Chapter Four: Patterns
In spite of Ian Dennis’s determination to keep working, he found his brain too clouded to concentrate on even the idea of addressing Krista Bernham’s work. Krista was a brilliant researcher with the unique gift of taking data which seemed absolutely unrelated and finding patterns that even the most complex computer algorithm might not associate.
After her divorce from Malcolm Bernham, she moved with her son Ian from their home in Edinburgh to the island of Mauritius. Frankly, she could work from anywhere with internet access that could be secured by her employer, but her grandmother was originally from the island and she found she wanted to go “home.” Krista recalled visiting “old Gran” many times as a child and loving the beauty, the serenity, and even the profound loneliness of living on a tiny bit of land surrounded by thousands of kilometers of ocean.
She thought raising her only child here might give him a better life than in the UK. That might have been true for many other mothers of many other sons, but not for Krista Bernham. She had been set up on Mauritius with a cover identity by the British Secret Intelligence Service, provided with very expensive, highly secure hardware and software with which to work, and for the past five years, had broken some of the most profound and delicate intelligence cases for SIS.
Now she was dead. The only witness to the murder, her eleven-year-old autistic child Ian, a boy the MI6 agent had befriended and then further traumatized for the sake of his investigation.
Ian Dennis woke up in his hotel room feeling like he was hung over. He’d only meant to sleep a few hours when he finally collapsed in bed yesterday afternoon, and was surprised when his phone said it was past six the next morning local time. He’d arrived nearly twenty-four hours ago, and was only slightly closer to understanding who had assassinated Krista and why.
He urinated, drank a glass of water, and called for room service. He should call his liaison at the Mauritius Police Force Winston Permalloo, but he had to clear his head first.
What did he know?
Krista Bernham arrived home late from an outing with her son Ian to discover four apparent robbers waiting for her. Why wait if it were a robbery? Why not take what they wanted and leave before she returned? Yet the police investigators found evidence that they had waited, that they’d eaten food from her fridge, smoked cigarettes in the house (Krista didn’t smoke), that they’d been there perhaps one to two hours before she and Ian returned.
Similar robberies had been occurring on the island for the past six months, but always before this, they involved three suspects, not four as were present on the night of Krista’s murder.
The fourth suspect had a unique tattoo on the right forearm, one indicating he was a member of an exclusive Chinese gang of professional assassins, ones for hire only by large criminal organizations and governments. Their targets were always high-ranking members of rival gangs, long-term covert agents under deep cover, military generals, and even Kings.
That meant somehow, Krista’s cover had been blown. But how?
Why kill an intelligence operative who was worth far more alive than dead? The information inside Krista’s head was worth hundreds of millions if not billions of pounds.
You killed her only if you knew she had information you wanted kept quiet and that she hadn’t recorded or reported yet. But how did they know not only that she was SIS’s top data analyst but that she possessed such unreported information? How did they find all that out?
If the information was so vital, why hadn’t Krista reported it? If she suspected she was in danger, why hadn’t she requested protection or extraction to a safe location?
Why the hell had they let the boy live? Why leave a witness? Why this one loose end?
Knock at the door. “Room service.”
Ian pulled on his robe and walked to the door as quietly as he could. If someone with a gun were on the other side and they knew he was standing directly in front, they could kill him without ever seeing his face. Ian looked through the peep hole.
He had Winston provide him with the photos and bios of all the hotel staff. This was one of the stewards, Paul Ramgoolam, twenty, student at the local Uni, majoring in Political Science. Works mornings to offset his bills. No known issues that would make him a security threat.
Ian grabbed his wallet and took out enough for a tip. Fortunately he’d converted his British Pounds to Mauritian Rupees at the airport yesterday.
He opened the door. “Sorry for the wait.”
“That’s quite alright, Sir.”
Ian stepped aside so Ramgoolam could wheel in the cart with his food tray. The steward reviewed the contents of the tray for Ian. “Coffee, black, hot. Curry with trimmings, Victoria pineapples. Will that be all, Sir?”
The agent could tell Ramgoolam hated his job. He was superficially polite but he didn’t fancy himself anyone’s servant.
“Fine, Steward.” Ian picked up the tray with his breakfast from the cart and placed it on a nearby table. Then he produced the tip and handed it over. “Here you go. Have a nice day.” Ian did his best to smile realizing he’d yet to brush his teeth.
“Yes sir. You as well.” Ramgoolam took the tip, smartly nodded his head, then turned and wheeled the cart back out of the room. Ian closed the door behind him and locked it. He’d deliberately ordered local cuisine. One of the perks of traveling. He detested the idea of always expecting each locale to serve him what he could easily have ordered at home. Bloody Americans. Don’t know what they’re missing with their damned McDonald’s all over the world.
Krista’s offices at Remington Data Services had been left undisturbed as was her flat. Permalloo and his fellow officers had been exceptionally thorough in preserving her work place and home since both locations likely contained further evidence to be used in the investigation. Both had been completely searched, photographed, fingerprints taken (none found that didn’t belong), DNA traces collected (some in the home that may have belonged to one or more of the robbers but so far, no conclusive matches).
Ian’s Dad Malcolm was already here. Winston reported his arrival at the airport and then the hospital via text. He’d taken a hotel room nearby and would be staying several days until the boy was ready to return to Scotland with him. No doubt he’d want to collect the child’s belongings from the home but Dennis couldn’t allow that yet. He still had to have his look around first.
Ian wasn’t a brilliant data or computer analyst but he knew his way around information systems well. His relationship with Krista was largely professional and he had trained with her for several months. He had no talent such as what she had possessed, but he knew enough about her work to look for things out of the ordinary. Yes, that’s all she worked with, the out of the ordinary, but even she had patterns. Somewhere in her files was something that didn’t fit in. He had to discover what that was.
He hoped it wouldn’t be all that hard. There were a standard set of procedures Krista was supposed to follow and being highly detail oriented, she followed them to the letter, at least up until now. Whenever she was working on a project, the relevant files were logged using a randomly rotated encryption code. Then, when she was ready to report, a separate rotating algorithm was used to encrypt the data for transmission to the SIS home office. The same code was never used twice.
What Ian had to discover was anything in her private directory that wasn’t encrypted for logging and later investigation. Everything she’d already sent to SIS would have been deleted in such a manner that it would be unrecoverable, even if agents had physical access to the storage medium being used.
Dennis worked slowly, patiently. Now that he was rested, his mind was not only clearer but he felt quite calm, almost dispassionate. He didn’t expect the results to be immediately forthcoming, but as time passed, he realized that whatever Krista knew, she wanted to keep not only from the so-called “foreign powers” but from SIS as well.
“What they hell could she have discovered that would make her hide information from us?”
It had to be here. Her home PC, laptop, tablet, and cell had all been missing, presumably taken by the robbers (and no doubt now in the hands of people expert in recovering computer data). The same with young Ian’s laptop and tablet (his mother didn’t allow the boy a smartphone). The only computer hardware and digital data left was here where she worked.
Ian’s recovery algorithm discovered almost nothing, which surprised him. He expected her to have several projects all at some stage of investigation but not ready for collating and reporting. She had pulled together bits of data that seemed to point to some sort of Russian plot involving the United States. He supposed that the American President would either be thrilled or dismayed, but Krista hadn’t completed her analysis so Dennis couldn’t tell what it might indicate.
She also had gathered some rather disparate data regarding a connection between Iran and an Israeli PM, but again, it was far too fragmentary to make sense of, and in any event, both sets of data were properly organized and encrypted which was her usual M.O.
After hours of work, the recovery program found only six items that didn’t match Krista’s usual working pattern.
The first was an ordinary news report about Kim Jong-nam, dated 13 February 2017. Ian recalled how North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un had bragged of murdering his half-brother in an attempt to “horrify the world” or some such nonsense.
There was an undated photo of known chemical weapons dealer Fredric Sandoval Lee with his mistress Anisah Yasin. There was a separate photo of a gravestone of someone named Edwin Corley, born 22 October 1931, died 7 November 1981. There was a notation stating that the site of Corley’s burial, or rather his ashes, was at St. Mary’s Annunciation Cemetery in Pringle, Pennsylvania next to his wife Betty.
Ian tried to open the next file.
“What the bloody hell? This file cannot be opened because it is damaged or corrupted. That’s insane. This is one of the best data storage systems in the world. Fucking Bill Gates would be proud to have a system like this. What is this, bloody Windows 95?” So much for being dispassionate.
For the next 45 minutes, Ian utilized every skill he possessed but to no avail. The last three files were unrecoverable, at least by him. He used a secure communications line to call London. Someone whose name Ian wasn’t even allowed to know would be coming out on a supersonic military aircraft. No one was to touch the system until that person arrived. This portion of Dennis’s investigation was finished. But he did have somewhere else left to go.
“Thanks for the ride again, Winston.”
The police lieutenant picked Ian up outside of the office building near the center of Port Louis where he’d spent all morning and drove him to his next stop, the Bernham residence. Dennis realized he was hungry again and fortunately, Winston had stopped off at a street vendor and picked up some Dholl pori.
“Um, delicious,” Ian said between bites.
“Thought you’d like it.”
Ian waved part of his meal at Winston while chewing.
“No thanks. I’ve eaten. Enjoy,” the police officer smiled. His associate was one of the top agents at MI6 but he had the eating manners of a starving dog.
Dennis had finished by the time they pulled in front of Krista’s flat. Yellow police tape continued to surround the area and there was a marked police car out front with two officers inside. When they saw Permalloo’s car approaching, the officers got out. Winston got out and walked over to them as Ian stood by the car.
“How’s it going?”
“All quiet, Lieutenant. Not a peep. A few lookiloos, but that’s it.”
“Good. We’ll be inside.”
The officers had been instructed not to inquire about Permalloo’s companion although quiet rumors were being traded between some people in the department.
Both men put on latex gloves before crossing the police tape. Winston had a copy of the door key and used it to gain entry.
It was surprisingly organized inside for the scene of a burglary and murder. Living room chair knocked over. Loose rope and a cloth that had probably been used to bind and gag for the child whilst he was being beaten. A few blood stains on the carpet, again probably Ian’s. Krista had been smothered on the sofa nearby in direct line of sight of the child. Urine stains on the cushions where she expired.
Just like in the police report and photos, electronics all missing. Power and data cables jutting out of the walls at odd angles like fingers bereft of a hand. Ian didn’t know what he was looking for, but there had to be something, some other clue Krista left behind.
Bookcase. You could tell a lot about a person by the books they read, or at least those they wanted people to think they read. Bottom shelf was children’s books, some too young for an eleven-year-old, but then they probably had sentimental value.
Common mathematics and data analysis tomes, Krista’s passion but nothing that would tell the uninitiated her true profession. Some books on child rearing, specifically regarding autism.
“What’s that, Ian?” Winston had been looking in the kitchen and heard his companion muttering to himself.
“I say how odd,” he repeated louder. “Mystery and spy novels. Never knew Krista had an interest.”
“As I recall, the MI6 report said her ex read them.”
Ian remembered the information about Malcolm now that Winston mentioned it. “Yes, that’s right. He couldn’t get enough of them. But what the hell are they doing here?”
Ian casually scanned the paperbacks, A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré, The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman, The Spy’s Son by Bryan Denson, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.
The agent continued to peruse the bookshelf. He disdained fiction about his profession. The authors almost always got it all wrong, although there were rumors that MI6 had a special division dedicated to reading spy novels just to make sure they didn’t accidentally or perhaps purposefully contain information pertaining to actual intelligence operations.
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett…
“What the fuck.”
“Ian?” Winston started walking back to where Dennis was standing and watched the agent bending forward continuing to read.
“The Jesus Factor by Edwin Corley.”
“What is it, Ian?”
Dennis debated the wisdom of answering Permalloo. After all, the lieutenant was a double-agent for MI6, but then again, what Ian was investigating was so big and was something so sensitive, that Krista hadn’t reported it or even logged it properly. One of the reasons that SIS sent him to investigate was that he knew something of Krista’s methods. They’d become friends, but not lovers as some had supposed.
Until this moment though, it hadn’t occurred to him that she might not have reported any of this to SIS because she was trying to send Ian a message personally.
As you may know by now, this series is an outgrowth of my flash fiction piece Mauritius Intrigue which introduced MI6 agent Ian Dennis, a man assigned to investigate the murder of a British Secret Intelligence Service top data analyst and who has discovered more than he bargained for.
Here’s the table of contents so far:
You’ve just read the fourth chapter and there is plenty more action coming up. Let me know what you think. The next chapter is The Woman is Deadly.