It was exactly four months ago when Travis Tucker, a novel writer, was found dead in a forest about a mile away from his mansion. His suit-clad body was found on a wooden chair, kept upright by fastening his hands behind his back, with blood trickling down his neck. A book was found on his lap which turned out to be his own work. The case wouldn’t have caused the kerfuffle it did had it been handled in a contained manner. When the details of the case went public, owing to Travis’s huge fan following, it sent shock waves across the town. His ardent fans were quick to make the connection between Travis’s death and that of one of the characters in his first novel from the Detective Henry Wilkins series. In the novel, there was a picture of a character named Gregory McGill in a chair in the woods with his hands fastened behind his back with a novel on his lap. The novel was, in fact, Travis’s next book in the series. The police were having a hard time trying to find what the killer was trying to insinuate by replicating a scene from Travis’s novel. Two months later, they got their answer.
The murder of Travis Tucker remained unsolved. With no witnesses to interrogate and no evidence to rely on, all the police could do was form theories and revisit the crime scene over and over. However, two months after Travis’ murder, the town awoke to the news of another one. The body of a young man named Shawn Bennett was found partially submerged in a lake abutting the woods in which Travis Tucker was found murdered. Shawn, too, had his throat slit and was found with a book placed near his head; just the way it was depicted in the second book from the series found in Travis’ lap. The book in Shawn’s hand was the third book in the series which, the police had deduced, indubitably contained the details about the manner in which the killer’s third victim was to die. The police, nevertheless, weren’t the only ones to make that deduction which was really a child’s play. Everybody in the town had now assumed the role of a sleuth. Another consequence of these murders was that the demand for Travis Tucker’s book series saw an exponential rise, with people trying to gather information to solve the case on their own. The police had made no mention of a reward for catching the culprit, but, for the common man, the satisfaction of having solved a crime as intriguing as this one was in itself a reward. In the third book from the series, which was found near Shawn Bennett’s head, there was a picture of a character who was pinned to a tree, with a sharp, foot-long branch coming out of his chest. A book was taped to the victim’s hand which was the fourth book in the series. Having the knowledge about the way in which the next victim was to die did little to help solve the case. Had Dudley Ramos, the infamous serial killer, not been in prison while the murders were taking place, all fingers would’ve definitely pointed at him . As to who the next victim would be, the police and everyone actively following the case hadn’t the foggiest.
The first victim, Travis Tucker, was a popular man and there wasn’t much the police could find that they didn’t already know. He had started his writing career with three novels, all from the humor genre. The public had rejected all three of them with the last one managing to sell a meagre twelve hundred copies. It is at this juncture that Travis had decided to switch to a different genre. Having settled on writing murder mysteries under the pseudonym Mark Howard, he began a new chapter in his life. His first book in the mystery genre titled ‘The Killer’s Call’ was a smashing hit with thousands of copies getting sold per day. Fame and wealth became his constant companions. The mansion in which he was living before being tragically murdered, had cost him a staggering eight million dollars, but he had paid for it without breaking a sweat. Travis was not known to have any enemies, owing to his charismatic and affable nature. The only motive behind killing Travis could’ve been his money but all his wealth after his death went to a charity as per his will. The second victim, Shawn Bennett, was the archetype of a simple man. Shawn and Travis had as much in common as a grasshopper and a tiger do. While Travis was oblivious to poverty and the struggles that came with it, Shawn had yet to know about the comforts being wealthy permitted one to relish. Shawn worked in a convenience store and lived from paycheck to paycheck. It was also found from his employer at the store that not only had Shawn no clue about who Travis was, save for the fact that he was a murder victim, but also he was a sworn bibliophobe. Every possible effort was made to establish a connection between the two victims. Unfortunately, despite the combined efforts of the police and some of the very astute residents of the town, Shawn’s murderer could not be brought to justice . The police sought solace in trying to thwart the murder of another innocent person who was to die in the woods pinned to a tree. Against all odds, another person fell prey to the serial killer who was playing a gruesome game with the lives of the innocent.
The third murder took place two months after the second one. Charlie Armstrong was found pinned to a maple tree not far from the spot where Travis’ body was found. The fourth book in the series, The Missing Map, as mentioned in the previous book in the series, was taped to his right hand. The killer had slit Charlie’s throat and only a portion of his blood-soaked neck was visible, making it look like he was wearing an ascot. The fourth book, just like the previous three novels of Travis Tucker, contained a picture at the back. A lanky, immaculately dressed man was covered from the waist down in dried leaves and a book was placed on his chest, like an offering. It was the fifth and the final book in the series, titled ‘And So It Begins’.
The police department was baffled and rightly so as yet again it seemed like the victim was chosen randomly and that it is the work of a serial killer who kills just for the sadistic pleasure he gets from killing people. Frustration and anger mounted in the police department and the people had begun pointing fingers at the incapability of athe government at handling the case. Reinforcements were called in from neighbouring towns with the hope that a fresh perspective might help uncover some previously missed vital piece of information. Hundreds of people were interviewed and a significant number of households were raided. People were accosted for gratuitously wandering near the woods. With no conclusive evidence to depend on and no trails to follow, every person was a suspect in the eyes of the law. Everybody linked with Travis Tucker’s books, right from his publisher, editors, proofreaders, cover designers, and illustrators, to the people working at every library in the town. It was nearly impossible to interview everyone who had purchased Travis’s books as that number was colossal and grew day by day. Nevertheless, taking into account all the details of the crime, a criteria was formed and used to narrow down the list of suspects. Further sale of the Detective Henry Wilkins book series was suspended. The town was well and truly awake. With the victims being seemingly chosen randomly by the serial killer, everybody was on the lookout for suspicious people. This led to a lot of false positives as people reported every suspicious activity they witnessed, even one as innocuous as a man taking out his trash. Despite the growing frustration, the police remained vigilant and vowed not to stop until the killer was found. The town was bracing for a fourth murder. The serial killer had different plans.
There was a gap of exactly two months between each of the previous murders and, hence, the fourth murder was expected to take place in about two months from the last murder. The police, however, were not taking any chances and were on high alert since the day Charlie Armstrong was murdered.
A month passed and there was no activity in the town. Those in the town who could work from home were asked to do so. The killer didn’t seem to be interested in killing children taking his past victims into account but, due to pressure from the parents, the government had ordered all schools to remain shut at least for two months. The area around the woods was under heavy scrutiny and was made off limits for the public. Police officers and federal agents were lying in wait for the serial killer.
Two months passed and there was no sign of the killer. The bright side of it was that nobody was murdered. When there was no fourth victim, people heaved superficial sighs of relief but, truth be told, they were disappointed as they were deprived of the rush of something remarkable happening in their otherwise sleepy town. To their surprise, even the third month went by with no further developments in the case. Then, it happened.
Every news channel, every newspaper- in fact, every conceivable news medium- carried just one story: Dudley Ramos Escapes Prison.
When Alvin Banks had first met Dudley Ramos in prison, seeking his apprenticeship in the art of being a serial killer, Dudley had laughed in his face and sent him packing to where he came from. Alvin was unperturbed by Dudley’s lack of belief in him. He relentlessly studied Dudley’s case files which, if stacked one on top of the other, could easily measure eight feet. He had segregated the case files according to the device which Dudley had used to carry out each crime. There were four such devices: Stealth, Surprise, Force, and lastly, Subterfuge. Of all the four devices, Alvin had found Subterfuge to be the most interesting and challenging one. Naturally, he had spent a significant amount of his time practicing it to perfection. Three years after his first meeting with Dudley, he went back to meet him in the prison. He narrated all about his training and the time he had spent perfecting all of Dudley’s devices, particularly the Subterfuge. Dudley was impressed with Alvin’s stubbornness and decided to give him a chance to prove himself.
Dudley told Alvin that he had a plan to escape prison but it would take six months for him to do so, give or take. Dudley was planning to dig a tunnel through the prison cell he was kept in. Since he was going to do it all by himself, with no one else willing to be a part of his plan, Dudley was going to need a lot of time to bring his plan to fruition; more than six months as per his calculations. It was going to be an unimaginably difficult task with the police officers being focused entirely on him. That’s why he needed Alvin to create a subterfuge for him. Alvin had gladly accepted the offer and masterfully contrived a ruse to keep not just the officers, but the entire town hooked to a sensational crime.
It had taken Dudley a month longer than he expected to free himself from the clutches of the law but hearing about his newly appointed apprentice’s work had been nothing short of a delight for him. Meeting Alvin outside the prison for the first time, Dudley reiterated what he had said at one of his court hearings.
“The appreciation of the works of a true master is destined to happen at the hands of-”
“Another master,” Alvin finished for him.