Authors: James Patterson
Fox didn’t move for a beat but then stood up stiffly.
“Wait, what?” the hooker said. “Shit, okay, then. I’ll talk, but Sweet Sal’s got to get some good out of this.”
Still ignoring Fox, Sampson sat back down and said, “So talk.”
Sweet told him to check with the Kansas State Police for a missing-persons report on a seventeen-year-old blonde, Emily McCabe of Wichita, who’d run away and came east after her uncle allegedly abused her.
McCabe lived on the streets until she met a man named Neal Parks; he introduced her to coke, meth, and heroin and turned her into a call girl. Sally Sweet also worked for Parks, who set up meets with his girls and johns via smartphone, like a cyberpimp.
“Emily was good people,” Sweet said. “I liked her, even when she became Neal’s favorite for a while.”
Parks evidently lavished attention on the new girls so they’d do anything he asked. Sweet had once been favored like that. In fact, she still had a key to the pimp’s apartment.
“Neal was holding cash back on me, and I knew where he kept it,” Sweet said. “Lemme back up a second. Right around then? I hadn’t been seeing Emily regular like I used to, and Neal said she’d gone up to New York to work for a friend of his for a few weeks. I waited until Neal went out to eat one night with another of the girls, and I got into his place.”
Sweet said she retrieved a lockbox hidden in the ductwork above Parks’s computer desk, got the key for it from his dresser, opened it, and took out fifteen hundred in cash.
“Just what he owed me,” she said. “I put the rest back.”
“What does this have to do with Emily?” Fox said impatiently.
Smug, the hooker said, “When I climbed up there to put the box back, I accidentally kicked Neal’s computer mouse. The screen lit up on his desktop. There was a picture of Emily on the monitor.”
Sweet realized the image was part of a video, so she played the clip.
“It looked like Neal shot it with his GoPro,” she said. “From his—what do you call it—point of view?”
Sampson remembered the GoPro videos on the Killingblondechicks4fun website, and he nodded, thinking that Sweet’s story might have legs after all.
“What did you see?” Fox said.
“Neal in full dominance mode,” Sweet said, sounding shaken. “He was hitting Emily, saying and doing nasty things to her. And she’s all submissive. And then, like, he’s got a rope in his hand, and he flips it around Emily’s neck.”
She stopped, her lip quivering at the memory.
“Neal started to strangle her,” Sweet said at last. “He put the camera in her face. You could see how terrified she was before the screen went black.”
AT HOME AROUND
ten thirty that evening, Bree said she was exhausted and going to bed.
I said, “I’m going to type up some notes downstairs, catch the eleven o’clock news, and then I’ll be up.”
“Don’t fall asleep in front of the TV again,” she said, and she kissed me.
“I’ll try not to,” I said, and I kissed her back.
“You promised Jannie and Ali you’d go for an early run with them.”
“I remember. Love you.”
“Love you too,” she said and waved her hand wearily as she left the room.
I waited until Bree had climbed the stairs and shut our bedroom door before going to my basement office and putting on a dark jacket and baseball cap. Then I hit Send on a text I’d written an hour before.
I opened the outside door as quietly as I could, slipped out into the night, and went along the side of my house, creeping under our bedroom window. The light went out up there, and I trotted down the sidewalk to a waiting car.
I climbed into the passenger seat. John Sampson was at the wheel.
“Glad you could make it,” he said, and then he smiled and put the car in gear.
“You going to explain why we have to sneak around?” I said.
“I am,” Sampson said, and he told me about Emily McCabe, Sally Sweet, the video Sweet saw on Neal Parks’s computer, and how the clip had ended before the strangulation was complete.
“You believe her?” I said.
“We’re here, aren’t we?”
“We got blowback on the ask,” Sampson said. “Can’t get a search authorization based solely on the hearsay of a prostitute eager to avoid jail time. But I figure blonde lives matter, and think we should have a chat with old Neal Parks sooner rather than later.”
“Why me?” I asked. “What about Fox?”
Sampson shook his head wearily. “She’s threatening to file a complaint against me for squeezing her leg hard when she refused to follow my lead during my interrogation. She has total disregard for rank. Even dissed Bree on the deal.”
“So things are going well between you?”
“Oh, yeah, just peachy,” he said. “Which is why you’re here.”
“For a talk?”
“I figure we rattle Parks’s cage a little. See if we can shake anything loose.”
I knew I should ask him to pull over and get a taxi home. Bree would have a fit if she found out I was out with one of her detectives and both of us were defying her direct orders. But still, it felt so good and achingly familiar to be rolling with Sampson late at night that I blocked out my promise to Bree.
We cruised through the city, heading for a saloon Neal Parks liked to frequent after eleven o’clock at night. The Parrot was a serious dive bar by DC standards; it occupied the first floor of a shabby six-story building near the Maryland state line. Parks lived on the fourth floor.
“Convenient if you’re an alcoholic,” Sampson said.
“Is he?” I said.
“No idea,” he said, parking down the street. “Sally says he sits in a booth and handles business there until the Parrot shuts down. Runs the whole thing off his phone. Cyberpimp.”
“How are we going to see the video clip of Emily McCabe?”
“I thought about just going up there to watch it for ourselves,” Sampson admitted, climbing out of the squad car. “But we risk fruit of the poisonous tree. If we can get a warrant, we don’t want that clip excluded at trial.”
I thought, getting out the other side. My own day in court was fast approaching, and yet I seemed to be doing everything I could to avoid facing the issue head-on. What was that about?
“There’s an alley exit, and the front door,” Sampson said, gesturing down the block at the neon-blue macaw flickering above the bar’s entrance.
“I’d take the back,” I said, “but I’m unarmed.”
John stopped, stooped into the car, and retrieved a small Ruger nine-millimeter, which he handed to me. “I’m coming in the back,” he said. “You go in, make him, and wait.”
I looked down at the pistol a moment, knowing this was the worst idea I’d had in weeks, but I stuck it in my waistband at the small of the back and pulled my shirt down over it.
We split up. I strolled up the street and entered the Parrot. The place was a pleasant dive doing a healthy business, considering the hour. On the jukebox beyond the two pool tables, Lenny Kravitz was singing “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” The bar itself was to my left; a row of booths lined the opposite wall.
Photos, paintings, and posters featuring parrots were everywhere, and two live African gray parrots croaked and fluttered in a large wire cage near the center of the saloon. One of the parrots climbed the cage wall using its talons and beak. As I passed it on the way to the bar, the parrot cocked its head and goggle-eyed me a moment before squawking, “Five-O! Five-O!”
How the bird knew baffles me to this day, but it just kept squawking, “Five-O!” Many eyes were on me as I stepped up to the bar. The bartender ignored me, so I looked over my shoulder. On the other side of the parrot cage, a lanky guy with short orange hair was slipping out of the third booth from the front door.
Neal Parks glanced my way.
Our eyes met.
FOR A SPLIT
second I thought he was headed straight for the back door, the alley, and Sampson. Instead, the pimp dodged right in front of me and vaulted over the bar before I could grab him.
John stormed into the room with his gun drawn and his badge up.
“Parks!” he yelled. “Stop! Police!”
Parks disappeared through the curtains to the back. Patrons began to scream and yell, and pool players dived for safety. I jumped onto and over the bar, then barreled at the bartender who’d ignored me. He looked like he was thinking of blocking my way, but I yelled, “Five-O!” and he stood aside.
Sampson came around the bar and reached the curtains first. Remembering the day he was shot, I said, “Be cool now, brother.”
He hesitated and then tore back the curtains, revealing a room with empty kegs, a walk-in freezer, and a staircase that
climbed up into darkness. We went to the stairs and heard Parks running above us.
Sampson charged after him, and I charged after Sampson. We ran up a utility stairwell with cleated steel treads and steel fire doors on every floor. As we passed the third floor, a door above us opened and then slammed shut.
“Stop,” Sampson whispered.
We did. Nothing.
“He’s going for his apartment, for the computer and that video clip,” Sampson said softly, and he started to climb again.
We reached the fourth floor and opened the stairwell door. Several quick looks revealed no one in the hallway. I grabbed the sleeve of Sampson’s coat and said loudly, “His place.”
Then I let the door shut and held my finger to my lips. Sampson nodded. We stood there in the stairwell, listening. Ten seconds went by. Then twenty. I was about to concede that Parks had indeed gone to his apartment when I heard a squeak above me, and then another.
“Neal Parks?” Sampson yelled. “This is DC Metro. We’ve got you surrounded.”
We could hear him pounding up the stairs again, and we chased him and saw him climb up a ladder bolted into the wall. It gave access to a hatch, which was open. John went first, climbing up and onto the gravel roof. The bluish light cast by the Parrot’s neon sign made the shadows strange.
Sampson gestured to me to take the left flank while he went right. We flipped on Maglites and cast the beams about. There were air-conditioner compressors on the roof, eight of them. Parks was either hiding behind one of them or going for a fire escape.
We crept forward, staying parallel to each other, about
eighty feet apart, using the flashlights to pierce the shadows and the darkness. We’d gone by the fifth and sixth compressors when Sampson flushed him out.
Parks exploded from behind one of the two remaining compressors and ran at a diagonal across the roof. I flipped off my light and tried to cut him off.
He was running out of roof and I was running out of time when I realized he meant to jump to the roof of the next building.
The pimp was three steps from doing just that when I managed to snag him by the collar of his jacket and shirt. I meant to haul him back and down. Instead, his momentum yanked me forward two steps.
My lower legs hit the raised roof edge hard, so hard I started to topple over, along with Parks, into the seventy feet of air that separated us from the pavement in the alleyway below.
MY HEAD WHIPPED
forward and smashed into Parks’s head as my body jerked backward. Sampson had somehow gotten two handfuls of my shirt, and he pulled both me and Parks to safety.
My heart was racing, my stomach had turned sour, and I gasped for air. I’d almost fallen six stories to certain death. The pimp was equally shaken and offered no resistance when Sampson cuffed and searched him.
Parks was unarmed and without his cell phone, which was suspicious, given that Sally Sweet told Sampson that Parks operated his entire cyber-prostitution ring with it.
“Where’s your phone?” I asked, shining my flashlight in his face.
“Lost it the other day,” Parks said, blinking and lowering his head. “I was going to get a new one tomorrow.”
“Uh-huh,” Sampson said. “Why’d you run?”
“I like to run,” Parks said.
“You mean you like to run prostitutes,” I said.
“No, like, for fitness,” he said, calm and collected now.
“No, like, for hookers,” Sampson said. “You’ve got a whole stable of them.”
“Not true,” Parks said, and he laughed. “Now, who says that?”
He looked up then, squinting, and said, “You’re not vice?”
“We’re homicide,” Sampson said. “You know Emily McCabe?”
Parks acted puzzled. “No, I don’t know an Emily McCabe.”
“Don’t be cute,” I said. “We can prove you know her.”
The pimp said nothing.
“We’re investigating her murder,” Sampson said.
“Her murder?” he said, seeming genuinely surprised. “She’s dead?”
“She’s dead, and you killed her,” I said. “Strangled her on-camera.”
Parks seemed thrown. His mouth hung slightly open, and he stared down at the ground, his mind whirling with questions, no doubt. How had we gotten hold of the video? How should he respond?
Sampson said, “We know you made a snuff film, Neal. We’re gonna see you fry for it.”
“No way,” he said. “I didn’t kill no one.”
“You put a rope around Emily’s neck while you were having S-and-M sex with her,” I said. “And then you strangled her to death.”
“No,” he said. “I—”
“Killed her,” Sampson said.
“No,” Parks said, struggling, and then he apparently
resigned himself to the situation. “Look, okay, I know Emily, but I did not kill her, because she is not dead. That video was just a fantasy. She made it for me as a kind of going-away present.”
“Give us a break,” I said.
“It’s true,” Parks said. He went on to claim that Emily McCabe had told him she’d saved enough money to quit the business and was going to school in Florida somewhere.
“Florida somewhere?” Sampson said. “That’s the best you can do?”
Parks lost his cool then and snapped, “It’s the only thing I have. Look, I liked Emily. A lot. I would never kill her.”
“So tell us how to reach her,” I said.