Dark Siren: Part 3

Dark Siren CoverIt’s time for the third part of the Dark Siren serialisation. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here, and if you like what you read, please do support an up and coming author and buy the full book as a PDF here for only US $7.95. Payments are accepted via PayPal or credit card.

Chapter 5

Avataria Post building.  22 January 2008 : 10.45pm PST

Carmen was in her upstairs office busy with clients, so he waited in the reception area for her. It was late evening California time, but in Avataria nobody kept ordinary business hours partly because of international time zones, partly because most had real life jobs.

Her visitors teleported away and she came down to greet him with the customary animated air kiss. He liked Carmen – one of the few Avataria figures who didn’t seem to obsess about her looks or care what others thought of her. A no-bullshit gal ostensibly from New York, the one time he’d heard her speak online at a press conference was in a deep throaty voice.  Reminiscent of Lauren Bacall after too many scotches and cigarettes.

Text appeared on the bottom left of the screen:

Carmen Verne: Mel!  good to see you! long time, no see! any injuries today?

He instinctively shook his head, then realised with a wry smile that the gesture would not translate to his avatar. It didn’t take long to get out of practice. He typed a line, the program automatically inserting his name:

Mel Nightfire: haven’t been online much…  too busy with rl

Carmen Verne: how’s that partner of yours?  what was her name? Emily?

This was a reference to an operative from the Federal Police he’d been obliged to bring along during the Al-Qaeda operation, although knowing Avataria as he did now, it had probably been a mistake to imply any intimacy between them. He lied effortlessly:

Mel Nightfire: we’re not together anymore… you know what Avataria’s like

Carmen Verne: lol… only too well. so how can I help? got a good story?

Mel Nightfire: it’s a personal thing… I wondered if you know Ariana… Ariana McDowell?

Carmen Verne: she’s a friend of Alan and Roxy – one of their bondage buddies. Did you ever meet Roxy Ryder, the Features Editor?

Mel Nightfire: No

Carmen Verne: she’s not online tonight, otherwise I’d introduce you…  ahhh! I get it. Might I be right in thinking you’ve got the hots for Ariana!  I don’t blame you, mind, she’s a very attractive girl… used to do some lingerie modelling for a friend of mine but I haven’t seen her around for a while

Simon used an audio routine to make Mel chuckle.

Mel Nightfire: seems I should take up bondage

Carmen Verne: lol…  you like getting your ass whipped then? You should come along to one of our little soirées… we need some fresh blood…

Mel Nightfire: I’ll ignore that horrible pun…

Again he imagined a throaty laugh.

Carmen Verne: Listen… if I get to see Ariana, I’ll set up a little social thing. Fat Freddy’s or the press club.

Mel Nightfire: that’ll be great… thanks Carmen, I appreciate it

Carmen Verne: I’ll send you an IM.  good to see you – take care!

Simon logged Mel out of Avataria and turned off his computer. Although Carmen was always good-humoured with him it wasn’t a good idea to press her too hard. He’d once seen her in a ferocious argument with a freelance journalist and he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

He dialled the US Embassy, and asked for James Whitman, his main FBI contact in Australia.

“Whitman.” The voice was friendly, but correct, with a strong Bronx accent.

“Simon Austin AHTCC. How are you?””

“Good. What can I do for you?”

In his earpiece Simon could hear the click-cluck of fingers operating a keyboard. He had met Special Agent Whitman once before, at the opening of the FBI office in Sydney. Whitman was a strong believer in multi-tasking.

“You heard about the raid, I take it?”

“Yeah.”

Simon had never mastered the policeman’s knack of saying as little as possible. Disraeli’s maxim, ‘never apologise, never explain,’ never seemed so cruelly unattainable as he wretchedly explained the escape of their quarry and the loss of a police colleague.

“So you lost him. What are you going to do now?”

Whitman’s question was not phrased unkindly, but it still made him wince.

“He left a laptop. We managed to crack the passwords.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Usual stuff… everything you’d need to fake credit cards. But there was one thing. He had a Avataria viewer.”

“So he likes cybersex.”

“Uh… maybe… but that’s not the main reason. He used it to communicate with the Druzhba network.”

“That is interesting.” The cluck-clicking noise in the earpiece stopped.

“He’s using steganography. We found commercial software and our forensic guys located some images he’d doctored and sent through the Avataria system.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. The NSA is always running to catch up with stuff like that.”

“There’s something else.”

“You have been busy.”

Simon detected a rare chuckle on the other end of the phone.

“It’s only a hunch. There were four names in Kyrylo’s Friends’ List. Basically the main people he dealt with in-world.”

“Think they might lead us somewhere?”

“They might help track some of his Druzhba contacts in the States. But I think he’s got other things on his mind.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Two of the names are in-world rent boys. There was a message setting up a trick from a character called Joss Guest.”

“So? Like I said, maybe he likes cybersex.”

“Maybe. But nothing I’ve read in the FBI files suggests he’s gay.”

“True. He probably isn’t.”

“We found a clipping from an e-zine article in his Recycle bin… Salon.com. Do you know it?”

“Sure.”

“It featured a Senator called Jack Gallagher.”

“The Democrats’ great white hope?”

“Yes. It’s a few years old, but it’s basically about his negative attitude to gay marriage.”

“So he’s a little old-fashioned. That doesn’t make him homophobic. In any case, what’s the connection with Kyrylo?”

“That’s what I want to find out.”

“Sounds like a long shot.”

“Maybe it is, but at the very least if we can track these names it might lead us to Kyrylo and help catch his friends.”

The keyboard noise picked up again. Whitman was losing interest.

“So you’ve got as far as you can, but now you need help from the Avataria management?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“Well, I could give you their number, and maybe an introduction, but even if you get to talk to them I don’t think it would progress your investigation.”

More clicking.

“Why’s that?”

“For starters, there’s a good chance that your names belong to American citizens, and there’s also the privacy thing. I would imagine that Avataria isn’t too keen on giving out that sort of information without a warrant from a U.S. court.”

“So what do you suggest?”

There was a pause, followed by more typing noises.

“Well, I can’t deal with this here. It’ll have to go to the folks in San Francisco, which is the nearest main office to Avataria. They’re in the Valley I think.”

“Silicon Valley you mean?”

“Yeah. Send me an email with all this in more detail, and I’ll get on to it. I can’t call them today – it’s too late.”

“Shit!”

Whitman’s muffled expletive was followed a moment later by the C major chord of a Mac re-starting. Yet more click-clucking, then:

“Oh Austin… One last thing. If we do help you with this, you are going to nail Kyrylo, aren’t you?”

The next morning there was a return email from Whitman in Simon’s Inbox. It was short and to the point:

The guy you need to talk to at Avataria is Martin Bremer. ASAIC San Francisco knows a personal friend who can smooth the way. He’ll phone you shortly.

Whitman

Chapter 6

Analasys Inc., San Jose, CA. 23 January 2008 :  4pm PST

“Busy, Frank?”

With an almost instinctive reflex Nez minimised the computer dating site window he had been studying on his personal laptop, and returned to his official duties – analysing and deciphering encrypted text embedded in suspect websites. He hated to be disturbed, and Everett disturbed him a lot – in both senses of the word.

“I need to speak to you for a minute. My office, OK?”

“You’ve got it Cameron.”

Everett was a short stocky man with a thick neck that gave him the look of an overweight bullfrog. He retreated down the corridor to his office, a featureless grey box with a window looking out over a high security fence at an equally featureless road in a business park in the Valley. Wintry sunlight filtered through ill-fitting vertical blinds. He sat down behind his desk, punched a few numbers into a keypad, and spoke briefly into his wireless headset. Nez ambled in and sat insolently on the corner of the desk, kicking his heels and waiting for him to finish. Everett motioned Nez to shut the door, then said abruptly into his mouthpiece “I’ll call him back,” and fiddled with the headset switch to finish the call.

“So how’re you doin’, Frank?”

“Fine thanks.”

“Divorce papers finally come through?”

“Uh huh. Last week.”

“How do you feel about it now?”

“Water under the bridge, Cameron.”

“What’s Eva up to now?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Everett wasn’t really interested in his welfare or mental state, Nez knew only too well. He was such a manipulative asshole, and had probably kept a file on every twist and turn of his disintegrating marriage in case it yielded ammunition for a future departmental brawl or an unexpected contract termination. But that wasn’t why he wanted to see him.

“How well do you know Martin Bremer?” asked Everett, leaning back in his chair sucking a pen and scratching himself. A missing shirt button exposed a few square inches of hairy paunch. “Weren’t you buddies with him at Lockheed back in the nineties?”

“Yeah. And before that in the IT Department at Marine Corps Engineering School. He went out on his own though, five, maybe six years ago.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“He’s an idealist, and the more senior he became the more disillusioned he got with the hypocrisy of the arms trade. I think he wanted to be a force for good in the world.”

“Another bleeding-heart liberal, then,” said Everett sarcastically.

“Well… I guess you might think that. But I think he’s a genuine kinda guy.”

Martin Bremer was a household name among the computer geekerati. An undisputed software genius, he had found working for the defence industry too restricting and built the futuristic concept of Avataria into a MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) with over 13 million players.

“There’s been a development. Do you remember Kyrylo, that Ukrainian guy we tangled with last year? One of the head honchos of the Druzhba network.”

“Weren’t you monitoring him for the Feds?”

Everett’s reply was characteristically vague. “For a while.”

“Has he resurfaced? I seem to remember they couldn’t pin anything on him.”

“He’s finally flown the coop.”

“How come?”

“Seems he could live with the LAPD hassling him, but the Feds were closing in and the heat got too much. About a month ago he surfaced in Sydney where he’s been trying to set up shop. We gave the Aussie police a tip off and they busted his operation last week. Except they didn’t catch him.”

Nez wasn’t really listening. He knew only too well that Everett had been tasked with monitoring Kyrylo’s communications, and had somehow missed the crucial piece of information that he was about to flee the U.S. Not only that, he was a fantasist and a time-server, and although deskbound, spoke in annoying staccato phrases like his hero James Cagney in G-Men. He’d probably die in harness, Nez thought, and be carried out feet first from his office still clutching his favourite gizmo and muttering that headsets increased productivity by 43%.

“Too bad.”

“Yeah… you could say that. Nasty piece of work.”

“Wonder how he managed to slip away…”

Everett looked at Nez sharply.

“You got anything to say, Frank, you just say it.”

Nez raised his hands in mock surrender.

“So what’s the Bremer connection with all of this?”

“In his rush to escape, Kyrylo left a laptop behind. When the Aussies hacked into it they found a Avataria viewer with some names. One of the Canberra cops thinks he’s using the game to talk to his amigos in Russia, as well as harvesting credit cards, scamming IDs and all kinds of shit.”

“He’s Ukrainian, not Russian,” said Nez absently, examining his nails.

Everett leaned forward over his collection of business toys and fixed Nez with a bloodshot stare. “I don’t give a shit if he’s a fuckin’ Eskimo. I wouldn’t normally bother with these guys, Frank, but the VP-Ops is under pressure from the Bureau to do something about it.  To cut a long story short, the Aussies want us to check out these names, and as you know Bremer, you’re the obvious guy to do it.”

Nez continued to study his fingernails, then slowly looked up. “Some of my best friends are Eskimos, Cameron.”

“You know what I mean.”

For a moment the two men stared at each other in an atmosphere of mutual loathing. Then Nez relaxed and fished in his pocket for his cigarettes. He placed the pack on Everett’s desk, took a cigarette out slowly and deliberately, tapped it on the packet and placed it between his lips.

Everett immediately rose to the bait. “You can’t smoke that in here.”

Nez eyeballed him steadily for a few seconds and then laughed. “I wasn’t intending to light it. I know the rules.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth with his left hand and put the pack back in his pocket.

Despite the pathetic display of alpha-male posturing that he was goaded into on an all too regular basis with Everett, Nez had perked up. He admired Bremer immensely, and although he hadn’t seen him for years there was still a lot of mutual respect and camaraderie. Ostensibly, the prospect of poking around behind the scenes in a virtual world that size was very attractive, yet he couldn’t get the notion out of his head that he was in some way being taken advantage of. He knew he shouldn’t let Everett get to him. But there was just something about the guy that wound him up against his better judgement. The job sounded interesting, but he had an uncomfortable feeling that something didn’t add up.

“OK… where do I start?”

Everett eased himself out of his chair and started rummaging in a filing cabinet. He passed Nez a folder. “These are the printouts of the files that came from Whitman, the Bureau chief in Canberra. Read through them, call Austin at the Hi-Tech Crime Centre – his number’s there – and then get on to Bremer. And make sure you get the whole story. It’s gonna be my head on the block if all this goes tits up. And one last thing… as far as Bremer’s concerned – keep it unofficial.”

Nez tucked the folder under his arm and got up to leave.

“So business as usual, Cameron.”

“When can I have the report?”

Frank paused at the door. “First thing Monday?”

“Make it Friday afternoon.”

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