Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
GEORGE AND I got to my place in Somerville a little after eleven o’clock. Before we went in, I surprised myself by asking him to set up in the living room, as opposed to staying out in his car. So maybe I was just a little on edge. I appreciated Billy looking out for me, even if I’d been ambivalent when he set up the security detail in the first place. Not that it was up to me, as
it turned out.
“I was planning on coming in, anyway,” George said. “It’s one thing to let you have an hour with your friend back at MIT, but make no mistake, Angela. They wouldn’t have set this up if it wasn’t for a good reason.”
I wondered what Keats had said to him about me. Certainly I had a cavalier reputation, but I wouldn’t want George to think I took this for granted, either. I guess
it was a fine line.
“Okay, then,” I said, getting out of the car. “
Mi casa, su casa,
and all that.”
“Don’t know what that means, but I wouldn’t say no to something to eat,” George answered.
As soon as we got inside, I pointed him to the fridge, told him to help himself to anything he liked, and went to dump my stuff in the bedroom. I’d barely dropped my case onto the bed when
I heard a text dinging into my phone.
Has to be.
But in fact, it was from Eve.
Call me. Now if you can.
There was nothing casual about that. Eve never told me to call her, much less ASAP. And considering everything else going on, I knew this was some kind of serious business.
Maybe fifteen seconds later, I had her on the line.
“What’s up?” I asked, sitting down on the bed,
still in my jacket.
“I’m sending you a link,” she said. “And FYI, it’s not traceable back to me.”
“What kind of link?” I asked.
“You’ll know what to do,” she said. “Just take the damn credit this time, will you?”
I had no idea why she was being so vague. I was about 70 percent curious and 30 percent concerned.
“Well, hang on, I’ll open it while you’re on the phone,” I told her. I was already
pulling out my laptop and flipping it open. “Did you send it to my work account or my Gmail?”
Eve didn’t answer.
When I looked down at my phone again, I saw that she’d hung up. I guess she was pretty serious about letting me take ownership of whatever this was. And now I was more intrigued than ever, given the cloak-and-dagger routine, which wasn’t really like her.
When I got to the
email a second later, the subject line said
SALT-AND-PEPPER SHRIMP. That was Eve’s favorite dish from Myers and Chang—presumably to let me know that this was, in fact, from her. More cloak-and-dagger. What the hell?
The body of the email itself was empty, except for a read-only script file sent as a straightforward attachment from an address I didn’t recognize. There was no signature, and no
additional text, beyond the attachment itself.
I was tempted to call Eve back before I did anything else. Certainly, if this were anyone other than her, I’d never trust that random attachment. But Eve had clearly sent it this way, without comment, for whatever reasons of her own. So I kept going. I ran my finger over the track pad, navigated my pointer to the attachment, and clicked.
the attached file disappeared from my screen. But I had a pretty good guess about where to look for it and took only a few seconds to find it in my root directory, where it had replanted itself.
Everything about this was outside of the usual protocols, but I wasn’t going to stop now. So I rebooted the laptop to run the program. I should have been exhausted after the last twenty-four hours, but
it was more like the opposite. As my laptop shut down and restarted, I felt like I’d just woken up and started a whole new workday.
When the screen finally came back on, I’d been directed to some kind of generic platform. It was nothing I’d seen before. If anything, it reminded me of the app we’d been chasing all this time. The design was simple, in three colors, with a rudimentary, almost intuitive
A few clicks later, I realized I was looking at a database of some kind. The screen in front of me showed an empty form, with spaces for FIRSTNAME, LASTNAME, ADDRESS, PHONE, ISP, HOST, and NOTES. A few drop-down menus from the top ribbon
showed me a dozen or more commands, all the usual kind you might expect from a rudimentary DB platform.
I stumbled around a little bit more and managed
to run a sort based on one of those available fields, last name. That turned up just over twenty-one thousand records. I scrolled through several of them but didn’t see any names, addresses, or anything, really, that I recognized.
Then a new idea hit me, and I ran a new search, this time for a specific last name: Petty.
What I got next was a single entry for Gwen Petty, the first victim I’d
known about in this case. A little more looking turned up Nigella Wilbur and then Reese Sapporo as well. All of them were listed with correct street addresses, if my memory served me right. Which I was sure it did.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. Something told me those twenty-one thousand records belonged to all of the people who had opened the app on their phone after receiving it, for whatever reason.
And among those twenty-one thousand were the three known victims since I’d come on board. It was all pulling together.
“Everything okay in there?” George called from the living room, and I flinched. I’d actually forgotten he was out there.
“All good!” I called back. I wasn’t ready to share this yet, and even when I did, it wouldn’t be with George. First I needed to dig a little deeper.
what I found next changed everything.
IT TOOK SEVERAL hours to weed through the database’s code, but I finally hit the pay dirt I think that Eve expected me to find. It was a certificate thumbprint number, correlated to an anonymous user who had posted several updates through a server in Coba, Mexico.
Coba is a small town on the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s mostly famous for its Mayan ruins, but in my world, Coba was
infamous as the last known base of a cyberterrorist organization called the Free Net Collective, or FNC.
With Eve’s implicit stamp of approval, I knew this was no coincidence.
Ironically, FNC’s terrorist philosophy was based on two principles that I stood behind completely: the need for internet privacy and the importance of net neutrality in the marketplace.
Their means, though, were both
criminal and violent. They
crashed servers, cleaned out cash accounts, and made physical attacks against any individual or organization they deemed hostile to their goals.
A year earlier, they’d disrupted internet service for over a million people on the East Coast after one ISP tried to introduce tiered pricing based on the internet content its customers were accessing.
Even worse, FNC had
claimed responsibility for firebombing the home office of a Nevada congressman who had been leading the privacy deregulation charge in Washington. Two staffers and a housekeeper had been killed in that attack.
The rumors were that all of FNC’s operations had been moved offshore, since a joint raid between US authorities and Mexico’s Agencia Federal de Investigación had found the Coba facility
empty. Most people I knew assumed FNC was working from a ship of some kind, or several linked vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, or maybe even out on the Atlantic. The world was their haystack now, and they were one of its most notorious needles.
But none of that explained what these sexting murders had to do with FNC’s mission. I just assumed from the evidence—from Eve—that some kind
of further connection could be made here, if I dug deeply enough, or asked myself enough of the right questions.
What was the larger objective here? How did this invasive app at the heart of it all tie in? And for that matter, how was FNC coordinating with whoever was on the ground for them, stalking and executing these victims?
As usual, the questions were piling up faster than the answers.
But one thing was clear: this case had just level-jumped to a matter of national security. Which put me in well over my head, but then again, nothing new there. If anything, I was getting
used to feeling like I was drowning all the time. The trick was to just keep swimming.
So I did what I assumed Eve meant for me to do. I immediately called it all into Keats. It was only 5:00 a.m. when I left
an emergency message on his secure line, but I heard back right away.
“Are you home?” he asked.
“Yeah. What do you want me to do?”
“Stay put. We’re coming to you.”
“That’s right. Get yourself ready. It’s going to be … Well, just be ready,” he said.
But he didn’t say for what.
I FIGURED I could either take time to make coffee for Keats’s team before they got to my place or I could keep learning as much as possible about all of this before someone told me to stop digging.
Guess which one I went with.
I texted A.A. first, but she didn’t answer right away. So I called and woke her up.
“Speak,” she said. Her voice was still thick with sleep, but at least
I didn’t hear any snoring in the background. Not that Darren was on my list of worries right now.
“I’ll make it quick,” I said. “What do you know about FNC?”
I figured that would wake her up, and it did.
FNC?” she said. “As in the Free Net Collective? Seriously?”
“How much do you think you could find out about their current operations, if you really had to?” I asked.
I wasn’t going to
break any confidentiality laws here, though I was definitely bending them a bit. I was on thin ice just by
bringing this up, but nobody I knew outside the Bureau had deeper research skills than A.A. And nobody
the FBI was going to share this kind of info with the cyber intern.
“That’s some dark web shit,” she said.
“Not that I couldn’t do it.”
“I know,” I said again. “That’s
why I’m calling.”
I could hear A.A. moving around, probably pulling her laptop out from under the bed, where it usually slept.
“I’ve heard they use brute-force tools on some kind of massive scale. It’s how they crippled that power grid in Texas last year,” she said. “Why exactly are you asking, anyway?”
“Because I have a book report due in the morning,” I told her. She knew full well that I
couldn’t give the real reason. And I knew full well that she’d be intrigued enough to keep going anyway.
“Fine. Just use me for my superior skills and then cast me aside,” she said.
“I knew you’d understand.”
That got a cute little growl out of her, but it was the last of the resistance.
“I’ll see what I can find out,” she said. “There’s a mock terrorism task force in the Graduate Women’s
Group. I could probably pick a few brains over there, too, if you want.”
“As long as nobody knows it’s coming from me,” I said.
“Duh,” she said. “But Angela? I’d hate to think you were getting in over your head. Sometimes that kind of thing happens before you even realize it, and then it’s too late. I mean, this
you we’re talking about. You’re staying safe, right?”
I looked out my bedroom
door, from which I could see George reading a paper at my kitchen table with a Glock 19 holstered on his hip.
“Never been safer,” I said. “Swear to God. Now go back to sleep. You can jump on this in the morning.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “After everything you just told me? I’m wide awake.”
Which was basically what I’d expected her to say. “Okay, then, in that case—”
“I’m on it, Piglet. Talk
to you soon.”
I knew I could count on her. No matter what.
HALF AN HOUR later, I had four federal agents clomping around my apartment and asking questions. I was sure the downstairs neighbors were absolutely thrilled, at five thirty in the morning.
Keats relieved George for the last few hours of his shift. I’d see him again at the end of the day, with another agent assigned to me starting at 8:00 a.m.
That left me with Billy, Obaje, and
two others, Miller and Gao, all hovering around my living room. I felt like I’d fallen into some kind of Russian spy novel, and not in a good way.
“I’m not going to go into too much detail,” Keats said, cutting off most of my questions, “but how long have you been in possession of those database files?”
I looked at the clock. “It’s been two hours and forty minutes,” I said.
“Can you say for
sure that nobody else has seen them?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I said. “But I’m as sure as I can be, and I trust my source.”
“Eve?” Billy asked.
“Well … yeah,” I said. There was no question about obscuring anything at this point.
“Why didn’t you call right away?” Gao asked me. Keats was the lead interviewer, but that hadn’t stopped the other three from jumping in with questions of their
“Because I didn’t know what I had. As soon as I did, I called,” I said.
“What kind of keystroke log do you keep on your laptop?” Miller put in. He was taking written notes, too.
“I don’t,” I told him. It was never worth it to me to leave that kind of virtual trail as I worked. My own memory was good enough for that, and as for anyone else, it was none of their business. Or at least until
“What about—” Gao started to ask, but Miller jumped back in. They were practically falling over each other to get what they needed here.
“Hang on,” Miller said. “What other connected devices do you keep in the apartment?”
“My phone,” I said, pointing to where I’d set it on the coffee table. “And there’s a tablet in the bedroom that I hardly ever use.”
I started to get up but Obaje put
out a hand. “Just tell me where,” he said. “I’ll get it.”
“Jesus. Pile on much?” I said. “I’m not the terrorist. You guys know that, right?”
Billy lowered his chin and gave me a stare. “I understand this isn’t any fun,” he said. “But do you know what you’re sitting on here?”
I saw his point immediately, and just as quickly as my temper had flared, I reined it back in. If anything, I was embarrassed
for speaking out, considering the circumstances. I’d just
introduced some highly sensitive information to the mix, with national security implications. There was no reason for the FBI to take my word on anything here. Just the opposite, if they wanted to do this right.
“Sorry,” I said. “I guess I’m still catching up.”
Billy’s eyes softened long enough to signal something like “Hang in there”
before he went on.
“It’s going to be a long day,” he said. “And there’ll be more at the office later, starting with a polygraph. You just need to gut this out.”
I took a deep breath. It’s not like I couldn’t separate work and pleasure, but it had been only about twenty-four hours since Billy and I had been doing something
different at that hotel in Maine. It was a lot of gears to shift.
“Let me ask you this,” Billy said. “What do
make of it all?”
I appreciated the question. For whatever rookie complaining I’d been doing up to that point, it was also true that this was the kind of conversation I thought they’d come to have with me in the first place. I wanted to help, and in fact, I felt like I could, given the chance.
“I think the whole point was to write their own app from
scratch,” I said. “And I think they did it for some really specific reasons.”
“Go on,” Billy told me. The others sat back and seemed to take me in in a new way—probably based on the trust that Billy was showing me right now.
The relevant truth was, all kinds of jihadists, drug dealers, gangsters, and terrorists used basic commercial apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp to communicate with their people.
But even the likes of ISIS had gotten burned when it turned out that those mainstream apps were ultimately less anonymous and more hackable than they’d seemed at first. It happens all
the time. Every “perfect” app is just another
waiting for someone to come along and punch a hole in its supposedly impenetrable hull.
“My guess is they went homegrown to control any vulnerability. Since
they built this app themselves, they can update it anytime they please, and they can patch it indefinitely,” I said. “The trade-off is that they had to start with an audience of zero users. But they’ve obviously made some headway.” I pointed at the database open on my laptop. “There are over twenty thousand names in there,
I saw Keats holding back a little smile. “Not that
you’ve given it any thought,” he said.
I shrugged. “It’s what I do.”
“Let’s get Eve Abajian on the line,” Keats said. Obaje took out his phone. I gave him the number to Eve’s personal cell and he dialed.
“Voice mail,” he said several seconds later.
“On the first ring?” I asked.
He shook his head no. He said it had rung four times first. That meant her phone was definitely on.
“Let me try
from my cell,” I said. “She’ll pick up.”
“I’ll call,” Keats said, taking my phone off the table before I could do it. Something told me I wasn’t getting that phone back, either.
He put it on speaker and dialed. It rang four times again, went to voice mail, and I heard the usual spiel.
“You’ve reached Eve. Please leave a message or text me. Thanks. Ciao.”
“Eve, it’s Billy Keats calling from
Angela’s phone,” he said. “Give me a call back if you get this, ASAP. We’re on our way over to you. I assume you’ll know what this is about. It’s urgent, obviously.”
It wasn’t until Billy hung up that I started to worry. Marlena was always awake by now. Maybe Eve was giving her a bottle, but she never kept her phone out of reach. She would have seen those calls coming back-to-back and known something
“We should go,” I said. “Like, now.”
“We’re going,” Keats said. Everyone was already packing up. “Miller, get BPD on the line and send a cruiser over there right away.”
I gritted my teeth as I threw on my shoes. I could only hope my imagination was getting the best of me. Because the alternative was too grim to think about.
All I knew for sure was that suddenly it felt like
we couldn’t get over to Eve’s place fast enough.