Chapter 23 (Sarah)

While my various anti-virus programs scanned the attachments for any malware, I pivoted towards the center screen and opened a cloud server.  This particular one served as a sort of portable hard drive for music files, accumulated and curated over years.  I considered the wall of file names for a few seconds before made a snap decision and searched for Fleet Foxes.  Music, piped through several speakers placed in the upper corners of the room, filled the room in an instant.  I turned back to the right screen and saw that the scans were finished.

“Alright, what’ve you got for me?”  A current of electric trepidation ran through my body, even as I leaned closer to the monitor in excitement.  Someone had co-opted my email server, and they’d done so without setting off any alarms or electronic traps.  That same someone had only sent a job offer with the access he or she had acquired, but they could have done more.  That possibly was as exhilarating as it was frightening.  It had been too long since I’d been challenged, in any significant way.  Not since Devlin and I split ways, and I gave up the game in favor of a more secure, within-the-legal-lines lifestyle.

The first file opened and stretched to fit the entire screen.  At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a default balance sheet.  Numbers and company abbreviations ran down the page in neatly organized columns.  At the top of the page, a header read “Financial Report for BMC, Inc.;” at the bottom, my first name and the number one, a slash mark, and the number 50.  The first of fifty pages, of…what, exactly?

“Why would you send me this?”  I asked myself out loud, and then I froze.  Slowly, I turned to look at the left screen – the one that operated, more or less, automatically and handled the buying and selling that constituted my income these days.  The figures shifted and changed as I watched, rising and falling in some financial dance that I had no desire to understand.  I found the information I was looking for in fairly short order.  That same abbreviation – BMC, Inc. – appeared on my screen as my automated program purchased stocks, waited for some unseen signal, and then sold them again at a profit.

I’d set up my stock market manipulator to display information on any company, whenever I clicked on a given name.  It was important to remain legitimate, and that legitimacy required that I occasionally have the slightest idea what I’m talking about.  I clicked on BMC, and a browser window opened and migrated to the center screen.  The search engine appeared, considered my request for a moment, and then returned an answer: “No information available.”

I tilted my head and took a long swig of Diet Coke.  “Alright,” I said to the computer, “let’s try this another way.”  Manually, I entered the abbreviation into a separate search engine of my own design that trolled more than just the top level of the internet and hit enter.  The same process happened again: my computer sent the question out into the electronic ether, the dark gods of technology weighed my request, and then decided that there was simply no information to give me.  Which never happened.

I leaned back in the chair and shut my eyes for a few seconds.  There were two more files attached to the mysterious email.  I could turn my attention to either of those and perhaps uncover something about BMC, whatever that was.  An unanswered question – any unanswered question, really – bothered me, though.  I decided, after opening my eyes and finishing off one of the Cokes, to split the difference.  I created a new throwaway email account through a virtual desktop to mask my footprints and sent a message to dartagnan3m@gmail.com.

From adleri@gmail.com: Hey, stranger.  Got a question, if you’ve got the time.

I hit send.  D’Artagnan and I had remained in contact, after the split, but not for very long.  He – I assumed it was a he, and there’d be no indication or complaints about that assumption – harbored a desire to meet in person and, perhaps, to form a relationship beyond our digital one.  I’d had no desire to find myself in another romantic partnership, especially not so soon after the disastrous collapse of my marriage with Devlin, and so I’d delicately distanced myself from D’Artagnan.  It had been six months since our last communication.

The reply came a minute later.  A bubble for a live chat appeared on the screen.  I retrieved a fresh Diet Coke and opened the chat.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Who is this?

From adleri@gmail.com: Irene.

As far as I knew, D’Artagnan didn’t know my real name; even if he had ferreted that information, I wasn’t going to use it and confirm suspicions.  Irene referred to the identity I defaulted to in my online interactions: Irene Adler, the only woman Sherlock Holmes had ever…well, not quite loved, but concerned himself with.  Devlin had picked it for me in our first days, before our relationship turned personal, and I’d grown attached to it.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Prove it.

I paused and considered.  His request wasn’t unreasonable.  In point of fact, some third party had taken over my server and it made sense that he would want proof of my identity.  I simply wasn’t sure how best to communicate that information.  My smile widened as a solution presented itself.

From adleri@gmail.com: Good fortune is the best of all mistresses.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Source?

From adleri@gmail.com: The Three Mouseketeers.

D’Artagnan had once confided in me that his user name derived from a childhood fascination with Mickey Mouse.  As an adult, he’d discovered the Alexandre Dumas novel and been incapable of properly pronouncing Musketeers, due to some fight-related injury he’d incurred during a bar brawl.  Instead, he’d used the word he did know and steadfastly called them the Mouseketeers for years, forgetting that he was using a childhood appropriation, until a client corrected him on a job.  The nickname stuck and, after a couple years fighting it, he’d discovered that he didn’t mind being known as the Mouseketeer all that much.

He didn’t send a reply for several minutes.  I spent that time, staring in consternation at the search engine and its “No results available” message.  As I did that, my automated stock market continued to buy and sell shares for a company that, according to the internet and my own personal search engine, didn’t exist.  When D’Artagnan did send a reply, the notification sound came as a relief from my own musings.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Where’d you go, Irene?

From adleri@gmail.com: Just got busy. I need to ask a favor.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: You didn’t burn your system out again, did you?  I can’t get you another CPU for at least six months. 

From adleri@gmail.com: No, of course not.  Just a name I need some information on.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: What’s the name?

From adleri@gmail.com: BMC, Inc.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Corporation or individual?

From adleri@gmail.com: I’m not sure.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: What’s your interest, then?

From adleri@gmail.com: Curiosity.  Can you check with your contacts, see what you can find out?

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: …fine.  It’ll cost you, though.

From adleri@gmail.com: Let’s see what you can find out.  We can discuss price later.

D’Artagnan didn’t respond.  Ten seconds later, he disconnected from the chat.  I shrugged and turned back to the email.  I closed the balance sheet, satisfied that the problem was under investigation – albeit, indirectly – and opened the second attachment, a large video file titled “Limassol15.”

The Limassol file turned out to be the data from security camera feed.  Smoke obscured the lens for the first few seconds of footage but, eventually, it cleared away to reveal a bank full of captive, quivering hostages.  Six men stood guard over them holding a mixed assortment of handguns and assault rifles.  They shuffled in place, speaking to each other, but the file had no sound.  As I watched, something pierced a persistent cloud of smoke around one side of the bank, and one of the men fell to the ground.  The rest followed in short order.  It wasn’t my first time seeing violence, but I gasped at the abruptness all the same.  Devlin had told me about the heist, when Asher had betrayed the Bratva for some unknown aim, but it was still difficult to actually watch the murders play out.

Then, the camera angle shifted.  Instead of the lobby, this second feed looked directly into the vault.  Asher stood there.  He held an assault rifle, braced against his arm, in one hand.  Smoke still trailed from the barrel up to the ceiling.  In the other, he held what looked like a very large, ornately decorated book.  He looked around the vault, smiled to himself, and then left the room.  The screen went dark as the video ended.

“Okay…”  I stretched my arms over my head and cracked the knuckles of my fingers individually.  “That’s new information.”

From what Devlin had told me, Asher had turned on the Russians, but he hadn’t finished the planned robbery on his own.  Instead, he’d removed the contents of a single safe deposit box, under the name of an “M. Balthazar,” and left the rest.  If this video was to be believed, his true objective had been a book.  I tapped an index finger against my bottom lip.  “But why a book?”  I asked out loud.

I rewound the video and watched it two more times, paying special attention to any details that I could glean from what was shown.  There was something in the file that I’d missed.  There had to be.  Otherwise, there was no reason for a third party to send it to me in the first place.  This newest clue, Asher’s book, was the key to this particular mystery.  That hadn’t been a part of the information Stani had shown Devlin, over in Kiev.  Either the Russians were keeping that tidbit to themselves – which was incredibly likely, now that I considered it – or they simply didn’t know.  Both possibilities were…intriguing.

I started the file up a third time and paused it when I had a decent angle of Asher.  The book was large and ostentatious.  The camera had abysmal resolution but, from what I could make out, the book was also golden.  Asher carried it as though it were a baby or a nuclear device: with extreme, delicate caution.  He made no attempt to check its contents.  I found myself learning even closer, my nose almost touching the computer, hoping for a glimpse of something that might help me to identify book.  There was nothing.

I sighed and, finally, took a large bite of my sandwich.  Since I’d entered the room, the tomato-and-mozzarella concoction had sat ignored on the desk.  Temperature and time had made the bread a little soggier than I would have liked, but it was better than nothing.  I ate the sandwich mechanically, paying little attention to the taste.  My mind was occupied with theories and possibilities.  I got up from the computer and walked back into the living room.  There, underneath my discarded clutch, I found Devlin’s notebook and a pen, which I carried back into the computer room.  I turned to a blank page and began to take my own notes.

To begin with, I copied over the general structure of what Devlin had written, only in more legible handwriting.  Then, I wrote “Limassol” and circled it.  I wasn’t sure which of Devlin’s organizations were involved with the bank job in Limassol, but I was absolutely certain that at least one had a stake in Asher’s golden book.  I leaned back and drank deeply from my soda.

“What else?”  I asked myself.  My eyes wandered back to the left screen.  The mysterious BMC didn’t appear in the scrolling list of companies and assets again while I watched.  I bit down on my pen’s cap in thought.

I blew out an explosive puff of air as I realized the trajectory of my thoughts.  “What the hell are you doing, Sarah?  Do you really want to go back to the way things were?”

I didn’t know the answer to that.  There was a thrill to being a thief and nothing I’d encountered since held the same allure.  I considered the question and then, privately, admitted to myself that I was bored with life in San Francisco.  My days passed in a series of routine activities.  I’d wake in the early morning hours, check my email for messages that never came, survey the stock program, and then wander throughout the city until it was time to eat.  I’d made few friends which was, at least in part, a learned survival trait.  My parents had tried to keep in touch, but they couldn’t begin to understand why I’d disappeared for so many years after college, and that hidden stretch of time drove a wedge between us.  My older sister wouldn’t deign to concern with what I did, beyond the bare minimum required by familial decorum.  I was safe in my palatial condo; at the same time, I had long since decided that safety was no longer a priority in my life.

A soft ping brought my attention back to the computer.  On the right screen, there was a new message from D’Artagnan.  I opened it and started to read.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Couldn’t find anything.  No charge.

From adleri@gmail.com: Nothing?  It exists; hell, I’ve got stock in the company or whatever it is. 

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Nothing to find.  Forget about it.

I paused.  The D’Artagnan I’d known six months ago would have treated a mysterious company, with no discernible digital presence, as an enigma that demanded a solution.  It wasn’t just out of character for him to take a situation at face value; it was downright disturbing.

From adleri@gmail.com: Forget about it?  Since when do you want me to forget about anything?

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: LEAVE IT ALONE.

I stared at the screen in shock.  I started to reply, but another message appeared before I managed to finish my thought.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Darknet.

He disconnected.  I tilted my head, confused, for a single long minute before I closed the email server and opened instead one of the programs D’Artagnan had written: a specialized means of communication that routed our conversation through dozens of overseas servers, encrypting and decrypting it along the way.  He’d created Darknet as an overt homage to the underside of the internet, but had never actually used it for its intended purpose.  It was composed with redundant layers of paranoid security, even for thieves and hackers.  I’d always suspected that he’d taken its creation as an intellectual challenge; one that, after completion, he lost interest in.

Darknet was a beast of a program.  It took an absurd amount of time for the program to load, as it connected to servers and systems across the world.  While it worked, I tabbed back to the video and went through the heist frame by frame.  When Asher was on screen, cradling his prize like a newborn, I stopped and saved the image as a jpeg.  I’d look back over it again, after I discovered what secret D’Artagnan had uncovered that necessitated absolute secrecy.

Finally, a simple login prompt appeared on the right screen.  I moved it to the center, shunting the video to the toolbar in the process, and entered my information.  The system accepted my password, lagged for a full thirty seconds, and then allowed me into the chat room.  D’Artagnan, under his general name as the Mouseketeer, waited there for me.

Irene Adler: What is it?

Mouseketeer: BMC is bad news.  Dangerous.  Repeat: dangerous.

Irene Adler: It’s a publically traded company.  How dangerous could it be?  What did you find out?

Mouseketeer: Nothing.  Seriously, nothing.  Asked a few friends.  No one knows who BMC is, but everyone knows what they do.

Irene Adler: And that is?

Mouseketeer: Correction: what don’t they do?  Hiring out hitmen, hackers, bombmakers in large numbers for years.  Widespread influence.  National, possibly global.

Irene Adler:  That doesn’t make any sense.

Mouseketeer:  Right.  Searched them on my own.  Got what you got: nothing available.  Company that can move that much money, with no digital history?

It was possible, perhaps, for a very new company to find themselves without an online footprint, but the odds were vanishingly low.  Those numbers dropped even lower for any company capable of moving around enough money to hire the services of the underworld in the numbers D’Artagnan implied.  I started to wonder if I was being led down a rabbit hole, but a quick glance at my far left monitor showed the initials BMC appear once more in the scrolling feed of purchases and sales.  There was something to the business.

Irene Adler:  That can’t be all there is.  Thanks for the info; I’ll follow up, on my own.

Mouseketeer: NO.  Irene, just leave this alone.

Irene Adler: What are you so scared of?

Mouseketeer: Couldn’t get anyone to talk about BMC, at first.  Rumor is asking the wrong questions gets you disappeared.  Asking the right questions…

Irene Adler:  I’ve never backed down from a challenge before.  Not about to start now.  I’ve got some leads to follow, I think.

Mouseketeer: DO NOT TELL ME.  I like you, but this is…it’s something else.  I’ve got to look out for myself.

I hadn’t expected his help, but it was still surprising to see D’Artagnan categorically refuse to offer it.

Irene Adler: Fine.  Thanks for what you’ve done already.  You said no payment?

Mouseketeer:  Not for a warning.  Don’t want there to be any trail between us, anyway, if you insist on running this down.  But, Irene?

Irene Adler: Yes?

Mouseketeer: Be careful.

He broke his connection before I could reply and left me alone in the Darknet chat room.  After a minute, I did the same.

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 23 (Sarah)”

  1. Haven’t read further yet, but I have a bit of confusion about this page.

    Sarah knows her system is compromised, but runs Darknet. Does she believe that it will purge her system as part of its bootup? It seems like whoever is undeleting her mail is also going to be getting her keystrokes and screengrabs, which would render the idea of using an encryption program a bit odd.

    I mean, it wouldn’t be useless, it would prevent other parties who aren’t currently shoulder surfing you from learning stuff, but it stil seems strange.

    Basically, is the stories intent at this point that
    1: Sarah believes that her Darknet conversation was private, and this has fixed her cpu
    2: Sarah believes that her Darknet conversation was private, and the remainder of the cpu remains compromised.
    3: Sarah believes that her Darknet conversation was not private.

    3 seems like it would be out of character, given Mousketeer’s belief that he is keeping clear of this.

    Like

    1. Darknet runs through so much encyryption (in-story) that it would functionally be useless to someone who wasn’t using her physical terminal. And she also doesn’t say anything personally identifying, just in case. Pretty much like you said.

      So option number two. Sarah believes the Darknet conversation was private because someone wasn’t literally standing over her shoulder and she can just break everything down and create a new password, etc. later. But she’s still perfectly aware that someone is futzing with her computer. She’s just interested enough to risk it.

      (Also, unless I’m mis-remembering, Sarah was remotely accessing an email server and that server was the one that’d been hacked. Which doesn’t necessarily imply that her physical terminal at home has been compromised, although she still has full intentions of stripping everything down just in case.)

      Like

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