Phillip turned the corner to walk into the small room where they kept the printer and neatly stacked reams of paper in white pressboard cabinets bolted to the wall. He squinted against the buzzing fluorescent light splashing the wall with a slick glare. He wasn’t used to so much light and immediately missed the soft yellow of incandescent bulbs that bathed the carpeting of his home office. But those days were over and he let out a quick sigh as he reminded himself of that fact.
She stood next to the printer, her slender hands tapping the receiver tray with glossy red nails that were long enough to gut a small fish. It was the second time he had seen her and it was only his first day. He didn’t know anybody’s name yet and everybody mostly drifted through the halls while they flipped through papers clipped together, as if they couldn’t read them in their cubicles and somehow had to stand up and walk around to get anything done.
But he knew her name. Charlotte. She had that kind of presence where you couldn’t forget her name and she tugged at the inner yearning of every man that wanted to make sure they didn’t forget her name in case she said something. He was old enough to understand this and right away his mind threw up every barrier against danger it could summon. He looked away, idly scanning the cupboards and taking a mental inventory of their contents. He took time to deliberately notice how the floor shone with a gloss and wondered who came in at night and what kind of wax they used to make it that way. You learned these things to help you ignore women like Charlotte before they could do something to beguile you with the rapture of their enchantment – like say your name or even worse, smile.
He wasn’t old enough to be immune to all of this, of course. Which is why he clenched his jaw and squinted hard at the floor, forcing himself not to look. But then she did it. She spoke.
“Hi. Phillip, right?” Then she smiled – a gate of white ivory beaming at him like a cat to its prey. Oh, sure, it was friendly and happy smile, just somebody trying to make the new guy feel comfortable. You bet.
He cleared his throat and coughed softly into his hand. “Yes ma’am.” His words hit their mark immediately. Her brows fluttered with the slightest of creases and then vanished. No woman who went to the trouble of finding a pencil skirt that hugged her curves just right and suede high-heeled shoes that pushed out her derriere just enough to ensure no man could ignore it, but was still somehow acceptable – no woman who did these things for work (of all places) wanted to be called ma’am. He knew this.
No, what she wanted was for him to blush and then beam a grateful smile because she had noticed him and it was only his first day. She wanted him to fall over himself as she imbued his sense of manhood with something vaguely heroic because she was paying attention to him even though he was the last person anybody else wanted to talk to.
He smiled wanly back at her as he realized that she had to be too new at her trade to understand that men of a certain age who had taken the kind of job he now had with her company were not the kind of men that had what she was looking for. You didn’t spring a man-trap on squirrels and chipmunks. No, women like her were looking for bear meat. So why was she still smiling at him?
Trying to sound bored, he said, “Yes, that’s right.”
The corner of her mouth twitched because he wasn’t doing it right. He felt the tension in his face ease a little as he saw his impertinence again ruffle a thin line just above her brow. But the smile still beamed. She tapped her fingernails on the printer in a quick riffle and then turned to face him.
Leaning on the printer, she spread her arms along its top and crossed one foot over the other. “How Is your first day going?” she asked. “Is everybody helping you get settled in okay?”
No, they’re ignoring me. Because I’m the new guy and they’re waiting to see if I screw up on my first day. He wanted to say this, too, but something told him that slapping the hot girl in the office wouldn’t be the best move politically. He had only been on the job for exactly two hours and not only did he have to contend with figuring out how to show everybody that he really could do what he had said he could do at the interview, but now he had to contend with dodging the advances of a woman who could put him out of his job in five minutes flat if he so much as looked at her wrong. But, somehow, she was still allowed to stare at him with bedroom eyes while she draped her body over the printer and smiled at him with wet red lips that sang across the room with an invitation to dive into a chasm of total and complete disaster.
The printer clicked and hummed and then spit thin sheets of paper into its receiver tray. She slid her hands further along the printer and let her chest swell out at him just enough for the white lace of her collar to peek out from behind her red business jacket, still buttoned at the top in some defiance of physics that only women like her seemed to understand.
He cleared his throat and again coughed softly into his hand. Pointing casually at the printer, he asked, “Um, is that your print job?”
She tilted her head and puffed out her lower lip just enough for it to be passed off as nothing more than preparing to speak. Her tongue flitted across her lips, barely peeking out long enough for him to see it. She let her eyelids droop a fraction of an inch and said, “It’s a big job.”
Oh, for God’s sake. Phillip felt his own eyes narrowing and his mouth thinning into a hard line. He looked quickly at the floor because he knew it would be best if she didnt’ see the look on his face. Not yet. Not until he knew who she really was and what power she had. If she was somebody important, he would have to figure out how to deal with all this in some way that didn’t cost him his job.
Regaining his composure, he stepped back and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms casually over his chest. He smiled politely and went back to his visual inventory of the cabinets, somehow finding the different shades of yellow inhabiting its shelves an oasis of respite that held his rapt attention.
The printer stopped and beeped once, telling them both her print job was finished. As they waited, he could only hear the buzz from the fluorescent lights and his own breathing as he counted the stacks of paper, wondering how so many shades of blue could possibly be useful. His throat tightened when he heard another single riffle of her fingernails tap against the printer. A moment of silence passed through an eternity and back and then he watched out of the corner of his eye as she turned and bent over just a little more than necessary to retrieve the paper from the receiver tray and tuck them along her forearm.
She turned back around and rolled her shoulders back before clicking across the room towards the door. The hair on his neck stood up when he smelled the stinging sweetness of her perfume. Not because it was pleasing or daring or even arousing – but because it frightened him that she had put so much thought into her arsenal of weapons aimed directly at the libido of men. His skin crawled as she brushed his elbow with her rib cage, just behind her breast. It was the briefest of touches, like leaves skipping off a sidewalk and back into the wind. But he knew, with the certainty of seeing the sun come up in the morning, that she had done it on purpose.
As she stepped through the door, she lowered her voice into a husky whisper. “Good luck.”
And then she was gone, strutting down the hall. He let out a long sigh and closed his eyes, thankful that she was now hidden on the other side of a wall where he couldn’t see her. And, more importantly, where she couldn’t see him.
He sat in his cubicle, staring at the large computer screen crawling with an ocean of entries from logs he was supposed to analyze to determine how the company had succumbed to three rounds of ransomeware thefts in just six months.
He wasn’t use to being in a cubicle. He was used to being in a room, with a large desk and three large monitors where he had the room to spread out and work. He was used to having a large table against one wall with industrial power strips mounted next to it where he could plug in any myriad of equipment, connect it all with network cables and make it all work just the way his customers needed it to before shipping it out to them.
But customers who needed that kind of work had thinned in recent years, leaving in their wake a mortgage three months past due, a bank account at nearly zero and letters from the IRS threatening to take what was left.
So he made do with a cubicle and a single screen. He could make it work, somehow. He had to. What he was less certain about was how to get around the huntress roaming the halls and peeking at him with her bedroom eyes just long enough for him to see and know that he was some kind of target. He didn’t know what kind, not yet. But he knew that his job somehow depended on figuring that out and figuring out a way around her ambitions. He imagined himself a slow-moving cruiser dodging the swift advance of a destroyer slinging its torpedoes into the water to engulf his hull with smoke and flame, sending him to the bottom of a deep blue ocean he would never escape.
As he was staring at the logs and slumping at the image of steel slipping beneath the ocean surface, a young man with curly hair, cargo shorts, sandals and a polo shirt that didn’t go down far enough to cover his white protruding belly poked his head in.
“You the new ransomeware guy?” he asked. His voice was nervous and distracted, as if he had just stepped onto a bus and was hanging out the door to talk.
Phillip’s eyes drifted to look at the man and he stifled a groan. Since when did pants, shirts and ties become unfashionable?
The man slipped around the edge of the partition and stuck out a sweaty hand. “Carl.” He smiled nervously, his face practically jittering, probably from drinking too much Mountain Dew and cranking out code.
Phillip briefly shook his hand and wiped his hand on the sleeve of his own shirt. There just wasn’t any polite way to wipe away somebody else’s sweat and he wasn’t sure it was going to matter much anyway.
Carl beamed a sheepish smile. “Sorry. I just get so wrapped up in the code, you know?”
Yeah, Phillip knew. But in his day, it was the Unix guys wearing pony tails. You didn’t wear a pony tail unless you were a Unix guy. That was the rule. But they didn’t sweat or vibrate, either. And they typed with their fingers, not their thumbs. He had to fight back the urge to fall into the rabbithole of wondering where things had started going backwards. If for no other reason, he had bills to pay.
“So I guess this is a pretty big deal,” Carl said, pointing at the monitor.
Phillip groaned again, his eyes glazing over at the scroll that swam up the screen, like fish scrambling for some unseen spawning pool. It was endless and he really didn’t know how he was going to filter it all to get at the entries that would tell him where to look next to find whoever it was that had managed to pilfer an even $10 million from the company he had been hired to protect. But it had only been a couple hours. And it was his first day. These things take time.
“Yeah, pretty big deal,” he said.
Acknowledging the obvious almost took more effort than he was willing to put forth. But, like Charlotte, this person could Have been somebody he would have to contend with… somehow. And that was the real problem. In his home office, with the cool lights, the smooth carpet and his lab table sagging under stacks of gear – he knew who the boss was. It was whoever he talked to on the phone that told him what they wanted. Now, he was in an ocean of people, all of them wandering around in circles and, so far, saying nothing important. But he didn’t know who any of them were. Who did he listen to first? Who did he have to be extra polite to? Who could determine whether or not his first paycheck would be his last? Except for the CISO who had hired him, he didn’t really know, but he suspected it was more than just making sure a single corporate officer was content. You get more than two people in the room and politics become a force to reckon with. Always.
But he wasn’t quite ready to accept that a youngster who didn’t own a comb or know how to shop for clothes that covered the most egregious part of his own body was somebody he had to worry about. If he didn’t offend him, that would probably be enough.
And it would have been easy enough if the young man had excused himself and left. Instead, he sat down in the lone plastic chair tucked up against the partition.
One thing Phillip had never been able to do was work while somebody was watching. Since his earliest days, if anybody was hovering, he simply stopped and waited for them to go away. If they weren’t willing to do that, he would simply walk away himself. That had been in the days when there was more than enough work to go around. So, now, he intertwined his fingers, laid his hands in his lap and turned towards the youngster with a barely-polite thin smile.
“What can I do for you, Carl?”
The youngster lifted a brow, genuinely puzzled and then nodded his head.
“Oh, yeah, well -” He grunted and let out a choked laugh. He kept blinking his eyes, as if he was coming down at the end of a hit and needed to raid the nearest vending machine for another fix. “It’s just that this is where I always come to chill. It’s like a Zen thing or something. The guy that used to work in here would do all this mundane stuff real slow and it helped me relax.”
Oh for God’s sake. Phillip looked at his watch. It wasn’t even three hours and already he felt like he was in some kind of carnival where people weren’t supposed to work as much as they had descended into some endless cosplay where nobody ever did anything.
He grunted. “Uh-huh.” Still, he would have to wait, because working while he was being watched just wasn’t something he could do. “So, what happened to the guy that used to be here?”
Carl shifted his gaze to Phillip for a moment and then fixed his eyes on the wall behind him. They grew still and glazed over, as if he were looking for something but had forgotten exactly what it was.
In a faraway voice, he said, “I don’t know.” His eyes scanned the wall, as if searching the horizon. “Nobody knows. It’s weird.”
For the second time that morning, the hair on his neck stood up, and for the same reason. Too many things were already not adding up. He was I.T. by trade and therefore, by default, nerd by reputation. Except that he had always managed to rise above that somehow. He was the guy in the room who could talk to a CISO or even a CEO in his own language. He had learned how to read people fast and get on their wavelength so they would understand what he was trying to tell them. That came for years of working with more customers than he could count. In all that time, he had met plenty of people like Charlotte and Carl, but never in a way that was so… intrusive. They were in the way. And they seemed to know it. When were they going to tell him why?
“Look, I uh – don’t mean to be rude, but -” He pointed casually at his monitor and tilted his head.
Carl stared at the wall a moment longer and then, as if waking from a dream, looked at Phillip and said, “Oh yeah, man. Hey, I’m sorry. Just – I dunno’-” He stood up and glanced over his shoulder. “Just not used to having no place to go when I need to get away from my brain. You know?”
“I hear you.” Try a gym. He smiled again, not meaning it, and turned back to his monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Carl step towards the narrow entryway of his cubicle and pause. Phillip ignored him, holding his breath in case the youngster had something else to say. After a moment, Carl slipped back through the entry and back into the hall to mingle with the carousel of people who seemed endlessly fascinated with the papers in their hands as they shuffled along in a quite morass of going nowhere.
He glanced at the doorway to make sure the youngster was actually gone and then something in the chair caught his eye. A plain white envelope lay on its rough plastic surface. Phillip reached over to pick it up and turn it over in his hands. It was blank – nothing written it at all. He tucked his finger along one edge and ripped open, leaving a jagged tear across its top.
He pulled out a single piece of paper and unfolded it. And the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Again. He caught his breath as a wash of heat flowed down his arms to his now-trembling fingers. The cubicle suddenly felt smaller and he sucked in a slow breath against a growing pressure in his chest.
The paper had a single line typed right in the center:
Be careful not to find too much.
Philip stared at the paper, his mind a blank as he demanded it to tell him what to do next. This was not what he signed up for.
He wasn’t even three hours into a new job – a job he needed, a job he had the skills to perform and a client whose interests he needed to serve. Except they weren’t a client, not really. They were an employer. But that shouldn’t have mattered.
He ran through the equation again, but a variable had dropped out somewhere along the way, probably before he had even arrived. He stared at the logs scrolling up his monitor. Somewhere in there was the answer to a question that somebody didn’t want him to see. He was groping in the dark now, grasping for something unseen, unheard. Dangerous. And he didn’t like it. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. And he would have walked, because that’s what he did when things didn’t add up the way they were supposed to. But he had nowhere left to go. For the first time in his life, he was stuck because he simply needed the money.
His mind returned an answer – the same one it always did: serve the client’s best interests. It was simple, to the point and usually was the fastest way through, around or over any stray elements that didn’t belong in the equation.
So, he stood up, peeked out of his cubicle to survey the steady stream of workers walking along the halls like drones, still looking at the papers in their hands or exploring the wonders of their own shoes. Then he stepped out into the stream, another anonymous minnow, swept along in the flow, except that he felt like he was the only one who knew where he was going – the only one who had a reason to tread along those halls.
He knocked three times on the door of the CISO, loudly. There were times to be subtle, quiet and contemplative. This wasn’t one of them. He didn’t even wait for somebody to open the door. He turned the latch and pushed it open.
Mark Jansen stood behind a wide cherry wood desk in front of a sprawling pane of glass looking out over the city. With his coat unbuttoned, one hand on his hip and the phone pressed to his ear, he lifted a finger: wait a minute. But he didn’t seem surprised. He didn’t ask Phillip to wait. It was almost as if the man was expecting him.
The CISO was breathing rapidly, in the way that belied the typical calm of corporate officers who seemed to always be the only person in the room to remain calm while everyone else panicked because the sky was falling.
In a muted angry voice, he talked into the phone. “Yeah, well, we’re fighting back this time. We have somebody looking into it right now. You tell that cocksucker that he can deal with the FBI or Interpol or even DHS by the time I’m done with him.”
An indistinct buzz floated out from the handset. “No, I mean it. We’re done here.” He cradled the phone, setting it down quietly, deliberately. He took a deep breath and then looked straight at Phillip.
“Just the man I want to see,” he said. “We just got another note. They want -” He rubbed his chin. “Well, it doesn’t matter. We’re not paying it. What do you have for me?”
Phillip wanted to tap his chest, look around the room and show his Who, me? face. He shivered as the air seemed to cascade over him like a cold bucket of water. Suddenly sober in a way he hadn’t felt before, he realized he was in over his head. Way over.
“Um -” He tentatively took a step towards the desk and held out the paper. “I, uh – I got this from Carl.” He was diving in now, neck deep into a pool that he couldn’t see, touch or hear. But he didn’t know any other way. When it came to clients, his world had always been black and white. What he did was just too important to do any other way. You were honest, up front and Johnny on the spot with any problems that came up. That’s just how it was done. But he couldn’t escape the feeling that it wasn’t enough – not anymore.
The CISO beckoned him closer to the desk and held out his hand for the paper. He snatched it crisply from Phillip’s hand, looked at it for just a second and grunted. “Who?” he asked, looking back at Phillip.
“Who gave this to you?” His voice was sharp, impatient – the voice of a man who didn’t have time to wait for new employees to catch up.
Phillip closed his eyes. He didn’t have answers and he was drowning in questions that he couldn’t even articulate.
“Tweaked out dev. Shirt too small. Curly hair. He said he knew my predecessor.”
The CISO stared at him as if he had just wrecked the man’s Mercedes. He spoke slowly, as if he was talking to a child. “We don’t do development here.”
Fair was not a word that Phillip too often cared about in his line of work. The reason I.T. people got paid so much was because they did things that were really hard to do and nobody cared or appreciated the effort. That was why they gave them money instead. But suddenly, fair seemed to be something he had to remind them about. Enough.
He stepped up to the desk and put both palms down flat. Leaning in, he said, “Look, I’ve been here three hours. Three. I’ve looked at an ocean of logs, talked to two people and had this guy walk into my cubicle and give me this.” He jutted his chin at the paper in the CISO’s hand. “And that’s all I know. How about you catch me up?”
There, that did it. Job started. Job lost. All before lunch on his first day. Whatever. It wasn’t the first time he had to get a client on the ball so he could do his damn job. Some things really didn’t change, they just got more interesting as the dollar signs went up.
A thin smile crept onto the CISO’s face as he leaned down to talk into his intercom. “Send her in.”
Phillip stood up, lifted his hands off the desk and took a step back. “Sorry. But whatever’s going on here is way out in front right now. I don’t work like this.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s way out in front of all of us.” The smile vanished. He tilted his head down. “And that’s why you’re here. You need to figure this out.”
Oh. He was panicking. The CISO himself, the man who would say “no comment” when the news shoved microphones in his face as he walked down the courthouse steps, was panicking.
Yeah, he was in way over his head. But he still had a job, or at least he though he did.
The latch clicked behind him and he heard the soft shuffle of shoes on the carpet. He turned around and stopped breathing because where he had been flailing in the deep end just a moment before, he now felt a vortex swirl beneath him, suck him underneath the surface and pull him into suffocating darkness.
Charlotte shot him a glance as she shuffled past him, her chest now primly confined inside her jacket, her face all business and her movements stiff, official and crisp. Whoever he had seen earlier that morning now hid deep inside the shell of a corporate minion he was now seeing for the first time.
The CISO waved at her casually. “Phillip, this is my deputy CISO for Eastern Ops.”
She turned around briskly, offered her hand stingily and barely nodded as he took it. She shook his hand for half a second, then quickly withdrew it to her side.
Without a word, she turned back around and asked the CISO, “What’s the story, Mark?”
Phillip sat in the soothing semi-darkness of an ornate bar just down the street from his new office. The bar itself was an ornate polished affair that gleamed with its cleanliness in a heavy kind of way. Soft light rose up gently from behind crystal sconces that lined the wall, an ambient salve that helped smother the images of coquettes leaning on printers and mysterious notes left in his cubicle.
Everyone wore business suits and chatted quietly so as not to disturb the others around them. And in a way that told Phillip they didn’t want just anybody to hear what they were saying. The passing glances let him know that he was the new guy in this arena, in every way possible. As if he needed anything more to tell him that after his first day at a new job that he not only didn’t understand, but had made him nervous enough that he felt the need to drink.
Drinking wasn’t a habit for him, just something reserved for the occasional celebration or New Year’s, and even then it would be something like one drink or half a beer. He was on his third gin and tonic and feeling its effects warmly as the strain from his first day in the office drained away. He still worried about having that job for any real length of time and part of him was nervous about spending the last of his money on something as useless as drinking. But, for once, he really did need it.
He knew it wouldn’t last. It might help him sleep and stop his mind from circling around the impossible equation that his simple log analysis job had turned into. It would all be there in the morning and he didn’t think it was going to get any better.
As if to prove the point, he saw her out of the corner of his eye as she stepped through the door and into the dull yellow light of the bar. He shook his head and tucked it against his chest, hoping she wouldn’t see him.
But he knew better. What puzzled him most, though, was why she had come to that bar just to see him. And he knew that was why she was there. Because she strode directly to the stool next to his, her heels clicking with a sultry cadence, the crisp business-like gait of her official posting as Deputy CISO left well behind her now. She was Charlotte, the woman who leaned against printers and licked her lips while she let men stew in their own juices as they tried to look away.
His eyes were still closed and his chin was still tucked into his chest when he felt her hand on his shoulder and heard her say, “How are you doing tiger?”
He let out a chuckle, surrendering to the absurdity of it all. Then he looked up, tapping his glass on the bar to get the bar tender’s attention. Ignoring the annoyed glances of the other seated nearby, he pointed at his glass and nodded as the bartender whisked it away to fill it with his fourth drink. He didn’t think it would be his last, either.
Rubbing his face, he looked her, not even trying to hide the exasperation at her arrival. “Isn’t slumming with the help against the rules?”
She grunted and then let her knees drift apart until her thighs pressed snugly against the inside of her skirt. Her jacket was unbuttoned now and a hint of cleavage peeked out from the top of her blouse as she casually laid her elbow against the bar and leaned in close. Tilting her head, she flashed him the smile he had first seen that morning and said, “Aw, now, don’t be like that. We’re not in the office, now are we?”
She couldn’t have been more than 35, although with the carefully applied face that he was sure took her at least two hours every morning, it was hard to tell.
“No, I guess we’re not,” he said. The bartender set down a fresh glass and skimmed bills from the top of the dwindling stack in front of Phillip. He took a long gulp, trying to look casual as her shimmering brown eyes bore through him with a sultry gaze. Surely, this wasn’t why she had come to see him. The strangeness of any real affection from a stranger for a man in his condition was enough to put him off any desire to reciprocate. As Mr. Marx had once said, he had no desire to be in a club that would take him as a member.
She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, or ask her something. She was edging closer, almost imperceptibly and he suddenly had the feeling of being trapped. He couldn’t begin to guess what she wanted to hear, so he went to the most obvious thing they would have in common, not that it made any sense after the day he had been through.
“What did they take anyway?” he asked.
She grunted and her smile thickened. “You really are curious about how to fix this, aren’t you?”
“Of course.” He took another drink, set the glass on the bar and turned to look at her. Because of the gin, his eyes edged towards the collar of her blouse. He blinked, hard, forcing himself to look instead at her eyes, not that the effect was much different. He just didn’t want to give her an opening. “That’s what you’re paying me for.”
She leaned in even closer, lowering her voice so only he could hear what she was saying. “All you have to do is what you’re told to do. That’s what you’re being paid for.” She leaned in again, so her lips were inches from his own. “And you will be paid well. Trust me.”
He leaned back, pulling his face away from hers. Her perfume wafted into his nostrils, wrapping its sultry sense around that part of his brain now exposed by the effects of his drinking. It was one of the advantages of being a little older now – he was able to suppress the urges he knew she was trying to induce. It was silly, certainly. But more importantly, it was dangerous. He just didn’t know why.
“That’s fine,” he said. “But nobody has really told me what I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, what I’m looking for. When were you breached? What did they take? Where was it stored? I can’t figure out any of this until somebody tells me – something.”
He let his eyelids droop and looked straight into her eyes, hoping she would see the exasperation in his own and realize that he needed something real to latch onto. That somebody had to stop the carousel of questions and riddles and simply tell him what the hell was going on.
She tilted her head to the side and slowly shook it from side to side, almost as if to say, You poor man. You just don’t get it.
“You’ll know what it is when you find it. If you find it.” She arched a brow. “And then you come to me and tell me all about it. Right?” She half-closed her eyes again and smiled. But it was a different kind of smile now. The kind that made the hair on his neck stand up. Again.
He set down his drink and raised his hands, palms open. Sensing his own well-being somehow depended on the deepening privacy of their conversation, he spoke in an intense whisper. “I need to know what I’m looking for.”
She slid her hand along the bar and tucked it behind his elbow. At the same time she slid her other hand onto his back and brought her lips to within an inch of his ear. Startled, he tried to pull back, but she clutched at his back with surprising strength and held him in place.
As he felt her hand slide along the inside of his jacket lapel, she whispered into his ear. “Sweetie, nobody expects a little old man sitting in a cubicle to find anything.”
Her hair scraped along his cheek and her nose traced a wisping caress along his jaw line as she pulled back. She tilted her head the other way, nodded once and stood up. She stopped to stare at him for just a moment, letting her smile fade until all he saw was a warning that made him shiver. Then she turned around and walked away.
He cradled his forehead in his hand and let out a deep sigh. Idly brushing his lapel where her hand had been, he heard the faint crinkling of paper.
He fumbled with the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out the envelope she had placed there. His breathing shallowed as he stared at its blank white surface and the faint outline of something thin and square inside.
He thought of opening the envelope, but instead his fingers started to tremble. He imagined them tucking under the edge of the flap and tearing open a ragged gash along the top of the envelope, but his fingers would not move.
As if by the will of some unseen force, his fingers twitched and then clawed at the envelope, mangling it as if a beast were tearing at a hunter in the last moments of its life.
He tugged out a square photograph and stopped breathing as he stared at a sign hanging over a small building sitting along the side of a forgotten highway. It said, simply, Larry’s. He knew immediately it was in Idaho. He knew, too, that the building had been there for decades now and that local farmers congregated there every morning for his brother to cook them eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and toast. To drink, they could either have coffee or orange juice.
And he hadn’t spoken to the man in ten years.
After that, he began to feel a kinship with everyone wandering around the halls staring at their papers clipped in neat stacks, or, lacking paper to look at, their shoes. He understood the essence of not knowing – of not wanting to know. Whether or not they were in the same league as himself, he honestly did not know. They were probably just going about their day, but he understood the feeling they painted in a carouseled portrait of ambivalent indifference.
He and Charlotte had fallen into a routine. Every morning, while he was staring at the scrolls of logs streaming up his monitor, she poked her head in and asked, “Have you found anything yet?”
Every morning, he would swivel his chair around and say, “No, not yet.” Then she would step all the way into his cubicle, cock her hip to one side, toss her hair over one shoulder and beam her wet smile at him.
“Good,” she would say. “Let me know if you come up with anything.” Then she would whirl around and bounce away with a walk that was too loose – and one she would never let the CISO see. At least as far as he knew.
But the truth was that he had found plenty. That she hadn’t figured that out only confirmed the suspicions that had first formed in his mind the second day at his new job. Now, weeks later, he was almost certain.
Like most, he had always thought of identity theft as something people did anonymously to steal money or property and then disappear as nothing more than a shadow in the Internet. Even after twenty years of consulting with customers on how to protect their systems from bandits and hackers, it had never occurred to him that somebody would actually want to take over somebody else’s life. To become that person.
It came to him when he casually mentioned to Charlotte that they might consider upgrading to TLS 3.0. He gave her a nod and a wink to make sure she understood it was a joke. But then her expression had gone serious and she said something in her official deputy CISO voice that he had learned meant she really was being serious. “We’re working on that.”
The only problem was that there was no such thing as TLS 3.0.
He had reported to her, too, that the firewall system was rock solid. The best he had ever seen, in fact. And it was the truth. The perimeter was locked down tighter than Fort Knox. She had simply said, “Good to know,” with a vague wrinkle in her brow betraying her puzzlement at the company actually being well protected.
Because none of that mattered.
Like most places, the problems were on the inside. And these were the problems he didn’t tell her about. Because she already knew.
For two weeks, he had been collecting data off the wire and storing it on a thumb drive that he quietly tucked into his jacket pocket every night. Exit security was all but nonexistent and while security guards checked purses and briefcases – probably just to meet some insurance requirement – they let him stroll out the door without so much as a smile.
When he had collected enough, he met with a man that the world knew simply as Scooter in a gas station parking lot. Charlotte had been right about that – he was being paid well. Very well. He scoffed at the notion that he was being paid to do nothing, but he figured the world owed him some of it somehow, especially knowing the risk he was taking the night he stepped over the curb as they both pumped gas and he slipped Scooter the thumb drive along with five $100 bills. And that was just a down payment.
Now, sitting at his desk, Phillip glanced over his shoulder and slipped the thumbdrive into the USB slot on the back of his mini tower. Crowded in with the reams of encrypted traffic he had paid Scooter to forage through, he found a new text file. He grunted in amusement at the title: OpenSesame.txt. Inside, it listed just two things: a user name and a password.
He reconfigured his e-mail client, entered in both and the screen blossomed with the personal mailbox of one Charlotte McKinney. Except he knew that wasn’t her real name. But for his purposes, it was close enough.
Because it seemed that Ms. McKinney, in fact, was not well-versed in data security – not as well as a deputy CISO should have been.
He found what he was looking for in a folder she had simply labeled TollBooth – which seemed apt enough. Inside, he found a small treasure trove of phishing e-mails. The funny thing was that most people didn’t save this sort of thing – except she had a reason to. “Gotcha,” he whispered to himself.
Tracing the URLs, he discovered that the links led back to servers all over the world – some in Lybia, Russia, Finland. All offshore. And each one downloaded a miniscule bit of code that installed itself on her hard drive and commenced to gather up every bit of data traversing the network before packing it up and sending it to those offshore sites, right under the noses of the firewall admins because it was all shipped through normal outbound access rules. The scam couldn’t have been more ingenious, if only because it was so simple.
Then a second bit of code burrowed itself into SQL servers and started wreaking havoc. That’s when the ransom notices would come in.
And, so far, they had paid.
He logged out of Charlotte’s account and reset his profile back to his own account. Somewhere a few stray entries would show that somebody had logged in to her account from his machine, but he didn’t think anybody was watching that closely. As usual, they were all looking in the wrong place.
Just before he closed out the directory on the thumb drive, he saw another file. He had paid Scooter another $5,000 just to take a road trip to give his brother an unlisted cellphone. He knew better than to call directly. But he didn’t know whether or not his brother would want to hear from him. With a groan of relief, he opened the file and saw the phone number for the cell Scooter had given his brother. The arrangement had been simple. If his brother was willing to talk, Scooter would give him the number. Otherwise… there would have been no file.
Phillip turned off his monitor and leaned back. He closed his eyes and let out a sour breath. The money he was now living on, the money he had given Scooter, the money he would take before he left – it turned his stomach to know that he was at least a small beneficiary of the whole thing. But, he had done what the company had hired him to do. He had figured it out.
The only question was whether or not they wanted to know. He knew Charlotte was part of the ring that was milking millions out of his employer. Beyond that – he just didn’t know. And so he had to do the one thing he could never abide. He had to wait.
Sooner or later, they had to come in personally, didn’t they? Phillip spent the next several days with one eye on the CISO’s door at the end of the hallway, waiting for them to arrive. It was the only way he could think of to do it because Charlotte and company were watching him. And they were doing it so quietly he wouldn’t have known except for that night in the bar. But he saw it in her eyes every morning. Did she really think he could go on forever without finding something? How long could he keep walking along, staring at his shoes, waiting until she decided he was no longer necessary?
And so he had to believe that they would come before that moment arrived. It was the only way.
It was the crewcut that gave the man away. The dark suit, the pressed shirt with military creases down each side – these things helped. But it was the crewcut and the two men following him with satchels as they tried to look casual, even as they scanned every inch of the office while they marched towards the CISO’s office.
He watched them walk briskly into the CISO’s office without even knocking. He stood up and stepped out of his cubicle and into the hallway. Just as he started towards the CISO’s office, Charlotte popped out from one of the cubicles in front of him and stood directly in his path.
Without smiling, without brushing her hair back, with only a deadpan look in her eye that he imagined being the last thing he would see just before she pulled a trigger, she asked, “Where are you going?”
Phillip’s mind raced. Everything he had done came down to a moment that was still several steps down the hallway – a moment that would be gone and never come back if he couldn’t get past her and into that office. Now.
In a flurry of instinct that came from a part of himself he did not recognize, he lunged out and wrapped his hand around her arm. Then he squeezed until he saw her wince in pain. He had never thought of it before, but he was actually stronger than her. A vision of smacking her across the face and watching her tumble back onto the ground flashed through his mind. A nauseating elation rose up him at the thought and he let a smile stretch the corners of his mouth as he swung her to the side and pressed her up against the partition of the nearest cubicle.
He looked straight into her eyes and spoke in a hissing whisper. “Look, if we’re going to keep this up, it needs to at least look like I’ve found something. Even if it’s not enough.”
She eyed his hand warily and he thought he saw a glimmer of worry on her face. Was it because she was losing control? Or was it because he had actually thought of something that her overwrought greed had been too lazy to realize? He swelled out his chest, vaguely inebriated by his unexpected sense of power over a woman who had, until then, controlled his every move.
“So I’m going to tell him I’ve found something.” He eased grip just enough for her to notice, but still kept her pinned to the partition. “I’m buying us more time here. Get it?”
Her eyes glazed over. Her face grew slack. Whatever anxiety he had induced in her receded like water into a dark ocean. She reached up and gently removed his hand from her arm. They both looked around, noticing the eyes now staring at them. He realized, as she must have, that she couldn’t just body block him in front of the entire office. He was the guy who had been hired to figure out the ransomeware problem. And he was going to talk to the CISO. He let his smile widen and he narrowed his eyes. For once, there was nothing she could do to stop him.
She leaned in and whispered, “You better know what you’re doing.” Then she gripped his arm and squeezed it just as he had hers. “We’ll talk later.”
He knew they wouldn’t. He knew later was something he would never see. He had put himself all in on this one moment, which was still ticking away. He knew that the moment he stepped out of the office, his life expectancy would be measured in hours, at the most.
“Fine,” he said. Then he turned away and walked the rest of the way to the CISO’s office, hoping he would never see the auburn hair, creamy complexion and rocking hips of one Charlotte McKinney ever again.
Because if he did, he knew he would have to kill her first.
Making sure the thumbdrive was still clutched in his right hand, Phillip turned the handle and swung open the door of the CISO’s office.
The CISO was sitting behind his desk, nervously stroking his chin. The two men who had walked behind Crewcut were seated comfortably, if not informally, on the sofa against a side wall. Crewcut was standing in front of the desk and turned around to glare directly at Phillip.
He stopped mid-step as he considered the eyes of a man who looked at the world as being full of criminals. It didn’t matter who you were, if he was looking at you, you had done something wrong and it was his job to find out what it was. He was just that kind of law man, ruthless, thorough, relentless. Just the man Phillip needed to see.
Impatiently, the CISO jutted out his chin. “What can I do for you Phillip? We’re in the middle of something here.”
He looked at the CISO for just a moment and then shifted his gaze back to Crewcut. He was talking at the CISO, but his words were directed at Crewcut, because he knew this was the man who would save him.
“I think I’ve found something.”
Crewcut spoke in an even tone that demanded not only the truth, but everything that could possibly go along with it. “And you are?”
The CISO stood up. “Special Agent Miller, this is Phillip Penfield. He’s been helping us try to figure out how our systems might have been compromised.” He looked at Phillip, narrowing his eyes and clenching his jaw. “Phillip, Special Agent Miller from the FBI. He’s in charge of the criminal investigation and part of the regional Cybersecurity Division.”
Phillip stared straight into the man’s eyes, pleading for him to understand what he was about to do. With the thumbdrive still tucked securely in his palm, he reached out and took the agent’s hand. He held it firmly for a moment longer than was necessary and nodded once. He thought he saw Special Agent Miller nod back and then his slender fingers swept the thumbdrive from Phillip’s palm and slipped it into his coat pocket before Phillip could drop his own hand back to his side.
He wanted to let out a long sigh and sit down. Instead, he forced himself to breathe normally and turned his attention to the CISO.
“I think I may have found a vulnerability.”
Slumping back into his set, the CISO said, “Well, what do you have? We’re among friends here.”
Special Agent Miller added, “Yes, please, if you have anything that would help, we would like to hear it.” Message received.
Everyone waited while silence hung in the air. He blinked at the CISO, still unsure of which version he should give him. Did he tell him the truth, not knowing if he was part of the scam? Or was he just so incompetent that he really had no idea that his deputy was pilfering millions from his own company right under his nose?
He had been brave enough for one day. He had done his. The information was in the hands of somebody who would take it for action. And just this once, he knew the truth could complicate things and set in motion forces that he still didn’t know about. He would admit it later. He was scared. So he lied.
“I found an expired certificate on one of our authentication servers. Maybe they could have used one of our vendor WAPs to spoof the CA. I don’t know, it’s just a theory, but I’m looking into it.”
The CISO nodded, his mouth curling up as his mind worked to assimilate the new information. He seemed like a man who cared. But did it really matter?
“Alright. How long before you know something more?”
“I’ve got to dig through the logs some more. Couple days or so.”
The CISO glanced at Special Agent Miller, who simply shrugged. “I guess we’ll let you get to it.” He made a quick signal with one hand and his two minions bolted to their feet. Without another word, all three left, Phillip ducking out behind them and closing the latch quietly behind him.
He had followed the FBI men down the hallway to the elevator. Just as he had stepped in, he had seen her standing in the middle of the hallway, her glare boring holes into him. But there wasn’t much she could do at that moment – not in broad daylight. Not with everybody watching. Not with three men from the Federal Bureau of Investigation with weapons strapped to their belts standing right next to him.
He had watched her eyes through the collapsing portal of the elevator door closing. To the end, he saw only one thought reaching out to him. You’re a dead man.
Riding down in the elevator, Special Agent Miller had asked him, “Which one is it?”
Looking straight ahead at the elevator door, he had simply said, “The girl.”
Agent Miller had grunted and then said, “We’ll need you to testify.”
“Sure, you bet.” If you can find me.
When they had reached the sidewalk, he had turned in the opposite direction and run to the nearest subway station. For the next two hours, he had ridden every route, changing stations ten times until he found himself shuffling along in the sea of rush-hour crowds pushing him into over-crowded cars.
When he had stepped out, it was dark and the car he had paid Scooter to bring to the station furthest out on the line was waiting for him in the parking lot with the keys tucked up under a wheel well.
Now, he was five hours down the road, sitting on a bed in a motel that wouldn’t be open except for the occasional straggler who had driven too long and couldn’t make it to the next oasis of actual civilization. He was in the middle of nowhere.
In his hand, he held the cream-colored plastic handset of an old push-button phone sitting on the ledge between the beds. he took a breath and punched the last digit of the number Scooter had given him for the new cell phone which now belonged to his brother.
The other end rang. When the line clicked open, he heard his brother’s voice simply say, “Hello?”
For reasons he would never be able to explain, ten years were suddenly swept away and all he could think was that it was the most comforting voice he had ever heard.
Not knowing what else to say, he simply asked, “Do you still need a dishwasher?”
©2017 Michael J Lawrence