Checkmate! The game is over, and I have once again won.
You wonder about the violence and the horror I have brought into your lives. You are shamed about how much it all piques your curiosity. Yet regardless of your shame, you desire to see more. You yearn for a closer look into the abyss.
Put your indignity aside and forget about the rules of conscience. You are just like your neighbors. You are caught in the doldrums of a mundane life and, on occasion, need the relief of outside morbidity. I do not fault your needs. And as long as you tuck them away and visit them only occasionally, you will be safe.
Revisit my words. Among them are bits of insight you need to grow. Discover the message. Let what I do and who I am enrich the life you live.
The governor had returned to Sacramento with his daughter, after she’d spent two days in the hospital. To her, the entire ordeal felt like a dream…a nightmare. But now that Frances Alexander was back home and had been told everything that had happened, she became even more afraid than when she’d been a captive. She told her psychiatrist that when she was lying there in the dark, all she could think about was how to get out of there alive. She wasn’t thinking about anything except survival. Now that she was free once again, she realized just how close she had been to death. It haunted her dreams. It consumed her every waking hour. It would be years before she would remember how to laugh.
The governor, no longer concerned about the welfare of his daughter, was back to his everyday routine of running for President. His lead was huge, and he knew he was going to be the next President of the United States. He was no longer thinking about his “baby girl.” As far as Jack Alexander was concerned, as long as she was safe from that monster, everything was fine. He realized that she might be a little upset over the event, but that would go away in time. Meanwhile, “Mr. Smith” was dead and had inadvertently helped the governor to his throne. If he was still alive, the governor thought, I just might be inclined to shake his hand for helping me become President. He smiled to himself and went back to work on his next speech.
His mind was miles away—3000 to be exact—when the governor’s private phone rang. He pick up and was surprised to hear his own voice coming through the receiver. It was his order to kill Mr. Smith or Captain Black or whoever he really was. When the message finished, a voice came on the other end.
“We need to talk, Mr. Governor.”
“Who is this?”
“You’ll find that out when we meet,” the voice responded calmly. “Until then you need to know something. You have two choices. Cooperate or become, in the public’s eyes, what you already know you are: a murderer. I will call you this evening and let you know when we are to meet. You really don’t have any choices, Mr. Governor.”
Before the governor could ask anything else, the phone went dead. He knew he was in trouble. He now knew the price for his dreams and he was scared at the thought of losing his presidency. But that was no longer the only thing of which he was afraid.
The infamous “Mr. Smith” case was considered closed, and Ben was looking forward to some time for rest and relaxation. The recovery of bodies was ongoing. Ben realized that even though there were still a few unanswered questions—even though he still couldn’t believe his good friend was responsible of all of those brutal murders—he couldn’t refute the evidence right in front of him.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t believe the evidence. Rather, it was something at the gut level telling him he had been played. Maybe Captain Black was Mr. Smith, but even if he was, why didn’t all the pieces fit? It was like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with five or six critical pieces missing. You could see what the picture was supposed to look like, but were never really sure what should fill the holes. All of his training and intellect said that the right man was dead, but his gut was telling him something else was going on.
When the call came in, Ben was sitting at his desk. “Detective Simeon.”
“Ben.” The woman’s voice seemed shaky. “It’s Sue.” As if he couldn’t recognize the voice of the woman he loved.
“Are you all right?” Ben’s hair was beginning to rise on his neck.
A man came on the line and spoke in a voice that sounded almost jovial. “Hello, Detective Simeon,” the man said. “I think we need to talk.”
“Who the hell is this?”
“Now, detective, there’s no need to be worried. Sue is fine, and if you cooperate and do exactly as you’re told, you will both be free to live the rest of your lives however you choose. This call is being made as a courtesy. I wish to do something I have never done before. And if you do what I ask now, you will have your answers. If not, Sue will be released, and you will wonder for the rest of your life what really happened. The choice is yours.”
“What do you want?” Ben calmed his voice, but his stomach wasn’t quite getting the message.
“An audience,” came the reply. “Now go to the parking garage downtown on Ocean Avenue. Go to the top level, and you will find a white Chevy van with a parking ticket on the windshield. Follow the directions, detective.” He paused. “At this time there’s no threat to either you or your lovely friend. I do not wish either of you any harm. However, you are being monitored even as we speak. Should you ask for help or, shall I say, companionship on this little adventure, any hope you may have had of finding out the truth will be lost forever. You have been very smart up to this point, my friend. Don’t go stupid on me now. Everything depends on you now.”
“I’ll do whatever you say,” Ben replied weakly.
“Good. Leave now and this will soon all be over and the two of you can live happily ever after.”
The phone went dead.
Ben hung up the receiver. His motions were being affected by his emotions, and everything seemed to stand still. His feet seemed weighted with lead. He wanted to run, but he couldn’t. He wanted to scream in anger and disgust, but his mouth was dry and his tongue was thick. He would later note it took him less than ten minutes to get to the parking garage. At the time, though, it seemed as if it took hours.
The governor received the call an hour after the first one not in the evening as he’d been told. He said very little this time. As he listened, he knew that he was no longer in charge of his destiny. He was now a pawn, just as he had made others before him. However, the stakes this time were much bigger than he could have imagined. He was used to using others for his benefit. He had played people to gain everything he’d accomplished. As he listened now, he knew that he would no longer be able to control anything of importance. These people had crushed every hope he’d had of being the kind of President he wanted to become.
He took little time to agree to the meeting. He didn’t know who was running the show. He didn’t know what agenda they wanted to accomplish. What he did know was that, whatever their agenda was, it would succeed through him.
The governor hung up. He called his secretary to cancel his other meetings and to get the plane ready for a trip to Washington. I may become President, he thought, but life will belong to them. Whoever “they” were.
The white van was easy to spot. It was the only vehicle on the top floor. The ticket Ben expected was there, along with a note addressed to him, telling him to leave the garage and walk three blocks south on Ocean Avenue. Once there, he was to wait until he was notified again.
Ben left immediately. He didn’t know who he was going to meet or what this person had to say that was important enough to kidnap Sue over, but he would do exactly as he was told.
Ben waited on the corner for ten minutes before a stretch limousine pulled up. The driver got out, walked around, and opened the door for Ben; he didn’t speak to Ben, and Ben didn’t ask any questions. As a cop he should have been more aggressive. As a man in love, he realized that in order to get Sue back alive, especially after what they had just been through, being cooperative was the better choice.
They drove around the small downtown area for nearly thirty minutes before the limo turned onto Highway 1 heading south. The traffic was heavy so it took nearly twenty more minutes to get to the exit. Ben knew the area well; they were heading to the beach in Aptos. When they pulled to a stop, the driver got out and opened the door. He gave Ben an envelope and pointed to a deserted building next to another small parking garage.
The note told Ben where to go. The driver got back in the car and immediately drove away. Ben walked toward the building, realizing that whoever was doing this was more than likely to kill them both. It didn’t matter what the man said or how much he’d assured Ben on the phone about not wanting to hurt either of them. The fact was, it was quite possible that this could be the last hour of his life. Before entering through the door, Ben turned and took what he thought might be his last look at the ocean he grew up with and grown to love.
The building, for all intents and purposes, was deserted. It was an old building, but looked like it was waiting to be torn down and replaced with a new apartment complex.
Following the directions in the note, Ben opened the door to the third floor to see that all of the walls had been removed. At the far end of the gigantic room, Sue was sitting in a chair. Her hands and feet were tied, and though Ben couldn’t make it out yet, he knew that the package beneath her was not something from a shopping trip.
Ben pulled his gun from its holster and carefully made his way toward Sue. About half way, he heard a voice behind him.
“That really isn’t necessary, Detective Simeon. Please put your weapon back in its holster. There will be no need for violence today.”
Ben turned quickly to confront the man behind him, pistol at the ready
“Detective Simeon,” the man continued, “I know that you are a great marksman. Even from this distance you could kill me with one shot, but there is no need for us all to die today. Please holster your weapon, and let us all live to see another day.”
When the man came out of the shadows, Ben recognized him immediately.
“Agent Smythe.” Ben wasn’t really sure what to do next. He was still holding his gun directly at the man’s face, but he felt his arms getting heavy as the implications of what this meant swam through his brain.
“Good to see you, too, Detective Simeon.” The man smiled, walking closer his hands behind his back as if he were taking a casual stroll. “If you would be so kind as to lower your weapon, I’m sure that we can have a most interesting little chat.”
“I thought you might be dead.”
“The idea has crossed my mind that you would think so, but news of my demise has been highly exaggerated I’m afraid.” He laughed. “Don’t be afraid, my friend. I have not come back to haunt you. I have come back to help you move on.”
Ben wasn’t sure why he did it, but he lowered the gun, then put it away.
“Very good, detective. We have much to discuss and so little time to get it all covered.” He looked toward Sue and lifted his chin, reminding Ben that she was still very much a part of the equation.
“What’s this about?” Ben thought he knew, but then again who really knew anything when it came to a case like this.
“I’ve been watching you for some time now,” the agent said. “When I was first assigned this job, I knew it was going to be bloody. It had to be. The stakes were too high for anything less. However, when I saw that you were going to be a part of it, I couldn’t resist the challenge. You see, detective, in my line of work, there are few opportunities to get real enjoyment from what I do. In all my years, this is the first time I have ever cared enough about anyone to see them through the carnage. You are indeed a rare person, my friend. You are one of the few truly worthy people in this world. You are a saint among the swine and perverts. I did not want to cause you any more grief. Rather, I wanted you to know that in all of this you were guiltless.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“What I’m talking about is you and me going head to head in a game of cat and mouse,” he said, overlooking the irritation in Ben’s voice. “I’m talking about running this country, the most powerful nation in the world. I’m talking about doing whatever it takes to make sure that people like you and Sue are protected from men like our delightful governor, who will soon become President. And thanks to you, he will no longer be able to destroy what my employers have spent decades putting together.”
Ben was now totally confused. “Okay, so you’re saying that killing all of those innocent people was somehow in my best interest? That’s bullshit and you know it. Especially if you know anything about me.”
“I killed nobody for you, detective. “As a matter of fact, I could have killed others if I’d wanted to. Sue is alive today because I decided not to kill her. Young Laurie and even the governor’s daughter are alive today because of my decisions. And yes, detective, even you are alive today because I chose to allow it.”
“What about the young cop you killed?” Ben asked. “Was that necessary?”
“Ah yes. Regretfully he was collateral damage. One of the misfortunes of war, I’m afraid.”
“So you think this is war?”
“Absolutely,” he replied. “We are always at war. If you didn’t know that, I am truly amazed.” The agent paused a moment, letting the words sink in. “I am not without blood on my hands, anymore than your friend Captain Black. But when I kill, it has purpose behind it. You of all people should know what that’s like.”
“What about Captain Black?” Ben had hardly heard the agent’s words after the captain’s name.
“Your friend, the good captain, was responsible for the deaths of all of those on the list I gave you.”
“That’s bullshit!” Ben yelled. His mind was reeling. “You killed them, you sonofabitch!”
“Oh, that part is true. I didn’t say he killed them.” He was starting to play with Ben. “You need to listen more closely to what I say, detective. What I said was the captain was responsible for their deaths. Let me put it this way so that you won’t be so confused. The captain’s family was destroyed because of the very people on that list. Someone in our organization owed the captain a very big favor, the kind of favor that could only be called when blood needed spilling. When the captain lost his family, he called in that favor, and I was assigned the job. Frankly, I don’t really like doing that kind of wet work. It’s really very messy. But I was given the job, and I’m very good at what I do. Anyway, I made the most of the situation. Once the job was complete, there would be no more favors owed by either side. Generally, that’s the end of it, and I move on to other assignments.”
“What does any of this have to do with me?” Ben asked.
“Absolutely nothing. Your involvement was merely a bonus. The governor is—or should I say was—a very powerful man.” Smythe smiled as he reflected on his word choice. “There’s a very good chance that he will be elected President. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite see eye to eye with the people that I work for. The man we wanted for the job was on the fast track to the presidency when the good governor set him up for failure. That’s when we decided that sometimes it becomes necessary to take matters into our own hands. Returning the favor, if you will.”
“Knocking off a governor in this day and age isn’t easy. Not even for people like you.”
“Good point, detective. So in order to manipulate the enemy, you must first get to know the enemy. That’s where Cheryl Johnson came into play. She is a most excellent psychologist, don’t you think? She was given a special assignment to do a profile on the governor. I believe she told you about it, right? Anyway, the critical aspect of the analysis was to determine how he would react to certain conditions. The obvious reasons were to design a plan that would have a predictable outcome. Her results were most impressive, don’t you think?
“Terrific,” Ben said sarcastically. “I still don’t see how kidnapping the governor’s daughter could do anything except elevate him to the position you were afraid he’d attain.”
“The governor has flaws, but he can handle most situations in a calm and orderly fashion. However, should either he or a family member be threatened, his reaction is always the same. He goes into attack mode and eliminates the threat—permanently if possible. By taking his daughter from him and doing so in a manner that would leave no doubt as to the seriousness of the threat, we knew, thanks to Dr. Johnson’s analysis, that he would find a way to get to the source of the problem and eliminate it as soon as he could. And that is exactly what he thinks he did.”
Ben was stunned. Cheryl would have been the last person he’d thought to be involved with this. “Then why was it necessary to kill the captain?”
“We didn’t kill him,” the agent replied. “It was our intent to use him as leverage to make the governor see just how vulnerable he was if he didn’t cooperate. He was the one that ordered the hit.”
“If I wanted to, my friend, I could play the tape of the call he made ordering the hit. I can tell you that the shooter will be dealt with. He believes himself to be safe. However, in this case, justice will be served.”
“You still haven’t answered my question. Why me?”
“That’s easy. The first part of the answer was convenience. Setting that aside, the real reason was because of your history with the governor. Your situation was similar to Captain Black’s, only you went to the governor, and he hurt you. You got no justice for your family’s deaths, and he—to put it in your terms—poured salt in the wound. I thought you should receive a little retribution. A token gesture at best, but nonetheless, it should give you some peace of mind knowing that he will be paying for his sins as well.”
“So why are you telling me all of this?” Ben asked. “I know who you are, and I can still bring you down. You are not above the law.”
“One answer at a time,” Smythe answered, a smirk on his face. “I’m telling you this because I don’t want to see you wasting the rest of your life trying to prove a guilty man innocent. Your captain friend may not have actually taken their lives personally, but they were lost on his orders. Those people died the way he wanted them to. He wanted them to suffer as his family suffered. He wanted them dead, and he got what he wanted. I’m telling you this because I like you. You’re a good man, detective. You have a good heart, and for that, I envy you. I don’t see goodness every day. But when I do, I know it should be protected at all costs. I could easily kill you…with only slight remorse. If allowed, I would prefer to see you grow and have a rich and good life.” There was a pause as the man reflected on his own words. “As for bringing me down, I don’t think so. I’m a part of something much bigger than the both of us. I don’t exist in any real sense of the word. I’m not now, nor have I ever been, the person you think I am. You will watch me leave, and if you’re as smart as I think you are, you will save your girlfriend and let me disappear.”
Ben quickly pulled his gun again. “What if I just kill you right now?” Ben asked, thinking he might have the upper hand.
The agent smiled and looked at his feet for a moment. “There are two reasons why you won’t do that. First, you remember Sue, don’t you?” he asked mockingly. “Under Sue is a small box containing about two pounds of C-4. In my hand is a detonation device, a very unique device I developed myself, I might add. A timer was set just before you arrived for detonation in thirty minutes. Should, at anytime before the thirty minutes are up, my grip on this trigger is loosened, the bomb will explode automatically. That should keep you from acting rashly, I would hope. There’s another timer that I will set when I leave, giving you one minute to open the box and punch in our secret code. You do remember the secret code, don’t you, Detective Simeon?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“Excellent.” The agent smiled. “I wouldn’t want to go through all of this only to have you blow yourself up because of a memory lapse. You also won’t kill me because, unlike me, you are not a murderer. There is a very thin line between us, my friend. And I believe it is one you will not cross. I guess we will just have to see if I’m right.
“When she’s released, go through that far door where you came in and catch your ride back to wherever you wish to go.”
There was a silence between the two men. Ben looked at the agent, then toward Sue and back.
“If there is nothing else, then it’s time for my departure.” The agent pushed a button on the hand-held device. “Your one minute begins now.”
He turned to leave and never looked back.
Ben watched the man for a moment, then rushed to Sue. Her mouth had been gagged, and her hands and feet were tied. Wanting to rush but knowing better, Ben took his time opening the box beneath her. The clock was ticking backwards, and he knew he had to act quickly. Ben punched the numbers on the keypad, but nothing happened. The counter was still dropping one second at a time. Frantically, he punched them again. Still nothing happened.
Less than twenty seconds left.
Ben remembered what he had done at the farmhouse and changed the order. Nothing happened.
Ten seconds left.
Ben was frantic. He didn’t know what he had done wrong.
3… 2… 1… 0…
Sweat poured from Ben’s face; his heart raced. He didn’t understand why they were still alive.
Static cut the air. Secreted in Sue’s pocket was a small walkie-talkie.
“I’m sorry about that detective,” a voice said. “However, I needed to make sure you stuck around long enough for me to get away. You’re both safe now. I will not be calling you again anytime soon.”
The voice stopped, and Ben knew he was gone. He hoped it would be forever, but something told him their paths would cross again.
Ben untied Sue quickly, but carefully. He didn’t believe there’d be any hidden traps on her, but he wasn’t about to take any chances.
Sue threw her arms around Ben’s neck, holding him tight. She was scared and shaking and crying so much that Ben thought for a moment he might need to take her to the hospital to medicate her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
It took Sue a while before she could calm herself enough to respond. “Yeah, I’m okay.” Of course, saying it and actually meaning it were not entirely the same, but she knew that as long as she was with Ben, she was safe.
“Aren’t you going to go after him?” she asked. Sue didn’t want Ben to leave, but as a police officer, her personal needs had to take a back seat.
“No. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“What do you mean? We know who it is now. It’s Agent Smythe.”
Ben looked at Sue, then touched her face. “No. That wasn’t Agent Smythe. Oh, it looked like him. It even sounded like him. But it wasn’t him.”
“I don’t understand.” she was more confused now than ever.
“Don’t you remember? Agent Smythe’s finger was sent to us. It’d been cut off. The man we just saw had all of his fingers. He must have been wearing a mask of some kind. A very convincing mask.”
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry.” Sue realized she’d been duped and felt stupid for her mistake. “I should’ve remembered. When he came to the house, he acted like he was in trouble and needed my help. I let him in without thinking. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“Hey, hey, hey.” Ben held her again. “Anyone could have overlooked that. Please, honey. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Everything’s fine. Let’s just get out of here. Okay?” Ben held out his hand and helped the shaking girl to her feet. He picked up the box of explosives as they were leaving. They weren’t in a hurry now. Ben was actually relieved. It was over now for sure.
He hadn’t caught the bad guy, but somehow, they had survived. That, in itself, was enough for Ben to feel good. He didn’t care about the governor’s plight. He knew that Cheryl Johnson would not be back to play her mind games. Now, more than ever, he felt sorry for his friend Donald Black. But they were alive. That was more than many could say.
Ben held Sue closer, vowing to himself to be there for her. He would do whatever it took to make a life with the woman he now held so close.
When they got downstairs and walked outside, Ben was surprised to see his old buddy Corey Fox leaning on the hood of his car waiting for them.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Ben’s internal radar beeped out warning signals.
“What do you mean?” Corey replied. “This is where you told me to meet you?”
“I didn’t tell you to meet me anywhere.”
“Sure you did.” Corey seemed unaffected by Ben’s obvious concern. “See?” Corey pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “I got this about an hour ago, just before I was about to leave to head back to Sacramento. Isn’t that your handwriting?”
Ben was amazed by the forgery. It looked exactly like his handwriting. He handed the note back to Corey. “I’m sorry. I guess I just forgot. Thanks for coming to get us.”
“Hey, no problem,” Corey said with his patented smile. “Sacramento isn’t one of my favorite places to rush to anyway.” He looked at the box Ben was holding. “What’s in the box?”
“Nothing special.” Ben tried acting innocent. “Just a going away present from a friend. I’ll tell you about it later. Let’s just get the hell out of here. I’m tired.”
“Sure thing, buddy.” Corey moved around to the side of the car to let Sue in the back seat.
Ben got in on the passenger side.
Under normal circumstances, he might have noticed the small piece of plastic skin still attached behind the left ear of his close and most trusted friend.
But these weren’t normal circumstances, were they?