Authors: Daniel Suarez
Gragg could usually spot his quarry easily—the sexy girl with a guy she didn’t look particularly intimate with. A first date, or perhaps just dancing together. He avoided girls with a group of female friends and girls who weren’t having fun.
He soon found his target; the girl was gorgeous, perhaps seventeen, thin-waisted, but with a good rack shadowing her exposed midsection. Strands of glo-stick circled her belly and neck. It reminded Gragg of Mardi Gras, and that was a good sign. He motioned to a couple of security guards and moved toward her.
He timed it so he and the guards converged on the dancing couple. Gragg tapped the guy on the shoulder—which sent him twirling around defensively. Gragg held up two neck badges clearly marked A
Smiling, he looped one around the guy’s neck.
Few symbols have more power over the Western teenage mind than the All Area Access badge. The guy glanced at the uniformed security guards and evidently felt reassured.
Gragg, meanwhile, draped the badge over the laughing girl’s neck. Her cleavage glistened with sweat. Gragg leaned over and yelled into the guy’s ear. “Your girl is fabulous, man! She should be dancing on the top floor—not down here!” With that, Gragg slid a couple of pills into the guy’s hand and nodded his head toward the girl. He motioned for them both to follow and led them through the crowd as the burly security guards made a path.
They soon reached the base of a steel staircase leading up to the DJ tower. It was roped off and flanked by a couple of bouncers. Gragg leaned in close to one of the bouncers. “Tell me when she’s taken the hit!”
The bouncer knew the drill. He watched poker-faced as the young guy popped what he probably thought was ecstasy into the girl’s mouth. She washed it down with a swig of bottled water, laughed, then writhed with the pounding music. The bouncer nodded to Gragg. Gragg nodded back and the rope was withdrawn to let them pass.
As the boy passed by Gragg, Gragg leaned into his ear. “Play your cards right, man, and I’m gonna get you laid within the hour.” The guy smiled back and gave Gragg what the kid probably assumed was the universal “playas’” handshake.
Gragg watched them go. They were now in the holding pen—a controlled area where he could further reduce her inhibitions. The prostitutes there and Cheko’s men would make it all seem completely acceptable to ”go wild.” Gragg had successfully separated her from her support system. The rest should be easy. He was already erect in anticipation, but a little patience was required.
Gragg walked the perimeter for a good fifteen minutes before heading back to the holding pen. He found the girl dancing on the mid-deck with a crowd of perhaps twenty. Most of the women there were attractive and scantily clad—but these were Cheko’s whores and were of no interest to Gragg. The seventeen-year-old target was laughing as her date danced between women in g-strings. The girl was evidently flying high. On meth the laser lights, the trance music, and the writhing motion were said to be hypnotic. Accompanied by a surge of sexual arousal and perceived invulnerability. Or so Gragg had heard. He didn’t take drugs himself.
Gragg radioed the security guard in the DJ tower. He couldn’t even hear himself talk, but he knew the guard would hear. The guard looked out and saw Gragg wave his arm slowly, then point at the girl dancing nearby. The guard leaned over to Mix Master Jamal, and the DJ looked out at Gragg. He nodded and then snapped his fingers at the light board operator. Gragg leaned over to her date. “What’s your girl’s name?”
“You wanna see her tits?”
The guy stared for a second in dumb amazement. Then burst out laughing. “Hell yeah!”
Gragg spoke her name into the radio and moved forward. A spotlight shone down onto Jennifer, and the DJ’s voice came out like the booming voice of God, “Check out Jennifer! Is she hot or what?” A roar of lust arose from a thousand voices.
Jennifer laughed and looked back to see her date and those around her shouting encouragement.
The DJ’s voice. “Let’s see you move, baby!” The pounding bass moved back in, and she moved seductively to it. The other dancers moved away, and the laser lights enshrined her on the platform. The crowd surged in anticipation. Her eyes became wild with her potent sexuality. Each rhythmic gyration of her hips made a thousand guys howl. She was anonymous and powerful.
But Gragg was her new master. He looked back at Jennifer’s date, smiled, and nodded to the DJ.
The DJ’s voice boomed down again. “Lose the top!”
A thousand voices roared and took up the chant. The chant quickly fell in line with the music. “Lose-the-top! Lose-the-top!” Even the girls in the audience were cheering. Jennifer danced, soaking up the adoration. All eyes were on her body, screaming with lust. She was high enough that she didn’t mind, and it seemed such a small thing to please them all.
She first teased them by flashing her breasts, but that only drove the crowd wild for more. They knew they had her now; it was only a matter of wills. They took up the chant with renewed vigor. “Lose-the-top! Lose-the-top!”
When she pulled her top off and danced, breasts jiggling free, the roar of joy rattled the walls. They motioned for her to toss her top down, and she dangled it above the outstretched hands of the lustful mob. Someone managed to grab it from her, and it was soon torn to pieces. Jennifer laughed and tugged at the All Area Access badge around her neck. Girls around the room started flashing their breasts, sitting atop the shoulders of guys in the crowd.
The DJ cranked up the music again, and the party moved on. But Gragg moved in with one of Cheko’s men holding a digital video camera. Jennifer smiled as they filmed her dancing topless in front of a thousand people. Her young, toned body glistened with sweat.
Within a half hour, Jennifer was sitting on a sofa in the holding pen, sucking Gragg off while her date looked on in shock. But her date didn’t stop them. Gragg moaned while one of Cheko’s men videotaped her. He looked to Jennifer’s date. “You’re after me.”
When he ejaculated into her mouth, Gragg felt a rush of power and sexual release. This was his drug. Gragg didn’t like whores. He liked to turn women
whores. The feeling of power was every bit as pleasurable as his ejaculation—perhaps more so. The fact that he was making money off this girl by doing a live porn Web cast for Cheko’s Web site was even sweeter. She was being broadcast to the world, and the file would never go away. Gragg made sure he was never filmed above the waist.
As he moved away, he yelled, “Bukkaki!” And a dozen men surrounded her. She was already sucking on her date’s cock. The meth was working its magic on her as the cameraman zoomed in.
Gragg zipped up his pants and moved away, feeling the endorphins course through his body.
Heider suddenly appeared next to him, laughing. “You’re an evil man, Loki.” Heider handed him a bottle of water.
“At least I got laid tonight.”
Heider poked a finger into Gragg’s chest. “At least I don’t need a thousand people to orchestrate a blow job.” He looked back at the girl starting on another guy. “Is she gonna remember any of this?”
“Probably not. And even if she does, she won’t. If you know what I mean.” Gragg looked at his watch. “Listen, meet me back at the car at three
sharp. I’ve got to meet the Filipinos.”
Heider nodded absently, still watching the girl work.
Gragg punched his arm.
“I mean it. Meet me at the car at three
sharp—or you’ll have to bum a ride off the Albanian mob. Got it?”
“All right. I got it. Now if you’ll excuse me…” At that, Heider stepped away to join the circle of men.
, Gragg and Heider were back on the Katy Freeway heading east. Heider was leaning against the passenger door fucked up out of his mind.
“That MPEG video over the dance floor. It showed rams butting heads. Butting their heads! Their fucking heads!” He was weeping, but then suddenly erupted into uncontrollable laughter. He was apparently laughing about having just been crying.
Gragg focused on driving. He headed north and east for a half hour or so, then exited in a seedy industrial district amid rail sidings. They rattled along potholed streets. With each bone-shuddering bump, Gragg winced. The ground effects on his Si were going to get thrashed at this rate. He also felt like a prime car-jacking target in this industrial wasteland.
Yet, as he looked around the deserted factory streets, it didn’t look like a popular gang hangout. The streets were too broken and crisscrossed with railroad sidings for the street-racing scene.
Before long, Gragg found the street he was looking for. He turned down the dead end and parked next to a rusted chain-link fence topped with brand-new razor wire. It enclosed flatbed tractor-trailers in various stages of decay.
At the end of the street stood a brick factory building marked I
in faded paint. The windows near the roof glowed with fluorescent light from within, and the double doors near the loading dock were open wide, letting a wedge of light splay out across the weed-encrusted sidewalk. Signs in some Asian script covered the backs of both open doors. A couple of men in white aprons smoked out front, apparently on break.
Gragg turned off the car and looked at Heider’s dozing form. He quietly pulled a piece of paper from his own jacket pocket and glanced at the code number written on it in pen. He took his car keys from the ignition and carefully slipped them into Heider’s pocket. It wasn’t difficult. In fact, he hoped he could still rouse Heider, who was out cold.
He nudged him. No response. He shoved Heider. Then finally shook him. “Heider, man! Wake up.”
Heider awoke slowly, still high out of his mind. “What the fuck, man?”
“I need you to pick up the new encryption key from my contact. He’s in there.” He pointed.
Heider squinted and looked back at him like he was insane. “Fuck you, man. You go.”
“Heider. Take a look around you. I’m not leaving my car sitting out here—and you’ll fall asleep the minute I’m gone. You know what I put into this ride?”
“Well, then why the fuck did you park a mile away, asshole?”
“A semi was just in the loading dock.”
“I don’t know who your fucking contact is.”
“Just give them this code number.” Gragg handed him the piece of paper. “They won’t even ask who you are. You’re just picking up the code.”
Heider wavered fuzzily, trying to process what Gragg just said.
Gragg sighed impatiently. “Christ, Jase, why do I have to do everything? I arranged the business; I keep you supplied with new gear—and I got you laid tonight.”
Heider conceded this by nodding reluctantly.
“When are you gonna start pulling your weight, man?”
Heider squinted at the two dumpy middle-aged Asians smoking and chatting two hundred feet away.
Gragg pointed. “Oh, they sure look dangerous.”
“Fuck…all right. Just don’t do this shit to me without telling me first, man. I don’t like surprises.” Heider exchanged a last serious look with Gragg. Gragg just rolled his eyes. Heider sighed and got out.
Gragg watched Heider stagger down the street toward the lighted factory door less than a football field away. Once Heider was gone, Gragg grabbed his own backpack and quietly got out of the car. He slipped behind two Dumpsters and from the darkness watched Heider approach the men.
The Asian men watched impassively as Heider labored up to them. Heider said something and handed the piece of paper to the nearest guy. After reading it, the man pointed toward the open doorway. Heider walked through and stood silhouetted for a moment before one of the men walked in after him and shoved him forward. The other man scanned the street, threw his cigarette to the ground, and then walked inside—pulling the doors shut behind him. They closed with a resounding bang, leaving the street dark and quiet.
Gragg knelt down, shivering now in the cold autumn air. He waited for about a half hour before he heard the doors open again. Footsteps clacked across the pavement, heading his way. Gragg knew that Heider never wore anything that could remotely clack on pavement. So he hunkered down as a younger Filipino in slacks and a sport coat walked past the opening between the Dumpsters. Gragg heard his own car alarm chirp off, and the man got inside. He started the car up, raced the engine a bit, and then peeled off in a wild, squealing U-turn back down the street.
Gragg slumped down against the brick wall behind the Dumpsters. He felt the cold of the brick seep into his back.
Maybe he shouldn’t have hacked the Filipino’s Web server. Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone? How had they caught on?
Damn! They got my car.
Thank God it was registered under a false name.
Gragg sighed and took out his GPS receiver. He found the nearest cross street on the map, then flipped open his phone and selected a saved number. After a few rings, it picked up.
“Yeah, I need a cab.”
on Ross raced his Audi A8 sedan onto the Alcyone Insurance corporate campus, then quickly slowed down as he noticed several police cruisers and unmarked cars near the lobby doors. He turned down his music—a relentlessly pounding techno track—and motored at a more civilized speed past the squad cars. Interesting. No flashing lights, though.
Ross headed for the parking garage.
In a few minutes his voice was echoing across the granite-floored lobby as he approached the security desk. “Hey, Alejandro.”
Alejandro smiled. “Jon, my boy. How’re you doin’ tonight?”
Ross swiped his consultant’s badge and signed the after-hours access list. “What’s with the police cars?”
“Oh, there was a computer break-in. The cops are down in the data center.”
Ross stopped writing. He looked up. “A break-in?”
“Yeah. It’s something, what these people can do. It’s all computers nowadays.” Alejandro leaned closer to Ross. “Ted Wynnik was askin’ about you. I won’t tell nobody I saw you if you want to clear out.”
Ross finished signing in. He smiled. “Thanks, but not necessary. It was probably some twelve-year-old kid.”
Ross headed down the clean white corridor of B2. Soon he reached the accounting department’s data center and slid his badge through the reader. The door clicked open, and he moved briskly toward his office at the far wall. Then he slowed. The lights were on in his office. He forced himself not to stop and instead resumed a normal walking pace.
He opened his office door and was greeted by the sight of two severely groomed men in inexpensive suits and comfortable shoes sitting on the edge of his desk. One was a Latino, the other Caucasian, but they shared the same humorless expression. Hadi Sarkar, the night-shift data center supervisor, sat at Ross’s keyboard, pecking away behind them. He turned somewhat sheepishly to face Ross.
One of the clean-cut men reached into his jacket and withdrew credentials, which he flipped open. “Jonathan Ross?”
“I’m Special Agent Straub. This is Special Agent Vasquez. We’d like to ask you a few questions about last night. Your colleague, Hadi here, has been able to shed some light on things, but he tells us you’re the real expert.”
Ross glared at Sarkar and put his laptop case down on the desk. “I’m happy to help any way I can. What’s all this about?”
“You were present in Alcyone’s data center last night?”
“I was working under contract for another department, but Hadi requested my help. His development servers had become infected with what appeared to be a kernel rootkit.”
“And you have experience with computer viruses?”
Ross paused. He had to be careful here. “Look, I’m a database consultant. Computer security is part of my job. I know what I need to know.”
“Why did you make Hadi and his coworkers promise not to tell anyone about your help?”
“Because I was breaking the rules to help Hadi. That endangered my contract here. I made that clear to him.”
“So you were asking Hadi to lie on your behalf?”
“I was asking him not to tell people that I was doing his job.”
Sarkar jumped in. “I was requesting advice merely, Jon.”
Ross folded his arms. “Hadi, your exact words were that you had tried everything you could think of and wanted my help.” He turned back to Agent Straub. “A rogue process somewhere in his data center was broadcasting packets to the Web last night. Hadi couldn’t find it. The process was incredibly stealthy—possibly a kernel rootkit.”
Sarkar shook his head emphatically. “There is no way to hide the source of network traffic, Jon. I told you this.”
“Well, the test bed servers were definitely involved. Test servers are usually the weakest on security. They have beta software and they’re frequently reconfigured. So I had Hadi kill Icarus servers one through ten, and the packet broadcast stopped—even though it wasn’t supposed to be originating from there.”
Agent Straub nodded, taking notes. “So you knew right where to look, then….”
“That wasn’t my point.”
Agent Vasquez ignored the discussion and picked up the phone. He dialed while Ross glanced at the computer screen. Sarkar had the Event Viewer maximized. “I see we’re starting the hunt on my machine.”
Straub slid his credentials back into his suit pocket. “We haven’t ruled out an inside job.”
“Of course. Forget the fact that I was the one who advised Hadi to shut that system down. Hardly something I’d do if I was the one running the exploit.”
“You might, if you realized it had been discovered. It seems convenient that due to your involvement, the hard drives were erased.”
Ross was poker-faced. “The rootkit destroyed the machine when I tried to shut it down. In any event, FBI forensics can reconstruct data from a wiped drive.”
Vasquez hung up the phone. “They want us in the main data center.”
As they moved down the hallway, Sarkar kept groaning softly and shaking his head. Ross didn’t take the bait. Sarkar finally muttered, “Jon, I had no choice but to tell them.”
“Hadi, I’ve been in this business long enough to know better.“ Ross knew that no good deed goes unpunished, and though he hadn’t technically done anything wrong, helping Sarkar out with his little problem could result in the loss of his contract with Alcyone. Or worse, he thought, eyeing their FBI escort.
“They were asking questions about what we did. This is the FBI, not human resources. They talked to us separately, and I knew that Maynard would mention you. Jon, what was I supposed to do? I do not wish to get deported.”
Ross grimaced. “I should have known better than to get involved, Hadi.”
“I am not a Muslim. I am a Hindu. You will tell them, won’t you?”
Ross didn’t respond.
Sarkar looked genuinely pained. “I am sorry, Jon.”
“Ted Wynnik probably called the Feds in to force Accounting’s hand and have my contract canceled. He doesn’t like having people down here who don’t answer to him.”
“Ted didn’t call the FBI, Jon.”
“Then who did? You?”
“No one did.”
Ross stopped walking. “What do you mean?”
“They came here on their own. Because of what the Icarus-Seven server did.”
Ross looked back to the FBI agents. Straub motioned for him to keep moving.
Just what have I gotten involved in here?
There were a lot of people in the data center. It was almost acceptably warm as a result. Sarkar’s boss, Ted Wynnik, leaned against a counter, glowering beneath thick eyebrows as he listened to two techs Ross hadn’t seen before. This was probably the A-team—the daytime shift. They looked at Ross with the special contempt reserved for young consultants.
Half a dozen uniformed Woodland Hills police officers were in here along with more FBI agents. They were talking with a network admin—a pear-shaped guy with bad skin. He was probably Maynard. Pear-shaped pointed at various server racks enthusiastically. At least someone was enjoying this.
As soon as Ross entered the room, everyone stopped talking and turned to face him. The sudden silence was almost embarrassing because Ross knew he had none of the answers they were looking for. He decided to ask the obvious question. “Anybody want to tell me what’s going on?”
All eyes turned to someone behind Ross, so he spun on his heel to face a trim man in a crisp suit. The guy looked like a fifty-year-old varsity quarterback. A leader of men.
“Mr. Ross. I’m Special Agent Neal Decker, L.A. Division. Do you know why we’re here?”
“Because of last night?”
Decker sized him up. It unnerved Ross that no one was talking.
But Decker was in no hurry. He finally placed his hand on a disconnected rack server sitting on the nearby counter. “They tell me this computer killed two men earlier today.”
The shock took a while to work through Ross. He had expected some sort of child pornography ring or a credit card scam. “Killed? How?”
“I was hoping you could help us explain that.”
“Why on earth would you think that?”
Decker smiled good-naturedly. “A lot of people are suspects right now. But once we get the people in here to help us interpret the evidence, we’ll know more. In the meantime, we’d like to take you gentlemen in for questioning.” His gaze spanned the room to include all the men who were present during the incident.
A wave of dread washed over Ross. “We’re not under arrest?”
“No. I’m asking you to voluntarily come in for questioning.”
Ross wondered what would happen if he said no. Of course, he couldn’t say no. What about a lawyer? “I must tell you, I’m just completely floored by this.”
“I’m certain you are.”
This guy was disconcertingly calm. He gave the impression that he knew more than he was letting on.
Just then a man appeared at the glass data center door. He was the linebacker to match Decker as quarterback. His casual confidence seemed to indicate he wasn’t FBI—the agents here were all keyed up in Decker’s presence. No, this guy was an outsider to them. The man rapped on the glass, and a Woodland Hills patrolman opened the door for him. The newcomer showed a badge and was let inside.
“I’m looking for an Agent Decker.”
Decker and the FBI agents turned and moved forward, hands extended. “Detective Sebeck. We spoke on the phone.” They shook hands. Decker turned to some of his crew. “Agent Knowles, Agent Straub, Detective Sergeant Peter Sebeck, Ventura County Major Crimes Unit. Detective Sebeck was heading the murder investigation up in Thousand Oaks.” Handshakes all around.
Then everyone turned back to Ross.
Sebeck pointed at him. “Who’s this?”
Decker leaned against the counter. “This is Jon Ross, one of Alcyone’s independent computer consultants. He designs their corporate data systems. Isn’t that right, Mr. Ross?”
“Certain systems, yes. Not this one.”
“Is he a suspect or a witness?”
Ross thought it was a good question.
Decker was calm as ever. “That depends.” He looked to Ross. “Tell me, Mr. Ross, why is it that no one at your home address has ever heard of you?”
Damn it to hell….