Have you ever played chess? It is the most amazing game ever. It is the game of life. It is a game for me and those rare creatures like myself. The board is the world. The pieces are the hierarchy of mankind. The objective is a ruthless display of cat and mouse having but one purpose: to destroy the opposition. All lives are marionettes to be manipulated in whatever manner desired by the king. Each piece is without value except in its ability to please and give its life for the king’s triumph.
My life is a game of chess. No life has value beyond its ability to advance my desires. If you put a soul in the life of your neighbor, your neighbor will surpass you in value.
Something was eating at Ben. There was something that just didn’t make sense, and he was clueless as to what it was. First, he thought, everything was too perfect. There was nothing found on any of the victims to give a clue as to the perpetrator or his personality. He knew too much about the system. Nobody outside the system knows the ways of both the local and federal agencies, but Mr. Smith knew about them all too well. He also knew too much about what was happening internally. Granted, as Captain Black indicated, almost everything had been made public. They had been smart enough to leave out some details that Mr. Smith had alluded to, but that could only mean he had inside information.
The question, Ben thought, was how he got the information. What were the options? There was certainly the possibility that the information was coming from someone on the inside, but Ben was having a difficult time believing that possibility as viable. There wasn’t one person who had that kind of knowledge that Ben didn’t trust. No one in the group would give up that kind of information knowingly.
There was also the possibility that he had gathered the information through electronic surveillance. But if that were the case, the possibility of it being someone on the inside would almost certainly elevate. If that were the case, the evidence pointed to someone at the federal level. The Santa Cruz Police Department certainly didn’t have anything that sophisticated.
The next question—the one that had haunted him from the beginning—was, why him? Why would this brilliant psychopath want him at the center of the case? Even with all he had learned at the academy, in the military, and in the field, Ben was still no match for this guy. Yet for some reason Mr. Smith was making sure that Ben was the lead man on the case, even to the extent of thwarting the FBI. It still didn’t make any sense, and he couldn’t help but believe that it was a critical aspect to finding the solution to this mystery.
Something else was baffling Ben, too. Every phone call he’d received had come from a woman. Was Mr. Smith really a woman? Was the woman an accomplice? Did she even have a clue as to what was going on? Why was it that the only person they’d had contact with was a woman? There had to be something to that as well.
Okay, he thought, what am I missing? What am I forgetting?
Damn paranoia, he thought, I know what’s really eating me. It’s the one question that has been suppressed since the meeting: why did Captain Black object so adamantly to our looking for an insider? It seemed as if he were intentionally trying to suppress something that he didn’t want discovered. Did anybody else catch on to that, or was it just me thinking ridiculous thoughts? Somehow, I have got to get my mind around this thing if I’m ever going to make any headway.
For now, Ben had a body to find, and that bothered him. They were receiving information and corpses at a pace that kept Ben and the others so busy that they couldn’t concentrate on finding the killer. It wasn’t as if manpower was a problem. It was more that the procedures that had to be followed were so time-consuming that they were constantly being pushed to meet the deadlines.
Ben stared out the window, lost in his thoughts before leaving to find the next body.
Like an old movie where the body of some prehistoric Neanderthal was discovered encased in a frozen block, Samantha Stewart was found in ice. Located at the spot where Mr. Smith had instructed, her body was buried under four feet of dirt that had been dug no more than a week earlier. The storage of her body in ice was similar to the methods used in years gone by, where blocks of ice were stored underground in winter for later use during summer. The sawdust surrounding the block of ice, and the earth covering it, was used as an excellent insulator to prevent quick thawing.
Once discovered, Ben knew that it would take several hours for the ice to melt enough to identify the body and do whatever forensics needed done. To this point, he had no reason to believe that the body was anybody other than Samantha Stewart. Mr. Smith had always been honest about this in his letters, and there was no reason to believe otherwise now. Besides, according to the description given in the letter, Ben wasn’t looking forward to seeing the remains. All he could do at this point was make arrangements to have the icy tomb loaded onto a truck and transported someplace to thaw.
It was now midday, and Ben had to figure out what to say in this evening’s news. He wasn’t sure exactly how all of this was going to fall into place and once again believed they would find little evidence to lead them closer to Mr. Smith’s identity.
As he watched and waited for the heavy equipment and trucks to move into place, he realized that the way things were going they might never discover the identity of the killer. He realized that as long as Mr. Smith was calling the shots, it would be impossible to get a true handle on what was going on or why it was even happening. He had to figure out the common ingredients were between all the victims and how they connected. He knew that Mr. Smith wasn’t going to give them anything except distorted aspects of each person, yet he believed now, more than ever, that somehow they were all connected. This link was what he had to figure out.
Ben picked up his cell phone and called Sue to make arrangements for them to meet as soon as he returned to the office. He needed fresh eyes to look at the case and had decided that she was someone he could trust. Everybody else, he thought, had an agenda that was skewing their objectivity. He knew that Sue would be free of that burden. Besides, he thought, she was smart and had come up with a good idea on the Appleby case, and even though it had created new problems, maybe she could give a new perspective on what he was now thinking.
Ben’s attention returned to the sight when his name was called out by one of the diggers.
“What is it?” he asked.
“You need to see this, sir.” The man led Ben to an object.
Placed near the block of ice, close to the girl’s feet, was a wood placard. There was an inscription carved into it that Ben found both familiar and chilling. It read: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster. When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you. It was signed with the initials MR. S.
Ben knew that the message had been left for him. The message had far greater implications than the words themselves. Mr. Smith was saying something about the future. Was it a threat or a warning? He was also giving Ben another clue as to the identity Ben sought.
“I may not know your name,” Ben said to himself, “but I know your heart, and I know your pain. I will find you, no matter how long you run or how hard you hide. I will find you.”
Ben now understood why he had been the chosen. He knew why he had been the one selected. It had nothing to do with his work as a police officer. It had to do with his past, his own tragedy. This was not a case of one person trying to outsmart the other. It was a case of one person relating to the other. It was personal. Mr. Smith, whoever he was, was trying to get Ben to see his past and once again feel the pain that he himself was feeling. Ben had managed to overcome the losses, but Mr. Smith had been unable to do the same. What Ben now understood was that he’d been chosen for purposes of sympathy, compelled to relive the past because Mr. Smith was unable to face his own inadequacies.
Ben hadn’t always been single. Years ago, he’d been married, had a beautiful daughter. He’d been happy then. It was the kind of life that most men dreamt about: a loving wife, a wonderful family, and a job that he enjoyed and believed he was good at. He’d lived in one of the most beautiful areas of the world and managed to even save a few dollars. He used to think there wasn’t anything more that an honest man could possibly want.
Ben had married Kimberly Armstrong, his childhood sweetheart, right after leaving the military. She, more than anything, was the reason, for his return to Santa Cruz. They had wanted to marry even earlier, but she hadn’t been willing to travel the world following a military man or wait alone while he traveled on assignment. He’d figured that she wanted to stay close to her family, so instead of making the military a career, he decided that law enforcement was what he wanted. When the job became available at the Santa Cruz Police Department, he decided not to re-enlist for another tour of duty. Three months after his discharge they were married. One year after that, their daughter, Elizabeth Michelle, was born. Ben had been on top of the world; he had known what the term “heaven on earth” was really all about.
One cannot truly appreciate heaven unless one understands hell. Thirteen years after Ben found heaven, hell arrived. While traveling with his family on a conference-vacation to Los Angeles, Elizabeth was kidnapped from a local shopping mall after being dropped off by her mother.
Ben had been in a meeting when the call came in. His wife was in a panic. She told him they’d had plans to meet up at three o’clock, be back at the hotel in time to clean up and get ready for the evening. Ben tried to assure her that everything would be fine. However, in the pit of his stomach, he somehow knew that it wouldn’t be. Betsy, that was what he and Kim called her, had always been a good kid and responsible beyond her years. She’d been old enough to do some things on her own and had always done what she was told. She had never given them any of the heartaches that so often came from children her age. Why would she do something like this now? Betsy had money for cab fare if she got lost, and she had a cell phone and local numbers she could call if there were any problems.
She didn’t call though. As the evening progressed, Ben knew that something had happened to his baby girl. He called a friend of his at the LAPD. No one knew if the girl had been kidnapped or simply run away. Because of her age an Amber Alert went out, and the search began. Later, when the call came in, the report wasn’t good. A cashier—an older woman—had remembered seeing her around two thirty or three. The woman remembered her because she was such a beautiful young girl, yet acted like a lady. She’d been respectful, not like most of the youngsters that frequented the place. When Betsy left, the woman watched her leave the store and go out the main entrance of the mall. The last time the woman saw Betsy, she was standing outside as if waiting for someone to pick her up. A moment later, the girl was gone. The woman had no idea who she left with. There couldn’t have been more than ten minutes between the last time she saw her and when she looked for her again.
It took them three days to find Elizabeth and that had happened purely by chance. She had been placed in a dumpster behind a grocery store about six miles from the mall. She had been found nude, unconscious, and full of drugs. Discovered by a stock boy making a last-minute drop before the truck came, he had heard her moaning after the lid slammed back down. If he hadn’t, most likely her body would have been compacted in the back of the truck. The drivers don’t even get out of the trucks anymore for the commercial pickups; there would have only been a slim chance that her body would have ever been discover once delivered to the dump.
Elizabeth lived only a few hours after getting to the hospital. They tried everything they could, but the drugs and injuries sustained from what appeared to be beatings, were just too much for her young body.
The autopsy revealed that the man or men responsible were carrying the HIV virus and would have given the disease to the girl. They’d had a large enough specimen of semen to get a match if the men involved were ever captured. She had been raped and sodomized. She had not eaten since she disappeared. She had small cuts on her neck and shoulders, consistent with a knife being used to hold her in place or to keep her quiet. Markings on her wrists and ankles were consistent with the use of rope to tie her down. The child had lived in hell those last several days.
Ben was in shock, but Kim was devastated. She felt as if she were to blame for her daughter’s death and torture. They both went to counseling. Ben, though dealing with the grief, was making the progress his wife could not allow herself. I killed my beautiful daughter, was the only thing that would register in her mind. Five months later, Kim used one of Ben’s service weapons on herself. Ben finally understood the guilt his wife must have been feeling. When she used his gun, it was like the guilt transferred to him. It was his gun that ended her life.
No one had deserved to live full, happy lives more than the two women in his life. They had been full of joy and goodness, and if God could put the title of masterpiece on anyone, he would have selected them as the prizewinners. But the rotten have a way of destroying anything good.
It took the LAPD almost a year to find those responsible for the destruction in Ben’s life. When he got the call from a friend in Los Angeles, Ben dropped everything. It hadn’t been some dirt bag from the projects. It wasn’t gang members wanting to initiate some little white girl. It was three young men from Beverly Hills. Not only were they responsible for the sadistic acts, they showed no remorse.
The men had videotaped the whole thing. And though Ben was warned not to watch it, the captain allowed him to because of his insistence and because of what he’d already lost. On the tape the men were laughing at the “little bitch” for crying about being made a woman. Everything was shown in detail. They were all having a wonderful time as they raped her over and over again. They announced that pretty little virgins were the best and that they had to do this again. They showed everything they did to the child. Ben watched in horror as they used the knife to make her beg and plead for more. Ben cried profusely when they decided they were through with her; they put the needle in her arm and pushed the plunger. Betsy’s eyes rolled up in her head, and the tape went blank.
The only consolation Ben had was that these men, these killers of babies, were behind bars and would likely die there.
The problem came later when, because of a technicality, the tapes were ruled as inadmissible and the whole case was dismissed. An incompetent district attorney let those monsters get away with murdering his baby girl and his wife in abstention. Ben despised the DA for what he had failed to do. More than anything, Ben wanted to see that arrogant ass suffer just as he had. It was too much to ask, of course, but it never hurt to dream.
They were, however, convicted of a drug possession charge and given a one-year sentence. Ben was prepared to kill the bastards himself. He knew everything about their release date and made plans to kill them one by one, punishing them for what they’d done. Ben never got the chance. The crime against his daughter became known to their fellow inmates, and the three men were found one morning hanging in the shower area, castrated for their crime. It was discovered later that the hangings came second.
Ben now understood what Mr. Smith was doing. He understood why he was doing it and why Ben, of all people, was involved. Mr. Smith gave away too much information this time, Ben thought. Now we will find out who you are and track you down. Your cause may be just, but your methods, no matter how much I can understand them, aren’t.
It was time to go back—not just to the department, but also to the past. It was time to reopen old wounds and expose the essence of his soul. All of this would now have to be discussed in gory detail. What’s more, it now made Ben, of all people, one of the prime suspects. How ironic, Ben thought, the man we seek has gotten the measure of revenge he wanted and now will be trying to take down someone who was able to get past it. Mr. Smith thinks I’m the better man somehow because circumstances kept me from turning into someone just like him. He thinks I got off lucky. Now who’s the fool?
With the new information in hand, Ben got in his car and left the rest of the loading work to those better capable of it. He wondered how he was going to discuss this and with whom. He wondered again if he should be removed from the case. He then remembered that it still wasn’t up to him. Only Mr. Smith could decide that…at least for now.