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Authors: James Patterson

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BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
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“Why’s that?” Batra asked.

Rawlins gave his computer a command, and the video on
the center screen rewound to the beginning of the six-second splice. A second screen showed the remnants of the dark data. He pointed out a jagged line of data that almost connected top to bottom.

“That’s your digital splice,” Rawlins said. “A more adept coder would have hidden it better, sewn it up as clean as a plastic surgeon. There wouldn’t have been even a hint of a scar.”

“So this is basic sound-editing work?” I said.

Rawlins touched his Mohawk as if it were a high-fashion hairdo and said, “Three steps above butchery. And that’s all I can manage now. I have a lot to do before Goddess opens.”

I was puzzled.

“His favorite dance club,” Batra explained.

“Do you dance, Dr. Cross?” Rawlins said.

Before I could reply, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out, saw the number.

“My son’s school,” I said. “I have to take this.”


he was smarter than the average kid at Washington Latin but not brilliant, not a genius. The kids he considered supersmart were also the shyest and the most awkward. He decided within a month of starting at the charter school that brilliance was overrated. He’d take very bright, very hardworking, and very curious any day of the week.

Ali was the youngest kid in fifth grade at Latin by at least a year. With his attitude and sense of humor, he fit in with most of his older classmates. But, as his father always said, there were jerks in every crowd.

Ali met two of them shortly after the school bell rang to announce the end of classes. He had fifteen minutes before debate practice and decided to go sit outside. It was a nice sunny afternoon, not too cold.

Ali stopped on the front steps and looked toward the plaza, remembering the hooded men who’d grabbed Gretchen Lindel and shot Ms. Petracek. Rather than dwell on those violent
events, he sat up on the wall at the top of the stairs and started playing a game on his phone.

He was aware of knots of kids walking past him, and he caught snatches of their conversation. Suddenly, someone grabbed him by the collar, right below his chin, and pushed as if to shove him backward off the wall. Then whoever it was yanked him forward again.

Shocked, surprised, Ali felt his stomach go sick with adrenaline and fear before he’d fully realized what had happened. George Putnam, a burly sixth-grader, still held Ali so tight by the collar, he was having trouble getting his breath. The older boy laughed at his reaction.

“Saved your life,” Putnam said. “You little turd, Cross.”

“Let go!” Ali said. “You’re choking me!”

Putnam’s buddy Coulter Tate was taller and already fighting acne. Tate leaned over, got right in Ali’s face, and gave him a crazed, zitty look.

“How’s it feel to be a killer’s son, Cross?” Tate said. “How’s it feel to have murder in the genes?”

Putnam tightened his hold, making Ali’s eyes feel like they were swelling. There was no thought, no consideration on Ali’s part after that. He just pulled back his head and then slammed it forward. His forehead connected with Tate’s nose, and he heard a distinct crunching noise.

Tate screamed and stumbled back, holding his hand to his nose, which was gushing blood.

“He broke it!” He sobbed in disbelief. “He broke my nose!”

Putnam was still holding on, looking shocked as he stared at his bleeding buddy, and Ali punched him in the throat. Putnam let go of Ali’s collar and went down on the stairs, bug-eyed and coughing, his hands to his neck.

Ali was still in a fighting stance and trembling head to toe when Mrs. Dalton, the headmistress at Washington Latin, came running out of the school.

“My God, what’s happening?” she cried.

Ali didn’t reply or move. He kept his attention on the two sixth-graders, as if daring them to get up.

“He broke my nose, Mrs. D.!” Tate said, the blood dripping between his fingers. “And the little frickin’ insane-o hit George in the throat!”

“Ali?” Mrs. Dalton said. “Why did you—”

“I’m not talking until my dad’s here,” Ali said, trying to stay calm.

“You will tell me now, young man,” she said, sounding angry and full of authority. “Right now.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Dalton,” Ali said, feeling weak as he dropped his fists and turned to face her. “Please get my dad here, or a lawyer, and then I’ll tell you exactly what happened.”


as I crossed back into the district, and I wondered what Ali had gotten himself into that was so bad it deserved an immediate meeting. The headmistress wouldn’t tell me a thing.

Inching over the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, I decided to call Alden Lindel. He answered on the third ring.

“This is Alex Cross, Mr. Lindel. I’m happy to tell you that Gretchen did
die in that video. It was a fake.”

Her father made a noise partway between a cough and a cry.

“Oh, good!” He gasped. “Oh, thank God! Are you sure? How do you know?”

“Because a very talented FBI computer wizard said that the video’s audio was altered. The sounds weren’t real.”

“But it was Gretchen’s voice,” he said.“ I’d swear it.”

“I believe you, Mr. Lindel. But that wasn’t the sound of her dying. I wanted you to know. Please tell your wife.”

“Yes. Yes, right away.”

“I’ll be in touch if I hear more.”

“Well, I could still use someone to talk to, Dr. Cross,” he said. “Eliza, Gretchen’s mother, and I … we were separated before Gretchen was taken, and this has been even more of a strain. And my mother’s not well, and we’re thinking about endings.”

“I’m sorry to hear all that, Mr. Lindel. Give my office a call tomorrow. We’ll make an appointment.”

“Thank you, Dr. Cross.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, and I clicked the phone off.

Traffic was moving, finally. Fifteen minutes later I parked close to Washington Latin and hurried inside toward the waiting area outside the offices of the headmistress and the other school administrators.

From well down the hallway I could see Coulter Tate sitting on the right side of the waiting room. He held an ice pack to his face. A woman I took to be his mother had her arm around his shoulders and was whispering in his ear.

Two or three chairs away, George Putnam pressed a bag of ice to his throat. Sitting beside him was a man I figured was his father, a big dude with a wrestler’s build stuffed into a five-thousand-dollar suit. He was staring bullets across the room at Ali, who sat with his eyes closed.

“Dr. Cross?”

I looked behind me and spotted Mrs. Dalton hurrying over.

“Dr. Cross,” the headmistress said with an exasperated sigh. “Before we get to the fight, I must speak to you first about your son’s insubordinate behavior. A school like Latin—”

“Please, I’d like to speak to my son in private, right now.”

“Dr. Cross,” she said, raising her chin. “I don’t think you—”

“As far as I’m concerned, and with all due respect, I think Ali did the right thing by not talking, Mrs. Dalton. He’s a minor, but he has certain rights. Among those is his right to have a parent present during questioning.”

“That’s with the police,” she said. “I run a school, and I wish to be present when he first tells his side of things.”

“You really want to fight me on parental rights? Because you’ll waste a bunch of money on lawyers and you’ll lose.”

Mrs. Dalton was a smart woman used to getting her way, a woman who hated losing. I could see it in her eyes.

But she said, “Very well, Dr. Cross. You can use my office. Ten minutes. There are other parents and students to consider.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Dalton. I know you’re in a difficult situation, and I appreciate your handling it with such grace.”

She hesitated, but then tilted her head and gestured toward the waiting room. I walked in. When I did, Coulter Tate, the kid with the broken nose, shrank away, curled up, and whined fearfully.

“What’s gotten into you, honey?” his mother said, craning her head over her shoulder to look at me.

“He kills people, Mom,” Tate said. “He teaches his kid to kill too.”

“Shut up, Coulter,” Ali said, opening his eyes. “You are such an ass.”

“Language,” I said.

Ali looked relieved, got up, and hugged me. I looked at Mrs. Dalton and ignored the others. She led us down a hall to her office and closed the door after we went inside.

“You okay, bud?”

“My forehead hurts,” he said, and he hugged me again.

“Mrs. Dalton’s not happy,” I said. “So give me the truth, everything.”


door ten minutes later and found Mrs. Dalton standing there looking flustered.

“I was about to knock,” she said.

Or you were trying to listen in,
I thought, but I said, “Call in the others. They’ll want to hear Ali’s side of things.”


“Because those boys are lying to you. And Ali can prove it.”

Five minutes later, three kids and three parents were crammed into Mrs. Dalton’s office. None of us looked happy.

“Expect a suit for damages, bucko,” George Putnam’s father said, shaking a big finger at me. “I’m a lawyer.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. “I never would have guessed.”

“Let’s be respectful, shall we?” Mrs. Dalton said. “Hear Ali’s version?”

“He’s a liar,” George Putnam said in a hoarse voice.

Ali shook his head. “You dolt, Putnam, I haven’t said anything yet.”

I put my hand on Ali’s shoulder and squeezed.

“Stick to the facts,” I said. “No name-calling. Address Mrs. Dalton.”

Ali wasn’t happy, but he nodded and told Mrs. Dalton that Putnam had grabbed him while he sat on the wall and pushed him back, hard. If he’d let go, Ali would have dropped close to six feet to the concrete and probably would have been gravely injured.

“But I didn’t let go,” Putnam said. “I pulled you back. It was a joke. Saved your life. Jeez.”

Ali said, “He did pull me back, and he did say, ‘Saved your life.’ But then Coulter stuck his face in mine and started talking trash about my dad.”

“So you head-butted him?” Tate’s mom said bitterly. “You can’t do that. They were fooling around, but you took it as a chance to really hurt someone.”

“Like father, like son,” Tate said.

“It’s true,” Putnam’s father said. “Ali didn’t have to punch George in the throat. The game was over, and he suckered my boy.”

“George was still choking me after I head-butted Coulter,” Ali said, looking Mrs. Dalton right in the eye. “I feared for my life. I swung for his face, but I hit him in the throat.”

“Feared for your life?” Putnam rasped. “Are you kidding?”

“Did you have hold of my collar when I hit you, George?” Ali said. “All the other kids have gone home, but I know someone must have seen it. They’ll back me up eventually, so tell the truth now.”

Putnam opened his mouth angrily, painfully. He hesitated, swallowed hard, and said, “I might have been holding your collar, but I never choked you.”



Ali unbuttoned several buttons on his shirt and then spread the lapels. There were raised welts around his neck.

“Clear sign of attempted strangulation,” I said.

“What?” Putnam’s father cried. “That’s BS. You could have done that when you were in talking to him!”

Ali held out his phone, said, “I may be nine, but I’m not stupid. I took pictures in the bathroom an hour ago. A bunch, all time-stamped. So case closed. This was self-defense, or should we take you all to court and sue for batteries?”

I hid my smile and said, “That’s multiple counts of battery.”

“Oh,” Ali said, grinning. “Right.”

There was a long silence in the room. Finally Mrs. Dalton said, “George? Coulter? A five-day suspension.”

“Are you serious?” Coulter’s mother whined.

“No,” Putnam’s father said.

“Yes,” Mrs. Dalton said. “And if they’re ever involved with something like this again, they will be expelled from Washington Latin.”

“I’m writing the board of overseers about this,” Putnam’s father said. “Five days for them and nothing for the kid who did the damage? I don’t think so.”

“I didn’t say that,” Mrs. Dalton said, and she looked at me and then my son. “Ali, a three-day suspension.”

“What?” he cried. “It was self-defense.”

The headmistress was unmoved. “You signed a code of conduct when you enrolled in Washington Latin. That code says, among other things, ‘No fighting will be tolerated under any circumstances. None.’ Remember?”

“Yes, but—”

“No buts,” she said, looking at me. “He signed the contract. So did you, Dr. Cross, and your wife.”

“Yes, we did,” I said. “And we will abide by it.”


“Case closed,” I said.


, after a long jog with Jannie and an excellent shower, I went down to the kitchen with Nana Mama and poured a mug of coffee for Bree. She shuffled to the table, yawning and running on fumes. There’d been a gang fight the evening before, three dead on top of a homicide caseload that was already bulging with backlog. She hadn’t gotten home until two and now she had to turn around and go back in for a meeting with the chief at nine.

I put the coffee in front of her.

“Bless you, baby,” Bree said, smiling weakly. She sipped the coffee.

“I’ll be your barista anytime,” I said.

“So tell me about Ali.”

“Humph,” Nana Mama said, and she went back to stirring eggs for a scramble.

I took a seat across from my wife. “Well, he was like a little pro arguing his defense in there. Very logical. And it was his
idea to lay a trap for them by not mentioning the neck welts to Mrs. Dalton before then.”

“A regular Perry Mason,” Nana Mama said, and she didn’t mean it in a good way. “Fighting on the school steps. That would not have happened back when I was a vice principal. Never.”

BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
11.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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