Authors: James Patterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller
I DIDN’T GET to shadow Keats the way I wanted, but I didn’t leave that high school empty-handed, either.
After I’d picked up a truly bad cup of “coffee” from the cafeteria, I went back to Gwen’s locker. A small group of girls had gathered there. They were holding hands, their heads down. It looked like some kind of prayer circle, but then one of them saw me and smiled through teary
“It’s okay,” she said, and let go of her neighbor’s hand to make room for me.
On the other side of the circle, I recognized Kallie Sawyer. Kallie had been Gwen Petty’s best friend, as far as I could tell from the social media analysis I’d done. A few of the other faces were familiar, too, but I couldn’t remember the names. I’m better with numbers.
I took a hand on either side of me, fighting
back the sense that I shouldn’t be there. It was vaguely surreal, like taking a step deeper into Gwen’s life without her permission.
As the others lowered their heads again, so did I.
“Dear Lord,” Kallie said. “Please watch over our friend Gwen, and welcome her into your sweet embrace, forever and always, amen.”
“Amen,” I repeated with them, before everyone looked up again.
“Was she a friend
of yours?” one of them asked.
I shook my head. “No. But I can tell she was really loved,” I said, in all sincerity.
Kallie started to speak, then stopped to choke back tears, and tried again. “She was the best,” she said.
And now it was me, reining in my own tears. The whole thing was beyond heartbreaking. I’d never had to face anything remotely like this in high school.
“I haven’t seen you
before,” one of the girls said. “Do you go to school here?”
“Oh,” I said. That one I wasn’t expecting. I’ve always looked younger than I am, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that someone might think I was a student. My mind scrambled for the right thing to say.
“No, I just wanted to pay my respects” came out.
It wasn’t a lie, and it wasn’t the full truth, either, but the one thing I couldn’t
bring myself to do was walk away. Not just yet. I felt like I owed it to Gwen to push myself, even now. If that meant asking a few more questions than I might have otherwise, so be it.
“Do you know if they have any idea who did this?” I asked. I felt like I was on a tightrope here, somewhere between doing the right and wrong things.
“I know who
think did it,” one girl said. Two of the others
shot her a look, but she kept talking. “It was that scumbag from Precious Moments.”
“Precious Moments?” I asked. No turning back now.
Kallie’s expression flashed from sadness to something darker. “It’s this photography studio,” she answered. “There’s this super skeezy guy who took Gwen’s senior picture. Pietro something.” The girl on my left shuddered. “She said he was really gross about the
“He even had a camera in the changing room,” the shudderer said.
“That’s just a rumor,” another said.
“Well, I believe it.”
“I’ll bet you anything it was him,” the first girl said, and nobody spoke up to disagree.
“Did anyone tell the police about him?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it’s like they don’t even care,” another girl said. “They’re not even looking into it.”
I doubted that
was true. If I’d learned nothing else so far, it was that the people behind these investigations cared about doing thorough work. But I also remembered what it felt like to not be taken seriously by adults.
“Supposedly, the FBI is going to be interviewing some of us, too,” Kallie added.
“Well, make sure you mention it to them,” I said.
I had all kinds of other questions, but my own common sense
was finally knocking on the door. It was time to go before I’d dug myself a hole too deep to get out of.
“Anyway, I’m really sorry about your friend,” I said, and stepped back.
Kallie seemed to look at me with clear eyes for the first time. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but who
I just wanted to keep from upsetting them more than they already were. So I gave the only
answer I could before I got out of there and left them alone.
“I’m Angela,” I said.
BACK IN THE car, I downloaded with Keats about my conversation with the girls, and especially about the Precious Moments photographer they’d mentioned. In return, Keats told me exactly nothing about his interview, or even who else he’d spoken with. Such is life at the bottom of the FBI food chain.
Although even then, there’s an argument that I was already coming up fast at the Bureau,
and that all my silent annoyance was just so much whining. Fair enough. But I wasn’t stopping there.
I spent the rest of the drive asking Keats about himself instead—where he grew up (Potomac), what his family was like (close-knit, Catholic), how he’d landed at Quantico (recruited straight out of Georgetown). He was more forthcoming about all that, but I could tell something was still bothering
him. I just wasn’t sure it had anything to do with the case itself.
When we got back to the office, he pulled his Explorer right up to the curb on Cambridge Street and left it running.
“You coming in?” I asked.
“I’m going to park in the lot and catch up with you,” he said.
“I think I can manage the walk,” I said. “I’ll even buy you a coffee at the Public Market.”
“Go on ahead,” he said, drumming
the steering wheel without looking at me. Which is when I realized what was going on.
“You know, we’re allowed to ride in the same elevator,” I said. “We do work together. And we’re both adults.”
“Exactly,” he said. “So why open up any questions about it?”
I didn’t know if he realized how much of his own hand he was showing when he said that. It’s amazing how often men don’t.
“Are you afraid
something might actually happen between us if you let it?” I asked, straight up. It didn’t seem worth being indirect or passive about this anymore.
Billy Keats gave me an incredulous look and a tiny, sexy smile.
“Is there any question you
ask?” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“Like I’d tell you.”
Finally, he clicked on his flashers and turned sideways to face me on the seat.
It gave me a little flutter in my chest that I loved and hated at the same time.
“Listen. There’s obviously some kind of a”—he moved his hands back and forth between us—“
going on here. I’m not going to deny that.”
At least he wasn’t playing pretend with me. Extra points for that.
“Basically, that gives me two options,” he went on. “I can ignore it, and we go about our business. Or I can
get you reassigned out of the office.”
“Then I guess you have to ignore it,” I said. “Because I’m not going anywhere.”
That internship at the Bureau was either going to be my ticket to the future or the last good opportunity I ever got. There was no way I’d be walking away from it willingly. Not to mention how attached I’d become to the case itself, and everything I felt like I owed Gwen Petty.
And her family. And those poor, devastated girls at the school.
“So then we’re in agreement,” Keats said.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Except for the part about why we can’t ride the same elevator.”
“You really don’t know when to say die, do you?” he asked.
“Not usually,” I said.
“God help me, I kind of like that about you,” Keats said.
I thought, but that was going to have to be
enough for now. So I headed inside alone and rode the elevator to the sixth floor with a big dumb smile on my face. Whatever line I’d crossed in the car just then, I still got to keep my internship. I got to keep working this case. And I even got to keep the dirty little movies that kept running through my head, all about things that would probably never happen with Keats but were fun to think about
MY SECTION OF the field office was called the CART—the Computer Analysis Response Team. It’s like a cluttered hybrid of a regular office and a lab. We had workbenches and computer arrays for eight people spread around the space. We also had floor-to-ceiling windows with a killer view of Boston Harbor. As work environments go, you could do a lot worse.
To get inside, I had to pass
an armed security station by the elevators, a locked door in reception, and then a card reader on the door to the CART itself. It’s one of the few places in the building where open storage of evidence is allowed. That cut both ways. There was the pain in the ass of extra security, and then there was the fact that I had full access to the app from Gwen’s phone and could tear down copies of it as much
as I liked.
While my former classmates at MIT were mounting demonstration projects and simulations to impress their professors, I was interpreting code for the FBI. All other emotions aside, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also feeling just a wee bit cocky.
Once I was back at my bench, the first thing I did was send another copy of the app from my workstation to a burner phone I’d checked out
of the lab. When the app loaded on the burner, I could see the same chat program I’d seen on Gwen’s iPhone. The difference this time was that I could monitor the conversation from both sides and see what the app sent back.
I started with the phone and sent out a simple text.
It showed up immediately on my administrator’s screen, and I typed back a quick reply.
Not exactly Dostoyevsky, but that didn’t matter. Within seconds, I got a new pop-up window on my admin screen. The only thing in it was a single thumbnail image in the upper left corner. It looked like a white blur, so I clicked it open to full size for a better look. But even then, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.
Before I could figure it out, another thumbnail appeared next to the first. I enlarged
that one, too, and got a picture of myself this time. It was taken from below, practically looking up my nostrils.
When I glanced down at the phone in my hand, the camera was essentially pointed right at me. Before that, it had been pointed at the ceiling. And when I looked up, I saw the glare of a fluorescent fixture over my head. That explained the two photos, anyway. But not whatever the hell
was going on.
I stood up now and aimed the burner’s camera out of the office window toward the water. After a few seconds, sure enough,
another thumbnail showed up. This time, it was a shot of Boston Harbor through the streaky glass of our work space.
“Holy shit,” I let out.
Jonas, the other intern, popped up from the next bench. “What is it?” he asked. In the CART, expressions like “Holy shit”
usually mean one of two things: something bad has happened, or something very cool has happened.
Or in this case, both.
“Go get Zack,” I said. “Right now.”
Zack Ciomek was the lead investigator in the CART, and this was something he was going to need to see.
While I waited, I put the phone facedown to keep the camera lens dark for the moment. Then I swiveled to search the app’s code on another
one of my screens, where it didn’t take me long to confirm what I suspected. They’d put a command string right there in the main source code, programming the app to take a photo on a default of every ten seconds.
My heart was going considerably faster than that by now. I knew a hell of a lot more than I had ten minutes earlier, but still nothing about where this was taking us, exactly.
there were voices everywhere. The room had started to fill up. Word had obviously spread fast. I stood up to make room for Zack as he slid into my chair.
“What do we have?” he asked.
“It’s taking photos and sending them back without logging them on the phone itself,” I said. “Which means the user never knows it’s happening.”
“What else?” he asked, and pointed at my screen. “What are these thumbnails?”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure,” I said, “but maybe …”
I picked up the phone again and held it out in front of me. Then I did a quick lap around the room. By the time I came full
circle, we had a dozen new thumbnails on the screen. That was a hell of a lot more than one every ten seconds.
“I think it’s mapping the space,” I said. I was 99 percent sure, anyway. “Some kind of geolocation function
is telling it when the camera’s on the move. If it can track in three dimensions, it knows which parts of the room it’s seen and which need filling in.”
“And when to start taking pics faster because there’s more to see,” Jonas said behind me.
“Exactly,” I said.
“Holy … shit.”
It wasn’t over, either. Another window had just opened on the same screen, with no prompting from us. So far it just
looked like one large, blurred image, but it also seemed to be resolving itself into focus. A thin, striped “thinking” bar cycled along the bottom edge as the pixels arranged and rearranged themselves.
“Is that compiling in 3-D?” Zack asked, his voice rising. It wasn’t really a question. That’s exactly what it was doing, and we all knew it now.
“This isn’t good,” one of the other investigators
“Someone call Billy Keats!” Zack yelled over his shoulder.
Already, a recognizable image of the CART was on the screen, with a small navigation tool in the corner. Zack used my mouse to pan back and forth, showing a 360 representation of the office around us, except for a few grayed-out blocks of space the camera had missed.
The implication hit me like bile in my stomach. This meant that
someone, somewhere, had done the same thing to Gwen Petty’s bedroom, if not her whole house.
And the thing was, we’d only begun to crack this open. So what else was this app capable of? Or for that matter, how far was our mystery hacker going to get before we reached the bottom of the rabbit hole?
IMMEDIATELY, THE SPECIAL agent in charge of the Boston field office, Audrey Gruss, called a full meeting in the big bull pen just outside the CART.
They had two rows of monitors set up at long tables, with screens on three walls showing crime scene photos, regional maps, screen caps from the app, and CNN on mute.
Keats and his other case agents were there. Also analysts from every
department, including my team, physical forensics, and medical. Eve even conferenced in by video. She didn’t waste any time throwing me a bone, either.
“Angela, what else can this thing do?” Eve asked from her screen.
We’d already gotten a briefing from Zack, and now a few dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at me in the back of the room. I probably should have been nervous, but there was too
much else to think about. Not to mention how badly Eve would roast me later if I didn’t take advantage of the opening she’d just created. So I jumped right in.
“Basically, it’s a Swiss Army knife of surveillance tools,” I said. “It has geolocation-driven imaging and direct listening for sure, all running in the background without the user knowing it. The app doesn’t even have to be open, once
the operating system is infected.”
It was strange to see all these seasoned analysts and agents scribbling notes in direct response to what I was telling them. On the inside, my impostor syndrome was raging, but on the outside, I kept it cool. I wanted these people to at least
I felt like I belonged there, even if that idea was still a work in progress for me.
“So basically,” Zack added,
“whoever sends this app out has uninterrupted access to any user’s phone, once it’s loaded. The only barrier is about whether or not the user accepts the invitation to install the app in the first place.”
“Nobody does that anymore, do they?” Gruss asked. “Who downloads unknown attachments like that?”
I thought about Darren Wendt and almost smiled.
“You’d be surprised, Audrey,” Keats answered.
“It’s the same kind of spear phishing that got some amateur hacker into the CIA chief’s personal email account a few years back.”
“Or the shutdown of those Ukrainian power grids,” someone else chimed in. “Remember that?”
“Anyway, moving on,” Gruss said with a note of justifiable impatience in her voice. She was the top brass in Boston. At the end of the day, this was on her. “Anything else to
“The app also names itself for the given target,” I said, jumping back in. “When I opened the copy I sent myself, the files had already self-converted to an
“For Angela Hoot,” Keats said, and ticked his head in my direction. Gruss looked over like she was memorizing
my face. I’m not sure how much I’d been on her radar before that.
“And there’s no
way to trace it back to the sender?” she asked, still on me.
“I’m sorry, no,” I said, and immediately saw Eve wince on her screen.
Don’t apologize if it’s not your fault.
It was one of her favorite pieces of advice.
“But we’re working on it,” I added quickly. “The problem is, with cloud-based computing, there
no rules about relative locations. They can route this through any server in the
world if they have access to it.”
I wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know, but it seemed worth emphasizing while I had the chance.
And just like that, the meeting moved on without me. My head was spinning through everything I’d reported. Hopefully, I’d made a good impression, not that it mattered in anyone else’s bigger picture. The real mandate here was to get a handle on this
quixotic piece of coding, ASAP. I forced myself to stay focused on the conversation at hand, while various members of the team threw out different theories.
“We have known victims in Boston, Binghamton, and Albany, yes?” Gruss asked the room. “What’s the radius here? Tristate? New England?”
“Hard to say,” Keats answered. “It goes back to what Angela was telling us. At this point, the pool of
potential targets is as large as the internet itself. They can send this app to anyone they want.”
“That’s the second time one of you has said ‘they,’” Gruss pointed out. “Where’s that coming from?”
Keats’s eyes flitted over me before he answered. “This could be some kind of collective as opposed to a lone-wolf operation,” he said. “We’ve been considering the possibility. They still need
on the ground for the actual murders, but it’s unclear where and how it’s coordinated. Just that it
coordinated. All of which points to some kind of team approach.”
SAC Gruss ran a hand across her mouth. There was no one in the room to be mad at, but you could tell she was pissed as hell.
“And that all means that the next targets, the people we need to make sure don’t wind up dead, could
“Yeah.” Keats was right there with her. “Beijing, Cleveland, or two doors down,” he said. “This could happen literally anywhere, at any time.”