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Authors: James Patterson

Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller

1st Case (4 page)

BOOK: 1st Case
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CHAPTER 8

ABOUT AN HOUR after my call with A.A., I got a notification that my full scan on Gwen Petty’s phone was finally done. What I had in front of me now was a list of hundreds of recovered files. But when I organized them by type, one thing jumped out. That’s when the red flags started popping. I didn’t need to cry anymore—I was on fire with this thing.

I was looking at a grouping of thirty-one
encrypted items with a three-letter extension I’d never seen before: .glp. A quick google confirmed what I already suspected: that there was no such file type. And then it hit me.

I texted Keats right away.
What is Gwen Petty’s middle name?

Hang on,
he came right back. And then,
Louisa. Why?

Gwendolyn Louisa Petty. GLP. That was why.

Uploading files right now,
I answered.

I hopped onto my
terminal and posted all thirty-one to the case agent review network, flagged for Keats. He’d get a text
about it in seconds, and if he was near a secure computer, he could have a look.

One thing had become clear by now. This killer either was or was working with someone who had high-level coding experience, enough to engineer their own unique file type. And to name it after their victim, too.

I couldn’t help getting a little excited about the possibilities here. Already, I felt some kind of attachment to Gwen Petty. It wasn’t like I knew her, but she wasn’t a stranger to me anymore, either. And with any luck, I’d just taken one tiny step toward finding the sick son of a bitch who had killed her and her family. I hoped so, anyway.

When my phone rang a second later, I jumped.

“Angela
Hoot.”

“What the hell am I looking at?” Keats asked on the other end. My guess was he’d skipped past the file names and had a bunch of encrypted gibberish on the screen in front of him. So I explained about the file extension and got a long silence in return.

“Can you decrypt these?” he finally asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “But if it’s a unique file type and Gwen opened them, then there has to
be a corresponding application to do that. I just haven’t found it yet.”

“Haven’t you been all over that phone already?” he asked.

“Yes and no. I’ve never seen anything like this,” I said. “I need to go back and strip it down, file by file.”

“All right,” he said. “Log out for now and we can pick this up tomorrow.”

I looked at the clock. Two thirty. It already was tomorrow. “I’m just going
to do one more pass on this thing—”

“Go home, Hoot,” he told me. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

I got a click after that instead of a good-bye. Just as well, I thought. I wasn’t going to say no to Keats. He was my superior, after all. But I didn’t have any intention of going home, either. How do you go home when you’re on fire?

Answer: You don’t.

CHAPTER 9

“ANGELA, WAKE UP.”

Nothing made any sense at first. For a second, I thought I was back in my apartment at MIT with A.A. But it wasn’t a woman’s voice I was hearing. It was Billy Keats.

“Angela!”

I lifted my head and felt the keyboard peel away from my cheek.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Seven thirty,” Keats said. “I told you to go home five hours ago.”

I sat up fully now, trying
to tongue the nasty taste out of my mouth. Embarrassingly, fried rice from a spilled container was spread across my desk.

“Shit!” I clumsily scooped the rice back into the container with my hand, spilling some of it onto the floor while I tried to shake the last of the cobwebs out of my head.

Keats didn’t even try to hide his laugh. “You know, you don’t have to work so hard to impress me,” he
said.

“I’m not,” I said. “This is just me.”

“Well, whoever you are, good get on those file extensions last night. I went back and checked the previous cases. There’s nothing like this on any of them.”

What was he saying? My face flushed at the thought that I’d jumped the gun and seen something that wasn’t there.

“So, it’s just a coincidence with Gwen Petty’s initials?” I asked.

“No. More
like the opposite,” Keats said. “I think whoever’s doing this is getting better at it. That’s not good news, but it’s good to know, anyway.”

In other words, those .glp files really were a custom job—an upgrade to whatever digital trap this killer might have set for his previous victims. Which also raised the even more troubling question: where was all of this headed next?

I was awake now, for
sure.
Wide
awake.

“I just need a minute,” I said. “I’ll hit the bathroom sink and be right back.”

“Good-bye, Angela,” Keats said. He started walking backward toward his own office and pointed me to the exit. “Believe it or not, the FBI will still be up and running when you get back. I’ll see you in eight hours.”

“Four,” I said. “I already had half a night’s sleep right here.”

“Fine.” He threw
up his hands in surrender. “But don’t come back dragging.”

“I won’t,” I said. “Some of us just don’t need as much sleep as you old guys.”

“Shut up and go home,” he said, but he smiled, too.

Keats never let anyone forget that he was one of only two agents in the Northeast to make ASAC before they were thirty. So it was fun to take him down a notch or two about his age.

I didn’t mean to flirt,
exactly. Or at least there was no endgame in mind. It was more like office-banter-as-smoke-screen, to
help me avoid being completely intimidated. It’s not like I was gearing up to ask him out or anything like that. I didn’t even know if that was allowed.

But I will say this much. If Billy “Not the Poet” Keats had looked at me with those pale-blue Paul Newman eyes of his that morning and asked
if I had dinner plans for Friday night, I knew exactly what my answer would have been.

CHAPTER 10

I DIDN’T NEED rest. What I needed was some off-grid time.

They say Einstein came up with his theory of relativity while riding a bike. And I say if it’s good enough for the father of modern physics, it’s good enough for me.

That’s why I keep my Giant Talon locked in the back of my car. The more thinking I need to do, the more I want to get out and hit the trail, which is surprisingly
easy to do in Boston. It’s only ten miles from downtown to Blue Hills Reservation. I’d been known to squeeze in a ride in one hour—much less than the four hours for which Keats had barred me from the office.

By eight thirty that morning, I had a venti dark roast in me, half a pack of wintergreen Life Savers saving my breath, and a deserted parking lot at the Blue Hills trailhead. That meant I’d
have the place to myself. I pulled my bike out of the back of the car, jumped on, and headed into the woods.

By the time I was pumping my way up the first leg of Tucker Hill Path, everything I’d learned in the last twenty-four hours had started clamoring for attention in my mind all over again.
It wasn’t easy to shake off what I’d seen up to now, starting with the crime scene I’d witnessed. They
certainly don’t set you up for that kind of thing at MIT.

Still, I knew I had a choice. I could wallow in the sadness and the grotesquerie or I could focus on solutions, and when I thought of it that way, it was a complete no-brainer.

I settled into an easy pedaling cadence and tried to focus.

Keats said he was looking for an older male, but I didn’t see why this couldn’t have been two people,
or even more, operating together. Hackers work in unofficial dark net communities all the time. They’re competitive, too, with one another, but also with themselves. It’s always about doing better than, doing more than, reaching further than they did the last time around.

They just don’t usually kill people.

So what was I missing here? Where was that app on Gwen Petty’s phone? And how the hell
did these assholes hide it so well? I had no idea, but one thing was for sure. I wasn’t going to roll over on this. It was my first real job and the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Besides, like I said, hackers tend to be more than a little competitive, whether they’re wearing black hats or white. There was no way I’d be letting this thing get the best of me.

I shot straight through the next
juncture and into an uphill climb. The ground was steadily rising in front of me, and the sweat was building at the small of my back. I could feel the slope in my quads and glutes with the kind of burn I love to hate. There was a lot more hill to go, but it would be worth it when I was flying down the other side.

As I worked it just a little harder, another question presented itself in my mind,
out of nowhere. Was I
meant
to find those .glp files? Anyone capable of engineering something like that could have easily initiated a remote wipe on Gwen’s phone. But
they hadn’t. They left the files in place. Not only that, but whoever put them there knew that someone like me—someone smart enough to admire their handiwork—was going to find this stuff. Maybe they were just showing off at that
point.

Yeah, well, mission accomplished, douchebag. I’m impressed. And I can’t wait to see you crash and burn.

I’d done two circuits of the outer loops on either side of Houghton’s Pond by now. So I headed in a new direction, up the Breakneck Ledge path, the closest thing they have to a black diamond out there.

My glutes were toast and my calves felt like rods, but I barely noticed anymore.
And I didn’t slow down, either. I was weirdly pumped, all things considered. Physical exhaustion aside, my mind was lit up like a pinball machine as I flew up and over the crest of that ridge just a little too fast. By the time I even realized my back tire was sliding out from under me, it was too late.

I turned hard into the slope, trying to regain control of the bike. My front tire hit a thick
root that I hadn’t seen coming, and it stopped me cold. The bike flipped straight forward. I went over the handlebars as it did and came down hard on both palms while my ride rolled right over me. My body kept going and I slid a few more yards on my stomach before I finally came to a clumsy stop against an ash tree on the hillside. It hurt, but probably looked worse than it was.

Still, that seemed
as good a time as any to head back. I had a bloody shin from where my pedal had sheared off a layer of skin, and a fine sheen of dirt and sweat was covering me pretty much everywhere else. If I wanted to show up at work looking like a human being, I was going to need more than a bathroom sink now.

The good news was, I still had plenty of time to kill. More
than I’d need for getting cleaned up.
If I played it right, I could grab a shower, make some progress on the questions flying around my mind, all in one stop, and still be back at my desk the minute my four-hour banishment was over.

What can I say? I’m nothing if not efficient.

CHAPTER 11

I PARKED OUTSIDE Eve’s place on East Broadway and let myself in with the keypad. Eve’s place was only a few miles from the office, while my own apartment was way out in Somerville, which was as much as I could afford after MIT. Mom and Dad had barely gone through the motions of inviting me to move back home. They knew I’d never go for it.

Eve was in the nursery when I came in, rocking
Marlena to sleep in the hand-painted chair my parents had given her as a baby gift.

“How’s it going?” I whispered.

“Still waiting for the hard part,” Eve whispered back. She’d been deliriously happy about the whole motherhood thing since the day she’d come home from Guatemala. I’d already begun to wonder if she was ever coming back to work. But I couldn’t imagine Eve
not
working, and I don’t
know if she could, either. It’s like she has code running through her veins instead of blood.

Marlena was adorable, of course, but as for me and babies?
Not so much. I was looking forward to bonding with her as soon as she was ready to talk about space camp, or gaming platforms, or the infinite pleasures of solid food. In the meantime, I made myself generally scarce when it was time for holding
her for a while, or feeding her, or God forbid changing her.

So I grabbed a quick shower in the guest bath. Borrowing a fresh shirt, I threw on my previous day’s suit and found Eve at her big glass desk with the baby monitor next to her.

“I got a peek at your .glp files,” she said, waggling a phone I didn’t recognize. “Come take a look at this.”

Who else but Eve kept a supply of iPhone and
Android burners at home, much less with access to FBI case files? She’d already loaded a copy of Gwen Petty’s operating system onto an actual handset.

“What am I looking at?” I said while she swiped from one screen to the next, back and forth, back and forth.

“Look at the lower right corner,” Eve said, and swiped again, left, right, left, right. “You see that tiny refraction when I change the
screen?”

“No,” I said.

“Here.” She gave me the phone, and I tried it myself. That’s when I finally saw it, just a slight ripple, like that corner of the phone’s wallpaper went watery as I swiped in and out.

“Wait, what?” I said. “No way.”

“I think so,” she said.

It was an invisible button, or at least it seemed to be. I put my finger on that spot and held it there, waiting to see if anything
would happen. And then sure enough, after about five seconds, the screen opened up into an app I’d never seen before.

The interface itself wasn’t fancy, or even particularly well designed. It looked like a simple chat program, as far as I could tell. There were icons to access the camera; the keyboard,
which was rudimentary compared to most current standards; and a Send button. That was it. The
amazing part was how well it had hidden itself, not just on the phone’s screen but in the operating system.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Where are they keeping the files for this?”

“We’ll find out,” Eve said. “But sometimes, Angela, you’ve got to look up from the files. It’s not always about the code.”

A little wave of anger passed over me. Frankly, I wasn’t used to being outsmarted.

“Should
I even be on here?” I asked. It was a little late for that question, but Eve shook her head.

“It’s fine. That handset’s cloaked. You can’t even go online,” she said. “And I’ll wipe it as soon as we’re done.”

That was easy enough for her to say. She was Eve Abajian, as in
the
Eve Abajian, FBI superhero. I was still just Angela Hoot, lowly intern. My security clearance couldn’t even touch Eve’s.

Not that I was going to say no to any of this. If Eve was comfortable sharing it with me, that’s all I needed to know.

I looked down at the phone screen again. There was no chat history, or even a way to access one that I could tell.

“What about the .glp files?” I asked.

“Try refreshing,” she said, and hit two keys on her keyboard. “Now.”

I closed and reopened the app. When I did, it was suddenly
populated with thirty-one new messages.

“Just like that?” I asked.

“Yeah, but if it’s this easy, it means they wanted you to find them,” Eve said, echoing my own thought. “Don’t ever forget that. It’s a completely different premise. They could have squirreled these away much more deeply if they’d wanted to.”

“They’re putting on some kind of show,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

The problem
was, everything had been scrubbed clean. There were no date stamps, no metadata to trace back the files, and certainly no forensic watermarking. All we had to go on was what we could see.

The files turned out to be a combination of images and text. The images were clear enough. There were no faces, but a lot of body parts. Some of them were coy—an open blouse, an unbuttoned pair of jeans—but
it got more explicit from there.

The rest were text fragments, from what seemed to be an ongoing conversation. Or a seduction, I guess. It was horrifying to read through, knowing what was waiting for Gwen Petty at the end of it all.

The texts were also arranged in what seemed like a random order and chopped up into pieces. There was no way to know what
wasn’t
there, or how much of the conversation
we were missing. Any number of other files could have been overwritten since they were deleted, in which case we’d never get them back.

Or maybe they’d been deliberately left off by the killer, excising anything that might reveal more than he wanted us to know. I had no idea yet how much control the app’s administrator had over the content, or even the devices that people used to access it.

All we could do for now was work with what we had. So while Eve called Keats to catch him up, I printed everything out in hard copy and spread it across her dining room table. Then we started moving the pieces around, trying to guess at an order, make connections, and hopefully start to pull this whole puzzle together.

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