Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
THAT VERY EVENING, I was summoned to Eve Abajian’s town house for what I could only assume would be a world-class dressing down. Eve was the person I most dreaded talking to about the MIT “situation,” even worse than telling my parents. I didn’t know how she’d already heard about it, but Eve always had a lot of ears to the ground.
“What in the blue hell, Angela?” she said over the
intercom at her front door.
“I brought food!” I answered. Eve and I shared a certain obsession with the fried chicken and ginger waffles from Myers and Chang, not far from her place in South Boston. It was like bringing a water pistol to a gunfight, but it was all I had.
When I didn’t get any answer, or even a buzz-in, I beeped myself through with the keypad and headed inside to face the music.
I knew this had to happen, sooner or later. Emphasis on the
. Eve Abajian was not one to be kept waiting.
Eve was also the one who got me into MIT in the first place. I’d met her when I was sixteen, at the summer robotics program
there, where she taught coding and applied theory as a volunteer instructor. Ever since, she’d been a mentor to me, steering me toward Carnegie Mellon and then
putting in a strongest-possible word with the graduate admissions committee back at MIT after that.
In other words, everything Eve had spent the last six years helping me accomplish had just gotten rerouted straight down the toilet. I wasn’t looking forward to this conversation.
As I came up and into the town house’s main living space on the second floor, I saw that Eve was parked behind her
four-screen array. I could barely see her for all the equipment, which was just as well. Even the sound of her keyboarding was angry.
I paused there, not really sure how to proceed. When the silence stretched on for an uncomfortably long time and I still wasn’t sure what to say, I took the food into the kitchen and started plating it up. Maybe I could still ply Eve with a little sweet and salty
“Do you want to hear my side, or just yell at me first?” I called out from the safety of the galley kitchen.
“You know you could have had your pick of jobs in two years?” Eve said. “With a fat paycheck, too.”
“Yeah, doing incident response for some Fortune 500 company,” I said. “Making sure the employees at GE stay off the porn during the workday. No, thank you.”
but you don’t get to be the smartest one in the room. Not tonight,” she said. She still wouldn’t even look at me when I glanced out toward her workspace. Another silence settled over us, and I was starting to feel genuinely guilty now.
But then, when Eve deigned to speak again, the conversation took an unexpected turn. In the best possible way.
“Lay off the garlic sauce with dinner,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I said. We were both complete devotees of that garlicky concoction. “Why would I ever do that?”
“Because you have an interview tomorrow morning at eight thirty, and nobody wants to smell garlic at that hour,” Eve said.
My mind spun, processing this new information, or at least trying to. Eve was one of the few people on the planet who always managed to stay a step or two ahead of
“What are you talking about?” I asked, loading two plates with a little of everything, one of them minus the sauce. “Where am I interviewing?”
As I carried the plates out to the living room, she sat back in her black Aeron chair and really met my eyes for the first time.
“At my office,” she said.
“Your office?” I asked. “As in the Boston field office of the FBI?”
It was a dumb question,
and she didn’t bother to answer it.
“You’ll be meeting Assistant Special Agent in Charge Billy Keats, and I’m not sure who else. But you need to be ready.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked. Dumb question number two. It was just such a surprise. “I mean … wow. I mean …”
I didn’t know what to say. It was a little early for any happy dances, but this was amazing news.
“What’s the job?” I asked.
not a job. It’s an internship,” she said.
“Paid?” I asked.
“Don’t push it, but yes,” Eve answered. “It’s supposed to be reserved for active students, so you’re welcome for that, too.”
“Will I be working with you?” I asked. This was getting better by the second.
“I’m only there a few more weeks before Guatemala. Then I go out on maternity,” she said.
Eve was waiting on the birth of a little
girl in Guatemala City, through an international adoption agency out of Phoenix. Within the month, she was going to be a first-time mom. I guess when she didn’t meet Mr. Right On Time, she did what people like us always do: she hacked a solution.
It seemed safe enough to approach the rest of the way now. I finally put a plate of chicken and waffles in front of her and sat with my own in one of
the guest chairs.
“Why are you doing this for me?” I asked.
“I’m not doing it
you,” she said. “This is to make sure that ridiculous brain of yours gets put to good use in the world. And I don’t mean making lattes at Starbucks.”
I smiled around a bite of waffle. Eve’s praise was like gold: valuable and rare. She’s not the touchy-feely, hug-it-out type, but neither am I. It was embarrassing,
how much I wanted to be exactly like her.
“Thank you, Eve,” I said. “Really.”
“You can thank me by not screwing it up,” she said. “This is your last favor, and probably one more than you deserve.”
“So, you’re saying I have to
for a spot at the FBI?” I asked, still grinning in spite of myself.
I got you in the door,” she told me. “But you’re starting somewhere back of square
one. Disciplinary action at MIT doesn’t exactly bolster your application.”
“I’ve got this,” I said.
She didn’t contradict me, and I looked down at my food just to keep from showing her how freaking excited I was already. I think I still owed her a little back payment of contrition, but that could come later.
“What exactly am I going to be doing, anyway?” I asked.
Eve went back to her keyboarding.
“Probably just basic penetration testing to start,” she said. “But mark my words, Angela. You play your cards right at the Bureau, and things could get very interesting for someone like you, very fast.”
WITHIN AN HOUR of arriving at the scene of the Petty murders, I was holed up in the Mobile Forensic Laboratory, or the M-LAB, parked on the curb. It’s just a big white van on the outside, but inside it’s a state-of-the-art facility.
I was still getting used to the whole “Angela Hoot at the FBI” role. Part of me was waiting for one of the “real” grown-ups to open the van door and shoo
me out of there. But in the meantime, I’d get down to work.
I started with a basic search, looking at incoming and outgoing calls, texts, and saved images on my copy of Gwen Petty’s phone. I also checked her contact list, bookmarks, and surfing history, but it didn’t turn up anything relevant.
The next step was a full physical extraction of any hidden, deleted, or corrupted files on the operating
system. That was going to take a significantly longer time than the first pass, but it was also an automated process, which meant I could start multitasking my way through this.
Once I got that scan going, I set aside the phone and did a
basic social media analysis on Gwen. That’s where I could really start to get an idea of who she was. Or at least what kind of tracks she’d left behind.
email associated with her phone turned up active accounts on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Kik, and Pinterest. Besides the usual selfies, I saw a lot of the same friends in her photos—on the bus to a field hockey game, on the beach at the Cape, dressed up for prom. There was no boyfriend, as far as I could tell, except for a guy who showed up in a spate of tagged photos from the previous summer,
a kid named Drew Pintone. I stared at his picture for a long time. Could this ordinary-looking kid be the monster we were looking for? It seemed pretty unlikely. Then again, so did everything that had happened in the Petty home that night. I wrote the boy’s name down for Keats, in any case, and pressed on.
It was a shitty feeling, going through all of Gwen’s stuff like this. I understood the
necessity, but what teenage girl wants her private life pried open for the world to see? I couldn’t change what had happened. In fact, I reminded myself over and over, I was at least helping to do something about it. But still, I felt racked with guilt and finally let myself cry for a few minutes. Right up until Keats came out to check on me.
“What have we got so far?” he asked. I had my back
to him at first and made a quick swipe at my face before I turned around. If he noticed my red eyes, he didn’t say so.
I gave Keats a quick lowdown and explained that it was going to be several hours before I’d have a full finished scan of Gwen’s phone. I also told him about Drew Pintone, just in case.
“Yeah, we know about that kid,” Keats said. “He’s a nonstarter, been living in Michigan since
September. What we’re actually
looking for is an adult male. Someone at least in his twenties, if not older.”
“Does that mean you have a suspect?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said.
But my brain was already spinning around this new piece of information. There had to be a reason Keats knew something about who he was looking for. And in fact, I realized, it was probably what had brought
the FBI—federal authorities—to this crime scene in the first place.
“This isn’t the first case, is it?” I asked.
I couldn’t tell if Keats was annoyed, impressed, or both. But he nodded.
“Binghamton, Albany, and now here,” he said.
Even as the words came out of his mouth, the gravity of the situation registered in my gut. This meant more murders. More dead families. And maybe more to come,
“Angela?” Keats’s voice pulled me back, and I looked up again. “Eve said she thought you could handle this. It’s your call, but you should tell me now if you can’t.”
Out of respect for the Petty family, I didn’t give a knee-jerk “
fine” in response. I really did think about it and took my time answering.
“I can do this,” I said. “Also, I want to.”
“Good,” he said, and turned to leave.
“Did you say Eve recommended me?” I asked before he could slip out of the mobile unit. I’d suspected Eve had put in a good word after my interview, but it was nice to get the confirmation.
“Don’t let your head get too big,” Keats said. “She also told me you had a checkered history at MIT.” I could tell he was trying to lighten things up by getting a rise out of me. I appreciated it.
still trust me?” I asked, half joking.
“I trust Eve,” he said in all seriousness, and I could tell the moment of levity had passed.
In other words, I was still proving myself here. Not that I minded. I was just glad to know where I stood.
It was time to get back to work.
BY THE END of the day, I’d finished everything there was to do at the Petty home in Lincoln and leapfrogged back to my little gray cubicle in the field office downtown. There was still a mountain of work to do, given all the electronics they’d pulled out of the Petty home, and I threw myself into it. Day stretched into night. And night stretched into late night.
I wasn’t naive about
the work they did at the FBI. But even so, I felt like I was staring into some unknowably dark abyss. What sort of monster killed entire families?
The whole thing made me want to call my mom, like I was a homesick college freshman all over again. It was probably just as well that it was one in the morning by then. So instead I called A.A., who I knew had Red Bull running through her veins.
Sure enough, she answered on the first ring.
“What’s up, Piglet?”
“Hey, Pooh Bear,” I said.
She was always Pooh, and I was whoever else, depending on her mood, or mine. Piglet for general bestie status, Eeyore when
I was being cynical, Owl when I was smart—that kind of thing. It was embarrassingly juvenile, but it was just between us.
“I’m still at the office,” I said.
“Damn, Angela, I can’t
believe it. You sure landed on your feet. How’s it going over at the Fun Bun Institute?”
“It’s fine,” I said.
I didn’t want to talk about work. I didn’t want to talk about me at all. The whole point of this call was to get out of my head for a few minutes. Or at least to try.
“How are you doing?” I asked. “Did Darren finally drop off the face of the earth?”
“Not exactly,” she
said. “He showed up drunk in the lobby the other night, with all kinds of blah-blah-blah about how he’s changed.”
“Right,” I said. “Because he’s so evolved. Please tell me you called security.”
“He’s harmless,” she said.
“Harmless? He posted naked-ass pictures of you after you broke up with him!” I sputtered.
“And you took care of that,” she said. “You’re my little fairy godhacker.”
gave him the rope. He hung himself,” I said. “Seriously, any MIT student who opens a supposed hot-wings coupon from an unknown source doesn’t deserve to set foot on that campus.”
The “coupon” I sent Darren had been a little home-brewed bit of malware for his laptop. It installed a keystroke logger and then broadcast his entire online life to the MIT student body and faculty—every message, every
email, every disgusting little porn site he ever visited.
In a creative flourish just for myself, I’d named the program Sorry/Not Sorry. Not that he’d ever figure that out.
A.A. and I were both laughing now. It felt good to slip back into my old life for a few minutes.
“He still hates your guts, you know,” she told me.
“And he still hasn’t learned his lesson,” I said.
He really hadn’t, apparently.
Not if he was still coming around drunk, after everything else that had gone down. So while A.A. and I kept on talking, I got online and sent Darren a little more rope.
His laptop wouldn’t be vulnerable anymore, but any hacker worth her salt knows the value of a good backup. In this case, it was Darren’s beloved Android. I’d parked a little of my handiwork on there months earlier, one morning
while he was in the bathroom using up all our hot water. Then I’d just left it dormant, waiting for the right rainy day.
All it took was a quick update order and I was done. Now, the next time he turned on his phone, it was going to be frozen with a message emblazoned across the lock screen: “Darren Wendt is a boil on the ass of humanity.” And it was going to stay that way, even when he took
it to the Verizon store to get his unfixable phone fixed.
Maybe I overreacted. Maybe it was some kind of displaced anger after everything I’d been through that day, and after what had happened to Gwen Petty’s family.
But here’s the thing about all that: I didn’t care. Some people just don’t know when to quit. Which is maybe the one thing in the world that Darren Wendt
and I had in common.