Cunning and lethal, the killer is always one step ahead of the law, and he's about to strike again. It will take all of Bowers's instincts and training to stop this man who calls himself the Illusionist. And just when the pieces start to come together, Bowers realizes they're not quite adding up. Can he unravel the pattern and save the next victim? Or will the Illusionist win the game by taking one of his opponent's pieces? Thrilling, chilling, and impossible to put down, The Pawn will hold suspense lovers in its iron grip until the very last page.
About the Author
Critically acclaimed author Steven James has written more than thirty books, including Placebo, Singularity, and the bestselling Bowers Files thriller series. He is a contributing editor to Writer's Digest. Steven lives in Tennessee with his wife and three daughters.
Read an Excerpt
October 23, 2008
Somewhere above the mountains of western North Carolina
I peered out the window of the Bell 206L-4 LongRanger IV, helicopter of choice for both the Georgia State Patrol and the Department of the Interior, as we roared over the mountainous border of Georgia and North Carolina. Clouds rose dark on the horizon.
The colors of autumn were still lingering on the rolling slopes of the southern Appalachians, although winter had started to creep into the higher elevations. Far below us, the hills rose and fell, rose and fell, zipping past. For a few minutes I watched the shadow of the helicopter gliding over the mountains and dipping down into the shadowy valleys like a giant insect skimming across the landscape, searching for a place to land.
Even though it was late fall, ribbons of churning water pounded down the mountains in the aftermath of a series of fierce storms. In the springtime these hills produce some of the most fantastic whitewater rafting in all of North America. I know. I used to paddle them years ago when I spent a year working near here as a wilderness guide for the North Carolina Outward Bound School. Now, it seemed like those days were in another life.
Before I became what I am. Before any of this.
But as I looked out the window, the waters weren't blue like I remembered them. Instead, they were brown and swollen from a recent rain. Wriggling back and forth through the hills like thick, restless snakes.
I glanced at my watch: 5:34 p.m. We should be landing within the next ten minutes. Which was good, because with the clouds rolling in, it didn't look like we had a whole lot of sunlight ahead of us. Maybe an hour. Maybe less.
My good friend Special Agent Ralph Hawkins had called me in. Just a few hours ago I was in Atlanta presenting a seminar on strategic crime analysis for the National Law Enforcement Methodology Conference. Another conference. Another lecture series. It seemed like that was all I'd been doing for the last six months. Sure, I'd consulted on a couple dozen cases, but they weren't a big deal. Mostly I'd been teaching and researching criminology. Trying to forget.
I'd have to say that despite how disoriented my life had become, the biggest casualty had been my sixteen-year-old—wait, seventeen-year-old—stepdaughter Tessa. After the funeral, I tried to get close to her, but it didn't work. Nothing did. Eventually we just drifted into our separate routines, our separate lives. Case in point: here I was in the Southeast while she stayed with my parents back home in Denver.
Ralph wasn't the kind of man to waste time or words being cordial. He'd jumped right to the point when he called my cell earlier in the day. "Pat, I hear you're back in the game."
"Trying to be."
"Well, you heard about what's going on down here?"
"Yeah." I followed the postings of all the major cities' crime labs and FBI listings. Occupational hazard. I was a regular VICAP junkie—the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program is a way to track crimes across jurisdictions, so I'd read about the murders. Even the details they weren't releasing to the public. There'd been at least five so far, just since April.
"You found another one," I said.
"Yeah. Some hikers stumbled across her about an hour ago. We're out at the site now, and, well, I could email you some stuff, but I gotta say, I could use your eyes over here. There's got to be something we're missing. The signature is the same. It's the same guy, Pat. The press is calling him the Yellow Ribbon Strangler."
Ralph knew that I hated when the press got involved. I'd looked at my watch: 4:02 p.m.
"I don't know, Ralph…;"
"I can have a chopper over there to pick you up in twenty minutes. You'll be back at your hotel tonight. That's why I could use your eyes right now. Supposed to be some more storms coming through, and I don't want to miss anything here. What do you say?"
And I'd said yes.
Because I always say yes.
"Email me the photos your men took at the other crime scenes," I said, "and video if you have it, and I'll look them over on my way down."
And now, less than two hours after giving the keynote address to 2,500 law enforcement professionals and intelligence agency personnel from around the world, I was on a chopper to meet Ralph and look at the body of another dead girl.
I scrolled through the crime scene pictures on my laptop. Even though I try to stay detached, the images still bother me. They always have. Probably always will.
I glanced out the window. The shadow of the helicopter skirted over a road and hovered for a moment above a parked car on a scenic overlook. A man and a woman who were standing beside the guardrail didn't seem to notice the shadow. They just kept staring at the sprawling mountains folding back against the horizon, totally unaware that a shadow was crawling over them. Totally unaware.
The killer hadn't made any attempt to hide the bodies. Whoever was killing these women wanted them found. After all, there were plenty of places in the hills of western North Carolina to hide a body forever. Or a person. The serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph had hidden here for five years during one of the biggest manhunts in history and was only caught when he wandered into town to scavenge food from a dumpster behind a grocery store. No, our guy wasn't into hiding; he was into flaunting. And there was something else. Something that hadn't been released to the public. Something very disturbing. Which was why Ralph had called me.
I leaned forward and yelled to the pilot, "How much longer?"
He didn't answer, just pointed at a nearby mountain and tipped the LongRanger toward a clearing.
I closed up my computer. It was time for Patrick Bowers to go to work.
A bank of dark, steely clouds churned in the western sky as we pivoted on the edge of the air and the pilot lowered the chopper to the ground.
Someone had strung up a boundary of yellow police tape along the trees surrounding the meadow. It fluttered and snapped in the wind kicked up by the chopper's blades.
I grabbed my computer bag and jumped down, using one hand to shield my eyes from the fine spray of sand thrown into the air by the rotors. It was like trying to ward off a fog of biting flies, but I didn't want to wait one moment longer than I had to.
I could see the hulking shape of Special Agent Ralph Hawkins waving a meaty hand at the helicopter like a traffic cop who'd lost his way and ended up on top of this mountain. Ralph was as thick as a bear. As an All-American wrestler in high school and former Army Ranger he could still break out of a pair of handcuffs with his bare hands. But still, even though he was over six feet tall, I had him by two inches. Bugged him to no end.
"Pat." He threw the word at me along with his hand. Hearing his gruff, thunderous voice made me feel right at home. We'd worked lots of cases together for the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, back before…; well, back before everything came spinning apart.
"Good to see you out on the turf again."
"Yeah," I yelled.
Now, the rotors were easing to a stop, and the wind swirling around us found its natural rhythm again as the blades slowed and finally hung limp and still above the dome of the helicopter.
Half a dozen agents wearing black FBI windbreakers stalked around the top of the mountain surrounded by a pack of bored-looking state troopers and four park rangers. It reminded me of a construction site at break time where everyone just stands around expecting someone else to be the first one to go back to work. They were all staring at me. Some were exchanging comments with each other. Others were snickering.
Apparently, it was pretty rare around here to bring in someone like me—on the other hand, it might have been my age. Even though I've worked fifteen solid years in law enforcement, I won't be turning thirty-six until January. And people often tell me I look younger than I am. That's why I go for the scruffy look. When I shave I look twenty.
Two people stepped forward—a woman wearing a black FBI windbreaker and a rotund man wearing a tie that looked like a bib. He offered his hand. "Dr. Bowers?"
"That's me." I shook his hand.
"Sheriff Dante Wallace, Buncombe County Sheriff's Department." Sheriff Wallace looked like he enjoyed his football games best from the center of a couch. The bristles of hair sticking up from his mostly bald head looked like tufts of gray grass.
"Good to meet you," I said.
"And I'm Special Agent Lien-hua Jiang," said the dark-haired woman beside him. "I'm Ralph's partner." Elegant. Close to my age, maybe a few years younger. Asian descent. Great posture. Like a model. Or an athlete. I wondered if she'd maybe studied dance. She had a tiny chin that made her smile even broader. She reached out her hand and nodded politely. Nice grip. Nice body.
"Great," I said, trying not to look like I was staring. Besides, I was anxious to get to work before the rains came. "It's good to meet you both."
Agent Hawkins rescued me. "All right. Now that we're all on a first-name basis, let's go take a look at our girl. Or at least what's left of her."
The Illusionist watched carefully as Patrick Bowers wandered around the top of the mountain with all those other federal agents and idiot cops. Morons! They would never understand. None of them would. Not really.
He knew about Bowers. Oh yeah, he knew all about Patrick Bowers, PhD. He'd read both of his books. For research. Very helpful. A worthy opponent.
The Illusionist grinned as he watched them. He was happy. So happy! He almost started giggling right there. But he didn't. He didn't make a sound. He was in control of everything.
He had a pair of Steiner binoculars in his jacket pocket, but he didn't even need them. He was that close. He was that close to everything! Most of the cops just stood around like the complete and total imbeciles and half-wits that they were. Oh, he was loving this. He was loving every minute of it. They were heading over to the girl. He closed his eyes for a moment and remembered what it was like to be with her. Alone with her. Yes. Oh yes. She'd been the best one so far.
Then he opened his eyes and smiled. He could relive it all right now, as he watched them look over her body. He could relive it all, and they would never even know.
I followed Ralph through the maze of onlookers.
I hated to see this many people around a crime scene. The more people, the more likely evidence will be contaminated. "Brought out the cavalry, huh?" I said, nodding toward the crowd.
He shook his head. "Not my choice. Ever since we arrived it's been a jurisdictional nightmare. Bodies in four states so far."
We were near Asheville, North Carolina, a city of about 73,000 located at the nexus of two major highways that crisscross the southeast. Three states, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, are all an hour's drive away, with Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia just another hour or so further north. So far, bodies had been found in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. It'd taken a while for law enforcement to connect the dots and determine that the killer was probably working out of this area.
Ralph leaned close. "We're doing everything we can to work with these local guys, but just between you and me, they'd do better to fire half their butts and just let us do our job. Plus, somehow, the press found out." He gestured to a pack of reporters herded into a corner of the meadow. He looked at the deepening clouds for a moment. "At least we don't have their choppers flying all over the place."
The storm was rolling in fast. We needed to hurry.
I picked up my pace and tried to think of how I might save some time. "Okay, fill me in. What do we know?" I'd read the notes on the flight over but I wanted to hear it all again. Let it sink in. So I could look for patterns.
"Well, whoever our guy is, he knows how to leave a clean crime scene. We haven't found much of anything so far. He even washes the bodies, sutures the wounds. Our victim has six stab wounds, but she died from being strangled, just like the others. Um, I mean, at least that's the preliminary finding. We're still waiting for the medical examiner to confirm it."
I nodded. The killer had stabbed each of the women ritualistically in the chest and abdomen, but the mechanism of death in all of the murders so far had been cerebral hypoxia—which is just a fancy way of saying the brain didn't get enough oxygen. You squeeze the throat long enough, you choke the brain.
"Wasn't the first one done with the cord of a hair dryer?" asked Sheriff Wallace, who was puffing along beside us.
"Yeah," said Ralph. "The last three with clothesline rope."
"Why would he change his MO?" asked the sheriff.
"He came prepared the next time," Agent Jiang said softly. "He wasn't taking any chances. He brought his own rope."
"I assume you're tracing it?" said Wallace. "To see if it gives you any leads on a manufacturer?"
Ralph cleared his throat. "Already on that."
Sheriff Wallace waddled in closer, struggling to keep up. Special Agent Jiang strode beside us in silence, watching the sky.
"The rope's embedded a quarter of an inch into her neck," said Ralph. "He might have even used something mechanical to tighten it."
I felt my fists clench. After all these years, I should be used to hearing details like this, but it still disturbs me. It used to turn my stomach, now it fuels my anger. I guess in a way that's good. It helps me focus on catching these guys.
"That and we found another chess piece."
I thought back to the case files I'd read. At the first crime scene, the pawn had seemed like a great clue—the piece came from a hand-carved wooden set that the lab guys were able to trace to a woodworker in Oregon who made them out of redwood and shipped them all over the world. The analysts were even able to nail down the dates when the set was made, since the carpenter switched the kind of lathe he was using two years and two months ago. It leaves a different kind of cut on the chess pieces, so the chess set our killer was using was at least two years old. There was no way to know yet which of the eight or nine sets in question our killer had gotten a hold of, but the woodworking guy was being helpful. Right now, some agents were going through his records, checking up on everyone who'd bought one of his sets in the last five years.
"What piece was left this time?" I asked.
"Another pawn. Black. What do you make of that?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe nothing."
"What do you mean?" asked Sheriff Wallace. "It's huge. He's trying to tell us something."
I shook my head. "Maybe, maybe not. These days, lots of killers leave intentional clues at crime scenes to throw off the investigators—someone else's blood, hair, semen. Too many CSI episodes and serial killer movies. The smarter we get, the smarter they get. It might be there to throw us off. Or who knows, he might just like chess."
Killers often leave taunting clues or notes at crime scenes. The most common were words scrawled in blood. Sometimes, a handwritten letter would show up. Usually if the killers left anything it was bloody and messy. I'd seen just about everything.
But not this guy. He left a hand-carved, redwood chess piece at the scene of each of his crimes. The first three were white pawns. Now these last three had been black.
What is he trying to say? That this is all a game to him? That everything is black and white? Who's the pawn? Is he the pawn? Is the victim the pawn? Maybe the police. Maybe we're the pawns?
And a ribbon. He tied a yellow ribbon in the victim's hair.
I didn't want to read too much into any of it. The trick is to keep everything in mind as you look at the big picture. That's the secret to nabbing these guys. You assemble all the pieces first, before jumping to any conclusions. Hypothesize, test, revise. Never, ever assume.
We leaned under the police tape. The body lay at the base of a tree about twenty meters ahead of us.
"Did you get soil samples?" I asked Ralph.
"Yeah. Six different ones from around the scene. Just like you taught me."
By then, the wind had picked up and the clouds we'd seen on the horizon were boiling over each other, racing toward us. This wasn't good. Our crime scene was going to be wiped out in a matter of minutes.
"Get shots of the hills," I yelled. "I want every angle—I want to see what he saw. And string up a tarp over her body. Don't let her get wet. And the crowd too. I want pictures of everyone here. Video if we have it. Someone get this body covered!"
"Sir, we already checked over the body," someone said.
"I know you have," I said, trying my hardest to remain respectful. "But I haven't." I pulled on the latex gloves I always keep in my jeans pockets. Suddenly, I was glad there were so many people at the scene. We'd need them all to preserve evidence.
I looked around. This is what the killer was looking at. This is what he saw as he left her here. Why here? Why did you bring her here?
I scanned the horizon. Layers of dark mountains cascaded back toward the horizon. I figured that in the sunlight you could see twenty or thirty miles in any direction. Today you'd be lucky to see two. I tried to guess which entrance and exit routes he might have used. The nearby forest was thick, the terrain steep. Only a limited number of trails available.
There was no sign of vehicular traffic and no trail marks from a four-wheeler.
Did he know it was going to rain? Had he planned it just like this? That we would be rushing around here trying to collect evidence?
Mists were blowing in now, enshrouding the trees, covering the nearby peaks. Everything began to take on a ghostly, ethereal feel.
Did you carry her up here? Why carry her all the way up here?
Just then, the LongRanger pilot came running over. "Sir, this weather doesn't look good. I've gotta take off or I'm gonna get stuck up here."
"I'll give you a ride to town," Sheriff Wallace offered.
I shook my head. "All my stuff is in Atlanta. The conference finishes up tomorrow."
"Do you have to speak again?" asked Ralph.
"No, I'm done, but—"
"Well, I'll have your bags brought over," said Ralph. "Stay here for a few days. Give us a hand."
I hated being interrupted at a crime scene like this. "All right, whatever." I waved him away. I just wanted to see the girl. At that, the pilot nodded and left us alone.
By then a couple of agents had draped a blue tarp over a tree limb above her. They didn't look happy.
I stepped around them and looked at her.
She was nineteen or twenty. Caucasian. Blonde hair. She lay propped up with her back against a tree, posed, her hands still bound tightly behind her, probably with the same type of rope that was embedded into her neck. She still had her blue jeans and T-shirt on, which was consistent—there hadn't been a sexual angle to any of the previous murders. I was thankful for that much at least. The cotton of her gray T-shirt was stained dark from the stab wounds in her torso.
The killer had tied a length of yellow ribbon in her neatly brushed hair. She was barefoot, just like all the victims had been, and had a toe ring on the third toe of her left foot. Some soil clung to the indentations on the ring. Mud.
I inspected her ankles, gently pulling back the hem of her jeans. No ligature marks or bruises. Her feet hadn't been bound.
"Has she been moved?" I asked Ralph.
"No," he said.
So, this was how the killer had positioned her.
I gently tipped the body to the side. Touching her like this, moving her, felt like some kind of violation. I heard a voice in my head asking her to forgive me, to accept my touch as long as it would help me find the person who'd done this to her.
There was no dirt or debris on her back like there would have been if she'd been raped out here or dragged along the trail. I looked around. If he didn't drag her, did he carry her? All the way up here? Was this the primary crime scene after all? Did he meet her here, maybe?
Somewhere behind me the chopper roared to life, but its sound was quickly drowned out by the howling wind of the coming storm.
Daylight was dying around us. I pulled my Mini Maglite flashlight out of the sheath on my belt, flipped it on, and studied the girl's face. Her ocean-blue eyes were open, staring forward. Forever staring forward. No longer bright and alive, now cloudy and opaque. I leaned over and looked deeply into her sightless eyes. The eyes that had seen the man who killed her. Had watched him. There was an old wives' tale that the eyes of the dying record, like a photograph, the face of the killer. But there was no face captured on her eyes.
"She has contacts," I said, still staring at her.
I heard Sheriff Wallace shuffle in close behind me. "Huh?"
"Contacts. This girl wears contact lenses."
"The information Ralph sent me didn't mention contact lenses."
Agent Hawkins glared at the crime scene technicians. "I guess we didn't notice."
"Does it matter?" asked Wallace.
"Everything matters," I said. The wind flipped a wisp of the young woman's hair across her face. I pushed it back. "I worked one case where the killer put contacts into a girl's eyes after he killed her. He left fingerprints on the lenses. Everything matters."
I carefully removed her contact lenses and put them into an evidence bag. Then I examined her neck and cheeks and sighed softly. "He tortured her." I didn't realize I'd said the words aloud until Agent Jiang leaned over beside me. I caught the scent of her shampoo. Vanilla.
"How can you tell?"
I pointed. "See those tiny dots? Around her eyes there?"
"Those purplish reddish ones?" she asked.
"Some kind of hemorrhaging?"
"Petechial hemorrhaging—caused from asphyxiation. Usually, even in strangulation, the dots are small—sometimes only the size of a speck of dust, and only appear around the eyes or eyelids. She has them all across her face, even down here around her neck and shoulders. See?"
"What does that mean?"
"It means," said someone behind me, "he didn't just strangle her, he choked her into unconsciousness and then revived her again. Over and over. It must have gone on for a while."
I glanced over my shoulder.
A strikingly handsome man in his late twenties knelt beside me. "Special Agent Brent Tucker," he said. "Forensics." Dark hair, neat, trim. He looked serious about his work and moved with the confidence of someone who's used to getting things right the first time.
"Yeah," I said to Agent Jiang. "That's what it means."
"You're Dr. Bowers, aren't you?" Agent Tucker asked.
"It's an honor to meet you."
A chess piece lay in the palm of the girl's right hand. A black pawn.
"What do you estimate for her time of death?" I asked Tucker.
He glanced at his notepad. "Hmm…; They took her temp sixty minutes ago…; she's clothed"—he was thinking aloud—"it's cool and windy on this mountain, and she wasn't in direct sunlight…; I'd say sometime this morning. Maybe between eight and ten."
Sheriff Dante Wallace shook his head. "I can't believe our guy carried her to the top of this mountain. How do you know he didn't do her up here?"
Ralph deferred to me, and I pointed to the girl. "There's no sign of a struggle," I said. "The ground isn't disturbed. And look at her hair. It's clean and neatly combed. No leaves. No dirt. She was probably killed indoors." Probably, I thought. But this guy might be toying with us. I'm not sure about anything yet.
I turned to Ralph. "You said some hikers found her?"
"A couple locals, yeah," he said, "just before I called you. We took them in for questioning. So far they look pretty clean."
"Do we know her name yet?"
Ralph shook his head. "No ID. But there was a girl from Black Mountain reported missing yesterday named Mindy Travelca. We think it might be her. We're checking."
"He wanted her found," I said.
"Then why did he bring her all the way out here?" Agent Tucker asked.
That's what I'm here to find out, I thought. But I didn't say it. I didn't say anything. I just knelt there and stared at the unblinking eyes of a girl who should have been making out with her boyfriend or studying for her college exams or eating a pizza with her roommate or chatting with her friends online instead of lying dead on top of this mountain.
Someone's daughter. Someone lost his daughter today.
Just like me, I thought, even though Tessa was alive and well and wasn't exactly my daughter at all. Someone just like me.
I reached down and gently closed the eyes of the girl who might have been named Mindy just as the first raindrops began to fall, like tears from the eyes of God, splattering on the tarp above me.