Buy a Bullet: An Orphan X Story
She takes the pain, takes it so well. This is evident the moment she enters the upscale coffee shop in downtown Palo Alto. She is on the arm of a trim man with artfully tousled hair, two-day growth, and Bono sunglasses. Or rather, he is on
Bringing up the rear is a head-taller, broad-chested specimen of a bodyguard, ex-military judging by hair and posture. His deferential bearing suggests that when tasked, he also performs the services of a personal assistant, as do most employees in the orbit of the very rich. He is youthful. His body fat is single digit; muscles sheathe him like armor.
In the corner of the shop, a man notes this little retinue over a lifted cup of espresso. He is around thirty years old, not too handsome, unobtrusive. Just an average guy. At his feet sits a bag bulky with night-vision gear handed to him hours ago through the rear door of a Sand Hill office in exchange for a banded stack of bills. He is not a regular in the Bay Area; having collected what he came for, he has pit-stopped for a quick cup before the five-hour haul back to Los Angeles. But now his interest is piqued by this woman and the man clamped to her.
The coffee shop on University Avenue gets all kinds — or rather all Silicon Valley kinds. A trio of Scandinavian engineers in their Dockers and rumpled short-sleeve button-ups. Entrepreneurs-to-be hunched over slender silver laptops, plugged into headsets. Twentysomethings wearing Havianas and slurping free-trade coffee, key-chain carabiners dangling off their belt loops. The wood-paneled confines smell of Guatemalan roast and ambition, and hum with caffeine and a variety of pleasingly accented voices.
At the couple’s entrance, activity ceases for a moment but it is not, surprisingly, at the woman’s considerable Midwestern beauty. The ensuing stir appears to be due to the man in the yellow-tinted shades. From the whispers making the rounds, a name emerges — Steve Radack.
The watcher at the corner table lowers his demitasse to the tiny saucer. The name rolls around in his mind for a moment before slotting into place. Radack is a dot-com success story, which makes him, in these parts, royalty. A member of the three comma club, he is unaware of the attention or, more likely, inured to it. His knees jiggle beneath tailored pants. An unlit cigarette bobs from his lips. Sweat sparkles at his hairline. He is amped on something and the condition seems not unfamiliar to him.
Radack orders the bodyguard to bring him a Dead Eye — three shots of espresso added to drip coffee — and leads the woman to a table, his fingers still indenting her smooth pale skin. Patrons clear a path. At the table, the woman says, “Would you mind getting it to go?” and he slides his hand to her wrist and deals it a cruel twist. Her full lips part but she makes no sound. She lowers her head and sits, her emerald eyes slightly dulled. One side of her neck is streaked with faded bruises. Finger-width. Her nose is sloped just right with a scattering of freckles across the bridge, and her front teeth are Brigitte Bardot — pronounced, just shy of buck. She is stunning, and yet there is a blankness behind her features, the blankness of compounded trauma.
The watcher at the corner table knows this expression. He knows it well.
He has spent a lifetime in the vicinity of trauma, usually inflicting it. He is known by some as Evan Smoak. To a few, he is known as Orphan X. But generally he is not known at all.
He decides to extend his visit.
Steve Radack’s background and proclivities prove to be amply detailed on the World Wide Web. He is the visionary behind
Radack is the self-described bad-boy of the software world, and though this seems a comically low bar, his accomplishments in self-debasement are impressive. Shortly after
But he is not the watcher’s focus. The focus is Radack’s girlfriend, the lovely Leanne Lattimore, who hails from Kansas City. The daughter of an insurance salesman and a schoolteacher, she came west to attend San Jose State, where she studied computer science. An internship at
When he finally looks up from the screen, the windows are dark with night. He finishes his vodka, rises, and sets the glass neatly on the tray above the wet bar, nudging it until it is perfectly centered on the paper doily. An urge turns his head. He looks across at the bed and the open laptop on which Leanne’s image is frozen. He stands motionless with his fingertips tented on the brim of the empty glass, regarding her image, feeling the pull of instinct and muscle memory, his thoughts reshaping themselves until they form something dark and unyielding and true.
Perhaps she will be his first.
In the trunk of his Honda Accord is a black sweatshirt, a pair of Night Owl tactical binoculars, and a WiFi antenna with good gain. A few exits up Interstate 280 in Atherton, he finds Radack’s oft-referenced estate with little trouble. The fifteen-acre compound features multiple safe rooms, a fully stocked fish pond, and self-sustaining gardens and crops in event of nuclear winter or zombie attack. The watcher takes a single pass around, noting a sheltered dog run just east of the guest house. He parks on the back side of the compound in a blind spot between cameras mounted on the spike-topped fence. The binoculars’ night vision provides decent vantage through to the main house. He wonders which window Leanne is behind.
He opens his laptop and, with the help of the antenna and a thirty-dollar long-range WiFi modem, finds the network — TECHWARRIOR. It is password-protected. While he is hardly a tech warrior himself, he knows which tools to apply. Using the kismet and aircrack suite of programs, he recons the hidden wireless network and finds the encrypted credentials. These he e-mails off to a double-blind account at Hashkiller, and sets its 131-billion-password cracking engine to work.
Two Dobermans appear at the fence near his car, vibrating the windows with resonant barks. He checks the time — it took them three minutes and twelve seconds to notice his presence. They are overfed, boxy around the middle, further evidence of their owner’s lack of discipline. It is time to go; even fat dogs can raise an alarm.
Sliding his laptop onto the passenger seat, he drives off. Ten minutes away in Woodside, he finds an upscale restaurant, The Village Pub. The bar has the usual selection of vodkas. He settles on a Cîroc, up, with a twist, and tells the bartender to bruise it. It pours properly, with a film of ice crystals, and it drinks even better.
He sips it halfway down, tips the bartender handsomely, returns to his car, and checks the laptop. Hashkiller has already delivered the network authorization passwords. He drives back to Radack’s estate, this time parking two blocks away, and inputs the new-found passwords. Access granted. His laptop is now a member of Radack’s internal WiFi network. Once inside the system, he finds the security cameras with ease. The hundred-plus webcam and security links are neatly aggregated on a single webpage. The configuration of the web server tells him the location of the router as well as the VPN gateway. Hashkiller makes short work of those credentials as well, and the watcher is set up to access the estate’s security camera feeds over the Internet from any location.
Heading back to the hotel, he rolls down the window. The maples, spotting the vast lawns, have gone to orange and yellow, and the heavy air tastes of autumn.
In his room, he scrolls through the feeds. Library, kitchen, bowling alley, screening room, all empty. He finds Radack in the cigar parlor drink ...