RICHARD CLAYBORNE CAN’T seem to breathe.
Who could do something like this?
The photograph embedded within the email he has opened is vivid and disturbing, centered mutely, outrageously, on his computer screen.
Oh God . . . there must be some mistake, Clayborne thinks as he forces himself to examine more closely the message and the repugnant image. But it is specifically addressed to him alone at alphabanc.us.west and worse yet, contains what seems to be a warning, just for him.
He can’t believe it. Just when everything was beginning to go so well for him again—actually, spectacularly well.
“Richard, don’t you have a meeting right now?”
“What?” Clayborne jumps, exhales hugely, looks up from his monitor.
Mary Petrovic, one of the members of his marketing team, is standing in his office. “Don’t you have a teleconference now with Chicago?”
“Oh! Omigod!” He checks his watch. “You’re right!”
“Are-are you okay, Richard? You look kind of sick—”
“I’m fine, I’m fine . . .” he mutters, quickly clearing the picture before she can see it. He takes a deep breath, momentarily closes his eyes, wishes he could dismiss the image from his mind as easily as it disappeared from the screen.
“Are you sure? You don’t look very—”
“I’m okay!” he nearly shouts, immediately regretting his anger. It’s not her fault he’s upset. He pushes away from his desk and grabs his suit coat. This is definitely not a good omen. The most important meeting of his career—maybe his entire life—and he almost missed it.
Breathing hard, Clayborne blinks in the daylight that assaults him as he hurries down the windowed corridor on the thirty-fifth floor of AlphaBanc West, the San Francisco branch of AlphaBanc Financial Services, the largest banking, consumer credit, and marketing services firm in the world. It’s still hazy this time of the morning, but considerably brighter than the dim staircase he has run up from two floors below, rather than wait for the elevators.
Now I really don’t feel good about this, he thinks as he lopes down the hallway, the disturbing email adding a quantum jolt to the nagging bad feeling he’s had ever since he was offered this special assignment.
“A tiny bit of subterfuge,” was how it had been described to him by Alan Sturgis, AlphaBanc’s senior vice-president of corporate marketing who had flown in from Chicago to personally pitch him on the project. Which immediately impressed Clayborne with just how big a deal this really is to them.
All to catch a Gnome.
“Er, did you say, Gnome?” he had asked Sturgis, sitting across from him in his small office hugging one of the interior walls in AlphaBanc West’s prestigious marketing department.
The chair squeaked as Sturgis leaned back before answering him. He was a big thickset man with a florid face and a balding head surrounded by a reddish scruff of hair on the sides. He panted slightly as he talked, his voluminous dark blue pinstripe suit quaking as he shifted repeatedly in the small chair, trying to get comfortable. “Well, that’s what he calls himself—on the Web. The Gnome. His real name is Norman Dunne. But he takes great pride in being ‘the Gnome,’ believe me. He’s a computer genius, and we know that for a fact because he used to work for us. Not all that long ago, actually.”
“No kidding? Why did he leave?”
Sturgis sighed. “It’s a long story, not worth getting into now, but it certainly hasn’t hurt his efforts to break into our computer systems. He knows every weakness, every flaw. I’m embarrassed to say that he’s recently—hacked, is the appropriate term I’ve been told, into our corporate databases and stolen quite a bit of valuable client information.”
“What did he take?”
“Sorry,” Sturgis smiled at him, “can’t tell you that. It’s classified. But I think you can understand, Richard, how important it is that news of this crime is never made public. AlphaBanc is recognized as an ultra-secure institution, particularly our McCarthy operation, and if word of this got out it could cause us tremendous damage. It would take years and cost us a fortune in PR to regain our customers’ trust.”
Clayborne nodded. He understood. AlphaBanc’s reputation for security is unparalleled in the financial world.
“So, you can see why it’s so important that we track him down before he gets a chance to peddle this information—and stop him before he can do it again. And you can also see why we’re not immediately involving the police in this matter. At least not until we’ve positively located him, when we can be assured of a swift, hopefully, very low-key arrest.”
“I understand. I assume then that he’s . . . hard to find?”
“Oh, yes, exactly,” Sturgis snorted. “That’s the whole point. He’s gone completely underground. Goes by any number of fake identities when he does happen to surface. Even with modern electronic means and our surveillance, er, what we call sentinel, databases, he’s impossible to locate. He knows all the tricks. You see, Richard,” Sturgis leaned heavily over the desktop and lowered his voice, “that’s exactly why we need your help. Instead of us trying to find him, we’re going to get him to come to us. . . .”
As Clayborne rushes onward to his teleconference he reconsiders the assignment: could he possibly back out? It seems unthinkable now; he’s already accepted and this high-visibility meeting with AlphaBanc’s top executives is partially his reward for signing on. How would it look if he just quit? Besides, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, one he’s been waiting for since he first came here six years ago. He can’t give it all up just because of one errant email.
“Whoa! Richard, watch out, man!” says someone jumping out of his way, a blur in his peripheral vision.
Clayborne stops short, realizes he has almost run into a co-worker carrying a stack of printed reports. “Sorry, Stevie, I guess I wasn’t watching—”
“You looked like you were in another world, man.”
“Yeah, got a lot on my mind, I guess. And a teleconference in the library—right now. Gotta run!” he says, still startled by the glimpse he had caught of himself in the corridor windows as they almost collided. Beyond the basic good looks he had inherited from his dynamic father, the supersalesman Bruce Clayborne—square jaw, keen blue eyes and the unruly skein of chestnut hair on top—he looked frazzled. Certainly not the image he wants to project at this meeting.
He shrugs it off, tries to smooth his hair as he sprints into the empty library, buttons his coat and fidgets with the tie he has chosen to wear for the meeting, the two hundred dollar Stefano Ricci, his best, and runs over to the big monitor on the wall. He powers it on and flops down in the red leather chair facing the small camera perched above the unit. He leans forward, picks up a thin keyboard from a side table and logs onto the system. A series of numbers immediately scroll across the screen. He wipes sweat from his forehead and waits for the response from Chicago, world headquarters of AlphaBanc Financial Services, or AFS, as proclaimed by the ubiquitous golden insignia centered on the startup screen of every computer in the enormous AlphaBanc network.
He slowly shakes his head as he glances around the small sumptuous library, its walnut paneling softly illuminated by green glowing banker’s lamps on each table. Here at last. He still can’t believe his luck. At thirty-one he is a senior marketing manager and one of the project leaders of AlphaBanc’s wildly successful “Biggest Best Friend” campaign. Obviously a very good place to be in the organization for in only a few minutes he’s about to meet the big man himself, the one at the top of the gigantic AlphaBanc pyramid of 350,000 employees, Karl Bergstrom.
Hurry up and wait, he thinks as he sees his name added to a long queue on the screen. He pushes his fingers through his hair, wonders if he’s worrying for nothing. Maybe the message was just a hoax, or some kind of sick joke. His part in the scheme is quite simple, anyway, a little harmless online chit-chat with some woman in Chicago, nothing more. Piece of cake.
Of course, he’s got to assume a fake Web identity and make contact through NEXSX, the dubiously popular Internet adult conferencing service —but in terms of the greater good of the mission, really not a big deal. AlphaBanc, he’s sure, has everything worked out.
Or have they?
He wonders again if he should just tell them to get someone else. Or tell them about the ominous email? His stomach tightens; it’s an excruciating decision. He’s worked so long and hard to get to this moment. Of all the possible candidates available to them, they’ve asked him to help them out. No one else.
Maybe it was all the blood. He’s always been squeamish about blood and that photograph of what seemed to be a police crime scene had been virtually drenched in it. Who was that poor young woman? Who could have sent it? The From address was gobbledygook, like spam, obviously untraceable, but the brief message that accompanied it seems to have found its mark, him:
This is what they are hiding, Richard. This is what has happened to the others. It might happen again. Think about it.