Read an Extract from Cross Justice (Alex Cross 23) by James Patterson

Read an Extract from Cross Justice (Alex Cross 23) by James Patterson

Chapter 1

WHEN I SAW THE ROAD sign that said we were ten miles from Starksville, North Carolina, my breath turned shallow, my heartbeat sped up, and an irrationally dark and oppressive feeling came over me.

My wife, Bree, was sitting in the passenger seat of our Ford Explorer and must have noticed. “You okay, Alex?” she asked.

I tried to shrug the sensations off, said, “A great novelist of North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe, wrote that you can’t go home again. I’m just wondering if it’s true.”

“Why can’t we go home again, Dad?” Ali, my soon-to-be seven-year-old son, asked from the backseat.

“It’s just an expression,” I said. “If you grow up in a small town and then move away to a big city, things are never the same when you go back. That’s all.”

“Oh,” Ali said, and he returned to the game he was playing on his iPad.

I tried to shrug the sensations off, said, “A great novelist of North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe, wrote that you can’t go home again. I’m just wondering if it’s true.”

My fifteen-year-old daughter, Jannie, who’d been sullen most of the long drive down from DC, said, “You’ve never been back here, Dad? Not once?”

“Nope,” I replied, glancing in the rearview mirror. “Not in . . . how long, Nana?”

“Thirty-five years,” said my tiny ninety-something grandmother, Regina Cross. She sat in the backseat between my two kids, straining to look outside. “We’ve kept in touch with the extended family, but things just never worked out to come back down.”

“Until now,” Bree said, and I could feel her gaze on me.

My wife and I are both detectives with the DC Metro Police, and I knew I was being scrutinized by a pro.

Really not wanting to reopen the “discussion” we’d been having the past few days, I said firmly, “The captain ordered us to take time off and get away, and blood is thicker than water.”

“We could have gone to the beach.” Bree sighed. “Jamaica again.”

“I like Jamaica,” Ali said.

“Instead, we’re going to the mountains,” I said.

“How long will we have to be here?” Jannie groaned.

“As long as my cousin’s trial lasts,” I said.

“That could be, like, a month!” she cried.

“Probably not,” I said. “But maybe.”

“God, Dad, how am I going to stay in any kind of shape for the fall season?”

My daughter, a gifted track athlete, had become obsessive about her workouts since winning a major race earlier in the summer.

“You’re getting to work out twice a week with an AAU-sanctioned team out of Raleigh,” I said. “They come right to the high school track here to train at altitude. Your coach even said it would be good for you to run at altitude, so please, no more about your training. We’ve got it covered.”

“How much attitude is Starksville?” Ali asked.

“Altitude,” corrected Nana Mama, a former English teacher and high school vice principal. “It means the height of something above the sea.”

“We’ll be at least two thousand feet above sea level,” I said, and then I pointed up the road toward the vague silhouettes of mountains. “Higher up there behind those ridges.”

Jannie stayed quiet several moments, then said, “Is Stefan innocent?” I thought about the charges. Stefan Tate was a gym teacher accused of torturing and killing a thirteen-year-old boy named Rashawn Turnbull. He was also the son of my late mother’s sister and—

“Dad?” Ali said. “Is he innocent?”

“Scootchie thinks so,” I replied.

“I like Scootchie,” Jannie said.

“I do too,” I replied, glancing at Bree. “So when she calls, I come.”

Naomi “Scootchie” Cross is the daughter of my late brother Aaron. Years ago, when Naomi was in law school at Duke University, she was kidnapped by a murderer and sadist who called himself Casanova. I’d been blessed enough to find and rescue her, and the ordeal forged a bond between us that continues to this day.

We passed a narrow field heavy with corn on our right, and a mature pine plantation on our left.

Deep in my memory, I recognized the place and felt queasy because I knew that at the far end of the cornfield there would be a sign welcoming me back to a town that had torn my heart out, a place I’d spent a lifetime trying to forget.

Chapter 2

I REMEMBERED THE SIGN that marked the boundary of my troubled childhood as being wooden, faded, and choked by kudzu. But now the sign was embossed metal, fairly new, and free of strangling weeds.

welcome to starksville, nc population 21,010

Beyond the sign we passed two long-abandoned, brickwalled factories. Windowless and falling into ruin, the crumbling structures were surrounded by chain-link fences with notices of condemnation hanging off them. In the recesses of my brain, I remembered that shoes had once been produced in the first factory, and bedsheets in the other. I knew that because my mother had worked in the sheet mill when I was a little boy, before she succumbed to cigarettes, booze, drugs, and, ultimately, lung cancer.

I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw from my grandmother’s pinched face that she too was being haunted by memories of my mother, her daughter-in-law, and probably also of her son, my late father. We drove by a seedy strip mall that I didn’t remember and then by the shell of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store that I distinctly recalled.

“Whenever my mom gave me a nickel, I’d go in there and buy candy or a Mr. Pibb,” I said, gesturing to the store.

“A nickel?” Ali said. “You could buy candy for a nickel?”

“In my day, it was a penny, young man,” Nana Mama said.

“What’s a Mr. Pibb?” asked Bree, who’d grown up in Chicago.

“A soda,” I said. “I think it’s carbonated prune juice.”

“That’s disgusting,” Jannie said.

“No, it’s actually good,” I said. “Kind of like Dr Pepper. My mom liked it. So did my dad. Remember, Nana?”

“How could I forget?” My grandmother sighed.

“Did you notice neither of you ever uses their names?” Bree said.

“Christina and Jason,” Nana Mama said quietly, and I glanced in the mirror again, saw how sad she was all of a sudden.

“What were they like?” Ali asked, still looking at his iPad. For the first time in decades, I felt grief and sadness about the loss of my mom and dad. I didn’t say a word.

But my grandmother said, “They were both beautiful, troubled souls, Ali.”

“Train coming, Alex,” Bree said.

I took my eyes off the rearview and saw lights blinking and safety gates lowering. We slowed to a stop two cars and a panel van from the gates and watched the slow-moving freight cars rumble by.

And then they were gone, and the caboose of the train soon after that, heading north.

I flashed on images of myself—eight? nine?—running along these same tracks where they passed through woods near our home. It was a rainy night, and I was very scared for some reason. Why was that?

“Look at those guys up on the train!” Ali said, breaking into my thoughts.

There were two people up on one of the boxcars, one African American, one Caucasian, both in their late teens, early twenties.

As they went through the crossing, they sat down, legs hanging off the front of the container car, as if settling in for a long trip.

“We used to call men who rode the trains like that hoboes,” Nana Mama said.

“Kind of well dressed for hoboes,” Bree said.

As the car the young men were on rolled through the crossing, I saw what Bree was talking about. They wore baseball hats turned backward, sunglasses, headphones, baggy shorts, black T-shirts, and shiny high-top sneakers. They seemed to recognize someone in the car ahead of us, and each of them gave a wave with three fingers held high. An arm came out the driverside window of that car and returned the salute.

And then they were gone, and the caboose of the train soon after that, heading north. The gates lifted. The lights stopped blinking. We drove on across the tracks. The two cars went right, and I had to slow to let the van take a left at a sign that said caine fertilizer co.

“Eeeuw,” Ali said. “What’s that smell?”

I caught it too, said, “Urea.”

“You mean like in pee?” Jannie asked, disgusted.

“Animal pee,” I said. “And probably animal poop too.”

“God, what are we doing here?” she said with a groan.

“Where are we staying?” Ali asked.

“Naomi made the arrangements,” Bree said. “I just pray there’s air-conditioning. It’s gotta be ninety, and if we’re downwind of that smell . . .”

“It’s eighty,” I said, looking at the dash. “We’re up higher now.”

I drove on by instinct, remembering none of the street names but somehow knowing the way to downtown Starksville as if I’d been there the day before and not three and a half decades ago.

The town center had been laid out in the early 1800s around a rectangular common that now featured a statue of Colonel Francis Stark, a local hero of the Confederacy and the son of the town’s founder and namesake. Starksville should have been a place you’d describe as quaint. Many of the buildings were older, some antebellum, some brick-faced like the factories at the edge of town.

But hard economic times had hit Starksville. For every business open that Thursday—a clothing emporium, a bookstore, a pawnbroker, a gun shop, and two liquor stores—there were two more that stood empty with their front windows soaped over. For Sale signs hung everywhere.

“I can remember when Starksville was not a bad place to live even with the Jim Crow laws,” Nana Mama said wistfully.

“What are Crow laws?” Ali asked, scrunching his nose.

“They were laws against people like us,” she said, and then she pointed a bony finger at a defunct pharmacy and soda fountain called Lords. “Right there, I remember there were signs that said ‘No Coloreds Allowed.’ ”

“Did Dr. King take those down?” my son asked.

“He was responsible, ultimately,” I said. “But to my knowledge, he never actually came to—”

Jannie cried, “Hey, there’s Scootchie!”

Chapter 3

MY NIECE WAS ON the sidewalk in front of the county courthouse arguing with an earnest-looking African American man in a well-cut gray suit. Naomi wore a navy blue skirt and blazer and clutched a brown legal-size accordion file to her chest, and she was shaking her head firmly.

I pulled over and parked, said, “She looks busy. Why doesn’t everyone wait here? I’ll get directions to where we’re staying.”

I climbed out into what was, by Washington, DC, standards, a banner summer day. The humidity was surprisingly low and there was a breeze blowing that carried with it the sound of my niece’s voice.

“Matt, are you going to fight every one of my motions?” Naomi demanded.

“Course I am,” he said. “It’s my job, remember?”

“Your job should be to find the truth,” she shot back.

“I think we all know the truth,” he replied, and then he looked over her shoulder at me.

“Naomi?” I called.

She turned and saw me, and her posture relaxed. “Alex!”

Grinning, she trotted over, threw her arms around me, and said quietly, “Thank God you’re here. This town is enough to drive me mad.”

If Brady was impressed, he didn’t show it, and he shook my hand with little enthusiasm. “You’re here why, exactly?”

“I came as soon as I could,” I said. “Where’s Stefan?”

“Still in jail,” she said. “Judge’s refusing to set any kind of bail.”

Matt was studying us — or, rather, me — intently.

“Is your friend the DA?” I asked quietly.

“Let me introduce you,” she said, “rattle his chain.”

“Rattle away,” I said.

Naomi walked me over to him, said, “Assistant district attorney Matthew Brady, this is my uncle and Stefan’s cousin Dr. Alex Cross, formerly of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and currently a special investigator with the Washington, DC, Metro Police.”

If Brady was impressed, he didn’t show it, and he shook my hand with little enthusiasm. “You’re here why, exactly?”

“My family and I have been through a rough time lately, so we’re on a little R and R to visit my roots and provide my cousin with some moral support,” I said.

“Well.” He sniffed and looked at Naomi. “I think you should be thinking plea bargain if you want to give Mr. Tate moral support.”

Naomi smiled. “You can stick that idea where the sun don’t shine.”

Brady grinned pleasantly and held up his hands, palms out.

“Your call, but the way I see it, Naomi, you plead, and your client lives a life behind bars. You go to trial, and he most certainly gets the death penalty.”

“Good-bye,” she said sweetly as she took my arm. “We’ve got to be going.”

“Nice meeting you,” I said.

“Likewise, Dr. Cross,” he said and walked away.

“Kind of a cold fish,” I said when he was out of earshot and we were heading back to my car.

“He’s gotten that way since law school,” she said.

“So you’ve got history?”

“Just old classmates,” Naomi said, then broke into a squeal of delight when Jannie opened the Explorer’s door and climbed out.

In a few moments everyone was out on the sidewalk hugging Naomi, who couldn’t get over how tall and strong Jannie had become and got tears in her eyes when my grandmother kissed her.

“You don’t age, Nana,” Naomi said in wonder. “Is there a painting in an attic somewhere that shows your real age?”

“The Picture of Regina Cross.” Nana Mama chortled.

“It’s just so good to see you all,” Naomi said, and then her face fell slightly. “I just wish it were under different circumstances.”

My wife said, “We’ll figure out the real story, get Stefan released, and have a nice vacation.”

Naomi’s face fell a little further. “That’s easier said than done, Bree. But I know the aunties are waiting for us. Why don’t you follow me?”

“Can I drive with you, Scootchie?” Jannie asked.

“Of course you can,” Naomi said, and she pointed across the street. “I’m the little red Chevy there.”

We left downtown and entered more residential neighborhoods, which were full of sharp contrasts. The houses were either run-down or freshly painted. The cars were either brand new or about to fall apart. And the people we saw on the streets were either shabbily dressed or turned out in the latest urban attire.

We drove onto the old arched bridge that spanned the Stark River Gorge. The granite walls of the gorge were six stories high and flanked the river, which was running fast and churning over huge boulders. Ali spotted kayakers down in the whitewater.

“Can I do that?” he cried.

“Not on your life,” Nana Mama said firmly.

“Why not?”

“Because that gorge is a deadly place,” she said. “There’s all sorts of phantom currents, and there’re shelves and logs under that water. They’ll trap you and never let you out. Growing up, I knew at least five kids who died down there, including my little brother. Their bodies were never found.”

“Really?” Ali said.

We went around the car slowly and then stopped, looking at the closest of the bungalows as if it held ghosts, which for us it did.

“Really,” Nana Mama said. Naomi kept on straight across the bridge. We bounced back over the railroad tracks into Birney, a very run-down section of town. The vast majority of the bungalows along the streets of Birney were desperately in need of TLC. Kids played in the red-clay front yards. Hounds bayed at our passing. Chickens and goats scattered off the roads. And the adults sitting on the front stoops looked at us suspiciously, as if they were familiar with everyone who came to the starkest part of Starksville and knew we were strangers.

That oppressive sense I’d suffered when I’d seen the sign to town returned. It became almost overpowering when Naomi turned onto Loupe Street, a cracked and potholed road that ended in a cul-de-sac in front of the only three homes in the neighborhood that seemed well maintained. The three bungalows were identical and the paint looked recent. Each home boasted a low green picket fence around a watered lawn and flowers growing in beds by a screened-in front porch.

I parked behind Naomi and hesitated in my seat when my wife and son got out. Nana Mama wasn’t in any hurry either, and I caught the grim expression on her face in the mirror. “Alex?” Bree said, looking back in the passenger door.

“Coming,” I said. I got out and helped my grandmother down.

We went around the car slowly and then stopped, looking at the closest of the bungalows as if it held ghosts, which for us it did.

“You been here before, Dad?” Ali asked.

I let my breath out slow, nodded, and said, “This is the house where Daddy grew up, son.”

Chapter 4

“LAND SAKES, IS THAT you here already, Aunt Regina?” a woman cried before Ali or any other member of my family could say anything.

I took my eyes off the house where I’d lived as a boy and saw an old locomotive of a woman wearing a red floral-print muumuu and bright green beach sandals charging off the porch next door. She had a toothy smile and was shaking her hands overhead as if she were bound for a revival tent and some of that old-time religion.

“Connie Lou?” Nana Mama cried. “Young lady, I believe you’ve lost weight since you came to see me summer before last!”

Connie Lou Parks was my mother’s brother’s widow. Aunt Connie had lost weight since we’d last seen her, but she was still built like a linebacker. When she heard my grandmother’s praise, however, her ample body trembled with pleasure, and she wrapped Nana Mama in her arms and kissed her noisily on the cheek.

“My God, Connie,” Nana Mama said. “There’s no need to slobber.”

My aunt thought that was hilarious and kissed her again.

My grandmother got her to stop by asking, “How’d you lose the weight?”

“I went on a cavewoman diet and started walking every day,”

Aunt Connie declared proudly, and she laughed again. “Lost forty-seven pounds, and my diabetes numbers are better. Alex Cross, you come here now! Give me some sugar.”

She threw open her arms and bear-hugged me. Then she looked up at me with misted eyes. “Thank you for coming to help Stefan. It means the world to us.”

“Of course. I didn’t think twice about it,” I said.

“Sure you did, and that’s understandable,” she said matter of-factly, and then she went to embrace Bree and the children, gushing over each of them in turn. Nana Mama always said my aunt Connie had never met a stranger. My grandmother was right. All my memories of her were filled with smiles and infectious laughter.

When the greetings were done, Aunt Connie looked at me and then nodded at the bungalow. “You okay with staying in there? It’s all been redone. You won’t recognize a bit of it.”

Dubious, I said, “Nobody lives here now?”

“My Karen and her family, but they’re down to the Gulf Coast least through the rest of the summer, caring for Pete’s mother, who’s in an awful poor way. I’ve talked to them. They want you to stay if you feel comfortable.”

I glanced at Bree, who I could tell was weighing weeks of hotel costs against a free place to stay, and said, “I’m comfortable with it.”

Aunt Connie smiled and hugged me. “Good; we’ll get you moved in soon as we get you fed. Who’s hungry?”

“I am,” Ali said.

“Hattie’s laying out a spread over to her house,” Connie Lou said. “Let’s get you somewhere you can wash up and we’ll have us a grand time and catch up proper-like.”

My aunt was such a force of nature that Ali, Jannie, and Naomi fell right in behind her when she rumbled off. Bree held out her hand to help Nana Mama and looked at me expectantly.

“I’ll be right along,” I said. “I think I need to go in there alone the first time.”

I could tell my wife didn’t quite understand. Of course, I’d told her very little about my boyhood, because, really, my life began the day Nana Mama took me and my brothers in.

“You do what you have to do,” Bree said.

My grandmother gazed at me evenly, said, “You did nothing to cause any of it. You hear? That was out of your control, Alex Cross.”

Nana Mama used to talk to me like this all the time in the first few years after I went to live with her, teaching me to divorce myself from the self-destruction of others, showing me there could be a better way forward.

“I know, Nana,” I said, and I pushed open the gate.

Walking up to the screened porch, however, I felt as strange and disconnected as I had ever been in my entire life. It was as if I were two people: a man who was a capable detective, a loving husband, and a devoted father who was heading toward a quiet little house in the South, and an unsure and fearful boy of eight trudging toward a home that might be filled with music, love, and joy or, just as easily, screaming, turmoil, and madness.