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Vincent gulped down the last of the Red Bull as he struck the keys heavily with his right hand. After shaking the can to make sure there was no more of that piss-flavored, caffeinated liquid left, he tossed it over his shoulder onto the pile of empties that was already accumulating around his wastebasket.
He pressed the “Enter” key and his program began compiling and then running. Rubbing his face, he glanced down at the clock in the corner of his screen. 2:30 a.m. That’s not so bad, I’ve done 36-hour coding sessions before.
From the time Vince Wong got home 8 p.m. on Friday afternoon, he had locked himself in his room. Ignoring his roommate’s pleas to go out with him and hit on girls at the bar, he’d instead spent the entire weekend programming, running, debugging, and reprogramming his trojan to crack Paul Volek’s system. His initial estimate was that he would be done within 12-16 hours, but here he was at the wee hours of Sunday morning no closer than he had been a day ago.
He heard the dum of his program, yet again, getting hung in an error. Once again, it had failed to crack the encryption protecting the information on Paul Volek’s computer. Another failure made Vince want to scream at the top of his lungs or break something in frustration. But he was too tired. He was out of Red Bull and ideas, and this final setback seemed to sap whatever energy was left from his body.
With the last bit of life he could muster, Wong stood up from his chair, wandered five paces to his bed, and fell straight down. His face was engulfed by a pile of laundry that he had finished on Friday but neglected to fold. By now, all his shirts were wrinkled and would have to be pressed later that day before the work week began. But those thoughts didn’t matter to him. All he could focus on before sleep overcame him was his program. He knew what he’d have to do next, but had no earthly idea how.
* * *
In the two weeks since Larsen and Wong met in that dingy diner, the two had not spoken. At all. Not a “good morning” in passing, not an exchange of ideas during a meeting, nothing. At first, Vincent thought that they should touch base again a few days after the meeting, so he walked over to where Tom’s office was, caddy-corner to Volek’s. But as Larsen saw the young man through the glass, he flashed him a stern look that communicated his intent: go away.
So Wong had turned at the corner and walked down the hall as if he had somewhere else to go, but the question of how the two would communicate throughout this process still plagued him. He hadn’t tried to make contact since, but now he needed to figure out a way. Alone, he could go no further.
He sat at his desk Monday morning, trying to look busy as he pondered all the ways that he could get a moment alone with Larsen and discuss his current predicament. Eventually, he saw no other option than the first idea that had occurred to him. The dumbest, lamest, most awkward solution that he had come up with. He waited for Larsen to get up and walk to the bathroom, and after a beat, he followed suit.
As the sliding door closed silently behind him, Vince ducked his head to see if there were any pairs of feet showing under the gap at the bottom of the stalls. After a moment he concluded that, unless someone was standing on the toilet waiting to eavesdrop on the two, they were alone for the moment.
Trying his best not to make the situation more awkward than it already was, Wong sidled up to a urinal at the end of the row, three down from where Larsen was. He didn’t turn his head at all or make any move to indicate that the two were talking, but instead cleared his throat lightly. As he began to speak, however, Larsen interrupted.
“You ever been to Sketch Burger Wong?”
A bit confused, Wong stammered a response that, in fact, he had not.
“Best burger in the city kid. You need to go and check it out.”
“Oh, okay, maybe I will.”
“It tends to get busy on Mondays, so I like to go around 2 or 3. I know it’s a pain to wait, but the lunch crowd will probably be gone by then.”
Larsen said nothing more as he zipped up, flushed, and walked out in less than three seconds. It didn’t matter, Vince knew what he needed to do next.
* * *
Sketch Burger was one of those new kinds of “creative” burger kitchens where you could build a burger with all sorts of exotic toppings and cheeses. The interior had the markings of an interior designer who’d been a kindergarten teacher in a previous life. Chalkboards around the walls displayed specials and menus, while crudely drawn cards and pictures papered the purple walls.
The tables were a set of rustic, long dining tables that you might find in a mother’s kitchen. Ketchup and mustards topped each table, along with a napkin dispenser. Sitting at the farthest table from both the door and the counter, was Tom Larsen.
“I wouldn’t have figured you to be a fan of artisenal burgers,” Vincent said dryly as he unbuttoned his suit jacket and sat across from Larsen.
“Are you kidding,” the elder lawyer responded with a snort. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in here. But neither would anyone else at our office.”
Wong nodded before looking around and changing the subject. “Do we order here or do we have to go to the counter–”
Larsen sighed and shook his head. “Cut the horseshit kid. Where are we at?”
Vince leaned in, dropping his voice a few decibels. “Okay, first, I did a standard backdoor intrusion into Meca’s system like I had with Woodcomb. Nothing special, just feeling my way around trying to see what is still left on the system. I wasn’t expecting to find anything from Volek, that he’d have erased all traces, which he did. But, luckily for us he didn’t actually get rid of all the metadata from the system itself.”
Tom’s eyes were already starting to glaze over, so Vincent began to speed up his explanation. Whenever there was an electronic transaction, not only was it recorded, but a record of that record was created. That metadata record could tell you what sort of record existed when it was created, what type of data was stored on there, and using it to dig through similar records you could attempt to reverse engineer records that had previously been deleted. So when Volek deleted the records of his transactions to the slush fund, traces remained. It was as if he’d disposed of the murder weapon, but left the body where it was.
Finding that metadata wasn’t hard for Vincent since Volek had been careless in deleting the records when the SEC came knocking. He was fairly sure that Paul didn’t have a clue what “metadata” even was. In any case, it wouldn’t matter too much to the SEC, since there was tons of metadata in Meca’s system and any one piece was essentially useless unless you know what you’re looking for. Vince was. He’d managed to design an algorithm that would find suspicious metadata that was similar in nature and appeared to be related to transactions to or from the Volek’s secret accounts. From this, he had managed to create a rough outline of what Volek had been up to. That was the good news.
“The bad news,” he continued, “is that this metadata proves nothing to us. All it does is let us know that, yes, a transaction did happen. It provides no actual information about the contents, which is what we need, and I cannot figure out any way to recompile or recreate them. It’d be like sifting through bags of shredded paper trying to put the ledgers together again. So, instead, I figured that Paul would have to have the records stored somewhere locally. Which led me to his computer.
“His office computer is heavily encrypted, but it took me no time to crack. Unfortunately, none of the records are stored on there. It looks like he was smart and used his personal PC to house those records, and that’s where we run into a problem.
“Volek has paid for a private server to be placed in his house for these file transfers. Dual encryption on both ends of the pipe, meaning I have to crack it twice just to get into his PC. And even if I can get through, the files are also likely heavily encrypted and I’d have to figure out a way to get them out through the server without tripping any of the alarm bells I’m sure he has set up.”
Larsen leaned back, looking slightly bemused. Wong squirmed in his chair, feeling the gaze of the older lawyer bearing down on him. He had clearly come into this meeting looking for something more substantial, and now Vince had the overwhelming feeling that he had failed.
“So, what are our options?” Larsen finally asked.
Vince swallowed before pressing on. “Well, option one is that I can keep doing what I’ve been doing now, which is trying to penetrate his security and essentially ram my head into his brick wall until it cracks.”
He inhaled deeply before laying out the other, only viable, option. “Or I hack his computer locally.”
Tom cocked his eyebrow. “Locally meaning…”
“Direct point, take it over remotely and see if I can get the data straight off of it. Meaning I have to physically hook into it and upload some kind of trojan horse to disable his firewalls.”
Larsen leaned back. “Do you have such a trojan?”
“Well, theoretically I could build one in a day or two. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting it into his system. Like I said, unless I am actually standing at his computer and plugging in a thumb drive to upload the virus, I might as well tie it to a carrier pigeon and see if it shits the thing into his server.”
Now Tom leaned in, focusing his eyes right on Wong. “Tell me something son. Would it have to be you doing this? Like is there some sort of tech mumbo-jumbo that you have to do at Paul’s computer? Some hacking that you would need to be doing with his computer?”
Vince shook his head. “No, I mean, the only obstacle is getting into his system. Once we can get onto his computer and just download the trojan, everything opens up for me.”
He squinted and cocked his head. “Wait, are you thinking that you’re going to try–”
“Hell no,” Larsen scoffed. “Paul Volek wouldn’t let me near his computer if I had codes to deactivate a nuclear missile heading towards his house. Besides, he hasn’t invited me over for dinner in five years. We’re not exactly in each other’s golf foursome. But, I do know someone who could gain access to his computer.”
“You know Annabelle, the paralegal?”
“Yeah, but how is she going to get access to Paul’s computer.”
Larsen leaned back again with a grin spreading across his face. “Because he’s fucking her.”
Almost comically, Vince jerked his head back and his eyes began to dart back and forth as he processed the information. “I’m sorry?”
“He’s. Fucking. Her.” Larsen repeated the words slowly and with emphasis, that shit-eating grin never leaving his face.
“How the hell do you know that?” Vince asked.
“You see the way Volek stares at Cara, his secretary? The way his eyes never leave her breasts or ass whenever she’s in the same room as him?”
Vincent snorted. “It’s hard to miss.”
“You ever see him stare at Annabelle that way?”
“Do you think Annabelle is as attractive as Cara?”
“I-I mean,” Vince fumbled the words, taken aback by this line of questioning. Dark haired, tall, and thin, Annabelle was that kind of mystical attractive that simultaneously made you think she was out of your league, but also your perfect match. Every guy in the office had made a pass at her other than Vince. And that wasn’t because he didn’t want to.
Tom broke the silence with a chuckle. “It’s okay kid, no one here is reporting you to HR. But Volek covets what he can’t have. And he knows he can have Anna whenever he wants. So she’s our in.”
“Why is she going to help us though?”
Tom shrugged. “Offer money, tell her that there is some legal obligation she’s helping us with, or straight up blackmail her with the information that we know she’s sleeping her way to the top. It’s incredibly unlikely she’s privy to Paul’s money mismanagement, plus she doesn’t need to know any of the details. Like you said, she just has to get access and download your trojan horse right?”
Vince thought it through. It wasn’t a terrible plan, and better than his lack of any plan. As long as he could disguise the trojan so she wouldn’t know what was going on, maybe make it seem to be a document or embed it within an innocuous program, she would do it without hesitation if a senior partner asked her.
“Okay,” he finally said. “It can work. I’ll need a couple of days to get the trojan ready, so that’s plenty of time for you to get her on board.”
Tom didn’t chuckle this time, he laughed. Laughed like Vincent had just recited the entire Knights of Ni bit from Monty Python. “I’m not letting Annabelle know that I’m involved with this little scheme even a little bit. You’re going to have to convince her.” .