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Authors: James Patterson

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“The girls are gay?” Bree said.

“And in love, evidently,” Fox said, and she typed again.

She pulled up a photograph of a blue Toyota Camry in a muddy clearing in the woods. The rear and front windows were blown out, and the driver’s door was ajar, revealing shattered glass on the seats.

“The day after the girls failed to come home, sheriff’s investigators found Alison’s car at a popular party and make-out spot in a clearing way out in the state forest,” Fox said, typing some more. “Now here’s the change in pattern.”

Bree sat forward when she saw a handsome little boy.

“Timmy ‘Deuce’ Walker,” Fox said. “Twelve years old. The same day the girls go missing, Deuce vanishes from his neighborhood, which is less than a mile from where the car was found. A month later, a hiker discovers Deuce’s remains in the woods roughly six miles from where the girls’ car was.”

“You think they’re all related?”

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Fox said, typing.

The screen jumped to a web page that displayed the photos of the missing women against a backdrop of chalk outlines of bodies on a pavement. Across the top of the page there was a platinum wig that looked like Marilyn Monroe’s hairdo the night she sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy.

Below the wig, letters that looked like melting red wax spelled out the site’s name: www.Killingblondechicks4fun.org.co.

CHAPTER
9

I STUDIED FATHER
Fiore and saw the priest’s anguish. I took a deep breath, let it out, and said, in sincere sympathy, “That is a doozy of a dilemma, Father.”

“It’s torn me apart,” Fiore said, tears welling. “I want what I can’t have.”

I didn’t know what to say; not at first, anyway.

But then I asked, “Do you think God lays out a path for all of us?”

“I do,” he said without hesitation.

“So you think you were meant to meet Penny and her sons?”

“I believe that’s true. But why? As a test of my faith?”

“I don’t think anyone could ever question your faith, Father. And I don’t think this is a lesser-of-two-evils situation. More like the greater of two goods.”

“I don’t follow,” Fiore said.

I set my notepad aside. “If you stay a priest, you’ll sacrifice personal happiness to continue to help the poor and the
members of your congregation. But if you leave, you could find similar, rewarding work, marry Penny, and raise her sons with as much love as possible, which is a noble thing too.”

He thought about that. A sharp knock came at my outer door.

“I should go,” Fiore said, looking at the time.

“They can wait.”

“No,” the priest said, standing. “You’ve given me much to pray about, Dr. Cross. I appreciate it. I really do.”

I shook his hand. “You’ll let me know what you decide, Father?”

“I will,” he said. “And say hello to your grandmother for me.”

I followed him into the hallway and to the door. When I opened it, John Sampson was standing there. The two men nodded to each other, then Father Fiore climbed the stairs and left, and John came in.

“You here for counseling?” I asked Sampson, shutting the door behind him.

“Got that covered,” he said, going into the office and taking my chair. “I’m here off the record—
way
off the record. Not supposed to be talking to you about cases at all, per order of your wife and Chief Michaels. But my new, uh, temporary partner is driving me up the wall, and I needed your perspective.”

“Honored to give it,” I said, glancing at the scar on Sampson’s forehead, remembering how he’d looked in the moments after he was shot by a follower of the late Gary Soneji. It was a miracle I was even talking to him.

John brought me up to speed on the crimes that appeared related to the disappearance of Gretchen Lindel. Then he logged on to my Wi-Fi and said, “My partner, Ainsley Fox, was
in a chat room where people were discussing the kidnappings and murders, and she found this hyperlink.”

He showed me the screen and a link that read
XRAYBLOND.BIZ
.

He clicked it, and it took him to a site called Killingblondechicks4fun.org.co. I studied it several moments before asking, “Is this for real? I read that fake sites often use a double thing like that, dot org and then dot co.”

“Hold that thought,” Sampson said.

He showed me several pages on the website dedicated to kidnappings and killings. The writing was atrocious and, according to John, had many of the facts wrong. But each page did contain links to legitimate news articles about the cases, as well as clips from local TV broadcasts.

“Why does the original link not match the name of the website?” I asked.

Sampson smiled. “You noticed. There’s more. When you Google either site, or use any other search engine, you get nothing. No results.”

I thought about that. “So it’s part of, what, the dark web?”

The dark web was a secret part of the Internet accessible only via encrypted software.

“Hold that thought too,” Sampson said, clicking on Reenactments. The screen jumped to a page of MPEG thumbnails.

He clicked on one titled “Delilah Goes Down.” A picture of Delilah Franks, the Richmond bank teller, came up, a photo I’d seen on the web page dedicated to her disappearance.

The image dissolved into a poorly lit, shakily shot video of a blonde being chased through the woods; it was taken from a camera mounted on her pursuer’s chest or head. You could hear footsteps that matched the jerking motion of the camera, which quickly got close enough to the woman to show the back
of her filthy, tattered dress and reveal that she was barefoot and bleeding.

She seemed to sense how close her pursuer was; she looked over her shoulder and screamed hysterically before jumping down the side of a steep embankment. She slipped, tumbled, and sprawled in the mud at the bottom.

“Don’t,” she wept, pushing herself up on all fours in the muck, shaking her head back and forth. “Please, not that. Haven’t I been through enough?”

The camera focused down on her, and a computer-altered voice said, “It’s never enough, Delilah. Once is never enough.”

CHAPTER
10

A KNIFE BLADE
appeared in the camera frame, obsidian black and curved tightly back toward an ornate knuckle guard and the fingers of the cameraman’s gloved right hand. The wicked-looking blade began a slow, sinewy dance in the air. The chest-mounted camera jiggled as it moved even closer to the shaking woman.

The woman looked up, saw the knife, shrieked in terror, and tried to scramble away. The camera swung crazily after her and blurred the action for several moments.

When it stilled, a gloved left hand had the hysterical woman by her blond hair, and the right hand held the knife so the curve of the blade’s cutting edge was poised just above the crown of her head.

“Do blondes have more fun, Delilah?” the computer-altered voice said.

Before she could respond, the screen froze on the image of the two hands, the knife, and the back of her blond head. Superimposed over the image, an icon of a lock appeared.

“Dark web,” Sampson said. “Encrypted. Completely out of our league.”

“Are all the videos like this?” I asked. “Blocked at the moment of crisis?”

“Yup,” Sampson said.

“Think he killed her?”

“That’s the point. You’ve got someone with a high-def GoPro camera mounted on a chest harness, wearing gloves, and carrying that knife. He turns loose the screaming woman, chases her down, and takes her right to the point of complete terror before the screen locks. You’re left hanging, wanting to see the ending.”

“And how do you do that?”

“I don’t know. There’s no promo offer anywhere on the site that I can see, but Fox found references to the site and comments about it on an open bulletin board for hackers and coders. They’re extensive, and disturbing.”

Sampson called up the hackers’ website, and it was quickly apparent there was a significant cheering section for Killingblondechicks4fun.

I want in to that site,
read one comment from Lone Star Blondes Must Die.
I can contribute. Help. Break some skulls, even.

Death to all blondes,
read a post by Brunette Lover.
Platinum damages the brain.

Scalp every one of them bitches,
read another by 1889B1.

There were, according to Sampson, more than two hundred posts on the hackers’ board in that vein from ninety unique posters, all callous, merciless, and hateful. Why? Because of a woman’s hair color? What the hell was that all about?

I said, “Any idea who built it? Owns it?”

“None,” Sampson said. “But don’t you know a cyberwizard at the FBI?”

“I know a cyber
witch
at the FBI,” I said. “I can call her if you—”

I heard the door at the top of the basement stairs open.

“Alex?” Bree called. “Are you down there?”

Sampson shut his laptop. I got up fast and called out, “Still with a client, hon. I’ll be up soon.”

“Oh God, I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you’d be done by now.”

The door shut and clicked. I didn’t like deceiving Bree, but I didn’t want to get John in trouble on his third day back on the job, and it felt so good to be on a case with him again.

“I’m sliding out of here,” Sampson whispered, getting up.

“It’s dark out, and I’ll turn off the outside light over the stairwell.”

“It’ll be like I was never here,” he said. He stopped at the door to gaze at me. “That felt good in there—you know, natural, me and you.”

I smiled. “It did feel good. It does.”

“You’re gonna beat this, Alex. We’ll get back to the routine again.”

“Natural you and natural me,” I said, and we bumped fists. Then I opened the door and the best friend I’ve ever had slipped off into the night.

Part Two
A KILLER’S SON
CHAPTER
11

THE NEXT AFTERNOON
, I stood in the stands inside the field house at the University of Maryland, watching Jannie, my sixteen-year-old, jog and loosen up on the track. I clapped as she came by. She gave me the thumbs-up and smiled, but I could see something troubled in her expression, as well as something that I’d never seen on her face before a race: the fear of the unknown.

That wasn’t good. I supposed it was understandable for the first race back after a long layoff due to an injury, but it wasn’t good. In the past Jannie had always gone to the starting line confident, loose, and ready for battle.

But she’d broken one of the two sesamoid bones in the ball of her right foot during a race, and it had healed excruciatingly slowly. The sesamoids act like the kneecap of the foot, only much smaller; they protect the major tendons and ligaments coming off the big toe. Without the sesamoids, the only way you can run is in burning pain.

Jannie’s coaches and doctors had cautioned her not to run
until it healed. That was like asking a cheetah to sit still, and it had depressed and frustrated her no end. But she’d endured and built her strength, and now the X-rays showed the sesamoid had solidly fused.

That was ten weeks ago. Since then her coaches had been taking her workouts up slowly, trying to get her in shape before—

“Alex?”

I turned to my right and saw a fit man in his fifties with graying hair coming at me in silver warm-up pants, a blue hoodie, and white Asics running shoes. A small pair of binoculars and a stopwatch dangled around his neck.

“Nice of you to come, Coach,” I said, shaking Ted McDonald’s hand.

“Couldn’t miss wonder girl’s return,” McDonald said. “How’s she looking?”

“A little stiff and a little scared, frankly,” I said.

The coach’s face fell. “That’s not good.”

“I know,” I said. “But let’s see how it plays out.”

“Only thing we can do. In the end, it’s up to her.”

McDonald was a private coach from Texas who’d started working with Jannie the year before the injury. At the time, he’d been talking about her track-and-field potential in Olympic-level terms. I wondered if that would be the case an hour from now, or ever again.

“This is a good test for her,” McDonald said, as if he could read my mind. “Good surface. Short track. And tight curves. No matter how Jannie runs, her sesamoid will be stressed.”

“How’s that a good thing?”

McDonald had always been straight with me, so I expected candor, and I got it.

“We’ll know quick if we’re beyond this setback,” the coach said. “And if we are, we can turn our attention to something other than the bottom of her foot.”

No wonder Jannie was feeling uncertain, I thought. No wonder she was afraid. This was like a verdict coming down.

I tried not to let my mind wander to my own upcoming trial, and I kept up an easy conversation with McDonald before the four-hundred-meter competitors were called to the line. Jannie stepped up in lane three of the stagger, as ready as she’d ever be for two laps around the indoor track.

She’d gained ten pounds of muscle since she’d last raced, but she was still built like a gazelle, with long springy legs and arms, and still fairly thin compared to the other, older competitors moving to their starting blocks.

McDonald pointed at the young lady in lane five. “That’s Claire Mason, Maryland high-school indoor record holder in this event. She just signed a national letter of intent to run at Stanford.”

“Our girl know that?”

“Nope,” McDonald said. “She’s just down there to work her plan.”

The starter called the runners to their marks. My stomach was doing flip-flops. In her last race, Jannie fell coming out of the blocks, which may have contributed to the fracture.

“Set,” the starter said, his pistol raised in the air.

Jannie coiled.

At the crack, she broke clean and I heaved a sigh of relief at the way she came out attacking, her legs churning, her torso fighting to get upright, and her arms pumping toward the first curve and the first real test of the injured bone.

She blazed through the tight turn with relative ease in no
evident pain and accelerated down the backstretch. The staggering of the runners began to evaporate as they came through the second turn, Jannie in fourth.

BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
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