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The Atonement - A Will Starr Short Story


The Atonement

He was the sole mourner. The old man had died alone and forgotten and would have been buried by the county if he had not intervened. The usual requirements were waived by the clerk as long as he accepted full responsibility for the costs, which he did. He hired a mortuary and paid for an escort to the cemetery. The hearse and his rented car made up the procession through the rainy streets.

He handed the priest a hundred dollar bill and watched as the casket was lowered. Then he tossed in a handful of dirt and left.

Later, as the sun disappeared over the motel walls, he punched in a number only he knew and waited.


“I need a favor.”

The captain turned off the seat belt sign so he retrieved his case from the overhead and stepped out of the plane and into the terminal where he rented a car using a driver’s license, credit card, and passport issued to Davis W. Johnson. They went through without a hitch as expected. Three hours later, he was in a small Canadian town 80 miles northwest of Montreal where he rented a room from a local inn using the same identification. Outside, an early snow was falling softly against the window. Inside, he pulled the .45 automatic from its lead lined case and checked the magazine. It was fully loaded, so he screwed the silencer in place and snugged it down. He placed it in his waistband rig hidden in the small of his back and slipped on his jacket. He also put three pairs of handcuffs in his pockets. He was ready.

The inn was two blocks away from Mike’s, a local favorite. He wondered if it was called a bar or a pub in Canada? Maybe a tavern? He shrugged. It didn’t matter of course, but he would find out later simply because he wanted to know. Ahead, the lights glowed dimly in the increasing snowfall. Good. It would help silence any noise.

Mikes was noisy and crowded with the after work bunch. He found a spot at the bar and ordered a Molson Draft. While the bartender was drawing it, he studied the faces in the back-bar mirror. He saw who he was looking for almost immediately seated at a table by himself. The man nodded at him in the mirror and indicated an empty chair with a casual wave of his hand.

“Did you hear about Jimmy?”

His abruptness and failure to even say hello were part of his dossier. Jules Vernon was a skinny, balding geek in his twenties with a sour attitude. He was also a vicious hacker who had absolutely no sympathy for his many victims. He was looking for a specialist enforcer to convince those who refused to pay the ransom on their hijacked computers to cough it up, and that was the reason he was here.

“What about Jimmy?”

Jimmy Falco was the man who recommended him to the man across the table out of sheer terror, and yes, he already knew all about Jimmy, but it wouldn’t do to say so.

“Found him dead of an overdose. I didn’t even know the bastard used. Now I’ll need someone to man the Vegas office. If you work out here, maybe it’ll be you.”

He doubted that very much, but he frowned and nodded.

“Sorry to hear that about Jimmy. He was a real asset.”

“No one is indispensable to the operation, other than me. I am the operation.”

His arrogance was also part of his description as was his foolish tendency to accept without the proper vetting anyone who scraped and bowed before him, so the man called Davis W. Johnson did a little scraping and bowing.

“Jimmy said you’re the brains of the outfit Mister Vernon. He said you’re an outright genius with an IQ so high it can’t even be measured. I don’t know much about that malware stuff myself, but I can get a family man to slap his Mama if need be. I’ll get those holdouts to pay up.”

He sipped his beer while Jules Vernon eyed him through his bifocals. He pretended not to notice by turning to watch a couple drunkenly dance by him. When he turned back, he could see that Vernon had made up his mind.

“You free tonight?”

He nodded. “I’m free whenever you need me, boss. Anytime, anyplace.”

“Let’s go see the operation and I’ll give you the list of holdouts. We’ll see what you can do for me.”

The hacker boiler room was fronted by a pastry and doughnut shop run by Jules Vernon’s boyfriend. It was closed and he was about to leave when they walked in. He eyed the man standing behind his lover suspiciously, but after Jules Vernon hugged him and whispered something in his ear, he nodded and left.

A shelving unit served to disguise a hidden door and after carefully peering out the windows at the deserted street, Jules Vernon opened the door. Inside, computer monitors with lines of code sat quietly and several large servers lined the wall, waiting for commands. He whistled softly and Vernon grinned at his feigned admiration.

“Quite a setup, eh? The phones are untraceable and operate on random numbers. I use the area codes of the marks so that they think the operation is near them. There’s not a chance in hell of getting caught.”

He sat down at a workstation and typed in a complicated password. A few moments later, a printer spewed out half a dozen pages, and Vernon handed them to his new employee.

“That’s a list of the holdouts. Pick a couple out and I’ll brief you on them and we’ll get you on it.”

He took the sheets to a vacant workstation and pretended to study them. He saw the name he was looking for almost at once, but he stalled to make it look good. It was the absolute confirmation he needed. Finally, he circled that name and another before handing the list to Vernon.

Vernon glanced at the names, and the hacker picked the target name first. “This guy is a real jerk. He refused to pay the ransom and threatened to find and kill everyone in the operation.”

Vernon looked up at him with a grin plastered across his pimply face.

“Yeah, this would be a perfect start. If you can get this guy to pay up, you can do anyone.”

He turned back to his monitor and started typing. After a moment, he realized that the man known as Davis W. Johnson was still standing behind him, so he swiveled around angrily and stared up at him owlishly through his thick lenses.

The unwavering Colt .45 was pointed directly at his forehead and the man holding it was no longer the slightest bit subservient.

“Let’s do this the easy way. Turn around and put your hands behind you. Be aware that I never miss and if you want to live, you’ll simply shut up and obey me.”

He handcuffed Jules Vernon’s wrists and his ankles. Then he used the third pair of cuffs to tie the other pairs together. He was now trussed up tightly and utterly helpless in his swivel chair.

“I want all the codes and all the contacts. If you lie to me, I’ll put a slug in your knee. Oh, and by the way, I lied about what I know. Computer crime is my specialty. Lets begin.”

Two hours and several backhand slaps later, he had everything he needed including the names and addresses of Vernon’s associates. He rolled him to a nearby counter, removed the third set of cuffs long enough to pass it around the counter leg, and refastened it. Then he stuffed a rolled up wad of paper towels in his bleeding mouth and secured it with an ethernet cable he found.

“I’ll be back. My advice is to remain calm because panicking could kill you.”

He was lucky. The address of the first man yielded both targets. When he explained who he was and why he was there, they both began to cry, but he wanted them to know why. Two muffled shots later, he left. Then he went to Vernon’s boyfriend’s apartment and eliminated that threat of identification. Finally, he returned to the doughnut shop where he found Vernon almost dead from suffocation and frantically thrashing around trying to free himself.

He jerked the cable off and yanked out the saliva soaked wad of paper toweling.

“Told you to remain calm.”

Vernon was gasping in deep gulps of air, so he waited until he had calmed down.

“Your operation is dead. So are your associates and your boyfriend.”

Vernon’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. He had been so careful and now it was all gone. But he could start over as soon as this freak left.

“All your victims will get some of their money back out of your accounts and control of their equipment will be released back to them. All except for this man.”

He showed the name to Jules Vernon.

“That man is dead. He died of a stroke brought on by high blood pressure and that pressure was brought on by the anger and frustration of having his life’s work stolen by you. He had just finished an autobiography of his days with the eighty-second airborne, including the drop behind German lines just before the D-Day invasion. It was an historic document and a labor of love. I will get it in print for him one way or another.”

He paused to let that sink in. Finally Jules Vernon looked up at him, and despite his fear, he still had some of the sneering indifference in his eyes.

“Was he someone you knew?”

“He was my widower neighbor when I was a small boy, and he’s the one who looked after me and my mom when my dad died. He found my mother a job and he taught me to be a man. In the end, I was all the family he had, so when he asked me for help with this the day before he died, I promised him I would.”

He swallowed the lump in his throat.

“He also taught me to always do the right thing, which I’m about to do.”

He jammed more paper towels in Jules Vernon’s mouth and then pulled the big .45 out of the small of his back.

“Maybe this will serve as a warning to other hackers.”

Jules Vernon’s eyes opened wide in realization and horror. Then the man known as Davis W. Johnson pressed the trigger.

“Good morning, Bob!”

He nodded at his boss. “Good morning sir.”

“How was the fishing? I hear it’s superb in Canada.”

“Couldn’t have been better sir. I caught them all.”

His boss stared at him for a long moment, and then turned back to his desk.

“That was your one favor, Bobby. Don’t ask again.”

“Understood sir, and thank you.”

“Go to work.”

“He’s coming.”

The words were whispered in his earpiece and he came to full attention as the tall man rounded the corner and came down the hall. He stopped in front of him.

“How was the fishing vacation, Bob? We missed you around here.”

“It was fine Mister President, just fine. Thank you for asking”

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