Distinctive immediately regretted throwing the iron, right as it left his hand and flew by Sam’s head. He entered Lita and Stoney’s hotel room. The iron was the first thing he saw. He yanked it off the wall. He chucked it. Sam ducked. The iron punched a deep hole in the wall.
Lita yelled, “Distinctive!”
Fishburne grabbed the iron and cocked his arm to throw it back. He snarled, “What. The. Hell?”
Distinctive yelled back, “They took Avanta! You ran! You left us and you ran! Why did you do that?”
Lita said, “What happened? Who took Avanta?”
“Those guys in the pickup. They grabbed her right in front of me! You ran, and those guys in the truck dragged her away!” He told them what happened and then said again, “You ran!” Distinctive knew he was conveniently leaving out the part where they were being shot at. But he was angry.
Fishburne yelled, “Well, what the hell were you thinking? Why bring her? She doesn’t know what she’s doing!”
Lita said, “Sam! Don’t say -”
Distinctive interrupted her. “Why bring her? I didn’t even know she was there until we were almost in. And, you’re the one banging her! That’s why you invited her here!”
Lita said, “Distinctive – we should focus on – ”
Fishburne interrupted her, “No one is banging anyone! We’re talking, that’s all. I invited her because I trust her.”
Fishburne set the iron down.
**Distinctive said, “Look, if she hadn’t followed me, you guys would be arrested by now. She was, like, man. It was awesome. All the right moves. But, you should have seen how she looked when they were dragging her to the pickup. She was terrified.”
Then Lita said, “Hey, snap out of it. We need to trace that truck.”
Distinctive said, “Late model blue Tundra. I got a partial: starts with WG.”
Then Fishburne said, “The whole thing is WGN-4N99.” Everyone looked at him. Fishburne shrugged and said, “I caught a glimpse as I ran.”
Stoney sat down and started typing in a flurry. Coming through the speaker phone sitting on the hotel dresser, Q said, “Stoney, I can help you. Let’s do this.”
Distinctive was exhausted. He sat on the bed and said, “Sam, you were supposed to just look around. Bashing in that window was stupid.”
Sensing another fight, Lita jumped in. She said, “We think it’s going to be amazing stuff.”
She grabbed the lock box Sam had tossed on the bed, and grabbed some lock-freeze and broke the lock.
Suddenly the room was filled with an ear-splitting alarm. Lita yelled, “oops,” and said she’d accidentally triggered the security alarm. She calmly dumped out the contents of the box onto the bed. She took the box into the bathroom. Distinctive heard the shower start. Lita returned without the box, and closed the bathroom door. A moment later the wailing stopped. Lita looked at Sam and said, “You warned me.”
Sam was already going through the contents. He said, “Yup, just what I thought.” Lita and Distinctive looked at him, and Sam said, “I do a lot of PI stuff for Corporations. Intellectual property, trusts, mergers, IPOs, stuff like that. Everyone carries boxes like these. It’s industry standard. A lot of people don’t trust their networks anymore. You know, because of hackers like you guys. It’s a trend to keep the important stuff off their intranet and in a box like this.”
Lita told Distinctive, “It was locked in that room, chained to a table. Sam saw it through the window.”
Sam said, “Look, I took a chance. I thought it was important.”
With a sigh, Distinctive said, “Let’s hope it is.” He turned to Stoney and said, “Let us know if you find anything.”
Lita, Sam and Distinctive spread all the paperwork on the bed. There was an external drive and several USB drives, too. Sam grabbed a USB drive but Distinctive said, “Careful, that may be a fake with a virus or something. Or, maybe it will call out to a command center. It could give us away.”
When Sam asked what do you meant, Distinctive explained that, if it were him, he’d put a couple of trojan USB drives in the box and if someone stole the box, and inserted the USB drive, it would call home, infect the computer, maybe triangulate it’s own wifi signal and report all nearby SSIDs. Anything that could help trace the box.
Sam nodded. Distinctive told him they’d go out and buy a beater laptop, strip the networking and check it out. But first… Distinctive asked Sam if they should contact the FBI about Avanta.
Sam shook his head and told them that he’d contracted with the FBI before, and they didn’t want to know anything. They were strictly results. They want plausible deniability. They want a contractor who can do things the FBI can’t legally do.
From the phone, Q said, bitterly, “You mean like invade privacy?”
“Exactly, Q. That’s exactly right. Also, the Voice has some stuff on me I can’t let get out. No FBI. Hell, if we even call city police, they arrest us, maybe put out a few posters about Avanta. It won’t help.”
Distinctive pointed out that Avanta is on PTO until Monday. And, he told them she’s supposed to report to Longbeach on the 1st. He even told them about the last Longbeach engineer, still missing. He pointed out Avanta was a federal employee in an important program for national defense. She was going to be missed.
Lita said, “And when she’s missed, it starts to rain bad news on our heads.”
Sam said, “I know, Lita. It’s a mess. I’m sorry I can’t help more, but we have until Monday to figure this out. Let’s get working on it.”
For an hour, they worked. Stoney and Q worked on tracing the truck, Sam, Lita and Distinctive worked on the lock box paperwork. It was some of the easiest work Distinctive had ever done. All the important paperwork, all in one place, nothing encrypted. He thought it was insanity. Within an hour, they traced the truck and found all they needed to know about Drive Bye, LLC. And they ran across an interesting name.
Lita said, “Hey, check this out. Steven Matthews. Hacker, entrepreneur, twenty percent owner in Drive Bye. He’s their CISO. I remember seeing ‘Matthews’ engraved on the top, near the lock. This is his box.”
They googled Steven Matthews, got thousands of hits, and found his Wikipedia page. He’s from London, now lives in San Francisco, on Nob Hill. Parties, fundraisers, charities, the whole shebang. And, they found a picture. Distinctive recognized him. “That’s the guy! That’s the guy with the truck. That’s the guy who yelled at me. He had a British accent and everything!” Distinctive recapped what Matthews had said when they were dragging off Avanta.
**Then Q said, on the speaker phone. “Guys, this Matthews due isn’t just some computer nerd. I’m on the Darkworld forums. About a year ago someone doxed him. Several people say he’s the hacker called Sindictive. The guy who doxed him is dead.”
Stoney said, “Whoa” and Q said, “He denies it, of course.”
In the gaping silence, Sam Fishburne looked around the room and said, “What? Who is Sindictive?”
No one spoke until Q broke the silence again. He said, “I mean, he’s just another hacker, really. It’s all just rumor. But, he has a reputation.”
Fishburne said, “Alright, we got a name, we got an address. Do we hit Nob Hill, try to get Avanta?”
Stoney hadn’t said much since they all had returned to the hotel room. He said, “Let’s SWAT ’em.”
Fishburne smiled and said, “Good call. Get me an address.” Then Q said, “No, I got this one. I can mask my number, make it appear I’m calling from their building. Give me ten minutes.” After ten minutes, Q said, “Okay, that’s done. I’ve got an ATM camera across the street, in front of a little bodega. We can watch it.”
But just then, Stoney said, “Oh no! Someone’s hitting me!” They all looked at his laptop screen. Stoney typed quickly, then slapped the keyboard. He looked up at Lita and said, “Sorry.” He grabbed the iron Distinctive had thrown and used it as a hammer, smashing Lita’s laptop with three. quick. blows.
Sam shouted, “Dude! What are you doing?” Distinctive told him, “Someone must have found Stoney’s Rubber Ducky. We didn’t have time to run it through a proper command center. Stoney’s killing the computer before they find anything they can use against us.” On the phone Q sounded defeated, saying, “And I’m swapping to my backup system on another VLAN. Just in case.”
Moments later, they were basically blind. Distinctive didn’t have his Debian laptop with him – it was back in DC. When he left Longbeach the day before, he and Avanta followed policy and had their computers shipped back to DC with the team. Stoney’s laptop still had a shattered screen and wasn’t even here. Sam owned a beater still running Windows 8, which they’d had a good laugh over already.
Even with all the commotion, Lita was still looking over the paperwork spread over the bed. She said, “Matthews owned 20% of Drive, Bye. Gordova, Exclusivor’s brother owned 30%. When he died, his ownership stake went to his sister. Say that Matthews — aka Sindictive — is framing Exclusivor, trying to get his hands on that 30%, take over the company.”
Distinctive nodded his head. “Yeah, maybe. I looked into Drive Bye the other day. Wall Street is hungry for a piece of them. Everyone says they’re poised to take over the auto-driving market completely. There’s billions at stake.”
Sam whistled. Then Lita asked, “Is it possible that Avanta is Exclusivor?”
Sam’s eyes widened. “What?”
Distinctive told them he was thinking the same thing. He told them about how Avanta had helped him break into Drive-Bye. He told them about the fence, the window, even the kiss. He pointed out how nimble she was, and how everything she tried, worked.
Sam looked at him. For a minute, Distinctive couldn’t tell if Sam was upset about the kiss. Lita said, “Sam, I’m sure she did it to fool the guards.” Distinctive didn’t mention the second kiss or how long it had gone on. He only said, “For the last two weeks, she’s been turning up everywhere like a ghost. She got hired on, like, eight or nine months ago. I’m saying: it fits. Maybe she’s Exclusivor.”
Sam looked dazed, and said, “You’re telling me you think that… _that_ shrinking violet hacked the NSA and BASE jumped from the top of a skyscraper? Nuh, uh. No chance. I’ve talked to her for hours. She’s nothing.”
Lita scoffed and said, “Don’t feel scorned, okay? I’ve talked to her, too. So has Stoney. She’s a lot smarter than you think.”
Distinctive nodded and said, “Well, she definitely knows Atomal. You guys don’t know how an Atomic Lathe works. They are skittish little pricks. We came to Longbeach because the lathe was about to fry that whole area, hundreds of miles. But, she just got in there and did everything right. She took control and just owned it. I didn’t even know she was into Atomal. I invented the language, but she’s the expert. It was wild. She’s a savant. Hell, her name practically says so. She’s everything we’ve ever heard about Exclusivor.”
Stoney shook his head. “But, she’s Indian. Exclusivor is Russian.”
Sam said, “I’m telling you. She’s nothing. She’s definitely not that good of an actress.”
Distinctive could tell Lita was about to light into Sam, but Q’s voice came over the speaker again. “Distinctive, these lathes freak me out. I know they are as dangerous, but what exactly do they do?”
Distinctive said, “I can’t tell you. Look, my point is: Avanta’s good. She has a hacker mentality. I could see her being Exclusivor. I could see her jumping off a building.” Distinctive remembered her kiss, just two hours before, and her bashful look. “Look, I gotta say, when she kissed me, I was thinking all kinds of things. She _is_ a good actress. I thought Sam was playing her. Maybe, she’s been playing us.”
Sam still wasn’t convinced, “So, this Sindictive guy kidnaps Avanta because she is Exclusivor. He, what, forces her to sign it over to him? That 30%?”
“Maybe that. He might not know who she really is. More likely, he grabbed her because she’s an expert with Atomal. Remember, that’s what they are programming the car with. Or, maybe we were getting too close and he needed leverage. Maybe he’ll ransom Avanta for the lock box.”
As if “Ransom” was a key word that raised the attention of the dark world, Distinctive’s phone crackled, and The Voice came over the speaker. The Voice said, “Hey, what did I miss?”