- Published: 17 November 2020
- ISBN: 9781780899497
- Imprint: Century
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $32.99
(Alex Cross 28)
DEVON MONROE TORE HIS EYES off the two dead bodies in the powder-blue Bentley convertible, top down, idling not twenty yards away, and glanced at his best friend.
“No movement,” Devon said.
“Lights out,” said Lever Ashford, nodding.
“I don’t know, Lever. This is high profile. Know what I mean?”
Lever said, “C’mon, Dev. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, straight-up gift from God on top of everything else. We slip in. We slide out. See Waffles. No one knows.”
“I’m telling you, damn white folks get hung for less. Now let’s get out of here.”
Lever snarled, “You owe me, brother, or have you forgotten?”
The young men were both sixteen, African-American, and had their dark hoodies up. It was four fifteen in the morning, and they were standing in the shadows cast by the Harrison Charter High School in Garfield Heights in Southeast Washington, DC. The parking lot behind the school was dead silent except for their whispers.
Devon grimaced, struggled, but finally said, “Just don’t get prints on nothing.”
“Why we got them,” Lever said, smiling as he groped in his back pocket for two pairs of thin surgical gloves.
They put them on, scanned the area, and saw no movement anywhere around the school, not in the parking lot or on the track and football field.
“Forty-five seconds and we’re gone,” Devon said. “I’m serious.”
Lever bumped his fist. “Forty-five.”
They walked right up to the Bentley, Lever at the driver’s door, Devon going around to the other side. He skidded to a halt by the passenger door, feeling not fear but horror. “I don’t know if I can do this, man.”
“Do it! Take what’s rightfully yours, brother!”
DEVON FELT LIKE HE MIGHT puke but took one step, leaned over, and reached into the back seat, not letting his shirt or pants touch the Bentley in any way.
He tried to keep his eyes off the woman sprawled there, half naked and dead. Lever, however, stared right into the eyes of the dead man lying next to her as he slipped his surgical-gloved hand into his tuxedo jacket. He looked at the man’s pants around his ankles, sniffed disdainfully.
“Freak bastard,” Lever said. “Serves you right, getting shot like this.”
On the other side of the Bentley, Devon smelled a coppery odor and it sickened him. Blood, he thought, trying not to breathe through his nose as he felt for the woman’s hands, found a bigrock ring, and worked it off her finger. The bracelets, two on the left, one behind the watch on the right, came off quicker than he’d expected.
Devon was about to call it good when he saw the pale glow of the pearl necklace around her neck. He tilted her head forward, found the clasp, slipped it off, and slid it into his pocket.
“Thirty-eight seconds,” Lever whispered from the other side of the car. “I’m done. Watch and wallet.”
“Right behind you,” Devon said. He tugged the pearls from the dead woman’s ears and laid her head back on the seat.
“Alley now,” Lever said, pivoting.
They heard scuffling in the gravel behind them. They took off at a sprint and dodged through a hole in the fence into a dark alley, where they stopped to look back. Someone was heading toward the car.
They ran the length of the alley, slowed to a walk across Alabama Avenue, then kept on at a faster pace toward Fort Circle Park. Forty minutes later, as the boys were reaching home, they heard sirens begin to wail back at the school.
IT WAS SEVEN THIRTY IN the morning, and I was standing at the bottom of a granite cliff on Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, looking dubiously up at the cracks in the wall and the ropes dangling beside them.
“Biggest one yet, Dad!” said my ten-year-old son, Ali, who stood to my right wearing a white rock helmet and a climbing harness over his T-shirt and shorts.
“You think?” his sister said. Jannie, my seventeen-year-old, was kneeling to my left, retying her climbing shoe.
The man beside her, who was going through a knapsack, said, “Definitely. It’s six stories and technically more challenging. And the rappel down’s a screamer.”
“It’s a screamer, Dad!” Ali said.
“No screamers,” I said. “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re screaming, you’re falling, so no screamers.”
“Sorry, Dr. Cross,” the man said, setting the bag down. “It just means you can take bigger leaps before you tighten up on the rack coming down.”
“I’ll be good, Tom, and locked into my rack, thank you,” I said.
Tom Mury grinned and clapped me on the back. “It’s just cool to see someone like you willing to go on rope.”
“Someone like me?” I said.
“Six two? Two twenty-five? Forties?”
“With all the hiking we’ve been doing, I’m two twenty.”
“It’s still impressive to see a guy your size going up.”
“He is at a disadvantage,” Ali said. “So is Jannie.”
“Nope,” my daughter said, standing. “I’m stronger and got longer arms and legs than you do.”
“Helps to be small and crafty if you want to be a human fly,” Ali said.
“Sometimes,” Mury said. “Who’s up first?”
For the past four days, we’d been taking a course with Mury, who was a certified rock-climbing instructor. It was Ali’s idea, of course, the newest of his obsessions, and Jannie had expressed interest in it right away.
To be honest, I had been less enthusiastic, but with Jannie entering her senior year of high school in two months and her college years looming, I was trying to lead a more balanced life, focusing more on my family and less on murder and mayhem. So I agreed to join them.
We’d been bouldering and climbing less sheer rock for the past two days. Though we’d all spent time prior to the course learning the basics in a climbing gym in Northern Virginia, this would be the first time we had climbed an actual cliff.
“I’ll go!” Ali said, stepping forward.
“Sisters first,” Jannie said.
While my son pouted, Jannie went to the rope and watched Mury intently as he linked her to the line with a small mechanical device called a jumar that was already tied to her harness. The jumar would allow the rope to slip through only when Jannie ascended. If she fell off the rock, the device would lock her in place on the rope.
“Just like we talked about yesterday,” Mury said. “We’re not trusting the jumar, are we?”
“I’ll work the Prusik knot, too, and the cow’s-tail all the way up.”
He picked up the other rope and called, “On belay.”
Jannie turned all business, said, “On rope. Climbing.”
WATCHING YOUR CHILD CLIMB A sheer face, even roped in, is an experience somewhere between breathtaking and panic-inducing. At least that’s how I felt seeing Jannie boldly ascend the cliff, sure with her hands and feet, using her safety gear exactly the way Mury had taught us.
“Great job!” Mury called when she disappeared over the top.
Ali and I clapped and whistled, and unseen high above us, Jannie let loose a scream of triumph.
“I’m on now!” Ali said.
My son was less sure as he climbed, but every time he stalled and tried to figure out his next move, Mury would shout up some encouragement or instruction. Twenty minutes after he began, Ali disappeared over the top.
“I am the human fly!” I heard him shout.
Mury laughed. “Your kid’s a piece of work, Dr. Cross.”
“Call me Alex, and he is that.” I chuckled. “He never ceases to amaze me.”
My stomach did a little flip-flop, I’ll admit it. Heights aren’t my thing, but once I commit to something, I commit.
“As I’ll ever be,” I said, going to the rope.
Mury helped rig me. As I climbed, I’d work the jumar on the main line and the Prusik knot on the rope beside it. Like the mechanical device, the knot allowed a rope to pass through only in one direction. Any weight on the safety rope attached to my harness, and the knot would cause it to cinch tight. In the unlikely failure of the jumar, the Prusik would save me a long and potentially fatal fall.
“Enjoy yourself, Doc,” Mury said. “On belay!”
“On rope!” I called back. “Climbing.”
I made it to the top, and I wish I could say it was through a series of well-calculated and smoothly executed moves, but it wasn’t. My climb was tentative and clunky, and I was immediately aware that my hip and shoulder joints weren’t as loose as they needed to be.
“You’re killing it,” Mury called to me when I’d gotten up twenty feet.
“Doesn’t feel like it.”
“What do you need?”
“How about a crash course in yoga?” I said, sweat pouring off me.
“Look for hand-and footholds in your range of motion,” he said. “Remember, not everyone climbs the exact same route. This is about you adapting to the wall.”
“C’mon, Dad!” Ali called.
“You got this!” Jannie cried.
I looked up to see them still some three stories above me, peering over the edge of the cliff. They had such joyous grins on their faces that I was inspired to keep climbing, slow and steady, trying to do everything by the book.
At forty feet, I said, “My hands are cramping. Gimme a second to rest.”
“Use your cow’s-tail,” Mury said. “Tie into that wall nut on your right.”
I reached around, grabbed the short rope with a carabiner dangling off my right hip, and clipped it to the loop of steel linked to a block of steel jammed into a crack in the cliff. Now supported by three lines, I could relax a minute and stretch my fingers and knead my palms.
“How’s the view?” Mury said.
I looked over my shoulder at the lower flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a perfect sea of midsummer green shimmering in the morning light behind and below me. It was kind of thrilling, I decided, to be dangling off the side of a cliff for no reason, enjoying the beauty of nature. I smiled, looked down, and said, “Okay, I’m starting to get the attraction of this.”
Our instructor threw me a thumbs-up, said, “I told you—it’s an acquired taste and then an addiction.”
I doubted the latter would be the case, but I enjoyed the rest of the climb, finding myself thinking more about the mechanics of it than the dangers. A half an hour after I left the ground, Mury’s assistant, Carley Jo Warner, helped me up over the edge.
“Well done,” she said.
“I almost dislocated my hip a few times, but thanks,” I said, gasping. I sat still as she disconnected me from the ropes. When she was done, I lay down on my back with a silly grin on my face.
“Wasn’t that great?” Ali said, giving me a high five.
“Not at first,” I said. “But yes, eventually it was fun.”
“I can take you to a yoga class, Dad,” Jannie said.
“I’m not exactly built to be a human pretzel, but I’ll think about it.”
Before either of them could reply, my cell phone rang, which surprised me, as we’d had no service at the bottom of the cliff.
I got it out of my shirt pocket and saw my wife, Bree Stone, was calling from her DC Metro Police phone. Bree was chief of detectives and had been under a lot of stress lately.
There’d been a string of unsolved rapes and murders in the DC area, and in just the past week, in two separate incidents, two vocal and well-connected lobbyists had been shot at in Georgetown. To make it worse, there was a new commissioner of police, and everyone’s job, including Bree’s, was on the line.
I got to my feet and answered on the third ring. “Human fly here.”
Bree said, “We’ve got a double homicide, and I want you involved.”
“You know both victims,” she said, and she gave me their names and location.
I felt my stomach lurch and my knees wobble in disbelief and grief. In my mind, I saw them both as I’d last seen them, felt their loss like a blow to the head.
“I’m sorry, Alex.”
“Thanks. I’ll use the bubble and be there in two hours, tops.”
“I won’t be there. Another meeting with the commissioner.”
“Hang tough. You’re still the woman for the job.”
“We’ll see,” she said, and she hung up.
I looked at my kids. “Sorry, guys.”
“It’s okay,” Jannie said. “We’ve had three and a half days and lots of fun.” Ali nodded, and somehow their understanding made me feel even worse about cutting our time short.
“We will be back,” I promised, then I looked at Mury, who’d just reached the top. “Can you teach us how to do screaming rappels? We have to go.”
“Screamers.” Mury smiled. “I can do that.”