King and Maxwell
WHEN MICHELLE CAME OUT OF HER APARTMENT the next morning it was early, the sun barely up.
Yet there he was.
Sean was standing next to his Lexus, two cups of coffee in hand. He was shivering with the chill in the air.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“To beg forgiveness for being a total ass last night.” He held up the coffee. “It’s not much, but it is hot. I timed your appearance just right. You are definitely not one to linger in bed.”
She stared at him for a few uncomfortable seconds, then walked over and snagged the Styrofoam cup.
“I am sorry,” he said quietly.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. We’re business partners. What you fantasize about in your spare time is entirely up to you.”
“I don’t fantasize about her. Don’t forget, I only looked her up because you asked me to.”
Michelle’s anger faded with this statement. She took a drink of her coffee and just stared at the pavement.
“Look, Michelle, Dana is happily married. I know it sounds incredible, but she really cares for her general. She went on and on about him.”
“I’m really happy she loves the general.”
They eyed each other.
“I guess I get that,” said Michelle.
“Trust me, my years with Dana were some of the worst of my life. I do not have enough time left to go back down that road, even if I wanted to, which I don’t.”
Michelle sipped her coffee. “Okay, what now? We’re waiting on Dana and Kathy. We really can’t approach Tyler at this point.”
Michelle’s phone dinged. She looked at the screen and then held it up for Sean to see. “We just got Tyler’s email address from Kathy.”
“Then our next stop is Edgar Roy.”
“At his farm?” she asked.
“No, I checked. He’s working in D.C. the rest of this week.”
“Satellite office thereof,” replied Sean.
“Can we see him there? Isn’t it classified and firewalled with attack dogs ready to eat trespassers?”
“I’m sure it is. But we can call and arrange to meet with him outside the Emerald City. I’ll tell him to bring his laptop. And his big brain.”
Sean started to get in on the driver’s side of his Lexus.
Michelle said, “I’ll drive.”
“But—” Sean started to protest. Michelle was already climbing into her truck, however.
Sean opened the passenger door to the Land Cruiser and a pile of junk fell out onto the pavement. He jumped when a half-empty carton of orange juice spilled on his shoes.
“Just throw it in the backseat,” advised Michelle.
“How about I just put it all in that trash can over there?” he said angrily.
“But it’s not all trash.”
“If it looks like trash and smells like trash…?”
“In the backseat, Sean. Thanks.”
Sean glared for a moment at the pile of stuff and then proceeded to hurl it into the backseat with velocity. Finished, he slammed the door shut.
“Feel better?” she asked.
“No, not really,” he said between gritted teeth as he stared straight ahead. “I have orange juice in my socks.”
“Then your feet will never get a cold.”
Sean called Edgar on the drive over. He did not keep normal hours and had been at work for some time already.
When they reached the office building a block over from K Street, they both saw him at the same time. Edgar Roy was hard to miss. He was six foot nine, which was extremely tall on any surface other than an NBA court. He was also exceedingly thin, which made him seem even taller. He was carrying a laptop computer under one arm.
They pulled to the curb and Sean rolled down the window.
Edgar glanced over at him. Partially obscured behind the thick glasses was a pair of eyes that fronted one of the premier minds in the country, if not the world. Edgar Roy was America’s most invaluable intelligence analyst. The amount of material his mind was able to burrow through to find small nuggets of intelligence gold was truly unprecedented.
Yet right now all Sean was hoping was that he could hack a teenage boy’s email.
Sean and Michelle hopped out of the truck and approached. Both tall, they still had to stare nearly straight up to come close to an eyeball-to-eyeball with Edgar.
Edgar nodded at both of them and then turned his gaze fully to Michelle.
“I didn’t say this the last time we met but I’m glad you’re doing so well, Ms. Maxwell.”
Michelle had tried and failed to get him to call her by her first name.
“Thanks, Edgar. But I should be doing the thanking. You’re the one who saved my life. And we appreciate your taking the time to meet with us. It won’t take long.”
Sean said, “I’ve got an email account here that I’m hoping you can hack into. We need to see some of the most recent flow.”
Edgar looked at the email address. Sean knew that he had instantly memorized it. He sat down with his laptop on a nearby bench, opened it, and started hitting keys.
“You don’t have to do it now, Edgar,” said Sean. “When you get a break from whatever it is you do in there, you can work on it, not sit out here in the cold. And then—”
“Here,” said Edgar.
He had turned the laptop around so that they could see the screen. On it were Tyler Wingo’s email postings.
“How did you do that so fast?” asked an amazed Sean.
“I’m not sure you would understand,” said Edgar politely.
“You’re right there,” said Michelle. She sat down next to Edgar while Sean perched on the other side of the bench. They ran their eyes down the screen. There weren’t many emails.
“I don’t see it,” said Sean. “He might have deleted it. That means we’re SOL.”
“Highly doubtful,” said Edgar. “There are ways to fry drives. Unless you do, simple deletions mean nothing.”
Edgar hit some more keys, and a new list of posts appeared. “He also deleted it from his trash, but there was another cache it was copied to that wasn’t so apparent. Easy enough if you know where to look.”
“I’m glad you know where to look,” said Sean.
“There,” said Michelle, pointing at the third email from the top. “It’s from Sam Wingo.”
Sean and Michelle read it and then looked at each other. Sean said, “I don’t see anything in that message that Tyler wouldn’t want us or anyone else to know. It’s pretty short, and it’s just his dad talking about school and Tyler’s swimming.”
“Maybe that’s why he merely deleted it and didn’t truly erase it,” suggested Edgar.
“Did he reply to the email?” asked Sean.
Edgar hit some more keys but finally shook his head. “No.”
Michelle said, “Sean, look at the time stamp. It was sent after they told him his father was dead. Just like Tyler said.”
Sean ran his eye over the message again and an idea occurred to him.
“It might be in code, Edgar. Think you can help us out?”
“Right.” Edgar ran his eye over the message, his pupils flicking back and forth at speed. His lips were moving but no words were coming out.
He opened another screen and typed the letters IASPFM.
He said, “I ran it through the typical hundred or so initial possibilities. Looks to be an every seventh word, initial letter substitution cipher. Low security value point, but it’s so old and seldom used that it could have some worth. Useless against a real cyber strike, of course. And any legitimate code breaker would have had no trouble with it. But it is a bit more sophisticated since it spells out an acronym and not actual words, meaning it’s a double-layer encryption.”
“But what does the acronym mean?” asked Michelle.
“Ordinary web shorthand,” said Edgar, sounding surprised. “Initial letter based with straightforward extrapolation intended. I thought you would know.”
“I missed that class,” said Michelle.
“Me too,” added Sean quickly. “Along with all math and science courses.”
“It means ‘I am sorry, please forgive me,’ ” said Edgar.
Sean and Michelle exchanged a glance.
“Does that help?” asked Edgar.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” said Sean.