Authors: Daniel Suarez
r. Ross, help us understand this: You have no permanent address, and yet you’ve got nearly three hundred thousand dollars in liquid assets. Am I to believe you live with your parents?”
Jon Ross rubbed his tired eyes and tried to concentrate on the question—the same question they’d asked twenty different ways. The one they kept coming back to.
The taller FBI agent leaned in close. “Mr. Ross?”
“I’m a contract nomad. Ancient people followed caribou. I follow software contracts.”
The shorter agent stood next to a mirrored window and flipped through his notes. “You’ve been at Alcyone Insurance for what, two months now? Is that a long time for you?”
“Not particularly. Three or four is typical.”
“Your clients give us various physical addresses for your business. Kind of strange for a one-man corporation, isn’t it?”
Ross ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “You contacted my
? Are you trying to destroy my business?”
“Why are you concealing information from your clients?”
“I maintain contact addresses
through resident agents in several states. This is legal commerce. Why are you guys doing this to me? I was trying to help Hadi.”
“That doesn’t explain why you have a phony personal address.”
Ross sighed. “I had the fake address because society requires everyone to have a permanent home address.”
“Then why don’t you have one?”
“Because I don’t need one.”
Both agents were pacing again. The shorter one was the first to speak. “Single. No property. Do you pay all your taxes, Mr. Ross?”
“I’m a Delaware service corporation. I pay myself a reasonable salary, max out my 401(k), and take the remainder as corporate profits—minus travel and business expenses. And the corporation leases my car.” He hesitated. “Look, I didn’t do anything wrong. I was trying to help my client.”
The phone in the center of the table rang. The shorter agent grabbed it without saying a word. He listened. After a few moments he nodded slightly and looked at Ross with some surprise. “Understood.” A pause. “Yes.”
He hung up. “It looks like you’re off the hook, Mr. Ross.”
Neal Decker and three other FBI agents sat in the darkened training room of the Ventura County Sheriff’s headquarters intently watching a screen projection of Sobol’s MPEG video. Sebeck, Mantz, Burkow, and Ventura County’s assistant chief, Stan Eichhorn, watched alongside them. Aaron Larson ran the video off a laptop hooked to the department’s digital projector.
Sobol’s grainy image glowed on-screen. “…I want to take this moment to wish you luck, Sergeant—because you’re going to need it.”
The image froze, and Sobol’s audience whistled and broke out into raucous discussion. Larson brought up the lights, revealing Agent Decker staring intently at the blank screen. He finally came around and stepped to the front of the room.
“Gentlemen, this changes things.” Decker looked to Agent Straub. “When does the computer forensics team get in, Tom?”
“They’re already en route from Oxnard Airport.”
“Get them over to CyberStorm as soon as they arrive. Where are the Alcyone Insurance computers?”
“Put on a plane to D.C. last night.”
“Good. Hopefully they’ll get something off the drives. In the meantime, have the forensics team comb through the CyberStorm network. I want it sniffed for booby traps, and then we need to shift our focus to Matthew Sobol.” He pointed to the projector. “Get forensics a copy of this video file.”
Larson perked up. “I burned copies onto CD. I can make more if you need them.”
Decker held up his hands. “That brings up an important point. I want absolute secrecy concerning this case.” He looked to the local police. “That means no talking to friends and relatives, and absolutely no talking to the media. We need to control what information gets out there.”
Sebeck pointed at the screen. “Has anyone heard of this Sobol guy?”
Decker didn’t say anything. He just fished through folders on a nearby tabletop and then slid a folder over to Sebeck. It was labeled M
“What, you already knew about him?”
“Died Thursday. We thought he might be another victim, but he died of brain cancer. He’s been ill for years. He was a company founder. Had access to everything. It all fits. Except for the motive.”
Straub picked up from there. They were like an old married couple. “His assistant said Sobol suffered from dementia. He was paranoid and secretive. It got worse as his illness progressed. He finally had to stop working last year.”
Sebeck flipped through the folder. It was filled with medical files and psychology reports. “Did he have the know-how to build that booby trap over at CyberStorm?”
Decker and Straub exchanged knowing glances. Decker took the folder back. “Sobol scored 220 on an IQ test in 1993. The NSA tried to recruit him out of Stanford for his dissertation on polymorphic data encryption. Instead he started a game company and made millions by his early twenties. He was plenty capable.”
Sebeck knew he could either accept it or say something. He pondered it for several more moments before he decided to make an ass of himself by speaking up. “What about the phone call from that fictitious FBI agent? There’s someone else involved in this.”
“We’ve got good technical people, Sergeant. Let’s see what they find. But I’ll need wiretaps on your cell, office, and home phones.” He turned to Straub. “Let’s also get Sebeck’s ISP to forward all incoming e-mail to the forensics unit. Sergeant, can I expect your cooperation?”
Sebeck nodded. “Yeah. Let me tell my wife and kid, but yes, of course.”
Straub wrote on a small notepad. “I’ll need your signature on some paperwork.”
Sebeck drummed his fingers on the table impatiently. “Look, I don’t doubt that this Sobol guy was brilliant, but I’m not convinced that that grainy video is Matthew Sobol. If he was such a genius, he sure as hell could take a clearer video than that. I can’t even make out his face all that well.”
A murmur of agreement swept through the room.
Decker was unperturbed. “We’ll have it analyzed by experts.”
Sebeck still pushed. “I think a CyberStorm employee is committing these murders and trying to pin it on this dead guy. The killer obviously has access to CyberStorm’s network, and from what I’ve seen at CyberStorm, they’ve got a lot of clever people. I think this is a setup.”
“You and I are not technical experts, Sergeant. Let’s see what the forensics team finds.” Decker looked at the assembled officers. “Okay, listen up. We’ve got to get our hands on more facts. Chief Eichhorn, I’m going to need your cooperation and some of your resources.”
Eichhorn nodded. “Anything you need.”
“Matthew Sobol had an eighty-acre estate near here. We should have the search warrant in an hour or so. I’m going to need traffic and perimeter control.”
Larson was still absorbing the first sentence. “
Decker nodded. “Yes. Our Mr. Sobol had considerable assets. A net worth of around three hundred million.”
Whistles all around.
“Detective Sebeck might be right; this case might involve others, but we’ll need to follow up on the Sobol lead. Vasquez, I need to know about any disagreements or professional rivalries Sobol might have had with the two victims. I want more detailed interviews with the victims’ families. I also need to know anyone else who might have had a run-in with Sobol. Let’s get someone at NCAMD to do a work-up on him. Straub, I want you over at CyberStorm with the forensics team. Keep me apprised of any new information.”
Decker grabbed a written report from a nearby table and turned to Sebeck. “Sergeant, there’s critical information missing from your report on the first murder scene. Specifically the cable winch. We need the manufacturer, model, serial numbers—”
Sebeck stopped him. “I pulled the evidence unit onto the CyberStorm scene after the second murder. We were going to follow up.”
“Now’s your chance.” Decker tossed the report and a plastic bag containing a gate key and remote. “I want to know when the winch was purchased and who installed it. Maybe the installer can tell us what other work they’ve done. Also find out if a permit was pulled with the city. I want the revised report on my desk ASAP.”
Mantz looked to Sebeck. “I’ll head over to the city permit office, Pete.”
Sebeck felt the heat of this professional slight coursing through his veins. He took a breath and tried to keep a clear head. He wasn’t used to being closely managed. “All right. I want to revisit the first scene, anyway.”
The training room phone rang and Vasquez grabbed it. He listened and then called to Decker. “Neal. NSA.”
Decker addressed the room. “Gentlemen, we’re going to need non-FBI out of this room. Chief Eichhorn, plan for an early afternoon search of Sobol’s estate.”
“Will do.” Eichhorn and the deputies soon found themselves being hustled out of their own training room. The door closed behind them, and the five men stood in the hallway.
Sebeck gestured to his rejected report. “Hell of a morning.”
Eichhorn pointed. “I want to see that revised report before you hand it to Decker.” He turned to the others. “Burkow, Larson, come with me. We’ve got to scare up some manpower.” They moved off toward the division offices.
Mantz slapped Sebeck on the back. “Don’t let him get to you, Pete. I’ll hook up with you after the permit office.” Mantz headed down the hall.
Sebeck watched him go. Just then, two FBI agents emerged from a nearby interrogation room. They had one of the suspects from Alcyone Insurance in tow—an exhausted-looking Jon Ross. Ross’s laptop bag was slung over his shoulder, and he was folding up his flip phone. One of the agents turned to shake his hand. “Mr. Ross, thanks for your cooperation. We know this has been disruptive to your business.”
Ross slipped the phone into his pocket. “
I just got a voice mail from Alcyone’s lawyers. They’re threatening a lawsuit, and they canceled my contract. I have messages from two other clients who are putting my projects on hold, no doubt because of you guys.”
“Be sure to let us know where to get in touch with you if you leave town.” The agent handed Ross a business card. “And don’t leave the country.”
Ross stared at the card. “Don’t leave the
? I have a project in Toronto next month.” He studied the unsympathetic expressions on the agents’ faces, then pocketed the card. “Any chance of getting a ride back to Woodland Hills?”
“Check with the sheriff’s. But it might be quicker to call a cab. Thanks again.” Both agents made a beeline for the training room door. They knocked twice and ducked inside, leaving Ross staring after them in the busy corridor.
Sebeck called across the hallway, “I see the Feds haven’t lost their light touch.”
Ross regarded Sebeck warily.
Sebeck approached and extended his hand. “Detective Sebeck.”
“I know who you are, Sergeant. You were at Alcyone last night.”
“You need a ride someplace?”
“I can call a cab.”
“C’mon, it’s the least I can do. It looks like you’ve gotten the short end of the stick in this whole thing. I’m heading out, anyway.”
Ross hesitated, then nodded. “Thanks.”
Sebeck and Ross drove in silence for a few minutes. Ross was absorbed by a smart phone in his hand. He brushed his finger through several screens, reading intently. Eventually he looked up. “Interesting.”
Sebeck glanced at him. “What’s that?”
“I finally got a chance to read the news. It’s nice to know what I was almost accused of.”
Sebeck said nothing.
“Your murder case is all over the headlines. Look, there’s you.” Ross held up the phone to show a news Web site with a photo of Sebeck at the press conference.
Sebeck barely looked. “Well, it’s not my case anymore.” They drove on for a few moments in silence. “So, you’re some kind of computer consultant, is that it?”
“Yes. I design relational database management systems.”
“How does a young guy like you get such big clients?”
“Word of mouth. I’m good at what I do. You look young to be a sergeant of detectives.”
Sebeck grimaced. “I got an early start.” They came up on the entrance ramp to the 101 freeway, but Sebeck headed across the bridge to the far side of town.
“Sergeant, you just missed the freeway ramp.”
“I need to stop off somewhere first. Listen, can I ask you some computer questions?”
Ross looked uncertain. “What about?”
“That virus at Alcyone. Everybody there was looking to you for help. So, you know a lot about viruses?”
“I already told all this to the FBI. I’ve been cleared, remember?”
Sebeck waved his hand in acknowledgment. “I know, I know. But our in-house guy doesn’t have the chops to deal with much more than teen hackers and drug dealers.”
“Sergeant, the FBI has a cyber crime unit to deal with this. They don’t need my help.”
“It’s not the FBI that’s asking.”
Ross looked to Sebeck. “Ah…I see.” He raised his hands to represent headlines. “Local cop cracks case.”
Sebeck looked darkly at Ross. “I’m just trying to stop a killer.”
“To be frank, Sergeant, you’re going to have a difficult time finding whoever killed those men. This is essentially a computer forensics case, and the FBI is better equipped for that.”
Sebeck took a chance. “What if I told you I know who the killer is?”
Ross tensed visibly.
“No, not you.”
“That’s why the FBI let me go?”
Sebeck nodded. “What if I also told you that the killer was dead at the time of the murders?”
Ross looked puzzled for a moment—but then a look of realization came over his face. “No way.”
“That’s what I need to know. Is it possible?”
“Holy shit, you’re serious.”
“The Feds believe it. But I don’t. I think the real killer is over at CyberStorm and that he’s framing this dead guy for the murders.”
“It’s Matthew Sobol, isn’t it?”