Curveball Issue 22: King’s Gambit

Part Three: One Day Earlier

“Which is why we’re certain it isn’t a member of the board.”

Jason Kline stands in the Haruspex Analytics Situation Room, facing a large flat screen monitor displaying the shadowy silhouette of the Chairman. Simon Yin is working on a laptop to his right. The rest of the team is in other parts of the building making discrete alterations to the network that will make things a little easier to manage in the future. The only other person in the room is Mara Ioannou, sitting off to the side, listening intently. She hasn’t involved herself in the discussion so far, but she’s been paying close attention.

“Why not?” The Chairman isn’t dismissing the notion out of hand, but he’s resistant to the idea. “Whoever it is, they have access to information that only board members can access.”

“Not entirely,” Jason says. “The board members have access to all of it, but other people have access to pieces of it. They have to. You need staff to maintain the machines that store the information and monitor communications. You need more staff to man the systems that trigger armed responses to threats. Our technology is constantly being tweaked and adjusted by personnel. Nothing here runs itself, and the board members aren’t directly involved in any of the operations and maintenance activities that go on.”

“In fact,” Simon adds, not looking up from his laptop as he speaks, “that’s the main reason why a board member would be in the worst position to do this.”

“Who was that?” the Chairman asks.

Simon’s eyes widen as he realizes who he’s talking to. He’s a slightly overweight man, about Jason’s height, and has thick, straight black hair that shoots out in all directions, making it look perpetually spiky. He stands, wiping his hands on his jeans as he turns toward the Chairman’s monitor. “Uh… Simon Yin, sir. I’m on Jason’s team. I apologize for speaking out of turn.”

The Chairman waves his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. Mr. Yin, why would a board member be in the ‘worst’ position to do these things?”

“Board members are too visible,” Simon says. “They don’t usually interact directly with the systems that needed to be manipulated to—for example—override the NYPD Code Ultraviolet alerts. A board member certainly has the authority to access those systems, but standard procedure is to issue a directive and have someone else take care of it. When they do something directly, people notice.”

Jason notices Mara nodding to herself thoughtfully.

“My point is that while, from a power and authority perspective, a board member would theoretically be the best position to be in, if a board member tried to do any of these things on their own almost everyone would notice, because it’s an extreme aberration from how things normally work.”

The Chairman is silent for a moment.

“We also need to take into account the depth of system knowledge required for some of these breaches,” Jason adds. “The board is full of very capable people, sir, but their skills focus on analysis, planning, and management. All of those skills are necessary to pull off any one of these security incidents, but on top of that you also need in-depth knowledge of our systems. We’re looking for a second-tier employee, or group of employees. People who work directly for members of the board.”

“I see,” the Chairman says. “Someone they trust.”

“That’s right,” Simon says. “One of the people who carry out the directives. Someone who can go into a data center and say ‘the board needs you to pull these files in the next hour’ and nobody will even think twice about it. Preferably someone who has the expertise so they can say ‘I need to get this information for the board’ and someone will offer them a seat, because everyone knows they’re qualified to do it themselves.”

“You’ve been looking for a Brutus in your organization,” Jason says, “but what we need to focus on is Brutus’ Brutus. Someone who works for one of the board members, an employee they trust implicitly.”

“I expect that describes everyone we rely on,” Mara says, breaking her silence. “There are at least two or three such people for every board member. I’m afraid you haven’t narrowed down your search at all.”

“It’s a wider net,” Jason agrees, “but it’ll be easier to narrow down as time goes on. The trick is figuring out how to narrow it down before there’s another incident. At the moment, with Project Recall on hold and our investigation being conducted openly, the mole—or moles—will be in hiding. We don’t have many options.”

“What options do we have?” Mara asks.

“Well,” Jason says, “Simon came up with an interesting play, and we’ve stumbled across something that—”

The door to the situation room opens, and a distinguished-looking white-haired man, dressed smartly in a three-piece suit, walks in.

“Mr. Estovich,” Jason says. “Thank you for coming.”

“Andrew,” the Chairman says.

Andrew Estovich looks from Jason, to the image of the Chairman on the monitor, then over to Mara, who gives him a small nod. “How can I be of service?”

“Have a seat,” Jason says. Andrew hesitates a moment, nods, then sits next to Mara.

“What’s going on?” He doesn’t bother disguising the apprehension in his voice. “Is anything wrong?”

“You’re being set up,” Jason says.

Andrew stares at him blankly.

“We found some files on your computer,” Simon says. “Files we know aren’t yours. It’s a… virus, of sorts.”

“Which computer?” Andrew asks.

“The one in your office,” Jason says.

“Someone put a virus on that one?” Andrew frowns and shakes his head. “I don’t know what for. I just use that one to keep track of meetings. Everything important I do is… in the boardroom. Or in a SCIF. If they’re trying to spy on me…”

“Not spy,” Jason says. “Frame. Simon?”

“The program waits for an external command,” Simon explains. “When it receives the right trigger, it will build a fake digital trail implicating you in every security breach we’re investigating.”

Andrew blinks. “What?”

“It will also—we think—link to a few financial accounts that have apparently been set up to look like they’re yours. Accounts that will make it look like you’re being paid by someone outside the organization.”

“I’m not,” Andrew says.

“We know,” Jason says. “We’re telling you this because we want you to know, ahead of time, that we know you’re not involved. However, Simon thinks we’re about to hit a point in the investigation where the guilty party is going to activate this program in order to deflect attention away from him or herself.”

“Or themselves,” Simon adds.

“Or themselves,” Jason agrees. “We’re not sure why they’ve targeted you specifically—”

“I know why,” Andrew says.

Jason raises an eyebrow. “Why?”

Andrew’s smile struggles between amusement and bitterness. “My value to Haruspex is that I’m a company man, Mr. Kline. I’m not a stupid man by any means, but I’m not one of the bright, rising stars, either. I’m valuable because I put the company first, keep my eye on the end goal, and I’m not concerned if someone else comes up with the brilliant idea that moves the project forward. It’s not a glamorous track, and there are a lot of people on the board who think I’m more than a bit past my prime.”

Mara shakes her head and tsks. “Andrew…”

“No, Mara, it’s OK. I’m not insulting myself, and I’m not being self-deprecating.” Amusement wins out, and Andrew chuckles softly. “It’s the way business works. It’s hard to avoid, even in places like this, it’s hard to avoid. Human nature is what it is, and ambition… well, it’s always there, and there are always people—even loyal people—who will play the game for personal gain instead of looking at the big picture.”

No one says anything. Mara sighs and nods, sadly.

“I don’t do that any more. I did, once, when I was younger, but since coming here…” Andrew’s cheeks redden slightly. “Well, I found something here that’s bigger than myself. It’s huge and terrifying and absolutely necessary and it takes putting aside your own goals in order to get it done, and I’ve found seeing it happen a lot more rewarding than getting the praise for something less effective. And let’s be honest, Mara, I don’t really understand the technical side of things nearly as much as a lot of the rest of you. And that’s where so much of our work is headed, these days…”

“I’ve never questioned your dedication,” the Chairman says. “Nor has your place in this company ever been in doubt.”

Andrew’s cheeks redden more noticeably. “Thank you, sir. But I sort of wandered off point. My point is, I’m considered a bit out of touch by some of the other board members, and more than a few of the staff. That makes me an easy target on one level. And my… perceived ineffectiveness makes for a perfect manufactured alibi. ‘Old Man Estovich knew he was being boxed out, so he decided to sell his services to the highest bidder.’ That kind of story. It’s the kind of thing the more ambitious kids would accept without so much as a second thought.”

Jason shifts uncomfortably. It occurs to him that it’s exactly the kind of motive he would have assumed, if he hadn’t known Andrew was being framed.

“So, yeah, I know why they chose me,” Andrew says. “I’m the dinosaur. As far as everyone knows, at any rate. There’s no reason for them not to choose me.”

“Well,” Jason says, trying to move past his discomfort, “since we know in advance you’re being set up, it should be pretty simple to fake an accusation. We’ll have to keep you hidden for a while, but as soon as we flush these guys out—”

Andrew shakes his head. “It’s not gonna be that simple, Mr. Kline. I assume you’ve ruled out the other board members at this point?”

Jason blinks. “We have. How did you know?”

“A member of the board, going into my office, messing with my personal computer?” Andrew laughs. “The number of systems they’d have to disable to avoid being logged just for stepping into my office… no, it’s easier to put someone one or two levels lower. Staff go into our offices all the time, whether we’re there or not.”

Suddenly Jason doesn’t feel quite as clever as he did a few minutes ago. Simon shakes his head, trying not to grin.

“That’s true,” Jason admits. “We think it’s probably an aide or attaché to a board member. At least.”

“Well, that’s where my problem comes in,” Andrew says. “If it’s one of our assistants, that means they know how this place works as well as any of us.”

“I don’t follow,” Jason says.

“They know how we deal with traitors,” Andrew says. “The real way.”

“I…” Jason fumbles for words and loses. “Mr. Estovich, we’re not planning to retire you.”

“Then you’re going to screw the whole thing up!” Andrew’s voice takes on the distinct tone of a disapproving parent. “This is more than just setting me up to take the fall, Mr. Kline. I’m not just their patsy. I’m their canary in a coal mine. If they trigger that program and I don’t die they’ll know you’re on to them.”

Jason doesn’t know how to reply to that. He hadn’t considered it. He looks at Simon, who is gaping at Andrew in open astonishment. He looks at Mara: she’s looking down at the floor, expression troubled. The Chairman simply looms, his silhouette unmoving, offering no comment or advice.

Andrew sighs. “You should do it in the boardroom. Don’t tell anyone what you’re going to do—you need to shock the board, really make them believe that you think I’m guilty and you’re making me pay for it. I’d appreciate it if you made it as quick as possible. I know there are no guarantees.”

Nobody says anything.

Andrew stands. “As soon as it’s done… well, act like the matter’s settled. The board will go back, tell their staff what happened—the important ones, anyway—and the real traitors will think they dodged the bullet. Then you stage something. Give ’em something irresistible to go after. Then you catch those sons of bitches and you make sure you get every last one.”

“That’s close to what I was suggesting,” Simon says. “Though… in my plan we just hid you for a while.”

Andrew smiles. “That’s awfully nice of you, young man. I like your plan better. It’s a shame it won’t work.”

“I agree,” the Chairman says. “I’m very sorry, Andrew.”

“I’m a company man, sir,” Andrew says. “I know what that means.”

“Andrew, it occurs to me it’s been a long time since we’ve had dinner.” The Chairman’s voice radiates warmth. “I wonder if you’d stop by tonight?”

“Thank you sir,” Andrew says. “But if you don’t mind… I’d prefer to spend the evening with Carol and the boys tonight.”

“Of course,” the Chairman says. “I’m sorry. That was thoughtless of me. Breakfast, then?”

Andrew nods, eyes glistening. “I’d like that, sir. Thank you.”

“I think you should take the rest of the day. Surprise Carol.”

Andrew nods again. “Well. See you tomorrow then.”

Mara stands and places her hand on Andrew’s cheek. Andrew smiles and squeezes her hand. Then he wipes his eyes with his thumb, straightens his tie, and walks out of the situation room, straight-backed, head held high.

Everyone watches the door as it closes behind him.

“I want to make something very clear.” The Chairman’s voice has changed again—cold, with a hint of raw fury seething just beneath the surface. “I am not angry with anyone in this room. But I am very… very angry.”

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