Subtitle: DOS hacking fools
1: In The News
I wasn’t sure when my brother had taken to listening to lite rock, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it for long. Okay, maybe when I say “lite rock,” I’m exaggerating… no, I take it back. The radio is queuing up Abba. It was making it hard to concentrate on my web searching.
At about the time I was about to speak up and beg like a dog for him to find something else to listen to, the doorbell rang. A second later, Pete came out of his room, dressed in the baggies, tank top and sandals that were the standard dress uniform of San Diego. He started for the door… then veered towards the stereo. “Since when do you listen to Abba?” he said, as he punched the program control and an eighties rock station came on. Playing Van Halen. I was only marginally sure it was an improvement, at that.
When he reached the door and opened it, Reilly, his Starbucks connection, smiled back at him. In her hands, held close enough to her chest to squeeze her cleavage just a bit, she held two cups. She handed one to Pete, and held the other one up for me to see. “Morning, boys! Got you something, handsome.”
“Thanks,” I said, getting up from the dining room table and crossing over to the foyer. I had to sidestep my gear, cables, power supplies, docks and all, some of which had ended up in a pile around my chair. I’d been using what I’d needed on and off, and after a while, I’d started to get lazy about putting things back. This little corner of my brother’s apartment was starting to look like the local node of a Borg cube.
Pete looked me over as I came up and accepted my grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room. “Any progress?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Well,” he said, but didn’t really finish, as he put a shoulder around Reilly’s shoulder and led her to the balcony. I let them go, and returned to my borgified corner of the dining room.
I had been investigating the circumstances of my impromptu firing from my IT job in Baltimore, and subsequent blacklisting, for the past week, but I was only having limited success at getting anything useful. So far, about the only thing I had established with any certainty was that none of my ex-clients’ servers had ever actually gone down to a denial-of-service attack… supposedly the reason I was now living in exile in San Diego in the first place. Someone had lied about a DOS attack, and gotten me fired as a result. But who… and why… I could not nail down.
So far, the best lead I had was related to the strange e-mail messages of one of my ex-clients. Although it was standard operating procedure to change passwords on a system when an IT person like myself was let go, it was also standard operating procedure for IT persons like myself to conceal “backdoor” passwords in a system, allowing us to get back in if necessary. Usually, that kind of thing came in handy when some unscrupulous character got into a server and started messing with things. But it also had its personal gratification and downright sneakiness aspects, which is what I was counting on.
Anyway, it seemed there was an interesting pattern of e-mail activity around a project referred to as “Merc” within the office. The e-mails dated back to five months ago, and were mostly cryptic… a lot of generalized statements without specific names, that sort of thing. When reading between the lines, they added up to a major project in the works, a lot of resources committed to it, a lot riding on it, and a lot of heads that would roll if something went wrong with it.
Suddenly, the e-mails got weird for two days: Odd, still-cryptic questions; requests for the status of this person or that in the organization; a lot of “does he know about this or that” kind of stuff. And then, nothing. All mention of the project just stopped dead, with no further inquiries, not even a “whatever happened to” message on a crackberry. Whatever Merc was, it had fallen through a hole in the Earth and disappeared.
And the last message to be seen related to Merc, happened about an hour before Mr. Gravewort had thrown me out of his server room. It read: “Merc is at 238 status.” Science geeks might recognize that as the atomic number of Plutonium… which suggested being highly radioactive. Something to avoid. Cue mystery music, hit the red-spot.
So, I had a vague suspicion. There were problems, of course. One, what exactly was Merc? Was it a secret corporate espionage tool, an private database, or an accounting spreadsheet? Knowing how important and sensitive it was would help dictate how serious the problem was. Two, whose project was Merc? I had no idea of all of the projects being handled by my clients, so for all I knew, there could be any number of their clients who might conclude that my knowing their business might be bad for my career, my kneecaps, or even my pulse.
And three: What difference did it make? I don’t mean, Who cares? I mean, will knowing any of this actually help me to get my job back? Do I actually want my job back? And should I maybe be answering number three before I move on to questions one and two?
At any rate, I had decided to pursue question one first. And in that light, I was trying to ascertain who in the client’s e-mail stream I could get in touch with to ask about it, hopefully without tipping them off that it was me, or alerting anyone about sudden activity on the project. So I was back-tracking their e-mails to find an obscure connection I could spoof, a contractor, a friend or loved one whom someone had mentioned the project to, an out-of-touch employee, anything like that. But it was tedious work, and involved the examining of months of messages by dozens of people. It was only one of the reasons why I needed that grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room… to keep myself focused as I worked.
The other reason, of course, was that it was as close to my former life as I could get right now.
At about the time my attention span was beginning to waver again, about an hour further into the e-mail streams, my concentration was broken by Pete and Reilly laughing about something out on the balcony. I decided I needed to take a stretch, so I got up, navigated out of my borg alcove, and made my way to the balcony with them. They were apparently checking out some kid on the beach who was having very little luck flying a kite, and doing a lot of scrambling around trying to get it airborne, then scrambling about and apologizing to people whom the kite narrowly missed as it came back down. “Never a dull moment in San Diego,” I intoned lazily and sat down beside Pete.
“It’s called ‘peaceful’,” Pete said to me amiably. “It’s the reason people like San Diego, bro. Don’t worry, it’ll grow on you.”
“Not if I don’t grow out of it first,” I said. But to be honest, I didn’t know what I meant by that. It just sounded cool to say.
“I have no idea what that means,” Pete said, causing me to make another mental note to check my inner monologues for leaks, “but you’re not giving San Diego a chance. I mean, you got a great place to stay,” and he appropriately waved an arm to encompass the apartment behind us. Then he waved it out beyond the balcony. “Great view of the beach… and the honeys. Great weather. Great company,” he said, waving his arms at himself and Reilly. “And you’ve already gotten yourself a squeeze who’s even found you some work.” He was, of course, referring to Gail, his ex and my new girlfriend. I still hadn’t figured out what was going on between Pete and Gail, but largely I had let it slide, because she kept having sex with me, and he didn’t seem to be opposed to it. Exactly. “What more,” he concluded, “could you possibly want out of life?”
This time, I didn’t have to stop and think about something cool and meaningless to say. I had something right off.
“Well,” Pete said, “maybe soon you’ll have a good reason to put off the questions for a bit.”
I looked at Pete for clarification, and saw that he was looking down… not at the beach, but closer in, like at the complex pool. I leaned forward a bit and took a peek, expecting to see some babe he planned to push me at. And sure enough, there she was: Gail, passing through the grounds from the parking lot, looking easily as hot in street clothes as any of the girls in bikinis at the pool, and heading for the building.
Something told me I wouldn’t be doing too much more research this morning.
2: In Local News
Pete and Reilly stayed on the balcony, while I opened the door for Gail. Gail instantly brightened up when she saw me, and she stepped forward. “Hi,” she said simply, and planted one on me… a good one, complete with spoon-licker, and a little noise to indicate how much she liked how I tasted.
Pete gave this up? Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, this was not what was on my mind as she was kissing me… it came afterward, when she pulled away from my mouth and said, “How’s my number one Schitz-brother?” That’s when I thought it, and I had to work at it to shove it into the back of my mind, into the corner reserved for things I planned to address later, like working out and learning Hai Lai (long story).
“Great, babe,” I finally replied, hoping my internal monologue hadn’t been as long as it seemed. “Not working today?”
“I just came from a morning appointment nearby,” Gail said, walking into the apartment. She quickly spied Pete and Reilly on the balcony. “Hi, guys,” she called out casually.
“Hey, Gail,” Pete and Reilly replied simultaneously, making it sound like something you’d hear from a sitcom. Pete held up his Starbucks cup, and called out, “Want breakfast?”
“Thanks, I’m good,” Gail replied, pointedly ignoring the veiled sarcasm, and turned to me. “Doing anything today?”
I reflected on my investigations, of course, but as quickly decided not to speak of it. Gail, like Pete, did not seem to share my desire to get back to my old life, though I hesitate to say it was just because she liked sleeping with me that much… this girl could land any guy without trying. So, I rolled my eyes theatrically, and said, “Oh, well, I was thinking about visiting the zoo. I hear San Diego’s got a nice one.”
“It was great,” Gail admitted, “until Hammond let those stupid dinosaurs roam around and eat everything in sight.” She smiled at her own joke, which she had delivered expertly, and I grinned back. “Anyway, I may have something else, if you can squeeze it into your busy schedule.”
“Like a local company that could use someone of your special talents,” she replied. She paused for effect. “In IT.”
I had to smile… gad, she knew how to push my buttons. “Oh… that,” I replied appropriately. “When did you want to go? I’ll get into some working duds…”
“No need,” Gail said. “This is a very casual company.” She looked over my jeans and Hawaiian shirt. “Trust me, compared to most of them, you’re already overdressed.”
So, in no time flat, we were in Gail’s Eclipse, and skating down the highway in the general direction of Mexico. The only thing I’d added to my wardrobe had been a pair of socks and sneakers, even after Gail had suggested I could leave the socks behind. Still, I looked less like a Schitzeiss and more like a Schlemiel next to Gail, in her tailored business suit, stylishly tied-back hair and killer heels. I liked Gail’s car, too: It was sexy like her, and driving it seemed to bring out the best in her. One night she had taken me up into the mountains, and after wildly carving around the dark curves in that car, she had brought me back to her place and… well, it’s a miracle I hadn’t dislocated something during the sex we had that night.
Soon we were nailing an off-ramp at twenty miles over the posted safe-speed, and swinging into a road that led into what was obviously an office park. Office parks look the same nationwide, and only come in two types: short buildings covering miles of land; and tall buildings covering miles of land. This was the short building kind, generally full of up-and-coming operations and sub-contractors, companies with only a few to a few dozen employees, often owned by some guy whose dad left him with some bucks after he passed on, which was sunk into the business as an investment or tax shelter. The west coast version of the Beltway Bandits we had back in Baltimore. Some of these companies might some day grow into mighty corporations… but right now, most of them were keeping their fingers crossed that they’d meet the next pay window intact.
“So, which one of these Border Bandits are we going to?” I asked, trying out a flip phrase that had just occurred to me.
“That one,” Gail said as she pulled into the parking lot. The name on the building said: “Coyote Chow.”
“I give up,” I said after a moment. “What the heck does that mean?”
“Go in,” Gail replied, “and find out.”
We opened the glass front door and stepped into a small reception room with a few comfy chairs, a coffee table with a few science magazines on it, and a man behind a desk. At least, I was pretty sure it was a man, because from my vantage point I could only see a bald head hovering over an open drawer in the desk. Whoever it was had apparently not heard us enter, I was guessing because of the music playing on hidden speakers somewhere nearby (at least it wasn’t Abba). The presumed he continued to root around in the desk drawer for a few seconds, while we watched. Abruptly, the head popped up, and a hand swiftly popped up in front of it, holding up a tin of cinnamon flavored VerMints. “Aha!”
“Have you tried the Café Express flavor?” I asked innocently. “It kicks ass.”
When I spoke, the hand came down, and I was finally treated to the face underneath the bald head. Yes, it was a guy, average in looks, somewhere in his thirties, I’d guess. He looked at me politely, but clearly didn’t recognize me, so he looked to Gail, as he started to say, “I only like the cinnamon—” He stopped, when it was clear he recognized Gail. “Oh, hi, Gail! Here to see Lou?”
“That we are,” Gail smiled. “She here?”
“Sure, c’mon,” the guy said. He immediately stepped out from behind his desk… and I got a surprise, because he did it without standing up from his desk. In fact, I quickly realized he hadn’t been sitting down while he’d been behind the desk. He was approximately four feet tall, but with the bodily proportions of a six foot tall man, so there was no way to identify his lack of height without seeing all of him. I immediately flashed back to the first episode of Taxi, where you were introduced to Danny DeVito as he glared down at his drivers from inside a screened cage, then he bolted out to reprimand one of them… and only then did you realize he had been standing on a hidden platform, and was actually a very short guy. If you saw the scene, you know the double-take I did just now. At least I didn’t laugh, the way we all did at Danny.
The guy was, of course, watching me as I double-took on him. I suppose that was understandable, given his stature… I was sure he was sizing me up, to see if I had issues with short guys. I’d guess he decided I didn’t, because he put out his hand amiably. “I’m Barry.”
“Mike,” I said, taking his hand. “Nice to meet ya.”
He nodded, and waved for us to follow him. “Lou’s in the conference room.”
Barry led us through an office apparently created by the tech gods. Low lighting created a cool, relaxed space that would keep hardcore programmers from popping a gasket every time a variable misbehaved. Young-ish hardbodies of every nation sat behind high-tech desks of silvered aluminum struts and mesh. I swear, every one of them was beautiful… even the one chick with glasses wasn’t half-bad. On each desk was a set of three large LCD screens, all arranged edge-to-edge to form a continuous display oriented towards the user (if you could use such a pathetic word on these casting-call geeks). The computers were big, scary-looking uprights on the floors beside the desks, and each one of them had the trademark LED and neon accents of power-gaming machines. These guys were either trying to take over WOW (and with this equipment, they’d have a good shot), or they were shoving some serious electrons around some serious, serious work. A few of them glanced our way as we passed, saying hello to Barry, or sizing up Gail or myself. Speaking just for myself, I felt like I was sizing up well with the ladies… isn’t that always the way, when you’ve already got a main squeeze that you wouldn’t want to give up for all the Ferraris in Italy?
We passed through this attention-sapping rubicon and approached some glass-walled spaces in the back. One of them was brightly lit up, and we could see two people inside, a guy and a girl. Like everyone else around here, they both looked good enough to fit in on the set of a prime-time TV show… especially the girl, who was, in an anthropological sense, Asian, and in my professional opinion, drop-dead gorgeous. Barry opened the door for us, whereupon the occupants looked up from what they were doing. The girl said, “Ah, you made it.”
Gail and I smiled, and as Gail didn’t seem to be about to introduce me, I stuck out my hand at the guy and said, “Lou? I’m Mike—”
Before I finished, the guy stuck out his left hand and grasped my arm at the wrist. Before I knew what was happening, he was pushing my hand aside. I wasn’t sure whether or not this was some new California handshake, and just as I was about to ask, I realized the guy had let go of my wrist. I looked down at my hand, and I noticed then that it was now pointing at the girl. I looked up at her, and she grinned at me.
The guy simply nodded at her and said, “Lou.”
And before I could respond, the girl had taken my hand. “Louisiana Chow.”
3: Lou Chow
I threw a quick glance at Gail, one of those Thanks loads… you could’ve warned me in advance about really short guys and girls named Lou looks. Gail didn’t bat an eye, though… and, I noticed, neither did our guests.
“Must be all that East Coast political correctness indoctrination,” Gail finally commented. “You handled your intro to Coyote Chow better than most.”
“Oh… that’s good to know,” I said sarcastically. “What’s next… do I have to talk to plants?”
“Naw, Fern’s too busy,” the guy came back without a beat, and stuck out his hand. “I’m Phil. Nice to meet you, Mike.”
“Likewise,” I replied, throwing a casual look around the place. “Nice digs. I now understand the second half of the name over the door… is there a significance to the first half?”
“Oh, yeah,” Lou replied. “That was my nickname when I used to work at a certain fairly-famous bar.”
To my credit, it didn’t take me long to put those pieces together. I’d seen the movie and everything. “You used to work at Coyote Ugly?”
“Yup,” she replied proudly. “I wore my hair wild then, real scruffy,” she added, running her hand over her now-smooth-and-silky shoulder-length hair, “with goth makeup, and after a bit, they started calling me Coyote Chow. It was funky… but it put me through college. And it’s got a certain recognition quality about it.”
“I’m hip,” I smiled. “So… what can I do for you?”
“I have a problem,” Lou said. “Some of our software designs are turning up in the hands of one of my competitors. It’s got to stop.”
“Any idea how it’s happening?” I asked.
“Of course I don’t,” Lou replied calmly. “If I did, someone would already have their knees broken, and I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
“Got it,” I nodded, filing that little tidbit away for future reference. You never knew when knowing a knee-breaker could come in handy, even if it was just for knowing who to avoid getting into an argument with. “I take it you think you can trust Phil?”
Lou and Phil exchanged glances, and I immediately knew the two of them were lovers. Which didn’t necessarily answer the question, but it told me what Lou was going to say next.
“Hell, no,” Lou said. “But I know where he buried the bodies, so he’s on my side.”
So, okay, I was wrong. The surprises I’d already had today should’ve been enough of a warning not to assume I knew everything.
“All right, then,” I said, trying to maintain the last vestiges of my confidence, “let’s go somewhere private and talk. Is there a Starbucks around here?”
Ten minutes and a grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room later, we were all sitting in the corner of the local Starbucks, and I was trying not to listen to the Joanie Mitchell CD playing over the PA. Not that I have a problem with Joanie Mitchell, per se, but I was really getting my fill of old music today, and at that point I would have paid good money to hear just one song by the Black-Eyed Peas.
First, I needed to know more about what Coyote Chow did. Through our conversation so far, I had already discovered that they were all recent grads that went into business together, with Lou in the lead thanks to her bar-earned bankroll. Name the three biggest Pacific tech schools, and more than one of their alums was in there somewhere. It also explained why the place looked like a 90210 set, beef- and cheesecake included.
The company was essentially in the business of designing software “containers” for other software. It was sort of like a Zip file, only not necessarily zipped… really, it was more like a vault that would hold the software until it was unlocked by a passcode. This would prevent just anybody accessing the software, a concern for software companies that were afraid of their product being copied and shared across the World Wide Web, spreading thousands or more copies of the software while they made profit off of only a few copies. It was a concern I could understand, of course, though the jury was still out as to how serious a problem it really was… yet. But most people in the software industry, especially those who had grown up sharing copies of early Microsoft and Adobe software, were positive that not only was the potential lost profit humungous, but in the future it would be gargantuan, and a means to control it had to be in place.
Most present methods involved web connections that would establish the identity of the software and the ID of the computer running it, store that in a database, and allow the software to run as long as those values didn’t change. But not everyone had continuous web access, and very few people liked the idea of databases storing computer IDs (and who knew what else) out of their control. So other forms of verification were always being researched, and in this case, Coyote Chow was working on biometric solutions to the problem.
“So,” I asked for the sake of confirmation, “you’re working with fingerprint recognition software right now, and encrypting the fingerprint into a passcode that’s tough to spoof or copy?”
“To be accurate,” Lou replied confidently, “harder to break than would be practical in the overriding majority of cases.” She was hitting the nail squarely on the head. Security never has to be perfect, or even impossible to break: As long as most people using security figure it’s easier to just pay for it than to break it, it’s effective security. It was good to hear someone speaking of security who wasn’t thinking in impossible absolutes… that was the sign of pure idiocy, as it never worked out as intended, and in fact usually did more harm than good in false promises, customer dissatisfaction and damaged reputations.
“So,” I continued, “exactly who do you think is getting exactly what?”
“A company called Encrypt Keeper,” Phil replied, pausing from taking a sip from his latte to say it.
“Encrypt Keeper,” I repeated. “I guess the stylish name trend hasn’t been lost on you guys.”
“Well-said, M.D. Schitz,” Gail commented wryly. This got the expected reactions from Lou and Phil, to which I shrugged and turned my personalized Starbucks cup to face them. There, emblazoned in bright letters running from bottom to top, was my moniker for everyone to see.
“Moving on,” I urged.
“Encrypt Keeper,” Lou moved on, “recently presented to one of its clients an encryption application that clearly includes part of a design we came up with here. We found out through a mutual friend at that firm. This had happened once, two years ago, but we just assumed it was one of those coincidences. But since then, we’d gone in a completely new direction, so there’s no way there’d be two such coincidences.”
“We’re in the middle of a big proof-of-concept project,” Phil added. “It involves combining all of our joint components into one system. We’ve got some big software hitters waiting for it. If we get pooned by Encrypt Keeper, we’ll lose the contracts, and it’ll be the end of us.”
“What do you think?” Lou asked.
“Well,” I said, “You’ve either being hacked… or you’ve got an internal leak. Unfortunately, if you continue on at standard operating procedure, it could take time figuring out which, and nailing them. I think what we need is a Trojan Horse.”
Gail looked at me. “You mean, like the virus?”
“Not necessarily,” I said. The Trojan virus was one of a few that were well-enough known to the layman… today, you could barely use the term “Trojan Horse” without someone thinking of the virus. So Gail’s reaction was understandable. “I’m thinking of the original reference, actually: Leaving something on your system that someone else can’t resist getting at.” I looked at Lou and Phil. “Did either of you tell anyone why Gail and I were coming by today?”
Lou and Phil exchanged glances, and Lou said, “No.”
“I assume they know Gail is a—”
I started to say “CPA,” but Gail cut me off when she said, “An old friend.” I looked at Gail, she looked back at me, and I had to mightily resist the urge to roll my eyes and sigh loudly enough for the baristas to hear me across the room. More secrets. For a sleepy vacation-type town, San Diego was proving to be as chock full of secrets as a gynecologist’s office in Washington. Or so I’ve been told. Overheard at a bar, really, but that’s beside the point.
“Okay,” I said finally. “Tell anyone who asks that I’m Gail’s new boyfriend, and was just along for the ride today. But expect me to come by, unannounced and unexpected, in, oh… two days. I’ll need some time to prepare my Trojan Horse.”
Lou and Phil nodded. “And then?” Lou asked.
“And then,” I replied, “I’ll show up to sell it to you.”
4: Personal is personal
“So, do you know what kind of Trojan Horse you’re going to sell them?”
I thought Gail’s choice of time and place to ask me that question was… questionable. Specifically, we were sitting at either end of her shower floor, which is where we’d ended up when our sex was done and we couldn’t move any more. Hell, my left leg hadn’t stopped twitching yet. We had come here straight from Coyote Chow, and some of our clothes were off before we got out of the car. I swear, I will never understand how Pete could have let this sex monster go. And after the escapades that had finally deposited us here, wet, tired, twitching, and still naked, pretty much the last thing on my mind was anything even remotely connected to IT.
So, I said, “No.”
“When will you know?”
“Probably at some time in the future when we are dressed,” I said truthfully. “Why? Is there a hurry?”
“I just wouldn’t want to see anything happen to Lou’s company,” Gail said.
There was something in her tone that suggested something significant, though I had already managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was no great reader of faces. Still, I went out on a limb and asked, “What was the deal with not letting me say you were a CPA? Is it supposed to be a secret or something?”
Gail tilted her head and rolled her eyes over my head, the way people do when they’re trying to figure out how to tell you something without just coming out and saying it. “I just keep my business and personal lives separate. Most of my friends don’t know what I do or who I work for, and my business associates… don’t have access to my social circles.” I started to ask why, but in another one of those leaky-thoughts moments I seem to have, Gail cut me off by saying, “I like it that way.”
Well, about all I got out of that was that Gail’s relationship with Lou was personal and not business. No, I got something else out of it: That Gail didn’t want to go into it any further. So I shrugged it off, and after a moment, collected enough stray energy to pull myself to my feet, favoring my left leg, grab a towel, and start to dry off. “I’ll have something good figured out by tomorrow morning,” I said over my shoulder.
By the time Gail finally managed to get up, get dressed, and found me, I was messing with her smoothie maker. I had already stuffed four apples, two bananas, a bunch of grapes and a mango down the chute, and was trying to decide whether or not I could stand anything else in there, when Gail saw the oddly-colored mix in the pitcher. “You’d better quit while you’re ahead, Emeril,” she said calmly.
I switched the thing off, and removed the pitcher, trying to remember where she kept the juice glasses. I picked a cabinet and saw tall glasses instead, but they worked, so I grabbed two and poured even amounts of the mix into them. I handed one to Gail, who sipped at it, and regarded me over the edge of the glass. I didn’t really have anything to say at that moment, and as we were both dressed (more to the point, Gail was no longer naked), my mind was already straying to the matter of concocting a Trojan Horse for Coyote Chow. So, Gail lowered her glass, and said, “I guess I should get you back to your gear.”
I drained my glass, and nodded. “Yeah. Lotta work to do.”
We got all the way down to the car, out the driveway, all the way out of the hills and onto the highway before Gail spoke again. “You know, if you don’t want to help out my friends, you can just say so.”
“Who said I didn’t want to help them?” I said, trying not to sound testy.
“Don’t be testy,” Gail said. “I’m just sayin’.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t have a problem with your friends. I’m just trying to figure out this whole thing about keeping business and personal stuff separate. You’re the one who seems to be testy about that.”
“I’m not testy,” Gail replied. “I have my reasons.” After a moment, she risked a glance at me, and saw me staring significantly at her. She knew she wasn’t getting off that easy. “Look, I did some things. In my youth. If they got out into my professional circles, I’d lose my job. It’s that simple.”
I doubted it. But I decided to let it go. “Hit Starbucks on the way home, willya?”
It was getting dark by the time we got back to Pete’s apartment. Gail stopped at the door and said, “I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight for tomorrow. I’ll call if I can get away for the evening.” As she spoke, she was her usual sexy, confident, exuberant self. But then, for an instant, I caught a different look in her eye, something not sexy, confident or exuberant, but something I couldn’t put a finger on either… and before I could spare another second to think about it, she reached forward and kissed me, one of those kisses of hers that has the uncanny ability to push whatever else you were thinking right into another space-time continuum. Then she pulled back, taking one last suck of my lower lip, and said, “See you later, lover,” as she backed out of the doorway. Another step, and she turned and strode away, making sure I got a good show of her junk as she walked down the hallway.
“Trust me, bro,” I heard from behind me, “you do not want to let that junk get away.”
I turned around. Pete stood just a few feet away, positioned in the foyer so that he could also watch his ex’s sexy caboose bustle down the hallway. He smiled at me, but I just found myself staring at him. I still couldn’t fathom how my brother, with young-Bruce-Campbell looks and a healthy libido, could have let that junk get away. It just made no sense to me. I thought about the present situation, and a thought occurred to me. “Was it another guy? Is that it? Did she betray you?”
Pete just shook his head, and gave a wistful smile that I interpreted as “I wish it were that simple,” or maybe, “Don’t you wish it were that simple?” Or maybe, “Would I tell you if it were that simple?” Or maybe, “It’s complicated, but telling you would be too simple…” As I said, my face-reading abilities were really letting me down lately.
At any rate, he said, “No, she didn’t betray me.”
“Well, I know you didn’t sleep around on her.”
“Oh, no,” Pete replied, with a look that I interpreted as, “I’d never do that when I had her,” or maybe—but we’ll skip that line this time.
“Then what was it?”
“Look, bro, I just screwed up, is all,” Pete said, turning and walking into the kitchen. “I got stupid and lazy, and she got sick of me. It was my fault. Just stupid.” He opened the door to the fridge, and pulled out a beer, holding one out to me. I took it. “So, what’s she got you working on?”
“An electronics company south of town,” I said, twisting off the bottle cap. “They’re having problems with someone stealing their secrets. I’m gonna have a go at faking out the hackers, or insiders, whichever it is, with a Trojan Horse.”
“You’re gonna give ‘em a virus?”
“No,” I replied, remembering the conversation at the office. “More like the original Trojan Horse. The bad guys won’t be able to resist it, and when they try to access it, it’ll give them away.”
“Sounds pretty much like the virus to me.”
“Well… it is,” I replied. “Hence, the name. But in this case, it won’t be set to automatically melt down their computer… it’ll be designed to gather and send evidence that will convict them in a court of law. Benign, but effective.”
“Oh. Okay,” Pete said, and pulled from the beer. “How you gonna do it?”
“I hope I’ll know that by morning,” I told him. “Right now, I just want to hang out a bit. Anything on TV?”
“I was just about to put on Royal Pains. You should see the Indian chick they’ve got on that show… gawd, she smokes!”
“Royal Pains?” I repeated. “Never heard of it.”
5: Preparing the Trojan
Once I had my Trojan Horse idea, right on time first thing in the morning, I had to actually create it. Writing code had a lot in common with what they say about invention… you know, ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration. Only with code, you could amend that to ten percent inspiration, forty percent perspiration, and fifty percent searching the web for bits of code you could use yourself. You actually did that before the perspiration part, because the perspiration came from putting all those bits of code together, which meant your forty percent perspiration was more like forty percent debugging.
This took me most of the day. Pete got up, and promptly went off to hang at the beach. Gail called me in the morning, but she said she had meetings all day, so we couldn’t have spent any time together during the day at any rate. It was just as well, because I needed to concentrate, and that was hard to do when she was pushing herself at me (she was a good pusher… and she had great junk).
When Pete came back, it was after seven, and the first thing he did was to mention a great Chinese delivery place he knew. So we ordered out. I was putting the finishing touches on my Trojan at about nine, so I called Gail.
“You sound out of breath—”
“Exercising,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“We’re good to go,” I told her. “Do you want to tell Lou I’ll see her in the morning? And remember, tell her she’s supposed to be surprised to see me.”
“I’ll tell her,” Gail said. “I’m losing my rhythm… can I talk to you tomorrow, after your visit?”
“No problem,” I said. “Talk to you later.”
When I hung up, Pete said, “Did you say Lou? Guy or Girl?”
“Girl,” I replied, giving him that “You know her?” look.
“Lou Chow,” he said, and nodded. “Sure, I’ve met her. She’s a cool chick.”
“You know a lot of Gail’s friends, I guess,” I commented. “You know her squeeze, Phil, too?”
“Yeah, I know him.” He drained his beer and left-handed it over his shoulder, without looking. It dropped into the trashcan, all net. “Straight-up guy. Want another?”
“Naw,” I said. “Gotta get some sleep, I’ve been at it all day.” I got up and headed for the bedroom, already feeling like I was going to be asleep before I crossed the threshold. “I’ll be out early tomorrow, to see Lou, so if I don’t see you—”
“Yeah, good luck with it,” Pete shot back amiably. “G’night.”
As I expected, I slept like a log. Programmers who are deeply entrenched in a project don’t always sleep well during… their subconscious minds continue to write and rewrite code in their dreams. It’s one of the reasons IT guys look so tired all the time. But once you’ve finished a project, and all the subconscious code is finished, you can sleep like the dead. In fact, when I woke up, it was half an hour past when my alarm had gone off… I never even heard it. Fortunately, I wasn’t pushing a time-clock, so I got up, got myself cleaned up and dressed, and went out to get my stuff.
Pete was still asleep, no surprise for him, so I found some orange juice in the fridge, then went to my borg alcove to finish off the last details of my elaborate Trojan Horse scam. Part of it involved my own website, which was convenient because, well, I had one. I had to make sure certain files were accessible from a hidden folder I’d set up, which was crucial to the plan. I also massaged the folder’s date info to make it look like the data had been around for awhile… some people got suspicious when they uncovered material that was clearly brand new, and I couldn’t assume my bad guys were idiots, like the loan sharks from Californian Hills. Software criminals and hackers were usually damned sharp, and they knew all the tricks. You had to get up pretty early in the morning to pull a fast one on them. And I was up half an hour late, so I was being extra careful.
Once I was ready, I made my traveling copies of my files, and dropped them into the pocket of my cargo pants. IT guys love cargo pants: They’re one of the only kinds of popular clothing that allows us to bring all of our gear, and not look like geeks. I’d even managed to pick up a mini-notebook off the proceeds I’d scored from the Californian caper, something that looked hip and not as geeky as the Toughbook, and it fit into one of those cargo pockets, besides. If I had to do any running, I’d probably turn my thighs black and blue… but cool guys didn’t run, anyway.
Thus infested with my strategically-ensconced gear, it was time to go. I had considered taking a taxi, but it occurred to me that Pete was still in bed, and his Fit would be a perfect “fit” for my story. So I went to his room and knocked. I heard a vague mumble, so I opened the door. Pete was under a sheet, not moving… he might not have actually awoken when he heard me knock.
“Pete,” I said, “can I borrow your car for a couple hours?”
From under the cover, I heard, “Mmmnmsshhhuummmunnummm.” I wouldn’t have sworn that was the answer I was hoping for… but then, his arm slid out from under the cover, and waved in the general direction of his nightstand. I could see his keys there.
“Shiny! Thanks,” I said, walking over and scooping the keys off the nightstand. “See you later, bro.”
I inserted myself into the Honda, and immediately used my cellphone to call 4-1-1 and get an address for Coyote Chow, then enter that back into my phone so the built-in GPS could take me there. Once done, I started the car (a minute’s less idling is a minute’s less pollution, enviro-homeys), and took off for Chow’s office. Actually, “took off” was a very poor choice of words. Contrary to what the commercials would have you believe, the Fit is SLOW.
It did give me plenty of quality time, however, to just enjoy the scenery a bit, and consider my situation. I already felt like being the IT freelance guy was working out… I could get used to this. Yes, being in exile in San Diego had its upsides… not the least of which was Gail, even with whatever weirdness was going on between her and my brother. But was it the life for me?
Funny thing about that question: Whenever I found myself asking that lately, I almost immediately pictured Gail’s naked body draped on me in one of a dozen interesting positions, and underneath me in a few dozen others; and immediately I answered the question with, “Well, maybe for a little while longer…”
Finally I reached Coyote Chow, and pulled into the lot. I extricated myself from the driver’s side, smoothed down my polo shirt and smoothed back my hair, and started for the door. Showtime.
6: Selling the Trojan
When I walked in the front door, Barry was there at his desk, and this time he wasn’t rooting around in a drawer. He saw me and started to crack a smile, but it faded quickly. Good: He hadn’t expected me. So far, so good. “Hi… Mike, right?”
“Yup,” I said, smiling easily back. “I came by to see Lou… is she here?”
“Yeah,” Barry said, his eyes drifting to his computer screen, “but she’s kind of busy today… she didn’t ask me to set up an appointment…”
“I know,” I said, “I wasn’t expecting to be here, myself. But she’ll want to see me.”
Barry raised an eyebrow. “She will?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said confidently. “Tell her…” I paused dramatically, stepped a bit closer to Barry’s desk, and leaned forward (and down) a bit. “Tell her I have a fractalmonic recognizer program that can’t be spoofed. Ever.”
Barry looked at me, clearly doubtful. In fact, I doubted he knew what I’d just said. Finally, he picked up his phone and reached for the intercom.
“Waitwaitwait!” I blurted, and he froze. “Don’t call her… this is too sensitive!” I looked around conspiratorially, and to his credit, so did Barry. “She’s in her office back there, right? Or maybe she has a blackberry?”
“Uh…” Barry gamely tried to follow what was happening. “She’s got a blackberry.”
“Just e-mail her, then,” I said. “That way no one else will hear it.”
Barry continued to look at me dubiously. But a few seconds later, he opened up his e-mail app and started typing. Which was perfect. Sure, no one would hear the exchange… but e-mails were easy to tap into, especially in an office with a few smart programmers. If, as I suspected, the bad guys were accessing company e-mails, they’d be getting a clue to my Trojan in short order. After a few seconds, he stopped, and looked at me for clarification. “Fracta—?”
“Fractal—monic,” I repeated. “Fractalmonic recognizer program.”
Barry finished typing, and hit the send button. Then he shrugged, and said, “Take a seat.”
I turned and started for one of the chairs. Before I could actually sit down, the phone on Barry’s desk rang. I waited while Barry spoke to the other end of the line. Then he hung up, and looked up at me. “She’s waiting in the conference room for you.”
“Thanks again,” I said, and started back. Barry gave me one last wondering glance as I passed, but I just flashed him a confident smile, and after a moment, he turned back to his work.
I worked my way past the desks of hardbodies again, and a number of them took significant notice of me, and presumably, the fact that I wasn’t being escorted by anyone else. More than one of the girls gave me a particularly hard look. I grinned amiably as I passed, and kept going until I reached the glass-walled conference room in the back. Lou and Phil were in there, just as they’d been the other day, and I walked right in.
“Hello again,” I started as I closed the door. “Bet you didn’t expect to see me come by, did you?”
Lou and Phil exchanged glances, before Lou replied, “Um, no, we didn’t.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m sorry if I sort of sneaked in, but I didn’t want Gail to think I was playing her just so I could get to you. First of all, so we all know who we really are, my card.” I removed a card from my pocket, and slid it forward across the table. It was my standard business card, which established my IT credentials. Then I flipped it over and left it on the table.
On the back of the card, I’d written: “Play along, in case we’re bugged.”
Lou and Phil stared at the card for a few seconds, and for those same few seconds, I was afraid they weren’t going to be able to play along convincingly. I had no way of knowing at this point whether anyone was listening in… or, for that matter, reading our lips through the glass walls of the conference room… but I had to assume so. If these guys turned out to be lousy actors, though, this whole scam would go right down the toilet.
Finally Lou raised her head. While Phil looked to Lou, she said to me, “Okay, look. Is this just some elaborate way to apply for a job or something?”
She was doing it. Aces! “Well, you could say that,” I replied. “See, I’d heard about Coyote Chow, and I know something about the contracts you have. I have some buddies in the Navy. Anyway, what I have is something I’m having a hard time selling… but I think, through you, we can both come out smelling like roses.”
Lou faux-considered my words, and turned to Phil, who just nodded. “Go on,” she said.
On cue, I removed a flash key from my pocket, and held it up… then put it on the table. “Last year, I developed an encryption system based on fingerprint reading, for a gaming start-up.” Which had a ring of truth: The games industry was highly focused on security, so their games wouldn’t be copied and disseminated among every prepubescent on the planet without paying for each and every one of them. “The problem I was working on was that people were figuring out ways to spoof standard fingerprint reading algorithms, at the transmission stage. In other words, they can send an electronic signal obtained from a fingerprint back into the system at anytime, with or without a fingerprint reading, and fool the security.
“I came up with a new encryption system, based on the back-and-forth handoff of remote car door unlocking systems,” I continued. “As you probably know, cars and keyfobs are preprogrammed with a random-number generator that creates a new passcode every time it is used. My system also creates a random number sequence, to confirm that the print is coming from the reading scanner instead of being tapped into the line. The sequence is not only based on fractals, but it is derived from the print itself, making it double-secured!”
Now, I won’t get into the holes involved in that scenario, of which there are only a few, but they are healthy. All that was important is that I sounded convincing. Phil actually looked like he was buying into it, and Lou was nodding like she was impressed with the idea. If anyone was watching, the body language would sell it.
“So,” Lou finally said, “why can’t you sell this?”
“I had some… issues at my old job,” I explained, also inserting a kernel of truth for verisimilitude. “I’m on everyone’s shit-list right now. But if I can sell this to you, you can sell it to your contracts, and we both get what we want. Makes sense?”
Phil and Lou exchanged glances, and this time, Phil said, “Makes sense to me. What do you think, Lou?”
Lou hesitated for a convincing number of seconds, before she said, “We’ll check this out. If it looks good… we’re going for it!”
“Excellent!” I said, rubbing my hands together in anticipation. “All the details are on that key. Go ahead and plug it into your stuff and see how it works. I’d advise you to keep it on you, though, so it doesn’t grow legs, y’know?”
“You’re leaving it with us?” Phil asked.
“Hey, I trust you,” I said. “Just be careful with it… that’s valuable stuff. ‘Kay?”
“Sure,” Lou replied, smiling. “We’ll be careful.”
“Good. Then call me… and we’ll be in business!” I started for the door, opened it, and spoke loud enough that anyone outside could clearly hear me. “I’ve gotta get back into town, but if you need any more info on that (I nodded significantly at the key), just give me a call, and if I have to, I can come back today.”
“No problem,” Lou said, all smiles now. Phil followed her, and the two of them walked me to the front door. Again, everyone looked me up and down as we passed… this place was beginning to make me feel like a virgin at a Vampire’s picnic… though now, at least someone here had to realize that there was more to my visit than a social call.
When we got to the door, Lou said, “Say ‘hi’ to Gail, then. Next time you’ll have to join us.”
“Join you for what?”
There was maybe a split-second before Lou replied, “For a nightcap. We missed you last night.”
I nodded and said, “Sure. Next time.” And I headed out the door with a wave.
On the way back to Pete’s apartment, I reflected on two things. First of all, on the fact that the Trojan Horse plan seemed to be working. I could look forward to step two, hopefully soon.
And second, Lou’s mention of a nightcap: The way she’d said it, was the way you’d say it if a friend of yours had been there, and you weren’t. She could only mean Gail, since she was our only mutual friend. But Gail had told me she was exercising last night. Sure, she could have had the nightcap early, and exercised afterward… or the other way ‘round, for that matter. If she’d already been, there was no reason she had to mention it to me when I called her. There wasn’t necessarily anything odd in that.
So why was this tiny voice in my head doing the “Danger Will Robinson!” chant?
I came in the door, and immediately heard my brother shout, “Danger, Will Robinson!” I spun around in time to catch the beer he’d hurled at me, barely having time to muse about how my thoughts were now leaking across chapter boundaries. As he came out of the kitchen, he said, “So, how did your little con job go?”
“I think it went well,” I said, twisting off the beer top and reaching out to clunk the bottle against Pete’s in a toast. “I’ll keep an eye on the webs over the course of the next day or two, and see if we catch a thief.”
“Hmm… you know,” Pete said, “neither of us is supposed to be old enough to remember Will Robinson… or Alexander Mundy.”
“Better that,” I said, “than confess to watching Captain Planet. I’ll keep sixties television, thanks.” I tossed Pete’s car keys in the air, and he snagged the keyring on a pinkie. I took note. “You training to make a killing at a carnival?”
“Just keeping my reflexes in shape,” Pete grinned. “You never know when a little dexterity may come in handy.”
“That’s what she said,” I commented lightly as I headed for the dining room to unload my pants. (Excuse me: To unload the electronics gear from my pants pockets. You have such smutty minds.)
A few hours later, we were still hanging on the balcony, just chatting idly and checking out the babes at the pool, and beyond on the beach. Well, we weren’t really so close to the beach that we could check out the girls there without a pair of binoculars. And there were enough pretty girls down at the pool that we didn’t really feel the need to lift Pete’s binoculars from the table. So mostly we just checked out the pool.
“I could get used to this,” I said abruptly, and took a deep chug off of my beer.
“Glad to hear it,” Pete said. “I really do think staying in San Diego will be good for you. There’s no reason you have to go back to Baltimore.”
“Baltimore isn’t so bad,” I said defensively. Well, slightly defensively. Actually, I just said it to be saying it.
“Ahh, you’re just saying that,” Pete said. “The whole east coast has a way of turning people conservative… complacent… and…”
“No, that’s not it…”
“Cut that out!” Pete snapped. He raised his finger at me, and said, “Sar—” he held the word after the “r”, and used his finger to stab out the rest of it… “—castic! That’s what you are!”
“Well, at least I’m not alliteratively-challenged,” I gloated. Pete was about to try to retort, when a preprogrammed ding went off on my Toughbook. “Hold that thought… if you can,” I said, as I hopped out of my chair and went to the laptop in my Borgspace. Sure enough, I had a message that my Trojan Horse was moving around. I’d designed it to poke around the computer of any entity that downloaded it, or even ordered it moved from one place to another, so I could verify the identity of the user. Assuming the perpetrator was at another location, I could then locate them, and the police would have a place to serve a search warrant. If it was an inside job, there was every possibility that the perp wasn’t dumb enough to use their own PC… but I had a way to deal with that, if need be…
Hold on. As I watched the screen, I realized there was something I’d missed. And I was about to be screwed by it. “Aw, damn!”
“What?” Pete looked up from his chair. “What’s wrong?”
“I eff’d up! I need your car!” I snapped the Toughbook closed and threw it into my gear bag, then bolted out of the dining room.
“Key!” Pete shouted, and threw the keys at me. I snagged them back-handed, as I reached the door and threw it open. And immediately ran into Gail.
“Oof! Hi, lover—” Gail got out, but not before I was grabbing her shoulder with my hand and turning her one-eighty in the foyer. I yelled back, “Key!” and threw it back at Pete, then pushed Gail out the door and followed close behind her.
“What’s the matter!” Gail demanded as I rushed her out.
“We have to get to Coyote Chow! You’re driving!”
We went… downstairs, faster than the elevator could’ve gotten us down, and sprinted for Gail’s Eclipse. I was pretty damned sure it would move faster than Pete’s Fit, and when Gail threw it into gear and yanked the wheel to the left, I knew I was in speedy hands. We vaulted the hump at the parking lot entrance and laid a patch on the road as we bolted southward.
“All right,” Gail finally said, still a bit breathless from our dash from upstairs. “Tell me what’s happening!”
“I got a signal from my Trojan Horse,” I explained, opening up the Toughbook on my lap. “The file is being accessed… and it’s being done by someone at Coyote Chow, right now!”
“It is an inside job!” Gail breathed, and her eyes narrowed.
“Well… it might not be,” I told her. “The data I received told me something Lou neglected to mention when I spoke to her. The office has a wi-fi connection.”
I nodded sickly, knowing how big a bone this might throw into my plans. “It looks like it’s a small server attached to a common printer in the office. It lets anyone print to the printer at the office, including someone who might come in with a personal computer, without having to run a bunch of wires around for everyone. The problem is,” I continued, “the same connection allows anyone who knows the right passwords to access the main server, and any computers connected to it and running, from anywhere within range of the wifi signal.”
“Don’t wifi signals broadcast out to, like, fifty feet or more?” Gail asked.
Gail’s eyes went wide. “But that means—”
“It means the perp could be sitting in the office, or outside in the parking lot,” I stated. “And if we don’t get there before they’re done, we may never know who it was!”
“We can’t possibly get there in time!” Gail said, just as she was swinging us onto the highway and flooring the Eclipse.
“Hopefully,” I said, “I can slow them up…” Lou had given me enough information about their office’s servers to allow me to log in and mess around. I was trying to do that now. Basically, I just started a few routines that would slow the operations of any computer connected to the server to a crawl, and even force up some error messages. Hopefully the perp would roll their eyes a bit at the delay, and maybe even restart their connection in hopes of clearing it, but not cut and run before they were done. Gail, guessing at what I was doing, shut up and let me work, and we passed the next few minutes in silence. It was thankfully after rush hour, and already starting to get dark, so hopefully Gail’s white streak would manage to avoid any police engagements.
At about the time I guessed we’d be running out of time, Gail swung us off of the highway, and we plowed down the industrial park roads to get to Coyote Chow. As we came around the corner that finally put the building in sight, we could see a car bouncing out of the parking lot and into the street ahead.
“We caught ‘em!” Gail cried.
“Don’t lose ‘em!” I cried back.
We were pretty far back behind the other car, but I could tell it was something low and speedy.
“Is that a Vette?” Gail wondered aloud. “If that’s a Vette, and they know how to drive it, we’ll never keep up!”
“Get close enough to see the license plate!” I shouted, rummaging through my gear bag. I pulled out two things: A digital camera; and a makeshift-style zoom lens I bought online. The lens strapped over the camera, some home fabricator’s idea of a telephoto lens for any camera. It was a kludgy setup, but it more-or-less worked. Trying to hold the camera still, I trained it on the car ahead. It was a Vette, I noticed right off… and I could see the license plate clearly. I took three shots, to compensate for blur, then did a quick check on the monitor. One shot was blurred, but the other two were readable. “Got it!” I confirmed. Now, even if we lost it, we could still trace the license plate.
“We’re gaining,” Gail said. I guessed whoever was behind the wheel wasn’t that good a driver. Gail continued to close the distance, and when we were just two blocks away from the highway exit, Gail planted her foot, and the Eclipse shot forward. She slalomed the car aside the Vette, effectively putting us between the Vette and the exit. I looked hard to see the driver, but the windows were blacked out… no wonder police hate those things.
Blocked from the highway exit, the Vette abruptly swerved away and back into the industrial park. Gail swung her car around to avoid losing them, and I was thrown against the seatbelts. Now I wished there was some police around!
Now the Vette seemed to be doing much better against us… possibly the driver hadn’t realized before that we were chasing them, until Gail blocked them at the exit. An Eclipse has some peppy power, it’s true, but it’s no Corvette. However, the industrial park roads were short, blind corners were everywhere, and it made it pretty much suicidal to be running around like a bat out of hell around here. This allowed Gail to keep up, by the skin of her teeth.
“Got your phone?” I demanded. “Does it have Lou’s number?”
“In my purse,” Gail replied, and I grabbed at the bag and hustled the phone out. After a few seconds in the address book, I said, “I don’t see—”
“It’s ‘Wiley’,” Gail said.
“Right.” I found it, and dialed.
“Gail! Wassup, Wonder Woman?”
Wonder Woman? “Lou, it’s me, Mike! Does—” Wonder Woman!? “—Uh, does one of your employees drive a Vette?”
“Mike? Oh! Uh, yeah… Barry does,” Lou replied, obviously taking a few seconds to shift gears away from… Wonder Woman?!?!!! “Why, what’s going on?”
“Well, he’s leading us on a merry chase from your office, after he downloaded the Trojan Horse,” I said to her.
“Barry? That’s crazy,” Lou said. “He couldn’t possibly… I know he doesn’t know enough to hack our system!”
“He doesn’t need to,” I pointed out. “He has access through your office-wide servers… and I’ll bet, as your receptionist, he probably knows some of your admin passwords too, doesn’t he?”
“Well… yeah… but—”
“No ‘buts’,” I said as Gail threw us around a sharp corner, “he’s rabbiting right now!”
“Dammit,” Lou muttered. I think she was finally getting what was going on. But her next words left me unsure of that: “I’m gonna kill Fern!”
“Kill… Fern? What?”
“Fern recommended him for the job, after she was promoted from it,” Lou said. “And after I did her a favor… she said he was reliable!”
“Waitaminit! Fern is… real? You mean Phil wasn’t just kidding when he said—”
“Of course Fern’s real, though sometimes I’d rather have a plant,” Lou said. “You passed her in the office… the mousy girl with glasses.” I did remember a girl with glasses, now that she mentioned it. The girl that looked noticeably plainer and mousier than the rest of the guys and girls in that place. Who looked out of place in the midst of all those beautiful people. The kind of girl you never notice—
Oh, no. Could it be that simple?
I looked ahead at the Vette, straining to see through the windows, but it was useless. “Can you catch up to him?”
Gail didn’t bother to look at me. “Maybe.”
“Try to run him off the road!” I snapped. Gail obligingly found a convenient moment to take a shortcut through a parking lot, as the Vette took a right turn, and she floored it. For a second, I thought she was going to broadside the Vette… but at the last second it swerved left, bounced up the curb violently, and came to a stop on the sidewalk. It happened so quick, it made me wonder whether Gail could have done that at any time, instead of driving behind him like a maniac for so long.
When the Eclipse came to a stop, I threw the door open and ran around to the driver’s side of the Vette. The door was unlocked, and I yanked it open. Barry sat there in the driver’s seat, which had apparently been modified somewhat to accommodate his small stature.
He glared back at me, with a strange expression in his eye. “If you’ve done any damage to this car, you will never be through paying for it, buddy.”
I ignored Barry’s bluster, and looked around inside the car. It was a small enough cockpit to verify that there were no other occupants, and no computer in there. Barry watched me as I peered inside, and when I brought my eyes back to him, he sat still so as not to give anything away.
“Nice diversion,” I muttered. “Hope she was worth it.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Barry stated calmly. “I was the one hacking into the servers.”
“To get what?”
“A new file encryption… system…”
I smiled. “Almost convincing. Doesn’t matter though. You and Fern are boned.” Barry tried not to react, but I could see by his eyes that he didn’t want that. He started to close the door, but I reacted by grabbing his arm. “Going somewhere?”
I would’ve loved to see Fern’s face as the Corvette came back for her. Of course, I knew now that it was always Barry’s plan to draw any pursuers away from Fern, so she could slip away. But she would have waited for a time, just to make sure he didn’t lose his tail and circle back for her. She would’ve waited in the shadows, holding tightly onto the laptop that held the incriminating files she’d downloaded. A familiar-sounding car engine would have made itself heard in the distance, getting closer, and her heart would have leapt in anticipation.
Hopefully, she actually had feelings for Barry… I’d hate to think that the office ugly duckling was just taking advantage of the office pipsqueak, the next one down on the totem-pole. Hopefully, she planned to give him a cut of her ill-gotten gains, and not just cut him loose once she scored.
So, she would’ve waited until she saw the Vette come around the corner, and drive slowly into the parking lot, staying close to the shadows. She would’ve stepped tentatively out of the dark corner where she had been hiding, and then, once she confirmed that there were no other cars coming, would’ve come around the car, opened the passenger-side door, and climbed in triumphantly.
Then she would’ve seen me sitting there in the driver’s seat instead of Barry, looking back smugly at her, and realize she was boned.
In fact, there was only one difference between what I imagined, and what actually happened: Barry’s driver’s seat and controls were so modified for his size that I couldn’t get into a comfortable position. In fact, it was all I could do to drive the damned thing. And as I sat there, looking at Fern’s shocked expression, I knew the expression on my face communicated anything but smugness.
“Is there actually a way to lower this seat further?” I asked her outright. “Or is it pretty much stuck this way?”
Fern responded by jumping back out of the car. But by then, of course, Gail was already pulling up into the parking lot, followed by another two vehicles, one of them being a police car. The other car was a new-model Mustang that, upon stopping, immediately engorged Lou and Phil. As I unfolded and practically tumbled headlong out of the Vette, Lou rushed over as the policeman stepped up and turned Fern to face the side of the vehicle, hands on the trunk.
“I can’t believe you, Fern,” Lou snapped as she approached. “Like you didn’t have a great job just working for me!”
“Oh, yeah, great job,” Fern shot back. “Getting everything through your pity! You only gave me the promotion to satisfy a contractor, then gave me nothing but crap that no one else would do—and you all laughed like it was funny! I didn’t deserve how you-all treated me!…” What followed was a rapid-fire stream of epithet-filled monologues from both women that I wouldn’t print on toilet paper, much less repeat here. I kept expecting her to say something about how she would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids…
But it was funny, I noted as the two women stood there chewing each other out: Fern was not really ugly. Or, for that matter, particularly mousy. In fact, she was pretty, and shapely, and I’d bet that if she took those tortoise-shells off, it would be like a Clark Kent-to-Superman moment. (Well, maybe a Diana Prince to Wonder Woman moment.) I (Wonder Woman?) … uh, I couldn’t imagine this woman feeling inadequate, even in an office full of TV supermodel-types. Sure, maybe next to Lou Chow, she didn’t look drop-dead exotic the way some Asian women tend to look to Europeans. But mousy? No way.
A shame such a not-mousy girl was about to be boned.
Lou, for her part, gave Fern a nasty look—one of those I gave you everything, how could you betray me? looks—before she turned to me. “Did you get all the evidence you needed?”
I indicated the laptop in the Vette, the one she had had when she got in. “My Trojan Horse data will match that laptop there. I’d say you’ve got her dead to rights.”
Lou looked over to the police car, at Barry who was already in custody in the back seat. “I didn’t even know the two of them were a thing,” she said. “They certainly kept it to themselves.”
“Did they?” I found myself asking. “Or did you guys just not notice them?”
Lou looked at me hard, but she didn’t snap off an answer. I suspected it was because she wasn’t positive of the answer herself, and was rethinking her worldview a bit. After a few seconds, she came up to me and said, “You have my thanks, Mike. Send me a bill, and don’t be modest. And you and Gail are welcome at my place anytime.”
“Thank you,” I said graciously, as the other officer finally got out of the car, and approached Lou to ask some questions. As Lou and Phil went off with the policeman, and the other cop was herding Fern into the cruiser, I noticed Gail sidling up beside me.
“Well, that was a nice job,” she said smugly. “You have my thanks too, for helping out my friend.”
“Don’t mention it, Wonder Woman,” I replied.
Gail’s head snapped around fast enough to throw her hair every which way, and she looked at me with piercing eyes. A few seconds later, it occurred to her where I had heard the name, and her eyes softened noticeably. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use that name in public,” she said quietly. “Old nicknames are kind of embarrassing to me.”
I nodded. “You have any newer ones I should be aware of?”
Gail’s eyes narrowed again, just a tiny bit. “Not today,” she said. “But for now, I think a reward is in order. I was originally coming over to take you to dinner.”
“Really? Where at?”
“Kansas City Bar-be-que,” she said. “It’s famous around here, because they filmed scenes of Top Gun on the premises.”
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Don’t know Kansas City Bar-be-que?”
“No… never heard of that Top Gun thing. What was it, a TV show?”
“Hmm… your dinner prospects are getting smaller and smaller!”
“Then maybe we should settle on dessert,” I said. “I know some things we could nibble on back at your place.”
“I plan to do more than nibble.”
10: Tossing the Trojans
Gail’s dropping me off at Pete’s apartment the next morning felt just a bit like a drive-by dump, thanks to some meeting she said she couldn’t be late for. We pulled up to the building, and I got out from the street. Gail had leaned over so I could see her from the street, and said, “Bye, lover!” before she peeled off for business parts unknown.
I reflected on our now-typical wild night last night, as I made my way inside. Three times, I had tried to broach the Wonder Woman thing, and each time, Gail had started to… do things… that promptly made me forget I was asking anything. After awhile, I came to the full understanding that the subject was off-limits, and gave up on it in order to enjoy the rest of the night. But I had gotten a strange impression, by about the fourth orgasm of the evening: I had the distinct feeling that Gail was holding back… something. Besides old nicknames, I mean. Although, frankly, it was hard for me to imagine what this woman could possibly not be giving me.
At any rate, we had gone at it until we’d collapsed and passed out, on opposite ends of the bathroom this time (I got the shower, while she ended up on the rug… gotta plan that better next time), and when I woke up, she was already washing up at the sink. As soon as she saw I was awake, she hustled me at my clothing, so she could drop me off on the way. I could tell she was in full businesswoman mode now, so I threw my stuff on, and followed her out when she was ready.
“One of these days,” I’d said on the way, “maybe I’ll visit your office.”
“I don’t think so, Romeo,” Gail had said. “It would give them the wrong impression.”
“Letting them think you have a boyfriend is giving them the wrong impression?”
“They don’t think I have a social life,” she’d replied. “Just work.”
I’d thought back on all the times she seemed to be able to get out of work during the day, to hang out with me or help some friend of hers. “How do you convince them of that?”
“By being very careful,” she’d said. “And I can’t afford for that to change right now. So for the time being, I’m afraid you won’t be coming to any office picnics.”
“Does your office actually have picnics?”
I was still thinking about that, when the elevator door opened and I stepped out on our floor. I entered Pete’s place, to find him out on the balcony… like he’d never moved since I’d left. No, strike that: The drink was a different color. So he’d moved at least once.
Pete twisted about when I came in. “Hey, Mike! How did everything go?”
“We pulled it off,” I replied, walking up to the balcony and leaning against the open glass door. “Inside job. The receptionist and the ex-receptionist were in on it together.”
“Kinky,” Pete smiled.
“Weird,” I said. “Apparently the ex-receptionist had a severe inferiority complex, exacerbated I guess by working with all those hardbodies in there. But if you get a good look at her, she’s got no reason to have a complex at all. And I hate to think that’s what made her go for the height-challenged guy…”
“Overcompensation, huh?” Pete nodded, and stared somberly into his drink. “Yeah, that can be hard to handle.”
“Yeah. Oh, by the way: Does Gail go by any nicknames?”
“Well,” Pete mused, “I’ve been using ‘Bitch who ruined my life,’ but it doesn’t seem to stick.”
“Heh.” I started for the shower—after last night, I was a bit ripe—but before I left the balcony, I paused a moment. “You know, that Coyote Chow setup didn’t look bad. Lou seemed to like my work… she as much as told me to write my own check for this job. Maybe I should see if they need a full-time IT expert.”
“Not there,” Pete said. And he said it quickly. So quickly, in fact, that he winced, as if he was regretting that he’d said it so quickly. Yes, I noticed.
“Why not?” I asked. “Is there something about that place I should know about?”
“Well…” Pete paused a moment and shrugged. “I told you, I know Lou Chow, right? Well, take it from me… I really don’t think you’d want to work for her. I mean, she’s not an easy… person to deal with, know what I mean?”
“Well, trust me on this,” Pete asserted. “You really wouldn’t be happy there. Say, you’re a bit ripe. Why don’t you hit the showers, and then we’ll hit the beach?”
“Sure,” I said after a slight pause, and started for my bathroom.
I didn’t hear my brother, once I was out of earshot, saying to himself, “I have gotta introduce him to some normal people…”
Next episode: The Ukrainian Connection, subtitle: DOS Vedanya!