Hired for Secrets

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Yet another rival

What Sofie feared the most had finally happened. Philip was gone. He vanished from the safe-house, disconnected the SIM, and cut her out of his life. We could have solved this together. The possibilities of his hypothetical punched a whole in Sofie’s heart. Could have..., should have..., would have… There was a lot she’d do differently, if she got the chance. Starting with asking him whether Phil stands for Phillip of Philón.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore, Rach.”

Sitting at the kitchen bench in Rachel’s luxurious penthouse, Sofie rubbed her throbbing temples.

“Believe?” Rachel lifted an eyebrow. She hated seeing her friend turn into a spineless lump over a man. “Why is that even an option? You are a journalist. You don’t believe, you find the truth. You expose it, not get caught up in it.”

This enthusiastic pep-talk would have worked once. But Sofie was too tired. Physically and emotionally. She was done trying to keep up her facade. It was easy to be strong, objective, and resourceful when it was someone else’s life that was falling to pieces. But this was her future. If Philip was innocent she would have wanted him in her life. Even if they were just friends. And who knows, with his free will restored he might have picked her after all. But all this possibility was taken from her, it riddled her with self-doubt, and sapped all motivation. There was nothing she wanted to do except curl up to hold the crippling emptiness in her heart at bay.

“...unless, of course,” Rachel continued, ignoring Sofie’s despair, “you are too afraid of the truth. Scared that the infallible judge of character was fooled by a pretty face. Like a love-sick puppy.”

Sofie glared at her friend.

“Feel free to stop helping any time, Rach.”

With a disappointed sigh, Rachel gave Sofie a pad on the back and got up to leave. Tough love was her only approach and it wasn’t working.

It wasn’t working because Sofie wasn’t actually afraid of what she’d find out about Phil. She was afraid that her past was catching up with her.

“It just feels so similar…,” Sofie sobbed.

Rachel stopped and turned around.

“What do you mean ‘similar’? Similar to you and... Damien?”

Sofie nodded. She could hear Rachel’s respect for the man and it made her stomach cramp.

“Damien died, Sof. He did not walk out on you... he would have never done that.”

“How would you know?” she snapped. “You met neither of them.”

Sofie took a deep breath before looking at Rachel. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

Why was she apologizing? Damien was her partner. It was her loss. She carried the emotional baggage. Not Rachel. Rachel was just a distant witness. She didn’t even know the full story.

”I never told you why Damien died.”

Sofie blinked the tears out of her eyes. She’d been hiding from the truth. Avoiding thinking about it. But she’d have to face her demons someday. So it might as well be today.

“I saw the warning signs. I realized how close they’ve gotten to us. But the story was important enough to take a risk. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Now, it all seems so meaningless.” Tears streamed down Sofie’s face. “I’ve lost the man I loved. Because I kept pushing where I should have walked away. And he paid the price. For what? A jail sentence and a couple hundred words on a page?”

Her tears were hot and shameful, carving a self-deprecating grimace on her face.

“Damien was poisoned because I couldn’t let go. And I made the same exact mistake again with Phil. Before I left the safehouse he said I had this insatiable hunger for the truth and didn’t care for the people around me. I think he’s right.”

Rachel’s expression softened.

“But that’s what makes you so effective. You don’t let fear dictate your actions. Damien admired that. It’s why he was fighting for you. Why he died for you. He wouldn’t have wanted you to give up. And neither does Phil. If -- and that’s a big ‘if’ -- he is innocent, he needs someone to keep searching for the truth. And with two high-profile murders, who else is brave enough to stand up for him, if not you?”

Sofie knew her friend was right. She needed to stay on the case. Needed to investigate. Needed to help Phil get to the truth. It was her only chance to atone to him.

“Yes. You’re right.” Sofie dragged herself up from the kitchen island. “I’ll make us some coffee, then we can review what we know so far.”

“That’s the spirit!”

With two steaming pots of coffee in front of them, Sofie kicked off the summary.

“Ok, so, Phil has stock options in Ms. Hunt’s insurance company. He was working on getting the permission to sell them when MP Kerry died.”

“You mean: when Kerry was conveniently removed from standing between him and his insane mountain of cash.”

Sofie’s eyes shot up at Rachel. Wasn’t she also insanely rich? Why was she so hostile towards Phil’s pursuits? Having disposable funds was certainly helpful in an emergency like this.

“We also know that Ms. Hunt was in on it,” Rachel continued ignoring Sofie’s stare, “because she agreed to marrying him.”

“Yes.”

Sofie flinched. It still stung to be reminded that he proposed to her. “But Kerry wasn’t ok with the deal. She saw her government funds go down the drain if the deal went through.”

“...so he killed her,” Rachel concluded.

“We don’t know that.”

“Fine. So, who else could have done it?”

“Who else had something to lose if Kerry stopped the deal?”

This was how Sofie liked to approach a topic: find the central question and work backwards from there. “Who else would have wanted the stock price to go up.”

“Ms. Hunt, maybe?” Rachel offered. “After all the disaster with the Royal Commission a higher company evaluation would have secured her job.”

Good start. After all, she helped come up with the first part of the plan. It made Sofie furious, just thinking about the two of them together. They would have carefully planned, negotiated, and celebrated, just like they did for their engagement. So, was Ms. Hunt capable of going one step further and planning a murder behind Phil’s back? Sofie clenched her fist. As much as she wanted to pin the crime on her rival, it was an unlikely scenario.

“She needed him alive for the plan to work. The risk of accidentally poisoning him was too large. The witch is way too careful.”

“You really don’t like her, do you?”

“There was more between them than just business. He is probably with her right now. So, no, I don’t like her one bit.”

“Well, worry about her later.” Rachel wasn’t interested in their love triangle. “You might not want him anymore after all of this is over. So, who else could have done it?”

“Someone from the company board? They would have known about the deal too. Selling such a large volume of options would require their approval.”

“And they could use this opportunity to line their pockets or get more influence on the board...”

“Except,“ Sofie probed her own theory, ”picking Elandra as the venue is odd. Why would they want to make it so public?”

“To humiliate Kerry?” Rachel tried.

“Or blackmail Phil…” Sofie said slowly. She was thinking this through as she spoke. “Yes. Why go to the stock market when you can get the shares for free by framing Phil for murder?”

“That’s quite ruthless.”

“Murder typically is... They also would have to know that Phillip was Philón.” Sofie’s eyes fell on Rachel, “How did you find that out?”

“It was in Kerry’s emails. Philip and Philón had the same semantic context.”

“Semantic what?” Sofie hated when Rachel used tech jargon, “What does that even mean?”

“It means that the two words either occurred in the same sentence, like ‘Philip is Philón’, or used interchangeably, like ‘Philip works at Elandra’ and ‘Philón works at Elandra’.”

“That’s clever,” Sofie admitted. “Could we use this to find other people that are connected to Phil? Maybe that leads us to the murderer?”

“Let me check.” Rachel pulled out her laptop and typed a few lines. “These are the top ten names with similar semantic context.”

Philip 1.0
Philón Chase 0.9
Elandra 0.9
Ms Jasmit Hunt 0.7
Mrs Ashley Kang-Jal 0.7
Ms Aalia Khan 0.3
Mr Tequan Lee 0.2
Mr James Yates 0.05
Mr Fa Ibuvio 0.03
Ms Siri Tommer 0.001

Sofie scanned the list. Philip, Philón, Elandra and Ms. Hunt were obvious connections. Similarly, Ms. Khan and Mr. Ibuvio, the finance and public relations officer at Ms. Hunt’s insurance company. What surprised her was to see Yates on this list. Wasn’t he the security guard at Elandra? But according to Security he was still in an asylum, so could be ruled out.

“Who are Mrs. Kang-Jal, Mr. Lee and Ms. Tommer?” Sofie focused on the names who were new to her.

“I don’t know. Maybe there is something about them on the internet?”

Rachel typed Mrs. Kang-Jal’s name into the online search engine. Her eyes widened when dozens of magazine-quality pictures filled the screen, all of an asian beauty in elaborate lingerie.

“Wow.”

“Ashley Kang-Jal,” Sofie read out from the profile page, “Model (retired), Husband Ti Chan (online distribution markets). Rumoured to have filed for divorce this year.”

“She is beautiful.”

“Yes. Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Rachel.” Sofie did not like the idea of such a stunner linked to Phil. “What do the scores next to the names mean? She has the same number as Ms. Hunt.”

Sofie couldn’t keep the anger from her voice. Had Phil a similarly intense relationship with her? How many women ready to marry him could there be?

“It just means that in Kerry’s emails her name pops up as often in connection with Phil as Ms. Hunt’s.” Catching Sofie’s anger, she added, “It doesn’t mean Phil sees it that way, though.”

“Whatever the connection, we won’t find out by gawking at her half naked pictures. Let’s move on.”

Mr. Lee was next. His internet search revealed a lawyer in his fifties with various board memberships, including at Ms Hunt’s company.

“Bingo!” Sofie was pleased they finally found a viable lead. “Let’s see if he is the only board member who reached out to Kerry. Maybe Ms. Tommer is also in on it.”

Sofie’s lips thinned as the images of a young and attractive nordic business woman came up. ‘Founder and HighTech Angel Investor, Siri Tommer, relocates to the UK’ one of the headlines read. Sofie swallowed. She was aware that Phil’s work surrounded him with wealthy women. He called them ‘interesting and accomplished’. Sofie could compete with that. But it hit her just now that some of them were also absolutely dazzling.

“The score is quite low for her. This might be just a random connection. She might not even be a client of his,” Rachel tried to cheer Sofie up.

“At any rate, she is not a board member. Let’s focus on Mr. Lee for now and pull out all emails from him to see what we can find.”

An hour later, Sofie’s eyes were tired. Most of the emails she read between Mr. Lee and MP Kerry were about fundraising, lobbying events and how he despised that the government interfered with the financial system.

“I have nothing. How are you going?” she asked Rachel, who had been typing on and off for the past 20 minutes.

“I found an odd email from Elandra to Kerry, inviting her to come in to meet her new companion.”

“I saw that one when I logged in. It had just arrived,” Sofie recalled.

“But the thing is, it wasn’t sent from Elandra’s IP address. It was sent from an address that I traced back to Mr. Lee’s office. The suckers did not hide all their tracks.”

“Are you saying… ”

“He lured her to Elandra. Yes,” Rachel smiled, more at her abilities than the actual finding.

“I need to talk to Lee!”

“What? Why? You can’t just rock up and say ’Excuse me, did you poison Kerry and frame my loverboy for the murder so you can steal his stock options?”

Sofie smiled.

“So you agree that Phil is innocent?”

“I still don’t like the playboy but he’s no murderer,” Rachel grumbled. “But how are you even planning to get near Lee?”

Sofie chuckled, her mood had lifted. She had proof that Phil was innocent and there was a way forward. She would get Phil out of this mess.

“His profile said that he’s the guest of honor at this FinTech party in the Tower of London. That’s the perfect place for me to feel him up. Learn what drives him. What his weaknesses are. What leverage we can get against him.”

“You mean FinTower?”

“You know the event?”

“Yes,” an enigmatic smile played on Rachel’s face, “And it’s invite only.”

“Ok. But you can get me in?”

“Of course I can,” Rachel laughed. ”But... do you have the right thing to wear? The event is next week.”

“Yes.” Sofie huffed. What kind of hobo did Rachel think she was? “I own a cocktail dress.”

“Oh Sof, you are adorable. FinTowner requires a bit more effort than donning a black dress and putting on some makeup. It is a venetian masquerade.”

That was perfect! Hiding behind a mask, she could be whatever was necessary to get his attention.

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