Sean reached around a large pillar in the middle of the crowded baggage carousel in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He dropped a phone in a woman’s pocket, and backed away.
He went un-noticed.
For this weekend, Sean Harley, known to hackers all over by his online handle Distinctive, was travelling under a fake name. He had chosen Robert Small, one of the non-existent people Distinctive had created from thin air in various government systems, to be used as an alias. This would be Robert Small’s only weekend in existence. He would be deleted Monday morning, if, Monday morning, Sean was still a free man.
Sean was about to meet two hackers that knew him only as Distinctive. Never as Sean. They were two of his best friends, it would be their first meeting, and he was nervous. He wasn’t about to just walk up and introduce himself. He was a hacker. He had a plan.
Thirty minutes before, Distinctive had deplaned. He had stashed a bag in an airport locker and then made his way to Baggage Claim 33, where he had spotted two travelers that he thought must be LOL-Lita and her boyfriend Stoney. He knew their real names, and where they lived. He had hacked them. Several times. There wasn’t a lot to find, good hackers hide their tracks but they can’t be invisible. Distinctive had never seen a photo of either of them, but he knew that, like most nineteen-year-olds, Stoney’s bank account was nearly empty, while LOL-Lita, only 27, could retire any time she wanted.
From across the span of the baggage claim, he had watched his two hacker friends argue passionately. Thus, they hadn’t noticed when Distinctive snuck around and slipped in behind them. Lita leaned against a pillar and Distinctive reached around that pillar and dropped a burner phone in Lita’s blazer pocket. He then backed away, found a quiet corner where he could watch them and dialed Lita’s burner phone from his own burner phone.
Lita jumped when it rang. Distinctive could tell she was surprised to find the phone in her pocket, but she smiled broadly and looked around as she flipped it open and spoke into the phone. She told Distinctive that she loved spy movies. She said she felt like she was in a spy movie at that moment.
On the other end but only across the room, Distinctive replied, in a gruff Sean Connery accent, he said “Good day, Miss Moneypenny.”
Lita laughed and Distinctive told her he was waving. They’d never met, but they’d spoken over Wire, or a phreaked phone, many times.
Lita looked around, then pointed toward Distinctive and she and Stoney walked toward him. This was it, the three of them had just tossed out their main safety gap. The gap between a hacker’s face and a hacker’s online handle. Once that gap was closed, the game changed. They could pick you out of a lineup.
The next thing he knew, Lita was hugging him, and she told him that it was the worst “James Bond” she’d ever heard. Distinctive shook Stoney’s hand and told him it was nice to meet him. Stoney nodded in return.
Then Distinctive told them they needed to get a cash taxi and hit the town.
Uber was too risky, even with a fake credit card and an aliased account, and besides, Lita was boycotting. So they stood in the cab line, and the heat, for twenty minutes, and then piled into a cab with the AC set to “arctic.” They told the cabbie to take them to the site of the JFK assassination, a solid cover story and close to where they wanted to go anyway.
On the way downtown, they talked in generalities about what they were going to do.
Distinctive’s plan was to stroll around the JFK Memorial for a while, looking like tourists for CCTV and security cameras in the area, make sure they weren’t being followed, then walk over to check out Claire’s building. After that, they’d hit the police office complex where he hoped they could sneak in and stay the night, locked in, and free to roam.
Distinctive loved doing this. He loved social engineering. He loved planning, he loved pretexting, he loved doing OSINT research, he loved the thrill of a physical hack. His job was too important for him to go off gallivanting like this, usually, and he missed it.
Stoney and Lita didn’t miss it because they had never done anything like this before. Distinctive explained to them that they would probably each need a uniform, a security badge, something to make them look official. But, he didn’t yet know what. They needed to scout the building and the people there before he would know their next steps.
The cabbie dropped them off at JFK Memorial Plaza. Lita, always a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, walked them around and told them her top three theories of what really happened to President Kennedy in 1963. Distinctive loved Lita’s energy and passion and felt jealous of Stoney. Lita was into younger, not older men. Even the play on words in her hacker handle proclaimed it. LOL-Lita.
Then, they walked several blocks to the apartment building Claire Barton had lived in. It was on this building’s roof that, according to a 911 recording, Claire had a run-in with what she described as a human-sized bat. A bat man.
They had seen pictures of Claire’s building on Google Street View, but as usual, things looked different in person. Standing in front of the building, Distinctive looked up, and turned around. The skyscrapers nearby were imposingly tall, and right on top of the comparatively short five story building Claire lived in.
They didn’t spend too much time at Claire’s building. They didn’t want to be caught showing too much interest.
They left to walk to the police administration building, and when they arrived, Distinctive walked in, leaving Stoney and Lita around the corner with one of Distinctive’s duffel bags, full of surveillance gear. He kept only his laptop in his small backpack as he strolled around inside.
The building apparently served several purposes because in the huge foyer there was a high-school art show, with dozens of parents checking out their student’s art arranged in a spiral around the open space. In the guise of an art-lover, Distinctive quickly assessed the place, and within twenty minutes was back on the street, talking to Lita and Stoney.
Distinctive told them it was a good as it gets. The art show would provide them cover. They wouldn’t need a uniform or badge. There was a roped off hallway with a number of rooms they could hide in and no guard nearby. Distinctive told Stoney he would wait by the back with their gear bags and Lita and Distinctive would sneak in and find a way to let him in.
The art show lasted until 5p, about ninety minutes away, so the trio grabbed a late lunch. They wouldn’t be getting dinner, and maybe not breakfast. They were going to be locked in that building.
Distinctive thought it would be pretty easy to bypass the rope and find a place to hide until the building was closed for the rest of the weekend. He just hoped it would be easy to find a way to let Stoney in with their gear. They weren’t going to get far without all that gear.
A bit before five o’clock, Lita and Distinctive parted with Stoney, paid the three dollar admission fee and strolled around, looking at art and looking as much like a mom and dad as they could. Distinctive thought of his own mom, who usually called him on Saturday afternoons. Right about now he should be talking to her.
Distinctive put it out of his mind as they moved to position themselves near a section of displays right near the roped off hallway. Distinctive could tell Lita was nervous. At one point, as they approached the display near the hallway opening, they looked around to see if anyone was watching, Lita stumbled and bumped into Distinctive and nearly knocked over mixed media display standing in the middle of the room.
She looked up and mouthed “sorry”. They stood near the hallway, only rope between them and, they hoped, a hiding place. Distinctive showed Lita his thumb and two fingers. Quietly, he told her they would go on the count of three.
Three seconds later, Lita ducked the rope first and made a beeline to the hallway entrance.
Distinctive waited a beat and then followed. He ducked the rope as Lita had done but his backpack, still on his back and containing his most important hacking gear, caught the rope as he ducked under. He didn’t realize he had snagged the rope at first and as he started toward the hallway Lita looked back. She immediately began to wave at him frantically.
One end of the rope was connected to a permanent hook on a wall, the other end was tied temporarily to a metal pedestal upon which one of the pieces of art stood.
Distinctive stopped. He dropped to one knee. His backpack came free of the rope, but the glass-blown sculpture on display on the metal pedestal rocked slowly. In slow motion, Distinctive watched as it wobbled. It teetered, waging a battle against gravity, appearing to win, and then lose. And then, Distinctive closed his eyes and waited and listened and…
And. Nothing. He opened one eye and saw the sculpture, though no longer centered on the pedestal, wasn’t wobbling. It stood firm.
Relief crawled over Distinctive as Distinctive crawled over to Lita. She gave him a wide-eyed look of relief.
Had anyone seen them?
They didn’t wait around to find out. They double-timed the hallway, trying to find both an office that was unlocked and a door to let Stoney in. Distinctive thought Lita would make it twice as easy to find a good hiding place. It was an older building, and to their chagrin, they realized that they needed Distinctive’s lock-picking set to open any office doors. But it was buried in his duffel bag which was waiting with Stoney.
It took five minutes of trying every door in a windowless hallway before they came to a left turn into another long dark hallway and an emergency exit sign at the end. Distinctive ran the length of the hallway, all the way to the door, quickly disabled the alarm he knew would sound when it opened, then pushed the door and looked outside. The sun was still high in the summer sky and Distinctive couldn’t see anything until his eyes adjusted. He was surprised to feel someone immediately pushing by him into the building. Stoney had found the door and had been waiting right outside for over a half-hour. He was sweaty and in a sour mood.
Distinctive’s eyes adjusted to the daylight and he grabbed what gear Stoney couldn’t carry. Lita and Distinctive had tried dozens of doors and found them all locked. The first door Stoney tried swung open wide.
Distinctive heard Stoney call to Lita. In a stage whisper, he said, “in here” and motioned. Distinctive knew he was called Stoney mainly, but not entirely, because he rarely spoke to anyone but Lita. It was the first time Distinctive had ever heard Stoney’s voice. It was a hoarse, deep, whisper that came out more as a low rumble that didn’t fit Stoney’s slight frame at all.
Stoney had found a conference room. They crawled under the conference room table, out-of-sight, rested their heads on their bags and waited for the closing of the building.
Just past five o’clock Saturday night, Distinctive, Lita and Stoney could sense the building locking down, though they heard nothing. From the conference room, they listened for sounds of a security guard as they unpacked their laptops and scanners and planned their new pretext for being there after hours.
Still under the table, Stoney hacked into the security camera system, giving them access to what the building’s secuirty team saw. They mapped out the building from inside, deciding where they wanted to go, and the safest way to get there.
Distinctive looked over to Lita and Stoney. They looked nervous. Stoney was an excellent hacker and Lita was a human search engine, but they rarely ventured away from a keyboard. I.R.L. was always more nerve-wracking. Even having done this for years in the past, Distinctive’s had butterflies. A good physical hack was exciting, but it was a mess on the nerves. It’s one of the reasons he liked it. When he was younger, Sean was forced out of boot camp before graduation, a crushing blow at the time. Hacking had become his war, and he liked these battles most.
They moved out quietly. Lita and Stoney held hands.
It took longer than they expected, but they finally found the fourth floor interrogation rooms, their first stop. Lita whispered loudly to Stoney, and motioned to him. She stood by one of the rooms, with the number 4002 on the door. From the data they found in their hack, they knew this was the room Claire was interviewed in. The offices downstairs were analog-keyed, but the interrogation rooms had digital keypads. Stoney plugged a thin device into a USB port on his laptop, held the device in front of the keypad and tapped out a long command left-handed.
Moments later, they heard a sharp snap. Stoney had unlocked the door. Lita pulled on latex gloves with a pop and turned the door handle and pulled; the door opened outward and they walked in. Distinctive aimed a small red light to illuminate the room.
They didn’t really need to be here, in this particular room, but they wanted to be. This is where it all started. None of them knew what the Voice wanted from them. But they knew the Voice told them to find Claire, and this is where she was when they found her.
Lita sat down in the chair where Claire had been in the video. Lita wondered out loud why the Voice wanted them there. Distinctive told them his theory was the Voice needed #TheCollective. The Voice couldn’t do this himself, for whatever reason. Maybe he couldn’t get into the country. Maybe he was sick or afraid to fly. Maybe he knew being here was dangerous and they’d likely get caught. Maybe the Voice knew something they didn’t.
Distinctive was listing his last ‘maybe’ when he saw the heavy interrogation room door begin slowly closing. Stoney had propped it open with his backpack, but the door was too heavy for it to hold. If it closed, they’d be locked in this room, jailed until a cop found them on Monday morning.
The door pushed the backpack in slow motion, deliberately, heavily. Distinctive jumped toward the door, but so did Stoney, and they collided, hard. Stoney dropped his laptop. It clattered to the floor as Distinctive and Stoney fumbled around, each trying to reach the door to prevent it closing, but each prevented the other from getting there. The door was half closed when Lita kicked Stoney’s laptop toward the door. At just that moment, the door closed on the laptop, wedging it between the door and frame and preventing the door from completely closing.
They breathed a sigh of relief, but Stoney’s laptop was toast.
Stoney’s laptop screen was a mosaic of glass and Lita wondered, in a loud whisper, just how much noise they’d made.
Stoney’s shattered laptop screen left them blind. They no longer could cycle through the 128 security cameras and keep an eye on what the security guards in the building saw.
Ground zero established, Stoney’s laptop packed up, and nerves already fraying, they began digging around. Lita told them she thought the DPD must be paper-based for sensitive information. Information too risky to put on a network. The Voice had to be after something like that, something he couldn’t get remotely. And, after all, they had hacked this network, easily, and found nothing.
Stoney and Distinctive pulled on latex gloves and started searching desks and offices. They listened hard and kept an eye on each other, and the door. Twice Stoney silently alerted them to security, and they hid under desks as a guard shined a light in the room. It was fully morning, sunrise and all, before they gave up. They found nothing.
Back at the their home-base, the conference room, the three hackers argued. There was nary a printed page anywhere. Nary an external hard drive. Every visible desk appeared to be connected to the main network, and the main network was an insecure mess that they’d been able to access from their homes in faraway cities.
It didn’t make any sense. They had hacked every corner of this network and walked around much of the building. Hacking in was a piece of cake. Breaking in was a piece of cake. Finding something should have been a piece of cake. Distinctive’s stomach grumbled.
What were they missing?
They slept for a couple of hours. When they awoke, they set off again hoping they’d find something useful.
After almost two more hours of walking, picking locks on promising-looking doors and peering into frosted windows and over transoms, Distinctive was frustrated and spent. It seemed like this Texas trip would be for nothing, and he’d still have to face the blackmail from the Voice.
He knew he was going to be tired Monday morning, back at work as Sean.
They had only two doors to check, one on the left and one on the right, then it was the stairwell and they’d grab their stuff and leave. The door on the right was paydirt. Stoney had picked the lock and peered inside. Then he had gone in.
It was a conference room like the one they had been camped out in downstairs, this one full of files and gear. Boxes were piled in the corners, and along the window. There were stacks of computer gear, locked boxes of surveillance gear and a coat rack full of windbreakers in the corner.
Windbreakers with three bright yellow letters: “FBI”.
They had found an FBI camp-out. But, why they had set up here when there was a perfectly good FBI field office at the top of the nearby Bank of America tower? They started digging, knowing that messing around with the FBI was a whole other level of trouble.
They had been digging through files and computers for almost an hour when Lita suddenly spoke. They had been whispering, being careful, but Lita spoke out loud. She motioned to them, repeating, “look at this, look at this.”
Stoney and Distinctive hurried over. Lita was looking at an FBI laptop, one that Stoney had easily cracked for her. Lita was a top researcher, and owned several degrees; undergrad, doctorate, masters. She was smart, but she thought hacking was boring and repetitive. So, Stoney hacked for her and she researched what he’d found. They complemented each other well.
Lita’s gloved hand was pointing to the screen. It was a report about Claire. Distinctive quickly read it over.
Claire Barton, age 49, Same address as in the detective notes. 505 Jackson Street, apartment 517. Time of death July 27th 2:33am; poisoned.
Lita had been right but they were all crushed anyway. Claire was dead? For real?
Lita started typing again and when Distinctive started to whisper another question, she shushed him.
Ten minutes later, she called out again, again forgetting they were trying to stay quiet.
Lita stood up as though shocked by a bolt of lightning from the laptop. She backed away, her chair banging into other chairs and the wall. She said, “oh wow, oh wow” over and over. Way too loudly.
She continued, “Oh, wow. Wow. Distinctive and Stoney hurried over and looked at the screen. Stoney apparently could read faster than Distinctive, as he yelped and reacted as Lita had.
Distinctive steeled himself. He knew it was going to be bad. Then, he read it, too.
He said, way too loudly, “This is a game-changer.”
They all continued their research, but with new urgency. Distinctive’s head was a mess. None of them were prepared for what they found, which was an outgoing email progress report to the FBI office in Washington. The agent who wrote the email named someone every hacker knew by her online handle, and her reputation. She called herself Exclusivor.
The FBI believed Exclusivor was the Batman. It said so right in the email. The FBI believe she had returned and murdered Claire to keep her quiet and prevent her identifying her.
Exclusivor! She was the Michael Jordan of hackers. Every hacker on the planet had heard of her. All three of them, even non-hacker Lita, were huge Exclusivor fans. Most hackers were, as long as they weren’t in Exclusivor’s crosshairs. Her reputation was legendary: the rock-star stories about her exploits, the hacks she had pulled off, the hacks she had prevented, the corrupt politicians she brought to heal, her reputed net-worth — she was a legend. One hacker famously described her as “a sweetheart angel who will double-cross you, steal your identity, love you unconditionally, rip your heart out, and eat it with a bowl of fruit loops while laughing at cat videos.”
A murderer? Is what the Voice wanted them to find?
Distinctive wondered out loud what the Voice wanted and Lita commented it was weird they hadn’t heard from the voice since Friday night.
And Distinctive said… oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, the day before, Saturday morning, as he awoke at home, the Voice had come over his phone again and said, ‘Have fun in Dallas’.
Lita said, and you didn’t tell me this because… Why?
Distinctive told her, he just forgot.
Lita narrowed her eyes and asked how the Voice knew he was going to Dallas.
Distinctive said, well, they *had* discussed it in IRC.
But Lita said, yeah, in IRC. They didn’t talk out loud. They’d only typed it. She said, you don’t read your typing out loud, do you?
Distinctive said, no, of course he typed without reading what he was typing aloud.
But he knew Lita had a point. He had avoided thinking about it because he didn’t know how it was possible. Had the Voice hacked his laptop, too? No way.
Lita asked him if he’d used his phone for anything, reservations, to call anyone to change plans, his parents, anything like that.
Distinctive told her no. Definitely not. He hated even touching that phone. Right now it was in a faraday bag in a locker at DFW.
They argued for a few more minutes and concluded: #TheCollective IRC channel was hacked. It had to be. Distinctive wanted to warn the team, to tell everyone to bug out. They had a process in place for changing servers, for pulling up the channel and relocating. Everyone knew the drill.
Lita disagreed. She told Distinctive the Voice would find out and know they were on to him. Besides, maybe they could smoke him out with disinformation. Distinctive was about to ask her what she meant when Stoney clapped his hands and started shushing them.
Right then, the door opened, and a bleary-eyed security guard peeked through.
For a moment, they just stared at each other. The guard at Stoney, Lita and Distinctive, and them back at the guard.
Distinctive knew that this was five years in prison, minimum, life in prison if they linked him to everything he’d ever done, which they would surely be able to do.
The guard was college-aged, perhaps getting a degree in criminology and doing some field work on the weekends to pay bills and see what it was like. He was about to make the bust of a lifetime: Lita, Stoney and Distinctive, knee deep in the FBI’s business.
The guard paused, then told them good morning. He apologized for interrupting. Distinctive and Stoney just stood there. Lita, dressed in a jeans and a blazer, came off more professional that Sean, in a button up shirt, and certainly more than Stoney, in jeans and a Metallica t-shirt. She nodded at the guard, and then, catching on that the guard took her for an FBI agent, forced impatience in to her voice, and asked the guard if he minded letting them get back to work. The guard nodded sheepishly and backed out of the room.
It seemed like a minute before anyone in the room breathed again. Distinctive’s life as a free man had been flashing before his eyes but was now paused. He said they should leave.
Lita told him she wasn’t finished. She wanted to stay.
Distinctive thought about what was at stake. He knew Lita had tunnel vision and, that she loved research. When they’d have access like this again, to FBI computers, no one knew. And, there was that blackmail. Still, he considered them burned, and Distinctive didn’t like the thought of prison, so he said again, they should leave. Lita told him to go ahead, but she was staying. She would catch up with him later.
He couldn’t let Lita stay if he wouldn’t. He sat back down beside her.
They returned to their work, but with even more urgency. Ten minutes later, Stoney walked back over, still as silent as ever, and handed them a laptop he had be hacking on. Lita took it and started reading.
Distinctive looked over her shoulder, trying to skim as fast as he could, knowing Lita was a speed reader. He caught bits as she scrolled through it. Sergei Gordova, 31, dead, killed in a when his Jeep Grand Cherokee was hacked. Santa Monica, last 4th of July. His Jeep was hacked while he was driving, and hackers steered it while he ran over almost forty people in nearby parks and on Santa Monica pier. Twelve dead, dozens injured. Then his Jeep drove off the pier and he drowned.
Lita told them that she remembered this, it was big story in the news. Reports said it was an old lady who lost control of her car. No mention of this Gordova guy, or hackers.
Lita sat back again, reading on. Then, she said, ‘Oh, no!’ Distinctive read over her shoulder: Exclusivor was also wanted for the murder of Sergei Gordova. She’d been the hacker.
This FBI camp out seemed to be all about Exclusivor. How much did they know? How much was there to know? Why did they seem to be covering all of it up? Stoney had checked the most wanted lists. There was nothing about Exclusivor, or anyone like her, on any list, cyber or real.
Is that what the Voice wanted? To know what the FBI was doing here? Lita and Distinctive were discussing it when Stoney’s deep voice rang out for the second time all weekend.
He said, ‘The FBI said Exclusivor is the Batman, right?’
Distinctive nodded. That was the FBI’s theory.
Stoney just looked at him, like he expected Distinctive to fill in the next blank. Then, Lita exclaimed, too loud. She said, “ohh!”
Distinctive looked from one to the other, then back. Lita spoke hurriedly, telling Distinctive, if Exclusivor was the Batman and frightened Claire from above, she certainly had jumped from somewhere. There were skyscrapers everywhere. She had BASE jumped. Stoney was nodding and pointing out the window. They looked where he was pointing.
Lita jumped up and went to the window. In the distance stood the tallest building in Dallas. The Bank of America tower.
She said, excitedly, of course. Of course! Think about it, she said. What’s at the top of the Bank of America tower?
Distinctive told her he didn’t follow.
Lita told him. At the top of the tallest building Dallas, on the 72nd and 73rd floor, was TV, Radio, Cable, Internet, almost all of the North Texas telecoms ran through the top of that building. The NSA conveniently occupied an office right next to it. And, the FBI had a small suite of offices up there, too.
Lita said Exclusivor must have gone in, physically gone in, broke into the N-S-freaking-A and hacked them. Exclusivor snuck in but instead of trying to sneak back out, she just jumped. From 72 stories up.
Distinctive knew that, if Exclusivor had brazenly hacked the NSA and jumped off a skyscraper, the dark web would collapse in on itself like gleeful black hole. But what would they think of their hero when they also found out she was wanted for murder?
Exclusivor was clearly up to something that was important enough for her to be killing people to get it. Something the FBI wanted to stop. Something the Voice wanted … well, Distinctive didn’t know. The Voice wanted something. Did he want Sean to find something, or just to learn something? Was it Exclusivor, or something more? Was he trying to stop her? Help her? Sean hated it when questions outnumbered answers.
Lita said it was time to leave. She tried to talk them into keeping the windbreakers as souvenirs, but Distinctive knew anything that tied them to this building was toxic. They stripped off their windbreakers, put everything back the way they found it, wiped down the room, retrieved their gear on the first floor, and snuck out the back door.
After they left the building, they walked for a few blocks, called a cab and took it to Deep Ellum, then a different cab up to the suburbs of Richardson, and then a third out to the airport. They arrived and got through security just as Lita and Stoney’s flight to LA was boarding. Distinctive knew they didn’t live in LA, but didn’t let on. A connecting flight to a major airport was the smartest play for a hacker. After hugs, hßandshakes, and goodbyes, the young couple boarded and Distinctive went to the locker where he had stashed his phone.
He opened the locker, took out his phone, removed it from the faraday bag and turned it on. There were four missed calls from his mom, pretty much the only person he ever called on his phone. He plugged his earbuds into it.
He had a feeling he would be hearing from the Voice at any time.
Thank you for listening to Recording 1 of Exclusivor, I’m Hans Anderson. Please go to exclusivor.com for more.