Authors: Daniel Suarez
signed Hu Linn Chi to a two-year contract as Lifestyles reporter,
. The move is seen as part of the network’s overall strategy to reach a younger, hipper, more ethnically diverse demographic.
nderson was nearing forty minutes on the stair climber. Her work-out music mix drowned out everything except the pain. The sweat and the rage poured from her body.
How could they replace her? She wasn’t old. Not yet.
She kept driving forward.
The Bay Club was pricey and exclusive, filled with high-powered business types and trophy wives. More than once she thought she saw them whispering and pointing. Her professional demise was in the trades. She burned with humiliation.
Without another network-level job, she couldn’t afford this gym, much less her condo. Her credit card balances kept her driving forward, legs burning.
She had saved nothing. She had been projecting an image of success. The reality of her modest roots was something she’d tried to hide even from herself. Her artificial world was coming down around her ears. They’d call it vanity. No one would understand that it was more than that. It was ambition. It was a willingness to risk everything. Wasn’t that admirable?
Anderson’s cell phone lit up and vibrated on the tray in front of her. She stopped and pulled her earbuds out. She steadied her breathing and considered not answering it. It vibrated again.
It could be Melissa with news of a job. She checked the display. The caller’s number was unknown.
Anderson let it ring one more time, then answered it. “This is Anji.”
It was a strangely clipped and measured voice. A woman. British.
“This is she.”
“Was that a yes?”
The sound was odd. It must be an overseas call.
I’m Anji Anderson. Who is this?”
There was a pause.
“I’m calling to let you know about a news story. A story that’s about to happen.”
“I don’t know how you got this number—”
“You just lost your job. I can give you a big news story. Are you interested?”
Anderson just stood there, trying to decide. What was this, some sort of telemarketing scam? Was it another stalker?
“I didn’t hear you say anything. Do you want the information? Just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
She tried to imagine what Christiane Amanpour would do. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“‘Okay’ is not ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You must understand before we continue that this is not a person. This is an interactive voice system. It can only understand certain things you say.”
Anderson hung up. Damned telemarketers.
Her phone rang again almost immediately. She let it go to voice mail.
She looked around for someone who might be staring at her. No one seemed to be watching.
Her phone beeped, and the text
appeared on her display. She stared at the text, waiting for the phone to ring again. It did not.
She speed-dialed her voice mail and put the phone to her ear, then pulled it away again and tapped in her voice mail password. Phone to ear once more.
The familiar computer voice said,
“You have…one…new message.”
The message played. It was that measured female British voice again.
“Anji, watch the news tonight. The biggest news story in the world is about to occur in Thousand Oaks, California. The next time I call, perhaps you’ll listen.”
Anderson saved the message. Should she tell someone? Should she call the police?
What if the voice was telling the truth? She thought about that again: what if it
telling the truth? She considered it some more, then grabbed her water bottle and hurried toward the locker room.
From: Eichhorn, Stanley J.
To: Patrol Officers; Major Crimes Unit; Bomb Unit
East County SD will assist the
in service of a
Sobol estate, 1215 Potrero Road
. Deputies on the second shift will be carried over until 6
this evening. Deputies assigned to the FBI search must arrive one hour early for a briefing in room 209.
members report to room 202 at 11
ebeck and Ross drove down Potrero Road, past the Arabian horse farms and neo-antebellum mansions set amid the rolling hills. It was warm and sunny now. California oaks shaded the road and clustered densely around wrought iron entrance gates flanked by white split-rail fences and stone walls. Most of the mansions were set back far from the road and hidden behind hills and hedges. The spicy scent of hay perfumed the air.
Ross studied the scenery. “Where are we going, Sergeant?”
“Sobol’s estate. The FBI is there.”
“I thought you were taking me back to my car.”
“I need you to show the FBI exactly what you showed me back there.”
“Look, they know where to find me if they have any questions.”
“That’s just it. I’m afraid they won’t. And I’m not sure that any of their forensics experts have played Sobol’s games before.”
The police dispatcher’s voice came over the radio. Sebeck grabbed the handset. “This is D-19. I’m 10-97 at 1215 Potrero Road. Out.” He looked to Ross. “We’re here.”
Sebeck turned left past two marked patrol cars guarding the open gates of a large estate. He nodded to the deputies standing nearby and rolled past them, heading down the long driveway flanked by lines of mature oaks. In between the trunks they caught glimpses of a fine Mediterranean villa some distance ahead. This wasn’t a modern replica. It looked like an authentic 1920s-era mansion with a cupola and slanting roofs capped in terra cotta tile. The mansion was set back about a thousand feet from the road, nestled in a copse of manzanita trees.
Sebeck nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t know there was so much money in computer games.”
“They generate more revenue than all of Hollywood.”
The driveway ended in a wide cobblestone courtyard flanked by a horse stable, a six-car garage, and what looked to be a guesthouse or office. The main house lay straight ahead with landscaped lawns opening the courtyard on either side. Through these openings Sebeck saw sweeping views of the estate grounds.
More than a dozen police vehicles were parked in the courtyard—FBI sedans, county patrol cars, a forensics van, an ambulance, and the bomb squad’s truck with a disposal trailer. But there was room to spare. The courtyard was large.
Sebeck pulled up behind a sedan with white government plates. He and Ross got out.
A couple dozen officers stood near the entrance to the main house. They were listening to Neal Decker addressing them from the steps leading up to the mansion’s heavy wooden door. It was a mix of county and local police, along with federal agents wearing blue windbreakers with the letters
stenciled on the back. It was impossible to hear what Decker was saying at this distance.
Nathan Mantz came up to Sebeck as he and Ross took in the scene. “Hey, Pete. You’re just in time.”
“How’d it go at the permit office?”
Mantz shook his head. “No permit pulled for the winch housing. The gate was installed by a big GC named McKenser and Sons. Licensed, bonded, legit. Nothing in the permit applications about a winch. I put a call in to McKenser’s office, and they’re checking their records.”
Mantz looked to Ross. “You’re that computer guy the Feds were holding.” He extended his hand. “Detective Nathan Mantz.”
Ross shook his hand. “Jon Ross. I was cleared, by the way.”
Sebeck kept his eye on the crowd of agents in the distance. “Yeah, it turns out Mr. Ross here is quite an expert—on a few subjects. I brought him out to the canyon scene, and he shed some light on things. I’ve got important information for Decker.” Sebeck pointed to Decker, who was addressing the troops. “What are the Feds up to?”
“They’re preparing to search the house. FBI bomb squad and forensics teams came up from L.A. Decker’s treating this as a hazardous search.”
Ross nodded. “He’s right. It is.”
Mantz gave him a curious look.
Sebeck jerked a thumb at Ross. “He thinks it’s Sobol, not somebody at CyberStorm. Now he’s got
Mantz nodded, impressed. “Really?”
Sebeck tore a page out of his small notepad and handed it to Mantz. “Nathan, do me a favor; here’s the manufacturer and serial number on the winch assembly. When we get back to the station, check with the factory to see if they have a record of the wholesaler they shipped it to. Let’s find out what else was purchased.”
“No problem.” Mantz pocketed the piece of paper.
Sebeck walked toward the gathered officers. Ross and Mantz followed. They passed three FBI agents preparing a tracked bomb disposal robot. Ross took a keen interest, peering over their shoulders as they tested the video cameras with a large remote control.
They were having problems. The operator smacked the handheld controller. “Try channel four. Is the picture any clearer?”
Sebeck tugged Ross along.
Decker was still addressing the troops. “…papers, computers, electrical components, tools. Virtually everything should be considered dangerous until the bomb squad marks a room as clear. If you find a device—”
Decker leaned down as agent Straub said something to him. Decker looked up again at the crowd. “Hang on. Is anyone else having radio problems?”
Most of the officers held up their hands and voiced in the affirmative.
Sebeck noticed a man in his fifties and a woman in her forties standing among the FBI agents. The two civilians looked pensive. Sebeck turned to Mantz.
Mantz responded. “The caretaker and the security guard. Husband and wife. Sobol’s widow lives in Santa Barbara. They separated before his death. Get this: she told them she couldn’t live in the house because she heard voices. They’re tracking her down as we speak. I was hoping she’d be here….” Mantz pulled a folded magazine page out of his jacket pocket. He unfolded it to reveal a photo of a tanned and beautiful blonde wearing a string bikini and stretched out on the wet sand of a tropical beach. “The widow Sobol. Miss New Zealand, 2001.”
Sebeck grabbed the page. “Holy shit.”
Ross leaned in. “Wow.”
Mantz grabbed it back. “Show some respect. She’s in mourning.” He folded it and put it back into his jacket pocket. “Sobol may have died of cancer, but I
envy the bastard.”
Sebeck was already walking toward the crowd of agents and officers. He waded through them, headed directly for Assistant Chief Eichhorn.
“Hey, Chief.” Sebeck stepped aside and gestured toward Ross. “This is Jon Ross—the computer consultant from Alcyone.”
Chief Eichhorn nodded toward Ross. “One of the guys the Feds brought in.”
“They cleared him this morning. I was bringing him back to Woodland Hills, and I stopped by the Pavlos scene to get serial numbers. Mr. Ross detected a wireless device there. He has some pretty mind-blowing theories about how Sobol’s doing all this. I think Decker should talk to this guy.”
“Pete, the FBI brought experts in from L.A. and Washington.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how many of them have spent serious time playing in Sobol’s games. Mr. Ross has.”
“I can’t vet Mr. Ross’s skills—no offense—can
“Somebody technical should listen to him.”
Suddenly the FBI robot crew leader stepped between them and called up to Decker on the patio. “The robot’s a no-go, Neal. There’s signal interference. This guy probably has spread spectrum radio towers or something inside.”
Decker looked around. “Should we have the city cut power to the house?”
The lead operator conferred with the other two, then looked up to Decker. “The computer forensics team will want to keep the power on—otherwise they might lose computer memory evidence.”
Decker nodded vigorously. “Of course…I knew that.” He spoke softly with agents Straub and Knowles. After a moment he looked up again and announced, “Okay, we go to plan B. The bomb squad goes in with fiber optics. Guerner, get your crew ready.”
Three heavily padded men with high Kevlar collars, bulletproof helmets, and plastic toolboxes moved through the crowd. The officers made way for them.
Decker motioned with both arms. “Let’s move it back behind the vehicles, people!”
The crowd of officers moved back through the parked cars and gathered on the far side. Decker followed them.
Sebeck gave a look to Chief Eichhorn, then approached Decker. “Agent Decker, I’ve got important information from the canyon scene.“
“Let me resolve this first, Sergeant.” Decker tried his radio again and then conferred with the bomb squad.
Sebeck leaned on a nearby car hood and looked to Ross. “If Sobol is behind the murders, we should find some evidence of it here.”
Ross looked around. “Look, the FBI knows where to reach me, Sergeant. I really just want to get back to my hotel and salvage my client list.”
“Not until I get you in front of Decker.”
Agent Andrew Guerner was proud of his team. Rick Limon and Frank Chapman had served with him in the FBI Explosives Unit through four years and scores of bomb calls in the U.S. and abroad—real ones and hoaxes. Among them they had thirty-five years of experience. As a demining expert with the 101st Airborne, Guerner had extensive field experience in demolitions, booby traps, improvised explosive devices, and cell phone detonators. He’d cleared mines from Bosnia to Iraq and spent two years as an explosives instructor at Quantico. His companions had military experience with Special Forces and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. It was a top-notch crew.
Decker’s briefing laid out the details of the two earlier killings—and that this Sobol guy was some kind of genius. Guerner clucked his tongue inside his helmet. He’d seen a lot of clever devices in his day. They were all sitting in his lab, defused.
He turned to his partners and nodded. Limon and Chapman nodded back. Far behind them, the gathered officers gave the thumbs-up sign. Guerner started by taking the fiber optic snake out and flipping up his visor. He looked for a gap wide enough to slip it under the mansion’s front door. It was a tight seal. Looked like an authentic Spanish mission door. Too bad.
He motioned to Limon, who leaned forward and drove a hole through it with a battery-powered drill.
Guerner fed the snake through the hole and put his eye to the lens. He turned the snake this way and that, examining every angle of the room beyond the door.
Christ, that’s a nice floor.
Probably Venetian marble. He’d just laid ceramic tile in his downstairs bathroom at home, and he had a greater appreciation of these things now. He examined the twin staircases curving down from a single landing above the foyer. There were three ground-floor doorways, not including the front door. The foyer was probably twenty feet deep and thirty feet wide. The millwork was nicely done. Right down to the baseboards.
He moved back and gave a hand signal to Limon, who stepped forward with a frequency detector.
Limon moved the detector along the doorjamb and the face of the door itself. He watched the LCD readout intently. “This thing’s going nuts.” He pulled it away from the door and just held it there. “It’s still going nuts. I’m getting signals on all frequencies.”
For a moment Guerner considered using an explosive sheet to blast an opening through the door, but the antique oak was reinforced with black iron bands and was probably several inches thick. Power saws would also be tricky. Sparks from cutting the iron might set off fire detection systems. “Got the caretaker’s key?”
Chapman leaned forward and placed it in Guerner’s heavily gloved hand. He was surprised by the key’s weight. You could break a window with it. He examined it closely: a straight brass rod with a crystal embedded on its end. Or was that a diamond? He looked at the lock. Custom. The mechanism was most likely attuned to the precise vibrating frequency of the crystal when subjected to an electrical current. Some sophisticated shit.
He looked to his partners. “Window.”
They moved down to the nearest large window. It was off to the right about fifteen feet. Guerner peered through the glass. Beyond lay a living room with a high, beamed ceiling, stucco walls, and a large fireplace. Tall bookshelves lined the walls. A sofa and authentic-looking mission furniture were placed tastefully about the room. He spotted at least two motion sensors in the upper corners near the ceiling. Sprinkler caps dotted the ceiling as well. It made sense, this far from the road. It also meant there was an emergency fire pump or a fire department hookup outside. He didn’t remember seeing that in the blueprints.
He kept looking through the window. “Limon. Are there sprinkler heads shown on the blueprints?”
Guerner heard his partners flipping through the plans.
“Damnit. The plans aren’t accurate.” He looked closely at the edges of the window frame. He shined a Maglite into the corners. No visible sensors, but he knew it was alarmed. Decker had ordered Guerner to treat the place as a potential death trap. In light of the electrocution at CyberStorm, Guerner intended to. He considered the front door key again, then led his team back to the front door.
“The caretaker deactivated the alarm and used her front door key just this morning without incident. I say we do the same.” He looked to the other two.
Limon and Chapman nodded.
Limon handed him a short pole with a gripping claw on the end. Guerner took it and fitted the key onto its end. He extended his arm and, using a steady hand, inserted the key into the lock. There was no need to turn it; it emitted a loud
. He let go of the key and used the pole to depress the lever doorknob. He took a deep breath, then nudged it inward. It opened very smoothly for such a large door.
They peered inside. Limon tried to get a frequency reading again, while Chapman pulled an aerosol can from his toolbox. Chapman looked to Guerner, who nodded. Chapman sprayed a smoky mist evenly into the foyer doorway.
All three men scanned the smoke-filled air for laser beams. Nothing.
Guerner gave the hand signal to advance.
He was first through the door, prodding ahead with the pole. He slowly skirted the edge of the foyer and looked around the room. It was gorgeous. His partners followed him inside. Limon slipped a plastic wedge underneath the front door to keep it open.