Along came a spider, p.9
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       Along Came a Spider, p.9

         Part #1 of Alex Cross series by James Patterson
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  I could just imagine the scene at the FBI crisis room on 10th Street. As many as a couple of dozen VIPs would be crowded in there. Each of them would have his own desk and a closed-circuit TV monitor. The aerial photography of Walt Disney World would be playing on all the monitors at once. The room’s Big Board would be filled with facts… exactly how many agents and other personnel were converging on the park at that moment. The number of exits. Every roadway in or out. Weather conditions. Size of the day’s crowd. Number of Disney security people. But probably nothing about Gary Soneji or Maggie Rose, or we would have heard about it.

  “I’m going to Disney World!” One of the agents on board the plane cracked a joke. The pretty typical cop talk got some nervous laughter. Breaking the tension was good, and hard to achieve under the difficult circumstances.

  The whole notion of meeting up with a madman and a kidnapped little girl wasn’t a nice one. Neither was the cold reality of the holiday crowds waiting for us at Disney World. We were told that more than seventy thousand people were already inside the theme park and its parking areas. Still, this would be our best chance to get Soneji. This might be our only chance.

  We rode to the Magic Kingdom in a special caravan, a police escort with flashing lights and sirens. We took the breakdown lane on I-4, passing all the regular traffic coming in from the airport.

  People packed into station wagons and minivans jeered or cheered our speedy progress. None of them had any idea who we were, or why we were rushing to Disney World. Just VIPs going to see Mickey and Minnie.

  We got off at exit 26-A, then proceeded along World Drive to the auto plaza. We arrived inside the parking area at a little past 12:15 P.M. That was cutting it extremely close, but Soneji hadn’t given us time to organize.

  Why Disney World? I kept trying to understand. Because Gary Soneji had always wanted to go there as a kid, and had never been allowed? Because he appreciated the almost neurotic efficiency of the well-run amusement park?

  It would have been relatively easy for Gary Soneji to get into Disney World. But how was he going to get out? That was the most intriguing question of all.

  CHAPTER 23

  SENIOR DISNEY attendants parked our cars in the Pluto section, row 24. A fiberglass tram was waiting there to pick us up and take us to the ferry.

  “Why do you think Soneji asked for you?” Bill Thompson said as we were getting out of the car. “Any idea at all, Alex?”

  “Maybe he heard about me in the news stories back in Washington,” I said. “Maybe he knows I’m a psychologist and that caught his attention. I’ll be sure to ask him about that. When I see him.”

  “Just take it easy with him,” Thompson

  offered some advice. “All we want is the girl back.”

  “That’s all I want,” I told him. We were both exaggerating. We wanted Maggie Rose safe, but we also wanted to capture Soneji. We wanted to burn him here at Disney World.

  Thompson put his arm around my shoulder as we stood in the parking area. There was some nice camaraderie for a change. Sampson, and also Jezzie Flanagan, wished me good luck. The FBI agents were being supportive, for the time being at least.

  “How’re you feeling?” Sampson pulled me aside for a moment. “You all right with all this shit? He asked for you, but you don’t have to go.”

  “I’m fine. He’s not going to hurt me. I’m used to psychos, remember?”

  “You are a psycho, my man.”

  I took the single suitcase with the ransom inside. I climbed onto the bright orange tram alone. Holding tightly to an overhead metal stirrup, I headed toward the Magic Kingdom, where I was to make the exchange for Maggie Rose Dunne.

  It was 12:44 P.M. I was six minutes early.

  No one paid much attention to me as I moved with the congealed flow of people toward rows of ticket booths and turnstiles at the Magic Kingdom Ticket Center. Why should they?

  That had to be Soneji’s idea for choosing the crowded location. I clutched the suitcase tighter. I felt that as long as I had the ransom, I had a safety line to Maggie Rose.

  Had he dared to bring the little girl with him? Was he here himself? Or was all this a test for us? Anything was possible now.

  The mood of the Disney World crowd was lighthearted and relaxed. These were mostly family vacationers, having fun under the bright cornflower-blue skies. A pleasant announcer’s voice was chanting: “Take small children by the hand, do not forget your personal belongings, and enjoy your stay at the Magic Kingdom.”

  No matter how jaded you might be, the fantasyland was captivating. Everything was incredibly clean and safe. You couldn’t help feeling completely protected, which was so goddamned weird for me.

  Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Snow White greeted everybody at the front gates. The park was immaculate. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” played from loudspeakers cleverly hidden somewhere in the manicured shrubbery.

  I could feel my heart pounding under a loose-fitting sport shirt. I was out of touch with all my backup for the moment. It would be that way until I was physically in the Magic Kingdom.

  The palms of my hands were clammy, and I wiped them against my trousers. Mickey Mouse was shaking hands right in front of me. This was nuts.

  I had just entered an area of deep shadows cast from the Transportation and Ticket Center. The ferry was visible, a miniature Mississippi riverboat, without the paddle wheel.

  A man wearing a sport jacket and brimmed hat slid alongside me. I didn’t know if it was Soneji. The sense of Disney World’s safety and protection was broken immediately.

  “Change of plans, Alex. I’ll take you to see Maggie Rose now. Keep looking straight ahead, please. You’re doing super so far. Just keep it up and we’re home safe.”

  A six-foot-tall Cinderella walked past us, heading in the opposite direction. Children and adults oohed and aahed at her.

  “Just turn around now, Alex. We’re going to walk back the same way you came in. This can be a day at the beach. It’s up to you, my friend.”

  He was perfectly calm and in control, the way Soneji had been throughout the kidnapping. There was as aura of invincibility around everything so far. He had called me Alex. We began to walk back against the flow of the crowd.

  Cinderella’s coiffed head of blond curls bobbed along ahead of us. Children laughed with delight as they saw the movie and cartoon heroine come to life.

  “I have to see Maggie Rose first” was the only thing I said to the man in the brimmed hat. Could he be Soneji in disguise? I couldn’t tell. I needed to get a better look at him.

  “That’s fine. But if anyone stops us, I’ll tell you right now, the girl is dead.” Brimmed Hat said it offhandedly, as if he was giving a stranger the time of day.

  “No one’s going to stop us,” I assured him. “Our only concern is the girl’s safety.”

  I hoped that was true for all the parties involved. I’d seen Katherine and Tom Dunne briefly that morning. I knew that all they cared about was getting their little girl back tonight.

  Perspiration had begun to stream down my entire body. I had no control over that. The temperature was only in the mid-eighties, but the humidity was high.

  I had started to worry about an inadvertent screw-up. Anything could go wrong here. It wasn’t as if we’d practiced this maneuver, right in the heart of Disney World and its unpredictable crowds.

  “Listen. If the FBI sees me coming outside, somebody might approach us,” I decided to tell the man.

  “I hope not,” he said and made a tsking sound. He shook his head back and forth. “That would be a serious breach of etiquette.”

  Whoever he was, he was unnaturally cool under fire. Had he done this before? I wondered. It seemed to me that we were headed back in the direction of the rows of orange trams. One of the trams would take us back to the parking area again. Was that the plan?

  The man was too heavyset to be Soneji, I thought. Unless he had on some kind of brilliant disguise and lots of padding. The actor angle ca
me to mind again. I hoped to God he wasn’t an imposter. Someone who’d found out what was going on in Florida, then contacted us to go for the ransom. It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened in a kidnapping case.

  “Federal Bureau! Hands high!” I heard suddenly. It all happened gunshot-quick. My heart went up into my throat. What the hell were they doing? What were they thinking?

  “Federal Bureau!”

  Half-a-dozen agents had us surrounded in the parking lot. They had their revolvers out. At least one rifle was aimed at the contact man, and therefore at me.

  Agent Bill Thompson was there with the others. We only want to get the girl back, he’d said to me just moments ago.

  “Back away! Back off!” I lost it and yelled at them. “Get the hell away from us! Get out of here!”

  I looked directly at Brimmed Hat now. It couldn’t be Gary Soneji. I was almost certain of that. Whoever it was didn’t care if he was recognized or even photographed in Orlando.

  Why was that? How could this guy be so cool?

  “If you take me, the girl’s dead,” he said to the FBI agents surrounding us. He was stone-cold. His eyes looked dead. “There’s nothing that’ll stop it from happening. I can’t do a thing. Neither can you. She’s dead meat.”

  “Is she alive now?” Thompson took a step toward the man. He looked as if he might hit him, which was what we all wanted to do.

  “She’s alive. I saw her about two hours ago. She was home free unless you fucked this up. Which you’re doing big time. Now back off, just like the detective said. Back the fuck off, man.”

  “How do we know you’re partners with Soneji?” Thompson asked.

  “One. Ten million. Two. Disney World, Orlando—The Magic Kingdom. Three. Park at Pluto 24.” He reeled off the exact wording from the ransom message.

  Thompson stood his ground. “We’ll negotiate for the girl’s release. Negotiate. You do it our way.”

  “What? And kill the girl?” Jezzie Flanagan had come up directly behind Thompson and the rest of the FBI posse.

  “Put your guns down,” she said firmly. “Let Detective Cross make the exchange. If you do it your way and the girl dies, I’ll tell every reporter in the country. I swear I will, Thompson. I swear to God I will.”

  “So will I,” I said to the FBI special agent. “You have my word on it.”

  “This isn’t him. It isn’t Soneji,” Thompson finally said. He looked at Agent Scorse and shook his head in disgust. “Let them go,” he ordered. “Cross and the ransom go to Soneji. That’s the decision.”

  The icy contact man and I started to walk again—I was shaking. People were staring at us as we continued our trip toward the orange motor-trams. I felt completely unreal. Moments later we were inside one of the trams. We both sat down.

  “Assholes,” the contact man muttered. It was his first sign of any emotion. “They almost blew everything.”

  We stopped at a new Nissan Z in Section Donald, row 6. The car was dark blue, with tinted gray glass. No one was inside the sports car.

  Brimmed Hat started the car, and we made our way out toward I-4 again. Traffic leaving the park at noon was almost nonexistent. A day at the beach, he’d say.

  We headed back in the direction of Orlando International. Due East. I tried to get him to talk, but he had nothing to say to me.

  Maybe he wasn’t so cool and collected. Maybe he’d been scared shitless back there, too. The Bureau had almost blown everything; it wouldn’t be the first time. Actually, the move at the park was probably no more than a bluff. As I thought about it, I realized it was their last chance to negotiate for the release of Maggie Rose Dunne.

  A little more than half an hour had passed before we entered a private-plane annex a few miles beyond Orlando’s main terminal. It was past one-thirty now. The exchange wasn’t going to be in Disney World.

  “The note promised this would be over by one-fifteen,” I said as we climbed out of the Nissan. A warm tropical breeze blew at us across the airfield. The smells of diesel fuel and baking macadam were thick.

  “The note lied,” he said. He was as cold as ice again. “That’s our plane. It’s just you and me now. Try to be smarter than the FBI, Alex. It shouldn’t be too hard.”

  CHAPTER 24

  “SIT BACK, relax, and enjoy the ride,” he said once we were on board. “Seems like I’m your friendly pilot, too. Well, maybe not so friendly.”

  He handcuffed me to an armrest of one of the plane’s four passenger seats. Another hostage taken, I thought. Maybe I could jerk the armrest out. It was metal and plastic. Flimsy enough.

  The contact man was definitely the plane’s pilot. He got clearance, and then the Cessna bumped on down the runway, gathering speed slowly. Finally it lifted off and was airborne, banking to the southeast, drifting out over the eastern section of Orlando and St. Petersburg. I was sure we were under surveillance thus far. From here on, though, everything depended on the contact man. And on Soneji’s master plan.

  The two of us were silent for the first few minutes of flight. I settled back and watched him work, trying to remember every detail of the flight so far. He was efficient and relaxed at the controls. There were still no signs of stress. A professional all the way.

  A strange possible connection entered my mind. We were in Florida now, heading further south. A Columbian drug cartel had originally threatened Secretary Goldberg’s family. Was that a coincidence? I didn’t believe in coincidences anymore.

  A rule of police work, especially police work in my experience, was passing back and forth through my mind. An important rule. Fully ninety-five percent of crimes were solved because somebody made a mistake. Soneji hadn’t made any mistakes so far. He hadn’t left us any openings. Now was the time for mistakes. The exchange would be a difficult time for him.

  “This has all been planned with a lot of precision,” I said to Brimmed Hat. The plane was gliding farther out over the Atlantic now. Toward what destination? To make the final exchange for Maggie Rose?

  “You’re so right. Everything’s tight-assed as can be. You wouldn’t believe how buttoned-up things are.”

  “Is the little girl really all right?” I asked him again.

  “I told you, I saw her this morning. She hasn’t been harmed,” he said. “Not a hair on her chinny-chin-chin.”

  “That’s real hard for me to believe,” I said. I remembered the way we found Michael Goldberg.

  The pilot shrugged his broad shoulders. “Believe what the hell you want.” He didn’t really care what I thought.

  “Michael Goldberg was sexually abused. Why should we believe the girl’s unharmed?” I said.

  He looked at me. I had a gut feeling he hadn’t known about the Goldberg boy’s condition. It seemed to me that he wasn’t a partner of Soneji’s, that Gary Soneji wouldn’t have any real partners. The pilot had to be hired help, which meant we had a chance of getting Maggie Rose.

  “Michael Goldberg was beaten after he was dead,” I told him. “He was sodomized. Just so you know what you’re involved in. Who your partner is.”

  For some reason, that caused the man to grin. “Okay. No more helpful hints or annoying questions. Much as I appreciate your concern. Enjoy the ride. The girl hasn’t been beaten, or sexually abused. You have my word as a gentleman.”

  “Is that what you are? Anyway, you can’t know that,” I said. “You haven’t seen her since this morning. You don’t know what Soneji’s been up to, off by himself. Whatever his real name is.”

  “Yeah, well, we all have to trust our partners. You just sit back and button up. Trust me. Due to a shortage of crew, there will be no complimentary beverage or snack on this flight.”

  Why was he so goddamn calm? He was too sure of himself.

  Could there have been other kidnappings before this one? Maybe there had been a trial run somewhere? At least it was something to check. If I was going to be able to check anything after this was over.

  I leaned back for a moment a
nd let my eyes wander down below. We were out over the ocean. I looked at my watch—a little more than thirty minutes from Orlando so far. The sea looked choppy, even with the bright, sunny weather. An occasional cloud cast its shadow down on the stony-looking water surface. The wavering outline of the plane appeared and disappeared. The Bureau had to be tracking us on radar, but the pilot would know that, too. He didn’t seem concerned. It was a terrifying game of cat and mouse. How would the contact man react? Where were Soneji and Maggie Rose? Where were we going to make the exchange?

  “Where’d you learn to fly?” I asked. “In Vietnam?” I’d been wondering about that. He seemed the right age, mid-to-late forties, though badly gone to seed. I’d treated some Viet vets who would be cynical enough to get involved in a kidnapping.

  He wasn’t bothered by the question, but he didn’t answer me, either.

  It was peculiar. He still didn’t seem nervous or concerned. One of the kidnapped children was already dead. Why was he so smug and relaxed? What did he know that I didn’t? Who was Gary Soneji? Who was he? What was their connection?

  About half an hour later, the Cessna started to descend toward a small island that was ringed by white sand beaches. I had no idea where we were. Somewhere in the Bahamas, maybe? Was the FBI still with us? Tracking us from the sky? Or had he lost them somehow?

  “What’s the name of the island down there? Where are we? Nothing I can do about it at this point.”

  “This is Little Abaco,” he finally answered. “Is anyone tracking us? The Fibbers? Electronic tracking? Bug on you somewhere?”

  “No,” I said. “No bugs. Nothing up my sleeve.”

  “Something they put on the money, maybe?” He seemed to know all the possibilities. “Fluorescent dust?”

  “Not that I know of,” I said. That much was true. I couldn’t be certain, though. The FBI might have not told me everything.

  “I sure hope not. Hard to trust you people after what went on at Disney World. Place was crawling with cops and FBI. After we told you not to. Can’t trust anybody nowadays.”

 
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