A coward dies a thousand deaths. The brave die but once. You know what that means, don’t you?
Your local cop hero is a far greater man than you. He is audacious and strong and everything you pretend to be. You believe that working for “the man” gives you credence in the world. You think it makes you better than this local peon. You couldn’t be more wrong.
So guess what? Your life will now be reduced to its essence. You will be displayed for what you are: an example.
You will prove to everyone that strength doesn’t come from a badge—it comes from the heart of a man and then swells beyond every obstacle he faces. You will become an example of what not to be. You will show how not to live.
Will they never learn?
Ben’s cell phone rang. He had left it in his coat pocket while on the air, but he was expecting to get some calls because of what had just happened.
“Just what the fuck are you trying to pull here?” the voice on the other end yelled into his ear.
“Oh, hi Walter,” Ben replied, not answering agent Conley’s opening to a diatribe. He knew that whomever he heard from over the next hour would not be too pleasant and had decided even before the show that fighting back would not accomplish anything productive. “I gather you saw the program.”
“Don’t be a smart ass, Simeon,” Conley continued his onslaught. “Answer my fucking question.”
“I will, Walter. Just relax a second and catch your breath.” Ben was fully expecting Conley to continue, but to Ben’s surprise, the agent did settle down. “Look, I know that you and everybody else have a million questions that you want answered. I’ll be back at my office in an hour. Tell everybody to meet me there. Then I’ll go over this with all of you at the same time. I know you’re pissed at the way I handled it. But I do have my reasons and will explain them to you guys then.”
Ben didn’t wait for him to respond, he just hung up his phone. He thought about it for a few seconds, then shut his phone off. To hell with it, he thought. If I’m gonna get fired, I might as well have a quiet trip back home.
Ben walked outside and stood on the doorstep. The rain was just starting to fall, and the air was cool. It felt good on his face. This time of year, the sun had already set an hour earlier so the streetlights were casting shadows over the parking lot and its cars.
It was then that Ben saw someone watching him from the shadows. He couldn’t see who it was—he couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman—all he knew was that whoever was there was watching him.
As Ben took a step down the stairs toward the hidden figure, the door behind him burst open, startling him. Ben ducked into a crouch and went for the gun holstered under his coat.
“Whoa, buddy!” Corey Fox said. “I surrender!” Fox put his hands up, turned and took the position, with his hands against the door he had just come through. Then he looked back over his shoulder and started to laugh, seeing the serious expression on Ben’s face. “Take it easy, okay. I didn’t want to miss you before you headed home.”
Ben didn’t bother answering. He just turned back to where the person had been hiding. No one was there.
“Shit,” he murmured to himself. He thought that whoever it had been had a reason for being there. Maybe an important reason for all he knew. Damn, he thought, I’m getting paranoid.
In Santa Cruz, the darkly dressed man had been following the woman for the last two days. He didn’t know who she was or why she needed to be followed; all he knew was that she was important to the creep that was going to ruin his life. If this was his way of getting rid of this asshole, then he would do whatever it took. Hopefully, he thought, all of this would be over soon, and he could just go back to building a good life for him and his new wife.
The one thing he considered weird was that the woman was a cop, a pretty cop at that. Maybe this guy had the hots for women with power. Maybe he had some sort of fetish about being cuffed and forced to do dirty things. He wouldn’t put it past the bastard. Maybe he was just a pervert who got his jollies off by spying on cute young girls. Who the hell knows what goes on with a guy like that? All he knew was that if this guy wanted her followed, then she was going to get followed.
He took notes, lots of notes. That was the one thing this guy was emphatic about. Everything from the clothes she wore to the car she drove to when and where she ate. Any habits that would be considered identifiable needed to be highlighted.
So far, the habits of this woman cop from Santa Cruz were anything but routine. She had no set hours. She came and went from the police station several times a day. She went to the cleaners once, Burger King for lunch the first day, then McDonald’s the next. She ate at home both evenings, left again after dinner, and went back to the station. So far, this was pretty boring shit, he thought. However, this was the job, and he was going to do his best to get whatever he could and get it over with. Maybe tomorrow he would check out her apartment and see what he could find there.
Having just made the 30-minute drive from San Jose to Santa Cruz on the twisting, and rain-soaked Highway 17, Ben was not at all surprised by the welcome he received. The place was somber, many avoiding direct eye contact with him as he walked through the corridors to his office.
Waiting for him was Cheryl Johnson. She was looking friendly enough—and damned nice to the eye, Ben thought to himself—as he slid past her into the crammed office to get behind his own desk. He didn’t say anything at first, nor did she, a sort of waiting contest, he thought. However, there was no sense playing games at this point.
“Good evening, Cheryl.” He might as well be pleasant, he thought, since he had nothing to lose at this point.
“You pissed off a lot of people this evening, Detective Simeon.”
Ben noticed quickly the formality of addressing him as Detective Simeon rather than Ben. “I figured I had. But, you know what? I did what I thought I had to do to get the best results from a shitty situation. If I screwed up, so be it. But I’m not gonna sit on my thumbs with this sonofabitch and just let him lead me around by the nose.”
“Why didn’t you talk to me about your little scheme before you did it? At least I might have been able to prepare everybody for what happened. Now they’re all saying that you’re a loose cannon who needs be shut down immediately.”
“What the hell do you want me to do here, Cheryl? You told me in plain English that you would be more than happy to let me take the fall if things went bad. So why the hell should I trust you or anyone else with what I need to do here. Things went to hell. He set us up to give information to the public that we—no, you guys—had no time to confirm one way or the other. If that information proves to be crap, then we—and that includes you guys—stand to take a lot of shit from the public and the politicians. I figured that if I make the decision and don’t tell anybody about it first, nobody has to get hurt ’cept me. If it does some good, then fuck it—you guys can have all the glory. I don’t want it. Right now we have some sick fuck out there that’s killed a bunch of people, and we’re no closer to finding him than before. We have nothing, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this creep take his run at us without a fight. So if you guys want me out of here, fine!”
Ben was young and healthy. Normally, his heart rate was normal and blood pressure was slightly low. At that moment, however—with his face red and heart pounding—he would not have passed a physical.
“But let me tell you something, and you better get this clear before you do anything.” Ben was fuming now and he wasn’t done yet: not by a long shot. “Mr. Smith has all the leverage. He’s calling the shots on everything, and as far as I can tell, he’s not done killing either. What he did before—the killings—he did because he thought he had to. At least that’s how I perceive it. What he plans to do next is for some completely different reason. He knows he can get away with murder. He’s proven that to everyone, mostly himself. Now he’s gonna do it again, if he hasn’t already, and as long as he has the time and no pressure from us, the next ones will be just as methodical as the last ones, and we’re still not going to find him. Maybe, just maybe, what I did tonight will piss him off enough or shake him up enough that he’ll make a mistake or, better yet, make a run at me. I can’t keep him from killing again. What I can do is force him to make an error. If he does, then I’ll catch the bastard.”
“What if you’re wrong?” Cheryl said. “What if he wasn’t planning to kill others? What if all he was trying to do was to stick with this plan and make his point and walk away? Are you prepared to have other deaths on your conscience, because of a mistake of that magnitude?”
“Are you trying to tell me that you believe that horseshit?” Ben asked her. “Because if you are, then you’re better off going back to Washington or wherever the hell you came from and read your books some more.” Ben was on a roll now, all his frustration boiling to the surface. “You know as well as I do that once a person gets a taste for killing, especially if he thinks he can get away with it, he’s going to do it again. I know this guy is a whole different breed, but I also know that once someone like this gets started, he has nothing to lose. So don’t trying feeding me the company bullshit about what I may have done to make this guy kill again. He’s out there. And as long as he is, there are going to be more bodies, even if we find all of the old ones. There are going to be more bodies. So either get rid of me or get the fuck outta my face. I have a job to do.”
Ben was right, she thought, reflecting on his remarks. Cheryl knew that this man would kill again. Maybe now, maybe later, but he would indeed kill again. She also knew that Ben was feeling alone on this case. Nobody wanted any part of the consequences that would be them should they fail to catch Mr. Smith. All of a sudden she felt pity for Ben, but mostly she felt remorse for her own part at having left him to fall on his own sword without so much as lifting a hand to aid him. Well that was going to stop right now. Either she was with him on this, or she would walk. Cheryl Johnson was not a quitter.
“Come with me,” she said. “Everyone is waiting. When we get in there, keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking.”
She got up from her chair and started to leave the room. She looked back. Ben was just sitting there. The expression on his face told her everything: this man was exhausted and alone. If she had never believed in anybody before in her life, this was the one man she would be willing to trust.
“Ben,” she said hesitating, for a few seconds. “You’re right. About everything. We all just sat back waiting for you to fail. We gave support from a distance, hoping not to get too dirty from the fall out. That’s going to end right now. Please accept my apology.”
“You don’t need to apologize for anything. Just try to understand. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I do,” Cheryl said. “And they will too. Now let’s go catch us a bad guy.”
Her voice lifted his spirits a little, and when he looked up, her smile almost brought a tear to his eyes. Were they tears of joy or just something that happened when an emotional outburst was finished and there was nothing left to hold you up? Ben didn’t have an answer for that little mystery. All he knew was that Cheryl Johnson thought he was right. That meant something. At that moment, it meant everything.
When the meeting started, everyone was there except Special Agent Smythe.
“He’ll be here shortly,” Agent Conley said. “We’re supposed to get started anyway. I’ll bring him up to speed on whatever he misses.”
Everyone in the room could sense something in Conley’s tone indicating displeasure with his partner’s absence. Yet nobody said anything. There were way too many issues to be addressed without worrying about an absent FBI agent.
“Okay, Ben,” Lieutenant Bennett started. “You asked that we wait until you got here to discuss your little escapade this evening. So let’s have it. I’m sure we’re all anxious to know what the hell is going on.”
Ben looked around the room. He thought it particularly amusing that they all were sitting back in their chairs, their arms folded defensively across their chests, a typical sign of distancing themselves from the speaker. But, for reasons he couldn’t quite explain, he didn’t feel threatened in any way.
Ben was prepared to say something, having already forgotten what Cheryl had said about keeping his mouth shut. Fortunately, she didn’t wait for him and took over the discussion before he could say a word.
“Gentlemen,” she began, “before you get all bent out of shape about what you perceived may have happened tonight on the air, I have a few comments about the subject. And Ben, if you don’t object, I would like to say them before you address the team. Is that okay with you?”
Ben just about choked as she said this, basically expecting to take the brunt of whatever fell from the heavens. “I… I... uh…go ahead.” He coughed a few times.
“Thanks.” Cheryl looked first at Ben, then turned her attention to the rest them. “When I first watched the program with Ben telling the world what he was told to say, I believed that he was doing as well as could be expected given the no-win position he was—no, let me rephrase that—we were placed in. Then we got the unexpected turn of events with the testimony of Mrs. Appleby. When that happened, I thought Ben had gone completely off his rocker. I was appalled that he would have the audacity to put a grieving widow who had just learned about her husband’s death on the air. I was angry that he would act on this matter without consulting any of us. I felt betrayed because he had gone behind my back, not even giving me a chance to help.”
Cheryl was hitting all of the right buttons. Everyone in the room was nodding their heads. They too felt all that she was saying, and they didn’t like those feelings. They wanted retribution. At that moment they believed that she would deliver it for them.
Cheryl missed her calling as a preacher, Ben thought. She seemed to know exactly how to get into their minds, and hearts and she knew when to raise her hand in defiance and when to submit to the truth. No preacher he had ever heard had played to an audience better than her performance at that moment.
“I wanted this man’s ass in a sling,” Cheryl continued. “I wanted him fired or replaced or anything but active on this case. All of you felt the same way, I’m sure. But guess what? I figured something out, something that gave me an entirely different perspective on what happened tonight. You see, I was wrong. My anger and frustration didn’t come from what he did. It came from what I didn’t have the guts to do. I didn’t have the guts to stand up to this maniac. I was too scared because of those that Mr. Smith had already killed. I knew here”—She pointed to her head—“that this man was going to kill again. But I didn’t know here”—She pointed to her gut—“that I could do anything to keep it from happening. What Ben did tonight took a tremendous amount of guts. He stepped up and took a swing at this guy’s plans and said that I will do what you say, but I won’t go down looking.” She paused for effect, to get a read on how everybody was taking her words.
“What are trying to tell us?” Willie Mason spoke up. “Are you trying to say that this interview thing is actually okay? Are you saying that it isn’t a screw up of gigantic proportions?”
Others were shaking their heads at his frankness. They weren’t quite ready to give up the lynching they had prepared for in their minds.
“Actually,” Cheryl said, “not only was it not the ‘screw up of gigantic proportions,’ as you called it, rather, it was probably the best action that could have been taken and certainly better than anything I could have conceived.”
“I’m sorry, Cheryl,” Conley snipped. “I’m having difficulty understanding how confronting this man was anything but ludicrous. He went against what the man said in his letter. And if I know anything about how a serial killer works, he’s going to retaliate.”
“I don’t see it that way, Walter,” she said. “If you think about it, Ben didn’t go against the letter at all. He said everything that the letter told him to say. He spelled it out that this is what we believe to be true, even though we don’t have the proof to back it up. However, the letter said nothing about what someone else could or should say about the matter. And I think that both of them made excellent presentations of their positions. If Mr. Smith is the highly intelligent man I believe him to be, then he will see his own shortcomings and give credit where credit is due. He won’t like it, but he will do it. Ben trumped his ace, and he never saw it coming. And if we’re lucky, it just may throw him off enough to make a mistake. My overall assessment of this situation is minimal downside risk and a whole lot of upside potential.”
“Okay,” said Captain Black, who had been unusually quiet to this point. “I can buy the theoretical side of this…for now. But I can tell you that I’m still pissed about the way it came down. Ben, you had no right to pull a stunt like this without talking to me or anyone else about it first. That, as far as I’m concerned, is inexcusable.”
Ben looked at Cheryl, who lightly tipped her head as a sign to go ahead, eat a little crow to appease their appetites.
“You’re right, sir,” Ben said to his partner, his captain. “I should have come to you with it. There was no excuse. And I’ll try to keep you all apprised of what I’m doing in the future.”
That, of course, was all the captain had really wanted. He wasn’t mad at what Ben had done. He would never let Ben know that his wanting to know stemmed from wanting to ride shotgun for him and head everyone off before they got to him. Captain Black was satisfied.
When the meeting was over, Ben walked back to his office. He wasn’t really sure why. Then it dawned on him that he hadn’t been home in almost three days. He thought to himself, maybe I should go see if it’s still standing.