Chapter 12: Wired
“Yes sir, that is correct. I need verbal approval to wire up a CI.”
See Eye, that’s me. Confidential Informant. Squealer. Stoolie. Snitch.
I squirmed anxiously as Tracy laid it out to her supervisor over the phone. He had already left for the day, so she called him at home to get permission for our plan. This time around, the FBI conference room didn’t seem so intimidating. Still, the bare white walls and hard chairs hardly made it a place I’d willingly remain for long. At least this time I wasn’t being interrogated.
“We’re not sure of all the details, but my informant tells me that domestic OC, possibly international OC may have connections inside Puget Regional Bank.”
Tracy was still in the office when I called her. Not only was she was willing to stay late and listen to my story, but her casual professional manner put me at ease. She was quite nonplussed to find that she was not the first person to investigate the stolen PRB accounts. Then I explained how our VP Constantine “Rusty” Hartford was covering it all up and why. After that, Tracy became rather interested in what I had to say.
Tracy classified a lot of my story as hearsay. She said it wasn’t usable as evidence. She needed to hear the stories directly.
“Yes sir, we’ve identified two witnesses I’ll need to interview them. My informant says their testimony will back up her story about a cover-up.”
Two witnesses, Lee and Rubin. When Lee finds out why she was fired, I bet she’d be glad to help nail that manipulative bastard to the wall. As for Rubin? I didn’t know if he’d cooperate. I was just glad that I still had the disc with the image of Alicia’s hard drive. For all I knew, Rubin had already thrown the drive away. What other pieces of evidence had he gotten rid of?
According to the white government-issue clock on the wall, it was just past six o’clock. We needed to wrap this up soon. I was officially late.
“Yes, this relates to the identity theft case I’m working on, but it could be something we need to work off the OC squad.”
When I told her Alicia had stolen bank accounts that belonged to the Russian mob, Tracy referred to them as OC. It stood for Organized Crime. I guess it sounded more official than mafia. Again, I had nothing more than hearsay to offer Tracy about organized crime, but she said the cover-up was enough to start an investigation. I promised her that tangible proof would turn up. She just had to call her ASAC and get clearance to proceed.
The letter A and then the rest was sack. Earlier she had told me that it stood for Assistant Special Agent in Charge. Even though it was past the end of the business day, Tracy had an amazing amount of energy. I suppose I did as well, but my energy came from a primitive adrenaline surge: fight or flight.
“No, no. I believe this is a reliable informant.”
Reliable. I was grateful for the compliment. They distinguished between concerned citizens and mob cronies selling out their bosses. Although I was selling out my boss, I was no crony. That much I was sure of.
Tracy winked at me. I guess things were going well. She needed this approval before she did anything. I wasn’t sure that she fully believed my story, but apparently, she was willing to go the distance to see if I was telling the truth.
“Yes, yes. I have a disk image from one of the computers involved. First thing on Monday, I’ll get one of the CART guys working on it. Allegedly, the disk contains a hacking program used to steal bank account data.”
What did Cart mean? Maybe Computer Analysis something something? So many acronyms. The FBI world was as bad as the computer world.
“No sir, my informant obtained it surreptitiously. It seems that the evidence had been removed from a subject’s computers.”
Russian mob or not, covering up a Federal crime was a huge deal, especially for the people in charge.
“She claims to have found it in the office of...” Tracy paused a moment and stared at me. For the first time, I noticed that her eyes were hazel. She squinted as she continued. “...the head of bank security.”
The stolen evidence thing was still hard to believe. It had taken some prodding from Tracy before I gave up the original location of the drive. Down in the back of my heart, I had hoped that Rubin would have already told the FBI about the account-stealing script.
From Tracy’s reaction to my story, I realized he had kept it a secret from her as well. Tracy took Rubin’s sneakiness more calmly than I did. Maybe she was used to friends lying to her face. I was still getting used to it.
“Yes, the same security officer I’ve been working with.”
Her eyes closed as she listened to the ASAC. For a second or two, she seemed a decade older. Maybe you never get used to betrayal.
“No, I don’t know the motivation yet. He could be a part of this. Informant describes a conspiracy to hide illegal activity. I know we’re going to need more evidence for the US Attorney.”
After all that had happened, I still didn’t want Rubin to go to jail. There were bigger fish to fry. I caught Tracy’s eye and mouthed the word “Rusty.”
She nodded and waved my suggestion away. I know, I was rushing things but we were out of time. I was supposed to be at the celebration already.
“Yes sir, she says the cover-up is specifically tied to the OC activity within the bank. She claims she found banking records that tie our subject to illicit financial transactions.” She paused to listen for a moment and then answered. “No, nothing concrete. We believe a bank officer covered up the identity theft to protect the illicit transactions.” She stopped again and nodded along with the phone. “We think we can connect everything together from bank records but we so far, all I’ve got is hearsay. That’s why my informant has consented to be a CW and wear a concealment. She meets with the subject within the hour.”
Tracy told me that when civilians go undercover, they’re called Cooperating Witnesses. What a strange concept. Undercover Hacker. It sounded like a new television series. Images of a thousand TV shows and movies flickered through my brain. Battery packs taped to the small of my back. Microphone cable strung under my bra. A tiny camera in my glasses. Technicians hovering around me, doing sound checks into my lapels.
It took considerable effort to push away the image of the mob squealer getting shot in the back of the head and thrown off a pier.
“Okay, okay. I will have the paperwork done and on your desk by tomorrow morning. Thank you and good night.”
Tracy put the phone down and smacked her hand against the conference table. “Well, Miss Hoffman. It looks like we are on.”
“That all you needed? You don’t need a judge or something?”
“We do this two, three times a week. Junkies selling out dealers, accountants cooking the books, mob underlings on the run...”
But I wasn’t some scared crook looking for somewhere to hide. I just clamped my lips shut to hold in the complaint and bobbed my head in agreement. The visions of taped microphones still swirled around my head. “So now that we have permission, how long with this take?”
“Not long. How much time do we have?”
“Well, I think the party’s already started.”
Tracy leaned forward. “Party? I thought this was just a restaurant meeting between you and our man?”
“Yeah, but officially, it’s a party at the Ballard dining club for the Apollo project...”
Tracy crossed her arms and analyzed aloud. “Okay, we’ll only submit the relevant portions in court, so that’s not a problem.” Her eyes focused on me. “But, if there are other people there, will your guy talk?”
“There won’t be anyone else there.”
As she listened, Tracy rubbed her fingers together, as if she was judging the quality of invisible fabric. I tried to explain in terms she could understand. “In my gut, I know this is something else. Feels hinky, like some kind of set-up. He’s called me there to threaten me...or maybe...”
“Do you think this will be dangerous?”
It sure proved dangerous for Alicia. Maybe if I were a little more badass, this would be no big deal. But the more I thought about it, the more apprehensive I got. Was there a safer way to get what we needed on him? “Hey, I can just go back to the bank and sift through all the account data. A hidden scanning script could lock onto all accounts approved by Rusty that are...”
“Heidi!” I flinched at the anger in Tracy’s voice. “Listen to me: Do not do anything that I have to arrest you for. Unauthorized access to financial records is a federal crime.”
“It’s not like I’m stealing the information and using it for criminal gain.” Tracy shook her head as I spoke. “I’m not like Alicia, you know.”
“Fraud or no fraud, going through other people’s bank accounts without permission is punishable by up to a year in prison.”
I pushed back in my chair a few inches. “But, I’m a bank employee...”
“That’s exactly why the US Attorney would make an example out of you.” She pointed a finger at me. “If that happens, you could end up as the focus of this investigation, not your crooked vice president.”
“Okay, I was just brainstorming. You know, thinking outside the box.” I punctuated my weak excuse with a shrug and a grin.
Tracy wasn’t smiling back. “Look, I’m really trusting you here. I want you to think about that while I get the concealment.”
She must have noticed my confused look because she quickly added, “The recording device.”
“Oh, right. The concealment.” I kinda figured that’s what it was, but it was nice to have a definition.
Tracy’s chair screeched as she stood up. “I’ll be right back.”
“Sure. Not like I’ve got anywhere to go.” I made a bit of a show of checking the clock on the wall. Tracy ignored me and left.
As the door snapped shut, I wondered if she locked it behind her. She seemed to trust me, but still, what proof was I promising her?
I had nothing to show that Rusty killed Alicia and it was unlikely that I’d ever get any. There were those mysterious accounts with large credit lines but Tracy had already contacted them as part of her identity theft investigation. She said the few victims she interviewed were appropriately angry at having their accounts violated. When she followed up in person, the businesses were defunct and the account holders long gone. Majorly suspicious and proof of bad judgment on Rusty’s part for endorsing them for loans, but not necessarily a criminal act. I hoped the disk image of Alicia’s computer would be enough to show there was a cover-up going on. Even if it did was make Rubin look guilty, maybe he would testify that Rusty had ordered him to hide evidence.
If Constantine Hartford was Kostya, then he was definitely a key player. We needed something heavier than obstruction of justice. Whatever he was doing at PRB, I bet it was something that the FBI would love to uncover.
Funny though, Rusty really didn’t look Russian, but what do I know? Back in his office, Rusty had a picture on his shelf. His wife? Now that I think about it, Mrs. Constantine Hartford looked Eurasian. Was that the connection? He was the kind of sleaze to do anything to get ahead, why not marry into power and money? Made sense. The Kostya nickname probably wasn’t even his idea. Something the family probably called him.
Without Tracy, the room felt quite cold. I zipped up my fleece and tried to tune out the chill of the air conditioning. She had been gone only five minutes according to the clock. How long would it take to get all that equipment set up?
If I was the only one invited tonight, he must have figured out that I was onto him. But how? I bet the Glenda.net guys tipped him off, probably as part of their atonement. They probably gave up Alexy for the same reason. No wonder they were eager to send me back to Seattle.
Wait. That didn’t make sense. Rusty asked me to come meet him at the club before I went to Victoria. I was getting all my times mixed up, crap.
Speaking of time, I checked the clock. It was a quarter after and I still had to drive to Ballard. C’mon Tracy, this may be our only chance. I was going to have a hard enough time without having to apologize for being late.
The last time I had met with Rusty, it was all I could do not to keep tripping over my own tongue. I didn’t think about it at the time, but that promotion could have been a way of getting me under his direct control. Make me one of his little minions.
Maybe this meeting was about upping the ante on his offer from before. Lord knows I could have used the money and the freedom from twits like Warren. That’s the secret of his success, like that gangster Michael said, The devil is weak but his slaves are strong.
Sure Heidi, just turn a blind eye. Everyone else was doing it. Noticing terrible things just got you into trouble anyway. I just had to pretend it wasn’t there. I could do that. I’d done that before. Not this time. Go ahead and try to bribe me, Rusty. I’ll make sure it’s all perfectly spelled out for the nice FBI lady.
The door opened. Tracy strode in and sat down with a small silver device in her hand. “Ready to go?”
Still flustered a bit from her sudden appearance, I just nodded and mumbled an “uh huh.”
She set a shiny cell phone on the table. “This is the concealment.”
“That? The whole thing is in the cell phone?”
Tracy spun the phone a half-turn on the table and slid it across to me. “It’s got a digital recorder for the sound and a transmitter to broadcast it.”
“Nice. And you got it so fast.”
“I told you, we do this all the time. But, I’m afraid you can’t use it for sending or receiving calls. The buttons and LCD screen are just for show.”
I held up the phone. It was actually smaller than my PRB-issued phone, a little plainer but still ordinary looking. Would Rusty notice that I didn’t have my usual phone? I was probably over-thinking this. “It’s a nice disguise.”
Tracy beamed with pride. “Hide in plain sight.”
Yeah, just like Rusty. Just like me. Heidi the Hider. I wished Fruit Cup Boy could see this. The techie in me couldn’t help but admire the FBI gadget. “So you said this broadcasts?”
“Audio goes over on an encrypted police frequency.”
“Very cool. Will there be a van outside? Hopefully with a couple of SWAT teams listening to my every word?”
Tracy shrugged and hooked a thumb back to her chest. “Sort of. I’ll be with a few other agents monitoring your progress with our car radios.”
“No squad of beefy guys with guns, ready to rush through the door and take ’em down?”
Tracy blinked a few times before answering. “I’m a regular Annie Oakley with my shotgun.” A broad smile lit up on her face. “That’s a lot better than a beefy guy, believe me.”
I forced a full-tooth smile back at her. “Okay...”
“Besides, do you think it’s going to come to that?”
“I suppose not.”
“Just go in, get him talking.” She tapped her hand against the desk, one-two. “That’s it. When you’ve got all you’re going to get, just leave.”
“Based on that, the US Attorney and I will work out our next step.”
That isn’t how it works in the movies. Aren’t I supposed to get him to confess and then all hell breaks loose? Cops crashing through the door, shotguns in the face of the perp. Book ’em Danno and all that? I held my cop-show assumptions inside and simply asked, “You’re not going to bust in and slap the cuffs on?”
Tracy mouthed a silent “no.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s a bit much.”
“We need to keep this low key. Remember that he is a bank vice president. We need to make sure we can tightly tie him to as many specific crimes as we can.”
“But what about all that other evidence?”
Tracy’s face slumped. “He might be able to claim he wasn’t aware of what was going on. Or slide the blame to someone else.”
“This happened before, huh?”
“Too often.” She said with a tired expression. “I’m going to be honest with you. We need to make sure this doesn’t turn into his word against yours.”
I was afraid she was going to say that. I tried to show her my most confident look.
“And we need to make sure you’re going to be a credible witness.”
A butterfly skittered around my stomach. “Witness? As in courtroom witness?”
“Yes, Heidi. Not only do you need to testify against him, but you need to appear to be a reliable, trustworthy citizen.”
Tracy had already done a criminal background check on me and I came up clean. Luckily, I had never been caught for all the hacking I did as a kid.
“We need a strong amount of evidence for the US Attorney. If he thinks that we don’t have a viable case...”
Tracy clasped her hands together as if to pray. I nodded and dreaded her next words.
“Then no charges will be filed.”
She didn’t need to explain what that meant. If Rusty didn’t go down, and go down hard, it’d be my ass. I’d be blacklisted from the computer industry. At the very least.
Tracy’s voice was lower and softer than I had ever heard it before. “If you think you’re not going to get what we need, I want you to just walk out.”
Walk out to where? I’d probably end up dead from apparent suicide in a few months. The way things work around here, no one would even think the suicide was suspicious. Tracy would probably say it wasn’t her jurisdiction.
“You said this party is at a restaurant? You should be safe with all those people around. Just don’t put yourself in a situation where you aren’t safe.”
I felt her concern radiating across the table. It’d be disastrous if she didn’t go through with this because she was worried about my safety. “Ha, the worst that could happen is that I get fired. Not like I’m gonna end up in cement shoes, ha ha.”
My laugh was as fake as Peter’s Drama 101 denials. Maybe it’s just how I reacted to a threat? Pretend there isn’t a problem and push ahead. I needed to make sure I didn’t fall victim to the hacker’s curse of arrogance.
Tracy’s brow was seriously creased. In a way, it was a relief that she was worried about me. “So, do I get a code word in case something goes wrong?”
“Absolutely. What should it be?”
I was really late now. It was almost seven o’clock. Luckily, it wasn’t too far to Ballard—just north of downtown. It was already dark and beginning to drizzle when I drove across the bridge over the canal. The marina was on the Ballard side of Salmon Bay. The bay was part of the canal that connected Puget Sound from the west to Lake Union in the east.
This was just one of the many boat moorages around the greater Puget Sound area. Up until the invitation, I hadn’t even realized there was such a place as the Ballard Marina Dining Room, but it made sense. If there was a marina club, then it stood to reason that there would be some kind of fancy restaurant. It figures that Rusty would be a member.
Rush hour had long since faded, but there were still a handful of cars on the road. This part of town was somewhat deserted, even during working hours. The boat docks and accompanying industrial area were the only attractions. What a perfect location this was to take care of business in total privacy. Whatever that business might turn out to be.
The FBI concealment sat in the passenger seat, keeping me company on the lonely drive. I forgot to ask Tracy how to turn it on and off. I supposed it was just always on, continually recording and broadcasting. I kept glancing in my rearview mirror to see if she was back there, following me.
The rain pattered down on my windshield as I pulled into the marina area. I cruised along the tall forest of masts and rigging, looking for the marina clubhouse. A few of the boats glowed with small on-board parties. One or two boats gently chugged down the canal and out into the dark Sound.
A tremor of nervousness rattled up my spine. I tried to distract myself by speaking to my passenger. “I’m across the bridge and just made a left towards the Marina.” I figured that if Tracy couldn’t see me, it wouldn’t hurt if she knew what I was doing. Too bad I didn’t have a receiver on my end. I could have used a few reassuring words.
At the end of a long row of moored boats, I saw a large single-storied building made of rich redwood near the water. It looked like a rustic lodge punctured by shiny brass-rimmed portholes. The front was topped by a carved sign: “Ballard Marina Club.”
“I’m turning into the parking lot now.”
I parked the car and let the engine shudder to a stop.
Instead of getting right out, I stayed and listened to the raindrops tap away against the roof of my Jetta. Come on, this shouldn’t be that bad. I can do this. “I’m stepping out of my car now.”
After a couple of deep breaths, I unlocked the door. “Here we go...”
I stepped onto the damp asphalt, tucking the phone into my pocket.
As I walked onto the boardwalk, I spotted more lettering below the carved marina sign. Without thinking, I read it aloud to the concealment. “Members and invited guests only. Well, that’s me. Invited guest.”
Tracy was probably hoping I would shut up before I gave myself away. I mumbled “sorry...nervous” and pushed through the door into a dark foyer.
A matire’d in a crisp black suit stood with a straight back behind a small-lit podium. He was older with graying temples and a rectangular face. Behind him, I saw dark curtains but heard no murmur of other diners.
“I’m here for the PRB thing.”
His eyelids lowered halfway as he asked, “Pardon me?”
“I’m here to see Rusty.”
“Yes, you are Mr. Hartford’s guest. Please come this way.”
He walked over to the curtain and held it aside as I went through into a hallway lined with brass lanterns lit with flickering candles. As I followed him down the hall, I saw paintings of old whaling ships rendered in cool dabs of oil paint. Classy. No anchors or coils of rope on the walls. We treaded softly down the hallway and turned a corner.
Was this the path Alicia walked? I wondered how it must have looked to her. Darkness illuminated by yellow flames, images of dark oceans and fragile ships, the stillness and heavy maroon carpet. With all the guilt and fear burning inside her, it must have been Biblical.
“Does Rusty have a lot of private parties here?”
The matire’d didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He simply pretended the question was never asked. In the quiet hallway, he had to have heard me. I guess he just ignored nosy questions about club members. I followed in silence.
We moved down another corner and into a hallway lined with dark doors with gilded brass plates bearing numbers. He led me up to door number three and put his hand on the knob. He rapped gently with his other hand.
After a second, he opened the door, and then nodded for me to enter. I traced the bulge of my phone in my jacket pocket with my fingertip. When I was sure it was still there, I stepped into the doorway.
It was a small dark dining room, maybe twice the size of my apartment bedroom. Rusty was sitting alone at the single table in the room. There was no party going on. As I had thought it would be: just Rusty and me.
There was just one empty chair waiting at the table. The wall opposite the door was a floor to ceiling window overlooking the boats and Salmon Bay. The glass must have been darkened because the harbor lights were dull orange stars. Since the window faced the water, I couldn’t search the lot for Tracy’s car.
The square table had no tablecloth, so the rich wood-grain and intricately carved gilding were visible. A candle in a small brass lantern sat in the center of the table, next to a crystal goblet of water.
Finally, I stepped into the room and acknowledged Rusty. He wore a white dress shirt with a dark red tie. As usual, he looked freshly shaven and as neat as a lawyer on the first Monday of court.“You’re finally here, Ms. Hoffman.”