Along came a spider, p.2
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       Along Came a Spider, p.2
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         Part #1 of Alex Cross series by James Patterson

  Blending in wasn’t easy for Maggie Rose, even though she desperately wanted to. She was the nine-year-old daughter of Katherine Rose, after all. Maggie couldn’t walk past a mall video store without seeing a picture of her mother. Her mother’s movies seemed to be on the tube about every other night. Her mom got nominated for Oscars more often than most actresses got mentioned in People magazine.

  Because of all that stuff, Maggie Rose tried to disappear into the woodwork a lot. That morning she had on a beat-up Fido Dido sweatshirt with strategic holes front and rear. She’d picked out grungy, wrinkled Guess jeans. She wore old pink Reebok sneakers—her “trusty dusties”—and Fido socklets picked out from the bottom of her closet. She purposely hadn’t washed her long blond hair before school.

  Her mom’s eyes had bugged when she’d spotted the getup. She said, “Quadruple yuk,” but she let Maggie go to school that way anyway. Her mom was cool. She really understood the tough deal Maggie had to live with.

  The kids in the crowded assembly, first- through sixth-grade classes, were singing “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. Before she played the folk/rock song on the auditorium’s gleaming black Steinway, Ms. Kaminsky had tried to explain the message of it for everybody.

  “This moving song, by a young black woman from Massachusetts, is about being dirt poor in the richest country in the world. It’s about being black in the nineteen nineties.”

  The petite, rail-thin music and visual arts teacher was always so intense. She felt it was a good teacher’s duty not only to inform, but to persuade, to mold the important young minds at the prestigious Day School.

  The kids liked Ms. Kaminsky, so they tried to imagine the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. Since the tuition at Washington Day was twelve thousand dollars, it took some imagination on their part.

  “You got a fast car,” they sang along with Ms. K. and her piano.

  “And I got a plan to get us out of here.”

  As Maggie sang “Fast Car,” she really tried to imagine what it would be like to be poor like that. She’d seen enough poor people sleeping in the cold on Washington streets. If she concentrated, she could visualize terrible scenes around Georgetown and Dupont Circle. Especially the men with dirty rags who washed your windshield at every stoplight. Her mother always gave them a dollar, sometimes more. Some of the beggas recognized her mom and went apeman crazy. They smiled like their day had been made, and Katherine Rose always had something nice to say to them.

  “You got a fast car,” Maggie Rose sang out. She felt like letting her voice really get up there.

  “But is it fast enough so we can fly away

  “We gotta make a decision

  “We leave tonight or live and die this way.”

  The song finished to loud applause and cheers from all the kids at assembly. Ms. Kaminsky took a queer little bow at her piano.

  “Heavy duty,” Michael Goldberg muttered. Michael was standing right next to Maggie. He was her best friend in Washington, where she’d moved less than a year ago, coming from L.A. with her parents.

  Michael was being ironic, of course. As always. That was his East Coast way of dealing with people who weren’t as smart as he was—which meant just about everybody in the free world.

  Michael Goldberg was a genuine brainiac, Maggie knew. He was a reader of everything and anything; a gonzo collector; a doer; always funny if he liked you. He’d been a “blue baby,” though, and he still wasn’t big or very strong. That had gotten him the nickname “Shrimpie,” which kind of brought Michael down off his brainiac pedestal.

  Maggie and Michael rode to school together most mornings. That morning they’d come in a real Secret Service town car. Michael’s father was the secretary of the treasury. As in the secretary of the treasury. Nobody was really just “normal” at Washington Day. Everybody was trying to blend in, one way or another.

  As the students filed out of morning assembly, each of them was asked who was picking them up after school. Security was tremendously important at Washington Day.

  “Mr. Devine—,” Maggie started to tell the teacher-monitor posted at the door from the auditorium. His name was Mr. Guestier and he taught languages, which included French, Russian, and Chinese, at the school. He was nicknamed “Le Pric.”

  “And Jolly Chollie Chakely,” Michael Goldberg finished for her. “Secret Service Detail Nineteen. Lincoln town car. License number SC-59. North exit, Pelham Hall. They’re assigned to moi because the Colombian cartel has made death threats against my father. Au revoir, mon professeur.”

  It was noted in the school log for December 21. M. Goldberg and M.R. Dunne—Secret Service pickup. North exit, Pelham, at three.

  “C’mon, Dweebo Dido.” Michael Goldberg poked Maggie Rose sharply in her rib cage. “I got a fast car. Uh huh, uh huh. And I got a plan to get us out of here.”

  No wonder she liked him, Maggie thought. Who else would call her a dweebo? Who else but Shrimpie Goldberg?

  As they walked out of the assembly hall, the two friends were being watched. Neither of them noticed anything wrong, anything out of the ordinary. They weren’t supposed to. That was the whole idea. It was the master plan.

  CHAPTER 4

  AT NINE O’CLOCK that morning, Ms. Vivian Kim decided to recreate Watergate in her Washington Day School classroom. She would never forget it.

  Vivian Kim was smart, pretty, and a stimulating American history teacher. Her class was one of the students’ favorites. Twice a week Ms. Kim acted out a history skit. Sometimes she let the children prepare one. They got to be really good at it, and she could honestly say her class was never boring.

  On this particular morning, Vivian Kim had chosen Watergate. In her third-grade class were Maggie Rose Dunne and Michael Goldberg. The classroom was being watched.

  Vivian Kim alternately played General Haig, H. R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger, G. Gordon Liddy, President Nixon, John and Martha Mitchell, and John and Maureen Dean. She was a good mimic and did an excellent job on Liddy, Nixon, General Haig, and especially the Mitchells and Mo Dean.

  “During his annual State of the Union message, President Nixon spoke to the entire nation on television,” Ms. Kim told the children. “Many people feel that he lied to us. When a high government official lies, he commits a horrible crime. We’ve put our trust in that person, based on his solemn word, his integrity.”

  “Hiss.” “Boo!” A couple of kids in class participated in the lesson. Within reason, Vivian Kim encouraged this kind of involvement.

  “Boo is absolutely right,” she said. “Hiss, too. Anyway, at this moment in our history, Mr. Nixon stood before the nation, before people like you and me.” Vivian Kim arranged herself as if she were at a speaking podium. She began to do her version of Richard Nixon for the class.

  Ms. Kim made her face dark and gloomy. She shook her head from side to side. “I want you to know… that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the American people elected me to do for the people of the United States.” Vivian Kim paused on the actual words from Nixon’s infamous speech. It was like a held note in a bad but powerful opera.

  The classroom of twenty-four children was silent. For the moment, she had completely won their attention. It was a teacher’s nirvana, however short-lived. Nice, Vivian Kim thought to herself.

  There was a brittle tap, tap, tap on the glass pane of the classroom door. The magical mood was broken.

  “Boo! Hiss,” Vivian Kim muttered. “Yes? Who’s there? Hello? Who is it?” she called.

  The glass and polished mahogany door slowly opened. One of the kids hummed from the score of Nightmare on Elm Street. Mr. Soneji, hesitantly, almost shyly, stepped inside. Nearly every child’s face in the classroom brightened instantly.

  “Anybody home?”Mr. Soneji piped in a thin squeaky voice. The children erupted with laughter. “Ohhh! Look. Everybody’s home,” he said.

  Gary Soneji taught mathematics, and also computer science—which was even more popu
lar than Vivian Kim’s class. He was balding, with a droopy mustache, and English schoolboy glasses. He didn’t look like a matinee idol, but he was one at the school. In addition to being an inspired teacher, Mr. Soneji was the grand master of Nintendo video games.

  His popularity, and the fact that he was a computer wizard, had earned him the nickname “Mr. Chips.”

  Mr. Soneji greeted a couple of the students by name as he quickly made his way to Ms. Kim’s desk.

  The two teachers then spoke privately at the front desk. Ms. Kim had her back to the class. She was nodding a lot, not saying much. She seemed tiny standing next to Mr. Soneji, who was over six feet tall.

  Finally, Ms. Kim turned to the children. “Maggie Rose and Michael Goldberg? Could the two of you please come up front? Bring your things if you would.”

  Maggie Rose and Michael exchanged puzzled glances. What was this all about? They gathered their belongings, and then headed to the front to find out. The other kids had begun whispering, even talking out loud in the classroom.

  “Okay. Put a lock on it. This isn’t recess,” Ms. Kim quieted them. “This is still class. Please have some respect for the rules we’ve all agreed to live by here.”

  When they got to the front of the classroom, Mr. Soneji crouched down to talk privately to Maggie and Michael. Shrimpie Goldberg was at least four inches shorter than Maggie Rose.

  “There’s a little problem, but it’s nothing to worry about.” Mr. Soneji was calm and very gentle with the children. “Everything is basically fine. There’s just a little glitch, that’s all. Everything is okay, though.”

  “I don’t think so,” Michael Goldberg said, shaking his head. “What’s this little so-called glitch all about?”

  Maggie Rose didn’t say anything yet. She was feeling afraid for some reason. Something had happened. Something was definitely wrong. She could feel it in the pit of her stomach. Her mom always told her she had too active an imagination, so she tried to look cool, act cool, be cool.

  “We just received a phone call from the Secret Service,” said Ms. Kim.” They’ve gotten a threat. It concerns both you and Maggie. It’s probably a crank call. But we’re going to hustle you both home as a precaution. Just a safety precaution. You guys know the drill.”

  “I’m sure you’ll both be back before lunch,” Mr. Soneji added in support, though he didn’t sound too convincing.

  “What kind of threat?” Maggie Rose asked Mr. Soneji. “Against Michael’s father? Or does it have to do with my mom?”

  Mr. Soneji patted Maggie’s arm. Time and again, the teachers at the private school were amazed at how grown-up most of these kids were.

  “Oh, the usual kind we get now and then. Big talk, no action. Just some jerk looking for attention, I’m sure. Some creep.” Mr. Soneji made an exaggerated face. He showed just the right amount of concern, but he made the kids feel secure.

  “Then why do we have to go all the way home to Potomac, for crying out loud?” Michael Goldberg grimaced and gesticulated like a miniature courtroom lawyer. In many ways he was a cartoon version of his famous father, the secretary.

  “Just to be on the safe side. Okay? Enough said. I’m not going to have a debate with you, Michael. Are we ready to travel?” Mr. Soneji was nice, but firm.

  “Not really.” Michael continued to frown and shake his head. “No way, José Canseco. Seriously, Mr. Soneji. This isn’t fair. It isn’t right. Why can’t the Secret Service come here and stay till school’s over?”

  “That’s not the way they want to do it,” Mr. Soneji said. “I don’t make up the rules.”

  “I guess we’re ready,” said Maggie.” C’mon, Michael. Stop arguing. This is a done deal.”

  “It’s a done deal.” Ms. Kim offered a helpful smile. “ I’ll send over your homework assignments.”

  Both Maggie Rose and Michael started to laugh. “Thank you, Ms. Kim!” they said in unison. Leave it to Ms. Kim to have a good joke to fit the situation.

  The halls outside the classroom were nearly empty, and very quiet. A porter, a black man named Emmett Everett, was the only person who saw the trio as they left the school building.

  Leaning on his broom, Mr. Everett watched Mr. Soneji and the two children walk the length of the long hallway. He was the last person to see them all together.

  Once outside, they hurried across the school’s cobblestoned parking lot, which was framed by elegant birch trees and shrubbery. Michael’s shoes made clicking noises against the stones.

  “Dork shoes.” Maggie Rose leaned into him and made a joke. “Look like dork shoes, act like dork shoes, sound like dork shoes.”

  Michael had no argument. What could he say? His mother and father still bought his clothes at freaking Brooks Brothers. “What am I supposed to be wearing, Miss Gloria Vanderbilt? Pink sneakers?” he offered lamely.

  “Sure, pink sneakers.” Maggie beamed. “Or lime green Air-outs. But not shoes for a funeral, Shrimpster.”

  Mr. Soneji led the children to a late-model blue van parked under elm and oak trees that went the length of the administration building and school gym. Nonsynchronous bouncing basketballs echoed from inside the gym.

  “The two of you can jump right in back here. Upsy-daisy. There we go,” he said. The teacher helped boost them up and into the back of the van. His eyeglasses kept slipping down his nose. Finally, he just took them off.

  “You’re driving us home?” Michael asked.

  “I know it’s no Mercedes stretch, but it’ll have to do, Sir Michael. I’m just following the instructions we got on the phone. I spoke to a Mr. Chakely.”

  “Jolly Chollie.” Michael used his nickname for the Secret Service agent.

  Mr. Soneji climbed inside the blue van himself. He pulled the sliding door shut with a bang.

  “Just be a sec. Make a little room for you guys here.” He rummaged through cardboard boxes stacked toward the front of the van. The van was a mess. It was the antithesis of the orderly, almost compartmentalized, math teacher’s style in school. “Sit anywhere, kids.” He kept talking while he looked for something.

  When he turned again, Gary Soneji was wearing a scary, rubbery-looking black mask. He held some kind of metal implement in front of his chest. It looked like a miniature fire extinguisher, only it was more sci-fi than that.

  “Mr. Soneji?” Maggie Rose asked, her voice rising in pitch. “Mr. Soneji!” She threw her hands in front of her face. “You’re frightening us. Stop kidding around!”

  Soneji was pointing the small metal nozzle right at Maggie Rose and Michael. He took a fast step toward them. He planted both of his rubber-soled black brogans firmly.

  “What’s that thing?” Michael said, not even sure why he said it.

  “Hey, I give up. Take a whiff, boy genius. You tell me.”

  Soneji hit them with a blast of chloroform spray. He kept his finger on the trigger for a full ten seconds. Both children were covered with mist as they collapsed into the back seat of the van.

  “Out, out, bright lights,” Mr. Soneji said in the quietest, gentlest voice. “Now no one will ever know.” That was the beauty of it. No one would ever know the truth.

  Soneji climbed into the front and fired up the blue van. As he drove from the parking area, he sang “Magic Bus” by The Who. He was in an awfully good mood today. He was planning to be America’s first serial kidnapper, among other things.

  CHAPTER 5

  I GOT an “emergency” call at the Sanders house at about quarter to eleven. I didn’t want to talk to anybody with more emergencies.

  I had just spent ten minutes with the news folks. At the time of the project murders, some of the newsies were my buddies. I was a press pet. I’d even been featured in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine section. I talked about the murder rate among black people in D.C. once again. This past year there had been nearly five hundred killings in our capital. Only eighteen victims were white. A couple of reporters actually made a note of that. Progress.

>   I took the phone from a young, smart S.I.T. detective, Rakeem Powell. I was absently palming a biddy basketball that must have belonged to Mustaf. The ball gave me a funny feeling. Why murder a beautiful little boy like that? I couldn’t come up with an answer. Not so far, anyway.

  “It’s The Jefe, the chief.” Rakeem frowned. “He’s concerned.”

  “This is Cross,” I said into the Sanders telephone. My head was still spinning. I wanted to get this conversation over with real fast.

  The mouthpiece smelled of cheap musk perfume. Poo’s or Suzette’s fragrance, maybe both of theirs. On a table near the phone were photos of Mustaf in a heart-shaped frame. Made me think of my own two kids.

  “This is Chief of Detectives Pittman. What’s the situation over there?”

  “I think we have a serial killer. Mother, daughter, a little boy. Second family in less than a week. Electricity was shut off in the house. He likes to work in the dark.” I ticked off a few gory details for Pittman. That was usually enough for him. The chief would leave me alone with this one. Homicides in Southeast don’t count for much in the greater scheme.

  A beat or two of uneasy silence followed. I could see the Sanders family Christmas tree in the TV room. It had been decorated with obvious care: tinsel, shiny dime-store decorations, strings of cranberries and popcorn. There was a homemade tinfoil angel on top.

  “I heard it was a dealer got hit. Dealer and two prostitutes,” The Jefe said.

  “No, that’s not true,” I said to Pittman. “They’ve got a nice Christmas tree up.”

  “Sure it is. Don’t bullshit me, Alex. Not today. Not right now.”

  If he was trying to get a rise out of me, he got one.

  “One victim is a three-year-old little boy in his pajamas. He may have been dealing. I’ll check into it.”

  I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t say a lot of things. Lately, I’d been feeling I was on the edge of exploding. Lately means for about three years or so.

 
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