tagNovels and NovellasThe Sentinel Ch. 12

The Sentinel Ch. 12

byJPMMURPHY©

Tell me Jack, what do you plan to do if you find the killer?" They sat in the living room of the Pond Enterprise executive suite with a local jazz station playing softly in the background; a plate of cheese and cold cuts and an open bottle of Merlot were sitting on the coffee table.

He picked through the plate, selecting a piece of ham and cheese for his cracker and contemplated how to answer. It was an issue that had been so clearly defined a week ago but now, he suddenly wasn't sure.

Taking a sip of wine, Jan tried another tack, "Tell me what the gun's for then."

"I want to be able to defend us. I don't want to be taken by surprise again."

"Fair enough, but what do you think could happen?"

He pondered a second before answering. "What we do know is that the killer, in all the killings, including the most recent out in California, gained access easily and without leaving a trace of evidence or sign of forced entry. You and I know, or at least suspect, that 'cyber' Lisa is the killer. It's the only explanation, and that means the killer knows where you are right this minute and how to find you. We're trying to provoke her, or whoever it is, and it would be stupid not to have some protection."

"Okay. So you and I are here, and the killer comes in. I can't be in chat with him because he's on the move. Maybe we're in bed or making breakfast. What then? A struggle? Do I get shot first? Or maybe, you get shot again, leaving me to struggle alone with the killer." Pausing for another sip in order to allow the possibilities to sink in, she continued, "Jack, I don't know what will happen to us after this is all over, but I don't want to loose you, not even as a friend." Standing, Jan carried her wineglass to one of the tall windows in the living room and pushed the curtain aside to watch the traffic go by below.

"Me either, Jan, but I know we need to at least have the option. Maybe guns will never come into play. Maybe someone will show up at the door, and it will be as simple as inviting them in for drinks while you call the police. But I do know this; having some form of defense equal to 'cyber' Lisa's preferred form of killing is comforting somehow."

"Jack, don't kill just to kill, out of rage or for revenge. I don't want to be visiting you in some prison somewhere."

*****

Back at her hotel, Linda ordered room service and checked her mail. Aside from two more mails marked 'urgent' from the Captain's address, there was nothing new to look at.

Checking the room's closet, she pulled out a grey, knee-length business suit, white silk blouse, and thigh highs, deciding her visit should at least look official even if it wasn't. Opening a shopping bag on the bed, she pulled out a calf-length, black cashmere cape with red lining and pulled the tags off. The pockets on the inside and the slits to push her hands through gave her freedom of movement and a nice place to hide her handgun.

Linda gave the cab driver the address and leaned back in the seat to wonder what it would be like to stand in front of Jack Pond, and even better - find Jan there. What do they think they're doing? It was something she hoped to find out shortly.

*****

The suite had two bedrooms, and Jan had retired to the one which was to be theirs to check her mail and test the internet connection which was available. Jack was doing the same on his laptop in the living room. One mail that he'd been waiting for had finally arrived. Clicking on the unread message, he was surprised by all the information that Lee had been able to discern from a few grainy cam photographs captured from a computer screen.

The first clue had been the bulletin board at the back of the room. Following Lee's instructions, he clicked on the first attachment - a blowup of a cut out from one of the original photos, showing only the bulletin board. Aside from the cropping, the main difference was the detail. In the upper left-hand corner of the board was what looked like a company or office calendar with the initials ICB at the top. It was for the month of November, and Thanksgiving was clearly shaded along with the Friday that followed. A few of the days had entries logged with what appeared to be an ink pen using dark ink, and it clearly showed the handwriting style of the person who had written them. Checking Lee's note, referencing the first attachment, he saw the only comment was 'Internet Crime Bureau'.

The next note and attachment gave him a closer view of a handwritten note located in the block for the 9th of the month. He didn't need to read Lee's notes because the blowup was so clear, but he checked them anyway. Lunch with Tom -- selection strategy. Okay, Jack wondered, who is Tom, and what are they selecting?

Moving on to attachment number three, he found himself looking at a close-up of a yellow handbill for a Chinese, takeout restaurant that was tacked below the calendar. In checking the notes, all they said was, go to next. Opening the next attachment, he found a close-up of the phone number and address of the restaurant from the bottom of the handbill. He checked Lee's notes again, but they simply read, 'five block delivery radius'. Damn, thought Jack, getting pretty close.

The following attachment showed a close-up of a pizza place with more or less the same information. Not one of the national chains, it seemed to be more of a Mom and Pop business with delivery between Elm and Oak from 10th to 15th. A small grid of lines displayed the location of the restaurant, more or less in the middle of all the lines. Checking the notes once more, Jack read Lee's observation - it was the same dialing prefix.

The last piece of information from the bulletin board was a handwritten note on a torn scrap of paper that said, 'office numbers', with three phone numbers listed, all numbers quite legible. Looking at the corresponding note from Lee, it read, 'Internet Crime Bureau'.

Jack had heard of the ICB but had written them off as a bunch of bureaucratic idiots some time ago. He knew they were the investigative group trying to find the 'On-screen Killer', and he also knew they had accomplished nothing since Lisa had been killed.

Lee's next note contained an internet link with a cryptic warning, 'turn your cookies off and firewall on before visiting'. Jack's computers were as undetectable as they could be, and he was always careful not to leave electronic signs of where he'd been or where he was. So he clicked on the link and waited. At first, not much could be discerned from the link; it started at the home page of ICB and trailed off to a couple of inches of numbers and code that took him who knew where.

At last, a page loaded with the ICB shield in the upper right-hand corner and a name and number below a box which started filling with a picture. Linda Woo -- Investigative Director - 2900. The name and title had little meaning to Jack, but the picture did. He sat frozen a minute before calling Jan in.

"Is this the woman you saw today at the coffee shop?"

Jan actually jerked before freezing as she stared at the picture. "Yes, Jack, it is," was all she said after a minute of staring wide-eyed at Linda's picture.

"That's what Lee found for me. He tracked down information off the bulletin board, went to the site, and looked through the employee ID files until he found her, I guess."

"Who is she?" Jan asked as she sat on the couch beside Jack.

"An 'Investigative Director' for the Internet Crime Bureau, and I guess her badge number or employee number is 2900."

"But how could she..." and Jan's voice trailed off.

Jack had no answers so he saved the page to his desktop and went back to the mail from Lee. There were no more attachments, only a paragraph telling him, 'not to expect a visit from this one, she's a pro and probably thinks you're the 'on-screen killer'. He also included her address and phone number, saying he could always drop in on her if he wanted. Jack failed to share Lee's sense of humor on the matter and just sat there a minute, staring at the screen.

"Is there a box of video tapes in the other bedroom?"

It took Jan a second to figure out Jack was talking to her but finally responded with, "Not that I've seen."

"Let's find them. There should be a box of video tapes around here from the security cams in the building at the time you saw 'cyber' Lisa...well, Linda Woo, I guess."

Finding them in the pantry in the kitchen, they moved to the living room and started with the ground floor - the only tapes that really interested Jack. It took 45 minutes, but there she was striding into the entrance and turning into the coffee shop. There was no cam in the coffee shop, but they picked her up again from a different angle, looking in through the plate glass window as she sat at her table and drank something from a cup.

Asking Jan what time she thought she had arrived, they searched forward until they found her walking past Linda's table to take up station a few booths away. Linda's interest in Jan was real, and a few of her stares were more than obvious as she looked openly at Jan when she thought it was safe.

"What now, Jack?"

"I wish I knew, Jan. I wish I knew."

*****

Linda leaned forward and paid the cabby, before pulling her cape tight and stepping out into the cold. The entrance was canopied with a plush, red carpet that extended a few yards into the public walkway, and a uniformed doorman stood inside the door, trying to decide if she was moving on or coming inside.

Patting the huge right-hand pocket of the cape, she felt the reassuring weight of her recently-acquired handgun. At the same moment, she felt a tap on her shoulder and heard a masculine voice asking if she was, in fact, Linda Woo of the ICB.

Spinning on her heels, she was confronted by two men in business suits with trench coats as armor against the wind. One was holding up an ID that said FBI in large blue letters over a picture ID that did, in fact, look like the man holding it. The other waited quietly for Linda's response.

"Yes, I am. What's this about?"

"Sorry, Ms. Woo, but we have instructions to take you to our office so you can make a phone call."

"A what? A phone call?"

"Ms. Woo, we don't want to cause anyone discomfort, but your boss was adamant. You are to come to our office and call him. Once we make contact, we are not to let you out of our sight until that call is made."

What could she do? Glancing at the doorman watching the exchange, Linda slid her hand into her pocket and closed her fingers around the handgun to keep it from bumping into one of the agents as they escorted her to their black Ford sedan, parked in the 'no parking' zone used for drop off and pick up.

Arriving at the office, Linda practically jumped out of the car before it stopped and stormed toward the elevator where she took up a post, waiting for the agents to catch up.

They had no idea what this was all about, but the request had come from high up, and this was certainly one pissed off woman. After showing her to the conference room, one of the agents asked if she would like a cup of coffee. This produced a curt 'No, thank you', and he closed the door, leaving her to make her call.

Linda toyed with the idea of not making the call and just walking out in ten minutes to say 'Thank you' and leave. But, being in the FBI office, the heart of monitoring and deceit, she decided they were probably monitoring her phone call anyway and picked it up to dial.

"What is it, Captain?" was all she said when the Captain picked up his phone.

"Nice to hear from you, too, Woo. Are the Feds treating you right?"

"What is this shit, Captain? You have no right to have me brought in off the street like a criminal."

"Shut up, Woo." The Captain didn't say it so much as thunder it across the line, and Linda crumpled into the nearest chair to wait, thinking it might not be a good moment to antagonize.

After 15 seconds of silence, he was sure he had Linda's attention and continued in a normal, more cordial voice.

"I'm not going to ask you what you're doing in New York. And I'm not going to ask you what the hell you're doing, buying an untraceable handgun from an FBI undercover agent."

With that, Linda cringed.

"What I'm going to do is tell you what you're going to do." The Captain paused briefly, to see if he still had Linda's attention. Satisfied he had every modicum of attention she could muster, he continued. "You are going to find one of the agents that brought you there, and you are going to relinquish your weapon. They will give you a receipt which you will put in your purse, and then, they will take you to your hotel. Upon arriving at your hotel, one of them will accompany you upstairs for your things and help you check out. You with me so far, Woo?"

"Yes, Captain." The fight and antagonism was gone. She knew she could be in serious trouble for buying an untraceable firearm, serious enough to put her in jail if the Captain wanted to.

"Good. Then you will be taken to the airport where there will be a reservation in your name at American Airlines. You will get on the plane and fly back to California, well, L.A., to be more specific, and I will meet you personally at the airport. Got all that?"

"Yes, Captain."

"You gonna fuck it up, Woo?"

"No, Captain."

With that, the phone clicked loudly as the Captain slammed his receiver into the base. Yes, I got it, Linda thought. Damn.

*****

Dave's day had gone about as well as Linda's. A few minutes at Jan's secretary's desk and a cup of coffee had provided him with the address where Jan could be found.

Two days later, found him in the Big Apple, sitting in a rental car outside a black iron gate that gave little hint of what lay beyond. Pulling up to a speaker, he pressed a button and waited.

"May I help you?" the metallic voice inquired.

"Yeah, I'm looking for Jan Cranston, and I believe she's staying here."

"I'm sorry, do you know who she'd be staying with?" asked the voice.

Damn, who she's staying with? Must be that guy that was hanging around last week. What was his name?

"Some lawyer guy. I think he said his name was Lake or Pond or something like that."

"The Mr. Pond that lives here isn't a lawyer. Sorry." And with that, the intercom went dead.

Punching the call button again, Dave waited while he noticed the cameras tuned into his inquiry. It didn't look like a place that he could bluff his way into.

"Sorry, my mistake, not sure what I was thinking. That would be right, Mr. Pond; Jan Cranston is my boss and would be staying with Mr. Pond."

"Sorry, they left this morning and won't be returning tonight. If it's urgent, you might try Mr. Pond's office and see if they can help you."

"Thanks, I'll do that. Could you give me the number?"

Writing the number on the back of his car rental contract, Dave decided to go back to his hotel and see what he could find out.

*****

Scott Ryan seemed to be the only lucky person that day. He'd checked into his fleabag hotel the day before and had quietly cased the outside of the building that Jan was staying in, a couple of times. He had even managed to get a glimpse of someone that looked very much like her in a third-story window.

He had located the freight entrance at the back of the building which looked flimsy at best and would be easy to breach. Walking past the entrance one last time on his way back to his hotel, he made a mental note of the doorman that continued to lurk at the entrance and wondered idly, what time he retired to the concierge's efficiency apartment for the evening.

With all his care and preparation, Scott failed to notice or inspect closely the street bum at the corner of Jan's building. The man spent his time warming his hands around his mouth and shuffling around a black garbage bag, crumpled at his feet, occasionally accosting passersby for handouts. If he had noticed, he might have seen that the shoes the man wore were quite a step up from those of a street bum. If he'd walked close enough, he might have noticed this was a street bum that didn't smell like last week's garbage. And, if he had really looked closely, he might have been able to discern that the accumulation of six months' filth on the man's face was only lines of makeup and theatrical smudge markings.

With the traffic and lack of parking in Manhattan, the antenna farm had been relegated to a parking garage, and the team had dispersed around the building. The appearance, for the second time, of the man in a rumpled, trench coat was reported by the bum on the corner as he warmed his hands around a hidden, lapel microphone, slipped into a small slit in his glove. It was also noted by a second man, sitting in a coffee shop, opposite the other corner of the building. It was this man who then picked up a cell phone and called a taxi which was sitting a block away. It wasn't just the rumpled walker's appearance that had caught the bum's eye; it was the man's calculating survey of the front of the building and his scrutiny of the area in the general direction of the apartment Mr. Stone and his guest were in. But, the deciding factor was Scott's pause to look into the reception area of the building, a little longer than normal. So as Scott paused to cross the street and return to his hotel, a yellow cab turned the corner, squeezing in between a beer truck and city bus which caused a chorus of blaring horns and exaggerated hand gestures from the cab driver.

It all served one purpose; the cab's passenger managed to snap four quick shots of the walker before the cab moved on.

Within five minutes, Scott was in his room, unpacking his laptop and preparing to log on, and the cab, along with the rest of the team, had returned to its place. The passenger sat in the back of the cab and methodically downloaded the pictures to his laptop before using a cell phone link to log into a mainframe. From there, the pictures were sent for analysis, posting, and possible identification.

The bum on the corner kept vigil along with the man in the coffee shop. The man sitting in a dingy bathroom, looking out on the alley behind the building, scanned the copies of the pictures he'd received and notified the team that it was confirmed; it was the man who had sauntered through the alley earlier in the day. While his perch didn't give a good look at anyone's face, he could tell by the rumpled, trench coat and hair.

It had been easy for the team to identify the two men, picking up the lady at the entrance shortly before Scott's appearance. Aside from the description, they had the plate number of the car. A few phone calls from higher up had let them know the Feds were simply locating another government employee so she could get in touch with her office. Something about a bust they wanted her involved in.

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