tagNon-EroticThe Sentinel Ch. 03

The Sentinel Ch. 03

byJPMMURPHY©

The only flight to Miami had been shortly after midnight so Jack had checked to see what airport hotel offered in-room internet ports before checking into the Marriott. Pulling his duffle bag up onto the bed, Jack pulled out his shaving kit for a quick shower before connecting Lisa's laptop, leaving it open on the room desk. Calling reception, he obtained the information he needed to log on. Calling room service, he ordered a salad and something to drink; then he settled in for a couple of hours of computer sleuthing.

Going to the hotmail icon first, he clicked to see what would happen. The buddy list box opened, and he waited as it tried to log in. A small message came up to tell him it was 'Attempting to sign in'. At last, the white box returned to the 'Sign me in' message, and a grey error box appeared in the middle of his screen, informing him that his account was no longer active and instructing him to go to the hotmail site to reactivate.

He wasn't surprised; it had been over two years since the account was last used. Logging into the browser, he found the site and a small blue link labeled, 'Trouble signing in?' Following the link, he was taken to a page that immediately recognized Lisa's .Net passport and prompted him to answer her 'secret question'. The question, cryptic at best, could be his stumbling block. 'I am?' was all it asked. Jack looked at it and wondered. You are, well, were... what? A girl? A human? A lawyer? Purple, green, blue or maybe blond? An earthling? Damn, this would take a minute. Hitting minimize, he went to the next chat icon and opened Yahoo. Unfortunately, it stopped and prompted for user name and password. He knew the user name but failed miserably with the password and after three attempts, was locked out for an hour - no further attempts allowed. Damn.

Going to her 'Start' menu, he looked at her list of most recently used programs to see what he could find. Maybe, there was another chat program he didn't know about. Word was first, MSN second, Excel fourth, control panel next, followed by Photo Shop. Lisa only reserved six places for frequently used programs, and it looked like Jack was batting zero.

Switching to 'Most Recent Documents', Jack saw a long list, mostly on Word or Excel, that Lisa had worked on shortly before her death. There were a few photos he'd sent of their last trip together, but there, among the photos he recognized, was another he didn't. It was linked to Photo Shop with nothing but a series of numbers as a name. Clicking the document, a small hour glass came up as Photo Shop loaded, and suddenly, Jack was looking at a request for a password. Damn, now what? The name of the photo was 64811.jpg, and she had password-protected it. Hitting minimize again, he went back to 'Recent Documents' and clicked on one he had sent to her. It opened nicely, and there was Lisa in a small white bikini bottom, smiling at the camera as a wave washed up around her ankles. She was topless and proud of it, or at least, not worried enough about someone seeing it to password protect it; Jack closed the picture and went back to the other. After a few attempts at phone numbers failed, Jack sat a minute thinking. She was hiding it from me, or it would be a guessable password. But we had no secrets; why hide it from me? Then it struck him. They had one secret, and that was Jan.

With that, his meal arrived, and he sat quietly beside the laptop as he ate and contemplated what to do next.

Going back to Outlook, Jack pulled up the mail to the florist again and checked. Yes, there was a phone number in case of delivery problems. Going back to the picture, he typed in the same number. His reward was the sound of the hard drive as the picture loaded. And there she was - Jan - lying nude on her back in the sand on a beach, head propped on a pillow, sunglasses pushed up on her forehead, lips parted with a cross between a sheepish grin and seductive smile. At least, Jack guessed it was Jan. And Lisa had been right. She was beautiful - olive skin, black naturally curly hair, firm breasts, beautiful hips, and a neatly trimmed pubic patch. The picture was from below the knees to above the head, showing a beach bag and a matching straw hat off one ear. A beer, Corona, by her hip spoke of Mexico, but that could just as well be Miami or any of several other countries where Corona is exported and sold on a regular basis.

Hitting the save button, Jack left the picture on the desktop for quick printing. Pulling up the photo of Lisa on the beach, Jack decided to do the same with it. Going back to Outlook, Jack did a search on the number 64811 which rendered nothing.

How had the picture arrived? Downloaded during a chat probably. Selecting 'Search' from the 'Start' menu, Jack went to 'Document Search' and selected 'Detailed Search'; then checked 'Word or phrase in any part of the document'. Entering "64811" and telling the program to look on all hard drives, Jack hit 'Start Search' and waited.

Watching the progress bar, Jack was afraid there would be no results, but suddenly, two documents appeared in the window to the right of the 'search' menu - one titled "Got it.txt" and the other "Here's one for you.txt"

Clicking the first, "Got it.txt", Jack watched the notebook open with lines of text in alternating colors down the page. Scrolling a little, he discovered it was a fairly short chat that Lisa had saved. He stopped chewing his last bite of salad when he noticed the names. Jan and Lisa had chatted, or at least, Jan was the name used as a screen name, and from the disclaimer at the beginning of the message, it appeared to be in MSN. Scanning through it, Jack found the video request and knew they had been watching each other. It was interesting to note that Jan had requested, and Lisa had accepted. About midway through the chat, Jack saw where Jan had requested permission to download a document to Lisa, and once again, Lisa had accepted.

Looking at the bedside clock radio, Jack saw he only had two hours before he needed to be at the gate. Having checked into his next flight before leaving the terminal, he had saved some time and could arrive at almost the last minute.

Instead of taking the time to read the chat, Jack also saved it to the desktop for printing before checking out.

Clicking on the next document, Jack found it to be a much longer chat which appeared to be MSN again. This time the cam request came from Lisa and was accepted by 'Home alone Jan' - a telling name change, Jack thought. There was a file transfer request at the end, initiated by Lisa and accepted by Jan. Checking the document name, Jack saw Lisa had sent her own beach picture. Just before the file transfer request, there was a brief reference to Jan's pic, 64811, which explained why the document came up on the search. Skimming through the document, it became apparent they had made love, but checking his watch again for the time, Jack realized he needed to leave and saved the document to the desktop along with the other three.

Closing all the programs and windows he had opened, Jack shut the computer down and headed for the shower before catching a shuttle back to airport terminal. It was a lot to handle in one day, but some of the pieces made sense. He still didn't know who Jan was, but he did know that Lisa had been attracted to her to the point of engaging in a little cybersex, and that she had also trusted Jan enough to invite her to her home and into her bed with the idea of giving Jack a special gift. All this seemed to have taken place in the two months prior to her death. Thinking back, Jack recalled two trips he had taken that were both longer than a week with several hit and miss chats with Lisa during that time. Yes, Lisa had had a little extra time on her hands and may have felt lonely.

Stepping out of the shower to dry, Jack felt odd but better. He finally had some information to work on. Dressed and ready to go, Jack stopped by the 'Business Center' and printed his documents before paying his room bill and heading out. His resolve had become stronger, and yes, he was sure he was getting closer but was starting to wonder at what cost.

*****

"I don't care if you've finally discovered who shot John Kennedy; if you don't bring me some results by the end of the year, I am shutting you down, Woo." Captain Aldridge could be such a jerk sometimes. Turning on her heel, Sgt. Woo strode out of the Captain's office and back to her desk amid a chorus of murmured follow-ups to Aldridge's ass-chewing.

"What's the matter, Woo, gonna have to start working again?"

"Gee, Woo, you think it would help if we went in and told him how much you mean to the team?"

"C'mon, Woo, maybe you can do a show for us later," followed by sophomoric laughter and a loud congratulations for the winner that had come up with that one. Woo thought she'd like to congratulate him with a Browning 9 mm slug between the eyes.

Sitting at her desk, she wondered if maybe she didn't really deserve the ass-chewing to some degree. It had been more than two years since the first murder and three months since the last, and aside from a database full of unreadable names and addresses that she had linked to dates and times plus some really well-organized work notes, she had nothing but conjecture, and even that was pretty thin. But she could see it, the pattern; she knew she could break this, and these idiots were just that - a bunch of idiots.

Picking up the phone, Linda Woo called down to Systems and asked for Tom, a good lunch buddy and 'Head Nerd' for the government's Internet Crimes Bureau - a new organization created a few years back to try and help out local crime fighting officials with any crime involving use of the internet. Its focus, so far, had been child pornography, fraud, and information theft. Execution of a violent crime, especially one involving murder, was a first for the department, and a whole string of them was unheard of. When you got right down to it, Linda knew she was heading up the biggest serial killer hunt currently active in the U.S.

"Tom, hi. How ya doin', babe?" Tom knew better than to fall for the 'isn't life great' act. Linda sounded like shit; the captain must have fallen on her hard. But the banter was part of their relationship, and Tom returned in kind. "Hey, sweetie, I am nothing but F. I. N. E.," spelling out the word 'fine' for emphasis. "Hell, if I was any finer, I would be lunch today instead of asking you to lunch," with an emphasis on 'be'.

"Okay, Tom, meet you in reception in five." Hanging up the phone, Linda had to smile; she could always count on Tom. As a Cal Tech's Computer Science number two graduate with a second PHD in Mathematics and a special consultant to the top three software manufacturers in the world, Tom was probably the most intelligent person in the building with an IQ that made Mensa look like a 4-H club. At the same time, he shunned convention, had no idea what a dress code was, and would tell the director of the ICB to 'shove it where the sun don't shine' and smile doing it. Linda knew; she'd seen him do it once.

She had been feeding Tom raw data with no particular order to it and was waiting for him to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Tom had been the only one who had bought into her crazy theory, and, after today's meeting with the captain, may be the only one that could save her ass.

Having come from the FBI, she was the only ICB member with training in crime scene forensics as well as a Computer Science degree and experience in the Sex Crimes division of ICB where she had hunted down child pornographers. Linda was the first and only candidate to head up the investigation when the second 'OSK' had taken place. The first 'on- screen killing' had dropped below the radar screen when local authorities had decided it was a grudge killing targeted at the unhappy survivor, a one Jack Pond, East Coast billionaire and prep school grad. Everyone was sure that anyone with that much money was bound to have enemies and that Mr. Pond had let one of those enemies get out of hand.

But then, the second murder had been the same M.O. Although committed against a gay couple - one, a struggling artist that was out of town at an art show, and the other, unemployed and looking for a job - a check through NCIC, the National Crime Information Computer, in Washington D.C. had turned up Lisa's murder. From there, it had been downhill as subsequent murders fit the M.O. exactly. The only variances had been the gender and social standing of the victims which was the opposite pattern of most serial murders; the perpetrator usually looked for victims who represented 'something' to their twisted minds. That generally meant the victims looked similar, dressed similar, and had similar buying habits, educational backgrounds, and life styles. Essentially, the serial killer was killing the same person over and over, trying to work out some twisted logic that said the elimination of that 'type' of person would make it all right again - make the demons go away and make 'Johnny' feel right again.

The interesting thing about this case was that the only common factor was the use of video chat to keep in touch with someone on a regular basis. There were no apparent similarities or gender preferences. Some were working professionals, and some were looking for jobs. It just didn't fit the mold for the normal 'serial killer' profile so Linda had taken a different approach. Due to distances involved between crime scenes and the relative short time frame between crimes, she had discarded the idea of actually looking for the killer on the streets because forensics, at all the murder scenes, had found nothing. She based her investigation on information she gathered concerning chat patterns: who was logged into what chat, for how long, and when, as well as how often, and who they might be chatting with during their log on time. It was truly like looking for a pattern in a bedspread that covered more than 150 million people in the U.S. alone.

All of this would have been a relatively simple task in the bigger scheme of things if the civil liberties people hadn't started crying 'foul play' and 'invasion of privacy' when Linda bounced her idea off the higher echelon for approval. It was simple actually. Take a room and fill it with computers and mega-sized hard drives. Link them all into one point on the internet and require any chat service, operating within the U.S., to provide a database of every person that logged onto their system in the last 24 hours with name of user, date and time of log on, and date and time of log off. Add to this who they chatted with (if not in a public room), and you had it made. Dump all this information into the agency super computer and have it look for contact patterns with the victims prior to the crime, and you would find who had gained enough confidence through chat to get into the victims' houses without a pried or jimmied door, broken piece of glass, or a single phone call to the police,.

Once you had the chat names or mail addresses - the short list of suspects, so to speak - you put computerized text sniffers on their internet port connections and started monitoring their traffic - some live monitoring, but most of it 'key word' monitoring, using a computer to sift through the conversations and flag them if a word or phrase of interest were used. But with a Supreme Court hearing pending on indiscriminate monitoring of any type, for any individual, regardless if you didn't know who that individual was, the electronic monitoring had been shelved for the moment.

Undeterred, Linda had commandeered a small three-story building across the street from the ICB building and combed the public chat rooms to find a staff of sixty 'chatters' to work three shifts of twenty. They were to skulk around the public chat rooms, taking notes, making contact, chatting up the people, and trying to 'stay on top' of as much chat traffic as possible. Each 'chatter' manned four computers and had a fifth for inputting data that was linked to a queue in Tom's department where he would organize the information and send it on to the super computer for analysis - ordered chaos at best and a very loose pattern of coverage. Tom had calculated Linda's chances at 26,341,322 to 1 for catching her killer but had put her odds at 2,256 to 1 for finding the pattern. Even identifying the chatter didn't guarantee success since cybertracks were fairly easy to cover up. Considering the odds, it was a surprise when the ICB director signed off on Linda's plan, giving her the go-ahead and the budget to back it up.

"Where you off to, Woo? To hold hands with your SFP's?" John Liter was not someone Linda wanted to see right now. An ICB recruit from NYPD, John was older and more experienced at 'old school' investigation techniques as well as being the department's model racist-macho asshole. His designation of Linda's 'Chatters' as SFP's referred to 'sticky- fingered perverts', the name the rest of ICB called them behind their back. The feeling that Linda's funding could be spent on more important investigations and crimes than supporting a bunch of 'perverts' sitting around computers watching 'Mabel' take a shower, or 'Fred', while he chatting with Mabel, 'choke his chicken' and 'shoot a big one' had contributed to a fair share of animosity in the office.

"Off to lunch, John. Going to get some carryout and go back to catch the show. I hear a couple of gay black guys are doing a good 'show' at noon, and I don't want to miss it. Care to join me?"

"Sick. You're all a bunch of friggin' perverts, Woo. And you know what?" John leaned closer before he continued, his face a little too contorted for comfort, "I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't have the perp working for you." With that, John turned on his heel and walked off, leaving Linda wondering what she could do to stop it - to make it all go away. How she could get her life back and move on without loosing face? She was starting to think John was right - not that she had the perpetrator working for her - but her department had spent more than $5 million dollars and for what?

Finding Tom in reception, they headed off for a deli around the corner to get a bite and talk over latest developments. Tom was always a soft place to land, and Linda felt relaxed and more confident as soon as they sat down. Being black, Tom knew all too well what racism was about and had made it very clear to John and a few others in the department that he wasn't going to take that shit. The fact that Tom was happily married to a redhead of Irish descent just rubbed the salt into the wound for John. The fact that Tom's wife was a bank executive for one of the bigger banks in the country had made it worse.

"What's up, Slick?" Tom always called Linda 'Slick' and somehow managed to make it sound like an endearment.

"Same old shit, Tom. The Captain wants to shut me down, and John wants to throw gasoline on the bonfire while all my 'perverts' cry out for mercy."

"Hey, not to worry, good ol' Uncle Tom is going to save the day." She had to smile; he loved to keep the racial references just below the surface. "I have a shorter short list for you, Slick. Let's say they're handpicked. The computer had kicked them out with the other five thousand or so names on the short list, but I did a little more work on it this morning, adding a few special flags of my own, and this is what I got back."

Handing her eleven sheets of paper, Tom enjoyed the reaction. Her eyes wide and mouth open in an exclamation, Tom interrupted to continue. "There are 537 names and chat addresses on there. If you check your computer, you'll be able to pull them up and get the skinny on them: chat patterns, topics, and a photo of some of them that we were able to get off their chat cams. The extra criteria were the trick. While a lot of people may have two or even three chat names, these people have all been identified with more than 10 each. One actually has 23. Those are the names we've been able to identify using information available to the public, meaning - in chat or through other identifiers available on the internet. At the same time, we have to recognize that this is only scratching the surface. Our killer may be too smart and may not have even been detected yet. And none of the names within a group are ever on-line at the same time. If we're lucky, our killer has made a mistake and uses only one identification at any given time."

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