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Hope to Die (UK)

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Hope to Die

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About the Book

About the Author

Also by James Patterson

Title Page


Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Part Two

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Part Three

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Part Four

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Part Five

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Chapter 91

Chapter 92

Chapter 93

Chapter 94

Chapter 95

Chapter 96

Chapter 97

Chapter 98

Chapter 99

Chapter 100

Chapter 101

Chapter 102

Sneak Preview


About the Book

Detective Alex Cross is being stalked by a psychotic genius, forced to play the deadliest game of his career. Cross's family – his loving wife Bree, the wise and lively Nana Mama, and his precious children – has been ripped away. Terrified and desperate, Cross must give this mad man what he wants if he has any chance of saving the most important people in his life. The stakes have never been higher: what will Cross sacrifice to save the ones he loves?

Widely praised by the greatest crime and thriller writers of our time, Cross My Heart set a jaw-dropping story in motion. Hope to Die propels Alex Cross's ; greatest challenge to its astonishing finish, proving why, as Jeffery Deaver says, “nobody does it better” than James Patterson.

About the Author

JAMES PATTERSON is one of the best-known and biggest-selling writers of all time. He is the author of some of the most popular series of the past decade – the Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club and Detective Michael Bennett novels – and he has written many other number one bestsellers including romance novels and stand-alone thrillers. He lives in Florida with his wife and son.

James is passionate about encouraging children to read. Inspired by his own son who was a reluctant reader, he also writes a range of books specifically for young readers. James is a founding partner of Booktrust’s Children’s Reading Fund in the UK. In 2010, he was voted Author of the Year at the Children’s Choice Book Awards in New York.

Also by James Patterson


1st to Die • 2nd Chance (with Andrew Gross) • 3rd Degree (with Andrew Gross) • 4th of July (with Maxine Paetro) • The 5th Horseman (with Maxine Paetro) • The 6th Target (with Maxine Paetro) • 7th Heaven (with Maxine Paetro) • 8th Confession (with Maxine Paetro) • 9th Judgement (with Maxine Paetro) • 10th Anniversary (with Maxine Paetro) • 11th Hour (with Maxine Paetro) • 12th of Never (with Maxine Paetro) • Unlucky 13 (with Maxine Paetro) • 14th Deadly Sin (with Maxine Paetro, to be published February 2015)


Step on a Crack (with Michael Ledwidge) • Run for Your Life (with Michael Ledwidge) • Worst Case (with Michael Ledwidge) • Tick Tock (with Michael Ledwidge) • I, Michael Bennett (with Michael Ledwidge) • Gone (with Michael Ledwidge) • Burn (with Michael Ledwidge)


Private (with Maxine Paetro) • Private London (with Mark Pearson) • Private Games (with Mark Sullivan) • Private: No. 1 Suspect (with Maxine Paetro) • Private Berlin (with Mark Sullivan) • Private Down Under (with Michael White) • Private L.A. (with Mark Sullivan) • Private India (with Ashwin Sanghi) • Private Vegas (with Maxine Paetro, to be published January 2015)


NYPD Red (with Marshall Karp) • NYPD Red 2 (with Marshall Karp)


Sail (with Howard Roughan) • Swimsuit (with Maxine Paetro) • Don’t Blink (with Howard Roughan) • Postcard Killers (with Liza Marklund) • Toys (with Neil McMahon) • Now You See Her (with Michael Ledwidge) • Kill Me If You Can (with Marshall Karp) • Guilty Wives (with David Ellis) • Zoo (with Michael Ledwidge) • Second Honeymoon (with Howard Roughan) • Mistress (with David Ellis) • Invisible (with David Ellis)


Torn Apart (with Hal and Cory Friedman) • The Murder of King Tut (with Martin Dugard)


Sundays at Tiffany’s (with Gabrielle Charbonnet) • The Christmas Wedding (with Richard DiLallo) • First Love (with Emily Raymond)



Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (with Chris Tebbetts) • Middle School: Get Me Out of Here! (with Chris Tebbetts) • Middle School: My Brother Is a Big, Fat Liar (with Lisa Papademetriou) • Middle School: How I Survived Bullies, Broccoli, and Snake Hill (with Chris Tebbetts) • Middle School: Ultimate Showdown (with Julia Bergen) • Middle School: Save Rafe! (with Chris Tebbetts)


I Funny (with Chris Grabenstein) • I Even Funnier (with Chris Grabenstein) • I Totally Funniest (with Chris Grabenstein, to be published January 2015)


Treasure Hunters (with Chris Grabenstein) • Treasure Hunters: Danger Down the Nile (with Chris Grabenstein)


House of Robots (with Chris Grabenstein, to be published December 2014)


The Dangerous Days of Daniel X (with Michael Ledwidge) • Watch the Skies (with Ned Rust) • Demons and Druids (with Adam Sadler) • Game Over (with Ned Rust) • Armageddon (with Chris Grabenstein)


Homeroom Diaries (with Lisa Papademetriou)


The Angel Experiment • School’s Out Forever • Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports • The Final Warning • Max • Fang • Angel • Nevermore • Forever (to be published January 2015)


Confessions of a Murder Suspect (with Maxine Paetro) • Confessions: The Private School Murders (with Maxine Paetro) • Confessions: The Paris Mysteries (with Maxine Paetro)


Witch & Wizard (with Gabrielle Charbonnet) • The Gift (with Ned Rust) • The Fire (with Jill Dembowski) • The Kiss (with Jill Dembowski) • The Lost (with Emily Raymond)


Daniel X: Alien Hunter (with Leopoldo Gout) • Maximum Ride: Manga Vols. 1–8 (with NaRae Lee)

For more information about James Patterson’s novels, visit

Or become a fan on Facebook

Why everyone loves James Patterson and Alex Cross

‘It’s no mystery why James Patterson is the world’s most popular thriller writer. Simply put: nobody does it better.’

Jeffery Deaver

‘No one gets this big without amazing natural storytelling talent – which is what Jim has, in spades. The Alex Cross series proves it.’

Lee Child

‘James Patterson is the gold standard by which all others are judged.’

Steve Berry

‘Alex Cross is one of the best-written heroes in American fiction.’

Lisa Scottoline

‘Twenty years after the first Alex Cross story, he has become one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time, a character for the ages.’

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

‘Alex Cross is a legend.’

Harlan Coben

‘Patterson boils a scene down to the single, telling detail, the element that defines a character or moves a plot along. It’s what fires off the movie projector in the reader’s mind.’

Michael Connelly

‘James Patterson is The Boss. End of.’

Ian Rankin

Have You Read Them All?


Alex Cross is working on the high-profile disappearance of two rich kids. But is he facing someone much more dangerous than a callous kidnapper?


Cross comes home to discover his niece Naomi is missing. And she’s not the only one. Finding the kidnapper won’t be easy, especially if he’s not working alone …


A pair of ice-cold killers are picking off Washington’s rich and famous. And they have the ultimate target within their sights.


An old enemy is back and wants revenge. Will Alex Cross escape unharmed, or will this be the final showdown?


Alex Cross faces his most fearsome opponent yet. He calls himself Death. And there are three other ‘Horsemen’ who compete in his twisted game.


After a series of fatal bank robberies, Cross must take the ultimate risk when faced with a criminal known as the Mastermind.


As Alex Cross edges ever closer to the awful truth about the Mastermind, he comes dangerously close to defeat.


Preparing to resign from the Washington police force, Alex Cross is looking forward to a peaceful life. But he can’t stay away for long …


There is a mysterious new mobster in organised crime. The FBI are stumped. Luckily for them, they now have Alex Cross on their team.


The stakes have never been higher as Cross pursues two old enemies in an explosive worldwide chase.


Hollywood’s A-list are being violently killed, one-by-one. Only Alex Cross can put together the clues of this twisted case.


Haunted by the murder of his wife thirteen years ago, Cross will stop at nothing to finally avenge her death.


Alex Cross is starting to settle down – until he encounters a maniac killer who likes an audience.


When an old friend becomes the latest victim of the Tiger, Cross journeys to Africa to stop a terrifying and dangerous warlord.

ALEX CROSS’S TRIAL (with Richard DiLallo)

In a family story recounted here by Alex Cross, his great-uncle Abraham faces persecution, murder and conspiracy in the era of the Ku Klux Klan.


Investigating the violent murder of his niece Caroline, Alex Cross discovers an unimaginable secret that could rock the entire world.


Alex Cross is planning his wedding to Bree, but his nemesis returns to exact revenge.


The President’s children have been kidnapped, and DC is hit by a terrorist attack. Cross must make a desperate decision that goes against everything he believes in.


Robbery, hostages, terrorism – will Alex Cross make it home in time for Christmas … alive?


With his personal life in turmoil, Alex Cross can’t afford to let his guard down. Especially with three blood-thirsty killers on the rampage.


When a dangerous enemy targets Cross and his family, Alex finds himself playing a whole new game of life and death.

For the courageous men and women of the

Palm Beach Police Department

Part One



WHEN MARCUS SUNDAY ARRIVED at Whodunit Books in Philadelphia around seven that evening, the manager told him not to expect much of a crowd. It was the Tuesday after Easter, lots of people were still away on vacation, and it was raining.

But Sunday and the manager were pleasantly surprised when twenty-five people showed up to hear him read and discuss his controversial true-crime book The Perfect Criminal.

The manager introduced him, saying, “Marcus Sunday, who has a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard, has hit bestseller lists around the country with this book, a fascinating look at two unsolved mass-murder cases explained by a truly original mind focused on the depths of the criminal soul.”

The crowd clapped, and Sunday, a tall, sturdy man who looked to be in his late thirties, stepped to the lectern wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, and a crisp white shirt.

“I appreciate you coming out on a rainy night,” he said. “And it’s a pleasure to be here at Whodunit Books.”

Then he talked about the killings.

Seven years earlier, two nights before Christmas, the five members of the Daley family of suburban Omaha had been slain in their home. Except for the wife, they were all found in their beds. Their throats had been cut with a scalpel or razor. The wife had died similarly, but in the bathroom, and naked. Either the doors had been unlocked, or the killer had had a key. There had been a snowstorm during the night, and any tracks were buried.

Fourteen months later, in the aftermath of a violent thunderstorm, the Monahan family of suburban Fort Worth was discovered in a similar state: A father and four children under the age of thirteen were found in their beds with their throats slit; the wife, also with her throat slit, was found naked on the bathroom floor. Once more, either the doors had been unlocked or the killer had had a key. Again, owing to the storm and the killer’s meticulous methods, the police found no usable evidence.

“I became interested because of that lack of evidence, that void,” Sunday informed his rapt audience.

Sunday said that the dearth of evidence had confused him at first. He talked to all the investigators working the case, but they were equally baffled. Then his academic training took over, and he began to theorize about the philosophical worldview of such a perfect killer.

“I came to the conclusion that he had to be an existentialist of some twisted sort,” he said. “Someone who thinks life is meaningless, absurd, without value. Someone who does not believe in God or laws or any other kind of moral or ethical basis to life.”

Sunday went on in this vein for some time, reading from the book and explaining how the evidence surrounding the murder scenes supported his controversial theories and led to others. The killer’s disbelief in concepts like good and evil, for example, “perfected” him as a criminal, made it impossible for him to feel guilty, which was what allowed him to commit such heinous acts with dispassionate precision.

A man raised his hand. “You sound like you admire the killer, sir.”

Sunday shook his head. “I tried to describe his worldview accurately and let readers draw their own conclusions.”

A woman with dirty-blond hair, more handsome than beautiful, raised her hand, revealing a sleeve tattoo that depicted a panther in a colorful jungle setting.

“I’ve read your book,” she said in a southern accent. “I liked it.”

“That’s a relief,” Sunday said.

Several people in the audience chuckled.

The woman smiled, said, “Can you talk a little about your theory of the perfect criminal’s opposite, the perfect detective?”

Sunday hesitated, and then said, “I speculated that the only way the perfect killer would ever get caught was by a detective who was his direct antithesis—someone who believed absolutely in God, someone who was emblematic of the moral, ethical universe and of a meaningful life. The problem is that the perfect detective does not exist, and cannot exist.”

“Why is that?” she asked.

“Because detectives are human, not monsters like the perfect killer,” he said, seeing some confusion in the audience.

Sunday smiled, said, “Let me put it this way. Can you imagine a real cold-blooded, calculating mass or serial murderer suddenly turning noble, doing the right thing, saving the day?”

Most of the audience shook their heads.

“Exactly,” he went on. “The perfect killer is who he is. An animal like that doesn’t change.”

Sunday paused for effect.

“But how hard is it to imagine a noble detective brought low by the horrors of his job? How hard is it to imagine him abandoning God? How hard is it to imagine him so beaten down by events that he finds life meaningless, valueless, and hopeless to the point that he becomes an existential monster and a perfect killer himself? That’s not hard at all to imagine, now, is it?”



AFTER SIGNING TWO DOZEN books, Sunday politely turned down the bookstore manager’s offer to take him to dinner, saying that he had a previous engagement with an old friend. The rain had stopped by the time he left the store and started down the sidewalk.

He crossed Twentieth Street and was walking past a Dunkin’ Donuts when the woman with the panther tattoo fell in step beside him and said, “That went well.”

“Always helps to have the mysterious Acadia Le Duc in the audience.”

Acadia laughed, put her arm through his, and asked, “Shall we get something to eat before we drive back to DC?”

“I want to see it leave first,” he replied.

“It’s fine,” she said in a reassuring tone. “I watched you seal it myself. We’re good for sixty—no, make that about fifty-eight hours now. Almost seventy hours, if we had to push it.”

“I know,” he said. “Just call me obsessive.”

“All right.” Acadia sighed. “And then we’re doing Thai food.”

“I promise,” Sunday said.

They went to a late-model Dodge Durango parked two blocks away, and Sunday drove through the city until they were abreast of the empty Eagles stadium on Darien Street. He turned left into the vast lot at Monti Wholesale Foods opposite the stadium and parked at the far end, up against the iron fence, where they could look beneath the Delaware Expressway and across into the South Philadelphia rail yard.

Sunday picked up a pair of binoculars and found what he was looking for about a hundred yards in: a line of freight cars, and one in particular, a forty-five-foot rust-red container, the top of which was fitted front to back with solar panels. A reefer—a refrigeration and heating unit—stuck out of the front of the container. He lowered the binoculars, checked his watch, and said, “It should be rolling out of here in another fifteen minutes.”

Bored, Acadia slouched in her seat, said, “So when is Mulch going to contact Cross?”

“Dr. Alex will get a message loud and clear on Friday morning,” he said. “It will be a week. He’ll be ready.”

“We have to be in St. Louis by five p.m. on Friday at the absolute latest,” she said.

Sunday felt irritated. Acadia was the smartest, most unpredictable woman he’d ever known. But she had an annoying habit of constantly reminding him about things of which he was well aware.

Before he could tell her just that, he caught a flash of movement in the rail yard. He raised the binoculars again and saw a young black guy dressed in dark clothing slinking along the freight cars. He was wearing gloves and carrying a small knapsack and a crowbar. He stopped and looked up at the solar panels.

“Shit,” Sunday said, watching the man.


“Looks like … shit!”

“What?” Acadia said again.

“Some asshole’s trying to break into our car,” he said.

“No way,” she said, sitting forward to peer into the shadows of the rail yard. “How would he—”

“He wouldn’t,” Sunday said. “It’s random, or he saw the solar panels.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Only thing we can do,” he replied.

Sixty seconds later, Sunday and Acadia were over the fence. They split up beneath the overpass and hurried in opposite directions, both keeping low behind an earthen berm that ran next to the nearest set of tracks. Sunday carried a tire iron and was seventy yards past the rust-red container car before he stopped. The rail yard was lit, not as well as it was to the north, but he’d be visible until he reached the shadows along the freight train.

He had no choice. Sunday clambered over the berm and angled out into the yard, dancing across the tracks, aware of Acadia doing the same to the north, trying not to make noise until he reached the shadows where he’d seen the black guy slinking. The container with the solar panels was six cars ahead. He stood there until he felt his phone buzz, alerting him to a text.

Sunday started forward quickly, keeping his steps light until he was alongside the rust-red car. Hearing metal scraping metal, the sound of the crowbar working that lock, he slowed to a creep and then stopped at the corner.

He waited until he felt his cell phone buzz again, and he gripped the tire iron like a hammer.

“Just what do you think you’re doing there, mister?” Acadia said.

She was on the opposite side of the train.

“Fuck, bitch” was all the thief got to say before Sunday sprang around and spotted him up on the turnbuckle, facing Acadia and menacing her with the crowbar.

Sunday’s tire iron smashed into the man’s knee. He grunted in pain, fell off on Acadia’s side. Sunday vaulted up and over the buckle and was on the man before he could do a thing to defend himself.

He aimed for the guy’s head this time and connected with a thud that put the thief out cold. The third blow was more considered and caved in his skull.

Breathing hard, Sunday looked at Acadia, whose eyes blazed and whose nostrils flared with the sexual excitement she always displayed after a killing.

“Marcus,” she said. “I’m suddenly—”

“Later,” he said firmly and pointed to the adjacent line of freight cars ten feet away. “Help me get him underneath that train. If we’re lucky, he won’t be found till morning. Maybe later.”

They grabbed the dead guy under the armpits, dragged him and pushed him over and in between the rails, and put him facedown beneath the line of railcars.

A sudden squealing noise startled them both.

The freight train, including the container car with the solar panels, was moving out, heading west.



“CARTER BILLINGS WAS AMAZING!” Ali yelled in the twilight. “His first at bat!”

My seven-year-old ran up the stairs ahead of us onto the front porch of our house and adopted a funny, exaggerated batting pose while holding the little souvenir bat I had bought him earlier in the day. He waved the bat and swung wildly.

He made a cracking noise and did a decent imitation of Billings’s hilarious and passionate run around the bases after the rookie got a pinch-hit, walk-off, grand-slam home run in his very first trip to the plate, winning the opening game for the Nationals.

I had gotten tickets to the game through an old friend, and we’d all seen that miraculous moment along with Ali—my wife, Bree; my older son, Damon; my daughter, Jannie; and my ninety-something grandmother, Nana Mama. As Ali wound down his victory run, we all clapped and crowded through the front door of our home on Fifth in Southeast Washington, DC.

It had been construction time at the Cross household the past few weeks; we were remodeling the kitchen and adding a great room and a new master bedroom suite upstairs. When we left for the game, the project was exactly as the construction crew had left it on Good Friday—exterior walls framed and up, windows in, and the roof on, an empty, dusty shell separated from the main house by plastic sheeting.

But when Nana Mama left the front hallway and looked deeper into our house, she stopped in her tracks and screamed, “Alex!”

I rushed forward, expecting some domestic catastrophe, but my grandmother was beaming with joy. She said, “How did you ever manage it?”

I looked over her shoulder and saw that the addition and the kitchen remodel were done—as in, completely done. The cabinets were up. The Italian tile floor was in. So was the fire-engine-red six-burner industrial stove and the matching fridge and the dishwasher. I could see, beyond the kitchen, that the great room had been filled with new furniture; it looked like some gauzy picture in the Pottery Barn catalog.

“How is this possible, Alex?” Bree asked.

I was as shocked as the rest of my family. It was as if a genie in a lamp had given us a hundred wishes, and they’d all come true. The kids ran through the kitchen and into the great room to test out the couches and the overstuffed chairs while Nana Mama and Bree admired the black granite countertops, stainless-steel sinks, and pewter light fixtures.

My attention, however, was drawn to a piece of legal-size paper that magnets held horizontally to the refrigerator door. At first, I figured it was a letter from our contractors saying they hoped we were pleased with the finished product.

But then I saw that the paper showed copies of five photographs laid side by side. The images were difficult to make out until I stepped right up and took them all in with one slow, horrifying scan.

In each picture there was a member of my family lying on a cement floor, head haloed with blood, blank face and eyes twisted dully toward the camera. Above each left ear and slightly back, there was a wound, an ugly one, the kind that only a close-range shot creates.

Somewhere in the distance, a siren began to wail.

“No!” I screamed.

But when I spun around to assure myself the pictures weren’t real, my children, my wife, and my grandmother were gone. Vanished into thin air. All that was left of them were those sickening photographs on the refrigerator.

I am alone, I thought.


Pain knifed through my head. Terrified that I was going to have a stroke or a heart attack, I sank to my knees, bowed my head, and raised my hands toward heaven.

“Why, Mulch?” I screamed. “Why?”



I JERKED AWAKE IN the predawn light, felt the dull pounding in my head again. At first I had no idea where I was, but gradually I came to recognize my bedroom in shadows. I was in bed, still dressed for work and soaked through with sweat. Instinctively, I reached over to feel for my wife’s sleeping form.

Bree wasn’t there, and in one gut-wrenching instant, I knew that I had woken once more into a reality worse than any nightmare.

My wife was gone. They were all gone.

And a madman named Thierry Mulch had them.

Determined not to succumb to his insanity, I rolled over in bed and pressed my face into my wife’s pillow, trying to find Bree’s smell. I needed it to keep me strong, to renew my faith and hope. I caught a trace of her but desperately wanted more. I got up, went to her closet, and, strange as it sounds, buried my face in her clothes.

For several minutes, Bree’s perfect scent intoxicated my brain so thoroughly that my headache was gone and she was right there with me, this beautiful, smart, laughing woman who danced just beyond the outstretched fingers of my memory. But the sensation of having her there with me ebbed away all too fast, and the smells in her closet changed, some threatening to go stale and others sour.

That petrified me.

Was it the same in the other bedrooms? Were their smells fading too?

Sickened and fearful at what I might find, I had to force myself to open Ali’s door. Holding my breath, I went quickly inside and shut the door behind me. I didn’t turn on the light, wanting to deaden one sense to heighten another.

When at last I inhaled, Alex Jr.’s little-boy smell was everywhere, and I could suddenly hear his voice and feel how good it was to hold my son, remember how he loved to nestle in my arms when he was tired.

I went to Jannie’s room next. The air there left me puzzled and then upset. I guess I had gone in longing for the smells of years gone past. But Jannie was finishing up her freshman year in high school and was already a track star. For a long while I stood there in her pitch-dark bedroom, overwhelmed by the understanding that my little girl had become a woman and then vanished along with everyone else in my family.

I stood outside Nana Mama’s room, and my hands shook when I reached for the doorknob and twisted it. Stepping in, closing the door behind me, I breathed in her lilac air. Surrounded by dozens of vivid memories, I felt claustrophobic and had to get out of there fast.

I went out and shut her door behind me, sure that I’d find better air up in my attic office, where I could think more clearly. But as I started to climb the stairs, it dawned on me that one devastating odor was already gone.

Damon, my seventeen-year-old, my firstborn, had been away at prep school in Massachusetts the past two months. The idea that I might never smell Damon again shattered whatever resolve I still possessed.

As I flashed on those photographs that haunted my dreams, wondering if they were enactments of things to come, my headache turned excruciating. Maddened, I charged up the stairs into my office and stuck my face right in front of a camera hidden between two books on homicide investigations.

“Why, Mulch?” I yelled. “What did I ever do to deserve this? What the hell do you want from me? Tell me! What the hell do you want from me?”

But there was no response, just that little lens staring back at me. I grabbed the lens, tore it free of the transmitter, and crushed it under my heel.

Fuck Mulch, or Elliot, or whatever he called himself. I didn’t care that I’d just showed him we knew about the bugs. Fuck him.

Panting, wiping the sweat off my forehead, I decided to destroy all the bugs in the house before their presence destroyed me.

Then a dog started barking across the street, and someone began to pound on my front door.



I OPENED MY DOOR to find a short, fit, and attractive brunette in her midthirties looking like she wanted to be anywhere but on my front porch as she held out her detective’s badge.

“Dr. Cross,” she said. “I’m Tess Aaliyah. I’m with Metro Homicide.”

“You are?” I asked, because I’d never met her before.

“Came on board last week from Baltimore PD Homicide, sir,” Detective Aaliyah replied. “While you were solving the massage-parlor murders and the baby kidnappings.”

For a moment I was puzzled, didn’t know what she was referring to, but then, like a window opening a crack, it came back to me. Even though those cases felt like they’d enveloped me a lifetime ago, not a week, I nodded, said, “No partner, Detective … uh …”

“Aaliyah,” she said, cocking her head to study me. “Chris Daniels is my partner, but he evidently shattered his ankle this morning lifting weights.”

I winced, nodded, said, “Daniels is a good guy.”

“Seems that way so far,” she agreed. She swallowed and looked at the porch boards.

“How can I help you, Detective?”

Aaliyah let out a short, sharp breath before looking me in the eye. “Sir, there was a body found down the street a few blocks, at a construction site. Female African American. She’s been badly mutilated, and I’m sorry, Dr. Cross, but your wife’s badge and ID are there as well. Is your wife here?”

I almost collapsed right there, but I grabbed the doorjamb and choked out, “She’s missing.”

“Missing?” the detective said. “Since …”

“Just take me there,” I said. “I need to see this for myself.”

It was a two-minute ride, which I spent in a near catatonic state. Aaliyah kept asking me questions, and I kept saying, “I need to see her.”

There were patrol cars ahead, and yellow tape, familiar things in my life, but I got no solace from them. I have entered murder scenes too many times to count, but I have never been as frightened of what I was about to see as I was that morning, walking next to Aaliyah, past a patrolman and through a gate in a chain-link fence that blocked off the construction site.

“She’s in the bottom, sir,” Aaliyah said.

I walked to the edge and looked down into the hole dug for the foundation.

Crushed stone and rebar filled the bottom of the excavation, ready for cement. A woman of Bree’s height, build, and hairstyle lay on her right side, her back to me. Streams of dried blood caked her skin from scores of oval wounds to her entire dorsal side. She was wearing the same bra and panties Bree had been wearing on Good Friday. And that was Bree’s watch.

I staggered a step closer to the edge, felt bolts of lightning go off in my head, and thought for certain I was going to fall in there with her. But Detective Aaliyah grabbed hold of my elbow.

“Is it her, Dr. Cross?” she asked. “Bree Stone?”

I stared at her dumbly, then said, “I have to go down.”

We went to a ladder, and how I climbed down it, I’ll never know. Every step broke my heart. Every handhold was my last.

I stepped through the crisscrossed rebar and around the front, seeing that the earrings were definitely the same ones I’d given Bree on our anniversary.

An alien moan came up out of my gut.

Taking another step, I saw that her face had been beaten beyond recognition, and that the wounding pattern had continued down the front of her body, as if someone had used garden clippers to snip off ovals of her skin every five or ten inches of her entire body, right out to the engagement ring I’d given her and her wedding band, right out to bloody stumps where the tips of her fingers should have been. Her mouth was open, and her teeth were missing.

“Oh, dear Jesus,” I whispered in shock, sinking to my knees in front of her. “What has that sick bastard Mulch done to you?”



“IS IT YOUR WIFE, DR. CROSS?” Detective Aaliyah asked.

I stared at the desecrated body lying there before me, saw the hair, the skin color, the height, the weight, the jewelry, and said, “I don’t know. I think so, but I don’t know for certain. She’s … she’s unrecognizable like this.”

“Where were you last night?” she asked.

Scanning the body for something, anything, that said definitively whether it was Bree or not, I replied, “I was home, Detective, watching reruns of The Walking Dead.”


“The television show about the zombie apocalypse,” I said. “My boy Ali loves it.”

“And he was there with you?”

I shook my head again, felt tears trickle from my eyes, and said, “He’s gone too. They’re all gone. My entire family. Haven’t they told you? John Sampson? Captain Quintus? The FBI?”

“FBI?” she said. “No, I caught this on my way to work, but why don’t we get out of here, let forensics do their job, and you tell me what I need to know.”

I knelt there for several more moments, staring at the body and seeing images of my life with Bree playing in the air, making it all surreal and soul killing.

“Dr. Cross?”

I nodded, got wobblingly to my feet, and managed to climb back up the ladder without incident. We went to her unmarked car and got in.

“Let’s hear it,” she said in a calm, professional manner.

Over the next thirty-five minutes, I laid out the insanity of the past few weeks for her, trying not to leave out any important details.

“I first learned of Thierry Mulch when he started sending me strange, taunting letters about the massage-parlor murders, calling me an idiot and proposing theories about those killings that, I admit, proved invaluable in ultimately catching the man responsible. Then a man named Thierry Mulch who claimed to be a website entrepreneur went to my son Ali’s school and gave a talk there.

“I did a Google search on the name. It turned out there were only seven Thierry Mulches that I could find on the web. And one of them was an Internet entrepreneur. Because I was chest-deep in the investigation of the mass killings at the massage parlor, I didn’t give the coincidence much thought beyond that.

“But it turned out Mulch had been giving me and my family a lot of thought,” I told the detective. “He bugged our house with audio and video. I think he used them to learn our habits and routines, because in a matter of hours last Friday, Good Friday, he managed to kidnap them all, including my son Damon, who goes to school up in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.”

“How come I haven’t heard a word of this?” she asked. “And how do you know Mulch took them?”

“Give me a chance to explain.”

Aaliyah nodded, and I told her how Mulch used my daughter’s cell phone the night of Good Friday to send me pictures of my family, tied up, duct tape across their mouths. He also sent texts threatening to kill them all if I got the police or FBI involved. Late the next afternoon, John Sampson, my best friend and partner at Metro, came to my door, concerned that I hadn’t reported to work or at least called in to explain why I was out.

“I got John to leave and did not tell him a thing, but Mulch didn’t care,” I said, digging in my pocket for my phone. “I began getting these pictures every hour on the hour.”

I handed her the phone, told her to call up Photos. She did, and I saw the horror on her face as she looked at the pictures on the tiny screen showing each and every member of my family dead of a gunshot wound to the head.

“Are they real?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “But I didn’t know that then.”

I told Aaliyah how I disintegrated after seeing the pictures. I walked the streets of Washington like a zombie, praying someone would blow my head off. In the end, I went into a meth house with a wad of cash and told the addicts I wanted to die, that I’d pay them to kill me. Someone obligingly tried, hitting me with a piece of metal pipe.

A girl who once lived with us, a recovering addict named Ava, found me and brought me home. I told Ava about the pictures just before I passed out from the concussion I’d sustained.

“Ava is very bright, and excellent with computers,” I said. “While I slept, she transferred the pictures to a laptop and blew them up enough to see they were doctored.”

Ava took that information to Sampson and to Ned Mahoney, my former partner in the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI. Ava convinced them that my family was not dead.

Sampson and Mahoney found a way to sneak into my house without being detected by Mulch’s bugs. It turned out that there’d been a rape in Alexandria, Virginia, committed by a man who called himself Thierry Mulch. DNA evidence gathered at that crime scene had been matched to the DNA of a brilliant but erratic computer engineering student at George Mason University who’d disappeared about two weeks before.

“His name was Preston Elliot, and given the sophistication of the electronics Mulch put in my house, we believed and still believe that Elliot and Mulch are one and the same. We left the bugs in my house and decided that I would continue acting as if I thought everyone in my family was dead in order to convince Mulch/Elliot that I was completely devastated—a victim, and no threat.

“We also decided to keep everything about the hunt for my family quiet,” I said. “Days went by, and now a week. And we hadn’t heard a thing from him. Until this.”

Expressionless, Detective Aaliyah mulled over everything I had told her for several minutes. Finally she said, “You think Mulch, uh, Elliot is responsible for your … for the Jane Doe’s death?”

“He is responsible,” I said. “There’s no question.”

Aaliyah thought for several beats, and then asked, “What does he gain from doing all this to you and your family?”

“I’ve stopped asking,” I replied. “But whatever sicko obsessive reason he’s got for targeting me, on my end, it feels like torture, like he’s trying to drive me to the brink again and again, hoping that sooner or later I’ll jump off.”

She cocked her head and asked, “Will you?”

“If that is Bree in that hole, honestly, I don’t know.”



ON THE WHOLE, MARCUS SUNDAY was pleased with the way things were proceeding. There’d been a few deviations from the original plan, but he still felt right on target.

Sunday was riding in the front passenger seat of the Durango, raptly focused on the screen of a laptop computer and the video feed transmitting from a tiny camera, hidden weeks before, high up in a tree that overlooked the construction site.

He’d seen it all, how Cross fell to his knees in front of the body and stayed there for a very long time, looking crushed.

“The end is near,” he said to Acadia, who was in the backseat. “Did you see the way he was begging right into the camera in his office before the cop banged on his door? Begging’s a classic indicator. Isn’t it, Mitch?”

The driver, a hulk of a man in jeans, hiking boots, and a Boston Red Sox jersey, nodded, said, “It is, Marcus.”

Acadia wasn’t buying it. “How would you know?”

Mitch Cochran had no neck to speak of. His massive head seemed to her like an extension of his shoulders as he glanced back and said, “Before I said fuck it all, I was in Iraq. U.S. fucking Army. Guarded Abu Ghraib prison. I saw interrogations. It’s like Marcus said, they beg before they crack. All of them.”

Acadia remained unhappy. “But how long can we wait for that to happen?”

“It won’t be long now,” Sunday assured her. “Mulch has killed Cross’s wife, and the rest of his family remains under mortal threat.”

“How long?” she demanded.

Sunday grew irritated, growled, “You can’t put a firm timetable on a project of this magnitude, Acadia. Haven’t I told you again and again that the construction of a monster begins with the destruction of a man?”

“You’ve said a lot of things,” Acadia shot back. “Like that Cross would crumble the night we sent those pictures.”

“Cross was in pieces,” he snapped. “He still is and it’s growing worse. Didn’t you just see that with your own eyes? He’s disintegrating.”

Acadia was silent for several long moments before saying, “More I think about it, sending those photographs was a mistake.”

“A mistake?” Sunday replied, clearly annoyed.

Acadia said, “You went for the short-term shock value of having Cross see his entire family murdered with gunshot wounds to the head. But you were also giving away leverage. You did the same thing by dumping her there. A dead person can’t be helped, Marcus. A dead person can’t be saved. There’s less motivation now for him to become the perfect killer you want him to be.”

“Your understanding of the animal condition is shallow at times, Acadia,” Sunday sniffed. “This is all timing.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said, crossing her arms.

“Ever watch a dog trainer at work?” he asked. “I mean a real trainer, someone who teaches hunting or attack dogs?”

“My shithead of a daddy ran coonhounds.”

“Then you know what the predator-prey response is?”

“I can guess,” she said. “Critter runs in the woods, a dog chases it. Tries to kill it. It’s in its nature.”

“There you go,” Sunday said, snapping his fingers at her. “And the way trainers build that predator-prey response is by taking something away from the dog, something that the dog values highly, like a bone or a toy. They let Bowser go for days thinking his favorite bone or toy is gone for good. Then they show it to him attached to a rope. When that dog goes to chase his toy, the trainer jerks it just out of reach—all the time, just out of reach. Isn’t that right, Mitch?”

Cochran downshifted and slowed, saying, “The dog goes fucking crazy, doing anything in his power to have that toy again. That’s when the trainer steps in and takes total control of the situation, uses the toy as a reward for a job well done.”

He glanced at Acadia. “And how do I know that? We had fucking dogs at Abu Ghraib. Lots of ’em.”

Cochran took a right turn onto a muddy road a few miles south of Frostburg, in rural northwestern Maryland. They passed a ramshackle farm, and Sunday heard the echoes of pigs squealing in his mind. The road wound up into an oak forest clad in new lime-green leaves.

A mile into the woods, Sunday started looking at the trees closely, and then he said, “That’s it. Those birches on the right. Park over there.”



COCHRAN PULLED THE DURANGO almost to the drainage ditch next to three birches that grew close together, almost as if they were shoots of the same tree.

“We’ve got ten minutes still,” Sunday said, and he turned his attention to the laptop again. But Cross was nowhere to be seen around the construction site.

“You can’t go in early?” Acadia asked, sounding irked. “I told you seventy-two hours is the limit of how far we can push things. That window’s closing fast.”

Sunday checked his watch. “We’re at sixty-seven hours. We’ll make it.”

“I gotta go number two,” Cochran said.

“What are you, in kindergarten?” Acadia snapped.

“Maybe that’s my problem, I’m too fucking childlike.” Cochran laughed, got out of the car, and walked off.

Sunday looked off through the windshield in silence, and then said, “That farm we passed brought back memories. Mulch grew up in a hellhole like that.”

“The fabled origins?” Acadia asked.

“Whence Mulch sprang. And where Mulch died.”

“Ever been back?”

“Not even close,” Sunday said, checking his watch. “I think I’m good to go now.”

“Sure you don’t want one of us along?” Acadia asked.

Sunday shook his head and said, “It took me a long time to find this guy and gain his trust. I don’t want to spook him in any way, especially not now, when he’s proven so resourceful.”

“Don’t forget the honey,” Acadia said, and she handed Sunday a small gym bag with a Nike swoosh on it.

“I’m not back in fifteen, you and Cochran come looking, but slow, right?”



Sunday got out, smelling the rot of spring everywhere around him. It had started to sprinkle. He decided he liked the light rain. Hitting the new leaves on the trees, it would soften all other sound and give him a chance to check out the scene before he fully committed.

Sunday slid down the bank, then found and followed an overgrown logging trail, mindful to keep the bag raised so the brambles and thorns would not tear it. Soon he smelled wood smoke and slowed to a creep. He approached a ledge that overlooked a clearing and, beyond it, a swollen creek.

To his right and below, hard by the creek bank, there was a plywood-and-tarpaper shack. Smoke curled from a stovepipe that jutted from the roof. An old blue Chevy pickup with a capper sat between the shack and a barn of sorts.

Sunday noticed the sheet across the window that faced in his direction was fluttering, and he knew he’d been spotted. So he held up the bag and climbed over the ledge and down into the yard. A door creaked open. A big male Rottweiler came bounding out toward him.

Sunday stopped and stayed perfectly still, his eyes watching the dark space beyond the door as the dog growled low and circled him, taking his wind. When the dog barked, the door opened wider, and Sunday crossed to the shack. He climbed the stoop, passing a chain saw and a gas can, and went inside.

“That necessary every time?” Sunday asked the muscular bald guy crossing the dim space to a crude kitchen. His name was Claude Harrow.

“Every time,” Harrow replied. “Puts a man’s mind at ease, ’specially now that you and I done crossed a dark line together.”

The dog came in behind him. Sunday shut the door and stood there until his eyes adjusted and he could make out the Formica table, lawn chairs, busted couch, and woodstove in the corner. The walls were bare except for a large Confederate flag and a framed eight-by-ten photograph of Adolf Hitler in full salute. The dog went to the stove and lay down by the stove, head up, watching Sunday.

“Looked like it all went according to plan,” Sunday said, smelling bleach and seeing a washtub close to him on the floor. Two butcher knives and a pair of tin snips were soaking in three inches of chlorine and water.

“Well, what’d you expect? Amateur hour?” Harrow replied, and he turned to him, revealing a thin, nasty scar on his right cheek and a tattoo of a flaming sword on the side of his neck.

Sunday noticed a mirror on the table and saw the traces of white lines on it. He frowned. “Thought we agreed no tweaking during the game.”

“We said during, not after,” Harrow replied. “Don’t worry. It’s just a pick-me-up. I been up all night and had the jitters by the time I got back here.”

Sunday debated whether to press the point, decided not to, and held out the gym bag, saying, “Balance on the first is there, plus a down payment on number two.”

Harrow motioned for him to put it on the table, asked, “How soon?”

“Tonight. The older boy.”

Sunday could tell Harrow didn’t like that.

“That kind of short notice and tight turnaround is gonna cost you,” Harrow said.

“How much?”

“To pull it off clean like that? Hundred K more on the back end.”

Sunday didn’t like renegotiations. “Quite a jump in pay.”

“Hell of a risk I’m taking. Cops involved, right?”

“I think you’d do it even if I weren’t paying you a small fortune,” Sunday said, setting the bag down.

“I might,” Harrow agreed, smiling for the first time. “Cops aside, I do enjoy and appreciate the cleaning work.”

“You’ll let me know when it’s done?”

“Man’s gotta get paid, don’t he? You want coffee?”

“Sorry, I have to catch a plane, be in St. Louis by five, no ifs, ands, or buts,” Sunday said, heading toward the door.

“And if you aren’t?”

“Bad stuff happens.”



JOHN SAMPSON ARRIVED AS I watched the body bag being brought up out of the hole.

Built like a power forward in the NBA, he looked as weak as a kitten when he came to me with tears welling in his eyes. John and I have been brothers in all but genetics since we were ten years old. When the big man threw his arms around me, it was everything I could do not to dissolve right then and there.

“Jesus Christ, Alex,” Sampson said hoarsely. “I came as soon as I heard. Is it true? Is it—”

“I think so, but I don’t know for certain, and I won’t until tomorrow at least—and that may be the worst part,” I said in a dull voice as they put the body bag on a stretcher and wheeled it over to the medical examiner’s van.

I kept trying to think of the body in the bag as being someone other than Bree. But Mulch, he—

“You want me to take you home?” Sampson asked.

“No,” I said. “Home’s not a good place for me. Mulch watches me there, enjoys my suffering, and I won’t contribute to his enjoyment anymore. I just need to go for a walk and get my head straight.”

“Want company?” he asked.

“I’ll see you later at work.”

“Sugar, you can’t work when something like—”

“John, I have to work when something like this is going on,” I said firmly. “It’s the only way I’ll stay sane.”

Sampson looked like he wanted to tell me something, but Detective Aaliyah came over, said, “Dr. Cross, I have—”

“John, this is Tess Aaliyah,” I said. “She’s new, from Baltimore, and she caught this case and needs to be brought up to speed on what the secret task force has found out about Mulch.”

“Secret task force?” Aaliyah said.

“Exactly,” I said, and walked off, trying to convince myself that that wasn’t my wife’s body in the back of that coroner’s wagon.

But grief and loss have a way of crippling the best intentions even in the strongest of minds.

Within a block of leaving the crime scene I was lost in memories of my first days with Bree, how she’d rescued me from a long loneliness with an unshakable love, the kind I’d thought I’d lost forever. Then the likelihood that she was gone hit me like a freight train and I began to choke and sob right there on the sidewalk.

Every woman I’d ever loved had ended up dead or so traumatized by the violence woven through my life that she couldn’t bear the sight of me. My first wife, Maria, died in a drive-by shooting when Damon was a toddler and Jannie was just a baby. A madman took Ali’s mother hostage, and even though we managed to rescue her, it permanently fractured our relationship. And now Bree, the absolute love of my life, might have been swallowed up by the darkness that had shadowed me without pause almost since the moment I became a police officer.

What about my kids? What about my grandmother? Were they completely doomed to follow my loves into the shadows and the darkness? And what about me?

Was I already there? I asked myself as I walked on, wiping tears from my eyes. Had I ever left? Could I ever leave?

On autopilot, I took a route I’d taken a thousand times with my children. Every morning, or as often as was possible, I’d walked them to their school, Sojourner Truth. I did it for years, and as I retraced those steps, I was soon drowning in memories of Damon, Jannie, and Ali as each headed to the first day of first grade.

Damon had gone willingly, eagerly. It was all he and his friends had talked about. But Jannie and Alex Jr. had been nervous.

“What if I get a bad teacher?” Jannie asked.

Ali had asked the same thing, and in my mind, suddenly Jannie and Ali were right there, together, both six, and both looking at me for a response. I squatted down to them and pulled them in close to me, rejoicing in their smell and their innocence.

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you,” I said. “And I love you. That’s all you need to know.”

“Love you more,” Jannie said.

“Love you more,” Ali said.

“Love you more and more,” I whispered. “Love you—”

A woman said, “Dr. Cross?”



STARTLED OUT OF THAT perfect vision of my life before Thierry Mulch, I was shocked to find myself at the fence around the Sojourner Truth playground. It was deserted. I thought I heard the school bell sound for recess. But where was the laughter of my children?

“Dr. Cross?”

Blinking, I turned my head to see a tall, pretty African American woman in a blue pantsuit standing beside me on the sidewalk, her face painted in concern.

“Yes,” I said, almost recognizing her, feeling irritated and not quite knowing why.

She looked at me closely, said, “You don’t look well.”

“I’m just … where are the kids? The bell rang. It’s recess time.”

“It’s Easter vacation,” she said.

I looked at her like she was a stranger in a dream.

“Dr. Cross,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”

I did suddenly and felt myself grow irrationally angry. “You’re Dawson. The principal. You’re the one who let Mulch in. Where have you been? We’ve been trying to find you.”

My expression and tone must have frightened her, because she took a step back. “I’m sorry. I was on vacation, I don’t—”

“Thierry Mulch,” I shouted. “You let that sick fuck into Ali’s school. You let him near all those children!”

“What?” she said, her hand going to her lips. “What’s he done?”

“He kidnapped my family,” I said. “He may have killed my wife. He may be getting ready to kill Ali.”

The principal was horrified. “My God, no!”

I saw how strongly she reacted, and it shook me out of the fugue state where I’d been wandering.

“We left messages for you all week here at the school,” I said. “The FBI. The police.”

“I’m so sorry,” Dawson said, her voice quivering. “I was in Jamaica, visiting my cousins, and I only just got back. I was going to my office to get ready for next week when I saw you standing here. How can I help? Anything.”

“Tell me about Thierry Mulch. Everything you know.”

Dawson said that Mulch had contacted her out of the blue, first by e-mail, and then by phone. He said he was a web entrepreneur who had had several successful ventures but was looking for a different demographic and a bigger audience. His idea was to create a social-media platform for the six- to twelve-year-old crowd that could be accessed only by verified members of that crowd.

“To keep out the perverts?”

“That’s right.”

“Not a bad business concept.”

“That’s what I thought. So when he asked to come speak to the kids, I saw it as an opportunity. And he checked out completely. I mean, his company has a legitimate website. Here, come into my office, I’ll show you.”

We went to the front doors of the school. She opened them and we went inside, turning on lights. The odors in the hallway were so familiar and so intertwined with memories of my children that I stopped breathing through my nose.

In her office, Dawson got on her desktop computer, typed, and then frowned before typing again. With a sinking expression, she said, “Either I’ve got it wrong or the website’s gone offline.”

The principal started rummaging in her desk, said, “But I’ve got his business card here some—here it is!”

“Don’t touch it!” I yelled, coming around the desk quickly as she shrank back. “I’m sorry. It’s just that we’ll want to fingerprint it.”

In a thin voice, she said, “He wore thin white gloves.”

“Of course he did,” I said, wanting to punch a wall. “But just the same. Do you have a plastic sandwich bag?”

“Will an envelope do?”


She got me an envelope and I used a pair of tweezers to pluck the business card from the drawer and place it on her desk.

“I’ve got a photocopy of his driver’s license too,” she said.

“We’ve already got one of those, but thanks,” I replied, studying the card and then taking a picture of it with my smartphone.

Thierry Mulch, President, TMI Entertainment, Beverly Hills. It gave a phone number in the 213 area code and an address on Wilshire Boulevard. It also had a web address——and an e-mail address,

I was about to drop the card into the envelope and take it with me downtown for processing when something about the URL and the e-mail pinged deep in my recent memory.

“Try on your computer.”

Principal Dawson frowned, typed the URL in, and struck Return. The screen blinked, and up came the home page of TMI Enterprises, a multimedia and social-networking company.

“This is it,” she said. “This is his website.”

“Click on ‘Corporate Officers.’”

She did and the screen jumped to another page that featured pictures and short bios of the people running the company. At the top of the heap was someone I’d seen when I’d visited the website two weeks before: a blond surfer-type guy in his late twenties wearing thick black glasses and a black hoodie.

“That’s not the picture of Mulch I saw on the other version of the website,” Dawson said. “I saw the guy who came here, red hair, red beard, everything.”

“Will the real Thierry Mulch please stand up?” I said, and I felt the throbbing in my head start up all over again.



MY HEAD WAS STILL pounding when I reached the sealed-off construction area on the third floor of Metro headquarters. Men in hard hats and respirator masks were using sledgehammers to bust down drywall. The air was full of gypsum dust as I went to the plastic sheeting that sealed off the destructing from the already destructed.

I started to cough and that only made the pain in my head worse. A part of me wanted to shut down then, to curl up in a fetal position right there in the dust and let it settle on me as I mourned my wife. But a greater part of me needed to keep pushing on. If I was to have any hope of saving the rest of my family, I had to keep moving, keep asking questions, keep fighting as long and as hard as possible.

I tore open the flap and stepped inside a large space already stripped down to the cement floors. In the middle, under a bank of fluorescent shop lights, stood eight desks. At them or around them, good men and women were working.

Ned Mahoney, my old partner at the FBI, was talking with Sampson. Mahoney spotted me and jumped up. “Jesus, Alex, I just heard. And I’m so goddamn … I don’t know what to say except I promise you, we’re moving heaven and earth to find this bastard.”

I swallowed hard, patted him on the shoulder. Mahoney and I had worked together in Behavioral Sciences at Quantico. We’d toiled on too many cases involving the criminally insane to bullshit each other with psychological nuances and false premises.

“Ned,” I managed. “If we don’t catch him, he’ll carve them all up in the same twisted way.”

“That’s not happening,” said Captain Roelof Antonius Quintus, my boss, who was coming toward me with other members of the task force. “If that Jane Doe turns out to be Bree, he’s killed a DC cop. At the very least, he’s kidnapped a DC cop’s family. For that, he will pay.”

The rest of the detectives and FBI agents behind him nodded grimly.

“Thank you, Captain,” I said, nodding to the others. “Thank you all for everything you’re doing.”

I got out the envelope I’d taken from Dawson’s office.

“I went to Sojourner Truth and found the principal back from vacation,” I told them. “I have a business card Mulch gave her when he went there to speak to the kids.”

I handed it over to the captain, explaining about the fake website that was almost like the one a real Thierry Mulch ran.

“Everything was the same except the picture of Mulch. It took sophisticated computer work. The kind Preston Elliot could do in his sleep.”

Quintus, Sampson, and Mahoney exchanged glances.

“Why don’t you sit down, Alex,” the captain said.

“What’s going on?”

Quintus took a deep breath and pointed to a chair. Reluctantly, I sat in it, and I felt my eyes begin to burn even before Ned Mahoney spoke.

“Three days ago, the Fairfax County sheriff was called to a commercial pig farm in Berryville, Virginia,” Mahoney began. “The owner found a human skull and a piece of femur in some machinery. Quantico ran the DNA and got three immediate matches.”

I squinted at the light in the room, which suddenly felt too strong. “Three?”

Sampson said, “Semen taken from that rape scene in Alexandria, semen taken from the pants leg of Mandy Bell Lee’s murdered attorney, and the hair sample Preston Elliot’s mother filed as part of his missing-persons report.”

It took several moments before I grasped the implications of all that. Ten days before, the attorney of country-western star Mandy Bell Lee had been found poisoned in his room at the Mandarin Oriental. That same night, a man who called himself Thierry Mulch had raped a woman in Alexandria.

Since we had clear DNA evidence linking the rape and the murder to Preston Elliot, we had been working under the assumption that the missing computer engineering student and Mulch were one and the same.

But Mulch was not Elliot. He could not be Elliot because the DNA match on the bones found at the pigsty was dead certain, which meant …

“Mulch killed Elliot and dumped his body in that pig barn,” I said.

“We think so,” Sampson said, nodding. “Pigs’ll eat anything you throw at them.”

I remembered something Ali had told me about Mulch.

“It fits. When Mulch spoke at Ali’s school, he said that he’d grown up on a pig farm.”

“So how do we think this worked?” Captain Quintus asked. “Mulch got Elliot’s sperm before he killed him?”

“Why not?” Sampson replied. “It’s a brilliant way for Mulch to throw us, isn’t it? Plant a dead man’s DNA at a rape scene and at a murder?”

“This sonofabitch is diabolical,” Mahoney said.

“You’re right,” I said. “Mulch is diabolical. He’s very smart, thinks long term, and is cruel and audacious, which strikes me as narcissistically evil.”

Captain Quintus nodded. “Believes in himself above all others, thinks he’s too smart to get caught.”

“Which means he’s gotten away with serious shit before,” Sampson said. “It’s mutually reinforcing with these guys.”

Mahoney said, “What I’d like to know is, is Mulch acting solo, or are there others involved in what he’s doing?”



COULD MULCH HAVE KIDNAPPED my entire family in less than ten hours, starting with Damon at his prep school in the Berkshires, on his own?

On Good Friday morning, Damon was supposed to have taken a 7:45 jitney from campus to the Albany train station, but according to the driver, at the last minute, Damon told a friend that he was canceling because he’d gotten a ride to Washington.

But with whom? Mulch? Or someone else?

We hadn’t been able to answer those questions because the Kraft School, like Sojourner Truth, had been closed for vacation.

In any case, I knew from personal experience that the drive from the Kraft School to DC takes at least seven hours, and Good Friday traffic had to have been thick. So let’s say eight hours. That put Mulch in Washington around four.

Bree, Ali, Jannie, and Nana Mama were all taken in the following two hours. Theoretically, then, it was possible that Mulch had done this alone. But if so, he’d acted with what felt like pinpoint and ruthless precision.

“My instincts say he had help,” I said. “The sperm found at the rape and the murder scene supports that too.”

“How’s that?” Mahoney asked.

“Unless Elliot was a homosexual, it makes sense to me that Mulch had a female accomplice. She lured the kid in for sex, saved his sperm, probably from a condom, and Mulch killed him afterward.”

“It fits,” Quintus said.

It did fit. As if a fog bank were lifting, we were beginning to get a clearer view of the world behind us, a world I would have given my soul to return to.

I said, “Can someone go back to George Mason, back to Elliot’s friends, ask them about any women he might have been seeing?”

“I’ll do it myself,” Mahoney promised.

I looked at Sampson. “Feel like driving?”

“Where we going?”

“That farm where they found Elliot’s bones.”

“Uh,” Captain Quintus began, sharing a glance with Mahoney. “You sure you want to be working now, Alex?”

My breath turned shallow. “I can’t just sit here and wait for more members of my family to show up dead, Cap. I refuse to. That’s what Mulch wants and I just won’t do it.”

“Alex,” Mahoney said. “Maybe—”

I glared at my old friend, said, “If I don’t work, Ned, I’ll be lost to Bree, and I won’t be lost to her. Not now.”

Mahoney nodded slowly and then gestured at Sampson and said, “But you’re driving, John. With that head injury, he’s still in no condition to be behind the wheel.”



IT TOOK SAMPSON AND me about an hour to get free of DC traffic and take blue highways out through Reston and McLean and on into the rural land you find the more west and south you go in Virginia. We rode most of the way in silence, but Sampson’s pity and grief were as clear as if he’d spoken words of condolence or shock.

Sampson’s mere presence, the living, breathing embodiment of my longest relationship in life other than Nana Mama, was the only reason I didn’t completely crack up during the drive to the pig farm. But no matter how I tried to stop it, I kept flashing on images of Bree during our courtship. That first shared bashful smile. The first time I touched her fingers. The first time her lips met mine. How much she liked to dance and laugh. How committed she was to being a cop and a stepmother to my kids.

“You thinking about her, shug?” Sampson asked.

There were times when I could swear my partner was clairvoyant. Or at least, he picked up on subtle changes in my body so perfectly that he could decipher my thoughts. Or it was an easy guess; I don’t know.

“Yeah,” I said, and fell quiet again for several long moments, swallowing hard at unbridled emotion. “John?”

“Talk to me,” he said.

“I don’t know how to …” I began and then faltered. “I can’t …”

“Can’t what?”

“Think of Bree as gone,” I said through clenched teeth. “It’s like my heart can’t believe it. I didn’t even get to say good-bye. I wasn’t there to tell her how much I loved her, how she made everything in my life so …”

“Whole?” Sampson said softly.

“Anchored,” I replied.

It was the perfect word for what Bree had done in my life; she was the person who anchored me, grounded me, kept me from washing away.

“We don’t have DNA results yet,” Sampson said.

“I’ve been telling myself that.”

“And you keep telling yourself that, you hear?”

It started to rain. Sampson turned on the wipers, and the slapping sounded like nails being pounded by one of those air guns. I closed my eyes, reached up, and started rubbing at that spot on the back of my head where the junkie had hit me with a piece of pipe.

“Headaches still as bad?” Sampson asked.

“Getting better,” I said, though that was an overstatement.

“You need to get that checked out again, Alex,” Sampson said. “It’s been, like, six days and you’re still hurting. You should see a neurologist.”

“Doctors said to expect the headaches,” I said. “Part of the healing process. They could go on for months. And right now? I don’t need another doctor to tell me the same thing.”

My partner looked ready to argue, but then he spotted a sign ahead in the light rain that read Pritchard’s Farm: Specialty Pork.

“There it be,” he said slowing and turning.

We drove up a long dirt driveway bordered on both sides by trees that looked brilliantly green, all wet and new. It was spring, a time of rebirth. But it felt like November to me when we rolled into an orderly farmyard that reeked of a stench I can’t even begin to describe.

As we climbed from the car, we heard a squealing din coming from a huge low-roofed building that sat on a bench of earth about a quarter mile from a picture-perfect farmhouse that looked recently built.

“Pork bellies been good to someone,” Sampson observed.

A weathered woman in her forties wearing a green rain jacket, rubber gloves, and calf-high rubber boots over her jeans came around the side of the house. She carried a pitchfork and revealed smears of soil on her right cheek when she pushed off her hood and brushed back graying hair to look at us.

Sampson already had his badge out. “Mrs. Pritchard?”

“You here about the skull and the bone?” she asked.

“We are,” I said.

“Expect you better talk to Royal about that, my husband,” she said, gesturing up the hill with the pitchfork. “He’s on up to the barn. It’s feeding time. That’s the reason he found them bones, feeding time, but I expect he’ll be wanting to tell you that himself.”



WE FOUND ROYAL PRITCHARD out on one of several catwalks that crossed above the industrial pigsty. There were thousands of young pigs, or shoats, jammed into a pit that was easily a football field long and a quarter again as wide. A short, stocky guy in muddy rubber boots and Carhartt work clothes, Pritchard had a lit cigar in his mouth as he worked a set of hydraulic controls bolted to the railing of the catwalk.

Responding to the pig farmer’s manipulations, a long line of feeders crossed above the sty from left to right, dropping corn in a steady, drenching stream. The pigs were going berserk in response, all trying to follow the rain of food, squealing and grunting so loud that it changed the pounding in my head, made it like the inside of a bell that was tolling.

Sampson got Pritchard’s attention, and the farmer shut down the feeding system, which sent the pigs into a howling, squealing rage that seemed to join with the gonging in my head, speeding it, amplifying it, until I just couldn’t take being in there any longer, and I ran blindly for the door.

Five seconds later, I burst out of the pigsty and ran on out toward the tree line in the rain, trying to control the excruciating pain that crackled from the base of my skull up. But the pain wouldn’t stop, and I felt my stomach roll and thought I might be violently sick.

By the time Sampson came out with the pig farmer ten minutes later, however, the rain had cooled me down. My stomach was feeling better, and the ringing in my head had softened to a distant pealing.

“That smell takes some getting used to, even with a cigar to mask it,” Pritchard allowed, looking sympathetic. “No doubt ’bout that. But I don’t mind, you know? That’s the smell a’ money in there, sure as I’m standing right here.”

“Pork futures are up, huh?” Sampson asked.

“It’s the new white meat, ain’t you heard?” Pritchard replied. “Price a’ fatted shoats has doubled past three years.”

“You found the skull and a bone?” I asked.

The farmer nodded. “I showed your partner where. Wasn’t too far from where you was standing when you got to feeling kind of, well, piggish, what I call it.”

“Tell him how you found the skull,” Sampson said.

Pritchard shrugged. “One of them things. The hopper jammed out in the middle, and the corn was just pouring there, and every pig in the place wanted to be at the center. Anyway, I opened up the sides enough I could see the skull and bone there, plain as day, in the dung. Fished the skull out with a hook duct-taped to a pole. Sheriff’s deputies used a claw thing to get the bone.”

“Nothing else? No other bones?”

Pritchard’s cheek twitched. “Not that I seen, but hell, there’s three, maybe four inches of shit in there front to back. You’re welcome to come rake through it after the gold on the hoof’s up to weight and off.”

“How long will that be?” I asked.

“Twenty days.”

I have never been the sort of man who flies off the handle, but for some reason, I thought about the possibility there were other bones in that pigsty, and I just lost it.

“We’re not waiting fucking twenty days,” I shouted at him. “The fucker who dumped the body in there killed my goddamned wife! I’m getting a warrant and I’m getting those goddamned pigs out of there today.”

“Christ, Detective,” Pritchard said, looking offended. “I’m sorry about your wife, Jesus knows I am. But you’re acting like I tossed a body in there.”

“Did you?” I demanded.

Pritchard said, “Hell no. What the—”

I had seven inches and fifty pounds on the farmer. When I popped him in the chest with my right hand, he staggered backward and sat down hard in the gravel, shocked.

“You know a guy named Mulch?” I demanded. “He related to you?”

“Alex!” Sampson said.

I ignored him. “Is he?”

The farmer acted scared as he complained, “I don’t know no one named Mulch, no, sir, and that’s a fact.”

“Mulch was raised on a pig farm,” I replied angrily. “He came here specifically to get rid of that body. Mulch has to know you.”

“No, sir,” Pritchard repeated flatly. “Never even heard of that name. Go down and ask my wife. Ellie and I been together since high school, and she’ll tell you the same.”

He looked at Sampson. “I called the sheriff second I fished out that skull. I could’ve just left it and it’d be fragments in the pig shit by now. Think on that.”

It all went out of me then, and I realized what I’d done.

My shoulders sank and I squatted down next to him, shaking my head before I said softly, “Mr. Pritchard, I was way out of line there. I apologize. My wife …”

There was a moment of silence before he said quietly, “I understand, Detective. When my mom died, I wandered around in a haze for days.”

I reached out my hand and helped him up. “Again, I’m sorry. I honestly don’t know what came over me.”

Sampson put his hand on my shoulder, said, “Think we better leave Mr. Pritchard to his chores.”

I nodded, apologized a third time, and then walked away from the pig farmer, unwilling to look at the barn anymore, unable to block out the sounds of the ongoing riot inside.

Part Two



AT 4:12 THAT AFTERNOON—actually, 3:12 local time—Mitch Cochran downshifted the Kenworth T680 tractor-trailer pulling an empty container chassis into the CSX rail yard in east St. Louis.

Sitting between Marcus Sunday and Cochran in the truck cab, Acadia Le Duc said, “Jesus, we’re cutting this close. I told you and Dr. Fersing told you we didn’t want to get anywhere near the outside limit, and we’re pushing right on it.”

“Have faith, darling,” Sunday said calmly.

They were supposed to have landed in St. Louis an hour ago, but thunderstorms had delayed them, and it had taken a while to get through the paperwork at the truck-rental service.

“All I’m saying is if we have a catastrophe on our hands, I won’t take responsibility,” Acadia said.

“If it is a catastrophe, we’ll call it an act of God and be on our way,” Sunday said indifferently.

After expertly driving the tractor-trailer rig onto the scales, Cochran jumped out and went inside a steel office building with the necessary lading documents.

Ten minutes passed. Then fifteen.

“We’re not going to pull this off,” Acadia said, frustrated. “We are—”

Cochran came running out of the building, climbed up into the cab, said, “They were backlogged.”

“Jesus,” Acadia said, wiping at sweat on her brow.

“Calm down,” Sunday said as the truck began to roll forward. “We’ve got a half hour.”

“You don’t get it,” she snapped. “It may be over already.”

“If it is, it is,” Sunday said. “And we’ll have a cleanup job to do.”

Cochran drove into a long wide gravel parking lot that abutted the rail lines. He maneuvered the rig to a gantry crane next to the tracks, stopped, and set the brakes. Cables whirled, swinging giant electromagnets above the rust-red container fitted with the solar panels.

The four magnets lowered. A worker positioned them. There was a loud clanking noise as they locked to the sides of the car, and then the cables began to retract. The forty-five-foot container lifted off the railcar as if it were no heavier than a box of Kleenex. The crane operator expertly swung the container and set it on the chassis behind them.

“We have twenty-two minutes,” Acadia said.

The magnets released, and Cochran started the engine, put it in gear, and said, “Where to?”

“Get back on the interstate, go east to that truck stop we saw coming in.”

“That’ll take too long!” Acadia said.

Sunday said nothing. Cochran maneuvered through the city streets by GPS and had them back on the I-70 heading east in nine minutes. When they had twelve minutes left, he got off at State Highway 203 and turned north into the Gateway Truck Plaza. Cochran pulled over out back by a field of weeds.

“Move!” Acadia said, holding a large duffel bag she’d retrieved from the sleeping compartment behind them.

Sunday jumped down, stepped around the diesel tank, and got up on the fifth-wheel frame between the cab and the container. He put a key in the lock of the custom hatch on the front end of the freight car. It wouldn’t turn.

Had that kid in the rail yard back in Philly bent the hasp? He tried again, then jiggled the lock and twisted a third time. He thought the key was going to break off in the lock. Then something gave, and the hasp released.

He pulled it out, raised the bar holding the hatch shut. It swung open.

“Ten minutes,” Acadia said, handing him the duffel.

“I’m putting my money on you,” Sunday said and ducked into the pitch-black space.

Acadia glanced up at the leaden sky before following him and shutting the door behind her.



WHEN THE HATCH OPENED twenty minutes later, they were both drenched with sweat. Acadia came out first, carrying the duffel, which was considerably lighter. Sunday had a large black plastic trash bag in his hands.

“Told you we were good,” he said.

Acadia got down off the frame, wiped at the sweat on her face, said, “It was touch and go there, I’m telling you.”

“What you’re trained for,” he said, setting the bag down and turning to close and lock the hatch.

“I left the field because I hated stuff like that. Still do.”

“Sometimes we have to just push through the nasty tasks in life.”

“That qualified,” she said, and went back to the truck cab.

Sunday dug out a small plastic box filled with silicone earplugs. He mashed a chunk of one into the key slot so he’d know if it had been tampered with and then got down. Cochran had the engine going by the time he shut the door.

Sunday looked at the driver.

“Any visitors?”

“Couple of pickups went by,” Cochran said, putting the truck in gear and pulling out. “Nothing to worry about.”

Acadia said, “It’s five twenty-two. Well, four twenty-two here. We’ve got until Monday morning, same time.”

“Gotta be at the dock by six.” Cochran grunted.

Sunday looked at Google Maps, said, “Piece of cake.”

After they’d gotten onto I-70, heading west this time, toward the Mississippi River, Acadia said, “Why are we doing all this, Marcus? I mean really. Deep down, is this just payback for Cross savaging your book?”

Sunday looked at her sidelong for several seconds before flipping his hand dismissively. “If it was just that, I wouldn’t have bothered. I am proving to Dr. Alex that I was correct and he was wrong. But mostly, Acadia? I’m doing it because I can, and because this little project and the logistics involved intrigues and amuses me a great deal. Does it continue to amuse you?”

He’d delivered the question in a hard voice.

Acadia hesitated.

But Cochran chortled in the driver’s seat, said, “I can tell you it’s kicking my ass, Marcus. Most fun I’ve had since Iraq by a long shot.”

“Acadia?” Sunday asked, watching her closely.

Acadia seemed to struggle before she shrugged in resignation. “Ma always called me a shooting star, born to burn bright and brief.”

Sunday smiled, reached over, and stroked her cheek. “The hell with a shooting star, am I right? Why not ride a comet?”



ACADIA WAS GROWING INCREASINGLY uneasy about everything Sunday had gotten her into, but she said, “A comet sounds good too.”

Rush-hour traffic slowed them, but within sixty minutes, they were pulling onto the scales at the new AEP River terminal north of the city on the Missouri side.

The woman working the scales said, “She’s just fifteen hundred pounds?”

“She’s riding empty while we test our experimental solar refrigeration and heating system,” Cochran said. “How fast will it go downriver?”

“You’d be surprised. With the current up like it is, it’s two and a half days to Memphis, maybe less. Five days to New Orleans, maybe less. Double that coming upriver.”

“We’d like to be able to inspect the container at Memphis and then again at New Orleans.”

“Long as you’re there with the right papers, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Can you make us copies?” Cochran said. “I’m always losing stuff.”

“I can give you two.”

“Thanks. What do we owe you, then?” Cochran asked.

“Loading fee’s one fifty. You’ll pay the full freight at New Orleans.”

Cochran handed her cash. She gave him the receipt and lading documents, said, “Pull on ahead. You’ll see the dock on your right.”

“Gantry?” he asked.

“New gantries aren’t up yet. They’ll be using the boom crane.”

They drove to one of the freight docks on the bank of the river and pulled close to the Pandora, a container barge with a three-story white-and-blue wheelhouse at the rear. Cochran showed the crane operator and the barge captain the necessary documents. Cochran, Sunday, and Acadia watched as wide straps were run beneath the container and then hooked to the cable. The crane whirred. The container car rose, swung several times, and then was settled on the deck forward of the other fifty containers already stacked aboard.

“There was a lot of movement,” Acadia said worriedly.

“Everything inside is strapped down or bracketed in place,” Sunday reminded her before calling over to the captain, “We’ll see you in Memphis to make an inspection.”

Scotty Creel, a hearty man in his early fifties, nodded, said, “Just have that paperwork with you, and you’ll have no problems getting through the gates. We’ll be tied up there three, four hours Monday morning.”

Back in the Kenworth, Cochran drove them south toward St. Louis, said, “We got plenty of time before the flight. Let’s get something to eat. Ribs? Gotta be good here.”

Sunday turned up his nose.

Acadia said, “Marcus doesn’t do pork.”

“Oh, that’s right, sorry,” Cochran said. “Steak?”

“That’ll do,” Sunday said.

“And Cross?” Acadia asked.

Sunday glanced again at his watch.

He said, “Mr. Harrow needs time to finish his business. I’ll wait until just before our flight leaves to have my first chat with Dr. Alex.”



I WOKE UP AROUND eight thirty that Friday evening, lying on the couch in my darkened office, my rain jacket over my shoulders, and my muddy shoes on the floor beside me. The headache that had tortured me the past six days had calmed somewhat.

Good nap. Maybe that’s all I needed, I thought, before I fully awoke into the living nightmare again.

If that was Bree’s body, what was I going to do with it?

She’d wanted to be cremated and have her remains spread in the Shenandoah, somewhere near the river, where she’d spent the summers of her childhood. I owed her that, I—

Captain Quintus flipped on the light, and I blinked and shielded my eyes.

“Alex, why don’t you come on upstairs.”

“What’s going on?”

“Just wanted to talk some things through with you.”

“I got time for a shower? I haven’t had one in—”

“Go ahead,” my boss said, then he slapped the doorjamb and walked away.

I felt better after the shower and a change of shirt from my locker, more alert than I had been in days. When I reached the third floor, the demolition team was long gone, and the floor had been swept clean. I went through the plastic sheeting and saw five people standing near that island of desks under the fluorescent lights.

Sampson looked like he had something left over from the pig farm on his shoe. I was about to tell him I had the same problem when I noticed Mahoney stirring a dark cup of coffee. Captain Quintus was drinking water, and Aaron Wallace, the DC police chief, appeared saddened.

Detective Tess Aaliyah was the only one who gave me a steady gaze.

She swallowed, said, “I wanted to tell you myself.”

Questions exploded through my brain. Had they found Mulch? Had another member of my family turned up? Was I going to have to be tortured again, go to a dump scene to identify someone I loved? In the end, it was something even more unimaginable and cruel.

“The autopsy,” Aaliyah said. “I was there, and …”

Her eyes were watering and she shook her head.

“What?” I demanded.

“We still don’t have DNA, but the blood types match,” she said. “And there’s …”

Sampson cleared his throat, said, “She was pregnant, Alex. Six weeks.”

Hearing about the blood type had made the grief real. Hearing about the baby was too much.

My head spun and I felt sicker than at the pig farm. I sat down hard in one of the chairs, put my face in my hands, the headache pounding with every bit of its earlier fury.

“I’m sorry,” Aaliyah said. “Had you been trying?”

I shook my head bitterly, said, “This is a miracle and a tragedy at the same time. Can you believe that?”

“Shug?” Sampson said.

A great part of me wanted to rail at the sky and the moon, curse God and demand to know why I’d been singled out for this kind of punishment.

Instead, I gazed around at all of them and said, “Bree had uterine fibroids about five years ago. They removed them, but the procedure left scars. The doctors told us she’d likely never have children. A one-in-a-thousand chance, they …”

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more bewildered in my life than I was at that moment. I didn’t even hear Chief Wallace come over beside me, but I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder before he said, “Hell of a thing you’re going through, Alex. Hell of a thing. Too much for one man to handle.”

I nodded, cleared my throat, and in a voice tight with emotion said, “Chief, it’s beyond anything I’ve ever had to deal with before.”

He patted my shoulder again. “I can’t imagine the stress.”

“I’m still standing.”

The chief took a chair, set it opposite me, and sat down on it, his forearms resting on his thighs, and his face twisted in anguish. “I know you’re still standing. I know you’re a fighter, and I know this is personal. That’s what makes what I’m going to say now so hard.”

I’d been nodding, but now I knitted my brow. “Chief?”

“Alex, for your own good, and because I respect you so much, I’m placing you on medical leave.”

That made no sense. “What?”

“For the time being, I want you to take a break from this investigation, let us work on your behalf for once. I’m sorry, Alex, but I need your gun and badge.”

For a moment, even those words didn’t penetrate, but then they did and it felt like I was being tossed overboard.

“Chief, you can’t do that,” I pleaded. “I’m good. I’m handling this.”

“No one in your situation could be good,” Wallace said. “You showed up at your kid’s school crying and then you ranted at the principal. You mistreated a cooperative witness this afternoon—hit him, as I understand it.”

I looked at Sampson, not believing what was being said, and whispered, “You can’t do this. I have to find—”

Captain Quintus shook his head, said, “Alex, we’re all afraid that the injury to your head and the pressure of all that’s happened to you is too enormous to be dealt with while trying to work. We want you to go to a hospital to meet with a neurologist who’s waiting to do a baseline—”

“That’s not happening,” I said. “Not now.”

“Alex,” Ned Mahoney began.

“You think I asked for this?” I demanded, feeling the heat rise in my face. “Who asks for his family to be taken? Who asks for his wife to be cut to pieces? Who asks to be pounded and pounded and—”

Only then did I realize I’d been shouting at them.

“They say that’s part of it, shug,” Sampson said. “The anger. Coming from the concussion as much as from Mulch. You need help. You see that, don’t you?”

“Of course he does, John,” Mahoney said. “He knows the statistics.”

“Gun and badge, Detective,” the chief said sadly, holding out his hand.



THE FIGHT WENT OUT of me then, like a liquid draining from my core in a matter of seconds. I handed my badge and gun to Chief Wallace, said, “Appreciate your concern.”

“We’ll get these back to you as soon as the doctors say it’s okay,” Wallace reassured me. “You’re an incredible asset to this department and we know it.”

I nodded, stood, went to my desk, and picked up a framed picture of my family and some mail. But I also managed to palm something valuable from the back of my department-issue laptop.

With the photograph in my right hand and the mail and flash drive in my jacket pocket, I headed for the plastic sheeting. Sampson and Mahoney fell in on either side of me.

“I’m not going to tip over, you know,” I said as we went back through that demolition site.

“Just making sure you go to the GWU hospital,” Sampson said.

“See the neurologist,” Mahoney added.

I shrugged, said, “You’re right.”

We rode the elevator in silence. Sampson and I got out on one. Mahoney went to the basement to retrieve his car.

“Can I take a leak without you peeking over my shoulder?” I asked.

My partner thought about it, said, “I wouldn’t put that duty on my worst enemy.”

I managed a laugh and then walked around the corner and into a hallway that ran back toward the crime lab. I pushed the door to the men’s room open loudly, kicked off my shoes, picked them up, and jogged down the hall in my socks, taking several turns before the staircase that led to the parking garage.

I opened the basement door in time to see Mahoney’s taillights as he went up the exit ramp. Pete Koslowski, a sergeant and head of the motor pool, was an old friend. When I told him I needed a ride, he flipped me the keys to an unmarked car.

They were right, I thought as I climbed into the car. I probably did need to see a neurologist. But that would mean at least an overnight stay for observation, maybe two or three. I didn’t have that much time to waste. Whatever was going on inside my head was going to have to wait.

My phone started ringing two minutes later.

Sampson called, and then Mahoney. I kept clicking the ringer off and headed for the house. I was going to need a few things. As I drove, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the phone screen lighting up every few seconds.

It lit up again while I was idling at a red light on New York Avenue, and I reached over to shut the phone off altogether.

Then I saw the caller ID.

It said Mulch.

When I answered, I heard shallow, raspy breathing, as if someone were trembling with excitement, and then an electronically altered voice said, “So good of you to take my call, Dr. Cross.”



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” MULCH asked two minutes later.

Each and every word of my first direct conversation with the man who’d taken my family and butchered my wife was seared on my injured brain, and I couldn’t reply.

“Do you understand what you need to do to see the surviving members of your family alive again?” Mulch asked insistently.

I couldn’t answer him. My mind kept flashing on vague images from some movie I’d seen where each of a man’s four limbs was tied to a different horse, all of them facing in different directions.


“I can’t, I …”

“Too late,” Mulch said, sounding cold and hard through the static that camouflaged his voice. “Another one bites the dust. Look in your backyard and then call me back.”

The static and connection died.

I stared at the phone, and then dug out a blue light from the glove box, opened the window, and stuck it on the roof. Shaking from head to toe, I flipped on the siren and floored the accelerator.

Six minutes later I flipped off the siren, pulled the blue light, and turned onto my block. With every inch I drove, my fear and sorrow grew.

“Please, God, no,” I whispered again and again.

But the closer I got to my home, the more I understood that the time for God had passed. There was someone, one of my children or my grandmother, dead in my backyard.

Mulch had done it once. He’d do it twice.

I no longer had any doubt of it.

I skidded to a stop in front of my home, took a flashlight, and circled to the narrow walkway that led around the side of the house to the backyard. Playing the beam about, I saw the foundation, the plywood walls of the addition, and the portable toolshed and toilet the contractors had brought in.

Where the rear fence of my yard met the gate that led out to the alley, my light found the body, and I was hit with the second shock wave of the day, a blow that felt supernatural in its strength, and pure evil in its intent.

But I didn’t go down to my knees as I had earlier. I stood there, seeing Damon’s class ring on his right hand, the chain and the St. Christopher’s medal around his neck, and the stud and tiny loop earrings in his right ear.

He lay on the ground, his lower body twisted toward the wall, his torso and head turned to the night sky. His face had been battered beyond all recognition. And across his entire body, front and back, oval disks of skin were missing every four or five inches or so, as if Mulch had been trying to simulate a leopard’s spotted pelt.

I tried to tell myself that it might not be my son.

But a thousand memories of Damon spun tragically around me. The air rang with a chorus of his voices: as a giggling toddler who’d loved to suck his thumb and curl up in my lap while his mom made breakfast on Saturday mornings; as a troubled five-year-old trying to understand why his mother had died; as a joyous, victorious ten-year-old after he’d almost single-handedly won a basketball game; as a young man who loved to laugh.

Damon had a beautiful laugh that came up out of his belly and seized his whole body. It was genuine and contagious, and one of the things I most loved about him.

Right then and there, I knew that I was doomed to pine for that laugh every day for the rest of my life. I wanted to cross the yard and take my firstborn in my arms, feel the weight of the man he’d become.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

With every passing moment looking at the corpse, I became aware that I’d been changed that day, irrevocably transformed into someone I no longer recognized.

Up until Mulch, I’d always considered myself a moral man, guided by principles; there were certain lines I’d never cross, or even contemplate crossing. But as I gazed at the desecration of my son, I knew that all my principles had been sacrificed, and all rules of conduct destroyed.

“This is not happening again,” I vowed to my son before turning away. “I promise you that.”

Flipping off the flashlight, I felt myself swell with righteous anger and went fast around the side of the house, only to pull up short, startled by the silhouette of someone standing there ahead of me.



“ALEX?” AVA SAID IN a fearful voice. “Is that you?”

In the long frenzy of the day, I’d completely forgotten about the runaway girl who’d saved my life and my sanity in so many ways. When had she left the house? Last night? I honestly didn’t know.

“Alex?” she said, her voice higher.

“It’s me, Ava.”

She ran to me, hugged me, sobbing: “Is it true? Bree?”

I held her to me, unable to tell her that Damon was in the backyard. “It looks that way,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, pushing her back gently. “I have to leave now, Ava.”

“Why? Where are you going?”

“To find Mulch.” I kissed her on the cheek and started toward the house.

Ava hurried behind me, saying, “I’m going with you.”

“No, you are not,” I said.

“Please, Alex,” she begged. “I can help you find them. I showed you how the pictures were faked. I can help. I’m good at that kind of stuff.”

It was a bad idea to bring Ava with me for too many reasons to count.

But she was gifted with computers, and damn street-smart. She’d shown me that again and again. I thought about what Mulch wanted me to do to save the rest of my family, and I saw in an instant how it might work.

“You have a driver’s license?”

“No, but I can drive. My mom’s last shitty boyfriend taught me.”

“Can you listen? Follow orders?”

Ava’s chin retreated several inches, but she nodded. “I owe you and Nana Mama.”

I dug in my pocket, came up with my house key, and opened the door.

“Go find Jannie’s laptop. It’s in her room.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I admitted. “Just get the computer.”

While she went upstairs to look for the computer, I got a bag of clothes and my backup weapon, an old .45-caliber Colt 1911. The pistol was bigger and heavier than the nine-millimeter Glock I had turned over to Quintus, but it had excellent balance, and I shot it well. At short range with the 230-grain bullets and the hot loads, it could drop a charging rhino in its tracks.

“I’ve got it,” Ava said, looking at the gun as I tugged on a jacket.

“Good,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“Do I need one of those?” Ava asked.

“One of what?”

“A gun?”

At first I dismissed it out of hand. Bringing her along was bad enough. Arming her was crazy, but I asked, “You ever shot a gun?”

She shook her head. “Seen it on TV.”

“Little bit different in reality,” I said, but I went into Bree’s closet and reached under her nightgowns for the small Ruger nine-millimeter she sometimes kept in her purse when we went out somewhere fancy.

Ava reached for it, but I put it in my pocket, along with a box of bullets. “I’ll see how you do along the way before I let you anywhere near it.”

“But Alex—” she began.

“Follow orders,” I said. I picked up the bag and left the house with her trailing. Locking the door, I realized that if I was to have any hope of catching up with Mulch before he killed the rest of my family, I was going to have to divorce myself from what had already happened. I was going to have to compartmentalize, focus on the task, and deal with my grief later. I was going to have to act as if I were on a case where I had zero emotional involvement.

We left with Ava driving and me riding shotgun with Jannie’s computer in my lap. I never looked back. I couldn’t bear the thought of it.

Ava was no polished driver, but she had grit and settled into the task with every bit of her little being. “Where are we going?” she asked again after I’d seen she could follow basic directions and not hit oncoming cars.

“Get across the bridge,” I replied. “Head south until I tell you different.”

Soon we were on I-95 in the far right lane heading toward Richmond, Virginia. My mind no longer felt fried. It had a purpose and began to click off the things I needed: money, lots of it, and a new phone, and a new car, and I had to tell someone about Damon.

Though I did not want to, I turned my phone back on. Rather than give in to my first impulse and dial Sampson, I called Detective Tess Aaliyah.

“It’s Cross,” I said when she answered.

“Where the hell are you?” Aaliyah demanded. “You need to be in a hospital. Everyone’s looking for—”

“There’s a male body in my backyard,” I said. “I believe it’s my son Damon.”

Ava almost went off the road.

“My God,” the detective gasped. “Are you there now?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever go back there, Detective,” I said.

“Where are you?”

“Mulch has us heading in the general direction of hell,” I replied, before lowering the window and hurling my iPhone onto the highway while going sixty miles an hour.



IT WAS NEARLY DAWN that Saturday morning after Easter.

Tess Aaliyah had been in Alex Cross’s backyard since eleven the night before, overseeing her second crime scene in less than twenty-four hours.

She’d welcomed the help from John Sampson and Ned Mahoney, allowing Cross’s current partner to search the house and his former FBI partner to take charge of the gathering of evidence. From blood spatters, tire tracks, and marks in the dirt, they’d determined that the killer had brought the body into the alley behind the house and then dragged it through the gate into the backyard.

Mahoney’s men believed the tracks were made by a pickup truck with bald tires. They’d also discovered that, like Bree’s, many of the boy’s teeth had been pulled.

Watching the corpse loaded into a body bag and wheeled out of the backyard, Aaliyah was thinking that in one sense the teeth pulling went along with the generalized mutilations of the bodies, but in another nagging sense, it didn’t. The teeth removal and the clipped fingertips could be efforts to hide the victim’s true identity.

But the DNA would give it away eventually. So why desecrate the body?

The detective understood, of course, that sometimes with the criminally insane, there was no specific reason for why they did what they did. But the almost uniform size of the oval cuts combined with the regular pattern made her believe that there was some sort of logic to it, twisted or otherwise.

She made a note to herself to ask Mahoney to run the pattern and the oval cuts through the ViCAP files to see if they had ever surfaced before, and then she followed the gurney bearing the corpse around the side of the house. As first light appeared in the sky, she saw that the media had descended on the scene.

Captain Quintus was on the front porch, and she went to him.

“Anything?” he asked.

“Lots,” Aaliyah said. “I just can’t tell you if any of it’s usable yet. You?”

The homicide captain shook his head, looking drawn and exhausted.

Mahoney joined them, said, “Quantico computer lab called me ten minutes ago. The bugs Mulch put in the house? They were designed to transmit through Cross’s wireless network, but where the feeds went is anyone’s guess at this point.”

Sampson came out of the house holding his phone. “Alex still isn’t answering. He doesn’t even have his phone on. We can’t track him.”

“Probably why he doesn’t have it on,” Mahoney said.

“He’ll call in eventually, though, right?” Aaliyah asked.

“I don’t know,” Sampson replied. “Sounds to me like he’s on a mission.”

“Can I put out a bulletin on him?” Aaliyah asked. “Request that he be detained for questioning?”

“Questioning?” Sampson said. “For what?”

Aaliyah held up her hands. “Just doing my job here, Detective. I’d be asking the same thing of anybody who saw two murdered family members in the same day and then fled.”

“We know Alex Cross a whole lot better than you do, Detective Aaliyah,” Mahoney fired back. “He isn’t fleeing. He’s hunting.”