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Authors: James Patterson

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“I don’t know how to reach her,” he said. “She didn’t want me to know. She wanted a clean break and an entirely new life. I respected that.”

“No phone number?” I asked.

“Lost my phone, remember?”

“I’m not buying it,” Sampson said, marching him back toward the roof hatch. “We’re taking you in, and we’ll be searching your apartment. That snuff film you made is going to send you to prison for the rest of your life.”

“No, wait,” Parks said. “I’m not lying. Emily’s alive. Somewhere.”

“Hell of a defense,” I said.

He said nothing this time. After I’d climbed down through the hatch, Sampson removed Parks’s handcuffs and ordered him at gunpoint onto the ladder. The pimp dropped down and offered no resistance when Sampson put the cuffs back on.

When we led him down the staircase, Parks said, “How about I help you and you help me here?”

Sampson grunted. “How can you help us, Neal?”

Parks licked his lips and said, “I want you to know that I could be killed for saying this, but I can tell you about real snuff films and the crazy, sick bastards that make them.”

“Uh-huh, and what good does that do us?” I asked.

Parks hesitated again but then said, “Maybe you’ll figure out what happened to those blondes that have been disappearing.”

“Like Emily McCabe?” Sampson said.

“No,” Parks said. “Like two blond lesbian bitches from Pennsylvania.”

CHAPTER
26

TWO GIRLS CRYING
.

Those were the last clear sounds Gretchen Lindel had heard, and that had been hours ago.

Two girls crying,
Gretchen thought, and she strained to hear more.

But through the plywood walls, the seventeen-year-old heard nothing. No voices. No floorboards creaking. Not even a jangle of chain. Or a desperate sob.

The silence made Gretchen mad beyond reason. She kicked and shook the chain that ran from her left ankle to the wall, and she glared at the little camera mounted high in the far corner, where she couldn’t reach.

“Who are you?” she screamed. “Why am I here? What do you want?”

Gretchen collapsed into sobs as she had too many times since she’d woken up in a plywood box about the size of a prison cell dressed in a cheap white flannel nightgown, lying
on a new mattress still in its wrapper, and covered with thick wool army blankets.

There’d been food. A big tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken and bottles of Gatorade. A metal bucket to relieve herself in the corner where her chain would reach. And the single LED light overhead that never went off.

The constant light had made Gretchen lose track of time. As her crying subsided and she pulled the blankets up around her, she realized she had no idea how long she’d been in the box. Three days? Five? A week? Longer?

The kidnapping itself had felt like a nightmare, like something that she’d wake up from. But no matter how many times she slept in the box or how hard she tried to forget, she kept seeing the men grabbing her, kept seeing Ms. Petracek murdered.

They shot her like she was nothing.

What will they do to me?

Gretchen felt panic surge and tried to turn her thoughts to something else. She’d heard her father talk about doing that many times as a way out of pain.

She breathed deep into her stomach, held it, then exhaled slowly, seeing her father and mother in her mind, so in love and yet so apart now.

What is this doing to Dad? To Mom?

Gretchen felt sick at these questions and wanted to cry again.

He doesn’t deserve this. Neither does she. Haven’t they suffered enough, God? Haven’t they suffered enough?

She thought of her best friend forever, Susan, and her sometime boyfriend Nick.
What are they thinking? Are they trying to find me? Is anyone?

Curling up into a fetal position, Gretchen tried to find strength in prayer and in her belief in the good. But the questions kept circling and elbowing their way back into her thoughts.

Why am I here? Why is this being done to me? What did I do, God, to deserve this? What if I never see Dad or Mom again?

The soft squeal of metal on metal stopped her thoughts, made her sit up and stare in fear at the crude door with the two dead bolts. It had never opened before.

The door swung inward.

The teenager’s hand flew to her mouth, and she stifled a scream.

He was football-player big and dressed in black, from his motorcycle boots to his wool cap and tinted paintball visor. There was a blinking GoPro camera mounted in a harness on his chest. But she was focused in terror on his right gloved hand, which held an ornate knife with a curved and wicked-looking blade.

“Hello, Gretchen,” he said in a strange electronic voice. “Are you ready to play a game for us?”

CHAPTER
27

I SLIPPED INTO
bed shortly after one thirty in the morning, unsure of how much of Neal Parks’s story I believed and too tired to think about it anymore.

It felt like only minutes passed between my head hitting the pillow and someone shaking my shoulder.

I came to consciousness thickly and cracked open a groggy eye to see Jannie and Ali standing by my bed, dressed for the morning jog I’d promised them. I could feel the heat of Bree’s body behind me, and not wanting to wake her, I held a finger to my lips.

They nodded and crept out of the room. I got up, feeling a little dizzy and wanting three, maybe four more hours of sleep. But these days a promise to my kids was a promise I tried to keep.

I got dressed in the closet and eased out of the room, smelling coffee brewing downstairs. I went to the kitchen, where Nana Mama, in her navy-blue nightgown and robe, was
already pouring me a small cup of coffee. Jannie and Ali were tying their shoelaces.

“Bless you,” I said when she handed the cup to me.

“You fall asleep in front of the TV again?” Nana Mama asked.

I nodded and took several reviving sips of the coffee.

“I think that TV should have an automatic shutoff,” my grandmother said.

“It does,” Ali said. “Or the cable box does.”

“Let’s go,” I said, wanting to end the conversation. I set the empty cup down. “I have a new client coming this morning, and I don’t want to be late.”

We went outside. The first light of day showed in the sky, and the air was cool when we started to run. We took a route that led to Lincoln Park and back, about four miles round trip.

When I ran alone, I rarely thought, and yet I often got home to find I’d figured out one problem or another. The subconscious at work and all that. But a mindless run was impossible with Ali, especially once Jannie picked up her pace after a mile and left us in the dust.

“Dad?” Ali said, jogging beside me. “Did you know that running for more than thirty minutes promotes brain-cell regeneration?”

I glanced down at him, in wonder again that a nine-year-old, my nine-year-old, could know about brain-cell regeneration.

“Can’t say that I did,” I said, puffing along. “I mean, I know it’s good for your heart.”

“And good for your brain,” he said. “I saw a thing about it online. That’s why I told Jannie I wanted to start running with her.”

“So you could regenerate your brain cells?” I said. “C’mon,
bud, you’re nine. You’re still growing brain cells and will be for a long time.”

Ali looked at me with mild indignation. “I’ll grow more by running.”

I raised my hands in surrender. “I’ll trust you on this.”

He smiled and said, “But not too much running, otherwise my brain will get too big, and my head will explode, won’t it, Dad?”

There was my nine-year-old boy.

“Dad?”

“No, your brain won’t explode from running too much.”

“You’re sure?”

“You think Jannie’s head’s going to explode?”

I glanced over and saw he was alarmed by that idea. “No one’s head is exploding from being fit,” I said as we neared the arboretum. “Next subject.”

Ali didn’t say anything until we’d reached the park, reversed direction toward home, and were jogging down South Carolina Avenue.

Then he said, “Dad, do some police in our country hate some people so much they’ll just shoot them for no reason?”

CHAPTER
28

THAT ONE SHOCKED
me, and I slowed to a stop, hands on my hips and sweat dripping down my nose. “Why would you say that, son?”

Ali heard the tone of my voice, looked uncertain, and said, “I saw some people on TV say that black kids get shot just ’cause they’re black and that you shot those Soneji people just because you hated that dead guy they worship.”

My stomach felt hollow. A caustic taste came up my throat and made the back of my tongue burn.

At last, I said, “Let’s start with the first part. Are
you
scared a police officer might shoot
you
because of the color of
your
skin?”

“Should I be scared?” Ali asked, crossing his arms. “They said it happens all the time.”

“First off, being a police officer is a very difficult job. You understand that, right?”

“I guess. Yes.”

“Second, too many black men
are
getting shot,” I said. “And some of them by racists. But, on the whole, I think it’s more
a question of police officers who aren’t trained correctly, who don’t follow the rules and the most up-to-date methods of law enforcement.”

Rather than getting calmer, Ali became more upset and started to run away. I ran after him, stopped him, and saw he was in tears.

Before I could ask him what the matter was, he blubbered, “You don’t follow the rules, Dad. That’s what the people on TV said. They said you were out of control and represented everything wrong with the police in America today.”

That felt like a kick to the head. “Do you think that?”

Wiping at his tears, Ali sniffled. “But that’s what people are saying, Dad. Even at school.”

I put one knee down on the sidewalk and looked up at my son, who was searching my face for answers.

“I wasn’t out of control that night, Ali,” I said. “I shot those people because they were trying to shoot me.”

“But they said—”

“I know what they’ve said,” I said, trying to keep my voice from breaking. “All I can say is it’s not true, son. Your dad is not a cold-blooded killer. It was self-defense. You have to believe me. You do believe me, don’t you?”

Ali studied my face for so long I thought I’d lost him, but then he nodded and hugged me so tight that tears welled up in my eyes and love choked my throat.

“Thank you, little buddy,” I said hoarsely. “I don’t think I can do this without you watching my back.”

CHAPTER
29

TWO HOURS LATER
and sitting in my basement office, I was feeling depressed by my conversation with Ali. I suppose it’s always a blue day when your nine-year-old questions your personal and professional integrity.

I tried to get my mind off it by thinking about the things Neal Parks had told us the night before. The pimp said he’d seen a fully downloaded video from—

There was a sharp knock at the outer door to the basement. I glanced at my watch. My new client was five minutes early.

When I opened the outer door, I found a wrung-out, sandy-haired man with sad, sunken blue eyes and weathered looks that made it hard to judge his age. He was dressed in pressed jeans, a starched white shirt, and polished boat moccasins with no socks, and he wore a hammered-gold wedding ring, a Rolex watch, and a tiny gold crucifix on a chain around his neck.

“Mr. Lindel?” I said, holding out my hand.

“Alden Lindel,” he said, shaking my hand and training those
sunken eyes on me. “So glad you could make time to see me, Dr. Cross.”

“Glad I could find an opening,” I said, even though he was my only appointment for the day.

I steered him toward my office. “Lindel. That’s an unusual name.”

“Not in Norway,” Lindel said.

“No, it’s just that I’ve heard it twice recently and—”

“Gretchen is my daughter, Dr. Cross,” Lindel choked out. “She goes to the same school as your son, yes?”

“Yes,” I said, seeing him new all over again. “Yes, of course she does. Ali and I and my entire family, we’ve all been praying for her safe return.”

“Thank you, Dr. Cross,” he said as his eyes reddened and he gazed toward the ground. “We need … I need …”

I’ve always found that if you ask a direct question, you get a direct answer, so I said, “How can I help, Mr. Lindel? Why are you here?”

Lindel hesitated and then looked at me while turning his palms upward. “To be honest, I’m here to see Dr. Cross the shrink because of my guilt and anxiety, and Dr. Cross the detective because of my dwindling faith in my daughter’s survival.”

I took a seat. “You do know that I’m suspended pending trial?”

“I read that,” Lindel said. “I also read that before your recent troubles, you were one of the best detectives in the country.”

“Whoever wrote that was being too kind,” I said. “And I know the FBI agents in charge of your daughter’s case. They’re top-notch.”

“When my mom bakes a cake, she says you can always use
more frosting,” Lindel said. “Please say you’ll help me find Gretchen before it’s too late and …”

Tears dripped down his cheeks. “She, our daughter, our Gretchen, she’s everything to us, and now they’re torturing us with these unspeakable images.”

“I’m confused,” I said. “Who’s torturing you?”

Lindel took a tissue and wiped away his tears before reaching into his jeans pocket and coming up with a small blue flash drive in a plastic baggie.

“This was in the mailbox when I checked this morning before breakfast,” he said. “Go on, plug it in.”

CHAPTER
30

I TOOK THE
baggie and looked at the flash drive, a Toshiba with 128
GB
printed on the face.

“You didn’t give this to the FBI?” I asked, putting the baggie down and finding latex gloves.

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