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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.
“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.
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
- "Behind all the noise and the numbers, we shouldn't forget that no one gets this big without amazing natural storytelling talent--which is what James Patterson has, in spades. The Alex Cross series proves it."—Lee Child
- "Twenty years ago, I wrote, 'Along Came a Spider is the best thriller I've come across in many a year. It deserves to be this season's #1 bestseller and should instantly make James Patterson a household name.' A household name, indeed."—Nelson DeMille
- "It's no mystery why James Patterson is the world's most popular thriller writer: his uncanny skill in creating living, breathing characters we truly feel for and seamless, lightning-fast plots. I do this for a living, and he still manages to keep me guessing from the first to last page. Simply put: Nobody does it better."—Jeffery Deaver
- "James Patterson is The Boss. End of."—Ian Rankin
- "Alex Cross is one of the best-written heroes in American fiction, and each Cross novel further defines what it means to be a professional, a husband, a father, and above all, a man."—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
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2015
- Page Count
- 400 pages