When people asked Grant Lambert what he did for a living he always said this: “I do what other people don’t know how to. And even if they did, they wouldn’t want to.” There had been that one time when a cop had pulled back his jacked to reveal a Glock holstered to his hip. Grant had told him, “I find people.”
Finding people was a fine racket because desperate people paid money for a good-faith effort that more often than not didn’t yield any results. That was fine for somebody who was happy buying a car they didn’t really need. Grant preferred to earn his money with results.
Like the one he was about to achieve by pushing the ENTER key. Somewhere in Haiti, bits and pieces of encrypted code were spooling off a proxy server on the dark web, headed straight for the innards of his customer’s network. The CISO had asked him plainly, “Can you stop them?”
The truth was the CISO could stop the cyber punks from assaulting his network, but what he really wanted to do was the one thing he couldn’t do. He wanted to hit them back, scare them into leaving his stuff alone. But he couldn’t do that because of a little number called attribution. Without legal proof, hitting them back would be seen as a cyber attack in kind. Per usual, law-abiding citizens couldn’t protect themselves against thugs because of the law.
But Jack could hit back. Not because he had any special privilege in the eyes of the law, but because he could do it without being caught. And because he didn’t care all that much about the law anyway. Jack knew the difference between what was fair and what was just. He liked fair better.
It had been all too easy, really. They were running a 56-bit key, which was child’s play for his drones tapped in from home computers all over the Eastern United States. Drone hosts were the sort of thing that a lot of people were using to mine crypto currency. Grant used them to crack the symmetrical key these guys were using to encrypt malware. Which told him they didn’t think they were doing anything serious. They were just playing around, like kids throwing Christmas lights on porches just to hear them pop and see if somebody came out to see what was going on. They were being mischievous.
Because of the $10,000 the CISO had wired him, Jack was anything but mischievous. He hit the ENTER key and leaned back in his chair. Somewhere on the other side of that proxy server, whoever had been tormenting his customer saw their screens go blank and then show, in big block letters, three words: TWO BRAVO DELTA. Anybody who knew anything in the cybercrime space would recognize those words, pack up their gear and run into the night looking over their shoulders.
Grant logged onto a gaming server and monitored the group chat. After two minutes, Somebody going by the name of Salzberg said to everybody: Red Scale raid. 2300Z. It was done. The attack had evaporated. Jack brought up another package and hit the ENTER key again. This bit of code smacked the proxy server, deleting the last ten minutes worth of logs and corrupting a mundane binary that would force a reboot. Anybody paying attention would chalk it up to a routine glitch, see the thing come back after a boot and move on with their life.
Even so, Jack powered down his machine and rebooted his router so it would pick up a new IP. Unless somebody was looking at the deal live, they would never know he was there.
He stepped away from his computer and slid a book from the bookshelf against the wall of his cramped living room. Then he put the needle down on a real vinyl record. The faint scratches and pops announcing the coming of old music sent a warm sensation along his neck. He sat down on a ten-year-old couch and opened the book, running his finger down the page. He liked the feeling of paper under his fingertips.
He picked up the short glass of Early Times sitting on a TV tray next to the couch when the phone rang. Grant let out a sigh, set the drink down and closed the book, marking his place with his thumb. He watched the phone as it continued to ring.
There were very few people who had his number and he didn’t feel like talking to any of them just then, so he watched the phone until it stopped ringing. He picked up his drink and opened the book. But just as he started to settle back in, the phone rang again. He let out a sigh, stood up and leaned over to pick it up.
“Grant. It’s Jack. Do you remember -“
“Yeah I remember.” Grant didn’t exactly mean to sound dismissive and he couldn’t help wondering why a Special Agent from the Secret Service was calling him. The absurdity of the situation led him to the only possible conclusion: it had to be a prank. “Look man, I’m tired. And I know you think this is funny, but honestly, it’s just mean.”
“No Grant. Really. It’s me. You recognize my voice, yes?”
Grant took the receiver away from his face and stared at it. It was true – he had a knack for sounds. Like the warm harmonic distortion from vinyl that gave it that sound that no digital device would ever be able to produce. The Cars were singing about a girl – it didn’t matter where she had been, as long as it was deep. Ten years later, it still reminded him of Denise.
Grant sat down, set the book aside. “Why are you calling me?”
“I have a job for you.”
“As I recall, I applied for a job once. Didn’t make the cut.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not that you didn’t have the aptitude or the skills even -“
“Gee whiz Johnny, are you going to ask me to the prom this year? Don’t you have guys with badges and stuff that can handle this? Why are you calling me?”
“No, Grant, we don’t. Some things we can’t touch. You know how it is.”
“Yeah yeah, Air America and whatever. I’m not a whore.”
“No you’re not.”
“Then why are you calling me?”
“Because there is one thing that stood out in your application. And in your initial assessment. Something that’s very important to us right now. And, honestly, something that’s harder to come by these days.”
“And what would that be?”
“You love your country.”
“Man, if you have to butter me up this much, something’s really screwed up over there.”
“As a matter of fact, things are screwed up. And I’m not buttering you up. Do you still love your country?”
“Not the way you need me to. I love the idea, not so much the way it turned out. Whatever cesspool of a deal you have brewing here, I’m not interested in being a throw-away. See ya’.”
Grant hung up the phone, but he couldn’t lean back just yet. He stared at the phone, wondering how far he was into it already. They probably knew about the counter-hacking he did. So they had that on him. And while he wasn’t good enough to join their ranks, he was good enough to become an expendable mercenary, just another sap who they didn’t have to protect and, more importantly, who wouldn’t talk. Prison bars were a good deterrent. Usually. People disappeared all the time. That was always option B and he knew there wasn’t much he could do about that.
The phone rang again. Grant sighed, already thinking of how he might ditch his current locale and find some quiet trailer park without Internet access just so he could disappear for a while.
He snatched the receiver from its cradle. “What?”
“That was one of your problems, though. Right there, Grant.”
“You tend to jump the gun.”
“That’s because I’m usually six steps ahead of the other guy and five out of six times, I’m right.”
“Right. And in this situation, that helps me. I need somebody who can get ahead of the curve without having to clear it with the boss. I need a freelancer.”
“And if I say no? You think you have me in a bind because you’ve been watching me?”
All Grant could hear for a few moments was the faint hiss of silence. “No, Grant, we’re not watching you. See, there you go right there, off into the weeds. And don’t talk about any of whatever it is you think we might want to watch. I don’t need to know. I don’t care. That’s your business.”
“So what happens if I say no?”
“You’re not going to say no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because, like I said, you love your country. And you know something you’re not supposed to.”
At that, Grant’s skin tingled and a chill scurried along his back. “So you’re going to do it that way after all. It’s just too easy, isn’t it. Well, good luck with that. I’ll be gone before -“
“Shut up Grant. Dammit. Nobody gives a shit about you and your whereabouts. You’re not DB Cooper. You’re just in our graywater file. That’s all.”
“Yeah, guys like you who didn’t make the cut but still have a knack for doing things that might be helpful to their country.”
“I’m not a patriot. Not in the way you need. But, just out of curiosity, what is it I’m not supposed to know?”
There was another long silence. Then Jack drew a breath and said, “Tangerine.”
Grant stopped breathing, sat up on the edge of the couch. Up to that point, Jack’s call had made him nervous. Now, he gulped and he felt the room closing in around him a little. He couldn’t think. His brain just froze.
“You’ll be receiving a package. Onbording for B&L consulting. It’s a payshell, nothing more. We don’t need to know where you are. We just need you to keep us apprised of your progress.” He paused, as if he knew that Grant had to catch up. “Will you help your country, Grant?”
Grant sat there, still as stone. He knew he was supposed to say something, but his brain wouldn’t let him form words. Not just yet.
©2021 Michael J Lawrence