Pay the Piper – Chapter Five

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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.”

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