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Cotton FBI Collection No. 4

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

Alexander Lohmann was born in 1968 in Munich. He studied computer science, German philology, and history, and has worked as a magazine editor. Reading The Lord of the Rings early on awoke his love of fantasy, which he has employed in several different novels. His penchant for tension-filled conflict led him to COTTON RELOADED. Alexander Lohmann is a freelance author, editor, and translator based in Leichlingen.

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.

Jürgen Benvenuti was born in 1972 in Bregenz, Austria. After some time in Berlin and Barcelona, he now lives in Vienna. In addition to his novels, which have been published by Bastei Lübbe, dtv and the Falter Verlag, he has also written numerous reviews and articles for a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. From time to time he dares to take a detour into the movie business.

Linda Budinger is a freelance author and translator. She has been writing novels and short stories for over 20 years, which are mainly fantasy and speculative fiction. Her stories have been nominated several times for the Deutschen Phantastik Preis (German fantasy award). She became known through publications for the role-playing game “The Dark Eye” and as a co-author of the series of novels “Shadow Realm” (Schattenreich) published by Bastei Lübbe. The author lives in Leichlingen, Germany.

COTTON FBI

Death On Order

Alexander Lohmann

Translated by Sharmia Cohen

1

A motor scooter rattled past the manicured yards and wooden façades of the flat-roofed bungalows in the suburban housing development in Richmond, Virginia. The last glimmer of evening sun lingered on the horizon, already outshone by the lights in the windows and the yellow glow of the streetlamps.

The pizza deliveryman parked his scooter in front of a house whose yard was somewhat more overgrown than those of its neighbors, with sloppily trimmed bushes sprawling over an unkempt lawn. He took a thermal delivery case from the scooter’s rack, placed a bright red bag on top of it, and walked up to the house, balancing the pile in his arms. It was evidently a large order, and the scrawny man had a hard time carrying it.

He propped up the packages between his body and the doorframe so that he wouldn’t have to put them down to ring the bell. There was no movement inside. He rang again.

Finally, a light came on behind the small window beside the entrance. A gaunt man opened the door. He was unshaven and was wearing a T-shirt and dark-blue sweatpants. He stared at the deliveryman, whose face was obscured by a red helmet and vintage aviator goggles. It was such a bizarre sight that the man was a little taken aback.

“Your pizza!” the pizza man beamed, holding out the order.

The man looked him over. “I didn’t order anything.” He began to close the door. The deliveryman’s smile faded. He balanced the heavy case on a raised knee and used his free hand to grope around in the brightly colored bag.

“Just a minute!” he cried. “Are you Mr. Jason Clegg?”

Clegg paused. “Yes,” he said. “But I didn’t order anything.”

The pizza man pulled something out of the bag. It looked like a pistol but was in fact a much more modern invention, almost as dangerous. A taser.

Without hesitation, he fired. The needles of the electrodes ripped through Clegg’s baggy shirt and into his chest. The device crackled. Clegg convulsed. For a moment, he went stiff as a board.

The deliveryman stepped through the door, pushing Clegg backward with the thermal case. Clegg fell hard onto his back. The impact drove the air out of his lungs. In one smooth movement, the pizza man set the box down on the floor next to Clegg, turned around, and pushed the door shut. Then he attended to his victim.

The pizza man opened the thermal case and pulled out a drill, a small electric saw, a number of bags and boxes, and a leather pouch. He took an alcohol-soaked rag from one of the bags and opened one of the smaller boxes. Inside there was a prepared syringe and a glass plunger.

Clegg struggled to control his twitching muscles. He sat up halfway. “What …?” he managed to gasp.

The pizza man pushed Clegg’s chin back with his left hand and ran a disinfectant wipe across his victim’s neck, carelessly dropping it on the floor. With one finger, he flicked the protective cap off of the needle; he then plunged it directly into Clegg’s carotid artery, holding him against the floor with one hand. Clegg struggled feebly, but it was only a matter of seconds before he lay limp and powerless on the floor with a blank stare on his face.

The pizza man hummed to himself as he unpacked the contents of his delivery case. He pulled something odd over his victim’s head — a hood made of wire mesh that snapped into place. Making small incisions in Clegg’s scalp, he exposed his skull in the exact locations where the fine tubes attached to the hood pushed up against his head.

He hummed louder as his drill carved into bone.

2

Things were quiet at G-Team headquarters. Outside, the streets of New York were bathed in the light and warmth of an early summer day. The windowless underground headquarters, in contrast, was always lit by the same dim glow emanating from the monitors and fluorescent lights. The air-conditioning required to keep the electronic equipment from overheating made the air cool and stuffy. There wasn’t much noise in the large room, except for the hum of the computers and the occasional whispered conversations of agents at work.

Special Agent Jeremiah Cotton sat in front of his computer, whistling Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” and loudly pecking away at his keyboard.

Decker walked up and leaned against his desk. “So cheerful, Cotton? While writing reports? I thought you’d be climbing the walls with boredom.”

Cotton looked up. “It’s nice when there isn’t much going on. At five sharp, the workday’ll be over — a pleasure I haven’t experienced for a long time. And you know what, Decker? I even reeled in a date for the evening.”

“Oo-la-la,” Decker teased him. “A real date? Had enough of your casual flings? What’s the name of the lucky lady?”

“Maria,” Cotton answered.

Decker raised her eyebrows.

“She just moved here from Arizona,” Cotton said. “I helped her out when she got lost on the subway. One thing led to another …” He shrugged. “You know, Decker, this could be something serious. If it goes well, I’ll introduce her to Sarah. She’d certainly like that.”

Sarah Granger had taken care of Cotton after he had lost his parents in the attack on the World Trade Center. Both of them had just barely survived the terrorist attack. Sarah had taken Cotton in after the catastrophe and was a sort of surrogate mother to him.

Decker grinned. “Well, then, I wish you lots of luck with your private life.”

“Fortune favors the bold.” With a decisive keystroke, Cotton sent off his report into the depths of the server, then jumped up and grabbed his jacket. “So, now I’ll get out of here before anything comes up that could get in my way. Bye, Decker.”

He began to walk away between the rows of workstations that stretched all the way to the exit. The ringing of the phone on his desk summoned him back. It was John D. High, the head of the G-Team.

“Come to my office, Cotton. And bring Decker with you. I want to brief you on your next case.”

“Uh … it’s ten to five, sir.”

“Yes,” Mr. High said. “I can see that on the clock in my office.”

He hung up. Cotton paused indecisively. He looked at Decker. “Mr. High wants to talk to us. Just before quitting time. Who knows how long this will take.”

Decker was still grinning. “I heard. Come on, Cotton. You know that crime never takes a day off.”

Cotton just stood there for a moment, grumpily watching Decker’s blond hair bob over the collar of her expensive suit as she made her way toward Mr. High’s office. He hated it when she quoted his own favorite sayings back to him.

*

“This is Mr. Jason Clegg.” High had projected a photo onto the wall showing a man in a hospital bed whose face was obscured by tubes. “The night before last, he was attacked by a stranger in his house. A little while later, he was admitted to the hospital with severe head injuries. He’s in a coma — if he’s still alive. Our most recent information is two hours old. At that point, the doctors believed that he might become brain dead at any moment.”

High hesitated a moment and then added, “Strictly speaking, the doctors weren’t even fully in agreement that brain death hadn’t already occurred. The type of injuries he incurred didn’t make that easy to determine.”

“How is that possible?” Cotton asked. “I thought that measuring brainwaves was the most accurate method of determining death.”

“The attacker deliberately went after his brain, completely disabling parts of it. There is measurable brain activity, but it is largely limited to keeping Clegg’s body alive.”

Cotton’s eyes wandered, reflexively looking for a nonexistent window to the outside. “Was it a burglar, or just random violence?” he asked. “I don’t see why the FBI is taking on the case.”

“He fell into a coma …” Decker said pensively. “That sounds familiar. This isn’t the first case, is it?”

John D. High shook his head. “That’s why it was flagged by the FBI’s analysts. Over the last six months, we’ve seen four patients admitted to hospitals with similar injuries who died shortly thereafter. Each time, an anonymous caller alerted 9-1-1 — and there are indications that the attacker was the caller every time.”

“A serial … offender?” Cotton had been about to say serial killer, but technically speaking, the victims hadn’t exactly been murdered.

“That’s what we’re going to find out.” High pushed the case files over to the two agents. “The circumstances are unsettling. It’s possible that there are even more victims out there; in one case, the head injuries were only discovered by chance. The doctors had first suspected a stroke. The analysts are looking into similar patients. You should go talk to Ms. Hunter regarding the medical details.”

Cotton looked at the clock. He was supposed to meet Maria at seven. If they quickly visited Sarah Hunter, the G-Team’s forensic scientist, and then he hurriedly changed his clothes, and if Maria were a little understanding about his tardiness, then maybe he could still salvage their date.

“I’ve also booked you both on a flight to Richmond,” Mr. High continued. “Tonight at nine from Newark. That way, you’ll be able to examine Clegg’s surroundings and look for a common factor that might tie the cases together.”

*

Early the next morning, Cotton and Decker arrived at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond. Just before their flight, they had found out that Jason Clegg had died. They had come to the hospital to interview Dr. Mulheimer, who had been in charge of his treatment, and to find out whether Clegg had any relatives in the area.

The lanky blond doctor shrugged. “The man had no visitors. We couldn’t locate any next of kin.”

“Can you prepare the body for transport?” Cotton asked. “We’d like to conduct our own autopsy.”

“We can have the body transferred,” the doctor said, “but an autopsy has already been conducted.”

“What was the hurry?” Decker asked.

“The man had an organ donor card,” Mulheimer answered, “and a very rare phenotype. There are many desperate patients waiting for donor organs.”

“He had a donor card?” Cotton asked. “I thought that was marked on your driver’s license.”

The doctor shrugged. “Some people change their minds. Getting a card to keep in your wallet is easier than applying for a new license. It’s not common, but it proves that the patient made an independent decision on the issue. And we didn’t want to reject Mr. Clegg’s donation, despite the sad circumstances surrounding his death.”

“So you disassembled him and sent all the parts off in different directions?” Cotton said dramatically, venting his anger. “That could’ve been evidence!”

Mulheimer snorted. “Don’t worry. Of course we knew that a crime had been committed. We took every imaginable precaution while performing the autopsy, the same as in the previous cases. I think that Clegg will be the most thoroughly scrutinized corpse you’ve ever come across.”

Cotton was not convinced.

“How do you know that you’ve gathered all the information that’s important to us?” he asked. “We’ve only just begun to investigate the circumstances of his death.”

“The circumstances of his death were highly unusual, I can tell you that much already. With each of these examinations, several experts have been involved, and we’ve discussed every possibility in depth. As for the person responsible for the injuries that led to Clegg’s death … I’m afraid he may represent a problem for you.”

Decker’s ears pricked up. “How do you know that? What can you tell us about the attacker?”

“Very little, except that he knew exactly what he was doing. He must have precise knowledge of human anatomy, particularly in terms of how the brain is structured — a rare specialization.”

“You mean he’s a brain surgeon?”

“I don’t want to speculate,” Mulheimer responded. “In any case, the culprit was somehow able to acquire extensive theoretical knowledge prior to the crimes, and he’s had the opportunity to perfect that knowledge through practical application. He used a special neurosurgical tool to create specific lesions in the victim’s brain.”

“What exactly did the attacker do?” Cotton inquired.

“He essentially turned the victim into a mindless shell while inflicting the minimum possible damage. Although the injuries Clegg sustained were severe enough to wipe out his personality and most other mental functions, the precision of the damage allowed the body to remain alive for a time. Clegg’s death was inevitable — sooner or later, he was going to die of brain damage — but the outcome was no accident. With purely random incisions in the brain, any number of things from immediate death to minor specific failures could have occurred. But the attacker didn’t choose randomly.”

“If it wasn’t random, what was it?” Decker asked.

“Well, you could almost say it was …” The doctor cleared his throat. “… elegant.”

*

Decker and Cotton briefly looked around the hospital room where Clegg had spent the last two days of his life. The bed was neatly made, the instruments had been cleared away — there were no clues that could have told the agents anything. There was also no evidence of grieving relatives or other personal connections that might have revealed something about the dead man’s background.

Cotton and Decker made their way to the pathology lab. They found that the body had in fact been studied quite thoroughly, and that all of Clegg’s injuries had been fully documented. The attacker had tased him, as marks on the man’s chest revealed. Using a bone drill, he then opened the top of the victim’s skull, inserted needles, and incinerated areas of the brain by applying voltage. In Clegg’s file, there were a number of MRI and CT scans of the injuries, taken while Clegg was still alive, but also thin tissue slices from the post-mortem dissection.

“We can send anything important to Sarah,” Decker said.

“Yeah,” Cotton said. “Apparently, they don’t do brain transplants yet.”

Decker chuckled. “Too bad; I know a few people who could use one. Well, I’ll send Sarah the data and then ask her what else she needs for a detailed investigation.”

A few moments later, the two agents found themselves standing indecisively in the hall.

“What now?” Cotton asked. “I don’t imagine we’ll be able to solve the murder using only the medical records. And we’re not going to find any more evidence in the hospital. It’s too bad that no one seemed to be interested in Clegg — at least, not enough to drop by.”

“He has a brother in Seattle.” Decker flipped through the case documents that she had transferred to her smartphone. “But I don’t think that we’ll discover any familial reasons for the murder. Not considering the other cases.”

Clegg was already the fifth person to be found in a coma after suffering brain damage from surgically precise incisions. There were no connections between the victims, who came from all over the country, and there were no obvious similarities between them other than the manner of their deaths.

“What about his surroundings?” Cotton asked. “Did he have a lot of money?”

“He’d been unemployed for the past two years.” Decker tapped on the small screen of her phone. “He had previously earned pretty good money as a systems analyst at a bank. Then he lost his job, got divorced, worked on a few short-term contracts … he probably just never got back on his feet. No idea what he’s been living off for the past few years. Possibly his savings.”

Cotton furrowed his brow. “Or maybe he was involved in some dirty business that ended up costing him his life.”

“There’s no evidence of that,” Decker said. “Besides, if someone wanted to get rid of him, there would’ve been easier ways.”

“Let’s talk to Mr. Clegg’s neighbors.” Cotton resolutely set off down the hall. “Maybe one of them saw something.”

“Or someone knows something about him that could give us a new lead,” Decker added without much hope. “A trait he shared with the other victims that could lead us to the attacker.”

*

“I’ve heard that Clegg had been drinking a lot lately.” Rupert Hillbridge narrowed his eyes and looked out the window. From his living room, he could see right into Jason Clegg’s yard.

“You’ve heard.” Cotton rolled his eyes. “But you haven’t seen anything, right?”

“Clegg usually kept his curtains drawn,” Hillbridge said. “He’d get a lot of fast food delivered, almost every night. He didn’t fit in around here.”

Mrs. Hillbridge, standing beside her husband, nodded in agreement. “Just like on the evening he died. I saw a pizza deliveryman drive up. Right after that, the ambulance came.”

“How long after?” Decker asked.

“About an hour,” Mr. Hillbridge said.

“Thirty minutes at the most,” his wife corrected him.

“Can you describe the deliveryman?” Decker asked.

Mr. and Mrs. Hillbridge shook their heads.

“Did you see the company logo?” Cotton asked.

Another negative.

Cotton and Decker were glad to get back outside onto the street. They had had to wait until the evening to question the Hillbridges, a working couple who returned home quite late. They had been the most promising witnesses, but in the end they hadn’t provided the agents with any more information than the other neighbors with whom they’d spoken.

It seemed that Clegg hadn’t really fit in with the neighborhood, and none of his neighbors had known him very well. The man had kept mostly to himself. Several neighbors mentioned the pizza deliveryman, but they didn’t even agree on whether he had come by car, motorcycle, or bicycle.

Nevertheless, the deliveryman was suspicious. At the very least, he had been the last person to see Clegg alive. Even more suspicious was the fact that there were no pizza boxes found in Clegg’s house, or at least none that had been delivered on the day of the crime.

So, they had a suspect, but no clue as to how they could find the man.

“We can check for surveillance cameras in the area,” Cotton suggested. “Maybe we can spot the guy in the recordings.”

Decker made a face. “But we don’t need to personally look at all of the images ourseleves. Let’s send the recordings to the office and have them be analyzed there.”

Cotton nodded. “We should try our luck with the other victims. If we compare the statements, maybe we’ll find something that’ll give us a lead.”

“I hope so,” Decker said. “We’ve gathered enough irrelevant information today — from Clegg’s alleged character flaws to his gardening habits.”

“Non-existent gardening habits,” Cotton added. “His yard is half jungle. If it weren’t for the other victims, I’d say the guy was lynched by his neighbors.”

*

Marissa Waite had been popular among her neighbors. She had worked twice a week at the local soup kitchen and had been a member of her church council. She was found lying in the gutter with a battered face, just a block away from her building in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. The ambulance had been called from her own cell phone, but the voice analysis of the recorded phone call indicated that the inarticulate moans and groans that had alerted the 9-1-1 operator had been made by a man.

Decker and Cotton sat with the dead woman’s husband in his living room. Darkness was already setting in outside the window, and Decker suppressed a yawn. They had now been jetting back and forth across the country for three days, questioning dozens of witnesses from the individual murders. Gradually, all the statements were beginning to blend together, but without any discernible commonalities. The procedure was always the same. The victims were not.

Perched on the edge of his sofa, Mr. Waite fidgeted restlessly, staring into space. Cotton had to force himself to concentrate on the droning voice of the widower, whose brooding on certain details kept derailing the interview.

“I don’t understand it,” Waite said yet again. “Every Tuesday and Thursday, she worked all day with homeless people, and then she gets attacked in our neighborhood, of all places.”

“Mr. Waite …” Decker spoke to the man in a comforting tone of voice. “The police have already determined that your wife was probably not assaulted where she was found. The body was placed there. When we retrace your wife’s day, there’s a gap of an entire hour. No one knows where she was during that time.”

“They say someone killed her … deliberately killed her. Why Marissa? She only ever helped people!”

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Cotton said. "Anything you can tell us could be helpful. In the days prior to the attack, did you ever have the feeling that someone was watching you? Did your wife possibly mention anything of the sort? After her death, did you learn anything about your wife that you hadn’t known before? Any surprise connections or secrets?”

“What are you trying to say?” Waite looked up indignantly. “She had no secrets! There was no reason for this to happen to her!”

When the agents finally left the apartment, a cool night breeze greeted them. They looked up at the well-kept three-story apartment buildings that lined the busy street. Several passers-by had stumbled across Marissa Waite’s horribly beaten body before the ambulance had arrived. She couldn’t possibly have been lying in the busy neighborhood for more than a few minutes, but remarkably there were no witnesses who could reveal how she had gotten there and no indications of who the attacker might have been.

“Should we question more neighbors?” Decker followed the row of streetlamps with her eyes.

Cotton shook his head. “No more tonight.”

“It’d be best if we fly back early tomorrow,” Decker said. “We can find out everything else from the police files.”

“Except that those files have gaps big enough to fit your fist through,” Cotton complained. “The police just assumed that Mrs. Waite was attacked somewhere by unknown thugs and managed to drag herself almost all the way home. But that’s completely impossible. Not with those injuries! Not when you consider how long she was missing. And not without someone having seen her.”

Decker shrugged. Although it predated some of the other attacks, Waite’s case had been the last to be identified, as her brain injuries had been overlooked at first. The attacker had beaten and cut her face — randomly, it seemed — before going after her brain with the same needle punctures found in the other victims. The superficial wounds had been enough to cover up the surgical interference, and so the doctors had attributed Marissa Waite’s death to multiple brain hemorrhages following the violent assault.

Only now, with the specific search underway for possible similarities, had Waite’s case surfaced in the database, allowing the results to be re-evaluated. Marissa had survived nearly a week in a coma before she had been declared dead.

Decker seemed to feel obliged to come to the defense of the police. “The cops didn’t know anything about the brain damage. Even the missing hour could be explained without any connection to the crime. For example, Mrs. Waite could have stopped for a coffee on her way home.” She looked at Cotton before she went on: “How were the cops supposed to figure out that the attacker had spent an hour doing anything to her, if the doctors told them all her injuries had been caused by a few punches that could’ve been dished out in some dark alley in half a minute?”

“Don’t get me started.” Cotton felt personally affronted by the failures of his former colleagues on the force. “I know that type of cop. They’d rather jump on the first plausible explanation than engage in any critical analysis or expend any effort.”

“You probably know more cops than I do,” Decker admitted. “But at least the routine police work was clean in this case. They questioned all of the neighbors, especially the ones who might’ve noticed anything about Marissa Waite’s reappearance. We don’t have to re-do all that work.”

“Okay,” Cotton agreed. “But we probably can assume that Marissa Waite didn’t crawl all the way to where she was found. I’d guess that she was pushed out of a delivery van. We should look for something like that when we go through the police files again.”

“A delivery van …” Decker pondered. “With Jason Clegg, it was some kind of smaller vehicle for pizza delivery. Maybe it’s not just the similarities that are important in this case; maybe the differences can tell us something, too.”

“Like what?” Cotton asked.

“The appearance of our prime suspect is different every time. He’s adaptable and clever.”

“You think that this all revolves around the attacker? That we won’t find a connection between the victims?”

“Unemployed people, blue-collar workers, businesspeople, housewives, all ages, genders, socio-economic classes, and spread out all across the country. We now have six victims in eight months, and I see no connection between them at all. If you ask me, we’re dealing with the typical case of a serial killer who’s choosing his victims randomly, and it’s more about what he does to them than who they are. We should forward the case files to Les Bedell, our forensic psychology expert. We need a profiler to help us look at the case from the perspective of the perpetrator instead of the crimes.”

“I don’t know …” Cotton shrugged.

Deep in thought, the agents went back to their car and got in.

“What don’t you know?” Decker asked before Cotton started the engine.

“Well, I’m no profiler, but where’s the evolution of the murderer? Don’t serial killers start off slowly and then become more extreme as they try to enhance the thrill? Shouldn’t he be improving his methods, in search of the perfect crime? Why did he choose these victims? No preferred type, no preferred setting. They’re not even the easiest victims he could’ve found. It doesn’t make sense.”

Decker nodded. “There’s something to that, but you and I aren’t profilers. Don’t you think we should ask Bedell before we make any assumptions about what could be going on in such a sick mind?”

“Sure, we can ask him,” Cotton replied. “But I feel like we’ve missed something with these murders. Everything just seems so random. There must be a reason why the attacker chose these specific victims.”

“Oh, is that what your instinct tells you?” Decker said teasingly.

Cotton started the engine. “I think we already have the crucial clue we need to bring it all together. We just haven’t pinpointed it. If I don’t figure it out at the hotel or before our return flight, we can certainly call in the head-shrinker.”

3

“Organ donors.” Cotton was late for the briefing. He ignored Mr. High’s disapproving look, as well as the stunned expressions of Decker and Sarah Hunter, and slammed a file onto the table.

John D. High frowned. “I hope you can present your report in complete sentences, Agent Cotton.”

“I found the common thread that connects all of the cases together, sir. All of the victims’ viable organs were removed after their deaths. I think that’s what the murderer was looking for.”

“That sounds like organ theft,” Decker said. “But I already looked into that. They were all legitimately registered as donors. After their deaths were confirmed, the hospitals did everything required, by the book. The attacker had nothing to do with it. He didn’t touch a single organ — except for the brain — and the subsequent organ donations followed protocol exactly. The requisite procedures were carried out at different hospitals, and different doctors were involved each time. I found no signs of malpractice. Unless you’re buying into a conspiracy theory involving countless doctors across the country.”

“Don’t you find it strange,” Cotton continued, “that all of the victims were organ donors?”

“It is a notable deviation from the usual rate,” Sarah Hunter acknowledged. “But all of the victims were in the best possible condition for donation. They died in hospitals, and because of the nature of their injuries, their organs were in optimal state, so …”

Cotton cut her off as he picked up his folder again. “That’s the next strange coincidence that I wanted to point out.”

Hunter went on: “What I was trying to say is, none of the victims’ circumstances involved any of the factors that often preclude an organ donation. So the donations only depended on the consent of the deceased or their relatives. And because the victims were in a stable condition for a while before their deaths, their relatives had time to become comfortable with the idea of organ donation. Certainly, it’s unusual that they all donated their organs, but the conditions were all favorable.”

“Besides, the coincidence doesn’t prove anything,” Decker said. “It might be the case that the perp actually got the names of his prospective victims from a list of organ donors. Maybe he works in that specific department, and he simply needed a way to choose his victims. That doesn’t mean that he killed them because they were organ donors.”

“Splitting hairs.” Cotton stared gloomily at his folder; he held it tightly between his fingers, as though he wanted to bore a hole through it. He still hadn’t sat down.

“I don’t think so,” Decker responded. “It’s a very important difference. If the attacker is randomly selecting his victims from a specific list of organ donors, then we’re dealing with a serial killer who murders people out of his own psychological motivations. In that case, we can potentially identify him by profiling his traits based on his actions. With organ theft, someone has to profit. There have to be reasonable motives, a real conspiracy. We’d have to find something fishy about the system, or there’d be a money trail to follow. And there hasn’t been any evidence pointing in that direction.”

“Then look for it.” Mr. High stood up, his face stony. “Agent Decker, you do what you suggested earlier. Consult with Bedell and get a description of the perpetrator. We may even find a suspect within our databases that fits Bedell’s profile. And you, Cotton, can take a closer look at the transplants. Look into the recipients. Check to see whether there’s any evidence of dirty practices. I want results, first thing Monday morning.”

He left the meeting room. Sarah Hunter seemed not to notice that her boss had adjourned the meeting; she sat there, lost in thought, drumming her fingers on the table.

Decker looked at Cotton. “Well, you’ve gotten yourself a few extra nights to study the files, Cotton. But I can tell you right now that the organ removals were clean. You won’t find anything more than I did.”

Cotton shrugged. “I’m perfectly happy with my part of the job. At least I don’t have to meet with the shrink.”

“If Les Bedell wants to talk about the case over dinner,” Decker replied, “I won’t turn down the offer. It’ll be a nice change from the burger barns and whiskey joints I always end up in when you get to choose the restaurant.”

“Oh, damn,” Cotton muttered.

“I’m sorry, Cotton,” Decker said, raising a mocking eyebrow. “I didn’t think you’d take my criticism to heart.”

“No, no,” Cotton brushed off her remark. “I was just thinking about Maria. I promised her that we’d make up for our canceled date tonight. I need to make it something special. Do you have any tips, Decker? Since you clearly have ideas about how men can impress women.”

“What about the analysis that Mr. High wants on his desk on Monday?”

Cotton shrugged. “A weekend is a long time. I’ll drop in on Zeery and have him put together a quick search script. The computer can look for anything that stands out while I enjoy my first free evening in a week. That’s not too much to ask.”

Decker stood up from the conference table, ready to leave. Suddenly, she turned back to Hunter.

“Sarah,” she said. “You wanted to present the results of your forensic investigation. Did you find anything interesting about the bodies that the doctors had overlooked?”

“What?” Sarah Hunter looked up and shook her head. “No … no, but I just remembered something that I wanted to look into. Maybe I can contribute something on Monday.”

*

Cotton sat at a table in Scalini, a restaurant in Tribeca, near the southern end of Manhattan. He had barely glanced at the tasteful interior of the room, with its vaulted ceiling and illuminated columns, as his companion outshone everything. Maria Avalos was a tall beauty with dark eyes and black hair that fell in soft waves over her shoulders. She had the delicate features of a model, and her dark complexion revealed her Mexican heritage.

Cotton raised his wine glass and smiled at her. He was happy that he had been able to get a table at Scalini on such short notice. It made the date seem festive in comparison to their first casual meetings. Okay, Scalini was a bit above his pay grade, but what could you expect when you asked Decker for advice? He rarely had the time to go out properly anyway, and he needed a good way to thank Maria for her patience — and to take a first step toward a relationship that was something more than just friendship.

“Your relatives, do they all still live in Iowa?”

The question hit Cotton like a ton of bricks. His family was pretty much the last thing he wanted to talk about on his perfect date.

“My parents died a long time ago,” he answered evasively. “I came to New York when I was eighteen. I met Sarah by chance and she took care of me. She’d definitely enjoy meeting you.”

Maria had looked concerned when Cotton mentioned the death of his parents. But when he brushed it aside as something he had long ago accepted, she smiled. “I’d be happy to meet her,” she said. “I hardly know anyone in this city.”

Cotton nodded distractedly; images of a cemetery and the rubble at Ground Zero were flashing through his mind. That was where his family had died. Memories were all he had left. His thoughts wandered back to the meeting room he had left a few hours earlier. There was something that he’d nearly forgotten.

Relatives.

Cotton made an effort to snap out of his reverie. If he wanted to clear his head and go back to enjoying the evening, he had to take care of this thing right away. He looked at Maria. “Excuse me; I just have to quickly go to the men’s room.”

He retreated to the stairs. Between the bathrooms and the wine cellar, he looked for a quiet corner, pulled out his phone, and scrolled through all the data from the case. Then he dialed a number.

“Yes?” a man’s voice answered. It sounded unhappy.

“Clegg?” Cotton asked. “Is this Randolph Clegg?”

“Yes,” the man answered.

He was the brother of the last murder victim. Cotton and Decker hadn’t yet questioned him. Jason and Randolph Clegg had lived on opposite coasts and had barely had any contact with each other for years — the police had mentioned that in the file. It had seemed unlikely that the brother would know anything that could help the investigation. Now, however, Cotton had stumbled across a situation in which information from a relative might be significant.

“Who’s this?” the man asked.

“Special Agent Cotton, FBI. I’d like to talk to you about your brother.”

“Over the phone? Now?” Clegg asked, confused.

“Yes …” Cotton looked around to make sure that no one was listening in. When he thought about it, he realized that it hadn’t been such a good idea to call from the restaurant. “Just a quick question.”

“I’ve already spoken to the police,” Clegg said. “When they told me what happened to my brother.”

“What did your brother think about organ donation?” Cotton asked.

“You know what, mister,” Clegg said. “You can ask my lawyer. Or come by and show me a badge.” He hung up.

Cotton stood there a moment, staring at his phone. He was angry, but at the same time he had some sympathy for the man. After his brother’s murder, Randolph Clegg must have received a lot of unwelcome attention from the press. Considering the spectacular, macabre circumstances surrounding the murder, it probably hadn’t been the most reputable reporters that lined up outside his door. Cotton had had a similar experience after the death of his parents. On top of that, nine o’clock in the evening in front of a men’s room was not the best time or place for an interview.

Cotton hesitated a moment, then opened a Web browser on his smartphone. The fastest way to get to Seattle would be catching the flight tomorrow morning at half past seven from Newark. He would have to steal a little time from his date to organize everything as quickly as possible, and there was no way he could arrange things with Mr. High ahead of time. But if he hesitated, he’d lose at least a day. He could send Mr. High an e-mail so that he’d be notified as soon as he accessed his work account — over the weekend or first thing on Monday morning. And there was still enough time tonight to finish dinner and take Maria home without hurrying too much.

“Okay …” Cotton muttered and strolled back to the table, simultaneously booking the ticket with his phone and looking up the forms for his travel request.

*

Randolph Clegg was in his mid-thirties. He answered the door unshaven and in his bathrobe when Cotton rang his doorbell late Saturday morning. His disheveled medium-length blond hair barely concealed his receding hairline. He stared at Cotton’s badge, and Cotton heard children’s voices and rattling dishes in the background.

“What’s going on, Randolph?” asked a woman who was standing in the doorway leading to the kitchen.

“The police again,” Randolph Clegg answered. “Because of my brother.”

“Well, I just hope they’ve finally caught the man who did it. The poor guy!”

Clegg didn’t respond to her exclamation. He led Cotton through another door into a small living room with 70s-style green upholstered furniture. “Come in,” he said. “I’m sorry about last night. I thought you were another one of those hacks, trying to discredit my brother on some false pretense.”

“Discredit him how, exactly?” Cotton asked.

“Well,” Clegg said, “you asked about donating organs. And my brother told everyone how he changed his donor status when he renewed his driver’s license. He didn’t want to give anything back to the world after everything was taken away from him. I thought you wanted to make a story out of that … about what a terrible man Jason was, and so on. He just couldn’t get over the break-up with Christine.”

“He changed his license so that he was no longer an organ donor?” Cotton was surprised. “Jason Clegg had a separate donor card on him when he died.”

“Really?” This news seemed to baffle Randolph Clegg. “Maybe he reconsidered later. That makes it all the more sad that he was murdered, just when he was apparently trying to find his way back into the world.” Clegg looked at Cotton. “You know, my brother was a good person, whatever you might have heard about him. A good father. The divorce broke his heart.”

“I understand,” Cotton said. “So you didn’t know anything about the organ removal?”

Clegg looked at him sadly. “No. The clinic sent me a whole stack of papers. I haven’t gone through all of it yet. I fly out tomorrow to take care of Jason’s funeral. Why are you asking about this? Does being an organ donor have something to do with the case?”

“At this point, we have no evidence indicating that it does,” Cotton answered diplomatically. “But I’m looking into the matter.”

*

Back outside, Cotton pulled out his cell phone. He wondered whether Sarah Hunter would be at work on a Saturday, but she picked up on the second ring.

“It’s Cotton,” he said. “Can I …”

“Cotton,” she interrupted him. “What a coincidence that you called. I was just thinking of you. I have a few results that might interest you. Are you coming in today?”

“I’m in Seattle. Last night I remembered a witness who may be able to help us.”

“Seattle?” Hunter cut off his explanation. “Well, whatever. Your theory from yesterday afternoon has been eating away at me. I went through the victims’ records again, everything relevant to organ donation. I’ve determined that there were some major correspondences between the last two victims. They have a similar donor profile, and it’s a rare one at that.”

“What does that mean?” Cotton asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Hunter said. “For now, it’s just a remarkable coincidence. I’ve taken the liberty of investigating the relevant databases a little more closely. There’s only one other potential donor registered whose phenotype more or less matches up with theirs. Peter Warren from Portland, Oregon.”

“Portland,” Cotton repeated thoughtfully. “That’s just around the corner from here. Okay, I won’t fly back to New York right away; I’ll drop in on this Warren guy instead. Do you have an address?”

“Do you think he could be the culprit?” Hunter asked. “Someone looking for a suitable organ for himself?”

“Who knows,” Cotton answered. “These similarities that you found — they indicate how well a donor matches a recipient, right?”

“Right.”

“Then that could be the case. Or Warren could be the next victim, if the attacker is after a specific donor type. I’ll talk to the man. I have another request for you: Could you have someone look into Jason Clegg’s organ donor card?”

“What for?” Hunter asked.

“For discrepancies in the donor database. For forgery. Whatever. If something’s fishy about it, it would be another sign that we’re on the right track.”

4

“Peter?”

Peter Warren looked up from his lathe. His employer, Largess Enterprises, produced custom-made parts for machines and equipment. George Black, the shift foreman, was standing in front of him.

“What’s up?” Warren asked.

“Some guy,” Black said. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Now?” Warren asked. “What is it?”

“No idea,” Black responded. “But it’s important. I’ll take over for you for a bit.”

Peter Warren got up. He was a stocky man with short dark hair who shuffled his feet as he walked. The weekend shifts were quieter, but he was still only halfway through the grind of a monotonous workday.

“Not on the telephone,” Black called to him. “You should go to the front entrance.”

Warren left the machine hall and walked out to the lobby, where he gave a small nod to Cora, the receptionist. She pointed to a stranger who was sitting on the padded bench near the main door. The man was wearing a nondescript, light-colored suit with a white polo shirt under the open jacket. He was taller than Warren, but much thinner. The man stood up and looked expectantly at Warren.

Warren racked his brain to find a connection, but came up empty. The man was a complete stranger.

“Mr. Warren?” The man stepped forward and indecisively held out his hand.

“Yes?” Warren asked warily.

“Mr. Warren, I …” the stranger began. “Would you please come with me? There’s been an incident.”

“Incident?” Warren furrowed his brow. “What is this nonsense? I’m at work. Who are you, anyway?”

“Pardon me,” the stranger said. “My name is Mercier. I’m the assistant coach at your son’s school, and I’ve just come from our Saturday practice session. I was with Jacob when it happened … Mr. Warren, we couldn’t reach your wife, so I thought I’d drive you to the hospital.”

“Hospital?” Warren’s face suddenly blanched. “My god, what happened to Jacob?”

Mercier took him by the hand and pulled him along. “I don’t really know. He’s still in the operating room. It’d be best for you to speak to the doctors yourself when you get to the clinic.”

“Operating room? Oh, god!”

He broke free and ran out the door. Just outside, he bumped into another man who was about to enter the building. Without a word of apology, Warren hurried on. Mercier had trouble keeping up with him as he directed the distraught worker to his waiting car.

*

‘Largess Enterprises’ was written on the sign in front of the building. Cotton had been about to enter the spartan lobby that was visible through the windows when the front door almost slammed into his face. A man excitedly rushed out of the building. He was middle-aged, stocky, and wearing workman’s overalls. A non-descript man in a casual blazer was trying to keep up with him.

Cotton jumped back. He watched the men hurry over to a car that was illegally parked in the loading zone in front of the entrance. Cotton briefly wondered whether he should give the men a talking-to, but then turned away. He had lost enough time trying to find Peter Warren’s workplace.

The agitation of the two men had rubbed off on him a bit. He picked up his pace as he approached the woman who was sitting behind the reception desk. A vague sense of urgency washed over Cotton that hadn’t been there moments before.

“What can I do for you, sir?” the woman asked.

Cotton held out his badge to the dark-haired woman. “I have to talk to one of your colleagues — a man named Peter Warren.”

“You, too?” The woman looked surprised and glanced in the direction of the main entrance.

Cotton immediately understood.

He spun around on his heel and saw the blue Ford that had been parked out front begin to drive away. Through the rear windshield, he could make out the backs of the heads of the two men who had just hurried past him.

Cotton cursed and ran back outside. The regular parking lot where he’d parked his car was thirty yards away. As he reached his car, he saw the Ford already disappearing around the next corner.

He jumped behind the steering wheel, started the engine, and peeled out. Next time I’m looking for a suspect, he vowed to himself, I won’t waste time on obeying red lights.

Cotton darted around the turn. He saw the Ford ahead of him, driving through the next intersection. When he got close to the car, he eased off the gas. If one of the men was Peter Warren — probably the guy in the overalls — it might be interesting to follow them inconspicuously and see where they went. In any case, something was going on, Cotton was convinced of it.

The blue Ford zipped through the industrial area where Warren worked. The man at the wheel drove fast enough that Cotton had trouble staying on their tail without being too obvious.

Suddenly, the blue car disappeared.

Cotton stopped short. He hit the gas, circled the block, and drove down the street where he’d last seen the car turn. At a walking pace, he rolled past dismal concrete façades, rusting company signs, and stockyards full of construction materials, pallets wrapped in plastic, and piles of scrap metal. Work was in progress at some factories, while others were shut down, although at times it was hard to tell which was the case.

Cotton looked left and right, keeping an eye out for the blue Ford.

He noticed a fresh black tire mark on the concrete. The trail led to a lot surrounded by dilapidated warehouses. Cotton made the impromptu decision to follow it. The Ford had been moving quickly. Maybe the car had turned quickly enough here to leave a skid mark.

At the other end of the lot, he saw a garage without a door. Cotton drove more slowly. There was no movement in front of him. Then he saw the blue Ford parked inside the dimly lit building. The car was empty. Nothing stirred.

Cotton got out, pulled out his gun, and entered the garage.

*

The passenger door of the blue Ford had been left open. Further back in the garage, a doorway led into the attached warehouse. The abandoned company’s facilities looked as though they’d been gutted. Light seeped through broken windows into bare, musty rooms with patchy concrete floors.

Cotton cautiously moved forward, listening intently. He heard a faint scraping ahead. He slowly moved toward it. The sound of metal against metal.

The small hall that Cotton entered had probably been a workshop. It was very bright inside. High up, there were broad stretches of windows that extended from one end of the room to the other. More light came in through dingy skylights, creating hazy islands of brightness on the dirty floor.

Directly below one of the skylights, there was an old hospital bed. The man in work clothes was lying on it, and his companion stood beside him. He had taken off his jacket and was wearing rubber gloves that came up past his elbows to the sleeves of his polo shirt. There was an open bag on the floor next to him. As Cotton watched, the man took out a frame that looked like a helmet made of wire mesh.

He looked up as Cotton stepped through the door.

Cotton stared at the object with confusion for a moment, and then raised his gun.

“Freeze,” he said. “FBI. You’re under arrest.”

The man dropped the wire helmet back into the bag and ducked behind the stretcher. Cotton bent down to see what the man was doing. At the same moment, the man gave the stretcher a forceful shove, sending it rolling toward Cotton with the motionless man strapped on top. The agent cursed and jumped up. With one hand, he caught the stretcher and pushed it aside; with the other, he tried to get a clear shot at the suspect over the unconscious man.

The stretcher crashed into the doorframe beside him and began to tip over on its side. Cotton threw himself to the left and grabbed the stretcher to save the man strapped on top from injury. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the suspect disappear through a small exit in the back wall. Not only had he picked up his bag, but he had even taken the time to get his jacket.

What an arrogant asshole, Cotton thought. He hurried through the workshop. Beyond the doorway, he heard clanging and clattering followed by a loud rumbling sound.

The room connected to the workshop was narrow and dark. There were no windows and no other visible exit. The only light was coming through the door. Cotton was aware that he cast a long shadow in the room and that the suspect could follow his every move.

“Great,” he muttered, peering cautiously around the doorframe.

Nothing in front of him was moving. There was nothing in the room that the suspect could use to hide.

Cotton eyed every corner in the narrow room closely, but he could see nothing there. It was as empty as the rest of the building; other than the gray shadows, there was nowhere to hide. Nonetheless, Cotton couldn’t find a trace of the man he was following.

He cautiously entered, gun at the ready, carefully checking the corners behind him. He noticed a sort of manhole in the floor. Cotton suddenly understood the sounds he’d heard.

Apparently, the suspect knew the building quite well. Either he’d already used it for previous crimes, or he’d scoped it out ahead of time to prepare an escape route just in case. Considering how quickly he’d disappeared, the manhole must have been open already. The man had climbed through and closed it behind him.

Cotton approached the heavy cover. The holes in it were so small that he could barely push his fingers through them. A hook was probably used to open it under normal circumstances. But this was how it had to be.

Cotton grimaced in pain and tensed up his muscles. On the fourth try, he managed to lift the cover and push it to one side. He saw a ladder that led down into the darkness.

Without hesitating, he began to climb down, his weapon pointed into the darkness. Near the bottom of the ladder, he dropped down to the floor below, crouched low, and aimed along the passageway. The tunnel was barely two yards high and a narrow one yard wide.

Cotton followed the passageway. Still ducking down, he started to move faster. His feet splashed in the ankle-deep water. As he ran, he pulled his phone out of his pocket with his free hand and used it as a makeshift flashlight.

He turned a corner — and jumped back. In the pale light of his phone display, he saw a silhouette just a few yards in front of him. In the dim light, he could just make out the weapon the man was holding.

Cotton flattened himself against the wall for cover.

“Drop your weapon!” he cried.

No reaction.

Cotton poked his gun around the corner and fired a warning shot. The bullet scraped along the concrete floor, the sound echoing off the tunnel’s walls. A moment later, Cotton took a blow that knocked him off his feet. He fell hard onto his back and gasped for air. His limbs were twitching helplessly. Gasping, he struggled to sit up, fumbling for his Kimber. His smartphone lay beside him, flickering.

Stunned, Cotton managed to retrieve his belongings from the water. He had no idea what had hit him, but as he scrambled to his feet with his gun and his phone in his hands and shakily peered around the corner, he saw the thin wires glistening on the ground. They were connected to a discarded cartridge. Just in front of his feet, Cotton noticed two needle electrodes lying in a puddle. Now he understood what had happened: The attacker had shot a taser into the water, giving him an electric shock.

The tunnel in front of him was empty. The man had disappeared.

Cotton briefly hesitated. He examined the wet tunnel before him with new caution. After all, he’d just learned that his opponent had a weapon that he could fire at a pursuer from behind cover. The effect was not as bad as a direct hit — Cotton knew that he wouldn’t have been back on his feet so quickly otherwise — but even a brief moment of shock could be deadly if the suspect decided to finish off his pursuer rather than flee.

Cotton crept further down the tunnel, more carefully than before, readying himself to be the first to shoot the next time.

The narrow shaft ended in a large, open canal that marked the edge of the industrial area. The grate that normally closed off access was missing.

Cotton peered outside. The concrete channel in front of him was empty and mostly dry. Some wet footprints could be seen on the ground, but they faded and disappeared a few yards away. Cotton could see where the suspect had climbed out of the canal.

Then he heard cars driving along the street above him.

That was when he knew he’d lost his target.

*

Cotton spent Sunday in Portland. He personally made sure that the local police followed every possible lead, and he spoke with Peter Warren after he’d regained consciousness. The three-hour time difference contributed to the fact that Cotton only arrived back in New York on Monday afternoon.

He’d barely exited the plane when his phone rang. Decker was on the line.

“Where are you, Cotton? Mr. High was beside himself over your little trip.”

“At least I’ve made some progress,” Cotton answered. “Didn’t you get my report?&

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