Boy am I glad I posted the first part of this sequence as a separate chapter… because the rest of it, with less obvious chapter break points, has become a nearly 8,000-word little monster that also comes with a megabitch of technical author's notes at the end ;)
Now that I am done with it and fiiiinally have them leaving Gotham for more exotic destinations, I have much more confidence that the fun quotient – fun writing that is – will hopefully translate both into fun reading and into quicker updates on my side… RL permitting. It's been a bitch of a week; I've had something that I am increasingly suspecting is bronchitis (finally going to the doctor tomorrow, a week since I started coughing like crazy) in between regular 11- and occasional 16-hour working days and an interesting experience that showed me first-hand what it's like to have your power suddenly shut off for two days (in my case, over an accidentally unpaid old bill, but still, hi five, Mr Wayne :P) On the plus side, I've now become an expert in EMP weapons :P (which will come in handy in about seven or eight chapters' time) and if the doctor gives me any time off tomorrow, I'll start replying to my dear comments correspondents who I've been rudely neglecting and may get another couple of chapters up pretty soon. Promises, promises…
She watches Bruce with a sort of morbid fascination; the way the disdain drains from his face, giving way to an expression both resigned and resolved; the way his shoulders first sag, then straighten. The news about hundreds, if not thousands of lives in the balance, even though they are trained spies who signed up for it in the first place, is the point of no return. She almost expects him to apologise to Wrigley; luckily, it does not come to that, or there would be no end to the man's conceit. If he and his superiors had had any idea of Bruce's character, they could have saved themselves the trouble of trying to blackmail or bully him. All it took was a mention of people in danger.
Wrigley is either too surprised at the sudden change in their demeanour, or too relieved at the sudden lack of opposition, to gloat or otherwise make himself a nuisance, so it falls to Bruce to pick up the discussion.
"You said several days ago. How many, exactly?"
"We don't know," Kettering mutters, his voice still ringing with embarrassment. "There was an apparent surge in access between two weeks ago and about five days ago. All by authorised users, but in retrospect the thief must have either tampered with the log or staged a sort of DDOS attack by invading other agents' machines and staging access in order to hide his tracks. And there are several thousand authorised users. Even if we isolate the users who were part of the surge and take out first-instance access events that were probably added to create noise to mask the theft, we still arrive at a high triple-digit number."
"Have you checked all the programmers who've been involved in writing the code?"
"We have. They were the first people who were checked in-depth, and they all look clean."
"Have you checked their personal histories, assessment files, family history and the like? Someone could be driven to extremes, say, if they have a grave illness in the family and are desperately trying to raise money…"
"We've investigated as far as we could, in addition to interviewing them all with a polygraph. No tangible leads there." This is Wrigley's first remark after the Matrix code denouement; he still sounds pissed off, but the arrogance is no longer there.
"And it's no use monitoring electronic traffic for the affected agents as the thief can easily use clean channels to communicate with buyers."
"Exactly." Kettering again, still sounding crushed. "Anyone could buy a netbook for cash and use Tor and secure e-mail services to peddle the database, and buy a clean phone with a new SIM card and arrange the details through instant messenger. Then there's the app that automatically deletes messenger chats and uses superior encryption."
"Redact. I know, I use it myself." If either of their counterparts is unhappy with Bruce's admission, they are not showing it. "I know that you, or the FBI at any rate, have made some progress on cracking Tor. Any luck there?"
Kettering shakes his head. "Not much so far. The FBI are getting close to nabbing Ulbricht, but unlike The Silk Road and drugs, there's no organised marketplace for weapons. It's all decentralised, and they still prefer cash to coin."
"No leads at all?" Selina puts in.
Kettering frowns. "A couple, really remote, but they're the best we have to work with. At least they're in the same region."
"Don't bring up Sutcliffe again, he isn't even there anymore," she scoffs.
"We can't completely rule him out, you know." Kettering has shifted from mortified to defensive.
"I think you can," Bruce argues. "From Sutcliffe's actions so far, it doesn't look like money is a motive. His MO has been to make public all he took – stole, if you wish – and all the information published up to now relates to surveillance methods. This database is a different animal. In fact it would damage Sutcliffe's case because it would make you people look good and could indirectly boost the NSA rationale for blanket surveillance. The most likely way someone could try to use it is to sell it to the highest bidder, and if so, they have to a. sell it before it can get out-of-date, assuming the thief isn't brazen enough, or rather foolish enough, to keep downloading the updates, b. try to contact the maximum feasible number of buyers to maximise the price, which means some delay, and c. keep copies to a minimum both to keep up the price and to lower the risk of onward theft. They could, in principle, sell multiple copies, but apart from the price dropping, doing so increases the risk of such copies being eventually traced to them. And if their buyers find out that they're selling multiple copies to their competition, the first one to buy it will send hitmen to make sure it doesn't happen. So we're most likely looking at a sort of auction, one copy, multiple bids, arrangements made online or by phone but the final sale in person, with the thief keeping a backup copy until they get paid. Maybe destroying the backup will be a condition of payment, to be done simultaneously. The thief will want to do it anyway once they get the money to avoid being caught. The good thing, if there's any, is that for the time being, they'll have as much interest in keeping the database under wraps as you do. Don't know if I'm going out on a limb here, but this is what I'd expect from my own experience."
For the first time, Wrigley sounds impressed, or as close to impressed as the constantly-pissed-off tone will allow him.
"That's largely what we've been thinking. And yes," he grunts, "it does make Sutcliffe an unlikely suspect. But the strongest lead we have is implicated in the Sutcliffe affair. It could be a coincidence. At this point, as I say, our priority is the database."
"What sort of lead?" Selina is getting impatient with their dancing around the matter.
Kettering jumps in with an answer, though it does not sound like the lead Wrigley was talking about. "We've had indications of a simultaneous increase in comm traffic for a number of organised crime syndicate heads and known terrorist leaders in the region. The British GCHQ has a tap on an underwater fiber optic cable in the Arab Gulf and shares their data with us. It isn't always possible to crack the message contents but from the ones that were decoded, it seems that they are all talking about an important asset they're keen to buy. Could be a nuclear warhead, of course, but as far as we can see, none were known to have gone missing recently, here or in Russia. It's either a weapon or our database."
"Makes sense," Bruce admits. "But you have no pointers to the seller?"
"That's where our other lead comes in," Wrigley points out. "We've been told that a GCHQ employee had been making inquiries and apparently was tracking a potential seller suspect before being put on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. Allegedly, something to do with the Sutcliffe debacle." He may have given up on the notion of getting them to kill two birds with one stone and earning him an Intelligence Star in the process, but Wrigley still wants to rub in the fact that there may be a speck of substance to the tenuous link. "The GCHQ and MI6 were initially very reluctant to let us talk to a compromised asset but they finally gave us the go-ahead to make contact under the pretence of being an interested buyer looking for a way to bid. It's far-fetched, but it's the best we have."
"Fair enough. I've dealt with worse," Bruce mutters.
Wrigley is getting dangerously close to sounding human; his next remark is delivered in a tone somewhere between cautious and concerned.
"We have a problem here. No doubt you're aware of it yourself, but you have a recognisable face. Even outside the US, there's no guarantee that someone who followed the business pages or the society chronicles a few years ago won't tag you. Terrorist leaders aren't known to read the gossip columns, but we can't take chances."
"Don't tell me you didn't know it when your boss called me. What do you want me to do, wear a mask?"
"We want you to stay in the background. Some sort of disguise might help but in reality, you can't be involved in any face-to-face contacts."
"You said yourself, or rather he said," Bruce argues, pointing to Kettering, "terrorists and criminals still prefer cash. And the seller would be an idiot to try and send the code through any online channels, no matter how secure. It's definitely going to be a physical exchange, and there may be prior meetings in person to vet the buyers, make sure they're bona fide criminals. I may not be able to track them closely enough online to get within reach of the database."
Wrigley hesitates for a second. "That's why we thought…" He pauses again, as if worried about the reaction to his next words. "…that it would be best if you monitored the traffic and used whatever surveillance you can to follow the preliminary bidding, assuming it takes place, while your wife- " Wrigley shoots her a glance that, on the Wrigley scale of emotion, borders on imploring - "works as the frontman dealing with the sellers in person if it becomes necessary."
Bruce's reaction is surely anticlimactic to Wrigley who must have expected an explosion, though not to Selina, who knows that Bruce knows how she acts in such situations. Specifically, he knows that it is useless to argue about her involvement in any risky business in her presence, so he does the only thing left to him to block the suggestion, by regaling her with a stare that, on the Bruce scale of emotion, registers as terrified. No use, darling; she knows that he won't back out of it now that he has learned about the potential human cost. Besides, she loves a challenge and has dealt with plenty of criminals and a few terrorists before; after Bane, a renegade CIA database seller should be a piece of cake.
"Ok, I'll do it," she assures Wrigley, to his obvious relief. "If you people stick to your boss's offer and leave us both in peace after this."
Wrigley looks like he is about to say something along the lines of if you make it back alive, then thinks better of it. "We have a deal then."
"I need to see the database." Bruce's apparent non sequitur sounds peevish to her ears. Having lost a few similar arguments to her one-on-one, he knows that he stood no chance here in the presence of interested parties – but he won't sound pleased with it if he can help it.
Wrigley offers him a ready pretext for venting with his ill-considered next remark. "We can't risk bringing the software here. Kettering can give you the main parameters and talk you through the contents – "
Even Kettering does not look convinced; as for Bruce, he brings back the sarcasm full blast. "You'll have to take the risk of bringing it here and letting me poke around it if you want me to find and, presumably, destroy the correct database. Otherwise it's your problem if I fail to delete it, or if I find you a database of Asian mail order brides instead of the one you've lost."
That would probably do him some good, Selina thinks, but keeps it to herself.
"Very well," Wrigley grinds out.
"And I need to talk to Kelp."
Why the hell does Bruce want to talk to a marine plant? For a split second, she is too weirded out to realise that he is talking about a guy with a strange last name.
"He's in Langley now, talking to the Science and Technology chiefs." If Wrigley meant this as an objection, Bruce does not see it that way.
"So you either fly him here together with the database or fly us over there. Your call."
Wrigley does not answer; instead, he pulls out a mobile and literally makes a call – and from listening to him barking into the microphone, it sounds like both the database and the Kelp character will be joining them in just over an hour.
Fortunately, their hosts' courtesy extends to ordering a couple of sandwiches and sodas for them, as it is the middle of lunchtime; so much for hoping the meeting would be over by now and they'd be off for a leisurely lunch á deux. The food is average and the drinks too sweet, but they are too hungry to care; between Selina's morning side trip and her coming back just in time to wake up Bruce for the meeting, they've both ended up skipping breakfast. No less importantly, said courtesy extends to leaving them alone in the meeting room for the better part of half an hour. Now with the wrappers and cans thrown away, they sit waiting for the men to come back. There isn't much they can discuss in a room that must be chock full of surveillance devices, but there are a couple of points of more or less general interest she wants to know.
"A CIA contractor. Both CIA and NSA, like they said, plus the FBI and the Marines and a few others. The GPD, too, in recent years, Jim Gordon loves them. They've basically been working on some of the forensic analysis and data management tools that Lucius and I developed for my use and applying them on a commercial scale for government customers. Their particular strength is data mining, taking masses of data and tagging and organising it into logically structured and searchable databases to make the data useful. The CIA invested two-plus million for a stake back in 2004 or '05 when they were just a small start-up and they've been a government pet ever since. Kelp keeps saying they stand for individual freedom and so on, he even set up an ethics hotline called the Batphone –" he can't help chuckling – "for employees to voice their concerns about possible privacy violations related to their software. But they're treading a fine line."
"And Kelp is…?"
"The CEO and co-owner. A real character, as you'll see. Very smart. Doesn't have a technical degree but has a great eye for ideas and business opportunities. He dabbled in various start-up investments with his inheritance money, then hit on the data mining idea and set up Palantir about ten years ago, and it's been growing like it's on steroids. The bulk of the start-up money came from a guy named Peter Thiel, he and Kelp used to study law together at Stanford, he's about five years older than me. They kept trying to talk me into buying a stake and were really keen on using an idea of mine – of ours-" Presumably, he means Wayne Enterprises. "-that we abandoned." Bruce rolls his eyes upwards to show her that details of the idea are best left to an unmonitored location. "It wasn't technically or commercially feasible, anyway."
"One last thing. I hope our hosts don't mind." She smirks "Why is Director Wrigley's folder filled with documents with a letterhead that says SAD?" Back when she saw it, the presumable acronym struck her as oddly fitting considering his demeanour, though to be fully accurate, it should have said "GRUMPY".
"Special Activities Division," Bruce explains. "Otherwise informally known as black ops. Undercover political interventions, highly sensitive intel gathering, cyber warfare, paramilitary ops, all deniable. Some contract killings, too. They must have been called in by Science and Technology when they discovered the breach, and I'm guessing most of their agents used this Matrix Project for their work so in a way, I can understand why they're so pissed off about it, and probably about having to use us. They'd normally deploy their own people for this kind of task, and now they can't. Hence us as a necessary evil."
Wrigley chooses the precise necessary evil moment to make a reappearance; at least the trouser legs give them a couple of seconds' advance warning. This time he is accompanied by a different junior colleague, with Kettering presumably setting up a computer to view the precious database. This guy is a bit older, maybe late thirties; he greets both of them with a quick muttered "hello", puts down a thick folder in the middle of the table, and waits for Wrigley's go-ahead.
"This is Martin Delaney, he works for me and he's put together the brief for your assignment." Either Wrigley has more faith in one of his own minions as opposed to techie Kettering or he lets himself relax once their cooperation is no longer in doubt; either way, after the introduction he sits back and starts reading a long memo, leaving the floor to businesslike Delaney.
"OK, guys. You know what happened, right?" Not really a question, but they nod anyway.
"So the best lead we have in terms of possible contacts is this GCHQ analyst who used to work in Dubai monitoring data on their underwater cable tap and then was transferred to Hong Kong when the North Korea crisis escalated earlier this year. Obviously, just in time for… other things to happen. This analyst apparently picked up info related to the Matrix theft and was allegedly pursuing a possible contact before being taken off the case. We don't have the full details from the GCHQ, or MI6 who stepped in later, but apparently there's now an internal inquest into this person's involvement in the murder of a civilian. It isn't conclusive enough to have put them under arrest, but enough for an indefinite admin leave pending the outcome. For whatever reason, this Jamie character is now in Sydney staying off the grid, but once we persuaded the Brits to help us, we've exchanged a couple of coded messages impersonating someone looking to buy the Matrix, and got a vaguely positive reply."
This Jamie character. At least the modern version of the name presumably means someone young. "James Bond gone rogue, eh?"
"Not quite." Delaney gives her a slightly apologetic look, making her wonder why. "This one's a woman." He pulls out a printed sheet with a photo and slides it over to them. The woman, or rather the girl, looks barely older than Selina – between late twenties and early thirties – and, somewhat reassuringly, Selina is ashamed to admit, is not particularly gorgeous. More like a tomboy really, short dark blond bob, light eyes – she cannot tell if they are grey or blue – and a sort of dour expression. "Jamie Harper, has worked for the GCHQ, the UK electronic surveillance agency, kind of their NSA equivalent, for the past eight years, right after leaving Oxford. Apparently she wanted to go to the MI6 but back then, unlike now, they were mostly hiring men. Made it to senior analyst and was generally well-regarded until this whole thing blew up."
"Just shows that you never know, I suppose," Selina comments wryly. "Who is it she's said to have killed?"
"It's not known if she did it herself. Most likely not; assuming it was her idea she must have used someone else to do it. Anyway, it was a girl in Singapore, an office cleaner of Thai origin working there on a temporary contract. That's as much as we got out of the MI6. They refused to give us any further details citing the inquest."
So even if this Jamie is not a cold-blooded assassin herself, she must be enough of a cold-blooded bitch to have ordered the death of a civilian. Nice.
"How am I supposed to get hold of her?"
"They've tagged a Lavabit account she's been using. It's under a fake name, of course, but there were one or two instances when she logged on from a known IP address and they triangulated it to her location at that time. It took a long time to crack the messages, but apparently she was in touch with someone promising to find them an interested target audience for the release they're planning and trying to negotiate a fee. Which may mean that she's offered to find them buyers for the database – with the kind of info on terrorists she much have had access to it wouldn't be too hard."
Assuming, of course, that she really was talking about the database, and that it was really her. "Can I see the messages you've exchanged so far?"
"Sure." Delaney flips through the folder and pulls out another printout. "It isn't much, though," he goes on as Selina scans through the lines, Bruce peering over next to her. "All we can see from the headers is that she's using a Sydney IP."
"It could be faked, of course," Bruce suggests.
"It could be in principle," Delaney agrees, "but she's also been tagged going through the airport. She was using another passport, in the name of Laura Fitch, and had dyed her hair black, but the facial recognition was a positive match."
"So I have to go to Sydney to meet her," Selina goes on. It isn't a question, really: the last of the handful of short messages between the CIA sock puppet and Jamie was Jamie's terse suggestion that if they want to talk, they can look her up at The Drunken Wallaby, presumably a bar, during happy hour on weekdays.
"That would be the plan."
"Which means that realistically, we won't meet until Monday night," she points out. The soonest she – or they if Bruce comes along – can leave is later that night, which, between the flight times and skipping over the international dateline, will bring her into Sydney on Friday. She could, of course, go straight into the meeting, but as a good thief she knows what any good spy would also know, that it is crucial to scout out the location and not rush into a place or a situation without knowing the lay of the land and having guaranteed exits.
Delaney clearly thinks along the same lines. "Assuming you want to do some recon before the meeting and not do it right away on Friday, yes. It's a delay but it looks like there is still time. According to MI6, her messages with the alleged contact dated three days ago talked about a ten-day to two-week timeframe. The bastards won't let us see them, you now. Said Sawers, the MI6 head, needs to personally sign off on the release. I don't believe it for a second, I just think they're playing their cards close to the chest on this, for whatever reason. Then again, we haven't given them the full story of the Matrix and what happened, either…" Delaney catches Wrigley's warning glance and shuts up.
Selina is sympathetic enough to help save him from further scrutiny. "I'd like to do recon, yes," she says in answer to his initial assumption. "So yes, I guess I'll fly in on Friday –"
She cannot finish the sentence. "We'll fly in, she means," Bruce interrupts, smoothly but firmly. "There has to be someone doing background surveillance."
"Sure," she agrees; it makes sense operationally, and frankly, she'd rather be on a long-haul flight next to him than on her own, even if they have to stay apart in Sydney itself.
"And we'll fly in on Sunday rather than Friday," he goes on. "There's a stopover I'd like to make." The explanation is addressed to her; still, both Delaney and Wrigley look up at this, but it is delivered in such a resolute voice that neither man dares question him further. For now, Selina can only guess where the stopover point will be; she assumes they'll drop by back in Lugano.
"So I know what this Jamie, or whatever she calls herself, looks like. How will she know it's me?" The messages she's seen were all tagged guest1681.
"I'll get to that in a sec." Out comes another sheaf of printouts. "We've tried to find identities for both of you, even if you –" he tips his head at Bruce – "will stay away from face-to-face contacts. These are the closest matches we've had, in terms, of age and appearance and the right level of seniority – it would be difficult to impersonate high-value targets as they-re generally better known, but you –" this is directed at Selina – "have to be important enough to be credible as a buyer or a buyer representative. And no less importantly, they both have to be alive and in detention, preferably recently arrested but without media attention to avoid detection by a simple media search. There's some risk involved if the contacts know or find out that you're supposed to be in prison, but there's always the possibility of escape or of a plea deal. So here you are," Delaney continues, pushing two stacks of sheets to the two of them; hers looks thicker than Bruce's. "Rocco De Stefano and Mrs Sivaparan."
"Your name sounds like a porn star," Selina teases.
"Actually, he's a 'Ndrangheta hitman," Delaney corrects her with just a hint of a smirk mirroring Bruce's.
"As in, Italian Mafia?"
"Calabrese, to be precise. The De Stefano are an important 'Ndrangheta family, active in all the usual businesses – solid waste, drugs, prostitution, contract killings when necessary. Rocco is currently serving a fifteen-year prison term for one of those. Not the brightest one in the family, apparently," Delaney concludes with an apologetic glance at Bruce.
"Easy, then. All you have to do is speak Italian and act stupid," she quips; Delaney looks momentarily confused as to why a seemingly neutral, almost disparaging remark makes Bruce laugh; but then he can be forgiven for not knowing their shared history.
"More or less," Delaney agrees. Now you, Mrs Wainwright – " Apparently, he got the memo from either Wrigley or Kettering as to how she wishes to be addressed – "will have more homework to do. For one thing, you'll need to practice your English accent…"
"So I'm a Brit?" she asks uncertainly, looking at the exotic beauty staring at her from the top of her brief.
"Not quite, but you've supposedly been to Cambridge. This Sivaparan woman… whatever her first name is pronounced like, Shivagowri, is the daughter of this Shanthamohan guy who is – was – an important figure in the Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers on Sri Lanka, and is married to one of the current leaders who is now in prison, though popular belief has him still hiding in Norway. He is one of the real extremists who insists that they have to keep fighting even now that the Tigers are practically finished as a viable force. His wife is more practical, apparently, or at any rate she must figure that continued terror campaigns need continued funding, so while Mr Sivaparan is serving his term she's taken over her husband's black market business as an arms dealer and has been selling to other, bigger terrorist groups in India and Pakistan. She started by using her husband's hidden stocks and the Tamil Eelam weapons caches that the separatists presumably couldn't use now that they've been summarily defeated, to avoid them going obsolete, and then picked up more contacts in the region and has been as much of an important intermediary as her husband was. Her family is very wealthy; her parents were divorced and are now dead, but both had lots of money. Her mother was English – that's why she went to Cambridge among other things – and left her a massive inheritance that she's allegedly used to finance her arms deals. Her full real name is either Shivagowri Shanthamohan or Shivagowri Sivaparan, depending on whether she uses her maiden name or her married name; she is also known under the alias of Veerammal, which means Brave Girl, and a surname of Nediyavan, which is her husband's alias meaning Tall Man. Finally, she's also known among the remaining Tamil Tiger command as the White Tigress, referring to her half-British ethnicity."
"Interesting story," she comments wryly. A few years ago, she would have probably looked at this woman as a role model. Then again, probably not. Stealing diamonds and selling weapons aren't exactly on the same level of heinous crime.
"You'll have to study her background in more detail and get familiar with the weapons trades she's done to make sure you can stand up to scrutiny", Delaney adds. He takes a USB stick out of his pocket with a post-it note and an eight-digit password scribbled on it. "This is your background brief, including an extract from the Matrix that deals with her, and there are also spreadsheets with weapons specs. It's a lot of data to remember, but she's the best match we could find. There aren't a lot of important women terrorists who are both alive and not too widely known like the White Widow who's at the top of our most wanted list. This woman looks similar to you – " his eyes flick back and forth between Selina and the Sivaparan photo – "is only four years older than you, and is conveniently under house arrest right now. And being a Tamil, or half-Tamil half-English, she has the freedom of action that an Arab terrorist wife would never have, so doing deals in her own right is perfectly in character. When you meet Harper, whose name, incidentally, you aren't supposed to know, you are supposed to refer to a seller's market, that's the most visible catchphrase we've dropped in the messages a couple of times. We haven't left any clues as to the correspondent's identity, but you can be sure she's smart enough to pick up on clues to guess who you are, or rather who you're supposed to be, and is likely to still have the resources to look up to check her guess."
Selina isn't crazy about the idea of working her way through all the info and memorising it as if cramming for an exam- come to think of it, she's never sat for exams in her life, and now she is supposed to be a Cambridge alumna; but she can see the logic. "Makes sense. Now what if this Jamie girl or the sellers try to check my fingerprints against whatever they may find in security databases?"
Delaney pulls out what looks like the remaining stack in his folder, only this time, instead of printouts, it looks like a thick transparent rectangle the size of a letter or A4 sheet.
"It's a real risk," he admits. "So we've made several sets of silicone adhesives with your temporary identity fingerprints using what we had on these two. There are twenty sets each here, and they each last up to a day. They'll fool most heat-sensitive scanners and are 100% guaranteed to fool any attempt to take your prints left on glasses, furniture and the like."
"Do you have videos of our aliases' questioning sessions?" she asks. Seeing Delaney nod, she goes on. "Can we see them?"
Wrigley takes over, wearing the usual stern expression. "You can watch them here, but we can't let you make any copies of these recordings. It's too much of a security risk if they're found on your persons."
For once, the man makes perfect sense. "Of course."
"And we've figured you might need cash if there's a deposit required in the bidding. Obviously, you're supposed to bring it back to the extent possible, or at least inform us of its supposed whereabouts if you use it as payment." Wrigley looks forbiddingly grim saying this; obviously, what he knows of Selina's background does not inspire him with trust. What he probably isn't factoring in is that, between her Interpol training consultant job and her part-time work at Wainwright Security, she makes a comfortable enough six-digit sum not to bother stealing from the CIA – and that's apart from Bruce's money. "You're going to get a million dollars in unmarked 20-dollar bills, random serial numbers, as they usually demand. We've got a record of all numbers, of course." Again, this sounds as a caution to her, though frankly, it is not very realistic to assume they'll be able to track these bills if they end up in circulation.
"Can we pick it up in Sydney as opposed to here?" Bruce jumps in. "We're going to stop over at a place that has a notorious crime rate." Not Lugano, then.
Wrigley finally seizes an opportunity to stick it to Bruce… or try to. "What, your legendary crimefighting skills are getting rusty?" he says acidly, provoking an uncomprehending look from Delaney; obviously, not all of CIA is aware of Bruce's extra-curricular activities.
"Let's just say, we're trying to be careful with your money and to keep a low profile," Bruce counters. "It could be inconvenient if I make the local news en route to a secret rendezvous."
Wrigley cannot muster a suitable rejoinder, and has to concede again. "Fine. We'll give you the location of a dead drop in Sydney. For us to do so, you, in turn, must give us the phone numbers you'll be using." It is a foregone assumption on both sides that they won't use their regular phones.
"We'll let you know."
"Obviously, you'll need several sets of SIM cards to communicate with the contacts, with each other, and with us, though I can't stress enough that you are not to communicate with us except in emergency circumstances." Bruce gives Wrigley a tired look that says don't teach me stuff I already know. "You can contact Kettering if you need any urgent background checks. He's set up a clean number with a foreign SIM that he'll give you." They both nod their assent.
"Are there any local assets we can contact if we need backup?" Bruce asks.
Wrigley shakes his head even before Bruce has finished the question. "We can't risk it both for secrecy's sake and because of the Matrix fingerprint issue." He hesitates. "As the last resort – I repeat, the absolute last resort – you can call Peter Newell, he is officially the head of a consultancy called PanAsian Strategy that has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. We'll give you the numbers, they are listed in the directories.
"Is he above suspicion?" Selina asks.
"No one is," Wrigley counters, before a quick look at his phone. "But he is our most senior field asset there. Now I've been informed that Kelp has just arrived in the building so you can talk to him and look at the Matrix." There is no hiding his displeasure at this concession to Bruce's demands; and the whatever good it may do you is no less apparent for being left unsaid. But Bruce sounds unfazed as ever.
"Thank you, sir."
"So what do you really think of it?" she prompts Bruce when they are finally out of the building in the late afternoon, tipping her head at the bronze statue.
"Not bad. I wish they'd coated it in Teflon so the bird shit wouldn't stick, but it's OK. You?" he prompts her back.
"Pretty good, really. Though I must say I like the real thing better," she says with a sly smile, to his obvious enjoyment.
The remainder of their stay in the Park Row office was relatively uneventful. As expected, Alex Kelp made his appearance together with Kettering – and Selina could see why Bruce had called him a real character earlier. The shaggy-haired, red-polo-shirted, hyperactive guy looked a lot more like a geeky scholar or even a hipster than a spymaster, and spouted a lot of libertarian rhetoric in between subtly but repeatedly reproaching Bruce for having passed up on both a stake in Palantir and on his business venture proposal way back. In another setting, Selina thinks, Kelp might be interesting and even fun to talk to, though she doubts if he is ever able to get off his guard enough these days – the hulking ex-Marine bodyguard accompanying him even inside a CIA building is a tangible reminder of that. He and Bruce went on to dig around the Matrix and its dangerous code; she stayed long enough to get the basics but left when things got decidedly out of her depth software-wise to watch Shivagowri Sivaparan's interrogation video. The woman has regal poise, she has to say; and listening to her cut-glass English accent, Selina had to add another couple of items to her pre-meeting to do list, namely, get her hands on a copy of My Fair Lady to watch in-flight, listen to BBC podcasts, and call Alfred to get pointers on the right pronunciation. By contrast, Rocco De Stefano's questioning session was more along the lines of morbid entertainment: the man is easy on the eyes, but his responses, delivered in a thick Calabrese accent, left no doubt that he was not the sharpest knife in the family drawer, albeit good with a gun. At one point, after stubbornly denying killing someone, he finished by saying and anyway you'll never find his body, effectively shooting himself in the foot, figuratively speaking. So her reciprocal advice to Bruce to speak Italian and act stupid was pretty much spot-on.
Now that they are a safe distance away from the building, she can finally ask Bruce the things she really wants to know.
"What's the deal with your hacking past? Being known as the Shadow and all that?"
He laughs. "I didn't plan on it becoming a big deal. It was never known to the general public, anyway. It started out as me being curious, I just wanted to see if I could do it. Obviously, I could; it took a while to figure out a way to route the signal via China convincingly enough to make them think at first that I was a Chinese hacker. Then when the whole League of Shadows business blew up, I got back in a couple of times to see what sort of intel they had on those people, which wasn't much. And finally, on my second data-gathering hack, I saw some of the stuff that was going on at the time at places like Guantanamo and Iraq that was frankly disgusting, even if the targets were terrorists, and went back in once more to post a warning to their command that if it continued, the media would get the full details. The press did get some of the details on their own eventually, but that was a couple of years later, when most of the abuse had stopped. So the good thing was, they were really scared of me back then."
"Which also means you could do it again," she suggests.
"Well, this time they would know it's me, so it would be more of a headache," he counters. "But I've thought about it too, as a last ditch reciprocal blackmail tactic in case they don't keep their word on leaving us alone, or if I see them doing something outrageous. After all, they still won't get any tangible proof it's me."
"Exactly. And one more thing: what was that project that Kelp kept mentioning, the one you said you'd abandoned and he'd wanted to develop with you?"
"Oh, that." He scowls. "That was something Wayne R&D toyed with nine or ten years ago. Lucius first showed it to me when we went to Hong Kong to catch Lau, and it looked like a great idea. With the right kind of software, any advanced cell phone could become the equivalent of a submarine sonar, if you wish, transmitting its 3D position and the resonating structures around it, such as steel reinforcement beams in concrete buildings. We used it then to triangulate the layout of Lau's headquarters, which allowed me to do a precision strike and get him right out of his office. I then took it one step further by writing code that was basically a backdoor hack of others' phones, which would enable me to do the same thing using those. It was in the middle of the Joker rampage so I desperately needed all the intel info I could get my hands on. The same hack allowed me to eavesdrop on user conversations if I wanted to. I knew I basically had a nuclear bomb on my hands… figuratively speaking… so I kept it completely secret, even from Lucius himself for a while. When I told him he blew up and accused me of violating people's privacy – basically, doing the same things the NSA is being accused of now. I was defensive at first but I could see he was right. In the end I handed the control over to him and told him the self-destruct prompt, so he destroyed it as soon as the Joker was in custody. Now Kelp and I have been in occasional contact for the past ten years, initially through Langone and Druckenmiller, both billionaire angel investors, and when we talked about it very briefly in the early stages, right after the Hong Kong episode, I mentioned it as a technological possibility. He got really excited and kept reminding me of it even after we'd destroyed it, so I had a hard time convincing him it didn't exist and the whole thing was just an idea that didn't go anywhere. As you see, he still isn't quite over it."
"Well, if it no longer exists, he can moan all he wants. How come he wasn't surprised to see you alive?"
"I think he knew, even before the CIA told him. Luckily the guy knows better than to talk – he's in the business of keeping secrets, after all – but I'm pretty sure he knew. And he's too smart not to have put two and two together when I… died." He wriggles an eyebrow at the last word.
"So his Batphone hotline is a tribute of sorts," she suggests. "You should be flattered."
"I'm not saying I'm not," he replies coyly. "But for all he says about protecting privacy, I wish he'd taken a firmer stance with his own contractors. He won't even say on the record that he doesn't think Sutcliffe stole this Matrix, though it's obvious he doesn't believe it for a second."
"Well, to be perfectly exact, the guy did work for the CIA. He was, technically speaking, a CIA employee permanently seconded to the NSA, despite what you said." She did not want to say it in the meeting, for obvious reasons, but thinks she should warn Bruce in case he brings it up again.
"My bad, then. But I still don't believe he had anything to do with it."
"Neither do I," she agrees. "Unlike this Jamie girl, who kind of looks guilty one way or the other."
Bruce does not sound convinced. "I don't know what to make of her yet, based on what they've told us. I guess I'll wait until you've met her before I can pass judgment."
She bristles at the implicit reproach, and feels an unexpected and irrational spike of jealousy. "She got someone killed."
"I got people killed," he argues.
"You're on about Rachel again," she says with a sigh.
"Actually, I meant Harvey."
"Harvey got himself killed," she insists. She remembers the public reading of poor Jim Gordon's untendered resignation letter where Harvey Dent's fall from grace and literal fall to his death was recounted in all its frightening glory. "He may have been a victim more than a criminal, but he sure did it to himself."
"Maybe." He'll never be convinced, she thinks. At least it makes implicit solidarity rather than any romantic stirrings the likely motive for his defence of Jamie.
"One last thing. What's our stopover point? Bogotá, Mexico City, or Cape Town?" Based on what he said earlier about the notoriously high crime rate and the likely routes from Gotham to Sydney, she has been thinking it must be one of these. Unless he means Caracas or Lima.
"Rio," he says instead.
That is a pleasant surprise; high crime rate or not, it is one of the world's most beautiful cities, and one she has not yet been to –their crazy schedules had put a stop to their hopes of visiting it at Carnival.
"Sounds good, but why?"
He smirks. "Because you haven't been there yet. Also, remember your good friend Armando Alves?"
The tall-dark-and-handsome-but-not-quite-Bruce Brazilian guy she stood up over a dinner in Hong Kong when the real thing was revealed to be alive. "Sure."
"His company, my Brazilian subsidiary, makes excellent mini-cameras, among other things. I figure we'll need a bunch of those in the next few days. And you can say hi to him."
And finally apologise in person for the dinner; all she had done earlier was a hurried phone call and a less hurried, but rather unrevealing email blaming the change of plan on her sudden move to Europe. "About time."
She pulls out her phone for a quick check of the flights and weather and makes a face. "Shit."
"Just looking at the weather. Rio's OK, 72 degrees, that's 22 in European terms, but looks like our best bet for an onward flight is via Buenos Aires, and there it's 18 high, 10 low. That's 50. And we'll be there in the middle of the night for eight hours. And I'll want to take a walk around the city, I've never been, you know, and I like the tango. So we'll need to get fleece jackets here, because there's no way I'm gonna waste time in Rio on shopping."
"We can get them at Gotham International," he suggests. "It's almost six, and we have to get there about 8-8:15 to make the 9:40 pm flight." She is impressed how he remembers the flight time by heart. And a bit suspicious again; surely the only way he'd fly there regularly as Bruce Wayne would be for some wild partying. "And we still need to talk to Theo, which means sneaking into Lucius's office again; at least we can leave the Corvette right there and then grab a cab to the airport. And before then we need to pack and hopefully grab a quick bite, because those CIA turkey sandwiches tasted like cardboard. So I suggest we hit the outdoor gear shops at the airport. Does it make sense?"
Sounds like a plan, all things considered.
She flashes him a mock-contrite smile. "Yes, sir."
oh shit, where do I start?
I mentioned SAD in the previous chapter. The Special Activities Division does exactly what Bruce says; to be more precise, it has two constituent units, the Political Action Group (doing what is coyly described as covert political action) and Special Operations Group or SOG, which takes care of the rest of the black ops business. Where would I be without Wikipedia?
The Intelligence Star, as anyone who has seen Argo may remember, is the top award given to CIA operatives – for the most part posthumously – and cannot even be publicly claimed by living recipients.
As I also mentioned in the previous chapter, Palantir is real, and all the facts I mention here come from the Forbes brief referenced there. I was able to sneak in the Batphone, but could not do so for another choice tidbit:
"In 2010 Palantir's customers at the New York Police Department referred the company to JPMorgan, which would become its first commercial customer. A team of engineers rented a Tribeca loft, sleeping in bunk beds and working around the clock to help untangle the bank's fraud problems. Soon they were given the task of unwinding its toxic mortgage portfolio. Today Palantir's New York operation has expanded to a full, Batman-themed office known as Gotham, and its lucrative financial-services practice includes everything from predicting foreclosures to battling Chinese hackers."
Now Alex Karp (who I changed to Kelp, who, me paranoid?) may not look like Bruce Wayne at all, but I believe, dear readers, we may be looking at a real life Wayne Enterprises R&D prototype here…
You may be familiar with DDOS aka distributed denial of service, at least as a sufferer if not as a computer geek. DDOS attacks consist of massive surges of access queries to the target website that crash it by exceeding its server capacity. Hackers did similar things to at the height of the Assange scandal when it allegedly froze transfers related to WikiLeaks.
Tor, or The Onion Router, is a Firefox plug-in that lets users access what is called "the dark web", or the part of the Internet hidden from search engines. Users' identities are kept anonymous by routing their queries through a random series of computers between the point of origin and the target site. Most recently the NSA and GCHQ have been trying to crack Tor, or at least find ways of figuring out user identities, using "man-in-the-middle" tactics, i.e. impersonating target sites using clones that log user data, with programmes such as FoxAcid (the Guardian has a pretty interesting, if technical, recent exposé on the subject). A particularly notorious example of Tor use came with The Silk Road, the online drugs marketplace, which the FBI shut down last week or so, arresting its owner, Ross Ulbricht, in the process (remember that in my story timeline, the events take place this past July, so as of that date, the FBI had not arrested him *yet*. In the same vein, Lavabit, the secure e-mail service that voluntarily shut down in early September rather than comply with NSA demands, is still active here, though I am not sure to what extent it was "crackable" by the CIA). coin is the purely-electronic currency that has been used mostly, though not exclusively, for Silk Road purchases.
The Redact instant messenger with message encryption and deletion functionality is real and, most appropriately, its British developer company is actually based in Geneva (add http etc, delete the extra spaces the pesky ffnet filter sticks in, and replace asterisks with dots - independent*co*uk/news/uk/home-news/james-bondstyl e-redact-secure-messenger-app-that-can-wipe-sent-m essages-from-receivers-phone-could-help-british-sp ies-8597650*html). In a similar vein, my head canon has Bruce & Co using a paid and heavily encrypted e-mail service called NeoMailbox, also based in Switzerland, instead of dear old Google. I do not mention it but it's still "true" ;) (you can double-check it and explore other, free options here: popsci*com/technology/article/2013-08/what-are-you r-options-secure-email)
The GCHQ ("the UK NSA") tap on the underwater fiber optic cable is real, though I picked Dubai as a purely arbitrary location: independent*co*uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-uks-s ecret-mideast-internet-surveillance-base-is-reveal ed-in-edward-snowden-leaks-8781082*html
The 'Ndrangheta is, indeed, the Calabrese mafia, and the De Stefano family is one of its prominent parts. I have no idea if a Rocco De Stefano really exists. For any fellow dinosaurs out there, the porn star quip is a send-off to Rocco Siffredi, a real Italian 1990s porn star.
Shivagowri Sivaparan née Shanthamohan is real, as is her husband and his Nediyavan nickname, along with his Tamil Eelam background, arms trading and hardliner separatist stance (see en*wikipedia*org/wiki/Perinpanayagam_Sivaparan). He is allegedly free on bail in Norway, but you never know ;) His wife's English mother, as well as her Veerammal and White Tigress nicknames, and her foray into the arms-trade business is my invention, but it's not that implausible. The White Widow aka Samantha Lewthwaite is a real life terrorist, currently on the CIA most wanted list over the Kenya killings. (damn, I am sure ticking enough boxes for the NSA to read this…)
While my remark about the high crime rate in relation to Rio may read a bit unfair, it is true. My own experience, luckily, was limited to a pair of Havaianas nicked on the beach (I did end up fighting and scaring off a would-be robber in Brazil who had put a carving knife to my throat, but that was outside Rio – and yes, I was crazy), but I've heard stories of friends-of-friends being robbed and beaten right on Copacabana. Beautiful country, though.
And finally, I've had to have Selina correcting an apparent lapse of Bruce's re: "Snowden's" employer after realising my own inaccuracy, and tweaked the number of Matrix users upwards after reading that in the US alone, the number of people with a top secret clearance is ca. 480 thousand. So I made several hundred into several thousand on the assumption that a weapons trade database could come in handy to quite a few.