boston. But still, it sucked to see it here, so close to home.

From what I could tell, the original email was four days old. A.A. had trashed it right away, of course. She knew better than to open an attachment as fishy as that. I permanently deleted
it from her trash anyway, just to be safe. Then I handed back the phone.

“Did I pass?” she said.

“Close enough,” I told her, and gulped my doctored coffee.
It was everything I could do to keep from sharing at least a few key details with her. Not because I was afraid for her safety, but because I knew how badly she’d love geeking out on something like this.

“I don’t mean to sound like a broken
record,” she said, “but are you sure nothing’s wrong?”

She sat back on my old bed. I’d always kept it fairly tidy, but now it was littered with papers, books, and laundry. I looked over at her, lounging there with the hot coffee, and the crop top, and the sarcastic smile she never knew she was giving.

And that’s the moment I realized Darren had been right. That asshole.

I’d never been one to
keep secrets from A.A., and now I had two big ones weighing me down. The one about the app was a nonstarter, but as for this second, much more personal one, I knew I’d have to say something about it eventually. One way or another.

Just not now. Not yet. It was still too fresh. Or maybe more like raw.

So I ran in the opposite direction instead.

“I do have one little piece of news,” I said. “Well,
medium-sized to big, actually.”

“Go on.” She leaned back against the wall and sipped her drink. For the first time since I’d gotten to Ashdown House that evening, things felt a little bit like they used to.

“It’s about Billy,” I said.

A.A.’s spine straightened. “Agent Blue Eyes?” she asked.

“In the flesh,” I said. “No pun intended.”

“Ooh,” she said. “I like the sound of that. Keep talking.
I want to hear

BOOK: 1st Case
3.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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