Authors: Steven F. Freeman
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #International Mystery & Crime, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Technothrillers, #Thrillers
Steven F. Freeman
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 Steven F. Freeman
All rights reserved.
To those whose love of reading has made
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Many thanks to Chris Daniel, Priscilla Gould, Ruth Gresh, Sarah Redmond, Elaine Rivers, Kathy Golden, and Willow Humphrey for their invaluable feedback and assistance.
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Brian McFarland took brisk strides through the Silicon Valley campus of Vidulum, Inc. After swiping his magnetic security card at the building’s main entrance and then again at the R&D section’s heavy door, he wound his way through a maze of cubicles and lab equipment to arrive at the office of Leo Burton, Vidulum’s CEO.
Burton, a lean, tall man showing the first signs of graying temples, rose to greet his company’s Chief of Security. “So, McFarland, what’s so important that we had to meet on a Saturday?”
“We’ve had a security breach.”
“How serious is it?”
“As bad as it gets. Someone copied the complete set of Silverstar files—design specs, production facility schematics, product capabilities—between twelve and twenty-four hours ago.”
Burton sank into his chair. Through white lips, he asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir. When the archive job ran last night, the backup server kicked out an exception message, saying the day’s batch had already been archived.
didn’t copy it, which means someone else did.”
“Do we know the files were actually stolen? Couldn’t the exception message have been triggered by some tech accidentally running the backup job earlier in the day?”
“We asked the same question. No one ran it, and whoever did copy the files suppressed his user name.” McFarland cracked his knuckles, a habit he exhibited during times of stress.
“I didn’t think our systems allowed jobs to be run without a user ID,” said Burton.
“They’re not supposed to,” admitted the security chief, “but somehow this person figured out a way to get around that restriction.”
“What about our file segregation? Don’t we keep our key files on separate servers to make it impossible for someone to crack a single password and access all of the confidential information at once?”
“Yes, sir—we do. This thief was a smooth customer. He—or she—copied the files from all eight servers.”
“It’s an inside job. It has to be.”
“That was my conclusion too, sir.”
“Wait a minute—if this thief is so good, why didn’t he prevent the redundant backup message from being generated?” asked Burton. “We would’ve never known about the theft if not for that.”
“I’m the only person who can suppress that warning message. It’s one of the safeguards I put in place when I was first hired on.”
“I see. Thank God you set that up.” Burton paused to reflect. “So, we have a renegade employee in our midst—someone who’s out to make a quick buck at the expense of the very existence of our company.”
“Sir? The existence of our company?”
“We’re a one-trick pony, McFarland. Using the proprietary technology contained in those files to successfully launch the Silverstar project is a make-or-break proposition for Vidulum. We have no failsafe, no alternative strategy if some other company brings this technology to market before us.”
“So you think someone stole the files to resell them?”
“It has to be, don’t you think? Silverstar is miles ahead of everyone else. It could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars on the open market.”
“So just look for the employee that buys an island in a few months.”
“By then, it will be too late. We have to stop this person before they have a chance to sell the files. If they do, we’re all out of a job.” Burton began to pace the floor of his office. “Do you have any suspects?”
“Not off the top of my head. I’ll have my staff investigate—see if anyone was out sick yesterday or the day before, acting suspicious or angry towards the company, that kind of thing. We’ll have to act quietly, though. Our investigation must be discreet to avoid tipping off the thief that we’re on to him.”
“Good man.” Burton stared McFarland squarely in the eye. “You understand…while it’s important to move quietly, we must also act quickly. It’s not just our company’s existence that’s at stake. If Silverstar is sold to the wrong people, our nation could be at risk, too. You are to employ any measures necessary to reacquire the project files. Are you clear on this? Any…measures…necessary.”
“Crystal clear, sir.”
As the conversation at Vidulum’s campus drew to a close, a nervous man in khaki pants and a finely-stitched, white cotton shirt waited in a line at Beijing Capital International Airport, advancing as the line crept forward. After an interminable wait, he reached the counter.
“Identification,” snapped the agent.
The man handed over his passport.
“Wu, Feng?” asked the agent.
“Final destination Rome…staying for seven days?”
“Purpose of trip?”
“Pleasure,” replied Wu. No one was to know the true purpose of his travels. Xing Z
xí, staunch member of the Chinese Communist Party and leader of Cúnchú Company, had been quite explicit on this point. Too much was at stake to give others the slightest inkling of the true purpose of his mission, prompting Wu to dress the part of a tourist.
The airline employee nodded. She handed back Wu’s passport along with a freshly-printed boarding pass. “Next,” she announced.
Wu made his way through the sluggish security line and proceeded to the gate. After boarding the plane, he checked his watch. With one layover, he would be in Rome in just over twenty hours.
The flight’s duration provided plenty of time for Wu to dwell on the mission to which he had been assigned. Scarcely anyone at Cúnchú knew of his humble beginnings in a small agricultural village in Gansu District, and he intended to keep it that way. Through sheer perseverance and a little luck, he had managed to earn an engineering degree at the University of Melbourne and then claw his way into the position of assistant director of the R&D labs at Cúnchú, one of China’s largest multinational technology companies. His job didn’t pay much, but it held out the prospect of future advancement and prosperity.
Wu knew this mission would dictate the future direction of not only his career but, more generally, his life. Being assigned to it indicated Xing Z
xí’s confidence in Wu’s capabilities. If he succeeded, Wu knew his career would rocket up in a favorable trajectory. He would be able to lavish Li Na, his recent bride, with the luxuries he yearned to provide but currently lacked. And after having their allotted first child, they might even be permitted to apply for a second.
If he botched the mission, well…the Party had a way of ensuring unsuccessful assignments weren’t repeated, at least by the same individual. The thought reminded him of a line used in the American spaceflight movie: “Failure is not an option.”
Several hours later, Wu’s plane touched down in Rome. Nobody in the city spoke Chinese, but practically everyone knew English, a language Wu had polished to a high gloss while attending college in Melbourne. He made his way through customs without a hitch and took a taxi to the hotel.
Upon arriving at his hotel room, Wu turned on his laptop and connected to the internet. Only after activating the latest encryption software did he send a message back to Xing Z
xí: “Have arrived in Rome. Pickup on schedule for 1900 local time day after tomorrow.”
He closed his laptop and exhaled. Other than conducting a brief reconnaissance trip, he had nothing to do between now and then except await the planned rendezvous.
As Wu settled into his temporary lodging, a commercial jet streaked across the sky. The seven-hour duration of the transatlantic flight, combined with the aircraft’s steady roar, had lulled Mallory Wilson into a light slumber. Alton Blackwell, her boyfriend, studied her athletic form. As Mallory leaned her head against his shoulder, her jet-black locks lay nestled against the bottom of his closely-cropped, chestnut hair and cascaded onto his chest. Alton’s lean frame, combined with a height that ran only slightly above average, provided enough space for Mallory to find a comfortable perch on his shoulder.
As a flight attendant began the pre-landing announcement, Mallory’s eyes fluttered open, and she raised herself up. After stretching her arms overhead, she asked, “Have I been asleep for long?”
“A couple of hours. We should be in Rome in about fifteen minutes.”
She squeezed his biceps with both hands, a habit she was wont to do in times of excitement. “You and your surprise vacations. I still can’t believe this is happening. You’d better pinch me when we get there.”
“Only if you agree to pinch me back.” As far as Alton was concerned, his girlfriend of just over a year and friend of three years was the perfect woman, inside and out. He had never quite understood how he had scored such a prize as her and at times felt as if he had dreamed up the whole experience.
“Speaking of surreal,” said Mallory, “I have to keep reminding myself that you’re gonna be the top guy in Kruptos’ new Washington office. Not that I didn’t think you could do it,” she hastened to add, “but you hardly ever talk about work. Sometimes I forget how good you are.”
“I just talk up a good story.”
“Ha! Sorry, but I know better. Opening the Washington office was your idea.”
Alton shrugged. A cryptologist by training, he had served for several years as a top manager for Kruptos, Inc., arguably the world’s most advanced data encryption and security firm. Shortly after working a temporary assignment in the Washington, D.C. area two months earlier, Alton had come to recognize the vast, untapped potential business the Federal government represented to his Alpharetta, Georgia firm. After pitching the idea of opening a second Kruptos facility in the Washington metropolitan area, Alton had been surprised to learn that Jake Hines, Kruptos’ CEO, had not only agreed with the idea but had tapped Alton for the job of running the new facility.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Mallory, “how did you convince Hines to let you leave on a three-week vacation just as the new office was about to open?”
“Well, I had already paid for the trip. That helped—plus a lot of begging and a promise to ship him a case of Limoncello from Naples. Apparently, that’s his favorite liquor.”
“Bribery. I should have guessed.”
As Brian McFarland, Chief of Security for Vidulum, traversed the chaotic hallways of San Francisco International Airport, a broad-shouldered man watched him from a discreet distance.
The burly observer pulled a cell phone from his pocket and initiated a call.
“Hello?” boomed a deep voice from the other end of the phone.
“It’s Vega. McFarland and I have both passed through airport security. Have you been able to discover where the Silverstar files are headed?”
“Our best information points to Europe, but frankly we’re not certain. What is McFarland’s destination?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. He hasn’t arrived at his gate yet.”
“Stand by—I’ll check.”
Vega could hear the clacking of computer keys from the other end.
“Okay,” said Gantt, “He’s headed for Seattle.”
“Seattle! What the hell for?”
“We can’t worry about that,” replied Gantt. “We have to keep our focus on tracking down the files.”
“Agreed,” said Vega. “So assuming you’re right about the files being headed to Europe, McFarland is traveling in the wrong direction. I should have known those Keystone Kops masquerading as Vidulum security ‘experts’ would never be able to track down Silverstar.”
“Yeah,” said Gantt. “I was hoping McFarland’s flight would corroborate the expected destination of the files, but he seems to be on a wild goose chase.”
As Vega walked down the terminal’s hallway, an inattentive twenty-something engaged in conversation with his friends collided with Vega’s shoulder. The younger man nearly fell, while Vega, not wanting to alert McFarland to his presence with an angry retort, scarcely broke stride. If the younger man considered launching a recriminating comment, the older man’s sheer size must have silenced him.
“Yeah, there’s no point in following McFarland anymore,” continued Vega, unperturbed. “So, if you think the files are possibly on their way to Europe, you must have someone in mind, right?”
Gantt hesitated. “It’s really just a hunch. A Vidulum employee is headed there as we speak. We thought we were on to something, but I hacked his e-mail earlier this morning. He scheduled the vacation three months ago.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s not the thief. Maybe he just plans ahead.”
“True, but Silverstar wasn’t at a particularly useful state back then. Vidulum only cracked the packing problem last month. Without that breakthrough, Silverstar isn’t a lucrative technology.”
“I see your point,” admitted Vega. “But unless we have any other leads, I say we tail your off-to-Europe guy.”
“Let me check out a few other folks first. I don’t want you out of the country if I discover a better lead in our backyard.”
“How long should I wait?”
“Give me twenty-four hours to do a little more research.”
“Twenty-four hours! That’s a hell of a lead you’re giving the thief, don’t you think?”
“Possibly,” replied Gantt, “but we have six other people to investigate. I have to ensure you’re tailing the right person, or he’ll have an even bigger lead. Give me one day. If we don’t find a smoking gun on someone else by then, I’ll debrief you on the guy we have in mind and send you on your way.”
“So until we know for sure if I need to go there, you’ll be assigning surveillance of this guy to someone in the European theater, right?”
Vega pondered the choice for a moment. “He’s good, but for this assignment, we need someone exceptional. I have a resource there—the kind that doesn’t ask too many questions. I’ll give him a call.”
“One of our guys?” asked Gantt.
“Not really, but we can’t afford to be too choosy over that, can we? The key is that he gets the job done, right?”
“Yeah—our priority is recovering the files.”
“Okay,” said Vega. “I’ll engage my European contact to have that base covered. I’d rather be doing this job myself instead of trusting it to someone else. But since I’ll be cooling my heels for a while, we don’t have a choice. Let me know as soon as you find out exactly where the files are headed.”
“I will. You’ll hear from me tomorrow.”
After ending the call, Vega executed an about face and headed for the airport’s exit. As he passed a trashcan, he deposited his airline ticket—purchased for the sole reason of tailing McFarland through airport security—into it. He hoped his next ticket would be more useful.
Returning to his hotel room minutes later, Vega placed an international call.
“Hello?” came a voice accompanied by a fair amount of white noise.
“Raven? This is Ernesto Vega. I have a job for you…”