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Authors: James Patterson

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BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
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“You okay, buddy?” Sampson said, folding his huge frame down beside Ali and putting an arm around the boy’s shoulders. It was mid-October, chilly with night falling, and he was shaking.

“My dad’s coming,” Ali said in a flat tone. “So is Bree.”

“Tell me what happened.”

Before he could, Detective Ainsley Fox said, “Detective Sampson? Could I have a word?”

She was standing at the bottom of the steps, frowning at him.

“Hang tight,” Sampson said. He patted Ali on the back, got up, and climbed down the steps to her.

In a low, scolding voice, Fox said, “You may have forgotten during your leave that we have rules against physical contact with minors.”

Sampson squinted at her. “The kid’s like my own, Fox.”

“But he’s not your own, and the rules are the rules. Shot in the head or not, you’ve got to play by them or suffer the same kind of consequences your old partner now faces.”

Sampson gritted his teeth, said, “Fox, there are five other kids to interview
by the rules
. They’re right over there.”

Fox hesitated, put off, but then lifted her chin and strode toward the cluster of other upset children. Sampson returned to Ali in time to see Alex Cross and Bree Stone running past the crime scene tape. Alex grabbed up Ali and hugged him fiercely. Ali hugged his dad back just as intensely and started to cry.

When they’d both calmed down, Sampson again asked Ali to describe what he’d seen.

Ali said it was dark out when he exited the charter school behind a group of his friends on the debate team. He was the youngest and shortest by far, so his view was blocked when the screaming started. Then they all started running in different directions. Ali didn’t follow them. He stood his ground and got out his cell phone.

“You called 911?” Bree asked.

“No, I videoed them.”

“You videoed them?” Sampson said, impressed.

“I wasn’t going to fight them,” Ali said, pulling out his phone and starting the video.

The footage was shaky at first, but then steadied, showing three men in dark coveralls and masks dragging a screaming blond teenage girl across the terrace in front of the charter school toward Second Street.

“That’s Gretchen Lindel, Dad,” Ali said. “She’s, like, a junior.”

On the screen, the kidnappers almost had Gretchen Lindel to the sidewalk. A woman came barreling into view from the left. She was spitting mad and went straight at the masked men.

“Ms. Petracek,” Ali said softly. “Our debate coach.”

On-screen, one of the men let Gretchen Lindel go, pivoted, and, with zero pause, shot Ms. Petracek in the face at point-blank range. Sampson pulled back at the coldness of it.

The courageous teacher of English and public speaking at Washington Latin died in a heartbeat. Her body fell hard. The gunman turned to Gretchen, who was being forcibly held between two parked cars.

Ali said, “Here’s the worst of it.”

Siren wailing, blue lights flashing, a Metro DC patrol car came screeching up in front of the kidnappers. The men yanked open the cruiser’s doors, threw Gretchen in the back, and jumped in themselves, and then the patrol car, tires squealing and siren still wailing, sped out of sight.

CHAPTER
6

SHORTLY AFTER SHE
took me in following the death of my mother down south, Nana Mama caught me sad and lazing around on her front porch, doing just about nothing.

I was ten. Nana asked me what I was doing, and I told her the truth.

“Breathing,” I said.

“Not hard enough,” Nana Mama said. “I know you don’t like it here, Alex, but give it time. You will. Between now and then, I want you busy. You up to nothing but breathing? You come see me. I’ll give you something to do.”

“What if I don’t feel like doing anything?”

My grandmother, eyebrows raised and hands on hips, said, “In my house, you don’t get that option. And you know what? When you’re all grown up and gone from here, you won’t get that option either, ’less you marry some rich girl or win the lottery.”

Ironically, almost four decades later, my grandmother, in her nineties, did win the lottery—the Powerball, in fact. She took
the single-payout option, paid a whopping tax bill, and immediately formed a foundation to promote literacy, aid the poor, and provide hot-breakfast programs at local churches.

She also made sure my kids could have whatever education they aspired to. Even then, Nana Mama had enough money left over that the entire Cross family could have sat on the front porch doing just about nothing until we were all pushing up daisies.

But that wouldn’t fly with my grandmother. She was all about having a purpose in life that bettered and benefited others. After months on suspension pending my murder trial, and even though I’d been helping Anita and Naomi with my defense, Nana Mama felt I needed to do more than figure out ways to keep myself out of jail. She was right. I’d caught myself “just breathing” too often for my own comfort.

I’d decided that if I couldn’t be a cop for the time being, I had to have a reason to get out of bed, a way to be useful to someone besides myself. So I returned to my first profession, psychological counseling.

I fixed up an office in the basement that had its own separate entrance, put up my framed master’s and doctorate diplomas from Johns Hopkins, and hung out my shingle after nearly two decades in law enforcement.

I called every social services agency in the metro area, offering my skills and asking for referrals. Luckily I’d gotten a handful, and then a few more, and my practice slowly built.

Two days after Ali witnessed a kidnapping and a murder at Washington Latin, I was down in my office and heard a soft knock at the outer door.

I glanced at my scheduling book:
Paul Fiore. First visit.
Right on time.

I went to the door and opened it, saying, “Welcome, Mr. Fio—”

The stocky man who stood before me was five ten, maybe two hundred pounds, with curly dark hair, brown eyes, olive skin, and a baby face. I couldn’t have guessed his age. But by his clothes, I certainly knew his calling.

“I’m sorry,
Father
Fiore,” I said. “Please, come in.”

CHAPTER
7

THE CATHOLIC PRIEST
looked chagrined as he came into my office. “I should have told you on the phone, Dr. Cross. I just didn’t know what you’d think.”

“I’d think I’d be glad to meet you,” I said, shutting the door behind him. “And how can I help?”

Father Fiore smiled, but it was strained.

“Please, Father,” I said, gesturing toward an overstuffed chair in my office.

“This
is
odd,” the priest said, sitting down and looking around.

“How so?”

“I’m usually the one hearing confessions.”

I smiled and took my chair. “If you don’t mind my asking, doesn’t the church provide counselors?”

“It does.” Father Fiore sighed. “But I’m afraid this is a delicate subject, Dr. Cross, one they frankly might not understand even in the enlightened age of His Eminence Pope Francis.”

“Fair enough,” I said, picking up a yellow legal pad. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

Fiore told me he got the calling to the priesthood when he was fourteen. He was ordained at twenty-two and worked in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. He made such an impression there that the church transferred him to Washington, DC, where he split his time between the parish of St. Anthony of Padua and the cardinal’s office, working to fund programs for the poor.

“My grandmother’s foundation makes grants to similar programs,” I said.

Fiore’s smile was genuine. “How do you think I got your name?”

I had to laugh. Leave it to Nana Mama to get me a priest for a client.

“She’s quite a lady, your grandmother,” Fiore said. “Won’t take no for an answer, and yet extraordinarily generous in spirit.”

“That describes her to a tee. But let’s get back to why you’re here.”

The priest’s face fell a bit as he continued his story. He explained that earlier in the year, he’d attended a fund-raiser with the cardinal at a hotel in Georgetown. He’d found a young woman named Penny Maxwell alone and weeping in a back hallway. He stopped to console her.

Mrs. Maxwell was a widow. It was the second anniversary of her husband’s death in Afghanistan, and try as she might, she couldn’t keep her emotions bottled up.

“She was suffering, grieving,” Fiore said. “So I did what a priest does. I listened and talked and prayed with her.”

After the party, he walked with her along the Georgetown
Canal and spent three hours listening to her describe the challenges of her life as the widow of a gifted army surgeon and the mother of two wonderful boys.

Fiore was amazed and inspired by how courageous Penny was, by how determined she was to raise her sons right, and by how much she wanted to honor her late husband’s memory in their lives. To his surprise, Fiore learned Penny went to St. Anthony’s for services from time to time.

“Penny started bringing the boys to Mass, and I got to know them,” he said. “We did things together, hikes, a trip to the beach, and it was like I experienced a dimension of life that I’d thought I understood, but didn’t.”

“And what dimension was that?” I asked.

“Love,” Fiore said, sitting forward, hanging his head, and rubbing his hands. “I didn’t just fall for her, Dr. Cross. Penny became my best friend, and I became hers. And those boys are just … every time I leave them, Dr. Cross, I feel as if my heart has a new hole in it.”

“Does Penny know how you feel?” I asked.

He nodded. “We both feel this way.”

“Have you slept together?”

“No,” he said firmly. “We both believe in the sanctity of marriage.”

“But the church does not believe in married priests,” I said.

He nodded miserably, said, “So what do I do, Dr. Cross? Leave the only calling I’ve ever had or leave the only woman I’ve ever loved?”

CHAPTER
8

AN ASHEN-FACED AND
distraught woman walked to a bank of microphones.

“Please,” Eliza Lindel said in a tremulous voice. “I beg you, from a mother’s broken heart, if you know anything about my daughter’s kidnapping, come forward, call the police or the FBI, and give me hope. Gretchen is a sweet, innocent young woman. Please help us find her before it’s too late.”

The feed cut away to a local station’s news desk and an anchor who began prattling on about the kidnapping.

In her office downtown, Bree hit the mute button on her remote. She didn’t want to hear the talking heads sum up the case. She knew the situation cold.

The critical first forty-eight hours of the investigation had elapsed with little progress. Part of that was due to the fact that the FBI had stepped in to take over the case because it was a kidnapping and Gretchen had likely been taken across state lines. Bree and DC Metro had been largely cut out at that
point, especially after the FBI reviewed the tape of the snatching and saw the police car. As far as she knew, there’d been no ransom note, no attempts by the kidnappers to contact anyone.

“Chief?” Sampson said, knocking at her door. “We’ve got something.”

Before Bree could reply, Detective Fox barged in front of Sampson and said, “I think we should be reporting this to the FBI. They’re the higher authority now.”

Bree’s expression hardened. Ainsley Fox had never met a regulation or rule she didn’t worship as gospel.

“Detective Fox,” Bree said. “Last time I looked, your badge said DCMP, and you report to me. Anything you have, I want to hear.”

“For Christ’s sake, Fox,” Sampson said when the detective hesitated. “I’ll tell her if you won’t.”

Sampson took a seat, opened a file, and began by noting that all DC Metro patrol cars carried GPS trackers that transmitted their locations to databanks. A check of those banks showed no Metro cruisers in the vicinity of Washington Latin at the time of the kidnapping and murder.

“But Ali Cross’s video clearly shows a patrol car with all the right markings and decals of a Metro rig,” Sampson said. “Someone detailed that car to perfection, even configured the sirens and blues exactly the way we do.”

“Where does that take us?” Bree asked. “To body shops? Places that rent stunt vehicles to the movies?”

Sampson glanced at his new partner and said in a grudging tone, “At some point, maybe, but Detective Fox
has
turned up a more promising lead.”

Fox almost smiled. She pushed back her lank hair, got out her laptop, typed something, then spun the screen around.
Bree saw a picture of a blond woman, late twenties or early thirties, earth-mama sort, no makeup but very attractive in a wholesome way. She was vaguely familiar.

“Cathy Dupris,” Fox said. “She disappeared from her home in small-town southern Pennsylvania ten weeks ago.”

Bree remembered, then said, “The neighbors claimed an ambulance came, and men dressed in EMT uniforms rushed into her house and took her out on a stretcher. But there was no record of a 911 call or a private ambulance request.”

“And no ransom note,” Fox said, nodding.

“What’s the connection?” Bree asked.

Fox called up another photograph of another pretty blonde, Delilah Franks, a bank teller in Richmond, Virginia, who’d vanished six months before.

Bree said, “Don’t they think the boyfriend’s responsible?”

“She was having an affair behind his back,” Fox said. “But maybe that’s just a coincidence. Maybe Delilah was taken for some other reason.”

“You think you know that reason?” Bree said.

“Show her the pair first,” Sampson said.

Fox typed a third time and showed Bree a split screen featuring school portraits of two teenage girls, both blond, both very cute.

“That’s seventeen-year-old Ginny Krauss on the left,” Fox said. “Alison Dane, sixteen, is on the right. Both girls disappeared nearly seven months ago from rural Hillsgrove, Pennsylvania.”

Bree frowned. “I haven’t heard anything about this.”

“Because the families and police up there have kept it mostly quiet,” Fox said. “The parents of both girls are devout Christians. They and the sheriff’s investigators believe the girls
ran away because of their parents’ extreme views about the evils of lesbianism.”

BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
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