"Are you sure? Let me see," said Shawn. He pulled an old cathode ray tube monitor toward him. "You are right! It's him!"
Shawn had almost forgotten about the tap they had put on the email addresses. He had nearly given up hope, assuming the accounts had been abandoned.
The email was caught on an intermediary SMTP server that lived between Google's servers and the backbone of the Internet. Without subpoenas, Google had not been cooperating directly with the government. But the geeks in the NSA didn't need Google's cooperation to create a tracer tag like Brandon had done.
"Did it trace back to anywhere foreign? Anything in China or Germany?" said Shawn.
"The FBI hasn't gotten back to me yet about that," said Brandon.
"I couldn't care less about the FBI." Shawn said with a reprimanding tone. "Have you tracked down any foreign leads yet?"
"No. I'll get on it." Brandon jumped out the door like a hound on the scent.
"Brandon!" Shawn said. "Pull up the email for me before you go."
Shawn stood at the desk. Too much excitement and energy to sit down. This was it. His big break. He had been working on this for so long in the dark. Every morning, he would come into work and say out loud: "Today's the day. Today we're getting our big break." He read the email and then reread it. Unlike the last email exchange he'd discovered, this one was obviously a bulk email sent as a welcome for some Internet service.
From: David Alexander <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thank you for joining the waiting list for Cryptobit, the world's most secure messaging system. The demand for Cryptobit has been overwhelming, but the average wait time right now is usually just 3-5 days.
Shawn reached for his phone to text Brandon, but when he pulled up the screen, he saw Brandon had already texted him: I forgot to tell you, already looking into David and Cryptobit. Will give you a debriefing tonight.
Shawn smiled. Attaboy. He texted back: Anyone else know about this yet?
Brandon responded: No.
Shawn responded: Keep it that way.
* * *
It had been dark outside for a couple of hours, but inside the building the dim florescent light looked the same as it did during daytime. When Brandon came back to Shawn's desk with a ream of paper under his arm, he walked with a peacock's posture of geeky pride. Picking apart the life of David Alexander was easier than he had anticipated. Typical millennial, he thought. Spends countless hours posting his life story on social networks and blogs. Brandon loved getting information on millennials—it was always so easy that it made him look really good.
Brandon explained that David's cofounder was Andrew Smith, a slightly less geeky weirdo also in Portland, Oregon. He told Shawn about David's girlfriend, Megan Anderson, his sister Heather, his mother Sophia, and his father Richard. He had David's credit card records (shops at Safeway, but eats out a lot at Pok Pok), his criminal record (speeding ticket two years ago), and even his movie rewards card (mainly likes spy and action movies, James Bond, Fast and the Furious, Mission Impossible). Brandon and Shawn poured over David's life for hours.
Then came Cryptobit. Brandon had forwarded Cryptobit to Jason, a techie friend of his in the NSA who had been evaluating the startup's security claims. Jason had been doing crypto since he was nine years old and was able to pick apart the weaknesses of most new crypto projects he saw within minutes. But Brandon hadn't heard from Jason all day. He had texted him a few times to check on the status, but Jason had gone dark. So Brandon stepped Shawn through the basics of Cryptobit, at least what it said on the website.
"If it actually works, it's no wonder our unsub wants to use it," said Shawn. "We almost got him last time because of that careless email. He won't make that mistake again."
Just then, Richard Curtis walked in. He slammed his hands on Shawn's desk as his nostrils flared and his face beamed red.
"Would someone care to explain to me why you are communicating with the NSA?" asked Richard. He didn't wait for an answer.
"I thought I made it abundantly clear that you were to cease all independent investigations. Now I am getting phone calls in the middle of the night from the FBI telling me you two are looking into some loony startup in Oregon. You sure as hell should not be investigating, but if you found something you should have contacted me immediately. Do you have any idea how the phone calls went tonight? 'Richard, what are they doing?' 'I don't know, sir.' 'Richard, what does Oregon have to do with this investigation?' 'I don't know, sir.' You made me look like a complete ass."
Richard took a deep breath. Shawn began to say, "I am so—" but Richard wasn't done yet.
"And then they tell me that the startup you found has stumped the NSA, and now I have their senior directors calling me and asking me the same questions. 'Richard, where did they find this website?' 'I don't know, sir.' 'Richard, do they think a terrorist is using this website?' 'I don't know, sir.' I need answers and I need them right now. And don't you dare bullshit me anymore."
Shawn explained everything—the email tracer tag, the hit that morning and how that led to the website. Brandon gave Richard a review of the findings of the day on David and his friends and family.
"Give me those papers. Is that the only copy?" said Richard.
"Yes, sir," said Brandon.
"Good. From this moment on, you are both to stop investigating. No exceptions. Go home and forget about today. I'll save your asses this time, but there will not be a second chance. You got it?"
"Yes, sir," said Shawn and Brandon in unison.
Richard stormed out of the office and had his phone to his ear before he even reached the threshold.
"So I guess Cryptobit is as good as it claims to be," Brandon whispered to Shawn.
Shawn smiled and rapped his knuckles on his desk.
YOU ARE READING
The Term Sheet | Wattys 2016 WinnerMystery / Thriller
2016 WATTY AWARD WINNER - HQ LOVE THE TERM SHEET is a fast-paced technothriller about entrepreneurship, startups, encryption, and the delicate balance between national security and individual privacy. Its complex characters explore thought-provoking...