tagNovels and NovellasThe Sentinel Ch. 17

The Sentinel Ch. 17

byJPMMURPHY©

Juan leaned back in the chair behind his desk and listened as the man continued with his report, giving times, dates, and activities. Glancing at his copy of the report, he followed along, waiting for the man to finish.

Closing the folder in his lap, the man leaned back in his chair to await further instructions.

Walking over to the window of his corner office, Juan looked out across midtown Manhattan and contemplated what to do. If he believed everything he'd heard in the news, the killer had been found and killed. He reflected on Jack's current demeanor. It just didn't feel right. With a sigh, he walked to his desk and pulled a white envelope, fat with money, out of a desk drawer and slid it across the desk where the man picked it up and slipped it in his pocket.

"This isn't finished yet. I'm paying for a service, and I expect it to be finished."

With that, the man rose and turned on his heels, exiting through Juan's personal entrance where he'd been let in an hour before. Reaching for his phone, Juan asked Michelle if she could find Jack for him.

Walking to his office shredder, he turned it on and dropped the report he'd just been given, folder and all, onto the feed tray. He watched the whole document go into the top and small strips of unreadable scrap fall out the bottom into the stack of other documents he'd shredded that day.

"Your call, Mr. Martin," came from a small speaker on his telephone.

Returning to his desk, Juan picked up the only other folder that represented an executive's idea of clutter on his desk and flipped it open. Leafing through the pages, he picked up the phone.

"Jack, you pinche carbon. What are you doing for lunch today?"

With that taken care of, he read the clause in the contract again as if reading it several times could actually change its wording. Yes, the Pond name opened many doors. The problem seemed to be finding the key needed to keep them open.

"Okay, Jack, level with me. You made a promise. Are you going to keep it or not?" Juan watched his friend as he shifted slightly in his chair, sitting in the posh midtown restaurant. Everything seemed so right less than a month ago, thought Juan. Now, it's all changed, and to top it off, Jack seemed evasive.

"I know I did, Juan. Let me think about it. I would guess the answer is yes, but I need to think about it a little more." Giving Juan a wide grin, he continued, "Besides, I've just returned to the land of the living. You wouldn't begrudge me enjoying it a little before 9 to 5 gets a grip would you, compadre?"

"No, I guess not. But don't dally; this is important."

Jack offered a mock salute before returning to his meal, lost more in thoughts of Jan than corporate business deals. He had to be honest; he missed her much more than he expected or wanted to admit.

It had taken a week for him to finally get around to venturing into his war room again. Cold and dark, it suddenly seemed to have no meaning, and he promptly started disconnecting cables and pulling power cords. He had called Michelle to have her send over some packing boxes from the freight floor. Yes, he had decided it was time. By nine that evening, all the equipment was packed away with the boxes stacked neatly at the back of the room. The tables had been cleaned and wiped down; and he'd pushed his wheelchair out to the foyer by the elevator, putting a note on it that read Goodwill.

Back in his apartment, he'd gone to his study and removed the album of clippings from his safe. Then he sat in a leather wing-backed chair beside the roaring fire, accompanied by an old-fashioned glass and a bottle of Talisker; he went from page to page, tearing them out and throwing them into the flames.

No, he'd thought, this is not how I want to remember you as he paused at their picture before turning the light out and leaving the study.

"Jack?" Juan spoke a little louder this time to get his attention.

"Sorry, Juan. You asked me to think about it. I thought you meant right now," Jack responded with mock innocence.

"So when are you leaving to see, Jan?"

"Next Tuesday. I'll be gone for a few days, then back long enough to pack and get back on a plane."

Pushing a small wrapped package across the table, Juan explained. "This is from Mary and me for the two of you. Don't open it until Christmas day."

Jack pulled it to him, leaving it beside his plate. "Thanks, Juan. And thank Mary for both of us. I know you would never have the presence of mind to think of us when we're out of sight."

Tipping his wine glass at Jack, Juan responded with, "Don't count on it, friend. Don't count on it."

*****

Linda was glad to be home - happier still when the doorbell stopped ringing and the constant parade of flowers and people ceased. She'd tolerated her mother's constant fussing for a week before finally convincing her she could take care of herself again.

The stitches had been removed a few days ago, and she was pleased to find she could, in fact, talk a little above a whisper. Instructions had been clear - no talking on the phone or yelling. She was happy to oblige on both counts, not really wanting to talk to anyone, on or off the phone, and not having anyone to yell at.

Probably the biggest relief had been getting access to her desktop, allowing her to check her mail - not just the accounts on her laptop but all her mail. Yes, she had been able to confirm it. She'd thought so even though she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. If nothing else, being in touch again had eased her mind even if it had taken three hours to sort through all the information and take the necessary action.

This afternoon she was actually enjoying the sun as it poured in through the huge double-hung window into her living room. Having ordered pizza, she was looking forward to sustenance that was neither soup nor pudding. Lying on her couch and waiting for her pizza order to arrive, she half-dozed while playing with the pieces of the puzzle that was her life. There seemed to be enough pieces, but not all the parts lined up quite right when she tried to put the picture together.

The building entrance buzzer rang, and she buzzed the door open without asking who it was, knowing that most people couldn't hear her anyway. Grabbing the ten dollar bill off the kitchen counter, she opened her apartment door and waited as she listened to what seemed to be two people walking up the old wooden staircase and talking. She couldn't make out the conversation because of the muffled echo produced by the high ceilings and hardwood flooring, but one voice seemed to be young - the pizza guy, she thought.

At the flight below hers, the talking stopped, and the pizza guy's hat appeared as he walked up to her floor. Offering him the money, he refused, saying Old Man Ben had told him it was her welcome back pizza but that he'd charge double for the next one. Fishing a dollar from the pocket of her jeans for a tip, she actually jumped when she saw the man, dressed in a business suit, standing quietly at the top of the stairs, waiting for her to finish her transaction.

"Thanks, Linda. Enjoy," and the pizza boy retreated, acknowledging the man as he walked by and ran down the stairs.

After a few awkward seconds, Linda stepped back from the door, motioning the man inside. Sitting the pizza on the counter, she turned to the kitchen cabinet to pull out two plates. "Pizza?" she asked, her voice husky but discernable.

"Sure," responded Jack.

"Beer or something else?"

"A beer will be fine."

Following Linda into the living room, they took up posts at opposite ends of the couch where they sat in silence, contemplating each other, plates in hand and beers on the floor at their feet.

"You don't seem surprised. Do you always let strange men into your apartment?"

Opening the box on the cushion between them, Linda picked up a slice of pizza, put it on her plate, and turned the box so Jack could get a slice also.

"I don't consider you a strange man. On the contrary, I think I know you quite well - Jack Pond, Lisa Stone's lover and the man who took a bullet from one of New York's finest that put him in a wheelchair for two years. I may have to revise that part because you certainly don't look like a recovering paraplegic." Retreating to her pizza, Linda chewed slowly and contemplated Jack as he sipped his beer. With no response, she continued. "More recently, you have been involved with Jan who, in fact, thought she was still involved with Lisa as recently as… well, I don't know. You tell me."

Jack's slice of pizza was untouched on his plate as he set his beer bottle back on the floor and shifted slightly at the end of the couch. "You seem to have done your homework."

Washing her bite of pizza down with a sip of beer, Linda continued. "You are the owner of Pond Enterprises which seems to be in the midst of a very big business deal with the two biggest freight carriers in the world which should automatically put you right up there with them in one fell swoop."

"Tuesday and Wednesday of the week before Thanksgiving, you and Jan were staying together at your place in New York in Manhattan."

Taking a bite of his pizza, Jack sat in wonder at the details Linda was able to provide. "Why?" was all he could manage.

"Frankly, I couldn't figure out why, Jan, who thought she was chatting with Lisa every night and who thought of Lisa as a lover, was with you. Maybe you can bring me up to speed, Jack. And by the way, how do you know who I am?"

Standing, Jack walked to the window and looked vacantly at the traffic on the street below. If he'd paid a little more attention to the street, he might have noticed the black antenna farm parked halfway down the block. Turning to sit on the window sill, he pulled a small envelope from inside his pocket and tossed it on the couch beside Linda.

Looking at Jack then back at the envelope, she picked it up and slid it open, peering inside. Reaching with two fingers, she pulled out a set of prints and started going through them. Jack watched closely as her neck and cheeks flushed red. Setting the prints on top of the discarded envelope, she turned back to Jack and waited. The watery eyes of withheld tears were not lost on him.

"I took those off of Jan's computer the night she made love to me for Lisa."

Linda was confused. What could pictures of her have to do with that night - the night that seemed to mark the beginning of the end? "I don't get it, Jack. What do I have to do with that night?"

"Why do you say 'that night'? Why not ask me 'which night'? I mean doesn't that seem odd to you?"

Jack watched as Linda blushed again even deeper than before. "Because I know which night you're talking about. I didn't know it was you at the time, but I was watching." There was a pause, and she added, "I always watched Jan."

Jack wasn't sure if this confirmed what he came to discover or not and decided to push ahead. "How do you know Jan thought she was having a relationship with Lisa?"

"Come on, Jack. You must know who I work for. You've seen it all over the news for the past week." Seeing Jack's confused look, Linda explained. "We spy on everyone, Jack. We can look at your mail and watch your side of your chat. We follow you into chat rooms to see what you do, what you like, who you are. Jan was work for a long time, but then she became something else - a more personal interest, you might say."

"But you knew Lisa was dead! Why didn't you tell Jan?" Jack's anger boiled over as he walked to the couch to pick up his beer without sitting, bringing the full weight of his presence to bear as he towered over Linda. "What exactly was the 'personal interest' you had in Jan? Was she your next victim?"

Linda didn't think before exploding. Jumping from the couch, she charged Jack, pounding furiously on his chest. She couldn't yell, but her face turned red with the effort of trying. "Who the fuck do you think you are coming in here accusing me?" as she continued to pound away at his chest. "I gave my life to catch the killer, and all everyone has done is ride me about not getting the job done. I didn't kill Lisa or any of the others. And I sure as hell wasn't going to let anything happen to Jan." Taking a breath, she seemed to deflate simultaneously as she leaned into Jack's chest and sobbed. Not sure what to do, Jack brought his arms up and held her. At last, he heard Linda continue in a hoarse whisper. "She was part of an investigation, Jack; I couldn't interfere with that, but believe me when I tell you I wouldn't have let anything happen to her."

And Jack did. The sobs were too real, and the pieces fit better than the alternative. Guiding her to the couch, Jack sat on the coffee table and waited until Linda's sobs subsided. Then, stating in a matter-of-fact way more suited to the board room than a crying woman's living room, he told her, "We had a picture that night on Jan's computer from Lisa. That's really the only reason we did what we did. It was a trap to bring her out of hiding so we could find her. Those photos came from that night. The Lisa on Jan's computer was you."

Linda struggled to make sense of it all. "I guess, in a way, it makes sense. Not many people would have the resources needed to pull someone else's cam and patch it seamlessly to another computer."

Jack searched Linda's face trying to make sense of what she'd just said before asking, "Could you define 'personal interest' for me?"

How could she? Linda felt trapped and wanted to run away. But Jack now knew more than anyone else, and she felt a need to tell it all. It was time to let someone else carry part of the burden. Wiping her eyes on one of the pizza napkins, she looked at Jack and began to explain in soft, hoarse whispers, her life for the last two years.

Linda had been the new kid on the block - the wonder kid - some had said. She'd been selected to head up one of the biggest and most unique investigations of a serial killing to come down the pike.

The beginning had gone well. But then, don't all beginnings? Her plan had been approved, well, most of it, anyway. She was being given the chance to set precedence for future cases and most likely, for the way the ICB would work from that point on.

The first three months had been full of things to do, and she found that decisions came easily to her. She set up the monitoring stations, hired people, and wielded power in the bureau like most people wield their right to bathroom breaks.

Then, something had happened; something she hadn't had the vision to foresee. There were two things, really, when she thought about it. The first was nothing - exactly that - nothing happened. She didn't solve the crime of the century, and her department seemed bogged down in defending itself to people like John and those that sided with him, spouting off about the millions being spent to support a bunch of 'sticky-fingered' geeks.

This seemed to be a catalyst for the second. She suddenly found herself sucked in by it all - more like being addicted might be closer to the truth. She found herself, at first, put off by all the sex and nudity they all were exposed to on a daily basis. The thrill of the newness of it all, combined with the animalistic response to base desires was more than she could handle. Suddenly, she found herself, sitting in front of her computer at home, signing on to catch a glimpse of a guy she thought was particularly attractive - a turn-on you might say.

Then, as time progressed, the guys became boring - mundane. The sight of a good-looking hunk that most girls would go ballistic over just didn't do it for her. At first, she tried to deny it, but the beauty of a woman's body called to a deeper part of her.

Through it all, she had tried to justify her out-of-office computer activity by telling herself it was additional investigation. That's when she started pushing people away. Her boyfriend was the first to go, and her family was the last. Her life consisted of a working day and a surfing night, sitting up until two or three in the morning just to catch a glimpse of a specific person or of an act they might perform.

Over time, she'd watched her interest in Jan swing from purely professional to something much more intimate - something personal – a kind of love, perhaps, for nothing other than the innocent freedom Jan displayed on cam. Or maybe, it was admiration; she really wasn't sure.

Most recently, Linda had started doubting - doubting herself, her personal choices, and her professional achievements - in short, doubting her worth. Recent events at the office had only added to the situation, and the death of John seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back or at least, the cyber cycle.

Out of all of this, there was one thing she was sure of. John was not the 'On-screen Killer'. Of that, she was sure. She'd suspected someone else for six months now. The problem was the information came from a source other than her department, and she'd felt she'd be laughed out of the bureau if the crime were solved without the need of all her fancy ideas, concepts, or the money spent on it.

But then, her activities had morphed again, and Linda felt like the electronic world of words and visuals was more real than reality itself. She began to think it was her duty - her life's meaning - to watch over and protect her world's co-habitants. She had begun to see herself as a guardian for the unaware as they came out to visit and explore.

They sat in silence for awhile as the shadows gave way to a dusky darkness, and Linda finally turned the lamp on at her end of the couch.

"Wait. What do you mean John isn't the killer?"

Having bared her soul, Linda saw little need to continue the charade. "Let me show you something." Taking his hand, she led him to a door in the short hall that led to her bedroom - a door that could have been another bedroom or closet. He could easily have accepted anything, other than what he found on the other side.

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