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Cotton FBI Collection No. 3

What is COTTON FBI?

Your name is Jeremiah Cotton. You are a small-time cop in the NYPD, a rookie that no one takes seriously. But you want more. You have a score to settle with the world. And anyone who calls you “Jerry” will be sorry.

A new time. A new hero. A new mission. Experience the birth of a digital cult-series: Cotton FBI is the remake of JERRY COTTON, the most successful series of German novels with more than one billion copies sold, and it tells an entirely new story in e-book form.

Cotton FBI is published twice a month, with each episode a self-contained story.

Authors

Peter Mennigen was born in Meckenheim near Bonn. He studied art and design in Cologne before he turned to writing fiction. His novels have been published by Bastei Lübbe, Rowohlt, Ravensburger and other publishing houses. He also writes scripts for graphic novels and audio dramatizations as well as screenplays for TV shows and series.

Alfred Bekker writes fantasy, science fiction, crime, and historical novels, as well as children’s and YA books. His books about a kingdom of elves, the “Dragon Earth Saga” (Drachenerde-Saga), the “Gorian” trilogy, and his novels about the halflings of Athranor have gained him a large audience. He was also a co-author for suspense series like Jerry Cotton, Kommissar X, and Ren Dhark. On top of that, he has written crime novels that often feature bizarre characters - most recently, The Devil of Munster (Der Teufel von Münster), in which he turns a hero from his fantasy novels into an investigator in a very real series of crimes.

COTTON FBI

Killer Apps

Peter Mennigen

Translated by Frank Keith

1

It was 0900 hours by the time Cotton arrived at the crime scene. The 26-mile drive behind him had taken him across western Manhattan, the industrial region of New Jersey, and then up to North Caldwell, a town he knew only from the TV show The Sopranos.

He turned a corner onto a picturesque tree-lined street and slowly drove on. The colonial-style houses gleamed in the bright whiteness of the morning sun. Everything in this neighborhood looked well taken care of, very clean. Cotton had seen shootings in worse areas than this; actually, he was used to downright ugly areas, where shootings are the norm.

Cotton parked his car behind a collection of other FBI vehicles and police cars. He got out and followed a gravel pathway leading past rows of flowerbeds. At the front door, which was framed by grapevines, he pulled out his FBI ID card and showed it to the police officer standing there. Having passed muster, he entered the foyer of the house.

The floor was made of marble, and a pompous-looking chandelier hung from the high ceiling. The walls featured a collection of heavy-framed, professionally taken photos that displayed an upper-class white family. The way the family was posed, their hairstyles and clothing, the lighting — no details had been neglected. The photos showed an attractive couple in their forties. The man looked like someone who had spent his life signing documents. Except for a few tiny wrinkles, it appeared that his wife hadn’t aged a day since her thirtieth birthday. The daughter, who looked to be about eight years old, had straw-blond hair and a charming smile. Her teenaged brother had a face covered with acne.

Cotton followed the muffled voices and other noises coming from somewhere ahead of him. He entered the kitchen, which was about half the size of his entire apartment. Almost a dozen uniformed and plain-clothes police officers stood behind a cordon of yellow tape that had been strung straight across the room.

He saw his partner standing among the law enforcement officers: Philippa “Phil” Decker. She seemed rather absent-minded at the moment. Her arms were crossed close to her chest, as if she were freezing cold despite the dark pantsuit she was wearing. Her face was as white as a sheet, perhaps due to the depressing sight before her: 9-millimeter shells strewn across the floor in puddles of blood.

Cotton looked over to Sarah Hunter. The G-team’s forensic expert was crouched on the floor, searching for tiny traces of evidence. She wore a one-piece protective suit, which prevented her from contaminating the crime scene. With an experienced hand, she directed the beam of a powerful flashlight to illuminate one small section of the floor after another, while she carefully studied everything she saw. Once in a while, she would pick up something tiny off the floor with a fine-toothed set of forceps and put it into a small plastic bag.

Joe Brandenburg, Cotton’s former partner in the NYPD, stood a few steps away. He watched Hunter at work with an expressionless face, his hands buried deep in his pockets. His grim appearance was reminiscent of the old-time cops who had solved crimes with brawn rather than brains. The black leather jacket he was sporting fit this image well.

“Hey, Joe,” Cotton said as he walked over to him, thinking fleetingly of the Jimmy Hendrix song.

“Why are you guys getting involved with this case?” Brandenburg asked Cotton sullenly. Tact was not one of Joe’s strong points. “Do those jerks at City Hall think that we can’t even solve a simple murder case?”

“I’m pleased to see you, too,” Cotton said dryly. “What are you doing here?”

Brandenburg knew what Cotton meant. “The town asked for an experienced homicide detective to assist with this case,” he said, just as dryly. He added with a smirk, “Just goes to show you the level of my skills!”

Cotton shrugged his shoulders and turned around, almost colliding with an FBI photographer. The pale man was taking dozens of photos from all sorts of angles. His objective lens was fitted with a ring flash, allowing him to take spectacular photos, especially in macro. The pictures this camera was taking, however, would turn out gruesome, no matter how high the resolution.

Four bowls were standing on the kitchen table, each filled with blood-soaked corn flakes. Still sitting at the table, slouched over, was the married couple, the same one that Cotton had seen in the portraits hanging on the wall. Judging from the bullet holes riddling their bodies, the couple had served as target practice for someone — someone who must have been a maniac. It looked like he had emptied an entire magazine of ammo into their bodies. The male victim’s mouth gaped open as if he wanted to shout. The terror that his wife must have felt at the time of her death was evident in her eyes. Lying at her feet was a tipped-over chair and the lifeless body of her daughter. The son was lying at the other end of the kitchen, near the sink.

Cotton went over to Decker. “What happened here?”

“Don’t you see?” She avoided looking at her partner, trying to hide her distraught emotions. “The adult victims are Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster. They were just having breakfast when it happened.” Decker gestured towards the daughter with her chin. “That’s their daughter, Lucille. She was killed with a single gunshot to the head. The weapon used was a Browning registered to the father.”

“Lancaster shot his family and then committed suicide?” asked Cotton.

Decker shook her head. “It looks more like the son killed his family and then himself.”

“The son?” Cotton glanced over at the boy on the floor. Indeed, there was a pistol still clutched in his hand, half obscured beneath his body. “How old is he — fourteen?”

“Thirteen.”

“And how did he get the pistol?”

“Probably from his father’s gun cabinet. The key is still stuck in the lock.”

“Why would the boy do something like that? Do we know anything about a motive?”

“No. It could be anything, from revenge to an Oedipus complex. Family dramas often don’t follow rational paths of motivation.”

“Maybe it was someone else who wanted to make it look like the boy did it.”

“We thought of that already, but there’s nothing here to substantiate that theory. Let’s assume that an unknown killer shot the entire family. Why would he place the boy’s body where it is now? Then there’s the angle of the bullet that killed the boy. It was fired from below, pointing upward through his lower jaw. You can’t make that kind of shot from anything but close range.”

“I’ve never seen such a gruesome bloodbath before.” Cotton looked at the adult victims again. “Is the time of death known?”

“Neighbors called the police at around seven this morning when they heard screams and shots being fired. The officers had to break the door in. All the doors and windows were locked from the inside. That’s another sign that it wasn’t anyone from outside the family. Besides, the house is secured by an alarm system, video cameras, and motion detectors. We’ve checked the entire system, and there’s nothing suspicious. Although not all the videos have been viewed yet, we haven’t found anything on them so far.”

“What did Lancaster do for a living?”

“He worked for a large insurance company in Manhattan. Mrs. Lancaster was a housewife. The kids were still in school, naturally.”

“Did the boy have any problems in school?”

“Not at all. He also had never had any run-ins with the law. The neighbors say that he was always friendly and helpful.”

“I’m not sure why we’re involved in this case. It seems like a matter for the local authorities.”

“You’ll have to ask Mr. High that; he was the one who sent us here. We’re supposed to report back to him as soon as we’re finished.”

Sarah Hunter packed away all the evidence and her gear into a large case and went over to Decker and Cotton.

“Well, I’m done here,” she told them. “I’ll head back to the lab now and get started on analyzing everything.”

“Thanks, Sarah,” Decker said.

Over the following hours, the agents examined every room in the house, especially the boy’s room.

In the boy’s bedroom, there was a large bookshelf against the wall across from the doorway, reaching from floor to ceiling. The shelves held hundreds of books and a number of plastic models of luxury cars. The boy’s unmade bed and a nightstand stood to the right of the door. The wall behind the bed was adorned with posters of scantily clad women on motorcycles. Facing the window was a pine desk supporting a monitor and a printer. The tower of the desktop computer stood in a special niche below the desk.

Cotton positioned himself in the middle of the room and turned around slowly, attentively examining everything in sight.

“Does this complete normality give you a weird feeling, too?” Decker wanted to know.

Cotton shrugged. “Truthfully, there are things that would give me more reason to be concerned. Like pictures of dissected animals.”

His partner searched the desk drawers. She pulled out a manual for a DVD player. Between its pages, she found a photo of a pretty girl, who looked to be about fourteen. Was that a girlfriend no one was supposed to know about?

Cotton took a closer look at the boy’s computer. However, he found nothing on the hard drive or the USB sticks that could help them with the case.

Lying on the boy’s dresser was a smartphone that was still turned on. It looked like he had used it that morning. On its main screen, Cotton noticed an icon from an app. It was nothing special — just some funny-looking cartoon figure.

His own smartphone started to ring at just that moment, stirring the agent out of his reverie. He took it out of his pocket and answered the call. “Yeah?”

“Hey, man, it’s Zeerookah,” the G-Team’s IT expert said.

“What’s up?”

“A call for help was placed to the NYPD a little while ago. It was forwarded to the FBI and then to the G-Team, and it seems to have something to do with the case you’re working on now.”

“Could you be a little more precise?”

“Unfortunately, no. First of all, the caller was talking some pretty mixed-up nonsense, and second, he hung up abruptly. It seems to have something to do with a wedding.”

“Are the police on their way?”

“Yeah, but Mr. High thinks it would be a good idea for you two to take a closer look as well. I’ll send you the address on your phone. See you later.”

The address of the potential crime scene appeared on the display of Cotton’s phone. He made a mental note of the location and put the phone away. He also kept the boy’s phone — maybe the experts at G-Team headquarters could find something useful on it. On his way to the door, he told Decker, “We have to go to Queens.”

“But we’re not finished here yet!”

“This here can wait,” Cotton called back to her from the hallway. “High’s become clairvoyant.”

“How so?”

“If I knew that, it would mean I could see into the future, too, but I think I’ll leave that to the nutcases.”

Confused, she followed him.

The two agents hurried out of the house. A crowd of people had gathered in front of the property. The police had put up more yellow tape to cordon off the house. The first few reporters had also shown up, and it wouldn’t be long before the large vans from the TV stations would arrive.

Why, Cotton asked himself, why couldn’t he get rid of the feeling that the true murderer was still at large?

2

The agents drove to the address in Queens that Zeerookah had supplied. Their destination was across the Triborough Bridge, on the other side of the East River, at the end of a dreary-looking street.

The poorly maintained avenue pitted with potholes was lined by dilapidated warehouses, liquor stores with blackened windows, run-down apartment buildings, and tiny, shabby bars, second home to unhappy wretches trying to kill time with cheap beer. It would be pointless to try to sell any property on this street — no one would ever give it a second look.

It looked like the local police were already at the scene. Decker parked the FBI service vehicle behind a patrol car.

A high hedgerow stood between the street and the property where the wedding was taking place. The agents had to walk a bit before they came to a wrought-iron gate. Cotton opened it and the two stepped inside. They were surprised to find themselves in an unexpectedly large and well-kept garden. In the middle of the garden stood a restaurant built in a rustic style. It was as though they had stepped back through a time machine into another world. Nothing here was anything like the dirty browns and grays and the run-down appearance of the rest of the neighborhood.  Instead, this property seemed to be a holdout from the nineteenth century. There was a cobblestone pathway lined with roses that led from the gate to the front entrance of the restaurant.

“Odd,” Cotton said. “It’s very quiet here for a wedding.”

Reaching the restaurant, the agents walked past a window that had been shattered by bullets. The curtains were drawn shut. The front door was shaded by two birch trees. Cotton and Decker stopped nearby, off to the side, and pulled out their weapons before entering.

As Cotton pushed the door open, he was seized by the overwhelming feeling that something terrible must have happened inside the building. The walls, partly painted white and partly paneled in dark-stained maple, lent an eerie atmosphere to the place. There were about a half-dozen tables set with food, drinks, and silverware. The wedding guests were still sitting at their places, as if they were glued to their chairs. Some were bloody and moaning in pain. Others were lying motionless on the floor. Only a short while ago, this had been a place of joy and happiness as the guests celebrated the bride and groom, but now it resembled a slaughterhouse.

The agents stared at the scene in disbelief; two brutal mass murders on a single day only miles apart. What a bizarre coincidence. But Cotton didn’t believe in coincidences — at least, not with this sort of crime.

He took a moment to come to terms with the scene before him. It was not a pretty sight; the bride and groom were lying in a pool of blood. Also lying on the floor were two police officers. Obviously, they had arrived while the killer was still there and had been ambushed by him.

The thing that disturbed Cotton almost more than the dead bodies was the behavior of the wedding guests who were still alive. Why were they just sitting there? Why hadn’t they stood up and fled outside?

As if in answer to his question, he heard a metallic click behind him. He knew the meaning of this sound all too well. It was the sound of a rifle bolt being cocked.

Taking up much of the left side of the room was a massive bar made of brushed stainless steel. Behind it stood a compactly built man with broad shoulders in his late twenties. His face was puffy, and he had extremely short black hair. His dark eyes showed no expression, like black marbles. He was dressed as a waiter. He was holding a rifle in his hands, and Cotton knew that it was capable of causing great damage; even worse, he was aiming it at Decker’s head.

Mesmerized, she stared at the man, her eyes fixed on the rifle.

“You won’t get away with this,” Cotton said, trying to draw the man’s attention away from Decker. “I …”

“Shut your trap!” the killer spat, staring at Cotton and Decker with narrowed eyes. “You two are so dead right now …”

He fired the rifle, and a bright flame flashed from the muzzle. Everything happened so fast that Cotton could only react instinctively. Just as the man pulled the trigger, Cotton sprung over to Decker and pulled her down to the ground.

The murderer fired two more times, but only hit the table under which the agents were cowering. Then another two shots smashed some plates on another table. The wedding guests cried out in terror. Cotton waited until the man worked the bolt again, and then he dove towards the bar. The man tried to take aim at Cotton, but the agent had bounded over the bar and kicked the gunman’s hip with his right foot. The man tumbled backwards and tried to regain his balance, raising his arms and accidently pulling the trigger. But the bullet lodged harmlessly in the ceiling.

Cotton landed in front of the man and shoved him against a set of shelves; glasses crashed to the floor and were smashed to pieces. He yanked the rifle away from the maniac; the shorter man balled his fists and attempted to punch Cotton, who chose to head-butt his nose. The man’s arms dropped and his legs went limp. But he didn’t go down, because Cotton was holding him firmly by the collar.

“Are there any more of you here?” he shouted at the killer. “Or are you just a lone lunatic?”

The man didn’t answer. Cotton yanked him closer and then smashed him against the shelves. The man let out a cry of pain.

Then he gasped, “I … I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He looked around him as though he had just woken up. “Where am I?”

Cotton frowned. If this guy was pretending to be a confused madman, then he was playing the part pretty well.

Decker, in the meantime, had stood up. She came over to Cotton and asked him what the man had said.

“He said that he has nothing to do with the killings,” Cotton told her, befuddled. He searched the man to see whether he had any more weapons on him.

“What made him shoot at us?”

“I guess we’ll have to wait to find out until he gets questioned at headquarters.”

Decker went over to the wedding guests, told them that it was all over, and asked them to accompany her outside into the garden and wait there. She added that they would be examined by a doctor as soon as the ambulances arrived. She called for back-up and medical support, and then she called High to tell him what had happened.

When she had finished, she went back to Cotton, who had cuffed the man and was reading him his rights.

“Due to the recent incidents, High has placed top priority on our scheduled meeting,” she told Cotton.

“Did he happen to tell you what the meeting was about?” he asked.

Decker shook her head. “I have no idea.”

3

After the FBI forensics team and the NYPD homicide detectives had arrived at the crime scene, Cotton and Decker left the restaurant and drove back to Manhattan.

The headquarters of the G-Team was housed in an unremarkable concrete structure. After Decker and Cotton passed through a number of security checks, they entered the heart of the complex in the underground section of the building. The huge, windowless, fully air-conditioned room not only looked like a bunker — it was as secure as one, too.

The communications center was bustling with activity, day and night. There were about a dozen high-tech terminals manned by IT experts who busily analyzed streams of data. Many other workstations were also distributed around the room.

Cotton went to the forensics lab to deliver the smartphone from the crime scene in North Caldwell. Then he and Decker went to Mr. High’s office.

They gave their boss a full report on what had happened at the two crime scenes. They presented facts, figures, and their personal opinions about the cases, emphasizing that there were no doubts as to the identities of the perpetrators. One of the killers had committed suicide and the other was in custody. In the meantime, the identity of the wedding killer had been discovered.

“The killer at the wedding is a young man named Dustin Edginton. He’s the nephew of the restaurant owner, and he had served as a waiter at the wedding reception,” High told the two agents. “According to eyewitnesses, the man took a break around noon. When he returned from his break, he started shooting randomly at the thirty or so guests who were present. The weapon he used was a bolt-action rifle that belonged to his uncle. It was kept for self-defense behind the bar. He fired perhaps twenty rounds within about three minutes, killing six people and injuring twelve, some of whom are in serious condition. The survivors were then used as bait for any cops that might show up. That’s how he killed those two police officers. The victims include not only the bride and groom, but also two children.” High’s voice seemed to be slightly tense as he asked, “Were you able to find any connections between the case in North Caldwell and the wedding in Queens?”

“No, we’re pretty much perplexed about the whole thing,” Decker replied dryly. “Both incidents seemed to come out of the blue. As far as we know, no one in the perpetrators’ close circles of family and friends had any inkling that something like this might happen.”

“Two brutal killings of families on a single day is incredibly tragic,” Cotton said. He added thoughtfully, “The gunman must’ve been in a frenzy during the shooting.” The other two looked at him, perplexed. When he saw their expressions, Cotton explained: “Firing twenty rounds in three minutes with a bolt-action rifle is quite a chore.”

“That may be, but two mass shootings, you said?” High took a deep breath. “I wish that were the case. The reports that are coming in from other FBI bureaus in Nevada, Florida, and California tell me that we’re dealing with five more similar cases. You’ll find the details of them in your e-mail in-boxes. This country is being inundated with mass murders, the likes of which have never been seen before.”

Decker tapped her pen on the tabletop as she said, “We could start by trying to find a common denominator. Perhaps the killers all belonged to some sort of sect that wants to send as many of their family members off to paradise as possible.”

“No, that won’t work.” High’s voice sounded relaxed, but his eyes told a different story. “Making a correlation between all these cases would be pure speculation, and the last thing we need is a vague theory about an alleged conspiracy. The only common denominator we have at this point is the fact that all the murderers were individuals who have never had any serious problems with the law — totally normal citizens who turned into raving killers in the blink of an eye. If anything, it’s only the motives behind the killings that can help us make progress.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s correct,” Cotton told his boss.

High looked at him, surprised. “And what do you suggest?”

“That instead of looking for a motive, we should look for the catalyst that’s behind the killings.”

“And what brought you to this realization?”

“It’s not so much a realization, but more like a gut feeling.”

“A gut feeling?” High shook his head doubtfully. “If I understand you correctly, then you’re suggesting that we change our investigative methodology based on facts to a system based on feelings and intuitions?”

Cotton ignored the sarcasm. “Bloodbaths such as the ones we’re dealing with are usually carried out by psychopaths. That’s the main reason why I don’t believe in a logic-based explanation. I think if we go down that road, we could investigate leads forever without getting anywhere.”

“So, how do you think we should proceed?”

“Maybe we should start from the other side — try to determine what the killers were doing before they went on their rampages.”

“All right.” High leaned back in his office chair, elbows on the armrests, his hands forming a steeple with fingertips touching. “You can start your investigation immediately,” he said. “Dig deep. Uncover all the dirt that you can. But remember: Until we have something concrete, no connections between the various mass killings are to be made public. I’ve guaranteed the president that our investigations of these cases will be conducted under complete secrecy.”

High told the two agents that they were dismissed, ordering them to begin by questioning the killer from the Queens wedding reception.

*

Dustin Edginton was brought in handcuffs to the interrogation room at the G-Team’s headquarters. The crazy look that had been in his eyes during the shooting was gone. He sat apathetically at the chrome table. Cotton and Decker sat across from him.

At first, they all just sat there, waiting for Edginton to start talking. For several minutes, the only sounds that could be heard were the low hum of the air-conditioning system and the sporadic purr of the camera fixed to the ceiling.

Finally, Cotton ran out of patience and began the interrogation. He started with the most significant question: “Why did you shoot those people at the reception?”

The detainee just shrugged his shoulders as though he didn’t know what Cotton was talking about, or as if none of it were of any concern to him. Absentmindedly, he finally murmured, “I would never do anything like that. They were our guests.”

Decker’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to say that a voice in your head told you to do it?”

No answer. It was as if the young man hadn’t heard the question. He simply sat there, chest sunken in and eyes drooping.

“When did you decide to kill them?” Decker asked, trying to at least get a motive out of him. But Edginton simply stared at the polished black surface of the tabletop, seemingly hypnotized. “Just admit to it and you might get a few years less prison time.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said in a whiny voice. “Why am I being kept here? I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“No? You didn’t do anything wrong? You killed two police officers and six wedding guests. Not to mention injuring a bunch of others,” Decker said sharply. “You also shot at me and my partner. To me that doesn’t sound like, ’I didn’t do anything wrong’!”

“I want a lawyer. You can’t keep me locked up here. I’m innocent.”

That was all they could get out of him. Frustrated, they left the interrogation room.

“That guy’s a loser,” Decker told Cotton. “Just like most of the other nutcases with nothing better to do than to let their anger run wild — they’ve wasted their lives and they want to kill anyone who hasn’t.”

“Maybe,” Cotton simply said. “Well, what now?”

“Now we’re going home,” she said. “With or without a confession, no judge in the world would give him anything less than life in prison.”

4

It was almost 2200 hours by the time Cotton got into his car to go home. He drove slowly past the security station in the parking garage and then out onto the street. The drive through pulsating Manhattan went quicker than usual — no wonder, considering what time it was.

Less than half an hour later, he reached the Brooklyn Bridge and took it across the East River. The architecture on the other side was an abrupt change. The high glass and concrete towers behind him stood in stark contrast to the two- and three-story reddish-brown brick buildings lining the streets here.

Brooklyn; this was his turf. It had become home to him. The streets here didn’t have the crowded anonymity that was the norm in Manhattan. Here there were a ton of little restaurants, clubs with live music, and small, family-owned stores.

He drove down into the parking garage of his apartment building. The second level, where he parked his car, was reserved for tenants. He got out and ambled over to the exit, digging around in his pockets in search of his keys.

He had just reached the steel fire door leading into the stairwell when something touched his shoulder from behind. Cotton turned around to see what it was. He stared at a round, foot-wide metallic object that turned out to be a frying pan.

Frail, ancient Mrs. Moskovitz was holding the pan aloft above her left shoulder with both hands, as if she were about to strike him with it. The elderly lady lived in the apartment right below Cotton’s. Standing by her side was her feeble husband Ralph, who was holding a baseball bat.

Cotton knew a great deal about this old couple. They had lived a financially secure life in the lap of luxury until unwise investments wiped out their assets. This turn of fortune forced them to move out of their luxurious mansion into what they saw as a shoddy apartment complex.

“Oh, Mr. Cotton,” Mrs. Moskovitz wheezed, letting her arms drop. “We didn’t recognize you from behind.”

“We thought you were one of those burglars,” her husband added with an embarrassed smile.

Cotton was still staring at the frying pan, somewhat confused. “Burglars? What burglars?”

“Now don’t tell me you haven’t heard about those thugs who have been making our neighborhood unsafe?” Mr. Moskovitz asked, surprised.

“Those crooks have kept us busy for ages now,” his wife added enthusiastically. “As soon as it’s dark outside, they break into apartments and steal whatever they can. They even take away heavy furniture!”

“Wouldn’t a troop of furniture movers marching through the hallways at night arouse suspicion? Hasn’t anyone called the police?” Cotton said.

“Sure,” Mrs. Moskovitz said. “But that’s what’s so strange. No one has ever seen or heard them while they were committing the burglaries. They’re like ghosts; that’s why we call them the Ghost Squad. They recently broke into Mrs. Staggs’ apartment and stole literally everything. They even took the negligee she was wearing in bed! She woke up completely naked on the bare floor the next morning.”

“My goodness,” Cotton said, trying in vain not to picture the naked old woman in his mind. “Have the police gotten involved at all?”

“The police?” Mrs. Moskovitz couldn’t suppress a derisive snort. “They don’t care if anything gets stolen here or not. That’s why we’re taking matters into our own hands. The building’s tenants have formed a self-protection group. We take turns patrolling inside and outside the premises when it gets dark. You’d be welcome to join us.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Moskovitz,” Cotton answered evasively as he slipped through the door into the stairwell. “I’ll certainly consider your offer. Good evening to you.”

“Don’t think about it too long,” the old lady called after him, “or else you’ll wake up naked in an empty apartment one morning, just like poor old Mrs. Staggs.”

Cotton hurried up the stairs. After his not-so-good day, he deserved something better than an evening with the neighborhood watch; a warm meal from the microwave, for instance.

He thought about the gang of thieves as he searched his refrigerator for something to eat. He grinned at the idea of someone daring to break into an FBI agent’s apartment. Just then, he heard a noise coming from his bedroom. He stopped in his tracks and listened. It didn’t take long for him to realize that someone was in there!

Immediately his senses sharpened and his muscles tensed with alarm. He rushed back into the hallway and picked up his pistol. Holding his weapon firmly at the ready, he snuck down the hall to the bedroom. He could see light coming through the gap between the door and floor. He flung the door open and leaped into the room, where the next shock awaited him.

Standing there like a statue was a woman in her early twenties. Mother Nature had done a good job on her, giving her full red lips, light-blue eyes, and dark hair. Her figure was every bit as attractive. But what had completely bewildered Cotton was the fact that, except for a pair of high-heeled shoes, she was completely naked! Her dress and underwear were lying on the bed.

The strange woman stood there with her legs slightly apart and her hands on her hips. She cocked her head to the side a bit, raised her eyebrows, and looked at Cotton, completely composed.

“You’re not Tony,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner.

Cotton was simply speechless. He tried to defuse this embarrassing situation by acting cool. As calmly as possible, he said to her, “No, I’m not Tony; I’m someone better. My name is Jeremiah. May I ask how you got into my apartment, and what this Tony has to do with my bedroom?”

Instead of answering, the pretty woman grimaced and said, “That jerk! He gave me the wrong address. Do I look like a one-night stand to you?”

“Um … no?” Cotton’s ability to think straight was somewhat incapacitated, since the woman standing there was still stark naked. He had to force himself to focus on her eyes instead of looking elsewhere. “Who are you, anyways?”

“I’m a very attractive and intelligent woman who is slightly in shock,” she answered coolly.

“Hmm. What do you say I make us some coffee?” he suggested. “Then we can sit down and you can tell me everything — especially how you got into my apartment without breaking the door in.”

“Oh, that was easy; the building superintendent let me in,” she said candidly. “I told him that my boyfriend lives in this apartment and that he wasn’t home yet. He was kind enough to let me in with his master key.” Suddenly she looked down at herself, as if she had just now noticed her nudity. “We can continue talking, but could you leave me alone for a few moments so I can get dressed? And about that coffee — I could use something a bit stronger now, like maybe a whiskey.”

Cursing silently to himself, Cotton exited the bedroom. What use is a neighborhood watch group when the building’s superintendent opens doors for strangers?

In the kitchen, he made some pancakes for himself and his surprise guest. He took two glasses from his well-stocked bar and a bottle of single-malt whiskey. He was pouring a finger of whiskey into each glass when his still nameless guest appeared by the door wearing a plain gray dress. Despite its simplicity, she looked great in it, thanks to her figure.

“My mother always said that the first impression is the most important one,” she told him. “I hope you don’t consider me to be some kind of amoral slut. I’m not the sort of woman who hops into bed with someone on the first date. But for a woman in love, sex is a tried and true method of maintaining possession of the object of her desire.”

Cotton tried to imagine what she meant by that. “So that means you’re in love with Tony.”

“Not anymore.”

His visitor walked over to the table, but she didn’t sit down on one of the chairs. Instead, she lifted her well-formed rear end onto the tabletop and crossed her beautiful legs. Cotton handed her one of the drinks, and they clinked their glasses together. The special agent took a long swallow and then sat down.

“By the way, my name is Veronica Lake,” she told him. “I’m an actress.” She emptied the glass and then gracefully slid off the table, the only sound coming from the motion of the fabric of her dress across the table’s surface. She pulled one of the chairs over, sat down, and looked at Cotton expectantly. “So, here I am sitting in a stranger’s apartment,” she said serenely.

“Well, no one told you to come in,” Cotton said.

“First of all, I thought it was Tony’s apartment,” she attempted to explain herself. “And second, we’re not such strangers to each other anymore. We’ve covered quite a bit of territory, as far as getting to know one another is concerned. For all that’s happened in this short time in your bedroom and here in your kitchen, other people require days or even weeks.”

“If we keep going at this rate, we’ll soon know every detail about each other,” Cotton added, half ironically.

“Oh — you’re a real tiger,” she said with a smirk and raised eyebrows.

While they ate, she told her host her story. She had met the unbelievably attractive Tony at a bar a few weeks ago. She had finally taken him to her place the night before last, and he had spent the night there with her. Before he left to go to work the next morning, he gave her his address — which, as they had found out, turned out to be fake.

Cotton listened to her attentively, uttering an appropriately compassionate comment now and again. After their meal she wandered around the room a little. While she looked around and examined this and that, she engaged in some small talk with Cotton — until she hit on a subject that was quite a bit more interesting to him.

“I like your place,” she told him with obvious admiration. “You have taste, and I have a weakness for men with taste. It would be a shame if we didn’t see each other again. Do you have anything planned for tomorrow evening?”

“Actually, I was thinking of asking you out,” Cotton answered, laughing. “But if you don’t want to go out with me, then I’ll have to think of something else to do.”

“Then we’d better meet again.”

“How about at eight at Vin et Fleurs in SoHo?” he suggested. “They have very good French food. We could have dinner and get to know each other better while we’re at it.”

“That’s a great idea,” she agreed with a laugh. “I’m sure we’ll get along. By the way, is there a Mrs. Jeremiah anywhere?”

“Do you see a wedding band on my finger?” he asked in response.

“Such a small piece of metal doesn’t mean anything. You can easily take it off and put it on again.”

“No, there’s no Mrs. Jeremiah. I hope my word is sufficient for you, even though lying is as easy as hiding a wedding band.”

She scrutinized him with a furrowed brow. “Yeah — I think I can trust you. You make an honest impression. If you pour me another drink, I can propose a toast to Mrs. Jeremiah’s nonexistence.”

They talked until four in the morning. Then she told him, “I think it’s time for me to go out into the cold, foggy, rainy night.” She stood up and went to the bedroom to get her coat.

“It’s not raining,” he told her as he saw her to the apartment door. “And New York can’t offer you any fog either today.” He opened the door for her.

At the threshold she stopped and turned to face him. “So it’s a date?” she asked, looking at him in a way that would make any man go crazy. “This evening at Vin et Fleurs?”

“Eight o’clock sharp.”

She stretched towards him and placed her lips tenderly on his.

“Think of that kiss as a down payment for this evening,” she whispered into his ear.

Cotton grinned as he watched her hips swaying down the hallway. She stopped and waved at him before she disappeared into the stairwell. Cotton waved back and then realized that he was still grinning like an idiot.

He closed the apartment door and went to sit in his easy chair. He thought about how this awful day had turned into such a positive one, and about his new and promising adventure ahead.

5

Students at Columbia University went to their first classes at nine. Half an hour later, every available police car in New York was racing towards the school with sirens wailing. The vehicles came to a stop some twenty yards away from the largest building on campus. The front of the building had been designed to look like an ancient Greek temple ringed with mighty pillars. The portal behind the pillars was as elaborate as that of a palace.

A seemingly never-ending stream of students was pouring out of the mighty doors, screaming in panic. They scattered in every direction, leaving chaos in their wake. Windows on the ground level had been smashed from the inside and people were jumping out of them onto the lawn below. Anyone who stood in their paths would be trampled.

About a dozen police cars were already parked in front of the building with their red, white, and blue lights flashing. Police officers and a SWAT team, all wearing bullet-proof vests, were bustling around shouting orders and instructions.

Cotton had just parked his car in a parking lot adjacent to the campus. Unshaven and overtired, he made his way through the throng of people. Decker had awakened him with a phone call a little while ago, telling him that a gunman was wreaking havoc on the campus. This time, Cotton had arrived before his partner, as Decker was hopelessly stuck in a traffic jam on Park Avenue.

Cotton made his way up to the foremost police line. The officers were positioned behind their vehicles, carefully watching all entrances to the building. Cotton went from man to man trying to find the officer in charge, finally arriving at a huge man in his mid-fifties who could have easily been a bouncer in his youth. He was wearing a dark-blue police uniform, which commanded even more respect than his size already demanded. The officer seemed to be a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the situation and was waving his arms about as he shouted orders in every direction.

Cotton stepped up to him and got to the point: “Could you tell me what’s going on here?”

Instead of answering, the man ranted, “Who in the hell are you? Get your ass out of here before it gets pumped full of lead.”

“My name is Cotton.” He pulled out his FBI ID card and presented it to the man. “Could you answer my question now?”

“I don’t have time for that, mister. We have everything under control — even without the FBI. So scram and let me do my job.”

“Oh, yeah,” Cotton sighed. “I’d almost forgotten the NYPD’s infamous willingness to cooperate.”

He walked away from the lead officer and strolled over to his old partner, Joe Brandenburg. Joe was leaning coolly against a sycamore tree and staring at the building as if he were John Wayne.

Cotton stopped alongside Brandenburg’s tree. “Here we are again. What’s going on, Joe?”

Brandenburg looked at Cotton sullenly and then grumbled in his usual rough manner, “Looks like you made a new friend in the NYPD.”

“Unfortunately, not all police officers are as fond of the FBI as you are.” Cotton made a sour face. “Who is that ogre who’s in charge?”

“Captain Larkin, king of the nit-pickers. Just got here from Baltimore. He requested a transfer to the NYPD, and now we’ve got that self-centered idiot on our asses all day.”

Cotton nodded sympathetically. “What can you tell me about the gunman?”

“It’s supposedly a student who’s shooting at everyone he sees.”

“Have there been any fatalities or injuries?”

“I don’t know. The students fled in total panic. I don’t know if any of them have calmed down enough to be questioned.”

In his mind’s eye, Cotton saw the scene of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, where eighteen-year-old Eric Harris and seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold killed twelve of their fellow students and a teacher in cold blood.

“What’s the plan of action?” Cotton wanted to know.

“More than likely, our boys will carry out the usual program: They’ll get a shrink to talk the dumbass into giving up by telling him about his good points and talking about his bad childhood and shedding a few tears. That type of psychological shit.”

“And what would your plan be?”

Brandenburg grinned. “March inside and shoot anyone who aimed a gun at me.”

Cotton sighed. That was typical Joe. “Do you know where in the building the gunman is holed up?”

“No. No shots have been fired since our arrival.”

“Then either he ran out of ammo or the students who haven’t made it out yet are well hidden.”

“That’s not going to help them much. While we’re out here with our thumbs up our asses, he’ll have plenty of time to search one room at a time to find new victims.

“And that’s why I’m going in there right now,” Cotton told him. “Not to shoot anyone, I mean, but to save as many people as I can,” he added jokingly.

“That building is a damn maze, full of rooms, hallways, and niches,” Joe warned him. “That nut could easily waylay you from one of a hundred possible hiding places.”

“I guess that’s just one of the many dangers that come with the job.”

Crouching low, Cotton ran across the cobblestones and hurried up the outer stairs to the massive main doors, pulling out his weapon as he reached them. He pushed one of them open with his left hand. Silently, he entered the building’s foyer, which was as large as the nave of a church. The floor was made of polished granite. Heavy chandeliers hung from the high ceiling at regular intervals. Life-sized portraits of famous professors and graduates hung on the walls. Two spiral staircases made of dark ebony wood led upwards: one to the main lecture hall, and the other to a seemingly endless hallway.

Cotton snuck along a wall lined with oak panels. Glass display cases standing at regular intervals offered him some cover. He was thankful that the university had chosen to display some of its awards for outstanding accomplishments in sports and science in such a convenient fashion.

He crossed over to the west wing of the building, trying to be prepared for anything that might be lurking behind the many closed doors.

Suddenly, shots rang out, interrupting the stillness that had reigned before. Cries echoed down the hallways.

Cotton threw all caution overboard when he heard the cries. The hallway he was hurrying down was empty — not a soul was in sight. When he got about two-thirds of the way down the corridor, he could hear moaning coming from behind a closed door. Cotton kicked it open, both hands firmly gripping his weapon. With his arms outstretched, he entered a room that turned out to be one of the faculty offices.

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