The philosopher Nietzsche didn't get it right. He said, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster."
That's not exactly true.
Or, at least, not all the time.
If you battle monsters you don't always become a monster.
But you aren't entirely human anymore, either.
1100 Block of North Stuart Street
Thursday, April 14, 1:22 p.m.
Some cases start big. Something blows up or someone unleashes a nasty bug and Echo Team hits the ground running. Most of the time, even if we don't know what the endgame is going to look like, we have some idea of what kind of fight we're in. And we can usually hear that big clock ticking down to boom time. Other cases are running fights and they end when one side runs out of bullets and the other doesn't.
I've had a lot of both.
This one started weird and stayed weird, and for most of it felt like we were swinging punches at shadows. We didn't even know what we were fighting until we were right there at the edge of the abyss.
And even then, it wasn't what we thought it was.
Not until we knew what it was.
Yeah, it was like that.
It started four months ago on one of those sunny days T. S. Eliot wrote about when he said that April was the cruelest month. When spring rains wake the dead bulbs buried in the cold dirt and coax flowers into first blooms. When we look at the flowers we suddenly forget so many important things. We forget that all flowers die. We forget that winter will come again. We forget that nothing really endures and that, like the flowers that die at the end of the growing season, we'll join them in the cold ground.
I spent years mourning the dead. Helen. Grace. My friends and colleagues at the Warehouse. Members of my team who fell in battle. All of them in the cold, cold ground.
Now it was April and there were flowers.
In my life there was Junie Flynn. She was the flower of my spring.
As far as we knew, her cancer was in remission, though we were waiting for her last panels. But for right now, the sun shone through yellow curtains and birds sang in the trees.
I sat at a kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the remains of a big slice of apple-pecan pie. The rest of the pie was gone. There was evidence of it in crumbs and beige glob smeared on the floor, on the aluminum pie plate, and on the muzzle of my dog. Ghost. Big white shepherd.
He loves pie.
The mess was considerable. However, I had no intention of cleaning it up. It wasn't my pie.
It wasn't my house.
When the actual owner of the house — a Mr. Reginald Boyd — came home and then came storming into the kitchen, he told me, very loudly and with lots of cursing, that it wasn't my house, my kitchen, or my goddamn pie.
I agreed with those observations. Less so about his accusations that I fornicate with livestock.
Reginald Boyd was a big man gone soft in the middle, like an athlete who has gone to seed. Played some ball in college, hit the gym a bit after that. Started going soft probably around the same time that he started getting paid for stealing some real important shit from work.
"Work" was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA. Basically a collection of the most dangerous geeks on earth. Except for idiots like Reggie, those geeks try to keep America safe.
"Get the fuck out of my house," yelled Reginald Boyd.
Ghost, his face covered in apple pie and pecan bits, stood up and showed Boyd how big he was. And how many teeth he had.
I smiled at Boyd and said, "Lower your voice."
Boyd backed a step away. "You broke into my house."
"Only technically. I loided the lock with my library card. Loided," I repeated. "It's a word, look it up. It means to bypass a lock. You have a two-hundred-dollar dead bolt on your front door and a Mickey Mouse spring lock on the back door. A moron could get in here. So ... whereas I got in, I did no actual breaking."
He didn't know how to respond to that, so he glared at what was on the table. "You made coffee? And you ate my pie?"
I felt like I was in a Goldilocks and the Three Bears reboot.
"First off, the coffee is Sanka. How the hell can you call yourself an American and all you have in your pantry is powdered decaf? I ought to sic Ghost on you just for that."
"The pie's good though," I continued. "Could use more pecans. Store-bought, am I right? Take a tip and switch to Whole Foods, they have a killer deep-dish apple that'll make you cry."
"You're fucking crazy."
"Very likely," I admitted.
His hand touched the cell phone clipped to his belt. "Get the hell out before I call —"
I reached under my jacket, slid the Beretta 92F from its clamshell holster, and laid it on the table. "Seriously, Mr. Boyd — actually, may I call you Reggie?"
"Seriously, Reggie, do you really want to reach for that cell phone? I mean — who are you gonna call?"
"I'll call the fucking cops is who I'll call."
"No you won't."
"Why the fuck not?"
"'Cause I'm a cop, Einstein," I said. Which was kind of true. I used to be a cop in Baltimore before I was shanghaied into the Department of Military Sciences. The DMS gig gives me access to credentials from every law enforcement agency from the FBI to local law to the housing police. I need to flash a badge; they give me the right badge. The DMS, though, doesn't have its own badges.
Boyd eyed me. "You're no cop."
"I could be."
"Bullshit. I'm going to call the cops."
"No you're not."
"You can't stop me, this is my house."
I drummed my fingers on the table next to my gun. "Honestly, Reggie, they said you weren't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but come on ... Big guy? Big dog? Big gun? You're armed with a cell phone and a beer gut. How do you think this is going to play out?"
"I'm not afraid of any stupid dog."
I held up a finger. "Whoa now, Reggie. There are all kinds of lines we can step over. Insulting my dog, however, is a line you do not want to cross. I get weird about that, and you do not want me to get weird on you."
He stared blankly at me, trying hard to make sense of our encounter. His eyes flicked from me to Ghost — who noisily licked his muzzle — and back to me.
He narrowed his eyes to prove that he was shrewd. "What do you want?"
"What do you think I want?"
"I don't know."
"Of course you do."
"No, I don't know."
I sighed. "Okay, I'll give you a hint because you may actually be that stupid."
He started to open his mouth.
I said, "VaultBreaker."
His mouth snapped shut.
"Proprietary military software? Am I ringing any bells here?" I asked. "Anything? Anything? Bueller?"
That's when Reggie Boyd tried to run. He spun around and bolted down the hallway toward the front door.
I took a sip of the coffee. Sighed. Said, "Go ahead."
Ghost shot after him like a bullet, nails scratching the hallway floorboards, one long, continuous growl trailing behind him.
Reggie didn't even make it to the front door.
Later, after we were past the screams and first-aid phases, Reggie lay on the couch and I sat on the edge of a La-Z-Boy recliner, my pistol back in its shoulder rig, another cup of the pisswater Sanka cradled between my palms. Ghost was sprawled on the rug pretending to be asleep. The living room was a wreck. Tables overturned, a lamp broken. Bloodstains on the floors and the walls, and one drop on the ceiling — for the life of me I couldn't figure out how that got there.
My chest ached, though not because of anything Reggie had done. It was scar tissue from bullet wounds I'd received last year during the Majestic Black Book affair. Couple of bullets went in through the armhole opening of my Kevlar and busted up a whole lot of important stuff. I was theoretically back to perfect health, but bullet wounds are not paper cuts. I had to keep working the area or scar tissue would build up in the wrong places. Wrestling Reggie onto the couch helped neither my chest nor my mood.
"We could have done all this in the kitchen," I said irritably. "We could have had a pizza delivered and talked this through like adults."
Reggie said nothing.
"Instead you had to do something stupid."
"That alone should tell you something, man," I said. "Didn't your spider sense start to tingle when you found me sitting at your kitchen table? No? Maybe you're good at your job, Reggie, but beyond that you are as dumb as a box of rubber hammers. You assumed you were being slick and careful, but since I'm here, we can agree that assumptions about your overall slickness are for shit. Ass out of you and me, you know what I'm talking about?"
"The question is, Reggie, what do we do now?"
He turned his face away and buried it in the couch cushions.
Back in Baltimore, Junie was shopping for a dress to go with the killer shoes she bought last week. We were going to see Joe Bonamassa play stinging blues at the Hippodrome. Thinking about that, and about how I was pretty sure I was falling in love with Junie — real love, not the unstructured lust into which I usually fall with the women who pass through my life. I don't want to get all sappy here, but I was beginning to get the feeling that Junie was the one. The actual one. The one they write cards and movies and love songs about. The kind of "one" I used to make jokes about, as all male outsiders make jokes when they don't think they'll ever meet, or perhaps don't deserve to meet, their one.
All of that was waiting for me once I cleared up a few details with Reggie Boyd.
I leaned over and jabbed him with my finger.
"Reggie? Listen to me now," I said quietly. "You know I wouldn't be here if you weren't in trouble. You know that you're going to be arrested. We both know that. What we don't know, what you and I have to decide, is where you go once you're charged. There are people who want me to take you to a private airstrip so we can send you to Gitmo, where you will never be seen again and from where — I guarantee you — you'll never return. Personally, I don't dig that option. I'm not a huge fan of enhanced interrogation. Not unless I'm up against a wall. There's a wall pretty close, though, and I don't think it's in either of our best interests if you push me against it. You dig?"
He didn't answer, but he lay so still that I could tell he was listening.
"Second option is I bust you through main channels with the NSA. That means you get charged with treason and you'll spend the next forty years in a supermax prison learning what it means to be a 'fish.' It's not a lesson you want to learn, trust me. If we go that way, I lose control of the situation and less friendly people run your life henceforth."
Reggie shook his head, still silent.
"Third option is the one I like. Yes, it still ends with you in prison — that's going to stay on the table, no way around it — but in that option it's a federal country club prison and you don't spend every Friday night giving blow jobs to tattooed members of the Aryan Brotherhood. I think you'll admit that it's a better option."
"You're lying to me," he mumbled. "You're going to kill me."
"If I'd wanted to kill you, Reggie, I wouldn't have pulled Ghost off of you."
Ghost opened one eye, looked around, closed it. Made a soft whuff sound.
"We don't want you dead, Reggie. What we want is for you to become a cooperative person. Totally open, totally willing to share everything you know. That kind of thing opens hearts, Reggie. It earns you Brownie points."
Reggie said nothing.
"Now, I need to make a phone call, Reggie," I said. "I need to make that call in the next five minutes. I need to tell my boss that you're going to cooperate with us. I need to tell him that you're going to help us plug the leak in the Department of Defense. I need to tell him that you're going to name names and make connections so that we can make a whole bunch of arrests. And, yes, some of them will go to Gitmo and those that don't will be doing the shower-room boogie-woogie in supermax. You, however, won't. You'll be watching American Idol on cable, eating food nobody's spit in, and sleeping soundly at night with all of your various orifices unviolated. Not sure if that's a word, but you get my gist."
He turned and looked at me, uncertainty and conflict blooming like crabgrass in his eyes. "How do I know I can trust you?" he said in a near-whisper.
I smiled, then reached behind the chair and dragged out a heavy leather valise, opened it, and spilled the contents onto the rug. Reggie stared at what spilled out and his color, already bad, went from pale to green. The light from the one unbroken lamp glinted from the curves and edges of pliers, bone saws, wood rasps, electrical clamps, scalpels, and rolls of duct tape. "Because I didn't use these."
"I know, right?"
"But you fucking brought them! You were going to use those ... things on me."
"Actually," I said, "I didn't bring this shit." Before he could reply I got up and walked over to the small coat closet beside the door. I opened it. Two bodies tumbled out. A third lay twisted inside. "They did."
Ghost made his whuffing sound again. It sounded like laughter of a very bad kind.
Reggie gagged. Even from where he lay he could see bullet holes and bite marks.
"Two of those guys are North Korean," I said. "Other guy's Iranian. They're working together, which I find interesting as all hell. They came here and began unpacking their party favors. Can you imagine what fun you would have had with them? They'd have had to bury you in separate boxes. Ghost and I dissuaded them."
I sat down again and gave him my very best smile. The one that crinkles the corners of my eyes and shows a lot of teeth. The one I never show to Junie.
"Now," I said, "how about we have that talk?"
He licked his lips. "What ... what do you want to know?"
1100 Block of North Stuart Street
Thursday, April 14, 2:09 p.m.
Once he got started I couldn't shut Reggie Boyd up.
At one point I considered clubbing him unconscious long enough to make a Starbucks run, but I think that would have been hard to justify in my after-action report. He talked and talked and talked. He was Mr. Helpful for the rest of the afternoon.
Part of it was that tool bag. There was some nasty shit there, and Reggie had enough imagination to guess how his afternoon might have gone if I hadn't showed up. Part of it was the presence of a big man and his nasty dog. And part of it was the fact that he believed me when I said I could cut him a deal that he could, in real point of fact, live with. That much was true because the DMS had been given a lot of latitude to strike such a deal courtesy of Vice President William Collins, who was the nominal head of the CTF, the federal Cybercrimes Task Force. Collins was also a major dickhead in many important ways, but he had powerful friends all through the government. Collins had provided me with papers detailing what I was allowed to offer Reggie in return for actionable information.
Also, I think that part of the reason Reggie cracked was that once he was talking, I think on some level he felt relieved. He was out of it now. Maybe he was of that type who wasn't suited to be a criminal. Maybe by the time he was fully invested in taking money to sell secrets from DARPA, he realized that this wasn't a criminal thing, it was a terrorist thing.
It happens. Greed or idealism kicks you in the direction of bad choices because at first it's all about the money or the politics. None of it's quite real. At first it's just data on a flash drive. No fuss, no muss. But then something makes you step back and look at the bigger picture, at the actual intended use of the information you're selling, and the abstract becomes so crystal clear that its edges can draw blood. That's when you realize that you, as a part of a larger conspiracy, will be complicit in acts that could kill people. That almost certainly would kill people. Acts that could lead to war.
What was it he sold?
The latest generation of a software package called VaultBreaker.
It's the absolute bleeding edge of cybersecurity technology. On the surface it was an advanced counterespionage program to keep China, Iran, and North Korea from hacking into our energy grids and shutting them down. That's been a real threat for the last few years thanks to superhacker groups like Comment Crew, which sounds like a rap band but isn't. They're a group of Chinese operators also known as Advanced Personal Threat 1, or APT1, headquartered in a nondescript twelve-story building inside a military compound in a crowded suburb of China's financial hub, Shanghai. They've intruded into banking, credit card companies, power companies, Internet providers, and other places, and our cyberwarfare people have no doubts that these pricks could do us serious harm. It's a little scary that they're not even trying to hide, though the Chinese government officially denies their existence. VaultBreaker is designed to both predict attacks and respond to them, and it has some intrusion capabilities that allow it to fight back in creative ways, either by planting viruses or sneaking into attacking systems to rewrite their operating software.