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It was a miserable mid-March afternoon, chill and sleeting, as John Sampson and I ran to the main gate of the Greensville Correctional Center, a hexagon-shaped high-security prison in the rural, southern part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
We ducked inside the security shack, showed our badges and identifications, and surrendered our service weapons. A gate rolled back, and we walked through.
As a homicide detective with the DC Metropolitan Police and as a behavioral specialist with the FBI, I have been to many jails, prisons, and penitentiaries over the years, but I am still unnerved by the sound of steel-barred gates slamming shut behind me. We passed through seven such gates, following Warden Adrian Yates and several reporters who'd arrived before us.
One of them, a journalist named Juanita Flake, said, "Is it true, he chose?"
The warden kept walking.
Warden Yates spun in his tracks and glared at her, looking barely in control. "I don't wish to talk any further, Ms. Flake. I'm not in favor of this, but it is my job to see it done. You want it different? Call the governor."
Yates, who had been criticized by the media, went to the next gate, which slid back. Three gates later, we entered a small amphitheater with perhaps thirty seats.
Twenty of the seats were already taken. Despite the years that had gone by since I'd seen them, I recognized many of the people gathered there. They recognized us as well. Most nodded and smiled weakly.
A fivesome sitting together sneered and, I'm sure, spoke bitterly about us under their breath. Those three men and two women were by far the best-dressed people in the room.
The men—two brothers, both middle-aged, and their father—wore well-tailored, dark three-piece suits. The women—one in her sixties and the other in her twenties—were dressed in charcoal-gray Chanel outfits; their hair was perfect, their jewelry flashy.
Sampson found us seats facing a long rectangular window. Drapes had been drawn closed on the other side.
I started to question my decision to come here almost immediately. I had good reasons, of course, but they didn't stop the doubts from creeping in.
"You framed him," a woman said.
I looked up to see the older of the two fashion plates beside me. She was a petite woman with dyed ash-blond hair and the kind of tight facial skin that suggested she had a high-dollar plastic surgeon on retainer.
"Mrs. Edgerton," I said wearily. "That was your son's defense in his trial and during his appeals."
"His appeal, not his appeals," Margaret Edgerton hissed. "You get only one appeal in this primitive, eager-to-kill state."
"And the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld his conviction and sentence, ma'am."
She trembled with rage. "I don't know how you did it, but you did, sure as I'm standing here. And I hope to God you carry to your grave the knowledge that you put an innocent boy on the other side of that curtain, Dr. Cross."
"No, ma'am, your son put himself there, a long time ago," I said.
Warden Yates said, "We need to begin."
"My son is innocent!" Mrs. Edgerton shouted. "You can't do this!"
"The law demands this," Yates said. "If you'd rather not be here, I understand."
He left the room.
She glared at me. "Remember this moment. It's when you doomed your soul. You will burn in hell."
Then she stormed away to her husband's side, where she broke down sobbing.
A few states in the country allow the doomed man to choose his method of execution; in Virginia, the choice is lethal injection or electrocution. The drapes rolled back and revealed not a gurney but a heavy oak chair with arm, leg, and chest straps.
Two corrections officers entered the death chamber. Warden Yates followed them and watched his officers open the only other door in the execution facility.
A shaved-headed man in his early forties stepped out. He was tall and lanky and appeared slightly drugged. He looked not at the electric chair but through the window at us.
Michael "Mikey" Edgerton drew himself up to his full height and then walked to the chair of his own volition, as if he welcomed what was about to happen.
"Mom, Dad, Delilah, Pete, and Joe, you know why I chose old Sparky?" Edgerton said over the intercom. He took a seat, laughed, then looked straight at me. "I'm not going out like some kid going night-night. I want Cross and Sampson and everyone else who helped frame me to see me crackle, to see the smoke coming out my head and the skin on my arms and legs splitting from the lightning they're gonna send through me—me, an innocent man."
His mother, older brother, and sister began to sob. Only his father and his younger brother remained stoic.
"You did it!" a middle-aged woman in jeans and a Georgia Tech sweatshirt shouted at him from a seat near us. She jumped to her feet. "You did it, and you deserve this! I hope when they throw the switch, you disintegrate, you sick bastard!"
Mikey Edgerton got his macabre last wish.
I had never seen a man die in the electric chair, and the sight of two thousand volts ripping through him shook both Sampson and me so badly, we were barely able to stand after Edgerton was pronounced dead, and the curtain closed on his life.
We left the witness chamber, trying to ignore Edgerton's mother, who alternated between emotional collapse and spitting rage.
"I will see you both destroyed for this!" she screamed at one point. "With every last cent I've got, I will see you both sitting in that chair for what you did to my son!"
We had to listen to that and the angry responses from the relatives of Edgerton's victims until the final steel gate slammed shut behind us and we walked out of the penitentiary into drizzling rain and fog.
The Edgerton family came out moments later and walked to a waiting limousine. We went in the opposite direction, toward the squad car we'd driven down.
"Dr. Cross? Detective Sampson?"
I turned, expecting a journalist to shove a microphone in my face. Instead, Crystal Raider, the woman in the Georgia Tech sweatshirt, was standing there looking at us with an expression that was a rough sea of emotions and thoughts.
"He did that to torture us," she said. "To stick the knife in us after all that he did to my sister and the others."
"He did," I said. "And he succeeded."
Crystal raised her head defiantly. "Maybe. But I think somewhere my Kissy is thinking it was a good thing, how he went. I bet the other girls think so too."
"Go home now," I said softly. "Find Kissy in her son and let this all be a bad memory that you rarely visit."
She cried at that and gave us both a hug. "Thank you for standing up for her, Dr. Cross, Detective Sampson. Neither of you ever judged her, and I'm grateful for that."
"Pole dancers are people too," Sampson said. "Good people. Like your sister."
She cried through a weak smile, then she gave us a weaker wave and walked toward a waiting pickup truck with Florida plates.
The three-hour drive north was quiet and uneasy, both of us lost in our thoughts.
It wasn't until we were almost to Washington, DC, that the rain stopped. Sampson cleared his throat. "I wasn't expecting that, Alex," he said in a hoarse voice.
"None of us were expecting it. Except Edgerton," I said, suppressing a shudder.
My lifelong friend glanced at me. "Alex, right now I don't know whether I should be satisfied at justice served or praying for my sins."
My stomach soured, but I shook it off, said, "Mikey Edgerton did the dirty work on the eight and maybe more. There's no doubt about it in my mind."
There was a long pause as Sampson took the exit off 95 onto the Beltway, heading toward my home on Fifth Street in Southeast DC.
"No doubt in mine either," Sampson said at last. "But still, you know?"
I swallowed hard. Before I could respond, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out, saw a familiar number, and answered. "This is Cross," I said. "How are you, Chief?"
"I should be asking you that," said Metro Police chief of detectives Bree Stone, my wife. "But I don't have time, and neither do you."
I sat up straighter, said, "What's going on?"
She gave me an address in Friendship Heights and said to go there immediately. Then she told me why, and the sourness that lingered in my stomach became the worst kind of nausea, that terrible taste you get at the back of your throat just before you say goodbye to everything you've eaten all day.
"We're on our way," I said, then hung up.
"What's the matter?" Sampson said.
"John," I said in a hoarse whisper. "What in God's name have we done?"
We drove to Friendship Heights, in the far northwest corner of DC, parked on Forty-First Street, and ran up the sidewalk to Harrison Avenue, where a patrol car with lights flashing was in front of a barrier.
"Which one is it?" Sampson asked the patrol officer.
"Third on the right, sir. There's a few plainclothes there already."
"And I imagine there will be more," I said, moving around the barrier toward a gray Craftsman house with a tidy front yard and a medical examiner's van parked out front.
On the scene, there were three uniformed officers and two in plainclothes whom I recognized as junior homicide detectives Owen Shank and Deana Laurel.
They were talking to two very upset women in their late thirties. Laurel spotted us, excused herself, and came over.
She told us that the two women—Patsy Phelps and Anita Kline—were neighbors of the Nixons, who owned the Craftsman. Gary Nixon, the father, was a successful attorney on K Street. Mr. Nixon had taken his two young children on a four-day trip to see his ailing mother in San Diego. Katrina, his wife of fifteen years, had a successful speech-pathology practice and couldn't make the trip.
"They said the Nixons made it a point to talk twice a day, no matter where they were," Detective Laurel said. "So when Mrs. Nixon didn't answer her phone this morning or this evening, Mr. Nixon called Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Kline to go over and check on their—"
Detective Shank came over and cut her off. "I don't mean to be disrespectful, Dr. Cross, Detective Sampson. But are you sure it's okay for the two of you to be here? I mean, isn't this kind of a conflict of interest?"
"We're here on orders," Sampson said. "Take us inside."
Shank, a tough, wiry guy who'd once served in a Marine Force Recon unit, didn't like it, but he understood orders. "Straightaway, sir."
Detective Laurel returned to the neighbors. We followed Shank into the house, which had been decorated by Pottery Barn and Toys R Us.
Shank told us there were no signs of forced entry, and although the house was in the disarray you'd expect with a young, affluent family, we saw no indications of a struggle as we moved down a short hallway to the type of kitchen you see in gourmet ads.
There were kids' drawings taped to the stainless-steel fridge along with a calendar page where the Nixons kept track of babysitters and doctors' appointments. It wasn't until we got past the stove that we saw evidence of a fight.
A kitchen chair had fallen over. A glass vase lay shattered on the floor by a breakfast nook. Beyond it was a family room. The television was on, blaring the news about the police presence currently building on Harrison Avenue in Friendship Heights.
The body of Katrina Nixon, who'd been a pretty brunette in her late thirties, was on the far side of the room, naked and slumped in an overstuffed chair. Her skin was bluish and coated in a thin white film. Her mouth was stretched wide, as if she'd tried to scream, and locked in rigor. Her eyes were open and dull.
The air reeked of bleach. The instrument of her death, a red and purple Hermès silk scarf, was wrapped impossibly tight around her neck.
A piece of plain white paper lay on her lap.
As I walked over to look at it, I felt as if something foundational was cracking inside me. I read the note and felt a chunk of myself break free and fall.
You messed up big-time, but don't sweat it, Dr. Cross, it read. Ultimately, for his past sins, Mikey Edgerton got what he deserved when he rode old Sparky right into the great hereafter.—M
I was still rattled when I pulled up in front of my house two hours later. The rain had stopped, and a breeze that was unnaturally warm for mid-March was blowing.
I saw Bree sitting on the porch swing with a light blanket around her. She patted the seat beside her, said, "True?"
I nodded and took a seat. "He signed it."
She was quiet. Then: "You know the Edgertons are going to use this as evidence to prove that their son was framed and someone else was responsible."
I sat back, exasperated. "Unless we tell the press about M, and the whole mess comes out."
"Nothing stays a secret forever, Alex," she said, stroking my head.
"That's what I'm afraid of," I said. "Then I become the story."
"You are his focus."
"I get that," I said. "But it's just…"
"Mikey Edgerton was guilty."
"I know that," I said, spotting something in our neighbors' dark front yard. "M's just playing his games. What's going on over there?"
"Scaffolds. Morse said they were doing it right, inside and out."
"More banging," I said, irritated. "They moved away for the year just so they wouldn't have to hear it."
"They're both on sabbatical."
"Lucky for them," I said, getting up. "I'm hungry."
"Nana's getting dinner ready for you. I'm going to sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow could be difficult."
I kissed her, told her I loved her, and went inside.
The television in the living room was streaming Terriers, currently the favorite show of my seventeen-year-old daughter, Jannie. The air in the front hall was perfumed with the scent of garlic, onions, and basil wafting from the kitchen.
The smells and sounds calmed me. I went into the front room, where Jannie was on the couch in her running sweats, dozing. A biology textbook lay open in her lap, but she held the remote for the TV.
"Hi, sweetheart," I said, giving her a little shake.
Jannie startled awake and punched the pause button. "Hi, Dad," she said sleepily.
"You sleeping, studying, or watching?"
"All three," she said, smiling through a yawn.
"You can't do all three."
"Most men can't, but most women can."
"Run that one by me."
"So, like, in class last week? We learned that the latest research says male minds are hardwired for single tasks. They learn best and do best when everything comes at them one at a time, you know, like one project and then the next. And it probably helps if they can move around. While they're studying, I mean."
"Okay. And the female mind?"
"Women are amazing!"
I grinned. "I'll agree with that wholeheartedly. But why?"
She used her index finger to draw imaginary circles around her head. "The female mind can focus on many things at once. My teacher said it's like juggling. Where men tune out everything but the one thing they're working on, women can hear it all, smell it all, and see it all. And get it all done!"
"Except when they're sleeping."
She laughed. "Okay, except when they're sleeping."
"I'll admit, you know your stuff. If you see your brother trying to multitask, please tell him about the male brain and stop him. Okay?"
"You think he'll listen?"
"Probably not," I said. I leaned over to hug her. "I missed you, baby."
"Missed you too, Dad," she said, and she yawned. "I don't know why I feel so tired."
"Get to sleep early tonight."
She nodded but seemed concerned about something.
As I was leaving the room, she called after me, "My first outdoor meet's Tuesday afternoon."
"Already in the calendar of absolutely must-dos," I said, heading into the kitchen.
My ninety-something grandmother, an avid foodie, was stirring something in a deep pan on the kitchen stove.
"I don't know what it is, but it smells awful good in here."
"New chicken recipe," she said, tapping the spoon on the side of the pan.
"Dad!" Ali called from the room beyond the kitchen. "Check this out."
Nana said, "He's been dying to show you some mountain-bike video, and you won't eat until he does."
I held up both hands in understanding. My youngest child, Ali, was ten, smart as a whip, and always into something new. And when he got into something new, he was like a terrier—he wouldn't let go.
Ali's latest interest was mountain biking. It had actually begun last year when a friend had lent him one, and he'd asked for a bike for Christmas.
We made sure he got one because, unlike his older sister, Ali had never been known to exert himself physically if he didn't have to. But something about the bike had captured his imagination, and he rode it all the time now, even in the cold and snow.
Ali was on the floor, stretched out in front of his laptop, when I walked in.
"You're late," he said, sounding put out.
I held up my hands. "Beyond my control. You ride today?"
He nodded. "The usual way by the Tidal Basin."
Bree and I often ran that route. It was safe and well traveled. I'd okayed him to use it if he wanted to go out for a ride on his own as long as he got permission first and it wasn't too early or too late. "You wanted to show me something?"
He hit a key on his laptop. The screen came to life, showing the helmet-camera feed of a mountain biker poised high above a sprawling city.
"Where is this?" I asked.
"Lima, Peru," he said. "You won't believe it."
The guy riding the bike took off and immediately went down an impossibly steep, covered staircase. Then he shot out into sunlight and he was on a wall about two feet wide with a big drop on either side.
Crowds of people watched the rider skim along the wall to the end and launch into the air. He dropped a good twenty feet and landed on a dirt path on a hill so steep, I thought he was going to go over the handlebars and tumble to his death. But he punched the landing, cut left, crossed a narrow wooden bridge, hit another bump, soared again, and landed on another staircase. The insanity went on for a good four minutes before the rider pulled over and started laughing. The video stopped.
"Wasn't that amazing?" Ali asked.
"What was that?"
"Urban-downhill mountain biking!"
"Wow," I said. "A new sport every day."
"I'm going to do that someday," he vowed.
"Not if I have anything to do with it," Nana said from the kitchen. "Alex, your dinner's ready."
Instead of focusing on Edgerton's execution, the strangulation of Mrs. Nixon, or the latest message from M, I savored Nana's fantastic pesto and chicken on black-bean pasta, a dish that I told her had to be a multiple repeat.
Ali wandered through, his laptop under his arm.
"Bed?" I asked.
He yawned and nodded. "Dad, do you have Wickr?"
"Uhh, I don't think so."
"It's this cool messaging app for, like, spies."
"It has military-grade encryption," he said earnestly. "We could text each other and no one would know because it has this self-destruct feature."
"The phone self-destructs?"
"No," he said, his nose wrinkling. "The message. Or telegram, they call it. They vanish after a couple of minutes. Real good for spying, right?"
"If you're on your phone when you're spying, I would think so."
"You want me to put it on your phone? It's easy, and we could, you know—"
"Talk like spies?"
He grinned and nodded.
"Let me think about it," I said, and I kissed him good night.
"Dad? If urban-downhill became an Olympic sport, I think I'd be good at it."
I smiled at the way his mind swung from one obsession to the next. "I think you'll be good at whatever you love to do."
After Nana went to bed, I cleaned up and went into the front room. Jannie was long gone. I tried to watch a basketball game. When I went upstairs, it was almost midnight.
Bree was already dead asleep when I slipped between the sheets. Despite everything that had happened that day, sleep came for me.
But just as I was dozing off, I heard a dog barking in an irritating pattern: three deep barks, a pause, and then two or four barks of higher pitch. The window was open. I got up, closed it, and latched it, but that only muffled the barking.
This had been going on for almost a month now, but I hadn't had the time to find the owners and complain. And I was in no mood to do it that night either. I put in earplugs and turned on a white-noise app on my phone.
I closed my eyes. I didn't want it to, but my mind swung toward M and what I knew of him, all of it scanty and contradictory.
There was only one indisputable fact about M, I thought as I fell asleep—the note he'd left with the strangled corpse of Mrs. Nixon was not the first time he had directly taunted me.
It was the fourth time.
In twelve years.
Ali Cross slipped into his father's bedroom around seven the next morning, a Saturday. Bree was already up and downstairs.
Ali went over to where his father lay snoring and shook his shoulder lightly. Alex startled and sat up, confused.
"Want to go for a run?" Ali asked. "I'll ride my mountain bike."
His father lay back on his pillow and groaned. "I hardly slept, pal. I don't think my body's going to be up for that this morning."
Ali was disappointed, but he kissed his dad on the cheek and said, "Get some sleep. We'll go next Saturday."
Alex smiled, and his eyes drifted shut.
Ali found Bree downstairs, drinking a coffee and dressed for work.
"You don't want to run either?" he asked.
"Not today," she said. "I have a desk to clear."
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