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Lightning-fast stories by James Patterson
- Novels you can devour in a few hours
- Impossible to stop reading
- All original content from James Patterson
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.
The bullet had entered Sampson’s skull at a shallow angle about two inches above the bridge of his nose. It exited forward of his left temple. That second wound was about the size of a marble, but gaping and ragged, as if the bullet had been a hollow point that broke up and shattered going through bone.
“Let’s get him intubated, on Propofol, and into an ice bath and cooling helmet,” Kalhorn said. “Take his temp down to ninety-two, get him into a CT scanner, and then the OR. I’ll have a team waiting for him.”
The ER doctors and nurses sprang into action. In short order, they had a breathing tube down Sampson’s throat and were racing him away. Kalhorn turned to leave. I showed my badge and stopped him.
“That’s my brother,” I said. “What do I tell his wife?”
Dr. Kalhorn turned grim. “You tell her we’ll do everything possible to save him. And you tell her to pray. You, too, Detective.”
“What are his chances?”
“Pray,” he said, took off in a trot, and disappeared.
I was left standing in an empty treatment slot in the ER, looking down at the dark blood that stained the gauze pads they’d used to clean Sampson’s head.
“You can’t stay in here, Detective,” one of the nurses said sympathetically. “We need the space. Traffic accidents all over the city with this storm.”
I nodded, turned, and wandered away, wondering where to go, what to do.
I went out in the ER waiting area and saw twenty people in the seats. They stared at my pistol, at the blood on my shirt, and at the black hole where Soneji’s bullet had hit me. I didn’t care what they thought. I didn’t—
I heard the automatic doors whoosh open behind me.
A fearful voice cried out, “Alex?”
I swung around. Billie Sampson was standing there in pink hospital scrub pants and a down coat, shaking from head to toe from the cold and the threat of something far more bitter. “How bad is it?”
Billie’s a surgical nurse, so there was no point in being vague. I described the wound. Her hand flew to her mouth at first, but then she shook her head. “It’s bad. He’s lucky to be alive.”
I hugged her and said, “He’s a strong man. But he’s going to need your prayers. He’s going to need all our prayers.”
Billie’s strength gave way. She began to moan and sob into my chest, and I held her tighter. When I raised my head, the people in the waiting room were looking on in concern.
“Let’s get out of here,” I muttered, and led Billie out into the hallway and to the chapel.
We went inside, and thankfully it was empty. I got Billie calmed down enough to tell her what had happened at the school and afterward.
“They’ve put him into a chemical coma and are supercooling his body.”
“To reduce swelling and bleeding,” she said, nodding.
“And the neurosurgeons here are the best. He’s in their hands now.”
“And God’s,” Billie said, staring at the cross on the wall in the chapel before pulling away from me to go down on her knees.
I joined her and we held hands and begged our savior for mercy.
Hours passed like days as we waited outside the surgical unit. Bree showed up before noon.
“Anything?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Billie,” Bree said, hugging her. “We’re going to find who did this to John. I promise you that.”
“You didn’t find Soneji?” I asked in disbelief. “How could he have gotten away if you’d cordoned off the area?”
My wife looked over at me, studied me. “Soneji’s dead, Alex. You all but killed him yourself.”
My mouth hung open, and I blinked several times. “You mean you didn’t send his picture out? You didn’t look for him?”
“We looked for someone who looked like Soneji,” Bree said defensively.
“No,” I said. “He was less than thirty feet from me, light shining down on his face. It was him.”
“Then explain how a man who all but disintegrated right before your eyes can surface more than a decade later,” Bree said.
“I can’t explain it,” I said. “I…maybe I need some coffee. Want some?”
They shook their heads, and I got up, heading toward the hospital cafeteria, seeing flashbacks from long ago.
I put Gary Soneji in prison after he went on a kidnapping and murder spree that threatened my family. Soneji escaped several years later, and turned to bomb building. He detonated several, killing multiple people before we spotted him in New York City. We chased Soneji into Grand Central Station, where we feared he’d explode another bomb. Instead he grabbed a baby.
At one point, Soneji held the baby up and screamed at me, “This doesn’t end here, Cross. I’m coming for you, even from the grave if I have to.”
Then he threw the infant at us. Someone caught her, but Soneji escaped into the vast abandoned tunnel system below Manhattan. We tracked him in there. Soneji attacked me in the darkness, and knocked me down and almost killed me before I was able to shoot him. The bullet shattered his jaw, ripped apart his tongue, and blew out the side of one cheek.
Soneji staggered away from me, was swallowed by the darkness. He must have pitched forward then and sprawled on the rocky tunnel floor. The impact set off a small bomb in his pocket. The tunnel exploded into white-hot flames.
When I got to him, Soneji was engulfed, curled up, and screaming. It lasted several seconds before he stopped. I stood there and watched Soneji burn. I saw him shrivel up and turn coal black.
But as sure as I was of that memory, I was also sure I’d seen Gary Soneji that morning, a split second before he tried to shoot me in the heart and blow Sampson’s head off.
I’m coming for you, even from the grave if I have to.
Soneji’s taunt echoed back to me after I’d gotten my coffee.
After several sips, I decided I had to assume Soneji was still dead. So I’d seen, what, a double? An impostor?
I supposed it was possible with plastic surgery, but the likeness had been so dead-on, from the thin reddish mustache to the wispy hair to the crazed, amused expression.
It was him, I thought. But how?
This doesn’t end here, Cross.
I saw Soneji so clearly then that I feared for my sanity.
This doesn’t end here, Cross.
I’m coming for you, even from the grave if I have to.
I startled, almost dropped my coffee, and saw Bree trotting down the hall toward me with a wary expression.
“He made it through the operation,” she said. “He’s in intensive care, and the doctor’s going to talk to Billie in a few moments.”
We both held Billie’s hands when Dr. Kalhorn finally emerged. He looked drained.
“How is he?” Billie asked, after introducing herself.
“Your husband’s a remarkable fighter,” Kalhorn said. “He died once on the table, but rallied. Besides the trauma of the bullet, there were bone and bullet fragments we had to deal with. Three quarters of an inch left and one of those fragments would have caught a major artery, and we’d be having a different conversation.”
“So he’s going to live?” Billie asked.
“I can’t promise you that,” Kalhorn said. “The next forty-eight to seventy-two hours will be the most critical time for him. He’s sustained a massive head injury, severe trauma to his upper-left temporal lobe. For now, we’re keeping him in a medically induced coma, and we will keep him that way until we see a significant drop in brain swelling.”
“If he comes out, what’s the prognosis, given the extent of the injury you saw?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you who he’ll be if and when he wakes up,” the neurosurgeon said. “That’s up to God.”
“Can we see him?” Bree asked.
“Give it a half hour,” Kalhorn said. “There’s a whirlwind around him at the moment. Lots of good people supporting him.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Billie said, trying not to cry again. “For saving him.”
“It was an honor,” Kalhorn said, patted her on the arm, and smiled at Bree and me before returning to the ICU.
“Damage to his upper-left temporal lobe,” Billie said.
“He’s alive,” I said. “Let’s keep focused on that. Anything else, we’ll deal with down the road.”
Bree held her hand and said, “Alex is right. We’ve prayed him through surgery, and now we’ll pray he wakes up.”
But Billie still appeared uncertain forty minutes later when we donned surgical masks, gloves, and smocks and entered the room where Sampson lay.
You could barely see the slits of his eyes for the swelling. His head was wrapped in a turban of gauze, and there were so many tubes going into him, and so many monitors and devices beeping and clicking around him, that from the waist up he looked more machine than man.
“Oh, Jesus, John,” Billie said when she got to his side. “What have they done to you?”
Bree rubbed Billie’s back as tears wracked her again. I stayed only a few minutes, until I couldn’t take seeing Sampson like that anymore.
“I’ll be back,” I told them. “Tonight before I go home to sleep.”
“Where are you going?” Bree asked.
“To hunt Soneji,” I said. “It’s what John would want.”
“There’s a blizzard outside,” Bree said. “And Internal Affairs is going to want to hear your report on the shooting.”
- On Sale
- Aug 15, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages