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Checkmate (#07 in The Bowers Files Series)

Steven James
Checkmate (#07 in The Bowers Files Series)

Checkmate (#07 in The Bowers Files Series)

Steven James

$19.99

Paperback
:In Checkmate, critically acclaimed novelist Steven James offers a climactic chapter in his bestselling series, the Bowers Files.

When a clandestine FBI facility is attacked, Special Agent Patrick Bowers is drawn into the vicious, ruthless story that a killer from his past is bent on telling the world.

Clues lead to long-forgotten secrets buried deep beneath Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. Now Bowers is caught up in trying to stop one of the deadliest attacks ever planned on American soil.

Smart, tense, and full of mind-bending twists and turns, Checkmate explodes onto the scene, bringing this cycle of the Bowers Files to an unforgettable conclusion.

- Publisher

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About "Checkmate (#07 in The Bowers Files Series)"

:In Checkmate, critically acclaimed novelist Steven James offers a climactic chapter in his bestselling series, the Bowers Files.

When a clandestine FBI facility is attacked, Special Agent Patrick Bowers is drawn into the vicious, ruthless story that a killer from his past is bent on telling the world.

Clues lead to long-forgotten secrets buried deep beneath Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. Now Bowers is caught up in trying to stop one of the deadliest attacks ever planned on American soil.

Smart, tense, and full of mind-bending twists and turns, Checkmate explodes onto the scene, bringing this cycle of the Bowers Files to an unforgettable conclusion.

- Publisher

Meet the Author

Steven James

Steven James is an award-winning author and professional storyteller. He has written more than a dozen books and over 500 articles, stories, and scripts. Steven appears weekly at conferences, churches, schools, and special events around the country sharing his unique blend of drama, comedy, and inspirational speaking. He lives with his wife and three daughters in eastern Tennessee.

Excerpt

Excerpt from: Checkmate (#07 in The Bowers Files Series)

:

THE BOWERS FILES

SIGNET SELECT

Prologue

He stood in front of the mirror, unsure he really wanted to remove the bandages.

His plastic surgeon had said there wouldn’t be any scarring, had promised him that the incisions on his face would heal quickly, that the stitches would come out on their own.

But still, the surgery hadn’t taken place under the most ideal conditions and, although his doctor had an unparalleled reputation, he knew she might have been distracted by everything else that was going on.

He wondered what lay beneath the bandages, beneath the stitches.

A new face.

A new future.

He took a deep breath, reached up, and unfastened the end of one of the bandages that wound around his head.

The surgery had been aggressive and it wasn’t the way he would have preferred going about this, any of this. Everything was rushed and the thought of seeing what he would look like for the rest of his life made him a little uneasy.

Slowly, carefully, he began to unwrap the bandage.

His surgeon had told him to wait three to five days.

It had been two.

Though he was relatively self-possessed in many areas of his life, he was anxious about this. There was so much to do before August and he wouldn’t be able to do any of it if the surgery wasn’t successful.

As he unraveled the bandage he saw that it was tainted with dots of dried blood.

Unraveled. That’s a good way to put it.

Everything that was true of your life just over a year ago has unraveled.

The last few bandages were placed across the incisions and stitches.

Somewhat hesitantly, he peeled them off, until he was looking at his new face, revealed.

It was the strangest sensation, staring into a mirror and seeing the face of a stranger you knew to be yourself.

After depositing the bandages in the trash can beside the sink, he studied his reflection.

Revealed.

Yes, his face was swollen and misshapen, but even with all that, he could tell the difference.

His plastic surgeon really had done an amazing job, especially considering how much stress she’d been under when she performed the surgery.

He had the same bone structure—yes, of course, certainly—and the same general characteristics, but there were enough subtle differences to make it appear that he was someone else entirely.

“We are all strangers to ourselves,” he remembered hearing one time, “when the masks fall away.”

Well, had the masks really fallen away, or was this just another one for him to wear?

Either way, he was emerging, unfolding, like a butterfly flexing its wings for the first time.

Some people seek out surgery like this to hide the signs of aging. Others need it to recover from a life-altering accident. Still others so they can start over, start fresh.

That was him.

A second chance to get things right.

After all that’d happened in the last year, after all the publicity—which, truthfully, still hadn’t quieted down—after all that, well, it would be much easier if there was a way to go online and pull up the information that was out there and press Delete.

But it doesn’t work that way with the Internet.

In cyberspace there’s no way to erase your past.

He ran a finger along his jawline and then over the ridge of one of the incisions.

So you have to erase yourself.

A few follow-up appointments with his plastic surgeon would probably be a good idea, but the logistics made that difficult and he expected that he would only be seeing her one last time.

He would ask her about the best post-op care, make sure he knew how to avoid infection, and then be on his way.

Touching the mirror, he traced the outline of his face on the cool glass.

Here is where you are now. Here.

Now.

Erased.

And revealed.

His wife had divorced him last summer.

He had lost all of his friends during the trial.

Yes, it was time to make a break with the past.

But first, a visit to his surgeon.

Turning off the bathroom light, he headed for the basement, where he’d kept her since the surgery.

Both her and her boy.

When he opened the door at the top of the steps he could hear the child crying.

He decided he would take care of him first—that way the boy wouldn’t be frightened when he saw what was happening to his mother.

Unpocketing the knife he would be using, he flicked out the blade, closed the door behind him, and descended the stairs.

To write the first chapter of his new life.

1

Eight weeks later

Monday, July 29
Tarry Lawnmower Supply
42 Wayside Road
Dale City, Virginia
8:54 a.m.

Lawnmower posters decorated the walls. Toy riding lawnmowers sat on the receptionist’s desk beside the out-of-date computer, ink-jet printer, and an in-box overflowing with receipts, orders, and invoices.

The receptionist was armed.

We knew that.

And she was a good shot.

We knew that too.

After all, the purpose of this building was not to supply and distribute lawnmowers, but you wouldn’t know that from studying its website or from simply entering the front lobby.

You wouldn’t even know it from watching the semis arrive and leave from the building’s loading dock out back as they made deliveries or “picked up orders.”

The trucks were driven by undercover agents. We didn’t even leave something like that to a private security firm.

No.

Not here.

All a necessary illusion.

Even though the receptionist knew us, Ralph and I were aware that she would be asking for our creds, so we held them out as we approached her desk.

I scratched at my rib cage. Because of a shooting at DEA headquarters last week, everyone here today—including Ralph and me—was wearing body armor. Lightweight, but still a little uncomfortable.

The agent who’d been shot was alright, but it’d put everyone on high alert. Having to wear one of these to work was an annoyance, but for those of us in the business it was more common than most people might think. In keeping with the secrecy of this place we normally didn’t wear them over our shirts, but I had a light rain jacket on today so my shirt was under my vest.

“Good morning, Debra.” I saw the framed picture of her nine-year-old daughter, Allie, beside the computer monitor. “How’s that little girl of yours?”

“Mischievous. Playful.” She carefully studied my credentials, but seemed a little distracted, agitated. “Always into something—you know how it is.”

Actually, I knew almost nothing about bringing up girls, at least not from personal experience. Though I did have an eighteen-year-old daughter, I wasn’t the one who’d raised her.

Tessa’s mother and I had married three years ago, and her dad had never been in the picture. Then, less than six months after our wedding, Christie died of breast cancer, and Tessa and I started the long, arduous task of trying to recover together, trying to re-form a family with just the two of us.

For a long time it hadn’t gone very well. Now, however, things were finally on the right track. I was remarried, and it seemed like those days of watching my late wife die were in another lifetime.

I was still caught up in my thoughts about my family when Debra handed back my creds. While I waited for her to finish with Ralph’s, I glanced out the window. Rain drizzled beyond the bulletproof glass, providing a welcome respite from the northern Virginia heat wave we’d been experiencing.

Ralph drained the last of his forty-four-ounce gas station cup of Mountain Dew. I had coffee with me from home, where he’d picked me up.

Guatemalan Antigua.

Never trust gas station java. You can’t even trust most coffee shops if you truly enjoy a cup of good coffee. I’d roasted these beans over the weekend. Normally I would have downed it in the car, but today I’d been waiting to savor it.

Now I tasted some.

Yes.

Excellent.

Although . . . thinking about it . . . I might have gotten by without grinding the beans quite so fine.

Special Agent Debra Guirret finished and, satisfied, waved us over to a door behind her desk. Ralph flipped down the numbered keypad beside it, punched in the entry code, and then we passed through the security checkpoint and started toward the elevator bay.

Debra had been working the front desk here at the headquarters for the Bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, or NCAVC, for the last six months, ever since moving to the area from Baltimore after her divorce.

This building contained the offices of the FBI’s profilers and housed the archives for ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which was the world’s largest repository of investigative material on solved and unsolved homicides, sexual assaults, and missing-persons cases.

Needless to say, this was not a place whose location we wanted to announce—thus, the lawnmower distribution–center facade here in this isolated industrial district near Quantico.

Despite what might appear on the news, and despite the fumbling attempts of the NSA to keep whistleblowers’ revelations about their hacking attempts and covert surveillance programs under wraps, when the Bureau sets out to keep a secret, it does a surprisingly good job.

Admittedly, Director Wellington took a bit of pride in that—although we would see how things moved on from here since she recently announced that she would be leaving the Bureau in the fall to start her campaign for Virginia’s First District congressional seat.

Ralph and I walked side by side down the hall, my friend’s hulking frame filling the space beside me. Even though I was a little taller than he was, he probably had me by fifty pounds. Solid muscle. Before joining the Bureau, he had served a stint as an Army Ranger and before that he’d been a high school All-American wrestler. Not a guy you’d want to mess with.

Glad he was on our side.

We arrived at the elevators.

“So.” I pressed the Up button. “It’s what, five days, now?”

“Six and counting. She was way early with Tony—course, that was twelve years ago. So who knows? She’s all into this natural-childbirth deal: doesn’t want to be induced—any of that. And so we wait.” He sighed and rubbed his hand across his shaved head. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“You’re only forty-one, my friend.”

He grunted in vague acknowledgment. “Just wait till you hit forty.”

I still had three years to look forward to that milestone.

The elevator doors opened and we entered.

“You still thinking Shanelle?” I asked him.

“Brin’s going back and forth between that and Tryphena.”

“Tryphena?”

“It’s Greek. Means ‘delicate.’ Brin came across it the other day somewhere in the Bible, thought it was pretty.”

“It is. It’s nice.”

“It’s growing on me.”

As the NCAVC director, he had an office on the third floor. He punched the 3 button and the doors closed.

I had a workspace set up just down the hall from him, but my actual office was at the FBI Academy, where I taught environmental criminology and geospatial investigation. It wasn’t easy, but I tried my hardest not to undermine the material taught in the other classes, where the instructors covered the importance of searching for means, motive, and opportunity, none of which I was a big fan of.

Or the focus on DNA—which recent studies had shown could be faked with a little know-how and ingenuity, not to mention the existence of multiple genomes in the same person, which, as it turns out, is much more common than we used to think.

Or profiling—and that always promised a spirited conversation when I brought it up with my wife of two months, who was one of the Bureau’s top profilers.

The elevator doors slid apart, and we found our way to Ralph’s office at the end of the hall.

He had his own unique, personalized “filing system” and his desk contained countless stacks of papers strewn in an array of meticulously organized clutter. Ever since being appointed to this position a year ago, he’d shown an astonishing ability to find anything he needed when he needed it, a chore that might have taken someone else hours. “Added security,” he told me once with a hint of pride, “and it doesn’t cost the Bureau a dime.”

Added security.

I liked that.

Maybe I could use that line to explain the condition of my side of the bedroom closet at home.

A photo of Ralph’s family floated across his computer’s screen. Brineesha—his diminutive, pretty, no-nonsense African-American wife and Tony, their twelve-year-old video game–playing, skateboarder son. Ralph had tried to get him interested in wrestling, but Tony preferred soccer, a sport Ralph complained reminded him of France.

Ralph did not like France.

He shuffled through the sheaves of paper and retrieved the file on a missing-persons case the NCAVC was consulting on.

I had taken my rain jacket off and was situating myself in the chair facing his desk when I received a text from Jerome Cole.

Jerome was one of the agents responsible for driving the eighteen-wheelers that delivered the lawnmowers to the back of the building. His text: He wanted me to meet with him in the lobby.

When I looked up, I saw that Ralph also had his phone out. He glanced my direction, then turned his cell’s screen so I could see it.

“Mine says he wants to meet me in the lobby,” I said.

“And mine says the loading bay.”

“Wonder what’s up.”

He was already on his feet. “Let’s go find out.”

Maybe it wasn’t strange that Jerome wanted to speak to the NCAVC director in the loading bay, but it was odd that he would ask to meet with me in the lobby at the same time.

From here the stairs were closer than the elevators so we took them down to the ground floor.

Ralph gestured for me to follow him. “We’ll check the loading bay first. It’s on the way.”

When we arrived, five other people were already there, milling around.

An array of several dozen riding lawnmowers stood parked in neat lines throughout the expansive room.

A semi was backed up to the dock and, from what it looked like, someone had just unloaded a mower that sat behind the truck.

Two more people emerged from the hallway and entered the loading bay.

“What’s going on?” Ralph didn’t sound angry, but his gruff voice naturally rumbled off the walls. A couple of the agents mentioned texts they’d gotten. One still had her phone out.

As I walked toward the truck, I was able to glimpse the face of the driver in the side-view mirror. Dark glasses. A well-worn ball cap. Hard to tell through the rain, but it didn’t look like Jerome.

“Hey,” I called. “Hang on.”

No reply. The truck was idling.

He glanced my way, but only for a second. He didn’t step out of the vehicle, but instead reached out with his left hand to adjust the side-view mirror. When he did, I saw he was wearing a wedding band.

Jerome isn’t married.

Unholstering my weapon I started for the loading dock. “Step out of the cab. Hands where I can see them.”

He shifted into gear and started rolling forward.

I spun toward the group of profilers and technicians, my attention on that lawnmower sitting on the loading dock.

“Clear the bay,” I shouted. “Now!”

Looks of confusion.

“Go!”

I leapt off the loading dock and started sprinting through the rain toward the truck, but I’d only made it seven or eight meters from the building when the explosion ripped through the loading bay behind me, the force of the blast sending me hurtling toward an SUV parked nearby.

Impact.

Then stars.

And then everything went black.

2

Ringing.

A ringing in my head.

Sharp. Distinct. Disorienting.

For a moment it seemed like it was a part of me that’d always been there, lurking just beneath my consciousness, and had only now been set free.

Yes, and it’ll always be there from now on. It’ll never stop.

Never stop.

Even though I could tell I was sprawled against the parking lot and lying on my stomach, it felt like my balance was off and I was about to fall over.

I felt rain splattering against the back of my neck. That, along with the noise in my head, a sore right rib cage, the brassy taste of blood from a cut lip, and the dizziness, all told me something that was obvious, but that also seemed necessary to remind myself of: I was breathing, existing, hurting.

Yes.

I was alive.

Somewhere beyond the sharp noise reverberating in my head, I heard a woman scream.

This is real. This is now. Go.

Trying to gather my bearings, I clambered to my feet, but still off balance, I almost collapsed and had to lean my hand against the side of the SUV to steady myself.

Get ahold of yourself, Pat. Do it.

Finally, the ringing began to subside, but my senses all seemed to fuse together and it was hard to sort out what I was seeing from what I was hearing: the cries for help; the muted gray air billowing ash and dust; the tart, ripe taste of some type of explosive—all became one and then splintered apart again.

Sight. Sound. Taste.

Presence.

I scanned the parking lot. The semi was gone. With cloud cover this thick, there was no way our defense satellites would have caught footage of it leaving and—

The woman screamed again. Louder this time.

I faced the building.

The gaping hole torn through it was spewing out dust and smoke like a great mouth exhaling stained air into the day.

Quickly, I scrambled back onto the loading bay where my friends and coworkers were.

Not far from me, Ralph was lying on his back, unmoving on the concrete. I rushed toward him through the maze of damaged lawnmowers, ceiling beams, and rubble, then stooped and touched his shoulder. “Ralph, you okay?”

He didn’t stir.

Only as I knelt beside him did I feel the sharp slivers of pain on my right side along my rib cage, where there’d been a vague ache since I first came to.

It wasn’t vague anymore. I looked down. Four jagged shards of metal were sticking through my body armor into my side, the largest protruding maybe five or six centimeters, the smallest, two or three.

It wasn’t possible to determine how deeply embedded into my side the pieces were, but when I tried to pry one loose, I found that it was pretty firmly lodged in there.

Pulling my vest off would have ripped them out. At least right now the bleeding was controlled and I didn’t anticipate that any of the wounds were life-threatening.

Okay. Deal with that later.

“Ralph?”

Nothing.

A tremor of fear caught hold of me.

He had to be alright.

He is.

He’s okay.

I felt for a pulse.

It took me a moment to find it, but I did.

Good.

Okay, good.

First-aid training kicked in: check airway, breathing, circulation, and look for blood loss.

None visible.

I repositioned his head to make sure his airway was clear.

When he didn’t awaken I shook him gently, trying to revive him. “Ralph, you with me here?”

He still didn’t move and I felt a deepening sense of uneasiness.

Come on, man.

Come—

I tried reviving him once more and this time he groaned, coughed roughly, and opened his eyes.

“You alright?” I asked concernedly.

“Yeah,” he muttered, then rubbed one giant paw against his forehead. His gaze found my blood-soaked shirt. “You?”

“I’m okay.”

He indicated toward the metal protruding from my side. “You sure?”

“Yes.”

There’s no such thing as a “bulletproof” vest. Though body armor is designed to dull the impact of most center-mass shots from the front or back, objects can penetrate them on the sides where the vests Velcro shut. I shuddered to think of what that shrapnel would have done if I hadn’t been wearing this thing.

Though I tried telling Ralph to rest for a minute, he would have none of that and started getting up.

In the end, I helped him to his feet and we turned our attention toward the rest of the loading bay.

Half the ceiling was gone.

Rain fell around us, creating a thick residue of ash that was turning muddy around our feet.

Despite the rain, the tinge of the explosion still lingered in the air, but there was another smell lurking beneath the acidic residue of whatever explosive had been used. I recognized it from arson cases I’d worked.

Flesh.

Burnt flesh.

And then I saw why.

An arm, scorched and blackened and ripped off at the elbow, lay about four meters in front of me on the concrete.

But that wasn’t the only body part I saw.

It looked like a war zone, like the footage you see in the aftermath of suicide bombings in the Middle East—in those rare cases when the news coverage hasn’t been scrupulously edited and tidied up, and the footage actually shows what happened.

Amid splashes of blood, shredded body parts lay scattered across the floor and on the riding lawnmowers that were tipped over and blackened from the blast. Based on the burn patterns on the concrete and the positioning of the debris and the wreckage, the explosion had apparently come from the lawnmower that’d been left behind by the semi driver.

I felt a tight grip of grief and anger.

I’ve been with the Bureau for just over ten years and before that I worked as a cop and homicide detective. You’d think that after all these years of investigating homicides and consulting on some of the most shocking crimes in the country, I’d be able to look at scenes like this with emotional distance or detachment.

But that’s never happened. I always think of the pain, the loss, the finality of it all.

The woman who’d been screaming was silent now and was staring vacantly at the rubble, muttering to herself. She was an analyst named Pamela Neumann and didn’t appear to be seriously injured but was obviously in shock.

She’d drawn her purse close to her and was clutching it like it was some sort of anchor back to the normal world, before any of this happened.

A weak cry came from the other side of the loading bay: “Help.”

Stu Ritterman, one of our ViCAP techs, sat leaning against the wall in a part of the building that lay just out of the rain. Since several riding mowers were in the way, I could only see him from the waist up.

“Go.” Ralph had his phone out and was calling dispatch.

“Get a BOLO out on the semi.” As I hurried toward Stu I relayed the license plate number to Ralph and confirmed that he had an accurate description of the truck.

When I was halfway to Stu I realized why his cries were so feeble.

Both of his legs were gone: one blown off just below the knee, the other halfway up his thigh. His femur bone protruded gruesomely from the meaty stump where his leg had been. Beneath him, a widening pool of fresh blood was spreading across the concrete.

He was trying, but failing, to put enough pressure on the stump to stop the arterial bleeding.

I whipped off my belt and encircled his thigh with it; then I slipped him my wallet to bite into. “This is going to hurt,” I said.

As I cranked on the tourniquet I thought Stu might pass out from the pain, but somehow he managed to stay conscious.

It probably would have made it a lot easier on him if he’d blacked out.

It’s too late. He’s lost too much blood.

No!

You can save him. You can.

The bleeding finally slowed, then stopped. After removing his belt from his waist, I started on a tourniquet for his other leg.

A heavy scraping sound behind me caught my attention. I glanced back in time to see Ralph single-handedly heave aside a huge ceiling beam that had fallen onto Wendy Foster and was pinning her shoulder to the ground.

I couldn’t tell if she was alive or not.

Focusing my attention on Stu again, I tightened the second tourniquet, but realized that besides stopping the bleeding, there wasn’t really anything I could do for him.

The truth hit me.

Harsh and cold and real: I was not going to be able to save this man.

He let the wallet drop from his mouth.

Based on the amount of blood he’d already lost, I anticipated that he was only going to be able to survive for another couple of minutes.

What do you say to someone who’s dying? Do you ask him if he’s made peace with God? Do you try to comfort him? Lie, and tell him he’s going to be alright?

What’s more important: hope or truth?

Sirens in the distance.

“The paramedics are on their way.” I put my hand gently on his forearm. “Hang in there.”

It felt like a lie disguised as encouragement and I hated that I’d said it, since it implied he would be able to hold on until the EMTs arrived, that they were going to be able to do something to save him when they got here.

He winced in pain with every labored breath.

I’m no expert on talking to God, but I gave it my best shot, praying urgently that Stu would pull through.

As I did, I tried to believe that it would make a difference, that I would see a miracle unfold before me here today, but I couldn’t seem to gather up that much faith.

Stu’s eyes rolled back.

“Hey!” I slapped his face to keep him conscious. “Stay with me!”

It worked for the moment, bought me a little time. I wanted to assure him that he was going to be okay, that he was going to make it, that the paramedics were going to take care of him, but I knew it was too late for any of that.

I knew it, and I think he did too.

There comes a time when deception does no good—I realized that now as I gently positioned him on his back and used one hand to support his head.

Stu was married; I’d met his wife at a barbecue over at Ralph’s house a couple of weeks ago.

No kids. Married less than a year.

I knew that if I asked him the question I had in mind it would be a way of telling him that it was too late, but it was all I could think to do for him at this point.

I didn’t have much time to waste debating things, so I just went ahead and said it: “Is there anything you want me to tell Sherry?”

The look on his face made it clear that he knew what I was saying, that my question was an acknowledgment of the inevitable.

His voice was strained as he answered. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay, you don’t have to—”

“No.” From the grimace on his face it was evident that it took a lot of effort for him to reply. “Tell her. I’m sorry. About Iris.”

I had no idea who Iris was, but I couldn’t keep myself from speculating that Sherry might not be too thrilled to hear her name.

“I will.”

Stu didn’t respond.

Would never respond.

Over the years I’ve had four people die in my arms, and each time it’s happened there has been a terrible moment when their eyes stopped focusing on me and their gaze just drifted off toward a vacant place in the distance that doesn’t exist.

It was a frightening, terrible shift.

Life to death.

That quickly.

One woman in Wisconsin whom I tried to save after a serial killer had attacked her—had cut her in ways no one could have survived from—closed her eyes in the end, and that was better because I got the impression that she’d found some sort of peace.

But that’s not what happened now.

Stu’s eyes simply glazed over.

And stayed open.

He went limp as the ambulance sirens drew closer, but not quickly enough, almost as if they were mocking the moment of his death.

Ha! See? We’re not there yet.

We’re not going to get there in time.

And what are you going to do about that?

Though I had a hard time believing that it was going to make any difference at this point, I started chest compressions to keep the blood that Stu hadn’t already lost circulating through his system.

And that’s what I was still doing when the paramedics arrived and took over for me.

3

I stood there beside the EMTs and silently watched as they worked on Stu.

His eyes were still staring blankly at the ceiling and beyond it, beyond everything. The paramedics transferred him to a gurney to get him to the hospital as quickly as possible, but by their demeanor, they didn’t appear to hold out much hope for him either.

As they rolled him toward the ambulance, I studied the scene.

Habit.

I couldn’t tell immediately how many people had been killed by the explosion, but glancing around the loading bay I reviewed where everyone had been standing when the blast went off. I let the map of the area unfold in my mind.

Time. Space.

Geospatial orientation.

What I do best.

But right now, right here, it seemed like a rather macabre way to put my expertise to use.

There’d been nine of us present in the immediate area. I mentally reviewed everyone’s name, pictured where they’d been in relation to the epicenter of the blast, and figured that at least three people were in the immediate vicinity of the lawnmower that blew.

So, status:

Ralph was alright.

Pamela appeared to be okay.

Wendy had been injured by the ceiling beam, but her wounds didn’t look catastrophic.

Stu hadn’t made it.

And, from what I could discern, neither had Rebekah, Norrie, Justin, or Wade.

A few others who must have been in the adjacent hallway were being treated by the paramedics and appeared to have only minor injuries. Debra Guirret, who looked like she’d been crying, was talking urgently with one of the injured men. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to console him or if he was trying to console her.

EMTs from the numerous ambulances that had driven up were scrambling to help the injured and attend to the survivors. Another ambulance was turning into the parking lot.

Dust.

Rain.

Rubble.

Charred bodies.

Yes, the medics were inadvertently disturbing evidence to get to the people who were injured, but there’s a time to preserve a crime scene and there’s a time to help the injured. A pristine scene or a human life? There’s no question these guys had their priorities straight.

A paramedic who’d apparently seen the metal in my side was hurrying my way, carrying an orange tackle box–type kit of first-aid supplies.

My phone rang and my wife’s face came up on the screen, her soft smile and Asian beauty standing out in stark contrast to the brutal carnage around me.

I answered. “Lien-hua.”

“Oh, thank God, Pat.”

“You heard?”

“I was afraid you . . .” She let her voice taper off into a silence that spoke volumes. “So you’re alright?”

“Yeah. So’s Ralph.” I signaled to the paramedic to give me a moment. He was staring at the metal shards sticking through my vest.

Lien-hua would have been here this morning too if she hadn’t had a physical therapy appointment for a tib-fib fracture in her right leg from being hit by a car a couple of months ago. Someone had canceled and she’d set it up Friday afternoon.

Just the thought that she might have been in the loading bay too, that she might have been among the dead, chilled me so much that I felt my hand tremble.

The paramedic set down his first-aid box and popped it open.

“Listen, I have to go,” I told Lien-hua. “I’ll call you back in a little while.” My daughter had spent the night at a friend’s house. “Let Tessa know I’m alright.”

“Okay.”

A pause.

“Talk to you soon,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

As we said those parting words and ended the call, I thought back to what Stu had told me to share with his wife, that he was sorry about Iris.

Not that he loved Sherry.

He’d been more concerned with her knowing that he was sorry than with her knowing that he cared about her.

Maybe that was his way of saying he loved her—maybe his apology was him telling Sherry how much he cared.

But how will she respond when she hears that?

Stop worrying about it. That’s none of your business. Just give her the message. That’s what he wanted.

I turned my wounded side to the paramedic, whose name tag read T. FOSTER.

“What’s the T for?”

He saw that I was looking at the name badge. “Todd.”

“What can you do for me here, Todd?”

The adrenaline was draining from my system and the more it did, the more I began to notice the pain caused by the shards of metal sticking out of me.

As Todd inspected my side, his expression told me the shrapnel was probably more serious than I’d thought. “We need to get you to a doctor, sir. If we remove your vest it’s going to pull those loose. They’re secured pretty well right now and I don’t want to take them out here in the field. They’re going to bleed pretty . . .”

“Yeah. I hear you.”

“You’re going to need stitches.”

Stitches meant needles.

Needles meant pain.

Did not like needles.

Metal shards—no problem. I could cope with that. Needles, on the other hand—not my thing.

“Dispatch is saying everyone here is a federal agent.” He sounded somewhat impressed.

The word was going to get out to the public soon enough. “That’s true.”

“I want to make sure these don’t move around during transport.” As he gently placed some bulky four-by-four dressings around the pieces of metal and wrapped my torso to keep them in place, a phone in the pocket of one of the bodies only five or six meters from me began to ring.

I didn’t recognize the tune of the ringtone, but it was lively, cheery.

Someone who knows the victim well is calling. Someone special.

In a tweeting, microblogging, texting, instant-messaging world, the news about the explosion at the NCAVC had no doubt hit cyberspace within minutes of the attack. Family members and friends of those who worked here would undoubtedly be calling more phones momentarily.

Concerned texts, voicemails, left for those who were already dead.

These days it happened all too often in morgues and at crime scenes—phones ringing or vibrating in the pockets of corpses. The living contacting the dead and leaving innocent, oblivious messages.

“Can you pick up some milk on the way home?”

Call me when you get a chance. Luv u!

Hey, girl! How was the date with Jake? Huh? Txt me.

I’ve gone through more than my share of those messages while following up on clues after a homicide. It’s gut-wrenching.

The ringing stopped.

I hoped the Bureau could get word out to the victims’ families and friends before those people tried contacting their loved ones, but I doubted it. The wheels almost never turned that fast.

I was about to tell Todd that he should take care of someone else, that I was fine, but when I looked around I realized that everyone who was injured was being treated already.

Right now, there wasn’t really anything else for me to do here on-site. Evidence recovery wasn’t my job and there were people better trained to do it than I was.

The Bureau’s Evidence Response Team, or ERT, was certainly en route by now.

Todd finished gently wrapping the bandages around my torso, but before heading to the ambulance I excused myself. “Give me just a sec.”

Using my phone, I took video of the scene and photographed the site from different angles, trying to record as much of the undisturbed parts of the room as I could. When the ERT got here they would do the same thing, but the sooner you can get photos of a crime scene, the better.

After touching base with Ralph and finding out that we still didn’t have any word on the location of the semi, I joined Todd in the ambulance. His partner took the wheel and we left for Tanner Medical Center, a twenty-minute drive, give or take, depending on traffic.

These days it just about takes an act of Congress to get my daughter to answer the phone, but she typically replies to texts within seconds, so rather than call, I texted that I was fine and asked her to give me a shout. Then I reviewed the photos of the scene and tried my best to recall if I’d ever seen that semi driver’s face before.

+ + + +

Less than fifteen minutes ago the man responsible for the explosion, the man who liked to think of himself as a storyteller, as a bard for the ages, had abandoned the semi in the parking area of the Exxon station near the Marine Corps Base Quantico, crossed through the strip of woods to the car he’d left on the road bordering the trees, and started driving south.

Now he was on I-95, with a seven-hour drive in front of him: five and a half to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he would take the photos, then on to Columbia, South Carolina, where he would be spending the night.

Right before the explosion he had seen Special Agent Patrick Bowers outside the loading bay. Bowers should have been in the lobby on the other side of the building.

That’s how it was supposed to work.

The others were supposed to be in the bay, he wasn’t.

The bard doubted that Bowers had recognized him, not after the surgery, not after seeing him only briefly and only in the reflection of the truck’s side-view mirror.

But still, Bowers might have been killed by the blast.

He turned on the radio, found a news station that was covering the breaking story of the explosion, and, although it was still probably too early, he listened to see if they would list the names of the deceased.

If Bowers was dead, things would still move forward and there would be a sad irony at the scene when they discovered Jerome Cole’s body. But if Bowers had survived, he would find himself caught up as the major player in the most elaborate story the bard had ever penned.

4

“Where are you?”

My daughter hadn’t even given me time to address her when I answered my phone.

“Actually, I’m . . .” I didn’t really want her to worry about me, so I wasn’t too excited about explaining that I was in an ambulance on my way to the hospital. “I’m in Springfield,” I said truthfully.

“They’re saying five people were killed.”

I wasn’t certain about the number of fatalities. In situations like this, when everything is in flux, misinformation can spread rapidly through the media, but, including Stu, five did sound right.

Five of your coworkers.

Five of your friends.

“It was bad.” My voice was hushed.

“But a terrorist attack? At the NCAVC?”

“Yes, listen—”

“And you’re okay? How’s Ralph?”

“He’s good. I got a couple little cuts, but I’m alright.”

“What? Cuts?”

“A couple. Little ones.”

“Are they spurting?”

“Spurting? No, they’re not spurting.” Despite myself I gazed at the bandages holding the shards of metal in place. “Like I said, they’re little cuts.”

“Should I meet you at the hospital?”

“Who said I was going to the hospital?”

“I’ve known you for, like, four years, Patrick. Whenever you get hurt you underexaggerate how bad it is. You nearly get buried alive, you say it’s no big deal. You get shot, you tell me not to worry. You wouldn’t have even mentioned these so-called little cuts unless they were bad enough to send you to an emergency room. So which one are we talking about? St. Mary’s or Tanner Medical Center?”

“Tanner.” I hated it when she did that. “Are you still at Melody’s?”

“Yeah. Her mom’s on her way back home—I wish I’d driven over here. Anyway, when she gets here we’re gonna swing by our house so I can pick up my car. I’ll meet you at the hospital as soon as I can.”

“I’m not sure how long I’ll be there.”

“Text me when your ambulance arrives.”

“I’m . . . hang on. I didn’t tell you I was in an ambulance.”

“You just said you weren’t sure how long you’d be there, not how long you’d be here. So I’m taking it you’re still en route. Are you?”

“Yes, but I could be driving myself,” I countered.

“Ralph picked you up this morning and he wouldn’t chance you getting blood all over his car. Lien-hua wasn’t there so you’re not using hers. You’re in an ambulance.”

Logic.

A girl after my own heart.

“I’ll text you,” I said.

“I’ll see you at the hospital.”

As I was lowering the phone, I paused and scrolled back to the text I’d gotten from Jerome Cole’s number just a few minutes before the explosion.

I tried calling him, but it went directly to voicemail.

Jerome hadn’t been in the loading bay, hadn’t been driving the semi.

I phoned Ralph, asked if they’d located him yet.

“No one’s answering his cell or his landline. But all those texts that told us to meet in the loading bay came from his phone. I sent a team to his house. The HRT guys are there right now.”

The Hostage Rescue Team is the Bureau’s most elite tactical-response unit. They’re far better trained than any SWAT team—more on par with Navy SEALs—and they’re called in for any terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

He went on, “They’re concerned the place might be booby-trapped. They’re checking for explosives before going in.”

Those text messages came from Jerome’s number.

“Are we tracing his cell?”

“Angela and Lacey are on it.”

If anyone could locate Cole’s cell phone—whether it was turned on or not—it was Angela Knight at our Cyber Division. She’d named her computer Lacey, and at first we’d humored her by going along, but over time all of us had gotten used to referring to Lacey as if she were a real agent.

It always took a bit of explaining when new agents joined the team.

“Great,” I said. “Call me if you hear anything.”

We hung up.

I took a moment to process what had just happened: the explosion, the corpses, Stu dying in front of me while I tried helplessly to save him.

It’s always a struggle for me, but I try not to dwell on the pain I’ve seen, on the bodies I’ve found, on the tragedies I’ve witnessed. Instead, I try to remember the people I’ve caught, the rapists and pedophiles and killers I’ve helped put away.

I tell myself that justice will prevail.

I have to. Otherwise I couldn’t keep doing what I do.

But I find it hard to forget the faces.

The victims always rise to the forefront. I’ve talked with other law enforcement officers about this, other FBI agents, even Interpol and Scotland Yard investigators. And for most of us it’s the same. The public remembers the killers—the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, the Ed Geins, the Ted Bundys and Gary Ridgways, but for us, it’s the victims.

Their dead, staring eyes. Their quiet, gray lips.

And the questions that linger there in the stale air around the visages of the dead: Why couldn’t you have gotten here sooner? Will my death make any difference?

And now Stu’s face would be joining the others.

It was definitely going to take a while to work through today’s events.

I didn’t think Jerome Cole had anything to do with this attack, but there was too much going on right now for me to sit around a hospital exam room, getting stitches.

The metal shards are stabilized.

The lacerations are sealed off, not bleeding.

The vest protected you from the worst of it.

After I looked up his address, I informed the ambulance driver that we were going to be taking an alternate route to the hospital.

“Turn left up ahead. I’ll give you directions from there.”

5

Jerome Cole’s house was in a subdivision about a mile from the Potomac River.

By the time we arrived, the HRT had already cordoned off the neighborhood and they weren’t even letting emergency personnel past the barricades they’d set up at the end of the street.

“Okay,” I told the driver when we reached the news crews who were stationing themselves as close as they could to the crime scene tape. “This is good.”

We parked.

With my torso bandaged and scraps of metal still visibly wedged into my side, I was a little conspicuous, but I wanted a status report and there wasn’t time to swing by Walmart to refresh my wardrobe first. Todd had a Windbreaker with him, stored on a shelf there in the ambulance. “Let me borrow that, okay?”

“Sir, we really need to get you to—”

“I know, I know. So, the Windbreaker?”

“I’m—”

“Thanks.” I snagged it. “I’ll get it back to you.”

Because of my wounded side, slipping the jacket on wasn’t easy and I had to clench my teeth when I threaded my right arm into the sleeve, but I managed.

It reminded me of the first case I’d worked with Ralph, back when I was a detective in Milwaukee and he was with the Bureau, helping us with an investigation into a series of kidnappings and mutilations in the region.

I’d been shot in the left shoulder and had borrowed his FBI Windbreaker at a scene similar to this. Later, when he encouraged me to apply at the Bureau, he’d told me that the jacket looked good on me.

And now here I was again.

Injured.

Bloodied.

In a borrowed jacket.

Full circle.

I stepped out of the ambulance.

The rain hadn’t let up. If anything, it’d gotten heavier, steadier, the day deepening around us, becoming as bleak as dusk.

The HRT had snipers stationed around the area and an incursion team had the house surrounded. There was a communication and command center nearby, just beyond the barricades.

I found Brandon Ingersoll, the leader of the unit. I’ve worked with him a few times over the years and we’ve practiced target shooting together at the firing range at Quantico. “What do we know?” I asked him.

“So far we’re clear.” He spoke with brisk, truncated syllables, militaryesque, although from what I knew he’d never served in the Armed Forces. Thin, but with tight sinewy muscles, he was intimidating even though he was only about five-eight. He eyed the paramedic’s Windbreaker I was wearing. “What’s with the jacket, Pat?”

“I didn’t have my raincoat with me. Managed to borrow this one. Time frame?”

“So far, so good. We’re almost ready to send in a team.”

When I turned to face the house, pain flared through my side. It was really starting to hurt, especially when I moved.

Or breathed.

So that wasn’t exactly ideal.

Cope. You’ll be at the hospital soon enough.

When I asked Ingersoll if he’d heard from Ralph he told me he was still back at the NCAVC. I was glad. If there was anyone there who could take charge, secure the scene, notice what needed to be noticed, and manage the situation, it was Ralph.

“Any word on the semi?”

Ingersoll shook his head. “Not that I know of. No.”

A voice crackled through his radio. “Sir, we’re in position. Do we have a green light? Over.”

Ingersoll checked in with a few of his men, verified that his snipers were in position, then replied to the incursion team, “Roger that. Full breach.”

I watched as the guys surrounding the house moved forward stealthily but without the slightest hint of hesitation or apprehension.

The HRT doesn’t do anything halfway and when they went in, they went in heavy, but there were no booby traps, no explosives. I could hear the men on the other end of the radio announcing that one room after another was clear.

When they reached one of the bedrooms on the second floor, their voices became softer, until finally all that came through the radio was a stretch of uncomfortable silence.

Ingersoll asked his men what they saw, but the only response was the chatter of a couple of HRT members there in the room.

“Check him. See if he’s still breathing.”

“There’s no way anyone could still be—”

“Check him.”

“Yes, sir.”

More silence.

“He’s gone.”

“And it’s Cole?”

“Yeah.”

“How can you—?”

“It’s him.”

A moment later, one of the HRT guys called through the radio, “We need to find Bowers.”

Ingersoll looked at me quizzically, then replied, “He’s right here with me.”

“What? Well, send him in with the ERT.”

“What is it?”

“It’d be best if he saw this for himself.”

That was all I needed to hear. Ignoring the pain in my side and moving my right arm as little as possible so it wouldn’t exacerbate the wounds, I crossed the street and headed for the house.

6

I joined Natasha Farraday, an ERT member who’d transferred in from St. Louis a few years ago, on the front porch. Late twenties, Caucasian, slight build, and a Tuesday-night yoga companion of Lien-hua, she was good at her job, and I couldn’t have chosen a better agent to be here on this case.

I’d first met her while working on one of the most gruesome investigations of my career last year in DC, when two killers provoked some primates to chew off the face of one of their victims while the woman was still alive.

It’s disconcerting to find yourself remembering your coworkers based on the dead bodies you first met them beside, but unfortunately it goes with the territory.

Two of Natasha’s team members were there as well. She greeted me, then asked, “They want you to come in with us?”

“Yes.” It’s common to have a detective or special agent accompany the ERT onto the scene. In fact, keeping us away could be counterintuitive to the investigation. Forensics teams are experts at gathering evidence, but interpreting it is another matter altogether, and the sooner you have someone on-site whose expertise is doing that, the better.

Not to mention the fact that today there was something at the scene that had led the HRT guys to ask for me by name.

“I heard you were at the NCAVC,” Natasha said.

“Yes.”

“I’m really glad you’re okay, Pat. And Lien-hua too.”

I couldn’t help but think about those who were not okay. “Yeah. Let’s just figure out who did this.”

“I’m with you.”

With my injured side, bending over was difficult, but after tugging on booties over my shoes and snapping on latex gloves so I wouldn’t contaminate the scene, I let Natasha lead me and the rest of her team into Jerome Cole’s house.

Though I knew him through work, this was my first time in his home.

The living room: a white shag carpet, a charcoal leather couch and matching reclining chair. Two floor lamps, a glass-topped coffee table. A flat-screen television was mounted on the far wall. Two houseplants hung in the south-facing window. As a bachelor, Cole had chosen not to decorate the room with many pictures and it had an austere, almost spartan feel.

The words I’d heard on Ingersoll’s radio just a few moments ago replayed in my head. I’m pretty good with remembering details and now I heard the conversation word for word:

“Check him. See if he’s still breathing.”

“There’s no way anyone could still be—”

“Check him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s gone.”

“And it’s Cole?”

“Yeah.”

“How can you—?”

“It’s him.”

I both wanted to know what had happened to Jerome and did not want to know. You can’t erase the things you see at crime scenes from your mind. They get rooted in there in a place that’s impossible to run from. Whatever I ended up seeing in that bedroom, I expected that the images would stay with me for a long time. Maybe forever.

We came to the stairs leading to the second level. One of the HRT members was at the bottom of the steps. He looked pale.

“Upstairs,” he said softly. “He’s . . .” It sounded like he had more to say, but instead of going on, he hurried to the bathroom down the hall. As Natasha and I started up the steps I heard him vomiting.

I thought about Jerome, about seeing him at work. Early forties. Short-cropped blond hair. Left-handed. A jogger. Liked to tell the same jokes over and over.

I tried to prepare myself for what I was about to see.

Sometimes killers leave messages scrawled in blood on the floor or on the wall. In one case that I’d worked, the offender had left the word “Sow” shaped from the victim’s intestines.

We reached the hallway at the top of the stairs.

Two HRT guys in full tactical gear were at the end of the hall near what I presumed to be the master bedroom. Neither spoke. Instead they both just stepped quietly aside as Natasha and I approached.

And entered the room.

7

Jerome lay on the sheets, clothed, his hands outstretched and tied to the bedposts. His legs weren’t bound, but both of his knees were broken and had been chopped into, apparently with the hatchet or axe of some sort that lay beside him on the bed.

It was the same with his ankles.

And elbows.

And wrists.

He’d been beaten severely and it looked like his jaw was broken, or at least profoundly dislocated. Two arrows had been driven into his eye sockets and the shafts rose stiff and rigid from his blood-covered face. The fletching appeared to be made out of real feathers and the shafts looked old, like antiques or replicas of Native American arrows.

A book lay open—pages down, spine up—on Jerome’s chest.

But not just any book.

One of the two volumes I’d authored.

This one, Understanding Crime and Space, had grown out of my research for my Ph.D. in Environmental Criminology back when I was new at the Bureau.

Natasha’s team began snapping photos and filming video of the scene.

I took it all in.

Some people seem to be able to ignore the dark side of human nature, to live their lives in denial of the evil that our race is capable of doing to each other. I’ve never been able to do that, never been able to close one eye to the truth.

But, personally, I’d rather be disturbed by the world, as terrifying and unnerving as it can be, than comforted by putting my head in the sand. They say the truth will set you free, and that may be true, but it can also be devastating when you look at it unflinchingly.

They also say the truth hurts.

And they are right.

No one in the room spoke.

I mentally flipped through the five steps you take when processing a crime scene.

(1) Orient yourself to the location: the lighting, the exit and entrance routes, the geospatial orientation of the site in time and space. (2) Observe as carefully as you can what you have to work with. (3) Examine the forensic evidence. (4) Analyze the data by keeping the context in mind. (5) Evaluate all the material you’ve collected and form a working hypothesis that will lead you into the next investigative route.

I figured that the last three steps would grow out of our visit here: Natasha and her team would be collecting and examining any forensic evidence, the Lab would analyze whatever they collected. After that, everyone on the case would evaluate what we had and figure out where to go from here.

Right now I would focus on those first two steps: orientation and observation.

Unlike in the movies, killers in real life are not omniscient. They can plan, yes, they can prepare, but they cannot tell the future, and they can’t always guess exactly how the authorities are going to react.

And so it’s there, in that disconnect, that we catch them.

I studied the room.

The shade-drawn window faced west toward the road. The digital clock on the bedside stand glowed red with the correct time. Based on the blood spatter, it appeared that the wounds Jerome had sustained had all been inflicted while he was on the bed.

The closet door stood slightly ajar. “Was this open or closed when your team came in?” I asked the Hostage Rescue Team members.

“Closed. We checked it to clear the room,” one of the men said.

I peered inside.

The shoes were all lined up in pairs. The clothes hung neatly, organized by color. No blood. Nothing in disarray.

Once Natasha was done photographing the dresser, I went to it and opened the drawers one at a time. The clothes were stuffed in, unfolded.

The top of the dresser was empty. I checked for patterns in the thin layer of dust on it to see if anything had been removed, but didn’t see any.

“Were the lights in the room on or off when you entered?” I asked the guy I’d just been speaking to.

“Off. Why?”

“With the orientation of the trees along the side of the house, the streetlamp outside wouldn’t have cast light in this window.”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw it when I was approaching the house.”

“You took note of where the streetlights and trees were?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because light is part of a scene. Also, I heard your team over the radio, clearing the rooms. I knew we were looking at one from the second floor. The location of the windows told me we’d be in here.”

I turned to Natasha. “Listen, I don’t think he did all this in the dark. If the time of death was last night and he wasn’t simply using a flashlight, and no one else has been in here, then the offender may have turned the lights off before he left.”

“We’ll make sure we look for prints on the light switch,” she said.

It was standard, but still, articulating it, reiterating it, didn’t hurt.

“And the shoes,” I said.

“The shoes?”

“The clothes in Jerome’s dresser drawers are just tossed in there, yet the closet is almost obsessively neat.”

“You think that the killer tidied up in there before he left?”

“I don’t know. That or maybe he rummaged through the dresser. Let’s do what we can to find out.”

In a few minutes Natasha and her team would be looking under Jerome’s fingernails for DNA in case he scratched his attacker or attackers. Now she was taking the temperature of the body to try to narrow down the time of death.

I asked her, “Do you have the photos you need? Can I look at the book?”

“Yes.”

Carefully, I turned it over to see what section it had been opened to.

Pages 238 to 239, in a chapter about the critiques of my approach.

Nothing was highlighted or circled, but seven numbers were scrawled in the right-hand column:

6'3" 2.53 32

I didn’t know what that meant, but I could evaluate it in a minute. For now, I noted that this section of the book was about how all the data for developing geographic profiling models and distance decay algorithms were based on solved cases.

Obviously we only had data from investigations we’d wrapped up. So it made sense, but it created a problem, since during each of the past forty-five years, the percentage of solved violent crimes has rarely tipped over the fifty-percent mark.

That doesn’t even take into account all of the crimes that go unreported.

So the section was about unsolved and unsolvable cases.

Had this book randomly been left open to these pages?

Possibly.

But I doubted it.

“Has anything been moved?” I asked the Hostage Rescue Team guys who stood near the doorway.

“No, sir,” the shorter man replied.

Using my phone I photographed the pages.

Since the book hadn’t been randomly discarded on the body, but carefully squared up and positioned there, it would make sense that it was turned to these specific pages for a reason as well.

Questions scampered through my mind: Did the offender follow Jerome home? Was he waiting for him when he arrived here? How did the killer—or killers—know that Jerome drove the truck for us, that the lawnmower business was a front? Why these pages? Is he taunting us? Mocking us? Saying his crime will remain unsolved?

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Natasha asked, drawing me out of my thoughts. She was staring at the arrows driven though Jerome’s eyeballs.

“No.”

“Who would be capable of . . . ?” Her voice trailed off into a grim silence.

I said nothing.

In truth, we are all capable of evil. That’s the thing. We’re all made of the same material. Though some people might be predisposed toward certain types of behavior, no one is predestined to act on his desires.

We choose.

And all of us have it within ourselves to choose evil.

Who’s capable of something like this?

Well, the unsettling truth, the fact that no one really wants to admit: any one of us is capable of it, given the right circumstances.

Or the wrong ones, depending on how you look at it.

I didn’t bring that up, but just said, “What can you tell me about time of death?”

“The ME will have to narrow things down, but based on lividity and body temp I’d say Jerome died early this morning—probably somewhere between two and four a.m. We can tell by the blood spatter and the amount of bleeding around the wounds that they—”

“Were not postmortem,” I said.

“That’s correct.”

“Cause of death from the arrows?”

“Could be from shock—depends on if he was dead when those arrows were driven in there. It appears that whoever did this knew what he was doing, how to make Jerome suffer but keep him alive.”

One of the ERT members bumped into me, causing my arm to brush against my wounded side.

Pain streaked through me and I had to stop and take a couple deep breaths to calm myself.

I rested my arm against the wall, trying to hide the pain from the other people in the room.

“You okay?” Natasha asked.

“Yeah.”

Just a few more minutes, then I really needed to be on my way.

To get my mind off the pain, I focused my attention on the numbers that had been written in the column. I showed the people in the room the book’s page. “Do these mean anything to you?”

People shook their heads. Everyone was quiet.

I evaluated the number sequence:

6'3" 2.53 32

The first set of numbers was written as a height—my height, actually—but what about the others?

Weight? Age?

The volume of something?

A mathematic equation of some sort?

I tried to think of both the hidden and the obvious, playing with the numbers, adding, subtracting, multiplying them, looking for a pattern, but nothing seemed to click. Nothing hidden came to mind.

So, what about the obvious?

It’s seven numbers.

A phone number?

I tapped it into my phone. No one picked up and it went to a generic voicemail. I identified myself as a federal agent and left a message for the person to call me back, then I phoned Angela to have Lacey tackle the number pattern. “Online searches, street addresses, equations, phone numbers, anything.”

“Gotcha.” Angela was chronically overworked. Though she did her best to hide how stressed she was, I could hear exhaustion in her voice. And this week, with everything that was going down, it was only going to get worse.

“And,” she added, “I’ll have her check different iterations of those numbers and Jerome’s phone records, his credit card statements, birthdays, anniversaries of those close to him—see what we can pull up.”

“Great. Talk to you soon.”

After we ended the call I got right back on the line, this time with Ralph. “We need to find out when Jerome was last seen alive. And let’s locate an expert on Native American weaponry. I want to know what the difference between a hatchet and a tomahawk is.”

“Why?”

I summarized the scene, then explained, “With the arrows, if that thing’s a tomahawk we need to figure out—”

“What kind of message he was trying to give us.”

I would leave the specifics of that up to Lien-hua and the other profilers. “Right.”

End call.

Careful not to disturb any evidence, I spent a few more minutes looking around the room, but finally pain and common sense got the best of me and I left Natasha and her unit to process the scene.

Todd Foster, the paramedic who’d somewhat protestingly lent me his Windbreaker, was still outside the HRT’s barricade, waiting by the ambulance with his partner.

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