An extract from Martin Ungless’s high-tech thriller.
Zed passes Anna’s desk on the way to the kitchen, feels her eyes. He pictures her watching his arse. Tries not to smile. God, he needs a line.
As he pours his coffee, he knows she will be in to see him any second. It’s a small kitchen, a confined space, and the screen wall affords a measure of privacy. He doesn’t care. Why not?
He thinks of Cal. Her big green eyes. They blink at him. He shakes his head, but finds his phone already in his hand, and he’s clicking on the app to check the UrbX message board. She’s written.
Zed you are a wanker.
I binned that fucking phone.
His one chance, Maarten’s mobile gone. The mission blown. Europe in the wind. Why would she do this to him? He rescued her.
A final sentence.
The last number which the phone dialled was Dutch.
And she’s sent it! At the bottom of the message. Sent him the number. Maarten’s contact in Europe. All he ever wanted from her. Something to work on. He can trace it. Make the links.
Anna enters the tiny kitchen. It’s not a two-person space. Zed tries to leave. He’s not in the mood, but he needs to squeeze past her and she’s not getting out of the way.
‘Zed, I know you’re officially off the operation—’
‘Sorry, got to go.’ He needs to make a start on tracing that number. Phones go cold so quickly, burners especially.
She puts a hand on his chest. ‘Zed, this is important.’
Why does he let himself flirt? ‘What is?’
‘She’s emptying the account.’
‘Cal, she’s made hundreds of tiny bank transfers. It’s going. Mostly gone.’
‘Jesus!’ He suppresses the smile.
‘You’ve got to order a recall,’ Anna says. ‘I don’t have the authority, and the two-hour window closes in ten minutes.’
‘Nothing got flagged?’
‘Her cash movements were all below the threshold. She even varied the amount.’
‘Got to admire those skills,’ he says. ‘I’m off the team, Anna.’
‘It’s an emergency.’ Her eyes beg. ‘I don’t have the rank.’
‘Phone Fenna.’ Why should he make this easy?
‘I’ve been trying.’
‘Uncontactable again?’ He runs fingers over his stubble to disguise the grin. ‘She’s worse than me.’
‘I think they’re staking out a hotel. That’s what Andrei said. Maybe the signal’s poor.’
‘Why didn’t Fenna believe you, Anna, when you told her about Cal being in Amsterdam?’
‘Zed, we’ve got to stop those transfers.’
‘You do remember how Fenna reacted, when Andrei suggested locking that account?’
He sees that she’s recalling, and that might even do the trick. Why shouldn’t Cal have the money? She earned it. After what they did to her… to her friends. So long as Maarten’s screwed, Zed doesn’t care, and now he has that number. Zed is going to reel Maarten in.
He grasps her shoulders, tries to shift her to one side. ‘Please excuse me, Anna. I have to get on.’
She won’t move. He pushes past her, chest to chest. In other circumstances this might have been exciting, for them both. He nearly spills his coffee.
Anna looks surprised, then angry, then almost like she’s going to cry. She stays in the kitchen when he leaves.
Zed settles at his desk and calls up the software that he’s going to need.
He glances up when Anna returns with a steaming mug. She seems to have got it together. He’s pleased. She doesn’t look his way. Her determination makes her all the more attractive. Maybe. Maybe. Another time. At the moment, he’s got bigger fish to fry.
The two of them work in silence.
When he looks up finally, forced by cramp to stretch his neck, Zed realises that everyone else has left the office. It’s just him and Anna, working on. He wonders what Anna is doing. The money’s gone, but Cal will have to be smart to cover her tracks. It will get easier, but she isn’t out of the woods. And he guesses that’s why Anna is so focused.
He’s traced the number which Cal gave him to some obscure manufacturing business, part of a big consignment of phones they bought. The number’s dead now, and maybe Maarten too. Zed remembers the muscle that met Maarten at the airport.
Anna’s movement catches Zed’s eye. She’s swapping between screens, working off at least three, covered with big lists of numbers. He can’t make out more. He watches as she makes a note of something. Biro, pad.
Zed yawns and stretches, then opens the UrbX app on his phone. He types.
I really want to meet.
He looks across at Anna, hesitates.
I could help.
Zed knows that anyone with access could see this conversation if they choose to look. The Met have access, though strictly speaking, they’re only observing this case.
He’s thinking about it, when a lanky young guy appears at the door. Grey hoody, tracksuit bottoms—too short for him—and styleless cropped hair. The man’s a walking cliché, and the sort that gives geeks their bad name. Thick glasses and, unbelievably, that really is actual bandage tape mending one side of the frames.
The geek coughs. At least he’s a black geek—that’s rare.
Anna sees him and rushes over. She jumps up to give a big hug. She’s forced to jump because he’s so tall. He looks surprised by the attention but goes with it, seemingly pleased. He lets her down gently once he notices Zed.
‘Hi,’ he says to Zed. ‘Olivier.’ His accent’s French.
‘Good evening,’ says Zed.
‘That’s Zed.’ Anna takes Olivier’s hand and leads him to her desk.
She points to one of her screens. ‘What can we do about this?’
Olivier runs a slender finger over the numbers, tracing something, comparing them. He clicks a mouse.
‘The bank must reverse the transfers.’
‘Too late,’ Anna says. ‘Anyway, I don’t have authority.’
Olivier looks back at Zed. Zed smiles and shrugs.
‘Where is the target bank?’ Olivier asks Anna.
‘A private account with Freistat?’
‘See these references,’ Olivier says. ‘It is most likely they are to purchase bitcoins.’
‘Shite,’ says Anna.
Zed loves the way Cal thinks.
‘You want me to attempt a trace?’ Olivier offers.
Anna nods and gestures to him to take her seat.
Zed calls across, ‘Talk me through it, Olivier. You’ve got less than no chance with a Swiss bank.’
Olivier doesn’t look up. ‘It’s all about the blockchain.’ He’s typing.
Zed frowns. ‘You can’t locate a bitcoin.’
Olivier says, ‘I will look for the wallet.’
Zed walks across. ‘Wallets are anonymous.’
‘It’s not impossible,’ says Olivier. ‘We’re developing forensic techniques.’ He types fast, even for a tech. ‘You know that every transaction is—’
‘Recorded in the blockchain?’ says Zed. ‘That is how it works.’ He yawns. ‘Entirely transparent. Everyone’s copy is the same. Blah, blah, blah.’
Olivier keeps typing. Zed’s not sure he even heard.
Olivier says, ‘I’m going to quiz the blockchain.’
Zed says, ‘You don’t know the numbers of the bitcoins she bought, or the destination.’
Olivier says, ‘I do not.’
Anna puts a hand on Olivier’s shoulder.
‘So, where is she?’ Zed only asks to annoy.
Olivier doesn’t answer. He’s got some pages up on Anna’s screens. Listings. Endless strings of numbers and letters. Bitcoin references. Parts of the blockchain. Olivier seems to be looking at lists of transfers, sales, and he’s swapping to a search page.
Who knows? It’s not Zed’s field.
‘So, where is she?’ Zed repeats.
Olivier says, ‘I don’t know. You’re right about the bank. The Swiss are like mice.’
Zed’s not sure what that means.
‘I’m looking for patterns,’ Olivier says, ‘but it will be slow. Bitcoin payments take a long time.’ Olivier doesn’t look perturbed by this thought, but he also doesn’t seem as if he’s getting anywhere fast. Anna starts to act all tired and impatient. Like that’s going to improve matters. Zed takes a step away.
A screen to the left of Anna’s desk shows the latest activity in the bank where all of Maarten’s money ended up, when Cal first took it. That’s the account she’s just emptied. Turned into bitcoins, apparently, without getting flagged. Genius. Zed quietly confirms the timing of the last transaction. Two and a half hours ago.
‘Keep me posted,’ he says, returning to his desk.
Not one penny of Cal’s transfers can be reclaimed by the originating bank. Not now. Zed smiles. And from what he’s heard about bitcoins, Olivier hasn’t got a hope.
Zed sits down, preparing to explore the corporation which owns the bunch of phones, one of which Maarten called.
He traces the directorships, and a pattern of links with several other companies. Zed’s trying to concentrate on mapping these relationships, but his thoughts keep returning to the phones. What if Maarten’s been given a replacement? One of these, is using it right now? If Zed could just narrow the search a little. If he knew which phones were live.
He’ll ring them.
There are two hundred and sixty of them. Okay, he’ll write a script.
He knows there’s dialling software somewhere, because Europol use it for witness search. Zed calls across to Anna, asks her to remind him what that software’s called. Anna shrugs.
Olivier answers without looking up.
Smart arse. ‘Brilliant. Thanks, mate,’ Zed says, and downloads a copy from the server to his desk.
Zed builds a script to telephone the numbers, based around this dialling application. If the call is answered, his script will make a note of the number, but he’ll need the recipient to hear something if he’s to avoid spooking them. He’ll have to record a message. He looks at Anna and Olivier. Zed doesn’t want to share. He’s off the case. He’ll record it later.
He sets up everything he needs. Three columns—phones that ring, phones that are answered, and phones that are turned off or haven’t been activated. He needs to record his message.
‘What progress?’ he calls.
‘I think I have a way of tracing the wallet,’ says Olivier. He faces Zed. ‘But I won’t know until the morning. The purchases have to be…’ he pauses. ‘Ratifié… confirmed by miners.’
Anna asks, ‘The bitcoin miners?’ Social media’s more her expertise.
Olivier says, ‘They create the bitcoins. They must confirm them on the blockchain.’
Anna looks blank.
‘The shared public ledger,’ Olivier explains.
‘So, what have you found on the blockchain?’ Zed is unsure why he’s trying so hard to annoy.
‘Nothing. There’s no information. It can take several days.’
Zed knows. ‘I’ve seen a transfer take a week.’
‘Some will be quick,’ Olivier replies. ‘But like I said, I don’t think I will know anything until—’
‘Useless.’ Zed wishes they would go. ‘Okay. See you tomorrow then.’ He wants to record his message for the phone-dialling software. ‘Thanks for your help, Olivier.’
Olivier seems to be stopping, but Anna says something which Zed doesn’t catch, and Olivier starts to type again.
Zed’s going to have to disguise his voice on the automated message, in case by some fantastic chance, he gets through to Maarten on one of these numbers. Anna’s not going anywhere. Zed admits defeat—he’ll have to leave the office to record it. He also needs a pee.
In the toilet, Zed is surprised by Olivier following him in. Olivier stands at the neighbouring urinal. Zed feels like he’s being hit on. God, that’s all he needs.
Olivier says, ‘What is your interest in Anna?’
‘I’m sorry. What?’
‘Anna, are you…?’
Zed gets it. The guy is worrying about stepping on toes.
‘No, mate.’ Zed laughs. ‘No, mate. You go for it. She’s a lovely girl.’ She is. It’s true.
They wash their hands together. The soap bubbles show strongly on Olivier’s fingers. His skin is so dark, it’s beautiful. Zed flicks the water off his own hands, then dries them on a towel. He turns up the pale palms. Zed knows nothing about his father. Hopes he wasn’t white.
‘Olivier,’ he says. ‘Can you record a message for me?’ He holds out his phone.
‘What?’ Olivier looks slightly frightened.
‘Can you say, in French, “You recently had an accident which wasn’t your fault. If you would like legal representation…” and then stop.’
Olivier obliges. Afterwards he laughs.
Back at his desk, Zed loads the recording into his script. He is nearly ready to roll.
Anna coughs. The two of them, standing at the door, Olivier’s arm across her shoulders.
‘A date?’ Zed smiles.
Anna says, ‘No. Goodnight.’
Zed is left alone.
Here it is.
HNLMS Nakamoto is a wood-clad shoe-box shape. Not what Cal would call a boat at all, except for the fact of its floating. She hangs back and leans against a tree, checks out the canal, looks up and down the street.
This ‘gallery’ is a giant houseboat really, a wide wood deck, pot plants, metal windows, flat-roof complete with folding chairs. The art begins in the form of bendy neons spread across its walls. Green and red and yellow, some formed into words. ‘Free Love’ is English, the rest she doesn’t understand. There’s also a naked woman with what appear to be exploding-firework breasts, a small pink pig with wings, a giant blue apple with a missing bite.
She can see inside through the glass doors. It’s brightly lit. A couple chat at the desk. There are paintings on the walls, and in one corner is a large white box. She thinks that’s what she’s come for. There are only two in Amsterdam, and judging by the maps, this one is less overlooked. What’s nice about this sort of street is the absence of CCTV.
Cal checks for anyone else who might be leaning on trees. No one loitering. She isn’t going to take much, so as not to draw attention. This is an experiment. She’ll come back for more. Just needs enough cash to survive the night.
Deep breath. Across the short bridge. Glass doors. In she goes. Cream walls. Yellow lights. Shitty pictures. How do they really make their money? Probably drugs, maybe the big white box is a part of their laundering scheme.
The woman steps very elegantly from behind her desk. She’s maybe Japanese, wearing a black leather miniskirt, tight black halter top, and big oversized white glasses. No lenses. Her jet-black hair is shoulder length, except for the shaved left side. Blue lipstick.
‘Can I help you, Madam?’ English spoken, Cal all too obviously a foreigner.
The woman is so striking that—really beautiful—Cal is a little lost for words. She points at the ATM. The woman nods, returns to her seat, picks up her magazine. The guy in shades, perched on the corner of her desk, hasn’t shifted his attention from his phone. The leather jacket he wears is probably one size too big.
Cal stands beside the white box with her phone out. It looks pretty much like any other freestanding cash machine. The instructions are in English. She selects, Sell Bitcoins, chooses two hundred euros. There’s always the other ATM if this experiment fails.
She turns without warning, quick as spit. Sure enough the guy is watching, but he’s casual, and without any big fuss goes back to his phone. He treats her like she’s not important, but his eyes are hidden by the shades. She can’t be sure.
On the screen now is a QR code. Cal scans it with her phone, which opens up her bitcoin wallet. A message appears on her mobile, telling her that the wallet wants to send a certain amount of bitcoin. She confirms it with her thumbprint. She’s being ripped off by six euros for the privilege, but it’s all pretend money until it’s actually in her hand.
And, holy crap, now it is! A little tray opened, just like any other ATM, and now she’s holding two hundred real euros. Smooth.
She stuffs them quickly in a pocket. The guy has gone. There’s a door behind the desk, and he’s in there. She can hear him on the phone.
Through the small square window by the desk, her eye is caught by movement. It’s an old man in a small, rounded, wooden motorboat. He wears a knitted jumper, a flat white cap. She feels like he’s a deep-sea fisherman trawling the canal. Her vision narrows, seems to darken round the edges. She’s hardly eaten today.
The cool lady looks up when Cal turns to go. Cal smiles.
Cool asks, ‘Don’t you want to see the art?’
Cal opens the door and is hit by the wind. She hugs her coat.
The timber bridge bounces very slightly. Cal notices a tiredness in her limbs. She must get food. A burger. She could do with meat.
Cal pauses behind the second tree and peeks back towards the gallery. She sees the guy come out of the little office. He seems angry with Ms Cool. He’s showing her something on his phone. Pointing at the door.
Now, he’s coming Cal’s way.
She turns. Walks fast, listening too. It’s harder when loud mopeds cross the junction ahead. Cal knows where the cheap hotels are, will aim in that direction. She rounds a corner, picks up her pace, crosses a bridge to walk along the other bank. She really needs to see behind herself but prefers not to look.
Next junction, she starts to cross back over. Pauses on this bridge. There’s a shop ahead, she waits. Its door begins to open. She moves fast. The old lady with the basket ambles out, but Cal’s only interested in the reflection from the door. Behind her. There he is, behind her. Maybe twenty paces. The guy from the so-called gallery.
She keeps walking past the shop. Fast.
At the first corner, she looks back, forcing him to climb steps into the shelter of a doorway, to stay out of sight. Cal strolls around the corner, then sprints. It’s a quiet street. After only a few seconds, comes the sound of his running feet.
Cal turns into a narrow alley, buildings both sides. Halfway along, she goes left again. Hears him closing. On one side, buildings are replaced by a ten-foot wall. Cal leans towards the wall but runs away from it. Three big strides. She leaps with one foot lifted. Hits and pushes off. She’s bouncing back towards the wall and rising. It’s a narrow gap. She twists fast, brings a leg up. Boot absorbs the strike. Knee and ankle bend like mad. She’s halfway up. Kicks hard again. Rising still. Back the other way. Rotating. Lands both feet. Shoves off like she’s jumping from the ground. Arms superman. Heading back and up.
Fingers hook the top brick of the wall. Grit-sharp. Feet tucked, she climbs. Momentum making friction. Up. And rolling over. Check her landing.
Dogs? She’s crouched. Back to the wall. Crouched, and looking everywhere for vicious hidden dogs.
Trying to control her breath, she hears him running past. In the alley. Reflected sound. She quickly stands, walks towards the passage beneath the building into whose backyard she’s dropped.
Through the gate.
Cal does not look back. A left, a right. She’s not planning, just heading somewhere that’s away.
At the first wide canal, she starts to jog. She runs in the stretches between the trees. They’re bigger here. She runs on grass. A couple of minutes later and she’s out of breath. She grabs a tree, simply to keep herself from falling over. Hidden by the trunk and hugging it, she looks back with eyes that barely seem to see.
She thinks she’s lost him. She laughs out loud. Pretty decent. Can’t recall her last wall climb. Not like that. Parkour’s seemed so pointless since…
She needs that food.
Zed is in the dorm. It’s dark. The other kids are asleep. The only light comes through the door, where he can see a shadow on the ripple-glass. He needs to be asleep. He shuts his eyes. The door creaks. He screws his eyes and wills himself to sleep. Tight shut. Must sleep. Tight shut. But the buzzing calls. Tight shut. It wants to wake him. Tight shut. It’s his phone. Tight shu… Except he hasn’t got a phone. He’s just a kid.
Zed doesn’t know where he is.
He’s woken from a dream. It’s dark. His head rests on something smooth, cold, hard. His desk. He sits up and his elbow jogs the mouse. The screen jumps into life. A blinding glow. His office. The basement at Europol. The crypt, and it’s the middle of the night.
Zed lifts his arms above his head, waves them about. No one else is here. The movement-sensitive, energy-saving lights flicker back to life.
He checks his phone. He’s sure it woke him. No missed call.
The spreadsheet, displayed on his screen, shows that his software has already dialled a hundred and fifty-eight numbers from the batch bought by that fake company. It has found just three in use. None were answered. Three is good. If Maarten’s been given one of these, then he can be found.
Zed reads off the times when those live numbers were detected. The last one was less than a minute ago, but it can’t have been what woke him. His script has no alerts.
He stops the software and backs it up, has it ring that last active number once again. Number one hundred and fifty-eight on the list.
Night-time in the crypt at Europol is completely silent. No air-conditioning hum. Zed thinks his ears might be inventing sounds to fill the void. His screen shows that the phone is ringing.
Zed hears a scraping sound, like mice in the walls.
He listens hard. Can’t be certain what he hears.
Zed stands to listen.
He gets to Anna’s desk. The noise has stopped.
His head is thick. He can’t work out what’s happening, but he knows he has to dial again. He goes back to his computer, reads the number from the screen. Enters it into his phone.
Beside Anna’s desk, he crouches, listening hard.
He presses, Dial.
The rattle starts. The noise is clear. The source is obvious. Fenna’s office. The number he is calling… the phone… this phone, owned by a business connected to Maarten White… one of the phones bought by the Syndicate… this phone is buzzing in Fenna’s room. He moves towards the pulse, waving his phone in front of him, like it’s some kind of detector.
The buzzing stops. He puts his mobile to his ear. Voice mail, standard message. Dutch. Zed hangs up. Feels suddenly exposed. He backs away from Fenna’s door. Looks around the offices. Too bright. Too stark. He listens. Stares at shadows.
Zed swallows. He enters her office, walks to her desk, sits in Fenna’s seat. Deep breath. Redial.
Fenna’s left-hand drawer rattles. Vibrations of a phone on mute. The drawer is locked. Zed kills the call. The rattle stops. He rings again.
Bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzzz.
Why has Fenna got this phone? A phone in her drawer connected with the Syndicate. It must be connected with the Syndicate, or it wouldn’t be in her drawer. Not a phone owned by some random business. This is an active phone. Muted. He’s trying to remember… she went back to her office just before she left for Riga, was it to lock this drawer? He pictures her bending over, powering down the computer… Then what? Did she?
So what, if she did? The phone is probably a piece of evidence. It’s probably shaking away in there, inside an evidence bag. Except… How does this play out? If it is a piece of evidence, then he’s just linked it to a large criminal network. A breakthrough that could see him reinstated. Not likely. Evidence bags for phones are metal gauze—to block signals, prevent remote wipes. They shouldn’t ring. Couldn’t ring.
Fenna took Zed off the case.