tagNovels and NovellasThe Sentinel Ch. 08

The Sentinel Ch. 08

byJPMMURPHY©

It had been an uneventful flight; Jan had slept against Jack's shoulder most the way. After gathering their bags, Jan had wondered what Jack was doing when he'd stepped out onto the curb, pulled out a keychain, and pressed a button on what looked like an oversized car alarm beeper. There had been little talk on the plane as she'd finally succumbed to sleep, but now he was talking about where he lived and fussing over a refrigerator that might or might not be empty. After about 10 minutes, she noticed him watching a van as it pulled to the curb, and she suddenly realized, it had arrived for them. Just as quickly, she realized there was no driver.

With the press of a button, the side door opened and the passenger door unlocked, Holding it open, Jack invited her to slide in. There was a small hesitation as she scanned the driver side and confirmed there was, in fact, no driver as the van sat there idling - lights on, blinkers flashing, heater working and warming nicely with music coming from the stereo.

Jack closed her door and put their bags in the side door before it closed with a solid click by itself. Walking around, he slid into the driver's seat and was met by a face of amazement as Jan watched him push a few buttons, take the controls and drive off. Making his way out of the airport, he explained some of the special 'features' of the van. Then pointing to a sticker on the windshield, he further explained that it was an annual pass to all city and county parking places, and it contained a barcode that was readable by many public lots or parking lot attendants, when needed, allowing the van to enter and exit parking garages without the assistance of a driver.

"We need to find a store open. I have to buy something."

"Kind of late, don't you think, Jack; it's almost two in the morning. What do you need that's so important?"

Just then, he saw one of the large retail chain stores with their lights on and a smattering of cars close to the entrance, and he eased off the freeway into the parking lot. "Probably take me 15 minutes if they have what I need. You want to come along?"

"Sure."

Jan followed Jack in and watched him search out the manager to ask about something. A minute later, they were standing in a section dedicated to the handicapped, and Jack had picked out a normal-looking, green, vinyl-covered wheelchair. Having paid in cash, they headed back to the van, and Jan watched as Jack opened the side door and pushed another button, causing a lift to come down. Sitting in the wheelchair, he wheeled onto the lift and pushed another button; this time, the driver's seat folded away, allowing him to move in behind the steering wheel.

The simple act of sitting in the wheelchair had transformed Jack. Jan noticed his legs rested relaxed with no movement at all as he moved around, preparing to drive from the perspective of a paraplegic. Was this really the same man that had held her in his arms, opening her legs with his, as they made love in her bedroom the previous evening?

His voice brought her back. "There's not much traffic; let's see what this thing will do." With that, he touched a computer screen which was set into the dash and worked his way through the menu until he pushed a bright, yellow square labeled 'Take me home'. Immediately, the van slipped into gear, released the brake, and headed out the parking lot with no assistance from its driver. Jack seemed vigilant but not worried as the steering wheel moved by itself. As they pulled up to a stoplight, the van stopped, obediently, and the left turn signal began blinking, indicating they would be making a left turn as soon as the light changed.

It took about 10 minutes plus the sound of Jack's voice before Jan could relax completely in the van. But finally, she stopped watching the steering wheel and road in front and quit wondering when they would swerve into a guardrail or the back of a semi.

After about 45 minutes, they came to a road that left the main state highway, and they turned off to the right. Stone pillars stood on each side, and a black iron gate swung open as the van neared.

As they traveled down a winding, two lane road with no markings, Jack pointed out small white reflectors in the grass that guided the van and allowed it to continue to use its steering system. A building - well-lit but not excessively, plainly built but substantial - loomed ahead as the van drove around a circular drive and stopped at a swing gate entrance to an underground garage. Jack hit an icon on the screen, and the van sat there, without moving, while Jack lowered the window.

"Hi, Mr. Pond, we heard you'd be back sometime this morning." A security guard walked over from his booth and smiled at Jan as Jack asked how things were. After a brief exchange of pleasantries with the support crew but no mention of his guest, they were off.

Pushing another button, they moved into a well-lit, underground parking garage where the van pulled up to the curb of an off-loading area and opened the side door again.

"Jan, the building is full of security cameras until we're inside my apartment; so for the moment, I would ask that you help me with the bags and smile for the cameras." Leaning over, Jack kissed her on the cheek before maneuvering his wheelchair back onto the lift platform to be lowered to the concrete. Jan grabbed the bags and followed Jack to the elevator as the van closed its doors and drove off.

Arriving at the penthouse, the elevator doors opened, and Jack withdrew his key. Rolling out into a small foyer, he turned to Jan, and she followed his glance up to the right, noticing the camera. "Smile," Jack said. "It will make them wonder what we did on the ride up, even though they already have a tape of us."

Glancing around, Jan could see that the view out the windows beside the elevator was breathtaking with the skyline of Manhattan on one side and lush forest giving way to water on the other. Opening the door to his apartment, Jack rolled aside to invite her in, and then rolled around again to shut the door, locking it before standing. "There, now I can walk again."

"They can't see us now?" Jan asked as she glanced around.

"Not unless someone installed new equipment while I was out."

The release was clearly visible as she exhaled and moved to the couch to set her purse down. Walking over, Jack embraced her tenderly and kissed her once more before whispering, "I'm glad you came."

Neither one of them had noticed the black antenna farm on wheels as it had pulled to the side of the road about 100 yards from the turnoff, just as they had turned into Jack's lane.

*****

Jack awoke to the ringing of the telephone. Glancing around the room in the early morning light, he looked at the clock and saw that it was 7:30 in the morning. He could feel the disorientation of traveling without enough sleep as he answered the phone and said, "Hello." He was back in his fortress. The fireplace was cold, and he suddenly wondered if it had all been a dream - if maybe Jan existed only in his mind.

"Jack, pinché pandejo, how was your trip?" Juan's voice boomed over the phone, and Jack felt reassured that he must have gone somewhere after all.

"Good, Juan." The smell of bacon, frying, also hinted that maybe it wasn't a dream. Looking around, he found clothes strewn on the floor and saw Jan's bag open by the bathroom door. "It was good, Juan, great actually. What's up?"

"Good to have you back, Jack. I wanted to know if we could get together later in the morning. Sorry for the early call, but I'm off to meet with our friends and see what I can negotiate."

"Sure, Juan. What time do you finish up with your meeting?"

"Around 11. How about lunch?"

"Sounds like a plan. Come on over; I seem to have food in the fridge so maybe I can whip you up a pizza or something." There was a small chuckle as Jack waited for Juan's response to such an insult.

"Pinché cabrón. If you look in that fridge of yours, you'll find some very fine Mexican cuts. Among them is arrachera I had brought in from Monterrey just for us. You think you can still cook or should I send a Mexican pinché over?"

"Sure. Hope there's enough for three though. Catch you later." With that, Jack hung up and left Juan to figure it out on his own.

He found Jan in the kitchen, wearing a white t-shirt and little else, as she tended eggs frying in a pan; he walked over and circled her waist with his arm before leaning in to kiss the back of her neck. Her response was relaxed as she leaned back into his body, balancing an egg on her spatula to move it to a plate.

"About time you crawled out of bed. You must have had at least four hours sleep."

"I wanted to be sure room service had breakfast ready first," Jack responded in a playful voice.

"At your service," Jan replied as she unwound from his arm and carried two plates to the dining nook off the kitchen.

"Let's talk game plan. What do you need to do as far as your office is concerned?" Jack asked as he started eating.

"A phone call and check my mail. Since this coming Thursday is Thanksgiving, the office will be quiet until Friday when the workload should more than triple as Christmas shopping starts. But I'm all set; I should be fine until Monday of next week. What are your plans?"

Jack, having lived an almost solitary existence for the last couple of years, was caught off guard by the announcement of Thanksgiving only days away.

"Well, I have a meeting with Juan at noon, lunch here, and I'd like you to meet him. I probably need to get involved in a business deal he's working on, and then we can sit down and try to work out what to do next about Lisa's killer."

Taking a sip of coffee, Jan made a suggestion to Jack. "I haven't been to New York in quite awhile. How about I go into town, do some shopping, and then meet you and Juan back here for lunch?"

Torn by a desire to keep her safe and at the same time recognizing that she was an adult, his response was slow in coming but firm. "Okay, how about I have a car come over and pick you up? That way, I can be sure you'll be back in time for lunch."

"Okay, Jack. Thanks."

They washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen together; then Jan headed off to shower and get ready while Jack called Michelle to have a car sent over and to see what was new at the office. The current buzz around the office concerned Juan's meeting today. It all looked good, and Michelle wanted to know, "Is it really true you'll be back in your office on the 2nd, Mr. Pond?"

"Yes, Michelle. That's the plan."

Jack left Michelle giggling as he hung up and headed for his computer room. Stepping through the second door, he was struck by a feeling of change. The monitors were dark and cold with no ventilation fans running. Being met with a chilling silence, he finally abandoned his post at the sliding glass door, leaving it open slightly as if a quick retreat might be needed, and walked around turning things on. It was as if his foray into the real world had dampened his resolve which only brought him guilt.

Moving from machine to machine, he wondered what his life would be like today if Lisa were alive and felt a little guilty as he wondered if Jan would be a part of it as well. Startled by the sound of the door sliding in its track, he turned to find Jan silhouetted in the morning light as she stood taking in the room and possibly considering what it could mean.

"Jan, come in. Welcome to my world," Jack invited with a little more flourish than was called for.

"I looked for you around the apartment," Jan responded as she walked to his side. "I finally looked out on the balcony and saw the door open. I just..."

"It's okay, Jan. Welcome to the Jack Pond war room where I've spent more than a year and a half looking for Lisa's killer." His voice was full of false bravado as he stood, inviting her to sit in his wheelchair.

Refusing, Jan walked slowly from computer monitor to computer monitor, tentatively touching each one, as her eyes noted the keyboards and other high tech paraphernalia that had kept Jack mired in the 'black hole' that was Lisa's death. Finally, she stopped to stand in front of him, her eyes searching as her hands rested gently on his hips.

"I'm sorry, Jack. When you explained it all to me, I just didn't get it. I just didn't understand how…" pausing, as she searched for the word, "…real and consuming it's all been for you." Giving him a light kiss on the lips, she stepped back to lean on a table and wait.

Jack was torn between an apologetic explanation and an outrage at her reference to 'real'. What did she expect it to be? Lisa is gone, and that's very real. He was - no is, he thought, as if reaffirming his conviction to find the killer, very serious about finding some measure of satisfaction in...and just as quickly, he thought...what? Satisfaction in what?

"Jack, the car will be here shortly." Taking his hand, she led him out into the chill of the balcony before leading him into the warmth of the apartment. "It's okay. I was wrong to put it that way; it just surprised me." Thinking it best not to discuss 'cyber' Lisa's morning mail, she offered a gentle hug and picked up her coat and purse.

"Jan, in a sense you're right. Maybe it did become a little too real for me, but it's still not over. I have to find whoever was behind her death."

"And I'll help, Jack; count on it."

The chime of the service phone let them know the car had arrived and at the same time, saved them from a conversation that might best be left for another time.

*****

Linda felt no remorse for her actions. The call, from the Captain, three mornings after storming out of his office didn't surprise her, but the topic did. Yes, she'd heard the news about John's wife, and no, she didn't want to come back into the office.

"Look, I quit. I told you that several times, and it hasn't changed. I didn't give you a memo because you practically had me thrown out of the building, but I can take care of that today."

The captain was patient and responded gently but with a posture that left no doubt. "I do not and will not accept your resignation until the first of the year; at which time we will sit down and discuss your situation. I just thought with the most recent killing you might want to come in and make sure your people are on track."

"My people are good. If anything can be found, they know how to find it. I'll be in on the 2nd to resign. You might talk to Tom and see if he has any recommendations for my replacement."

There were no goodbyes or other normal pleasantries of good phone etiquette, just the sound of a dial tone in her ear as the captain hung up in frustration. But it changed nothing. She had resolved to make contact and was going to carry through with it.

Discovering how to get in touch with Jan hadn't been a problem; she had a profile sheet that listed her company phone numbers. A phone call later had had Linda searching the airlines' passenger lists and discovering that Jan had flown to New York with Jack Pond sitting in the seat beside her - tickets paid for by his company. Jack Pond was definitely an unusual traveling companion and therefore, all the more reason to investigate. She still wondered who the guy on cam had been the other night, and if Jack had arrived later, to sit in the corner in his wheelchair, taking it all in. It really didn't matter; eight hours and a plane flight later, she was checking into the Omni in downtown Manhattan.

Stepping out of her hotel on 46th, wrapped in a winter coat and scarf to ward off the biting downtown wind of New York, she headed for Pond Enterprises on 52nd. She wanted to get there early and see if she could get a glimpse of Jack, arriving in a car or going into the building.

Fortunately, a small coffee shop, in the lobby of the building that the Pond offices were located, provided a perfect vantage point. Linda enjoyed a full view of the street as well as the security point where employees and visitors checked in before taking an elevator to their floor.

She settled in with cappuccino and a bagel to see who turned up, and she contemplated what the hell John could be up to because she knew the cyber-killer hadn't killed Marge.

*****

Jan loved to visit New York, and as she walked along 6th Avenue, looking in the shop windows, she wondered how she could have been so judgmental of Jack. Had she not done exactly the same thing when Hank had died - getting lost in her work at the office and in a cyber-relationship? Was she not just as guilty of hiding from the world and parking her life in a warm comfortable spot to let routine take over?

Carrying shopping bags with gifts for her parents and a few of the people at work, she just couldn't decide what to buy for a man that has or can have anything. While her own empire was sizable, it still had a way to go before reaching the magnitude of Pond Enterprises, and, come what may, she planned on leaving a Christmas gift. Who knew, with any luck, maybe they'd be sharing Christmas; maybe Lisa, even from her grave, was reaching out and giving them both the gift of finding each other.

Several blocks of window browsing and a few shops later, she gave up and headed for Jack's office. The driver had told her to come to reception and ask for Michelle when she was ready to go back to Mr. Pond's place.

*****

After three cappuccinos and a complete reading of two of the dailies, Linda was about to give up and try a more direct approach, such as calling on Mr. Pond at his residence. Then fate had smiled and in walked Jan. There was no doubt. She had been on Linda's screen too many times to be wrong. And she was much more beautiful in person than on a computer screen.

Linda watched as Jan walked to the security check point and talked briefly with one of the guards; then she turned and walked straight to the coffee shop. Grabbing one of the newspapers strewn on the booth beside her, Linda pretended interest in a front page while Jan wandered through the early lunch crowd to sit two booths away, looking directly at her.

With her coat and scarf hanging from a coat rack between the booths, Jan talked to the waitress briefly and then started searching in her purse for something, leaving Linda a chance to openly admire her face.

Suddenly, overcome with guilt at her open voyeurism, she turned back to the paper and contemplated the weather forecast as carefully as possible, considering it was a one-inch blurb with a minimum of information.

Becoming aware of a man, standing at the end of Jan's table, she watched as they exchanged pleasantries before he helped Jan into her coat and scarf to leave. Leaving five dollars on the table, he bent to retrieve her packages and stepped back so Jan could lead the way.

Watching casually, almost openly, as if caught up in people watching, she missed the double take Jan made as she passed her table. And then she was gone.

Signaling the waitress to pay her bill, Linda wondered exactly what she'd learned other than just how beautiful Jan was.

*****

"So, you are Jack's mystery guest. How nice. And how is our boy?"

Michelle had said Mr. Martin would be sharing a ride to Mr. Pond's if that would be okay with Jan. After being given a brief description of him, Jan had indicated she would wait in the coffee shop.

Although warm and comfortable in the back of a limousine with Juan, Jan still couldn't shake the sudden terror she had felt at seeing someone that looked just like 'cyber' Lisa, sitting two booths from her own. She really couldn't be sure, but even with the poor camera angle and grainy quality, the resemblance was there. And she seemed to watch me as I left with Juan, she thought.

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