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.”