Pay the Piper – Chapter Nine

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We left the car crash late in the evening, possibly early the next morning, and I slept in late. All nighters are a thing of fiction, no one goes before a judge to get a warrant with evidence assembled by sleepy investigators. At the same time, once I’m on retainer most managers want me working as much as possible – I’m not cheap after all. So I wasn’t surprised when Natalie showed up the next day just after lunch with a new assignment from Hennesy. I’d expected it.

I was surprised by what it was. The legal window for psychometric information gathering is quite small and generally can’t go further than that judge who issues warrants. So we’re usually called in on missing persons cases or other police work that has serious time limits or involves finding things, rather than direct convictions, like the car thieves I made my reputation tracking down.

This wasn’t the first time I’d handled domestic terrorism but most of that case involved analyzing weapons and vehicles to figure out where they came from, like I did with the drone. Today Hennesy wanted me to do another interview. “I remember this guy,” I said looking through the file Natalie had brought with her. “TsunLao had him on for an interview last year.”

“That’s the connection that got our attention,” Natalie replied. “He was fired from his last job eight months ago, has no current employment but still somehow lives in Silicon Valley, one of the most expensive places to live on earth. He’s not wealthy. So where’s the money coming from?”

“Not a bad question. So where do we find Mr. Morrison Dane?”

It turned out we found him in a trendy upscale apartment building just outside the Valley, the kind of place with lots of balconies and windows, with a price tag to match the comfort. It really didn’t look like the kind of place an unemployed man could afford. “Rent in this place is easily a couple of grand a month,” I grumbled. “Not even I can afford it. He sure moved up from a simple SEO tech.”

Natalie gave me a sideways look. “He ran social media presence before he was fired? I thought Dane was a programmer.”

“Yeah. He wrote search engine code.” I let myself out of the car and checked my gloves. Firmly in place. Whoever landscaped this place let their mind wander a lot, I could see the diffused smudging of unfocused attention all over the place. No telling when I might brush up against some unwanted nature. “After he got fired for offensive workplace comments a lot of the self-styled watchdogs in the Bad Apples had him on to tell his side of the story. He was supposed to be unemployable after the controversy.”

“Whatever he does it probably doesn’t involve search engines anymore.” Natalie made her way up to the apartment entrance. “Come on, he’s expecting us.”

I once tried to work out why the FBI notifies some people we’re coming and others we’re not. Now I’m convinced I’ll never know. But in this case it did ensure that we didn’t have to do a lot of guesswork catching him at home and the woman at the security desk was expecting us so on the balance of things it was a pretty good call to notify Dane ahead of time. Unfortunately the interview itself failed to live up to that promising beginning. The first problem was Dane himself.

Dane was the opposite of a Gap. His mind was so firmly rooted in the here and now that he might as well be the proverbial open book. I’m pretty sure even Natalie was getting clear readings from him. He telegraphed every thought and every movement like he was an ex Western Union man, not a cutting edge programmer. And he was painfully, obviously wholesome.

Not that people can’t do crazy things for straightforward, wholesome reasons. I just knew Dane wasn’t going to be able to lie to a four year old about it, much less a forensic psychometric or an FBI agent. That probably seems like it should be a good thing for me, the problem is people who are an open book is that everyone knows it and no one tells them anything important. Now, I’d known a bit about Dane ahead of time, watched a few interviews and read a few articles. He’s not famous but he was a person of interest in a mildly controversial bit of Silicon Valley drama about a year ago and, as I’ve said before, I am one of the people who monitors such things.

But you can’t get a good read on someone, normally or via psychometrics, by watching them through a camera and I’d assumed he was just one of the more earnest, optimistic people on the planet. They’re few and far between, and frankly I’d like to see more of them. But even earnest people can keep secrets, where Dane was constitutionally incapable of it. He proved that as soon as we shook hands and he blurted out, “You must be a psychometer.”

That was the second problem with the interview. The two chief advantages offered from getting a psychometric read on someone in an interview are the ability to get insight on them without their realizing it and the ability to reveal a supposedly supernatural ability to unsettle them and keep them off guard. Otherwise you get most of the same information a skilled normal interviewer could get, only somewhat faster.

“What makes you think that?” Natalie asked, covering for my discomfort smoothly.

“The gloves,” Dane said, closing his apartment door behind us. “It’s too warm for them to be for comfort and they feel light enough to be linen, so I guessed psychometer. Or do you have a skin condition?”

He was honestly curious and it was actually a bit endearing. “You were right the first time,” I said. “I’m just surprised you’ve met one of us before.”

“There’s a lot of you working in Silicon Valley,” he replied. “Cybersecurity, engineering troubleshooting, even the guys who specialize in psychology get called in on the AI projects. I worked on a metadata analytics project that had a few of you onboard three years back. It was interesting.”

I’ve met a few of the psychology specialists, ‘interesting’ is certainly one word for them. Natalie continued to run interference for me. “Mr. Dane, do you have any idea why we’re here?”

Dane led us in to the apartment’s small living room and took a seat in a chair, waving us towards a new and rather expensive looking couch. “It’s a small community, Agent Chase, and there was a terrorist attack a couple of days ago. Why else would the FBI show up at my door?”

“Do you have any initial impressions on the attack?” Natalie asked. Just because we had come to ask him about TsunLao didn’t mean were above asking him about other things if he offered us the chance.

“I’m afraid not. I don’t know anything about Finance Tech, outside of a little I’ve heard from casual acquaintances that worked for FinTech firms off and on.” Dan adjusted himself in his chair, looking weirdly young and gawkish for a man technically a decade my senior. “I hear it was an EMP attack, but I wasn’t even sure that would be very useful against an information heavy firm like that. I’d think most of their stuff would route through cloud systems and not be dependent on a centralized hub. I imagine it just inconvenienced a lot of people for a little while.”

Pretty much all the commentary I’d heard ran along the same lines but Dane had neglected the most obvious aspect, that the knock down effect the attack would have on investor confidence was bound to be pretty serious. It was time for me to go fishing. Even if he knew how to be on guard against psychometric investigation – and he might not if he’d just met a few of us in the course of his career – someone like Dane was going to have a hard time making the techniques work. “Do you know why we wanted to talk to you, Mr. Dane?”

To his credit, Dane spent a few seconds actually digging through his memories and inventorying all the reasons we might be there to talk to him. Like his apartment, his mind was a tidy, orderly thing with everything in its place. I could easily watch Dane open mental filing cabinets and rifle through memories as he considered the question. He finally came up with only one possible response. “The only thing that points in that direction at all would be my work with A.J. Jackson and Project Backboard.”

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Pay the Piper – Chapter Eight

Previous Chapter

California State Police found the body in a car wrecked by the road on the northern end of the state. It was a testament to how quickly the FBI wanted me there that they sent a helicopter to pick me up at a local TV station landing pad and flew me out directly. It was a testament to how important I thought the case was that I went. I hate flying and my standard contract actually includes a clause that says I’ll only fly to get to the location of my job and back, not as part of my actual responsibilities. But the contract also states I will fly in emergencies – and this was close enough to count.

Psychometric residuals do fade over time, and they fade at an exponential rate. The strongest details vanish in minutes, about half of the initial information is gone in three hours. Later I found out that I got out of the helicopter exactly two hours and forty three minutes after the man’s death. Assuming the time his watch stopped was the same time he died.

Now I know what you’re thinking, because it was the same thing I was thinking as they hustled me from the chopper to the accident site.

“How do they know this guy is one of ours?”

“It wasn’t the driver, it was the car,” the FBI man on site told us as he escorted us past the police line. “Same make and model as the one used in the attack, and running the plates tells us it was stolen from the same part of L.A. two days before that one.”

“That was enough to send a helicopter for us?” Natalie asked, smoothing down her windswept hair and clothes.

“We sent for you just in case but we were ready to cancel the request if a couple of things didn’t play out.” The man’s name tag said he was Agent O’Malley. “One of the first things we looked for once we knew about the connection was a self-driving system.”

Unusually smart thinking from a government agent. “I take it you found one?”

He nodded in answer to my question and showed us, through the open passenger door, the place where they’d pulled off the dashboard and found the added hardware. “It doesn’t seem to have been in use when the car crashed – given that it crashed – but we wanted you to look it over anyway.”

I carefully pulled off one glove and gave Natalie a look. She murmured a few quick questions to the agent then nodded an affirmative. With the okay thus given I reached out and touched the side of the door, braced for whatever I might find.

I got nothing.

“Well, it’s entirely possible this car was running in self-driving mode before it crashed. It’s been EMPed.” I shook my head and pulled back from the car. “Awful messy way of disposing of it.”

“It’s possible they were hoping to get rid of the passenger instead of the car,” Natalie pointed out. “Who was he?”

“We’re not sure,” O’Malley said. “ID’s are pretty weak fakes. We’re getting prints into the system but given the weird way these guys have gone about things I’m not betting they’re in there. Want a look at the body?”

No. “Yeah, sure.”

Natalie gave me a skeptical look but didn’t say anything. O’Malley led us around to the other side of the vehicle where the medics had a body laid out under a tarp. An unsettling feeling crept up my back as I looked at it, an old and familiar sensation that persued me from one case to the next. The presence of death.

When people die it leaves a terrible hole. You don’t have to be a psychometric to sense it – people who have sat with the dying in hospitals sense it all the time. The force that animates our bodies and gives them direction just vanishes and no one can say for sure where it goes. Just because I know more about this world than others doesn’t mean I can answer those deep, frightening kinds of questions. Being around death is like standing on the edge of a bottomless pit but for the normal person there’s a high wall, preventing them from seeing over the edge. For psychometrics the wall is gone – we can’t see the bottom any better than anyone else but we do run the risk of vertigo. If it gets ahold of us we wind up like the guy at Newell High.

I’d like to tell you how I stay away from it. But if I could maybe I’d do like Mix and Aurora want me to, and teach it to people. I just know that the dead deserve answers as much as the living. So I do my best to find them.

“It’s odd that the car got wiped by an EMP,” O’Malley was saying, oblivious to the dizzying specter of the reaper. “He had a phone and a laptop with him and the phone, at least, still worked.”

“Really?” Natalie stepped over to a number of items in evidence bags. Sure enough one of them was a phone that lit up to the unlocking screen when she poked at the home button. “Very interesting. Maybe it was a highly localized event?”

My fingers twitched slightly. “Or maybe not. Let me look it over?”

She opened the bag and removed the phone, then held one edge of it out to me so I could carefully touch the phone with a single finger. That kind of ginger handling probably won’t make a bit of difference to the forensics people but it will slow down the shock of touching something a person was holding when they died.

Except there wasn’t much of an impression left by the victim’s death. The phone had been psychometrically blanked by the EMP, or at least the phone’s case had. But the innards of the phone had an extra layer of insulation added, some kind of pseudo-Faraday cage that had to be intended as EMP hardening. I hadn’t worked on any of Archon’s forays into that sphere – it doesn’t require a psychometric be involved – so I’m not sure what that might actually look like. But that was clearly the purpose.

I was tempted to just break open the phone at that point and look inside but a basic psychometric scan already pushes what traditional forensics is comfortable with. I settled for a quick mental glance through the hard drive. In most cases when a sketchy person dies during a crime with a phone on their body that phone is a burner, a standard phone with no frills, bought with cash and impossible to trace back to anyone important. They aren’t used for very long and thus no one bothers with many extras. They don’t add apps, especially not financial, travel or social media apps. Which is why I was so surprised to find that the one app beyond the basics was what looked like a social media app called Backboard. I’d never heard of the platform before so I wasn’t sure how it worked or why someone might put it on their supposedly untraceable criminal underbelly phone. There were better times and places to worry about that than in the middle of a crime scene so I pulled my hand back and let Natalie seal up the evidence bag.

“There was a laptop too,” O’Malley said, and found another evidence bag for us. Unfortunately, that one wasn’t hardened and the EMP had wiped it. I wondered why the phone would be the piece of hardware they shielded, given that it was the smaller of the two. Maybe the trick they were using was hard to scale up.

However the real revelation came as I started to shift the laptop back into its carrying case. It was a typical cheap nylon thing like you might find in any office supply store or electronics outlet. Since it was a nonconductive material it hadn’t been blanked by the EMP and I could still pick up the barest impression of flying high and watching the world below me. It made me a bit nauseous. I yanked my hand away and shook myself. Natalie gave me a sympathetic look and said, “What was that?”

“I think I know who this guy was now.”

“Oh?” O’Malley gave me a skeptical look. “Who’s that?”

“He’s the guy who flew the drone we found at yesterday’s attack.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Seven

Previous Chapter

I got back to the hotel in a car Vinny had provided. Given Archon’s line of work they were very familiar with the needs of psychometrics and had a couple of sterilized cars on hand to transport their contractors. Given my history of working with them Vinny had been willing to cut one loose for me after our meeting. It was gracious of him but did nothing to improve my mood.

There are people in the world we call Gaps, people who are so in touch with abstract ideas that we can’t get clear reads on them. We can still find traces of them, mind you, it’s just harder to make sense of them. Principles are one of those abstracts, religion is another, quantum physics is a third. That’s the complete list. You’d probably think a psychometric with a similar understanding might be able to get through to them and you might even be right. The problem is, psychometrics who start to develop those understandings just… go somewhere. Their physical body stays here and looks like it’s alive. But the part of their mind that makes them who they are is just gone. That’s why we call them Gaps.

Most psychometrics are agnostics. We bend in the wind pretty often and we don’t do higher level math.

Vinny, on the other hand, is a Gap. There’s a fundamental need in him for principles to base his understanding of the world on and as I’ve said his, as nearly as I can tell, is balance. You can trust him to act on that principle 100% of the time. I’m just never sure how he’s going to apply that principle. Regardless, once he’s reached his opinion on it he’s not one to change his mind. That’s also part of what makes him so inscrutable. I wasn’t sure if being able to connect his EMP countermeasures to the previous day’s attack would help me or not but he wasn’t even going to let me check on it. The dead end was frustrating.

When I walked into the hotel lobby and saw Mix waiting for me I just about turned around and walked back out.

Mix isn’t a Gap but he’s probably as close to one a psychometric can get without his mind falling into whatever place Gaps go. He works with artists of all stripes as a kind of production manager, anticipating their needs and smoothing their process along. The problem is he gets bored with them very quickly and moves on to other things. He also works as my Galaxy contact, and fills a similar role with four or five other psychometrics attached to the organization. I don’t know if he does it to make ends meet between gigs or if he just gets something out of doing it he doesn’t working with nonpsychometrics. What I did know is that his coming to see me personally was not a good sign.

I didn’t realize exactly what kind of bad sign it was right away.

“weakArmor,” Mix said. He looked at me like I was a cramp in his style, which was odd given we were both wearing off the rack blue linen suits. Likely he just hated that he had to come out here and meet me, Mix’s base of operations is LA and he doesn’t care much for travel.

“What can I do for you, Mixer? I thought we had my retainer with the FBI worked out already.”

“It’s taken care of. However, Galaxy leadership is deeply concerned about the situation here. I don’t think you need me to explain why.” Mix radiated nervousness. While psychometrics can’t block each other out, any more than you can turn invisible by closing your eyes, we do develop a very strong hold on our mental presence from an early age. Under normal circumstances the way Mix was broadcasting was considered pretty rude and sloppy to boot. His being so upset suggested Galaxy truly believed we were in a unique predicament.

“I’m familiar with the parallels to our recent history.” I started towards the elevator, wondering what part of this could have brought Mix all the way out here. “Forgive me if I don’t understand exactly why that brought you out here.”

“They want to take you off the case.”

I hesitated, my hand half raised to the elevator call button – I trusted Galaxy elevators like I trusted no other elevator on Earth. “What?”

“You’re the only third rank psychometric to ever make it working forensics. You have almost a decade of experience. By all rights you should be out of the field already.” Mix gestured away from the elevators and off to the left, indicating one of the lobby’s many small meeting rooms that they kept on site for… well exactly these kinds of situations. “This has the makings of a volatile situation. Walk with me.”

It wasn’t exactly a long walk. Thirty seconds later we were through the door. Aurora was waiting for me.

Do you remember that girl from high school? The awkward one who was a little too tall or a little too chubby or a little too slow to react to what was going on around her to really fit in? The one you find on social media now that you’re out of college and discover she models for Sports Illustrated, or whatever it is that hires models these days? Psychometrics have an equivalent for that, people who haven’t quite grown in to their abilities despite being of an age where they should be maturing. They look like a mess of loose emotions, stray thoughts and pending neuroses. Then something shifts in their mind and suddenly they’re perfect.

Because of how traumatic the world can be for a young psychometric we’re kept together in controlled environments from a young age. I’ve known Aurora since she was four and I was five. When I took up my interest in deconstructing the past Aurora still had the scatterbrained personality she had when she was seven. Two years later her mind was a pool of vast, deep tranquility that has only grown broader and deeper in the years since. I almost bolted from the room then and there.

Most people don’t deserve to experience that kind of peace. I’m no exception.

Thankfully my own cynicism rapidly overcame Aurora’s calming effect, because if Mixer and Aurora were here then I knew what was going on. Aurora patted the empty space on the sofa she sat on. “Have a seat, Trevor.”

Aurora doesn’t like the false name convention that Galaxy uses. I’ll always be Trevor to her, and I’m sure she’d like me to keep calling her Betty. I don’t think she realizes how little the name fits her now.

I smiled and took a seat on one of the chairs adjacent the couch, because there was no way I was getting that close to her, and laced my fingers together. “Well. What brings two tier five psychometrics to see little old me? Especially the only medical psychometric in Galaxy? Surely you have better things to do.”

Mix took the chair across from me, leaving Aurora alone on the couch. “I told you, Galaxy wants you off this case.”

I ignored him and kept looking at Aurora. “Weren’t you working that drug research project? The diabetes one?”

That got her to blush, Aurora and I both work in fields that expose us to more pain and suffering than most of our kind can deal with. I keep an eye on her cases just to make sure she doesn’t bite off more than she can chew. But I honestly suspect if one of us snaps, it’s far more likely to be me. There are just too many Newell High cases out there for me to dodge all the bullets.

“We wrapped that up four days ago. I was going over new possibilities with Mix yesterday, when the Constellations sent him out here.” She shrugged, as if getting orders from the five best psychometrics in Galaxy was a routine event. Maybe it was for her. “They thought I might be able to help him.”

“Help him take me off this case?” I’d already gotten that far. But it’s always wise to let people tell you things when you’re questioning them. “How are you supposed to do that?”

“I didn’t really get that myself.” Aurora put a hand on my elbow, focusing my attention on her next words wonderfully. “But I know they need you to teach, Trevor. No one else can do what you did.”

I did my best not to smirk at the absurdity of that. “You deal with suffering people every day, Aurora.”

“But I have a gift for that. I’ve always been able to share pain then walk away from it. I’m not even sure it’s something people should want to emulate.” A glance away, the barest ripple on the surface of her tranquility. She honestly didn’t like that part of herself. “You taught yourself to deal with suffering without the marks it left changing you. That’s something you can teach others. And if you get wrapped up in some kind of Silicon Valley corporate war you might… you might lose your chance to pass on what you’ve learned. You’ve done this for a long time, Trevor. You deserve a chance to step back from it and do something else.”

And what if I didn’t want to do anything else? That was the question Mix had failed to answer every time he’d brought me this same pitch before. “All fair points, I suppose. But I don’t think you understand just how bad this ‘corporate war’ could get. Mix, I know you’re part of the committee that tracks these kinds of things, Silicon Valley is at a tipping point.”

“I agree.” I could tell Mix had followed my internal assessment of Aurora’s argument and knew I wasn’t going to change my mind. I could also sense vindication coloring his attitude – he’d expected this outcome and hadn’t wanted to bother trying this. “But that’s all the more reason to pull you out.”

“The FBI needs their best on this case, Mix. And it’s not like there’s a huge difference between a first and third tier forensic psychometric.”

“See, you just contradicted yourself there, Armor.” Mix crossed his legs and assumed a pose like a smug, lecturing professor. “If there’s not much of a difference any forensic psychometric we already have could fill your shoes while we send you off to train a new, better crop of forensics experts. Only if you’re special – and thus too valuable to lose – do you become impossible to replace without a drop in quality. And we’re more than willing to see that drop if it means not losing your skills. You just don’t want to teach.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m just better at avoiding dead bodies or places where people died than most. I’m sure I’ll find one to drag me off to the next world one of these days.”

“Please don’t talk like that,” Aurora said, her fingers digging into my arm as her grip tightened. “Fatalism is a killer as certainly as violence or illness. I see it every day.”

Some of the annoyance and bitterness drained away. Being awash in the emotional detritus of others every day made it hard for me to find meaning and purpose of my own. Some days it felt like every thought I had was plucked from the background noise and not something of my own. Aurora never worried about those kinds of things; I knew she didn’t realize she was sent here not to reason with me but to appeal to my protective feelings. The Constellations knew how I felt about her and they used it, but that wasn’t her fault. “It was nice seeing you again, Aurora.”

I got up and Mix stood with me. Aurora was getting up to go with us but Mix waved her back down and followed me to the door. I paused just outside and said, “Please tell me you don’t want to add anything. This was going to be a fiasco and you knew it.”

“But I can’t talk back to the bosses. No, I don’t want to add anything about you taking a teaching job. We both know that will never satisfy you.” Some of the smug satisfaction from earlier was gone now. “This is about your case. The State Police found something they think might be connected and the FBI wants you brought in to check it out.”

“What is it?”

“A body.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Six

From the outside Archon Securities looks like any other SoCal building. Bland white concrete, solar panel roof, drab but tasteful landscaping, security gate. There’s no sign out front, nothing to really make it stand out, so I’m not sure Natalie knew where I was going when she dropped me off. Which is good, because the details of my NDA with Archon won’t let me talk about what I do for them and FBI agents tend to ask a lot of questions and get frustrated when you can’t answer them.

If you think a frustrated FBI agent is bad, wait until you can feel them being annoyed with you.

Anyway, once you get into the building itself there’s one of those little antechambers with a bunch of different buzzers to different offices. There’s about a dozen for the first two floors, then one for the third and topmost floor. That’s the one for Archon. I pulled a thin, magnetized rod about the size of a pencil from a pocket and carefully pressed the button with it.

Instantly a firm, melodious female voice answered, “Archon Securities.”

“weakArmor, here to visit Alvin.”

There was a moment of confusion. Not that I could pick up on it through an intercom but I know Alvin well enough to know that none of his staff call him that around the office. Finally the receptionist came back with, “Mr. Davidson?”

“That’s the one.”

“Just a moment please.”

The intercom clicked off and I took a moment to admire the landscaping. It takes effort to make a thousand dollar a week landscaping service look bland but whoever Alvin contracted with managed it quite handily.

The intercom came back with a new, harsher female voice behind it. “Who is this?”

“weakArmor. That’s one word, with the ‘A’ capitalized.”

“Mr. Davidson doesn’t have an appointment with anyone like that. If you’d like to make one-”

“What I’d like,” I said, amused at how predictable this all was, “is for you to type the name I just gave you into Field Six of your scheduling software and let me know what you see.”

Some tech firms have a stable roster of employees, some are growing and actively adding new faces quite often. But turnover at Archon has always been high. Vinny’s a hard person to work with and he likes keeping a lot of his best talent as contractors so he doesn’t have to pay for them year round. I’d last been to the main building six months ago and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was Vinny’s third secretary since that visit. Since he can’t expect a lot of his administrative staff to recognize his top talents we’re all in a database his secretaries and receptionists can access. Which was why, about thirty seconds after my last exchange with her, the secretary came back on and said, “My apologies, Mr. Armor. Mr. Davidson is available to see you now. Please come up.”

The door buzzed and swung open, letting me into the building. I considered riding the elevator but it was only three floors and all kinds of horrible psychometric residue builds up in elevators. I wanted a clear head so I took the stairs.

Three minutes later the secretary, whose name was Stephanie, let me into Vinny’s office with a polite and definitely forced smile and left worrying about her job. Not that Vinny would fire her for giving me the run around, that was why he paid her, but she was green enough not to know it yet. Sadly, a lot of his secretaries didn’t stick around long enough to figure that out.

“Armor.” As usual, Vinny was sitting in front of his massive work desk, half electronics workbench half computer programmer’s workstation, with a pile of paperwork forgotten on a small table in one corner.

That was the reason most secretaries quit.

“Are you here about the contract I sent to Mixer this morning? Awful fast turnaround.” He was at the programming part of his desk at the moment, perusing a bunch of gibberish that I couldn’t look at too long without getting vaguely binary. “The project’s not ready for you to test, anyway. Unless you just wanted to hang.”

Alvin Davidson was the only person I knew that could make “hanging out” sound like something driven, productive people did in between rounds of curing cancer. “Haven’t heard anything from Mix today, sorry.” There’s not guest furniture in Vinny’s office, he likes to discourage visitors, but there is a second office chair for piling extra paperwork on. I carefully tipped it so the stack of papers fell on the floor where we could both pretend they didn’t exist. “I’m actually on retainer with the FBI right now so he probably sent you a form letter telling you I can’t commit to anything right now.”

“Can’t compete with government dollars.” Vinny closed down his coding window, more because he knew I found it distracting than a need for secrecy, and turned to face me, carefully securing the rims of his glasses between his two thumbs and pushing them up his face, a bizarre nervous habit even I’ve never managed to figure out. “We’re busy men, Armor. You and me, we don’t like to mince words and we don’t make social calls. Tell me what you want, I’ll tell you if I can help.”

Physically, Vinny is a very out of proportion man. Kind of skinny through the torso, he’s got big feet and hands with stubby, sausage link fingers. His nose takes up a good chunk of his face and his eyes are barely visible pricks set deep in an otherwise very round head. But deep within him there’s a stubborn believer in Karma who seeks to see everything balanced. That’s what I needed to appeal to.

“I need to know if you ever finished EMP hardening your network hardware.”

Vinny sat back in his chair, his fingertips pressed together thoughtfully. “I compartmentalize all the proprietary portions of our designs, you know that. Why does the government care about that?”

“It doesn’t.” I leaned forward. “I know you’ve heard about the EMP attacks yesterday.”

“The police chief has already sent out notices to many local tech ventures, warning them to be on the lookout for drone attacks.” He absently tapped his chin with one meaty finger. “Is the FBI concerned that their investigations might be targeted by the same people? Even if I had the technology, I’m not sure I could hardened the local FBI offices quickly enough -”

“That’s not why I’m here. It’s got more to do with the method of attack.” I quickly ran Vinny through my visit to Worker Drones and what we found there. Naturally, by the time I was done Vinny had gotten to my conclusion himself.

“You think this Worker Drones company might have stolen an EMP hardened network access and reverse engineered our tech to harden his drone against its own EMP strike.” Vinny nodded, still tapping his chin. “Possible but not beneficial. Our measures wouldn’t hold up against such a close range pulse. And if the attackers had used this method, how would that help you?”

“You were still talking about that technology as theoretical last year. Not too many places can have hardened networks yet, right?” I spread my hands. “Vinny, your tech may have been stolen. Tell us who you’ve sold them to and we can drastically narrow the list of possible conspirators. In exchange, we can retrieve your stolen technology and make sure the proprietary parts of it doesn’t spread on the black market.”

For a moment I could actually see the elements of that argument weighing in his mind. Then the scales tipped hard in one direction. “No. Not only would that give the government insight into people’s privacy they do not deserve to have. But your Company A wields incredible power itself. The data it has collected on its users is frightening. I won’t pass a single datum of added knowledge to them, even indirectly. I’m afraid the status of my EMP hardened networks, and who might own them, will have to remain with me until you produce a court order demanding it.”

“That’s ridiculous, Vinny.” I could kind of see the logic in his final conclusion but I didn’t understand how he had gotten there at all. “You’re a securities man. You protect people. How can you -”

“I protect people’s secrets, Armor. Your name refers to the way you the weaknesses in barriers and break them. But barriers are a part of life, part of what gives us meaning and structure. Breaking some is fine but others?” Vinny picked up his cellphone, a very old flip phone, and held it up for inspection. “Privacy is a barrier. Devices like these leave it almost nonexistent. I must strive to keep as much of it in the world as I can, or mankind will go mad. I cannot help you on principle. I certainly won’t break that principle for Company A – much less the FBI.”

I’d always assumed Vinny founded Archon Securities because he liked his own privacy. I’d never realized it was such a core philosophical principle. “Okay, Vinny. Okay. I’m sorry I asked.”

“No need to be sorry. You can’t know what you don’t ask.” He put his phone back down on the desk and turned back to his work. Our visit was clearly over. “Be sure to check with Mix on that contract. I’m eager for your insight.”

“Sure. I’ll talk to him about it when I’m done with this case.” I got up from the chair and left, wondering what to do next.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Five

Previous Chapter

Worker Drones was the most unfortunately named tech startup I had ever encountered and, due to their not officially being a party to the case, they didn’t even get to hide behind the relative anonymity of an alphabetical designation in the case file. That’s where the drone from yesterday’s attack had originally come from and that’s where we spent the other half of the morning and the whole afternoon. It was a pretty fascinating place, all things considered, full of 3D printers and electric motors being carefully assembled by a handful of what I had to assume were worker drones of some stripe or another.

The whole place had a very quiet, structured atmosphere that I found very relaxing, especially when compared to the typical crime scene.

The only problem was that it didn’t seem like there was much to learn. The company built the style of drone we were looking for but they didn’t sell directly to anyone. They could provide us with a list of vendors but without the serial number – which I hadn’t been able to lift off the drone body – there wasn’t any way to track who had bought the drone. Some of the techs looked over pictures of what we found and said they thought the innards of the machine might have been tinkered with. Other than stating a few things with more confidence than they actually felt none of the people we talked to lied to us. And, all things being equal, that should have been all we got.

But sometimes you don’t have to be lucky or smart. Sometimes the other people just have to be nervous.

Natalie and I were actually done with our assigned interviews, waiting for Eugene and his team to finish with the accounting and shipping departments, when one of the techs got up and left his desk in a flurry of nerves. To the untrained human eye he probably looked normal, he wasn’t wringing his hands or looking around furtively. But his attention locked on each of the four FBI agents in the room as well as little old me. That could have been normal, too, Eugene does the same thing whenever he’s in a room with strangers. But when a person’s on the move they normally keep most of their attention in front of them, looking where they’re going.

This man’s attention stayed on the five of us, the whole time. All of it except for a tiny sliver focused on his back pocket, where I was willing to bet anything he kept his cellphone.

He was going somewhere to make a phone call and I was willing to bet he was nervous about being overheard. I waited until he turned a corner, his attention on Natalie and I fading, and carefully got up to follow him. After years of working with Eugene I’d gotten used to having him follow in these moments and wait until my focus was back more in the here and now before asking what I thought I was doing. That bad habit was my mistake.

For all her familiarity with the Protocols, Natalie wasn’t used to a psychometric who picked up on random threads and followed them with no warning. I’d assumed she was with me from the moment I stood up. I got to the corner my nervous mark had turned before I realized she wasn’t.

I realized she wasn’t right there because she hurried up to me, calling my name.

“Hey, Armor, where are you going?”

That took the wind right out of me, and I felt the tenor of my quarry change. I didn’t even have to look around the corner to know he had switched something up. I checked anyway, looking just long enough to notice his psychometric trail pointing into the bathroom just down the hall from where we were. There was no way I was following him in there, even if I thought he was still going to make whatever phone call he’d been intent on before.

But he wasn’t in his cubicle anymore. I turned to look at Natalie, who was still watching me with a mix of worry and curiosity. “The man who just got up, do you know who he is?”

She tilted her head and thought for a moment. “One of the designers, I think? We didn’t interview anyone from this section, but this is the design department, so that would make the most sense.”

“Well, we’re making him very nervous and I’m pretty sure he was going to make a phone call. I was going to try and eavesdrop it, but I think he changed his mind when he realized I was following.” I walked back to his cubicle, looking it over without stepping in. “This place is very… geometric.”

“It’s a cubicle,” Natalie said, as if she was speaking to a small child. Which I’m sure is sometimes how I come off. “I don’t think our warrant will cover anything we turn up here, other than what counts as plain sight.”

“Psychometry and plain sight have a very difficult relationship.” I moved slightly and began framing parts of the cubicle to try and follow the workflow I was seeing. “This man is deranged. Look at this. Computer, printer, scanner, telephone. That’s a rectangle. Trashcan, filing cabinet, desk drawers, drafting tablet. Larger rectangle. They nest together to create the golden ratio. Ditto with the larger rectangle and the cubicle itself.”

“Golden ratio?”

“It’s a design thing, has to do with ratios that show up in most aesthetically pleasing objects. And this guy’s office.” I lowered my hands and did my best to try and tune out this guy’s normal workflow. I wasn’t kidding about him being deranged, everywhere I looked I saw new patterns that were every bit as precise and weird as the golden ratios. It was time to investigate barehanded. “He didn’t even have the good grace to leave a clue on the desk for us.”

“No?” Natalie stepped over to the desk and poked at a small USB plug sitting on the desk. “Then what’s this?”

I glanced at it and saw a familiar logo on the side. “Looks like his network security authentication.”

“Then why isn’t it plugged into his computer?” She asked, picking it up and turning it over in her hands. “Archon Securities? Never heard of it.”

“Most people in Detroit couldn’t have told you who did security for the big automakers when they contracted it out.” I carefully drifted my fingertips over some of the work surfaces of the desk, getting nothing but numbers and shapes and other high level physics concepts that made my head hurt. “They’re one of three Silicon Valley cybersecurity firms that can make your network psychometric proof.”

Natalie put the fob down, radiating how impressed she was. “I didn’t even know that was possible.”

“There are a lot of psychometric hackers out there, relative to our general population. It didn’t take long for people to figure out they needed to do something. And a lot of the tech minded psychometrics make big money as consultants.” I dusted my hands off and pulled my gloves back on. “That said, it’s not something they advertise. Usually, if the startup CEO isn’t already familiar with the dangers we can pose, someone he or she knows gently recommends Archon or one of their peers as the best way to go for network security.”

I could tell she wasn’t that interested in the details of how Silicon Valley old boys got around and I hadn’t found anything worth following up on, so I just stepped back out of the cubicle and Natalie followed. “It’s boring stuff, anyway.”

“What is?” Eugene asked, heading our way from near the elevator.

“P-rated IT.”

Eugene’s eyes narrowed. “What brought that up?”

“We found an Archon Securities network jack, Agent Chase had never heard of them.”

“Why did you find an ASI jack?” Eugene asked, going very still.

Natalie and I exchanged a look but I could tell I was going to get to answer this question. “Why wouldn’t I? If that’s they’re IT security contractor -”

“They use Hemmingway,” Eugene said. “I asked the IT manager when we interviewed him.”

Hemmingway Technologies was another producer of psychometric resistant tech, but cheaper and, on reflection, probably more in line with the price point Worker Drones could afford. “Well, how about that. You were right, Natalie.”

“He left a clue on his desk?”

“That he did.”

“Or,” Eugene added, “he left a red herring.”

There was that possibility, too. Still, only one way to find out. “Natalie, I need you to drop me off somewhere on your way back to your office.”