"It's . . . clear that we're not as prepared as we should be, as a government or as a country. . . . Just as we failed in the past to invest in our physical infrastructure—our roads, our bridges, and rails—we've failed to invest in the security of our digital infrastructure. . . . We saw this in the disorganized response to [computer virus] Conficker. This status quo is no longer acceptable—not when there's so much at stake."
—President Barack Obama
"Lookout, honey, 'cause I'm using technology."
—Iggy and the Stooges, Search and Destroy
It was one of the heaviest air traffic nights of the year. Pete Egan was an hour into his ten p.m. to six a.m. shift at Albuquerque airport's Terminal Radio Approach Control, known as TRACON. There was a scraggly Christmas tree in the corner straining to hold up a string of lights, but it was hard to make the cavernous air traffic control center look festive.
Jimmy Brindisi took a seat at the radarscope next to Pete, extra large coffee in hand.
"How's that coffee, Jimmy?" Pete asked, providing the traditional setup.
"It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be," Jimmy said, reciting Al Pacino's line from Heat. Ever since Pete noted that his oddly overemphasized cadences resembled latter-period Pacino, Jimmy was always doing Pacino. Now Pete wished he'd never made the remark, but there was no putting that genie back in the bottle.
"You could have brought me one."
"I never bring you one."
"That's what I'm saying."
"You do look like you could use it. You sleeping okay?" It was the sort of question that controllers asked one another, looking for early warning signs of a flameout.
"Like a baby. A big, drunk baby."
In fact, Pete hadn't been sleeping well. He had been having nightmares all week. Or, to put it more accurately, he'd been having The Nightmare, the one that plagued all air traffic controllers who were willing to admit to it. Most people's bad dreams are remarkably standard issue in comparison. Standing naked in front of a crowd of strangers. Taking a test that you haven't studied for. But air traffic controllers are not most people. When they descend into eyelid-twitching sleep, they are greeted by their own custom-fitted nightmare.
Pete was now standing in front of his radarscope, with his headset on. His eyes were locked on the green screen and the white flashing blips that represented passenger planes. His feet shifted slightly to keep the circulation going, but not enough to disturb his unwavering gaze.
When Pete was plugged in at TRACON, everything else receded into the background. In a weird way, this form of intense concentration was almost relaxing, because everything else was purged from his consciousness. When he was juggling planes, he had no available bandwidth to worry about his mortgage, his daughter's medical bills, or workplace politics.
Most airline passengers assume that their fate is in the hands of the occupants of the air traffic control tower that they see rising above the low-slung airport terminals. But the control tower only handles takeoffs, landings, and ground traffic. It is TRACON controllers like Pete who do the real work, from a bunker-like building at the edge of the airport. If a tower controller was a primary care physician, then Pete was a neurosurgeon.
"Two coming in heavy, Pete." It was Darnell Meacham, a controller at the Air Route Traffic Control Center in Phoenix known for his Zen-like calm. "Hotel Sierra Whiskey Two Five Zero and Tango Echo Oscar Nine Eight One."
These were the aircraft call signs for two 757s entering Pete's airspace en route from Phoenix. "Coming in heavy" meant they were big planes that required extra separation as they approached the airport due to the turbulence they trailed in their wake.
"Roger that," Pete said. Then, to the first approaching plane: "You're eight miles from outer marker. Maintain at two thousand feet till localizer."
"Packing a little tight there." It was unusual for Darnell to editorialize. Besides, Pete could see that the separation was perfect for the two new flights, as well as the two ahead of them that were almost ready to begin their descent.
"Looking good from where I'm sitting," Pete said.
Albuquerque International Sunport Airport handles more than five hundred flights per day. Pete took pride in the esoteric skill set that allowed him to bring them in safely. As veteran controllers put it, Pete could dance. For Pete, the radarscope screen was like a three-dimensional chessboard—and he was always at least two moves ahead. A good controller could see the planes converging on an airport and bring those little white blips in like a pearl necklace across the night sky. If weather, pilot error, or equipment failure threw him a curveball, Pete always left himself an out, a window in which he could make those little split-second adjustments and shimmies that a controller must have the ability to make. Because no matter what happened, you could not freeze. You had to keep it moving, keep it fluid.
Darnell's voice crackled over the headset, unusually urgent. "What are you doin' there, Pete?"
"What do you mean?"
"Hotel is nearly on top of Tango."
"No, no, that's not right," Pete said. "I'm good." His radarscope showed a safe distance between the two 757s. "I've got five miles' separation."
"Negative, Pete. I show three miles' separation and closing fast. Real fast."
Pete double-checked his scope, but it still indicated that there was a safe distance between the two planes. If they were as close together as Darnell said, an alarm would have sounded on his equipment. His boss would be tapping him on the shoulder by now like a baseball manager about to pull a shaky relief pitcher. Something was very wrong here, but he couldn't figure out what it was. He had never known Darnell to misread his instruments.
"Darnell, I don't know what's up, but my scope doesn't lie, I mean . . ."
Pete stopped in midsentence. His radarscope had just blinked off for a split-second in what looked like a short circuit. This had never happened before in twenty-five years on the job. Not once.
An instant later, the round green screen blinked on again, and Pete exhaled in momentary relief—until he saw what was now on his scope.
The two white blips, representing massive 757s full of holiday travelers, were on top of one another—he was looking at a midair collision.
There were no windows in TRACON, but in his mind's eye Pete saw the fireball in the sky, heard the explosion, and then the screaming descent as half a million pounds of aluminum alloy and hundreds of passengers plummeted to the desert floor.
Then Pete's radarscope went black, along with all of the other scopes in the control center.
Pete collapsed into his chair, his knees buckling underneath him. Now a cacophony of strident voices was coming through his headset. Darnell and several other controllers were shouting and cursing. At the next station, Jimmy was saying something to him that he couldn't make out.
Pete tore off the headset. He couldn't listen anymore. Without a working radarscope, he was helpless to stop the tragedy unfolding in the dark skies above. His breath was shallow and labored. The pressure in his chest felt like a heart attack.
If this was The Nightmare, Pete would be waking up right about—now.
But this was the nightmare that you don't wake up from.
In Christopher Bruen's line of work, they called his assignment a "knock and talk." And that's all that was supposed to happen. No one was supposed to die.
Bleary from jet lag, Chris gazed out the window of the Mercedes at the green waters of Amsterdam's Prinsengracht canal. His flight from San Francisco had gotten in late the night before and his body clock was so out of whack that he'd barely been able to sleep. The cocktail of cancer drugs that he was taking didn't help matters. At least the morning sun was mercifully pale, smeared across low clouds. The car shot across a bridge and into the brick-paved streets of the Jordaan neighborhood.
Remko de Groot, a relentlessly amiable, relentlessly blond associate at the Amsterdam law firm Kunneman Blenheim, played tour guide as he drove, although Chris wished that he would stop talking.
"The Jordaan has always been a bit funky, with lots of artists and students. Even Rembrandt lived here when his career was not going so well." Remko glanced over to see how his travelogue was being received. He continued nonetheless.
"The neighborhood is on the upswing now. The great old houses are getting renovated. Some of them date all the way back to the sixteenth century."
Chris ran a hand through his shock of unruly black hair as he watched the buildings blur past the window. He had a long, pale face, a thin, pointed nose, and heavy-lidded eyes, giving him the finely calibrated look of something bred for a particular purpose.
"Are you okay, Chris?" Remko asked, his eyes thankfully on the road. "You don't look so good."
"Thanks, I'm fine," Chris said. "I just don't travel so well these days."
Chris was a partner in the San Francisco law firm Reynolds, Fincher & McComb and an expert in data security law. Before entering private practice, he had been a chief prosecutor in the Department of Justice's computer crimes section. While Chris was at the DOJ, it had been his job to convict hackers. At Reynolds Fincher, he continued to battle cybercriminals, but out of the public spotlight and for better pay.
For the past two weeks, Chris had been hunting down the hacker known as Black Vector, whose real name turned out to be Pietr Middendorf. Chris always found the pursuit more interesting than the next step, which was inevitably anticlimactic. When he was uncovering the clues to the identity of a hacker, he was playing to his analytical strengths. When he reached the end of the trail, Chris inevitably found a misguided young person, typically male, who reminded him a little too much of himself when he was that age.
Remko's guided tour of Amsterdam was cut short as they arrived at their destination, Middendorf's apartment building at 5 Boomdwarsstraat. It was a nondescript, modern, four-story redbrick structure. Remko found a parking spot a block away so that they could make an inconspicuous approach. Chris didn't think that much stealth was necessary—their target was probably not going to be expecting them.
It was a bitterly cold January morning. Chris tensed like he had been slapped as he climbed out of the car. He unfolded himself to his full height of six foot three, then stretched and yawned on the sidewalk.
They were paying Middendorf a visit because he had stolen the source code of Aspira, the world's most popular computer operating system, which belonged to Chris's client BlueCloud, Inc. The source code for an operating system like Aspira consists of millions of lines of code supporting a host of applications. A sophisticated hacker with access to that code could identify system vulnerabilities that would keep cybercriminals in business for years.
Middendorf had boasted on an online message board that he would publicly post the source code in two days. The hacker thought that he was shielded by the anonymity of his handle and that no one could uncover his true identity. He was wrong.
Chris and Remko walked up the quiet street toward the apartment building. The rising sun wasn't lending any warmth to the day. A garbage truck was clanking and grinding on the next block. The gutters and sidewalks were still littered with exploded firecrackers and other detritus from the recent New Year's Eve celebrations.
The security door to the apartment building was ajar, so they would be able to walk right up to Middendorf's apartment on the top floor. They entered the vestibule. The bulletin board in the lobby was covered with posters for local rock bands appearing at the Melkweg club. Chris examined the mailboxes and saw the name "Middendorf" written in ballpoint and scotch-taped above the box for Apartment 4.
The objective of a knock and talk is to shut down a hacker and recover the stolen intellectual property as quickly and quietly as possible. The last thing BlueCloud needed was international press reports that its source code had been compromised, which would call into question the security and stability of its immensely popular operating system.
Remko looked at the name, then turned to Chris. "What if he climbs out the window onto the fire escape and runs?"
"If he runs, then he runs," Chris said. "I'm a lawyer, not a cop."
They walked up the narrow steps, with Chris taking the lead. Chris carried a leather folder with two documents. The first was a legal complaint charging Middendorf with violations of Dutch computer crime laws, which Remko's firm had helped prepare. Chris intended to flash the pleading at Middendorf to convince him that they were serious.
The second document was a settlement agreement that Middendorf would be asked to sign to avert the filing of the complaint. The agreement required the hacker to make no public statements, consent to a search of his computer, and return all copies of the stolen source code. There was no guarantee that Middendorf hadn't concealed a copy of the code on a cloud server or at some other location, but Chris would make it clear that if the source code turned up on the black market, he would return, but this time collaborating with a prosecutor in a criminal case.
When they reached Apartment 4, on the top landing, Chris felt a tightening in his stomach. In moments like these, Chris wished that he was the kind of lawyer who stayed behind a desk. He glanced back at Remko to make sure he was ready, then he rapped on the door.
Inside, Chris heard a muffled voice. Then a chair scraped and there was a sound that might have been papers falling to the floor. Whoever was inside wasn't approaching the door.
Chris hammered with his fist until the door rattled in its frame.
After about thirty seconds, they heard a man, speaking in Dutch. It had the intonation of a question. Chris assumed it was something to the effect of "Who's there?"
"Do you speak English?" Chris asked.
A pause. "Yeah, I speak English. Who's this?" The English was fluent, and the voice was high and adenoidal like a teenager's.
"Is this Pietr Middendorf?"
"You've got the wrong apartment, man. Fuck off."
"Open the door, Pietr. My name is Chris Bruen. I'm an attorney and I came all the way from the US just to speak with you. I'm here with a colleague of mine from a local law firm. We know you're Black Vector and we know about the theft of the Aspira source code. I'm here on behalf of my client BlueCloud."
"What part of 'fuck off' did you not understand?"
Chris exhaled slowly. This wasn't going to be one of the easy ones.
"If you open the door," Chris said, "we have a deal we'd like to offer you. If you don't open the door, I'm going to have a court bailiff come here and open it for us. If we do it that way, you're probably going to spend tonight in jail."
There was a long silence on the other side of the door, then, "I need a minute to put some clothes on. Is that okay with you?"
"No problem," Chris said. "In fact, we prefer it."
They heard the sound of footsteps shuffling around the apartment. Chris and Remko were both listening intently, their heads leaning in close to the wooden door.
And then they heard the gunshot.
In the thunderclap of the moment, Chris perceived it as more of a physical shock than a sound. He examined himself for a bullet wound.
"Are you okay?" Chris said to Remko, who had backpedaled down the hallway and was bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, amped on adrenaline.
Remko looked down at the front of his shirt. "I think so. Are you?"
"Okay," Chris said, examining the door for a bullet hole and finding none. The shot didn't seem to have been directed at them.
From inside the apartment, they heard the groan of a window sash opening.
"Sounds like he's leaving by the fire escape," Chris said. "I'm going inside. Someone could be hurt in there." He wasn't going to admit it to Remko, but he had other motives as well. He tested the door, but it was locked.
Chris butted the door with his shoulder, but it was unyielding. Then he strode past Remko and headed down the stairs.
"Good," Remko said. "I'll call the police."
"No, not yet," Chris said. "I'm going to go up the fire escape and take a look."
"Are you insane?"
When Chris and Remko emerged from the lobby, the street was still empty except for a grocer turning a crank to raise the metal fence that guarded his shop. There was no sign of the shooter.
Chris walked around to the side of the building and saw that the ladder to the fire escape had been pulled down to the pavement. On the fourth-floor landing, the window was still open. From the corner, Chris surveyed the street and the alley but still saw no one who seemed like a candidate to have fired the shot.
Chris began climbing the iron fire escape toward the fourth floor. He was trying not to make too much noise, but the fire escape groaned and shuddered with every step. The iron railings were so cold in his grip that they burned. He looked down at the alley below and saw Remko vigorously shaking his head, trying to dissuade him.
He moved even more slowly as he neared the fourth-floor window. If the shooter was still in the room and looked out, he would be an easy target that even the poorest shot couldn't miss.
Finally, Chris stood outside the window of Middendorf's apartment. He saw his breath smoking in front of him in quick, chuffing bursts. But he wasn't as frightened as he knew he should be. Ever since his cancer diagnosis, a kind of numbness had settled over him—it was like being on beta-blockers.
Chris darted his head forward for a quick look into the room through the open window. He pulled back so quickly, though, that he wasn't really able to see anything. At least no one had fired a shot at him.
He tried again, this time allowing enough time to survey the room. There was only one figure inside, a man slumped at a desk, his face buried in the keyboard. The large iMac computer monitor in front of him was on and spattered with blood.
The figure did not move.
Chris climbed through the window, into a tiny flat with a bed to the right and the desk facing the wall to the left, next to a kitchenette. The room smelled of stale fried food and was littered with greasy, empty Styrofoam containers, and what appeared to be pirated copies of video games packaged with poorly reproduced artwork. A bicycle leaned against a wall in one corner.
Chris approached the body. The man's hands were bound in front of him using the type of nylon cord used to lash packages to a bicycle rack. There was a bullet hole in the back of his skull that was still oozing blood, matting his dark, curly hair.
Leaning down to examine the face, he saw that it was Pietr Middendorf, whom he barely recognized from a photo he'd gotten from his Facebook page. One of Middendorf's eyes was swollen shut. The other eye was open, but it was fixed and lifeless. There were lacerations all over the hacker's face and head from some blunt object.
"Pietr?" Chris said. There was no movement. Chris picked up Middendorf's wrist and checked for a pulse, but there was none. Chris's earlier knock at the door had apparently interrupted the fun and games, bringing the session to an abrupt close with a bullet to Middendorf's head.
Chris examined the room more closely now and saw signs that it had been tossed, but not very thoroughly. Every drawer in the apartment was open, from the desk to the kitchen to the nightstand. If Chris had to guess, he would say that Pietr's killer had been looking for something, searched the place a bit to see if it presented itself and, when it didn't, began working on Middendorf.
Chris figured that one of the neighbors would report the gunshot and he only had about five minutes before the Amsterdam police arrived. He looked under the bed, under the mattress, on the shelves of the small closet, places that didn't seem to have been examined by the killer. He moved on to the desk drawers, removing a pen from his pocket and using it to pull the drawers open, careful not to leave fingerprints on the hard surfaces. There was nothing of interest there, just some pens, paper clips, and envelopes. Then he stopped, realizing that he had just seen something that was slightly off.
There were two staplers on Middendorf's desk, one black and one gray. Judging by the disorder of the apartment, Middendorf didn't seem like the type to be so organized as to own one stapler, much less two. Not sure what he was looking for, Chris tested the black stapler, mashing down the upper arm. A staple ejected, tiny, silver, and crumpled like a swatted spider.
Chris tested the second, extra-large gray stapler, and nothing came out. He picked it up and opened the compartment that held the staples. There were no staples inside—there was no room because a flash drive had been wedged behind the spring mechanism. The silver plastic drive had a piece of paper taped around it bearing the image of a smiling red devil, with horns and a long, forked tongue. Chris was willing to bet that the flash drive contained the stolen source code.
He considered whether he should be removing possible evidence from a crime scene but only hesitated for a moment. His client had sent him to Amsterdam to do a job and he wasn't about to return empty-handed. He placed the flash drive in his pocket, then used a paper towel from the kitchen to wipe down the two staplers.
The baying of police sirens could be heard in the distance. He surveyed the cluttered room one last time to see if he had missed anything. It was then that he noticed that the green LED light of the computer's webcam was on. He was being observed.
His mind raced. The webcam must have been on the whole time, even through Middendorf's beating and murder. Perhaps the killer had been making an example of the hacker for the benefit of whoever was on the other end of the webcam. Chris leaned in and gazed into the lens as if he could see the person on the other end. He held up a finger to the camera as if to say I know you're there.
At that moment, the computer pinged—the sound of an incoming email. Middendorf's email inbox was open on the screen, but it took a moment to read the message, because the monitor was spattered with blood. The subject line read: "YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT BELONGS TO US."
Chris looked into the webcam and said, "If you want it, why don't you tell me where I should send it?"
The computer pinged again. Another email. The message: "WE'LL FIND YOU."
© Reece Hirsch