The Sentinel Ch. 02byJPMMURPHY©
Michelle got a little giddy when Jack called after noon to see if she could scare up a barber that could come by and give him a cut. Then when he actually asked about corporate gossip, she almost fell off her chair. His only calls since Lisa's death had been to order groceries and get rid of his physical therapist.
Hanging up the phone, he continued keeping pace with his running machine as he watched his heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. No one had seemed to notice that he had ordered a second running machine for the gym downstairs, and it had never arrived. He had managed to waylay it at the front door and have it brought upstairs on the pretense of 'goods inspection'. He must have walked and run around the world on it and was sure he could take up long distance running next year if the company no longer needed him.
His bags were packed with Lisa's laptop sitting in its case with the charger and other cables he'd need to connect; he didn't plan on letting Lisa's machine out of his sight. His own laptop was in a check-in case that could handle the rigors of baggage handlers. Shutting down the walker, he stepped off and headed for the shower. It would be his first foray into the real world other than the occasional trip to the doctors, and Jack was nervous. Aside from stock reports and limited business or finance news, Jack had little idea what it was like out there.
Six months after the operation, the doctors had given up. At the last meeting they had said, "Jack, we can't make you walk again, but you can. When you decide to do that, call us." Upon his return, he had promptly fired his therapist and thrown himself on the floor. It had taken five weeks of dragging himself around by his arms and upper torso to wake up his legs. He could still remember the joy of sticking a needle in his big toe - something his doctors had been doing for months - and having it hurt like hell. In another week he'd been crawling around like a nine-month-old baby. It had taken another two months to get upright, and a year and a half after being brought down by New York's finest, Jack was running farther on his running machine than he ever had in his former life.
Aside from the commitment to walk again, Jack had become possessed with finding Lisa's killer. He lived, not so much to ask why, as to watch the life of this person slowly fade away as he leaned down to whisper, "…are you enjoying it as much as I am yet?" He was driven by a search for closure - not meaning, because there was none, but he driven just the same.
There had been four other killings since Lisa's - all chatters. Their computers had been found on, and the crime witnessed by a lover or friend who had unwittingly been forced to witness the last gruesome moments. There seemed to be no preference for male or female victims. One couple had been two gay men, chatting while one was away on business. Another had been cyber-lovers, a man and woman that had never met in real life, their only sin being an open show of love and commitment in a public chat room. The husband and wife were a surprise until Jack learned that the man worked for one of the big oil companies and commuted on a regular basis, spending two weeks every three months out of the country during which the couple extended their love life into cyberspace.
His computer room and the workout room had become his home, where he pondered, existed, and worked, but not work in the normal sense of the word. His time not spent running and exercising was spent sitting in his wheelchair, transfixed, watching twenty different chats in as many rooms, flipping between cams to see if he could find anything that would give him a clue. He had seen it all: the quiet chatters there just to chat and meet friends; the on-line sex partners that made triple xxx look tame; and aggression beyond belief. While it never went beyond the keyboard, the amount of anger and just plain meanness that could be found was astounding.
He had set up a small stereo system and patched in all the computers sound boards so he could switch from voice chat room to voice chat room without bearing the discomfort of headphones or earplugs. It was here, he first heard him. Early one morning after midnight when the real hardcore chatters and insomniacs came out, he had been channel-surfing, switching from voice channel to voice channel, listening in to the endless stream of psycho-babble people were using to persuade their way into someone else's life, when he heard the word. 'Bitch'. The word, the voice, the tone, even the intent was there. Grabbing the headphones, he'd continued to listen, waiting to hear it again. Nothing, just a bunch of people chatting about sex. He had to dig around a little to find the cam their attentions were focused on but did. He watched and listened for an hour, but he was unable to find the voice again. His momentary jubilance turned quickly to deep depression as he sat and thought how close he'd been and missed it. A few keystrokes and the printer spit out a list of occupants in the chat room. Picking it up, he scanned the names, looking for some clue in the strange nomenclature people used to identify themselves.
He almost missed it the second time but caught enough to know who was on one side of the conversation. Deciding to try written chat first and avoid being recognized, he 'paged' blue_goose to see if he could 'PM' which means a private written message between the two of them that other room occupants couldn't see. At first, Jack was afraid he would be 'Ignored' or 'Blocked', but finally, blue_goose answered.
"Sure teddy_bear, how u this morning" - no one used proper punctuation, sentence form, or spelling. Chat shorthand was phonetic and built for speed. If you weren't accustomed to it, you couldn't keep up with a room full of fifty or sixty people, half of them talking to the multiple chatters at the same time.
It took a few brief minutes of mindless chatter to get invited into their conversation, but Jack made it. He had feigned no microphone to explain why he would stay in written chat while they were welcome to just 'keep on a talkin'.
And there it was. "Sure, she's a real bitch, hell, she talks like one too." He sat frozen in his chair; his mind in turmoil as he edged forward and gripped the arm rests of his wheelchair until his knuckles hurt.
"Sure 'nuff," answered blue_goose, and Jack noticed the other occupant in the room was lacy_lace.
"Yeah, I watched her the other night, and she turned out to be a spitter. What a waste of time," lacy_lace replied.
Frantic, the voice bouncing around in his head, he jumped up and ran to the end of a room to dig in a file cabinet for a microphone. He had never counted on talking and had dumped all the microphones in a file cabinet; his plan had been stealth. His hands shook as he tore at the plastic and fumbled with the tie wrap that held the microphone cable in place. Throwing trash around and falling to his knees, he had practically pulled the connectors loose from the back of the computer, trying to get it out from the wall far enough to get the microphone plug into the jack of the soundcard on the back. Up on his knees, he watched the screen, and heard lacy_lace respond again.
No doubt. It was the same voice. Grabbing the machine's mouse, he pointed and clicked on 'Join Voice Chat', expecting to be able to talk immediately. He almost blacked out from the frustration when he saw the little yellow error message that said he needed to configure his broadcaster. Clicking on the broadcaster, he frantically went through the set-up procedure for his microphone as lacy_lace and blue_goose continued to chat away.
"Who are you lacy_lace?" he practically screamed at last, after the configuration had been accepted. "I know what you did, and I'm going to kill you." The channel was quiet as he heard his own ragged breathing in his earphones. Had he scared them off? What was he thinking? Damn, what to do now? Then he heard it. A little distant at first as the auto-level control adjusted, and suddenly, he could hear someone that sounded like his own mother talking to him.
"Not sure who you are, but I'm lacy_lace, and I was talking with my good friend blue_goose. You got a problem, son?"
Jack's response was immediate. "Where's the other guy I heard - the one talking about the 'bitch', the guy with the deep voice. Who was that?" He could hardly breathe as he listened to dead air, waiting for a response. When it came, his vision went grey, and he felt light-headed.
Low and gravelly, the reply returned in a voice as sinister as ever while the tone and message expressed concern. "That was me, lacy_lace. You okay, son?"
He was confused and dizzy; his stomach tied in knots as he tried to put it all together. Then he heard blue_goose reply, "My good friend lacy_lace was trying out a freeware voice synthesizer she came across. Wanted to see how real it really sounded. You okay, son? You sound a bit tense."
He had to breathe; he was suffocating as he pulled the headset off and threw it on the floor. Barely able to crawl, he made his way out onto the open porch to pull himself up by the concrete surround wall. Leaning over, he breathed deep and fought to let it out slow. His heart pounded, and his hands were sweaty.
A voice synthesizer? But it sounded so real. It sounded just like him. Waiting for his heart to slow, he let go for a minute and gave in to the call from that dark room he kept locked, listening once more. "Do it now, bitch, or it's all over." Jerking his head up, he realized the killer must have used a voice synthesizer. Almost crashing through the glass sliding door, he stumbled in front of his computer and dug around for the headphones. Sliding them on halfway, he grabbed the microphone. Frantic now, but not distraught, he called out, "Lacy_lace, you still there?"
After a few seconds of dead air, she responded, "Sure, son, we're still here. Are you okay?"
"Sure, sorry, fine. It's just that I've been looking for a guy... Well, I thought it was a guy that..." What to say? What could he tell them? But then it came to him, "...keeps trashing my web site, and he always leaves a voice message for me. Sounds just like you did with your synthesizer. I thought you were him."
"Oh, yeah, me and Vern had a problem with my site; some guy kept coming in and blackin' out all the images. Made Vern mad as hell, but we stopped him alright. Tell ya what ya do, son..."
"No, sorry, no; that's okay. I think I have him stopped, but I would sure like to know where you got that software. Maybe I'll get a copy, and when I find this guy, I can scare the hell out of him, too."
"Sure, son. Hang on; let me get Vern in here. He knows the address. Check out your chat, and I'll have him send you the link."
True to her word, within minutes the link appeared in blue letters in his chat box. A screen dump made sure he had a hard copy, but he still took the time to write it on a small pad he used for taking notes. It wasn't much. A million people could have downloaded the synthesizer by now, and owners of freeware were notoriously hard to find. But it was the closest he had come in a year of searching for Lisa's killer.
Jack thanked lacy_lace and blue_goose and signed off. His chest hurt from the tension as he stood slowly and walked back into the main rooms of his apartment, not bothering to turn the computers off or sign out of any chat programs. Why should he? They hadn't been turned off since they'd been installed. Why start now?
He didn't even bother to undress before he threw himself facedown in the middle of his bed, turning to see what time it was before falling asleep. He dreamed of falling puzzle pieces with a gruff-voiced announcer asking him to pick a piece - any piece.
Jack found the software offered on one of the big freeware download sites that specialized in all manner of bells and whistles for your existing system. He was afraid it would be a dead end when he saw the hundreds of listings, all with links to the site offering the software, until he clicked on the link for 'Savage Voice'.
It took him to a second site with bold red and black letters across the top that said 'Take That Bitch!' He just sat frozen as a small naked lady danced around the letters of the banner. Finally pulling his eyes away from the banner, his heart beating a little faster, he scrolled down. 'She'll never know who you are with Savage Voice.' Scrolling down farther, he found a paragraph description of technical requirements, but what most interested him was the author's final promo. 'Do what you want, to who you want, when you want. If you do it by voice, they'll never know who you are, and I personally guarantee it.'
And who the hell are you, Jack wondered? Clicking on the FAQ's link in hopes of finding more out about how the killer might have used it, Jack was taken to a page of user feedback questions and answers. He found what he wanted from a kid in Florida who wrote, "Hey Dude, this sounds really neat, but what platform will it work on? Is it only a text reader or can I talk into a microphone and let it change my voice?"
"I haven't found a PC-based platform yet this won't run on. You can use it either as a really wild text reader on which you can leave a written voice message for someone, and it will read it to them in the voice you want. Or you can go to the sound options on your desktop, select advanced settings, patch the microphone through the Synthesizer, and talk away."
Jack wondered how the killer could have done it using this. Did he load it on Lisa's computer? But she sounded normal. Did the killer take a laptop and set it up beside hers, talking into a microphone and letting her microphone pick it up? The act just seemed too cumbersome.
Moving down the page, he found a mailing address in Los Angeles - just a PO Box number with a zip code to be precise, but it seemed as good a place as any to start. First, he went back to the download page; his mouse poised over the link. It seemed wrong or bad; or maybe, it just scared the shit out of him to think he could have and carry around the voice of her killer. Resolution and a click took care of that as he downloaded and installed the program.
Going to the U.S. Postal Service site, he was able to get the address for the post office where the PO Box was located.
It was a dark place, in many ways similar to Jack's. It was a little smaller, but it was still a room full of computers - all the same, with screens sitting on tables, keyboards at the ready in front of each monitor as the Sentinel sat in a leather padded chair watching, turning occasionally to inspect the happenings on one screen before turning to another. There were notable differences though. The Sentinel sat naked, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts scattered among the keyboards. A small closet bathroom sat off to the side; it contained what used to be a white porcelain toilet, now stained and dirty from never being cleaned. The door was open, and a bare bulb which provided light if needed hung from two wires dangling from a hole in the ceiling.
The floor was littered with wads of Kleenex that spoke of a persistent cold or, considering what was happening on the computer screen - sticky fingers. But then, this was the Sentinel's private lair, a space no one else was allowed into, and the Sentinel wasn't about to loose screen time cleaning it; there was too much happening on the screens. Or, maybe, the room spoke of neglect because of shame - shame for what took place in it or shame of acknowledging it even existed?
For some reason, it was the only place the Sentinel smoked - a nasty habit used for its degradation more than anything.
Littered among the Kleenex on the floor were candy bar wrappers and a few beer cans. Old pizza boxes with pieces of crust and moldy containers of garlic butter sat on some of the computer screens. The watcher had long ago become impervious to the smell of the room. Much like a nest, the smell now served to excite and comfort, because, when the smell was present, the Sentinel knew all was well. Knew the computers were on-line and watching. Knew people were out there waiting - waiting to be touched by the Sentinel, watched and enjoyed by the Sentinel, and if the right couple could be found - if lucky enough to qualify, the Sentinel would bless them with a visit. Just the thought of it brought a rush as the Sentinel shifted in the cracked grimy cover of the chair.
Movement on a screen caught the Sentinel's attention, and the chair moved forward with the creaking sound of rusty bedsprings to permit closer inspection. Yes, she had come out tonight - probably lonely because her boyfriend might be off doing something without her. Having spent hours chatting, the Sentinel had carefully documented little tidbits of information about hundreds of candidates that were dropped here and there - passwords when given out, the cities they might be living in. Some people were even dumb enough to give out their real addresses or post them in their universal ID's where they could be gotten by anyone. Picking up a notebook, smudged and dirty from constant handling, the Sentinel consulted a page before looking at the screen again.
This one was beautiful, almost as beautiful as the Sentinel's first had been. She was chatting from a college dorm room: liked pasta and giving blow jobs to her boyfriend; drank beer even though she wasn't of age yet; loved heavy metal, her music of choice; and loved to talk about being fucked up the ass even though the Sentinel suspected it was just talk. And if the pennant on the wall was right, the Sentinel now knew which campus. Another girl would occasionally walk by and even stop to chat a minute or two before relegating herself to the bed against the wall where she would sit, book on her lap as she read or studied. And since the Sentinel was a fellow student - a freshman from some dreary women's college far away - the roommate seldom concerned herself with clothes. Why should she? It was her room, too, and she could dress or undress as she pleased.
The Sentinel worked hard at gaining people's confidence. Being an active chatter with a quick wit, the Sentinel was always welcomed in their rooms. Providing color and laughter, sympathy and understanding, the Sentinel quickly became a 'confidant' to many, listening to problems, helping with technical questions, and just being a 'friend'.
Sometimes, the Sentinel was a man and sometimes, a woman. Sometimes, a grandparent and sometimes, a sister or brother - often, a lover. The Sentinel had a knack for knowing what people might want to hear or need. The Sentinel could also be needy which was important. People always felt good about themselves if they thought they could 'help out'. While they couldn't give you a cup of coffee or a beer to show hospitality, they could always find other ways to help. They could listen and offer advice which somehow became a reversed process over the months as trust blossomed.
And now, the Sentinel took on the role of teenage girl. Chat was opened, and the Sentinel said 'hi' to 'suzi_blue' as suzi sat in her dorm room with a look of despair on her face. This was not new for the Sentinel; suzi_blue was the typical college sophomore coed with a busy schedule and active sex life. And since she knew the Sentinel as 'crazy lacy' and had even received a picture of her lounging on the beach with her boyfriend, suzi_blue thought nothing of parading around her room in little or no clothes as she got ready for bed or to go to class while chatting with lacy. Lacy had given campus policy as her reason for not having a cam to chat live with video, and suzi accepted the reason readily. Lacy made up for it by sending the occasional snapshot she had been able to scan in at the campus computer center. The only reason suzi had a cam was because her boyfriend had given it to her so they could, well, you know, do it together on cam. Lacy was amazed and a little fascinated as suzi told in great detail of her sexual adventures with her boyfriend on cam. Lacy was such a great listener and seemed so interested; besides, suzi somehow felt older, wiser when telling Lacy about 'it'. She had even secretly let lacy tune in to some of her private moments with her boyfriend, giving her the password and then spending three hours with her in chat later to talk about it - just two girls and girl talk. What could have been better?