Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
GEORGE MET ME outside the office again that evening and drove me over to Eve’s. Her place was way more comfortable than mine, but I doubted she was going to be okay with having him inside.
I bought dinner for all three of us, even if he did have to eat his in the car.
“I won’t be more than a few hours,” I told George. I hoped that was true. Working the electronic angles on this case
was, for me, a very easy hole to fall into. But I was going to try to get us both back to Somerville before the middle of the night, if I could.
Meanwhile, I settled in at Eve’s array and went to work on the app again, dissecting its code and looking for any new updates I could find.
Eve spent the night coming and going. She’d check on me, answer a few questions, and then disappear again. I
could feel her holding back, probably for my own sake. I think what Billy said that morning had stuck to both of us. She couldn’t prop
me up forever. At some point, I was going to have to stand on my own, and we all knew it.
That said, I wasn’t above leaning on my other friends for help. So as soon as Eve went to bed, I called and checked in with A.A.
“How’s it going over there on the dark side
of the moon?” I asked.
“Frustrating,” she said. “But interesting.”
“It’s not hard to find people talking about FNC,” she said. “The problem is knowing what to believe.”
“Nothing new there,” I said. The anonymity of the dark web definitely cuts both ways. Anyone can post whatever they like, which means you have to be on your toes about truth versus fiction and information versus misinformation.
Meanwhile, I may not have been able to discuss the specifics of the case with A.A., but as a general topic of conversation, this was fair game. In fact, A.A. and I had discussed the Free Net Collective several times in the past, mostly at MIT and long before I was at the FBI. Anyone with an interest in coding, hacking, and the dark web knew about FNC, at least in theory.
“For whatever it’s worth,”
she went on, “most of the chatter is about everything they did before they went underground. Or out to sea. Or wherever the hell they are.”
“So have you been able to find anything current at all?” I asked.
“Again, it’s hard to say,” she told me. “But there is one thing. I found this user who goes by Hermes online. Have you ever heard of him?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Hermes, as in the messenger
of the gods?”
“And the god of transitions and boundaries,” she said. “Yeah.
He’s positioning himself as some kind of go-between with FNC. He says he can offer direct access for a hefty Bitcoin exchange, but only if you download his app first. Of course.”
Just that word,
burned right through the phone line into my ear. Was this the exact, full-circle moment I’d been hoping for?
of app?” I asked.
“Some kind of private chat platform,” she said. “I only mention it because he’s been just about everywhere I’ve looked. But likely as not, he’s some pimple-faced fifteen-year-old in a basement in Teaneck, New Jersey. You know what I mean?”
“That sounds about right,” I said, playing it off. On the inside, though, my mind was reeling.
Maybe this was a nonstarter, like A.A. said.
Then again, maybe not. And there was just one way to find out.
“So where do I find this Hermes dude, anyway?” I asked.
THE FIRST THING I did was launch Tor, which was the go-to software for anyone who wanted anonymous communication online. It was how most people accessed the dark net, whether they wanted to buy drugs, watch a bootleg movie, or just poke around the web without anyone looking over their shoulder.
I’d known about all this since I was ten years old and starting to find ways around the
parental controls Mom and Dad had put on the computers at home. It was kind of cute, the way they thought they could keep an eye on me back then. But that was before people had started throwing words like
Lucky for them, I’ve always been the kind of genius who wants to use her powers for good and not evil. Unless of course you cross me, and then all bets are
Once I was in, it didn’t take long to find Hermes at all. A.A. was right. He’d been a busy little boy, promoting his app everywhere he could. I invented a new handle of my own—Pandora, just to keep with the theme. Then I used it to send Hermes
a direct message on TorChat. It was the safest way I knew to open a cryptographically secure line of communication without compromising my own identity.
It was like putting a worm on the hook. Now I just had to wait and see what I caught. Or not.
Subject: FNC actual?
Hello. I’m interested in knowing more about this app of yours. How much are you asking for FNC access? And more important, what assurances can you give me that this is legit? If we’re not talking about FNC actual, I’m not interested
THE NEXT DAY, between working at home and another session at Eve’s, I squeezed in an early dinner with Mom and my sisters. For more than a week, I’d been begging off their invitations to come home, usually saying that I was too busy at work.
The full truth was, there was no way I could show up at my parents’ house with a security detail in tow and not worry Mom and Dad to death. Especially
Mom. So this was the compromise, even if she didn’t know it.
We met at the Oceanaire, a few blocks from the office, and got a table near the bar.
For a while my sisters did most of the talking, which kept the spotlight off me, happily enough. I heard about field hockey, and SATs, and some boy named Neil, who was “almost definitely” on the verge of asking Sylvie to go out with him, once and for
“But what about you?” Hannah eventually asked. “Are you, like, a spy now?”
They knew I couldn’t say too much about work, but I also
saw that hungry look in my littlest sister’s eyes. Unlike Sylvie, Hannah actually wanted to be like me, and in the meantime, she wanted to know as much as possible. Unlike my mother, who I think was stuck between wanting to know everything about my job and
nothing at all, since it stressed her out so much.
“Not really a spy,” I told Hannah. “It’s more like Hansel and Gretel. I spend a lot of my time following virtual bread crumbs to see where they lead.”
“Cool,” Hannah said.
The bread crumb analogy was for Mom’s benefit, given her professional focus on fairy tales and my own desire to shift the topic away from me as subtly as possible.
do those crumbs symbolize, anyway?” I asked, as though the question might give me some needed insight—which, for all I knew, it might.
“In fact, that’s an easy one,” Mom said. She picked a piece of focaccia out of the basket on the table and sprinkled some crumbs across the cloth, in a little winding path.
“Bread is food, and that represents life,” she said. “As long as those crumbs are there,
Hansel and Gretel have a way back, literally, but also figuratively.” Then she started picking the crumbs back up, just like the birds in the story. “However, when the crumbs are gone, there’s no way home again. And that represents the threat of death.”
“Something tells me there’s a lesson coming,” I said.
a lesson,” Sylvie said knowingly. Hannah and I tried not to smile.
is that what’s happened?” Mom asked me. “Did you lose the trail back home? Because God knows I’ve tried to get you out there for weeks, and it’s been like pulling teeth.”
So much for changing the subject,
I thought. My mother has never been easily deterred. Maybe that’s where I get it.
“I’ve just been busy,” I said. “You know that, right?”
Mom reached across the table and put her hand on mine.
“You look tired, Angela. This work is changing you, and not in a good way,” she said.
tired,” I told her honestly. “But we’re doing
work, Mom. We really are. And I’m exactly where I want to be—at the Bureau, working with Eve, the whole thing. I’m just on a steep learning curve, you know?”
“Hmm.” Mom narrowed her eyes at me and sat back. “Why do I still feel like there’s something
you’re not telling me?”
I could only shrug and avoid her stare by looking down at my menu. The alternative was to tell her she was right. There
plenty of things she didn’t know about. Things I had no intention of telling her.
Like, for instance, how the homicidal maniacs at the center of this case had singled me out, by name. Or how the retired FBI agent quietly having a burger at the bar
was there for my own protection.
Or how if she knew everything there was to know it would only kill her with more worry.
And nobody needed that.
BACK AT EVE’S that night, I was disappointed to find that Hermes hadn’t replied to any of my messages. I was surprised, too. This guy seemed like he really did thrive on attention, and exactly the kind I was trying to give him.
Maybe Hermes was just some highly skilled nerd playing in his basement somewhere, I thought. It wouldn’t be the first time. Some of the most surprising hacks
had come from ridiculously young people.
I sent a couple of follow-up messages from my own alter ego, Pandora, but I wasn’t holding my breath for it to yield me anything useful. Once that was done, I turned my attention back to the usual: tearing apart the app one piece at a time.
That took me all the way up to eleven o’clock, when Eve said good night and went upstairs. I told her I’d let myself
out by midnight, which was as late as I wanted to keep George waiting outside in his car. He never complained. I knew this was his job, but still, I felt bad for keeping him waiting like that.
In any case, the next hour flew by, the way it always did when
I was working. This app’s code was seemingly endless. All I could really do was plug away at it one subroutine at a time and hope to get an
overall better understanding of what it could do—and, by extension, a better understanding of whoever had written it.
I was just on the verge of shutting down for the night when I heard my new burner phone ping with a text notification.
Only three people had that number: Eve, A.A., and Justin Nicholson. But what I saw instead on the screen was a short message from an unknown caller, with a number
I didn’t recognize.
What the hell? I was deep enough into this that I knew something strange had just happened. But what, exactly?
Who is this?
I wrote back.
We’ve never quite met, but I think you know who it is,
came the reply.
My heart was thudding, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
Why are you contacting me?
Isn’t that what you wanted?
I got back.
My next thought
I doubted it, but then again, nothing seemed certain these days.
I reached for Eve’s landline to call Keats next. It seemed like a prudent thing to do, but before I even got that far, another message came through, on top of the last one.
By the way, how’s George?
Jesus Christ! How did this guy know about George? Much less what his name was.
I ran over to the window and looked
down at the street. From there, I couldn’t see anything except the top of George’s car. Nobody else seemed to be around. The block was quiet.
Even so, I didn’t feel reassured.
My phone chimed with another message, but I ignored it as I bolted down the stairs and threw open the front door.
I could see George in his car, and for half a second, I felt a flood of relief.
“George?” I called out,
but there was no response. It looked like maybe he was sleeping.
Except—of course—he wasn’t.
There was blood, I realized. I could tell even in the low light, from the way his white collar had been stained dark.
The sight of it scrambled my brain. There were no cogent thoughts in my head now, as I moved around to his side of the car, terrified of going another step but unable to stop myself.
And there he was. His eyes were wide-open and unseeing. Two holes in the windshield lined up with the gunshot wounds to his forehead and neck where he sat, still upright.
I realized with another rush that whoever had done this was also keeping an eye on me. Maybe with the same gun sites.
Reflexively, I dropped to my knee and leaned against his car.
The number passed through my head. I
knew I had to call, but it seemed to take forever to get the message to my frozen hands.
And when I finally lifted the phone to dial the number, I saw the most recent text that had come in—the one I had ignored on my way down the stairs.
Aren’t you forgetting someone?
And even in the blurred frenzy of thoughts competing for my focus, I realized what had just happened.
Oh, my God.
Oh, my God.
Not Eve, too.
I RAN BACK to the front door, my mind searing with more wordless thoughts.
“Nine one one. What is your emergency?”
I heard the voice on my phone and realized I’d already dialed. My focus was on the keypad outside Eve’s door. I had to let myself back in. I had to get to her before they could.
Unless I was too late.
“This is 911. What is your emergency?” the voice repeated. “Is anyone
“I need help!” I screamed as I ran up the first flight of stairs. “A man’s been shot in his car at this address. And my friend’s in trouble!”
“We’re sending help right away,” the dispatcher told me. “Please stay on the line …”
I didn’t hear what else she said. What I heard now—in fact, all I could hear anymore—was the sound of the baby crying from one more floor up.
but there was no answer.
I took the next flight of stairs three at a time. It was dark in the hall when I got there, but I could see a line of light under the bedroom door.
I tried again. “Are you there?”
Why wasn’t she answering? I was terrified that I knew the reason, and conscious that I might have been walking into the exact same trap. But nothing was stopping me now. I couldn’t
wait for the police, even if I wanted to.
I tore open the door and scanned the room, trying to focus past the blur of my own terror.
Marlena was there, wailing in her crib.
Eve’s bed was unmade and empty.
The bathroom was dark.
A window in the back had been left open. The curtains were wafting with the breeze it let in. I ran to it now and looked out, but there wasn’t anything to see. The
neighborhood was quiet, as if nothing at all had just happened.
As if George weren’t dead.
As if Eve hadn’t been taken.
Almost as if, before it even began, it had already been over.