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TROUBLESHOOTER

 

by Malcolm Ferrier

 

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CHAPTER THREE

 

Jack gathered up the pages of the Deck file and placed them in the manila envelope.  He couldn't spend the day reminiscing about his past; he had work to do.  He would go to the crime scene at dusk this evening, but this afternoon he wanted to train.

Every second day, unless circumstances prevented, he would spend a few hours working on his physical and mental skills.  Weight training, sparring with a punching bag, and a long run made up the physical component.  Meditation and VR training developed his mental abilities.

During his time training at the CSIS facility, Jack had written an internal paper about virtual reality skill development.  He had called it "First Personal Growth: Video Games as a Martial Art."  It had started like this:

“Video gaming is like dreaming.  The experience seems real, but the consequences are not.  Nonetheless, it can still be a profound emotional experience.  Video games are also part of the storytelling tradition of our culture.  They give life to the mythology of our time and allow us to face the wonders and fears of our post-modern world.

Video games also simulate action under stress, and function as a forge of the spirit.  The repeated actions create pathways in the brain which allow the practitioner to remain calm and focused under pressure.  They also allow the user to face his or her fears in a controlled environment and try out new strategies and tactics…”

In order to continue using this technology after leaving CSIS agent training, Blake had arranged to get Jack a prototype of a mobile VR headset.  It connected to his laptop and functioned in a similar fashion to the full-scale version at the CSIS facility.  It looked like a bike helmet with a bulky pair of sunglasses attached.  Wires ran from the glasses across the top of the helmet and out the back where they attached to the video output of the computer.  They took a 3-D video signal from the laptop and split it into two slightly different images which were projected onto each lens of the glasses.  The user's eyes and brain would assemble these images into a full 3-D view.

Jack had been using the simulations from CSIS on this home VR system and found they kept his abilities up-to-date.  However, he had also found that the current selection of commercial video games worked just as well, if not better.  It probably had to do with the competitive market, but there was a broader range of missions from which he could select and the experience was often more intense and of a higher quality.  The games easily adapted to the 3-D VR system, were extremely immersive, and could simulate combat, driving, piloting, infiltration, anti-terrorist operations, and other activities.

He would practice his stealth and problem-solving skills for 60 minutes, usually playing at the hardest skill level.  He also wouldn't save his game, requiring him to restart if he made a mistake.  This raised the level of tension and forced him to proceed carefully and attentively.  Although this training wasn't the same as a real mission, it was as close as he could get.

By the time he completed his exercise and training routines, it was late afternoon.  Jack wanted to arrive at the crime scene shortly before dusk and re-create the killer's activities.  He changed into a black T-shirt and khakis and went to the parking garage.

 

It took him 45 minutes to reach West Vancouver.  He drove slowly through Deck's quiet, affluent neighborhood.  The houses on Deck's block were the kind that made people think of winning lotteries, writing a best-selling novel, or releasing a hit single.  Many could fall under the category of estate, with circular driveways, stone walls with automatic gates, and huge sculpted hedges surrounding immaculately tended grounds.

Jack stopped his BMW motorcycle a few houses down from Deck's home.  He walked slowly up the street, acting casual but taking in everything.  He knew his quarry was a professional and, despite the old saying, was unlikely to return to the scene of the crime.  Jack, however, took nothing for granted.

On his left, the walls and hedges of the huge properties rose up.  On his right, across the street, a forest began at the edge of the road and continued up the hillside.  No one had built on this side due to the steepness of the terrain.  Jack knew that was where he needed to start.

He crossed the road and walked along the forest's edge until he was across from Deck's address.  The police report indicated that the shot had come from this direction, near the top of the wooded hill.

Moving carefully, Jack climbed to the ridge of the hill.  He could see clearly over the stone wall to Deck's house.  He pulled out binoculars and focused in on the area near the garage door.  There was still police tape and an outline where Deck had fallen.  He looked over the house and could see the light of a television through the drapes.  The opiate of the mourning, he supposed.  Jack lowered the binoculars and looked at the rocky ground where he was standing.  The police forensics team had determined that the shot had come from this point, but they had found nothing.  Even the killer's tracks had been covered.

Near the end of his CSIS training, Blake had given Jack a few lessons on tradecraft and investigation.  One of the pointers that Jack used frequently was this: look for negative space.  When Blake first told him this tip, Jack hadn't understood.  Blake offered this anecdote.

"There's a Sherlock Holmes story that contains a conversation between Holmes and Watson.  Holmes says to Watson that there was a curious incident of a dog barking last night.  Watson replies that the dog didn’t bark at all.  Holmes says that is exactly what was curious.  The point of this story is that you should look for things that should be there but aren't.  By the way, you could learn a lot about investigation from Doyle's books."

Jack look again at the ground, trying to see what wasn't there.  Suddenly, it came to him.  The ground was strewn with rocks and twigs except for one area the size of a man's body.  If the killer had lain down to steady his rifle and wait for his target, this outline is where he would have done so.  He would have moved the rocks and twigs from underneath his body in order to be more comfortable.

Jack lay down within the outline and looked through the binoculars at the garage door.  This spot provided a perfect field of view.  He thought about what it must have been like for the shooter.  Waiting patiently to end a man's life.

Jack realized that all the separate pieces were beginning to add up.  Based on the ballistics report, the killer had used a high-powered hunting rifle.  He had been patient and thorough.  He had found a perch and made himself comfortable.  And he had created a trap for his prey.  It was clear that this man had hunted a great deal, and it could not have been other human beings he had hunted or his M.O. would be well-known.

The killer was a hunter of animals.

 

The Premier had called an emergency Cabinet meeting for Saturday evening.  Every available MLA met at the federal building in downtown Vancouver.  Word had gotten out about the murder of Richard Deck and many were near panic.  The meeting room was filled with the din of multiple voices asking questions, demanding answers, making threats.  There was nothing like the bluster of the powerful when they were frightened.

The Premier moved through the crowd to the dais at the front and addressed the group.

"I know you've all heard a lot of rumors and I'm here to set things straight."

"What the hell is going on here?"  This was from a heavyset man near the front of the room.  He was Maxwell Stevens, the Minister of Education.  "What exactly happened to Richard?"

"If you'll let me speak for a moment, Max, I'll tell you.  Richard Deck was found shot outside his home last night.  His wife discovered the body and called the police.  No one has been arrested, but every available agency is working on this."

A cacophony of voices exploded after this statement.  The loudest, belonging to Stevens, rose above the uproar.

"Have you even got a suspect?  What do we pay these people for?"

"That's why I called this meeting.  Until this matter is resolved, everyone here should take precautions.  You'll each be assigned a small security detail, but you should change your schedule to minimize any exposure.  I'll keep you all posted with any developments."

The Premier stepped down from the dais amid shouting voices.  Max Stephens stepped into his path, blocking his way.

"What haven't you told us, Wayne?"

Stewart looked at his interrogator.  He didn't much like the man.  Stevens was loud, obnoxious, and contrary.  Despite his girth, he had a pinched face with a terminally sour expression.  His was the type that made reaching a consensus a Herculean task.

"Look, Max, I’ve told you everything we know.  Why would I hide information?"

"I still get the feeling that there's something you're keeping from us.  I guarantee I'll find out what it is."

Stewart was losing his patience.  He hadn't slept since the call early this morning and he didn't feel like entering a debate with Stevens.

"Good luck to you, Max.  If you crack this case, please let us know."  He brushed past and headed to the exit.

Outside the meeting room, MLAs were assigned one or more plainclothes RCMP officers, depending on their status.  The little groups moved off awkwardly, like uncomfortable dance partners.  As he left, Stuart saw Stevens arguing with the two officers to whom he had been assigned.

 

Jason Pannu had worked as a security guard at the mall for ten years now, ever since he had moved from India as a younger man.  He had worked his way to supervisor of the evening shift, and he enjoyed his job.  It paid enough, he was able to provide for his family, and there was little actual danger.  The mall was located next door to offices and the federal building, and most of the clientele were affluent.  Shoplifters and kids on skateboards were the usual problems, with the occasional medical emergency or graffiti artist.

He didn't know why he noticed the man with the guitar case.  Perhaps the look of the man was inconsistent with the artistic nature of the guitar.  Jason had spent time in the Indian military and could recognize the look of a professional soldier.  He would remember this one.

Jason watched the man take the escalator up to the second level and move out of sight.

 

Richards saw the security guard take note of him.  He didn't like it, but he didn't think it would be a problem.  He walked along the railing on the second floor of the mall and looked down at the main level.  At this time on a Saturday evening, the mall was moderately crowded.  It would close in an hour, but he believed he'd have his opportunity before then.

He had spent the afternoon strolling near the federal building.  He had dressed poorly, because a down-on-his-luck individual loitering in downtown Vancouver was essentially invisible.

He knew that it would take time for the government to respond to last night’s event, but he assumed the MLAs would meet as soon as possible.  He had been right.  He had observed a steady stream of politicians entering the federal building early this evening.  He had gone to his car, changed his clothes, and entered the mall.

His targets this evening would be those of opportunity, but he had one that was a higher priority.  It all depended on circumstances.

He strolled along the storefronts and took an escalator up to the third and top floor of the mall.  This area contained expensive men's clothing stores and was not as crowded.  He walked to a side hallway which led to washrooms, a telephone, and a doorway labeled "Staff Only."  There was a teenage girl using the phone.  Richards walked past and entered the Men's washroom.

He crossed to a stall, went in, and locked the door.  It was important that he not be sighted entering the staff area.  He didn't have much time but he'd have to wait.  He could hear the girl's voice out in the hall.  He hoped this wouldn’t take too long.

 

Stevens was not happy.  This wasn’t unusual, but the extent of his unhappiness was more severe this evening.  Not only was Stewart trying to keep him out of the loop, Stevens had to put up with being babysat by a couple of Boy Scouts.

After the meeting, the RCMP officers had briefed him on their security measures.  Stevens had found most of them invasive, and resented the fact that he needed the two of them at all.  He had been argumentative, and it was clear to all that this would not be a harmonious relationship.

They had gone over his schedule in an empty conference room and the officers eliminated activities that they considered unnecessary and risky.  This had led to further arguments, and when they finished there was a palpable tension.  The officers were professionals, though, and remained calm and polite.  The three of them left the room and headed to Steven's car.

 

Finally Richards heard the girl say her goodbyes and hang up the phone.  He listened to her diminishing footsteps and then left the washroom.  He crossed the hall and entered the door marked “Staff Only.”

He had made a recon of this area a few days ago and knew that this hallway led to some administrative offices, storage rooms, and a staircase to the roof.  At this time, the whole staff area would be deserted.  He moved to the end of the hall and went up the stairs two at a time.  The door at the top was marked with a sign that said "Warning: Fire Alarm will sound if opened."

The alarm was triggered if the contact broke between leads in the top of the door frame and the top of the door.  Richards pulled some black electrical tape and a spool of wire from his coat pocket.  From the case attached to his belt he pulled a multitool.  Working quickly, he cut a length of wire and attached it to the two leads using the electrical tape.  He put the tools back in his pocket and pressed the door's handle.  The door open silently, and he slipped through.  He left the door slightly ajar using a coin from his pocket.

Once on the roof, he crossed over to the northwest corner.  From here, he could see the federal building, the multilevel parking garage next door, and the third story walkway that connected the two.  He placed his guitar case on the ground and opened it.

His rifle rested inside.  It gleamed dully in the reflected light.  He had cleaned it thoroughly before leaving his apartment and had only handled it with gloved hands.  There would be no fingerprints.

He lifted it out and set up the bipod stand at the end of the barrel.  Setting the stand on the corner's ledge, he had a perfect view of the glass-walled skywalk.  Once again, he waited.

 

Once again, they were arguing.  Stevens thought it inconceivable that he would not be driving his own car.  Rogers, the senior RCMP officer, told him it was standard procedure in such situations and was for his own safety.  MacKay, the other officer, wisely kept silent.

They walked along the second-story corridor that led to the skywalk.  As they reached the walkway, Stevens pulled out his keys and broke ahead.  Rogers sighed.  This man was like a small child.  He wondered if Stevens would get in the car and lock the doors.  It wasn't out of the question.  Rogers quickened his pace and called out.

"Mr. Stevens!  This area is very exposed.  Please let us do our jobs."

Stevens said nothing and walked faster.

 

Richards saw the group move onto the walkway.  One of the three was his prime target for this evening, but he was given special instructions for this one.  It would be a difficult shot, but he had made many difficult shots.  He looked through the scope, made a few slight adjustments, and squeezed the trigger.

 

The sounds were a bodyguard's worst fears come to life.  The simultaneous crack of a gunshot, the shattering of glass, and the soft impact of a bullet into flesh.

Rogers had just about caught up to Stevens in the skywalk and despite his personal feelings for the man, reacted quickly.  He threw himself at the staggering man and knocked him to the ground with a flying tackle.  At the same time, he pulled his gun and started to scan the area outside the smashed window.  He spotted movement on the roof of the mall across the street.

 

Richards calmly chambered another round and looked through the scope.  One of the men with Stephens, obviously well-trained, had his gun out and was covering the injured man with his body.  Richards heard him call to his partner who was crouched nearby, also holding a gun.

"The mall roof!  Two o'clock!"

The second officer looked straight at Richards' position and took careful aim.  A shot ricocheted off the stone ledge a few feet from Richards.

It was time to leave.

 

MacKay was about to take another shot when the shooter ducked out of sight behind the ledge.  Rogers called to him.

"Call this in!  I've got to check Stevens!"

MacKay rapidly spoke into his shoulder radio mike as Rogers rolled Stevens over.  The injured man groaned.  His shoulder was bloody, but it didn't look fatal.  After further examination, Rogers determined that the bullet had passed right through, missing vital organs.

The window must have deflected the path of the bullet enough to save the man's life.

 

Richards dropped the rifle into the case with gloved hands and moved away, staying low.  He regretted leaving the weapon behind but he wouldn't make it far with it in his possession.  He didn't think the cops had much of a description to go on, but he had to reduce the risk as much as possible.

He crossed to the exit door and pulled it open.  Entering the stairwell, he pulled the door shut and removed the wire and tape from the alarm leads.  He stuffed them in his pocket as he went down the stairs.

Reaching the staff hallway, he went to a fire alarm trigger on the wall and pulled the lever.  He continued through the staff door as the fire alarms began blaring.

He knew it would not be long before the mall was crawling with police.  He headed to the escalator leading to the second floor.

By this time, the patrons of the mall were starting to head toward the exits.  Richards fell in with a small group on the second level and moved with them down to the ground floor.

The exits were a mass of confusion.  There were people streaming out of the building as a few uniformed police officers tried to get inside.  He planned to walk right past them on his way out.

"Hold it!"

The voice came from behind him.  Richards kept moving, ignoring the order.  A hand fell on his right shoulder.

Richards turned slightly to look at his assailant.  It was the security guard from earlier.  He must have seen Richards without the guitar case and put two and two together.  It was unfortunate that Richards had to reward competence with pain.

He placed his left hand over the guard's knuckles and swung his right arm underneath and over.  He twisted his body violently and pushed on the back of the guard's head.  As the guard fell forward, Richards stuck out his right leg.  The guard flipped head over heels and crashed onto the hard tiling.

The people around him backed away in fear.  Richards looked over at the nearest exit.  The police were pointing at him through the crowd and yelling into their radios.  He turned and saw more cops coming toward him from the other end of the mall.

Richards knew he didn't have many options.  He could take a hostage, but that would only end in disaster.  Even if he had a gun, a firefight would be suicide.  He'd have to run.

From his reconnaissance of the mall, he had noted all possible exits.  He didn't believe the police would have time to cover them all.

Leaving the groaning security guard and the ring of frightened onlookers, he ran into the nearby Le Château.  Moving quickly, he passed by racks of black clothing on his way to the street exit.  He couldn't see any officers through the window, so he kicked the door open and ran out onto the sidewalk.

He heard shouts and the sound of running feet but he continued across the street.  He slid across the hood of a slow-moving car and was nearly hit by a bus.  Horns blasted as he ran into the entrance of the SkyTrain station.

The SkyTrain ran underground through downtown Vancouver and then emerged onto elevated tracks to deliver passengers to Burnaby and beyond.  Richards hoped his timing was lucky.

He tore down the stairs that led to the platform.  The police were right behind, maybe 30 seconds.  Richards vaulted over the turnstiles and took the last staircase down to the platform.  A train was just leaving, but as he sprinted to the nearest car, the doors closed and the train started to move away.  He slammed his fist in frustration on the window of the departing car.

He looked around.  There was a small crowd heading up the exit staircase opposite the one he had just descended.  There wasn't much time, but he had one more idea.  One more chance.

He crossed over to the exiting crowd and took off his jacket.  From one of his pockets he pulled a knit cap which he put on his head.  He forced himself to move slowly and casually, blending into the group.

From the top of the stairs he heard his pursuers reach the platform.

"A train just left!  He must be on board!"

"Contact the driver and tell him to take it slow.  We'll have four units waiting at the next station."

Thanking his luck, Richards continued up and out of the station and into the busy streets.  Next time, his exit strategy would be guaranteed.

 

Jack arrived back in his apartment shortly after 10 p.m.  He had thought about the case on his ride home, and had a plan of action.  He had some research to do, so he went to his computer.

There were a few messages waiting for him, including a spam entitled “Travel to the Caymans in Style.”  This got Jack's full attention.

This subject line was used by CSIS to indicate urgent information.  Jack copied the random seeming characters at the end of the email into his decryption program and read the translation:

"Another attempted hit on a Minister was made at 8:07 this evening at the Federal Building.  The target was Maxwell Stevens, Minister of Education.  Although wounded in the shoulder, the target is in stable condition under guard at St. Paul's Hospital.  The shooter was sighted by several mall patrons and a security guard, but escaped via the SkyTrain.  His weapon was recovered and is being held by the RCMP.  A description follows."

Jack read the description but realized it would be of little use.  There were too many six-foot white males with dark hair to start reeling in suspects, and the shooter was likely to change his appearance or hair color next time.  The weapon was another story, however.

Jack had to see that rifle.

 

Richards returned to his apartment around 11 o'clock.  After he got back to his car, he had taken a convoluted path through Vancouver to be sure he wasn’t followed.  He pulled a pack from the closet and started filling it with clothes and the few possessions he had in the room.  There would be some heat from tonight's operation and he felt it best if he was far away.  A few witnesses had gotten a good look at him and he had some respect for police tracking methods.  It was what they did, after all.

Directly, he finished packing.  Looking around the room, he could see no trace that he had been here.  He pulled open the door, shut off the light, and left the room.


 

 

Copyright © 2006 Malcolm Ferrier

 

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