Authors: Daniel Suarez
He looked back at Ross. “Okay. I do want answers. For one: why on earth should I believe anything you say? If you were the mastermind behind the Daemon hoax, then, of course, you’d have a copy of that video. It doesn’t prove anything.”
“But why would I risk my neck to come down here to show it to you? What would I gain?”
Merritt tumbled it around in his mind, looking for the angle. He couldn’t see one, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. “Then where the hell did you get it?”
“It was screened on the secret altar of the Dark Faction in the Kingdom of Cifrain.”
Merritt just stared at him.
Ross noticed the look. “Don’t
cops play online games? Cifrain is the largest kingdom in Sobol’s online computer game
What you’re looking at here, Agent Merritt, is a recruitment video.”
“A recruitment video.” Merritt said it matter-of-factly.
He recalled the news reports at the time of the estate siege. The Feds had shut down
CyberStorm relaunched it in China—and the lawsuits were still pending. But the game rocketed in sales after the crisis. The free publicity couldn’t have hurt.
Merritt remembered screen shots. He was thinking of the possibilities for a secret organization—meeting in the dark corners of an imaginary world.
“You’re saying that the Daemon is recruiting people inside a computer game? Recruiting them for what?”
“That’s the big question.”
“And how did you manage to get your hands on this video?”
Ross grinned. “Because I’m
. I was good enough to attract the notice of the Daemon. And I successfully navigated the Ugran—the death course.”
“If this Daemon existed, why would it care that you were good at a game? So what? It just means you have lots of time on your hands….”
Ross raised his eyebrows and waited.
It suddenly dawned on Merritt. “…which is the case for most misfits.” Merritt was starting to see the devilish logic in it. Wasn’t Sobol famous for devilish logic? Hadn’t Merritt seen it at his estate?
Ross slid the DVD player back into his cheap attaché case. “The Daemon tested my knowledge of cryptography and networked systems. I was shown the video to establish the veracity of the Daemon’s claims. The entire estate siege was captured by Sobol’s security cameras. He has a clickable presentation in the inner sanctums of his online world. It shows every moment of the siege, from inside and outside the house. For the typical black-hat hacker, this video establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Daemon is authentic.”
Merritt was shaking his head, but not vigorously.
“In fact, this video has gone viral in the darknet. Among Daemon operatives you’re something of a larger-than-life hero, Agent Merritt.”
“For surviving the worst that Sobol could throw at you. You’re darknet-famous.”
“What’s a darknet?”
darknet. Imagine a network, like the Internet, but more sophisticated and much more exclusive, populated only by humans the Daemon has recruited.”
Ross changed the subject. “In any event the Daemon detected my video applet, and I was ejected before I could capture the whole thing. If it knew my real name and address, I suppose I would be dead now. But it doesn’t know my real name. No one does. And no one ever can.”
Merritt wasn’t thinking about calling for backup anymore. What if Ross was telling the truth? Far from being over, something might just be starting. Something terrible. He looked up at Ross. “I’ll need to see more evidence.”
“That can be arranged.” He stood and motioned for Merritt to follow him. “Walk with me.”
Merritt struggled to his feet and limped after Ross as he headed off through the park.
“I’m innocent, Agent Merritt. So is Peter Sebeck.”
“The detective?” Merritt remembered the local cop who had been convicted in the conspiracy. “He’s on death row.”
“Yes. That’s partly why I’m here.”
“So that’s the angle; you’re here to free your partner.”
“For godsakes, who would be smart enough to steal a couple hundred million dollars, but then stupid enough to wire the money to tax havens controlled by Western intelligence agencies? Why would Sebeck keep fake passports in safe deposit boxes under his own name? Sobol stole Sebeck’s identity.”
Merritt smirked. “And this Daemon stole your identity, too, I imagine?”
Ross shook his head. “No. Sobol didn’t anticipate me, and his Daemon still doesn’t know who I am. But it’s trying to find out—because I’m the only one fighting it.”
Merritt regarded him. “So, who are you, Mr. Ross?”
“I already told you, no one—”
“I don’t want your name. I want to know who you
They walked on for a while in silence, Ross considering the question. Before long he turned to Merritt. “I came here on an H1-B visa.”
“A foreign tech worker?”
“Yes. I was brought in for Y-two-K remediation and stayed through the Internet bubble. They billed us out as expert developers to large multinational corporations at two hundred and twenty dollars an hour.”
“Who billed you out?”
“The Russian mafia.”
Merritt let out an involuntary laugh.
Ross sighed. “There was a lot of money sloshing around back then—and a lot of Russian tech talent. An illegal trade developed.”
Merritt’s instinct was to keep laughing. Except he couldn’t think of any particular reason why it couldn’t be true. It seemed all too possible. Was he being naïve again?
Ross urged Merritt to keep moving. “We developed secure e-commerce sites and Web solutions. Pound for pound, we probably pulled in more revenue than prostitutes—plus, the money didn’t need to be laundered.”
“Get to the part where you become an identity thief.”
“The tech bust. There was a falling-out between some of our handlers toward the end. I took advantage of the confusion to disappear. Most of my compatriots were brought back to the Russian Federation, where I assume they are still in servitude to this day. I stole an American identity—a Mr. Jon Ross. He had a suitable academic background for my purposes.”
“Where did you learn how to do that?”
“I worked on a lot of credit card systems and projects for various state governments. I learned how the systems work, and I created a place for myself within them.” He looked up at Merritt. “I just wanted my freedom, Agent Merritt. I never stole from Mr. Ross. In fact, he sold me his identity, and I substantially improved his FICO score.”
“How is it you speak English so well? You sound like you’re from Ohio.”
“My father worked with the Russian consulate here in D.C. during the Cold War.” Ross pointed toward the Potomac. “I grew up in Fairfax.”
Merritt kept shaking his head—but then, he didn’t know what to believe.
Ross grew somber. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were recalled to Russia. My father was murdered by Communist hard-liners in the 1992 coup attempt.”
Merritt searched for signs of dissembling—rapid facial movements, fluttering of the eyes. Ross displayed only a wistful calm. A melancholy.
In a few moments Ross brightened. “Well, that was a long time ago.” He gestured to the government buildings around them. “I have always held a deep admiration for the founding fathers of your republic. Your Constitution and your Bill of Rights were an incredible gift to mankind. Although lately America appears to have strayed from the path set forth by its founders.”
Merritt regarded him with some annoyance. “Well, that’s swell of you to emerge from the wreckage of Communism to tell us
strayed from the true path. That means so much, coming from an admitted thief. And your theory about the Daemon would also be great, except for the mountain of evidence pointing straight at Detective Sebeck, and Cheryl Lanthrop, and
Ross tried to talk, but Merritt steamrolled onward. “Sebeck
to having an affair with Lanthrop. She was the same person who pulled millions out of offshore banks before the funds were frozen.”
Ross shook his head. “Sobol could have stolen her identity, too.”
Merritt was nonplussed. “There’s bank camera video of her withdrawing funds. She was a medical executive in a position to betray Sobol.”
“Sobol had a controlling interest in that MRI company. He could have placed anyone he wanted there.”
“Well, she conveniently turned up dead in Belize, so I guess we’ll never know. And you—or someone working with you—probably put the bullet in her head. Or did a computer do that, too?”
“She was killed four months ago. By then the Daemon had people working for it. Namely, the criminal rings running online gambling and pornography—very dangerous people. Take my word for it.”
“Right. I’m sure you can figure out a way to work in alien abduction and crop circles, too.”
“I’m not an idiot, Mr. Ross—or whatever your name is. You had every motive and every capability of killing Lanthrop, Pavlos, Singh, and the others. You had tens of millions of motives—all of them currently stuck in frozen bank accounts.”
“If I did all that, why would I have come within miles of this case? Why would I have assisted Sebeck at all?”
“Because you’re vain. Or so smart you think everyone else is stupid.”
“The video Sobol sent to Sebeck—”
“That e-mail was analyzed and determined
to be Sobol, and the only person who ever spoke to Sobol on the phone was Sebeck. The message from Boerner left on Sebeck’s voice mail? Also not Sobol. Then there’s the Hummer at the estate that tried to kill everyone
you and Pete Sebeck. What am I leaving out, Mr. Ross?”
Ross looked Merritt in the eye. “Pete Sebeck is innocent. So am I.”
“Well, if you guys didn’t commit the murders and the embezzlement, then I’m supposed to believe Sobol did?”
“Why would Sobol throw away tens of millions of dollars just to frame Sebeck?”
“To make everyone believe the Daemon doesn’t exist.”
“And what would that accomplish?”
“If you don’t believe something exists, you won’t try to stop it.”
Merritt halted. It had a nasty, effective simplicity—an ant climbing through the chinks of his armor. There was no ignoring it. He pondered it for a few more moments. “The murders, the stock swindle, they were all just the beginning of something bigger?”
Ross didn’t even look at Merritt. “I know it for a fact.”
“For the sake of argument, let’s say the Daemon exists. If Sobol didn’t want anyone to stop his plan, then why would he make the Daemon famous to begin with?”
“To create a global brand. One that is instantly recognizable. One that will rally the disaffected to his cause. Worldwide.”
“And what cause is that?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Merritt limped along silently.
“Agent Merritt, I know this much: the Daemon is growing in power. It’s not visible yet, but soon it will show itself. When it does, bad things will happen.”
Merritt glanced around again to see if anyone was watching. No one nearby. He turned back to Ross. “Turn yourself in, Jon. I’ll do everything I can—”
Ross shook his head. “If I get locked in a cell and news of my capture is sent through the wrong e-mail server, I’m as good as dead.”
“We have a witness protection program—”
“Don’t even try.”
“What about going to the media?”
“The Daemon has infiltrated the media, Agent Merritt.”
Merritt rolled his eyes. “How the hell does a computer program infiltrate the media?”
“News organizations use data systems to prioritize, track, and prepare stories. The last thing we want to do is get this into the news. Even before it reaches the airwaves, the Daemon will know about me. That is, if the story ever reaches the airwaves.”
“Now I’m supposed to believe the Daemon controls the media?”
“Controls, no. Influences, yes. There are only five major media companies in the world. It doesn’t take a lot to influence content—particularly if you are inside their systems and you have secured key people.”
Merritt was still shaking his head.
Ross looked uncomfortable. “I’ve stayed too long.” He started heading for a nearby bus stop.
Merritt limped after him. “You said you were going to show me evidence of the Daemon. I’m not letting you out of my sight until you do. I’ll start howling bloody murder if you try to leave.”
“I have irrefutable proof that the Daemon exists. But you have to trust me—”
“The hell I do.”
“Why would I risk everything to come talk to you, and then never contact you again? I
something from you.”
Merritt laughed ruefully. “It’s my help now? The nads on you…”
“I need you to get a message to Dr. Natalie Philips at the NSA.” Ross handed Merritt a piece of paper. “I can be reached at this e-mail address. At least for a while.”
Merritt glanced at it. An inscrutable e-mail address consisting of random numbers and letters was printed neatly on it. “Why don’t you contact her yourself?”
“Let’s just say she’s unlisted. But you can probably find her. Tell her that she can get in direct contact with me at that e-mail address. Tell her that I found the back door in Sobol’s game. If she doubts my identity, tell her that I was there when Sobol phoned Sebeck at the funeral.”
Merritt saw a policeman walking along the Mall not far away. He squeezed the piece of paper in his hand. Then sighed and turned back to Ross. “I want something, too.”
“Give me that DVD.”
Ross popped the DVD out of the player and then hesitated. “Agent Merritt, I wouldn’t watch this if I were you. Your squad burns to death on camera. It’s very disturbing.”
Merritt hesitated, too. His hand wavered. Then he took it. “They say you’re a master con artist. I promise you: if you caused the death of my men, I’ll hunt you down. No matter how long it takes.”
Ross met his gaze. “I would expect no less.”