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Authors: James Patterson

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BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
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“Be disciplined, now,” McDonald said, glancing at his stopwatch.

Jannie raced down the front stretch, picked off the girl in third, then passed the one in second. That left only Claire Mason in the lead with one lap to go.

“Damn it, Jannie,” McDonald said. “That’s not what we—”

My daughter thundered after the Maryland high-school champion, but Mason held her off through the third turn. From my daughter’s past performances, I figured that the second time down the backstretch would be Jannie’s surge, that she’d find some reserve no one had predicted and blow past the girl in the lead.

Instead, Mason pulled away from Jannie. The girl in third overtook Jannie in the fourth turn. Jannie was gritting her teeth, giving it everything she had. But forty meters from the finish, the girl in fourth passed her. The girl in fifth got by her two feet before the wire.

Jannie slowed to a stop, glanced around in bewilderment, then looked up at Coach McDonald and me.

She threw up her hands in despair and exploded into tears.

CHAPTER
12

I JOGGED ALONG
the reflecting pool between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials. The dawn was cool, almost crisp, and it felt good to be moving and breathing fresh air.

During my morning runs, I usually tried not to think about anything besides putting one foot in front of the other. But that day I couldn’t get my mind off Jannie.

Coach McDonald had told her before the race that she wasn’t there to attack the leaders and win; he wanted her to get a clean start, stay close to the leaders, and kick at the end. A training session and a test of her foot.

Instead, Jannie got full of herself and went after what she wanted instead of staying with McDonald’s program. It had caused a rift between them. The coach told me he was rethinking how much time he had to dedicate to her.

Nonetheless, her foot had held up. No pain. No discomfort.

I checked my watch and picked up the pace until I was nearly sprinting up the marble stairs toward the imposing
statue of the sixteenth and greatest president our country has ever known. I’d been inside the rotunda where the figure of Lincoln presided and read his quotes dozens of times, but they always gave me a chill.

I didn’t have a chance to glance at them today because a petite, intense, Indian American woman in a blue business suit and a trench coat stepped out from behind one of the columns. She carried a briefcase and a large Starbucks coffee cup, and she tilted her head, indicating we should leave.

“I should not even be here,” FBI special agent Henna Batra said in a low voice. “I should be talking to Sampson or your wife.”

“But you’re here,” I said as we climbed down the memorial steps. “Did you look at the website link I sent you?”

Batra did not reply, just cocked her head in a way that said I was a fool to have even asked.

Men and women far smarter than me will tell you that we are on the verge of the singularity, a moment in time beyond which all human brains will be able to access all possible information through the power of the Internet. As far as I was concerned, Batra was
already
at one with the Internet. Plugged in, she could reach across vast digital landscapes, unlock almost any door, and peek into some of the web’s dimmest hiding places.

She was also one of the smartest people I’d ever known. Before Batra had even graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she had eight high-paying job offers with the search-engine-and-social-networking crowd. Instead of accepting any of them, she’d joined the FBI and its growing cybercrimes unit. I’d met her during the course of the investigation that led to the murder charges pending against me.

That alone explained Batra’s reluctance to meet me in a public place. She was proud of being FBI, and she was a woman of great personal integrity who cared deeply about her reputation. But she’d come, which meant she thought it was worth the risk, which meant she had looked at Killingblondechicks4-fun.org.co.

“C’mon, Batra,” I said. “Any luck unlocking those videos?”

“Can a pickpocket pick?” Batra said, heading toward the Vietnam Memorial.

“What did you find?”

“Nothing,” she said. “The videos all end a second or two past the locking point. I suspect if a user has the correct passcode, the two extra seconds are revealed and a secret onion router message is sent to the webmaster. At that point, the webmaster would send back an onion router message with the complete encrypted film attached.”

“Hold up,” I said. “Most of that went right over my head. Start with onion.”

The cybercrimes specialist took a sip of her coffee and said an onion was a digital message or order that left a computer surrounded by layers and layers of encryption and code, almost like an onion. “When you send out an e-mail or look at a website,” she said, “you’re leaving digital tracks all over the so-called clear web. But when an onion message or order is sent, the surrounding codes direct it through dozens of routers on the deep, or unorganized, web. Each router peels away layers of encryption and metadata that would identify the original sender.

“Onions guarantee anonymity,” Batra said. “We can’t look at them. The NSA can’t even look at them. Why? Because we won’t even know they exist. Done right, they leave virtually zero trace.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, disappointed.

“I’m not kidding,” Batra said, her face clouding as we entered the Vietnam Memorial. “This is serious black-net stuff you’ve gotten yourself into, Cross. Almost everything having to do with that website was done through onions, so I have no idea who built it or who maintains it.”

“Can’t you hack it?”

“What’s to hack?” Batra said. “The website is anonymously built and self-sustaining. I can shut down whatever the hosting URL is, but I’d imagine there are dozens of mirroring sites with the content on them already.”

I thought about that. “You said
almost
everything having to do with the website was done through onion routers.”

Batra arched an eyebrow and said, “You’re smarter than you look, Cross.”

“One of my redeeming qualities. What was
not
done through an onion?”

“Those posts on the hackers’ bulletin board.
Those
I could track. And I did.”

“All of the posters?” I said, impressed.

“Just the high-volume ones so far,” Batra said.

“What do we know about them?”

“Creeps,” the FBI agent said, taking another sip of coffee.

I was getting chilled, so I untied the hoodie around my waist and put it on as she continued.

“On the clear net, they troll porn,” Batra said. “In the darknet areas where I can track them, they’re into lots of the sicker stuff. I wrote it all down.”

“Where are they?”

“You mean physical location? All over the world, though one of the regular creeps posting is definitely local.”

“How local?” I said, stopping.

“Right here,” she said, waving her coffee cup. “DC.”

“You have a name? Address?”

Batra studied me several beats, calculating what to tell me, no doubt, and then said, “Close enough.”

CHAPTER
13

LEAVING THE BROOKLAND-CUA
Metro stop later in the day, I knew damn well I shouldn’t have been walking up John McCormack Drive. I could hear Bree in my head saying I had no authority here and that my time would be better spent working on my defense for trial.

But I was back in the game, and who was going to tell Bree or anyone?

The creep?

Not a chance. The creep would want to avoid any contact with legitimate law enforcement. And I just might learn something useful about Gretchen Lindel and the other missing blondes, which would more than justify my actions as a concerned citizen.

With that firmly in mind, I went to the security guard at the main entrance to the Catholic University of America and asked how to find the alumni office. The guard gave me a map. I thanked him and started in that direction until I was around a corner and out of sight.

Then I made my way to Flather Hall, a brick-faced dormitory for male freshmen. Classes were over that Friday. Rap and heavy-metal music pulsed and dueled from inside open dorm rooms. I spotted a few underage drinkers and smelled hemp burning as I made my way to the second floor and down a long hallway that reeked of too many young men living on their own for the first time.

The door I sought, number 278, was ajar. I stood there, listening, hearing nothing, and then knocked. No response.

I pushed open the door, saw bunk beds to my right and a single twin bed across the room. Two white males in their late teens sat on a love seat between the single bed and me, wearing Beats headphones and holding video-game controllers. They were absorbed in a violent game playing on a screen on the wall, oblivious to my presence.

Beyond them, at a desk tucked in the corner, there was a third white male, small, scrawny, oily brown hair, lots of acne. Three computer screens dominated the small desk where he sat, and he had headphones on as well, engrossed in the screens.

I reached over and flicked the dorm room light off and on twice.

As if a hypnotist had snapped his fingers, all three of them came up out of their virtual trances and looked around groggily. The closest kid, a chubby towhead named Fred Vertze, spotted me first. His double chin retreated, and he tugged off his headphones.

“Who are you?” he said. “What are you doing in here?”

I waited until the other two removed their headphones before making a show of shutting the door behind me and locking it. They were alarmed when my cold attention swept over them.

“Who are you?”
Vertze demanded again.

“Who I am is irrelevant,” I said.

“Hell it is,” said Juan Cyr, the other young man who’d been playing the video game. Cyr was built like a fullback and stood up to show me he was no one to be trifled with.

Brian Stetson, the kid with the acne and the three computer screens, said, “Don’t do anything
el stupid-o,
Juan. I’m calling campus security.”

“Do that and I’ll have to tell campus security what I know about what goes on in this dorm room,” I said.

They glanced at one another uncertainly.

Vertze, who could have used a shower or two, said, “We don’t know what you’re talking about, man.”

“Okay, let’s cut right to it, then, before I alert the NSA, the FBI, and six other law enforcement agencies. Gentlemen, which one of you is Lone Star Blondes Must Die?”

CHAPTER
14

VERTZE’S EYELIDS DRIFTED
almost shut. Stetson frowned, as if he’d heard a foreign phrase spoken at a distance. Cyr acted like I’d punched him in the gut.

Then the burly teen’s expression shifted from shock to anger. He twisted his shoulders and hissed at Stetson, “I told you messing around with that kind of crap was mind poison.”

“Shut up, Juan,” Stetson said, studying me calmly. “Who
are
you?”

“The worst kind of poison, unless you come clean,” I said, feeling like I’d identified the leader of this crew. “How old are you, Brian?”

“Eighteen,” he said. “How do you know my name?”

“I know all your names. I know you get your kicks exploring the dark web. Pushing the boundaries. Looking into nasty places.”

“Free world,” Stetson said.

“Dogfights?” I said. “Explicit war clips? Hardcore S-and-M fantasy sites?”

“There some law against watching I don’t know about?” Stetson said.

“No, but there are several against abetting the kidnap and advocating the murder of five women.”

That seemed to rock the kid, who looked less certain as he said, “I know what that means,
abetting
, and no one in this room abetted anything.”

“Didn’t you post a comment on a bulletin board about the Killingblondechicks website? Quote: ‘I want in to that site. I can contribute. Help. Break some skulls, even.’”

He looked at me dumbly, then at his computer. “You hacked me?”

“FBI hacked you, Stetson. You screwed up. Forgot to use onion routers. Which means that I should go to the dean’s office and tell him what you’ve been up to, which means you most certainly will be expelled, which means your parents will be called, which means you’ll be escorted out of here in complete disgrace and humiliation.”

I let that sink in before saying, “Or you can talk to me.”

After several tense beats, Vertze said, “I’ll talk.”

“Fred,” Stetson said. “Don’t.”

“Brian, my old man will skin me alive if I get expelled,” Vertze said sharply.

“I’ll talk too,” Cyr said.

Stetson’s face flushed. He glared at me, caught in a fierce internal argument, and then finally said sullenly, “What do you want to know?”

Over the next twenty minutes or so, the story came out.

Stetson was a math and computer genius who should have gone to Caltech, but his father was a trustee and fervent supporter of Catholic University. His first night at the school,
Stetson had introduced Cyr and Vertze to the dark web. They’d found the Killingblondechicks website and started posting about it for fun.

“Fun?” I said.

“C’mon,” Stetson said. “No one thinks those videos are real.”

“Have you unlocked the videos?”

“You can’t. I tried. The locked world, the unknown, it’s just part of the fantasy of virtual reality, man, a place to safely experience and vent frustrations without consequences.”

I reappraised the eighteen-year-old, thinking that he was entirely too smart for his own good. “You boys experience frustration with blondes?”

“Hasn’t every guy on the face of the earth?” Vertze said.

Cyr and Stetson both started laughing. I had to admit it was a funny line, and I fought not to smile.

Finally, I said, “If I look around in your pasts, am I going to find a blonde one of you disliked so much that she ended up kidnapped? Or dead?”

Cyr said, “My first girlfriend was a blonde. Caught her messing around with my best friend’s older brother. They’re married now. Not kidnapped. Not dead. Just miserable.”

BOOK: The People vs. Alex Cross
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