What Happens in Russia, Stays in Russia--Murder by Chatroulette
The van pulled out of traffic and viciously cut us off, the limousine forced into incoming traffic. Our driver was good but he overcompensated, ricocheted off a couple of cars and barely missed the divider before coming to a stop two feet from a steep embankment. Rosh and I were thrown around, bouncing off the mini bar, stereo and Meg, the only one wearing a seat belt. I was trying to get my head to stop spinning when I glanced out the window and saw the two men from the van making their way across the traffic.
- Murder by Chatroulette
If you missed the first episode, click on this link and then come back. =:)
Twenty four hours earlier
It's a little surreal being in the field with Rosh and Meg. No matter where we are in the world, Meg will probably speak the language. Combine that with the influence the Singh family has in five star hotels and restaurants and it's hard to remember that I am a lowly entry level government agent. In less than the time if could take me to fill out requisition papers for our trip, Rosh had already arranged for us to stay in the Ritz Carlton Moscow and their driver in a fastidious Audi A8 L, picked us up at the airport. At the hotel, a beautiful young lady greeted us, moved us through the busy arrival floor to an ornate elevator and said: "Mr. Singh, all Club Level guests are checking in on the eleventh floor.
We were asked to accompany them to the 11th floor balcony to allow them to perform the Sabrage for us. The Sabrage is an old tradition of beheading a bottle of Champagne with a heavy saber, invented by Napoleon's cavalry who found it difficult to open champagne bottles while on horseback and the technique traveled fashionably to Russia. To be polite, we agreed, but somehow it seemed I heard Napoleon's coarse calvarymen laughing as the sabrager in colorful dress uniform sliced off the neck of a bottle of expensive Louis Roederer champagne perched high above a fairy tale view of Moscow roofs.
I have heard people say that any well chilled bottle of champagne, if one avoids shaking it, removes the foil and wire cage, holds it an angle of about 40 degrees and strikes just hard enough at the bottom edge of the annulus, the glass ring at the top of the neck, the neck will break off cleanly, complete with cork.
Let me be the first to tell you, do not attempt this unless you and your guests are wearing rain slickers and your liability insurance has a provision for injuries caused by flying glass. I don't know if it was the rusty Civil War saber I used or the bargain brand of champagne, but I have friends that still ask if they should bring protection when I invite them to dinner.
We declined the meal we were offered because we were due to meet Yuri Milner, or at least his right hand man at the Sky Lounge, known for its celebrity guests, the incomparable view, delectable menu and the longest bar in Russia.
We were sitting 22 floors up in the terrace of the Sky Lounge enjoying its panoramic view of Moscow, with the Kremlin and the Seven Sisters in the background. Meg was about to tear into Rosh in Hindi when she remembered the Oz field protocol and opted to do so in a language I could understand.
"You don't have to take us to a place that serves Japanese food for my benefit, I don't even like sushi!" That is not entirely true, Meg eats and enjoys more cuisine than most people I know, but she is fiercely, and I am not exaggerating, fiercely independent and can't stand any special treatment because of her gender, age or size. Heaven help the stranger who tries it, we are the closest she's ever had to friends and we still tread lightly. Thankfully Rosh can take it.
"Don't flatter yourself half-pint, I picked this for the view, the caviar and the wine list. It's not my fault they serve Japanese food, although their sushi chef is superb." I don't know what she did under the table, but Rosh's expression became that of someone working hard to control pain without showing it while Meg continued to smile her sweet little girl smile. "I'm so glad you didn't go to any trouble." She said, sat back and Rosh's face visibly improved
I was about to walk over into the observation deck when our guests arrived. It was not Milner but someone even better, Sergi Borof, a fast rising member of Russia's billionaire's club. He was nattily dressed in an Armani cashmere jacket, John Lobb loafers and sporting a very tall and beautiful Russian model on his arm. Following at a discrete distance were two large gentlemen wearing floor length coats whose subtle bulges announced "carrying."
"Good evening Mr. Hamilton, Ms. Dawson and always a pleasure Mr. Singh, Yuri asked me to give you his apology for not being able to meet you today." Borof held out his tanned hand and I shook it. A nice firm grip. " Call me Oz Mr. Borof, or may I call you Sergi?" He flashed a recently brightened smile and said: "I would be disappointed if you didn't, and let me present Galina Viranova." Galina looked as if she was auditioning for the next Sex in the City film and her Naeem Khan dress with a plunging neckline rendered Rosh speechless as she leaned over to kiss his cheeks.
"It's good of you to come Sergi." I said. "Please join us, we are just ordering." It was apparent that Galina had met Rosh before because she sat down beside him and began a lively conversation. Meg was seated next to Sergi and myself. Galina was visibly taken aback when Meg greeted Sergi in flawless Russian. Whatever Galina had been saying to Rosh, she obviously thought Meg would not understand and quickly switched to English. The wicked little girl smile never wavered as she bantered with the businessman. I waited until the food came and asked him the question. "Sergi, do you know why anyone in Russia might be trying to damage Google?" He was digging into his caviar and I could tell he was taken aback, but he recovered quickly. "Google? Why do you ask?"
I need to stop here and level with you. The threats out there are very real and the need for a task force like ours is beyond urgent. The problem is there is competition for funding and so far we have come up short. If it weren't for a few very insightful and dedicated congressmen, we wouldn't even exist. As it is, I make do with what I have--Rosh's grandmother Rhianna, has enough connections throughout the world to know that trouble is brewing and has become our behind-the-scenes source of support. Liese works for a fraction of what she made before and if it weren't for her patent income, she wouldn't be able to stay. Meg was left a trust fund worth more than some small countries and Graham won't say where his investments originated, but I suspect a few black ops uncovered siezeable assets that were never inventoried. My dad always chose the traditional path and left me with a wealth of knowledge, skills and integrity but very little in the way of other kinds of wealth. Being single and like my father in traditional skills, I have saved up quite a bit on my salary and was one of the lucky ones who took a chance on some ipo's that paid off. That and the incredible talents each possesses makes our little crew one of the few able to take on troubles most agencies only observe.
Meg's voice was in my ear giving me background on Borof while he and I talked. How we can do that is related to Liese's patents, tiny subvocal communication devices, Meg's own version of secure Bluetooth, her now superpowerful minicomputer built into her purse and special sunglasses with a one-way screen. She refused to go anywhere without her computer and after invaluable saves in the field, I won't go anywhere without her being wired either.
"Meg are you there?" I subvocalized. "Right here. How technical do you want me to get?" She asked. "Go ahead, I'll tell you when I'm drowning." She giggled and began:
"Borof is tied into the banking system which has strong influences as well as ownership interests in Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google. Many of the banks in Russia have been accused of money laundering and the first deputy chairman of the Central Bank, Andrei Kozlov was murdered by the owner of one of them after he suspended that bank's license. Just a few weeks ago, Yandex's $1.3-billion IPO was the biggest technology flotation since Google debuted in 2004"
"Why would they want to stop Google, it looks like they are doing fine the way they are?" I asked.
"I don't think they are worried about outside of Russia. Although it is currently the number seven search engine, Yandex controlled 65 percent of all search traffic in Russia, as of last year and it brings in more revenue than any other Russian internet company. If they are behind this, it could be to keep Google from exerting too much influence in Russia.
Rambler, a rising Russian company second to Yandex tried to partner with Google's search engine and was banned from doing so. Some blamed it on Vladimir Putin and some on the powerful people behind the banking system who don't want to see a foreign search engine on a Russian website."
"Yes, but would they resort to this kind of action?" I asked her. "It's a little dicey still in Russia. Let's just say powerful and ruthless forces see the internet restoring some of the old Soviet power and they may turn the other way with someone like Bevil if it suits their purposes.
Here's the scary thing Oz, Rambler announced they wanted to go with Google again recently and someone or something, maybe all these Chatroulette murder threats directed at Google, made them change their mind and they chose Yandex instead. We are stirring up some serious shit here boss. You know me, that's how I like it, but I think we better watch our backs when we leave."
(Note from the author: When I wrote the first draft of this episode, representatives from Rambler were determined to go with Google and were confident they would be allowed to do so. I wondered if someone powerful in Russia would get to them. Before I could finish this episode, someone or something did. They announced without explanation they were going with Yandex. In the short time since last episode, Yandex went from number nine to number seven. It's fun writing investigative fiction, going where your instinct takes you. I just hope HP keeps my anonymity secure. =:) )
Sergi continued: "Is someone trying to harm Google?" I filled him in as much as I thought necessary and watched for his reaction. "That is very unfortunate and deplorable. We saw some of those but thought it was just another exhibitionist acting out. If someone is actually following through with these threats, he must be stopped. Once terrorists get the idea that web companies are open game, none of us is safe. Believe me, we do not want to encourage this kind of activity and I'm sure our authorities will cooperate with you in any way."
I was watching Borof for micro-expressions, a hobby I'd cultivated after meeting Paul Ekman (the professor on which they based the "Lie to Me" series) when I was in San Francisco. He said I had a natural talent and should pursue it professionally--he had no idea. Meg's voice polygraph registered he was telling the truth, but some of his expressions told me he was holding something back. More telling was one of the bodyguards. His body posture and facial expressions showed extreme anxiety. I watched as he pulled out a cell phone and made a call. Whoever answered made his expression turn from anxiety to fear and hostility directed at us. I agreed with Meg, we would have to watch our backs.
We chatted on for a while, I promised Borof I would stay in touch. Rosh was reluctant to let Galina go and wouldn't hear of it when Borof offered to cover our considerable bill. Sergei lifted Meg's hand to his lips and seemed genuinely taken with her. On the way down I asked her what they had been talking about. She laughed and said: "He wants me to accompany him on a cruise to Monte Carlo. I told him he would lose his shirt if it involved gambling. You know me." I did know. No one has ever been able to beat Megumi in cards. I don't know if it is her ability to remember or count or the program she wrote, but I always insist we play for pennies in those rare times she gets me to play.
"Did you think he was telling the truth?" I asked.
"Which time?" she asked. "I'm just kidding, I think he was telling the truth about the threats. He may not be involved, but that doesn't mean Yuri or the seamier side of their banking business is not."
"I agree, and one of the bodyguards made a call when we started talking about Google and the threats. I don't believe in coincidence. I think we should follow them."
We got into our car and Rosh had the driver follow the van when the bodyguards exited the building and climbed inside. We followed at a discrete distance, but when we got onto the interchange, all hell broke loose. After the crash we all were trying to clear our heads when we saw the two men coming our way. Our driver had the best of it and seemed ok except for concern for us and his previously perfect car.
"Meg, Rosh are you alright?" I asked. "Oz, you and Rosh were bouncing around like you were on the deck of the Starship Enterprise where they hadn't thought of seat belts yet. I would have been fine if you two hadn't kept falling into me--I'm fine, I'm fine." Rosh was more pragmatic. "Don't worry about us, those two guys look plenty healthy and they'll be here soon. Did anyone think to get a gun from the trunk?" We had stashed our weapons when we arrived at the restaurant and while I had retrieved my Glock, it was somewhere in the car with the jumble of odds and ends tossed around in the collision. "Found it!" A jubilant Meg crowed as she lifted her Ruger SP-101 revolver. While Rosh and I carry Glock 9mm with 22 round capacity, Meg carries around a .357 revolver and somehow manages to conceal it when we are undercover. When I asked her why she didn't carry a "ladies gun" she replied. "I don't want a ladies gun. I want a man's gun so I can shoot men with it." When I asked about the limited number of shots she said: "You don't need a lot of ammunition if you hit what you are aiming at." She proved herself in our first firepower test so I stopped trying to change her. Judging by the size of the guys coming our way, she may have chosen the best one after all.
You can imagine the surprise of the goons when the three of us stepped around the car with guns aimed and ready. One of them, a Schwarzenegger type with closely cropped hair and a bad skin condition, made the mistake of raising his gun and Meg shot it out of his hand, taking part of his finger with it. While he held his hand and growled in pain, the smarter one, the one who made the call slowly lowered his gun and put it on the pavement. Rosh carefully patted him down and took a lethal looking knife from an ankle sheath. I walked over and took out his cell phone, stepped back and handed it to Meg. "We'll watch these guys, see if you can find out who he called." She looked at the display, engaged her computer and looked up. "It's an unlisted cell phone. I might be able to trace it if I call it." I took it from her and asked: "Can you trace it if I make the call?" "Absolutely." she said.
I hit redial
and waited for several rings. Finally it connected and a voice
answered. It was a woman speaking in Russian. I put it next to Meg's ear
so she could hear as well. Before I could say anything she said
something curtly and hung up. Meg translated. "She said 'I told you not to call this
phone again' and she hung up. "Were you able to get anything?" I asked. Meg spoke into my ear so the big guy whose phone it was wouldn't hear.
"It was funny, she was speaking Russian badly with a Brazilian accent. It was too quick for a trace, but we may have caught a break. My trace program has a database of certain kinds of phones. Her phone is an international diplomatic cell which is registered to the Brazilian Consulate in Moscow." I had to think for a minute. What did Brazil have to do with Chatroulette threats and how was this guy involved? I decided to ask him. I opted for Meg to translate for me, hoping her skill with a gun would carry some weight with the guy.
"What is your name?" He was showing signs of wariness, but none of the fear he had shown at the restaurant.
"My name is Vasily." he answered.
"Vasily, before I ask you why you were following us and caused us to crash, I'd like to know who you called from the restaurant and what does Brazil have to do with all this?"
The old expressions of fear and hostility returned. "Who are you people?" he said.
"We are just trying to find someone who is committing murder and predicting it on Chatroullette. Have you heard of it" I asked. Vasily nodded. "Just some guys exposing themselves on web cameras. How is this murder?"
"We don't think it is Chatroullette. Someone is threatening to harm Google by killing people who are connected to the most searched words and announcing it on Chatroullette.We thought it might be someone or some company in Russia. Did your boss Borof tell you to come after us?" I didn't have to know microexpressions to know this scared him.
"No, he doesn't know anything about it. Please, you can't tell him I did this, he will have me killed. My sister works at the consulate in Brazil and she told me yesterday that when she was in Sao Paulo, someone was found murdered with the word Google on his forehead outside the restaurant where she was eating. She and I run a little dating business that is, shall I say is not quite legal. We advertise on Google and I thought you worked for them and were coming after us. We just wanted to scare you off. We didn't mean for you to crash." I didn't know whether to laugh or shoot him in the foot. It was no use to tell him that Google would never do that and he was obviously telling the truth. I decided to forget the whole thing and let them get some medical help. I wasn't anxious to explain to the authorities anyway why we had guns and were using them on a busy freeway.
Liese smiled to herself. Chatroulette was showing resistance. She wasn't concerned about being detected, she was much too good for that, but someone who knew the program inside and out had erased Bevil's changes in the code. Andrey or someone equally capable had restored the program and put up some sophisticated barriers and traps. This was better than she had hoped. She knew she could slip past them, but more importantly, setting up barriers would be irresistible to someone like Bevil. He would be back and maybe in bypassing the security, he might let down his guard and give her a chance to pick up his trail. She wrinkled her nose as she concentrated on the delicate maneuvers that would get her into the program. Once in she set her own sophisticated rerouting code that would bounce any intrusion back to her tracking program and exited.
She didn't have to wait long. Her computer announced the intrusion with Blondie's familiar, pounding lyrics: "One way or another, I'm gonna find ya, I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha." She watched as her screen displayed the tracking process in brilliant lines, first one bounce, then another, and another until the giant screen with the world map underneath was criss-crossed with lines of false origination points. Liese jumped into action, winding her hair around a chopstick out of the way as her fingers flew across the keyboard. As much as she despised what he was doing, there was grudging admiration of Bevil's skill. She adjusted her program to anticipate the false leads and the false lines started to disappear, leaving a more manageable trail. As she did so, Bevil countered and the lines proliferated again. He could just break off and yet he doesn't. He is either stupidly reckless or so confident that he thinks I'm a gnat he can swat away.
While she retaliated, one of the familiar hand-held signs popped up on her other screen set to Chatroulette. She stopped cold. It was propped up in the hands of someone very corpse-like with the words "Fastest dying in destinations" scrawled on the sign. She captured the screen and saved it for later, she wasn't about to let the bastard distract her. One way or another... blasted in her brain as her fingers flew.
It didn't work. She was distracted. What if that person was in Russia? What if it was Oz? She slammed her hand on the keyboard and watched as the screen filled up again and terminated. I'll never find him in that mess she thought as she concentrated on her other screen. She transferred the feed to the big screen and enlarged the image. She breathed a huge sigh of relief--it wasn't Oz. She rotated the head, captured the image and fed it into their facial recognition database. It was a long shot, but she was taking no chances. It was not plain, but there was something written on his forehead into the hairline. It looked somehow familiar,but she would have to think about it later. She needed to find out where the shot was taken.
There was shrubbery which could be anywhere, but there were also plants that she ran through her database. Central and South America were their usual habitat, but could be transplanted. There was a tiny view of the sidewalk and even though she enlarged it on her screen it was so pixilated she had to use her photo pixel probability program on it. It looked like a lime green ear with some kind of box inside. Enhancing it even further, she could just make it out--a pay phone. She did a quick search and found it. The odd curving ear-shaped cover was the trade mark of Telefonica, a giant corporation in Spain doing business all over Central
and South America. She had to narrow it down further. He was wearing a t-shirt with colorful costumed figures and she could make out the letters "ival" on the front. Could it be "Bevil", just mispelled. No, it was most likely Carnival judging by the costumes. He could have bought it anywhere, but probably Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, the largest carnival celebrations. She enlarged a section of the graphic that had a portion of a float. Applying her program, she saw it was an Iguana. Searching through images of previous carnival floats she found two that resembled the shirt graphic. One from Rio and one from Sao Paulo. Ok, that's not a dead end, I'll compare the images. She thought to herself. Definitely the one from Sao Paulo. Still, it could have been purchased there and worn somewhere else.
She remembered the sign--"Fastest dying in destinations." What were those most searched destinations? Anhembi Parque, Wm Gucken, World Cup, Bundeskanzleramt, Rio Branco, Mt. Everest, Kew Gardens, Tour Eiffel, Oxford Street and Nurburgring. The 2010 World Cup was in South Africa and Spain won, but the 2014 will be in Brazil. Anhembi Parque is a huge event center in Sao Paulo and Rio Branco is way out in the sticks. It has to be Sao Paulo.
Now for the forehead writing. Rotating the head image toward her and filtering out the hairs covering it--of course! She picked up her phone and dialed Oz.
Vasily was not cut out for this sort of thing, he was sweating and clearly distraught. "Vasily, if you help us catch the guy we're after, I'm willing to let this go." I thought he was going to go down on one knee and kiss my hand. "Anything, anything I can do." He blubbered. "Do you think you can get your sister to help us in Brazil?" I asked. "Of course, she will do what I say. She may not like it and she may give you some trouble, but in the end she will do what she has to do."
He gave me her contact information and told me he would call her. He helped his buddy get into the van and they squealed off, undoubtedly faster than the van had ever gone before. We were just pulling out into traffic when my phone rang. It was Liese.
"Oz there's been another sign and this time the guy holding it is dead. I analyzed the picture and narrowed it down to Brazil, probably Sao Paulo. And this time there was writing on his forehead." "Let me guess." I said. "The word Google." She paused. "Yes, how did you know?"
"It's a long story, you better pack and brush up on your Portuguese. Looks like we're heading to Brazil."
To be continued......
©Winsome Publishing 2011, All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Although I have relied on factual material in writing it, for liability purposes, please treat all dialogue and conclusions as literary musings. Inclusion of Google keywords as part of the plot of said fiction is blatantly intentional.
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