The Vietnamese couple, the Minhs, did more than run the house. Although beginning to show their age, they were still very fit. Both were veterans of the war in Vietnam with the Quang Tri Provincial Reconnaissance Unit. Jack briefed them on the bomb attempt on his Pittsburgh house. The Minhs listened carefully and asked Jack to provide them with two 12-gauge pump shotguns and night vision glasses.
With the Minhs on guard, Kathy and Jack felt free to live a near-normal life in Charleston. Kathy loved to churn laps in the heated pool, hoping she could shame Jack into a race. Jack was a strong swimmer with a lot of in-water experience, but Kathy still beat him in the sprints. It didn’t matter how hard he tried, Kathy always beat him. She told him he should stop fighting the water and move through it. Maybe someday he would figure it out.
Kathy hoisted herself out of the pool, one full yard ahead of Jack. In deference to the Minhs, she was wearing her bikini. Kathy was addicted to skinny dipping and was delighted with the large pool and total privacy, so she could indulge herself. By the time Jack had settled in the heated cabana, Betty Minh appeared with two cold Yuenglings, homemade chips and a salsa dip.
Kathy had spent the early afternoon in their surveillance post across Market Street from Joel’s rug shop. Jack asked her if she had learned anything from watching the rug shop.
Kathy said, “Your serial killer is not doing much business. Maybe four people visited the shop all afternoon. Nothing special about any of them, but one was well dressed. He stayed an hour and left walking. He looked and walked like a European, maybe from a Mediterranean area. I decided not to follow him, even though I thought it was unusual someone so well dressed was walking in an area that was not all that good. There were a number of more convenient parking spots closer to the rug shop. I did get some photos of him that I think are pretty good. We need to send them to Frank. Maybe some of his counter-terrorism analysts can identify this visitor.
“Captain Shorer told you this rug dealer was trained in the al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. If he is part of a support network, any visitor he gets may be a terrorist. The well-dressed visitor looked to be in his mid-fifties. It is possible he is a pro and was being careful, looking for surveillance. Following a subject walking from a meeting some blocks to a parked car gives a surveillance team real problems. I think we should set up a remote motion-activated camera system aimed at the door of his shop. There is not much traffic in and out, so it shouldn’t give us a logistical problem to check the tape once or twice a week.”
“I think we might need some help. Watching a suspected serial killer is a job we can do. Adding the task of watching a possible terrorist site compounds the problem, for we must be alert to all the visitors to the shop as well as Hankins himself. The two of us cannot do that.”
Kathy said, “Look, I know about you cops and rules of evidence, but we need to break some rules. We need to look inside that shop before things get more complicated.”
“I suppose that means you go in.”
“You got that right. I am the spook who can pick locks, search computers, look for entry traps and generally be a lot smarter about clandestine entries and searches than a handsome, well-trained cop who is, by the way, an excellent lover. So you watch your perp and I’ll do the dangerous, highly skilled work. Okay?”
“Put like that, what choice do I have?”
“Okay. I love it when you agree.”
“Never mind the gloating. We need to do some planning.”
Their past random surveillance coverage of the rug shop indicated Joel Hankins seldom left the shop for more than an hour. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, he went to a small Taekwondo Dojang at 9:00 and stayed there until 10:30.
At 8:30 on Thursday, Jack was parked down the street from the Dojang watching the front and only entrance. At 8:45, Joel appeared. Jack waited until he saw Hankins come out on the Dojang floor in his uniform before he called Kathy and told her she could go into the rug shop. Kathy had studied the lock when she visited the rug shop a week ago. She was confident the lock itself wouldn’t be any problem. She has also sure there was no technical intrusion alarm in the rug shop, but Hankins may have trapped the entries to his shop and living quarters to reveal any entry after his departure. It had been cloudy all day and the night was unusually dark and threatening rain. Kathy stepped up on the narrow wooden porch and, with a quick glance around the door’s edge for traps, dropped on one knee and began to pick the lock, being careful not to leave any tell-tale scratches on the lock. Twenty seconds later she was in.
Snapping on her small beam hooded flashlight, Kathy went up the back staircase to Hankins’ living quarters over the three-car garage. Her light showed a clean orderly bedroom, bath and small sitting area that opened into a Pullman kitchen. The freezer and storage cabinet were stocked to overflowing with frozen dinners and staples. Heavy drapes covered the windows. Kathy used her digital camera to shoot pictures of the entire area. She wanted everything to be back in place when she left.
There were two other small bedrooms furnished with two cots and sleeping bags in each one. The windows were covered with heavy black drapes. The only sign of indulgence on Hankins’ part was the high definition TV and the Oriental rugs on the floors of all the rooms. A desk was centered on the wall opposite the bathroom under a black-draped window. A notebook computer was on the desk. After checking for any traps, Kathy sat down at the computer and hit the power switch. She checked all the internal drives and then went to files on the ‘My Computer’ area of Windows 7. She found no hidden files or files protected by a password on the hard drive. Checking the desk drawers she found no DVDs or CDs. The access slots to the two DVD drives were dusty. She then checked the most convenient USB port and found signs of routine use in the small scratches around the port. So, she thought, he makes use of flash drives to store his data. I guess that makes sense for a traveling merchant who wants the ability to showcase his wares. Except that they are nowhere to be seen and surely he wouldn’t have taken them to his Taekwondo lesson. Multiple gigabyte flash drives would be easy to hide. If he uses them a lot, the hiding place should be close to the desk or in the desk.
For the next ten minutes, Kathy searched the desk drawers. She took each one out and examined their interior and exterior. Finished with searching the desk and not finding a flash drive, she leaned back and thought, surely his hiding place has to be nearby. She thought, wait a minute, girl, the guy uses a notebook and, if his flash drives are not for the rug business, he could move the notebook anywhere, so maybe the flash drives are hidden where he could relax. There was nothing under or in the mattress. She checked the drawers in the bedside stand and, taped to the back of the bottom drawer, she found three flash drives. She knew there wasn’t time to open any of the drives, so she put them in a USB port on her notebook one by one, and thirty seconds later all the data they contained were transferred to her hard drive.
She just finished when Jack called and told her Hankins had left the Taekwondo Dojang and appeared to be heading back to his shop. She had three minutes to clear the shop. With a quick look around, Kathy saw nothing out of place. She hurried down the stairs and after pausing to check the area outside the shop entrance, slipped outside. Kathy picked the lock closed. She was just entering the side door of the observation post when she saw Hankins’ dark blue van coming down the street. She thought, that is just a little too close.
She watched Hankins park his car in the garage. A few minutes later a sliver of light escaped from a window in the upstairs living area. As planned, she headed home to meet Jack.
Kathy thought, from idea to execution in two days. Not bad. No red tape or approval chains to climb. No endless briefings and hand holdings of nervous superiors. No struggle for funding. There was something to be said for freelancing. But, it was clear they needed some help. A two-person team was too limited, and pushing beyond your resources is a proven formula for failure.
Jack saw Kathy pull into the driveway and waited for her on the back patio. The late January weather certainly was better than it was in Pittsburgh. He could tell Kathy was in her cool state waiting to tell him what she had. Jack hugged her, handed her a cold beer and said, “Okay, what did you get while I was babysitting Mr. Hankins?”
“Well, we have a picture layout of the shop and living quarters and some computer files. We don’t have any coverage of the garage. Ran out of time. Let me walk you through the visual layout first.”
She covered the shop area very quickly but paused in the coverage of the living area. “First, the living quarters are laid out and furnished to house at least six people. The kitchen is stocked with enough food for several days. Most of the frozen dinners are suitable for a South Asian or Middle Eastern diet, including basmati rice and pita bread. Probably from that Whole Foods store in Mount Pleasant. It looks to me as if Mr. Hankins is expecting some visitors who plan on staying for a week or more. No sign that any women are staying there or have been there.”
“Yes, let’s see what I copied from the flash drives I found taped to the bottom drawer of his night stand. I didn’t have time to open any of the files, so I don’t know what’s on them. From the care he took in concealing them, they must contain something he wants to hide.”
Kathy opened the files she copied to her hard drive. The first several frames contained pictures of rugs with prices and descriptions. The next frame brought gasps. A naked young girl, not much beyond her middle teens, lay on her stomach. Her neck was wrenched around so her blank eyes were staring up. Her body was covered with welts. Each frame seemed worse than the one before. Kathy could feel her stomach churning and ran into the bathroom. Jack could hear her heaving and thought, no wonder, this is sick stuff, real sick.
Kathy came back looking a little green but said, “Okay. I want to see the rest of what this sick son-of-a-bitch has been doing.”
There were a total of ten young women tortured and murdered. All with their necks twisted, except for one whose face and body was so badly beaten, she might have died before he could break her neck.
Jack stopped his pacing around the room and said, “I would like to go over and kill this guy right now. I’ll leave the flash drives in his pocket. We can’t let this sick bastard kill again. All of these sexual predators need to be put away for life.”
Kathy said, “We have a big problem, the standard conflict or divide between the law and national security priorities. If we take this guy down, it will scare off al Qaeda contacts who may intend to use the rug shop as a staging or training area to kill several hundred Americans. If al Qaeda knew their support agent is a serial killer of young women, they would kill Hankins themselves. We’ll have to keep close track of our sick rug merchant and try to keep him from killing anyone else. We’ll get him as soon as we talk to Frank and he gives us the go-ahead.
“I see no pattern here except that the women are all young. Nothing else sets them apart. Not hair color, body type, racial or ethnic background. We know he doesn’t sexually assault them. There is, according to your old boss, Captain Shorer, no DNA from semen, blood or anything else. Why does he do this?”
Jack said, “Three years ago I was working with a small task force in Pittsburgh, trying to get a serial killer of young girls, even younger than this nut is killing. Again, little or no forensic evidence. This was before the routine use of DNA. We finally trapped this guy and killed him in a shootout. Before he died, an officer asked him why? The killer said, ‘The eyes! The eyes! I love seeing the light go out and the soul depart.’ Maybe that’s what we have here.”
Kathy said, “You know, I was wondering why the eyes were always open on his victims’ pictures. You may be right on. That also means he doesn’t keep his prey alive very long and he doesn’t play with them. He beats them, breaks the neck and shoots his pictures. This guy must be stronger than he looks and well-coordinated to break their necks and get his camera ready to shoot before they die. I hate to say this but we have a few more files to look at.”
The rest of the files had to do with the rug business and a copy of the King James Version of the Old Testament. The business files listed the towns and cities Hankins visited buying and selling rugs. Jack realized the need to correlate the dates and places of Hankins’ travels, with the homicides of the young women with the same M.O. Trouble is, if he gave this information to Captain Shorer of the Pittsburgh Police, he would be off and running to gather the evidence and arrest Hankins before Frank and the counter-terrorists were ready.
Would they have to let this monster walk the streets in order to stop an unknown terrorist plan? The cop in him said, hell no! But after battling with al Qaeda, he knew they were capable of bringing a major terrorist attack to the United States again. Kathy had the floor and was waiting for Jack to focus on the files, especially those associated with the Old Testament. Finally, he looked at Kathy and said, “Why in hell does this monster have the Old Testament on file in his computer?”
“Well, it’s not for religious purposes. There is nothing religious in his living quarters. No religious books or pictures. This bastard doesn’t belong to or go to any church. In the time we’ve had him under surveillance, he hasn’t gone near a mosque. Before the science of cryptology became technologically advanced after WWI with near random generated codes, intelligence agencies used books to code messages. The code could be made up of a substitution code based on a pre-designated line or lines on a page of the book. The page of the book used for a message would not be used again. So each message would have a different substitution code.”
“So, you’re saying we can decrypt any message Hankins gets from al Qaeda.”
“No, I’m not saying that. Without the page and line numbers, we can’t break his code. NSA probably could but not fast enough. I doubt that he gets any messages by radio or via the Internet. They are more likely to be hand-carried or mailed messages. So, what we have doesn’t help us.”
“Okay, so much for that, I have a couple of ideas how we can stop this nut from killing again. It will require some help to keep track of him 24/7. We’ll need to put a beacon on his van. It’s the only vehicle he has, and I don’t think he will rent a car to go kill someone. Anytime he moves the car, we’ll have a team standing by to follow him.
“It’s time to call Frank and see if we can go see him.”