The security room was located three doors to the left of the staircase, exactly as promised. Devlin grumbled something inaudible at the sight of the convenient block letters labeling the room as such, then knelt to examine the lock.
“Did you bring your lock picks?” I asked.
He answered without looking up from the doorknob. “No, I wasn’t expecting to use them. My mistake, I guess.”
“So what are you going to do, then? Convince the door to open of its own accord?”
Devlin glanced over his shoulder for an instant and blew out a frustrated sigh from his nostrils. “I need an office,” he said. “And paper clips.”
For a moment, I considered returning to the nineteenth floor and searching for the required office supplies there. But that moment passed and I dismissed the idea. Surely someone who worked on the twentieth floor used paper clips for something. It wouldn’t take much time to locate something that innocuous. Besides, I was probably going to need some additional equipment of my own: things that I hadn’t thought to bring or that wouldn’t have fit inside my purse, even if I’d been feeling particularly paranoid.
There was also the matter of the open window where the cat burglar Barrett – I doubted that was even his real name, but it was better than capitalizing him as The Cat Burglar in my mind – had leaped for freedom. Just because I wasn’t familiar with the Sovereign’s security system didn’t mean I doubted its existence. When one of the guards managed to free themselves or when whatever security system Barrett had cheerfully ignored decided to get its act together, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the scene of the crime. So to speak.
A quick sweep of the surroundings, accompanied by a modicum of effort, led Devlin and I to a reasonably sized corner office a little farther down the hall. There weren’t any visible cameras which would have been nice if I hadn’t been driven into the farthest reaches of paranoia by the particulars of my life. But no sirens went off, no lights switched on, and a horde of guards didn’t pour out of the nearest doors, so I accepted my good fortune with a measure of healthy skepticism instead of outright disbelief. Either way, when Devlin motioned for me to step into the office and out of the exposed hallway, I breathed a little sigh of relief.
“One second,” he said. He began rifling through desk drawers, muttering the occasional soft curse.
“Actually,” I said, “if we’re already going to be here, there’s some things I can do to speed this up.”
Devlin glanced up, one hand buried up to the elbow in a voluminous cabinet. “What’s that?”
“I only brought a USB drive,” I said. “If there’s more information available than will fit on this drive, I’ll need some other way to transfer it.”
Instead of answering, I walked around to the opposite side of the desk, closer to Devlin and with my back facing a window. A single laptop – nothing impressive, as far as I could see, but also nothing to scoff at – rested alone in the exact center of the desk. I attempted to switch the device on, but my progress was halted by a request for a password even before the operating system had an opportunity to boot.
“There’s something you can do about that, right?” Devlin asked.
I didn’t exactly ignore him, but I didn’t really hear him either. My attention narrowed down to a list of possible ways to access this computer and the information contained within. I still had my tablet and there were a variety of password cracking programs pre-loaded on that. With a USB cord and physical access, it wouldn’t take more than five minutes to suss out any password the average user might concoct. A glance at the surroundings elevated my estimate: assuming the corner office belonged to an executive, the password cracking programs might take as long as ten minutes.
Not a long time by any stretch of the imagination, but still too long for our purposes. With a laptop of my own design or perhaps access to the cloud computing services I typically made use of, it would take less time. However, I didn’t have a laptop of my own design and cloud services were off the table without an internet connection. Logging on via my cell phone would be slow, especially so close to the cage around the servers, and using the tablet in offline mode would yield similar results.
A thought occurred to me, bringing a thin smile to my lips. I disconnected the laptop from its power supply and flipped it upside down. There, written on a sticky note pressed firmly to the battery, I found a username, a PIN, and a random alphanumeric sequence.
Benjamin Franklin had once said that the only certain things in life were death and taxes. In my experience, the age of computers had proffered a third item to add: the inability of office workers to adhere to even the most basic electronic security protocols.
I entered the PIN and the computer’s initial lock screen – its first line of defense, in a very real way – yielded before my intrusion. When the main operating system screen appeared, I used the username and alphanumeric password. Again, the laptop’s protection gave way.
“Almost too easy,” I said out loud. Then, realizing how close I’d come to jinxing us at the exact instant that Devlin drew in a sharp breath, I added, “Not actually too easy. But almost. People are so bad at computer security. Almost takes the fun out of it.”
There were two reasons I needed the laptop. I couldn’t steal the thing out of the building…well, I could have done that, but it might have raised questions later and I didn’t want some mid-level executive to lose their job because of what I needed to do. No, I was after information and the simplest way to acquire said information was to access a computer that already had it. A password for access to the wireless internet would allow me to use my cloud computing to deal with any further digital locks and it provided a semi-secure method of transferring data and metadata from the servers back to a location where I could sort through it later.
The USB drive would do in a pinch, but I preferred having options.
To my right, Devlin located a treasure trove of office supplies. He extracted two Bic pens and a fistful of paper clips. I tilted my head and lifted one eyebrow.
“Better safe than sorry,” he said, with a shrug. Despite the tension of the moment, I felt a wild urge to laugh out loud.
Instead of doing that, I gestured for us to get back to business. I left the office first, Devlin closed the door behind him, and we went back to the security room. It took him at least four lockpicks to finagle the door to the security room open, which was a lot better than I could have done. In the past, Devlin had spent many painstaking hours attempting to teach me the finer points of picking locks, to absolutely no avail. I equated my failure in his skill set to his utter inability to grasp the finer points – or, often, even the broader strokes – of what I did. He had taken the matter a bit more personally.
The inside of the security room looked identical to command hubs I’d seen in a dozen different buildings, just like the Sovereign. I went straight to the main monitor, unspooling the USB cord and plugging it into my laptop as I went.
“Watch the door,” I said. “If someone comes up here, I’d rather not be caught in flagrante.”
Devlin snickered. “Was that something we were worried about?”
“Oh shut up.”
Dutifully, Devlin shut up and took up position just the side of the door. If anyone attempted to enter the room behind us, he was poised to get the drop on them. Of course, I would have preferred to keep the violence to a minimum, but we would do what we had to do. Or, rather, he would do it. I had my own work to accomplish.
In London, I’d used a variant of some bleaching freeware, along with a bit of ingenuity, to create some malware specifically designed to target video files and erase them from existence. In its original form, the virus would have erased the entire hard drive, as well as any external drives that attempted to connect to the main system for about twenty-four hours. That had worked fine when we were up against a drug lord. Now, if that much information went missing, IT professionals would absolutely start looking for signs of other computer crime.
The average engineer or digital forensic specialist wasn’t a match for me on my best day but I was far from operating at my best. Subtlety would be required here.
My tablet wasn’t the best device to rapidly alter code, but most of the work I needed to do could be accomplished with clever cutting and pasting. A light smattering of specialized commands were required so that the bleaching program only targeted a subset of all possible files took another minute or two. When that was finished, I connected the tablet to the main system and began to load the program.
While that was happening, I allowed my mind a few moments to relax and adapt to the events of the last few minutes. Barrett had been such an unexpected development that I’d quite simply refused to deal with the ramifications of his arrival. It had either been dumb luck or some sort of impossibly complicated plan that had led to our abrupt meeting on the floor below. I was disinclined to believe the former, but the latter possibility required someone with near-prescient levels of planning.
The Lady was good, but she wasn’t that good. Even she’d been forced to rely on the Texan’s services, just to get her preferred agents close enough to start taking wild swings at her enemies. And the Magi…well, there wasn’t really any way to know exactly how good they were at anything, was there? Their agents could be anywhere, from the highest levels of law enforcement down to the lowest levels of the criminal underworld. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that they could contract the services of a cat burglar – a real cat burglar, which really shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did – but then that changed the question.
Not who had hired Barrett’s services, assuming that he’d been hired at all. But what had he been ordered to steal?
He’d mentioned the thirtieth floor. From my brief research into the Sovereign, I recalled that the building was owned by Sotheby’s Realty, a company that had some complicated connection with Sotheby’s Auction House. As far as I knew, auctions weren’t held in Atlanta, but there was always the chance that some goods were stored off-site for additional security. Could there be a safe somewhere? Or some illicit storage space for goods that the reputable auction house wasn’t willing to claim.
The thirtieth floor was one of the residential floors, too. Even if the company didn’t have an official or unofficial stash of goods, that didn’t exclude the possibility of a client using their building to store illicit gains. How hard would it be to hide some cache in a secret wall safe in a luxury apartment rented under a false name? It was the kind of thing I would do, if I’d ever been in the business of stealing gemstones.
There was more going on than I knew about. That was a sensation I was growing uncomfortably familiar with, but it wasn’t one I’d grown to like. Secrets led to surprises and surprises, without fail, threw the largest of wrenches into otherwise well-designed plans.
I couldn’t afford surprises anymore. Not if there was anything I could do about it, at least.
Barrett had said that he expected police attention. He wanted people to know that he’d broken into the Sovereign. If that was the case, would he really have avoided any additional cameras on the higher floors? If he’d been walking around with his face uncovered, I wouldn’t have bothered searching through the files. But he had covered his face, and he’d donned a ski mask without expecting to run into a pair of thieves heading upstairs for their own nefarious ends.
The tablet beeped to inform me that the bleaching program was primed for activation. Before I activated it, which would erase an hour in either direction of the moment I pressed ‘start’ and loop the previous hour to cover all of the intervening time, I performed a quick search for other video files located on the server. Not every floor was monitored by the same system, which made sense. My search returned information about the 21st through the 24th floors, skipped over the 25th and 26th, resumed for the 27th and 28th, and showed nothing at all for the 29th and 30th.
I swore under my breath.
“Everything okay?” Devlin asked. He was still poised like a cat, but he risked a quick glance away from the door in my direction.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m fine. I’ll explain later. Anyway, I’m almost done here. How much longer do we have?”
He checked his phone. “Somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes. Depends on your grandmother, how long it takes for you to find what you’re after in the server room, travel time back to the fundraiser…”
“Alright, alright. I’m hurrying.”
The thirtieth floor wasn’t one of the floors under surveillance. I spent the time to download the video files directly to my tablet which didn’t take very long. Then I activated the program and disconnected. The main monitor flickered and switched off momentarily. When it turned itself back on, it displayed the interior of the security room…except that Devlin and I weren’t visible in the image. The timestamp at the bottom of the screen was accurate, but that data wasn’t.
Easy enough. The programming wasn’t as elegant as I would have liked, but it was hardly a difficult thing to pull off in the moment. The fact that it hadn’t been all that difficult filled me with an irrational paranoia that I tried my best to ignore.
“This system won’t be recording anything for the next hour,” I said, as I gathered my equipment up and returned it to my oversized purse. “Of course, my grandmother’s going to start looking for us long before that, so it’s kind of a moot point.”
“Agreed,” Devlin said. He eased the door open. “After you?”
With the security system temporarily disabled and the guards either neutralized or absent, Devlin and I didn’t encounter any difficulties navigating through the twentieth floor. Three sides of the server room’s enclosure were opaque, but the fourth was entirely transparent. A steady blue glow of power lights and Ethernet connections cast one quarter of the room in an eerie light. I took the lead and Devlin followed me over to the only door leading into the enclosure.
A numerical pad was installed in a recess, just to one side of the door. There wasn’t a traditional lock in sight.
“Any ideas?” Devlin asked.
I shrugged, extended my arm, and tapped out the same PIN that had unlocked the executive’s laptop earlier. To my complete and utter shock, the red indicator light on the keypad flashed green and the door itself emitted a soft clicking sound.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Remind me later to get my grandmother to move our data off-site. This is ridiculous. The same PIN for a personal computer and it’s written down?”
“That’s a bad thing, right?”
I narrowed my eyes at Devlin before I noticed the slight grin on his face. “You know,” I said, “you’re not as clever and cute as you think you are.”
“You think I’m clever and cute?”
In response, I rolled my eyes as hard as I possibly could to signify my complete dismissal of Devlin’s nonsense and entered the server room. He entered, almost on my heels.
Then stopped, as I stopped. I’d expected to find a reasonable amount of servers. Ford Enterprises comprised a significant business entity all on its own and that sort of corporation tended to accumulate data. I had not expected there to be enough servers on the twentieth floor that every business in the building would struggle to fill the available space.
These were newer models, built for speed and storage space, that I had only read about it. In my line of work, I very rarely found myself dealing with this much data. With time, I could have created some system of sifting through the servers, one at a time, and worked from there. Even with the tablet, it would only have taken me…maybe a half hour, start to finish, if I wanted to be thorough and to allow time for the data transfer.
“Fifteen minutes,” Devlin said. “At most.”
Or fifteen minutes. That worked too, apparently.