Chapter Eight: Another Shot
“He gave up his two mates so we should have this case tied up fairly soon, Ian.”
Police Lieutenant Winston Permalloo on the island of Mauritius where this whole mess began had finally gotten a break. A DNA sample of one of the four robbers who had been in Krista Bernham’s flat the night she was assassinated was matched up with a petty thief named Cassam Denmamode who was subsequently arrested in the aftermath of yet another heist. His attorney suggested he might be better off turning over his two accomplices rather facing a murder rap alone.
“What did he say about the fourth man, Winston?” Ian didn’t need to speak louder just because it was an international call, but decades of habit were difficult to break.
“Their boss, though Denmamode doesn’t know much about him. He planned all their jobs, emailed them their instructions for the robberies, and in addition to what they got for each haul, wired additional funds for them into an offshore account. The three we have here are small timers, but whoever put them up to this was a stone cold professional.”
“Quite, Ian. It seems clear that the robberies were just a front for the real objective, the assassination of Ms. Bernham. Once that had been accomplished, the fourth man disappeared again and he stopped sending them any further crime plans.”
“So they tried a robbery on their own and promptly got caught.”
“On video anyway, plus Denmamode left behind his DNA on a spent cigarette that matched what we found at Bernham’s.”
“Nothing else he could tell you on who hired the gang.”
“No. They were obviously engaged because of their low moral fiber and even lower intelligence. I’m sure they’ll cut a deal in exchange for lesser sentencing, but the best we’ll get out of them is the name of their fence and the recovery of at least some of the stolen goods. Oh, Denmamode swears that it was their boss who worked over little Ian and who dispatched his mother. The rest of them had no hand in it.”
“Sure. Like I said, they are all petty criminals. They’re still accessories to murder, but whoever hired them is a shadow. He met them at Bernham’s already masked, but they’re pretty sure he was Chinese.
“He’s sure the fourth man was a man.”
Winston paused for a second. “Yeah. Voice, build, musculature on his forearms when exposed, no doubt about it, Ian.”
The MI6 agent had been thinking of Xiao, even though she denied involvement in Krista Bernham’s death. You never know what secrets she was keeping.
“Okay, just a thought.”
“How are things at your end, Ian? Any new leads?”
Winston served in the Mauritius security forces and was, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the only covert agent native to the island, but he was also an MI6 double-agent. Ian might have shared the details of another case with him, but what he’d found out to date suggested the fewer people who knew anything, the better.
“Not so far. Still going over a bunch of files hoping something will turn up. Doubt we’ll ever find Krista’s murderer.”
“Keep at it, Ian. You’re the best man I know for ferreting out this sort of thing.”
It was true. Dennis had built his reputation on solving cases that would totally baffle most other agents. He felt he was close on this one, but it was very likely that Permalloo could never be told the truth. It would probably help the Lieutenant live a longer and happier life.
“Thanks, Winston. I appreciate the update. Got to get back at it now.”
“I understand. Hope the next time you come over, it’ll be just for holiday, see the sights, sample more of the local cuisine.” Winston still remembered how Ian, cultured in most other ways, tended to eat like a starving dog.
“Me, too. Best to the lads at the station. Ciao.”
They broke the connection. One more loose end tied up. Now back to his prime suspect.
Stephen Robert Hall, born 13 June 1991 in Birmingham, parents Wesley and Clare Hall, one sister Julie, two years younger, graduated Year Thirteen at age 15, graduated Cambridge with honors at age 19, dual degrees in Computer Science and Security Data Analysis and then immediately recruited by SIS, designed current computer security system used by the service, single, lives in Kensington in a renovated Victorian, security grade, Most Secret, on current assignment since 2012, assignment type, Classified.
He had been Krista’s handler for the past five years, right up to the time of her death. If Ian was right, Hall ordered her assassination, but on whose authority?
He had been in a position to monitor all of Krista’s work including data she had yet to submit to SIS. Was he running his own dirty little game, selling secrets to the highest bidder, or was he just a middle man, passing on her work and receiving orders on how to respond? There had to be a way to find out. There had to be a way to find out about Andy’s sleeper.
Maybe Krista had already found out.
Ian didn’t like losing control of information, especially if it pertained to an active case such as Krista’s murder. When he was informed that he had to cease working on Bernham’s work computer system and let the computer expert attempt to retrieve the three corrupted files, he had made copies. He knew enough about Krista’s set up to do so without triggering any alarms.
Unfortunately, the only two computer systems capable of reading those files were her work equipment, which had since been returned to London and decommissioned, and Hall’s system, which he used to receive her reports as her handler. He’d also configured her computer with a backdoor so Hall could get inside anytime he liked. That’s how he found out about her current work, the news story about Kim Jong-nam’s murder, the photo of Edwin Corley’s grave site, the photo of Fredric Lee and his mistress.
Ian had trained with Krista right before she was deployed to Mauritius. People assumed their relationship went beyond the professional, but while they became good friends, they never became lovers. They were both recently divorced and extremely shy about “hooking up” with anyone else so soon, as the kids these days might say. Several workstations in the security training division had been configured for their use, configured in the same manner as Krista’s Mauritius equipment as well as Hall’s. The Mauritius information system no longer existed and he had absolutely no way to get to Hall’s work area, but there was nothing stopping him from accessing the computers he and Krista originally trained on.
Late enough at night and there’d be no one around. His key card use was monitored, but those records would only be reviewed if there was a problem, either with something turning up missing in an area he visited, or some suspicion directed at him personally.
“Let’s see. Three supposedly corrupted files. I know what’s supposed to be on one of them already. What about the other two?”
Ian wasn’t actually speaking out loud. Doing so was a terrible practice if you were a covert. No sense in risking anyone overhearing you or being recorded by a hidden device. He inserted the flash storage device in the computer after booting it and logging in. Logging in could be a problem, but again, only if someone checked. If they did they’d discover that his sign-on still loaded the same security set up he and Krista used five years ago during his training, a profile that was supposed to have been deleted.
“Three corrupted files. Is the data truly lost?”
The computer hardware and software would read anything Krista created and he once again used the search programs to see if corruption simply meant encryption. It hadn’t found anything before, but this time he had a better idea what to look for. For instance, did Krista know about the North Korean sleeper?
He scanned for data bits that would be recognized and resolve as “North Korea,” “nuclear,” and security codes indicating sleepers and Andy’s division. He might not be able to recover the entire file, but he should be able to…
“Bingo.” This time, he had whispered the word.
Information, symbols actually, indicating nuclear weapons, North Korea…oh my…China…and one other. The other symbol was directly linked to the one for nuclear weapons which was then linked to North Korea but not China. There was a separate pairing for nuclear weapons and China.
“Null, nuclear weapons, North Korea. Not-null, nuclear weapons, China.” Ian’s eyes widened with realization.
“Oh my God. Edwin Corley and The Jesus Factor.”
“Now what about the next file?”
Ian had been following Hall for nearly two weeks. He went to work the same time each morning like clockwork, took lunch in the cafeteria, left at the same time everyday, visited the same three pubs, an internet cafe, library, went to the cinema occasionally, bought comic books at the same shop once per week, but never seemed to engage in anything more than casual social contacts. No apparent lovers either male or female. If only he could bug his phones, home computers, and premises, but given Hall’s security clearance, any tampering on his part might be detected, alerting both Hall and MI6.
If he’d ordered the hit on Krista, Hall could have done it even from SIS if he was clever enough. It was too easy for Ian to get a record of what Hall accessed from the internet at home or through his mobile. Of course there’s the internet cafe and library to consider, so he could have done it from there as well.
The second of the three “corrupted” files contained indications that Krista and Hall conversed covertly after she had discovered the backdoor he’d planted on her system. The data was fragmentary, but Ian was willing to bet that she had made an arrangement with him. Deliver all of her data to him and allow herself to be assassinated in exchange for the guarantee that her son and ex-husband would not be interfered with in any way. After all, they didn’t know anything and were low risk. She delivered after the fact when Hall retrieved her computer system from Mauritius.
If Ian could read the corrupted files then so could Hall. He knew about the sleeper but just like Ian, had no idea who she really was and where she and her son were located. They might not even be in the UK. If Andy was smart (and he was, not a great field man, but intelligent and innovative), he’d put her someplace he never previously used, go outside normal channels, do everything possible to dissociate her from MI6. That protected her and her child from Hall and his associates, but Ian would never find her either.
Hall read the second file which just told him what he already knew about the deal he’d made with Krista. He would have contacted Qian, contracted an assassin, this would have been over six months ago, set up the robbery ring, and then wait for the opportune moment for the assassin to personally join the gang and strike.
But Hall didn’t participate in the assassination. He’d never been to Krista’s flat, even when in Mauritius examining and retrieving her work information system. He knew about the photo of Edwin Corley’s grave, but he didn’t know about the paperback, “The Jesus Factor” on a bookshelf in her living room. The assassin might have seen it, but he didn’t know about Krista’s computer records. Only Ian knew about that connection, which means Hall had no reason to believe he was so close to uncovering the North Korean hoax and Hall’s involvement in Krista’s death. As far as Hall knew, Ian had reached a dead end.
Xiao knew. She must have known, at least of some of it. That’s how she was able to warn Ian. Their meeting in Cyprus was strictly off the books as were the latest developments in Ian’s investigation. Hall couldn’t possibly know that the MI6 agent had all the physical evidence he needed, or at least enough to begin a formal if quiet inquiry, locked away in a safety deposit box he’d taken out under an assumed identity at a bank hundreds of kilometers away.
He had another shot at this. Now he just needed to crack Hall.
Thursday nights Hall got home late. First to the comic book shop to pick up the latest issues, then off to the pub for a pint and a meal. He was a creature of habit. Only varied his orders slightly. What tonight? The Sausage Sandwich with mustard?
It took a bit of doing, but Ian had gotten into his third floor flat without detection. SIS had to know if either Hall’s home or work security had been breached, but the agent was routinely updated on standard security procedures for operatives and other Most Secret personnel. Hell, he’d designed half of them.
He was sitting in the dark in an overstuffed chair next to a reading desk and lamp facing the door. His back was to the wall, windows facing south to either side of him. The radiator directly behind him probably hadn’t been used in decades, but when these old places were gentrified, the archaic heaters were sometimes considered decorative and left in place.
Ian reached into his jacket and undid the strap securing his Glock 17 in his shoulder holster. He wasn’t considering killing Hall, but he did intend to threaten him.
Should he have just turned over his evidence to his section chief and let him order Hall’s arrest? Probably. It was foolish to manage this on his own. But Krista had been a friend. Ian had seen the haunted look in her son’s eyes when he visited him in hospital. His Dad Malcolm had the boy in counseling, but the child had to live with the image of his Mum being smothered to death right in front of him for the rest of his life.
Hall had ordered that. He had made a deal with Krista with the cold precision of a machine. Ian intended give the man a small taste of her fear and desperation.
Dennis heard the key open the deadbolt and then the door lock. Hall walked in, merchandise in hand, closed and locked the door, flipped on the light switch, and went to disarm the alarm system. Ian had done it for him already.
Hall turned and saw the agent, put the comic book sack on a small shelf next to the door, and then he smiled slightly. “I didn’t think you were smart enough to figure it out. Congratulations. You’ll never be able to prove it.”
“You think so?”
“Not without the files I had in my possession, the ones you couldn’t read. They tell the rest of the story and I’ve already permanently deleted them.”
He didn’t know about the duplicates Ian made, or the fact that he found a way to read them…well, two out of three.
Dennis stood. “I won’t need those files. I have you. You’re going to do a bit of talking, Hall.”
“Get out of my flat, Dennis. Burden of proof is on you and you’ve got nothing. If I have to call security, you’ll be the one who’ll have some explaining to do, not me.”
Ian casually reached into his jacket, pulled out the Glock and pointed it at Hall’s chest.
“If you kill me, you certainly won’t be able to wring a confession from my corpse.”
Hall was too nonchalant. Even if he thought Ian had nothing on him and that Dennis wouldn’t kill him, most people started sweating when they had a handgun pointed at them.
Ian reached into his outer jacket pocket, pulled out the silencer, and affixed it to the Glock. Then he pointed it at Hall’s right thigh and pulled the trigger.
The MI6 agent knew the downstairs neighbors were out this evening and with the silencer, it would be unlikely anyone else could have heard the shot. Hall screamed a little too loudly for the pain of a flesh wound and collapsed on the floor.
“Enough of that, you bastard.” Ian was on Hall in an instant, grabbing him by the collar with his free hand and pulling him up.
“I don’t have to kill you, I just have to hurt you a lot.” Ian pulled the trigger again, this time grazing Hall’s thigh just an inch or so higher than last time. “Would you care if I took out one of your balls next?” Dennis wasn’t as angry as he appeared, but that was part of the game. It should be easy to convince Hall that he was a loose cannon, capable of acting recklessly. He might even kill Hall unintentionally.
“Talk, you son of a bitch. You knew Krista found out the North Korean nuclear weapons program was a fake. They don’t have the nuke. They never did. China’s behind all this, aren’t they? You’re working for them!”
“Okay. Yes. Their missile tests were spot on, but they’d only conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, all underground, all using devices provided by the Chinese.”
“That’s why the Chinese have been so passive about Kim Jong-un’s threats. They knew it was all hollow. Kim Jong-nam was killed because he found out.”
“That’s right, Dennis. North Korean agents arranged it, bought the VX nerve weapon from Fredric Lee, hired the prostitutes, but it was the Chinese who ordered Lee taken out.
“And you ordered Krista killed.”
“She knew she couldn’t report her findings to SIS because she had to go through me. Even if she went outside channels, even if she went public, she, her son, and ex would all be killed in retaliation.”
“So you made a deal with her.”
“She kept quiet and I’d make sure the Chinese let her son and his Dad live.”
“Why the hoax? Why let the world believe the North Koreans were a nuclear threat?”
“To distract the Americans. Their President is obviously a lunatic. If he had the CIA and military too busy focusing on the Korean situation, they wouldn’t be paying attention the Chinese and how they were manipulating the West into looking like the aggressors. If the U.S. could be convinced that the North Korean nuclear threat was imminent, they’d make a pre-emptive strike which would allow China to intervene.”
“A full nuclear war?”
“Hardly. The Americans would use a conventional military solution. Then the world would sanction a legitimate Chinese response and capture all of Korea, remove the U.N. and the Americans from the demilitarized zone and Korea permanently, plus be able to ensure the next U.S. administration would be more amenable to Chinese interests.”
“Why betray your country, Hall? Was the money that good or…?”
Hall looked down and started sobbing. Looking back up at Dennis, he said, “You don’t understand what they had on me. My sister and I…if my parents…if anyone found out…”
“Fine. That’s all I need to know for now. You’ll cough up the rest at…”
Ian pulled Hall more upright and was looking over his shoulder out the window. He saw the muzzle flash on the roof of the building opposite and heard the shot.
Like most of his countrymen and in spite of his profession, he believed the American obsession with firearms was absurd, but he also knew that the western news media criticizing their “firearms mania” was almost always wrong about the details, especially high powered rifles with silencers. Bloody amateurs always editorializing and not reporting.
A sound suppressor only somewhat reduces part of the noise of a rifle discharge. Ian saw the flash, plainly heard the sonic crack of the bullet, and then saw Stephen Hall’s head explode.
His face was close enough to Hall’s that hair, skin, skull fragments, blood, and brains sprayed all over him. The bullet exited the back of Hall’s head and must have passed just over Ian’s right ear. The impact forced Hall’s body into Ian’s knocking him backward and causing him to drop Hall’s body and his Glock.
The radiator. A rifle shell could pass through the wall and still kill him, but those old pipes were made of cast iron. Ian was starting to dive to his right when the next shell hit him in the chest, followed not quite a second later by another.
Momentum carried Ian further back from the windows but also into the shelter of the wall radiator. The shooter no longer had line-of-sight on Ian. He tried to reach for his cell phone but could feel himself go light-headed. It was as if the room grew blindingly bright. He heard the rise and fall of an emergency vehicle’s siren in the distance, and then everything faded to black.
The story’s not over yet. There’s still one more chapter or perhaps an epilogue. Stephen Hall is dead and if Ian Dennis dies, will anyone discover the truth, the secrets Krista was keeping?
Here’s the table of contents so far:
I hope you are all having fun reading this (and even if you aren’t, I still want to hear from you). The final chapter is Gardens of Peace.