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.

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One response to “Pay the Piper – Chapter Six

  1. Pingback: Pay the Piper – Chapter Seven | Nate Chen Publications

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