Monday, November 2, 2020

Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 7


Black Bag

“Fifteen minutes ago, ten men checked into the Gold Star hotel. They’re all mainlanders with heavy luggage. Backpacks and duffel bags. They insisted on carrying their baggage themselves. One of them is a Superuser of the Singularity Network. He’s got the third eye in the forehead all their Superusers have.”

Clark faced Kayla and James as she spoke, but her unfocused gaze and halting speech showed that she was reading off a text on her smartglasses, parsing it down in real time.

“The ferry hasn’t even departed yet,” Kayla said.

“They flew in on gravcars. They landed right outside the hotel and drove into the underground parking lot.”

“That’s unusual, for Moreno,” James said.

“Doesn’t mean they’re mainlanders,” Kayla said.

“They’re Babylonians, all right,” Clark insisted. “They talk faster and slicker, the way you do. Not only that, they’re dressed wrong. They wore long-sleeved shirts, heavy duty pants, shoes with reinforced soles. Too thick and too heavy for a city as hot and humid as Saint Lucille. Locals don’t dress like this.”

Scarcely anyone wore long-sleeved shirts here, Kayla realized. Those who did either rolled them up or spent the whole day indoors in air-conditioned comfort.

“Who’s your informant?” Kayla asked.

“Doorman at the hotel. He was especially surprised when the guests refused to allow him to carry their luggage.”

“Does he have access to the guest database?”

“No. He doesn’t work guest management. He doesn’t have the creds to access the database.”

“We need to know who they are. Names, addresses, photos, everything that could give us an edge,” James said.

“I take it walking up to the front desk and flashing my badge won’t help.”

“Not if the New Gods are in play. The moment you do that, the staff will alert them. Or they may have planted surveillance devices in the reception area.”

“Then we’ll have to crack the guest database,” Kayla said.

“We can’t. Not without a warrant,” Clark said reflexively.

“Will a judge in Moreno Island issue a warrant targeting any of the New Gods?” James asked calmly.


Kayla spread her hands.

“Then we’ll have to do it without one.”

“That’s illegal.”

“So is corruption, assassination and terrorism.”

“We can’t just break the law. We’ve got principles.”

“The New Gods don’t have any. That’s how they conquered the world.”

“We’ve got to be better than them.”

“That we’re talking about this shows that we are. But all the principles in the world don’t mean squat if we all die.”

Clark looked away.

“I can’t believe this… We’re all cops, aren’t we?”

“Kayla and I were, until the New Gods forced us to go rogue,” James said.

“Over, and over, and over again,” Kayla confirmed.

Clark looked back up.

“Where will this end? We start cracking databases today, tomorrow we’ll be murdering people.”

“You should have thought about this before running against the New Gods and their puppets,” James said.

“I did. And I knew that the people of Moreno deserve better. That’s why I chose to run my campaign fair and square. It worked too, until…”

“Until the New Gods decided to break the rules.”

Clark clenched her jaw and said nothing.

“Rules are important in society. It’s important for everyone to play by the rules, and for people like us to enforce them. But the bad guys? They don’t care about the rules. That’s why they’re the bad guys. Under ordinary circumstances, we use the rules to protect the innocent from them. But the New Gods use the rules against us. That’s why we went rogue,” Kayla said.

“We broke the law. We admitted as much during the hearings. But we did it in service of a higher law. Justice. That’s the difference between us and the New Gods. That’s what keeps us from sliding down the slippery slope,” James said.

“How will cracking the database serve the interests of justice?” Clark asked.

“We need to know who these people, and whether they’re coming for us. We can’t count on the legal authorities to gather that information for us. They’ll tip off the targets and feed us disinformation. We have to do it ourselves,” Kayla said.

“And what are we going to do with that information?”

“We develop the situation,” James said.

“What does that mean?”

“We work with what the information tells us.”

“And it’ll end with a major shootout, won’t it?”

“The goal is to find the shot-caller and take him out of play,” Kayla said. “That’s how we want it to end. But to get there, we have to do whatever it takes. Maybe that means taking on all ten hitters. Or maybe we get more intelligence that points us to their boss, and we go after him directly.”

“You’re not going to get that intel just from the guest list.”

“We’ll have to access their rooms,” James said.

“Great. A black bag job. Next thing you’ll tell me, we’ll whack the shot-caller ourselves.”

“One step at a time.”

“One step at a time down the slippery slope. That’s how it works, doesn’t it? No, we must limit our behavior now. To decide what we can and cannot do.”

“No one is whacking anybody,” Kayla said soothingly. “The New Gods have plenty of puppets. We cut the strings of one, they send another. We need to make sure they can’t take root in Moreno again, and that means exposing his crimes to the world.”

“But since you’re so skeptical that the SD won’t arrest him—”

“The Temple Commission will,” James said.

Clark paused. Cocked her head. Pursed her lips.

“The Commission won’t care about how they receive evidence of corruption, only how to act on it when they do,” Kayla said.

“That’s the game plan,” Clark said. “We gather evidence of conspiracy, terrorism and corruption, and hand it to the PSB.”

“And to do that, we’ll have to work a black bag job.”

“I… I don’t have any experience with that sort of thing.”

“We do,” Kayla said. “Let’s take care of it.”

“And what do I do?”

“Protect your family.”


Under ordinary circumstances, they would have rented vehicles from the ferry terminal or the Balboa Hotel. Nothing about the New Gods was ordinary.

Every rental vehicle these days featured a GPS tracker and a starter interrupter. When stationary, the agency could remotely disable the engine. The New Gods could provide plenty of incentives for them to do that, or in the case of the SIN, bypass the agency’s cyber defenses and do it themselves.

There were many ways to block the tracker. Tin foil around the antenna was a crude but highly effective method. On the other hand, more paranoid agencies usually installed two trackers, one on the dashboard, the other hidden deep in the guts of the vehicle.

A signal blocker would jam all incoming and outgoing signals. Plug it into the cigarette lighter compartment and it would run forever. But the second a rental car fell off the GPS tracker, it would trigger an alarm within the company’s server, which in turn would send an alert to the MISD. And therefore the New Gods.

Without false papers, backstopped identities, government backing, for transportation they needed personally owned vehicles. Vehicles that weren’t compromised.

Kayla had left her gravcar behind in Babylon. A mistake. And now they didn’t have time to go back and get it. But it was what it was.

Janet Clark couldn’t trust her department-issue car. It had two trackers. Disabling either of them would invite a charge for tampering with department property.

 The Clarks couldn’t count on their own vehicles too. The MISD had unrestricted access to their personal vehicles for hours. Long enough for a black bag team to plant covert trackers of their own, for a deputy to place an ‘unofficial’ request for his friends to keep an eye out for them.

That left the Woods.

They had plenty of vehicles to spare. They all had GPS trackers, but they could be disabled and removed. The SD would not doubt have flagged their license plates at this point, but on Moreno Island, outside the city, cameras were rare. Plus, the farm had a machine shop, and it wasn’t that difficult to print up a convincing set of license plates. Or license plate stickers.

It was an eventuality James had prepared for.

Back in the Balboa Hotel, Janet and James took turns guarding the Clark family. They stood watch in the hallway, glaring at anyone who came too close. James kept his railgun close to hand, hidden inside his gun bag. The staff quickly learned to stay away.

It wasn’t polite, but they only had to stay long enough for Mr. And Mrs. Wood to drive down to Saint Lucile with their vehicles.

Kayla had the hardest mission. The mission only she could do.

In her room, she donned heavy disguise. She exchanged her pants for a pair of loose-fitting ankle jeans, transferring over her war belt, holstered pistol and two stowed magazines. Over that she donned a white T-shirt, artfully tucked out to hide the hard lines of her weapon. She draped a long olive shawl around her neck, letting it fall to her knees, further hiding her waist.

She drew a foldable tote bag from her back. Cheap, chic, capable of being squashed down into a cube, or unfolded into a huge yet fashionable shoulder bag. She carefully placed her laptop and accessories in the bag. It swallowed them up without a hitch.

In the bathroom, she contemplated her identity. She was a travel writer from Babylon, here on assignment to write about the small-town charms of Moreno Island. She didn’t like the place, but work was work. Since she was going to go out, she’d might as well look her best.

With her makeup kit, she transformed herself into that person.

First, a heavy layer of sunscreen on her exposed skin. As she waited for the sunscreen to dry, she inserted a pair of deep brown contact lenses and dyed her natural red hair raven black. She scrambled the electronic identity module on her eyeshields once again, generated a fresh burner number, and sent it to Clark and James.

After waiting for twenty minutes, she applied moisturizer on her face and hands, just a touch, enough to keep her fresh. Then she applied streaks of dark eyeshadow, added highlights to the corners of her eyes, glued on false eyelashes, and reinforced them with mascara.

With foundation, bronzer, blusher and muted tones, she reshaped her cheeks, slimming them down and emphasizing the angles. Then she dabbed a drop eyelash glue at the base of her right cheek, and when it dried, she drew in a beauty spot with an eye pencil.

Finally, she tied up her shoulder-length hair into a dense but neat bun, pulling the hair back from her forehead. A severe look, emphasized by her angular eyeshields. She was here for work first, fun later.

She looked at herself in the mirror. A strange woman smiled back. The disguise would fool the average civilian, even the average inattentive cop. It wouldn’t deceive the New Gods, but she didn’t intend to do anything that would attract their attention.

One last thing. She slipped heel lifts into a pair of comfortable moccasins. It was like walking in high heels, with full soles. It changed the way she walked and held herself, confusing gait analysis software. With her tote bag slung on her left shoulder, right arm swinging free, her body language was far removed from a gunfighter’s easy but minimalist glide. She wasn’t sure if gait analysis had made its way over here, but there was no harm taking precautions.

When facing the New Gods, there was no such thing as too paranoid.

From the hotel, she caught a cab to the shopping district. She walked the streets for a half hour, taking in the sights and sounds, falling into her cover. She wandered in and out of souvenir and fashion shops, she meandered down alleys and shortcuts, she cut through the only shopping mall in town, and at noon she entered the Gold Star Hotel.

Cool air blasted over her. She smiled at the doorman, thanking him profusely for opening the door for her. In the lobby, she made only a cursory sweep, and strode to the elevator. She fought down the urge to scan as she walked, the way an operator would.

On the third floor, the restaurant offered a buffet special. She paid with cash and selected a table at a far corner. From here she could see everyone entering and leaving the establishment. A small giveaway, but one she judged necessary. With the subjects so close, she needed early warning.

She assembled a small salad, large lettuce leaves with small cubes of cucumbers and tomatoes and croutons, and a hardboiled egg. An appetizer, nothing more. She poured out a generous measure of chicken soup into a bowl and returned to the table.

Back to the wall, she set up her computer. A custom-built machine, it had the frame of a generic laptop but the processor of a desktop. Only its thick frame and oversized exhaust ports betrayed its true nature.

She was a shooter, not a cracker. But she had learned the basics during her time in the STS. Her old partner, Zen Tan, was a genius with computers, and passed on many of the tricks of the trade. She wasn’t going to penetrate networks belonging to the New Gods anytime soon, but hotel security came nowhere close to that kind of security.

Her laptop had three operating systems, one for each solid state drive, plus a third with an external SSD. She selected the last. Draco, currently the leading open source operating system for cybersecurity professionals and hackers.

Sipping her soup, she turned on the packet sniffer and waited. Within seconds, details flooded the window. IP addresses, clients, servers, available networks, user names, passwords.

The hotel had two wireless networks. The public one, for use by guests, and a private one, solely for its staff. The private net wasn’t openly discoverable, not that it deterred the packet sniffer. It intercepted incoming and outgoing data packets, analyzed them, and revealed their sources and destinations. After the public net, the work net had the highest number of users.

It was encrypted. But the protocol was also outdated.

On the other hand, she was out of practice.

She swallowed a little more soup. Opened a folder on her desktop, where she stored her notes on hacking. Nibbled at her salad as she read. Touched her fingers to the keys and began.

The packet sniffer captured an encrypted packet. She fired up her password cracking tool and let it get to work. She fed it additional variables—the name of the hotel, the founding date, address, spelling variations—giving it more data to work with. The machine intelligence took the raw input and refined it further, testing dozens of permutations.

She activated her virtual private network and traveled to Azure, the world’s largest and most powerful cloud computing service. She logged into her account and created virtual machines. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of them. She synced them all together and sent them to work on cracking the captured packets.

The laptop whirred. Hot air blew out the ports. She set the laptop aside and focused on her lunch.

She chose healthy foods that could be slowly savored. Roast meats. Pasta. Boiled vegetables. She chose small plates and even smaller portions and rested in between courses, letting the machine work.

Halfway through her fourth plate, the laptop halted.


She was in.

Inside the private intranet, she found the guest database. She scrolled through the entries and identified a cluster of names. Ten guests who had checked in simultaneously. They’d placed the booking last night, shortly after the conference with Smith and Dillon.

They’d booked two suites… on separate floors. Odd. For a hit like this, they’d want to stay on the same floor, as close to each other as they could, to facilitate command, control and coordination. They had the juice to force the hotel to switch around rooms and bookings to make that happen.

She checked the room database. The hotel was half empty. There were plenty of suites and rooms available on every floor. Accommodating ten guests on one floor wouldn’t be a problem. There wasn’t any need to split the team like this.

Unless they came in two groups.

She downloaded their information. Photograph, name, address, date of birth, contact information, room number, every byte input into the system. They had to be false identities, of course, but she could still work with those.

Two groups of five. One on the fifth floor, the other on the sixth. Neither group used the hotel’s wireless network. There was no traffic from their rooms. An impossibility in the modern world. That meant they had their own network. No doubt with superior encryption and throughput.

Two groups of five, she mused. A joint op by the Singularity Network and the Guild of the Maker? That would explain it. The only thing the New Gods hated more than each other was someone they could touch. With Clark running for Sheriff, and two former STS operators guarding her, they would see her as a clear and present threat to their interests. A threat so powerful they had to rub her out. The Hatchet Crew failed to do the job. Now they were bringing in their own killers.

Yeah, that made sense. Neither the Sinners nor the Guild would trust the other to do the job right—and not take advantage of the situation. They didn’t trust each other enough to work closely either. Separate rooms on separate floors was an acceptable compromise.

The Superuser took the suite on the sixth floor. That meant the Guild—if it were the Guild, had the fifth. She called up the security camera feeds of both floors and reviewed the day’s footage. She saw both groups enter their rooms. She fast-forwarded the video, burning through hours in the space of minutes.

Two hours after they’d arrived, the Guild group left their room. They took the stairs to the sixth floor and approached the Sinners’ room. Tension filled their bodies. Their hands rested near their hips.

The leader knocked on the door. Once. Twice. On the third time, it suddenly swung open.

The Guild men jerked back. The leader frowned. In the doorway, a man stared deadpan at the team. One by one, the Guild operatives entered. No greetings, no acknowledgments, just a brusque entry.

They sure don’t like each other.

A half hour later, three men approached the Sinners’ suite. A Superuser, his third eye scanning back and forth. A man in a hand-tailored business suit, every line crisp and clean. In the rear, a corpulent man waddling along in a tightly-stretched green uniform.

Sheriff Josh Smith.

Got you.

Kayla skipped through more footage. An hour later, the visitors left. Smith, the other two principals, and finally the Guild shooters.

The VIP group went down to the lobby and dispersed. The Guild men returned to their room and stayed there. When lunchtime came, room service delivered meals to their rooms. That was a half hour ago. Since then, no one had stepped out.

That didn’t make any sense. A kill team wouldn’t sit around and do nothing. They’d conduct recon, hunt for the targets, identify opportunities to act. They’d have to hit the streets at some point.

Unless they were here to shoot and nothing more.

Smith would feed them info. The targets’ location, vehicles, vulnerabilities, patterns of life. Everything the shooters needed to plan an assault. Once they had everything they needed, the triggermen would sally forth, do the job, then fly back to Babylon.

As she worked on a dessert of sliced fruit, she pondered her next step. She’d done everything she could here. She didn’t have the know-how to crack the kind of encryption the New Gods used, never mind the tools. Their own computers, and all the information on them, was out of reach.

Stage a raid? If she were still in the STS, she’d go for it. Blow down the door, neutralize the bad guys, grab their stuff, bug out. She’d conducted raids like this dozens of times before. She knew Zen would relish a chance to crack into the New Gods’ gear. All she had to do was send him their machines—or an image of their contents—and he’d dig up their secrets.

But she wasn’t in the STS any more.

The lack of authority didn’t bother her. It was lack of manpower. And firepower. With two rooms, they’d have to conduct two coordinated raids. That meant two teams, not two operators. Going solo was for the movies. In the real world, running solo against the New Gods was suicide. Or worse.

No raid, she decided. Instead, she had to work around the problem. She needed to identify the VIPs and prove a link between them and the shooters. One that would stand up in court, if only so it would obfuscate the true origins on the intelligence.

She had an idea. But she didn’t think Clark would like it.

Wood, on the other hand, would.

Black bag jobs really aren't James' and Kayla's specialty. They specialize in making war on the New Gods and their puppets. Check out their stories in Babylon Blues!

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