“I want to know exactly what happened in that house.”
The Chairman isn’t shouting; he doesn’t even sound angry. But the crispness in his voice is unpleasant. It’s the sound of command unfettered by social convention: there’s no attempt to soften it with politeness or pleasantry. He’s not rude, and he’s not overbearing, but there’s no question that he’s giving an order, and he expects to be obeyed.
It’s very early in the morning, but most of the members of the Board are there, sitting around the table, staring at Jason with the same, blank expressions they wore the first time he was in the room. If Jason was more arrogant, or less paranoid, he might think the Chairman chose them because they didn’t think for themselves. They certainly looked like mindless corporate drones, waiting to be told what they thought by their superior. But Haruspex Analytics isn’t that kind of company, and the people who run it don’t get promoted for being yes men. What Jason is looking at isn’t stupidity, it’s a poker face.
Jason clears his throat nervously. “I don’t know.”
“That’s a very unfortunate admission.” There’s a noticeable edge to the Chairman’s voice now.
Jason tries not to squirm—he wasn’t offered a seat at the table like before. He’s standing before them, being called to account for something he’s only vaguely aware of.
“Mr. Chairman, with all due respect, I don’t know what you expect to hear from me. I received a report that someone had accessed Curveball’s email account and downloaded the file, of course, but I had nothing to do with that assault team. I didn’t even learn there was an assault team until after it had been sent in.” Jason stares at the shadowy figure in the corner and tries to focus on the spot where he thinks his eyes are.
The Chairman tips his head to one side. “Mr. Kline, I very recently gave you significant operational control over parts of Project Recall that were specific to the security breach.”
“Yes sir,” Jason says.
“And the email attachment Alexander Morgan sent out before he was ‘retired’ falls under the parameters of your authority.”
“Yes sir,” Jason says again. “It does.”
“How do you expect me to believe you weren’t involved in this unmitigated disaster? We didn’t just lose operatives. Some of them were captured. They are now security risks.”
The members of the Board continue to stare at him blankly. It wasn’t this unnerving before. Then again, the last time he wasn’t being accused of gross incompetence.
“There is no way I could have organized this assault,” Jason insists. “I was still assembling my team in response to an emergency call from Richter earlier this morning.”
“Richter?” The Chairman appears startled by this information.
“He had an encounter with Curveball the night before. He believed Curveball had recovered a piece of intelligence that could tie him to the assassination…” Jason deliberately chooses not to use the euphemism. “He decided he had been compromised, and wanted to know what to do next.”
“What intelligence?” The Chairman asks.
“Digital footage of the whole thing,’” Jason says.
A low murmur ripples through the back of the board room. The Chairman leans over as another board member, also hidden in shadow, murmurs something in his ear.
“The initial report Richter sent indicated he deployed a small EMP when he left the scene,” the Chairman says finally.
Jason nods. “He confirmed that in his conversation with me. But it only affected the immediate area. The hard drive was in another room. The EMP ended the transmission from the cameras, but if the hard drive is unaffected it will have a record of everything up to that point.”
“And that’s why you were assembling your team?”
Jason nods again. “We had to get Richter out of the area. If that information goes public—at this point I’m not sure how to contain it—then everyone will know that Richter was involved. We were arranging travel and resources, as well as tracking down another lead—”
The main doors to the board room open behind him. Jason turns, caught off guard, and sees “Mara,” the board member who vetted him.
She stops, takes in the room, and says “I apologize for being late.”
“Where were you, Mara?” The Chairman’s voice is crisply neutral once more.
Mara keeps her cool. “I was investigating the deployment of the assault team. I can confirm that Mr. Kline was not responsible for that action.”
“Oh?” The Chairman’s voice doesn’t change. There’s not the slightest hint as to whether he believes her. “Then who was responsible for it?”
“No, one, sir.”
The Chairman is silent. Jason frowns, looking visibly confused.
“That is to say,” Mara continues, “The assault team was automatically deployed as the result of a protocol put in place when intelligence classified ‘Threat Red’ is distributed without authorization. Mr. Kline placed surveillance on attempts to access Curveball’s ThorpeNet account, and the routines were able to trace it back to the Forrest residence in Brooklyn. It also recognized the encrypted package as it was being retrieved. The recognition automatically triggered the protocol.”
“So it was my fault,” Jason says.
Mara looks at him.
“In a way,” Jason continues. “Because I set up that surveillance but I didn’t check to see if any protocols were assigned to the encrypted package.”
“No,” Mara says, “it is not your fault.”
She turns back to face the board. “The protocol was put in place long before Mr. Kline was added to the project, and while he has been briefed on many parts of Project Recall, this was omitted. His role is analysis, this protocol was military. It was an oversight on my part. I take full responsibility.”
There is a slight tremor in her voice as she finishes, but she looks as calm and untroubled as she ever has.
The Chairman is silent a moment longer, then sighs. “All right, Mara. Take your seat.”
Mara walks around the table to her empty seat, and sits.
“Mr. Kline,” the Chairman says. “It appears I assumed incorrectly concerning your role in this mess. Please accept my apology.”
Jason tries not to look surprised. He’s not used to his bosses apologizing to him. “Thank you, sir.”
“Now let’s go back to something you were saying when Mara walked in,” the Chairman says. “You were tracking down another lead?”
Jason takes a breath. “Yes, sir. When Richter called me and said he found Curveball in Captain Morgan’s condo I began to run an analysis on both of their files, trying to find commonalities between them. One of the matches was Martin Forrest and his family. Forrest married Captain Morgan’s granddaughter.”
“I’m familiar with Martin Forrest,” the Chairman says. And we already know Curveball associates with that family.”
“Yes,” Jason says, “but this isn’t about Curveball. It’s about me. As it turns out, I’m familiar with Mr. Forrest’s daughter Jennifer.”
“Really?” The Chairman leans forward slightly. “Explain.”
“I met her at a security conference last year,” Jason says. “She’d just been hired as a computer security analyst for DataComm Industries. She hasn’t been in the industry long, but she’s quite talented.”
“How well do you know her?” the Chairman asks.
“Well…” Jason shifts uncomfortably. “It was a week-long conference, and we enjoyed each others company. But we didn’t talk about our personal lives. I knew her last name, but I didn’t realize she was part of that family until this morning. I got to know a great deal about her skill with computers, though… and the equipment she used. And based on the preliminary report I received about the email, I think it was her laptop that was used to retrieve it.”
“Are you certain?” Mara cuts in, voice sharp. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“Well… no,” Jason says. “I’m not. But at that conference, I remember her talking about the model she was planning to get. It was a high end model, one sold by a manufacturer who didn’t go through normal retail channels. It’s too big a coincidence for me to ignore.”
Immediately the board members start conferring among themselves. The Chairman raises a shadowy hand, the room falls silent.
“What does this mean?” the Chairman asks.
“It could mean a number of things,” Jason says. “Since Jennifer’s computer was used, I’m inclined to assume she was present when Curveball downloaded the file. Since she was present, I have to assume she’s a strong candidate for continuing to be involved. We can use that to our advantage.”
“I see,” the Chairman says. “So how do we do that?”
“We put her under surveillance. We tap her phone, we tap her computer, we put a tracker on her car. We monitor everything she does to see if she’s working with Curveball. If she is, she’s probably our best way to get to him.”
“How so?” Jason can’t tell who asks the question, but he has a hoarse, husky voice. “I thought you said she was competent.”
Cigarettes and shouting, Jason thinks.
“She is,” Jason says, “but she’s a civilian. Her background is in computer security, not espionage. We know Curveball is good at staying off the radar, but if Jennifer wants to use her skill set, she’s always going to run the risk of being noticed by people who are just as good as she is. Or better.”
Jason stops talking. The room is silent. The only sound comes from the vent as it blows warm air into the room. The Chairman’s silhouette is still, head tilted down, as if he is either deep in thought or asleep. Most of the other board members look at the Chairman expectantly. A few of them glance at Jason, their expressions still unreadable in their studied neutrality.
Finally the Chairman speaks. “This is what we’re going to do.”
All eyes are on his silhouette now. He has full command of the room.
“First: we had a bad night tonight. Some of our people are in custody. They will resist interrogation for as long as possible, but we need to make sure we can get access to them, debrief them, and then take what steps we must to preserve our secrecy. Second: we will have to re-examine our protocols to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Mara, I want you on that.”
“Third: we will follow Mr. Kline’s recommendation and begin surveillance on Jennifer Forrest. Mr. Kline, I want you to oversee that.”
“Finally: the Forrest family may have a digital record of Captain Morgan’s ‘retirement.’ They may also have knowledge of the encrypted file Curveball received from Morgan. This means we now risk exposure to the civilian world.”
A low murmur of concern rolls across the room.
“Unfortunately,” the Chairman continues, “we are not in a position to silence the Forrest family. They’re too high profile, too close to Liberty in the public eye… and such actions would not be supported by key allies. So I want options. If there are ways to discredit them, or discredit the information they have, I want to know those scenarios. If there are ways to completely insulate ourselves from that information, or use a third party as scapegoat, I want those scenarios as well.”
The Chairman leans back. His head disappears entirely into shadow. “Things are starting to wobble. I want balance restored. Let’s get it done.”