Skip to content
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

House on Fire – Excerpt

The first thing I did was to tug the long tube out of my stomach, out of my esophagus, and out of my nose. It made me feel queasy again, but that feeling passed quickly. It was a relief to have the thing out. I left the probe and the data recorder on a wooden dresser. Then I changed into my security-company uniform, or at least as close to a uniform as Jillian was able to assemble. It was a pair of gray pants and a gray shirt. Unfortunately, the gray shirt was just a generic gray shirt from Target; it was missing the stitched-on logo of the security company. I took out my metal clipboard. My forged Phoenicia ID badge hung around my neck on a lanyard. It was a good forgery.

Winston kept snoring.

I slung a small nylon messenger bag over my shoulder. It contained a few small pieces of equipment. My bag of toys.

I opened the bedroom door slowly and quietly and looked to either side to see if anyone was out there.

No one.

I slipped out, closing the door gently behind me. All was quiet, just the rhythmic pheep pheep pheep from some machine.

The lights were on out here, but I didn’t see anyone awake and working. Maybe there was a skeleton night staff. No one saw me. No CCTV camera globes in this part of the clinic. In a place like this, they’d be obvious, not concealed.

I found a door marked simply EXIT. I was fairly sure this was the right door, based on the floor plan I’d memorized. There were several. For reasons having to do with the fire code, it didn’t require an ID. You just pushed the door open. Coming back in you’d need an ID badge. Which, of course, I had.

It opened onto the concrete apron of a large, dark loading dock. It was cold and smelled of gasoline. It was dimly lit by just the low-power emergency lights. I could just barely make out a row of large plastic trash bins, some of them marked with a biohazard symbol. This was where the clinic’s rubbish was dumped and stored. I looked up and saw a video camera mounted high on the wall. Just where it should be on the loading dock. Presumably there was at least one more, on the other side.

I had to assume the camera was being monitored. Probably by a couple of guys sitting in a room somewhere in the building that had a lot of screens on the wall. But that was okay. I looked like a member of their security force.

There was no one in the loading dock. Not at 2:05 in the morning. Walking like I belonged, I made my way to the freight elevator that I knew was there, from the floor plans. Pressed the button, and it opened right away.

I got in. There was a camera in the elevator, which didn’t surprise me. Management didn’t trust the guys who worked the loading dock.

Right away I took out my phone and put it to my ear. “What’s up?” I said to no one. Phone in my ear, clipboard in my hand, I looked like a busy supervisor.

I hit the button for the seventh floor, where the executive suite was located. Including the office of the chief scientific officer.

The elevator didn’t move. I put my ID badge near the card reader, and the elevator started moving, up.

I’d studied the seventh-floor drawings particularly closely, so I had a pretty good idea where the executive offices were. But the drawings were original, done before the headquarters building was constructed, and the company could have done all kinds of renovation since then. I’d have to explore.

As the elevator rose, I continued talking into my phone, making inane conversation. “Yeah, Jack, I’ll check it out. Sure, if you say so. So far so good.”

There was a video cam mounted at the ceiling of the elevator. It probably didn’t capture sound as well. But if anyone was watching the monitors, they’d see my mouth moving. They’d see me talking on the phone and looking like I knew what I was doing. I was going about my security business.

My fake Phoenicia badge was a clone of one of the maintenance workers’ badges. So it would probably get me anywhere in the building. I’d chosen that one because it had the widest privileges of any of the ID badges I captured.

In a minute the elevator’s doors opened on what I assumed was the seventh floor. It was a dark corridor. The floor was carpeted with squares of some cheap indoor-outdoor fabric. Straight ahead of me was a door, and next to the jamb was a wall-mounted RFID reader. It was highly unlikely there was a camera here, but I kept up the pretense of talking on my iPhone. I took a few steps and waved my ID badge next to the reader.

Nothing happened.

I touched the card to the reader, and again nothing happened.

I was stymied. I’d expected the cleaning guy’s card to give me access to the entire seventh floor. But for some reason this one wasn’t doing it.

Shit.

I knew the cloned card wasn’t defective, since it had gotten me into the elevator and onto the seventh floor. But apparently there was another level of access. Maybe people who had offices on the seventh floor had a different series of numbers encoded in their ID badges. Higher access. Only for the company’s top executives and their assistants.

But the cleaning crew also had to get onto the seventh floor, or it would never get cleaned. So at least someone on the crew had to have a badge that worked here. Unfortunately, I hadn’t captured the right person’s ID.

Behind me I heard the elevator machinery whirring to life as the elevator descended.

Someone had called it.

“Door’s locked,” I said into the phone, to no one. I inspected the wall-mounted ID card reader more closely.

The door was solid steel, a fire door. I wasn’t going to be able to force it open. I was screwed. I thought for a moment. What the hell should I do now?

The elevator opened, and I spun around. A guy came out. He was dressed just like me. A security guard. He’d probably been watching the camera feed, seen me in the elevator, and wondered what I was doing here in the middle of the night.

What happened now was important. You always talk first. Initiate conversation. Take charge of the situation.

Still holding my phone to my left ear, I said to the guy, “Oh, man, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Can I help you, sir?” the guard said. He was tall, even taller than me, and had a pockmarked face and cauliflower ears. He looked like he used to box or prizefight.

I held up an index finger, telling him to wait a beat. “Hold on,” I said into the phone, “you don’t have to come all the way here. There’s a gentleman right here who’s gonna open the door for me.”

I smiled at the guard. As if this was all some silly formality.

At this point, 90 percent of security guards would have relented and opened the door for me.

But not this guy.

“I’m sorry, what’s this for?” he said, giving me a wary glance.

“Security audit,” I said. “What’s your name, please?” “João Miguel,” he said. “Jomi.”

“Thanks, Jomi.” I waited a moment for him to badge me in. But he was not a trusting soul.

“What’s this security audit for, sir?”

I sighed with exasperation. “I’ll call you back, Bill,” I said into my phone. To Jomi I replied, “I’ve got the letter in my car, let me go get it. No, hold on. I have it right here.” I took an iPad out of my messenger bag, tapped in my password to unlock it, and opened my email. The message I wanted came right up.

It was from the CEO of Phoenicia, authorizing a “security audit” to be conducted within the headquarters building from two A.M. to four A.M. Please extend all cooperation and so on. Dorothy had spoofed this email. It really looked like it came from the CEO himself.

And email is just as good as a letter to most people.

He squinted and leaned close to the iPad. Then he looked up. “Sorry, sir,” he said. He waved his ID badge at the sensor and unlocked the door for me. He said he was sorry three times before he left.

I was now on the executive floor. I was inside.

***

The executive floor had mahogany paneling and thick carpeting. The halls were wide. Here and there were framed prints of sailing ships. I walked in near-darkness, waited for my eyes to acclimate, moved slowly and carefully. I figured out the arrangement as I walked. The leadership team—the chief executive officer, the chief financial officer, and the chief scientific officer—all had window offices on the south side of the building. They were all gathered in one spacious suite. The rest of the floor was the executive support team.

And when I reached the executive leadership suite, I realized it was separated from the rest of the floor by means of a large sliding glass door that was controlled, on the outside, by an RFID reader. I pulled out my card key and waved it at the gray square mounted on the wall.

And nothing happened.

So the cloned key card had gotten the elevator to move and did take me to the seventh floor. Once on the executive floor, though, it was functionally useless.

Did I dare call that guard—what was his name, Jomi? There was always the chance that he’d figured out there really was no security audit.

Best not to summon him if I could help it.

So I retraced my steps until I came to a supply closet I’d passed. Its door had been open, and I’d noticed reams of printing paper and shelves of office products. I flicked on the light and, in less than a minute, found what I was looking for: a can of compressed air. The sort of thing you use for dusting off keyboards and such. I flicked off the lights, returned to the hallway, and made my way back to the sliding glass door. This was a trick that my old friend Merlin had told me about. The security vulnerability here is that on the other side of the glass door is a passive infrared sensor. You didn’t wave your key card. It sensed your approach, and it opened. They did that for fire safety reasons.

I turned the canister upside down and sprayed the air in the gap between the glass door and the doorjamb, pointing up at the motion detector.

The door slid right open, and I was in the executive suite.

More specifically, I was in an elegantly appointed waiting room with leather couches and chairs. At one end of the oval room were three assistants’ desks. Each one was next to an office door.

The third door had a plaque on it that read

Dr. Arthur Scavolini
Chief Scientific Officer

That door, I discovered at once, was locked. That surprised me. Given all the security measures, he sure didn’t need to lock his door.

But he had. Dr. Scavolini took no chances. So I took out from a pocket in my messenger bag my Sparrows door bypass tool. It’s called the Hall Pass. It’s a funny-looking steel thing the size of a credit card, with a sort of beak at one end. I inserted it into the gap between the door and the jamb. Hooked the beak around the door latch. I had to lever the beak around the latch and pull it up before the door finally came open. It doesn’t work on all locks, but it worked on this one.

The lights came right on. I quickly looked around, registering details. No CCTV cameras in here that I could see. I found the light switch and turned it off. My eyes adjusted quickly to the silvery moonlight. Pretty soon I could see just fine.

Arthur Scavolini’s office was spacious and spare and modern and neat. One wall was all glass, floor to ceiling. Against the window was a table covered with silver-framed photographs, of Scavolini and his family. He and his wife and their three young kids. An eight-by-ten photograph of Scavolini with a familiar-looking black man with a large mustache. I’d seen him on TV a bunch but couldn’t recall his name. He was a scientist and a celebrity. Next to him was a large telescope. Behind the two men was a black background with swirls of stars. It looked like the Milky Way. The photo was signed in blue ink, “to Art,” then a big signature I couldn’t read.

In front of the table was a large blond-wood desk, a simple slab of highly polished lumber topped with glass. The desk chair was a modernistic, ergonomic thing. The only items on the desk were a laptop and a couple of small placards with quotes on them.

I walked over to the desk and turned the laptop so I could see the ports at the back of the machine. I placed my messenger bag on the desk and took out the gizmo Devlin had given me. A four-port USB hub with two things already plugged into it: the black device called the Bash Bunny, and the credit-card-size computer drive that I was going to copy to.

I’m barely tech-savvy, but I knew enough to follow Devlin’s instructions. Plug in the USB hub to a port at the back of the laptop. A blue light winked on. I looked at my watch, waited exactly thirteen seconds, and sure enough the blue light turned green. That meant it had done its thing, which was to crack the password on Dr. Arthur Scavolini’s laptop. How it worked, I couldn’t tell you. I just know that it worked on Windows workstations only.

I clicked the little switch down a notch, which put it in attack mode. The light went from green to red, which told me the thing was doing its next job: copying the contents of Dr. Scavolini’s laptop to my little black credit-card-size hard drive.

Not everything, actually. But every file on the computer that ended in .pdf or .xls or .docx. Devlin told me he’d programmed it this way to cut down on the time it would take to steal the contents of the man’s computer. I was looking for an old file on a clinical study. It might be a regular old word processing document, but it also might be a PDF file, or an Excel spreadsheet.

I’ve long ago come to the realization that I don’t need to understand the technology to do the job, just as long as I can trust the people I hire. And I trusted Devlin and knew he was good at what he did.

Now I had to wait about ten minutes.

I sat in the ergonomic desk chair and looked at the two little wooden placards. Some executives place inspirational sayings on their desk. You know, like Success is failure turned inside out and Don’t worry about failure; you only have to be right once.

Dr. Arthur Scavolini’s placards—the words engraved in metal—were both science-related. One read, The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it. The other read, You are the result of 4.5 billion years of evolutionary success. Act like it. I waited impatiently for the Bash Bunny to complete its work. At any moment, I knew, the security guard might return. Or even the police, which would make my life far more complicated.

Ten minutes dragged on. I looked out of the window. Saw a few cars pass by on the highway in the distance. I checked his office for file drawers and didn’t find any. He probably stored his files in cabinets outside his office.

I went out to his assistant’s area and propped the door open. There were rows of cherrywood file drawers behind his administrative assistant’s desk. I pulled at one. It was unlocked. I yanked it open. Glanced at them. These were personnel files. Nothing useful there.

I heard a bing and drew breath.

That was the sound of the elevator arriving on the seventh floor.