Heidi, Geek Girl Detective

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Chapter 4: Evidence

Fruit Cup Boy’s message said two o’clock, so I had to play hooky to meet him. I didn’t think anyone would miss me. Besides, it was a crisp Seattle day, with the sun shimmering on the dark blue of Elliott Bay. A day to be outside. FCB wanted to meet in one of the more picturesque coffee bars in Pike Place Market. The place was open and airy, with friendly barista working behind a cheery red tiled counter. The leftover winter nip in the air kept the foot traffic down to a light scamper.

I walked up to the kid working the counter and chirped my order with the cadence of a native, “Hot chocolate, grande, no whip.” Instantly, his tattooed arms quickly began pulling levers and pouring liquids. With amazing precision, he bubbled up my fix and I tipped him well. You gotta figure that some of the sharpest baristas in the world worked here at the intersection of downtown and touristaville.

I settled into a barstool and leaned onto the countertop by the window. Outside, I watched an alley full of jugglers and laughing children as I checked my cell-phone. No messages. Just before I left, I received a notice that Rusty wanted to meet with me next week. VPs usually worked through toadies like Warren. I wondered why Rusty wanted to talk to me directly. I don’t think we’d ever exchanged more the three words before.

A creepy feeling washed over me and not because of the impending Rusty meeting. There was a presence behind me. I whirled around and caught a thin pale sandy-blond punk staring at me. His fraying jeans were too big and I could see shiny patches of stains on the black t-shirt that peeked out from his gray hoodie. His left sneaker was also untied. Some things never changed. “Fruit Cup Boy! How long have you been standing there?”

He smiled his strange little smirk and took the stool next to me. He was rather pleased with himself at scaring me. Butthead. “Hider! How’s it hangin? Still a corporate zombie?”

Hider, my old screen name. Sheesh. I replied with a scowl. I had neither the skill nor the fickleness to become a consultant like Fruit. He continued with the taunts he believed were polite small talk. “That loser boyfriend of yours ever get a job?”

“Temping here and there.”

He started to stay something but I cut him off. “Leave it alone. I need your help.”

He took a suck from the straw of his iced-mocha-caramel-whipped whatever, smacking his lips as he swallowed. “Catch up first, then work. How’s the little abominable hairball you call a cat.”

Ouch. We really hadn’t talked in a while. “Wisp died.”

FCB released his straw and stared blankly.

“Liver failure. Vet said there was a chance a procedure might give her a few more months. But it cost nearly two thousand dollars.”

He shook his head and looked down. “Couldn’t afford it? Sorry.”

“Put it on a credit card. She died a week later anyway. Now I have another bill to deal with.”

Fruit began to apologize again, so I figured now was the time to strike. “Hey, I need your help. I got a password that needs cracking.”

“You’re outta practice, Hider. You heard about Ursanine? His startup just bought another little tech shop. He really played his cards at the right time.”

“I was never much of a hacker, remember? And no Comp-Sci degree or professional certifications. So stop trying to make me feel bad. My job revolves around not pissing people off and cleaning up messes.”

“Sucks. Maybe you should freelance. All you need is a bit of a rep, some good contacts and the dough’ll be rolling in.”

“Can’t handle the unsteady income.”

“Hey, who dares, wins.”

“I’d prefer something more stable, more real and less demanding.” I hated conversations like this. I was forever waiting for my life to start. Hell, I never knew what I wanted anyway. “Someday. Maybe when Peter lands something solid.”

“Loossssseerrrrr...”

“Fruit, can you help me crack a password or not?”

He cocked his head. “You kidding? Got my own brew. Guaranteed to crack or your money back.”

“Money?”

“Nah, you got the homie hookup.” He pulled a denim CD case out of his jacket pocket and flipped through a stack of bright neon discs. He carefully selected a fluorescent yellow one. “This’ll do ya.”

As I reached for it, he flicked his wrist, playfully pulling the disc out of reach. “Nah, still gonna cost ya.” He pursed his lips for a kiss.

“Fruit, really. Do you always have to screw around like this?”

He relinquished it and added, “By the way, our old Talknet password unlocks the CD.” I got that stupid smirk again as he added, “I crypto all my disks. Never know when the feddy’s are around the corner.”

“Exactly what kind of work are you doing anyway?”

“Hey, too legit to quit.” He said through a smile of beige teeth.

———

It was the first meeting of the Apollo project team, so Gayle brought cookies. PRB probably paid for them because they were store cookies. Back in my dot-com days, we’d get bakery cookies. It was already five past the hour and Gayle was finally dealing out agendas and project plans. I took a seat between Mitch and Wes. Across the table sat Roger, sharp as ever in his crisp polo and fancy consultant haircut. An older woman who I’d vaguely recognized from the Loans floor sat beside Roger. I figured she was our token body from the business-side of the house. Management liked to have end-users involved in projects for a normal person’s perspective. This sounded better than it ever worked out to be. Most of the time non-techies were lost, constantly asking stupid questions.

Gayle straightened her papers with a few loud taps against the table. “Okay, let’s get going with the project plan.”

All heads bowed down to study the crossword of arrows and text on the top sheet. The room was silent as we read, except for Mitch, who rustled through his papers. With a huff, he put down the stack and whined, “I don’t have a project plan.”

Roger held up a sheet to Mitch. “It looks like this.”

As Mitch checked his pile, Wes looked at Roger. “Are you new?”

“Not exactly. Roger Vernon from Dragoon.”

Gayle interjected, “Sorry. Roger’s our project consultant.”

Roger crossed his arms and leaned back. “I’m here as a technical mentor for you guys.”

Mitch and I exchanged looks. I slid my project plan into the table space between Mitch and me. “We can share.”

Mitch smiled back. It was us against him. Gayle continued her late introductions. “And this is Betty from Loans. She’s our end-user spokesperson.” I pegged that one right. Betty waved childishly. Gayle motioned to us, “And my group which includes Mitch, Heidi and Wes the firewall guy.”

She smiled to herself and got back to business. “If you’ll notice, we have a series of milestones tied around the bug analysis report.” Feigning attention by keeping my eyes focused on the project plan, I reached for a cookie. Gayle continued to yammer about milestones.

The cookie appeared to be pulling back. I looked up. Roger and I both held onto the same cookie. A brief tug of war ensued before Roger realized that he needed to let me win. All of this went unnoticed by Gayle, who kept reading, “Note how the milestones are defined in terms of particular regulatory requirements...”

Wes stabbed a finger down on a particular block of text. “I didn’t think the GLB regs were this specific.”

Gayle frowned. “Compliance says there are new interpretations coming down the pike.”

I thought it was ‘coming down the pipe’. Wasn’t a pike a fish? Gayle shuffled through her papers and folders. “I have a memo that explains it here.”

I leaned across the table to Betty and softly asked, “Did you know Alicia Lyons?”

Betty shook her head, “No, but I heard about what happened. Just awful. You know her?”

I mimicked her shake. “I was just working on a problem with her computer when she...” I just let the rest of the sentence hang there.

Gayle’s flapping of papers concluded. “Let’s move on. Wes, I’ll forward you the memo.” He nodded. Gayle lifted a new sheet of paper, “The short list of holes we are going to fix are here.” Mitch immediately dove into his pile of papers and began shuffling again. I put a hand on his shoulder and he stopped. Gayle read from her list, “The eight digit reporting bug, the file transfer retransmission bug, the account view logging issue—-”

Betty perked up with a little giggle, “Oh, that. Everyone knows about account views.”

We all turned to face Betty, who continued. “I mean...well, department managers get weekly audit reports on MYZRE use. The views were never there. Eventually, word got out.” Wes mouthed something but Betty continued, apparently pleased that attention was now focused on her. “People use it to look up their friends and co-workers account information all the time.”

Betty finally noticed the incredulous stares. “Well, I’m glad we’re fixing that. All that info, lying around. Needs to be—-” With a sudden clunk-shunk, the door to the conference room opened and Rubin walked in.

We remained silent as Rubin found his seat and apologized for being late. Gayle nodded. “We just finished going over the list of holes.” She paused and looked around for agreement. No one said anything.

She continued, “We’re about to go over the short term test plan.” Rubin waved a go ahead. Gayle nodded and flipped over to the next sheet of paper. “So project members can participate in testing, all of you will be given MYZRE accounts.”

Betty smiled and it caught Gayle’s eye. She quickly added, “Well, except you Betty, since you already have an account. But these accounts will have full manager-level privileges so you can access all functions needed for testing.”

Rubin: “Excuse me, Gayle, but from a security perspective, this presents issues of accountability and control. We can’t give that kind of access to people who shouldn’t have it.”

Wes responded before Gayle could, “Well, most of IT can already get that kind of access. After all, we run most of these systems.” Gayle nodded in agreement with Wes.

Rubin grimaced. “What you’re talking about is maintenance access and administrative controls. I realize that it can be used to access customer data, but that’s a boundary you shouldn’t be crossing as part of your normal job. This involves giving non-financial users explicit permission to access protected financial information. Did Rusty approve of this?”

Gayle slipped a half-smile and answered quickly, “Why would he? Warren approved it.” Rubin frowned but remained silent.

———

I got home that night in time for a real sit-down dinner with Peter. He cooked a hoisin chicken stir-fry, snappy and spicy—just the way I liked it. During the meal, Peter told me that he used his first contractor paycheck to buy a beater of a motorcycle from one of the full-timers. “After I get it running, I won’t have to borrow your car or ride the bus.”

He sounded so upbeat and I was too just worn down to argue. Even if he managed to fix it, when winter rolled back around, that bike would never move from the parking lot.

After dinner, he did the dishes while I lingered at the table, going over some MYZRE error reports. This project was flying through the company with an urgency I’d never seen before. Wes said that even the Y2K project wasn’t this bad. I swear, it felt like I was back at E-telligentsia, but without the camaraderie or technical delight. When I finished my paperwork, I went over to the hutch on the far side of the living-room and booted my home machine. Peter settled into the couch and flipped to that lawyer show he liked so much.

My home PC was a surplused PRB box that I picked up cheap after our last big upgrade. Changing software standards forced us to replace machines every two years or so. PRB staff usually got a chance to buy the old boxes at a deep discount. It wasn’t the fastest but it worked for me. The screen warmed up and displayed a graphical window on my dingy monitor. I slid in Fruit’s disc and a prompt appeared. Oh yeah, I needed to enter our old Talknet channel code. Talknet, that dredged up memories from days of yore.

Talknet was from my later years of college, when my friends were primarily geeks. The gang would root—I mean, take over—a campus network system and load our special chat system called Talknet. Then we’d invite fellow hackers from around the globe to join in. FCB and Ursanine wrote this online dungeon game that ran within Talknet. Yeah, computer people really know how to party. Anyway, word got out and soon so many people would be linked in that the campus sys-admins would notice and we’d get booted. Then we’d find a new box and start all over again. I entered saloon, the old password.

FCB’s program loaded and a happy face appeared and winked at me. Reflexively, I winked back at the screen and a second later, a window unfolded asking for a password hash file. A password hash is a mathematical representation of a password. Systems don’t actually store your password, just the hash.

To break a password, you made a guess at it and calculated the cryptographic hash. If the new hash matched the stored one, then you had the correct password. Of course, there are millions of possible passwords, so this comparison and calculation process is repetitious and tedious. Luckily, computers love repetitious and tedious.

The real beauty of attacking a password hash is that you can do it completely outside the system you’re cracking. It’s like being able to grab an exact copy of a safe’s lock and take it home to fiddle with at your leisure. When you figure out the correct combination, you can return and get the real safe open on the first try.

The trick was snitching a copy of the password hash to begin with. As a network admin, I had full access to those hashes. After all, who’d ever expect me to be breaking into a system that I already controlled? I reached over to my laptop bag and retrieved the floppy disk with my pirated hash of Alicia’s password.

I inserted the floppy into my PC and clicked the ‘crack it’ button. The floppy ground away in the drive as the program read the data in. Alphabetic and numeric symbols whirred across the screen like slot machine wheels—Fruit’s dramatic touch. Given enough time, cracking programs are guaranteed to work on any password. But time was the problem. Crackers can spend hours or even days untangling a password hash. Suddenly my PC’s speakers screeched with the sound of breaking glass. I jerked back in my chair and Peter turned around on the couch to face me.

“It’s alright Petey, it’s the computer. My friend’s idea of humor.” He turned back to the TV and I examined the screen. An iconic image of a hammer striking a walnut was displayed, underneath were the words “Password cracked in 27 seconds...nobody is better than the Fruit Cup Boy!” A dialog box prompted me to acknowledge this fact. I clicked it and the password was displayed: Tommy.

Jeeze, I coulda guessed that. I ejected FCB’s disk and erased the password hash off my floppy. Can’t be too careful, you know. I woke up my DSL modem for some web surfing. The monthly cost of high-speed Internet was a luxury but it was worth it. The sluggy speed of dial-up Internet access is for lamers. I opened the Whizzy-net mail web page and entered “lyons14” as a username, took a breath and put in Alicia’s password. Hopefully, she was like most people and used the same password at home as she did at work.

The screen cleared and a list of waiting e-mail scrolled down--woot! The Hider still has her magic.

There was quite a bit of mail waiting, although most of it appeared to be Spam. Reflexively, I moved my mouse to delete the junk mail but I stopped myself—I was just here to look, not disturb anything. I spotted an e-mail from lex3@techer.ru.

From: lex3@techer.ru

To: lyons14@whizz.net

Subject: No worries

Things will be fine. Payment is in account. Call me. We can talk it through.

This was definitely it. But what was the payment for? And into which account? All PRB staff had bank accounts, so I could poke around. I should be careful though—getting caught looking into other people’s bank accounts was definitely a career-limiting move.

I had done some research and found out that Techer was a big network provider headquartered in St. Petersburg. Interesting…lex3 was sending her a payment from Russia. International wire-transfers were closely monitored. But who said this person was really in Russia? With the Internet, no one is necessarily where you think they are. Someone in Seattle could have sent this e-mail just by accessing a computer in Russia over the Internet. Ain’t the Internet a convenient thing? I scanned through the rest of the mail. Not much else was there.

———

The rest of the workweek was a long drudge of tedious meetings and Apollo project tasks to complete. I surely didn’t have any time to follow up on Alicia’s banking records. Finally, sweet magical Friday came and I was counting the hours to a weekend of oversleeping and general laziness. I was at my desk trying to finish my weekly project status report when Mitch crept into my cubicle space. “Heidi, we need your help on the MYZRE software changes.”

He looked rather frustrated, so I indulged him. “Uh huh, what’s the problem? We’re still a month away from the next window.”

Once a quarter, we scheduled downtime over the weekend for system maintenance. Customers and our external processing companies were warned way in advance. It was only a minor hassle.

“No, we aren’t.” Mitch waved to brush away my foolish hopes of predictability, “We’re adding the first round of changes this Saturday.”

So much for schedules and planning. No wonder he was in a tizzy. “What’s the rush? Oh, never mind. Apollo project.”

Mitch sagged to a deflated slump. “And since this is unscheduled, we’re only getting a three hour window to load and test the changes.”

“Who’s doing the change checklist?”

Mitch laid his hand across his chest. Great, give the planning projects to the least experienced. Although, better him than me.

“And what do you need my help for?” I said, creaking back in my chair like an old-timer.

Mitch ticked off his checklist with his fingers. “We shut down the ledger, load the changes, run a test script and then decide go or no-go from there. If there are any failures, we just back out the changes and try again next weekend.”

“Uh huh,” I didn’t like where this was going.

Mitch tilted his head. “Well, a lot of this stuff isn’t tested. If the changes blow up the system and can’t be rolled back...”

I tried my best to give him a haughty frown with a dash of feline apathy. He responded with the obsequious card. “Heidi, you’re our best troubleshooter. I wish I had half your skills.”

“I wish I didn’t have to work all the time.” I knew what he wanted. He just didn’t have the huevos to ask without buttering it with bullshit.

“You work a lot because you’re needed a lot. And because you’re so good.”

I just wanted to have a life and maybe actually relax. Mitch continued, “Hey, you’re a hero to the help-desk.”

“Now you’re really pushing it.” It’s nice to be acknowledged for my skills, which rarely happens. But don’t give me that hero-to-the-help-desk crap.

Mitch smiled and leaned over. He must have learned that maneuver from Warren. “You are recognized. You are valued.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “And we need you.”

By working on Saturday, he meant. Just fricken wonderful. The rest of the day went just as peachy.

———

As the waitress laid out the plates of food in front of us, I explained, “Ah, the three most important words in the English language.”

“What’s that, babe? I love you?” Peter responded while rotating his plate to orient the eggs closest to him.

“Breakfast served anytime.”

“I think that’s four words.”

Silly boy. I had my usual, pancakes with chocolate chips, and Peter had his, steak ’n eggs over easy with sourdough toast.

Even though the crowds always meant you had to wait for a table, I lived for lazy Sunday brunches at the Steel Eagle Pancake House in Georgetown. I loved it all—the chrome bar stools, the large industrial windows framed by heavy rivets and especially the swirls of greasy bacon smoke coming off the giant grill. Even the models of Boeing airplanes suspended from wires in the ceiling reminded me that blue-collar workers knew how to eat a proper breakfast. So every weekend possible, you’d find us there. We were the picture of domestic predictability.

The waitress freshened Peter’s coffee and he promptly put in two packets of sugar and way too much creamer. I corrected him. “Three words. By the way, you’re going to get some terrible disease from those runny eggs. Gross.”

He poked at the glass in front of me. “You know what’s gross? Tomato juice. Disgusting that you drink that. And with pancakes, no less.”

“Good for me.” I took a gentle sip. “Lotsa vitamins.”

I spread a generous puddle of syrup over the fluffy pancakes filled with chocolatey goodness. Bliss. “How was your show last night?”

He didn’t answer at first. He stared down, apparently concentrating on sawing into his bloody steak. The answer finally came, a murmured, “Good.”

“Didn’t hear you come in.”

He put down his utensils gently and looked up. He shrugged and raised the corners of his mouth in a little smile. “Partied afterwards...you know how it goes.”

I nodded and cored out a little sandwich of pancakes. Peter crunched his toast and mumbled, “So, how was work?”

“Sucks to work Saturdays. Sorry I wasn’t home until after you’d left. I had to baby-sit the project team while they ran tests.”

“So you’re done then?”

“The new loads introduced bugs into the account history module. We had to back out the changes and it looks like I’m going in again next Saturday.”

Peter used the tip of his toast to puncture the yolk of the egg. He swirled it around in the icky yellowy goop. “We’re playing again next Saturday anyway.”

The waitress topped off his coffee and Peter reached for more sugar. I knew better than to ask if these gigs were paying. We could have really used some extra money. I thought about Alexy and his comment about side-work. “I’ve got a possibility of a gig as well.”

Peter’s eyebrows rose. I quickly added, “No, not musical. A friend from work said I could make a little cash on the side. You know, computer stuff.”

“Is that okay?”

“I’m not talking about anything illegal.” I hoped.

“But is it okay with the bank? Are you allowed to moonlight?”

I put down my fork and looked at him. “It didn’t matter when you did it at E-tellgentsia.”

His gaze went down and he carefully carved away at his steak. All I heard was the clinking of dishes and babble of the other diners around us.

Finally he looked up and said, “Well, it was different then. You know...”

“Yeah, now you need me to keep my job.” His eyes stayed down, so I continued, “Well, don’t worry. PRB doesn’t have a formal policy about moonlighting. And I’ll keep a low profile.”

His response was barely audible. “S’okay.”

———

It was the second week of the project and the second week since I began poking into Alicia’s life. Both gnawed at me. My head throbbed as I looked over the MYZRE checklist. It was filled with a long list of testing, all on my plate to finish by the end of the week. Maybe I could kill two birds with one query. On the screen, I selected “review account” and entered “Alicia Lyons” as the account name.

Her account information came up in a blink. There were a few hundred dollars in checking, even less in her savings account and no loans were outstanding. I selected the account transaction history on her checking account. Her PRB paychecks were the only significant deposit activity. I had a flush of shame—her paycheck was about half the size of mine. There was no record of any other deposits in the past month. It looked like she used her account to pay rent and not much else. I opened her savings account and it was even duller.

I figured that I might as well finish the checklist. According to Gayle, we needed to verify all the sub-functions as well. As I browsed the cross-account menu, I realized there was one more thing I could check.

This time, I expanded the search to include accounts where Alicia Lyons might be listed as joint or secondary. The system cleared the screen and listed a new account—one I hadn’t seen before—Thomas Lyons. It made sense for Alicia to be named on her husband’s account. However, since he was dead, the account should be closed. I browsed the account anyway.

Not only was there a lot of activity, but there was also a balance of nearly seven thousand dollars. Was Thomas really dead? What did he do for a living to have this kind of money in his account? The account history showed a deposit of eight hundred dollars nearly two weeks ago. A code indicated the ATM deposit was in cash. People rarely put cash in an ATM, especially that much. Was this the payment mentioned from the e-mail? I copied the location code number for the ATM. I could cross-reference with Rubin’s system and maybe get a picture from the ATM’s security camera. Of course, I’d have to tell Rubin why and that might be problematic. One hurdle at a time.

The account information for Thomas showed a mailing address in Rainier Valley, quite a few miles north east from the apartment in SeaTac, but still in the general vicinity. Did Alicia and husband live separately? No, that didn’t seem to be the case from my visit. I should take another field trip and check it out.

———

The elevator doors slid open and I stepped out onto the top floor of our building, the executive floor. It was silent compared to the rest of the bank. Even the carpeting and lighting were softer, more muted. The air smelled faintly of lemons, but not the lemons you eat—the kind they put into cleaning products to mask the ammonia smell.

A pointy-chinned woman sat across from the elevators at a marble-topped desk engraved with the name of the bank. She ignored me with a completely blank look on her face as I tentatively approached her. As soon as I breached the invisible zone three feet in front of the desk, her body reanimated with a formal smile and a straight back. I imagined her being trained in this ritual back in receptionist school. I quickly said, “I’m here for a meeting with Mr. Hartford.”

She turned to her screen and swished the mouse around her desk a bit. “Yes, you must be Ms. Hoffman.”

I murmured an affirmation, afraid to raise my voice in this museum. She gently lifted her hand to point. “Around the corner to your right and down the hall, two desks down.”

Desks? I nodded instead of asking and walked down the hall. As I turned the corner, I understood what she meant. The right side of the hallway was lined with large polished doors. The left side held small alcoves with desks. Every door had a secretary as an accessory. How convenient.

I stopped at the second desk, where a young woman with poofy auburn hair and pale complexion dutifully awaited. Neither her alcove nor her desk had any signage identifying her name or position. All I saw was a brass plaque inset above an oak door: “C. Rusty Hartford. Senior Vice president of Finance.” The secretary activated her perky smile, which I hoped wasn’t the extent of her personality, and gave me a “Go right in.”

I responded with a slightly less robotic smile and opened the oak door.

Rusty’s office was huge, three times larger than Rubin’s. Most of it was empty space, a blatant display of extravagance in a building of tiny cubicles and claustrophobic meeting rooms. Rusty sat behind an aircraft-carrier-sized desk, reading a small stack of papers. In front were two leather visitor chairs of a finer quality than I’d seen at PRB before.

Without looking up, he motioned to a round meeting table in the far corner. On the table, a carved ivory chessboard had been set up. I padded over and sat at one of the chairs. Rusty continued reading, ignoring my presence entirely. Behind his desk were wooden shelves full of management and sports-coaching books. Here and there, I spotted a few pictures, one of a woman, quite beautiful with long dark hair, delicate chin and steel gray eyes. Probably his trophy wife—another important accessory for VPs. On the same shelf, he had a framed color glossy of a sailboat. From the dark blue water, I suspected it was docked somewhere in the Sound. Behind his desk, a bag of gleaming golf clubs was propped up in the corner.

Rusty leaned forward and casually put down the papers. His voice came as a gravelly rumble. “Ms. Hoffman, I’m glad you could see me today.”

Did I have a choice? I found myself studying the carpet while I nodded my response.

“You don’t have to stay over there.” He pointed at the leather chairs in front of his desk. Immediately, I got up and tried my best to casually walk over to his desk and seat myself. Rusty continued, “I’ve reviewed your progress at Puget Regional—very interesting.”

I looked up to thank him and snuck a peek at his desk. The papers he was reading were meeting minutes from the last Apollo meeting.

“Your record of resolved issues is quite impressive.”

I mouthed an almost silent “thank you.”

“Warren tells me you are our best troubleshooter.”

Huh? Warren said that about me?

“And Rubin says many good things about you too.”

I wasn’t surprised about that one. I should return the favor. “Thank you. Rubin is a great asset to the bank. I really enjoy working with him.”

Rusty didn’t bother to acknowledge my compliment. “I’d wanted to be the first to tell you that I’ve authorized bonuses for outstanding Apollo project team members. If you keep on track, you’re going to receive a sizable one.”

This time my “thank you” and smile weren’t subdued. Wow.

My anticipation for additional praise had loosened my tongue. I added, “We’re all going to be glad when this upgrade is over. No one more than me.”

He nodded with his earnest-and-hard-working frown. I found myself nodding along, trying to mirror his facial expression.

“When Apollo is behind us, I’m going to form a new special department. A small group to handle all the unsolvable technical problems. Like Delta Force.”

“Oh, okay.”

He didn’t hear me, but it didn’t matter—he was on a roll. “The best of the best. Our own elite commandos who will nip problems in the bud. They’ll be my specially trained go-to guys for the worst problems.”

“Are you going to be bringing in new people for this?”

“Yes and no. There’s this really good guy I’m trying to lure away from his current consulting job. It’s just a matter of time before he accepts my offer. I plan to make him the team-leader.”

“Oh. That’d be great.” It was best just to agree with the big bosses, not matter how crazy their ideas were. And if he was talking about recruiting Roger, then this idea was quite crazy.

“Heidi, I’d like you as a part of that team.”

My mouth fell open.

“Of course, you’re going to need more training. How would you like to spend a few weeks in San Francisco going to network boot camp?”

“Training? San Fran? I’d love it.” I could stay with Linden. We could go shopping. Sweetness.

“Although I would expect you to pass the certification exams.”

He gave me a stern look while I nodded away.

“And time permitting, more training in Redmond as well as night school to get your computer science degree. I expect my network commandos to be constantly improving their skills.”

“Awesome.”

“The job would technically be a manager equivalent position, but you won’t really manage anyone. You’ll all report to me but also work directly with all the other managers.”

I bobbed in my chair and smiled.

“And naturally, you’ll be eligible for the manager’s yearly bonus.”

“Bonus?”

“Based on system uptime, of course. And remember, you’d be on call around the clock for emergencies.”

Just like I am now, no biggie. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“You’d be the last escalation point, when no one else can fix it.”

“I don’t know what to say but, thank you!”

“You deserve it. Now keep this under your hat for now. I don’t want word getting out. Remember, nothing is finalized until Apollo is completed.”

“Don’t worry about me. Thank you again.”

“Great. Now back to work,” he said with an apparently genuine smile.

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