Hairs rose on my arms and the back of my neck. D’Artagnan didn’t scare easy. If this BMC, whatever or whoever it was, possessed enough clout to send him scurrying away, then things were well past my weight class. I shuddered. If these were the people who who were sponsoring Asher in his revenge plans, it was nothing short of miraculous that Devlin hadn’t found himself kidnapped right off of the street by now. He had always been good, even spectacular, under pressure, but this situation was developing into a game of chess, taking places on layers miles above my own head.
For the first time since I’d listened to Devlin’s warning, I strongly considered cutting my losses and moving to a sparsely populated island in the South Caribbean. Barring that, the Ford family kept a fairly sizable security force on hand. They wouldn’t be enough to stop a suitably determined assailant, but a trip back to the estate could buy me the time I’d need to make more permanent arrangements.
Two things stopped me. The first was simple, stark reality. Someone had already cracked my email server. If a given party was able to locate which server, of the countless anonymous ones that existed in the world, belonged to me, then that same party was likely capable of tracing my access. And they would have known that I would know that. It stood to reason, then, that the email’s sender didn’t wish me harm. If that had been his or her intention, a sniper positioned on a nearby rooftop would have worked with a minimum amount of fuss. A bomb would have a higher success rate, with a lower cost and commensurately higher collateral damage. Neither of those things had happened yet, and so I chose to believe that the email’s sender was trying to do exactly what their message said: hire my services in pursuit of some nebulous goal. Smart money pointed to BMC as the target, although I still had no idea who the client was.
The second reason, though I dug deep and tried to ignore the tiny voice within my mind, was Devlin. He was in trouble. That was nothing new. He was always in one form of trouble or another. But in only a few days, he had somehow found himself in so deep that he’d resorted to a redeye flight, straight from Kiev back to San Francisco on the off-chance that I might be able and willing to help him. Asher was hellbent on avenging himself for the events in St. Petersburg, whatever those happened to be. The madman had betrayed Devlin once and it was unlikely that he would call it even after a few short years in prison. That was overshadowed by the sudden access and reach of Asher’s network, which only served to make the target on Devlin’s back even larger. I knew it, he knew it, and a rare flash of intuition told me that the email’s sender knew it as well.
I turned my eyes back to the notepad and added the words “dangerous,” “mystery,” and “finances” beneath BMC’s header. The list was growing too complex, crisscrossed with lines connecting names and nicknames. With Darknet closed, the center screen was available to display information. I opened a word processing program and entered the information there. My fingers moved on autopilot, freeing my mind to consider other aspects of the problem. When I finished, however, I’d drawn no new conclusions. I saved the file under “conspiracy01” and closed the program. If I needed to check the diagram again, or if something came up that necessitated an addition or subtraction, it would be available on any system I’d connected to the network.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I’d only barely eaten. I went back to the kitchen and retrieved two more sandwiches, as well as a large cup of coffee, filled to the brim with creamer and sugar. The Diet Coke simply wasn’t going to provide enough caffeine for the work that stretched out ahead of me. I returned to the room and sat down. Questions whirled through my mind at high speed, whipping into focus just long enough for me to dismiss them as either “unimportant” or “unanswerable.” I sighed and lowered my face into my palms.
There was still a third file in the email. I opened my eyes and clicked on it, hoping against reason that it contained a wealth of information that would help me unravel this growing mystery. Instead, I found a single high quality jpeg. It displayed a golden crown, dotted with large rubies and sapphires at equidistant settings along its exterior surface. Underneath the picture, there was a watermark that read “Museum of London, 2015.”
I looked at the crown for several minutes, but it didn’t seem familiar to me. Then, I maximized the email again and scrutinized each word, hoping that I’d simply missed an illuminating clue. I found none at all.
“Okay,” I said. “So we’ve got a company that apparently doesn’t exist, even though all evidence says otherwise; Asher stealing what looks like a book from a secured bank and killing six Russian Mafia guys to keep it secret from them; and, now, some crown from the Museum of London. What is the connection? What are you trying to tell me?”
The email remained the same as it had been. The words did not change into an answer as I watched.
“Alright then. Guess I’m on my own, then.”
There was a connection. I was sure of that much. I simply needed to figure out what it was. The company, BMC, was an unbreakable enigma for the moment. All I knew about them was that they were deeply involved in the criminal underworld in America, possibly overseas. Their stock name had appeared on my ticker, which meant that BMC was doing well enough that an investment in their company had yielded returns.
I directed the stock market program to print out a list of returns from BMC for the last three years. When the work was done, I leaned over the files and examined them with a fine toothed comb. My program only sold stock in BMC whenever one of the overseas corporations I invested in went through some sort of trouble that affected their financial health. Otherwise, the company continued to grow at an inhumanely steady pace, inching forward a few percentage points every twelve months. That told me something.
“You’re based overseas, aren’t you?” I asked the computer, staring straight at BMC on the screen. “That’s why your business goes downhill whenever there’s a situation that you can’t control. But where are you? Exactly?”
There was no way to tell. I had no email address or website to tag, so back-tracing the connection for an IP address wasn’t an option. According to D’Artagnan, asking for help from the community of electronic junkies was out, as well. I could set up a general conditional trigger. If BMC ever started a website or sent an official email, a small web crawler could be programmed to tag the event and deliver a notification to me. I didn’t expect that to yield any results, though. According to my records, BMC had existed as a company for at least three years, and they hadn’t left so much as a digital footprint in the sand in all that time. There was very little chance that, suddenly, the organization would grow sloppy enough to appear and make themselves traceable. I decided, after a round of back and forth, to set the program up anyway. Any information it could uncover would be better than no information at all.
I also knew that Asher had been involved in the heist at the Limassol bank. That intel wasn’t unique to me; Devlin knew it, and he’d gotten it from Stanislav who had, presumably, been informed of the heist by his superiors. What I did have that none of the other parties seemed to possess was a separate camera feed that showed Asher inside of the vault, liberating a golden book from a safety deposit box. The book itself remained an unknown, as did Asher’s reasons for stealing it and only it when a wealth of other secrets laid exposed to his prying fingers.
According to Devlin, Asher had always been a master planner. There was no way he’d rob a bank and leave the security camera on inside of the vault, unless he’d been showboating. I stopped, thought, and then revised the thought. There was no way at all he wouldn’t erase the camera footage, unless he didn’t know that camera footage existed at all.
It made sense, so long as I went with Devlin’s theory about two rival organizations. One had installed security cameras inside the vault, to keep an eye on whoever came and went. The other organization, instead of coming to the bank in person, had arranged for Asher to break into the vaults instead and steal the book. That would keep their identities a secret, in the event of an aforementioned hidden camera. Killing the Russians on site would have given Asher an extra buffer of a few days, while the Bratva attempted to work out the details of his double cross, and it would provide something of a smokescreen. So long as I considered the situation from an entirely ruthless perspective – and, by all available accounts, ruthlessness was not a trait Asher lacked – the whole thing made a twisted sort of sense. Except, of course, for the book. Its contents were likely the key to uncovering Asher’s entire plan.
That left only the third file, the jpeg of a golden crown. I’d never really concerned myself with jewelry, either to wear or to steal. My specialized search engine was still open, though, blinking at me from the taskbar, so I navigated my way to the Museum of London’s website and did some reading. According to the page, it was a recently uncovered relic belonging to a barbarian king from some forgotten land. Financially, its worth ranked around where I would have expected for a jewel-encrusted item; historically, however, its value was incalculable.
“What does this have to do with anything?” I asked myself aloud. I clicked on a link, which led me to a page with greater detail on the barbarian crown. It had arrived in London two days ago, and was scheduled to remain on exhibition for exactly two weeks. After that, it would be whisked away to another museum. Its next location wasn’t listed. I considered making a serious attempt at breaking into the private communications of museum employees – specifically the curator and security consultants – but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
I sat at my desk, shutting my eyes to the soft blue backlights, and connected the dots. Three disparate pieces of information that, on the surface, were entirely unrelated. There had to be a link between them; if there wasn’t, I couldn’t begin to imagine what job the mysterious sender had intended to hire me for. The mystery gnawed at me. The company, BMC, that didn’t exist on any official record I could locate; Asher’s betrayal of a squad of Russian thugs, all so that he could steal a book of some sort from a safety deposit box; and the barbarian crown, located at the Museum of London for only a handful of weeks before it disappeared back into the ether.
When I made the correct leap, my eyes widened. “BMC hired Asher to steal the book from the bank. Then, they’re moving him over to London to steal the crown.” It didn’t sound any less absurd out loud, but it fit the framework I was quickly building in my head.
If BMC, as an organization, was funding Asher in his revenge against Devlin and contracting his services to extract trinkets from various locations, then that made the entire company a very specific and powerful enemy. My resources were nothing to scoff at. Years of low- and high-level jobs, coupled with a very intelligent program designed to grow my wealth, had given me a healthy amount of capital to throw at problems. To say nothing of the political and financial muscle I could summon simply through virtue of my status as a Ford. A quick glance at the left screen showed me that, in comparison, BMC positively dwarfed me.
There were other questions, though. I still didn’t know why BMC would bother targeting Devlin. Despite his successes and his peerless instincts, he’d never been a corporate or political player. I didn’t know what was in the book that warranted the murder of six gangsters, and I didn’t know why the crown was important to them.
I sighed, opened the conspiracy file again, and deleted the word “Trinity.” In its place, I wrote BMC. Another thought occurred to me, as I typed. My childhood had been spent in the most orthodox of manners; even though my parents weren’t believers, it was important that we be seen as such. So, I’d attended countless Sunday school classes and, with nothing else to occupy my thoughts, most of that information had sunk in on a subconscious level. The name Balthazar sounded familiar, somehow. A moment later, I snapped my fingers. Balthazar was, according to apocryphal accounts over the centuries, the name of one of the three Biblical Magi.
I’d known Balthazar was a fake name immediately. If my guess was correct, then I could guess at what the other two letters in BMC stood for: Melchior and Caspar, the two other Magi. I wasn’t sure if that knowledge would turn out to be useful; at the same time, I’d yet to encounter information that wasn’t at least a little beneficial. I deleted BMC and typed out “Magi.” It seemed to fit.
If the Magi were the ones pointing Asher at targets like some sort of psychotically motivated gun, then that left one other party in play: the one that Devlin had nicknamed the Puppetmaster. There was little doubt now that the email had been sent by the Puppetmaster. I couldn’t begin to imagine how he or she or they had cracked into my server, but any group with the financial resources to go after a corporation like BMC had access to more than I could dream of.
A few questions had been answered but, in their place, a dozen more sprang up. One thing was certain: if Asher was working with or for the Magi, there was little chance that he couldn’t hire a hitman to take me out on some inconspicuous night. There was every possibility, in fact, that he’d already made arrangements. Devlin was right; I had to leave San Francisco, at the earliest opportunity. I did not, however, know where I would go.
I sighed again. Of course, I knew where I would go. Since the email had arrived – even before that, if I was going to be honest with myself – a part of me had emerged that I’d thought long buried. In just a few hours of searching, I’d felt more alive than at any other point in the past four years. It wasn’t Devlin, and it wasn’t the barbarian crown; it was the chase, the thrill of pursuing information that someone powerful wanted to keep hidden. Although helping Devlin to stay alive a few more days was a bonus good deed I could add to my running karma total.
I pressed a button and minimized everything on all three screens, including the stock market program. Most important files were already stored on a variety of encoded servers, including versions of D’Artagnan’s Darknet program backed up on safehouse systems around the globe. I opened a browser and booked a flight, for two, to London. It took me a little while to pick a pair of identities to use: names that would open the right lines of communication with the London underworld, but not ones that carried an unnecessary amount of baggage. When I was done, I leaned back in the chair and sat, stone still, for five solid minutes.
Then, I reopened all of the programs and went back through each bit of information, one document at a time, until a second email arrived in my inbox. Its contents weren’t unexpected. In a long-forgotten part of my heart, it was even desired.