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Authors: Eliot Peper

Cumulus (19 page)

BOOK: Cumulus
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He clicked away from the protest feeds and back to his latest research project. Huian had tasked him with finding out who was behind that anonymous blog post, and he had spent the last day and night working back through a series of digital clues to identify the undisclosed author.

The hunt had proved surprisingly challenging. Whoever posted the essay knew their cybersecurity. They had used TOR and dozens of straw man accounts to obscure all of the originating IP addresses and servers involved. That might have put them out of reach if Graham were operating on his own. But he had all of Cumulus at his fingertips, and his root access gave him insights into the plumbing of the internet that not even the NSA could match. Coffee and CTC had fueled his obsessive pursuit until he had identified that the article had been posted from a warehouse in West Oakland known as the Compound.

The Compound was the headquarters of Frederick O’Livier, the NBA-star-turned-mafioso who had so adeptly turned the murder of his girlfriend into a political hot potato. Graham remembered standing in Huian’s office, describing Sara Levine and the threat her lawsuit posed to Cumulus.
Jesus, Graham. Is she fucking right now? Is this how you get off?
When he had pulled up the live feed from her phone, the grunts and moans of intercourse had piped over Huian’s speakers. He snorted. Frederick must have been on top of her, pumping away. A day later, Graham had put two bullets into her right in the middle of the bitch’s living room.

The best part was that Sara had let him in the door herself. He had been feeding her the information she needed to make a case against Cumulus, and so when he proposed meeting at her place to reveal his identity, she had enthusiastically accepted. Civilians could be so stupid. She was used to dealing with whistleblowers and disgruntled employees, not professionals. She was trying to set up Cumulus without realizing that she was the one being set up.

Now, her capo boyfriend was abetting the Slummer protest to leverage some kind of advantage out of her killing. Revenge for his fuck-buddy was one thing. But even better if it gave him another piece of ammunition in the ongoing skirmishes with other gangs and politicians that he must be constantly involved in. Plus, it was the perfect opportunity to unify his base of Slummers in outrage over an injustice suffered by an upstanding member of the community. No wonder he sponsored the blog post. It was ideal propaganda that played right into the resentment that all Slummers felt at a system that seemed to lock them out at every turn.

Let Frederick make his gambit. Graham didn’t mind. This kind of anarchy afforded Graham more leeway for making aggressive moves, stratagems that would otherwise be too risky. When everyone’s eyes were glued to news feeds, they weren’t watching their own backs. But that would be for later. Right now, the demonstrations had already offered him something extremely valuable. He now had the opportunity to solidify Huian’s trust. When things looked like they were getting out of control, she had turned to him for counsel and support. This was the perfect time to demonstrate the efficacy of his methods by delivering exactly what she wanted. She would have yet another proof point that when he made a promise, he delivered. He was her lifeline now that she was becoming ever more personally and professionally isolated. The alienated crave human connection more than anything else. Graham would be her connection, and she would become his puppet. And if the carrot didn’t work, he had been sharpening a special stick just for her.

A notification pinged, and Graham clicked over to another tab. Perfect. The semantic pattern recognition check was complete. He had taken the text of the blog post and run it through a set of algorithms built to identify the unique combination of markers that every writer left in their compositions. Grammatical oddities. Turns of phrase. Word choice. Variance in sentence and paragraph length. Unusual usage. Stylistic bent. Punctuation habits. Given a large enough sample, writing was as identifiable as a fingerprint. Noms de plume be damned.

A list of articles populated his screen. He clicked through and scanned them in order. My, oh my, the previously anonymous author was a prolific fellow. He had penned features in major magazines, investigative reports for think tanks, personal essays taking a populist stance on various political issues, and hundreds of blog posts. Henok Addisu was a busy man. Three years ago, he had even written a long-form profile on Frederick O’Livier for the
New York Times Magazine.
The story focused more on O’Livier’s efforts at community engagement than on his criminal enterprise. Might Frederick, sensing a kindred spirit, have asked him to assist with this delicate and provocative exposé?

Graham pulled up all the background he could find on Henok. Data flashed across his screen. Photos that ran from when he was a child all the way up to the present. Résumé, job, and educational history. Medical and financial information. Living and dead family members. Closest friends and affiliates ranked by proximity and depth of social media engagement. Graham didn’t try to read everything. He skimmed as quickly as he could, and tried to let a picture of Henok form in his mind. First-generation American born to Ethiopian immigrant parents. A skilled reporter who was frustrated with the lack of vision of his newsroom editorial bosses. Graham could identify with that. Henok tried working for a few lower-tier outlets only to discover that while they were willing to offer creative freedom, they didn’t have the resources to let him pursue real stories. Eventually, he hung up his spurs and jumped over to the public relations dark side to help Frederick O’Livier, a previous interviewee, manage his reputation. Once in a while, he was able to pick up the pen to draft articles that furthered the interests of his employer.

Henok had no idea how much trouble he was in. He probably thought it was ever so clever how they had purged the article of anything that might identify him. Graham shook his head. The kid had a long way to go before he became a hard target. It was almost cute. Almost.

Time to take a peek into Henok’s world.

Graham tunneled through Cumulus to locate Henok’s phone. A satellite map zoomed in. North America. West Coast. California. Bay Area. Oakland. The Compound. No surprises there. Cameras from drones in nearby airspace gave Graham multiple angles on the building. Murals covered the walls. Armed guards stood at every gate. A pack of dogs roamed the asphalt no-man’s-land between the building and the barbed-wire fences surrounding it. This guy got to work early—it was just before
7
a.m.

Graham played the live feed from the phone itself. Two windows popped up on his screen, views from the front and back cameras. Both were completely black. It took Graham a moment to digest. It was either in a pocket, or the cameras were blocked somehow. The GPS indicated that the phone was right in the middle of the warehouse. The audio cut in but sounded muffled, nothing but indistinct voices. Cranking up the volume didn’t help. He triangulated for other phones in the vicinity. All muffled. Damn. They must be using security precautions. Layering audio feeds from the nearby phones on top of each other, he eliminated all sounds that didn’t fall into the human vocal spectrum to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Knitting the clean files together, he cranked up the volume again. Gotcha.

“—ready for this?” Automatically transcribed words flowed up Graham’s screen as he heard a man’s voice.

“As ready as we’ll ever be,” said a female voice. “Frederick’s deployment teams have nearly all reported in. It took us all night to distribute and put up, but we’ve got as much coverage as we’re going to get in every format we could dream up.” Her tone had a hint of wonder. “It still blows my mind that this kind of thing is even possible.”

The man chuckled in a way that confirmed the sense of awe. “When Frederick sets his mind to something, he goes all in. I guess you don’t become an NBA champion by relying on half measures.” The voice-recognition software confirmed that this was Henok speaking. Got him. “Given how much of a splash yesterday’s post made, I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen once this gets out. I’ve got to say, when you told me about the pictures yesterday, I had no idea they were going to constitute a story as big as their subject. I officially retract any fun I poked at your retro equipment. I guess that classics are classic for a reason.”

Graham’s pulse accelerated. What were they talking about? A new post? What could that mean? Were they going to release a follow-up to yesterday’s incendiary story? If so, what would it be about? He forced himself to take a deep breath. No matter how clever these kids thought they were, he was safe. They could write all the social justice rants they wanted to, but they would never be able to directly implicate him.

“Real women change their own oil.” Pride shown through her words.

“Then I’d make a terrible woman,” said Henok. Graham silently willed him to shut up. The software needed more samples from the woman before it could find a voice-recognition match. “Oh, and I’m going to demand a signed copy of one of those photos. I have a feeling I might be the first to ask for your autograph, but I won’t be the last.”

Graham’s brow furrowed. What photos? Pictures of Sara’s corpse, maybe? Why would that matter? Again, he forced himself to calm down. No photos of him were anywhere on the internet, nor could they be. He was probably the only human alive with essentially no online presence. Of course, he maintained various false identities that he could activate when needed. Those profiles had digital debris that verified their existences. But they were nothing but fluff. The Ghost Program was a damn-good security blanket. The NSA probably wouldn’t even be able to get past it.

“Only if you hand-write me a copy of your story.”

“With papyrus and quill, milady.” Their banter was painful.

“Will you hit publish already?” Voice recognition got a hit: Lilly Miyamoto.

Graham heard a tap.

“Done,” said Henok.

Curiosity piqued, Graham pulled up the URL of the first anonymous blog post. Sure enough, there was now a Part Two. He muted the audio surveillance feed so that he could read it without distraction. There might be some tidbits in here that he could use to his advantage. Because he had heard them publish it live, he would be one of the very first people to see the post. Maybe he’d contact Huian immediately afterwards to tell her about it. That would further the impression of omniscience he was making. Yes, that was a good idea. He’d report in after finishing it.

Graham began to read and the world disintegrated around him.

The article told the story of a friend of Sara’s who visited her the morning of the murder. The friend walked in the front door to discover the corpse and then saw a stranger leaving through the property’s side gate. It went on to relate Graham’s entire morning. The friend had shadowed him all the way to Corvel’s and related everything in excruciating detail. They claimed to have taken many pictures along the way. Unable to scan the photos, they had tried every means at their disposal to get them loaded online. Thanks to the Ghost Program, every attempt had been unsuccessful. Then they had broken into Cumulus remotely and accessed device data records to discover that Graham had been erased from all footage. Screen-captured video clips highlighted the inconsistencies left by the automatic Ghost Program edits. They had even deployed an open-source piece of pattern-recognition software called Mozaik to identify the variables targeted by Ghost Program algorithms. All of the code and raw results were shown as sidebars to the body of the article. Then the story referenced the previous day’s post to highlight how Sara had been investigating Cumulus and how much the company stood to gain from her death. It deduced that either Cumulus was complicit in the assassination and hiding the perpetrator, or that a professional killer had found a way to circumvent the system that society relied upon for security.

The story concluded by telling readers they could see it for themselves by using their phones to try to upload digital pictures of the thousands of prints that had been installed overnight on billboards, telephone poles, signs, flyers, and buildings around the Bay Area. It asked them to report and apprehend the man in the pictures. It asked anyone with the right expertise to continue their research into how this was possible and publicize the results. They would take down a digital conspiracy with analog weapons. They would find the murderer and ensure that Sara’s legacy of fighting for the dispossessed would live on.

Sick fascination forced Graham to read through to the very last word. He was paralyzed in the same way as when he’d watched the boy burn in the depths of the Malaysian rainforest, the binoculars melting into the charred husk of his adolescent corpse. He felt like the protagonist of a Kafka novel, unable to tear himself away from a nightmare spinning further and further out of control. Bile rose in his throat. His hands were shaking so hard that he knocked the cereal bowl and coffee mug off the desk. They shattered on impact, sending ceramic shards ricocheting across the floor.

If his cover was blown, he was completely fucked. This wasn’t some throw-away fake identity that he could ditch while he hopped on the next flight out of the country. He had played all his cards and seized the reins of power at Cumulus. You couldn’t just walk away once you’d won. That was unthinkable.

No, no, no. This couldn’t be real. His deepest fears were creeping out from his subconscious to perform a nightmarish shadow play. It was some sort of bad dream. Enough. Time to wrest himself from the clutches of sleep. He snatched a jagged piece of cereal bowl off the floor and dug the ragged edge into his opposite forearm. Pain exploded in a blinding white flash. But when his vision cleared, he was still sitting at his desk. He tried again, harder this time. Nerves screamed in protest, and blood pumped from the open gashes. But the blog post still glowed on the screen in front of him.

BOOK: Cumulus
7.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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