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Ransomware is a tricky thing. At least, that was what his guy from IT had spent the last forty minutes trying to explain to Volek. In between all the technical jargon that made Paul’s head spin, there was a kernel of truth. It must be like what a layperson feels when they read a contract or hear a lawyer talk: a whole lot of nonsense obscuring one important fact. And that one important fact was that he was fucked.
All the data in the six offsite accounts that had not been transferred back to Meca accounts was encrypted. Neither he, nor the issuing banks, could complete those transactions until the information was unlocked. The good news, according to his guy, was that both he and the bank could be certain that the money was still locked in those accounts. Until the encryption was broken, no transfers could be made. The bad news, though, was that as long as the encryption remained in place the accounts were essentially frozen.
“It’s called ‘ransomware’ because the hacker can’t really do anything except hold the encrypted data hostage and demand ransom,” the pimply-faced little prick had explained to him. “Usually, they’ll just demand a nominal fee to remove the encryption, which you’ll be forced to pay. But, given that the encrypted data is…sensitive to you, I would imagine–”
Volek held up his hand to silence the kid and began walking out of the server room. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, feeling the beads of sweat dripping down. Whoever this was, they knew about the wind up. The assets weren’t fluid. If there was a client request on those accounts while the SEC was looking at them, there would be no way to hide it.
Before he made the door, Volek turned back to the young man. “Find whoever is doing this. Now.”
* * *
Vincent wasn’t accustomed to working with an audience. When working in tandem with Larsen, the two were rarely in the same room. When they did meet, it would be in the middle of the day, over burgers, usually after he’d been up all night.
Vincent often started his work in the evening, just after dinner, when the sun was still up. As the night closed in, usually he’d be so locked in that he wouldn’t bother to turn on the lights and just crawl into bed when exhaustion overcame him. So it felt odd to be working with the glow of his rarely-used desk lamp, like reading with prescription glasses for the first time.
Across the room, Annabelle turned off the stove and came over with two steaming bowls. After handing one bowl of ramen to Vince, she dragged the empty hand across the top of his back, making him turn and watch her hips sway as she walked away. She plopped down on the bed, taking a spoonful as she did. It was odd, Vincent realized, that he had lived in this studio apartment for over three years, and she was the first female to be in his bed.
He took a spoonful to his mouth and slurped. It was good, almost as good as his mother made him back when he was a kid. It was instant, not homemade like hers would be, but instant ramen was basically the only thing Vincent was confident in cooking. It made him feel ashamed, that he hadn’t bothered to learn more about cooking from his mom, but after the divorce he spent most of the time with his dad. And his father couldn’t care less about teaching his son ramen recipes; teaching him to win at life was the only lesson that mattered.
“The surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man.”
Napoleon Bonaparte said that, his father had told him, but it didn’t mean that the liar was a rich man. It was a reminder that one who is honest to a fault will pass on opportunities that a dishonorable man would pounce on.
“Don’t lie if you can avoid it,” his father had concluded, “but if you are tied to the truth you will never unlock your potential.”
Volek had spent months lying, falsifying documents, moving money from offshore accounts to client funds and back again, and it had made him a large profit. Vincent and Larsen had tried to use proof of those lies to defeat him, but it had failed. So it was time to shrug off the truth and try to beat Volek at his own game.
With all his accounts locked, Volek was going to feel the pressure. The SEC, for now, wasn’t looking at any of the accounts in question, and Vincent had no legitimate way to point them in that direction.
So, instead, he did something that would force Volek’s hand. He’d written an e-mail, posing as someone from IT, to the SEC. Saying he knew that Larsen wasn’t working alone, that there were still several accounts with significant holdings that were fraudulent. He posed the email as though he had been coerced into helping Larsen and the others and was willing to talk in exchange for immunity.
If Volek had someone in IT, they would let him know. Volek would know someone was moving against him, which could make him act irrationally. He could panic, assume the guy in IT was turning on him, or one of his co-conspirators. Maybe he’d flee, or try something desperate. Vincent wasn’t sure. But there was opportunity to be had in chaos, as long as you kept your head. And Vincent intended to throw some gasoline on this fire and track which way the flames spread.
It took another hour, him sitting there in silence tapping on the keys of his mechanical keyboard and her sitting on his bed tapping the screen of her phone, before that bread crumbs had been appropriately sprinkled. He rose, stretched, and plopped down next to Annabelle on the bed.
“How’s it going?” he asked her.
“He’s going to meet me tomorrow night.”
“Good,” Vincent said with a nod. “Do you think that he’s going to be on board?”
Annabelle shrugged. “If he’s not now, he will be after we speak.”
Vincent nodded, and glanced over his shoulder to the kitchen. “Oh wow, I didn’t realize how late it’s gotten. Do you want me to give you a ride home?”
He expected her to stand in assent. Even though they had spent a lot of time together over the past few days, each working on their own part of the plan, this was the latest she had stayed at his house. In fact, he had been shocked when she had looked at the clock, noted the time was almost 8 PM, and offered to cook them dinner. He couldn’t imagine her doing anything that could shock him more.
Until she didn’t stand up when he offered to drive her home, but slunk back further on the bed, making room for him, and said “actually, do you mind if I stay and we talk for a little while?”
* * *
Very few people had access to Paul Volek’s personal e-mail, and those who did knew better than to reach out to him this late at night. So when his phone started buzzing, indicating that he’d received an e-mail in his personal account, he was mildly annoyed. Grunting loudly enough to make his displeasure known, but not so loud as to wake his sleeping wife next to him, he reached a hand out from underneath the 1,000 thread count sheets.
After clicking in his password, the CLO navigated over to his e-mail app. The newest e-mail was from a blocked account, with just the word “null” in the header. Any normal person would assume it was spam or a mis-sent, but Volek had received many such messages before. Without hesitation, he clicked over to the message. It was short, just one line.
I have a name.
* * *
Annabelle sat at the two-top, nervously tapping her fingers against the granite table. Every five seconds or so, she would throw a glance over her shoulder at the door to see if her expected guest had arrived. He had texted her just a few minutes ago, saying that he was a block away. He should be here by now, and she wasn’t sure if she could hold everything together much longer.
Her lips moved quickly as she repeated her pitch again. She and Vincent had stayed up way too late the night before, going over it again and again. Remembering all the points wasn’t a big deal to her, she had mastered the art of memorizing two minute speeches during her time on the pageant circuit. It was just that none of those speeches had ever required her to seem convincing when threatening someone.
“Make sure that you’re firm,” Vincent had told her. “He’ll come back at you, saying he’s going to expose you as well if you try to take him down. Don’t flinch, don’t react. Don’t even speak if you don’t have to. He has more to lose than you. When he moves past it, just point out that all he has to do is this one simple thing and you’ll forget the whole thing ever happened. Don’t apologize, seem sympathetic but don’t act like you’re conflicted about it.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He knows me too well. I’m not sure he’ll believe that I would hurt him.”
“He will,” Vincent responded.
“How do you know?”
That was when Vincent reached over and brushed a strand of hair out of her face. “Because, as sweet as you are, I know that you are far tougher than you look.”
As she sat there, wondering whether she should have pulled Vincent’s head back in after he backed away and kissed him, she felt a body breeze past her and sit in the seat across from her. Startled, not at all sure of herself, but ready to get down to business, she turned her attention to the man who was nervously shifting in his seat.
“What was the hold up?”
“Sorry,” Rob Benson replied. “Wanted to have a smoke before we talked. Should we get some appetizers or just a quick drink and head to my place?” .