Chapter 5 — Subtlety
Subtlety is for people with an excess of time and a lack of ambition.
— Fernand Mondego, Comte de Morcerf
I spent most of Friday night researching El Rey Industries in a hurried attempt to evaluate the physical security of the facility. This involved trawling corporate websites, social media platforms, and even web-stalking the occasional employee. Frame by frame advances of promotional videos revealed a company that was woefully unprepared for corporate espionage. There were no security cameras, and as far as I could tell there were no physical barriers such as biometrics, keypads, etc.
Typically, I would have spent a lot more than an evening speccing out an infiltration, but Telmar was insistent and the sooner I had my money, the sooner I could get the Delaneys off my back. So all things considered, I was willing to make a rush job of it.
Saturday morning, I left Telmar at the motel. The last thing I needed was him destroying my cover with some ill-timed comment on the end fate of all corrupt, oligarchical, tyrannies. I walked through the front entrance of El Rey Industries, after quickly determining that it was the only one that did not require keycard access. The receptionist glanced at me, saw the uniform, badge and toolbelt, and let me pass with no questions.
My first step was to find an empty computer terminal. The tall multistory glass windows that ringed the engineering building revealed cube farms on the first and second floor, but these were a less than ideal hunting ground. While a maintenance man, carrying a box of fluorescent light bulbs, is not suspicious; a maintenance man, entering engineers’ cubicles and using their computers, is most definitely suspicious. I decided that the best place to start my search would be the test labs.
The engineering building was obviously the company showpiece. It was the sort of place where visiting dignitaries and potential investors would be taken. As a result, everything was clearly labeled, including signs and arrows pointing to the test labs. I grabbed a pair of safety glasses, out of a bin bolted to the wall, and pushed through the heavy double doors.
I had timed my assault with precision. It was five after noon which meant that the majority of people unlucky enough to be working on a Saturday would be out on lunch break. I walked through the lab, looking for an abandoned computer. I found one in less than thirty seconds. I sat down at the desk and got my first break in the case. The plan had been to install a few key-loggers and come back in the evening to collect the passwords. However, fortune was on my side. I did not need to hack a password; some obliging employee had left his account unlocked. If I was not arrested for trespassing, I might send the company a brochure of security improvement suggestions.
Before any infiltration, it is important to decide what data will be relevant to your mission. My mission, thanks to Dr. Telmar, was to determine if El Rey Industries was responsible for the money, which was disappearing from the credit cards of the American populace. There were four places to look: The card-reader’s hardware, firmware, software, and elsewhere. The first three items were easy to find. Apparently, El Rey’s lab technicians had access to the entire network server. I quickly began copying the relevant technical data to my external SSD. I then began to search for location number four: the magic elsewhere.
On any company’s server there is a tremendous amount of useless data. El Rey Industries’ contained nearly fifty terabytes of the stuff. While this is not a staggering amount to the techno-savvy; it is far too much to try and sift through in an hour-long window of time. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, which makes the whole process even more difficult than normal.
I had just finished downloading a series of budget reports, when I sensed that someone was standing behind me. Actually, I didn’t so much sense him, as spot him in the reflective border of the monitor. I turned around with what I hoped was a nonchalant air. “Do you need something?” I asked. “What are you doing?” The man asked in return.
“I was trying to find the work order for replacing bulbs in these fluorescent lights.” I answered glibly.
“That is not what it looked like to me.” He pronounced every word in the sentence clearly. He sounded like an English term paper: perfect grammar, no contractions, no slang, etc. “Well in that case you should get your prescription checked.”
The man didn’t laugh. It was at this point, I realized he, like so much of the world’s male population, was taller than me and could probably cause me serious damage in a fight. On the plus side, I knew that he couldn’t hit me first, as that would be workplace harassment. These two pieces of knowledge balanced each other out. “Do you have any idea who I am?” He asked.
I did a quick mental check: tall, white hair, going bald, blue shirt, purple tie. He did look familiar. Then I remembered, and my aplomb took a serious blow. “You’re Mr. Archer.” Archer was the VP of the engineering department.
“You are correct.”
I decided that I had nothing to lose by attempting to bluff my way out. Brutal honesty, as well as it served me in the past, would in this case only get me tossed in prison. “Mr. Archer, John Sinclair put in a request to get the fluorescent bulbs replaced weeks ago.” I knew from promotional information, gleaned off the web, that John was the Lab Supervisor. Based on previous workplace experience, I knew that fluorescent lights always had a 10% mortality rate, at any given point in time. I also knew that people were always complaining about it. “You can call him if you don’t believe me.” I added.
“Very good, I will do that.”
He reached across the desk for the lab phone. I was torn between the sudden urge to either: A. Deliver a knockout blow to the base of his skull; or B. Put my cover story to the test. I decided that, contrary to the natural urges of a private eye, violence was not the answer.
“John,” Bob Archer snapped into the phone. “I have a man in the lab, who says that you put in a work order to get the fluorescent lights get fixed.” There was a pause. While Archer stared at the ceiling, I clicked the “remove hardware safely” icon in the lower corner of the desktop. Archer glanced back at me, “Very well, thank you for your help.” Based on the context, I assumed that he was still talking to Sinclair. He hung up the phone. “It appears that you were telling the truth. Now get the lights fixed quickly.” I walked away from the computer, leaving the SSD still attached. I was now glad that I had tucked it behind the tower before I started my electronic pilfering. I grabbed a ladder and began replacing fluorescent light tubes. At some point, Archer realized that his six-figure salary was being wasted by watching a lowly maintenance peon change light bulbs. He left the lab.
As soon as he was gone, I grabbed the hard-drive and stuffed it into my tool belt, then finished installing the light bulbs, no point in wasting them. Once that task was finished, I left the building.
Actually, that wasn’t quite true, on the off chance that I needed future access to the building; I created a back door. Actually, I used a back door. The alarm system was laughably simple; a magnetic sensor bolted to the door frame, with a magnet attached to the door. If the door was opened, the sensor no longer had a magnet to sense, and set off an alarm. I took a wafer-thin, rare-earth, magnet from my tool belt, and super glued it to the sensor. Now the sensor would be in a perpetual state of ignorant bliss. As far as it was concerned, the door was always closed.
I took another dab of super glue and smeared it on the bolt of the lock. I pushed it back into the door and sprayed the entire area with cyano-acrylate accelerant. The door latch was now permanently retracted.
There was only one step remaining. To make sure that the door didn’t just blow open, I attached four more magnets to the top of the door. With the ability to hold thirty pounds of static weight apiece, they clung to the door frame like proverbial leeches. To any uninformed individual, it would seem that the door was a little more sticky than usual, and there was nothing suspicious about that.
I walked outside and back toward where I had left Telmar’s rental car parked a few blocks away. Telmar would want to see the new data.
Telmar was pretty excited when he saw what I had brought back. “Excellent, do you realize what you’ve found?”
“Yeah, El Rey needs to use a new travel agency when booking their corporate vacations; they are getting murdered with these rates.” I said, glancing up from a series of budget reports.
“Your flippancy does not amuse me, Mr. Chase.”
“Ok then, tell me what we found.”
“We have every line of software code for every model of El Rey’s credit card readers.”
“So, what does that tell us?” I turned on the TV just in time to catch the opening riff of the Peter Gunn theme.
“Would you turn off that racket?” Telmar shouted. “If we want to learn anything from all of this, I’m going to need peace and quiet!” I turned the volume down to a manageable level and began flipping through the channels. “Thank you. What I’ve found is a segment of software code. It reroutes a token payment of one penny from every purchase to an offshore account.”
“How can you prove that?”
“I’ll change the code, have it send the money to one of my offshore accounts. If we see money trickling in, then we have evidence. Evidence we can use to cripple the Black Hand’s finances.”
“How are you going to load your special software?” I was ever the pragmatist.
“We will need a card reader. I suggest that we visit a laundromat. But first, I need to finish doctoring the software.”
Several hours later, we arrived at a 24/7 laundromat. As it was 2:30 in the morning, the place was empty. I surveyed the rows of shiny, stainless-steel, washing machines. They did not appear very menacing; certainly not like the evil machines Telmar swore were taking over the world like a contagious disease.
I was twitchy. I glanced up at the security camera in the corner. The red light blinked steadily, announcing that we were on candid camera. Telmar was trying to crack open the cover of one of the credit card readers. I would have waited until after I disabled the cameras, but I am not neurotic researcher. I slipped on a pair of leather gloves and began looking around.
I saw that there was a maintenance room in the back of the store and walked over. I tried the handle. Locked. I slipped the set of picks out of my pocket and in a matter of moments had the door open. The room beyond was miniscule, it contained some wire rack shelving, a mop bucket and various cleaning supplies. On the top shelf of the racking was a small CRT TV displaying a grainy black and white view of the laundromat. It was an old system that still recorded everything on VHS tapes running on a 48hr loop. I opened the machine and removed the tape. Then I shut off the camera.
Telmar was plugging a laptop into the card reader by the time I returned. “We should know in a few seconds.” He said. He swiped a credit card through the reader. I was happy to see that it wasn’t one of mine. “Eureka, here it is, Chase. The money is now in my account. And look,” he swiped the card again. “Another penny, and another, and another, and...” I grabbed the card, “Let’s get out of here.”
A loud click echoed through the building. It was the sound of a solenoid activated lock. I glanced around, looking for the source of the sound. It had come from the front of the building. The neon “OPEN” sign suddenly flickered out; followed a few seconds later by all the fluorescent bulbs in the building.
This was not boosting my confidence, and I turned to speak to Dr. Telmar, when the sound of rushing water filled the room. Every washer turned on simultaneously. The drums were spinning and reversing as they began to fill with water.
“What’s going on?” I asked Telmar, as If I truly believed that his mind was capable of shedding rational light on the situation. “It’s obvious isn’t it?” He asked in return, “The washing machines are trying to kill us.”
There was another sound, like a hundred handguns all chambering a round simultaneously. The doors on the machines swung open, and water began to pour onto the floor. “Those machines are not supposed to be able to do that,” Telmar said. “It violates several international safety standards.”
I really didn’t care. I walked toward the front door “Let’s get out of here. We learned everything we came for; besides, my shoes are getting wet.” I grabbed the door, and suddenly I realized what that first click had been. It was the sound of the front door locking closed.
The water level was now about six inches deep and rising fast. “Don’t worry,” Telmar said, “The water can’t get above three feet; otherwise it will trip a pressure sensor in the machines and start draining.”
I wasn’t worried about the water hitting three feet. Electrical code put the outlets fourteen inches off the floor and I was standing up to my shoes in water.
While electrocuting us by flooding a laundromat, may have seemed like a form of poetic justice to whoever we were investigating; it was not the most brilliant of plans. I decided that the situation had gotten melodramatic enough and pulled out my Colt .45, reversed it so I was holding the barrel, and slammed the butt into the window.
Nothing happened, I swung again, and the pistol bounced back like I had swung at a trampoline. With the third blow, the window spiderwebbed, then bowed outward, before finally shattering into a myriad of tiny glass pebbles, as a thousand gallons of water swept us toward the jagged opening. Suddenly, it flashed through my head that maybe the plan had not been to electrocute us; but rather to slice us to ribbons as we were washed out of the building. Fortunately, the window continued to disintegrate, and there was no glass left in the frame as we spilled out onto the street.
“Ok,” I said, looking at the small river which was flowing out of the laundromat. “I’m convinced that there’s something to your theory about evil, multinational, corporations targeting innocent civilians. What’s the next step?”
“We can’t take down the Black Hand.” Telmar replied. “They are too powerful. But we can send them a warning.”
“We can destroy El Rey Industries.”
“I am not going to blow up any buildings.” I said, reminding myself that Telmar was not really capable of rational conversation.
“Of course not; that would require too much work. As I see it, we have two options: Option one, burn the place to the ground. Option two, we follow legal channels and bring suit against El Rey Industries; with actual damages of five cents, and punitive damages of three hundred million dollars.
“I like the second one.” I said, glancing up and down the street to see if anyone had noticed the floodtide pouring out of the laundromat.
“I don’t.” Telmar said. “The second plan requires trusting the innate impartiality of the justice system.”
I thought that the very definition of justice was innate impartiality. But I was not going to get into a semantics debate with someone who believed that aliens were ultimately responsible for the death of JFK. “I don’t care; I’m not going to burn down a US manufacturing facility!” I emphasized each word, sounding a lot like Archer in the process.
“They tried to kill us! That makes them evil!” He stated matter-of-factly.
“I’m a private eye, not a terrorist; I will not be party to arson.”
“Then I guess we can terminate this business contract.” There was an icy edge to his words.
“Alright, I look forward to your future career with considerable interest. I can see the headlines now, ‘Mad Scientist goes on Rampage: Small Town Businesses Suffer’.” Rivulets of water continued to gush over the splintered edges of the frame, reminding me of our current danger. “Regardless of when we choose to dissolve our partnership, we need to get out of here now. Whoever was trying to kill us is going to be back.”
The wet asphalt reflected the garish neon light of the storefronts, like something out of Bladerunner or any other cyberpunk dystopia. The car was waiting just where we had left it. We had been gone less than half an hour, but I still approached it carefully. The attack in the laundromat might only have been a diversion. I thought, suddenly realizing that my internal monologue was beginning to sound a lot like Telmar. If you hang around a paranoid long enough, you begin to think like one.
I stepped back about thirty feet and pressed the remote start button on the key fob. The engine turned over and coughed to life. Then the car disintegrated into a million shards of glass and steel. The shockwave slammed into my body, throwing me backward. I crashed into the asphalt, flaming pieces of upholstery floating down out of a dark sky around me. I rolled over and glanced at Dr. Telmar.
He was still standing at the front of the laundromat, apparently in shock. My ears were ringing from the blast. “Dr. Telmar, we have to get out of here, now.” Even in my semi frazzled state, the words sounded melodramatic.
“So much destruction... and for what? What do they hope to gain?” his words were low and whispered. I was beginning to worry. He sounded like the guy in all war flicks, who goes down fighting so the rest of the platoon can escape; and while dying utters a beautiful soliloquy about the meaning of life. You know; the stuff that Hollywood makes millions on.
I ignored his ramblings. “Snap out of it, Telmar! They tried to kill us twice tonight, and I for one would like to shatter that old saw about the third time being the charm.”
Telmar blinked a few times and then followed me. “Tomorrow night,” he said, as we ducked into an alley. “Tomorrow night I am going to burn El Rey Industries to the ground.”
I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t plan to; not to him, not to the police, not to anyone. I guess at that point, I became guilty of aiding, or possibly abetting, a criminal conspiracy. I really didn’t care, rule number one of being a private eye: when someone tries to kill you, it’s bad business to let them get away with it; it encourages others to keep trying. So, while I wasn’t going to help Telmar in his hypothetical criminal enterprise, I wasn’t going to stop him either.