The much-anticipated conclusion to the Denial of Service saga! Questions answered! Itches scratched! Bad guys challenged! Good guys tested! Espressos served! Being there = not being square!
1: Morning in Hollywood
Morning in Hollywood was developing into a nice one. The sun coming up over the California hills was bright, and a small and picturesque scattering of white clouds dotted the otherwise blue sky. Yup… one of those mornings that made California really shine.
Too bad I wasn’t in a mood to enjoy it.
That’s because I had been up all night, working. Me and my Toughbook had been going for hours, basically as soon as Gail, Mel Cooley (the accountant at Byers & Mig, not the guy from the old TV show) and I had returned from dinner the night before. And now that the sun was coming up, my eyes could barely stand it.
I blinked back against the beams of light that slotted between the curtains in Mel’s hotel suite, and glanced around. Mel was asleep in the other room (one of these days, I mused, I have to stay in a hotel room that doesn’t have a mini-fridge next to a twin bed). That was okay: He’d stayed up with me for a few hours, providing me his login and password to his Byers & Mig (or, as I liked to think of them, good ol’ BM) office servers, and then to help me find my way around his office’s servers. Once he’d done his bit, he’d gone off to get some shut-eye before his flight back to the East Coast this morning.
Across the main room of the suite, curled up on the couch and fast asleep, was Gail. There was something particularly fascinating about watching Gail sleep; for one thing, when it was night (and often during the day), the two of us were either both asleep, or wide awake and doing our damndest to wear each other out. It was a rare occasion when I was awake enough to actually see her sleeping.
And there was something else: The expression on her face was more relaxed and satisfied than I think I had ever seen it. When she had told me the story of how she and my brother Pete had broken up—seems like a whole episode ago, now—I remembered thinking at the time that it had been an incredible weight she’d been carrying around while we were dating, and I was sure unburdening herself would be a relief to her. In fact, her reaction when I assured her I understood, and didn’t blame her for what had happened, left me with no doubt that she had been dying inside over her side of the breakup. Getting my absolution had opened up the floodgates, both of relief, and then of passion… and boy, did I get drenched. Now, she slept the sleep of the truly contented and secure… the sleep of the loved.
Yeah. Back up and replay it, if you need to. I said it. I loved that woman, more than any other gorgeous rich nymphomaniac I had ever known. Personally. When awake.
Suddenly, a chance beam of sunlight slipped through the curtains and lit on her face, giving it an angelic glow. Somewhere in the back of my head, a choir began singing that single note in four-part harmony that they love in the movies. At that opportune moment, Gail stirred, and opened her eyes. It could have been the sun on her face… it could have been the holy choir leaking out of my thoughts… right now, I’d put money on either. At any rate, her eyes searched the room, and when they found me sitting at the desk not far from her, she smiled. One of those smiles that just makes a geek like me forget all about what I’d been doing all night, and remember the things I wish I’d been doing all night. She pushed herself upright on the couch, stretched (gad, I wish she hadn’t done that!), and whispered, “How’s it goin’, lover?”
I swear, I had to look down at my laptop to get a clue as to what I’d been doing up until then. When I finally remembered, I said, “It’s goin’.”
“That doesn’t sound so good,” Gail said, and came up off the couch. She had slept in the dress she’d worn to dinner the night before, but somehow, she looked as neat and fresh as if she had just put it on. She came over to me, put a hand under my chin, and gave me a kiss that could have loosened fillings. When she pulled back, she said, “Having trouble?”
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Concentrating!” Gail smiled guilelessly, and backed off to take the seat next to mine at the desk. “I’ve been digging into anything I could find on the Merc program.” I didn’t have to elaborate: Gail now knew the Merc program was written by a company acquired by BM and designed to take advantage of some programming loopholes to con the NASDAQ system and make off with billions in instant profits. It had failed on BM’s first attempt to use it, and to cover their tracks, I had been randomly blamed for a denial of service attack on their servers, fired from my IT job, and blacklisted in my own home town. Gail and I also knew BM was planning to try again, and if I could play my cards right, I might be able to stop them, and get my reputation back.
And Gail knew the information I’d gotten from Mel was instrumental in my getting into their systems. Mel, having decided that he wanted nothing to do with BM’s little stock-swindle plot, was more than willing to help me out once we had all gotten together and compared notes. His password had allowed me to get at other computers at BM, to compare comments, notes, and the occasional debugging script, examine some output feeds, and in general collect every bit of information I could about Merc’s design and intent.
We heard the click of the bedroom door, and looked up. Mel was just coming out, already dressed, and with his suitcase in his hand. He looked at us at the desk, squinted at the rays of sunlight coming through the curtains, and said, “Morning. My flight east leaves in two hours. Do we have time for breakfast?”
Gail considered. “Better eat at the airport.”
I considered. “Works for me. I’m ready for a break, anyway.”
Gail stood up and said, “Mel, you get the rest of your stuff together and meet us downstairs. I’ll get my car and be waiting out front.”
“No problem,” Mel said, and watched me as I packed my stuff away. “Did you get anywhere last night getting into the B&M servers?”
“Been making good progress,” I said as I followed Gail to the door. On the threshold, I paused, and smiled at Mel. “Don’t worry: We’re gonna get ‘em.”
I waited until I had closed the hotel room door, leaving Mel inside, before I turned to Gail on the outside, and said, “I don’t know if I can get ‘em.”
2: California Dreamin’
We spent breakfast discussing the things Mel needed to do to give me a head start on getting these guys. Knowing how badly Mel wanted to bolt on BM, now that he knew how underhanded the whole Merc thing had turned out to be, and getting him to refrain from doing the whole “Take this job and shove it!” bit, at least for a few days, was tough. But eventually he agreed that he’d go back to work and lay low for a few days, feeding me anything new from his home e-mail account, until it was time to act.
I just wished I knew when that time was going to be.
Finally, it was time for Mel’s flight back to Baltimore. We saw him off at the terminal, and once he was out of sight, we headed for the parking lot and Gail’s car. Gail and I walked silently, Gail’s hand around my arm. Since the other night, she was being a bit more touchy-feely than usual… but I could hardly blame her. And besides: It was Gail. Who wouldn’t want a creature like this hanging on you? You should’ve seen the looks we were getting, especially from other guys who looked like they just wanted to sit down and have a cry because they weren’t me right now. I wish I could’ve seen their looks clearer. Unfortunately, my eyes were finally starting to glaze over after being up all night, and I had to let Gail steer me the rest of the way to the car. Once I was in the passenger seat, I cranked the seat back and laid my head back on the headrest.
Gail started the car and got us out of the garage, and in no time, we were on the highway to San Diego, and home. Now, Gail finally opened up and started talking… but about Merc. “Are you going to be able to stop it, Mike?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I replied. “Gail, I’ve pored over everything Mel could point me to, including bits of code that hint at the code in the Merc program itself. One thing I now know about the Merc program: It’s well-written. Another thing I know: It’s very secure. I can’t get in to hack, change or crash the program. I can’t block it at the NASDAQ end. I can block it at the BM end, once or twice, but their guys would find that and work around it right off… waste of time. And right now… I don’t know what other options I have.” I let my head fall back against the headrest. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
We drove in silence for a while, before Gail spoke again. “Mike… I know how badly you’d like to get at B&M, and get your reputation back. But… if it turned out you couldn’t… if you couldn’t go back to Baltimore…”
“You don’t have to say any more,” I cut her off. “Sure, I’d like to repair my rep. It’s a professional thing. But fixing my rep… going back, staying here, going somewhere else… none of it would mean a damn thing, if I didn’t have you with me.” I reached out and put my hand on her thigh, which almost, but not quite, managed to wake me up a bit. Gail quickly put her hand on mine, and I’m pretty sure she smiled down at me. But at that point, my last erg of consciousness finally deserted me, and I headed off into LaLa Land as we drove out of LaLa Land…
I wish I could say that I was completely out, and didn’t wake back up until we were back home. No such luck. Like any good IT guy with a problem to solve, my subconscious mind kept working away at the problem, turning the bits and pieces into little dream elements and trying to find ways to work them into outlandish fantasy scenarios that would somehow be forgotten by my conscious mind until the split-second I needed a solution, and then in some TV-type dream flashback I’d put the pieces together and save the day. Except that that almost never works in real life… so it was always frustrating when I watched my subconscious mind going through all this nonsense. I felt like a spectator at a bad movie, me and the little MST3K silhouettes, shouting at the screen: “C’mon, lose the bandana, they suck as blindfolds!” “Tell Ripley not to park the Nostromo there… it’ll only sink!” “That’s why they don’t make those in green!” “The fake guy always says ‘He’s a fake!’ first! Don’t change the camera angle, or you’ll lose track!” “No, Kermit, take the left turn!” “Who’s waiting for these biscuits?” And I’ll bet you think I hid a real clue in there with all of those bogus clues, don’t you? You watch too much TV, my friend…
My incredibly stupid dreams were soon interrupted by an earthquake. I’d never been in one before, but I’d read enough about them to never want to be in one. My shock brought me awake instantly, dragging me out of one of the last really stupid dreams, so the first thing I said when I awoke was: “Tell Charlton Heston!”
“What?” Gail looked down at me, eyes wide. It had been her hand on my arm, trying to shake me awake, which had prompted my earthquake reaction. Then she turned back to her driving. “Never mind… that’s not the weirdest thing you’ve said in your sleep in the last hour.”
“I’ve been talking in my sleep?”
“Yes,” Gail said. “And now I know the secrets that you keep.”
“Look who’s talking,” I grinned. “—What did I say? Anything good?”
“Well, the biscuits sounded tasty. But tell the chef they’re always better without prime factorials.”
“Meh.” I tried to remember anything I’d dreamt, but came up dry. “And double-meh. I need—”
“You need rest,” Gail told me. “Let the answers come tomorrow. C’mon, you’re home.”
I looked around. “That explains the four Moons in the sky.”
They weren’t Moons, of course… they were the roof lights in the parking garage of my brother’s apartment building. I climbed out of the car, having gathered enough rest during the trip to at least carry my bag and gear. Gail left hers in the car, and took me upstairs to Pete’s place.
We walked into Pete’s apartment, and found him in the kitchen, making a sandwich. “Hey, guys,” he said, and paused from his sandwich making to come to the foyer. “So, how was your adventure, bro?”
“Adventurous,” I replied. “And tiring.”
Gail nodded. “I’m putting him to bed. Do me a favor, Pete: Keep it down, and let him get some sleep?”
There was something in the way Gail had spoken to my brother, which made him pull up short; though I was too tired to really notice. “Uh. Uh, sure, babe,” he said as Gail and I passed him. “Quiet as a library.” As we passed, Gail reached out and cupped Pete’s cheek. It would occur to me only later that this was the first time I’d seen them actually touch each other since I’d arrived in San Diego.
Gail walked me into my room, took my gear from me in order to put it on the floor, and steered me to the bed. She barely had time to pull the covers back before I flopped into it. “Good boy,” she said soothingly. “Now get some rest. I’ll see you later, lover.”
“You bet. Thanks, Gail,” I said. She responded by leaning over and giving me a kiss on the forehead. Then she stepped lightly out of the room, closing the door behind her. I heard her and Pete’s voices faintly outside, but nothing I could make out… and then I was out, again.
When I awoke, it was dark in my room… but not totally dark. I realized the blinds were drawn, reducing the amount of light coming into the room. I wasn’t sure if it was evening, and I had slept a few hours; or if it was morning, and I’d slept all day and all night through.
It took me a second to realize I hadn’t spoken. I turned over and looked across my bedroom. There, in a chair propped next to the closet, was a figure in the dark, facing me.
The figure lifted a glass to his lips and sipped from it. “Gail was right,” he said presently. “You do talk in your sleep.”
“I say anything good?”
“I don’t know,” Pete replied. “What’s ‘eschew obfuscation’ mean?”
“I’ll let you know,” I replied, “when I’m awake enough to remember.” I levered myself upright, and peered around the dark room. “I slept all night?”
“You slept all night,” Pete confirmed. “How you feel?”
“Like I slept a lot.”
“Thank goodness for that.” Pete took another sip from his glass. “Gail told me what happened.”
I nodded: It was good that he knew.
Pete continued: “She told me everything that happened.”
I stopped nodding. The talk. I looked in Pete’s direction, but I couldn’t see his face in the dark. “Yeah, she told me.”
“I guess you can understand,” Pete said slowly, “why I didn’t want to volunteer that information to anyone.”
I did understand. It was hard for an essentially macho guy like Pete, someone who was apparently wilder and swingier than most guys, to admit that his old lady was too much for him sexually, and that he’d actually been the one to back out of the relationship. I wished that he’d felt he could have told his little brother… but the sibling thing sometimes made the most personal conversations harder than they ought to be. There are some things that you don’t even want to discuss with family.
“I know,” Pete went on after a moment. “I wanted to say something. But I… well… you’re my little brother, Mike. I guess I didn’t want you to think less of me… if I wasn’t…”
“No,” I said, smiling, and I hoped he could see it. “I don’t think less of you. I think… I think a lot of guys wouldn’t have taken it nearly as well as you did. They’d have even done themselves… or their partners… some damage as a result. But you took it like a man. Even if you did invent a little white lie for appearances’ sake. But then, that’s also one of the things that makes you you. And no matter what, you’ll always be my big brother, and I’ll always love you.”
I saw his head cock to the side. “Oh, well, if you’re gonna get sappy on me, I’m gonna leave.”
“Not without me, you don’t,” I said, throwing my legs over the side of the bed. “God, I’m starved. You had breakfast?”
“Does this orange juice count?” Now I could tell he was smiling.
I got dressed, and we walked down the street to a hotel that had a lobby restaurant that did decent breakfasts. On the way, I asked, “No Reilly around today?”
“She left hours ago,” Pete said. “Had an early shift. We tried to be quiet, for you.” He smiled. “Y’know, there’s something to be said for quiet sex… for whatever reason, we don’t do it often. But it really seems to be… good for us. I really should try to do it more.”
“So she forgave you your little Gail-grenade from the other day?” I could relate: Sex with Gail was lasting on the brain; I could well imagine thoughts of her intruding on even the best sex with someone else, and I didn’t blame Pete for letting her name slip out in the middle of sex with Reilly. Much.
“She had a change of heart,” Pete replied. “I think she’s decided that she needs to work harder to make sure I don’t forget it’s her… and she said I need to work harder, so she doesn’t forget why she’s working so much harder. Anyway, we sure didn’t have trouble… working, last night.”
“Glad to hear it.” I’d only known Reilly for a few months, but I already hated the idea of Pete and Reilly being apart. They seemed to be such a great fit (in a lot of ways… ahem), that they already seemed like soulmates to me.
We entered the hotel, walked over to the restaurant, and picked out an empty table, as we had many times before. After a few moments, one of the waitresses who knew us, a cute little number name of “Jazz,” came over to the table. “Hey, Billy and Brucie! How’s it goin’?”
We grinned. Jazz loved to kid us about our resemblance to those famous acting Campbells, once she’d met me for the first time and made the connection on her own. “Goin’ great, Jazz,” Pete said, a big grin on his face. “No usuals today… let’s see the menu.”
“Oh,” Jazz nodded, sizing us up. “Are we celebrating something?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s Universal Brotherhood Week.”
“Well, happy Universal Brotherhood Week, brothers,” Jazz smiled, and retreated to get us two menus. We watched Jazz as she walked away… she was tanned, trim and shapely, always a pleasure just to watch from afar. But presently our eyes returned to each other, and we shared one of those moments. It was something for me to think that, as enticing as a girl like Jazz might have been at any other time, I already had a girl that I would do anything for. And I didn’t need mental leakage to know Pete was thinking the same thing.
He reached for the water glass on the table, and held it up. “To true love, bro.”
I raised my glass. “May it always favor the Schitz brothers.”
The glasses clunked in proper plastic fashion.
4: Still stymied
Thus physically and mentally refreshed, I returned to Pete’s place and his dining room, aka my Borg alcove, where I did my serious IT work, and luddites feared to tread. It was time for a brilliant plan to emerge, so I could save the day.
But the moment I sat in front of my Toughbook, I froze. I didn’t have an idea. After a night up, then sleeping through a solid day, I still didn’t have an idea.
Pete came out of the kitchen with two beers, and deposited one on the dining room table within my reach. Presently, he said, “I know that look. You don’t have a clue, do you?”
I winced before I responded, “No. And I can’t wait too long, or they’re liable to spring Merc before I’m ready.”
“Little bit of a time-crunch, huh?” Pete nodded and tipped back his beer. “Well, you don’t know they’ll trigger it soon… maybe there’s no crunch at all. Look at it that way.”
“Don’t think I can afford to do that,” I said.
After a moment, Pete pulled up a chair and sat opposite me at the table. “Okay, let’s think about this.”
I looked at my brother, who was no tech guy by any means. “This cannot be good…”
“Hey, I’m trying to help!” Pete protested amiably. “Okay: These guys have a program that will spoof NASDAQ, make them a shitload of money, and add to the tarnishing of your reputation. They’ve already used it once, but it didn’t work, and they framed you for a DOS attack to cover it up. If they use it again, they could implicate you again, which could even get you arrested.”
“Good recap,” I said sourly.
“Thank you,” Pete nodded. “So, you know about the program, but they don’t know that yet. They’ve probably been working on improving the program, so it works the second time… but you don’t know how far along they are.”
“Right,” I said, waiting for more.
Pete stared at me. “Well, don’t ya see? They obviously don’t have it ready yet, or they would’ve triggered it already! No one waits to earn a shitload of money if they don’t need to!”
“Hmm.” That was a good point.
“So if you can force them to trigger it before it’s ready, you’ve got a good chance of its not working again!”
“Yeah, but what if it does?” I asked. “Can I afford to take that chance?”
Pete considered that. “Hmm.” I had a good point, too. He went silent for a moment, considering the problem. I went silent, too. After a few minutes, Pete said, “It’s a program, right? Can you get a virus into it through that guy Cooley’s e-mail account? Corrupt the program?”
“I thought about that,” I replied. “Can’t get at it that way, it’s in a protected file on their server.”
“Anything else in there you can corrupt?”
“Nothing that would help. I’ve been through their server—that much I can do—but they’ve got everything pretty well protected and backed up.”
“Oh.” Pete and I went silent again for a few minutes. Pete started to raise a hand and open his mouth, when the doorbell rang. Without missing a beat, Pete said, “Thank God,” and bolted out of his chair. He opened the door, and I saw Reilly standing there in a practically translucent sundress that was over a flowery bikini. In her hands, she held two Starbucks cups. She smiled at Pete, a smile that would have melted steel.
I smiled at the Starbucks cups with a smile that would have melted titanium. “Nectar of the Gods!” I exclaimed, and hopped out of my seat.
“One grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room,” Reilly said, and held out the cup for me. “How you feeling, hot-shot?”
“Sooo much better now,” I said as I accepted the cup and took a sip. My knees threatened to buckle from the pleasure: It had been over a day since I’d had my espresso; another and I might have gone into withdrawal.
“Glad to hear it,” Reilly said, and she sipped from the second cup as she slipped her now-free other hand around Pete’s waist and looked up at him. “Are you helping your brother with his problem, then?”
“Well,” Pete replied, “there’s helping… and there’s helping.”
“Not so much, huh?”
“‘Fraid not,” Pete admitted. “I’m no strategist.”
“Well,” Reilly said, “fortunately, you have lots of other good traits.”
She hugged him and beamed up at him, and for a moment, I just enjoyed the glow that was coming off of them both. The next moment, I realized they were still staring at each other and glowing, and I was feeling like a fifth wheel. That had happened fast. So I started to back up, and said, “Thanks for this, babe. I’m gonna get back to work.”
“Don’t mention it,” Reilly said without looking at me. After a moment, she started to draw Pete in the direction of his bedroom, and Pete, being the guy he was, put up no resistance. Their door was closed before I was seated in my alcove again.
So about five hours passed, with me continuing to struggle to find a way to get in and wipe out the Merc program, to the muffled sounds of my brother and his girl having a good time in his bedroom. Some days, it was a mystery to me how I’d managed to get to the point where I could actually tune that out and keep working. Fortunately, Pete and Reilly had apparently managed to find a new, quieter way to have sex, and it was pointedly less distracting than it usually was. I have to admit, though, that I began to realize some of the ideas I found myself toying with could only have been inspired by submerged thoughts of copulation, from various angles, at different stages of the process, and at varying… intensities. When I found myself musing over electronic condoms, therefore, I finally knew it was time for another break.
I was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and finishing off a beer, when I heard Pete’s bedroom door open. Momentarily, Pete padded into the kitchen, thankfully wearing shorts (he had been known to blow off even those when walking around his apartment… but hey, I’m only a guest, who am I to complain?), and looking rested and happy. “Hey,” he said, amiably patting me on the shoulder as he passed and reached for the refrigerator door.
“Hey,” I said. “Grab me another, I’m about out.” I watched as he pulled out two bottles of beer. “None for Reilly?”
“She’s fast asleep,” Pete said with a grin. He popped the top on one beer and handed me the other. I popped my top, and we clunked the bottles together before taking a sip. “How’s it going with you?”
“No better yet,” I said. “And I gotta tell ya, some of the most outlandish ideas have been coming to me.”
“What’s the most outlandish?”
“Disrupting the space-time continuum by reversing the polarity on the warp field generators. I figure creating an MP3 of Mannheim Steamroller playing backwards at one hundred times’ speed, sent as a signal down the electrical grid, would do it.”
Pete considered my words straight-faced. Finally he nodded. “Yep: That’s pretty outlandish, all right.” He seemed to consider a moment. “I wonder if some kind of an electronic condom—”
“Oh, please, do not go there!” I stopped him, and we both laughed.
“Don’t worry, bro,” Pete said, “you’ll get it. You’re the best at what you do… a little IT Wolverine.”
“Who’s little?” I smirked. Pete grinned back, and the two of us held up the beer caps we both still held in our hands. With a simultaneous flourish, we tossed the caps side-armed at the trashcan across the kitchen.
As we watched, both caps arched through the air, on target for the trashcan’s mouth. Then, in one of those “you couldn’t do that in a million years” moments, the caps neatly impacted each other and caromed away, both passing the can on either side and landing on the floor.
Pete snorted out a laugh. “Dee-nied!”
“Ha!” I laughed. “What’re the odds?” We glanced at each other in amusement, then started over to pick up our beer caps. We bent down on opposite sides of the can to retrieve each cap, and as my hand closed over mine, a sort of “ding” sounded somewhere in my mind. It was the signal to start an avalanche of information flowing out of my subconscious, and it hit me like a cartoon anvil on my IT brainpan. I had it.
I straightened up abruptly, and cried, “Holy shit!”
Pete nearly had a heart attack. He jerked upright, looking like he’d been nailed like a jailhouse bitch bending over to pick up a soap, bobbled his beer desperately, and cried, “What? What happened? Did you hurt your back?”
“No, man, no,” I said. “I figured it out! I know what to do! Yes!” I bellowed loud enough to alert half the west coast as I ducked past him and headed for my alcove.
By the time Gail showed up after work, I was finishing the draft of my program and ready to do some debugging. Gail hadn’t changed from her office wear, which still made her look sexier than a lot of girls could look stark naked. Reilly let Gail in, and the two of them grinned at each other and bumped their fists together… now that was the first time I’d seen that. I was sure the two of them had come to some sort of understanding about something. But I was a bit too busy to ask.
Gail came over to my alcove, lifted my head from its position poised in front of my Toughbook, and gave me a kiss. “Hi, lover. I hear there’s progress.”
“Well,” I replied, “yes, and no. Yes, meaning I’ve figured out how to stop Merc. No, meaning I’m still not sure of some of the variables.”
“Okay, I want it all,” Gail said. “Start at the beginning.”
“I was born in a dump… my mama died, and my daddy got drunk—”
“Fast-forward about thirty years, please.”
“If you say so,” I grinned. “I’ve established that I can’t get in far enough to crash Merc. It’s too well-made and well-protected. But I had an alternate plan. Instead of crashing it, I’m going to let it run… and let NASDAQ block it.”
“They’ll block it? How?”
“Well, that’s what I’m still working on,” I explained. “I managed to tease out of all the data on BM’s server, how the program would get into NASDAQ. I’m trying to create a program that I can drop onto the web that will monitor for that signal from Merc to NASDAQ, trying to get in. When it’s detected, my program will simultaneously repeat that same login signal from another address.”
“Why would you want to repeat it?” Gail asked.
“Funny,” Pete said from across the room. “That’s the same thing I asked.”
“Then I’ll tell her what I told you,” I said, and turned back to Gail. “When the NASDAQ servers get two identical connection requests at the same time, it should respond by assuming something is wrong with one of the requests… possibly that it could be a prelude to a denial of service attack… and since it won’t be sure which is genuine, it will reject them both. My program is also designed to monitor the Merc signal in realtime and instantly replicate it, so even if they change it slightly to get around the rejection, they won’t be able to do it easily. And that’s the good news.”
“It sounded good,” Gail admitted. “But that implies bad news.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “At first, BM will think NASDAQ’s servers are having some temporary issues, so they should keep trying for a bit. But once these guys figure out what’s going on… and they will eventually… they can do two things. Either they’ll shut it down, or they’ll make major changes to the connection signal that my program can’t replicate. So I can’t just run the program forever. What I need to do is to get enough data to be able to trace it back to BM, and send that data to NASDAQ and the FBI.”
“Can you do that?”
“I don’t know. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not they keep it running long enough to let me do that. And there’s another problem.”
Gail rolled her eyes. “This is getting good.”
“Oh, just wait’ll you hear it.” I indicated the program I was debugging. “When I send this program out, every time it tries to collect data on the BM hack, it’ll also leave a trail back to me. That is, back to the address I use to send the data.”
“All the way here?” Gail asked. Then she paused. “Wait a minute… we’re in California. How bad can that be?”
“I’ll put it to you this way,” I replied. “BM must know where I am. They’ll figure out I’m doing something to block their program. So, while they’re trying to figure out how to get past me, they have someone put in an anonymous call to the FBI… an organization that happens to have offices in San Diego.” I mimicked a fist banging on the door, then cupped my hand over my mouth to muffle my voice. “This is the FBI, Schitzeiss. Come out with your hands up!”
“Okay, that’s not cool,” Pete said. “You think it could happen that fast?”
“It could,” I admitted. “There’s one thing I can do to slow them up, though.” I lifted the Toughbook. “Take this show on the road. I can send my program commands from any wireless access point. Then, while the FBI traces the signal, I can move to another wireless point somewhere else. If I can stay ahead of them, I can collect my data and present that to them when they catch me. They’ll have the real culprit… and I,” I finished with a flourish, “will be a national hero!”
“Or at least have the blacklist revoked,” Pete pointed out.
“Yeah, at least that.”
Gail nodded. “We can do that. I’ll drive you around while you work!” She paused again. “When do we start?”
I nodded at the screen. “Okay, I have to debug the program, send it out… and we wait for them to trigger Merc. We can also call or e-mail Mel Cooley, and let him know he can quit, and be as blatant about it as he wants, in the hopes that that will make his former bosses trigger the program ASAP.”
“How much longer do you need?” Gail asked.
I looked at her. I looked at the Toughbook screen, trying to divine a timeframe. I looked at Reilly.
Reilly instantly perked up, and stood up out of the sofa. “Say no more,” she said as she headed for the door. “One grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room, coming up!”
“That’s my girl,” Pete and I said in unison as she dashed out. The moment the door shut, I realized Gail was looking at me with a significantly-cocked eyebrow.
“I-I mean, that’s his girl,” I amended quickly, pointing at Pete.
Gail smiled. “That’s what I thought you said. Come on,” she added, pulling me out of my chair. “You need a break, until your drink gets here.”
“Um, I really don’t know how much time—”
“Make the time,” Gail said meaningfully, and started dragging me towards the bedroom.
Pete stepped towards the Toughbook while Gail dragged me off. “Say, bro, do you want me to work on this while you’re gone?”
I managed to break out of Gail’s grip and turn back to the alcove, growling, “If you touch one key on that keyboard, so help me I’ll—” before Gail re-wrapped both her arms around me and dragged me off again.
“Call Reilly,” she called over to Pete before we disappeared into the bedroom. “Tell her not to rush.” She kicked the door closed behind her.
I opened the door to my bedroom at about 4am. In the dark, I saw a stirring in my bed. That would be Gail, who had stayed up with me until about midnight while I worked on my program, and then crawled off to bed. I wish I could say our earlier lovemaking had worn her out… but truth be told, she was one of those girls who had the kind of stamina that football teams looked for (in themselves, their girlfriends, and the girls who liked to do the whole team at once). No: She’d gone to bed because she was bored, no more and no less, with watching me work my IT magic, muttering incomprehensibly to myself and sucking down espressos (Reilly had come back from Starbucks with four of ‘em—God bless her).
I shucked off my clothes, all but my shorts, and crawled into bed next to her. Gail shifted, then turned over to face me, and draped her arm over my chest. Even in the dark, and before my eyes had fully adjusted to the gloom, she was an angel. I reflected on the things she’d told me in L.A., and I felt truly sorry that things hadn’t worked out as she’d originally intended for her life. It must have been tough, realizing she could not keep the man she’d loved, and because she was actually too wild for him… considering how woman are taught about men, and about using their sexuality in a man’s world, it must have been quite a blow to her. Then, deliberately switching from a girl who used her (ahem) assets to get work, to using her brains instead… well, that should have been a no-brainer, but with a boss who apparently liked her to use her (ahem, again) assets, defying him and keeping her old job anyway must have been especially frustrating (that might have needed a third ahem, but I’m tired).
On the other hand, if all of that hadn’t happened to her, she certainly wouldn’t be lying here with me. Of all the things I’d done over the years, I still couldn’t figure out if I’d ever done anything to deserve a girl like this. But whether I deserved it or not, I knew one thing: I didn’t plan to do anything that would make her leave me.
As I thought of all this, I realized Gail’s eyes were open, and she looked up at me with a tired smile. “Hi, lover. Did you finish?”
I nodded. “The program is ready, and I’ve already uploaded it to the web.”
Gail became more alert. “Already? How soon before something happens?”
“I have no way of knowing,” I shrugged. “It’s up to BM to make their move. But like I said earlier, I’m betting the minute they know Cooley is leaving, they’ll want to use it before it’s too late. They’ll either use it at that exact moment, or try to wait for a more appropriate time. I’m guessing they will try to hit the after-market hours, 4 to 8pm eastern standard time. But they might as easily do pre-market, 7 to 9:30am. All I can do is stay ready to jump on it.”
Gail nodded slightly. “I’ll send Mel an e-mail first thing in the morning.” Then she started to crawl on top of me. “In the meantime, have I told you how much I love you?”
“Um… yeah, I seem to recall hearing you say that once or twice,” I smiled.
“Oh, good. And have I told you how sexy I think you are?”
“Yeah, that sounds familiar, too.”
“Excellent. And have I told you how brilliant I think you are?”
I actually had to think about that one. “You know… now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve heard that from you.”
“Ah. I knew I was forgetting something. Allow me, then, to show you how much I think of your brilliance.” And she kissed me, allowing her long hair to flow down around my head and envelope me in a blond curtain. Despite my bone-weariness, I could feel that other bone responding to the promises of that incredible body. Gail noticed it, too, and quickly reached down to pull my shorts down to my knees. At the same time, I hooked the hips of her panties and pushed them down, then rolled her over until I was on top of her.
She grunted in pleasure at my response. “Mike, I want you to know something: If you were offered your old job, and decided to go back to Baltimore… I’d go with you.”
“Are you kidding?” I smiled. “Fuck the old job! I never want to leave San Diego.”
“Oh, thank God,” she said, and pulled me down hungrily.
We spent the next few hours alternating between rolling around like puppies, cooing like lovebirds, and doing it like rabbits—okay, in Gail’s case, maybe more like rabid wolverines. (She’s the best at what she does, too.) If anything, she was even wilder now that she had confessed her past sins, and I had absolved her of every one without requiring a single Hail Mary from her (though, to my eternal gratitude, she gave me several). But she was also more appreciative, more enamored… almost worshipful. I came to realize she really needed that absolution, that she’d kept her feelings bottled up for far too long. And the fact that she’d been willing to confess to me, made her all the more treasured. She had told those secrets to me. How could I not return the love of a woman who thought that highly of me?
Especially one who went down on me like a rabid wolverine?
As the sun came up, Gail paused in our lovemaking to find her Blackberry and send an e-mail to Mel Cooley, telling him it was okay to quit, and include any histrionics he felt appropriate, as soon as he was ready. He would be getting it around 10am his time, which probably meant BM would trigger their program sometime in the after-hours market, some six hours from now, or afterward. We had an almost sure six hours to live it up, because after that, I’d either be a hero… or in FBI custody. I told Gail that.
“Don’t worry,” Gail said. “There’s enough evidence now to keep you out of jail, I think.”
“Just not enough to convict BM,” I replied. “Which is what I really want.”
“You gotta have faith,” Gail said. “Like that time, two weeks ago, when we saw the web article about orgasms?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. The article stated categorically that it was impossible to have nine orgasms in thirty minutes. We were sure we could prove them wrong.
Then I paused. “Hold on. We didn’t get to nine orgasms in thirty minutes.”
“Only because you fell off the bed,” Gail pointed out, “and threw off my timing.”
We spent the day waiting. I almost admired BM’s patience in managing to wait out the day… Mel had called at eight, his 11am, and told us he’d put in his notice and walked right out.
“How’d they take it?” Gail had asked.
“Are you kidding?” Mel had replied. “You should’ve seen their faces… I was afraid to turn my back on them.”
“Well, now that you have,” Gail said, “get yourself together and ready to start your new job on the West Coast.”
“He’s ecstatic,” Gail told me.
“Passing on a chance at jail time will do that to you,” I pointed out. I couldn’t think of the last time I’d heard someone so cheery after they’d just willingly walked out on a few million dollars, net no less. But Mel’s sudden attack of morals was doing me a favor, so who was I to complain?
At 7:10 the next evening, my cellphone beeped. I raised it to my face, and saw the simple word sent to it by my Toughbook: “Now.”
“They just sent the program,” I said, getting up out of the sofa. Gail followed me, while Pete and Reilly stayed in the loveseat in the living room. I climbed over my gear and called up the appropriate screens to see what was going on.
Gail came around the other side and leaned over me to watch the screen. Not being able to read the IT jargon that was now running down the screen, she asked, “What do you see?”
“I see Merc attempting to tap into NASDAQ,” I said, pointing to a series of comments on the screen. I pointed to another set. “That’s my program, copying the Merc login commands, and re-issuing them from another address. And there,” I pointed again, “is NASDAQ encountering both login requests… and cancelling them!”
“It worked!” Gail wrapped her arms around my neck and hugged me tightly. “It’s working!”
“Yup! Now, the tricky part,” I went on, leaning into the laptop and typing for all I was worth. “Manually saving the data and sending it, in a packet, to the FBI. Their computers are supposed to be able to flag stuff like this, trace them back to their source once they have enough of it, and eventually alert the men to do some door-kicking in Maryland. And speaking of which.”
I closed the Toughbook, stood up, and tucked the laptop under my arm. Looking at everyone, I said, “Time to go.”
“Right,” Pete said, pulling himself out of the loveseat and followed by Reilly. “We’ll hold the fort while you’re gone.”
“If the FBI shows—” I started.
“You left, for we-don’t-know-where,” Pete finished. “Which is the truth, since we don’t know where.” My elder brother held out his hand. “Good luck, bro. Break a leg.”
“Preferably a few… in Baltimore,” I nodded, and accepted his hand. Reilly gave me a quick hug, and a peck on the cheek. This was it. “See you on the other side,” I said. Then I turned to my partner in crime, and said, “Let’s roll, Kato.”
“Kato. Y’know, the Green Hornet. Bruce L—oh, never mind. Come on!”
I almost regretted taking the elevator downstairs, but I was sure there was no way the FBI was going to be that fast showing up here.
Gail glanced at me. “Relax! There’s no way the FBI could get here that fast.” I immediately felt better, and started smiling ear to ear. “What?” Gail asked when she saw my smile. “What’s so funny?”
“Brain leakage!” I replied. “Man, I am so stoked now!”
The elevator doors opened to the garage, and we quick-stepped to Gail’s Eclipse. We climbed in, Gail having the engine revved up before I got my door shut. She threw it in gear, and we squealed out of the parking space. Somewhere in the back of my head, I heard crime jazz winding up… something with lots of high horns and fast cymbals and staccato snare drums.
When we pulled out into the street, however, the entire band stopped on a dime. They stopped, because I saw two unmarked sedans pulling up to the lobby entrance of Pete’s building just as we were driving away. They did get here that fast. Gail and I exchanged wide-eyed looks, and I slumped down in the seat a bit. “This is gonna be close.”
Thereafter, the band played, but they kept it down.
“Take your time,” I said. “Don’t attract a cop’s attention. Relax and follow the route.”
“Yes, Green Hornet sir,” Gail replied.
“Kato would just say, ‘Yes, boss’,” I told her.
“Don’t you wish,” she said.
Unfortunately, even San Diego isn’t wall-to-wall wireless yet. Knowing that, I’d had to do some searching to find some select places I could go where I knew there would be wireless access. And I’d need to stay mobile, so I couldn’t be traced and caught at any one spot, so I needed several places… a half-dozen at most, I guessed. A little thought, and I knew just the thing. I worked out a route, starting at Pete’s place—which I’d gone thoroughly geek and named checkpoint Alpha—and through each checkpoint after that, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Edward, Francis… and Gail. I’d shared the route with Gail that day, and she’d had it memorized hours ago. I kept it from Pete, so he’d have the advantage of plausible deniability… not to mention not being able to give me away, even under torture. We drove carefully, our first stop being only a few blocks away.
Shortly, we drove into a street-side parking lot, and pulled up as close to the storefront as we could manage. Gail parked us nose-out, for a quick getaway, and through her rear-view mirror, I could see the image of the store’s circular green logo, easily recognizable when seen normally or reversed.
Gail killed the engine, turned to me, and said, “Now what? We just wait?”
“We just wait,” I confirmed. “BM’ll probably figure out in another few minutes that nothing happened, and they’ll try it again.”
Gail nodded, sat back in her seat… and then looked at the store through her rearview. She started to unbuckle herself. “Well, if we’ve got a few minutes, I’ll go in and use the ladies’ room. Just beep if we have to go, okay?”
“No problem,” I said. Then, as her door shut, I called out, “Wait!”
Gail came back to the car window. “What?”
“As long as you’re in there…”
“Say no more, lover,” Gail grinned. “One grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room, coming up!”
8: Hit and Run
I had nailed it almost to the second: As I sat there waiting for Gail to come out of Starbucks, my Toughbook registered the second Merc attempt. Again, my program spoofed its login, and the NASDAQ servers rejected them both. “Yes,” I hissed to myself, and immediately got busy encapsulating the traffic info and sending the packet to the FBI.
A moment later, Gail’s door opened, and she got in. “Here you go,” she said, holding out my cup. “What news?”
“Attempt number two, like clockwork!” I said triumphantly, finishing up my keystrokes, then reaching out and taking my espresso. “Perfect! Let’s get to checkpoint Charlie!”
“Gotcha, boss,” Gail said, and started the car.
I’d guessed we had enough time to get to the mainland before the next hit… after that, they were sure to come closer together. We were also sure to have FBI agents that much closer, too, so we’d have to keep moving. By now, the FBI agents tracking this stuff would have detected my signal at the wireless node of the Starbucks we’d just left behind… checkpoint Bravo. Hopefully they’d blow some time searching for us in the immediate area, and may not have been aware enough of my “known associates” to know that they needed to be looking for a white Eclipse, before they started to put two and two together and figured out my stragedy (as a certain bunny I used to idolize would say). Once that happened, by window of opportunity would be that much smaller… it was anyone’s guess if I’d get my work done before I hit the final stop, which I’d designated my “safe spot”… appropriately, checkpoint Gail… if I got there, all would be well.
As we crossed the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, I was sure I saw two more unmarked cars heading across the bridge in the other direction. Gail was in the right lane at the time, and I stayed scrunched down in my seat. The band in my head was getting a bit louder… the saxes were winding up. “Reinforcements,” I said to Gail.
“What?” Gail said.
“I couldn’t hear you over the band.”
That earned me a high-C right behind my left ear. “Hit the National exit,” I grinned.
We back-tracked to Harbor Drive and headed north-west with purpose. Reaching our next destination, at West Harbor and Front, Gail took the left and drove into the parking lot. Within seconds, I was getting the Starbucks wireless signal and connecting.
Gail pulled into a spot and cut the engine. “Anything yet?”
“Not yet,” I replied. “So we sit tight. And watch for guys with dark glasses and cheap suits.”
“I’d much rather watch you,” Gail said, and she leaned over and kissed me. For a moment, she seemed about to crawl over the gearshift and have a go at me right there… but she restrained herself, and settled for kisses. Trust me, I didn’t mind at all.
Then the Toughbook beeped at me. Gail glanced down at it, and muttered, “Killjoy.”
“I’m hip,” I said as I opened the laptop. After another moment, I said, “Hit number three, logged… spoofed… and… blocked!”
“Like clockwork,” Gail commented. She started the car as I encapsulated the third hit data, and sent it off. “Ready?”
“Go,” I cried. “On to checkpoint Delta!”
“You don’t think this ‘Alpha, Bravo, Charlie’ stuff is gonna get old by the time we get to the end?”
I thought about the fact that “Gail” was my last stop. “Hells, no! Stomp it, baby!”
Gail beamed in response to my enthusiasm, and floored it, just catching the light in time to head into town. But underneath my bravado, I was concerned. We’d just hit our second Starbucks in a row, and were heading for our third. Even TV cops weren’t stupid enough to not pick up that trail. I’d carefully chosen our route, so it wasn’t likely they’d figure out which shop I was gonna hit next… but then, there were enough cops to eventually get around to staking out every Starbucks in town when they get it figured out.
It was gonna be real close.
When we reached checkpoint Delta, Gail muttered, “Uh-oh.” I joined her in glancing about. There was no place to park on the street… all the nearby spots were filled. I checked the Toughbook, but we were too far away to get a signal.
I quickly pointed. “Let me off here, and U-turn at the end of the block.”
“U-turn?” Gail blanched. “In this traffic?”
“I have faith in you,” I said, and opened the car door before she had come to a stop. “Be back soon,” I said as I climbed out.
I had to cross the street to get to the Starbucks. Once I was outside, I had planned to just sit at one of their sidewalk tables and do my thing… but a drone in the sky alerted me to look up. I ducked into the place just before a helicopter came into view above the San Diego streets. And I was just paranoid enough to believe that they were looking for me. That was close. Quickly I slipped into a chair and opened up the Toughbook. I checked… but there was no fourth attempt yet. Damn! Had they given up? It was too soon! Or were they just biding their time, maybe hoping whatever glitch was blocking them at NASDAQ would clear up? How long could I leave Gail circling around out front?…
Then—Hallelujah! The fourth hit came. The spoof program did its job, and I quickly encapsulated the data and sent it off. Then I closed my Toughbook and left, non-chalantly, so as to not attract the notice of the Starbucks baristas. I hit the sidewalk, glancing surreptitiously to make sure there were no copters overhead… it had left the scene. Then I looked for Gail’s car. I looked left. I looked right.
Fighting down panic, I started to walk. Almost immediately, I decided it would be better to walk the other way, so my laptop would face the buildings and wouldn’t be as easily seen from the street. So I spun about and started in the opposite direction. And immediately realized how obvious it would be to anyone on the street who might be on the lookout for strange behavior (say, a passing IT terrorist after NASDAQ) to see me walk one way, then the other. I cursed myself for seven kinds of a fool, but kept going, praying no one had noticed me.
As I walked, passing by other storefronts, I noticed many of them had glass entrances that I could use to catch a reflection and view behind me, without turning around. I used ‘em. And a damn good thing, too: Because at the last store on the block, I looked at the glass wall and caught a reflection of two guys in cheap suits and sunglasses, stepping out of the Starbucks I’d just left. A barista followed them out, looked around, and in a moment, I saw him point in my direction.
“See if I ever shop there again,” I muttered, as I increased my pace. Just as I was reaching the corner, I could hear rapid footsteps behind me, and I waited as long as I could before my inner rabbit got the better of me. I broke into a run and dashed around the corner.
And almost ran headlong into the passenger-side door of a white Eclipse coming up the road. I grabbed the handle and used it to swing inside with such force that I probably bent something, slammed the door, and yanked the seat down. The two suits appeared around the corner then, and kept running down the sidewalk past the car… I’d lost them.
“Go, go! Get us to Edward!” I whispered urgently, as Gail started to cut across traffic to make a left turn. “Jesus Christ, girl, you gave me a heart attack…”
“Well, what’d you expect?” Gail protested as she negotiated the streets. “I told you doing a U-turn here was crazy! I had to circle the block—”
“Whatever,” I said, trying to calm down. “It worked. Good job.” I reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. “And I got hit four.”
“So far… so scary,” Gail said. “I think they’ve got helicopters looking for you.”
“I saw it, too,” I nodded. “I don’t think they’ve actually ID’d your car yet, though. They’re sure to by Francis, though.”
Checkpoint Edward was on Market, and heading away from the cluster of Starbucks that were in the tourist areas. I prayed that that choice would throw their search pattern, and buy us more time. Just in case, I monitored for more wireless spots as we travelled, but every spot I hit was password-protected… and anyway, we were in open area, too easy to be spotted loitering around. So we kept going, using G street to get to 10th, then south to get to Market.
“Oh, mother,” I said as we approached Market. I could see unmarked cars… three of them… all within viewing distance of the Starbucks. I’d never be able to sneak into it.
Gail saw it too, and bit her lip silently as we approached, and stopped at the light. We were at the head of the intersection, and all three cars were in sight at that moment. I was still cranked down, but if we did anything suspicious, they’d pick us up right away.
The light turned green, and Gail had no choice but to drive through the intersection. Suddenly, she angled right and put the car at the corner, and shut the car off.
I looked around frantically. “What are you doing?”
“Can you connect from here?” Gail asked quickly.
I checked. “Yeah… just.”
“Good. I’ll buy you some time,” Gail said, and she grabbed her purse and climbed out of the car. She slammed the door, as if she was angry… which clued me in to something going on, but I didn’t know what. Slowly, I cranked open the Toughbook and looked for the next hit.
Outside the car, Gail walked around to the corner, in plain sight, reached into her purse, and pulled out her cellphone. She dialed, paused, and started talking, loudly… and I swear, I had to stop and sneak a look in awe. Gail sounded like she was channeling Marisa Tomei, straight out of My Cousin Vinny, and she was arguing with someone at the other end of the call, and pointing her arm up and down the street, then at signs, then peering up and down the street… pretending to get directions! And considering it was Gail—and Gail could make a corn sack look sexy—it was sure that she was getting more attention lavished on her, than anything else on the street. “Atta girl, Kato!” I muttered as I went to work. Hit number five came through, and I got busy. Once I sent the packet, I closed the Toughbook… then tried to figure out how to call Gail back to the car without being seen. After a few seconds, an idea came to me. I opened the Toughbook again, and started searching for some audio files. That’s what I want…
Gail kept doing the distraction bit on the street, until she suddenly reacted to a noise from her car. It took her a second to realize she was listening to the yap of a toy poodle, coming from her passenger side. After a second, she recovered her composure. She shouted into the phone, “You betta know what’cher talkin’ about, or so help me, when I catch up to you, I will club you!” Whereupon she snapped her phone shut and headed back for the car, saying in a loud voice, “Don’t worry, Killer, mommy’s ready to go now!”
She climbed into the car, looked down at me lying prone in the passenger seat, and she reached out and tousled my hair. “That’s a good boy.”
“You’ gonna criticize?” she said in her best Marisa accent.
“Oh, Hell, no,” I smiled. “Let’s get to Francis.”
Checkpoint Francis required doubling back and crossing town. Amazingly, the feds still hadn’t twigged to Gail’s car. But that couldn’t last much longer. That’s why I’d picked the next Starbucks carefully: It was one of few in the area that had a drive-in window.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Gail asked me as we approached the shop. “I can see fed cars already here.”
“I know,” I replied, levering open the Toughbook as we approached. “Trust me, this should look completely innocuous to anyone watching. Just drive into the drive-through, and while you’re ordering, I’ll be doing my thing. In and out, nice and easy.”
To her credit, Gail pouted. “What fun is that?”
She drove into the drive-through, as I was already connecting to the web. As we pulled up to the ordering screen, a voice from a speaker said, “Gfudefftrrn, wuffumm Sorrfumms cummi feffer erder?”
“Great Scott,” I rolled my eyes. “Spend a buck on a speaker, why don’t ya…”
“Um, yeah,” Gail said to the speaker. “Um… grande chai latte, please, extra milk.”
I looked up at her. “I never pegged you for a chai person.”
“Never mind,” she said, nodding at the laptop. “You got it?”
I checked. “Um… not yet…”
Now Gail rolled her eyes. “See, this is what I was afraid of: We get stuck in a conspicuous spot while you wait for the next hit!”
“Shh!” I shushed, checking the connection. “We’re not stuck yet.”
We drove very slowly up to the pickup window, Gail making a big deal out of digging into her purse for exact change. She handed the money over, and gave me a quick glance. I had to shake my head… nothing yet. Another thirty seconds went by… and the barista brought Gail’s drink. “Thank you,” she said, and glanced at me again as she slowly raised it to her lips. I shook my head.
Gail immediately hunched forward, pushing the drink away from her. Then she turned to the pickup window with an angry glare. “I said extra milk! Is there even any milk in here?”
The barista immediately took on a confused look, then reached out for the cup. “Sorry, ma’am! I can make a better one for you.”
“Please do, thanks,” Gail replied, and waited until the barista had disappeared inside. “Well?”
“Oh, come on…”
By this time, three cars were waiting in the line behind us. Our inconspicuosity was drying up by the second. The guy right behind us, not being able to see what was holding things up, beeped. Gail looked back at the guy, smiled sweetly, and extended her middle finger towards him. As she did so, she glanced through her mirror at a nearby unmarked car. The driver, a man wearing a cheap suit and sunglasses, was getting out and crossing the street, headed in our direction. “Oh, Christ…”
My laptop beeped. “Here it is—”
“Here you go, ma’am.”
“Oh!” Gail jerked around to see the barista with her drink. “Oh… you startled me!”
“Terribly sorry, ma’am,” the barista said, extending the drink.
“That’s okay,” Gail said slowly, waiting for a high sign from me. I was typing furiously, but I needed a few more seconds. “Um… are you sure this is the real milk? Because I can’t stand the soy stuff.”
“We used whole milk, not soy, not low-fat.”
Another beep from behind. Gail sent a withering glance at the driver, then looked sweetly at the barista, who smiled sympathetically back (leave it to my baby to be able to find the last straight barista in town). “I want to thank you for all your help, uh… Brian. You’ve made my day.”
“Any time, ma’am,” Brian said, apparently thrilled that such a gorgeous customer had actually addressed him by name. “In fact, any time at all—”
“And that time is now,” I said quickly. The packet was off. “Get to the last stop!”
“About fucking time!” Gail snarled, throwing the car in gear and tromping the accelerator. As she did so, she nearly hit the cheap suit that was just about to cross in front of the car to her side… another few steps, and he would’ve seen me, too. But thanks to Gail’s burnout, it didn’t really matter anymore. He bellowed like we had run over his foot, he yelled into his shirtsleeve, he pointed, and he ran back to his car. Other unmarked cars all seemed to come alive at that point, but none of them happened to be pointed in the direction we were going, or quick enough to block us. Before any of them could react, Gail shot through the intersection, made the next right, and screamed away. I could hear the squealing tires of FBI men behind us, soon to disappear as we got around the corner.
I cranked my seat up. “About time, that was getting uncomfortable.”
“As uncomfortable as our jail cells are gonna be?” Gail complained.
“We’re not locked up yet,” I said. “The last packet is away. When BM tries another hit, the FBI will be able to trace it right back to the source. We just need to stay free long enough for them to keep watching for it.”
Gail glanced back in her rearview mirror. The FBI vehicles were almost two blocks behind us. Gail bit her lip. “I don’t think we’re gonna stay free that long, boss!”
“Have faith, Kato! —next left.”
11: Chase scene
Chase scenes are much more fun to watch on television than to actually experience. Gail and I were finding that out the hard way. We only had to go two miles, but right now, they felt like the distance from here to the Moon. Instead of being excited… we were scared shitless.
Gail swerved around two trucks as she went on. She was driving like a demon… probably because she was having flash-forwards about being cavity-searched by a three-hundred pounder named Flo. I didn’t blame her. The one in my head was named Larry. But we’d done our bit: I’d sent the packets to the FBI, and all it would take would be one more attempt by BM to hack into NASDAQ, and they would be the ones being cavity searched.
In the meantime, we had to get to checkpoint Gail, come hell or high water. And we were close—
“Sonofabitch!” Gail snapped, and yanked at the wheel. In her zeal to get to the last checkpoint, she had been running a red light, but the sudden appearance of a semi caught her by surprise. She put the car into a skid that ended up parallel to the side of the semi, and pointed up the wrong street. She cursed again, and floored it anyway.
“Oh, shit…” I was beginning to panic. Yeah, finally. We were now headed away from our safe point, which made it all the more likely that we’d be caught before we got there… or if I tried to change my plans at this point. “We have to get—”
“I know, I know,” Gail nodded as she looked for a place to turn.
I assumed she would try to make the next left, and braced myself… which was why I almost threw myself into her lap when she made the next right. “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?”
“Who’s driving, Green Hornet?” Gail spat as she dodged a scooter and a Think! Car. She reached the next intersection and made another right, bolted to the corner and took the next right, then proceeded in a leisurely pace down the block. I started to ask again what she was doing, but a warning glance from her kept me quiet. As we approached the intersection that we had just flown through a minute ago, I watched a flurry of unmarked cars shoot through the intersection, in the direction we had gone. Gail reached the corner, stopped like a good driver, and waited. As we watched, a few more fed cars barreled through the intersection. When it looked like the last one had passed, Gail made the right turn and followed them.
Up ahead, it looked like at least one car had seen us make the right turn thanks to the semi. They had apparently passed the word, and now every car was making the same right turn! And behind the fed caravan, Gail drove the Eclipse straight through the intersection, on-course for checkpoint Gail.
I looked at Gail, and the shit-eating grin on her face. “You go, Kato.”
But moments later, I heard a familiar drone in the sky. I glanced up just in time to see that helicopter, swinging north to follow the other drivers, and in the process, crossing over our block. The ‘copter disappeared beyond the buildings, and the drone receded in the distance. But a moment later, I heard it again. It had reappeared over our block, and now it was swinging our way.
“We’ve been made!” I snapped. “Hit it, Kato!”
“Hittin’ it, boss!” Gail floored it, and we shot forward again. We only had three blocks to go, not nearly enough time to lose the ‘copter… but with no cars close to us in pursuit, we could still make it work.
“Are you sure this can still work?” Gail asked as we hit the last intersection.
I saw our destination ahead. “I am now,” I said. We were on a street of hotels, and I could see the Starbucks sign in the lobby of the hotel on the far right. I pointed at the entrance to the hotel’s parking garage. “There’s our bolt-hole, babe!”
Gail gritted her teeth and yanked the wheel. As onlookers either stared in shock or ducked for cover, the Eclipse squealed in a wide arc, bounced up the driveway entrance and power-slid at the turnstiles. At the last second, she took her foot off the brake, and the car shot forward, threading the space between the parking turnstiles and into the underground parking garage at forty miles an hour.
“Christ,” I muttered as she hit the brakes again and brought us down to a more-or-less sane speed in the garage. Perfect: The ‘copter would have seen us enter, but we had some time before any G-men got down here after us. I looked around carefully, remembering the online diagrams of the garage that I’d seen the other day. “There!” I pointed at an elevator bay, and some nearby parking spots. “Put it there!”
Gail slotted us into a parking space at a garish angle, leaving me just barely enough room to get my door open. I squeezed out as she dashed out of the car and met me at the other side. I pointed at our destination and said, “Go, go!”
We made a mad dash through a door, down a corridor, found a set of stairs, ran up the single flight, and opened the door into the hotel lobby. Checkpoint Gail was immediately to our left, and we slowed to a casual walk as we entered and sat down at a table.
Seconds later, we watched through the shop’s glass storefront as the phalanx of fed cars came screaming up to the hotel entrance, and down into the parking garage … it scared people even more than our arrival had, which was saying something. I could just picture the guys down in the garage: They would’ve found the car by the elevator bay, radioed their guys upstairs that we were already in or near the Starbucks, and bolted for the stairs.
As we watched, a squad of cheap suits busted into the Starbucks, guns drawn, sending customers scattering and baristas screaming, as more suits flooded into the hotel lobby. The suits ran back and forth, checking the customers and under the tables, scampering into the back, then back out… then started chattering into their shirtsleeves. Because they couldn’t find us.
As Gail watched, fascinated by the show, she reached across the table and patted my hand. “Fiendishly clever of you, Mister Hornet, sir.”
“Elementary, my dear, sexy Kato,” I said.
If any of the feds had happened to be sharp enough to look a little further than the confines of the Starbucks, they could have seen us in plain sight… through a plate-glass window… right across the street. Gail and I watched the entire tableau from the shop in the opposite hotel… the one that had a below-ground access to the parking lot across the street. As Gail watched the feds running around like Keystone Cops, I opened my Toughbook and checked the status of our little game. Sure enough, BM had run Merc a final time, and the FBI monitoring systems had had enough data from my earlier packets to recognize and trace the signal right back to its source. Agents in Baltimore would already be heading for BM in Baltimore, before they even knew they were ID’d.
And it was time for my final packet to the FBI, documenting all of my notes and steps, including the events that had gotten me fired and blacklisted, and finished off with a last note:
“This corrupt accounting firm wrapped up in a pretty red bow for you by your friendly neighborhood IT guy: M.D. Schitz.”
I hit the send button, just as two G-men crowded through the door of the shop and made eye-contact with me and Gail. I just turned my head to the nearest barista, and said, “Can I get a grande double-shot skim milk espresso with room, to go?”
The barista looked at me, and said, “We do ‘medium’ here, not ‘grande’. This is Seattle’s Best, not Starbucks.”
I looked at the G-men, then at Gail, and smiled. “I stand corrected.”
12: End of Line
Unlike what you usually see in television, the good guys who manage to get away with a hairy plot that successfully captures the real bad guys still don’t get to go home in an hour with a pat on the back by a grateful detective. No, we were escorted with extreme prejudice down to the local FBI headquarters, where we spent the entire night regurgitating our stories again and again, while my Toughbook was surely being interrogated in another room somewhere. (Fortunately, I’d offloaded some of the more bizarre things I’d gotten involved with since coming to San Diego, and they were locked up elsewhere. Good thing, too. Some of the exploits I’ve been involved in, in the last few months, could have kept me here for weeks.) But at no time did these guys ever tell me we were under arrest, under suspicion, or under anything at all… so I took that to be a very, very good sign.
Gail I wasn’t worried about. I was willing to bet she could charm anyone out of their eye-teeth. So I just concentrated on answering their questions and being as cooperative as I could be… even though the coffee they gave me sucked.
Finally, the door to my interrogation room opened. It was actually more of a small office, whose I had no idea, but they’d kept me in there all night with the exception of a bathroom break. I had been asleep on the couch when the door opened, causing me to jerk awake. “Call Jack Webb!”
“Who?” came a voice from the hallway. I looked up, squinting in the sunlight slanting through the blinds, and saw a G-man standing there, with Gail next to him. “Rise and shine, kid, you’re free to go.” I pulled myself out of the couch, and came to the door.
The G-man held a plastic bag out to me, within which was my Toughbook. I took the bag and gave it a quick look. Then I looked at the guy. “No charges?”
The G-man shook his head. “No charges. We’ll talk to the SD police about your moving violations. No promises, though. Other than that, you’re good.”
Gail came around the suit and hugged me lightly around the middle, which made me think they had actually managed to intimidate her… but probably not by much. She looked at me and said, “Let’s go home, Mike.”
“What were you doing all night?” I asked.
“They kept me in a small office and kept me up most of the night, asking me questions. Guess what?”
“These guys didn’t know who Kato was, either, until they googled it.”
“Sad,” I said. “No wonder they didn’t make us until Edward.”
We had to catch a cab to get to Gail’s car, which had been impounded. Once we had it back, we drove back to Pete’s place. I’d called him on the way, so he’d know we were coming. When we walked in the door, we were amazed to discover a roomful of helium balloons floating all about the apartment!
Gail and I goggled at the sight. “Oh my God!” Gail laughed, trying to see past the balloons. Then we were both startled by a loud pop from somewhere in the room… after our ordeal, both of us literally jumped and shrank back.
Then the wall of balloons began to shift about, parting in the air, and revealed my brother Pete approaching us. In his hands was a bottle of champagne, just starting to froth from its uncorking. “The heroes are back!” Pete cried, throwing his arms wide and accepting hugs from both of us. Reilly was right behind him, and also gave us excited hugs.
“Look at this place!” I said when we all pulled back from each other. “You couldn’t have gotten all these this morning… you must have started just after we left!”
“Yeah,” Gail laughed. “What would you have done with all this if the plan hadn’t worked?”
“What else?” Pete said, as Reilly held out glasses for him to fill. “Used them to float over the top of the jail and airlift you out!” He finished filling four glasses, and Reilly passed them out. “But you didn’t get nailed! Bro, you did it! You are dee bomb, buddy!”
“Well, I had great help,” I said. “From all of you. The best posse I could ever have!” I raised my glass to them, and we all toasted each other. After I took a sip, I slipped a hand around Gail’s waist. “Especially Kato, here! Guys, if you’d seen her driving—”
“Are you kidding? Of course we did! You guys made CNN!”
I think Gail and I both turned white as a sheet. “What?” we said in unison.
“Sure, half a dozen bystanders nailed you guys with their cellphones and video cameras as you led the merry chase through the San Diego streets. The iReports are the hottest thing on TV!”
Gail and I slowly looked at each other in shock. “My rep,” I moaned.
“My job,” she echoed.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Pete said. “They’re also calling you two heroes for exposing a stock-swindling scam that would have cost companies billions, and done serious damage to NASDAQ’s rep if it had succeeded! You hear me? You’re heroes!” We all embraced again, and when Gail and Reilly hugged, they jumped up and down like schoolgirls… an image not lost on Pete and me. Abruptly Pete recovered his composure from watching the bouncing babes, and snapped his fingers. “Oh, I almost forgot: A call came for you… from NASDAQ! He wants to talk to you about a job in IT security!”
My eyes could have popped out of my head and bounced across the floor. IT security… for NASDAQ. I let the words roll through my mind like a marquee, seeing the incredible career possibilities. My rep would be more than secure, it would be sealed for good! It would be a new chapter of my life, a new start…
I suddenly realized everyone was staring expectantly at me. It would be a new start, but an end to my stay in San Diego, and all that implied. An end to my being reunited with my brother. And end to the gorgeous weather, and the gorgeous women, and the free espressos from Reilly, and the gorgeous women, and the… okay, I wasn’t even gonna try to think of anything else to put between another mention of the gorgeous women…
I looked down at Gail, who was gazing at me, her eyes shining. “Remember what I said,” she told me. “If you want to take that job… I’ll go with you. Wherever it takes us.” She bit her lip. “NASDAQ isn’t actually in Baltimore, is it?”
I laughed, and shook my head. “Hey, guys, I know exactly where I want to be!”
Gail went out on a limb. “And where’s that?”
“I’ll show you.”
Whereupon I bent down and grabbed Gail around the waist. She squealed as I lifted her off the ground and threw her over my shoulder, but I’m pretty sure she never spilled her drink. I turned to face my brother and his girl, who were beaming back at me. “Pete… Reilly… there’s no place like home.” I patted Gail’s butt significantly with my free hand, then reached out and snagged the champagne bottle from Pete.
Then I spun around and made for my bedroom, taking note of the fistful of helium balloons Gail managed to grab and pull in with us.
As the door slammed behind us, Reilly looked after us, puzzled. “What’s Gail gonna do with all those helium balloons?” she asked.
Pete got a mischievous glint in his eye, and grabbed a handful himself. “C’mon. I’ll show you…”
The characters in the Denial of Service saga are all fictional. The city of Baltimore is based on an actual place in North America, where the time is always 6:42. The city of San Diego is also based on an actual place in North America, which seems to be as wonderful as depicted in these stories, but whose denizens continually deny that they have ever seen or heard of a pair of detectives, brothers named Simon, who reputably work there.
Also fictional is the main character’s profession: There is, of course, no such thing as “IT”; the myth of such a profession was originally postulated by the Earl Standish Cloves in the sixty-ninth century, and it proved to be such a psychologically-rending concept that it somehow managed to be projected into the past by the more acutely telepathic members of the last of the human race, before they self-evolved into a hive-mind and left the planet to join the conscious legacy of the galaxy.
And finally, Starbucks was named after an angel who vanished once the colonists finally discovered Earth.