Troubleshooter – Nine

by Andrea Speed

“Why are you smiling?” Hilda asked, clearly annoyed. “This isn’t a laughing matter.”

“When you get down to it, what is?” Z replied breezily, tapping a couple of keys on her laptop keyboard. “But here’s the biggest joke of all.” She turned the laptop around, and then shoved it towards the Osiris woman and her bodyguards.

troubleshootercover.jpgThe blonde eyed her warily before edging closer to have a better look at the screen. She squinted down at it for a moment, the blue-white light reflecting in her slightly bloodshot eyes. She scowled at it, then shifted her gaze towards her. “What the fuck is this?”

“It’s a usenet site where hackers are known to gather. There are two guys on it right now who cracked your interface, and know what it means – and unless they hear from me at a pre-arranged time, they’re sharing it with all their friends worldwide.”

She stiffened, but tried to look both resolute and clueless, which was a difficult combination. “If you intend to distribute proprietary information -”

“Proprietary? Oh no, we’re not talkin’ about sharing MP3’s of whatever cocktease is on the top of the pops this nanosecond. Fuck it – according to my hack buddy, Mozilla has nothing to worry about from you. No, what they’re gonna share is the toy surprise inside.”

Hilda was trying to keep her expression bland, but the effort was making her make up start to crack. “Are you on drugs? What are you talking about?”

“That bit of code buried deep in the interface coding. I don’t speak technobabble, so I could be a little off in my description, but I’m sure you’ll get the gist. Buried in your interface was basically a neutered worm, that could only infect the computer its installed upon, and leave a secret “back door”. And this worm was basically an info gathering program that could only be detected and accessed if you knew what you were looking for. It was also built specifically to avoid detection by anti-virus programs, and since the worm “dies“ shortly after accomplishing its job, there‘s nothing for you guys to worry about.”

The woman scoffed, but sweat was starting to bead along her hairline. What kind of super-strength epoxy did she use on her hair? Even in a breeze it didn’t move. “That’s bullshit. It doesn’t even make sense.”

“Told you I didn’t speak technobabble. But it’s honestly brilliant – gather all the information on whoever uses the infected computer. Genius, and honestly just a step above what some cookies do now anyways. Under the Patriot Act, it may not even be technically illegal, ‘cause privacy seems to be judged more of a privilege than a right nowadays. But here’s the thing – the info is harvested by a company that helped finance Slipstream, a DataCor Marketing. Which is, of course, a CIA front. But you knew that.”

She scoffed breathlessly, and looked around at her bodyguards – and Shan – as if appealing for help. “This is insane. I had no idea she was this crazy.”

“Why else was Ward trying to smuggle it out, and why else were you desperate to keep it a secret? Getting into a Faustian deal with a marketing concern is bad enough – but one that actually pimps for the CIA? Now that’s a p.r. nightmare.” It was actually possible she didn’t know DataCor was a front; she knew only because MI-6 kept tabs on all other intelligence agencies and their various “blinds”. Although technically allied intelligence agencies worked together, they didn’t do so easily or well, and MI-6 had a generally negative opinion of all other agencies. Sometimes even for good reasons.

Hilda shook her head dismissively, sticking to the script. “You’re paranoid.”

“Of course I am. Anyone with a functioning prefrontal cortex should be. But you’ve given me extra reason to be so, haven’t you? Hiring me as well as that fixer, hedging your bet.”

The puzzlement that flashed through her pale blue eyes seemed genuine. The bodyguard on her left shifted from foot to foot, as if tired of standing – or getting anxious. “Fixer?”

“The thug, the one who murdered Shaw. You figured one of us would hit pay dirt, legally or illegally, but you didn’t expect us to collide. Did you expect him to kill Shaw? Not that it matters; fixers do things their own way. They aren’t much for following orders. And torture’s a bad way to get usable information, but I wouldn’t expect a guy who didn’t even know what info he was getting to know that. I can’t believe you actually thought I’d be scared off by Shaw’s violent death – or did you think he was the only lead I had?” Technically he had been, but she wasn’t about to admit that now. “But is it the public you were trying to hide it from? Let’s face it, it’s the FBI that does the domestic spying, and they wouldn’t be thrilled to have the CIA infringing on their territory, even though I’m sure you intend to go worldwide with this. Well, you did – you’re fucked now.”

The numbers on the fixer’s phone contained several belonging to Osiris, including one to a J. Maguire – Joanne Maguire, head of Osiris’s research and development department. It was more than likely that Hilda was Joanne, but she preferred thinking of her as Hilda. That name seemed to suit her more. “We’ll sue all your asses back to the Stone Age if you distribute proprietary information over the internet.”

“My god. You just have that one song and you’re just gonna keep singin’ it, aren’t you? If it makes you feel any better, they’re not gonna share the entire program – just the code, and what your intentions are with it. Checkmate, honey. On your bike, or you’re finished.”

Hilda stiffened, and antsy thug pulled the gun out from beneath his jacket, a run of the mill 9 millimeter Z was pretty sure you could get at the 7-11, next to the “Take a penny, leave a penny” cup. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shan start to move, and immediately held up her hand to make him stop. The man’s eyes briefly scudded over to Shan, but he kept the gun trained on her the whole time. “Hand it over,” Hilda insisted. “You were hired to find it, not rip us off.”

She wasn’t concerned about the gun. She could kick the table over on them and pull her SIG before they could even find someone to shoot at. “No, you didn’t hire me – someone posing as Andrew Ward hired me. And I ain’t rippin’ you off, sweetheart; I’m chewin’ you and your whole fucking company a new one. You might be able to weasel out of criminal charges, even the front page, but escape the hackers? It’d be kinder for me to turn you over to the Feds, and we both know it.” Hilda scoffed, but looked away nervously, as if the severity of the situation was finally dawning on her. Z kept hammering it home. “As soon as this gets out, you’re done. Or do you think you can run a software company without server access? While under constant hack attack? Feel lucky, punk?”

As a car drove down the street, Hilda and her guards rearranged themselves slightly, so the gun wouldn’t be visible from that angle. It was done so automatically and casually she again wondered about Ward’s true fate. Hilda waited until the car was down the street before whispering, “Why don’t we go somewhere more private?”

It was Z’s turn to scoff and shake her head. “Yeah, right. Gonna kill me, just do it here, ‘cause I’m not leaving.”

“I’m sure we can make a deal,” Hilda countered, her expression softening to pure blandness.

“I’m sure we can’t.” She tapped her laptop screen. “You’re running out of time. In ten minutes, the worm’s out of the bag.”

Finally the goon with the gun lost all his patience, and talked. “We can find your friend in nine.”

“Really? What about his friend, whom he shared the code with? He’s in Eastern Europe. Did you know that’s a hacker’s hotbed? I seem to learn something new every day.”

The goon didn’t react in any way, he didn’t even blink, but after staring at her for a long moment, Hilda’s shoulders sagged in defeat. She was finally starting to get that there really was no way for her to win here. “What do you want?”

“You – all of you – out of my life for good. And this worm gone for good. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you release the browser or not, go ahead, but if the worm’s still there, you will be destroyed. It’s a new age, and there’s a new way of fighting. Kill me or don‘t; even if you win, you lose, honey.”

Z held eye contact with her a long time, watching her, trying to gauge if she was bluffing or not. Finally, Hilda reached over and lowered her goon’s gun, much to his obvious disgust, but he wilted under her caustic stare and put his gun away. He still looked like he was going to throw a major hissy fit, though. “Fine. Make the call.”

Z smirked at that. After all of this, Hilda thought she could still order her around? “Not until you’re nothin’ but tail lights. And you‘d better get a move on – seven minutes.”

She got a final blistering look from her and her Mr. Clean clone bodyguards, but it just made Z feel like laughing again.

The trio returned to the dark Lexus, Hilda throwing a final glance over her shoulder. “We’ll be watching,” Z reminded her, taping the laptop again.

Hilda scowled sourly, and extended her ringed middle finger at her, and disappeared inside the car. Z burst out laughing as they pulled away from the curb, and roared off into the night.

As soon as the car had disappeared around the corner, Shan exclaimed, with almost hysterical intensity, “Kill me or don’t?! Are you fucking insane, Z?!”

She looked back at him while pulling the cell phone out of her pocket. “Rule of gambling, Shan: to win big, you have to bet big.”

“But … bet your life?! No, sorry, ours! I mean, I know I’m pretty fucked up, but I’m not ready to die -”

“We were in no danger.” She punched in Sajeet’s number, and wedged the phone against her ear.

He scoffed, almost turning it into a laugh. “He had a gun. A gun pointed at you.”

“And I could have put a bullet through his head before he got off his first shot. You could just tell he was too accustomed to people instantly folding; he didn’t know what to do when someone didn’t. No worries.” The phone barely trilled twice before Sajeet snatched up the receiver.

“Yeah?” He said, anxiety giving his voice an edge.

“No worries?” Shan repeated incredulously. “I was almost pissing my pants over here! And I don’t wanna find out if piss comes out of vinyl …”

“It’s off, Saj, at least for now. Let him know.”

“Just a sec,” She was pretty sure that she heard the click of fingers on a keyboard. “Okay, done.”

Okay, so they were still in contact by instant messenger. Well, it was probably the only way to talk to someone in Bulgaria without getting a phone bill thicker than The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “You got a programmer friend in India, right?”

“Pavinder, yeah. Why?”

“Pass the code on to him too. Let’s have three of you in on the loop.”

He paused thickly. “In case something happens to the rest of us?”

“No, of course not. I want rumors to eventually start circulating about a worm of this magnitude. Let’s quietly prepare everybody for the inevitable.”

“You think it’s coming out anyways?”

“Maybe not Osiris, but through someone. And if DataCor could come up with it, couldn’t a decent codeslinger elsewhere develop it independently?”

“Well … it’s possible.”

“Thought so. Let’s start an urban legend. Thanks mate.” She hung up the phone and tucked it back in her pocket before shutting down her laptop.

Shan came to stand beside her, sighing as if winded, folding his weightlifter arm across his chest. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?” She wondered, handing him her shut laptop. As designated “pack mule”, he took it without comment.

“Stare down the barrel of a gun without even flinching?”

“Drugs.” She got up and started walking down the street, forcing him to follow. He did, jogging up to walk abreast of her, still shaking his head at her flippant response.

“Y’know, Z – and don’t take this the wrong way – but sometimes I think you’re completely fucking nuts.”

“It’s taken you this long to figure that out?”

He clicked his tongue and kept shaking his head, tucking the laptop beneath his arm. There was a block of silence, making her think that Shan was expecting more, maybe even a serious answer, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Finally, he accepted that, and changed the subject. “Is it really over?”

“For all intents and purposes.”

“Meaning no.”

“No, I mean it. There’s little they can actually do, not until they find out who else knows about this, and where they are. And they’ll never be sure they’ve got all those tricky loose ends. Always keep ‘em guessin’, Shan – that’s how you win.”

“The motto of women everywhere.”

She gave him a gentle backhand slap on the shoulder without breaking stride. He jokingly cringed back, but she hardly touched him. “Keep that to yourself. Trade secret.”

It was an oddly still night, heavy with lingering daytime heat radiating up from the pavement, and the cloying odor of exhaust. Somebody had driven by recently in a car that desperately needed a tune up. In the relative silence, their footsteps seemed inordinately loud, as did the leather like creaking of Shan’s pants. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and told him, “You know, you can actually go home now. Or back to work, if you miss the belligerent drunks.”

“Yeah right. I think I need to hide in your laundry room until sun up.”

“That isn’t the first time you’ve seen a gun, Shan. That prick shot at us earlier today, remember?”

“Sure, but … hey, wait a second. He wasn’t working for them, was he?”

“Osiris? No.”

“So he was working for Girani?”

She shrugged, and felt a familiar itch between her shoulder blades. That incident did not fit into the puzzle at all. The fixer was hired by Osiris, not Girani, so in all likelihood, Girani was never after the case. There probably wasn’t a second party, save for the back up Hilda hired. So who the hell was Dickeye, and why had he sent some pathetic junkie after her? If not to scare her off the Osiris case, what had that been about?

She noticed peripherally that Shan was staring at her, his brows beetled over his shadowy eyes. “Uh oh.”

“Uh oh what?”

“I know that look on your face: you’re thinking about it. Is that something else we need to worry about?”

She raised an eyebrow at that. “We, kemosabe?”

He rolled his eyes dramatically, making him briefly look like a teenager. “Look, all these guns are freaking me out a little, but I’m your partner. I’m hanging in there.”

“I thought you were my ineffectual sidekick.”

“Tomato, tomahto.”

She did her best to keep from smiling. If Shan wasn’t so amusing, she’d never let him tag along. But he was useful sometimes, and even kind of funny. It occurred to her she might be a nicer person if she spent a couple months in a coma.

Come to think of it, no. It’d take a hell of a lot more than that.

As they rounded the corner of her apartment block, she was hit by the sharp scent of gasoline, and noticed a new canary yellow flyer plastered on the metal crosswalk pole. The color of the paper caught her eye, and scrawled on it in what appeared to be black magic marker, was the word ‘Zero’. In slightly smaller letters, jagged with anger, was ‘One of these days’.

She stopped dead, and grabbed Shan’s arm to keep him from walking past. “What?”

But she didn’t think there was time to explain. She started to pull him back down the street just as a blue Honda hatchback parked across the street from her apartment block suddenly detonated.

The explosion was noisy, but even as she shoved Shan down onto the sidewalk, she knew it wasn’t a big bomb. Noisy, yes, and bright, the small import car seemingly evaporated in a bright yellow fire ball, sending glass raining down from the office building closest to it. After the concussion of the blast washed passed their ear drums, silence filled the void like a tidal wave, followed closely by small noises of aftermath, flaming bits of metal crashing down on the street as the chassis of the car – all that honestly remained – crackled and burned, and car alarms chorused like angry crickets up and down the street.

Aftermath, a/k/a Six. Of course. That was who Dickeye really was; she should have guessed by the stupid name.

As she stood up, Shan grabbed her arm, trying to pull her back down. “Z, there could be more -”

She shook off his grasp easily. Shan wasn’t the only weightlifter around here, he just had more time to do it. “No there’s not; it was another warning from Dickeye.” Her voice sounded strangely muffled to her own ears, like she was talking into a pillow.

Shan pushed himself up into a crouch, wide eyed with lingering wariness as he stood. “A car bomb? A car bomb is a fucking warning? What the hell does he do when he gets serious?!”

“You don’t want to know.” She started heading back the way they had come, and after taking a moment to stare at the flaming ruins of the car, Shan came running after her.

“Z, what are you doing? Shouldn’t we wait for the cops or something?”

“No, we have some planning to do.” Six was getting way too clever, and close; the warning was for everyone around her, friends and strangers. The implication was Six intended to hurt everyone before her. Six would escalate, and she had no desire to play Russian roulette with her acquaintances.

“Planning? For what?”

“Picking up stakes and moving our operation. How do you feel about Canada?”

Although he was briefly stunned, Shan must have been finally adapting, as he mulled it over without asking her what drugs she was on. “Well … I hear Vancouver’s nice.”

“Sounds great to me.”

Maybe she was getting soft after all. What a pisser.

The End … (Or is it?)

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