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Along Came a Spider killer Gary Soneji has been dead for over ten years. Alex Cross watched him die. But today, Cross saw him gun down his partner. Is Soneji alive? A ghost? Or something even more sinister?
Nothing will prepare you for the wicked truth.
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A late winter storm bore down on Washington, DC, that March morning, and more folks than usual were waiting in the cafeteria of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School on Monroe Avenue in the northeast quadrant.
“If you need a jolt before you eat, coffee’s in those urns over there,” I called to the cafeteria line.
From behind a serving counter, my partner, John Sampson, said, “You want pancakes or eggs and sausage, you come see me first. Dry cereal, oatmeal, and toast at the end. Fruit, too.”
It was early, a quarter to seven, and we’d already seen twenty-five people come through the kitchen, mostly moms and kids from the surrounding neighborhood. By my count, another forty were waiting in the hallway, with more coming in from outside where the first flakes were falling.
It was all my ninety-something grandmother’s idea. She’d hit the DC Lottery Powerball the year before, and wanted to make sure the unfortunate received some of her good fortune. She’d partnered with the church to see the hot-breakfast program started.
“Are there any doughnuts?” asked a little boy, who put me in mind of my younger son, Ali.
He was holding on to his mother, a devastatingly thin woman with rheumy eyes and a habit of scratching at her neck.
“No doughnuts today,” I said.
“What am I gonna eat?” he complained.
“Something that’s good for you for once,” his mom said. “Eggs, bacon, and toast. Not all that Cocoa Puffs sugar crap.”
I nodded. Mom looked like she was high on something, but she did know her nutrition.
“This sucks,” her son said. “I want a doughnut. I want two doughnuts!”
“Go on, there,” his mom said, and pushed him toward Sampson.
“Kind of overkill for a church cafeteria,” said the man who followed her. He was in his late twenties, and dressed in baggy jeans, Timberland boots, and a big gray snorkel jacket.
I realized he was talking to me and looked at him, puzzled.
“Bulletproof vest?” he said.
“Oh,” I said, and shrugged at the body armor beneath my shirt.
Sampson and I are major case detectives with the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department. Immediately after our shift in the soup kitchen, we were joining a team taking down a drug gang operating in the streets around St. Anthony’s. Members of the gang had been known to take free breakfasts at the school from time to time, so we’d decided to armor up. Just in case.
I wasn’t telling him that, though. I couldn’t identify him as a known gangster, but he looked the part.
“I’m up for a PT test end of next week,” I said. “Got to get used to the weight since I’ll be running three miles with it on.”
“That vest make you hotter or colder today?”
“I need one of them,” he said, and shivered. “I’m from Miami, you know? I must have been crazy to want to come on up here.”
“Why did you come up here?” I asked.
“School. I’m a freshman at Howard.”
“You’re not on the meal program?”
“Barely making my tuition.”
I saw him in a whole new light then, and was about to say so when gunshots rang out and people began to scream.
Drawing my service pistol, I pushed against the fleeing crowd, hearing two more shots, and realizing they were coming from inside the kitchen behind Sampson. My partner had figured it out as well.
Sampson spun away from the eggs and bacon, drew his gun as I vaulted over the counter. We split and went to either side of the pair of swinging industrial kitchen doors. There were small portholes in both.
Ignoring the people still bolting from the cafeteria, I leaned forward and took a quick peek. Mixing bowls had spilled off the stainless-steel counters, throwing flour and eggs across the cement floor. Nothing moved, and I could detect no one inside.
Sampson took a longer look from the opposite angle. His face almost immediately screwed up.
“Two wounded,” he hissed. “The cook, Theresa, and a nun I’ve never seen before.”
“There’s blood all over Theresa’s white apron. Looks like the nun’s hit in the leg. She’s sitting up against the stove with a big pool below her.”
Sampson took another look and said, “It’s a lot of blood.”
“Cover me,” I said. “I’m going in low to get them.”
Sampson nodded. I squatted down and threw my shoulder into the door, which swung away. Half expecting some unseen gunman to open fire, I rolled inside. I slid through the slurry of two dozen eggs, and came to a stop on the floor between two prep counters.
Sampson came in with his weapon high, searching for a target.
But no one shot. No one moved. And there was no sound except the labored breathing of the cook and the nun who were to our left, on the other side of a counter, by a big industrial stove.
The nun’s eyes were open and bewildered. The cook’s head slumped but she was breathing.
I scrambled under the prep counter to the women, and started tugging off my belt. The nun shrank from me when I reached for her.
“I’m a cop, Sister,” I said. “My name is Alex Cross. I need to put a tourniquet on your leg or you could die.”
She blinked, but then nodded.
“John?” I said, observing a serious gunshot wound to her lower thigh. A needle-thin jet of blood erupted with every heartbeat.
“Right here,” Sampson said behind me. “Just seeing what’s what.”
“Call it in,” I said, as I wrapped the belt around her upper thigh, cinching it tight. “We need two ambulances. Fast.”
The blood stopped squirting. I could hear my partner making the radio call.
The nun’s eyes fluttered and drifted toward shut.
“Sister,” I said. “What happened? Who shot you?”
Her eyes blinked open. She gaped at me, disoriented for a moment, before her attention strayed past me. Her eyes widened, and the skin of her cheek went taut with terror.
I snatched up my gun and spun around, raising the pistol. I saw Sampson with his back to me, radio to his ear, gun lowered, and then a door at the back of the kitchen. It had swung open, revealing a large pantry.
A man crouched in a fighting stance in the pantry doorway.
In his crossed arms he held two nickel-plated pistols, one aimed at Sampson and the other at me.
With all the training I’ve been lucky enough to receive over the years, you’d think I would have done the instinctual thing for a veteran cop facing an armed assailant, that I would have registered Man with gun! in my brain, and I would have shot him immediately.
But for a split second I didn’t listen to Man with a gun! because I was too stunned by the fact that I knew him, and that he was long, long dead.
In that same instant, he fired both pistols. Traveling less than thirty feet, the bullet hit me so hard it slammed me backward. My head cracked off the concrete and everything went just this side of midnight, like I was swirling and draining down a black pipe, before I heard a third shot and then a fourth.
Something crashed close to me, and I fought my way toward the sound, toward consciousness, seeing the blackness give way, disjointed and incomplete, like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
Five, maybe six seconds passed before I found more pieces, and I knew who I was and what had happened. Two more seconds passed before I realized I’d taken the bullet square in the Kevlar that covered my chest. It felt like I’d taken a sledgehammer to my ribs, and a swift kick to my head.
In the next instant, I grabbed my gun and looked for…
John Sampson sprawled on the floor by the sinks, his massive frame looking crumpled until he started twitching electrically, and I saw the head wound.
“No,” I shouted, becoming fully alert, and stumbling over to his side.
Sampson’s eyes were rolled up in his head and quivering. I grabbed the radio on the floor beyond him, hit the transmitter, and said, “This is Detective Alex Cross. Ten-Zero-Zero. Repeat. Officer down. Monroe Avenue and 12th, Northeast. St. Anthony’s Catholic School kitchen. Multiple shots fired. Ten-Fifty-Twos needed immediately. Repeat. Multiple ambulances needed, and a Life Flight for officer with head wound!”
“We have ambulances and patrols on their way, Detective,” the dispatcher came back. “ETA twenty seconds. I’ll call Life Flight. Do you have the shooter?”
“No, damn it. Make the Life Flight call.”
The line went dead. I lowered the radio. Only then did I look back at the best friend I’ve ever had, the first kid I met after Nana Mama brought me up from South Carolina, the man I’d grown up with, the partner I’d relied on more times than I could count. The spasms subsided and Sampson’s eyes glazed over and he gasped.
“John,” I said, kneeling beside him and taking his hand. “Hold on now. Cavalry’s coming.”
He seemed not to hear, just stared vacantly past me toward the wall.
I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. I shook from head to toe, and then I wanted to shoot the man who’d done this. I wanted to shoot him twenty times, completely destroy the creature that had risen from the dead.
Sirens closed in on the school from six directions. I wiped at my tears, and then squeezed Sampson’s hand, before forcing myself to my feet and back out into the cafeteria, where the first patrol officers were charging in, followed by a pair of EMTs whose shoulders were flecked with melting snowflakes.
They got Sampson’s head immobilized, then put him on a board and then a gurney. He was under blankets and moving in less than six minutes. It was snowing hard outside. They waited inside the front door to the school for the helicopter to come, and put IV lines into his wrists.
Sampson went into another convulsion. The parish priest, Father Fred Close, came and gave my partner the last rites.
But my man was still hanging on when the helicopter came. In a daze I followed them out into a driving snowstorm. We had to shield our eyes to duck under the blinding propeller wash and get Sampson aboard.
“We’ll take it from here!” one EMT shouted at me.
“There’s not a chance I’m leaving his side,” I said, climbed in beside the pilot, and pulled on the extra helmet. “Let’s go.”
The pilot waited until they had the rear doors shut and the gurney strapped down before throttling up the helicopter. We began to rise, and it was only then that I saw through the swirling snow that crowds were forming beyond the barricades set up in a perimeter around the school and church complex.
We pivoted in the air and flew back up over 12th Street, rising above the crowd. I looked down through the spiraling snow and saw everyone ducking their heads from the helicopter wash. Everyone except for a single male face looking directly up at the Life Flight, not caring about the battering, stinging snow.
“That’s him!” I said.
“Detective?” the pilot said, his voice crackling over the radio in my helmet.
I tugged down the microphone, and said, “How do I talk to dispatch?”
The pilot leaned over, and flipped a switch.
“This is Detective Alex Cross,” I said. “Who’s the supervising detective heading to St. Anthony’s?”
“Your wife. Chief Stone.”
“Patch me through to her.”
Five seconds passed as we built speed and hurtled toward the hospital.
“Alex?” Bree said. “What’s happened?”
“John’s hit bad, Bree,” I said. “I’m with him. Close off that school from four blocks in every direction. Order a door-to-door search. I just saw the shooter on 12th, a block west of the school.”
“It’s Gary Soneji, Bree,” I said. “Get his picture off Google and send it to every cop in the area.”
There was silence on the line before Bree said sympathetically, “Alex, are you okay? Gary Soneji’s been dead for years.”
“If he’s dead, then I just saw a ghost.”
We were buffeted by winds and faced near-whiteout conditions trying to land on the helipad atop George Washington Medical Center. In the end we put down in the parking lot by the ER entrance, where a team of nurses and doctors met us.
They hustled Sampson inside and got him attached to monitors while Dr. Christopher Kalhorn, a neurosurgeon, swabbed aside some of the blood and examined the head wounds.
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