Exit Strategy

Episode 11 of Relativity

by Michelle and James Lehmann

 

Michael Bruce swung his racket sideways, launching the small rubber ball towards the front wall of the racquetball court. His opponent, Arthur Vaughn, jogged to the left but missed. It was a friendly game, but every fifth serve Michael would deliberately send the ball to his opponent’s weak side to keep him on his toes.

“I haven’t played in a month,” Arthur said, retrieving the ball. “I’m rusty.”

“You always say that.”

“It’s this Christmas holiday.” he grumbled, lining up to serve. “Messes up everything.”

Michael kept talking as he ran to hit the ball. “I know what you mean. Half my employees go on vacation, so nothing gets done for a month.”

“Same here,” said Vaughn, returning the shot. “We had a shipment go missing and nobody noticed because most of the warehouse staff was out.”

The ball sailed over his head. “Really?”

“Yeah. We figured out afterwards that they hit on the worst possible day. Everybody was taking their Christmas vacation and we just had a couple of new guys working that night.”

Michael retrieved the ball and prepared to serve. “How’d they get in?” He tried to make the question sound casual. He lobbed the ball in Arthur’s direction, an easy shot to return.

“We don’t know. There was no sign of forced entry. Just like my office a couple of weeks back.”

“Your office was broken into, too?”

“Trust me, we’re scrambling to beef-up security now.” He gave the ball a casual smack. “Actually, I’ve heard through the grapevine that there’s been a number of break-ins over the last couple months.”

“Really? Where?”

“Mostly private offices. Lawrence Tighe, Sigmund Waters, Alice Dodie...” Vaughn rattled off the names of a half-dozen other powerful people in Gale, most of them CEOs.

Distracted, Michael turned to face his friend, the ball shooting past him. “Was anything stolen?”

“No. Nothing physical, anyway. They were probably after information, you know? For corporate espionage and what-not.”

“Could that be how they broke into your warehouse? You said it was the worst possible night. Could they have found out everybody’s schedule?”

Instead of serving the ball normally, Arthur smacked it hard, causing it to bounce off the ceiling. “I’ll bet that was it. Though it wouldn’t make sense for them to break into my office just to grab a truckload of computer parts.”

Maybe that was a smokescreen, Michael thought, but didn’t mention it to his friend. “Hopefully insurance covered it,” he commented instead, trying to lighten his tone.

“Yes, thankfully. Though I guess I should have taken more stock in what CESAR said.” Vaughn glanced at his watch. “Nuts, it’s nearly three. Have to pick my daughter up from ballet. Good game, Michael. Same time next week?”

The Bruce CEO nodded, though his thoughts were far from racquetball. “Of course, Art. See you then.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“So, the funding for most of the year is determined by what we do this month. Forms, applications, reports, it’s a mess. Me and my staff will be up to our necks in it for the next few weeks.” Sara grabbed a breadstick and bit off the end. “So, I don’t think I’m gonna be available much for side-work, if you know what I mean.”

Michael nodded. “That happens. Don’t worry about it. This is important for the Home, you need to focus on that.”

“I know, but it stinks. I enjoy going out with you guys.”

Grabbing the salt shaker, Michael sprinkled his food. “Did you get the notice from my office, about our donation?”

“We did. Thank you. You were more than generous.”

“Well, it’s the least I could do. I hope to get more involved, personally; money can only take you so far.”

Before she could agree, someone shouted, “Say cheese!” The siblings turned as a bright light flashed, momentarily blinding them. Sara’s vision cleared just in time to see a young man with a camera hurry away.

“Who was that?”

“Paparazzi.” Michael rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why anyone would care about my life, but I get the occasional photo-hound grabbing a quick picture. You get used to it.”

“I don’t think I’d ever get used to it.” Michael expression was neutral, and Sara had gotten to know her brother well enough to realize something else was going on. “So, what’s on your mind? What are you working on?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve only been half paying attention this whole time. I can see the wheels turning in your head.”

“It’s nothing.”

Sara raised her eyebrow, shooting him one of the glares she’d give the kids at the Home.

Michael laughed. “All right. There’s been a string of break-ins at some of the more prominent Gale 50 companies.”

“Really? Why hasn’t it been on the news?”

“Corporate heads don’t want to publicize that kind of thing. Bad press. But I do think there’s a connection.”

“Are you afraid for Bruce Developing?”

“No, no. Our security is top-notch. Still, it’s disturbing that no one seems to be aggressively looking into it.”

“Until now,” she commented, finishing off her soup. “Though I hope this doesn’t get the city into a frenzy again.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, about a year ago there was some incident where a company had lax security and one of the female employees was raped and killed in her office.”

“I remember that.”

“Well, the woman’s family sued the company, plus the city and the county, since the guy was on probation. They argued authorities should have been monitoring him. The election was coming up, so the Mayor got into a tizzy and created an agency to set security standards for corporations. Problem is, they started talking about mandating smaller companies and government funded institutions too. I know they meant well, but they were suggesting that places like the Gale Home make these huge upgrades. We just don’t have the budget to do something like that.”

Pushing his plate away, Michael’s brow furrowed. “Why didn’t I hear about this oversight agency?” Before he could comment further, a familiar buzzing came from his pocket. Pulling out his phone, he scanned the police transmission.

“What is it?” Sara asked, lowering her voice further than it had already been.

“Liquor store robbery. Right around the corner. I really should go and check it out.”

“Want some help?”

“I thought you were on hiatus for the month?”

“One last round-about?” she said with a shrug.

Tossing a fifty dollar bill on the table, he nodded. “All right. Let’s go.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood Cadavre wiped off the last of the glassware and placed it on the shelf. He looked around the shop and smiled. After he and Melody had returned from their honeymoon, they had met with Stan and finalized the purchase of the business. Now it was their coffee shop; they were in complete control and could run it however they liked. Ravenswood had owned his own business before, his private eye office. But he was never proud of it. He was proud of the coffee shop.

“Honey, could you come here?” Melody called.

Ravenswood headed to the small office in the back of the building. “What is it?”

His wife was sitting at the desk, a dozen spiral-bound notebooks scattered in front of her. “I can’t make head or tails out of my father’s accounting system.”

Picking up the book off the top, he flipped through it. The first page was titled “August,” but there was no indication of what year it belonged to. The right edge of each page was filled with columns of numbers, but the columns weren’t labelled.

“Your dad didn’t explain this to you before he left?”

“He showed my how to clean the coffee maker twenty times. But he never showed me...” She waved her arms, as if she was trying to encompass the office, the kitchen, and the entire building. “How to run the business.

Ravenswood sighed and sat down across from her. He hadn’t thought to ask Stan about any of the details, and had assumed he’d been explaining it all to Melody. “We’ll figure it out. Here...” He took a blank sheet of paper from a nearby stack. “We’ll wing it for now. You write down all the financial details for today, and I’ll start going through the notebooks to figure out his system. I may have flunked out of accounting, but I remember enough to get this all straightened out.”

Before Melody could answer, one of the employees walked into the room. “Ray, your cell phone was ringing.”

“Thanks,” he said, grabbing the device from the younger man. As he left, the detective stared at the screen. “It’s the office.”

“But you’re not supposed to go in on Mondays.”

“Right, but technically I’m on call 24/7, in case of an emergency.”

“What about the notebooks?”

Holding up his finger, he pressed the return-call button. There was a click as someone answered, but there was no greeting, just a stream of incoherent yelling and expletives.

“Whoa, Yule, calm down. What happened?”

As the elder Bruce rattled off the events from the previous night, Ravenswood felt his heart sink into his stomach. “What do you mean? How could someone have gotten in? What about security? All right, all right. I’ll be there in a half an hour.”

Melody’s expression wilted as her husband disconnected the call. “Emergency?”

“Someone broke into the Bruce offices at the Tower last night. I have to go in.”

Though he could tell she was disappointed, she nodded. “It’s all right. I’ll wing it like you said, and we’ll tackle the accounting tomorrow.”

“Spoken like a real superhero.” He placed a kiss on her cheek and headed for the door.

“Ray,” she called after him. “One more thing. I don’t want Michael knowing we’re having any problems. You know how he is, he’ll want to ‘help’ us by trying to take over.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. I promise.” Giving a small salute, he grabbed his coat and left.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

As Chief Security Officer for Bruce Developing, Ravenswood was in charge of security for the entire global empire, as well as all of the smaller companies it owned. He didn’t really do much with most of them, except oversee the people responsible for each location. However, he also served as head of security at Crystal Towers, something he was personally involved in.

Yule was waiting for him by the elevators, arms crossed, foot tapping. Ravenswood swallowed hard and tried not to be intimidated.

When they entered the security center, he saw a uniformed cop sprinkling powder over the top of the desk while one of his staff talked to a detective. Warren Lindquist was a former police officer who had turned to security work after nearly being killed in the line of duty. He was smart, street-wise and dedicated, which is why Ravenswood chose him to be his second-in-command at the Tower.

The CSO greeted the police with a brief nod, but otherwise ignored them and approached Lindquist. “What was stolen?”

“I don’t know. We need to have a look around, but we can’t do that until they’re finished dusting for fingerprints.”

A tall, thin man with dark red hair approached. “I’m Detective Drake. That’s Officer Norton. I’m told you’re in charge of security.”

“That’s right. I have to apologize. I was just called in. I don’t even know what happened.”

“Apparently, several of the offices were broken into, as well as a file room. From the state of things, it looks like it happened overnight.”

The uniformed officer spoke. “Do any of you wear gloves on a regular basis?”

“No,” answered the men, simultaneously.

“Then someone was definitely here. I’m finding glove prints all over the place.”

“So, nothing useful,” said Ravenswood.

“Oh, glove prints can be useful. Especially leather gloves, because they’re made of cow hide, which is organic. They can be as unique as human fingerprints.”

Ravenswood thought of all the times he was in the room as Overcast and struggled to keep a poker face.

“I’m done,” Norton said. “I’ll move on to the next office.”

Drake gave a nod in affirmation and returned his attention to the security team. “You have video surveillance?”

Yule nodded. “I already had a look at the footage and it doesn’t show anything out of the ordinary.”

“Did you check the other videos?” Ravenswood asked.

“What other videos?” Yule scowled. “You’re keeping secrets from me?”

“No, no, of course not. I just never had a reason to mention them to you. Michael knows about them.”

“I know about them,” Lindquist piped.

The elder Bruce didn’t look happy. “How do we check these secret videos?”

“Tech Support, fourth floor.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The Technology Support department was responsible for keeping all of the data equipment running smoothly in the Gale branch of the Bruce empire. Yet for some reason they were located in a small, windowless, temperature-controlled room that had bare cinderblock walls. Even though it was located on the fourth floor of a modern office building, it felt like being in a basement. On one side of the room there was a long table covered with computers casings and parts. The other side of the room was divided up into a dozen cubicles. Three technicians were at work as their desks, and a fourth sat on the floor, adjusting a cable. Ravenswood led Drake, Yule, and Lindquist to the long table and motioned to an old, clunky-looking PC attached to a tube-type monitor. Taped to the front was a note reading: “Do not touch! If there’s no image, call Ravenswood at x6545.”

“This is top secret?” Yule droned.

Ignoring the comment, Ravenswood sat down and began doing something on the PC. Soon he called out, “Hey! Who installed Mineblaster on here? You know what that’ll do to my frame-rate?”

The tech guys ignored him.

Typing in a few commands, he managed to pull up an image of the back of the building. “Now, when did the break-in occur?”

“Police are estimating between three and four a.m.” said Warren.

The CSO began fast-forwarding the video. After a few minutes of “nothing happening very fast,” some figures flashed briefly on the screen.

“What the hell was that?” Yule blurted.

Ravenswood backed up the video and re-played it at normal speed. Three men dressed as janitorial staff walked up to the back door, waited a few moments, then walked in.

“That door is supposed to be off-limits to everyone but security staff,” Lindquist said.

“Which would make it a good place to break-in.” Ravenswood turned to the technicians. “Can you guys pull up the official surveillance tapes? I want to compare.”

A short man with a bushy beard and glasses nodded. “Yeah, let me stream it over to your machine. I’ll cue it up to the three o’clock mark.” The screen flickered and the door was seen from the opposite angle, the image taken by the official security camera.

“Stray cat,” Drake commented as a feline walked across the screen. “Didn’t see that on the other video.”

Ravenswood thought for a moment, then sped the video back a half an hour. Hitting it into fast forward, the same cat appeared at the 2:45 mark. “There he is again. Either someone copied this video onto itself, or a stray cat came by and did exactly the same stuff twice.”

“How could they have copied the image and replayed it?”

Detective Drake glanced around the room, his eyebrow raised. “Maybe it was an inside job.” Rubbing his chin, he motioned to Ravenswood. “I’ll need a copy of this video, if that’s all right.”

Yule nodded. “Of course. We’ll get you whatever you need.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was nearly noon when the two men made it back to Michael’s office. The younger Bruce was there, examining the layer of white powder on everything.

“Nice of you to show up,” Yule snipped at his son.

Making sure the door was closed, Michael faced his father. “I was out with Sara last night. Robbery turned ugly and three people were killed. Took us half the night, but we managed to track down the gunman. So, forgive me if I slept in.” He pointed to the open cabinets. “Someone broke in?”

Ravenswood nodded. “They managed to get access to the security system and alter the tapes so no one saw them enter. Fortunately, they showed up on the secondary tapes.”

“Did police say if there’s any connection to the other break-ins?”

“What other break-ins?” Yule asked.

Michael’s eyes narrowed. “They didn’t tell you? Let’s go talk in private.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Well, why the heck aren’t they telling anyone about this?” Ravenswood asked.

“I don’t know, but when I talked to Art Vaughn, he suggested he had learned about it by talking with other CEOs. So this must be something the police are trying to keep under wraps.”

“So much for all the security enhancements we had to do for CESAR. I thought that was supposed to stop this kind of thing.”

“CESAR? Vaughn mentioned that. Who or what is it?”

Ravenswood leaned forward, folding his hands on the large Control Center conference table. “Lemme see. I think it stands for Corporate Employee Safety and Regulation. It’s the task force the city set up to regulate employee safety in big companies.”

“That’s what Sara was talking about. Why didn’t you mention it to me?”

“Seems he likes to keep things secret,” Yule muttered.

The detective rolled his eyes. “It was just regulatory bullshit. You pay me to take care of that stuff so you’re not bothered with it.”

Tapping his pen on his coffee cup, Michael’s brow furrowed. “Were all of the companies that were hit part of CESAR?”

“Most likely. All businesses with over a hundred employees had to comply.”

“I think we need to get a list of everyone who’s been hit and learn a little more about this CESAR thing.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was nearly 7:00 p.m. when Ravenswood made it back to the coffee shop. Even though he was already strung out, he walked over to the dispenser and poured himself a large cup of dark roast. Heading back into the office, he noticed Melody looking through the notebooks.

“I thought I was going to do that.”

“Well, I didn’t know when you’d be back.”

Her tone was sarcastic, and Ravenswood’s first reaction was to bite back, but he forced himself to calm down. He knew she had every right to be upset. Sitting down, he began recounting the events of the day.

“I don’t understand. Crystal Towers is supposed to have the best security. How could they have altered the tapes and disabled the security locks?”

“That’s what we haven’t figured out. Michael and I are going to go out and try to gather some clues tonight.”

“Awesome,” Melody closed the notebook she had been working on. “I haven’t gone out in a while.”

Ravenswood rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh. Um. Yeah, but don’t you need to stay here and close tonight?”

Melody was quiet for nearly thirty seconds, then answered cooly, “Eddie can close.”

Ravenswood grimaced. “Eddie doesn’t know how to close.”

“Well, I can show him.”

“I’d feel better with Janine doing it.”

Melody sighed. “Janine isn’t working tonight. You know that.”

Ravenswood could tell Melody was getting upset, but he felt trapped. “We talked about this. We knew that there would be times that either you or I would have to stay behind to run the business.”

“Right. So why don’t I go and you close tonight.”

“Because I’m the security guy for Bruce Dev. I need to be there.”

Melody pursed her lips, her left eyebrow shooting up. “Fine,” she said in a voice that suggested the opposite. She turned and headed for the front of the shop.

“Mel, wait—” Ravenswood started, but she was already through the door, into the public areas where they couldn’t talk about superhero stuff.

Mentally kicking himself, he turned and took the back way out.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Torrent stared through the binoculars at the security building of Alton Industrial. As Michael Bruce, he had spent most of the afternoon on the phone with other victims of the recent corporate burglaries. The fact his company had been hit as well made his queries to the other CEOs less suspicious. He was able to get a plethora of information as other corporate heads shared their experiences. While he couldn’t seem to find any common thread among the attacks, he did manage to learn was that the hits were getting closer and closer, now averaging one every day or two.

While Alton Industries wasn’t one of the bigger companies in Gale, Michael concluded it was a good target as the manufacturer went on semi-hiatus through the holiday season.

There was a crunching from behind and Torrent focused his mental attention on the sound for a moment before returning his focus to the guard house. He recognized the footsteps.

“What took you so long?” he asked, never moving his gaze from the binoculars.

“Ah, I had a bit of an argument with Mel,” Overcast said.

Turning to face his friend, the caped crimefighter grimaced. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. She was just upset because she couldn’t come tonight. It’s been kinda rough the last few days at the shop. We’re trying to get the hang of running things on our own.”

Torrent’s eyebrow perked up. “Well, can’t you call her father? I’m sure he’d give you some pointers.”

“We would, but he’s off in Europe somewhere. He spent his whole life running the shop, so he and the wife decided to travel the world before settling down on Florida. I think they were in Tibet last we heard.”

“I love Tibet,” Michael said wistfully. “Well, is there anything I can do to help?”

“No!” Overcast blurted, then lowered his voice. “I mean, no, we’re good. We’ll figure it out. But I appreciate the offer.”

The crimefighter shrugged and returned his attention to the building across the street. “Everything looks quiet down there. I really hope this isn’t a bust.”

 

Three hours later, Overcast looked at his friend and shrugged. “I think this is a bust.”

“I thought for sure this would be it. C’mon, let’s go.”

The two heroes made it down to Torrent’s car.

“So, now what?” Ravenswood asked.

“We go back to base and consider our next move. Unfortunately, this may not be the type of case where things happen quickly.” As he slid into the driver’s seat, Michael jolted as he felt a vibration. Reaching into his utility belt, he pulled out his communicator. “Torrent here.”

“Did you guys see anything?” came the voice of Blizzard.

“What do you mean?”

“I just got word from the Fourth District. Alton was broken into a half an hour ago.”

“We didn’t see anything. We were just about to leave.”

There was a long pause. “These guys are good. Get in there and find out what you can.”

“So much for things not happening quickly,” Overcast sighed.

“I’d much rather it this way,” Torrent admitted. “Let’s go see what happened.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood Cadavre walked into the security center, a cardboard carrier with four cups in each hand. He placed it down on the table. “I brought coffee from the shop. Help yourself.”

Jerry Tate, the man sitting nearest the door, rose and grabbed one. “Thanks, Ray.”

“Have you found anything else about the break-in? I got wind that another company was hit last night. Same deal with cameras disabled and alarms deactivated. It’s crazy. You can see one or two companies getting it, but over a dozen? This is big shit.”

Tate removed the lid from his cup and took a sip. “We decided to do a full scan of the system, check for everything and anything that could have compromised security. Our normal safeguards keep us free of the basic stuff, like trojans and key-loggers, but we scanned for those anyway. Then we checked for rootkits and malicious packet sniffers, ran a heuristic algorithm on the network traffic. I checked every file against a table of file hashes to verify their integrity.”

Another one of the techs walked over, a man named George. “On top of that, I compared every file in the system to our last back-up, byte for byte. Overkill, I know, since file hashes have byte sensitivity.”

Even though Ravenswood didn’t understand 100% of what the men were saying, he knew they were being thorough. “Can’t be too over-cautious. I appreciate it. Though, the bottom line is, you’re telling me you didn’t find anything.”

Jerry nodded. “I like to think we’re tops at this stuff. That’s what you pay us for.”

“Yet someone still broke in.”

George walked back to his desk and returned with a stack of papers. “I ran a full audit of everything running on the system, outgoing and incoming communications, the works.”

Seating himself at the long table, Ravenswood started to flip through the connected perforated pages. “What’s this? Security Status Updater?”

“Oh, that’s the monitoring software mandated by CESAR.”

“What? I thought they just came in and made sure the system was up to speed.”

“Well, mostly. But in order to verify the integrity of the security system, they require periodic reports. It’s supposed to send out a small transmission every 24 hours, just noting any computer downtimes, etc. For statistical purposes.”

Ravenswood’s eyes narrowed and he pushed the papers aside. “Can you pull up the program on your computer?”

“I can pull it up, but I can’t access it. Just an information page. They won’t allow anyone to access it except the security firm that does the monitoring. That’s to assure the integrity of the data and prevent tampering.”

“Or prevent someone from seeing what they’re doing,” he muttered. “We need to delete it.”

Tate shook his head. “We can’t. We were told removal of the software would result in a fifty thousand dollar fine.” Taking another sip of his coffee, the tech motioned to the computer. “Still want us to get rid of it?”

“Hold off. I gotta clear this with Mr. Bruce,” Ravenswood said, then thought, or should I say, Black Torrent.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Michael grabbed the USB drive from his friend and plugged it into his laptop. “So, this program is loaded on our system?”

“Uh-huh. All companies are mandated to install the software. It looks innocuous enough.”

“Yeah, but is it?” Clicking on a series of buttons, Michael examined the various screens. “We need someone who can crack this and find out what it really does.”

“Reverse engineer it?”

The CEO nodded. “But who?”

Ravenswood grimaced. As much as the tech guys knew the ups and downs of computers, they weren’t hardcore hackers. “Don’t you have anyone who works with that kind of stuff? I mean, what about the Command Center network? Who programmed that?”

“My father has some friends in Thailand. Pay them enough money and they’ll program anything. Of course, they’ll do the same for terrorists.” His mouth twisted. “But it’s not like you can just call them up and set them on something. It could take them weeks to get to this. We need someone now.”

“There’s quite a few digital information firms who can do that kind of thing. I could make some calls, get a couple of recommendations.”

The blonde man shook his head. “I’m concerned about how widespread this CESAR thing is. If they have connections to anyone involved, the perps may get tipped off.”

“So, who can we get to hack the program?”

Michael tapped his pen on the blotter. “What we need is some teenager who does this stuff for fun, for the thrill of the challenge.”

“Right, and where are we gonna get one of those? Who do we know who even knows any teenagers?”

The men turned and stared at each other. “Sara.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Johnny Preston walked into the office, dressed in a video game t-shirt and blue jeans, and his long blonde hair secured in a ponytail. Michael could tell he was taking in every detail, from the bookcase in the corner, to the computer on the desk, to the impressive view of the city through the window.

“Holy crap,” he finally said. “You can tell you’re rich. This place is amazing.”

Ravenswood rolled his eyes. “Have a seat.”

The boy chose the left guest chair, keeping his attention on the CEO. “You know, when Sara said you were going to send a car to pick me up, I didn’t think it would be a limousine. I’ve never ridden in one before.”

Michael had met Johnny a few of times at the Home, but had never had a chance to sit and talk with him. The two were essentially strangers. “I hope you’re okay coming here alone.”

“It’s fine. Sara and the gang are up to their necks in paperwork. Besides, she always ends up acting like my mom, which is okay most of the time, but this is business.” Waiting for the men to seat themselves, Johnny folded his hands and leaned forward. “So, you need some computer help.”

“We have a proprietary program that needs to be cracked,” Ravenswood started. “We don’t believe it’s doing what the creators say it is. We think it’s malicious.”

“But we have to be discreet,” Michael continued. “It’s a government program.”

“Just the type of thing I like.” Leaning back in the chair, the teen rubbed his chin. “So, I’m going to need two computers, networked, but off the main system. High end stuff, not cheap CPUs. I’ll also need access to the main network so I can mirror it. Then I’ll need—” The teen cocked his head. “You should probably make a list.”

“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Ravenswood muttered to his friend.

“I’m confident Johnny here is the man for the job.” Michael grabbed a pad and made some notes. “Is there anything else you can think of?”

“Yes, payment. Fifty dollars an hour, cash, and all the chips and soda I want.”

Laughing, Michael rose and grasped the teens hand. “You’ve got a deal.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was a mere day and a half later when Johnny called Michael over to the small workstation they had set-up in the corner of his office. Stepping over a candy bar wrapper, he moved to the teens’s side.

“What have you got?”

Typing in a command, the screen flickered as line after line of code scrolled up. Michael whistled. “Hardly the type of thing that sends out a signal to show all systems are operational.”

“Oh, it does that,” Johnny said with a nod. “It also gives a full report of everything: system, strengths, weaknesses, passwords, the works. Plus it gives a backdoor these guys can use to hijack it at any time.” Punching in a few more commands, the screen cleared and a graph appeared. “They’re monitoring all activity. They have re-installers in place, so if someone were to try to remove the program, it would simply load itself again, but in stealth mode. Though, that’s actually common with a lot of malicious programs. The disturbing thing is that it sends a full report of any alterations to the program.”

“So if someone were to try to stop it or change it, they would know.”

“Exactly,” Johnny said with a smile.

Michael met the smile. “But you can get around that, right?”

“Already have. Basically, I have it sending an all-clear signal. I did program it to broadcast a few hiccups and data changes, so it mimicks normal activity. But, they should have no idea we’re hacking the code.”

“Good. So they can’t circumvent the system again. But that doesn’t tell us where they’re going to strike next.”

“Why would you worry about that?”

“Well, many of my friends are company heads. I don’t want to see anyone else get targeted.”

“Oh.” He cleared the screen. “So, now what?”

“Sit tight while I figure out our next move.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Michael made it back to the penthouse around dinner-time. Yule had instructed him to invite Ravenswood so they could discuss the case further. Sandwiches and salads were awaiting them in the dining room.

“CESAR is the name of the project.” Yule handed print-outs to the men. “But the city hired a security firm, Risorius, to do the work.”

“It’s typical to outsource that kind of thing,” Michael said, picking up the report.

“True. What’s interesting is who’s on the board of directors.”

Ravenswood scanned the paper. “James Cannon? The former mayor? So, he sets up CESAR and then hires his own firm to do the work and gets the payout?”

“It’s quite unethical,” Yule said with a nod. “But it happens all the time. The real question is, what if he had ulterior motives? What if he also decided to use it for side jobs?”

“That makes sense.” Finishing his soda, Michael pulled a page from his own folder. “I managed to track down most of the companies that have been hit and cross-referenced them, to see if I could find something that connected them all. I couldn’t. Now, I always suspected that some of the thefts were covers to break the pattern, but it just seemed too random. That is, until I took another look at the list.”

Yule grabbed the paper, his gaze going to the firm highlighted in yellow. “Marcus Thornberg & Associates? They’re purely construction.”

“Right. They have lots of equipment and supplies, but nothing was stolen.”

Thinking a moment, the elder man nodded. “They’re heavy players in the city. Lots of contract work.”

“Right. They don’t deal in small projects, only big ones. In fact, I heard they were bidding on the 17th Street Industrial Park. It’s one of the reasons I decided to skip on the project, because I know they’re usually aggressive in their bidding.”

“That project is going to be monster. All the heavy-hitters want a piece of it. Though I didn’t realize you’d decided not to take a shot at it. Did you tell anyone you weren’t bidding?”

“No. I was going to send out a memo next week.”

Ravenswood mouth twisted to the side. “I don’t understand why someone would set-up something like this, just to find out who’s bidding on a project.”

“Because it can be worth millions of dollars. Most projects are allowed to go over budget a percentage. Sometimes up to twenty or thirty percent. So low-balling a bid gets you in the door, but doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a smaller pay-out.”

The private eye cocked his head. “But this CESAR thing is a big-time operation. Hitting all of these business just to bid on one deal?”

Yule rubbed his chin. “Maybe the other hits weren’t smokescreens, but actual hits. Corporate espionage has many faces. It’s why they don’t just go into the computer systems, because they know companies oftentimes keep stuff strictly on paper, to prevent this kind of digital breach. My thought is that this company specializes in many different types of corporate infiltration and theft.”

Rising, Michael gathered his plate. “Well, even if I call around to the firms that haven’t been hit, I doubt many are going to admit if they’re bidding on the project or not. It’ll be impossible to guess where they’re gonna strike next.”

“Unless we give them a place to hit,” Yule suggested.

“What do you mean?”

“They apparently went away empty-handed when they didn’t find anything here. So let’s give them something to find. Announce to the media that you’re making a bid. Get their ears perked up.”

“Are they going to hit here again?” Ravenswood asked. “Can they risk it?”

“Whoever they’re working for doesn’t want to lose that contract. I don’t think they’ll take the same route in, but I’m counting they’ll try again.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Reviewing the last document, Michael made a final scribble on his legal pad and shoved it into the folder. Across the room, Johnny sat at his make-shift computer center, his brow furrowing as he read something on the screen.

“Anything interesting?” the CEO asked.

“Did you really climb Mount Everest when you were twenty?”

He shifted in his seat. “Yeah, why?”

“I was reading your biography on Forbes. It says you did a tour of Europe after college.”

Michael blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. Rich kid with too much time and money on my hands. Went and saw the world. It was a pretty amazing experience, but I’m not sure how proud I am of it.”

Johnny sighed and sank back into his chair. “I wish I could do something like that. I’ve never seen anything other than Gale. I’d love to travel the world, have a few adventures.” He kicked at the floor. “Maybe some day, when I’m old, like in my forties.”

Michael snickered and walked over. “So what do you want to do with your life? I mean, after you graduate?”

“I dunno. I’d like to get into computer technologies. Open a software company, develop a few games.”

“I heard Gale University has a great program. We have several of their grads on my staff.”

Johnny laughed. “Yeah, but try getting in there. Even if you can make the grades, the tuition will kill you.”

“There’s scholarships.”

“I know. Trouble is, you have hundreds of kids vying for a dozen scholarships.” The teen sighed. “I know it’s silly, but I don’t even try anymore. What good does it do, getting your grades up and still losing out? I figure I’ll go to community college, ace through, then try to get in somewhere my last two years.”

Michael stared at the picture on the computer screen, a photo of himself at the bottom of Everest. He always knew his parents’ fortune had afforded him opportunities others could only dream of. But he’d never been so aware of how hard it was for others before meeting Sara and the kids at the Home.

“How about this... If you make the grades and get accepted to Gale U, I’ll cover the tuition.”

The boy’s face lost expression. “You’re serious? A scholarship?”

“No, I’ll cover it personally. Call it a bit of a repayment for helping us here.” The CEO placed a hand on the teen’s shoulder. “Besides, I know you’ve helped Sara a lot. I’m sure she’d approve.”

“Thanks,” Johnny beamed, before his smile wilted. “Does that mean I don’t get the $50 an hour?”

“Oh no, I’ll still pay your rate.”

The teen wiped his hand across his brow. “Good. Thought I was going have to give up that game system I have on lay-away.”

A beep came from the computer and both turned their attention to the monitor. A warning screen appeared, followed by a series of codes.

“They’ve just accessed the security system.”

Michael had already figured that out and was scanning the lines of code. “They’re looking to access the truck bays in the lower garage. Probably want to make it look like a delivery.”

The boy nodded. “And then disable the cameras on the freight elevators.”

Pulling his cellphone out of his pocket, Michael pressed several buttons. Both remained silent as the screen continued to show the activities of Risorius.

Three minutes later, Ravenswood Cadavre entered. “Got your message. What’s up?”

He gestured to the computer. “Bait taken. Looks like they’re planning to hit tomorrow night.”

“You’re sure they aren’t accessing the main system?” the detective asked the teen.

“Positive. This is all happening on the dummy system. From their point of view, they think it’s the real thing.”

“We’re gonna need to have a good security team on hand to intercept these guys,” Michael gave his friend a knowing glance. “We may want to see if we can get some extra help.”

“What about Team Torrent?”

Both men turned to face the boy. “Excuse me?” Michael asked, trying to keep his voice level.

Johnny shrugged. “Team Torrent, they could help, right?”

Ravenswood swallowed hard, but managed to keep a stoic expression. “I’m sure they could, but...”

“I could see if I could get a hold of them for you.” Johnny said, casually.

Michael’s eyebrow rose. “You know Team Torrent?”

“Well, I know someone who knows them. I can see if I can hook you up.”

Michael fought the urge to smile. It was amusing that the teen was trying to impress them. “Really? You have connections to Team Torrent?”

“I have a connection to Dark Flame. I can see if she can arrange something.”

Ravenswood grimaced. “I don’t know about that.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Michael said with a nod. “We can take whatever help we can get.”

“Great. I’ll make a few calls after I leave. First let me get a full report on what they were doing and figure out exactly what they have planned.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Overcast and Zephyra stood in the stairwell. Though a surveillance camera pointed down at them, Johnny had wired it so that a blank image displayed, just in case the burglars had some kind of live feed. Ravenswood had also brought a signal disrupter, just in case.

With the big bust imminent, Melody had insisted on coming, calling-in Jeff to close so she could be present. Ravenswood wasn’t happy about it, but didn’t argue; her being there allowed Michael Bruce to remain in his civilian clothes.

“Shouldn’t they be here by now?” she asked, glancing at her watch for the eight time.

“Most of the break-ins occurred around three a.m. Something should be happening soon.”

It was an uncomfortable silence and Ravenswood wanted to say something to his wife, but he instead fiddled with his walkie-talkie. Ten minutes later, it sprang to life. “This is it,” the voice of Warren Lindquist said. “Truck just entered the docking bay without clearance.”

Pulling open the door, Overcast glanced down at the Bruce office. The hallway was darkened, only dim after-hour lights illuminating the area.

“See anything?” Melody asked.

“Not yet. It’s going to take a few minutes for them to get up here.”

A bell sounded as the freight elevator reached the floor. Glancing at his portable monitor, Ravenswood could see the office security camera was showing only a silent hallway, no activity from the elevator. They were feeding-in an altered image.

“There’s three guys, all dressed in black,” he whispered into the communicator.

The group approached the office door. Their agileness and speed showed they were skilled thieves. One fell to his knees and picked the lock within seconds.

“All right, they’re in. We’re going to bust it up. Take up the rear.”

“Roger,” Lindquist answered. “We have our team coming in from the north stairwell. We’ll be right behind you.”

With a loud yell, Zephyra darted into the office and switched on the light. The action was enough to stop the criminals dead in their tracks.

Overcast rushed in from behind, pistol drawn. “All right, game’s over.”

The thieves tensed slightly, then eased, raising their hands in surrender. A moment later the Crystal Towers security team rushed in.

“All right now,” Ravenswood said, keeping his gun trained on the group. “Tell us what you’re here to get and who you’re getting it for.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Interrogation of the thieves hadn’t provided much information. The group of four men and one woman insisted that they were there to find anything physical, like written notes, files and print-outs. Any computer stuff was handled by someone they had never seen. They insisted they were hired by an individual named Joe Smith and had no knowledge of Risorius. While Michael Bruce didn’t believe them, he did believe that they had planned to meet their contact later that night to deliver what any information they had obtained.

The meeting place was an alley on the near south side of Gale, not far from the uptown area. When the crimefighters arrived, they could see why the spot had been chosen. The two apartment buildings on either side were condemned, and the alley itself was in total darkness.

They had worked out what to do on the way there. Parking a block away, they put their plan into action. Torrent climbed to the roof of one building while Zephyra scaled the other. Once in position, Overcast crept into the alley with his gun drawn.

Adjusting his night-vision goggles, Torrent whispered into his communicator, “I don’t see anyone.”

“Neither do I,” said Zephyra.

Overcast checked out the doorways, garbage cans, and other possible hiding spots. “Nothing,” he reported. “I don’t think anybody’s here.”

Waiting another twenty minutes, Torrent decided to abort. “They must have figured out we caught their accomplices. Let’s head back to base.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“This isn’t the way back to base,” said Overcast after they had driven a few blocks.

“No. I didn’t want to say it back there, in case there was someone listening. We’re headed to the Risorius offices. We know they’re behind this. We should be looking for evidence there.”

A police siren could be heard in the distance. Zephyra got a puzzled look on her face, then asked, “Is that coming from behind or in front of us?”

“Behind us,” Overcast said as he turned and looked out the back window.

“In front of us.” Torrent pointed at a police cruiser that passed ahead of them.

“I think I can hear a third one,” Melody commented.

Overcast sighed. “Busy night. That means we’d better hurry up here, ‘cause we’re going to get a bunch of calls.”

The Risorius office was located just outside the business district, where the tall buildings fell away to make room for miles of two and three story structures. The building they were looking for was a brick rectangle with curved scallops decorating the base.

Overcast and Zephyra held back while Torrent approached the rear. He was prepared to pick the lock, but when he grabbed the handle, the door appeared to be unlocked. He pushed it open with his finger. “This doesn’t look good.”

Once inside, the crimefighter drew in a sharp breath. Aside from tables and chairs, everything was gone. A quick search revealed every scrap of paper had been either removed, shredded, or set fire to in the kitchen. The computers had been taken in such a hurry that many of the cords had been left behind.

Torrent’s communicator beeped. “Come in, Blizzard,” he answered.

“What did you find?”

“Nothing. They’re gone, everything.”

There was a long pause. “Head back to base.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was nearing six a.m. when the three made it back to Crystal Towers. Due to the sting, Johnny’s computer set-up had been moved to Yule’s office. Both the young man and elder Bruce were there, scanning the computer screen.

“What happened?” Michael asked.

“They triggered a drop-dead program,” Johnny explained. “Command came and it did a data wipe of everything installed on our system. But don’t worry. It just wiped the dummy system.”

“Yeah,” Yule concurred with a scowl, “But not everyone was so lucky. The program triggered on every system that had the CESAR program installed. The police have been getting calls all night. Most of the major corporations are in disaster recovery mode. All of their systems have been compromised.”

“How could they have known they were discovered?”

“I think I have an idea about that.” Johnny pointed to a blip on the screen. “The system was constantly pinging to assure the system was live.”

“Pinging?” Melody asked.

“It sends out a signal and waits for a response,” Ravenswood explained.

“Right. Well, I think the same thing went for the operatives. My guess is these guys were supposed to somehow communicate back with base when they made it in and got the data safely. When that didn’t happen, Risorius aborted.”

“And set off a booby trap to wipe their tracks,” Yule added.

“Great,” Melody groaned. “We’re never going to find them now.”

Rubbing his eyes, Ravenswood grabbed his wife’s arm. “Well, these guys are big stuff. My guess is this isn’t the last time we’re going to run into them.”

Yule nodded. “Why don’t you two head out. Michael and I will get Johnny back home. Then we should all try to get a few hours of sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be busy.”

Watching his father and the couple leave, Michael stayed behind when he noticed Johnny lingering. “What is it?” .

“When all of this started to happen, I did a thorough scan of the code. I found a calling card.”

“A what?”

“Hackers like to brag, take credit for their work. I found a line of code that showed the program was written by Jibodeah.”

Michael cocked his head. “Jibodeah? Who’s he?”

“Not he, them. It’s a group of hackers. This is just the type of thing they would like, taking on the security systems of big corporations.”

“And they get involved with bidding on city projects?”

“No, not at all. They were hired to do this. To create the programs used for the breaches.”

“By Risirious.”

“Yep. My guess is that the company is just a front. It’s probably someone else behind the scenes.”

Even though the information raised more questions, it was still good to know. “I think Ravenswood is right. This isn’t the end of the story. We’re going to run into these guys again.”

“And if you do, I’m here to help,” the teen said with a smile.

The CEO nodded. “I will definitely take you up on that.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Ravenswood tossed the pen on the desk, letting out a deep sigh. “That’s it. I finally got a handle on all of the accounting. What a mess of spaghetti.”

Melody chuckled. “Well I’m glad you did it without calling my dad. I didn’t want him to think we couldn’t handle it.”

He nodded. “I still want to get a formal accountant to do all of the end of month reporting, but I think we can handle the day-to-day stuff.”

Melody sat down in the chair opposite her husband. “Thank you for working it all out.”

“It’s my job. Our business.”

“I know.” Clutching her hands, she inhaled deeply. “Ray, I want to promote Jeff and Janine to managers. Then I want to hire a few more employees.”

Glancing at the budget he had just created, Ravenswood grimaced. “That’s going to cost a lot in payroll.”

“I know. But we can afford it. I mean, I know it will eat into our profits, but you and I don’t really need to draw a paycheck. At least not for a while. Your salary with Michael is more than enough to support us.”

“You’re right.”

She continued. “I want to be out there, crimefighting. I don’t mind being here sometimes, but I think we need to get the shop into a position where it can run without us, if things get tense.” She squared her shoulders. “I don’t want to be the sidekick that is with you every now and then. I want to be your partner, in and out of costume.”

Ravenswood smiled. Melody had such fire and determination. Those were the things he had admired in her from the beginning, and the things which had made him fall in love with her. “You’re sure about this?”

“Yes, I mean, if we ever want to open another shop, we need to allow other people run it, not just us. We should get used to it now.”

Glancing at the numbers on the page, Ravenswood pushed down the urge to panic. His wife was right. If they wanted their business to grow, they would need to take chances, but, “What if we fail?”

Melody glanced down, and Ravenswood could tell it was something she had already considered. “Then it fails. Whether we like it or not, we’re superheroes. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices in order to save the day.” The blonde reached across the desk and grabbed his hand. “But we’re not going to fail, right?”

“Right.”

Looking at the clock, Melody motioned her head to the door. “C’mon, lunch crowd will be here soon. Let’s go and get ready.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Michael shifted in his chair, balancing the phone on his shoulder while he typed. “Yeah, everything is good here now. We had our computer guys shore up the system and implement new safeguards. Johnny’s input was invaluable. Make sure you thank him again for us.” Finishing his email, he turned back to his desk. “I’m glad to hear everything is coming along with you. We’ll see you next week at the penthouse for dinner. Bye, Sara.”

Placing the phone back onto the base, Michael sipped his coffee. It was stone cold, but he drank it anyway. He still had several matters to attend to and it was going to be a late night.

Returning his attention to the computer, he clicked on the word processor. Instead of launching the screen froze. Clicking the mouse a few more times, he punched several keys on the keyboard. Still nothing. Grimacing, his hand reached for the power button just as a small screen popped up.

“What the...?”

CONGRATULATIONS. YOU WON THE GAME!

Michael clicked the X to close the window. Another quickly appeared.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE YOUR PRIZE?

Repeating his action, the CEO closed out the window, only to have another pop-up.

DON’T BE LIKE THAT. C’MON, DON’T YOU WANT TO SEE, MR. BRUCE?

Taking a deep breath, Michael tried to remain calm. He realized this was a game he needed to play.

“All right,” he spoke aloud, typing the same words into the computer.

YOU WIN... INFORMATION!

Michael nodded as he typed “continue.”

JIBODEAH != RISORIUS

It took him a moment to remember that “!=” meant “not equal to” among computer geeks.

“I figured that out,” he replied.

JIBODEAH != PIRATEERS

Pausing a moment, Michael considered the words. “I’m listening,” he typed.

RISORIUS = PIRATEERS

His fingers poised on the keys, unsure how to proceed.

“Who are the Pirateers?” he asked finally.

SORRY. THAT’S FOR US TO KNOW AND YOU TO FIND OUT.

Michael pounded the keys a little harder. “Why are you telling me this?”

The screen flickered, suddenly turning black.

“No,” he blurted, then muttered, “Damn.”

As his finger moved to the off button again, another window popped-up.

TEAM TORRENT ROCKS.

Taking a deep breath, Michael stared at the screen. Had the group just learned Team Torrent had been involved in the bust, or had they figured out something deeper?

STAY TUNED FOR FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS.

The screen blacked out. This time, however, it stayed that way.

A cold feeling creeping into his bones, Michael turned off the computer, gathered his jacket, and headed out the door.