Once we were inside the main building it was as quiet as a monastery, and the extremely high level of security continued. Sampson and I were asked to wait between two sets of steel-bar doors. We were subjected to a metal detector, then had to present photo IDs along with our badges. The security guard who checked us informed us that many of North Carolina's "First in Flight" license plates were made here at the prison. Good to know, I suppose.
There were hundreds of controlled steel gates in the high-security prison. Inmates couldn't move outside their cells without handcuffs, leg irons, and security guards. Finally we were allowed to enter death row itself, and were taken to Sergeant Cooper. In this section of the prison each block consisted of sixteen cells, eight on the bottom, eight on top, with a common dayroom. Everything was painted the official color, known as "lark."
"John Sampson, you came after all," Ellis Cooper said as he saw us standing in a narrow corridor outside a special hearing room. The door was opened and we were let in by a pair of armed guards.
I sucked in a breath, but tried not to show it. Cooper's wrists and ankles were shackled with chains. He looked like a big, powerful slave.
Sampson went and hugged Cooper. Cooper had on the orange-red jumpsuit that all of the death row inmates wore. He kept repeating, "So good to see you."
When the two big men finally pulled apart, Cooper's eyes were red and his cheeks wet. Sampson remained dryeyed. I had never, ever seen John cry.
"This is the best thing that's happened to me in a long, long while," Cooper said. "I didn't think anybody would come after the trial. I'm already dead to most of them."
"I brought along somebody. This is Detective Alex Cross," Sampson said, turning my way. "He's the best I know at homicide investigations."
"That's what I need," said Cooper as he took my hand. "The best."
"So tell us about all this awful craziness. Everything," Sampson said. "Tell us from start to finish. Your version, Coop."
Sergeant Cooper nodded. "I want to. It will be good to tell it to somebody who isn't already convinced that I murdered those three women."
"That's why we're here," Sampson said. "Because you didn't murder the women."
"That Friday was a payday," Cooper began. "I should have gone straight home to my girlfriend, Marcia, but I had a few drinks at the club. I called Marcia around eight, I guess. She'd apparently gone out. She was probably ticked off at me. So I had another drink. Met up with a couple of buddies. I called my place again it was probably close to nine. Marcia was still out.
"I had another couple of highballs at the club. Then I decided to walk home. Why walk? Because I knew I was three sheets to the wind. It was only a little over a mile home anyway. When I got to my house, it was past ten. Marcia still wasn't there. I turned on a North Carolina- Duke basketball game. Love to root against the Dukies and Coach K. Around eleven o'clock I heard the front door open. I yelled out to Marcia, asked her where she had been.
"Only it wasn't her coming home after all. It was about half a dozen MPs and a CID investigator named Jacobs.
Soon after that, they supposedly found the RTAK survival knife in the attic of my house. And traces of blue paint used on those ladies. They arrested me for murder."
Ellis Cooper looked at Sampson first, then he stared hard into my eyes. He paused before he spoke again. "I didn't kill those women," he said. "And what I still can't believe, somebody obviously framed me for the murders. Why would somebody set me up? It doesn't make sense. I don't have an enemy in the world. Least I didn't think so."
THOMAS STARKEY, BROWNLEY Harris, and Warren Griffin had been best friends for more than thirty years, ever since they served together in Vietnam. Every couple of months, under Thomas Starkey's command, they went to a simple, post-and-beam log cabin on Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia and spent a long weekend together. It was a ritual of machismo and would continue, Starkey insisted, until the last of them was gone.
Copyright © 2002 by James Patterson
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