‘He’s still on the phone.’ Ahmin said as he joined Terri in the so-called lounge, the circular open space in the middle of the office with vending machines, open kitchen and comfortable chairs and couches where the staff can hang around and discuss matters.
Terri pulled another espresso from the machine, then sank down into one of the soft couches. ‘It’s after hours for government workers, but I had expected something like this to get more priority.’
Ahmin shrugged and selected hot cocoa. While he waited for it a monitor coming to life caught his attention. It was one of several hanging above the couches.
‘What is?’ asked Terri looking up from a magazine she found next to her.
‘I think the monitors activate on movement in front of the cameras they’re connected to. I just saw a bird landing on the roof.’
She looked at it. ‘Well, it saves energy if there’s nothing going on and nobody’s here to look at it.’
Ahmin took his cocoa from the machine and carefully sipped it while watching the bird stroll around and occasionally pick at the ground. Terri tossed the magazine aside and yawned.
‘I finally got through to the right person.’ said Milo as he joined them. ‘He’ll be contacting the relevant departments and verify our suspicions. With any luck we’ve caught this thing before it creates a big mess. He’ll be coming right over to discuss what we’ve found and gather any information we’ve got about it.’
‘Do we have to?’ asked Ahmin.
‘Well, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay. As far as I know he’ll be coming alone and will keep things anonymous.’
‘So, what reward can we expect?’ asked Terri.
‘I have no idea.’ said Milo as he decided on an espresso from the machine. ‘But the least I can do is buy you dinner. Maybe arrange something with software or hardware.’
‘I was thinking of upgrading my hardware at home.’ Terri said. ‘Software is no issue since I use open source.’
‘What do you have?’
‘Two cheap servers in a redundant setup. All my stuff runs virtual and I have three dumb terminals.’
‘I set up everything in threes, in different data centres.’ said Ahmin. ‘Constant verification in case one gets corrupt. Full encryption.’
‘Same here.’ said Milo. ‘Just a little more paranoid. Everything here has three copies to reduce the chance of tampering or corruption. Takes more hardware but improves integrity so much more.’
‘What are you running here?’ asked Terri when she stood up to have a look at the cubicles.
‘Mix of various things. We’re not stuck on a specific OS or piece of software. That would restrict us too much.’
She nodded. ‘So, how did you end up here?’
Milo sat down next to her and sipped his espresso. ‘I just had an affinity with computers while I was just a deskjockey at a local station, fixing and improving local troubles. Then I got asked to transfer to this department and quickly ended up being the go-to guy for specialised problems. Seems I got a knack in figuring out logical problems.’
He grinned a little. ‘And I probably got more social skills than the rest of the autists here.’
Terri giggled. ‘I get that.’
She shrugged. ‘I found out I was good at hacking things, had a better grasp of mathematics than my teacher, which made him mad, and ended up doing various jobs. Some clean, some a little dirty.’
‘Seems I should keep my eye on you.’
Milo laughed but saw Ahmin waving his hand.
‘You said whoever you spoke to would come alone?’ Ahmin asked.
‘Then why is a swat team coming up?’ Ahmin said, pointing at one of the monitors.
Milo and Terri stood up to have a closer look at the image on screen.
‘What the..?’ Milo said as he saw several heavily armed people entering the building through the backdoor.
‘That doesn’t look very friendly.’ Terri said. ‘Did you set us up?’
‘No way in hell.’
‘Someone must have thought so much force was necessary.’
‘We have to get out of here.’ Ahmin said.
‘Can we?’ Terri asked.
Milo looked at the monitors. ‘Thay got all exits covered.’
‘Any way to hide?’
‘Milo racked his brain. ‘Come with me.’
He led them to one of the server rooms. ‘Not comfortable, but the only space I can imagime they either won’t think of, or can’t scan.’ he said and lifted one of the floor tiles.
‘Really?’ Ahmin asked looking at the strands of cables.
‘Sorry about the cold, but they’d never detect us here.’
Ahmin and Terri crawled into the narrow space, then Milo followed placing the tile back into position.
‘Dusty.’ whispered Terri.
‘Sorry, the cleaning staff doesn’t come here.’ Milo whispered while he fiddled with his mobile to connect to the security system.
It didn’t take long for them to hear the server room door open again. Someone explored the whole room, then left. Not long after Milo’s mobile rang.
‘Francois here. Aren’t you at the office?’
‘Sorry, I had to get them elsewhere because they got paranoid. You know how those nerds are.’
‘Yeah. So where are you?’
‘We’re on our way to club Rosenthal. A gathering place of geeks.’
‘Fine. I’ll see you there. Don’t move from there.’
‘We’ll do.’ Milo said and disconnected.
He checked the video feeds. ‘Looks like it worked. They’re leaving.’
‘Good, this place is ruining my fur.’ Terri said.
A little later Milo scouted the office, then led them down the stairs and the rear of the building to quiet back alley.
‘Now what?’ asked Ahmin.
‘We need a safe place.’ said Milo.
‘A place to figure out what’s going on.’ said Terri.
‘One of the clubs.’ said Milo. ‘Unfortunately with me being federal I don’t know the most anonymous.’
‘I know.’ said Terri and started walking.
Ahmin and Milo followed, no questions asked.
They walked for some time through the backstreets before ending up at a street with plenty of neon signs and music asking for attention.
‘Here.’ Terri said.
‘I know this place, lots of clubs, mostly dance.’ said Milo.
‘Yes. We’re going to Joan Ley Min’s place.’ she said and pointed at a simple staircase going down the side to a plain door.
They walked into a small room, one door ahead from which they heard music on the other side, next to it a friendly looking doorman.
‘Good evening.’ he said. ‘Company of three?’
Terri nodded. ‘And if possible we’d like to see Joan.’
He pressed a button to unlock the door. ‘I’ll inform her.’
‘Thanks.’ Terri said as she opened the door to a flood of music.
Inside they found themselves on the upper floor of the dance club. Terri took a quick look at the dancefloor below and the row of cubicles.
‘My favourite spot is free. Let’s go.’ She shouted above the music and gestured to follow her.
They walked past the upper floor cubicles where most were filled with people focused on their portables.
‘I’ve heard of these places, but haven’t been to one yet.’ Milo said to Ahmin.
‘There’s one just like this close to my place. I go there once in a while for distraction.’ Ahmin said.
Terri led them down to a cubicle facing the centre of the dance floor. ‘This one’s for VIP.’
‘I guess I won’t have to ask. ‘ said Milo as he sat down.
‘This place is specific to coders.’ Terri said. ‘Members pay a fixed fee and we can freak out as much as we want when we need to.’
Milo couldn’t stop his feet from tapping at the rythm of the bass. ‘I can imagine the appeal.’ he said, then gestured at a guy typing behind his portable with an attractive young woman sitting behind him.
‘An extra service Joan provides.’ Terri said. ‘You can hire a girl to keep you company here. Just not for sex.’
He looked curious at her. ‘The ones who come here don’t really want that anyway. They usually want someone to make them comfortable. Even I did that during difficult coding sessions.’
Milo nodded and looked around at the people dancing on the floor. ‘Only coders come here?’
‘Not all, but most are in this line of work. Some just come to dance.’
A message appeared on the screen embedded in the table.
‘Joan will see us now.’ Terri said and got up. ‘Follow me.’
She let them to a door at the back and into a small hallway. The door to Joan’s office was simple marked management.
‘Terri. Been a long time.’ the elderly woman behind the desk said as she looked up.
‘Yeah. Hi Joan, meet my friends, Ahmin and Milo.’
‘You sure he can be trusted?’ Joan asked looking at Milo.
‘I haven’t got a bad feeling from him yet.’
‘I take it you checked up on me.’ Milo said.
Joan nodded. ‘Everything depends on information and trust here. We can’t afford a breach here with some of our sensitive clients.’
‘Speaking of sensitive,’ said Terri. ‘we need your help in figuring out our next step.’
They recapped the findings to Joan while she fired up her terminal.
‘They probably hired an encryption specialist as well. Do you know of anyone who might qualify and has been busy lately?’ Milo asked.
Joan sifted through the info she had collected on her clients and her own sniffer on the grid. ‘There’s a few people who could do this sort of thing.’
‘Who’ve you got?’ asked Terri.
‘Takahashi is out, he’s currently having his offline vacation.’ Joan said with a smile. ‘He even send me an oldfashioned postcard.’
‘Emmanuelle isn’t into taking shady jobs, or any side jobs for that matter.’ Terri said.
‘Don just lacks expertise.’ Joan said.
‘Heinrich or Cathy.’ said Joan. ‘Either of those could do it.’
‘Which one.’ said Milo, looking at their info.
‘Cathy.’ said Ahmin. ‘She’s the one. Cathy Branford’
‘How do you know?’ Milo asked.
‘I have read some of her work, she adapts her algorithms to be afficient and portable on most hardware. And I saw the initials CB once in the source code I had to improve upon.’
‘Good enough lead for now. Let’s check her out.’
Joan had lend them a car so they could drive without being tracked through subway security and they’d blend in more at the better neighbourhood Cathy lived in at the edge of the city. There were patches of green between the low rise apartment buildings and room for the sun to shine through.
Terri took a moment to enjoy the sun coming up as she’d never got to see that in the city.
Milo parked the car near the intersection to the street from the address Joan had given them.
‘Worried?’ Terrie asked.
Milo nodded. ‘I just don’t want to take any chance.’ he said opening his door. ‘Get ready to get out of here. I’m going to have a look around.’
With the exception of a couple of early birds the street was clear. He walked past the building, watching for anything out of the ordinary like people or cars waiting at the side. When it seemed to be safe he returned to the car.
‘Ahmin, can you be ready behind the wheel just in case? Terrie, come with me to talk to her?’
Terrie and Milo walked up to the building.
‘How do we get in?’ she asked.
‘Card.’ said Milo showing a light blue card. ‘We made a couple of these to give us access to almost any civilian building.’
He swiped the lock and the sliding doors opened.
‘Yeah. But don’t try to lift it off of me. It’ll get blocked right away.’
When they reached Cathy’s door Terrie halted Milo, sniffing the air. ‘I smell blood.’
Milo drew his gun and checked the door. It was unlocked. He pushed it open slowly and entered after seeing the room was clear.
‘Milo.’ said Terrie, pointing at a dark stain behind the kitchen counter.
‘Slit throat.’ he said after a quick examination. ‘Probably got to her before going to Ahmin.’
‘I doubt we’ll find any clues here.’ he said looking through the pages next to a laptop on the living room table. ‘It doesn’t look they took anything, which means they didn’t have to look for anything in the first place.’
‘Maybe there is.’ Terrie said and sat down next to Milo. ‘I recognise that icon.’ she said tapping it on screen.
A video editor opened up with screenshots of Cathy and her desktop.
‘Looks like she was recording a video session. The camera might have caught something.’
She started the video from the beginning showing Cathy preparing and testing the recording, then walking away after her doorbell rang. Cathy’s and another woman’s voice could be heard faintly, then Cathy’s became clearer as she walked past the screen towards the kitchen, followed by a middle aged woman, brunette, wearing something dark grey. For a moment things were silent, then the sound of cups and glasses scattered across the kitchen sink and silence again. Seconds later the woman walked by again.
‘That’s sick.’ Terrie said, not feeling well.
‘At least we got a picture.’ Milo said, pausing the video to take shots of the woman. ‘Let’s go. I’ll ask Rolf at the office to identify her when it opens.’
He took the laptop with him and they walked back to the car as casually as they could. Ahmin drove off as soon as they got in and was told what happened.
‘I don’t want to, but now I’m thinking it could have been me if you hadn’t shown up first at my place.’ he said, stroking his throat.
‘Go to the river.’ Milo said. ‘We have a small office there which is only used by people who need a quiet place to work on their projects.’
‘There’s a stash of instant food if you’re hungry.’ Milo said unlocking the door to the top floor of a two story building.
‘What’s downstairs?’ Terrie asked.
‘Bootra. A small company trading in rare books.’ he said, placing the laptop between other hardware on a shelf. ‘They’re occasionally at the office but mostly on the road.’
‘Dibs on the couch.’ said Ahmin.
‘Be my guest.’ Terrie said. ‘I can’t sleep now anyway.’
He propped a pillow. ‘It’s better to get sleep when you can. You’ll have more energy when you need it.’ he said and tried to get comfortable.
‘I’m going to call the office.’ said Milo. ‘Ahmin’s right, try to close your eyes and count your breathing for a while at least.’
‘You might have to make me.’
‘We’ve got a couple of thick operation manuals here.’
‘Want to read me to sleep?’
‘No, smack your unconcious with them.’
He ducked into another room to avoid the couple of pens she threw at him.
‘Milo here.’ he said after getting through to Rolf on the phone.
‘Hey. Not at the office?’
‘Yeah. Busy with a case and need your help. Can you pull info on a picture right now?’
‘Yeah, no problem.’
‘I need anything you can find on her. The tinyist thing might be important.’
‘Something like that. Thanks Rolf, talk to you later.’ Milo said and sent the pictures.
He returned to the room and smiled as he saw Terrie crawled up in one of the large chairs. ‘Told you.’ he said, set the alarm on his phone and made himself comfortable in another chair.
The call from Rolf woke me up.
‘Your request triggered some flag. The boss wants to talk to you.’ he said, then handed the phone over to director Meyer.
‘Milo, you’ve got caught in something. We need to discuss this in more private.’
‘I can get to Studio 66 in about an hour.’
‘Good.’ Meyer said and disconnected.
‘Good news?’ Ahmin asked.
‘Not sure. I’m going to meet up with the director.’ I said, stretching to chase away the tiredness. ‘You can stay here and get some more rest.’
‘Can he be trusted?’ Terrie asked.
‘I see no reason why not so far. He’s been open with me on every case we had, even the confidential ones.’
‘Okay. But you could reach Studio 66 in less than half an hour. Isn’t that misleading him?’
Milo smiled. ‘I’d like time to freshen up and eat something before I go.’
He was glad the instant noodles were high quality when Milo arrived at the studio, otherwise he’d feel his stomach by now.
The studio was a professional photographer front for the department. Here’d they have all the equipment necessary to handle visual data like video and photos and expertise from the field. They could extract and insert data in feeds, create and examine fake ones.
He recognised the director’s car a little further down the road and walked to the side of the building to enter it there.
‘Milo.’ said the bearded older man in grey suit as he walked in.
‘Sir.’ Milo said and shook his hand.
‘Looks like you caught the attention of our colleagues.’ Meyer said, leaning back into his chair.
‘Sending in an extraction team wasn’t very smart. Now we’ve got some footage to leverage them if need be.’
‘You haven’t told anyone about it.’
Meyer shook his head. ‘We’ll keep it a surprise.’ he said and leaned forward. ‘So, tell me the whole story.’
Milo recalled finding Terrie, her discovery of a link to Ahmin, the firefight, warning the other departments after guessing what was going on and finding Cathy dead at her home.
Meyer leaned back again, pondering for a while and scratching his beard.
‘You didn’t tell anyone else after the incident at the office, right?’
‘Yes. Too risky.’
‘Good.’ Meyer said and tapped the table. ‘First we must secure the witnesses, don’t want them end up shot or sliced as well. Then we need to get our hands on that piece of software before anyone else.’
‘Have you seen the info I asked Rolf for?’
‘Eevi Mustonen. Very low profile. We’re still trying to get data from other sources.’
‘Go get your witnesses and bring them to this address.’ said Meyer, pushing a note to Milo. ‘I’ve arranged a safehouse there.’
‘Right.’ said Milo, getting ready to leave. ‘Agents on the spot?’
‘Yes, you’ll be taken care of there.’ Meyer said and shook Milo’s hand. ‘Good work.’
‘Thanks.’ Milo said and left.
Back in the car he called Terrie.
‘Hello?’ she asked.
‘Milo here. leave the office right away. The director’s tainted.’